Hallo von Oestereich! (Or, “Hello from Austria!” for you non-German speakers.)

It’s been about a week since I arrived here in Carnuntum, which is a small wine region in the eastern part of Austria. All four of Austria’s main wine regions and their sub-regions span the eastern crescent of the country’s border, actually. This map gives a good idea of where Carnuntum is, relative to the rest of the wine areas and to the country at large: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_8UIT9t8gAsk/TFs7V9IzJFI/AAAAAAAACiQ/gHxnBEuYlAQ/s1600/map+austria-wine-region-map.png

While Carnuntum is technically designated as being a part of the Niederoestereich (Lower Austria) wine region, it’s often considered to be more a part of Burgenland, since they are direct neighbors, and while it certainly produces some spectacular white wines, Carnuntum specializes in red wine, as does the whole of Burgenland—the only region of Austria to do so.

The three towns that make up the heart of Carnuntum—at least for wine—are Goettlesbrunn, Hoeflein and Arbesthal. Weingut (i.e. “Winery”) Netzl is located in the town of Goettlesbrunn. I am living in the town of Hoeflein, about 3km down the road. At night, you can tell where Hoeflein is based on the winking red eyes of the hundreds of wind turbines that stand like sentinels over the town. Most locals, including Franz Netzl and his wife Christine, don’t particularly love these modern windmills since they create an eyesore over what would otherwise be pristine and quaint countryside. Franz told me that to him, the blinking red lights remind him of vampires lurking in the blackness.

The whole of Carnuntum is a strange juxtaposition of modernity and urban life with history and tradition. Aside from it’s wine, Carnuntum is famous across Austria for its Roman ruins. In fact, the symbol of Carnuntum, diaplayed on all road signs, town markers, maps and the like is the ancient Pagan Gate, a towering arch that stood as the entrance to ancient Carnuntum’s fortified wall. http://www.best-of-european-union.eu/2011/10/15/open-air-museum-petronell-carnuntum-roman-world-in-austria/ My mom told me that she went on several school field trips to the ruins at Carnuntum when she was a girl growing up in Vienna.

In addition to the connection to it’s ancient Roman history, Carnuntum—especially Goettlesbrunn—is defined by generations of winemaking, farming and crafts. The Netzls have been making wine for over six generations and their home, which currently houses four generations of the Netzl family and also houses the winery, has been in the family for over two hundred years. You don’t have to ask Franz to see how proud he is of this. As he should be. Winemaking is hard. I knew this before, but I am realizing it in a very new light these days, and for each generation to have continued and maintained the legacy is no small feat. Now it’s Franz and Christine’s daughter, Christina, or “Tina,” who is taking on the family legacy, and she and her father make a dynamic pair, though mom Christine helps in the vineyards and the winery to a large extent as well.

I’ve had the chance to explore my little hamlet of Hoeflein little by little, with runs through the vineyards, past rows of traditional half-underground wine cellars, with walks to gather wild flowers and trips to the two local watering holes that are open past six: a bar called Cafe Prinz and the Heuriger right across the street.

Heurigers are privately owned little wine cellar-turned wine taverns, where independent wine growers sell the year’s most recent wines along with an assortment of cold dishes in the evenings. Most of the time, the entire family works the Heuriger and it’s not uncommon for the older children of Heuriger owners to either put their jobs on hold or come right after work to help with the Heuriger as well.

Heurigers are only allowed to be open for a total of six months out of the year, so it’s not always certain there will be a Heuriger open nearby. Of course, autumn is the time of year when it’s more likely to find Heurigers open, but it’s always dependent on the particular schedules of the owners and what they choose to do.

I’m not sure if it’s fortune or not to have a Heuriger open directly across the street from my tiny little attic apartment. It’s literally a matter of feet from my bed. And Heuriger prices are pretty fair, considering there’s no middle man to pay. You’re buying fresh wine right from the farmer. Typically a glass of white wine is 1.60 Euros and a glass of red is 1.90 Euros, while the food/snacks range between 1.50 and 5 Euros. With no grocery stores open past 6 within waking distance, and being left to my own devices normally for dinner time, I’ve already become a familiar face to the family at the Semmlinger Heuriger.

