Cracking Up On the Coast from Victoria to NSW

We’ve seen way too many pirate-themed mini golf courses around the southeast coast of Australia.

We’ve seen way too many pirate-themed mini golf courses around the southeast coast of Australia.

“Oh no,” Morgan said in a voice suppressing deep, demented giggles. We had just checked into a “deluxe cabin” at the Anchor Belle Caravan Park on Phillip Island and were thumbing through visitors’ brochures. “It says here that Phillip Island has so much to offer, it’s worth a whole day!” He unleashed his manic laughter. “Good thing we’re spending FIVE days here!”

We’re getting punchy on this swing through Australia. Perhaps we’ve spent too much time at mini golf courses and RV parks. Perhaps we’ve had too many budget meals at surf shacks with names like Doctor Food (where Morgan ate a half-cooked burger, dramatically clutched his stomach and said, “Call the doctor — I just ate at Doctor Food!”). Perhaps it’s because all the gum trees and little coastal towns inhabited by white retirees look so similar that we feel we’re driving in circles rather than northward.

The other day we were driving from a town called Lakes Entrance to our current spot, Batemans Bay, in torrential rain. A gummy gray gum tree forest dominated the so-called scenic coastal route. We pulled over to a picnic spot in the squall, where one sad, wet table stood surrounded by endless eucalyptus, and I announced, “Lunchtime!” Then I pulled out our picnic of P&Js and hard-boiled eggs. We all knew without saying that it was too wet to get outside, so we unwrapped our sandwiches and carefully peeled our eggs in baggies while sitting strapped in the car seats.

The four of us sat quietly chewing until Morgan, in the driver’s seat, choked down a bite and broke the silence to declare, “Well, this is fun.” My shoulders started to shake as I looked over and saw that he was overcome by another fit of laughter as well. The kids, observing from the backseat, concluded that their parents were lost in more ways than one.

But back to Phillip Island — in my last post I went into great detail (more than anyone probably cared to know) about why we thought the Phillip Island Penguin Parade bordered on the absurd. I feel compelled to balance that cranky essay with descriptions of a couple of places that were worth the high price of admission.

Kyle (seen here with a ranger) got to milk a cow and learned about 19th-century farm life at Churchill Island.

Kyle (seen here with a ranger) got to milk a cow and learned about 19th-century farm life at Churchill Island.

We thought a visit to Churchill Island would be a bit of a snooze, but it turned out to be more fun and interesting than most of the museums and interactive centers we’ve visited in Australia. This tiny island, sitting across a bridge from Phillip Island, is preserved as a “heritage farm,” which means it’s a working farm and history center operating much as it did in its late 19th/early 20th century heyday. The displays in the restored cottages and barns are really well done — everything from baking to blacksmithing — and who knew we’d get to milk a cow?

We also wrongly assumed that the Phillip Island Wildlife Park would be a rinky-dink petting zoo, based on the appearance of its entranceway. But it, too, was fun and educational — and a bit hairy at times. Try standing in an open pasture filled with kangaroos and emus. You want to give a handful of food to the wizened old roos because they’re so humble and patient, but every time you reach for your pocket, an evil-eyed emu who meets you at eye level zooms up and invades your personal space. You take the handful of food and fling it away so the emu will back off, and the diversion works for ten seconds so you can slip the roo some food, but then the emu is back in your face demanding more and making you back away.

Every time we tried to feed the kangaroos, the emus moved in to get a bite.

Every time we tried to feed the kangaroos, the emus moved in to get a bite.

Emus like to get waaaaaaayyyyy too close!

Emus like to get waaaaaaayyyyy too close!

We saw a fantastic array of animals, birds and reptiles there, including Australia’s other large, flightless bird, the cassowary, which Colly accurately said looks like “a dinosaur turkey.”

One of the "dinosaur turkeys" (a cassowary).

One of the "dinosaur turkeys" (a cassowary).

And of course there were hordes of the roos’ relatives — the sweet wallabys and the smaller pademelons.

These wallabys were so sweet, they reminded us a little of our dog back home.

These wallabys were so sweet, they reminded us a little of our dog back home.

If you crossed a kangaroo with a rat, you'd probably get one of these: a pademelon.

If you crossed a kangaroo with a rat, you'd probably get one of these: a pademelon.

We liked the Wildlife Park more than the soporific Koala Conservation Centre located nearby. After strolling around the koala center, straining to spot the bears that blend into the trees, we all felt a bit stupefied and left yawning.

A "two-fur"! This is the most alert koala we saw at the Koala Conservation Centre; most were dozing like this one underneath the one that's climbing.

A "two-fur"! This is the most alert koala we saw at the Koala Conservation Centre; most were dozing like the one underneath the one that's climbing.

After wandering through the Koala Conservation Centre, the kids were ready to take a nap.

After wandering through the Koala Conservation Centre, the kids were ready to take a nap.

And finally, I’d recommend the place we stayed, the Anchor Belle Holiday Park — it’s nicer than some of the RV campgrounds (what Kiwis call “holiday parks” and Aussies call “caravan parks”) that we’ve stayed in. All of these parks rent cabins as well as RV hookups, and they’re a good deal for the money — we get a stand-alone unit with two bedrooms and a kitchen on or near the beach for about US$135/night, less than most motel rooms around here, and generally they cater to families with kids so it’s safe for Colly and Kyle to run around. The Anchor Belle, near Cowes, had an indoor pool, gas stove, real synthetic wood floors and carpeting, and relatively new linens. (One learns not to take these things for granted.)

Our cabin at the campervan park near Cowes on Phillip Island.

Our cabin at the campervan park near Cowes on Phillip Island.

These Down Under digs have turned Morgan and me into quasi experts on the plastic-walled construction and fixtures featured in mobile estates. Did you know that only the best come with a built-in clock radio in the master suite? These radios are all identical and all have knobs and buttons that were state-of-the-art when I was in preschool. It’s as though they were mass-produced for storm shelters, held in a warehouse for twenty-five years, and then sold at a discount to Jayco, the leading manufacturer of recreational vehicles and deluxe cabins across this continent. Morgan and I spent the better part of one evening imaging the sales pitches used to offload these units and their radios: “Buy this home now for no money down, and we’ll even include a custom clock radio!”

Morgan expresses amazement at the custom clock radios in the master bedrooms of campervan cabins throughout Australia.

Morgan expresses amazement at the custom clock radios in the finer master bedrooms of campervan cabins throughout Australia.

Clearly we’ve been deprived of regular conversation with other adults for too long. We’re in our last week here and then it’s off to Hong Kong, where I’m sure we’ll feel completely at home and normal again.

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