Throughout my Australian adventures so far, I’ve found it best to not question my mortality but rather plunge wholeheartedly into whichever completely dangerous activity I’ve chosen to take part.
Australia is one of 76 countries in the world to drive on the left-hand side of the road. Countries previously colonized by Britain (besides ‘MERICA) still retain this mildly irritating custom including, India, New Zealand, and many Caribbean nations. Like many historical questions, the explanation is rooted within warfare. Back in the days when problems were slashed with swords, soldiers on horseback (who were usually right-handed) rode on the left so they could stab their opponents with ease. Because America chose to separate themselves from England in every way possible post-colonialism, we drive on the right. And we all know how Americanized the rest of the world is… But for the sword-bearing and more recently emancipated nations, driving on the left (and constantly challenging tourists) is still the norm. Seventy-six countries actually sounds like quite a few but after viewing this distribution, you may change your mind.
Interestingly enough, the creator of this graphic chose the color orange to alert the viewer that should they decide to embrace an adventure in any of these countries, its probably best to hire a driver. However- should you happen to be a Ramen Noodle-eating, train fare-evading, international student from a country that is used to spending $1 for a crappy cup of coffee (instead of $4.50 for a sincerely disappointing one), you may say yes to the allure of cheap DIY travel. Because really, is the taste of adventure worth the sacrifice of safety? Absolutely.
The Great Ocean Road, home to some of the most stunning ocean views anywhere in the world, is conveniently advertised to be a relatively short distance from Melbourne. An international student friend from Wollongong (whom I introduced myself to at the gym for the first time after noticing her IU sweatshirt) happened to be visiting her roommate from back home, who is an exchange student at Victoria University in Melbourne. With the cheapest bus tour of the Great Ocean Road at $100, Tori, Carrie, and I once again believed to be striking gold when we agreed to split the cost of a rental car with our IU friends. No, none of us had ever driven on the left-hand side of the road before, nor we care. Just as any cool middle schooler’s snapback or t-shirt will tell you, YOLO (You Only Live Once).
Our trip started with disappointment and concern. Well, mine started with disappointment, Carrie’s started with concern. Stopping for coffee just before our 10 am departure time, Carrie and I rushed into a coffee-shop where I paid $4.50 for a 4oz cup of sadness and disgust. Raised by two Type A parents, I cannot be blamed for my expectations of perfection- especially when I am paying nearly $5 for it. As I received my “long black with a splash of soy” lucky Carrie got to witness my complaints to the barista, who obviously had not experienced coffee in America, where an 8oz cup is filled with all 8oz of whatever was ordered and not 2oz of mystery liquid and another 2oz of nearly curdled cream. Downing the substandard beverage, I slid between Carrie and Tori into the back seat of the minuscule Ford Focus where I would unknowingly spend the next 13 hours.
Melbourne is the city of hipsters, so we were going to travel as such. Believing the best route was to start at the end of the Great Ocean Road and then drive the route to the beginning, we set off down the rural Victoria highway. Erin, having lived in Melbourne for a few months placed the rental car on her credit card and felt it was best to assume driving responsibilities for the entire trip. She also was the convincer behind starting at the end, which we blindly agreed to. If you look at the map above, our course followed the top red route (from Geelong passing through Colac), where we changed direction and started following the Great Ocean Road at London Bridge, driving along the bottom.
About 30 minutes down the road, I politely inquired just how long until we reached the end, receiving three hours in reply. I knew that skepticism in the backseat was abundant concerning our driver’s plan of action. With three hours until our destination and inconsistent radio reception, I let myself rest my eyes at approximate five-minute intervals- when they weren’t snapped back open at Tori’s gasps when we came way too close to crossing the far left line. I also killed time by viewing the passing scenery, which actually proved to be quite interesting. Victoria governmental PSAs are now, I’ve decided, my favorite roadside entertainment. (so much so, that I’ve devoted an entire picture-based post to them – stay tuned) The farther we cruised into the country, the more it reminded me of Kentucky on a late spring day; back roads curving between rolling verdant hills of grazing livestock under an azure sky. The only differences were in the native gum and eucalyptus trees, rooted in the deep red earth.