And when I’ve tasted enough wine for the evening, I only need to carry myself a few hundred feet to the door of Frau Springer’s guest house and climb the noisy wooden stairs to my little apartment, of which I’ve included some photos above. If I’m good and have forgone ordering food at the Heuriger, my dinners consist mostly of what you see in the picture: cheese, pickles, tomatoes, fruit, wasa crackers, and maybe a Wieselburger beer.

It’s simple living; no dishwasher and I have to give my laundry to Christine to get washed, but it’s perfect, and I’m so utterly grateful, as this apartment is part of what’s provided for me by the Netzls during my time with them. I have a safe, dry place to live. I have the most traditional and bucolic of all bars possible across the way, I have quiet dirt roads to wander down, with fields of vines and horses and sunflowers (though they’re all brown now) and wine cellars and roman ruins to admire. I hear the bells of the town’s beloved old church toll the hour, and the half hour, and the quarter hour through my window all day, everyday. I can hop on a train and be in Vienna in 30 minutes on my days off. And now, I finally even have internet access! Quick, someone give me your Netflix account info. Just kidding.

Driving in Circles

My three day journey along the Great Ocean Road ended up being a weird loop around the southern tip of Victoria, or rather, a slightly deformed figure-eight, as depicted in the map above. (On a related note, the site goprotravelling.com, while having some functionality setbacks, is so much fun to play around with. It lets you build automated point-by-point travel maps that depict your route on any sort of journey, past, present, or daydream. You can even set the map of your journey to music! But be warned, it can get a tad addictive)


Navigating my way out of Melbourne initially, and still brand new to the whole driving on the left thing, I ended up taking what I later realized was a tolled highway.

Since everything is automated in Melbourne (the future is now!) and there are no cash or coin booths, toll roads are not easily identifiable to a foreign driver. But I had this strange feeling in my gut as I drove past conspicuous orange signs, slightly frazzled and uncomfortable at the idea of suddenly being on a 100km highway and also possibly having driven through a toll gate without paying.  

To my delight, I discovered upon my return to the city that there is a three day grace period for cars that pass through the toll gates unpaid and that there are signs all along said highway with the phone number through which the toll can still be paid. Thankfully, I returned from my trip on the third and final day of this grace period. I paid my $26 toll (that’s right; $26. No late fees or anything. That’s the normal price) and was able to return my car in West Melbourne with the comfort of knowing that there wouldn’t be any additional charge tacked on to the rental for my ignorance as an American driver. (If I had left the toll unpaid, it would have added an exorbitant fee to my rental total.)

Not so Fast, Sonja

Then I found out that there are speed cameras all over the highways. Oops. 100km doesn’t really seem that fast when you’re on long stretches of empty roads. I did slow down for possible Kangaroos. But after returning the car, my mind recalled countless pedal-pushing moments of speed on the roads once I’d gotten the hang of other-side driving.

Fingers crossed, I haven’t seen any speeding ticket notices in my email inbox or credit card statement yet. It’s been a little over a month since that drive. Maybe I’m okay.

In any case, the loop around the Australian southern tip was liberating in my ability to break out on the road and finally be behind a wheel for the first time since I’d left DC.

More Like a Figure Eight

To be honest, once I mapped out my journey, I realized my trip was more of a figure eight than a single loop. From Melbourne’s clotted, chaotic arterial roads to the start of the scenic Great Ocean Road in the tiny town of Torquay, to the also tiny and scenic beach town of Apollo Bay to the twelve Apostles to Port Campbell, I followed the water and gazed off the edges of countless cliffs to the blue-green and foam-capped waves of the Southern Ocean.

Sadly, I did not have quite enough time to drive the entirety of the highway. Instead, I cut across from Port Campbell through Colac and up into Geelong. From Geelong (where I stayed at that wonderful AirBnB house), I decided to take the ferry across the Port Phillip Bay to the Mornington Peninsula where I enjoyed the sunset and then finally headed back around through the dark to Melbourne. Again, the map above makes it pretty easy to follow my path.


In my next posts, I’ll share a little about the wine in Geelong and Mornington, my ferry trip across Port Phillip Bay, the postcard perfect beach scenes and famous stretches of painted bungalow shacks of the Mornington Peninsula and a hidden gem wine bar called the Two Buoys.

