I almost didn’t get to go to the Great Ocean Road, but with a little Couchsurfing magic and the luck of some very fine weather, I saw one of the loveliest stretches of Australia, not to mention some wild koalas and parrots, days before I left the country.
I was having a marvelous time in Melbourne, so I left it a little late to organize a trip out to the GOR. I didn’t really want to do a bus tour, but I didn’t want to take on the expense of renting a car all by myself either (not to mention, the thought of driving on the other side of the road freaked me out). I tried some rideshare websites with no luck. I posted in the rideshare group on the Couchsurfing website. I was starting to think that I was going to have go on a bus tour and make a few scheduled stops for over $100, when I got a message on CS. A ride!
Dani and Fede, from Sicily, were packing in a lot of sightseeing on Fede’s trip to visit Dani down under, so they only had a day, rather than the two I’d hoped for, to do the trip. But they were willing to split the driving between themselves, and Dani’s roommate Ali was joining in, so the costs were super reasonable. Another reminder that sometimes if you leave things to the last minute, you miss out, but sometimes, you luck out.
Ali’s lived all over the world, since he can teach all the romance languages and is well sought-after. In that infuriating way that all my beloved teacher friends have, he found it hard to admit when he didn’t know something, and could turn almost anything into a teaching moment, which Fede and I teased him about. Fede, on holiday from doctoring in Italy, had a wonderful way of teasing everyone and soothing tempers at the same time. Dani embodied that free-spirited attitude that movies always try to imitate but never quite get right. It was a great group to join for a long day of sightseeing.
Ali and I braced ourselves in the back as Dani got used to driving on the left, bumping up against several curbs and almost a few parked cars along the way. After some exclamations, arm waving, and yelling (all of which made me smile with fond memories of living in Rome), we got settled in to the drive. It takes about an hour, an hour and a half, to get from Melbourne down to the coast, but once you’re there, the drive becomes consistently beautiful.
We went to the Split Point lighthouse at Aireys Inlet and had a good view of what looked like might become a stormy day. (Happily, it did not.) Afterward, we wended our way up a hill into the bush a bit to Erskine Falls. We perched ourselves on the benches at the lookout and ate our lunch amid the foliage and the dull roar of the falls.
Back on the coast proper, Ali played DJ, occasionally putting on a song in Italian that made both Dani and Fede groan. He’d grin and explain that this was a particularly well-known ballad or pop song, and Fede would say, “Really, no, we cannot hear this.” I imagine it’s like every time someone plays Foreigner around me.
So far, we’d been following the advice of various Italian and English guidebooks, but at this point I said we should make a stop recommended by another Couchsurfer. We pulled off at Kennett River, which consists of a general store and campground. My travel companions got coffees while I asked the barista for directions to the “road with the koalas.” She pointed to the road next to the campground and said, “what you’re looking for is a gray basketball in a tree.” With these succinct instructions, we set off across the road.
Almost immediately, we saw a koala! It did, indeed, look sort of like a gray basketball, curled up as it was up in its tree. It appeared to be sleeping, which koalas do almost all the time. We went to the other side of the tree to get a better look, when whoosh–a bunch of birds flew right at us. Look at them:
Dozens of colorful birds, all eager to flap around us, squawk in the trees, and generally cause a wonderful distraction. The internet tells me that I saw cockatiels, cockatoos, crimson rosellas, and Australian king parrots. One bird landed on Fede’s back, and then they all got the idea, and soon Dani and Ali were covered in birds as well. But none came to me! Maybe I had the wrong shampoo or something.
So I’m a little ashamed to say that when another group of tourists offered us their bread to feed the birds, I took some, and I was thrilled when a king parrot pecked at my outstretched palm, and finally made the leap over to my arm.
We saw two more koalas in the gum trees. One was ever-so-slowly shifting position, while the other remained resolutely asleep. As we reluctantly started to leave, we had another rush of birds, and this time, with no prompting, one landed on my head! I have never been so honored to have something attack my scalp as I was at that moment.
It was hard to leave the playful birds and adorable koalas, but there was more to see, so we pressed on. We arrived at the Gibson Steps and descended those steep stairs to the beach to get a better look. We passed a kangaroo corpse, which is a strange thing to see when the animal isn’t roadkill, and I wondered how it got down to the beach, or if it had fallen off the cliff and that’s what killed it? I’m sure there’s a Kangaroo Kops number I could call to get to the bottom of this.
A long haul back up the steps and a short drive later, we arrived at the 12 Apostles. This is one of the most popular destinations in Australia, so perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised me to see a visitor’s center set up and hundreds of people milling about, but because we’d been four of only 30 people, tops, at all our stops so far, I was a little taken aback. Here, as at Stonehenge in England, you park on one side of the road, then follow an underpass path to get to the attraction.
The 12 Apostles were stuffily renamed in the ’50s; they were originally called the Sow and Piglets, which is much more evocative. They’re limestone rock stacks, which used to be part of the mainland, then eroded into arches, then eroded further into stacks. There are 8 left today. The light was terrible when we were there, but another thing about a rideshare is you can’t insist you stay an extra several hours to get less harsh sunlight for your photos.
In fact, once we’d admired the rocks and the ocean, Dani said we should head back so no one had to drive in the dark, which is a sensible suggestion. So we cut through inland roads that Theresa had told me about, and sped back to Melbourne, exclaiming over the wildlife and the coastline, and happy to be road tripping together.