Riding the Royal Road: Australia's Princes Highway

Riding the Royal Road: Australia's Princes Highway
The Hume Highway is a one-day straight shot of superslab, notorious for the fleets of truck convoys thundering over its tarmac, their drivers reputedly addled by sleep deprivation and amphetamines. Aussie bikers call it the "Gloom and Doom," and avoid it like warm beer.Then, there's the Princes Highway, a two-day ramble around Victoria's rolling farmland and the coast of New South Wales. Though it too has its challenges  -  wildlife incursions and indifferent surfacing, for example  -  the Princes easily persuades riders to take their time and smell the roses.

Royal Road Revisited

I'm reprising the route of a 1986 trip when Cheryl and I bought a Ford Falcon beater in Sydney's western suburbs, and hit the Princes Highway to Melbourne. Memories of that time summon up bright, cheerful seaside towns, spectacular sunrises, and barreling through forests of gum trees on a winding tarmac ribbon.

Back to the present, I'm starting in more prosaic circumstances in Ballarat, Australia's gold-rush boomtown, circa 1860  -  just about the time when my peeling stucco motel was built it seems. In weak morning sunshine I point the Aprilia Futura onto the Western Freeway and roll toward Melbourne. Clouds in the west presage a weather system sweeping in behind me, and I'd prefer to stay ahead of it. I also need to make some calls: my cellphone won't work in Oz, and attempts to connect from the motel were thwarted by a pulse-dial-only line. I've also learned that pay phones are sparse in Oz. Only rarely do diners or gas stations have them.

The Princes Highway skirts the coast near Lakes Entrance, Victoria.

Getting into Melbourne is a breeze: the Western Freeway shuffles me through sluggish traffic into the heart of the city. But getting out again is frustrating. My map marks road numbers, but street signs show only destinations. The trams that whisk commuters through the city center's wide streets choke the narrow arterial roads, blocking intersections and exits. The Futura isn't enjoying this either  -  its overheating engine hunting and coughing. By blind chance, I find the Toorak Road, which I know will take me toward Dandenong. (Melbourne cynics call SUVs "Toorak tractors," so named for the tony suburb.)

The first hundred miles or so of the Princes is freeway, so I'm detouring south on a pilgrimage to Phillip Island, home of Australia's Moto GP and the Fairy Penguin Parade®. The heavy clouds that chased me into Melbourne are booming as I roll along on the pleasantly undulating Bass Highway through neat, tree-lined fields. Phillip Island, looking like a ragged droplet hanging off the South Gippsland coast, is connected by a spit of land and a splendid bridge; and real droplets are spattering my visor as I enter sand-swept Newhaven, a shoreline shamble of beachfront shacks and trinket stores.

In the thin drizzle, I park at the Phillip Island circuit and start looking for some excitement. Look as I might, there isn't much to shout about. The Moto GP track is deserted, but the track's museum is splendid, featuring many historic machines, including Wayne Gardner's 1987 World Championship Honda GP bike. Back on the Futura, I roll down to the Island's south shore to witness the penguin parade, but signs tell me this contingency of the shy seabirds won't arrive until 6:15 p.m., by which time it will be dark. I head to the beach anyway, in case any penguins were confused by the recent ending of Daylight Saving Time...but no.