This is the second of a two-part series about my solo road trip around Victoria, Australia. Read Part One (if you haven’t already).
My first stop: Ballarat Wildlife Park
I left Daylesford Springs for the 45-minute drive to Ballarat, a town famous as the ‘Gateway to Victoria’s Goldfields’. It was a lovely drive past verdant, undulating landscapes. My first stop was at the Ballarat Wildlife Park. Set in 116 hectares of beautiful peppermint gum woodland, the park turned out to be one of my highlights on my road trip. I was greeted by Stu Parker, the son of the proprietor, Greg Parker. Together with his famous three-year-old brother, Charlie (who’s been featured in media around the world such as the NY Daily and The Guardian as the world’s youngest wildlife ranger and gator wrestler!), Stu took me on an unforgettable tour of the park.
What made my visit so special was the passion shared by the Parker family for the conservation of Australian wildlife. As we stopped to view the kangaroos, wombats, wallabies, Tasmanian devils, alligators, crocodiles, quokkas and koalas, Stu filled his commentary with hilarious anecdotes and poignant stories about the animals. I loved the story of Patrick, the park’s famous 28-year-old wombat, who was caught ‘driving’ the family’s car (!), and shared the sadness felt by the family of the loss of Gator, the park’s star performer who recently passed away after a sudden illness. The challenges the family faces and the joy they derive from the animals were deeply inspiring. In addition, I had a fabulous time posing with the cute koalas and playing with the friendly kangaroos. If you’re visiting Victoria, you must drop by at the Ballarat Wildlife Park, a 1.5 hour drive from Melbourne.
A room with a tower!
I continued my drive into Ballarat, where I checked into the stunning Craig’s Royal Hotel, Ballarat’s oldest hotel. The hotel, with its plush Victorian-era interior, was a sight to behold. I was given the Tower Suite, a gorgeous room with opulent Victorian furnishings and a jacuzzi! There was a staircase that led to the tower where I found a cosy tea-room and fabulous views of Ballarat. As I looked around in awe, I half-expected people in Victorian clothing to appear! Hmmm, that thought spooked me!
That afternoon, I went on a stroll around Ballarat’s historic centre. The impact of the 19th century gold rush that brought much wealth to the city is unmistakable; the city centre boasts broad boulevards lined by stately buildings, interspersed by bursts of greenery and imposing monuments.
Later that afternoon, I visited Sovereign Hill, an open-air museum that recreates life during Victoria’s gold-rush era. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but everyone I spoke to said the same thing: you have to go there!
A surreal gold-rush experience
Sovereign Hill turned out to be a remarkable, somewhat surreal, experience. The minute attention to detail was the first thing that struck me as I walked down the town’s Main Street. It truly felt like I’d stepped back in time. The buildings looked incredibly authentic and the costumed actors who walked the streets or manned the stores played their parts to perfection. I was especially impressed by the massive machinery in the Boiler & Engine House and the atmospheric Victoria Theatre.
After having my picture taken (in costume of course!), I went on a gold mine tour that started with a train-ride into the depths of an old mine. The guide expertly mixed bits of facts and figures with fascinating rags-to-riches, but often gut-wrenching stories from this bygone era. I also got to do a spot of gold-panning and lo-and-behold, I found a speck of gold! My guide seemed impressed by my panning skills – “You must’ve done this before. You’ve got a great technique!”. Errr, thanks! I’d never touched a gold pan before. Later that afternoon, as I was presented the costumed photo of me, I couldn’t help but notice how comfortable I looked in those clothes. Perhaps… in a past life? A rags-to-riches story? Hmmm, perhaps not.
my mind was free to enjoy the scenery and to reflect, or to think of nothing at all.
The sun shone brightly the next day – perfect for my drive to the Grampians, a chain of ancient mountains in Victoria’s western edges. I said goodbye to Ballarat and drove in a westerly direction towards Dunkeld, a small community at the foot of the southern Grampians. The scenery was absolutely stunning: from green rolling hills and picturesque gum-tree forests to expansive plains and sleepy villages. I drove carefully, taking care not to take my eyes off of the road (there were many kangaroo crossing warnings) but it was hard. The scenery was simply bewitching.
