Off the Grid: Camping in Victoria

I am going to finally update my blog on some of my most recent trips that I have taken. Hallelujah!!  This is going to be a long one filled with lots of pictures so get prepared to be wowed by Australia’s fantastic beauty.

For my spring break, I mean my autumn break (damn the southern hemisphere messing with my seasons) I went on a road trip with a few other international students. We were a rag tag bunch that is for sure. At one point on our adventure, a woman asked us how we all knew each other because she felt that it was odd that a Danish, Malaysian, and 2 Americans one of whom is Vietnamese all knew each other and were friends. Don’t under estimate the positive effects of globalization.

The road trip was my idea of course; my ingenuity saved the day (Wow, conceited much). Unlike in Europe, where I was able to travel freely with little consideration of cost, I have been on a strict budget in Melbourne.  As everyone around me was packing for their week longs trips up the east coast or to Ayers Rock, I grew restless.   The Thursday before break, as usual instead of doing homework I was looking up places in Victoria that I wanted to go. I asked my roommate if she wanted to go, and then we contacted two of my other friends and my restless yearning turned into a reality.

Ever since I received my acceptance letter from Deakin Uni, I knew that I wanted to explore Victoria and go camping to really experience Australia’s natural beauty. I wanted to get outside of the hostels, big cities, and sleep under the stars preferably on a beach.  Luckily, my companions shared my sense of adventure and wanted to rough it in a tent, with no bathrooms (ok, we used McDonalds’ bathrooms along the way, but it sounds more adventurous without them) and live off of PB & J or in my case peanut butter, rice cakes and apples.

The places we decided to visit were Lakes Entrance, Wilson’s Promontory, and Phillip Island camping along the way and driving on the picturesque Princes Highway. We wanted to go old school and figure out the directions only with a map, no GPS or written directions. Luckily, even though we were driving on the wrong side of the road, we managed quite successfully.

Crammed in a two-door car with way too much stuff, you could barely see my friend Ann and I in the backseat wrapped like mummies in blankets. Sleeping bags are apparently a hot commodity because their prices are steeply inflated and there was no way I was spending fifty precious AUD on a sleeping bag I would use once. Needless to say we settled for dragging our pillows, comforters and extra blankets with us. We bought a child foam alphabet to lie on the inside of the tent (another one of my brilliant plans, yoga mats were 4 times as much) for extra padding and to prevent us from getting wet from the morning dew.

First, we headed 320 kilometers east of Melbourne to Lakes Entrance. It is a fishing port where the Gippsland Lakes and the Bass Strait meet. It is a popular place for campers and has some gorgeous views from the various lookout points as you approach the “entrance” where the lakes, ocean and river meet.  We wanted to camp near the ocean so we drove further north and headed through a forest until we reached an isolated camp spot right on the beach.  Two of the four us had never slept in a tent nor assembled one before so it became the two Americans’ jobs to be the team leaders. We assembled it fairly quickly before dark and walked along the beach feeling pretty content.  There was also an older couple there and they had a roaring fire going as well as a fancy caravan. They jovially invited us to sit around the fire and we chatted for hours and drank coffee with our new friends. I was awestruck at the sky. It was the most beautiful sky I have seen in my life (I really should use a thesaurus to look up other words for beautiful because by the end of this post I will have taken word overuse to a new level).  You could actually see the Milky Way and all the constellations.  It was a cloudless sky and the moon reflected on the water. I literally felt like I was at the edge of the world (despite the fact that the globe has no real edges since it’s a sphere). I spent most of the night looking up because I could not comprehend that I was gazing on something so beautiful. It was a lovely moment and I have come to the conclusion that Australia has some of the most gorgeous views of the sky in the world.

One of the biggest surprises about that night was how cold that it got. I knew that when you are by the ocean the temperatures are naturally much colder because of the wind. However, I was not expecting it to be this cold. Luckily, I brought a hat, infinity scarf, gloves, and my warm winter fleece. Note to the wise: Do not be fooled that Australia is always warm. Melbourne is literally the coldest place in Australia and even though by no means does it get close to the Midwest’s cold temperatures, it does get quite chilly.

Living in Melbourne, you forget how most of Australia is rural. There are only small towns with one gas station, a grocery store and if you are lucky they will have a McDonalds where you can access free Wi-Fi.  Soon, we started taking bets on whether or not the towns would have Mackers or not.  It is a very quaint drive and the wildlife is fantastic. We stopped all the time to snap photographs of kangaroos hopping in the grasslands and wombats on the side of the road.

They have gas stations like this circa 1970.

