Wednesday 14 February 2024

Return to Australia

Sydney Sunrise
In September, my company was acquired from our existing Australian investor by another Australian company. It seemed like a good idea to meet the people there, and since even the Cote d'Azur does have a winter, we decided to make a winter vacation out of it. So shortly after Christmas we set off on an Air France flight to Sydney via Singapore for a two week trip


Our arrival in Sydney coincided with some terrible weather. Coming out of the Harbour Tunnel it was raining so hard that we couldn't see through the taxi's windscreen. Over the next few days we had a mixture of rain and patchy sunshine.

We've both been to Sydney several times before, including our honeymoon in 1990. But this was the first time we've stayed outside the centre, in North Sydney - albeit only a stone's throw from the bridge. We stayed at the Meriton Suites, which once a few initial problems were resolved turned out to be an excellent choice. We had what amounts to a two-room apartment, with a fully equipped kitchen and a separate living-room. That's very handy when you're jetlagged and one of you wakes up in the small hours and wants to sit and read without disturbing the other. The kitchen meant we could make our own breakfast every morning rather than looking for cafes, and on the first night we even made our own dinner thanks to the large Coles supermarket just round the corner. The hotel was also just a couple of minutes' walk from the new company's office.

Sydney Icons

I worked during the day while we were there, making the acquaintance of our acquiring company for the first time. Isabelle spent the days with her long-time friend Effie, who she met on a skiing holiday in France over 40 years ago. We all had dinner together, with her English husband Tony, on two of the nights. That was very pleasant.

Being outside the centre meant we got to experience the Sydney ferry system. Our hotel room looked out over the bay, always with at least a couple of ferries in sight. A 15 minute walk took us to a ferry stop with a half-hourly service to Sydney Harbour. I also used the ferry for our work "day out" at Manly, including getting off at the wrong stop on the way home and a two kilometre walk in the dark. It's really an amazing system, which makes travelling round the eastern side of the city much easier. And it is so pleasant sitting on a boat as it gently crosses the bay.


Our vacation proper started on the Friday after we arrived, with a flight to Adelaide. Our plan was to drive slowly from there to Melbourne, with a stop on Kangaroo Island and finishing with the famous Great Ocean Road into Melbourne. We rented a car from a local outfit (East Coast Rentals) who were inexpensive and, once we figured out how to contact them, very efficient. The car itself was my first experience driving a Chinese car, an MG ZS. Verdict: fine as a rental for a few days, but I certainly wouldn't buy one. MG used to be the sporty part of long-defunct BMC, Britain's leading car firm in the 60s and 70s. It's a sorry end to be sold off as just a name. The only thing the Chinese company retained was the octagonal logo, including the way you press it to open the boot which I dimly remembered from my youth.

On our first day we made it to the Central Market before it closed. It's an amazing place with stalls selling every kind of food. Our favourite was The Smelly Cheese Co, staffed by a young French woman whose sales technique was extremely effective. We intended to buy a box of crackers, and ended up with half a dozen cheeses and a fancy bag to put them in.

Our first night's dinner was a big disappointment. Right under the hotel was a French restaurant, which we discovered by speaking French as we walked past and having the entire staff start chatting with us. The menu looked good, but the food and especially the wine was mediocre.

The next day we drove out to the Barossa Valley, home to some of the finest wines in Australia. We ended up stopping at Penfold's, the best-known name. We were very lucky that our randomly-assigned server turned out to be the head of the tasting room - or "cellar door" as they're called in Australia. We spent about an hour there, tasting several wines that were outside the regular tasting menu once she understood that we knew quite a bit about the subject. Their most expensive wine is Penfold's Grange, at AUS$1000 per bottle. We did taste it - even that cost $50. I can't honestly say that it was that much better than their general run of Shiraz, which go for $50-100 per bottle. It was a very interesting afternoon.

Then on our way back to Adelaide, completely by chance, we ran into a Hot-Rod event in a little town. The main street was full of classic cars, mostly American though a few Australian, and some actual hot-rods. There was a gorgeous original Corvette and many other very nice cars.

