"You're going to drive the Great Ocean Road, right?", "Don't miss the GOR!", "Be sure and stop at ___" "Have lunch at ___", "You've got to hike to ___" Comments like these became a running theme from the minute we told people we were going to visit Melbourne, and continued from the time we got there. We weren't exactly sure what the drive along this magical road entailed - but we knew we couldn't show our faces in Melbourne again if we didn't take it!
So we decided to use our last 48 hours and "do this thing". We left Melbourne early in the morning in our rental car. Michael drove and on my lap was the "must see" list and my favorite, a paper map. The sun was shining and the sea was the color of a pair of old jeans. It was a good start to the day! We slowed down to appreciate the famous surf town of Torquay but didn't stop because first on the list was Aireys Inlet where we took a short hike to the lighthouse. A few happy snaps later we ticked it off the list. Next up was lunch at The Wye River Pub - highly recommended by our newly-minted Australian friend Julie Stewart who we would be seeing in Canberra. After a couple of wrong turns, we found it just before noon. The place was dark, and at first, it didn't look open. I peered in the windows and motioned to the man drying glasses at the bar and he sauntered over and let us in. I am so glad he did because we had the best Fish & Chips we've had yet, and the same bartender made me a bracing Lemon-Lime Bitters from scratch. Another box ticked off the list.
One of the reasons I was keen to visit Australia was the potential to cuddle with Koala Bears and shake hands with Kangaroos. Not dissimilar to my misconception that Australia was a short boat ride away from New Zealand - I thought Koalas and Kangas would just be hanging around waiting for me. I quickly learned that Kangaroos were plentiful enough but those fuzzy little bears would be very hard to spot. So, once I heard there was a place along The Great Ocean Road called Kennett River where Koala Bears were so plentiful they’d be waving you into the parking lot, it became a hard stop on the itinerary.
We left Wye and headed for The Koala Bear Promise Land. Somehow I thought we had at least an hour drive before we’d get there, but when I checked the map I realized we’d blasted past the turn-off shortly after lunch and now we were about 25 miles down the road. I was distraught at missing this one chance to see Koalas so I pleaded with Michael to turn around. Did you know that kangaroos and emus can't back up? Well, Michael doesn't either. He's a going forward guy, but he could see by my face he had little choice. Once we started back I put the destination in my phone using Google Maps (not my favorite) and calculated we’d actually need more than an hour to get to the river, and really, there was no guarantee of a bear sighting beyond my optimism. We would be adding three hours to an already tight schedule so I let go. And appreciated my husband's willingness to indulge me - and hey, there’s always the Sydney Zoo.
Next up was a visit to the famous Twelve Apostles near Port Campbell National Park. It was also time for a weather change. There is some lingering Karma around us and rental cars that almost always manifests itself in rain whenever we drive. By the time we wove around the tour buses clogging the parking lot, the wind was picking up and the clouds were becoming ominous. We decided there was no choice but to run for it and try to see Australia’s second most famous rock formation before it poured. No such luck. Just as we got to the top of the trail the skies opened. It was too late to do anything about it so we carried on. We could only make out four of the “apostles”, but we a good laugh with all the other intrepid tourists and we happily took photos for each other. And we got the check off the one "absolutely have to" on our list.
We made a few more stops, but we were ready to be warm and dry in the small town of Warrnambool, our final destination, and the end of the GOR. Our Airbnb for the night was a sweet little guest house tucked in the backyard of a retired couple's home. It was just perfect for an overnight stay and our host Bill made sure we had everything we needed, including breakfast! After a full day of driving and numerous stops along the way, we have to agree that this was an experience not to be missed. And it would be even more enjoyable done over two nights.
The next morning we were up early to drive straight to the Melbourne airport to turn in our car and fly to Canberra, the capital of Australia. But first, we took a detour to the nearby Tower Nature Reserve where I’d read you just might see a Koala or two. At the entrance we were greeted by a rather bored looking kangaroo. He might have been unimpressed by us, but I was giddy! Seeing this five-foot creature was right up there with sighting my first giraffe in the wild. Then we came face to face with an emu - now that is one strange looking creature. That’s two native fauna in the first ten minutes - my Koala sighting hopes were rekindled.
The ranger/barista at the gift shop gave us a map showing where a Koala (not Koalas) was last seen and we set out. Apparently, it is so exhausting for these bears to find enough of the single species of Eucalyptus they’ll eat (and it's hard to digest) that they have a need to sleep 20 out of 24 hours. I did see a large sort of bear-shaped blob wedged in the branches of a tree, but it never moved and and we were out of time, so I would have to call that a success.
