Aussie Driving Tour
Aussie Driving Tour
We have officially finished our road trip around Australia!
The last leg of the journey, all along the southern coast took 51 days and covered 11,777 km.
In total, we drove 22,500 km in 5 months.
The Great Ocean Road
After leaving Tasmania, we had one final drive to complete the trip, the famous Great Ocean Road. Just west of Melbourne, the Victorian coastline has some beautiful cliffs, all in various states of erosion, falling into the ocean. There are many distinct features to stop and see.
The most well-known (and most-visited) are the 12 Apostles, twelve limestone towers scattered along a stretch of beach.
Did I mention it was crowded? We had to actively dodge selfie sticks for 1 km.
The best part of the trip for me, was, of course, a chance to see wild koalas. There were several places to easily spot them sleeping in the trees in various towns along the highway. We lucked out at the first one with this beauty, hanging out with a flock of king parrots.
Next stop on the way back to Sydney was a fantastic microbrewery, Prickly Moses Brewery at Otway Estate. Paul got to taste 10 beers, and I had a nice refreshing cider. A rain squall came through while we were there so we happily stayed indoors drinking.
We stopped briefly in Canberra, the capital of Australia, to see the unusual government center, check off the last Australian state ACT (Australian Capital Territory, like Washington DC)– and see Star Wars 🙂
We finally arrived in Sydney on December 23, just in time for the holidays. We spent Christmas with Linda, Fergus and the rest of the family in the Blue Mountains (where we visited when we first arrived in Australia). It was wonderful to be welcomed into their family celebrations for our first Christmas away from home. Needless to say, we were well fed. A great Christmas Eve spaghetti dinner, and a Christmas lunch of salads, cheese, dips, ham, crisps and more.
After that huge lunch, Paul, Fergus and Linda managed to go out on a Christmas hike along Darwin’s Track (again, the same one we did back in June). I managed to get on the couch to watch a documentary instead.
Christmas Dinner was spectacular, roasted chickens, potatoes, vegetables followed by a smorgasbord of dessert: Christmas plum pudding (steamed and covered in brandy sauce), minced fruit pies, fresh fruit, whipped cream, lemon & mango sorbet, chocolates and ice cream. We can’t thank them enough for including us in all the delicious meals and the sharing of gifts.
A few days later, Paul celebrated his 29th birthday at a great little Sydney microbrewery.
We also re-visited Bondi Beach, now in its summer-glory, full of holiday crowds.
And we finished up 2015 by going out New Year’s Eve to Darling Harbour, enjoying the beautiful light displays and a magnificent fireworks show!
It’s been a fantastic 2015, full of crazy adventures and unforgettable experiences, we can only hope to accomplish as much in 2016. Happy New Year and thanks for reading!
Christina & Paul
Van Diemen’s land was the original name used by most Europeans for the island of Tasmania (later renamed after dutch explorer Abel Tasman, the first European who landed there in 1642). This infamous place was home to 40% of all convicts sent to Australia via the transportation system, some 75,000 men and women. It has a gory, tragic history (including the most thorough genocide of aboriginals), contrasted with the most gorgeous, dramatic, wild landscapes in all of Australia, home to unique and prolific wildlife.
The Tasman Peninsula
Our first stop after leaving the farm was to the Tasman Peninsula, notorious for the penal colony Port Arthur, home to the worst re-offender convicts, and run by some of the nastiest, most brutal wardens. Driving down through the narrow isthmus Eaglehawk Neck, I vividly recalled the historical importance of this section of land. At only 30m (98ft) wide, it used to be fenced, guarded by soldiers, man traps and half-starved dogs, always on alert for escapees fleeing Port Arthur by foot.
These days, it’s a lovely tourist destination. Since we had our dose of depressing penal history thanks to Robert Hughes’ epic book The Fatal Shore, we skipped the tour, and explored the glorious natural landscapes instead. First, a little sea cave, whose opening is shaped like the island of Tasmania:
From there we visited the stunning Tasman National Park, and hiked to Cape Hauy to see the amazing dolerite sea cliffs dropping into the ocean.
The next morning, we experienced our first car trouble of the entire trip– but it was only a flat tire. We put on the spare, and thankfully, we were headed back through Hobart anyway, so we quickly got a replacement and continued on our way.