Where to sleep when you’re a stranger

Since I’ve been back, many people have asked me about my ability to find sleeping arrangements and accommodations while traveling abroad. The truth is that I originally planned my trip to Australia and New Zealand knowing not a soul in either of those countries and having no solid arrangements for places to stay along the way. With an incredibly meager budget to work with, considering how long I was going to be gone and how much I’d already spent on airfare, I knew I would have to reach out and connect to as many people, as many friends of friends, as many acquaintances and networks as I possibly could in order to get on.

Amazingly, out of the entire two months that I was abroad, I probably ended up spending money on a place to sleep and shower about seven nights in all. I’m absolutely astounded when I think about that. And I’m so immensely grateful for the kindness and hospitality of all the people who let me sleep on their air mattresses, their couches, their floors, their guest beds, their bunk beds, and in their guest cottages. I’m also grateful for having had the presence of mind to borrow a sleeping bag from my cousin in California at the start of my trip, since many of my sleeping situations wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

I guess I should also say that I’m grateful to be the type of person who’s okay with sleeping almost anywhere, whether it’s in the back seat of my rental car, or on the floor of a living room, or on a thrift store air mattress that deflates throughout the night so that I’m back on the floor when I wake up in the morning. (Ok, that last one was in Auckland and though my back wasn’t particularly happy the next morning, I was still grateful to have friendly hosts and a safe, warm place to rest.) Maybe it’s the two years I spent traveling the US doing volunteer work, much of which was spent living on the road. Though I do enjoy creature comforts like anyone else, and I do work in the food and wine industry, so of course I appreciate some of the finer things in life, when it comes down to it, I’m just as used to living simply and being happy with the basics. If I’ve got a safe space, a clean blanket and a warm shower the next morning, I can make do with camping out almost anywhere. And besides, on this trip, what mattered the most to me was experiencing the true character of the places I visited — the geography, the culture, the wine, the cuisine, the people — not the softness of my pillows or comparing the amenities of corporate hotel chains. Turns out my two nights and three days on the Great Ocean Road ended giving me a bit of both.

While in Melbourne, I was incredibly fortunate in having been able to stay with Pete, a friend of a friend — both of whom are in the wine business, albeit on different sides of the world. Pete was more than kind in allowing me to sleep on his pull-out couch for the time I was in the city — a little over a week in all. In fact, between staying with my friends Jessica and Fabricio in Los Angeles, staying at Mieko-San’s apartment in Tokyo, and staying with Pete in Melbourne, I had a place to sleep every night up until my trip down the Great Ocean Road.

But for the nights outside of Melbourne, I was on my own. And so I used this chance to try out two different methods of finding accommodation, which I’d learned about before leaving the US. The first was Couch Surfing and the second was Air B n’ B.

Both of these networks are are brilliant ways for cost-conscious travelers to not only find accommodations all over the world, but also to experience the place they visit on a much more intimate and personal level. The first is free and thus requires a bit more leg work in terms of finding and contacting appropriate, legitimate, available and willing hosts. The second requires payment, like any Bed and Breakfast would. All location searches, reference reviews, reservations and payments are done online through the AirBnb.com website, and oftentimes the prices for cozy, character-filled rooms are much more affordable than hotels, motels or official Bed and Breakfasts.

I first learned about the worldwide Couchsurfing community from Lacey, a friend in the DC area who also works in the service industry and has made a point of visiting a new place in the US every month. Through Lacey, I learned that the Couchsurfing network extends all over the world and essentially consists of many open-minded people who
1): have a spare couch, bed, guest room, air mattress, or floor space, etc.
2): have been travelers themselves and understand the preciousness of a place to stay and a friendly local face, and believe in paying it forward (YES, people like this do actually exist in the world!)
3): want to show off their city/country/town to other travelers
4): are interested in intercultural exchanges and meeting and becoming friends with travelers from other (sometimes distant) parts of the world.

It is an idealistic and wonderful system, and when you use basic common sense and a well thought-out personal profile, read each host’s profile carefully and are courteous and thoughtful about the way you write a couch request, it is extremely rewarding. Often you end up making new friends in the process.

