ยป Gallery / 2000 / Australia and New Zealand / The Road to Melbourne /

Robe to Port Fairy

Hung over from all that card playing. There’s the obligatory croissant assortment and plunger coffee, as always accompanied by untouched vegemite servings. Figuring I can’t hurt much more, I peel back the plastic from one of the little containers to find a shiny dark-brown glue lining the bottom. A little knifetip spread on toast and I realize how this stuff’s gained it’s awful reputation – it’s a bad kind of gritty tang, like I’d imagine the residue scraped off the inside of a garbage disposal might taste. Nobody joins me. Australia’s vegemite stockpiles are safe – none of us tries any again for the rest of the trip.

I’m at the wheel again, my back stiff from craning to make sure we’re not really in the oncoming lane. Cindy’s calling “here roo roo roo roo” from the back seat, but still none appear. I get us into the town of Mt. Gambier, and negotiate the endless series of roundabouts with surprising ease – just make sure there’s nobody in the circle to the right, and pass on through. This sizable community is home to a number of volcanic crater lakes, one of which lies gray for half the year but turns bright blue almost overnight each November, staying that color until March.

We stop for lunch at , a dark but comfortable storefront restaurant and coffee bar on Commercial Street. After waiting out the longest hour of our lives we’re rewarded with one of the best lunches ever served – fresh oyster, tender calamari, foccacia sandwiches – all outstanding. Go there, but bring a book.

There’s yer Blue Lake. It’s alright, but we’d be more impressed if we hadn’t visited Crater Lake in Oregon a few years back. Thinking this little guidebook side trip’s a bust, we tool around in the car and find ourselves one ridge over, where a miracle occurs.

Emus and kangaroos and potoroos, oh my

Valley Lake‘s not a whole lot to look at, dark and on the mucky side, but there’s an unsupervised wildlife preserve on its shore. At the gate there isn’t much to compel us inside (apart from a curious emu, slowly rising up to shoulder height and following our every motion), but it’s good to be out of the car, so we enter and close the gate behind us. Lots of plants and trees with descriptive plaques. That’s fine. Another emu. The trees get thick as the path winds upward to a group of women looking up into a tree and pointing – there’s a sleepy koala on a eucalyptus branch about twenty feet off the ground. I seek out a bench to save off my photos, and when I return Melanie’s gesturing and whispering “they just went by!“. A kangaroo and joey have crashed through the bushes near the perimeter fence and are watching us from the loose scrub about fifty feet away. The roos are motionless, cautious but not frightened, and after a few minutes and about a dozen pictures we walk off slowly to look for more. I spot a wallaby – the smaller cousin of the kangaroo – bounding through the shrubs near the lake. There are potoroo behind a chicken-wire fence. Elegant heron-like birds stalk bugs in the marshy pools. After a half hour I exhaust the paths and head back to the car, and spot three more kangaroo across a little pond. They’re nibbling and scratching themselves and I leave them in peace, escorted back to the gate by one of the vigilant emu.

Melanie takes the wheel and we cross the Victoria border. Like somebody’s thrown a switch, the two-lane road is choked with construction and giant tractor-trailers full of cows. We bag Portland, passing close to the lighthouse without actually stopping, and continue eastward along the Great Ocean Road. Yeah, there’s ocean around here somewhere – we saw it in Portland but now there are all these dunes to the right.

We pull into Port Fairy about 5:30. It’s a sleepy seaside town with wide streets and low buildings, and we seek out a hotel recommended by the guidebook. We end up on a road that winds around to a parking lot at the edge of the ocean. There’s a rocky beach strewn with kelp and black boulders, a little cove maybe a hundred yards across, and it’s filled with surfers. There must be 30 of them out there trying to catch each wave and not get dashed on the rocks. View the picture and imagine the sound of the crashing surf blended with the rolling clatter of a bowling alley – that’s what it’s like to watch the first surfer catch the leading edge of the wave and cut diagonally across the heads of everyone else rising to meet the curl. It’s amazing these people live to adulthood.

We’re learning the hard way about Coastal hours – get your business done before the sun starts to set. No hotel has more than a single room to offer, so we split up. Eric and Cindy take a little room in the eaves of the near the surfing cove while Melanie and I get a corner room at the about a half-mile up the Moyne River. The Shearwater is a new bed & breakfast and it’s got that spacious new-house feel to it; the lady innkeeper welcomes us with glasses of wine as we settle in.

Best in the Southern Hemisphere

It’s a bad move, setting out for dinner at eight in this part of the world. All the restaurants are booked or closing, or not too appealing. The door to the is locked so we assume the worst; a tall smiling waiter jiggles the knob and lets us in, apologizing for the inconvenience. The restauant has just reopened after a few months off and not everything’s back in alignment.

Our waiter, Shane, is nuts. Lean and strong like many of the Australians we’ve seen, he’s constantly grinning and delivering suggestions rapid-fire: “This wine’s the best in the Southern Hemisphere” “You’re gonna get all sexied up on these oysters.” At some point he recommends a Tasmanian wine.

“So are you from Tasmania, Shane?”

“Wha, s’it look like I have a lump on my shoulder?”


“Well, everyone knows Tazzies have two heads – it’s all that inbreeding.”

  • Tasmanians are Australians’ West Virginians

There’s an uncomfortable silence. The man sitting alone at the corner table is listening in.

“You a Tazzie, mate?”

If he is he’s not saying. There’s a gruff Tom Waits-y vocal & piano song low in the background. Shane’s been spot-on with his wine recommendations. I’m not sure how sexied up I’m getting, but the ladies sure are all a-twitter. The Dolans get a seafood pasta (good, but the tomato sauce is a little heavy); the Canups get the finest lobster ever prepared, cooked with basil and… just perfect. Shane’s brother Andrew is the chef, and has spent a lot of time learning the craft in Europe and Melbourne. The brothers have recently taken ownership of the restaurant and are building their own business. We wish them all the success in Victoria, and hope to see them again next time we pass through.

We walk out into the dark night, following the sound of the pounding surf. We know it’s just beyond the low hills across the river, but finding a path that doesn’t cut through somebody’s yard is proving difficult. At the corner of a dead-end street there’s a small party in the kitchen of a brick rambler – a couple of blokes pumping their fists to AC/DC and mixing drinks. At the end of the street we find a little path down to the beach. The waves crash out in the harbor and the waning moon breaks through the dark clouds. The beach in the moonlight ripples like black molten glass, liquid but cold to the touch.