A Corner of Australia: Road Trip February '18

So I went on a road trip recently and I thought I’d try my hand at a spot of travel writing.

The seed was planted about a year prior, when I borrowed mum's car to drive between Sydney and Bowral a couple of times. It reminded me just how fun driving can be. The open road and the freedom to go where I chose began, distantly, in the back corners of my head, to call me. 

This is the first trip I’ve taken that came totally from my initiative, that I planned, organised, booked, swindled people into coming on. Sure, I went to Europe, but that was mostly tagging along in my friend’s wake, enjoying myself and offering the occasional suggestion. Here, I was the impetus, and that’s a new thing for me. I was fully prepared to do it myself, but managed to recruit Joy and Tasha to come with me - and I’m incredibly glad I did.

By the time the trip itself came around I had graduated my Bachelor's degree and was about to start Masters - and I was also at the end of a challenging holiday research project. I needed something to celebrate my achievement and to clear my head before embarking on more pointless degrees. So with a borrowed 2003 Holden Commodore (mum's) and a playlist full of driving music (mine), we set off on a two-week circuit through four states and one territory. These are those stories.

(Click the icon in the top-left corner, then check the box next to 'Untitled Layer')

Day 1 was Bowral to Albury, Victoria's bordertown and the halfway house for Australia's two big cities. On the way we stopped at Canberra for a delicious Korean lunch. We set the tone of the soundtrack right away, oscillating between Tasha’s Disney and nineties pop rock, Joy’s K-pop (for which I appear to be developing an alarming taste) and my own eclectic brew  of film and game scores, hard rock, and electronica.

The next day (Day 2, if you're keeping track) was the rest of the way to Melbourne, where I had to get used to their bizarre turning practices and the company of trams. That night we ventured to St Kilda breakwater to watch the ferry penguins come in.

On Day 3, after a visit to Hosier Lane and the city's famous coffee houses, we put the stress of Melbourne's roads behind us for the exhilarating curves of the Great Ocean Road. On the way to Apollo Bay we met koalas, waterfalls and ocean cliffs. 

Joy cooked for us that night. The Australian diet of cheese and bread disagrees with her - she yearned for the ricier Korean palette. So she brought a slice of home along with her, cooking delicious K-style dinners and breakfasts for us, with me offering my meagre cooking skills as help. There were also Korean snacks (all delicious) and the aforementioned K-pop, giving the trip a distinctly bicultural flavour.

Starting Day 4 with a leisurely stroll across Apollo Bay's beaches, I was confident we'd make it to Warrnambool with tonnes of time to spare. It's only a two-hour drive, after all. How wrong I was - there's far too much to see on the Ocean Road to accurately estimate travel time. We stopped at a wildlife park for Joy's first close encounter with kangaroos and emus, and I sustained a mean nip from a deceitful cockatoo (my fault for sticking my finger in there with him - but he seemed so friendly!).

Best friends

Best friends

On we went to the Gibson Steps, the Twelve Apostles and the London Bridge. It was at this last destination that we finally succumbed to the call of the ocean (that damn Moana song was in my head the whole day). There was something incredibly pleasant about the feel of the sand on my feet here, something coarse without being scratchy - maybe to do with the limestone from which the cliffs are formed. And the water was freezing, but it was just what we needed. By now, fed up with the tedium of putting shoes and socks on and off every stop, I had adopted the Darwinian (the city, not the naturalist) practice of driving barefoot - my Territorian friend Michaela would be so proud.

Photo by Tasha Nair

Photo by Tasha Nair

Still nursing my cockatoo wound, we finally found our way to Warrnambool, where everything from the abundance of large pine trees to the state of repair of the roads reminded me of the Southern Highlands (my home region). Except, the magpies are different here - they have different proportions of white and black on their backs. I looked it up, and apparently there are 9 magpie subspecies across Australia, each with different patterns. Fun fact.

Day 5 was the trip to Mount Gambier. Shortly before crossing the border into South Australia, we passed a sign reminding us that it is illegal to bring fresh fruit over. I swore, having completely forgotten this little piece of Australian trivia. Of course, we didn’t want to draw the ire of the South Australian State Police. So we found a quiet spot off the main road, with a pleasant view of a cow-laden paddock, to put up our stools and chow down on a miscellanea of edible plant matter. After consulting the list of banned fruit and veg to identify which of our items would render us fugitives, we arranged a spectrum of oranges, berries, cherries, corn and apples and gorged ourselves on the stuff.