Dinner the second evening was more successful. Isabelle had found an alleyway full of restaurants, and there she found a place that served a really excellent meal. She had garfish, a long thin fish with a pointy snout which I remember well under its Japanese name, sanma, from when my friend Ole in Tokyo had a sanma party at the start of its season.

Kangaroo Island

The next morning we were up at 5, to catch the 9 o'clock ferry to Kangaroo Island. Australia is huge, and while the ferry port looks like it is in suburban Adelaide it's actually a 90 minute drive away. The ride takes about 45 minutes across the so-called Backstairs Passage between the island and the mainland.

We visited the only real town on the island, Kingscote. The drive was not especially interesting, along roads lined with eucalyptus trees, and we wondered if we'd done the right thing planning to spend two nights there. There's not much at Kingscote. From there we continued out to the North Cape, and got our first real taste of the island. We arrived at a huge beach spanning a wide bay. There were a couple of other cars and just one person in sight along a couple of kilometres of sand. It was beautiful.

North Cape Beach
Finally we set off for our hotel, which was accessible only along several kilometres of dirt road, in good condition. It is completely isolated on the south-eastern tip of the island. The nearest settlement is the ferry terminal at Penneshaw, a half-hour drive away. The hotel, the Sea Dragon, is more of a resort. It provides breakfast and dinner, and even wine with dinner, all included in the price - which is pretty expensive. Our room was in a cabin a few hundred metres from the main part of the hotel.

The owner and manager was a very pleasant German lady. She offered to drive us down to the beach - it can be walked but it involves a descent, and more important a climb, of about 300 feet. A very rough 4x4 trail leads down to it, and she took us in her vehicle. It was another paradisiacal spot. For a while we were the only occupants of the beach and the whole cove. Isabelle even went for a swim, but the water has come non-stop for Antarctica and is freezing cold. I stayed on the beach.

Cape Willoughby Lighthouse
The only other sign of civilization out there on Cape Willoughby is the lighthouse and the cottages that were built for the keepers. It's impossible to imagine what their life must have been like, totally isolated and visited just once every few months by a supply ship. It would certainly be as well to be on good terms with your colleagues. Now the cottages are let to tourists.

The grounds of the resort are full of kangaroos. From our cabin we could see a mother and her child hopping around nibbling the grass. To move quickly, they hop on just their hind legs. But to move slowly, when they are grazing, they have a very strange form of locomotion. They use their tails as a fifth leg, and move their forelegs and hind legs simultaneously in pairs. In effect they have three legs, two of them with very wide feet.

Dinner was excellent, accompanied by a wine grown on the island itself. For the following day, we'd arranged to go on a nature tour organized by the resort. Generally we prefer to do things on our own, but we figured we'd end up missing a lot of things if we tried. And it's a long way - the island is 155 km from one end to the other. It's about half the size of the Death Valley National Park, which makes it a quarter the size of Belgium.

There was just one other couple in the SUV, plus the driver/guide called Brigitte. She had led a very interesting life: born in Britain, then raised in Australia, then sent back to England for boarding school. Then she served in the Belgian army for 30 years as a meteorologist, before deciding to return to Australia where, she says, she came to Kangaroo Island for a weekend, and stayed for 15 years. The island population is small and everyone knows everyone else. She works as a guide and a firefighter, among other thing. After the disastrous fire which burned nearly half the island in 2019, and killed 80% of the koalas, she was heavily involved in all the recovery.

A sealion walking on land

Our first stop was a beach which is inhabited by sealions. The difference between a seal and a sealion has always been a mystery to me, but thanks to the exhibition there I now understand. Sealions are amphibious rather than marine. They can walk effectively, if inelegantly, on land, as well as swimming. We watched one climb up on rocks just as well as any land animal would have. They have very powerful forelimbs which serve as feet and hands as well as flippers. Seals, by contrast, are uniquely marine animals. They can squirm along a beach on their flippers, but that's about it.

After a lunch stop, Brigitte took us to a little clearing where she promised us koalas. We did find some, but they spend the daytime lodged in a fork near the top of a eucalyptus, not moving. This makes them hard to find and almost impossible to photograph. Koalas are a very odd example of evolution gone wrong. They eat only eucalytpus leaves, because they are extremely easy to catch. But not only are they very poorly nutritious, they are actually toxic. So they spend 20 hours a day sleeping as their overworked livers deal with the constant influx of poison.

