Monday, February 19, 2007

Classic Coast: Day 1

With Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne under my belt, I was ready to leave concrete, skyscrapers and museums for some Australian countryside. After all, this is a land of massive spaces.

I am traveling in Australia on my own, with only a backpack. No wheels means I’ve had to open myself to options I once would have never considered. I’ve booked myself into three tours while I’m here, each one of different sizes and lengths. The three and a half day Classic Coast trip from Melbourne to Adelaide, through a company called Wayward Tours, covers 1,200 kilometers of coastline, long stretches of farmland and timber forest, a variety of national parks and a detour into Aboriginal territory.

(I will be traveling leaving Adelaide on Wednesday for on a nine-day trek across the Nullarbor Plain to Perth with a small group of seven. In late March, when the weather cools to tolerable levels, I will again depart from Adelaide for the Uluru and the red center on a 10-day, camping tour of the outback, dust, scrub, kangaroos, snakes and all.)

My Classic Coast group consisted of 21 travelers and a driver, an exuberant young bloke named Lawrence. I spent most of the trip in the front seat watching the landscape unfold while Lawrence shared tales of motorcycle-hopping kangaroos, offered insight into government programs to reduce highway accidents and opened my eyes to healthy state of Australian hip-hop.

The trip starts with a simple instruction: show up at 1:30 p.m. at the Victorian Arts Center in Melbourne. Packed and ready for the country, I joined the other travelers waiting for the bus. I was the only American in the group – Americans are scarce around here. But the mix of Canadians, Germans, French and Australians were accepting of the Yank in their midst and we settled in for the ride.

About an hour outside of Melbourne we stopped at Bells Beach, a famous surf break known to surfers worldwide. The ocean was “flat as a bone,” as Lawrence described it, and the beach smelled overwhelmingly of kelp, but there’s a little bit of surfing commerce worth mentioning in the area.

Bells Beach is outside of Torquay, the home of Rip Curl, a manufacturing giant specializing in wetsuits, beach wear and anything that reeks of surfing. The waves at Bells Beach are best in the winter, when currents bring cold water from Antarctica. At some point in the not too distant past, two young surfers stole some insulating material from their school and one of them asked his mother to sew a wetsuit. The suit kept them warm in the frigid waves and they soon set up shop selling wetsuits to other surfers out of the back of a truck. As they say in Hollywood, the rest is history.

The road from Bells Beach leads to the official entrance to the Great Ocean Road, a major destination for tourists and the centerpiece of our trip.

The road was built after World War I by some 3,000 laborers looking for work in the midst of a depression. The Australian government supplied the tools and told the men to connect the coastal towns that up to that time were only accessible by boat. The road took 13 years, from 1919 to 1932, to complete, and snakes its way past secluded beach, along treacherous cliffs and past picturesque coastal villages.

Late in the afternoon, we passed a stand of Eucalyptus trees were a few cars were pulled over and tourists armed with cameras were gazing into the branches. Unfortunately, we didn’t stop, but a quick glance out the window and I got my first look at koalas. One creature was perched high in a tree, with legs splayed like a dog lying belly-down on hot pavement. This image seared itself into my brain, and is the standard by which all future koalas will be judged. (There will be more koalas before this trip is through, I promise.)

The first night was spent in a village called Apollo Bay, a sleepy seaside retreat. The group ate dinner at a local resturant and after a few drinks started to bond. I assume anything can happen on these tours, with some groups keeping their distance while others become fast friends. With day one behind us, we wer starting to relax, have some laughs and looked forward to day two on the Great Ocean Road.

Tomorrow: Rainforests, helicopters, shipwrecks and a dozen scenic vistas.

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Blogger Michael Y. said...

I don't believe you've answered the big question on everyone's mind back here in NYC: clockwise or counter-clockwise?

Also, does everyone there think Mel Gibson is as nuts as we do? And is he considered more of a New Yorker/American?

1:36 AM  
Blogger Matthew Klein said...

Of course the water spins counter-clockwise, and everyone walks on their hands and wears their underwear on the outside of their pants. Everything is bizarro world here.

Mel Gibson who? You mean the Road Warrior? There are reported sightings of him wandering the wastelands of the Northern Territory. Actually, he hasn't come up in conversation one time. I will ask the next Aussie I befriend.

8:40 AM  

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