Sunday, August 24, 2014

Great Ocean Road: Rock Formation Series

One good reason why one would drive along Great Ocean Road is to view the 12 Apostles. In fact I would not be surprised if some people thought that Great Ocean Road IS 12 Apostles and nothing else. They are wrong of course. 

In our quest to view the famous rock formation formally known as Sow and Piglets, we decided to visit its lesser known rock formation "friends" too since they were located along this famous road. We began our journey from Warrnambool, hence our first stop was Bay of Islands.

When on our self drive (or even walking) trips, we depend heavily on Google Maps. This time was no different. What we did learn that from this trip though, Google Maps is not entirely reliable. If there is a signboard on the road, we should trust that first. If there are no signboards and you think Google Maps is pointing you towards the wrong direction, trust your instincts and make a u-turn.

Departing Warrnambool at 10:00am, we arrived at Bay of Islands in no time except it was the wrong one. Hahaha. We did wonder if we were on the wrong track when we were driving in between farms and cows from both sides of the road were giving us (and our car) the look. Ignoring looks from the cows, we finally reached the end of the dirt road. From what we saw, it confirmed our suspicions that this was not the Bay of Islands we wanted. Perhaps it was probably a small hang out spot for the local anglers who decided to name it such. There was a signboard on the limit of the type of fish one could bring back from the day's catch. It had a great view of the ocean tho which of course got us snapping away.
View of the beach from Bay of Islands we were not looking for. Be careful not to select Bay of Islands, Warrnambool when using Google Maps.

Without wasting much time, we drove out and went looking for the real Bay of Islands. This time we relied on the signboards that were available along the way, relegating Google Maps as a back up instead (which did not make sense it is not to be trusted entirely in the first place right?). Anyways after about half an hour, we found what we were looking for. Yay!

This is more like it. The "original" Bay of Islands. Right hand view from the deck. 
Left hand view of actual Bay of Islands when standing at viewing deck.

Next in queue was Bay of Martyrs. This site was not part of the plan but since it was part of the route, we made a stop anyways. There is not only a viewing deck for you to view the sea stacks but walking trails for you to take to nearby areas of interest. Unfortunately, due to possible time constraints (we do not know how many unscheduled stops we could make before reaching 12 Apostles), we skipped the walks. If we do go back in future, we will definitely make time for the walks. I mean how many pictures of the same thing could one take right?

View from Bay of Martyrs
We then stopped by London Bridge. Mr H decided to wait in the car while I walked out to snap a picture. He got tired of getting in and out of the car every 15 minutes, putting on thick jacket (it was too cold to go without), walk to the viewing deck and take pictures of something similar to the previous one. To him, all formations were the same (after visiting two sites) and he was only going to come out again for 12 Apostles. I disagreed and thought to make the best of this trip. I do not know when I would be back again. After all, it took me nearly 10 years to come back for my second trip. With these formations exposed to the natural elements, you know it will not be around forever. Might as well seize the chance now while you can.

The London Bridge today. It was not always like this.
Looking at the picture, you might wonder why is it named London Bridge - it does not look like its namesake nor there is a bridge visible. Well, part of that bridge collapsed in 1990 leaving two people stranded on the island and had to be rescued via helicopter. Prior to the collapse, visitors were allowed to walk to the end of the bridge. This is how it looked like before the collapse.

Of all the places visited, the Grotto is my favourite. Perhaps the formation and movement of waters in and out of the cave has something to do with this. It makes a dramatic backdrop too. 
The Grotto, makes a gorgeous backdrop to any selfie.

Next on our list was Loch Ard Gorge. Not knowing what to expect from this sight, we did not plan to spend much time here, just enough to take some pictures and be on our way. Upon arrival though, we discovered there is so much to do. In fact it is recommended you spend at least 2-3 hours here! There are 4 main trails for you to take ranging from 200m to 3km. We only did the necessary - walk down the steps and took pictures before making our way back to the car.