The next stop was another lighthouse, at the western extremity of the island, at Cape du Couedic. Kangaroo Island was discovered simultaneously by French and English explorers, so the place names are a mixture of the two languages, with some Breton thrown in (as in this case). This one is even more isolated than Cape Willoughby. There's no access to the sea, so supplies had to arrive via a horse-driven
funicular that lifted goods - and sometimes animals and people - 100 metres up the side of a sheer cliff.

Remarkable Rocks
A short drive took us to Remarkable Rocks which are, well, remarkable. They're the result of the erosion over 200 million years of a granite dome, which has left some extraordinary shapes. Granite domes are common enough, but this can only happen if they are close to the sea and exposed to salt water. It's amazing to think that this dome was in its pristine state when dinosaurs hadn't even shown up, never mind mammals.

After that it was a two hour drive back to the resort, so we had plenty of time to get to know our companions. They are a pretty exceptional couple - she is a professional opera singer in Dallas, and he is the now-retired CEO of a medium-sized oil company. They were both very unpretentious and a pleasure to spend time with. We only discovered their professional side when we asked them explicitly.

Dinner was again excellent, as was breakfast. The best part was a home-made granola with mango yoghurt, which was the best granola I've ever eaten. The recipe was invented by our guide Brigitte, during the time when she was also the cook for the resort.

Ferry to Kangaroo Island
Next morning we drove to the ferry. Packing cars onto it is an art-form. On the way over they packed everything in so tight that it was impossible to get into the car until its neighbour had left. The driver next to me very creatively climbed in through the window.

The Limestone Coast

Today was just spent driving. Australia is a big country, and the distance from the ferry terminal to our next overnight stop, at Robe, was 455 km, all on rural two-lane roads. We stopped for lunch at the Flying Fish restaurant in Port Elliott, a little beach town which is only a couple of hours drive from Adelaide, and quite popular. I had excellent fish and chips (unlike the chewy apology that I'd eaten at the beach bar in Manly the previous week), so the guide book's recommendation was definitely justified.

Our drive would take us along the coast, but first we had to detour around Lake Alexandrina, which despite the name is actually a lagoon. The coast is almost continuous, with a tiny gap which could easily be bridged, but I guess the authorities see little point since this is not a journey that many people make. I could see the obvious route, but Google insisted on trying to send us a further 20 km inland onto the motorway. We ignored it, and it was only once we were committed to our apparently shorter route that we realised why. We would have to take a ferry to cross the Murray River along the way. We decided to just go ahead anyway - in the worst case we would just have to make the 40 km "trombone" to cross at the bridge.

The Murray River, with tiny ferry on the
opposite shore

The ferry turned out to be delightful. It's tiny, with room for only about three cars. There is no schedule, it just shuttles the couple of hundred metres back and forth across the river as long as there is any traffic. We waited less than five minutes. After that, it was just the long drive down the coast. If we had had more time we could have diverted inland to the famous Coonawarra wine region, but there are only so many wineries you can visit before they all blur together.

This stretch of country has been named the Limestone Coast by some enthusiastic marketing type. But limestone is about all there is. After the ferry we passed one tiny settlement, Meningie. After that, there was stretch of 150 km where there was absolutely nothing at all. No towns, no villages, no houses, no gas stations. Nothing. There was very little traffic either. We passed one car or truck maybe every five minutes. Even though we were only a short distance from the sea or the lagoon, we never saw the water. It was a really boring drive. We did make one small detour, recommended by the guide book, to take a close look at a salt lagoon. It was, well, salty. And it involved 10 km or so on a horribly washboarded dirt road. Verdict: definitely not worth the detour.

Approaching our destination, there were lots of very modern houses on the waterfront. It's a mystery who lives in them or uses them - there is no industry, and Adelaide is a four-hour drive away.

Robe was the most disappointing of all our stops. There was nothing interesting about the motel, although it was comfortable enough for one night. We ate at supposedly the best restaurant in town, but the food was disappointing and the first bottle of wine was corked. That happens, but it's always a bit awkward especially when, as here, the waiter says there's nothing wrong with it, although he changed it without protest.

