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Trip Report: Australia, Nov 2012 (Great Ocean Rd and North Queensland)

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Dec 2nd, 2012, 08:14 AM
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Trip Report: Australia, Nov 2012 (Great Ocean Rd and North Queensland)

We recently returned from a wonderful trip to Australia, where we spent seven nights in Victoria (Great Ocean Rd and the Grampians) and ten nights in Far North Queensland (Port Douglas, Cooktown, Undara and the Atherton Tablelands). This was the latest of many trips Down Under (my wife is an Aussie). Our choice of places was based on the fact neither my wife or I had seen much of Victoria before, as well as our desire to see the total solar eclipse in North Qld on 14 Nov.

We were joined on this trip by two very good friends, an American couple who had previously not been to Australia. We all shared a common interest in the outdoors, but with some differences - I was very interested in hiking and climbing; our friends were very keen on seeing wildlife, especially birds. The girls were less into hiking, and wanted opportunities to relax and shop. Our friends, more so than us, were food connoisseurs. All in all, despite these differences, I think it all worked out well for everyone.

Our joint trip started at the Sydney domestic terminal on 5 Nov where we met for the flight to Melbourne. Here, we picked up a car (a minivan) and immediately headed out of the city southwest toward Geelong.
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Dec 2nd, 2012, 02:39 PM
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The car we rented was a Hyundai minivan, an iMax. Although we had more than enough room, we all agreed it was underpowered. And considering there were only four of us, I cant imagine how it would have performed if it was used to capacity, seating 8. A bigger gripe was the rental company, East Coast Rentals. At the time, the name of the firm was vaguely familiar and it was only later that I remembered we had rented from them on the Gold Coast several years earlier and had not been impressed. I'll get into our recent problem with East Coast later in the report, but here I will point out that after searching this forum, I see others too have had complaints. See:

http://www.fodors.com/community/aust...-used-them.cfm

The weather on the first day was, unfortunately, cloudy and cool. After Geelong, we diverted westward briefly for lunch in the lovely historic town of Queenscliff, stopping at a bakery for some tastey meat pies. Like many Australian towns, there was an information center, where we loaded up on maps and suggestions from the very friendly lady behind the desk. After Anglesea, the heavy-duty coast-hugging part of the GOR began, with stunning views from cliffs and beaches up and down the coast. Too bad the weather was less than optimal.
As it turned out, out timing coincided with the Melbourne Cup long weekend, so the area was busier than usual, especially around Lorne, which was bustling on a Monday afternoon.
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Dec 2nd, 2012, 06:21 PM
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How nice to see your trip report here Ralph. Bookmarking so I can read in full.
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Dec 2nd, 2012, 08:17 PM
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Oooo, this is gonna be good. Carry on.
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Dec 3rd, 2012, 03:18 AM
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Happy to see you are posting am looking forward to your report.
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Dec 5th, 2012, 06:37 AM
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Can't wait to read your report. Will be doing the GOR in March, 2013 and don't want to miss anything. Any suggestions on restaurants enroute would also be appreciated.
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Dec 8th, 2012, 10:12 AM
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We arrived in Apollo Bay late in the afternoon on Nov 6. Being further away from the big city, it was noticeably quieter there than it had been in Lorne that long holiday weekend. We found our B&B, Nelson's Perch, in a nice location: walking distance (maybe 1 km) to the pubs and restaurants and across the street from open fields and nice views of the hills. Apart from the rooms being a bit on the small side, we found Nelson's Perch clean and comfortable the proprietors to friendly and helpful. The continental breakfasts (with homemade bread) were good.

After settling into our rooms, we set off into town, first celebrating the start of our trip with a few pints or pots of beer at the Apollo Bay Hotel. Over beers, we decided we'd try out the Italian restaurant diagonally across the street for dinner. The food at Casalingo was great but the staff seemed a bit stretched and service was somewhat below par.

Being jet-lagged, we were up early the next morning. My birder friend "Laurenzo" and I took a pre-breakfast walk up the road, binoculars at the ready. We could hear distant kookaburras but spotting one just didn't happen. However, my friend was delighted to spot a beautiful superb fairy wren, the first of many we would see in Victoria.

So on the first full day traveling together, we set off in our van to do the inland circuit via Skene's Creek, Beech Forest, the Otway Fly and Lavers Hill. Though the early morning was mostly overcast, we saw more and more of the sun as the day progressed. We enjoyed beautiful lush open scenery as we headed inland. Heading toward Beech Forest, the road wound through kilometers of dense temperate rainforest, with tall eucalyptus trees and an understory of prehistoric-looking tree ferns.