Keeping a constant lookout for the Fruit Police, we finally made our way into SA. At Mount Gambier we visited Umpherston Sinkhole and Blue Lake before erecting our tent, then we set off to find a place to swim. On our way out of the campground, I glanced in the rearview mirror to notice that we’d left the boot open. I stopped so Tasha could get out and shut it, while a couple of caravaners watched and waved.

On the internet's advice, we found a  swimming sinkhole called Little Blue Lake - named after its blue-green colour and its larger sibling to the north-east. It’s one of many such limestone sinkholes in the area, diving down to a maximum depth of 47 metres. When you float in it you can’t see the bottom, and I’m told it’s a popular scuba diving spot.

It’s also popular with the local kids, who arrived while we were there and took to leaping off the lip of the sinkhole, their little elastic bodies plunging the ten or so metres into the water below. They had names for each jump - Chair, Nails, that kind of thing. It looked like a lot of fun but none of us were game to try it. 

Photo by Tasha Nair

Photo by Tasha Nair

It’s funny the little narratives that can unfold on the road. On our way to Goolwa on Day 6 we found ourselves stuck behind three four-wheel drives loaded with camping gear, travelling at ten to twenty km/h under the limit. I nicknamed them the three amigos. We had to wait for a big stretch of straight, clear road before we could even think about overtaking (our highway had only one lane per direction). Eventually Tasha seized an opportunity and charged past all three at once. Things seemed to be going ok, so I took the chance to have a nap in the back. Joy snapped  the below picture, which later served as a sheepish reminder of the events that immediately followed.

If you only knew what was coming...

If you only knew what was coming...

While I slept and Joy took compromising photographs, Tasha had spotted a rest stop off to the side and was looking for a way to get there for a toilet break. What she didn’t spot was the rapidly approaching T-intersection with another highway. She continued to not notice this until a truck passed in front of us in a completely different direction to the one we were travelling.

I woke up to Tasha’s gasp, the sensation of hastily-applied brakes, and the view of a speeding truck growing in our windscreen. It was this sensation which caused my half-asleep brain to yell "Oh God!”, in a fashion which Joy continues to imitate to this day. Fortunately the truck was in the far lane, and Tasha managed to turn us left into the near lane, with a reaction time I don’t think I could match (I hate to think what would have happened if there had been a car going the other direction). There’s a cluster of timelines now where we all died then and there, but in this one we didn’t - and not a scratch on the car itself either. So the road trip continued.

We looped back around to the service station that had caused all the trouble, and caffeinated ourselves while we waited to stop shaking. Still recovering from the trauma of our near-death experience - hysterical laughter had lapsed into a more sombre form of shock - Tasha took the backseat when we set out again.

We weren’t on the road for ten minutes before we found ourselves behind the three amigos again. They had overtaken us during our recovery from the intersection fiasco. So it goes. There was a Toyota stuck with us behind the three amigos, and we overtook them at about the same time. The Toyota was travelling at about the same speed as us, so we tagged along behind them for quite a while. I imagined a shared exasperation when we were stuck behind trucks together, a shared relief when overtaking lanes emerged. I was heartbroken when the other car turned off our path - a weird sense of companionship had developed.

At Goolwa Joy and I took our chance to swim at the beach, while Tasha had a private karaoke party on the sand. The morning of Day 7 was a shockingly early start - 4am, an incomprehensible hour to my usual holiday self - to get to Cape Jervis in time for our Kangaroo Island ferry. We spotted a pod of dolphins from the top of the ferry before it even departed, and watched the morning light swell around us. As the ship cast off we watched mainland Australia recede behind, and Kangaroo Island grow toward us.

The end of the ferry ride was where we (more accurately, I) had our only real car accident of the trip. The announcement came that drivers were to return to their cars and await further instructions. I went back to the car - by now I had decided its name was Karl (red Commodore -> commy -> communist -> Karl Marx), overwriting mum's name for it (Zelda). Being the first car onboard, he was one of the last cars off. I followed the attendant's instructions, but apparently not fast enough for his liking. 

