Port Fairy. If the town had still been named "Belfast", I may have kept going, impatient as I was to get onto the Great Ocean Road, but how could anyone go past such a picturesque sounding name?
I'm still in what was once a front line in the war against the hapless whale. The curving bay on which the town developed was named after a whaling ship by its crew. The Fairy seems an incongruous name for something as macho-masculine as a whaling ship, as unlikely as the Bismark being named instead the Barbie Doll, but there you go.
In 1845 a whaling station was established. Eight years later, a man of extraordinary vision and deep pockets to match began virtually single-handedly to build a town. His name was James Atkinson. He was a Sydney solicitor originally from Belfast, hence the name he chose for the town. Given, as it seems, the town's name changing with the frequency of the fortunes of war, the name, "Belfast", was soon under threat when the grand opening of the post office took place with the freshly painted "Port Fairy" proudly displayed on its front wall. Atkinson was having none of that and the Post Master General, or more likely merely an intimidated underling, meekly acquiesced to changing the name of the post office, thereby restoring the official name of the town to Belfast. However in 1887, with the larger than life Atkinson now presumably safely in his grave, "Port Fairy" became once again the town's official name.
The re-namers, unknown to themselves no doubt, were way ahead of the curve, given that tourism was still an idea whose time hadn't yet come. However, if a modern town official with an eye to the riches tourism could provide and needed a hook with tasty bait, he or she would probably be haled as a hero for coming up with the name "Port Fairy". It could even be safely left to someone else to come up with slogan, "gateway to the Great Ocean Road". Case in point: as noted earlier, if the town was still called Belfast, I would have probably not turned off the Prince's Highway. It would have though been a great shame.
It's a hot day but I swear I can feel a different sort of warmth. Could it be the warmth of the town's inherent friendliness? OK, the town's people know a tourist dollar as well as anyone else, and the tourist tidal wave is about to hit the town, but nothing can convince me that the friendliness I'm experiencing is anything but genuine as I do my usual getting-to-know-you stroll about this quaint, little burg. Although not even on the scale by European standards where I've seen houses centuries older than this entire nation, by our own much more modest standards, this town, built in the time when remnants of living memory of the first fleet still existed, has to be considered old. The people responsible for Heritage Listing obviously think so. Many of the original cottages, scrubbed up and in pristine condition which I stop to admire are Heritage listed.
I've arranged accommodation for only one night but after standing on an almost deserted beach being mesmerised bythe gentle splash of waves and deciding that peacefulness should be added to friendliness as the town's main attributes, I'm reconsidering. Two nights at least is what's merited here.
I return to my digs, arrange an additional night's accommodation and take a long, refreshing shower. Since applying a second, this time, water-proof bandage to the leg wound I sustained in the bike mishap on Kangaroo Island, I really haven't thought too much about it. But now as I notice the supposedly water-proof bandage is acting more like a sponge, I accept that I can't postpone a check-up any longer. So I remove the bandage but don't like what I see. A film of yellow pus covers the actual wound and the skin around it is an angry red.
With self-delusion bolstered by wishful thinking, I find a pharmacy where I somewhat stupidly enquire if an ointment or cream might exist which would solve my problem. Not satisfied with my informing her that my wound "might" be infected, the female pharmacist suggests it might be better if she could take a look at it, so we go into a small side room and I show her. A concerned look appears on her face. I already know what she's going to say. She says, "you'll have to see a doctor. You need antibiotics."
It's late in the day by this stage and the availability of a doctor is problematical. The pharmacist suggests I go to the clinic attached to the local hospital. She looks at her watch. "Five O'clock,"
she says. "The doctor there would be leaving about now, but if you hurry you might catch her."
I thank her very much, hop on my bike and follow her directions to the hospital."
I read a sign which tells me to push a button which will ring a bell to summon a nurse. I push, it rings, she appears. I explain the problem. She tells me I'm in luck; the doctor hasn't yet left. She leaves me with a form to fill out and goes to find out if the doctor can see me. She returns quickly with an answer in the affirmative. Then the doctor appears in the waiting room where I'm waiting.
