Our flight from Singapore wasn’t until the evening so we had a leisurely morning packing up, before cycling to a nearby bike shop to get our bikes boxed up for the flight, then taking a taxi to the airport. Changi airport is an exceptionally civilized and well-run airport, so we had quite a pleasant wait for our flight. Unfortunately we had not thought to pack our swimming gear in our hand baggage, or we would have checked out the pool there. We definitely plan to do that in the few hours we have between planes on the way back from Australia though!
After changing planes in Kuala Lumpur, we arrived into Melbourne the following morning. Quite a culture shock! Gone is the politeness and gentleness seen so often in Asia, replaced with the brusqueness and coldness so common in the west. This was immediately evidenced by the behaviour of the woman controlling the (ridiculously long) queue for immigration, who did nothing but shout at everybody in the queue as if she were herding cattle. Woe betide any poor person who did not understand her shouted commands and did the wrong thing – she even sent people back to the end of the queue if they had not filled in their arrival cards properly, and threatened to call the police in when a poor old man chose to put his bag on the floor while waiting rather than carry it. A bit later on in the baggage hall a Chinese lady was on her mobile by the exit, which attracted the attention of the security guard who yelled at her repeatedly in the face to turn the phone off – the woman didn’t understand and kept trying to gesture that she was waiting for her friend who was still collecting luggage. The security guard was threatening to arrest her and all sorts by the time she finally got the message and turned the phone off. We’re pretty sure the whole thing could have been avoided if the security guard had just asked her politely rather than yelling at her. What a welcome to Australia!
The second thing to shock us was how expensive everything is here – and we don’t just mean compared to the cheapness of things in Asia – because of the exchange rate, we are not exaggerating when we say that almost everything is more expensive, sometimes literally twice or three times the price, than in the UK. For example in a very average bar in Melbourne half a pint of shandy will set you back 3 quid – ouch! We expected Australia to be as expensive as the UK, but not more so. Needless to say we were very happy to have our tent back so we could camp as much as possible to keep costs down. At least Australia has the weather for camping, as well as campsites all over the place.
We had booked a hostel in St Kilda, a beach suburb in Melbourne. Because the Australian Open was on at the same time as we were there most places we had tried to book had been full, hence us ending up at the distinctly unappealing Home Travellers Motel – just the place to stay if you want to do nothing but drink all day and party noisily all night, and don’t care about anything being clean and/or tidy. Not the place to stay if you want to spent a quiet weekend catching up with your brother/brother-in-law (Pete’s brother Dave, who lives in Sydney at present, had come down to see us in Melbourne for the weekend), and getting a reasonable amount of sleep. It is times like this that we look at each other and think ‘when did we get so old?’, but there we go, that sort of place isn’t our favourite type of scene anymore. Nonetheless we had a really nice weekend seeing Dave and adjusting to life in Australia. One of the things that excited us the most on our first day was going into a proper supermarket – the first time in ages! Makes you realise how lucky we are at home. No more schlepping round six different unfamiliar shops just to get stuff for dinner – instead all of our favourite things under one air-conditioned roof!
Our hostel was near the beach, and the weather was great – 30c and sunny, so we had fun chilling out on the beach as well as seeing some of Melbourne’s sights, etc. On the Saturday evening we bought fish and chips and a bottle of Oyster Bay for dinner, and ate and drank on the beach as the sun went down – really nice. But of course it was soon time to move on, and get back on the bikes. On the Sunday afternoon Dave flew back to Sydney, while we took the train west to the town of Warrnambool, at the western end of the Great Ocean Road. We were pleasantly surprised to find that not only are trains cheap in Victoria, they are very bike friendly – plenty of space to put them on, no need for a reservation and no additional fees. Because it was late when we arrived into Warrnambool we elected to stay in the backpackers rather than try to put up our tent in the dark. Besides, in this area all of the campsites are well-equipped caravan parks, with facilities such as pools etc – aimed more at families than the budget traveller. It is actually a similar price to get two dorm bed as it is to get a piece of grass to pitch your tent on! Unfortunately wild camping in this region is very clearly illegal and frowned upon – there are signs everywhere saying ‘no camping, penalties apply’. We guess that as this area is very popular with surfers they would have a problem if they did allow it, but it is a shame as we do like wild camping. On the plus side Australia is full of campsites, most of them much cheaper than those on the Great Ocean Road, which invariably offer good clean facilities, including a camp kitchen with a barbecue for guests to use. So we are happy enough to stay in campsites.
Setting off from Warrnambool the next morning we were surprised to find how cold it was – the sun had been replaced by clouds and there was a cool breeze blowing, necessitating us to dig out our fleeces to cycle in for the first time in ages. The first 50km of cycling was pleasant but not particularly special, as it passed mainly through farmland as the road wound its way towards the sea. Unfortunately we had a strong headwind the whole way, which made it quite hard work despite us having fresh legs after a week off the bikes. But by the time we reached the coast the sun had come out and the wind dropped, allowing us a very pleasant afternoon cycling along the dramatic coastline in the sunshine. We stopped at most of the viewpoints, including the famous 12 Apostles (actually there are now only 7 Apostles as 5 have crumbled into the sea over the years!), meaning we made fairly slow progress to our destination for the night, a campsite in the small village of Princetown. This was a great little campsite, very rural and relatively basic, but cheap and with a nice relaxed feel to it. Much to our delight as we were setting up our tent we realised there was a family of kangaroos in the field right next to us! They were quite interested in us (or more likely, our dinner) so we were glad for the fence separating us, as the largest one was bigger than Pete and could no doubt have squashed our tent if it wanted to! This campsite also allowed us to have an open fire, which was really nice to sit around as the evening was again quite cold.
