An extended stop-over in Oz, cycling the Great Ocean Road

Melbourne (AU) – Melbourne (AU) / 17621 km / 8.60 Million Turns / February 18th – February 29th, 2020

Saying goodbye to Vietnam in Hanoi, also meant saying goodbye to a few other things. After nearly a year of travelling overland on (mostly) our bicycles, we now had an ocean to cross. It would be our first flight of the trip and, honestly, it felt weird and a slightly unnatural. Maybe deep inside us we even felt a trace of guilt. After getting this far on our own power, we were now about to fly a distance of over 8000 km in only a couple of hours. This would normally have taken us 5 months!

Taking that flight meant saying goodbye to Asia and saying hello to a new continent with new landscapes, new smells and new tastes. With that came the fact that we were for now also leaving behind travelling through low- and middle-income countries. It was a goodbye to the countless little street vendors with delicious food, goodbye to haggling over everything (something we were not so much going to miss so much) and a goodbye to all the cheap hostels we could sleep at to recharge our batteries. From now on we had to make decisions a bit more rationally and creative, with our budget in mind. But creativity is usually rewarded, and we felt ready for a new chapter of our trip!

We knew we would be in Australia way too short to really get an impression of the country (continent), but we had to make some concessions if we wanted to cycle through New Zealand and Japan as well. As a compromise, we extended our “stop-over” on the way to New Zealand to two weeks and visited Benny and Liam, a couple Sabine had travelled with in Laos back in 2011. Of course, we couldn’t not cycle while there, and therefore we planned to cycle the Great Ocean Road for a couple of days.

Although we felt ready for this new chapter, the transition from Asia to Australia didn’t go smooth from the start. Upon arriving in Melbourne our minds were still a bit wired the South East Asian way. Where in Asia everyone packs their vehicles as full as necessary and no one is really bothered by vehicles being expanded to two to four times their size by hanging buckets or boxes, Australia was once again neatly organised place. Cities built up in perfect square blocks, no honking on the roads unless to avoid a crash; separate bike lanes in the cities; and mandatory helmets for cyclists (not a very popular thing for the Dutch, although wise to wear one in most places). As we would be flying out of Melbourne only two weeks later, we wanted to keep our bike boxes for our next flight. Unfortunately, public transport wasn’t an option with our bikes in the boxes, so our sleep-deprived, jetlagged, minds came up with the brilliant idea of cycling with the bike boxes over our shoulder with a rope to Benny and Liam’s house, 20 kilometres away. Yes, in hindsight, we don’t understand how this could ever have been a smart plan but hey. With this decision we had omitted the fact that (A) the boxes are big and heavy, that (B) Melbourne is often very windy (it was 4-5 bft gusty that day), and that (C) Melbourne is quite hilly.
It must have been a funny sight, two cyclists trying to navigate with huge boxes flying up and down from their shoulders! We are incredible thankful for all the patient Ozzies who did not honk or yell while we tried to control our bikes with the wind blowing us straight onto the street. Our decisions were definitely questioned along the way, but we were too stubborn to give up on the plan. Not often have we been so glad to arrive somewhere though! Even more so, seeing Benny and Liam again after all this time!


Benny and Liam welcomed us into their house with open arms and five very lovely, relaxed days followed. We explored the city, headed out for walks, got free bird watching classes from Benny & Liam, had great dinners and drinks and we went around the city for a stuff-repair-round. And there was quite a list of stuff that needed replacing or repairing: Sabine’s broken iPhone screen, Tom’s pannier that was ripped by a dog in Turkmenistan, our sleeping mat that had exploded in Vietnam and Sabine’s gear cable still didn’t allow her to climb hills in her favourite first granny gear. After our cowboy bike ride from the airport into the city, we felt accustomed to Australian life surprisingly quickly. With Melbourne’s chilled-out vibe, great people and weather it was hard not to like this city straightaway. Quite a number of times we each mentioned to the other how we could see ourselves living in a city like this. Time flew by.

 

The night before we would start the ride on the Great Ocean Road, we got invited to Liam’s cousin Heath’s 30th birthday party on a ranch, a little north of Melbourne in rural Victoria. We were excited to see and experience more of Oz. We arrived on a beautiful patch of land, with stunning views of the surrounding grasslands. Big birds of prey were flying over, horses were kept right next door, cow’s a little further down the road. Sabine couldn’t help but feel as if we had arrived on McLeod’s Daughter’s ranch. Only the kangaroos were missing. It turned into a fantastic night with an awesome live band singing the best song about bananas ever! We even had a short introduction to some of the many Ozzie abbreviations: ‘Roos (kangaroos); Esky (the Australian cooling box, which everyone brings to a BYO party, quite handy!); brekkie (breakfast); Macca (McDonalds) etc.

The next day it was time to get back on our bicycles. We first took a train to get out of the city and then cycled to Torquay, where we spent a wonderful night with Paul and Leiset and family. Here, Tom’s long-time wish to get back on a surfboard was fulfilled when Paul took him to famous Bell’s Beach for an early morning surf session. Another one ticked of the Australia list here! After the surf, it was time to really start our 350 km ride on the Great Ocean Road (GOR). This road winds a long way along a stunning part of Australia’s coast, passing some very good surf spots, beautiful beaches and forests.

