Travel Comment
Ponderings on all aspects of travel - both at home and abroad.

Jill Worrall: Geelong

Geelong's Baywalk Bollards. Photo / Jill Worrall
Geelong's Baywalk Bollards. Photo / Jill Worrall

Bush fires are blazing across Australia, temperatures are simmering in the 40s and here I am in Victoria trying to buy a sweatshirt because I'm cold and getting to grips with the rental car's windscreen wipers.

The rain is squally, I don't know if it's enough to stop the countryside around the Great Ocean Road south of Melbourne catching fire, but by the look of the parched grassland, every little must help.

The fact that to our south across Bass Strait in Tasmania and in New South Wales to our north firefighters are battling huge blazes emphasizes the sheer scale of Australia - so much land, so many weather extremes.

After arriving in Melbourne on a late afternoon flight from New Zealand we've opted to drive just as far as Geelong for the night.

Geelong was founded in the early 19th century, growing wealthy on wool and then the gold being exported through its port from the goldfields, especially Ballarat. Although not as much a manufacturing city as it used to be its still home to Australia's Ford vehicle plant.

There's something honest about Geelong, a place with a heritage of making things for a living and where the vast brick wool stores still dominate the city centre; nothing flashy, but a sense of solidity.

In the 1990s Geelong's waterfront which had fallen into disuse was redeveloped, not only providing the locals with a revitalized seashore to enjoy but also giving motorists heading for the Great Ocean Road reason to pause rather than shooting straight through.

While the coastline here is best described as utilitarian with port facilities and industrial plants on shore, it's the public art in the foreground that attracts attention.

Geelong's Baywalk Bollards, more than 100 two-metre tall wooden sculptures designed like over-sized port bollards were the work of Melbourne artist the late Jan Mitchell. Mitchell was commissioned to create the works from old wooden piles and other timber from a dismantled city pier.

They are whimsical works but based on meticulously researched characters from Geelong's history. There are depictions of the Aboriginal first settlers, demure ladies in Edwardian bathing costumes, the town brass band (complete with battered but real instruments) and a line-up of real dinkum Aussie lifesavers, two of whom sport black eyes.

Every second bollard figure features a rabbit at their feet, a reference to the fact that it was through Geelong's port that the pest was first introduced into Australia.

We ate brunch on the deck of the Royal Geelong Yacht Club (there's a section open to landlubbers; there are signs denoting which parts of the club are "member's only" (sic)... either membership or the knowledge of apostrophe usage is perilously low. A wander from the deck overlooking millions of dollars worth of boats to the loos took me past an impressive display of silverware won by the club.

Officially the Great Ocean Road begins at Torquay, 23km south of Geelong and ends 255km west close to Warrnambool (although Port Fairy a further 28km west is often considered part of the driving route).

The road is one of Australia's leading visitor attractions but began life as a work programme for returned soldiers from the First World War, simultaneously becoming the world's largest war memorial for those who did not come home. It also provided the first road link for coastal towns, which up until the First World War could be reached only by sea or very rough track.Three thousand men began work on the road in 1919 and it was finished in 1932.

Because of its proximity to Melbourne and Geelong, the first section of the road between Torque and Apollo Bay can be very busy (especially if you visit as we did in summer and are there at the weekend). We gave the surfie centre of Bells Beach and crammed Anglesea a miss and made our first stop at Aireys Inlet.

The lure here for me (a lighthouse geek) was the Split Point Lighthouse, built in 1891 to help guide ships safely around Cape Otway, further to the west. The White Queen as she's known is a classic pillar lighthouse, 34 metres tall and only recently opened for tours.

Lighthouses have always attracted drama, both in the seas around them and the characters who kept the lights burning. One of the Split Point lighthouse keepers found a novel solution to the problem of how to keep a constant eye on the light while still being able to enjoy a drink at the Airey's Inlet hotel.

Lighthouses on land traditionally had the land-facing side of the lantern (the room at the top of the tower which houses the lens or light) painted so that the constantly flashing light wouldn't annoy nearby residents. According to a local historian, one keeper, Richard Joy Barker scratched a small hole in the black paint, directly in line with the pub, so that every time the lens revolved landwards he could see the reassuring wink of light while he supped beer at the bar.

The walkways around the clifftops and down to a sweep of beach are relatively empty, partly because of the unsettled weather but also because unlike the townships either side, Airey's Inlet has only one café and no shops in the vicinity of the lighthouse. Along one stretch of track an echidna popped out of the undergrowth. Echidnas (also known as spiny ant-eaters) are still widespread in Australia but it was the first one I'd seen in the wild. It rolled into an impressively large prickly ball as we passed- along with the platypus it's the only mammal species in the world that lay eggs.


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