The description of the following day’s route in our ‘Cycling Australia’ guidebook sounded pretty nasty – a ‘relentless, wicked, blinding uphill slog’ – great fun! But when we looked at the elevation profiles we were amused to see that in total the hill in question was only 450m high – absolutely nothing compared to what we had done previously on this trip. We set off, smirking slightly as we anticipated flying over the hill with no problems. Oh dear, when will we learn?! It seems that a couple of months cycling in largely flat SE Asia resulted in us forgetting how hard it can be slogging up a hill, particularly when the roads are steep (as they are here). Not only that, the road went up and down a lot before finally climbing up to the top, so in fact our total ascent was much more than 450m. By the time we got to the village of Lavers Hill at the top we were very ready for a lunch of healthy Australian fare – chip butties! The afternoon wasn’t much better – more hills, combined with a strong headwind and cold, persistent rain. Not quite the spinning-along-easily-in- the-sunshine that we imagined cycling in Australia would be like! By the time we got to the pretty little town of Apollo Bay we were quite cold and wet, so we decided to treat ourselves to a night in the very nice Surfside hostel (actually only slightly more expensive than the campsite anyway), which was right across from a beautiful surf beach. The hostel was quite old-fashioned but very homely and relaxed, with friendly helpful management. It turns out this part of the world quite often gets quite cold and wet so the beds were fitted with electric blankets and there were baths as well as showers in the bathrooms – heaven! After a hot bath and a couple of cups of hot chocolate we felt very much restored and spent a nice evening having a big dinner and chatting to other people in the hostel, before heading to bed early for a well-deserved good night’s sleep.
We were relieved the next morning to see that the rain had stopped – there is nothing worse than setting off to cycle in the rain – and in fact soon after we started cycling the clouds cleared and we had a day of wonderful sunshine. It was January 26 – Australia Day – so there were lots of people out enjoying the beaches in the nice weather. The cycling was much easier going, quite undulating but nothing too bad, and with lots of beautiful beaches to admire. At Kennett river we stopped to see the koalas that live in the eucaplytus trees in the area – very cute! We had lunch by the beach in the pretty seaside town of Lorne, which was heaving with holiday makers, many of them having barbecues on the beach. Seeing as everything was so expensive round here – the Great Ocean Road was particularly bad as it is both a bit remote and very touristy – we opted for simple chip butties for lunch. Pete went off to buy the chips, and quite amusingly came back with enough chips to feed a whole family – it seems that a large portion over here is indeed a truly large portion – seriously, it weighed at least a kilo! No wonder they have a problem with obesity in this country, with portion sizes like that. Even with our big appetites we only managed to eat about a quarter of the chips!
The afternoon found us cycling through ‘Surf Coast Shire’ – past some of the best surfing beaches in Australia (apparently), including the famous Bells Beach (where the movie Point Break was filmed). Quite hot and hilly but really nice. By the time we reached the end of the Great Ocean Road, near Torquay, we were quite tired and definitely ready to stop for a cold beer and a barbie. Unfortunately this is prime holiday territory, as it is close to Melbourne, and the first campsite we stopped at wanted AU$60 (about 40 quid) for a pitch! We weren’t impressed with that and cycled on to the small village of Jan Juc where we found a campsite for $40 – still expensive but clearly we weren’t going to do much better than that so there we go. As we were checking in a family overheard us discussing our trip and approached us to ask about it. They – Jeremy, Tamara, daughter Alexandra and boyfriend Alex – were very friendly and were sufficiently interested in our trip that they invited us to join them for dinner – steak sandwiches, yum yum! It was really nice to have some genuine Aussie hospitality, particularly as it was Australia Day, and we spent a very pleasant evening in their company. If you are reading this, thank you!
Our plan for the following day was to cycle as far as the town of Geelong, and from there to take the train into Melbourne; we were aware that Geelong-Melbourne would not be a nice ride (busy and not scenic), and we also wanted the afternoon to do things such as laundry, finalising our tax returns etc. We were able to get the last two beds in the Green Backpackers hostel in central Melbourne, which turned out well as it was heaps better than the Home Travellers Motel – clean, tidy, secure and with loads decent communal space. One of the best things was that it offered free wi-fi. This is a real bonus in Australia, where internet is surprisingly hard to find, and often hugely expensive; outside of major urban centres such as Melbourne, you can expect to pay at least $1 for 10 minutes (the most expensive we have seen was $5 – 3 quid – for 15 mins), and usually the connection is irritatingly slow. So we spent much of the afternoon doing things online that needed to be done, including our tax returns which we finally got sent off.