 

The GOR is famous and a popular area to visit by tourists. We had been warned about the traffic, many tourists wouldn’t know how to drive on the left side and overtaking cyclists on this two-lane road wasn’t ideal. However, we found the traffic surprisingly calm and considerate! Australia had already banned a few countries from entering due to COVID-19 by then, so there were simply a lot less tourists on the road. Being back on the bicycles was great, you take in so much of your surroundings. The first day we noticed how after months (almost a year), there were now traffic signs telling car drivers to be careful about cyclists! Another noticeable thing was the number of signs mentioning bushfire risks. Most of you probably remember the news posts of the bushfires in Australia end of 2019. By the time we were there, February 2020, there were no more fires in the area we cycled in, but you could see how much this risk is part of daily accounts for people here.

 

One thing that really took us by surprise was the richness of birdlife in Australia. We had no idea there were so many colourful birds and all the time we would hear the most exotic bird sounds (in case you’re curious: here, here and here, are some example of famous bird sounds in Australia).

If we had to mention one thing we found a pity about Australia, it was the fact that wild camping was forbidden. With the number of tourists and the disturbances that come with that and wild camping, we understand. But, for us, wild camping, being out there and connecting with your surroundings is one of the nicest things of this trip. Not wanting to risk a fine, we kept to designated free camp sites the first few days. We didn’t really know what to expect, but were a little shocked when we arrived at a beautiful camp site in a forest the first night near Lorne. More than double the amount of allowed tents were already pitched, with so little space between them that every fart would be heard by at least 5 other people. There was litter lying around and unfortunately this attracts wild animals. Half an hour later, we had 2 half tame kangaroos jumping right next to our tent waiting for us to throw food at them. Not the kangaroo experience we had been hoping for! We took the quietest spot on the side and had a quiet night, only to be woken by a Spanish couple having a very passionate fight the next morning.

The next few days we cycled the winding road mostly along the ocean, going up and down forever and passing one beautiful beach after the other. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t great, so swims weren’t really appealing (or had tropical Asia turned us into wimps?). The views were still incredible though. We took a little detour into the beech forest around Beauchamp waterfall and found out how incredibly different Australia’s native bush is from what we had expected too, so lush and tropical!

Koala’s: another typical Ozzie thing we hoped to see. As it happened, our navigation app maps.me mentioned a place along our route where you could see these animals. With high expectations, we took a right turn and immediately saw where the animal had to be. A crowd of people had collected beneath a Eucalyptus tree (these leaves being their main staple food). If it weren’t for other people telling us that the hairy ball high up in the tree was a koala, we would never have known. We still had hope for a proper kangaroo experience though!

One of the highlights on the GOR is the Twelve Apostles. Due to weathering and erosion, caves formed in the limestone cliffs, which eroded further into arches. Over the course of many million years, these arches broke off the mainland into huge stacks. The coast here is incredibly rugged, and you can see the forces of the sea upon the cliffs here, constantly bashing the limestone and creating huge splashes and waves. We spent hours watching this mesmerizing sight!

This being our last night camping in Australia, we decided to try and look for a wild camp spot. Not wanting to get into trouble, we went for a long search for a camp spot. Just when we thought we had a spot where no one would come, and Tom was searching a bush for an adequate spot, a guy approached Sabine. Afraid that it was a patrolling guy, Sabine was about to mention that Tom only went for a wee, when the guy, Freddy, turned out to be a French tourist who had been hitch-hiking around Australia for the last few months. He had come to stay with Annie and Philip, an older couple who lived a kilometre away on a ranch. We explained our situation and Freddy decided to ask them if we could pitch our tent somewhere on their land. Help comes when you most need it. This night turned into a very special night! Annie and Philip were totally fine with us pitching our tent on their land, “choose any spot you want!”. Cycling up their driveway, again we (Sabine) felt as if we were in McLeod’s Daughters film set. Their ranch was perched on top of a hill, overlooking a valley, cattle roaming around, sheep twice the size of Dutch sheep running around, and surrounded by huge grasslands. We were greeted by Max, their enthusiastic sheep dog who jumped all over us as we entered. As we pitched our tent, Freddy casually asks us if we like chocolate pie. It turned out that Freddy is a chef and within a few minutes he came out with a delicious French chocolate pie! What more could we have asked for?!

 

We enjoyed a fantastic night with Annie, Philip, Freddy and Max. Sharing a meal and many stories. Philip told us about the history of the area. How in the 19th century, the English were allotted plots of land that they could convert into agriculture. It used to be thick wild bush, owned by the indigenous Australian people, that you could hardly penetrate. Now, nothing was left of that, only grassland and farmland. His great grandparents had been allotted this plot, and the plot had since then stayed within the family. He took us for a tour on his land. As we came back, the sun was going down and turned all the surrounding land into a shiny golden colour. Then, we noticed two kangaroos peacefully hopping over his land. Halfway they stopped and watched us, pausing a brief moment before they moved on. It was one of those moments where everything just came together, and it all felt so right! A perfect final night of our Australia bicycle ride.

We had a hard time leaving the next day! But it was time to head back to Melbourne. With crazy headwinds, we cycled to Warrnambool. Here we took a train back to Melbourne and spent a few more chilled out days with Benny and Liam, while getting ready for another flight.

Two weeks after we landed, we found ourselves cycling back from Benny and Liam to the Airport. This time, no big bike boxes hanging over our shoulder. Benny and Liam kindly offered to bring the boxes to the airport with their car. Time to say goodbye again, this time to these awesome two people. Hopefully we will see you guys soon, somewhere…! It’s only fair to say that this extended stop-over was still way too short, but the little bit we had seen of Australia was still pretty awesome.  Now it was time to say hello to yet another new country, the furthest country we would see on this trip: New Zealand!

Talk to you soon!

Tom & Sabine

 

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