Bat out of Hell: The Great Alpine Way

Wednesday 11th December 2013 (11/12/13)
I had an early hostel pick up and when i got to the mini bus I realised it would be a small group with only 6 other travellers. To me this was a good thing because as it was only a short 3 day trip it would be easier to get to know each other. However aside from the tour guide I was the only person who spoke English as my first language with 2 from Hong Kong and 4 from Germany.

The tour guide explained that we were lucky to be on the tour because from next year it will no longer be running. Whilst it travelled a good distance and visited some nice places it hadn’t really caught the imagination of the backpackers who only tend to visit the East Coast, the Centre and the Great Ocean Road.

Leaving Sydney we headed south towards the Australian capital Canberra. I’ve heard a lot about the city, both positive and negative with the general view being that because it is very organised it has no real soul and is considered a bit boring. As I’ve said before I’m not really here for the city life but I was still glad to pay a brief visit even if I know it wasn’t enough time to justify me forming my own opinion.

The guide explained In 1901 Australia’s separate colonies were federated and became states and a new capital city had to be built because of the rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne. In 1911 a international competition went out to design city which Walter Griffin and Marion Griffin won with work starting in 1913. Canberra’s architectural design has been heavily influenced by symbolism with the ‘all seeing eye’, capital hill which houses Parliament overlooking the city. The name given to the area by the Ngunnawal tribe “Kanberra” meaning ‘Meeting Place’ was then chosen as the new capitals name.

We started off by visiting the Marion Griffin view point where we could look down on the city and clearly see its large open spaces and organised road layouts. Closest to us was the War Memorial and beyond Lake Burley Griffin we could see the old parliament house and behind that Capital Hill and the new Parliament House opened in 1988.

Next we made our way down in to the city where we visited the War Memorial. Looking at the various displays I became aware that I hadn’t quite appreciated how much Australian civilians, especially in Darwin had been effected by the second world war once Japan had seized Singapore. My history lessons at school tended to focus on the European impact without much emphasis on the war in the pacific and now we are very much a global world and it was a global conflict I feel that needs to be addressed.

Since meeting so many Australians and New Zealanders both on my travels and living with them I have known about the significance of Anzac day. It was however still incredibly moving to read the Eulogy to the Unknown Australian Soldier from the first world war who now symbolises all those that have been lost in conflict.

After leaving the War Memorial and after getting some lunch we made our way to Parliament House on Capital Hill so that we could do a small tour and to see the House of Representatives and the Senate in session. Apparently there had been a protest earlier in the day but I’m not sure what it was about. That morning one of the car manufacturing companies had announced they were closing a factory so it may have related to that. Either way it seems that the new Australian government is starting to experience the same challenges faced by the British government.

Listening to the way the Senate and then the House of Representatives squabbled like children I realised what I already knew that politics in every country is the same. It was quite depressing to see the same issues being discussed that I’d once heard at the Houses of Parliament. One party now out of power had turned a surplus in to a massive deficit and the new government rather than coming up with proper solutions to solve recent challenges continued to play the blame game. Even the media influence appeared just as a strong as in the UK with one of the ministers using a newspaper article to justify government policy. Unbelievable.

After leaving the sessions we made our way to the roof which had a grass surface. The guide joked it was perfect for a BBQ and I said whilst it had already gone over budget they might as well have gone all out and built a mini beach complete with wave machine. We also got a closer look of the Australian coat of arms – the kangaroo and the emu. These animals were chosen because not only are they indigenous to Australia but they cannot move backwards and this is meant to symbolise the Australian spirit.

That evening we stayed in Thredbo in the Snowy Mountains which apparently receives more snow than the Alps in winter. Even in the summer it was fairly cold and there were still a few patches of snow. Surprisingly despite being on a topdeck tour and 4 of the group being from Germany (the home of Oktoberfest) I felt a bit of an alcoholic when I eagerly ordered a refreshing lager and then realised no one else was drinking.

Our guide did however tell us a free shot was included but we had to do it as a Shot-ski. This was a ski that had 4 holes to fit shot glasses. 4 of us lined up and those at the end (I was one) had to lift the ski up and then on three tilted it so we could do the shot. The shot had come from a local brewery and was surprisingly sweet tasting.