When Lacey first told me about Couchsurfing, she had just come back from a trip to Homer, Alaska, during which she had stayed with three or so different Couchsurfing hosts, all of whom were incredibly unique and who enabled her to experience Alaska in a highly personal and special way. She enthusiastically encouraged me to create a profile on Couchsurfing.com and begin to familiarize myself with the system so that I, too, could utilize it during my time abroad.

As it turned out, I had my first official Couchsurfing experience on my first night on the road in Apollo Bay. I had searched for hosts in Apollo Bay with an available “couch” while still in Melbourne, since I knew Apollo Bay was where I wanted to end my first day on the road. Given the tiny size of this beach town, I only two found two hosts who might be able to let me stay with them. I sent personal, detailed requests to both of them, and the person who responded was a young man named Heath.

Heath happened to be from Florida originally. He and his roommate Kevin (also originally from Florida) regularly host Couchsurfing travelers and have both traveled extensively themselves. In fact, after working as a fireman and serving in Iraq for a period of time, Heath spent a while living in Israel, traveled the world, and sailed on a tall ship from Fiji to Vanuatu before coming to Australia to work, explore and enjoy life by the Ocean before heading back out to experience more of the world.

When I got to town I met Heath where he was working at the hotel pub off the main street. Almost every official downtown “hotel,” in any Australian town, large or small, has a pub on its lower level, and this one had an adjacent drive-through “bottle shop” as well, which is where Heath was stationed that evening. Most bottle shops in Australia are glorified liquor stores, with the advantage of the outdoor ones being that people don’t even have to get out of their cars to grab a 24-pack of canned bourbon and ginger or a bottle of Peppertree Shiraz.

After chatting a bit at the chilly outdoor bottle shop counter, Heath closed up shop and we chatted and exchanged travel stories over a couple of Aussie beers. Brews like Carlton Draught and Lion are staples at many hotels and sports bars in Australia, so you’ll often see them at the tap. I tried a “pot” or half pint of the Carlton just for the sake of it, and as expected, it was much like any other mass-produced lager (though not nearly as refreshing as Asahi). Mainly it was crisp and malty, but barely, and that’s about as much as it had going for it. Best drunk icy cold. The second beer was one Heath presented: a bottle of Coopers Sparkling Ale. Coopers is Australia’s only Australian and family-owned large scale brewery, and the beers are mostly seen around South Australia and Victoria. The Sparkling Ale was an English Pale Ale style and had a good hoppy bite, while also being slightly yeasty and fruity in aroma and flavor, though I found the carbonation to be a little too aggressive and thus distracting. Speaking of distracting, I’ll get back to the point.

Heath ended up being a friendly and hospitable host, and though I decided to keep moving the next day due to limited time, he made sure to text me the next day and make sure all was well and to wish me safe travels. I was able to see a side of Apollo Bay that I might not otherwise have seen. Between chatting with Heath and comparing travel notes, learning about his experiences working in Australia and the challenges of a limited work visa, accompanying him to a bawdy live music night at the other local hotel pub, and being invited to a crazy house party before walking back to his and Kevin’s “flat,” I certainly experienced way more than I would have in a lonely disconnected motel room. And though perhaps the crowd was a little more party-hearty than I generally prefer, the experience seems perfectly appropriate for a beach town like Apollo Bay.

What’s more, not only did Heath leave me a wonderful reference for other prospective hosts to see on Couchsurfing.com, he also ended up connecting me to Karin, a friend of his who he met on the tall ship sailing to Vanuatu. Karin and her two friends Hannah and Mattilda, all three of whom are from Sweden, welcomed me into their cozy apartment in Auckland,  where I stayed for three nights, despite their only having moved there three months previous. These girls were truly amazing hostesses and showed me more hospitality and friendship than I could have hoped for. And I never would have met them if it weren’t for my Couchsurfing experience in Apollo Bay. And so it went with so much of my trip. One new friend connected me to another friend, who put me in touch with another person, all of whom had a place for me to stay for one or multiple nights.

Air BnB

My second night on the road was not free and did not involve schmoozing with the locals, but was nonetheless memorable and kind of amazing in its own way.

