It’s getting horribly close to the end of my time in Melbourne, so inevitably I’ve started trying to get things ticked off. There’s nothing like feeling that this might be your last chance to get you out of bed and going places. I still have work to contend with though – those glasses aren’t gonna clear themselves away – so it’s had to be an in-between times endeavour, exploring the city and having adventures.
This week’s adventure? A spontaneous road trip to the Grampians national park. It was probably two of the best days I’ve had in Australia so far.
So we rented a car, gathered together a group of willing participants, booked a cabin in a campsite, and off we went. Despite my general lack of enthusiasm for driving (I always feel like I somehow shouldn’t be allowed to drive, like that’s something only proper adults do), I ended up being the designated driver, and having to contend with my first ever automatic transmission. After only minor teething issues (it’s surprisingly hard to get used to having to use your brain less when driving), we were on the road, and thankfully soon out of the confusing Melbourne road systems and onto the freeway. Phea’s trusty SatNav app led us the rest of the way there, with such helpful instructions as ‘in 50 kilometres, continue straight’.
Luckily nobody dared make many complaints about my driving, despite a slight mishap in which I drove blithely over a curb, and my general unnerving tendency to speed whenever a good song was on. Nora (the SatNav) kept me in check though, beeping incessantly whenever I got too overexcited.
The roads that led us there were largely uninspiring – maybe unsurprisingly: a motorway is after all, just a motorway. But we were all so happy to be going somewhere, after a long time just staying put, that even concrete and the crash barriers seemed exciting. And then, after a couple of hours driving, we neared national park territory, and every road stretched enticingly off into the distance, framed by trees and backgrounded by hills. Then the excitement really kicked in.
We arrived to our home for the night, at Grampians Edge Caravan Park, and were met by the owners, Steve and Jenny, who were absolutely lovely and eager to help, albeit a bit bemused by our evident lack of preparation. Luckily Steve was positively bubbling over with enthusiasm, and his knowledge of the area was better than anything Google could have given us.
Now armed with several maps, and a vague idea of a route, we went to unload stuff into our accommodation before setting off. Our temporary home was the most adorable wooden cabin, complete with mini-kitchen and dining room. On our quick tour of the campsite, we met with another member of the family, one of their young daughters who was busy sweeping out the toilet block.
‘I’ve left the spiders,’ she informed Phea, who agreed that she would have done the same.
Once we had had a bite to eat (and, it goes without saying, a cup of tea), we loaded back into the car and off we went. I generously decided that navigating was everyone else’s problem, and I have to say they did a stellar job. We didn’t have all that much time to explore, now that daylight savings means that it gets dark before 7pm, but we managed to squeeze in most of the things that Steve suggested.
First we headed to the Zumsteins picnic spot, where you can supposedly see kangaroos roaming wild, but as we had already had lunch and the kangaroos all seemed to be napping, we quickly got back in the car and moved on.
Next was McKenzie Falls, the largest waterfall in the Grampians, which provided a nice backdrop for a little rest after a surprisingly sweaty walk down a lot of steps. Melbourne in the last few days has decided to switch seasons without warning (aka it turned into the UK for a bit), so we were well prepped for the cold but not really ready for blinding sunshine. We decided to skip the walk over to Fish Falls – once you’ve seen the biggest waterfall, you don’t really need to see another one – and reluctantly began the climb back up all those steps we’d just walked down. Tim decided that what he really needed for this trek was a walking stick, and proceeded to hack away at the surrounding undergrowth until he found one – and then insisted on bringing it in the car with him. Sort of like my brother would have done, at the age of 12.
Our final – and probably favourite – stop was Reid’s Lookout, and the Balconies. From this one stop you get a view of the whole of the Grampians in three directions. The Balconies were a short walk away, and did not disappoint.
The Balconies are just made for taking photos. A rock jutting out into space, a spectacular vantage point for the view out over the park, and also a terrifying reminder of how high up you are. As ever I had my priorities properly in place, and risked certain death by perching the very edge of the rock in order to get a cool photo (though typically, I didn’t end up liking any of the ones that got taken).
We spent quite a long time messing about and taking photos – long enough that a rude German girl felt the need to say, ‘Can we make a photo now?’ after I went up to the ledge for the seventeenth time to try to get a better angle on the panorama. Even Phea (who is terrified of heights, as well as whales) managed to sit mere meters away from the drop long enough to have a picture taken.
The sun was on its way down as we headed back to the car park, so we decided to stay there and watch the sunset. Thanks to Steve, we knew that there was a third lookout point, past the watchtower used to check for bush fires, so we snuck around the barrier and settled in to watch.
We waited for the sun to sink its way down past the horizon, I struggled to work out how to use my tripod and my camera with all its various settings, and it was the perfect end to a bloody brilliant day. It would have been even more perfect had there not been a thin but persistent band of clouds running across the horizon, obscuring the sunset, but I guess you can’t have everything.
Soon we piled back into the car (Tim with walking stick in tow), and began the drive home.