Our first stop was the Otway Fly, a private reserve of temperate rainforest with an impressive elevated walkway suspended high up in the trees as well as a zip-line for thrill seekers. We used a discount coupon from our B&B that reduced the entry fee to about $18 per person (discounted from $24). After seeing the rainforest from on high, we grabbed lunch at the Otway Fly kiosk and drove a short distance into the Great Otway National Park. Here we took in the rainforest from the ground level, walking a few kilometers to enjoy Little Aire and Triplet waterfalls.

Heading back to Apollo Bay via Lavers Hill we stopped at the spectacular lookout over the ocean at Glenaire for photos. Back at Nelson's Perch in the late afternoon, we all took a stroll down the country lane, looking for birds of course. It was somewhere around this time my wife put up a challenge: our friends had visited Africa the year before and had spotted 163 species of birds - our mission was now for Australia to beat Africa in the bird count. At this point I think Laurenzo's count was something like 25. We had some work to do!.

That evening it was the Apollo Bay Hotel for beers and delicious fresh takeaway fish and chips from the Apollo Bay Seafood Cafe.
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Dec 9th, 2012, 07:53 AM
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The next morning (Nov. 7) we continued westward on the Great Ocean Rd. Not far out Apollo Bay, we diverted south through the Great Otway National Park toward the Cape Otway light station. We had heard we might see koalas in the area but certainly were not expecting to see dozens. In one place, on both sides of the road, there must have been a total of forty up in the trees, some just yards away near eye level, several with joeys. We stopped at three or four different spots to see the koalas and of course, ours wasn't the only vehicle stopped by the roadside for koala watching.

We parked at the light station and paid the entry fee (about $20). Then we took a stroll around the grounds and toured the light house and telegraph station. The sun was now shining making the views up and down the coast all the more enjoyable. I found the historical information provided in the telegraph house to be very interesting.

Next, we headed back to the main road and again headed west. Getting hungry, we drove a few kilometers past the parking for the Twelve Apostles to the town of Port Campbell for an excellent lunch at the 12 Rocks Bar and Beach Cafe.
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Dec 9th, 2012, 05:32 PM
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Backtracking a few kilometers back the Twelve Apostles, we had a lucky encounter with another exotic Australian animal - an echnida (an egg-laying porcupine-like mammal) waddling along on the edge of the road. We stopped, snapped a few pictures of the little guy, and prodded him away from the road into the bushes.

At the Twelve Apostles parking lot, we were quite surprised at the number of people - tour buses, campers, cars etc. Seeing that it had been so quiet on the road and elsewhere, the crowd seemed to have materialized out of nowhere. I had seen the Twelve Apostles previously in 1986, and as I remembered, the sight really is magnificent with towering cliffs and crashing surf far below. The only differences were the crowd and the fact that one or two of the Apostles have since crumbled into the ocean.

We next stopped at the Loch Ord Gorge. There were fewer people there, but nonetheless, we sought even more space by taking the path to the Muttonbird Island Lookout and Broken Head. This was well worth it - awesome scenery framed by impressive cloud formations and the lighting of a late afternoon sun. Giant waves crashed against rocks sending spray high into the wind.

We stopped at a couple of the other major lookouts in the area - London Bridge and The Arch. Again, both were well worth it, especially in the late afternoon light. When I visited in 1986, London Bridge really was a bridge and I was able to walk out to the end. Sadly, it collapsed in 1990, but it still remains a beautiful sight.

Now heading toward Port Fairy, our destination that day, we stopped for a time outside Peterborough for some estuarine birdwatching on Curdies Inlet. Here, we saw pelicans and Australian black swans, among a few other new birds adding to the Australia list.

We arrived in Port Fairy just before dark, found our accommodation, the Garden Pavilions, and set out to find a place to eat. (You don't want leave it too late in small Australian country towns). We settled on Remella's Cafe on Bank Street, a Mediterranean styled restaurant - nothing flash from the sidewalk, but the food was great and the service was very friendly. NOTE - so far, no complaints at all about the food on trip! As you'll see, with few exceptions, our good fortune continued.
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Dec 9th, 2012, 05:55 PM
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Wow, that must have been something to see, all those koalas. I've yet to see one, so am making that a goal on my return trip.

Looking forward to more of your report.
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Dec 15th, 2012, 08:40 AM
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We were very pleased with the our accommodation at the Garden Pavilions in Port Fairy - each couple had a cozy self contained mini-cottage to themselves. Each had high ceilings, tasteful furnishings, gas pot belly stove, and a kitchenette. However, considering we had just one night there, the accommodation offered more than we really needed.

