I didn't know much about the Grampians -- going there was a whim. My Australian wildlife book said it was a good place to see kangaroos, emus, and koalas, and that as an island of old sandstone sticking up out of a sea of younger basalt terrain, they had a lot of relict species which aren't seen much in other parts of Western Victoria. Beyond that, I knew nothing.
I didn't have much of a road map, either. Although the Grampians are more or less straight north from Warrnambool, the maps I had weren't entirely clear about how to find the highway going north to Hall's Gap. But it looked like it should be easy -- just find the highway going to Dunkeld (one of the maps even had the highway number) and if I kept going past Dunkeld, eventually I'd end up in Hall's Gap. Easy!
So I headed west out of Warrnambool, keeping an eye open for the highway numbers. Nothing for a while, then a sign for a highway heading toward Caramut. I stopped and checked the map; Caramut was the next town east of Dunkeld, so I figured the next highway would likely be my turn-off.
A few miles later, I saw another highway sign ... but it was for Hamilton, the next town west of Dunkeld. Hey, wait a minute! What happened to that highway on the map that went straight to Dunkeld?
So that's how I found myself sailing along on one-lane unmarked country roads in the pleasant farming country north of Warrnambool. It's all bucolic green rolling hills and fields dotted with big hay rolls, crisscrossed with relatively straight roads. The roads reminded me enough of California's central valley (though the Victoria terrain here was much greener and prettier) that I felt relatively sure I'd be able to find my way in the right direction eventually. (We'll just ignore for the moment my skewed sense of direction caused by the sun being in the wrong part of the sky.)
After the road narrowed to a single lane, I quickly learned the protocol for oncoming cars: slow down barely at all, edge over onto the wide, smooth left shoulder and keep driving. The other car does the same, and everything works out fine.
Gradually, I saw the tips of the rocky crags that must be the Grampians looming out of the haze far ahead. I started seeing Dunkeld signs, and after a few twists and jogs, I arrived at Dunkeld itself, a tiny but picturesque looking town in the Grampian foothills, one just large enough to have a cafe where I was able to get a latte for the road.
North of Dunkeld the terrain becomes more winding and wooded, with vaguely exotic looking trees just different enough from the eucalypts we're used to in California that it looked a bit exotic. I'd been keeping my eyes peeled for roadside kangaroos all along, without seeing one, but I did see some road wildlife -- something that looked like a big stick lying on the road, until I realized the big stick was moving -- rather rapidly -- across the road. I slowed enough to make sure I avoided the blue-tongue lizard and watched it disappear in the roadside brush. Besides the one blue-tongue and the constant presence of sulfur-crested cockatoos in the trees above, the woods were remarkably quiet.
The last part of the road to Hall's Gap follows the valley between two high ridges of upturned sandstone. In a way it's reminiscent of the drive from Banff to Jasper in the Canadian Rockies -- of course the elevation and climate are totally different, but there's the same striking sense of following the trough between two adjacent up-tilted hogbacks. You can see that in aerial photographs (my wildlife book had one illustrating the Grampians) but I didn't expect it to be so obvious from the road. (I later had excellent looks from the other end, from some of the park lookouts north of Hall's Gap.)
And before long, I arrived at Hall's Gap. I checked in to the apartment I'd booked; then since it was still quite early in the day, plenty of time for a hike, I backtracked to the park visitor's center to inquire about trails.
On the ranger's advice, I made the hike to "The Pinnacle", a relatively hike over sloping and pitted black sandstone, winding through a slot canyon and up onto a clifftop. There were lots of other hikers on this popular trail despite the steep climb and the hot weather, and everyone exchanged cheerful words of encouragement and tips ("There's a nice cool spot to rest just a little way ahead", "You're almost to the top!"). The view at the end was spectacular and well worth the climb, with panoramic views of Hall's gap, the long valley between the two upraised ridges, and the farmland stretching for miles to the east.
Happy but thoroughly overheated from the hike, I took a quick shower then whiled away the time before dinner exploring some of the park's scenic overviews, during which time the weather clouded up and began to sprinkle. By the time I got back to my room it was raining buckets. This seemed to set off a black cockatoo outside my window, who flew from tree to tree screeching incessantly.
For dinner I'd already bought a ticket to the Australia Day BBQ and aboriginal dance at the Brambuk Aboriginal Cultural Centre. The festivities had be hastily re-arranged due to the rain, so we were treated to a prevew of the evening's digeridoo while they moved the BBQ to somewhere sheltered from the rain.
The BBQ was excellent ('roo, beef and sausage) and the digeridoo I heard impressed me. I'd heard recordings, of course, and Americans blowing into 'doos they'd brought from Australia, but I'd never listened live to someone who really knew how to play. It's a whole different experience: the 'doo is very directional, and the effects of the changing sound as the player moves the instrument around gives the experience much more presence than you can ever hear in a recording. I wish I could have stayed longer ... but I had too much to do before hitting the road in the morning. On the short trip back to my room I was treated to views of herds of kangaroos grazing in the fields on the outskirts of town.
I headed out fairly early Sunday morning. I didn't have much of a plan: just drive back to Melbourne in time to check in at the college and drop off the rental car. I didn't expect to start the morning with one of the trip's great sights: herds of emu grazing in fields by the side of the road below the sandstone knobs of the Grampians peeking through the morning fog. Lovely!
Halfway back to Melbourne, I stopped to check out the town of Ballarat, but it was disappointing. Somehow I'd gotten the impression of it as a scenic and remote mining town, akin to the California desert town of the same name. But it was just an ordinary little Victoria town, with some old buildings and a main street full of pricy cafes and shops. I arrived back at Melbourne a bit earlier than planned, which was just as well since it took four or five circuits of the university before I finally found a way to sneak in to Trinity college (as another car came out). I checked in to my room, dropped off the Elantra, and joined a group of fellow conference-goers in the search for linux.conf.au registration.
[ 12:33 Feb 10, 2008 More travel/melbourne08 | permalink to this entry ]