Next, we headed southwest towards Wilsons Promontory, which is a national park on the most southern tip of mainland Australia. It was once an important place for the aborigines and it dates back nearly 6,500 years. To this day it is highly significant to the Gunai/Kurnai and the  Boonerwrung clans who call it Yiruk and Warnoon respectively. It is the largest coastal area in Victoria and features sheltered coves, sandy beaches, granite cliffs, coastal dunes and swamps, and granite islands scattered off the shores. Its natural beauty remains unmatched, as it was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.  We found the most perfect beach that was nestled in a cove. The clouds looked like unreal, like little marshmallows suspended in the sky. We lounged on the sand, searched for shells, threw a footy around, took classic jumping pictures and breathed in the salty air.  We didn’t get to camp on the beach this time (such an Australian problem), but our tent was nestled in between a grove of eucalyptus trees. We went for a hike and found a field full of kangaroos; we then decided to go past this barrier marked ‘park staff’ to follow the kangaroos, there we found emus, wombats, wallabies, and of course more kangaroos.

Just chilling with a wombat.

Kangaroos have really become my favorite animal and luckily for me once you get outside city limits they are everywhere.  I am not afraid of animals mostly due to the fact that my family owns a farm and I spent nearly every weekend at my grandmother’s with potbelly pigs, sheep, horses, dogs, parrots, cats, and the occasional cow. My own home is quite the menagerie with 5 dogs, an Amazon parrot, turtle, and rabbit. I am the type of girl who gets in trouble for sneaking her pet rabbit in her dorm room and who rescues a wild duck that turns out to be a goose and raises him until the Human Society can find a flock for him to join. For some reason, my friends happen to be afraid of animals, an idea that is hard me to comprehend. Needless to say, as I was inching closer and closer to the kangaroos, my friends were nervously biting their fingernails and warning me not to get any closer. While I am not foolish enough to get too close because after all they still are wild animals and can act sporadically especially if they have a joey in their pouch, I did manage to get some great photos close up.

It started to drizzle so we started heading back but not before we saw a rainbow. At this point I was in disbelief at how perfect this day was. There are just some moments when I feel like I am in a movie and not real life. This was definitely one of those. We watched the rainbow fade away as the kangaroos hopped across the field.  Despite the rain that night, we stayed miraculously dry in our cheap K-mart tent. I personally think it was due to the foam alphabet, but then again that’s just me.

I feel like I should sing along with Judy Garland.

Lastly, we headed to Phillip Island just southeast of Melbourne. Even though the island is tiny, there are a plethora of activities to do. Most famously, the island is known for the Penguin Parade where Little Penguins (this is their official name not just me being facetious) come ashore at dusk and head to their burrows after days at sea gorging on fish.  They don’t allow you to take photographs because the penguins are very skittish and they do not want to scare them away, otherwise I would have created a post dedicated to them. They were precious. While we did this at dusk and evening, the day was filled with going to a chocolate factory and drinking/eating the famous chocolate shot (it was so thick that I needed to use a spoon), visiting Churchill Island Heritage Farm and making friends with a horse, chilling with koalas at the Koala Conservation Center, and walking around the Nobbies’ boardwalks on the rugged coastline.

Welcome to Phillip Island!

Chocolate Shot

Cheers

The Nobbies

Nobbies

There was also still one more thing that I wanted to do on Phillip Island and that was go to the Phillip Island Wildlife Park. Because kangaroos are my new favorite animals, I wanted to do more than just see them, I wanted to pet them and feed them. I found a place on Phillips Island that lets you do just that.  Not only that but wallabies and kangaroos roam around the zoo in a free-range environment. Your admission price includes a bag of food (we also purchased an extra bag each) so that you can feed the animals to your heart’s content. I spent over 2 and half hours roaming around the grounds feeding kangaroos, emus and wallabies and seeing wombats, exotic birds, Tasmanian devils, koalas, and dingos.  It was amazing and honestly one of the highlights of my trip. The kangaroos were so gentle and use their hands/front feet to hold your hand steady as they nibble the food off or your palm. If they are feeling particularly greedy they will even lick the crumbs off your hand too which tickles and makes you giggle. They are such sweet and funny animals unlike the emus that are aggressive suckers when motivated by food. The kangaroos and emus were kept in the same open enclosure. The emus were smart and I swear understood that when a bag crinkled or rustled it meant food. They then proceeded to run across field towards you. While we all knew that they wouldn’t hurt us, having a pack of 6-foot birds come at you is a little intimidating even for my animal loving self. Sometimes if they felt you were not quick enough in feeding them they would peck you, not hard enough to hurt but it was still frightening.  Nonetheless the wildlife park was fantastic. My friend joked that she would have to drag me out of there and she was right. If we didn’t need to go home to return the rental car, I could have easily spent the whole days with the kangaroos.

Best travel trip: If you are on a tight budget, but still want to experience Australian nature, buy a tent, rent a car and go on a camping road trip. Plus, you can cross camping on a beach in Australia off your bucket list.  If it wasn’t on there, you should add it because it is definitely a once in a lifetime experience.

Overall, the road trip was fantastic.  It was a low budget way to see a lot of gorgeous Australian land. We didn’t even leave the state of Victoria but there was so much to see.  I will update soon (after I get this damn politics paper finished) on another road trip in Victoria in the opposite direction this time and about my trip to Sydney.

