CHAPTER 6 – VICTORIA
(Bert) I’m up before sunrise, again a chilly morning with a wet touch of random raindrops. I see many of the same birds as yesterday afternoon, including scaring up the same Barn Owl from the same isolated tree and watching it disappear in the same dense copse of trees. New, though, is an elusive sparrow-type bird, called Little Grassbird, which takes me an hour of searching to find one perched above the thick waist-high marsh grass. Then I see a distant singing bird that takes me a while to find in the book, a Horsfield’s Bronze-Cuckoo. Shari is anxious to leave and gives me 20 min. more, just enough time to get one more lifer, a very pretty dark striped finch with a bright red tail, called Beautiful Firetail. Lastly, I count the Black Swans on a small waterhole in the marsh and find an amazing 117, not counting the many others I watched in flight. Did you know a Black Swan has obvious white primaries in its wings when flying, but they almost disappear when it is at rest?
(Shari) “Let’s see what this Cellar Door tasting is all about”, I say as we pass yet another winery advertising Cellar Door. I presume it means that the winery has a license to sell their wines to the public. My guidebook says we are passing yet another grape growing region, this one noted for grapes that produce red wines. For miles and miles we pass one vineyard after another and encouraging me to stop. My guidebook says that the Balnaves winery makes some of the best wines in Australia. It is just 5 km farther on the same road we are traveling so we must go there. We go down the entry drive and park between an area with picnic tables with closed green and white umbrellas next to a small lake and a floral garden blooming with daffodils. When I enter the showroom, I notice it looks like a living room with a bar on one end. On the bar, are about six open bottles of different varieties of red wine. I explain that I am from the U.S. and do not know the protocol for these cellar tastings. The lady explains I can sip any wine for free and do not have to buy. Now with all the vineyards along this road, one could really get a buzz traveling from place to place. We sip the Shiraz and their signature wine, Cabernet Sauvignon. I, of course, like the cabernet but it is also $11 per bottle more expensive. We depart with the Shiraz. But really my tiny sip did not seem much different than the Shiraz I buy at Wal-Mart for $9 a 4-liter box on sale. We shall see when we open the bottle. Now with the cabernet, I could definitely taste the difference.
(Bert) We continue driving along the southern coast of South Australia, stopping for a taste of wine in Australia’s “other red center”, so designated for the very many vineyards here growing grapes for red wines. We select a bottle of Shiraz from Balnaves Winery of Coonawarra and shortly thereafter cross into Victoria.
(Shari) We are supposed to be driving the Great Ocean Road that hugs the coast of southern Australian in the state of Victoria. It is written up as being one of the greatest ocean drives in the world, but so far all I see are sheep and cows but no ocean. We stop for lunch at a roadside rest area and stop to buy bread at a bakery in Port Fairy. And then wow! The road swings to the coast and we stop at the first scenic pullout that we come across. We take a short walk to a lookout point and see fantastically eroded reddish cliffs and pillars of varying shapes and sizes. The next stop is even better. Since it is getting late and I do not want to miss this area, we stop at Peterborough for the night.
(Bert) Now we follow the Indian Ocean more closely, taking the scenic route on Great Ocean Road. From Bay of Islands National Park we stop every few kilometers for a pullout and a short walk to the coastal cliffs. I’d easily classify this coast of South Australia as among the best coastal scenery in the world, rivaling the Great Causeway of Ireland, the White Cliffs of Dover, the long sandy beaches of Oregon, California, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, the tall green sea-mountains of the Gaspe Peninsula of Quebec, and the iceberg dominated coasts of Newfoundland. These high limestone cliffs have eroded with a torrent of gnawing waves of a height that would make the adrenalin spurt in surfers, even more so if they tried and approached the solid rock wall at the end of their ride. The effect of the erosion is to create free-standing towers of rock, like weird islands five times higher than wide. Or the waves lash into the base of the wider ones, creating tunnels and then arches. The effects are myriad and the rock artistry visually stimulating, coupled with the dynamic ceaseless flow of cresting waves, the rainbow of blue shades of water, and the pristine isolated sand beaches.
Multiple signs at several pullouts announce Rufous Bristlebird, a species with a range limited to dense coastal heath. In fact, the heath is so dense as to appear impenetrable. Though I hear and follow a sharp ‘tik’ note, I cannot get the bird in sight. Then it starts singing and I record its powerful song on my camera. I play it back, but the bird remains hidden. Did I find the bristlebird or not?