Having not known exactly where I’d end up along the Great Ocean Road after Port Campbell, I hadn’t made any prior arrangements and I found myself in a bit of a bind as dusk approached and I still had hours to drive before getting to the large city of Geelong. Feeling rather desperate, and having called several hotels and hostels whose offices would already be closed by the time I got into town, I decided to try AirBnB, not thinking I had a great chance of anyone accepting a day-of stay request.

Not only does AirBnB allow you to search based on your GPS location and based on your specified price range, I discovered that the iPhone app also has a function that allows you to search for same day availability. Salvation! Well…at least it offered me some hope. I was beginning to prepare myself for the possibility of sleeping in the car.

I found a nice looking room in an old Victorian home in Geelong, one of the cheapest options I could find at $70 a night. This of course was far more than I would have normally been able to spend on a room, but I told myself it was just one night. Besides, the house looked very nice, and the reviews left from other visitors were all glowing.

To my amazement, I received a reply from the home owner, Polly, within an hour of my sending a request. Soon after, my payment had gone through, and I emailed Polly to make sure all was well, to give her my phone number and to let her know I was on my way.

When I heard back from Polly next, it was a phone call to tell me that she had read the date of my request wrong and had thought it was for the next month (December)! She was happy to let me stay anyway, but she apologized that she couldn’t be there herself to greet me, feed me, and chat with me. I’d have to let myself in with a key hidden by the door in a white sneaker, or “trainer,” as she called it, and I’d have the whole house to myself since she was out of town that night. I could help myself to any “breaky” (breakfast) foods I found and also to the wine in the fridge. Again, she apologized for not being able to be there to greet me, and she hoped I’d be comfortable in any case. Clean towels were in the laundry room.

And so, for the price of one room, I got a whole house to myself for an evening. With wine and breakfast, too. It was pretty much the exact opposite experience to the previous night sleeping on the top bunk of a bunk bed in Apollo Bay, and yet, I wasn’t in a hotel. The house I stayed in on a quiet side street of Geelong city had charm and history and elegance. I could see personal touches everywhere, such as in the quilted bedding and the framed family photos on the hall table. It was almost too surreal to take in, in fact. Having the entire lovely house to myself, I felt enormously spoiled.

This evening in Geelong turned out to be my only experience using AirBnb, and I never spent that much on a room for the rest of my time abroad, but for splurging the $70, it was quite an impressive return on investment.

For those of you not keen on the whole couchsurfing setup and who need more “traditional” accommodations, i.e. a private room and bed, as opposed to a couch, futon or whatever is available, and who like the bed and breakfast experience but are looking for a slightly more affordable and accessible option, I highly recommend checking out AirBnB.com. The site lists available guest rooms, guest cottages, and guest homes — even guest Air Streams and guest house boats! — in all different price ranges, all over the world, both in big cities as well as tiny towns in the middle of nowhere. The site is easy to use and most “hosts” have clearly posted reviews from previous visitors, which make it easy to separate the desirable hosts and homes from the less desirable ones. It’s a little like Craigslist for vacation rooms, but a thousand times better!

Even with setting my price limit at $80, I was able to find a gem. And if you’ve got a slightly more flexible budget, you’re definitely going to find something you love!

It was in large part the personal touches and the constant interaction with locals, the constant glimpse into everyday life and community cultures that made my travels so interesting and so memorable. Whether I was staying with a Buddhist friend’s mother, with the global marketing manager for a major winery, with with three Swedish girls new to the big city, with a fireman turned world traveling, surf-bumming bartender, with an “arbor activist,” or with the friend of a cousin of a cousin of a friend, it was always, always better than just finding a motel room. These are the experiences that make the best stories after a trip is over, and the experiences that have given me more new friends than I can count on both hands.

Blog, Take 2

Hello again, world! I know you think I forgot about you, but I haven’t.

I’ve been aching to have a chance to sit down again and continue to share about my travels and experiences. And now that I’ve gotten the whirlwind that usually accompanies the monthly wine club I’m responsible for at Twisted Vines squarely behind me, I can focus a bit more of my attention on blogging again.