Cheers!

Last Weekend’s Strange Exploits:Everyone Needs a Snugglebuggle

Maybe it is due to the relaxed atmosphere around here or perhaps the sun is finally getting to me ( although to be honest the weather is truly bipolar here), but I am frequently losing track of days here. I meant to update  about my activities last weekend but somehow it completely slipped my mind. I have an excuse though, it was the first week of classes last week. Now that I am no longer a newbie at uni and I can confidently maneuver my way around campus, I feel that it is only fair to update on my shenanigans last week.

The weather unfortunately was poor and dismal last weekend, but two of my new found good friends and I decided to not let it stop us. We eagerly attempted to make a few loose plans for the weekend. Now I know that I said I wasn’t really a planner and I am not, but occasionally I will think a day or two ahead if I have an inkling of something that I want to do.

As usual, one day last week when the weather was surprisingly perfect, we explored the city centre again and sat in Federation Square enjoying the views and the  people. We decided to meander along the Yarra River and found a beautiful park nestled on the bank of the river. I wished at that moment that I had perhaps dabbled in horticulture because in my opinion it was one of the most beautiful parks that I have ever seen. The vibrant hues of the red and purple flowers complemented the immaculate spring green hedges and there were hidden ponds tucked away behind the towering trees.

The next day, was perhaps the strangest day that I have experienced while being in Melbourne. I admit, that I am a bit quirky and that seems to follow me when I travel, but this was something that really threw me for a loop. Despite the despondent skies, we decided to venture to the Werribee Open Range Zoo, which unlike a conventional zoo where the animals are locked up and the viewers are able to roam around the paths, it is the opposite and the viewers are in a van while the animals roam the land. I particularly like this concept because as much as I love zoos I sometimes have a difficult time with the idea that these magnificent creatures are contained in such tight quarters. We set off on the long ride on public transportation which consisted of a tram, train, and bus to get there (one of the things that is difficult about living in Melbourne is that everything is more spaced out than you originally think). When we arrived in the train station we saw groups of middle aged couple dressed to the nines with feathery hair pieces reminiscent  of   what you would expect to wear at a queen’s garden party. I immediately guessed that they were attending a race somewhere as I have watched enough televised races back home because of my dad’s fondness for horse racing. My two friends were skeptical so we ended up asking one of the women and she confirmed my initial thoughts. We had a lovely conversation with her and ended up finding out that she was a former professor at the uni we currently attend. Need I say small world?

On the train is where a few things got a bit dodgy.  First of all, we definitely saw a different part of Melbourne than we were accustomed too. I am not a newbie to slums since I have both volunteered and worked in them in Milwaukee and Chicago; however the less affluent outskirts of the city was strikingly different to every other part of the city.  It does not on the outside look blatantly impoverished but little things like run down buildings and dirtier streets are a tell tale sign. On one of the stops a man entered our car with spray paint cans and a plastic bag filled with paint. He then preceded to sit next to us while sniffing paint and spray painting his hair. It was apparent that he was unfortunately an addict and high. He paced throughout the car and we eventually moved cars to avoid the paint fumes. Again, although strange, it brings me back to reality about both how fortunate I am in my endeavors and also that even though Melbourne is a very affluent and safe city there are always exceptions. Reminders like this are also a great way for me to stay grounded and to remember that even in the allure of all that Australia has to offer, poverty is a global issue and affects every community.

Once we finally got to the zoo, it started to rain but we did not let the weather spoil our excitement. We boarded the open safari bus and kepts our eyes pealed for giraffes, zebras, emus, rhinos, antelope and more. The best part was when the rhinos got so close to the bus that we could almost touch him our our windows. It was exciting to be that close to wild animals. Our guide’s commentary was very family oriented and thus she often said phrases like: “make sure to give your kids bear huggies” and “everyone needs a snugglebuggle.” Needless to say, her adorable demeanor completely won me over and I enjoyed every second. After the bus tour we followed paths to open paddocks where we saw more emus, snakes, wild birds, and here it comes kangaroos. I have been anxiously awaiting the time when I would see a kangaroo. Not only did we see kangaroos, I ventured off the path a bit despite signs warning me otherwise (I couldn’t help it) and was so close to the roo that I could touch it.  I made my friends a bit nervous so I backed off and the picture I have with them are not as close as I would have liked.  What can I say? I am animal obsessed. However, I crossed “see a kangaroo” off my Australian bucket list and it was amazing.

The rest of the day continued with a strange bus ride that we rode the route twice and more odd encounters on public transportation. The strangeness of the encounters on public transportation made me a bit nostalgic for Chicago and my late night adventures on the “L.” Let me tell you, I have pretty much seen everything on those trains.  I missed home for a few minutes and then realized, I am in AUSTRALIA! My nostalgia quickly dissipated.

Again, it was another interesting and more importantly entertaining weekend. Here’s to many more!!

Happy Reading!