Great Ocean Road & Grampians

The wildlife fun started early in my tour of Victoria's Grampians range and Great Ocean Road, when our guide stood at the front of the bus with a fistful of magic markers and told us to draw our favorite Australian animals on the windows.

And so it was that I started the three-day journey from Adelaide to Melbourne under the beaming gaze of green, stick-figure, mom & joey wallabies. Later, I would tangle with parrots and a hummus-seeking emu. But first, there was hiking.

Day 1

Our first stop was McKenzie Falls in the northern Grampians, which was devastated by massive bush fires in January 2014 that took three weeks to fully extinguish.

The range is full of craggy gorges and streams that are navigable by foot over paths built from rocks of all shapes and sizes -- oblong steps, flat slabs and huge boulders -- and connected to form trails to peaks, waterfalls, and lookouts. It's rugged and beautiful, but what impressed me most was how the land was regenerating after the fires:  leafy, new growth was sprouting everywhere from charred tree trunks, evidence of nature's power & resiliency.

We went down a steep path and staircase that opens onto a flat "beach" area where hikers can relax in the sun and look at the falls, which cascade over a wall of slick, black rock. Some of us explored a path that follows the water away from the falls and spotted a beautiful crimson rosella parrot. I realized that, preoccupied with the promise of seeing kangaroos, koalas, humpback whales, and marine life in the Great Barrier Reef, I hadn't given much thought to the incredible variety of birds in Australia before coming here and actually spotting parrots, wild cockatoos, black-and-white magpies, rainbow lorakeets, nesting terns, and a rare hooded plover with chicks. My favorite is the adorably fluffy, loud kookaburra -- especially the one who would alight on a wooden cafe railing in Kennett River and hang around for some 20 minutes, posing for pictures.

But back to the hiking. We made our way back up from the falls and moved on to other picturesque spots, one of which gave me the opportunity to literally take my first, big misstep in Oz. On an uneven step down at a lookout, my foot turned outward, and down I went, the pain and swelling of an unmistakable sprain shooting through my ankle. I laid on the ground, clutching my foot and feeling enormously foolish for having hurt myself on one, silly step after all the long, steep hikes I'd done during my travels. Lucky for me, the pain subsided quickly and, when I got up, I knew I'd be able to hobble around for the rest of the day. After prime kangaroo viewing at a park -- they were feeding, jumping, wandering into the base of a big, hollow tree and otherwise amusing us -- we pitched in at the hostel to make pasta with veggie and bolognese sauces. I iced my ankle and hoped I'd be able to hike to Pinnacle the next day.

Day 2

It was cold and my ankle hurt around 6:15 a.m., when we all groggily rose, but a cup of hot tea helped. Our guide, Altair, kindly wrapped my ankle in an ace bandage, I popped an Alleve, and we headed for the 2.1 km hike to Pinnacle, a peak in the Grampians that rewards those who reach the summit with a vast view of the range. The going was slow as I picked my way over boulders, using my hands or a railing for balance and to lessen the weight on my injury whenever possible. "Is it like this all the way, rocks and boulders?" I asked Altair, no doubt sounding rather pathetic. "Yep, boulders all the way," he said. At this rate, we'd never get there, and he frankly advised me to turn back. But this was the last big hike I had planned in Oz, and I wanted to try. So little by little, I made my way carefully along the rocks, urging Altair to join the others up ahead. He didn't want to leave me on my own, but I knew I'd be fine. There were a lot of hikers around, and we made a tentative plan that I'd go a bit further, then wait for the others so we could descend together. But as I kept on, I noticed a curious thing:  the more I hiked, the better I felt. Picking up my pace, I progressed, checking trail markers now and again to make sure I didn't stray from the path. One hiker, who passed me on his way down, was encouraging. "Just go through there," he said, pointing ahead to a jagged staircase that snaked through a narrow opening between rock walls. "Then turn, go for another 10 minutes, and you're there." OK, I could do this. I picked up speed, still taking care but determined to meet my group at the top. The stairs were easy; I just used the walls for support. When I reached an open area, I scrambled, crawled, slid on my backside (yes, I looked ridiculous and, no, I didn't care) and otherwise did whatever it took to get across without falling. After a few minutes, I spotted the fence surrounding the summit lookout. I got closer, and then heard someone shout, "Melissa!" Then they cheered. I still don't know if it was luck, adrenaline, stubborness or the challenge that got me through, but who cares? It was my last big hike in Oz, and I'd made it.