Loch Ard Gorge: view from top of the steps.
Go down the steps and walk towards the left, to view the "tunnel" of Loch Ard Gorge.
Turn around and there is the cave at Loch Ard Gorge which I did not enter.
Finally, the moment we have been waiting for - 12 Apostles. As mentioned earlier, the original name of these stacks were Sow and Piglets. It was renamed in the 1950s to The Apostles for tourism purposes. Somehow it was commonly referred to 12 Apostles and the name stuck. If you are hoping to find twelve stacks, you will be disappointed. When I first visited this sight, there were 9 stacks visible. However since then, one stack collapsed and today there are 8.

12 Apostles, the most popular of them all. Only 10% of visitors to the 
12 Apostles actually make time to visit the others.
A few hundred metres away is Gibson's Steps. Visitors are able to walk down the flight of stairs and walk on the beach. Turn right to walk towards the 12 Apostles. 

Walking down Gibson's Steps.

Gibson's Steps: Walking towards 12 Apostles via beach. Be alert of the tide. This area might be covered with water. You might have to swim back.
With that, we come to the end of the Great Ocean Road: Rock Formation Series. These pictures might not do justice to the actual beauty of the rocks and I strongly suggest you make the time to see them yourself with your own eyes if you have not done so.

Do your homework before making the trip. There are several websites dedicated to the Great Ocean Road with suggestions of things to do, places to stay and places to eat. I found this site very helpful - Great Ocean Road Australia ( 

There is also a phone app you can download that will help with planning.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Night Date at Tower Hill

We arrived at the meeting point at 4:45pm, 15 minutes earlier than the agreed time. No one else was there except for an elderly couple who were just leaving. They excitedly pointed towards a tree where two koalas were sitting in a tree. While Mr H checked out the koalas, I walked towards the visitor centre, hoping to see a ranger or a tour guide. As I approached the centre, it was dark. I called the office, heard the phone ring but no pick up. Thankfully, I had the mobile number of Lisa (not her real name), who made the arrangements for me. That was not successful either as all attempts ended with voicemail. 

Night was coming and an eerie quiet came with it. The lone emu was making me scared and I kept on checking on it to see if it was coming to attack us. This reminded me of Jurassic Park, not that I have been there. Hahaha.

Visitor Centre at Tower Hill. Imagine this place in the middle of the night,
no lights and giant birds (emus) walking about. Pic taken from Worn Gundidj

Just as we were leaving the park, Lisa replied via SMS with a number for me to call. Apparently there was a miscommunication and we were booked for the night before. John (his real name), the ranger was waiting for us that night and we were a no show. Imagine his surprise when we showed up a day later. Lisa had resigned the week before and the current team had no way of getting in touch with me. Nevertheless, with luck on our side he had no plans that night and agreed to lead the walk and arrived 15 minutes later. 

After the necessary paperwork, payment, collection of the torches and starting up the coffee machine, we were on our way. It was dark initially and we depended on the torch provided a lot. However after a few minutes, our eyes adjusted to the light (or lack of it) and we only used the torch when trying to spot an animal or two. We were lucky too it was a clear night and did not rain despite being warned about it. 

 If you were there during the day, there are 5 self-guided walks to choose from as below. We probably did a combination of these walks as our walk lasted for 2 hours.
  • Peak Climb (orientation and geology - 30 mins, steep)
  • Lava Tongue Boardwalk (wetlands - 30 mins, easy)
  • Hat Island Habitat Track (revegetation - 45 mins, easy)
  • Whurrong Walk (Aboriginal foods - 1 hour, easy)
  • Journey to the Last Volcano (geology - 1 hour, moderate).

This fella was waiting for us to come back from our walk.
The purpose of this night walk was to find out what happens in the wildlife reserve once the sun goes down and attempt to catch nocturnal animals in their natural habitat. John, our friendly ranger guide excelled in this area. It was quite obvious he has extensive knowledge on the history, flora and fauna of the area as he kept us entertained with interesting facts throughout our walk.  We kept an eye out for koalas, emus, wallabies, kangaroos, birds and snakes. Disappoint us they did not as we did see one (except for snakes) at least once. With a small group like ours, it was possible to walk in a leisurely pace - to stop and look at our will. No need to rush so others could keep up with the itinerary or slow down to allow the ones behind to catch up.