We flew from Melbourne to Canberra on Tiger Air, Virgin Australia's budget airline. We felt good about our choice and the fares were great but we got a reality check on its status at Melbourne’s airport when we found the check-in was in the farthest corner of the farthest terminal. And there was no counter - in fact there weren’t any humans at all. The computer kiosk scanned your passports, issued your boarding pass, and spit out your luggage tag. Once you’d tagged your bag, you took it to a scale with a scanner. If your tag and boarding pass matched, and the bag wasn’t over the weight limit (hold breath here), the bag was whisked away onto a belt. We hoped the plane came with actual pilots.
As a place to visit Canberra rarely rated higher than five on a one to ten amongst the Australians we polled. Most dismissed the city because it was a “planned city” created to become the countries capital to defuse a feud between Sydney and Melbourne for that distinction (planned in 1913, mind you). We were told it was boring and had no soul. And most of all, it’s a city filled with politicians and bureaucrats. We did hear it was a great place to raise a family, and the museums and parks, especially the lake were very nice. It also got two thumbs up for the botanical gardens and the modern vibe from a couple from Sydney we’d met on a walking tour in Dunedin. Since we would be reconnecting with them soon we thought it might be nice to say we’d taken their advice and decided on Canberra over Adelaide as our next destination.
But really, our main reason for that decision was the chance to meet Julie Stewart, a fellow traveler and Airbnb host who has been following our blog for a long time. When she read that we were coming to Australia she hoped we would put her city on our list of places to visit. That and the fact I’d been told if you really want to see Kangaroos, Canberra was the place.
Julie is a natural born planner and had a well thought out itinary for our visit. She picked us up at the Airport - which is always a treat and delivered us to our Airbnb. Unfortunately, hers was booked, so we'd found something else just outside the center of town. It was next to a nice sports bar, a bakery, and a small grocery store. We bought our usual basics, but the food was more expensive than any city we have ever visited so we bought just the bare minimum for our next day's breakfast.
The next morning we headed for the War Memorial and Museum which just turned out to be one of the best museums we have visited as Senior Nomads. We took a highlights tour with a retired Naval Officer who noticed I was left handed and called me out as a "Molly-Dooker"! - another word to add to our blog on Australian slang. He took his time as we moved through the exhibits, and we learned a great deal about World War II in the Pacific. That will be helpful as we move towards Singapore and Malaysia. Our tour ended in time to watch the daily ceremony called Last Post at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It was incredibly moving.
The next morning Julie picked us up bright and early to take us to a radio interview she had organized on Canberra’s most popular morning show. The host, Tim Shaw was a pro and he had the deep radio announcer voice to prove it. His claim to fame in Canberra before his radio gig was starring in infomercials for a sundry of gadgets, and when people meet him they can’t help but use their best impression to say his signature line “But wait!! There’s more!!!” He asked fun questions and Julie enjoyed her role as our unofficial agent. Here's a link to the show. We’d see her again later that evening for a gathering of local Airbnb hosts, that of course, she had also organized.
During the evening I mentioned my frustration on seeing plenty of Kangaroo poo, but no poo producers. One of the hosts laughed and said there were about 8 or so in the parking lot when she pulled in. "How did I miss them?" Arrgh. Then everyone in the group piled on with their stories of Kangaroos in their backyards, front porches, garages, playgrounds, camper vans, and even on a trampoline. Now, why would a self-respecting kangaroo need a trampoline?
The week went quickly but we managed a return visit to the War Memorial because you just couldn’t see it all in one visit. Michael toured Parliament while I toured the Botanical Gardens, and we both really enjoyed The National Gallery where we took another highlights tour that included some fantastic Aboriginal art. We also really enjoyed The Portrait Gallery where Australian history came alive through its most famous citizens. We agree, the museums here make it worth a stop.
One evening we enjoyed dinner at the home of new acquaintances Donna and Warwick. Donna is a long time blog follower, and when she read we were coming to Canberra she also reached out to see if we could get together. They will be leaving on their own full-time travel adventures in 2020 and wanted to get some first-hand advice. Turns out, they have been charting our journey so closely that Warwick created a Google Earth map that followed us chronologically from our first Airbnb right through the last place we’d posted on our Homes on the Road page. You just clicked on a dot on the map and up came the dates of our stay and the listing link. He gave us the file so hopefully, I am going to learn how to include it on our website.
Having a home cooked meal is such a treat for us, and their home was really beautiful. The conversation ranged from travel planning to politics and eventually got around to kangaroos of course. Warwick says he sees them in droves in the nature reserve behind their house on his early morning walks. Sigh.
The next morning Julie drove us to the train station where we would ride the rails to Sydney. We give Canberra a solid 7.5 for a city to visit and a full 10 for hospitality. We pulled away from the station and just a few miles in the journey a pack of “Roos” came loping along side to say goodbye! Finally.
See you in Sydney. Thanks for following along,
Debbie and Michael Campbell
The Senior Nomads
p.s. The Homes on the Road page has a new look! It’s easier to find where we’ve been and where we’ve stayed during almost five years of living life one Airbnb at a time!