Lewis and Clark endured a year and six months of travel before capturing their first sparkling glimpse of the ocean. From my exploratory middle-seat view, my excitement rivaled theirs as we finally cruised around our first coastal bend. Our gazes were quickly averted back to the road in panic, as our driver also couldn’t help but also enjoy the ocean vista. Swerving back on track, we trembled our way to the first attraction.
Yes, the flat top and small arch over rushing waves does look like a beautiful, natural bridge. But to me, what makes this monument so wonderfully entertaining is a story of scandal and gossip. The area just to the right of the formation was previously connected, but collapsed in 1990. Should you Google “london bridge great ocean road collapse 1990” both G.O.R. tourist sites and Wikipedia alike will inform you two tourists were stranded on the existing bridge part while the connection gave way. What these sources don’t tell you is the lovely little description is of who these castaways were.
One fateful day, a married man assured his wife he would be back into her loving arms after a quick business trip….along the Great Ocean Road with his mistress. Crossing the rocky link to the picnic-worthy plateau, the lovers enjoyed lunch together. As the champagne was popped, the connection crumbled, leaving a date to be remembered. After all, who could forget a national monument tumbling into the ocean, leaving you to be airlifted as news crews capture the entire rescue? Also, who could forget watching the nightly news to find out your husband actually works in the business of deception? Apparently, forces of karma and nature combined that day in the name of justice.
Our next stop was at Loch Ard Gorge, which is accompanied by another cute, but this time, historically documented anecdote. Way back in the days when Australia was a significantly more unforgiving environment than it continues to be today, a ship wrecked in transit to Melbourne, leaving 47 fatalities- only of which four bodies were found. A lucky duo survived- Eva Carmichael and Tom Pearce. Tom washed ashore well before Eva, who clung to a piece of wreckage for dear life, screaming for help. Hearing her cries, Tom rushed back into the icy winter swells to rescue Eva, just as she slipped into unconsciousness. The romantic side we all know everyone has is already envisioning the end of this story. What a lovely tale of potential love! Why hasn’t this already been a Lifetime movie? Want to know what happened? Nothing. Tom revived a comatose Eva with some brandy (yes this is even printed on the park sign), carried her frozen body to a nearby cabin, made sure she recovered, and the two parted ways. Tom continued his travels to Melbourne for business, Eva returned to her rural farm. The end. No passionate kiss of thanks from Eva, no proposal from Tom. Both continued lives normally, never to have contact again. The moral of this story (besides realizing that catastrophically induced romance is a work of Hollywood) is that Australians are also extremely resilient to PTSD.
The 12 Apostles
As the cutie in the Pink Floyd “singlet” will show you, there aren’t actually twelve of the apostles still visible. Much like the London Bridge, the apostles have gradually succumbed to the surf. For those that are still visible, swarms of Asian tourists will fight you for a spot to take your picture with them. Pro-photographer Tori snapped this picture before I was overrun by an eager crowd of Japanese girls in sparkle platforms and lavender faux-fur muffs.
As you can see by the pictures taken, we all know why this was the most important stop on our journey. Friends, family, and also Buzzfeed, have apparently decided that studying abroad in Australia can only be legitimized by 1) a totally rad surfing pic 2) a cuddly picture hip-hugging a koala toddler-style 3) a picture next to the icon and symbol of Australia, a kangaroo. My Instagram followers confirmed with 115 likes (a major accomplishment) that I can now call myself an Aussie study abroad student.
Petty social media successes aside, this was a truly delightful experience. As we pulled off the G.O.R. and onto the gravel drive, it was obvious we weren’t visiting a zoo or typical tourist attraction. For all my Indiana fans, if you’ve visited the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Brazil, IN, (which you absolutely should) this “wildlife park” was similar. The summary on their About Us page oozes granola descriptors such as “farm” “sustainability” or “environmental respect” and the experience is on right par. As soon as you walk into the cabin-esque lobby, complete with a cozy fireplace and border collie snoozing in the corner, you’ll be greeted by the earth-aura owner himself. With nothing else to do besides feed emus and send good vibes to the dingos, he sincerely showed interest in our travels and life in Indiana. Giving us student discounts (score) and bags of feed, he led us out the door and into the fields where our adorable Australian animal friends were already grazing. Large areas of open grass were enclosed by low, wooden fences bearing signs that encouraged visitrs to enter without restriction
Approaching the first kangaroo was actually a bit intimidating….except that the kangaroo decided I was more boring than scary and hopped away, uninterested in my food or attempt at a selfie. My photographer Tori snapped some good attempts as my memory-less phone was also depleted of power. My favorite part of the park was interacting with the wallabies. Appearing to just be baby kangaroos, they were the most friendly and docile of the marsupial bunch- willing to just sit next to you and let you scratch them behind the ears just as you would your dog back home.