The Little Devils
On the way to Hobart, we stopped at a little animal park called the UnZoo to see the infamous Tasmania Devil. Although we frequently saw road signs for them in the wild, they are increasingly rare since the rise of the horrible contagious facial-cancer in the 1990s. It’s killed off 80% of the population, and put devils on the Endangered Species List in 2009. Thanks to the tiny isthmus at Eaglehawk Neck, the disease has not spread to any individuals on the Tasman Peninsula, so the UnZoo Conservation Park is protecting and monitoring the last disease-free population in the world. We had a great time watching the devils and a few other animals as well.
The Wild Southwest
As we headed west, we drove through a large hop-growing area, which neither of us had ever seen before. A nice change from vineyards.
Mt. Field National Park is home to arguably the most beautiful waterfall in Tassie, Russell Falls. The weather turned rainy here (how shocking in a rainforest!), so we couldn’t explore the whole park as intended, but we made it to the falls, and even ran into an echidna along the path.
The Southwest National Park is the most remote and wild part of Tasmania. The vast wilderness is virtually inaccessible, but for a narrow winding road up to Strathgordon, Lake Pedder and the Gordon Dam. It was another stormy day, but definitely worth the long drive to see the gorgeous mountains we’ve been missing after months on a dry, flat continent. The weather cleared for a moment just as we arrived at Lake Pedder.
As we approached the end of the road in the mountains, we were blasted with hail and rain. We sat in the car wondering if we’d have to brave the elements for a glimpse of the dam, but again, the weather cooperated and gave us just enough time to hop out and walk down to the immense Gordon Dam. It was so surreal walking along this megastructure in the middle of nowhere.
Across the Lyell Highway
To get to the west coast of Tasmania, we had to drive along the Lyell Highway through more mountains and forests. It’s a beautiful drive, with stunning vistas and our first glimpse of Australian snow! The southern end of Cradle Mountain National Park is Lake St. Clair, where the 6-day Overland Track ends (we hope to come back one day and complete it). This is Australia’s deepest natural lake, at 200m (656 ft) deep, at an elevation of 738m (2,421 ft). We went on a nice stroll through the forest to the lakeside, where platypus live happily. It had a very different feel from the rainforest, almost like the Sierras at times.
On the west coast of Tasmania, we made a special trip out to Hells Gates, the tiny, narrow inlet to another infamous penal colony, Sarah Island, in Macquarie Harbour. Isolated by vast mountainous wilderness, treacherous seas and deathly tidal currents. Despite the location, several convicts managed to escape, most notably Alexander Pearce (who escaped twice, both times cannibalizing his fellow escapees. Yum.)
We finally made it to the one and only Cradle Mountain National Park, by far the most visited and touristy parks in Tassie, complete with foreigner-filled shuttle buses. It was a cloudy, windy day, but we were excited to see this wonderful place…and as luck would have it, the last Australian animal on our list to see: the wombat.
That night we setup camp in another lovely rainforest, near the wonderful Liffey Falls.
Bay of Fires & Freycinet
After driving a loop around the west coast, we headed east to the pretty white beaches and granite cliffs. Beautiful sandy bays make it an ideal swimming area, which I delighted in, even though it was pretty cold (low 60s F). We went on our last long hike of the trip along the Wineglass Bay & Hazards Beach Circuit (11km), and enjoyed every minute of it.
Freycinet National Park also extends into the ocean as a Marine Reserve, protecting one of the most diverse and unique underwater areas in Tasmania.
Our last night in Tasmania was spent in Narawntapu National Park (the first Tassie park to revert to the Aboriginal name). A wildlife haven, we went on an evening hike around the grassy Springlawn where countless pademelons and wallabies grazed, and to the bird hide on the lagoon where we watched black swans, ducks and grebes float idly at sunset. A special end to a special place.
After a pleasant trip overnight on the ferry, we made it back to Melbourne just in time for a stunning sunrise.
Now all that remains is the Great Ocean Road, Canberra and the final leg back to Sydney!
