If you’ve ever driven seven hours without cruise control, you’re wincing in the same manner as I spent hobbling around on my right foot for a few days. We drove from Canberra down the Hume Highway in a little Kio Rio, whose fuel economy was magnificent but lacked in the areas of automation, road noise reduction, and having fewer than five blind spots. But, as mentioned previously, people here stick within a few k’s of the speed limit, since enforcement is fierce, frequent, and thorough – and they really mean it in the construction zones, where you crawl at a pitifully slow pace past cones and barriers where there’s nary an orange vest in sight.
Due to such exact speed budgeting and a modicum of rest stops at places like Mackies (McDonald’s) which look the same as in the US but here have cleaner bathrooms and slower food – 20 minutes seems to be the average, unless there are more than 2 people in line – I digress, we arrived on Flinders Street in time to park underground, check into the hotel, and catch the Pengiun Bus. The bus itself is hard to miss, but the owner, Mac, is especially endearing in what could only be describe as a fluffy pengiun perched on the top of a Yankees hat.
Downtown Melbourne is not like Sydney or Canberra – more graffiti, more litter, more dust. But it has a peaceful air on the streets, where people leisurely stroll along the sidewalks, staying out of the way of cars doing hook turns, trolleys, and work trucks. By the way, it’s pronounced “Mel-burn” – the “O” is silent, not like Meg Ryan.
That street peacefulness ends at rush hour, since the city has doubled in population in recent years, and road widths have not. At 4pm, we attempted to get across the bridge out of town to the south, along with many of the 5 million other citizens – Melbourne and Sydney have 10 million of the 24 million people on the continent. But once you break that gridlock, you get to some of the greenest asparagus patches in the plains next to the mountains that I have ever seen.
Post-war, both Australia and the US had to find ways of putting its returning service members back to work, with major civil projects like dams and roads being the most popular projects. For example, Eisenhower organized the construction of the American Interstate system after WWII, which doubled as runways in preparation for the next war. After WWI, the Aussies built the wonderful Great Ocean Road, a windy twisty two-lane backwoods road manually cut into the sides of the mountains along the southern coast, that magpies would have trouble landing on. And it was all dug and shoveled by hand, since the vets were too post-traumatized and shell-shocked to be anywhere near exploding dynamite.
All along the road by the Southern Ocean, there are wonderful sightseeing spots, little towns and majestic cliffs. We had lunch at Apollo Bay, famed meat pies and some Bundaberg sodas – famous for the rum, they’ve expanded into anything that contains sugar. The Twelve Apostles are huge limestone pillars out in the ocean – how they lasted this long is a mystery promising to instill arguments whenever three geologists meet. The ocean is slowly winning, though, as there are only 8 left, and you can see the 9th one’s remains, which is what would have happened to me if I tried to go out in the huge waves.
There’s a beautiful cove with the story of the Loch Ard tragedy, one of many founderings along the Shipwreck Coast. A 16-year old cabin boy swam back out, after he had safely reached the beach in the storm, and saved an older girl, the only survivors of the 54 passengers and crew. He then scaled the cliff and hiked for miles until finding a sheep farm to take them in, after days without food or water. He wooed the girl, but he was apparently below her station, and they never hooked up.
But the best part of region is the Penguin Parade at at Phillip Island, and you simply must spend any amount of money to get there one evening before dusk and get a good seat, and perhaps a guided ranger tour complete with binoculars and audio headsets and maybe a blanket – it can get chilly. But you are not allowed to take pictures or video, not one tiny frame, not with any kind of camera or phone or recording device – zilch. The best we could do is get a nice photo taken at their visitor center studio after the fact, that is superimposed onto a green screen with the little guys, to help recall the fantastic memory of the experience. I still get giddy thinking about it, and it’s hard to explain to those who haven’t experienced it.
Little penguins (that’s the species – called “little blue penguins” in New Zealand) are about a foot tall, black and white, and waddle in the most adorable way. They swim in the ocean during the day, eating, and at dusk will come back to the edge of the surf, but will huddle on the sand awaiting the accumulation of a group big enough to attempt to safely cross the sand to their homes up under the grass mounds on the cliffs above. It’s an instinctual protective mechanism, waiting for dark, against birds of prey mostly, since traversing the beach is when their camouflage fails them. Many of them are fat, and can’t even walk more than a few steps without falling over like Weebles, since they have to ocassionally bulk up and stay on land for three weeks while they molt their old feathers – without their oily overcoats, they apparently sink like a rock, if they don’t suffer hypothermia first. Anyway, they come right up to you, to get to their homes. They only live about 12 years so the current flock (?) have been comfortable having humans around and have no fear – but you don’t pet them, they will bite. In fact, it’s a little strange being completely ignored, as they stroll past, finding their exact homes from memory, in the dark, even if having been away for months. Once at their burrows, they usually stand outside and chat with their neighbors in little barks and chirps. I don’t speak penguin, but you can easily imagine them conversing about the weather, the day’s fishing, or how Aunt Maude was caught in a scandal, fornicating with three young males in the same fortnight (penguins are not monogamous but they are loyal to their fathered offspring raising).
It’s been almost a week – these little guys may not be light on their wings, but my accelerator foot still aches!