2021 March. Cycling the Great Ocean Road

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I was over this life stealing pandemic. I’d had enough of making plans only to have borders closed by chest beating over reactive Premiers posturing for upcoming elections. I needed to make a foolproof plan, a plan a fool could follow to escape. I needed to keep it local and just do it. Last Monday morning I packed one change of street clothes into a pannier bag, clipped it onto my touring bike and rode off in the dark towards. Southern Cross station was busy with bleary eyed city workers arriving from the suburbs. I was going the other way, as far West as a train would take me. The 7.45am train to Warrnambool had me with butterflies in my stomach, yes I still get them whenever I leave on a journey ? My plans was to go all the way to Warrnambool then turn and ride back to Melbourne along The Great Ocean Road.

My trusty donkey ready to board the train to Warrnambool

Before I even had a chance to become hungry my train had arrived at its final destination. I wheeled my bike, the solitary item in the parcel carriage out of the quickly emptying station and down the Main St of Warrnambool. I felt I needed to at least get a snack before I left civilisation for the emptiness of the Australian countryside. Then I remembered Kermonds, the famous hamburger joint on Lava St. It’s been keeping locals overweight since 1949. I didn’t need a burger and certainly one big enough to take two hands to hold. “I’ll just ride it off” I said to myself as I tossed the greasy paper bag in a rubbish bin and sluggishly began turning the peddles.

The famous Kermonds hamburger sat heavy in my stomach.

There is a rail trail to Port Fairy via Koroit. It first winds its way around a small river till you are finally in farming country. I was still half asleep from the rolling train and the warmth of the mid morning sun when I came across two brown snakes entwined in a deep embrace. As fascinating as this was I took the opportunity of them being busy to skirt around them only to find another a few metres further on. Suddenly I was on full alert, I’d not seen another person and just wanted to be out of here. I think the rocky road was attracting them with its late Summer warmth but I’m not going to do a thesis on it. 

A pair of snakes entwined in a heavy love making ritual

 The rest of the day was crossing bridges over swamplands loaded with swans, ducks, ibis and birds only twitters can identify. The trail is still in its infancy and is pretty rough in places but my touring bike is up for any conditions. That doesn’t mean the rider doesn’t get thrown around like a cork in a bottle. Being the first day of my adventure I hadn’t had enough time on the bike when I arrived at Port Fairy. Therefore I rode further West to the little village of Yambuk and a beautiful camping spot on Yambuk lake where the river hits Bass Straight. I rode back towards Port Fairy as local dairy farmers began the afternoon milking in this lush green countryside. My quick untrained observation is that dairy farmers tend to trudge at the same speed as there cows with that distinct grassy cowshit scent their fragrance of choice.

Yambuk lake just West of Port Fairy

After every day of solo riding my overriding criteria come days end is to find the liveliest pub or cafe for dinner. The company of others probably outweighs the quest for the best meal especially if the better meal is in a soulless room with heads bent. The Stump hotel in Port Fairy has been my regular over many years. Not gourmet but always lively. It didn’t disappoint and there were plenty of locals keen to chew my ear on any subject I liked as long as the subject was within an hours drive of Warrnambool.          

  My cycling days soon become very routine. Rise early, shower to loosen my stiff body then hunt down somewhere for an early breakfast. If nothing is open I creep away on my bike and have breakfast an hour or two down the road. With few other tourists about this became my norm. Due to Covid many businesses have closed or are operating on reduced hours. Few open before 8am and most are closed by 5pm. Only the pubs or take away food were open beyond 5pm. It will take a long time for these town to recuperate after Covid. I wonder how long before the Chinese return..if ever ? At least I can ride without the fear of an international tourist driving an unfamiliar hire car taking me out whilst pointing at something fascinating far out at sea.          

Limestone stacks slowly eroding.

  I visit all the iconic vistas along the twelve apostles strip. The skies are cloudless and the sea shimmers that Mediterranean blue. The restless sea pounds against the white limestone cliffs but there is no-one here. The major carpark that holds a couple of thousand cars has seven or eight cars and no one collecting parking money. It wouldn’t pay the wage of the parking attendant. Maybe it’s because the truth has finally struck home… there is no twelve apostles anymore. At last count I think there was seven and some of those are looking decidedly unstable.        

London Bridge

  I rest up at Port Campbell then press on towards Apollo Bay. It’s magical rolling under the shade of these monstrous eucalypts, blackwoods and beech trees. This region gets high rainfalls, the lush forest scent fills my nostrils. I knew it would be a long day peddling up and down the Otway ranges. I have a Bluetooth speaker in my handlebar bag and lull myself into a zen place with some old blues music and the occasional slurp of Gatorade or sports bar.
I finally crest the last hill and on my left catch a glimpse of the bleached sand crescent of Apollo Bay far below. My face breaks into a smile, it’s ALL downhill. Kms of freewheeling and I have to rein myself in as I check the speedo and I’m doing 70+ km/hr. A far cry from the snails pace I’ve averaged going up these hills.
         I feel fitter every day but I need to stretch more. It’s my biggest problem and I can feel the muscles tightening, too tight. It’s easy to simply slump exhausted into a chair after 100 kms but I can actually feel my leg muscles contracting as I sit there. I have to discipline myself, lay on the floor and use my body weight to hold a series of long deep stretches. It certainly helps, years ago a shower and six beers would suffice but no longer. 