Our walk ended at the visitor centre. Just a few steps away, a koala seem to be waiting for us to arrive. While John proceeded behind the counter to make our complimentary drinks, we browsed through the well-stocked little gift shop. If funds were not an issue, I would have probably purchased one of each item on sale! We sipped our drinks and chatted for a bit on potential places to visit other than the 12 Apostles. Just before we left, we were in for a surprise! The management was very apologetic towards the miscommunnication that took place earlier and gifted us with a free cloth bag from the gift shop. Yay! Free hot chocolate (coffee for Mr H) and a bag to go with it. I am a happy happy visitor.

We left Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve with new found knowledge. The top 3 I found most interesting are:

1. A tree that could be used for family planning (although perhaps that might not be the intention at that time). Apparently if a pregnant woman were to eat a fruit that is not ready for picking, there is a high chance she will lose her baby.

2. Koala would move from one tree to another at night, to ensure the tree does not suffer from over-eating.

3. To differentiate a wallaby or kangaroo, look at the tail.

I recommend this activity to Warrnambool visitors. It does not matter if you are a couple or a family. I enjoyed the experience and am sure others would too.

For more information on Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve, visit Worn Gundidj @ Tower Hill

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Great Ocean Road Trip

Treasures of Great Ocean Road (clockwise from top left)
Maybe Bay of Martyrs, Loch Ard Gorge, Gibson Steps and

the famous 12 Apostles.
Our trip to Melbourne would not be complete without taking a Great Ocean Road drive and visiting its famous (and less famous) sites along the way. This is Mr H's first trip while it is my second. Hence we made sure not only to stop at "must see" attractions but also places I have not been to before.

Here is a summary of lessons learnt on this trip.

1. Great Ocean Road is worth it.
For those who love the great outdoors and photography, this is not a trip to be missed. Even for a non-outdoor person, you will be able to appreciate the beauty of God's work. Even if you have been here before, a second or even third visit would not be a waste of time as there were many more sights we had to forego due to time constraints.

2. Plan your trip depending on the season. 
In winter (when daylight is short), an early start and early end is recommended. We found this out the hard way - more than 4 hours of driving and 9 pit stops later, we were rewarded with a view of black canvas. Three quarters of the drive was inland while the last quarter was by the coast. Unfortunately by the time we got to that point, it was dark. We saw nothing - not even a silhouette of the sea. Besides missing out on the scenic view, we also had to give the koalas a miss as it was too late.

Looking back, I would tweak our itinerary to overnight in Lorne on our first night followed by Warrnambool on our second night. However if we had gone in summer, I suspect our itinerary would have been just fine.

3. Suggested Trip Duration: 3 Days 2 Night
While most would cover the drive in 2 days 1 night or even the day trip, GOR is not only about 12 Apostles and koala viewing at Kennet River. There were many sights we wanted to visit but could not. You should also take into consideration the traveling time from one stop to the other - not all are next door to one another. We decided to make it a 3 day 2 night trip instead, packing in as much sights as we can. 

4. Make a list of places to visit
With many activities to choose from (some free, some not), we short listed our activities based on
  • type of attraction - natural or man made?
  • cost - is it free or is there a fee?
  • time spent for each activity/location - is there a fixed time or flexible hours, will it take less than an hour, more than an hour, half a day etc?
  • must do/see - 12 Apostles, activities that were paid in advance
  • nice to do/see - things to do if we had the time, what can we give a miss if we are running short of time or see something interesting along the way.

Our final itinerary as below.

Day 1
Walk with Wildlife Under The Stars at Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve.
Overnight in Warrnambool.

Day 2
Bay of Islands
Bay of Martyrs
The Grotto
London Bridge
Loch Ard Gorge
12 Apostles
Gibson's Steps
Otway Lighthouse
Overnight in Lorne.

Day 3
Blazing Saddles Bush Ride at Airey's Inlet.

5. Trust your GPS or Google Maps but not entirely. 
Cross check with the signboards available. There were 2 instances we ended up somewhere else. One was at Bay of Islands and can't recall the other. 

6. Self drive or take a tour
The latter is convenient although that would mean you would have to abide to the tour company's itinerary. The former gives you flexibility in managing your itinerary.