While we may not have timed our trip well for whale sharks, we did happen to visit southwestern Australia at the perfect time for spring wildflowers. From Kalbarri south, we marveled at the bright colors all around us. They brightened all our hikes, brought birds and bees right next to us, and made the landscape come alive on the long drives. Here is a little taste of the rainbow – all from one day in Kalbarri:
As our little guide book describes it, Geraldton is the “key port and administration center for the region” – meaning there’s not much to do. And sadly, we had to occupy ourselves for a whole weekend in this town since we arrived on a Friday and had to wait til Monday to get the car serviced. Even worse, every shop in town closes at 1pm on Saturday, and nothing is open Sunday. There was, however, a nice little market (where we bought some fudge) and a nice museum about Western Australia’s natural history, local culture and the fascinating shipwrecks off the treacherous coast. The stories of the dutch ships Batavia (1629) and Zuytdorp (1712) include some serious blood-thirsty episodes, if you care to look them up…
The best part of our visit was hands-down the jumping pillow pad at the caravan park. There’s something amazingly satisfying about bouncing around like idiots until you fall over from laughing too hard you can’t move anymore. If you know of one nearby, go visit it NOW.
Although we were eager to get to Perth, we couldn’t skip over the last few parks on the way. And as luck would have it, just after entering Beekeepers Nature Reserve, where we planned to camp, I spotted a tiny creature on the road, with a unique wobbly gait, and I wailed for Paul to stop the car. He dutifully turned around and we manged to find the little lizard we were desperate (and unable) to find while in Shark Bay… the one and only Thorny Devil!
Moloch horridus is a remarkable being that would be nightmarish if only it weren’t so small and cute. With pointy scales all over its body, and skin that changes color, it sits around eating tiny black ants and nothing else. Even more amazing, is its ability to collect moisture from dew on its body that flows via tiny channels between its scales straight into its adorable stubby mouth. BEST DAY EVER.
While few things could ever top finding a Thorny Devil, we continued onward to Lesueur National Park for a wonderful hike to a lookout over the area. Apparently, it has more plant species per unit than anywhere in the state (200 of 800 are endemic to the park).
Next, we made out way to Jurien Bay. We were hoping to see some friendly Australian Fur Seals, but alas, they hide away from humans on the offshore islands. The beach was still very pretty.
The most famous site in the area is undoubtedly the Pinnacles Desert in Nambung National Park. Thousands of limestone pinnacles pop out of the sand, up to 5 meters tall. They were formed when plant roots cemented with calcite in the dunes, exposed by wind and shifting sands.
You can drive right between the strange structures, giving the place a very other-worldly feel.
Our last stop before Perth was Yanchep National Park, where we spent a rainy morning wandering around the wildlife and flowers.
While we have yet to visit any captive animals parks (every creature we’ve seen so far has been wild), we stumbled upon the (free) koala enclosure in the middle of the park, and got to see our first koalas of the trip.
The next stop on our way down along the west coast is Shark Bay. It’s a huge marine park comprised of multiple national parks and World Heritage Areas. The first bay, Hamelin Pool, is home to some of Earth’s first creatures: stromatolites (cyanobacteria). While they’re not much to look at, walking amongst them is like walking back in time, to see the organisms responsible for making the oxygen in our atmosphere.
A little farther up the peninsula is Shell Beach, a suitable name for a vast stretch of beach made entirely of little cockle shells that thrive in the super-salty water of the shallow bay, 25-30 feet deep in some areas. They used to make stone bricks out of them, too.
Farther still, is an amazing rugged cliff looking down on crystal blue ocean where the casual onlooker can sit back and leisurely watch all sorts of sea creatures wander into the bay. Within a few minutes we saw shovel-nosed sharks, several reef sharks, stingrays, a pod of dolphins, sea turtles and humpback whales in the distance. Not bad!
That night we celebrated with margaritas! Our tequila even came with its own sombrero.
The next morning we made friends with a shingleback skink who was happily sunning herself in the middle of the road, who, when provoked by a waving hand, showed-off her fabulous blue tongue 🙂
Our next stop was a very touristy spot called Monkey Mia (I still haven’t figured out why it had that name) where local humans have been hand-feeding wild dolphins for decades. In the ’60s they used to let people feed them as much as they pleased, and the dolphins loved it, coming back every day to get a free meal. However, after about 20 years they noticed a sharp decline in young dolphins. Turns out all the free meals meant the mother dolphins weren’t teaching their calves how to find wild fish, and so they couldn’t survive on their own. These days, they are limited to 3 feedings a day, starting at 8am. All the humans line up on the beach and listen to the rangers while awaiting the dolphins (they all have names, and we saw mother, daughter and granddaughter). Some special people get picked to hand-feed the dolphins, while trying the evade the hungry fish-stealing pelicans. We were not the chosen people.