As a matter of fact, something I was really struck by as I poured and spoke about the wines for our wine club this past Sunday was how much I wanted to sit down and talk on a more personal level with so many of the wine club members who stopped in, many of whom are extremely loyal Twisted Vines customers, and who over the years have become friends to me more than anything else. I wanted to share all my travel stories, all my impressions and memories in detail, lots and lots of detail!

But alas, I had just a few hours to pour and introduce some pretty outstanding wines for the hundred or so people who showed up for our once a month wine club tasting. I had precious little time to even scrape the surface of my experiences abroad, although the questions, “How was your trip?” “What was New Zealand like?” and “What were your favorite parts of your travels?” were voiced over and over with each new group of tasters. Rather, I had to focus on giving the wines I was pouring their due. After all, in a way they were a tangible explanation of my trip — a literal taste of my travels. And if you’ve ever poured wines for any kind of tasting, especially one with a constant flow of people, you know what I mean when I say that there really isn’t any time for too much talking.

Ok, yes, it might be true that I do that anyway.  I can’t help it. I love to describe flavors, places, people, smells, stories — all the things that make wine so special. It may be possible that I wax a little poetic. And yet, the wine club grows every month. I must be doing something right…

[In case you’re curious, the wines I featured this month were all wines from wineries and regions that I visited during my two month trip: the 2011 Doctor’s Gruner Veltliner from Forrest winery in Marlborough, NZ, the 2012 Pinot Gris and the 2012 “Sweet Agnes” Late Harvest Riesling from Seifried winery in Nelson, NZ, the 2009 “Are you game?” Shiraz and the 2010 “Stone Dwellers” Pinot Noir from Fowles wine in the Strathbogie Ranges of Australia, and the 2011 Vineyard Selection Cabernet Sauvignon from Eberle winery in Paso Robles, California.]

With all my attention given to talking about the wines, I realized more than ever how grateful I am to have begun this blog. To have a way in which I am in fact able to share my experiences, stories, impressions and memories uninterrupted and in detail.

I realized, too, just how many of my wine club members (and other Twisted Vines customers, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, etc.) had been reading my posts! So many people have come up to me in the three weeks I’ve been back to tell me that they’d been keeping up with my updates and enjoying the glimpses into my journey. It was honestly a bit of a surprise. But inspiring, too. And motivating.

I had really begun to feel a bit overwhelmed by the number of people who were asking me to tell them more about my trip because I wanted to! I wanted to sit down with every single person and tell them everything. I still want to. And that’s just it. I can. It hadn’t really struck me until this weekend. This blog is my way of sitting down with every friend, every patron, every acquaintance and telling them everything they want to know. Every special memory, every smell and sight and experience that might otherwise get washed away by the constant rush of work and daily life. I can share all of it here, to everyone all at once.

And I will. Thank you, Internet.

So stay tuned. Next up: Air BnB, Couchsurfing, and the wines of Geelong and the Mornington Peninsula.

Taking in a peaceful morning
This was of my favorite breakfasts while in Australia, (They call it “Breaky” in that part of the world.)
Freshly brewed star anise and cinnamon chai with a dollop of milk, organic “yoghurt,” as they spell it, topped with muesli, fresh fruit and a healthy dose of people watching from the great big open windows at Wickens Provedore and Delicatessen in Appollo Bay.
After spending a night in this sunny beach town with my first true Couch Surfing host, Heath (funny, since he is himself an avid surfer), it was time to get back out on the Great Ocean Road. But every road trip deserves a good breakfast and a few moments of peace to ensure success.
The free wifi didn’t hurt, either.

Taking in a peaceful morning

This was of my favorite breakfasts while in Australia, (They call it “Breaky” in that part of the world.)

Freshly brewed star anise and cinnamon chai with a dollop of milk, organic “yoghurt,” as they spell it, topped with muesli, fresh fruit and a healthy dose of people watching from the great big open windows at Wickens Provedore and Delicatessen in Appollo Bay.

After spending a night in this sunny beach town with my first true Couch Surfing host, Heath (funny, since he is himself an avid surfer), it was time to get back out on the Great Ocean Road. But every road trip deserves a good breakfast and a few moments of peace to ensure success.

The free wifi didn’t hurt, either.

