We will come right out and say it: we preferred the East Coast Highway road trip between Melbourne and Sydney to the Great Ocean Road…..and we loved that drive. Maybe we started with lower expectations for the route between Melbourne and Sydney and were delighted with what we discovered; but on reflection there is more to it than that. The route took us through a series of gorgeous towns and villages, through stunning forests, beside pristine beaches and serene lakes all before the driving highlight of the section south of Sydney.
Given time constraints we didn’t head south east of Melbourne to Philip Island and Wilson’s Promontory, instead heading for the Gippsland Lakes area and our first stop on Raymond Island. We have to confess that when we booked our accommodation here we didn’t realise that it really was an Island (the clue was in the name), so it came as something of a surprise to pull up in Paynesville and find we had to take a ferry across the water to finish the first leg of our journey.
Awaiting us was a fabulous rustic AirBnB cabin, with the aroma of fresh bread inside and eucalyptus trees outside it was the perfect start to this leg of our trip. Raymond Island has beautiful waters but it’s famed for its prodigious Koala community who clearly enjoy the protection and isolation the Island provides. A Koala sat lazily in the tree above our home, and a short walk took us to the area they love to hang out in, snoozing on high and low branches affording us fantastic views of these gorgeous creatures.
As we wandered from one tree to the next checking the Koala’s out, we came across one who had decided to make a rare forage onto the ground…where there is food they will follow. This gave us the wonderful opportunity to have some close up (but not too close – they have fearsome claws) time with a Koala who seemed delightfully oblivious to our presence.
Onward and eastward we made a stop at Lakes Entrance the next morning to admire another gorgeous beach where crowds of sun-seekers (only about 10 – 15 people but we’ve discovered this constitutes a crowd on Aussie beaches) had made their way to yet another unspoilt sandy beach and a sea that was too good to miss!
The driving here continues to be sheer pleasure, quiet roads, with forests to your left and glimpses of sandy beaches and lagoons to your right. Passing famous names such as the Snowy River National Park, and more improbable/unpronounceable ones: Croajingolong National Park, on our way to what would be our final stop in Victoria, Mallacoota. Here we were greeted by a marvellous panorama from the balcony of our AirBnB:
A curiosity of many of the lakes and lagoons in this area are the sandbars that have built up to prevent the lakes escape into the sea, which in turn is causing the water to back up and flood low lying areas. Ironically, what is needed is a good downpour to flush the water over and through the sandbars to release the dammed (should that be damned?!) water. It must be one of the rare cases where rain is needed to reduce flood waters. Apparently one night a clandestine group of “tourists” tried taking on Mother Nature by digging a trench through a sandbar to release the water, but to no effect. Quite why tourists would do this isn’t clear, but we suspected they were the patsy.
Another morning another beach stop – this one at the appropriately named Eden after we had crossed the border into New South Wales.
In stark contrast to Eden we’d been told to check out the rugged coast at Bermagui, and in particular its “Blue Pool”. On arriving in Bermagui, it seemed like a nice town but being Sunday appeared to be closed. The main action was the tail end of a Dog Show (sorry) and the only restaurant we could find open was run by an Austrian who after a bit of cajoling came up with a few veggie options for us for lunch. Feeling slightly deflated by Bermagui we got directions and found the Blue Pool – a remarkable sight.
With a bit of ingenuity and engineering in the 1930’s a rocky section of the coast was enclosed to create a natural salt water pool where waves crash over rocks into the pool to give you the sensation that you are swimming in the sea. Added to this, the floor and sides are uneven and undulating natural rock, covered in sea creatures, barnacles and the like making it a great spot for snorkelling.
Tilba Tilba (so good they named it twice) looked like a quaint Sussex village with old craft shops lining its only street. The shops have retained old fashioned frontages that point you to a very different era and there must have been a time when it was full of life.
Unfortunately Tilba Tilba has a Sunday Sunday kinda feel to it and a number of stores are up for sale adding to the sense that its best days are well and truly in the past.
We rolled into Narooma quite late so it wasn’t until the next day that we got to admire its lakes, craggy seafront including “Australia Rocks” and the seals that adorn a breakwater, which in turn shields a lovely beach and another morning swim.
From Narooma we headed up to our final stop before Sydney, Vincentia in Jervis Bay, famed for its soft white sandy beaches. It certainly delivers on this boast and we enjoyed crashing out on the beach at 5.00pm with the temperature still in the 80’s. So many idyllic beaches, so few people – it’s a wonderful cocktail that we will miss terribly when we leave Australia.
The final run toward Sydney takes you through a strange mix of mundane development and Grand Pacific Drive that is every good as the best driving stretches of the Great Ocean Road. We caught this stretch on a day that gradually got greyer until drizzle set in to spoil what would have been great views – a shame but we had seen enough of this coast run to compare it favourably to its country cousin down in Victoria.
The curse of road trips and the heart-warming places we visited, is leaving them too soon. Much as we’d like to sign up to the nomadic spirit of the lyric “I never seen a sight that didn’t look better looking back” it’s simply not possible when you stumble upon these communities where life seems so simple, healthy and friendly. ps – top marks if you can name that song without google!