The dolphin experience was a nice treat, but the real draw of Shark Bay for us was the dugongs. Relatives of the freshwater manatee (with a forked tail instead of a rounded tail), dugongs are the only true vegetarian marine mammal, eating seagrass all day long. They are actually negatively buoyant, with very heavy bones, so they don’t need to exert any energy while feeding on the bottom. But this means they only have time for one breath each time they surface. While they remain a threatened species, about 20% of the world population resides in Shark Bay. The best way to see them is to jump on a wildlife cruise, so we dutifully followed suit.
The cruise also stopped at a pearl farm, which is a huge industry all the way up to Broome and beyond (and has its own crazy history involving kidnapping aboriginal women and forcing them to dive down to collect pearls, and later a huge migration of asian labor, including the still-best Japanese). We got to see some of the new inventive techniques they use to create unique shapes under the shell (hearts, anchors, dolphins, etc) and imbedding gold and gem stones to be covered in nacre (the white, iridescent coating that makes a pearl a pearl).
Kalbarri National Park
This park has both red rock gorges and rocky ocean coast, making it one of my (Christina’s) very favorite places in Australia. We started inland with a lovely loop hike (imaginatively called The Loop) starting on the rim at Nature’s Window (a large wind-created hole) and followed the trail down into the red and white banded gorge along the Murchison river.
The second part of the park, and its most spectacular in my opinion, it the wild coastline. Even though we’re farther south, the water still has that tropical light blue color, paired with white limestone cliffs or iron-rich sandstone. What is truly stunning about this part of Western Australia is the mix of warm-tropical and cold-water marine life. The west coast of Australia has the only southward flowing current in the southern hemisphere (the currents along South America and Africa both flow north). The Leeuwin current brings down tropical marine species from Southeast Asia, while the cold waters from Antartica bring the nutrient rich water north. They meet here and form a wonderful seascape that mixes coral reefs and bright tropical fish with seaweeds and kelps of the rocky intertidal.
One of the best places to explore was Eagle Gorge Beach, which was a small beach, but had an amazing amount of marine life, from little snails in the tide pools, to a huge crab-eating gull, and the remnants of creatures washed up on the beach (endless shells, urchins, cuttlebones, etc). I could have stayed there for days exploring all the nooks and crannies!
We continued along the coast to other beaches, lookouts and bluffs, each one presenting new and beautiful treasures.
Where ever we went, the whales weren’t far, and today we managed to get a photo!
One of the most well-known and awe-inspiring landscapes in Australia is the Kimberley. It’s in the North West, and takes us into a new territory—Western Australia (the largest, and most remote). But before we cross the border, we stop at one last park in the Northern Territory.
Judbarra National Park (Gregory)
We hadn’t heard of this park until we spotted it on the map, right along our route, and thought it would be a nice stopover. Indeed it was! We did two short hikes, one up a steep escarpment for a fantastic view of the whole valley, and the other went up to some stunning cliffs with rock art.
One noticeable feature that popped up in this region, was the funny-looking, shapely boab tree. It’s a distant cousin of the African baobab, there’s one species in Africa, and thirteen in Madagascar—all much larger than the stubby boab. Their haphazard appearance in the bush was a wonderful treat along the long stretches of highway shrub.
After crossing the border into Western Australia and disposing of all fruits and vegetables (strict quarantine), we arrived in Kununurra. It’s a larger town thanks to the rich agricultural fields surrounding it, which were created when the Ord River was dammed up in 1971. The dam also created Lake Argyle, a thriving tourist haven.
After the lake, we visited Mirima National Park, made of ancient Devonian reef, layers of red silt and black reef.
That night, while staying at a particularly remote rest stop/campsite, we got a great view of the sky.
While we couldn’t do the real Kimberley (the Gibb River road passes through rugged terrain and many gorges, but it’s 4WD only), we did manage to see one of our favorite gorges of the trip, Geike Gorge. This gorge was also formed by ancient reef, but the weathering and sediment types produced vastly different outcomes—stunning sharp jagged rocks and black and white faces along the Fitzroy River. The whole place had a very other-worldly feeling…
Most importantly, we finally saw freshwater crocodiles! One on the hike, and two at the edge of the sandbar where we went swimming 🙂 No worries, folks. ‘Freshies’, as they’re called, are fish-eaters, and much smaller. Still a bit exhilarating to be in the water with!
