Great Australian road trip
It’s late evening in the Gippsland highlands and the light is beginning to fade. Our 20-year-old Toyota Camry whines and sputters as we climb yet another hill, the thermometer inching closer to the red. We stop by the roadside and open the bonnet to cool off the car in the pouring rain. A local pulls up next to us, grabs some tools from his car and cheerily begins to tinker with the engine before we can stop him. In any case, his Aussie optimism is no match for the sorry state of our car: he decides it’s hopeless and soon leaves us to our fate. There are hundreds of miles to go before Canberra.
The road less travelled
Choice can be a terrible thing. After several weeks in Melbourne, I wanted to explore Australia’s south-eastern corner on the way north towards Sydney and Queensland. Again I turned to Gumtree for travelling companions and found two options: a group of French girls following a strict itinerary in a rented 4×4, or a crazy Italian guy with a sputtering Toyota, no particular plans and several kilos of Parmesan cheese. I took the adventurous option: one sunny morning in the new year, my unlikely travel-mate Andrea and I packed the car and drove east out of Melbourne, joined by a ukelele-playing German boy called Marvin.
The problem was our car. The radiator fan was broken and the automatic gearbox had a mind of its own. Even despite our best DIY efforts, everything other than rolling the windows down was a real struggle. Nonetheless, we managed to grind our way through some of the most stunning scenery in eastern Victoria, an area which is beautifully deserted compared to the touristic coast west of Melbourne.
At Wilson’s Promontory, a rugged national park that points like a finger into the southern ocean, we went on a spontaneous two-day hike to reach mainland Australia’s most southerly point. The views were stunning – Antarctica seemed just beyond the windswept horizon. We spent the night around a campfire dreaming about food with just a few tins of spaghetti and some biscuits to share between the three of us.
Past Ninety-Nine Mile Beach (aptly named) and the rainy Lakes District, the car was finally pronounced dead on a lonely petrol station forecourt in a tiny hole called Cann River. We sold it to the pump attendant for $100 and cut loose, just as two Norwegian ladies turned up and frantically began to empty the contents of their car because they had seen a huge black spider somewhere inside it. Truly everything in Australia seems out to kill or injure: perhaps we were better without a car, after all.
I didn’t have to spend long waiting in the rain before a man pulled over and offered me a lift to Canberra. He turned out to be a former trawlerman who talked for five hours about the bad old days of plundering the Great Barrier Reef, along with a healthy dose of Aussie racism.
Finally I reached Canberra, a place only remarkable for its reputation as one of the world’s dullest cities. I had forty-eight hours to see if it lived up to the hype.