My reward for an early start a moody sunrise near Skenes Creek.

 It’s a long day from Apollo Bay to Queenscliff. I rise before dawn and am repaid with a moody sunrise as I peddle in the half light near Skenes Creek. I’m on a very familiar route today. I ride often between Anglesea and Apollo Bay and I know when to push and when to go steady. A healthy breakfast at Wye River with the sun warming my back. I feel on top of the world but still have a way to go. Anglesea comes and goes but I know I can’t afford to stop for too long or I’ll seize up. Lose the rhythm.
         I peddle through Torquay, once a sleepy surfing village now a bustling suburb with houses cheek to jowl. They all think they are living the dream but most would rarely go to the beach, too tired after commuting for hours to offices in Geelong and Melbourne. I find a bike path hugging the coastal scrub all the way to Ocean Grove. Thirteenth beach is packed with mid week surfers so maybe more are living the dream than I thought. Maybe they are working from home and have slipped out for an official lunch break ?         

There are more new housing estates plonked down in the middle of rather salt barren farmland all the way to Point Lonsdale. Cheap housing with no services within walking distance and two cars a necessity not an option. And then there is Queenscliff refusing to budge or bend towards the twenty-first century. The turrets, stone towers, slate roofs and a real fort say it all. There is still real money here and they use it to fight turning their small town into suburbia. Why I’m still able to think about period architecture as I peddle the last km of 133 kms into town, I am still unsure.         

  I lift my bike over the threshold at the Vue Grand, the grandest old dame of a hotel in Queenscliff and ring the bell at reception. Sadly the receptionist didn’t say “Mr. Barnes we were expecting you, normal suite? “ instead she simply asked for my credit card without looking up. I celebrate by taking a large beer up to the turret deck high above the hotel and look out over the old town. I spot the ferry heading towards Sorrento, I’ll be on that in the morning.

The captain’s view at Queenscliff from the ferry

 I shower and wander the town. The Italian restaurant, Lombardy’s has the most diners. I sit myself down and order their pasta special. It’s good but not enough after my long day. The waitress asks if I want the dessert menu. No thanks can I revisit the main menu ? And with that I order a smallish ? pizza. I eat every slice then waddle back to my hotel room. The waitress opened the door for me to leave. She seems impressed at my gluttony.         

I wake early to the steady sound of traffic arriving into town in time to get the first ferry at 7am across Port Phillip Bay. They are probably tradies crossing for the day. I am downstairs and rolling towards the ferry for the 8am. There is me and my bike, a handful of caravans and a bus of Bellarine peninsula golfers trying their luck on the other side of the bay. The golfers are chattering enthusiastically about their 18 holes and lunch package. We are the only passengers, the ferry can’t be making money.       

 It’s another perfect day and I cycle towards the very tip of Point Nepean. Tradesmen’s utes line the road of the ultra rich mansions stretching right through to Portsea. Once inside Point Nepean National park serenity returns and there is only me, a few startled wallabies and handful of joggers. The strip of land to the end is extremely narrow adorned with gun turrets, relics of Australia’s rather feeble defence during wartime. To my left the unruly rumble of the open ocean smacking against the coast and to my right the more docile Port Phillip bay. 

The narrow spit of land at Point Nepean national Park

I stop to ponder at the old, deserted barracks of Point Nepean used to clean and quarantine arriving overseas visitors during the flu pandemic of 1918. 103 years later and once again we are in the grips of a worldwide pandemic awaiting a cure.

Point Nepean was a Naval base before becoming a National Park.

After four days of riding West I turn one final time and start my ride North. I roll along through familiar towns all linked together now. The Mornington Peninsula is no longer a holiday destination it is home to hundreds of thousands with a salt air vibe. My destination today is Mornington. Kylie and my new pup, Hugo give me a big welcome. They are happy I have arrived unscathed and with a broad smile on my face. The three of us scamper across a nearby creek to the Mornington brewery. Kylie and I indulge in a few celebration beers whilst Hugo sniffs a few other dogs straining on his lead under the tables. Enough beers at Mr Paul’s in Main St to ensure I ride the first hour tomorrow in a murky fog. 

Early Saturday morning I rise one final time to ride into Mordialloc in time to meet my regular Saturday crew. We ride as one up the bay for coffee and a review of the week just gone. I’ve been blessed with six days of Autumn sunshine and barely a cloud on the horizon. I’m happy to have finally got away and arrive home after six days and 600 kms injury free and without a single bike issue. Oh it’s been great to get back on the road after the Covid year in Melbourne that has locked us all away. So… staying flexible and prepared to accept late cancellations I can start planning a few more local trips before Winter arrives.