After spending a few days getting comfortable with our bearings in the city, we were excited to get completely out of our comfort zone and head out into rural Australia. We picked up a rental car and we were on our way! Anthony had done his research on some of the driving rules unique to Australia and Melbourne (including the dreaded “hook turn“), and I was more than happy to let him have full control of the wheel while I fiddled with the navigation. We got a kick out of the voice guidance, which of course featured a woman with an aussie accent, who we quickly named Jules — I don’t really know how the name came about, but it seemed like an appropriate Australian name.
After heading out of the city, we came to some generic suburbs followed by idyllic country roads framed by hillside vineyards and sheep pastures.
Our final destination would be a little town called Warburton, but on our way there, we planned to make a visit to the Healesville Sanctuary to get up close and personal with some of the native wildlife. While I, for one, could hardly stand the anticipation to see get my first Australian encounter with a koala, we did need sustenance, so we stopped for lunch at a cute little café in Healesville. It was called the Sweet Olive, which made it an irresistible choice as we thought of our pup back home, as well as a tasty one as I enjoyed fresh spring rolls and Anthony had a chorizo sandwich.
After lunch, we excitedly made our way out to the sanctuary, and the visit did not disappoint. While I was not able to fulfill my short-term dream of holding a koala (apparently it’s illegal in the state of Victoria), we were able to get very close to them. We happened to walk into the koala area just as the little guys were waking up for lunch time, so we were fortunate enough to see them during one of their rare active periods. One of the males even bellowed out his mating call to the ladies — a strange and unexpectedly loud sort of snorting.
I probably could have watched the koalas, with their cute little smiles and relaxed movements, all day, but there were other animals to see throughout the sanctuary. We don’t exactly make it a habit to visit zoos during our travels, but this unique place was well worth our attention. The setup allowed for very close, but safe, encounters with the animals, and it felt much more natural than a traditional zoo with cages, bars, concrete barriers, etc. The surroundings felt natural and it almost felt like spotting these native animals out in the woods, and we were even able to enter the habitats of some of the creatures (including the kangaroos and wallabies) without any barriers. We learned a lot about the various species unique to Australia, and saw a wide variety, including kangaroos (of course), wombats, dingos, wallabies, tasmanian devils, platypus (platypi?), emus (terrifying) and various snakes and lizards.
After spending a few hours out in the sanctuary, we finally set out to Warburton (pronounced locally as “WAH-buh-den”), where we had arranged for a place to stay through Air BNB. We typed in the address to Jules, who routed us to a road that seemed a bit off the beaten path. When the pavement ended and we climbed up and up through the ferny forest, without seeing another vehicle for kilometers, we wondered where Jules was taking us, but all the while enjoyed taking in the amazing scenery this trailblazing provided.
When we finally started descending and we crossed onto paved road once again, we found ourselves right on the outskirts of the little town of Warburton. As we went past the main street shops and marveled at the valley views, we decided to hold off on checking in to see what was further down the road, which was dotted with little towns sitting on the banks of the Yarra River. We ended up going through a few other similar towns and stopped in a little place called Yarra Junction to grab a small pizza and little bottle of wine to have a picnic in a riverside town park.
After we ate, we headed back to Warburton to check into our room, which was a small cabin on the back of a house in a neighborhood set up on a hill overlooking the river. It was a beautiful setting, and our host provided lovely hospitality including freshly-collected spring water and some recommendations for nearby attractions.
After settling in, we took one of our host’s suggestions and grabbed a terrace table at a café, overlooking the river, where we had “second dinner” of a calamari and a charcuterie board and a couple drinks. While we were there, we were treated to an unnerving chorus of screeching birds overhead — sounding like they were either in severe pain or were just angry at the world. Constantly. We inquired about the birds to our waitress, who thought a moment and then said, “Ah, yes. The cockatoos. Ornery little buggers…” In addition to the cockatoos, we also frequently heard the infamous laugh of the kookaburra, which had me humming the old childrens’ tune often. For a bird-averse lady like myself, the incredibly loud birds of tropical Australia took quite a bit of getting used to, and I can’t say it was one of the more pleasant aspects of the trip!
The next day, after a delicious “brekkie” (Australian slang for breakfast) at a local café, we donned our hiking clothes and set out to explore the “bush.” Our host had recommended seeking out a grove of redwood trees that she said had been planted in by a group of Seventh Day Adventists years before. The meticulous planting of the trees in rows creates a stunning sort of sanctuary in the middle of the surrounding fern gully.
Next, we drove up to a “rainforest gallery” that we had passed on that meandering drive in, and this time stopped to venture out into the foliage. It was a strangely quiet and peaceful area, with some of the most vibrant green hues I’ve ever seen, illuminated by the wash of sunlight through the canopy. With only a handful of other people wandering about, we all seemed to feel like we should talk quietly and move carefully in this serene space.
After this little taste of the rainforest, we decided to really get our shoes dirty on an actual hike, and chose one that was recommended to us by our host. The destination was La La Falls, with about a 3 km hike in, with only mild but constant ascent. On this hot and muggy day, the cool falls were a welcome sight when we arrived, sweaty, and we were glad to head back to our room for a shower afterwards.
Since we were a little late in the day (most of the wineries close at 5 or 6), we only had time to hit two places, so we stopped at a brewery first where we enjoyed a couple ciders and beer samplers along with a cheese platter, as a local guitarist played an acoustic set for the afternoon crowd.
We then hurried off to the closest winery before they would be shutting down, and were lucky to find a friendly vintner who was happy to spend a few extra minutes with us. He poured us (mostly me…) samples of his favorite wines as he gave us advice on how to spend our remaining time in Australia. A former tour guide, he gave us some invaluable recommendations for our time on the Great Ocean Road, which would begin the following day. We got some time with the playful resident dog and the chance to soak in some sweeping views of the property, and I picked out a couple of my favorite bottles to consume later in the trip.
We ended the night back in Warburton, where we shared a delicious plate of fried chicken at a restaurant, as we plotted out the next (and most anticipated) part of our trip: the Great Ocean Road.