Tuesday, March 25, 2008

the great ocean road

Petra and I just got back from a fantastic mini-vacation on the Great Ocean Road. Easter’s a big deal here, resulting in a four-day weekend for professionals and ten days off for students like me. So we hopped in a rented car first thing Friday morning, and stayed away ‘til Monday evening. Off we drove (Petra behind the wheel) southwest out of the city, bravely on the left-hand side of the road, down along the famous Great Ocean Road.

We decided to go down to this part of the state for our vacation after I took my first surfing lesson last weekend and fell in love with the scenery and sport. It was great! I went with the university outing club, and spent all day staring at the gorgeous orange cliffs, turquoise water, blue sky, and white waves and clouds, delightedly catching huge waves, and magnificently falling off my surfboard. I got the hardest part down immediately (timing it so I actually catch the wave—I thank toddler boogeyboarding on Cape Cod for this skill) but was humorously unable to actually stand up on my board. I loved just catching the waves lying down, though, and everyone else there was just as bad as me at standing up, so we had a great time. I’m definitely hooked. So, in the hopes of more surfing, we went down to the Surf Coast of Australia. Only to find that autumn arrived suddenly (highs of only 70!), making it much too cold for scrawny wusses like us to surf. Not a problem, though: we took off to explore the area.

Let me start by describing the road itself. Think coastal Italian roads, and then make them curvier and narrower, with more fallen rock debris and closer cliffs on both sides. Thankfully, add guardrails. Then add the distractions of huge waves crashing on the sea side, and koalas and cockatoos and bright pink parrots hanging out in the trees. Cars drive just as insanely fast as in Italy: the largely-ignored speed limit is 65 mph, which in my opinion is far too fast as is. Much to the dismay of the drivers behind us, Petra reasonably and safely drove the entire road at about 20-45 mph. Nathaniel, you get to drive next time--you'll love it.

The road winds through the aforementioned coastal cliffs, plus patches of mountain ash and eucalyptus forests (hence the koalas) and grassy fields. The fields are sadly all brown, showing the harsh effect of 13 years of drought. Most aren’t being used, since there isn’t enough water for any crops. The few active areas are pastures for a variety of cattle and sheep. What kept blowing my mind was that these dry fields are right on the coast. I don’t associate coast with dry. Isn’t there at least some fog? But no. Too dry.

There are a handful of truly tiny towns along the road with remarkably little in between. It was a good reminder of how largely unpopulated this continent is. Once outside of Melbourne, we were basically done with the population of the state. We stayed at a hostel in the friendly fishing and dairy town of Apollo Bay. With a population of 1777, it is one of the largest towns on the road. It currently consists of a lot of farms and fishing boats, two perfect crescent beaches, the best fish-and-chips shop I’ve ever had the pleasure to patronize, two cafes, two fancy restaurants, a video store, a grocery store, two surf shops, a few clothes shops, a gas station, a souvenir shop, a tiny cinema, and a motel. Sadly, it looks like development will be quickly encroaching on the area: mini-mansions are popping up like zits on the coastline, and an astounding number of the failing farms are currently being auctioned off.

Despite this looming ruin, and despite the fact that it was the biggest holiday weekend of the year, most of the road and the loveliest spots along it were deserted. One of my favorite stops we made was on the section known as Shipwreck Coast, specifically at Wreck Beach. (These are the actual names of these places, not some Epcot-style touristification. I'm not so sure about "SurfCoastShire," the actual name of one of the counties we drove through.) The waves here are huge, and churn across dark jagged volcanic rocks to crash at the base of impassably steep cliffs occasionally alleviated by smooth crescent beaches. (Yes, Ma, we checked the tide timetable and maritime forecast before setting out.) Strewn along some of these beaches are rusting anchors from some of the 80+ shipwrecks near here. And one of the cliff faces looks just like the head of a gorilla in profile. When I saw that, I just had to sit down. Other than its lack of palm trees, it fit every single archetype for “shipwreck beach” that I’ve ever come across. It’s straight out of Robert Louis Stevenson or Pirates of the Caribbean. Then I realized, with so many British shipwrecks here during such a formative literary era, this similarity is no coincidence: I’d bet my bottom dollar that many of those stereotypes are derived from this very beach. And I was there! The little adventure-novel-reading kid in me couldn’t have been happier.

The next day confounded my inner kid even more by presenting another archetypical vista: the dark and ferny jungle opening up around a curve in the crevasse path to the straight gushing waterfall dropping deep between mossy cliffs into a perfect clear pool. Think the King Kong remake. It was even better than Costa Rica. This was Marriner’s Falls, just a few gorgeous miles up a winding dirt track from our hostel. Even with the drought, this bit of rainforest was happy and dripping. It’s set up perfectly to keep all its water to itself, a self-contained little water cycle despite its proximity to the coast and droughty fields. Not so for the former waterfall we hiked to the next day, which was reduced to a damp cliff above a puddle of stagnant orange goo. I wonder how many other places of natural beauty have already been killed by this climate change, and how we might consider their “cost” in our “balancing” of priorities.*

The definite exception to the lack of crowds was the 12 Apostles. For those of you not in the know, the 12 Apostles are one of the most iconic bits of Australian scenery: a group of striped limestone pillars that stand slightly apart from the curved coastline, where waves pound against them and do their damnedest to tear them down. The waves are definitely winning: there are only eight Apostles left, though in recorded history there have only ever been ten. No one knows why they’re called “Apostles.” That’s Australia for you. The coast here is quite lovely, with tall sheer cliffs reminding me of other tall sheer cliffs like the Cliffs of Moher, though nothing could be as beautiful as they. It was especially hard to appreciate the natural splendor because the crowds were so… crowded. It was shocking to go from solitary driving and walking in dry fields and vaulted forests and booming beaches to sudden traffic and shouldering my way through rude gaggles of oblivious camera-happy tourists. When left to my own devices I really don’t like most other people, especially not in unnecessary and dense quantities, and especially not when they’re not appreciating something good, like the glory of existence. (Petra showed admirable forbearance to my resulting grouchiness.)

To wrap up the weekend, Petra arranged an Easter egg hunt just for me. As she thought of it rather last-minute, she was hard-pressed to find any actual Easter eggs. Delightfully, she chose to focus on egg-shaped tasties. I hunted for bite-sized Violet Crumble, hard boiled eggs, dried apricots, a container of yoghurt, and a Kinder chocolate bunny.

A most fantastic weekend away, and it's less than 2 hours from home! We'll definitely be going back here. Often.

A photography note: as I’ve mentioned before, the intense sunlight here creates very harsh highlights and shadows, and it’s just getting worse as it approaches winter. I’m finding it very hard to take decent pictures in this unfamiliar light. Anyone have suggestions on dealing with extremely bright and high-contrast lighting situations?

*I’ll be writing my thesis refuting the idea of a cost-benefit analysis framework for approaching ideas of climate change, specifically refuting the morality of carbon offsets. Expect more along these lines over the next year. My apologies in advance.


A'Llyn said...

I soooooo want to visit. Love your updates and photos (no advice from me on lighting, I'm lucky if I can avoid getting my own hand in the shot).

Look forward with interest to hearing about your thesis, too!

hafidha sofia said...

Oh, I loved every detail. I've never been to Australia, but this feels like the next best thing ....

My love to Petra and you!