After the hike, we stopped at an aboriginal cultural center, where we learned some of the history of Australia's native people, including the tragedy of the Stolen Generations -- the forcible removal of aboriginal children from their families from the late 1800s to the 1970s by government agencies and church missions. It was gripping,  enraging and illuminating, and I want to read more about this insane injustice, and the parallels to be drawn with my home country, the U.S.A., where Native American children were funneled into harsh boarding schools, or placed with non-native families, for "assimilation" through the 1970s. I find it impossible to comprehend how anyone, at any time, could think that wrenching children from families was anything other than cruel, arrogant, corrupt and abusive, even when taking the racial prejudices of the era into account. And yet it happened, and for decades, in both countries. There's no understanding it, but I still want to know more.

Back in the present, on tour and on a happier note, we took our lunch break of wraps made of turkey, fresh veggies, guacamole dip and hummus at Tower Hill, the site of an ancient, inactive volcano. Emus wander here but, when they get too close, are easily run off by raising one's arms and chasing them. Usually, that is. One was persistent, staring me down as I stood, holding my wrap on a plate. I tentatively raised one arm and moved toward him, but he just looked at me with an expression that said, "Really?" Then he swooped in for a bite, running off with part of the wrap hanging out of his mouth. "You have hummus on your beak," I called after him, but he was clearly unconcerned. Later, a big male tried to go after another's chicks, prompting the dad emu to hiss and run at the aggressor. It was terrific wildlife theatre and I could have stayed for hours, but we had to leave for the Great Ocean Road, the world's longest war memorial.

The 243 km road, one of the most scenic drives in the world, was built by soldiers returning from World War I and is dedicated to those killed in the war. The lookouts are breathtaking; the Southern Ocean was churning when we were there, with huge waves, and it was cold and windy as we viewed the magnificent rock formations that create the route's iconic views. At one stop, I desperately wanted to see the cemetery where bodies from the Loch Ard shipwreck of 1878 were laid to rest, but we had first explored a beach and there wasn't time for both. (I have since found out that you can follow a historic shipwreck trail, with signposts, along this part of the Victorian coast, and I would love to return to do that one day.) There's a haunting quality about ships and lives lost at sea, especially in such an untamed place, that I find incredibly compelling. For our day's last stop, we walked in crazy winds on the beach (where we passed a couple posing for wedding pictures!) and waited for sunset, only to call it quits after what was left of the sun vanished behind clouds. Happy but exhausted after a long day that had begun with the Pinnacle climb, we drove to Princetown for the night, where we relished hot pizza and drinks at the pub.

Day 3

It was raining and still cold, so we layered rain jackets over jumpers and headed for our walk in the cool, temperate rainforest at Maits Rest in the Great Otway National Park, where Altair briefed us on trees and enormous ferns. We stopped at Kennett River, where I found my favorite kookaburra, spotted koalas and had a riotous time feeding extremely friendly King Parrots, who alighted on heads, shoulders, arms and wrists. A few of them even tried to peck open the bag of birdseed I had in my hand. Full disclosure:  I loved this, even though I was a tangled hot mess of camera gear, hat, scarf, rain wear and parrots. But if you're prone to nightmares about poor Tippi Hedren getting attacked in that damn attic (Hitchcock's "The Birds," for those not-film-buffs reading along), you'll want to brace yourself. (Kidding!  It's really fun, promise.)

Back on the (still cold) road, we had a beachfront barbecue in Lorne, where the wind was so strong (do you sense a theme here?), it knocked over a friend's mostly full beer bottle. We ate grilled angus beef sausages w/fried onions and veggies and generally tried not to freeze -- I was wearing two jumpers and a rain jacket at this point -- then did a fast clean-up before a brief drive to a spot where we took a 45-minute walk to the beautiful Split Point lighthouse. By now, things were wrapping up. We stopped in Torquay to browse surf shops before the home stretch to Melbourne. We were wiped out from hikes, weather that went from warm & sunny, to windy & cold, to rainy & mild, and early wake-ups, but we'd seen amazing beauty and met our challenges with good humor, thanks to a great group and a fun, resourceful guide. Even my ankle, while still black-and-blue and swollen, didn't hurt anymore. As I got ready to hop off the bus in Melbourne, the wallabies on my window were breaking down in the condensation, but you could still see them. And they were, of course, still smiling.