(Bert) I oversleep and the sun is already illuminating the day. While Shari gets dressed, I do a quick loop of the campground and find two Long-billed Corellas, like the flocks I noticed at the cliffs yesterday. Flying between the rock tower islands and among the sea cliffs, it seemed odd to be seeing these parrots. Continuing eastward, we move from Bay of Islands National Park to Port Campbell National Park and then Twelve Apostles National Seashore. I think almost all of this long coastal stretch is public land and a real treasure it is. Again, while visiting the pullouts to the limestone cliffs I search for the Rufous Bristlebird. Then, at London Bridge–so named because the free-standing rock islands once showed a double arch like the famous bridge, though one has since collapsed–I play my camera recording again. For two or three minutes nothing happens. Then I hear a bird responding to the recording and I have just enough time to photograph it perched above the bushes before it hides again below. It continues singing, but out of sight. I check my photo in the view finder. It matches Rufous Bristlebird.
(Shari) While still in the United States, I put The Great Ocean Road on my bucket list of things to see and do while in Australia. Hence we stopped early last night to make sure to see the sights without being rushed to find a campsite. That was a good decision for the first 90 min. Our downfall happened when we stopped for breakfast in the cute little beachside town on a hill overlooking the ocean at Port Campbell. We only had traveled 10 km in the past 90 min. because we stopped at every pullout and beach walk available. The fierce waves of the ocean relentlessly pound on the limestone cliffs and erode them into shapes and arches and pillars. Every turn in the road and every turn in a path, presented another picture taking opportunity. One reader e-mailed me, asking how to see all the pictures we have taken. I think we will make anyone who comes to visit us in our new house in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, sit through an evening of photos projected on the wall. Now is that an invitation to visit or to stay away? Anyhow, today is a day for pictures. Unfortunately, after breakfast the winds come up, the sky darkens, it gets cold and starts to drizzle. By the time we reach The Twelve Apostles, my whole reason for taking this route, the sky opens up with a downpour. Well, I did not come all this way to pass up seeing the rock formations. So I zipper up my fleece jacket, pull on my raincoat, put on a wool hat covered by my hood, and take off down the path. I do get wet, but the sight is worth it. The different pillars are constantly changing and eroding with every wave. Next year a new pillar may be here and another one toppled. Chasms are formed in the cliffs and eventually make arches or caves. The arches collapse and make pillars. Too bad the sun is not glistening on the water.
(Bert) We stop for breakfast in Port Campbell and then return to the campervan as it starts to rain. The main drawing card for Shari to pick the Great Ocean Road was to see the Twelve Apostles. The card must have been the Joker, as the downpour is hardest when we reach the famous rock formations. I leave my camera in the RV and Shari struggles in wind-driven rain to take photos of the tall rock towers that once numbered twelve, though erosion has since cut a few at the ankles and toppled them in the sea.
When we continue through coastal mountains on a very winding highway, we find a fantastic benefit to the rain. Sunshine from inland diffracts misting rain over the ocean spreading into an incredible rainbow, far more awesome than any I have seen before. Not only is it a double rainbow, but the entire arc of both rainbows is illuminated, with ends touching the sea at the horizon, the inner one so bright I can imagine hearing the water sizzle from the flame. The rainbow follows us for miles along the coastal highway and we stop several times for photographs. As we gain in altitude, I notice that more of the rainbow is visible. Instead of being limited to 180º by a flat horizon, the inner rainbow arches 270º and touches at the base of the cliffs where we stand.
(Shari) About an hour later down the road, the sun starts to break out from the cloud cover. I thought the rainbow we saw on Kangaroo Island was a beauty, but today’s takes the cake. It is a double rainbow and we have views of it for miles. We have so many rainbow pictures but we just want to capture God’s handiwork on digital film. The photos never capture the intensity or the brilliance of the colors, but I have a memento of the moment anyway.
At Wye River, we decide to stop early to catch up on e-mail and news from home. I often think of those early pioneers who left home in the 1800s to start a new life. No e-mail, no hope of returning, no familiar places. Talk about homesick! So here I sit, snug in the camper watching the rain drip in the river behind us, reading my e-mail. There are supposed to be Koalas here so I hope it stops raining long enough to allow us to go out to look. My glasses get wet looking up in the trees if it is raining.
