Hurriedly jumping back in the car because a kangaroo is bounding right towards you is one of those moments you have no idea how embarrassed to be. Is it a case of, "Ha! What a chicken!" or was it just being sensible? Maybe I'd seen too many YouTube videos of jacked-up kangaroos looking like post-nuclear crosses between body-builders and rats.
Parked on the edge of a field in the town of Halls Gap, I was in the tourist heart of Victoria's lush, rocky, outrageously beautiful Grampians National Park (1672sq km). For a settlement of fewer than a thousand souls, Halls Gap and the forested valley it lies in receive more than a million visitors a year who use it as a base to explore one of Australia's most acclaimed national parks.
And chances are a good chunk of those million tourists will park their cars at a spot recommended to be as good as any on the continent to see kangaroos in the wild.
There must have been about 20 kangaroos on the field as I innocently filmed a placid chap before realising his mate in the distance had eyed me up. He was heading right for me with bounces of pace and purpose and I thought "what a cowardly loser I am - is anyone looking and laughing?" and, "quick, get back in the car. You don't know how to stop a bounding kangaroo!"
Indeed I don't and with a pounding heart (and phone still recording) I was back in the safety of the car. The kangaroo lost enthusiasm about 10m from me and restored itself to being its nation's photogenic symbol. Later that day - after I'd got the confidence back with a barnstorming hike to The Pinnacle in the gorgeous Wonderland mountain range - I returned to that field. With bemused embarrassment I watched as a carefree tourist couple walked their toddler through the lounging kangaroos. Oh well.
But if the kangaroo incident was my defining memory of five days' road-tripping around Victoria, it's only by a whisker and it has plenty of rivals. I'd been sent on a writing assignment to discover more about an Australia state I feel Kiwis are somehow simultaneously over-familiar with and largely in the dark about. We know Melbourne to such an extent you'd be hard pressed to find a New Zealander who hasn't lived there, thought about living there or at least visited.
Though outside of those trips to Australia's second-biggest city (4.4 million to Sydney's 4.9) to see the family, to shop and to watch cricket at the MCG and tennis at Rod Laver, do New Zealanders really ever venture out to see the rest of Victoria? If we don't or if we're blase at how pretty Victoria could be when our own backyard is held in such lofty regard, we're missing out.
Picking up my rental at Melbourne airport, I plugged in the GPS and did what most tourists do straight after an international flight: drive for an hour and go indoor rock-climbing. Why not? The Rock Adventure Centre in Geelong had invited me and not really knowing what to expect, I arrive a little bleary-eyed at what appeared to be a nondescript warehouse.
The inside was anything but and the information counter decked-out to resemble a rustic mountain base camp was almost as cool as the dozens of angled climbing walls. Not known for having the greatest of hamstrings, I recalled school PE days of overcoming physical challenges you at first think you're incapable of. The abseiling was fun, too, and it's little surprise this is where many Victorians practise their climbing before taking on the world-class outdoor pursuits just a few hours up the road in the Grampians.
The calories burned at The Rock Adventure Centre were replaced by lunch and a sampling session at the famous Little Creatures Brewery. Occupying the site of a heritage-listed 1920s textile mill, Little Creatures honours Geelong's industrial past as well as championing its increasingly funky present. The open-plan Canteen (a multi-use restaurant / bar / music-venue / art gallery) is fast becoming one of Geelong's best-loved meeting points.
After a night at the waterfront Novotel Hotel where I got to admire the quirky "bollard" public artworks (wooden pylons painted as historic figures that dot the Geelong seaside), I set the GPS for a road-trip that is virtually a rite of passage for Victorians: the Great Ocean Rd.
Encompassing 243km of southwest Victorian coastline, the Great Ocean Rd takes in iconic surf beaches (Rip Curl and Quiksilver began at Bells Beach), steep bush-clad slopes, low-land rainforests, affluent seaside towns and most notably, the wind and wave-lashed rock formations that include the 12 Apostles.
After stopping at the township of Kennett River to see some sleepy koalas in the trees (the guidebooks don't tell you you'll also have dozens of hilariously tame cockatoos wanting to sit on you while you photograph the koalas), I made my way to 12 Apostles Helicopters. Fighting a mid-winter wind-chill to rival Wellington, I couldn't believe how still the helicopter was as we sliced through the wild weather, rising high above the coastline.
Even in some serious wind and rain, the sight of the 70m flat-topped rocks that comprise the Apostles was breathtaking. With enormous waves smashing into their sides it was evident just how much Mother Nature is still shaping the landscape.
On land again and eventually leaving the coast behind, my next destination was the village of Dunkeld at the southern tip of the Grampians (a three-hour direct drive west of Melbourne). This was Victoria as I'd never imagined: mountainous, verdantly green and densely forested.
Staying at the Royal Mail Hotel was probably the highlight of this action-packed week. Managed by a Kiwi who has moved his young family to the country, this historic hotel is reportedly home to the most valuable wine cellar in Victoria, if not Australia. Feel like the night would go better with a bottle of 1982 Crawford River Riesling? No problem.
You can either hunker down at the main property in a modern suite, or a short distance away in a pioneer-era stone cottage overlooking the misty forests of the 343m Mt Sturgeon. Dinner was a delightful five-course degustation with all vegetables grown in the property's expansive, organic garden. With food and wine as good as this and kangaroos hopping about in the foreground of the mountain, at that moment it was hard to imagine a more charming eco-focused hotel.
Unless of course one of those kangaroos starts chasing you. After Dunkeld and the following day's Grampian National Park hiking and kangaroo dodging, I drove several hundred kilometres to the town of Mildura in the state's northwest. Thanks to Harry Nanya Tours, I was treated to a fascinating tour of the World Heritage listed Mungo National Park - a surreal, dried-lake landscape of huge international scientific significance. It is here that some of the oldest human remains outside of Africa have been found at an estimated 42,000 years old.
From Mildura it was a flight back to Melbourne for a night at the glitzy Crown Metropol (is there a more spectacular rooftop pool in Melbourne?) and a Hidden Secrets laneways tour - turns out even Melbourne veterans like me have more to learn about Australia's fastest growing city. And there's definitely a whole lot more to discover about Victoria.
• Tim Roxborogh travelled courtesy of Tourism Victoria and Qantas.
• Qantas uses cities as a gateway to out-of-the way Australian destinations, such as Mildura. Qantas flies many times a day every week from Auckland to Mildura, via Melbourne. Qantas offers all-inclusive economy flights, one way $432 and return $850 including "all the frills", food, wine, checked luggage, entertainment, and Qantas Points. qantas.com.au