She tells me her first and second names - no Doctor this or Doctor that - in an informal but no-nonsense manner. To use an almost disappeared chunk of vernacular, she's a "good sort" or "a looker", young, juicy and white. I'm trying to keep my mind on why I've come here, and concentrate on seeing her as a doctor and not a woman but it's struggle.
The upshot of all this is that my wound is cleaned, bandaged, a prescription for antibiotics is written out for me and I'm provided with enough pills to tide me over until I can get the prescription filled the next day. This has all happened rapidly, efficiently and highly professionally and it hasn't cost me a cent.
The experience and comparison with what one could expect in many other parts of the world lead me to reflect a short time later on how it shouldn't be a mystery to anybody why third-worlders are smashing down our doors to get in. I could tell some hair-raising stories about the ordeal of attempting to get medical help in "developing" countries but they wouldn't come close to what a young American woman serving in the Peace Corps in Senegal relates about her experience in a "fecalised" environment, aka, a shithole:
"The medicine was stolen by the medical workers and sold to the local store. If you were sick and didn't have money, drop dead. That was normal ... One of my most vivid memories was from the clinic. One day, as the wait grew hotter in the 110 degree [F] heat, an old woman two feet away from the medical aides - who were chatting in the shade of a mango tree instead of working - collapsed to the ground. They turned their heads so as not to see her and kept talking. She lay in the dirt. Callousness to the sick was normal." (What I Learned in the Peace Corps in Africa: Trump is Right by Karin McQuillan - website: Western Voices World News)
My luck has run out. After more than two weeks without so much as seeing a drop of rain, now, as the more uncouth amongst us would say, it's pissing down. I'm in two minds as to whether to go or stay. After finding out the hard way how easy it is to come off a bike on a wet road, I'm not overly happy about the prospect of riding through a rain-storm. I know from past experience how challenging the Great Ocean Road can be and with this extra degree of difficulty, the lure of the road is severely muted. On the other hand, if I stay, I'll simply he holed up indoors and having my otherwise pleasant memories of Port Fairy considerably dampened. I decide to bite the bullet. I don my wet-weather gear and hit the road. Damn the torpedoes! Why am I thinking of torpedoes? Probably because of all this water.
By the time I hit coastal clifftops high above the town I've left behind, the rain has dwindled to a drizzle. Perhaps Mother Nature is giving me a break, although I still have the problem of my helmet visor constantly fogging up. The demands of riding on a road such as this is perversely pleasurable but holds me in a grip of tension. Flashes of scenery from the sea, the beaches and the rocks below are poignantly beautiful but I can spend very little time admiring the view, such is the need to keep my mind on the task at hand. This old route along the coast, hacked out of the rocks and scrub by men a lot better acquainted with hard graft than today's pampered counterparts, is a survival course of twists, turn and hairpin bends. I'm silently giving thanks to whoever it is responsible for placing the recommended speed signs at the entrance of every new hazard. They're very close to being right on the money and are potential life-savers. At regular intervals, on another type of sign, is written "In Australia we drive on the left-hand side of the road". This is a response to the number of collisions caused on this already treacherous road by overseas tourists driving on the wrong side. This doesn't diminish the tension I'm feeling
The sharp changes of direction, a lot of the time causing my heart to relocate to my mouth, seem to go on forever. It's punctuated with a few straight runs, albeit short and then I'm twisting and turning again. The longest stretch of unremitting torment, I calculate to be at least fifty kilometres long. I remember with some amusement, and perhaps with even a touch of gloating, how the young guns of Sydney like to test themselves out over a similar challenge through the nearby Royal National Park - lasting perhaps all of ten minutes.
The scrub has given way to rain-forest, indicating high precipitation, but luckily for me, today's rain has ceased, at least for the time being. I'm now stifling in the wet-weather gear but it's probably fifteen minutes or so before I can find enough room off-road to stop and shed it.