(Shari) The Koala and her baby are supposed to be between rental unit 13 and 14. We look in hundreds of trees but see no Koala. At 8 AM I am the only person to arrive for the bird feeding. Even the caretaker is not here. I bought seeds yesterday and now I sprinkle some of the seeds in the feeders and slowly they fly in. First one, then two, then three and four and so forth until around 14 Yellow-crested Cockatoos land to eat their breakfast. Next, I sprinkle some seed closer to my feet and then a little closer and then still closer. One brave cockatoo checks it out before the others dare venture too close. I never get any to eat from my hand, but they are within inches of my shoes.
We finish our drive along the Great Ocean Road this morning still in sunshine but cold and windy. To avoid the traffic in Melbourne, a city of 5.5 million people, we take another ferry across Phillip Bay. Then drive around the bay to Phillip Island before stopping for the night.
(Bert) We look in vain for a Koala with baby that was seen in the campground yesterday. We have more luck with feeding the Sulphur-crested Cockatoos. Promptly at 8 AM the first two arrive and perch high in the canopy overlooking the area where Shari waits with a small bag of seed. She puts a bit in the bird feeder as more begin to gather. They are timid at first, waiting for one to have enough courage to venture closer, and when one does the others quickly follow. Soon Shari is surrounded by at least a dozen of these attractive white birds with lemon yellow crown feathers that they sometimes spread into a arch of tall plumes. When they have exhausted the feeder box, they come closer to Shari, ultimately within arm’s length, to pick up seeds she has dropped on the grass.
For the third day we follow the coast of the Indian Ocean, called Southern Ocean on some maps. To avoid Melbourne traffic congestion, Shari (and May) route us to the Queenscliff Sorrento ferry, a 45-min. ride. Across a calm bay and without winds, staying on the forward deck is pleasant. Many large flocks of Straw-necked Ibis cross the bay. Thrice I see Australian Gannets. Although the ferry cut off much of the Melbourne area, we still must head north, then east, then south to reach Phillip Island where we spend the night.
(Bert) The key birds to see on Phillip Island are Little Penguin, Cape Barren Goose and Hooded Plover. The goose was nearly wiped out on the island, but a restoration effort and a crude wire fence erected in the 1970s brought back the population. I’d already seen them at Kangaroo Island and the coast south of Adelaide. I find many more as we tour Phillip Island. Finding the Hooded Plover is harder as it is an endangered species on the island. Signs at beaches warn visitors to protect it; I see signs but not plovers at our first stops and try again at Berry’s Beach. Shari stays in the campervan while I descend a long series of stairs etched into the sand dune cliffs and then head toward a tiny stationary black-and-white spot I noticed from a quarter mile away. I don’t know if it is trash or the bird until I get much closer and then see it and another move from their hide in a pocket of seaweed drifted on to the beach. It is the Hooded Plovers and their behavior is much like the Piping Plovers I am so familiar with. I watch and photo them for 15 min. as they move along the beach. While doing so I also come across cuttlebones and sponges washed up on shore. I can see how the sea plants attached themselves to rocks and grew into contorted shapes. What remains has the texture and appearance of the same sponges I’ve used for washing cars.
(Shari) Another cold, cloudy and windy day, though thankfully no rain, it is mostly a day for Bert and we visit every boardwalk, bird hide and wetland on the island. At 2 PM I am birded out and tell him I will wait in the camper. A short while later he returns and asks me if I want to see two Swamp Wallabies. Why not? I gather my gear and off we trot and not only do we see two but maybe 15. Again to me they look like kangaroos but smaller. Continuing along the boardwalk, we see Black Swans. After focusing my binoculars on them I notice they have chicks beside them. How cute! The chicks do not venture too far as they are still in the fluffy gray-feather stage and wobbly on their feet. We sit within a bird blind and watch a swan drama by the lake, a show better than the ballet. I tell Bert something is going on between those two swans as they arch their necks and each one trying to get taller than the next one. I say it is the wife telling hubby to stay on the nest when she notices he wants to stray. It is a stand off. All of a sudden they are scrambling into the water, flapping their wings and squawking to beat the band. One is chasing off the other one and comes back victorious. She lets stretches her neck and lets out a trumpet call as if to say “Don’t mess with me, I won”. Meanwhile the chicks are nowhere to be seen.