Since breakfast was not provided at the Garden Pavilions, we set off into town in the morning for breakfast, during which we decided to spend the morning in and around Port Fairy before heading inland to the Grampians.

First, we took the lovely short walk around Griffith Island, close to town. Here, our friends got their first look at a member of the kangaroo family - one of the island's swamp wallabies. The island is well known as as a shearwater (mutton bird) rookery, and we were happy to catch sight of one these ocean going seabirds.

After Griffith's Island, we drove about 12 kilometers west along the coast to The Crags, a rugged section of coastline with great views along the coast and out to Lady Julia Percy Island, home to thousands of seals. Here, as in other places, my friend Laurenzo had his scope and tripod set up bird spotting.

Back in town, we split up - the girls for shopping (including grocery shopping for our house in the Grampians) and Laurenzo for more bird watching down by the harbour. I walked around town, taking pictures of nice old buildings and pubs and learning bits of the town's nineteenth century whaling and sealing history.

We met for lunch, watching cricket on the TV in the Caledonian Hotel (Victoria's oldest pub). Then we set out for Hall's Gap heading north through Penshurst and Dunkeld, arriving in Hall's Gap in mid-afternoon. Our accommodation was Inyanga, a house within walking distance of the town center - three bedrooms, two baths, kitchen, living room, deck and gas barbeque. The decor was pretty basic, yet the property was clean and well maintained. We had a view over a grass field toward Boronia Peak, which we climbed on our second day.
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Dec 15th, 2012, 10:40 AM
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Really enjoying this - thanks Ralph .
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Dec 15th, 2012, 02:15 PM
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Thanks Bokhara and Toucan!

After settling into Inyanga, we set out for a walk around town. Though it lacks historic charm, Hall's Gap is beautifully situated between high ridges of the Grampians, nature close at hand. On the cricket pitch (field) we spotted a mob of kangaroos (the first real 'roos our friends saw) grazing on the grass. There were birds everywhere, and again for the first time, we saw kookaburras close at hand. Walking back to our house, we saw more 'roos grazing on people's yards.

That evening, it was an eat-in dinner of meat pies and salad bought in Port Fairy. In fact we ate in for most of our meals in Hall's Gap, saving a few $'s.

Unfortunately, the weather the next morning was mostly overcast and cooler than what I expected for November. We parked at the Brambuk Visitor Center to take a leisurely stroll on the 2.5 km Fyans Creek Loop. Kangaroos hopped all over the place and there were loads of birds to be seen including laughing kookaburras, squawking parrots and flightless emus. We even saw a few feral deer.

Thinking the weather might be improving, we then headed up into the mountains. Just after taking in the wonderful, but cloud-subdued view over Hall's Gap at Boroka Lookout, a cold rain started falling. We therefore nixed plans for further mountain exploration and decided to return to Inyanga for lunch.
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Dec 22nd, 2012, 09:23 AM
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This is fascinating - I know little of Australia but may be going soon. Did you pre-book your accommodations or take pot-luck?
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Dec 23rd, 2012, 08:02 AM
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tarquin: we pre-booked all our accommodation. It's a smart thing to do, especially around school holidays.

Continuing the report:

The weather had improved by the afternoon. At the suggestion of a woman at the visitors center, we struck out for the deserted Heatherlie Quarry, a public reserve about 14 kilometers north of Halls Gap along a well-graded dirt road. Here we took a short trail that wound its way among old stone buildings and the rusted hulks of quarry equipment – boilers, steam engines and cranes. Of course the main reason for the visit was for bird watching opportunities, but that afternoon, in broad daylight, there were not a lot of birds about.

From Heatherlie, we took a leisurely drive on backroads through pretty countryside east of the Grampians, stopping here and there for bird spotting and enjoying views of the ranges to the west. Back in Hall’s Gap we took the easy walk up to the Venus Baths, natural rock pools at the base of the mountain escarpment. This walk had only recently reopened after having been closed for repairs after a devastating flood in 2010. [Indeed, a number of trails and roads in the national park had been closed after the flood and some remained that way.] Bird spotting was better here, maybe because of the time of day – notable sightings included exotic gang-gang cockatoos and sacred kingfishers.