Thursday 12th December
After a fairly relaxed start including a decent breakfast of pancakes we made our way to the village so we could get a chairlift to the start of a walk up Mt Kosciuszko the largest mountain in Australia. Apparently the explorer who named the summit made a calibration error and he thought another summit was the tallest. When the error was discovered by explorers during another expedition they transferred the name so the mountain with the name Mt Kosciuszko remained tallest…if that makes sense…

My intention was to reach the second view point overlooking Lake Cootapatamba as I didn’t feel that there was enough time to get to the summit. I wasn’t sure exactly how long the walk would take and having under estimated the walk through the Tongariro National Park I decided to use caution. I didn’t take any breaks on the way up and limited photo shops because I knew I could take them on the way back if I had time.

I walked the 4km to the second view point in under an hour and looked at my watch. If I went for it I realised I probably could get to the summit which was another 3km and be back at the chairlift in time. Knowing it would be tight and as I wasn’t sure what the remaining terrain would be like I decided to take in the stunning surroundings and head back.

I took my time coming down looking for the little black river fish and looking for pygmy-possums that live under the rocks. I’m not sure why I was so desperate to find these as the description had said they were effectively mice and as I have a phobia of those particular creatures I figured I’d probably freak slightly. Somewhat sadly I never got the opportunity to find out how I’d react as I didn’t see one on this occasion.

I got back to the chairlift and still had over 25 minutes despite walking back very slowly. As it had been very windy and cold I decided to treat myself to a ‘gourmet’ hot chocolate at the cafe, the highest in Australia. I did however have a tinge of regret for not making more of an effort to get to the summit.

Once we were back on the bus we passed Lake Crackerback and then a short while later the driver suddenly pulled over saying he’d seen an animal crawling in the undergrowth at the side of the road. This turned out to be a Echidna which looked like a big hedgehog and we managed to get quite close before it clearly got a bit scared and tried to start burying itself in the long grass.

We carried on to the Bombala river where there was a small platypus colony. The Platypus tend to be more active early in the morning and late in the afternoon. They can also stay under water for 14 minutes. The weather conditions were pretty perfect and although we eagerly watched the water waiting for a “v shape” in the current unfortunately none surfaced. We did however see a skink, a small lizard and two wedge tailed eagles in the distance.

Our final destination was Lakes Entrance a small town which is located on the channel connecting the Gippsland lakes with the Bass Strait. We crossed over the bridge which connects the town with Ninety Mile Beach so that we could watch the sunset. There was a bit of cloud which meant the sun disappeared at one point but it returned in full before eventually appearing to disappear below the sea.

Friday 13th December
Unfortunately for us our guide had to catch a flight from Melbourne back to his home in Brisbane after dropping us off. This meant that we had to leave at 5.00am to ensure he had enough time. Those have lived with me or been in my company when I wake up will know I am not a fantastic morning person and I struggled for the rest of the day.

We had a long drive ahead of us to reach Melbourne and on the way we stopped at Wilsons Promontory National Park the furthest point of south east Australia. Last time I was in Australia I only saw one kangaroo in the wild but the tour hadn’t really been to any national parks and therefore my experience of the East Coast had focussed on the party towns.

Stepping off the coach we saw two male kangaroos squaring up to each other and having a fight. The guide told us some bizarre facts that may one day come in handy during a pub quiz. Apparently the male kangaroo can hide it’s genitals to protect them when fighting. Secondly the female kangaroo can keep a joey embryo for up to 5 years without developing it further. This is so that the joey is only born when the environment conditions will be right to bring it up for example not during a drought.

Carrying on a bit further in to the National Park there were Kangaroos everywhere though some of them were initially hard to spot because by staying still they blended in to the vegetation. We also followed some Emu dung and eventually found one. The guide told us that whilst the female emu lays the egg it is the male that guards them until they hatch and brings up the offspring. We also saw some cockatoos and a number of wombat holes but unfortunately as they are nocturnal none emerged from their holes whilst we were there.

Returning back to the coach we travelled by road as bit further so that we could undertake a 2 hour walk to Squeaky Beach where on the way we had nice views of the beach and the Bass Strait. There was a bit of cloud cover so it wasn’t really hot enough to sunbathe (sunbake) but it was still a pleasant location to eat our lunch.

The coach met us at the other end and we continued our journey to Melbourne. The guide began to get a bit stressed when it appeared there had been an accident on the free way which was creating a appeared traffic jam but luckily we were dropped off with enough time for him to get his flight. My time in Melbourne this time round is brief and though I will be back for the Australian open it is possible I will need to fit in a third visit.

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