(Bert) We visit Swan Lake and again Shari stays in the campervan. After a 10 min. walk I come across a pair of Swamp Wallabies that I am sure Shari would like to see, so I return to get her. On our walk through the wooded area we see at least a dozen wallabies, very dark ones compared to the Agile Wallabies we have seen elsewhere. We reach the lake and see a hillside peppered with Black Swans, some sitting on nests, some feeding in the grass and others attending fluffy chicks. Two hides, one at the hillside and another at the shoreline, allow us to watch the wildlife without being seen ourselves. Shari is intrigued with a quarrel between two adult swans, perhaps parents of a nest of chicks. I am distracted by a flock of Chestnut Teal and then even more fascinated by a Musk Duck. Clearly the strangest duck I have ever seen, the male has a large oval wattle drooping from its bill. The black wattle is as big as its black head and drags in the water.
(Shari) At 5:30–we think it is 5 as unbeknownst to us we crossed a time zone yesterday again–we get our tickets for the penguin parade and arrive later than we’d like to be. The third penguin experience we have had so far on this trip and the third type of experience, it is hard to pick the best. I still choose the first one, in New Zealand, because maybe it was our first but mostly because it was almost a private tour. Hordes of people are at this one and viewing stands are constructed on the beach where upwards of 3500 people at a time can see the penguins come in for the night. Not that many people are here on this cold, drizzly night but enough to make it annoying when someone stands up in front of me. In realty, it does not matter as there are hundreds of birds coming in from sea in groups of about 10-25 each. We have such a close viewing area and they waddle past us with just a cyclone fence separating us from them. Yellowish floodlights illuminate their way but no one is allowed to take pictures, even without a flash. You can imagine how upset this rule makes Bert. They have a good 100 ft. of rock and beach to negotiate before they reach our bleachers where they have to pass down a penguin driveway of sand and mud to reach their burrows. This goes on for over an hour and I must say it is very cute to watch them scurry as fast as their little legs will allow, wings spread out and tail dragging. Sometimes they stop to rest and always they vocalize. We are the last ones to leave and actually are told to move on as they would like to close up shop. Too bad! Somehow the commercialization takes away from the joy of experiencing such a wonder of nature.
(Bert) Our plan is to see the Little Penguins as they emerge from the sea after dusk. Although once numbering in the thousands and appearing at many locations on the island, the population has been decimated by foxes and human expansion. The only reliable location remaining is heavily protected and seeing them is something like a Disney zoo experience. Half a million visitors per year come to see the attraction, so a grandstand holding 3500 people has been erected. Lights on tall standards cast a soft glow on the dark beach and smaller lamps illuminate the path the penguins will use to reach their homes in the grassy hillsides. We have been equipped with MP3 players and earphones to hear a monologue explaining penguin life history. It is off-season for tourism, yet this evening 695 visitors gather in the grandstands to watch the event, predicted to commence at 6:20 PM. The first wave of Little Penguins comes matching up the beach at 6:17. Gathered in a tight haphazard army in black and white uniforms, they shuffle, waddle, stumble and attempt to run. Designed to walk on two feet, they remind me of toddlers improving on their technique but not yet mastering the skill. We can watch, but not photograph. We can approach within arm’s reach, but we may not reach over the fence to touch. We can listen, but not talk loudly. I move to a position where I have a good view of the sea and attempt to capture the exact moment when another group emerges. Surprisingly, it is rather difficult. Apparently, at a vocal signal from a leader the group chooses a wave to ride in with the surf and as the wave is sucked back to the sea, they are left standing on the beach and immediately shuffle forward in an amebic mass. Groups of 20 to 30 are separated by many minutes, the show continuing for nearly an hour. I move my location to the footpath where they march and I am so close that I can hear their feet slap on the mud with each footstep. A few stop and look around, as if not sure which route leads to their unique home. Some duck beneath our raised walkway and disappear in the tall grass beyond. Once they have reached their homes the chorus of penguin calls begins. I have my camera secured in a rain bag and although I am not allowed photography I can use it to record the penguin chorus. It is an odd collection of cries, wails, complaints and unmusical song, with a subdued start that gradually reaches a crescendo of noise as others join in and then subsides again to a brief local silence. The headcount tonight is 473 penguins and there is no time when the hillsides are silent. Less curious crowds have left for the evening, though Shari and I remain until the ushers move us out. I would have stayed longer.