Victoria at Last

Our next day's drive was long, too, at 290 km, though it passed through somewhat populated countryside. We would finally cross the border from South Australia into Victoria.

A Koala high up in its Eucalytpus tree
Our first stop, after a few kilometres, was at a nature park. The walk around the wetlands was pleasant but nothing special, until the group in front of us spotted a koala in one of the eucalyptus trees. Then it turned into a game of
"spot the koala". We found a few more, but the best place turned out to be the car park where, high in the trees, were several of them. I even managed to get a decent picture of one, using my telephoto pocket camera. It's surprisingly hard. Not only are they a long way up, but their fur is very dark and if you just let the camera do its own thing, all you get is a black splodge, barely visible against the tree. With some exposure bracketing I managed to get a shot where you can see the koala's face clearly.

Like most of our route, we were close to the sea but rarely saw it. We were just approaching the turn-off to Beachport, wondering whether we should go and say hello to the sea, when we saw a sign to a"Giant Kite Festival". So off we went. It was very impressive. All along the beach were indeed giant kits, most of them inflatable and drifting about in the wind. There was Snoopy, Batman, sharks, lobsters, and many more. The town itself was tiny and there was nothing else going on, but we enjoyed the detour.

Beachport's Giant Kite Festival

Somewhere along the way we stopped at a cheese factory which was lauded by the guide book, but which was a complete disappointment. It sold a wide variety of tasteless factory cheeses, very similar to what you would find in Wisconsin and with exactly the same interest. Though they did have an interesting museum of old farm equipment and engines, which I quite enjoyed.

We passed through the town of Mount Gambier, which is an important local economic centre but of very little touristic interest. It has an extraordinary lake, which fills a crater and turns bright blue for a few months of the year. This isn't pollution, it's due to some kind of chemical process affecting the natural salts in the water. But honestly, once you've seen it, you've seen it.

Our destination was the oddly named Port Fairy, supposedly named after the boat of the first white man to discover it. Our hotel, or at least our room of the hotel, was in an old building dating from the early days of the town in the 1850s. We arrived late but even so we figured we had time to explore the one interesting feature, Griffiths Island. Supposedly you can see the shearwater, otherwise known as the mutton bird because the meat is like mutton. Like the California killdeer, it makes its nest on the ground, making it easy to catch.

We walked all around the island, which was very pleasant, but we didn't see any shearwaters, nor any of the other promised wildlife. By the time we finished, many of the possible dinner places were closed, but luckily we found an authentic Italian restaurant where we ate very well.

The two days of driving hadn't shown us anything very touristy, but they certainly gave us an idea of just how big Australia is. If you look at the map of the whole country, it looks as though Adelaide and Melbourne are neighbours. If you really need to drive just to get from one to the other, it can be done in a single day of hard driving. But nobody would drive it unless they had a good reason - say, to move a carload of stuff. It had struck us when we arrived at Adelaide airport just how big it is compared to the size and population of the city and the region. Now we knew why. Although the country is completely contiguous, practically speaking it's a bunch of islands connected by barely-inhabited agricultural land - at best. Most of the country is just desert. The only sensible way to travel between the cities is by air, even in the relatively densely populated south east.

The Great Ocean Road

The London Arch (missing part to the left)
"Our" Echidna
The Twelve Apostles, or some of them

The official "Great Ocean Road" starts at Warrnambool, a little way past Port Fairy. This, finally, was the objective of our drive. Due to some unique geology, every few kilometres the coast has some unique and strange feature. The first of these is the Bay of Islands. Erosion of the limestone has left several tiny islands just off the coast. Next is London Bridge. Or rather was. Now it is the London Arch. This isn't some politically correct renaming. Originally there were two rock arches, connected to the mainland. Then in 1990 the closest one suddenly collapsed without warning, leaving only a single isolated arch. I joked that it was lucky nobody was out there when this happened. But it turns out that there were indeed two people who were stranded. They were rescued uneventfully by a police helicopter, but it must have been quite a shock.