I'm now on the stretch of the road that has given the Great Ocean Road its fame and allure - where the crazy limestone formations have somehow survived while the rest of the coast has retreated inland. They have names such as Loch Ard Gorge, The Grotto, and the London Arch which was formerly known as the much more evocative London Bridge until the span connecting it with the cliff suddenly collapsed stranding two hapless tourists until their rescue by helicopter.
Seeing the formations entails parking in designated areas and following paths to lookouts at the very edge of the cliff. A gang of ethnically diverse tourists await me at each location, gabbling, shutter-bugging and craning their necks unnecessarily, there being no more to see than with un-craned necks. With all the hogging going on, it's sometimes difficult to gain a space at the railing.
I do this a few times and find that I'm essentially moving with the same crowd and our familiarity with one another is falling just short of signs of acknowledgment. But as I've never liked crowds and the law of diminishing returns seems to be applying in regard to the impact of the formations, the process starts to wear thin.
I decide to do one more stop at the Twelve Apostles, the numerically overblown name given to towers of rock standing roughly in a long line as though guarding the coast. Numbering only nine with they were originally named, there are now only eight due to an unfortunate collapse. To earn that moniker, eleven may have cut it - something could have been said about Judas being punted for obvious reasons - but eight? Perhaps Victorian Tourism is simply banking on no-one actually counting.
I remember from a visit years ago being able to simply pull up by the side of the road, walk perhaps fifty metres along a rough track and be able to take in the vista punctuated by the brooding limestone towers. How things have changed. If one wants to stop here now, a side road must be taken leading away from the cliff tops to a car-park, the size of which would do a major sporting complex proud, and even with this enormous size I'm hard-pressed to find a sliver of space for my bike. The building the car-park fronts could actually be mistaken for a Coliseum-like stadium. It's a "visitor centre" and I'm musing on just how many visitors stop here to warrant a building of this size. Evidently it houses a restaurant, cafe, gift shop and all the usual razzmatazz to part the visitor from the money loosened by the excitement of visiting a natural wonder, or wonders. Beyond the car-park is a heli-pad from which a helicopter is whisking eager sight-seers away on a twenty minute aerial tour. I can't take this. It's not so much a fear of crowds that afflicts me; it's more a strong desire to not be a part of them. Do I really need to see the Apostles again given I've seen them before, and that was when there were nine of them. The answer is no.
A few minutes later I'm a happily blasting along the coast road again in splendid isolation. I'm marvelling that apart from people in cars, not another soul is around. Did I really just see such a multitude of people concentrated in such a small space where everywhere else is wide open space?
It's starting to seem I've suffered some kind of vivid delusion.
After descending from what we in Australia would call a mountain (known as a hill in most other parts of the world) I arrive at a town with a name as equally captivating as Port Fairy, if not even more so. It's Apollo Bay, narrowly hugging a long scimitar of beach to where huge cliffs arise again in the north. It's still broodingly overcast but a few beams of sunlight are slanting down to colour parts of the beach gold, and parts of the long, adjoining park a bright green. I won't be going any further today, feeling as physically and mentally washed out as I do by the grueling ride.
I locate a large hostel called Surfside, which unsurprisingly is popular with nomadic surfies. The manageress is a pleasant and helpful elderly woman who never seems to stop smiling even when she points out a tree to me, which she complains is the nightly haunt of two koala bears who keep her awake with their ongoing altercation. Perhaps it's a territorial thing; although it may be simply a domestic disturbance. Either way, I'm surprised. I've always assumed koalas were always too whacked out on eucalyptus leaves to argue with anybody. She seems to like my lame joking that, given the circumstances, she should perhaps consider raising their tariff.
Maybe because she can see I'm a man with a sense of humour, she allocates me a large room with six beds with mine being the only bed that will be slept in. Jackpot! A private room at the cost of share room.