The Great Ocean Road Trip, Part 1

This Veteran’s Day, join me for a trip along the world’s largest war memorial: Australia’s Great Ocean Road. Returned soldiers built this iconic highway in the 1920s, carving the ancient cliffs mostly by hand, and dedicated it to the fallen of World War I. My Laddie and I drove it earlier this year. Rather than fly to Melbourne and rent a car, we opted for an ambitious road trip. I wanted to feel the vastness of this continent country. Tourists jet between metropolises, leapfrogging the blank map space between, but those regions are far from empty.

The M31 swept us through tawny grassland and low hills, former range of the iconic Australian outlaw Ned Kelly. We stopped along the way to stretch our legs in regional parks. Wonga Wetlands, along the border New South Wales and Victoria, treated us to a magical dusk walk among the river red gums. Hundreds of coots took off from the surface of a lagoon in a storm of wings and water. Black swans cruised through duckweed, gobbling up the plants and leaving inky wakes. After an overnight stop in Benalla, we walked around its central lake and admired its birdlife. A spoonbill fed three hungry fledglings high in a tree, while below a mudlark pranced over the water lilies in search of breakfast.

Rain clouds moved in when we reached the outskirts of Melbourne, emphasizing the grey cement. Skyscrapers rose on the horizon like distant columns of smoke. It was the biggest city we’ve seen since our escape from Sydney after quarantine in 2020, and looked unnatural to my eyes. So did the superhighways. I got nightmarish flashbacks to American interstates, a manic mixing bowl of people who don’t know how to merge. At last we reached Point Addis. Unclenching our white knuckles, we took a walk along the coastline. The trail ran along the base of ruddy cliffs. High tide left only a narrow strip of beach, and we dodged the licking surf to keep our boots dry.

We needn’t have bothered: they got wet the next day, hiking in Great Otway National Park! A muddy circuit wound through dells lush with ferns. Misty weather brought out the best in the biome, with droplets playing arpeggios on the leaves and the air rich with chlorophyll. The previous day’s rain also gave extra pep to the waterfalls. Lovely as the cascades were, my favorite part of the hike the Canyon, a maze of rock formations tunneling through the jungle. It evoked the neolithic tombs I’d explored as an archaeology student in Ireland. The cool, mineral-scented passages seemed like portals to another realm. And what a realm! Lichens and mushrooms frilled mossy tree trunks. Some were as broad as my hand, others as tiny as my fingernail. Birds—scrub wrens, fantails, yellow robins—fluttered through the understory. A line from the childhood movie Fern Gully echoed in my head, when the wise crone fairy tells her protege, “there are worlds within worlds…”

It’s hard to believe that all that exists just a few minutes’ drive from a resort town. Lorne’s beaches aren’t the prettiest I’ve seen in Australia, but sunrise at low tide ranked among the most stunning of my life. Wet sand reflected the sky’s soft fire. When the light cooled to day, it illuminated the beauty of the coast’s checkerboard geology. Fine ridges crisscrossed a rocky promontory, transforming it into a fragmented blue mirror.

The Erskine River runs into the sea on one end of town, a habitat for ducks, herons, and buff-banded rails. A historic swinging bridge crosses the channel (originally from the Victorian era, but rebuilt about a decade ago). Swallows swoop around it, skimming for bugs. They skipped like sapphire stones across the water’s surface. I spent an entertaining, if rather unsuccessful, time trying to photograph their aerial acrobatics.

Local wildlife showcased different kind of agility on display Sunday evening, when municipal trash went out for collection. Friday and Saturday’s happy hours become “cocky hour” as hungry cockatoos rummage for scraps in unlatched bins (Aussie trash cans have thick plastic clamps on the lids for just this reason). Soggy french fries! Apple cores! Pizza crusts! These clever creatures had unlocked the secret of five-star foraging.

A passerby slammed the lid shut with such vehemence that I took a surreptitious peek inside to ensure no birds had been trapped. Many people regard the cockatoos as pests, but give them points for adaptability. These veterans of habitat destruction have chiseled a niche in human civilization much as the ANZACs dug a serpentine coastal road from the rock. The Great Ocean Road is paved with stories of people and nature at odds…and we were about to add our own! But that’s a story for Part Two.

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