So far we had seen quite a few people at these famous sites, but they weren't crowded. This all changed at the next one, the Loch Ard Gorge. This is a deep gorge cut into the coastline. The name comes from a ship, the Loch Ard, that was shipwrecked after three months at sea, sailing from England, just hours before it should have docked at Melbourne. They were lost in the fog that is common along this coastline, and the captain hadn't realised how close he was to the shore. When the fog lifted they saw they were inside the long, deep gorge, with no possibility of getting out before they hit a reef. There were only three survivors. The story certainly makes you appreciate Qantas.

Nearly as impressive as the terrain was the sheer volume of people. All of the walkways were thronged, mostly with foreign tourists from China, Korea and India. The car park was full of tourist buses, which must do a one-day Great Ocean Road tour from Melbourne - still a four hour drive away. Every few minutes a helicopter buzzed by.

Walking back to the car we were very lucky to see an echidna, also known as the spiny anteater. They're about the size of a large hedgehog, which they generally resemble. They have a very ungainly walk, wobbling comically from side to side. They're generally nocturnal, and rarely seen during daylight

The next stop was the Twelve Apostles. This was even more crowded. There's a huge car park some distance from the coast, and behind it is a helipad where four helicopters, 2 R44s and two Eurocopters, were constantly landing and taking off. The R44s were never in the air for more than five minutes. The Apostles themselves are reached by a tunnel under the road and then a long walkway, thronged with mainly Chinese and Indian tourists. Finally we got to the viewing platforms at the end, where you can indeed see several limestone pillars, and the remains of others. It's spectacular, but my lasting memory will be of the crowds, not the geology.

Momma Kangaroo, with overgrown baby

From there, our next overnight stop was at Lorne. There's a direct road, or you can continue on the Great Ocean Road around Cape Otway, which we chose. A long, twisty side road leads to the lighthouse at the tip of the cape. Along the way we passed a wildlife sanctuary, where several kangaroos had evidently set up home. We saw kangaroos in several places, but this was the closest we got to them. One of them was a mother, with a young kangaroo planted inelegantly in her pouch. All we could see of him was a forest of legs. I could imagine her complaining to her fellow momma kangaroos that children just won't move out these days.

The final stretch of the journey, from Apollo Bay to Lorne, was very spectacular. The road is literally carved out of the side of the mountain. It was very reminiscent of California Route 1 along the Big Sur, and has a similar history. It was built during the 1920s to provide work for unemployed soldiers returning from the Great War. Like Route 1, it twists and turns and climbs and descends trying to find the best route around the mountains that fall directly into the see. It also reminded us of the lonely coast road we drove several years ago in southern Hokkaido, towards Erimo Misaki.


Sculpture in the QDOS park
The road was spectacular but we had been driving all day and we were very glad to arrive at our final overnight stop at Lorne. This is a very chic beach resort, within easy driving distance of Melbourne. It has the a long, perfect beach, lined with the usual hotels and fancy restaurants. Our hotel though was a couple of kilometres back into the forest, to our surprise. Once there, you could be miles and miles from the sea. It's called QDOS, and it is primarily an art gallery and sculpture garden. The owner has been there for forty years, and at some point has added half a dozen Japanese-themed cabins. Ours was called tsuki, meaning moon. We were astounded to discover a tatami floor, just like every ryokan we've been to in Japan. However it did have a luxurious king-size bed, not a futon rolled out by the chambermaid in the evening and rolled back up again at first light.

Despite the holiday crowds - the next day was Australia day, so lots of people had taken a few extra days off work - the hotel managed to get us a reservation at the best restaurant in town, Ipsos. We had an excellent meal, with equally excellent Australian shiraz.

In the morning we explored the grounds, filled with spectacular modern sculptures. They're all available for sale, but we didn't think Air France would agree.

Cape Otway is famous for its spectacular waterfalls. We'd driven past several the previous afternoon, but we didn't have time to make the detour and hike to take a look. So the following morning we went to see Erskine Falls, following a road deeper into the forest behind the hotel. It was indeed spectacular when seen from the top. It was probably even better when seen from the bottom, via a trail with hundreds of steps, but we decided to skip that. On the way to the falls we went to Teddy's Lookout, high above the town and the coast with great views that show up quite often in tourist guides and so on.