Hazards of the Aussie road

Left-side driving isn’t the only thing to get used to on Australian roads. 

Sheep, goats and COWS…they’re everywhere. Thousands of them. In every field, every pasture, every side of the highway. They sneak through fences, cross over bridges and generally don’t care when they happen to be in your car’s path.

And just when you think you’ve got the four-legged road hazards figured out, the ‘roos come out. In droves. They like to strike in the morning and at dusk. Just like weird North American deer hopping on their hind legs. And just as bad for unsuspecting drivers.

Luckily, none of the cars I rented came into intimate contact with the larger wildlife of Australia’s highways and pastures. Though, I deeply regret to say that there is one less wallaby roaming the coastal roads of Tasmania.

Wallabies are like miniature kangaroos and are as common in Tasmania as bunnies are in the States. Our nighttime encounter one sorrowful evening (my last day in Tasmania, in fact) gave me nowhere to swerve and him no flight instincts, leaving me traumatized and him…well, there was fur lining the undercarriage of my vehicle when I returned it in Hobart. Though I was able to avoid hundreds of critters large and small as I navigated the pavement down under, this one fellow met his end at the front of my bumper. I have never before hit anything while driving — bird, squirrel, deer or other — until this wallaby. I mourn him to this day.

And so to all you would-be drivers of the Australian road, I say, beware; you never know what might lie, lope, saunter, gallop, hop, skitter or streak across your path.

Here’s hoping there’s plenty of delicious greenery and open space to roam in wallaby heaven.

The Great Ocean Road: Apollo Bay to the Twelve Apostles

The Twelve Apostles http://bit.ly/1ce6hhm are arguably the most well-loved and most identifiable part of the Southern Australian coastline. And most everyone in Australia lumps (that’s a pun you’ll get in a second) the Apostles in with the Great Ocean Road; considering this sight the epitome of the coastal highway. In fact, almost every time I told someone I would be making the drive down the Great Ocean Road, the first thing they would ask me was whether I was going to see the “Apostles.” How could I not with so much build-up?

Far from having anything to do with religion, the Twelve Apostles are an impressive grouping of limestone stacks that jut conspicuously out of the churning turquoise waves of the Southern Ocean, off the coast of Port Campbell National Park. Originally they were actually called the “Sow and Piglets,” but for tourism purposes, they were renamed the “Apostles.” Eventually this name morphed into the “Twelve Apostles,” even though there were only ever nine limestone formations to count and admire. Personally, I like “Sow and Piglets” better.

Because of the rather soft (for a rock) and malleable nature of limestone and the constant beating they receive daily from the unforgiving sea, wind, and rain, these marine “pillars” are quickly eroding, to the point that some of the “Apostles” are nothing more than sea foam-covered nubs. This erosion is in fact how these lonely stone pillars, which were initially part of the contiguous coast line, came to be in the first place. Rugged weather eventually carved sea caves into the vulnerable cliff side. These caves became stone arches over time, which eventually disintegrated further, so much so that only tall rock pillars remained, left to stand as solitary monoliths in the turbulent waters. At the current rate of erosion, there will most likely be very few Apostles left, if any, in the next 100 years.

Still, the cluster of stone formations is breathtaking from the cliffside overlook, enough so to rake in bus loads of tourists (many from China) every day. And when the afternoon sun hits the pillars in just the right way, the light and shadow play off the rock and water in ways that can only be described as slightly magical.

In addition to the cliff overlook that hosts the majority of the tourists who come to see the Apostles, there are other ways to appreciate the view. You can pay hundreds of dollars to hire a helicopter for about an hour and fly with a guide over the waters and stony seaside, if burning cash is something you like to do.

Me, I wanted something a little more intimate (and less expensive). As I stood gazing over the edge of the railing with the other two hundred tourists, I thought to myself, “there’s got to be a way to get closer to the water and away from this human swarm.” Sure enough, after peering closer at the beach below, I could see a few tiny people ambling along the sand. Bingo. “How do I do that, too?”

I discovered after asking the nice (but obviously bored) ladies at the tourist cafe, that an unassuming park turnoff called the Gibson Steps, about 300 km back along the road I came down, was where I could find beach access to get a closer look at the Apostles. 86 steps to be exact. 86 slippery, runoff-drenched, narrow steps carved into the cliff side, leading to the yellow sands of the beach below.