I chatted with myself, sang along to whatever my iPhone was playing and waved ‘hello’ to the many birds and sheep I passed – I know… I’m weird! Haha! The GPS lady barked the occasional instructions but aside from those helpful but annoying moments, my mind was free to enjoy the scenery and to reflect, or to think of nothing at all. I was having a terrific time on this solo road trip!
The attack of the giant Aussie mozzies!
I decided to stop at beautiful Lake Bolac, not far from Dunkeld. I drove around the lake and found a spot with amazing views of the lake and the Grampians looming in the distance. I turned off the engine and was about to open the door when something stopped me in my tracks. I first noticed a few of them but their numbers swelled within a minute. I froze. Swarming outside the window, like a giant cloud, were the biggest, most vicious mosquitoes I’ve ever seen. There’s one thing you should know about me: people I travel with, especially in the tropics, love sitting next to me because mosquitoes love me! I switched on the engine in horror, activated the wipers and made a hasty getaway!
one of the most entertaining wine-tastings I’ve ever had!
I arrived in Dunkeld, still reeling from that mosquito experience, and headed straight for my accommodation: the Royal Mail. The contrast with the Victorian grandeur of my previous accommodation could not have been greater. The Royal Mail exuded a casual, contemporary ambiance. My room was bright, spacious and had a gorgeous view of the mountains. I was greeted by Marc, my travel companion and guide for the day.
Not long after, I was in the car with him and off we went for a private tour of ‘his’ Grampians. We visited the hotel’s lovely kitchen gardens and the private villas at the foot of Mt. Sturgeon before heading further west towards Tarrington. It was clear that sheep-farming is a big business in this region.
My attention turned to the wineries – we were in the heart of the Henty Wine Region – and Marc offered to take me to one. We soon pulled up at the Mount Pierrepoint Estate for a wine-tasting and were welcomed by Jennifer. We hit it off in an instant and I had a brilliant time listening to her stories about life in the region. It was one of the most entertaining wine-tastings I’ve ever had! The 2011 Alexandra Chardonnay and the 2011 Pierrepoint Pinot Gris were my absolute favourites.
That evening, I had an amazing meal at the renowned Royal Mail Bistro – the chefs and the restaurant personnel truly excel in creating an unforgettable gastronomic experience, combining organic ingredients sourced from their kitchen garden and from artisan producers, with modern culinary techniques.
Up into the Grampians
The Grampians are known for their iffy weather so I was very grateful when I woke up the next morning to the sound of chirping birds and clear blue skies. I left Dunkeld behind me as I headed in a northerly direction towards Halls Gap, the gateway to the Grampians National Park. The road took me past thick forests, imposing mountains and views of the vast Western Plains – the Grampians are an incredible sight, pretty much like a series of giant ship hulls jutting out of a flat seabed.
Once in Halls Gap, I met my guide, the bubbly Eda from Grampians Eco Tours. We hopped into her car and drove up the winding roads into the mountains. The mountain scenery and panoramic vistas were truly spectacular. Our first stop was Mackenzie Falls. We hiked down to the falls, a steep descent that led us into a stunning gorge.
We then continued to the Balconies, a series of rocky outcrops with amazing views, before stopping at the Boroka Lookout where we had a picnic. The views of the plains below and the mountains around us were truly astounding. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see much of the wildlife that the Grampians are famous for, like kangaroos, wallabies, emus and wombats, but that’s a perfect reason to return one day.
From Halls Gap, it was a four-hour drive back to the centre of Melbourne. As the Melbourne skyline glistened in the bright sunshine before me, I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of sadness that this solo road trip had come to an end. It felt like an appetiser, with more courses to come. I’m sure they will, in Victoria or in other parts of the world. One thing is certain: this solo road trip in Victoria has opened my eyes to yet another terrific way to travel. And now I’m hooked!
Note: this trip is part of the iambassador #MelbourneTouring project in partnership with Tourism Victoria and Royal Brunei Airlines. Velvet Escape maintains full editorial control of the content published on this site.