"Go straight back, you'll be fine!" he said, so I did, to the snapping crunch of poor Karl's left wing mirror colliding with one of the ferry's interior pylons. So, for the rest of our time on Kangaroo Island and the drive to Adelaide, I had a fly's-eye mirror held together with rubber bands and sticky tape - visible at the start of this video. (You can also hear me misidentify what is clearly a kangaroo as a wallaby - I'd forgotten all about the relative proportions of the various macropods.)

A post shared by Lee Na Young(JOY) (@yessky00) on

Anyway, besides that, Kangaroo Island was a blast. First was a spot of snorkelling in Kingscote (ending with Joy and I stranded barefoot amidst piping-hot pavement) then a drive over to Flinders Chase, the island's national park. We drove down to the Admiral's Arch, where we saw some adorable baby fur seals bothering their older relatives; then the Remarkable Rocks, which are in fact quite remarkable. Camping in Flinders Chase, we were beset by dozens of wallabies and possums while we prepared dinner, staring up at us with their huge eyes. And then we were treated to a beautiful view of the night sky, like nothing Joy or Tasha had seen before. Tasha even saw her first shooting star!

On Day 8 we snorkelled at Hanson Bay, which was just about freezing enough to put the others off swimming for good, and stopped at Seal Bay to see the sea lions. They don't do a whole lot but they're still fun to see - mostly they lie down, but occasionally they wrench themselves up, charge along as if with momentous purpose, then collapse mid-stride as though giving up. I guess they've earned their rest, since they spend days at a time out in the ocean and dive down to 100m. Also they have a gestation time of close to 18 months (more fun facts).

The rest of the day was the drive back to Penneshaw to await the next day's return to the mainland. We made it off the ferry without smashing any more mirrors and enjoyed a pleasant morning drive to Adelaide. An interesting practise in South Australia is that every single piece of land or driveway has a standardised street number sign out the front - and on long roads these quickly climb into the thousands. I saw several houses with street numbers higher than twenty thousand.

Another difference is that a South Australian 110 zone is more like an NSW 90 in terms of the shape of the road. I definitely found myself thinking “woah, too fast” around a few bends. However, we made it to Adelaide without falling into the ocean. Our first stop was Mount Lofty, which gives you a wonderful view of the city below (and we spotted another koala in the carpark) before we ventured down into the city itself.

A post shared by Lee Na Young(JOY) (@yessky00) on

I’ve discovered, over the course of this trip, that I don’t much care for city driving. Maybe some great big warning message is what I want, something like a system prompt: “Entering city environment. Not recommended for country drivers. Are you sure?”

But of the three big cities we visited, Adelaide is by far the easiest to drive in. It's set out far more logically than Sydney could ever dream of, and it doesn't have Melbourne's traffic or bizarre road-rules. However, you do run the risk of getting caught in these weird cycles where you're driving in the wrong direction around a city block - we spent about fifteen minutes trying to get into the correct lane to turn into a shopping centre, only for 'no right turn' signs to beset us on all sides. We could've avoided this just by travelling anticlockwise instead of clockwise from the start, but were not familiar enough with the layout.

Anyway, we made it to the Botanic Gardens, which are lovely and peaceful, then we drove Joy to the airport. This was the most emotional part of the trip - the three of us were pretty tight-knit by now and it was rough that one of us would miss the rest of it. After some teary goodbyes Joy took off, back to Sydney to get to work the next morning.

Tasha and I spent Day 10 recharging in Adelaide, visiting libraries and museums and gardens and art galleries (the South Australia Museum is pretty cool! I'd recommend it) and also getting the car mirror fixed.
Day 11, one person down, we began the long drive back east. Burra would be our first place of rest, where we had a look at the old copper mine and went on a lengthy walk around Red Banks Conservation Park (where we camped). This was our first taste of the stark Aussie outback, proper red dirt and dry scrubland, a creekbed's vein of green wending through it all. We saw several euros (wallaroos) and got a little lost a couple of times. I looked up when Tasha pointed at something across the creekbed. To my complete surprise, there was this one goat standing there on the side of the hill, across the creek. As we gawked, a herd of about six just materialised, appearing from behind rocks and trees and moving away from us. Apparently wild goats infest much of outback Australia, but we didn't know that at the time, so to see a bunch of them this far from a farm was a bit of a shock.