But it wasn’t the sight of the massive limestone outcroppings in the water that struck me the most once I got to the bottom. It was the lifeless black feathered bodies of hundreds and hundreds of dead birds lining the sand that grabbed my attention…once I realized what I was looking at. My first few moments walking blithely onto the sand after navigating the stone steps, I had completely taken the black lumps for granted, assuming I was walking past dark clumps of seaweed and thus very nearly stepping on them. In my flip-flops. Blech.

A beautiful beach full of dead birds. It was kind of horrible, but fascinating. What in the world caused them to all die like that? My best guess was that maybe the winds on the coast were so strong that the birds were knocked into the cliffs to their deaths. It was the most logical answer I could come up with anyway. The bodies were all closer to the cliff than to the surf, so it didn’t seem like they’d been washed up from the ocean. And there weren’t enough seagulls around to explain a giant bird battle. And besides, none of the dead birds were gulls. Each and every one of them was the same type of medium sized black bird.

It was a bizarre and intriguing sight, but ultimately not why I had made my pilgrimage to the sand, so I trudged on and got as close as I could to the sea-beaten outcroppings, a trek that was rewarded by some nice photos, some fresh, tourist-free air and a few meditative moments.

But I couldn’t get the image of the beach strewn with dead bird bodies out of my head, and the whole way back to Melbourne I kept wondering what had caused their sudden and mass demise.

It turns out that these birds are (or rather, were) Shearwaters and their beachside mass grave is something of a common sight all over the shores of Australia. Shearwaters are in fact one of the most common types of seabird in Australia (though you’d think the population would dwindle with so many lying dead in the sand).

The sight of hundreds of dead Shearwaters along the coast is all the more notable when you realize that each of these birds has just finished a journey of about 15,000 kilometers, on an epic migration circuit that took them from the Tasman Sea to Japan, to Siberia, to Alaska, and back to Australia and the Tasman Sea again. About 23 million Shearwaters make this journey every year, and many of them arrive back on the shores of Australia only to drop dead from, er, “sheer” exhaustion and starvation.

An Australian blogger, Mic Smith, shares a touching video and a rather poetic narration http://ab.co/1kL0kgj depicting this annual migration of death. There is nothing anyone can do for these doomed little feathered travelers. “It’s just nature.”

And it’s the same unbiased, unemotional hand of nature that crushed limestone cliffs into the sea-washed pillars I’d come to admire; the same nature that rolled ancient shells and jagged stones and probably the sun-bleached bones of thousands of previous Shearwaters into the millions of tiny specs of sand that slid between my toes that afternoon, reminding me that even in destruction there is beauty. When one end comes, there is always a new beginning as well, and no matter what, the world continues to turn and move, often in ways that we don’t necessarily understand at first, but which often end up being amazing.

Out on the Great Ocean Road: Torquay to Apollo Bay

Just a little visual candy for your holiday. Apparently it was 70 degrees back here in Virginia while I was gone and now little white flurries are beginning to fall from the sky. I think that proves that I do indeed bring the bad weather with me. By way of apology, I offer the next few posts: a visual tour of the breathtaking highway drive down Australia’s Great Ocean Road.

You can follow the route I took with the map included at the bottom of this page: http://bit.ly/1gV9neG

The scenic coastline highway, which follows the Australian southern state of Victoria all around its wave-crashed edges, begins in a tiny town called Torquay and goes basically all the way west to Adelaide. With only two and a half days, I didn’t quite make it that far, but what I did see and experience was far beyond my expectations. This was one of the most consistently eye-popping, breath-catching highways I’ve ever driven.

Instead of singing along to the songs on the stereo, I found myself uttering exclamations of wonder and sheer appreciation like, “oh my god,” “whoa…” and “holy crap!” as I turned each cliff-hugging bend. And every time I came across one of the many scenic overlooks or turnoffs that sprinkle the side of the highway, I’d take the opportunity to stop, let my jaw drop, soak in the sheer awesomeness of what I was seeing and snap some photos, hoping they’d convey even a minuscule fraction of the actual beauty of what was spread out before me.