After an impromptu lunch at a postage-stamp sized space at the top of a cliff, we set off for our final stop at Melbourne.


I've been to Melbourne a couple of times before. The investors in my company, the one which had just been acquired, were based in Melbourne, and later the CEO and the sales team were there as well. By coincidence a couple of my friends from Cisco live there too, so there were plenty of people to see. We arrived in time for dinner with my friend J, who used to be CEO of our company. It's hard to believe that it has been five years since we last met, the last time I was in Melbourne in January 2019. As I expected, several bottles of excellent Australian wine were consumed, so it was just as well that we took an Uber.

Our hotel was in the very heart of central Melbourne, a few minutes' walk from Flinders Street station. In the morning we explored Melbourne a bit, and then found a very pleasant cafe for our breakfast. Suddenly we saw our friends from the Kangaroo Island tour! They are big tennis fans and were in town for the Australia Open, whose final was that weekend. It was an amazing coincidence to run into them again.

Our next stop was Yarra Valley. We wanted to visit the nearby wildlife sanctuary (which seems to be a fancy name for a zoo). When we got there the ticket line was huge, and the place was packed. We made do with a visit to the gift shop - we'd seen plenty of kangaroos, koala and wallabies in their natural habitat, and even an echidna.

Five years ago I visited the Yarra Yering winery with J. In my memory it was all very informal, and we left with a couple of bottles of their "No 2" Shiraz. But this time it was very formal. A tasting was $50 and was evidently a very serious affair, more than we wanted to do. Which was just as well, because they were fully booked anyway. They did let us taste the No 2, and we went away with a couple of bottles. The lady there was nice enough, and suggested the nearby Medford winery for lunch. That was a great recommendation. We sat eating a light lunch accompanied by a glass each of their Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, with a magnificent view over the Yarra Valley countryside. The Shiraz was good but the Cab was really special, very lightly oaked and almost fruity. We left with two bottles of it.

Downtown Melbourne, from 1500 feet
Yarra Valley, from 1500 feet
Dinner was with a group of ex-Cisco friends in a very good Japanese restaurant. It was only a short walk from the hotel, but we took the tram to try out our shiny new fare cards. Melbourne has the densest tram system in the world - practically every road in the city center and every major road in the suburbs has tram lines down the middle. The previous time I was in Melbourne I stayed out of the town and used the trams extensively (and fell off the platform, quite seriously injuring myself, but that's another story).

Next day the plan was for my ex-Cisco and pilot friend to take us for a flight over the city and the surrounding area. Sadly, Isabelle wasn't well, so I went on my own - probably just as well since the flight was quite bumpy. This was my first ever small plane flight in Australia. His plane is based at Moorabbin, to the south of the city. The airport is huge, with five physical runways (so 10 numbered runways) and many planes. It's home to two large flying schools and several smaller outfits. There is another small-plane airport to the north, at Essendon, and quite a few small airports out in the suburbs. The comparison with the Nice area, having much the same population, is interesting. Here we have just one small-plane airport, Cannes Mandelieu, with maybe a quarter as many planes as Moorabbin.

The flight was superb. We took off towards the city, flying a gentle 270 degree arc around it with fantastic views of the city center. Then we set off towards Yarra Valley - from the flight track afterwards I could see that we flew directly over Yarra Yering. From there we returned to the coast, flying over the barely habited French Island then over the Mornington Peninsula and so back to Moorabbin. The flight lasted about an hour, giving (as always) a totally different perception of the geography.


Broken Hill, NSW,
from 31000 feet
And that was that. With regret but many happy memories, we headed to the big airport on Monday morning for our long return flight to Nice. We would have happily stayed for another week or two.

Australia is so big that even flying up at airliner altitudes is still a form of tourism. It isn't long before all the agriculture has disappeared and you're flying over desert. We saw Broken Hill, one of these big (20,000 people) mining towns in the middle of nowhere. It would be interesting to visit - except that it's a serious day of driving from Adelaide, the nearest big city, and two from Sydney, even though they're both in the same state, New South Wales. It's a country that is really made for flying, in planes large or small. Maybe next time.