In the early evening we left town again for a short walk along the edge of Lake Fyans, spotting some new water birds including distinctive great-crested grebes. Next we stopped at the town of Pomonal for dinner at Barny’s Bar and Bistro. This was an interesting place, apparently a former sheep shearing shed clad in corrugated metal. I would have said the food was great were it not for the fact we all had ordered our meat (beef and kangaroo) medium-rare and it came out well done. I suppose we could have made more of a stink. Instead, we politely complained and continued. The owner or manager came out to apologize but that was it – you’d think he could have given us a bottle of wine or something
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Dec 23rd, 2012, 08:05 AM
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It's Barney's Bar and Bistro (misspelled)
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Dec 23rd, 2012, 03:58 PM
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On our second full day in the Grampians (Saturday, Nov. 10), the weather was quite nice, so after a quick morning walk back up to the Venus Baths, we headed up the mountain. Our first stop was the wonderful view at Reeds Lookout, combined with the short (~1 km) walk to the Balconies – a similar view to Reeds, but with huge sandstone rocks jutting out over the valley below. The walk also featured a great view in the other direction (west) toward Lake Wartook and mountains beyond. Next we tool the walk overlooking MacKenzie Falls (Victoria’s largest falls), several kilometers further down the road. We had hoped to return to Halls Gap without having to backtrack, but alas, the Silverband Road, which would have allowed us to do a loop, was closed due flood damage.

Back in the Gap, we grabbed lunch at a café in town. In the afternoon, Larenzo and I left the girls behind to relax and drove down to the Brambuk center where we started up the track (a little over 3 km long) that climbs Boronia Peak. This was a really nice walk, a modest grade most of the way except for a steep rocky part at the top. On the way up we could see our rented house in the valley, and then, from the other side of the ridge, we looked down over Pomonal and Lake Fyans, where we had been the evening before. Although we had seen several people coming down on our way up, we had the rocky open summit to ourselves, where we enjoyed the fabulous view over Halls Gap, Lake Bellfield and the Grampian Mountains beyond. On the summit we also had a notable bird sighting – a trio of large yellow-tailed black cockatoos flying over the ridgeline below us.

That evening, dinner was at the house - “sausages on the barbie”, classic Aussie style.
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Dec 23rd, 2012, 07:03 PM
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Oooh, sacred kingfisher. Lucky you.

That sounds like a wonderful hike and view from Boronia Peak as well.

Still following your report
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Dec 24th, 2012, 12:56 AM
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Think I'll dig out my photo album of the Grampians.
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Dec 24th, 2012, 10:37 AM
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On Sunday morning , November 11, we packed up, checked out of Inyanga and departed Halls Gap, starting on our way back to Melbourne. On the way out, we stopped again at a couple of spots on Lake Fyans for some productive bird watching. [Indeed at this point, our last full day in Victoria, we had sighted roughly half of our target number of 163 species to beat Laurenzo’s Africa record.]

This Sunday was probably the most beautiful day of the entire trip – not a cloud in the sky, warm but not hot. On the way to Stawell, we passed dozens of bicyclists out on a fundraising drive – pretty countryside, level terrain and lovely weather must have made an enjoyable day out. From Stawell, we took the Western Highway to the southeast. At the town of Great Western, we diverted to the Seppelt winery, well known in Australia as a producer of sparkling wines. Here we bought a bottle of their excellent sparkling shiraz and decided to do take the winery tour after lunch. Sallinger’s Café, one of the few options for eating in this small town, was closed, but we were happy to find that the Grampians Estate winery, just outside of town on the main road, offered tasty cheese plate lunches.

The Seppelt winery tour was very interesting and informative and included a section of “The Drives”, an extensive system (almost 3 km!) of underground tunnels lined with stacks and stacks of maturing sparkling wine bottles. These were dug in the 1860’s employing miners who had come to the region during the Victorian Gold Rush.

We ate dinner that evening in Ballarat, famous for its gold rush history and the 19th century Eureka Stockade, a defining moment in the development of democracy in Australia. Our choice was the Mallow Hotel, a “gastropub” on Skipton Street. I voted this our best meal experience in all of our time Down Under. The dinners were superb, and there was a good selection of local beers to sample. Like any pub, the atmosphere was casual and we ordered our meals at the bar. Nonetheless, the staff were extraordinarily friendly and accommodating.

At the opposite end of “friendly and accommodating” was East Coast Rentals when we returned our vehicle that evening. We had called ahead to say we would return the vehicle the night before our flight to Cairns, not the morning of. They indicated it would be okay as long as we arrived before 9:30 PM. We arrived at about 9:00 and the office was closed! But just as we were to leave, one of the staff zoomed in by car to get our keys. Unapologetic, he seemed annoyed when I asked him for a final receipt (requiring him to log in the computer) and refused to go out of his way a few kilometers to drop us off at our hotel. Instead he insisted on dropping us off at the airport. East Coast Rentals: never again!
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