The ocean! The Kimberley region ends at the coast near the town of Derby. On the outskirts of town is a site home to the Prison Boab, which was a sacred aboriginal site until it was carved out and used to hold aboriginals during their forced relocation.
Derby has Australia’s highest tidal range (8th highest in the world) a whopping 12 meters (38 feet)! We got a before/after shot to show the difference between high and low tide, but the low tide photo is only halfway to actually low tide… so use your imagination!
At the jetty where we took the tide photos was a great sign reminding fishermen to clean up their line and hooks. Best part is the pidgin-australian in red.
Kakadu National Park is Australia’s largest park, covering more than 20,000 square km. It’s over 2 BILLION years old and has been continuously inhabited by more than 52,000 years – making it one of the few places World Heritage listed for both it’s cultural and natural values. The landscapes represented in it include savanna woodlands, monsoon vine forests, broken ridges, stone country, tidal flats, mangroves, coastline, floodplains, rivers and billabongs – with incredibly rich biodiversity filling in every nook and cranny. We spent 5 days here, and barely scratched the surface!
One of the most famously photographed locations in the park is Gunlom Waterfall, or rather the infinity pool at the very top with views of the South Alligator River (misnamed by some explorer who had spent time in the southern US and thought the immense reptiles lurking about were alligators—not crocodiles). As you’ll see most things were named quite haphazardly, even the name “Kakadu” was created when they in misheard the aboriginal word “Gagudju” (one of the languages spoken in the region… gotta love the lazy arrogance of colonizers… Anyway, the hike was straight up a rocky mountainside, and completely worth it!
The upper pool was actually more fun to play in, it had a narrow little canyon to swim up, with huge boulders and water-carved rock holes all along it. After scrambling around some rocks we got to another tiny waterfall, and a watery cave with a giant orb weaver spider (size of my hand) with a web spanning clear across the entrance! No pictures, since we were swimming the whole time, but quite memorable 🙂
After being in crocodile territory for about a month, we still had not seen a single one. So we splurged on a sunset boat cruise to spot the elusive beasts. The South Alligator River is the only river in the world protected from source to mouth, and is the jewel of Kakadu with marvelous wetlands teeming with wildlife. We ended seeing at least a dozen crocs, which made me one very happy camper.
Ubirr & Nourlangie
One of the main attractions of Kakadu is the ancient rock art. We learned a lot about native culture from some free ranger-led walks at these sites. Aborigines have lived there so long that their oral histories and dreamtime creation stories literally recount geologic history. I’m talking about 52,000 years worth of changes in climate and ecology. As the oceans rose and fell, the vegetation and wildlife changed with it, and the local people had to adapt by switching methods for hunting and gathering, which was all recorded in their stories, with incredibly accurate detail. One of the major creator beings is the Rainbow Serpent, who passed through the landscape creating rivers and waterholes, split the rock faces and made hills and mountain ranges, helping form the habitat for all beings. There’s also Namarrgon, the Lightning Man, a very important being in this landscape created and managed by fire.
When the first archeologists and anthropologists came to study the rock art and shelter sites, they would find a piece of something 10,000 years old and instead of spending years trying to find out what it was, what it was used for, etc, the local aborigines would wander by and tell them exactly what it was. This living archeology is virtually unheard of anywhere else.
Tragically, most of the tribes have been wiped out and driven off their land, something more heartbreaking than I can possibly imagine. Even worse, there is still plenty of racism, which we casually overhear on hikes and at campsites (often times not so casually). I hope most of it will die off with the previous generations, as all the school curriculums now emphasize cultural understanding and a less biased history, and all the young australians we meet are just as disgusted as we are at the antiquated attitude. The white rangers who gave the tours (there are aboriginal rangers, too, but many of them were at a funeral the day we went) were so incredibly passionate and respectful of Aboriginal culture and did a great job of telling their stories with utter humility and with the acknowledgment that they knew just a tiny fraction of aboriginal culture and could never do it justice. Out with the old, in with the new—the better.