Our arrival in Sydney saw a real downturn in the weather, with cloud and drizzly rain setting in. Unlike Melbourne it didn’t clear up quickly, so our first impressions of the City were not as bright as we would have hoped. Our mood wasn’t improved when we arrived at our AirBnB which was grim – only the second time we’ve been really disappointed with a booking. Note to self: when a host describes their home as “bohemian” with “vintage” fixtures/fittings/cutlery etc expect to find a bit of a squalid dump! As we were in Sydney for a week we decided to abandon ship and at incredibly short notice secured a lovely alternative apartment close to the Harbour at McMahon’s Point. This turned out to be a wonderful spot as it was a five minute walk to the ferry and we spent the week travelling around the city using ferries as you would a bus – definitely the best and most picturesque way to see Sydney.
We had toyed with the idea of doing the Sydney Harbour Bridge climb, but with the weather putting us off we visited the museum and viewing points that are housed in the south east pylon, a much cheaper and less stressful way of getting close up with the Bridge and learning about its history and construction.
Close to the Bridge we stumbled on a conserved set of terraces in The Rocks area which provide a time capsule of how colonial settlers and former convicts made their homes in what became a particularly rough docks area of the City. Following a bout of the plague many of the homes were demolished but this small terrace was saved, it even overcome the voracious appetite of developers seeking to cash in on the gentrification of the neighbourhood. It’s an excellent tour around the buildings providing a glimpse into the lives and generations who lived cheek by jowl with the Harbour and must have watched in awe when the bridge was constructed.
On the list of Sydney must sees was a trip to Manly Beach, an enjoyable 30 minutes on the ferry through some quite choppy waters to this lovely seaside setting. With the weather still overcast we didn’t get to swim, although it takes a lot more than a bit of cloud to put off the surfers.
Instead we walked the bay and the local hills coming across an illiterate lizard….
and rather too many spiders…
…before the rain really set in and we scurried back to the bustling centre of Manly for tea and cake. Returning to Manly in the sun and making it to Bondi is a good excuse for a return trip to Sydney.
Marvellous as Melbourne is it doesn’t really have the “wow” factor of a truly iconic building. Whereas Sydney has two stunners – the Opera House and the Bridge – located in a third wonder, the Harbour. The Opera House is one of the defining landmarks of Australia, although in the flesh it was smaller than expected. This might be because of the truly magnificent structure that is the Sydney Harbour Bridge that dominates the skyline. From the neighbouring Botanical Gardens the view of the Opera House and the backdrop of the Bridge is something really quite special, as is the view from McMahon’s Point.
In contrast to the metropolitan delights of Sydney, a two hour drive takes you to the Blue Mountains. Our day trip started well, on collecting our hire car a harassed man at the rental place told us he didn’t have our car but would upgrade us “great” we replied. Then he didn’t have the car he was upgrading us to, so he was going to double upgrade us – “fantastic” we said. Five minutes later we found ourselves sitting in a brand new sporty Mercedes number trying to work out how to start the car and work out where the hand break was. The only thing I recognised as I sat in the drivers seat was the steering wheel, with a bank of buttons, paddles and lights blinking at me expectantly. I swallowed my pride and nipped back to the counter to ask how to start the car! Soon we were off heading west, nervously making our way through the Sydney traffic probably using about 20% of the Mercs capabilities. “I wonder where the indicators are?” I said to Sam as I promptly turned on the windscreen wipers. I don’t suppose “slow and steady wins the race” is going to be used by Mercedes in their next advertising campaign, but that maxim got us to the Blue Mountains and back safely …more importantly the car was returned in one piece!
As for our destination, it offers one stunning view after another and with the weather changing constantly overhead, different shades, colours and atmospheres. The early morning mist started to lift like a magicians grand reveal and the Mountains came into view, vast, rugged and yes, a hue of blue as the sun shines down.
There are walks and routes galore in the National Park area – you could easily spend a few days here – and at the centre in Katoomba cable car rides that takes you across vertiginous gorges….
…and a funicular to the valley floor for a walk through rainforest and beside waterfalls
The Three Sisters serenely sit at this part of the Park, making it the focal point for visitors, especially day trippers. However, like so many National Parks in Australia it doesn’t take long to get off the beaten track if you make an effort and you can find a viewing point with next to nobody there.
Sam followed up on her success in getting “Lady In The Van” tickets in Melbourne by bagging a couple of tickets to a one-man John Lennon show in Sydney Opera House. The thought of seeing and more importantly hearing Lennon songs live in the Opera House thrilled us. It was a great show, especially hearing so many of his early solo songs that with the exception of “Imagine” rarely get played – Isolation, God, Working Class Hero, Mother – belted out with real Lennonesque fury and vulnerability. Tremendous and very moving. Surprisingly less impressive was the auditorium we were in which reminded us of The Hawth Theatre in Crawley……a rather unexpected and unpleasant memory.
As luck would have it Sam’s former boss Chris and his partner Julianne were in Sydney at the same time as us. Remarkably they were staying just a 20 minute walk up the road from us in North Sydney. It was great to meet up for a pint in a local pub before enjoying a lovely Thai meal and discussing the delights of Sydney and making the inevitable comparisons with Melbourne. Julianne summed it up nicely: “you go out with Sydney but marry Melbourne”. I think the jury is still out for us, and it’s a wonderful thing to have the experience of visiting these two great cities. Both fabulous with a distinctly different feel to them – maybe that’s the ideal arrangement, switching favourites as the mood takes you.
Next Up: Brissie and a Dog Called Sprocket.