The Journey Home
Now comes the dangerous part. Fatigue from the day, empty stomachs, and a desire to get out of the car, mixed to form the perfect cocktail of a scary voyage home. It quietly sunk in to all of us that we completely mis-planned the entire excursion. Should you follow the road the correct way, the first part of the G.O.R. meanders along the coast, sandwiching travelers between views of both the stunning rocky cliffs and the shimmering ocean. In the morning, the sun will shine over the cliffs behind you. Midday, rays of light will descend upon your head. In the evening, one can smile at the magnificent sun sinking into the ocean before them. The road starts curvy and eventually evens itself out, allowing any carsick individuals to recover before reaching the final sightseeing destinations. Hindsight is, in fact, 20/20 and we realized this as the sun sank behind the mountains and the bends came more quickly. Past the 6pm sunset, you can count your blessings and silently confess your sins as hairpin turns guarantee your demise. I think the following Googled images can help you to visualize this.
Even though I had done absolutely nothing all day besides sit in a car and meander around tourist stops to have my picture taken, I was completely drained of all energy. After leaving the wildlife park around 5, we were still three hours outside of Melbourne. I let my eyelids droop and fell into the kind of limbo between light sleep and consciousness that only happens in car rides. The only sounds to disturb me were Tori’s occasionally chattering teeth. Finally waking up to see just what was making her so cold, I realized that the closer our car veered to the left (into ocean cliffs) the more Tori’s teeth chattered…in fear. Our gasps from the back seat were not appreciated by the driver, who ordered us to be quiet so she could focus on getting us through the voyage alive. Watching us drift off the road (inches from the rock) wasn’t helping me control my natural gasp reactions, so I went back to shutting my eyes, Tori’s occasional chattering teeth reminding me just how far away from certain death we were.
Two fear-filled hours later I watched as the G.O.R. entrance sign I so badly wanted a picture under passed above my head. We finally made it back onto to the Melbourne-bound freeway and I had never been so excited to get out of a car ever. Traffic had picked up…but with one last scolding for screaming during a potential head-on collision, we scrambled out of the car at the train station and kissed the ground. We took the train back into downtown Melbourne and silently reflected on the new comfort of disgusting public transportation. I even felt myself growing sentimental about the train- how soothing and almost maternal riding in a vessel with a guaranteed destination was.
Too tired after staying on alert for a near 13 hours, we decided not to hit the bars but instead find some late dinner. After thirteen hours of hyper-vigilance, we indulgently grabbed some kebabs and recounted our blessings. The cafe was running a special on the enormous cheesecakes in the window, so we all agreed we absolutely deserved to share a huge slice. Motioning with our hands the length of a foot to the only-Arabic-speaking cashier, he cut us a huge slice of Mars bar chocolate cheesecake which we devoured instantly. In the words of Tom and Donna from Parks & Recreation, “treat yo self”.
***As a primary disclaimer, this blog post is out of order. I have to admit, I was most excited to write about this part of the trip, so of course I wrote about it first. There is a secondary disclaimer- after spending day one in Melbourne surrounded by such striking architecture and fascinating street art, the deplorable photo memory for my iPhone 4 was used completely. This brings me to my third and final disclaimer- some of the pictures in this post belong to the lovely Tori Wilson, who was a nice enough friend to take many pictures for me and of me, all without a single complaint (because we all know I was full of them). Some of the pictures featured in this post I was lucky enough to take myself, but many belong to Tori, the most distinguished photographer I know.