Broken Hill was Day 12's destination, and on the way we got stuck behind two of those immense wide-load trucks, carrying what I presumed to be some piece of heavy-duty mining equipment. It had a police escort and everything, and it slowed us down significantly for a while. Eventually the whole convoy pulled over to let the steadily building stream of traffic past, which we took full advantage of.

Not long after, having lost sight of the convoy, we stopped at a service station to check the tyre pressure - I was worried about it because of the dirt roads in Burra. But then, as I stood up from behind the car, I caught sight of flashing police lights in the distance - and an enormous truck cresting the hill behind it. In a panic I finished checking the pressure, slammed myself into the car, and got going again - but too late. By the time we were at the road, the trucks were the things to consider before pulling out, and I really didn't feel game to do anything reckless in front of the police escort. So once again we were trapped. I can only imagine the officers rolling their eyes at the red Commodore getting stuck behind them again.

The constant need for sunblock on these last legs made me wonder why Europeans, the least-adapted race of people to this kind of environment on the planet, would ever choose to settle here. There’s not a whole lot to see between Adelaide and Dubbo, at least not on the route we took. That’s not to say it isn’t cool to look at - that particular brand of Australian desert is quite fascinating, beautiful in a stark kind of way. Red dirt and low shrubs as far as the eye can see, and weird animals just when you're least expecting them. But there are aren’t many outstanding landmarks. 

At Broken Hill we took a look at the Living Desert National Park, and saw the famous sculptures at the hilltop before turning in for the night. On Day 13 Cobar was next, one of the chain of little old mining towns scattered across outback Australia. The coolest thing there were the new species of parrots. I adore birds and keep an eye out for them at all times, so to encounter some that I've never seen is a pretty cool experience. Australia's birds are awesome.

By https://www.flickr.com/photos/patrick_k59/ [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By https://www.flickr.com/photos/patrick_k59/ [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

(Not my photos)

By KityKat79 (originally posted to Flickr as King Parrots!) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By KityKat79 (originally posted to Flickr as King Parrots!) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By derivative work: Snowmanradio (talk) Mallee_Ringneck_Bowra.jpg: Tom Tarrant (Mallee_Ringneck_Bowra.jpg) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By derivative work: Snowmanradio (talk) Mallee_Ringneck_Bowra.jpg: Tom Tarrant (Mallee_Ringneck_Bowra.jpg) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The wildlife was my favourite part of this trip - penguins, kangaroos, emus, wallabies, koalas, and birds of many colours. So when I say not a lot to see, I really mean geographically - the wildlife is actually pretty remarkable. On our way across outback NSW we saw emus in droves, kangaroos and their various relatives in swarms, and a surprising number of wild goats.

Goats appear to have much better roadsense than our native critters; we didn’t see a single caprican corpse, against what must have been hundreds of dead kangaroos. We also didn't spot any emu roadkill, which is amazing since they just seem to wander across whenever it suits them, unperturbed by car horn or screeching tyres. Emus look like they’re trying to sneak everywhere - unsuccessfully, because they’re pretty obvious. I guess they're easier to spot from a distance, and more predictable, than kangaroos - when they're startled, roos just seem to pick a direction at random and take off full speed, never mind if there's a speeding car there. There was also a wedge-tailed eagle walking along beside the road, trying to get at some roadkill. It was so big I couldn't work out what the hell I was looking at (some kind of deformed wallaby?) until it took off at Tasha's honks and circled back around to its prey. Very impressive.

On Day 14, between Cobar and Dubbo, grass began to replace scrub, and the sparse trees became denser. The grass had a dry pallor, but it’s still grass. In Dubbo we watched Black Panther, and the next day we wended our way down through the Blue Mountains (quite a fun drive, especially compared to the barren straightness of the outback highways). We were at the end of our four thousand-kilometre circle, creeping back into Sydney's north. We went to Joy's place in Carlingford for dinner and reminiscence. It was a lovely way to finish the trip.

In the end it was well worth it. It was a chance to see some more of Australia than the Sydneyscape we were all used to, and I ended up ready to jump back into uni. I'm so glad I had my friends with me (and that they got along so well), because it was a wonderful experience.

(Joy's documentation of the trip is on her Instagram page, yessky00)