(Bert) Like the penguins, the koala population on Phillip Island has plummeted with the conversion of forests into sheep pastures, crop lands and residential living. So drastic is the reduction of suitable habitat that about the only way to see a wild Koala is to visit a 6-hectare wooded patch, fenced to keep out predators and to keep Koalas from being slaughtered by cars wheezing by on fast highways. We live in a world of 60 frames per second; Koalas take life so slowly they are almost immoveable objects and they have about as much chance of out-maneuvering a speeding car as we would of out-walking a jet landing on a runway. We would at least try to escape, whereas a Koala would stop in the path and watch the event transpire. During a two hour stroll through the park, it is not hard for us to find about eight koalas in the eucalyptus trees, most sleeping, a few watching us with feigned curiosity. About as many Swamp Wallabies watch us and at one spot while photographing a lounging wallaby, I turn to photograph two rabbits and then notice a Koala in the tree above me, persistently scratching the top of its head with a hind foot. I read in my book that 24 rabbits were released by a landowner in Winchelsea, Victoria, in 1859. Prolific breeders and taking advantage of adequate ground foliage for food, the rabbits spread throughout the continent, destroying native vegetation in alarming competition with native wildlife. Birdlife is abundant at the Koala park and I add Eastern Rosella, Grey Shrike-Thrush and Eastern Shrike-tit to my list.
(Shari) Before we depart from Phillip Island and head to the dock to catch our ferry to Tasmania, we stop at the Koala Center. It seems that to see koalas, you have to go to a sanctuary or reserve that is set aside for keeping them from going extinct. Koala populations are on the decline, not only from loss of habitat, predators and road side kills but also disease. The koalas at this sanctuary number about 20 and I can see that many of the trees are distressed from over eating. I learn that rangers already bring in leaves for the koalas to eat to supplement that which they get at the preserve. Already some sad looking trees have metal collars around their trunks to prevent koalas from climbing them. We spot about five koalas while we are on the raised boardwalk. The boardwalk makes it easier to see them, as you are almost at eye level with the cute animals. Of course, all but one of them are sleeping. We walk the sanctuary’s wooded trail and find it to be a good birding sight.
Bert does not want to leave but, alas, we have to drive to Melbourne and catch the Spirit of Tasmania. Melbourne has around five million people and I dread the drive. It turns out to be manageable as we take an uncluttered freeway most of the way to the dock, since we are not driving during rush hour and traffic moves freely. What is not expressway traverses an older section of town that is very neat and tidy in appearance. Arriving well before 5:30 check in, we eat a late lunch of all the vegetables in the refrigerator. We learned of the quarantine prohibiting ALL fresh fruits and vegetables and hear and read over and over of stiff fines and even jail for violating the rules. We are boarded before we drive onto the ferry in search of the contraband. All I have left is about six full stalks of celery and with the inspector’s permission I put them in a plastic bag in my pocket intending to add it to the Bloody Mary I order on board the ship. This ship is huge, having ten decks. Bert drives our campervan onto deck 5 and we have a cabin on deck 8. We hear that seas tonight will be 12 to 15 ft. I begin to wonder if the ship is big enough. Thirty minutes before sailing I take a Dramamine to quell any seasickness before it starts. I kind of like this night time sailing as Bert can sit with me since he cannot be outside to bird. We watch a bit of TV in the lounge as we sip our drinks before sharing one overloaded plate at the buffet. Neither of us wants a whole meal and the two restaurants on board are not serving light meals so we decide to share the buffet. After dinner we head to our cabin, an outside 4-berth with private bath and shower and porthole. I decide to take a shower now rather than later as the boat may start to rock and roll. No sooner do I get under the sheets when we start to feel some movement.
(Bert) I would have liked to stay longer at the Koala Center, but we need to head for Melbourne and catch the ferry for Tasmania. Fortunately, we can skirt most of the congested city and stay on freeways to reach the port. Vehicle boarding begins at 4:30, though the process takes us nearly three hours, mostly waiting in line. Once on board we head to our cabin and I am surprised how spacious and nicely furnished it is, including a bathroom and shower that allow movement within. On the forward deck lounge we order drinks and toast our wedding anniversary. Upon departure, the captain announces we will encounter wind speeds of 20-30 knots and 3-4 meter seas. We travel within sheltered waters, while we explore the ship and enjoy dinner, so the only movement we experience is the vibration of the ship’s engines. I ask for a description of the Spirit of Tasmania II and learn that this ship consumes 7 tons of heavy diesel fuel per hour. Its length from bridge wing to stern is over 161 meters (531 ft.) and can carry 1400 passengers and 110 crew members. It has ten levels, our campervan is on level 5, our berth on level 8, we dine on level 7 and I watch the Melbourne city lights on an outside deck on level 10. By the time we retire for the night, we are in open seas and the huge ship rolls like a mother rocking a baby’s crib. I am asleep in minutes.
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