7. What would we do differently the next time?
We take the coastal road and our first stop would be closest to Melbourne city as opposed to the farthest. 

Another Great Ocean Road trip is definitely on the cards. Till next time...

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Huffing & Puffing into the Dandenong Ranges

I still remember my first steam train ride in 2006 or 2007. My friends and I were in Borneo, heading towards Padas River for a white water rafting expedition.  I am not sure if the location was only accessible by railway but as tourists, we had to sign up for this experience. Despite the technical issues faced that day and a considerably long wait time, the ride itself left a positive imprint in me and for this reason, I was all excited when I heard of Puffing Billy.

Puffing Billy is Australia's favourite steam train. The railway line began operations in 1900s. Throughout the years, several factors contributed to the closure of the line - a landslide, low decline in train usage and operating losses. Before the final closure, a farewell ride was held. 30,000 people turned up on this day and 2,500 of them had rides. Due to the good response received, the farewell was extended for another day. This led to many more special farewells which got some people thinking Puffing Billy should be retained and preserved for future generations. Today, the railway line is managed by a group of dedicated volunteers and runs daily.

We kicked-off our journey from Federation Square by bus. Since we had pre-purchased tickets, we just had to show up at the stated pick-up point* on time. The drive to Dandenong Ranges took about 1 hour. I fell asleep 15 minutes into the drive and woke up only at Grant's Reserve. Hahaha. According to Mr H, I missed all the interesting commentary provided by the tour guide (who also happens to be our bus driver).

Hungry Cuckatoos
At Grant's Reserve, we were treated to a traditional Devonshire tea. If you are interested to hand feed the bird life, here is the place to do it too. You could purchase a bowl of food, make your way inside the ring and wait for the Crimson Rosella or cuckatoos to feed out of your bowl. It could get competitive (among the birds, not the bird feeders), so be alert at all times.

Once the birds were fed, we made our way to the train station to board Puffing Billy. Arriving about 20 minutes before departure, we had a bit of time for a quick look the souvenir shop and take pictures of the locomotive. Rushing for the best seats were not necessary as each tour company were allocated a coach. Sometimes a coach is shared by two companies or more depending on the number of guests.

Ride Highlight: Dangling legs by the window.
After the mandatory "choo choo", we were off. The ride to the next stop took about 30 minutes, taking us through the forest & across a bridge. A conductor was stationed in our coach through out the ride and kept on pointing out the interesting highlights of the sights. He was also happy to answer all the questions that were thrown to him. At one point of the ride, he encouraged all of us to sit by the window with our legs hanging out. Since he had assured us that the coach will not topple over even if everyone sat by the window, we joined the others (and made sure the weight was evenly distributed. Hahaha..) At the next station, we said our goodbyes and headed to explore the village of Sassafras.

This tiny village is home to some antiques and arts/crafts shops. It is also where the apparently famous Ms Marple's Tea Room. We never did find out why this tea room is well known as we were advised to give it a miss. It is known that the service here is very slow and most guests would not receive their order in time. However we did wander into TeaLeaves, a tea shop that houses 350 different types of tea blends from various parts of the world, some coffee and chocolate. It is also home to a variety of teapots in various shapes and sizes that are for sale too. We could not decide on a teapot design but walked out with several packs of Australian Eucalyptus blend (this came in handy when I was ill later). Next to Tea Leaves was a nice little outlet selling nougat. I forget the name but the nougat is one of the tastiest nougats I have ever tasted. All nougat lovers should try it. Once done with shopping (or time is up, whichever comes first), it was time to head back to the city. After one hour, we were back at Federation Square.

To experience Puffing Billy and Dandenong Ranges as we did, you could purchase a half day tour and would probably cost you $99 and above per person. I managed to get a 2 for price of 1 Groupon deal. Upon comparing the itinerary of the Groupon promo against the actual itinerary, there was no difference. Hence I am pleased with my discovery and savings.

There are a few variations of the Puffing Billy tour, so you can choose a tour depending on your interest. For more information on Puffing Billy, go to their official website at

* several tour companies operate from the same area. Make sure you board the right bus.