I am very much a fair weather driver. I do not particularly enjoy driving in conditions that aren’t a) daylight and b) nice sunny weather, so the encroaching dusk made me very nervous, as did the increasing frequency of signs warning of nearby kangaroos. Somehow one of the few things I knew about Australia before I got here was that kangaroos are not just the nice cuddly creatures that they appear to be: they are pretty large and can do a fair bit of damage to your car if they come into contact with it.
Miraculously, no kangaroo sightings were made on the way home, and we pulled into the caravan park unscathed. Success.
We made dinner while Tim went to collect firewood, and later sat round the campfire – wearing all the clothes we had brought with us – toasting marshmallows (or just burning them in Tori’s case). Idyllic – except for the smoke blowing into our eyes and the ash all over our clothes.
The next day we were up earlier than was reasonable, determined to get the most out of our short trip away by doing a sunrise hike. Once again Steve’s limitless knowledge of the area came into play, as he recommended that we climb Hollow Mountain.
So it was back into the car, bleary-eyed, with a very minimal idea of where we were going. We accidentally left the road map in the cabin and instead had to rely on the tourist map, with its pictoral representation of the main points of interest (and no indication of the place we actually wanted to go).
The promised ten-to-fifteen minute drive seemed to stretch on forever.
Unsurprisingly, we had gone the wrong way.
It was only a combination of good old Nora the SatNav, a fortuitous kangaroo leaping suddenly in front of the car (what a way to see your first kangaroo, almost running one over), and an unassuming sign pointing to Hollow Mountain car park that got us to where we needed to be in the end. Forty minutes after we had set off, with under an hour until sunrise (to complete what we had been told would be roughly an hour-and-a-half hike), we all bundled out of the car, layered up, and set off.
We had been promised a fairly challenging hike, but I don’t think any of us properly comprehended what this would entail. I thought it might be steep, maybe quite long, a bit of a challenge for the unfit. I didn’t anticipate actually scrambling up boulders, or hauling myself up onto ledges in the rock. It also proved a bit of a challenge to navigate our way along the path, as there wasn’t much of one – at one point the choice of route was between clambering over a small ravine, or climbing up a near-vertical rock face. At this point, luckily, Tori decided to mention the bright yellow arrows that had actually been pointing the way the whole time – which none of the rest of us had noticed. So up the rock face we went.
The sky lightened as we walked, adding pace to our steps in our fear that we would miss the sunrise. And then, before we knew it, we were there – on top of a (small) mountain, freezing and windswept, but completely exhilarated. It definitely had not taken us an hour and a half, but we had made it nonetheless. The snacks came out, the hoodies went back on, and we began the wait for the most magical time of day.
As we sat there waiting atop the rocky landscape for the sun to peek out from above the clouds, I remembered why I love travelling. Because anything is possible. Because you can rent a car with a group of people who were strangers before, and drive for hours to seek a beautiful place. Because you can get up before the sun does to hike up a mountain and watch the day begin. Because this is what life can be like. It was freezing and we were sleep-deprived and we were wearing all of our clothes and were so so ready for breakfast, but that moment, just then, when the sun finally emerged from behind the nearby peak, was one of the highlights of my whole six months away.
We sat there for a long time, watching the sun climb higher in the sky, its ascent surprisingly swift. When our fingers had fully frozen, we began our descent in the early morning light. It was strangely difficult to find the path back down: everything looks different in the light – a route that had felt death defying before dawn now felt more like a pleasant morning stroll.
The drive back to camp was nerve-wracking to say the least: the novelty of spotting kangaroos soon wore off and my heart-rate was at an all-time high as they kept hopping alongside the road and the backseat passengers kept yelling ‘ooh, KANGAROO!’ causing me to brake suddenly and eventually tell them to shut the hell up if they knew what was good for them. We did have one magical moment where we had to slow down to let a family of emus cross the road ahead of us (yes folks, this shit really does happen), but my main feeling for that particular journey was grumpiness that we had gone the long way round on the way there.
So, fifteen (fifteen!) minutes later, we were back at camp, with time for a quick breakfast, shower and packing.
The way back to Melbourne, for me at least, was somewhat more subdued than the way there – though we still made sure to have a banging playlist of cheesy hits to keep the mood up (sorry Tim). We inevitably stopped off at McDonald’s about an hour away from home (for what is a road trip without a McDonald’s?), and from that point onward my stress about making it to work on time overcame my general satisfaction at how well the trip had gone.
Despite the Melbourne road systems and traffic conspiring against us, I did make it to my eight-hour shift only a few minutes after I should have. It was not a great end to the otherwise beautiful day, but my god was the tiredness and grumpiness worth it. I would like to make a public apology to those I worked with on that day and the next, for my terrible inability to hide my mood.
But anyway. We spontaneously planned a trip to the Grampians for less than 24 hours. We hiked. We sat round a campfire. We watched the sun set, and then rise. We drove home and sang at the top of our lungs (or at least, I did) to songs that were cool ten years ago.
10/10, would recommend.