04. Dumb Luck

  1. 01. A Free Ride
  2. 02. Railroaded
  3. 03. The End of the Line
  4. 04. Dumb Luck
  5. 05. A Bad Review
  6. 06. Happy Trails
  7. 07. The Idiot Police
  8. 08. A Wet Dream
  9. 09. Cycling Nemeses
  10. 10. Damn

After nearly a century of railroading Victorians with the stuff, V/Line banned alcohol from its trains in 2008. This presented something of an ethical dilemma, as I consider a glass of wine (or twelve) on a train ride to be an unalienable right. Thus, I filled my bicycling “water bottle” with a pleasant Sauvignon Blanc. In the spirit of Thoreau, Gandhi and King, I nonviolently perpetrated civil disobedience all the way to Warrnambool, the elixir helping me ignore the leper whacking my seat back.

We arrived in Warrnambool at ten-thirty in the evening. It was cold, windy and damp, a thick mist verging on drizzle filling the air. Collecting our bicycles from the baggage car, we strapped on our bags. It did not seem a good idea to ride in the dark and wet the single kilometer to our AirBnB accommodation, especially given the amount of “water” I had drunk. We set off on foot, pushing our bikes alongside.

On the way, we passed The Gallery Club, perhaps Warrnambool’s most notorious nightspot. Several large, black-shirted bouncers loitered and smoked outside. From what I could see, the place was nearly empty, even on a Saturday night just before eleven. I made a mental note never to show up at The Gallery Club before eleven – or after.

Our AirBnB host was most helpful in allowing and arranging an 11 pm arrival. As promised, her friend met us at the door of the former storefront, handed us the key, and fled. We had booked the place at the last minute, and since it was one of the busiest weekends of the year (Australia Day was Tuesday), we had thin pickings from which to choose. This joint was less than half the price of anything else on offer. While the host was responsive to our enquiries, she had a tenuous grasp of written English, leaving us uncertain whether or not sheets and linens were included. To be on the safe side, we brought our own – not a small concession when trying to fit one’s luggage on the back of a bicycle.

It was a good thing. The place was an absolute dump, frighteningly filthy in tucked away corners. I will talk about this – as well as the more general advantages and dangers of AirBnB accommodation – in a later post. For the time being, suffice to say that had not we brought our own sheets, we would have slept under a bridge.

We had brought along our own coffee, too, but in the morning I discovered there was no way to make coffee. When it comes to coffee, I have low standards, and can be very creative finding a way to make it. A common last resort is straining hot water through a colander with a paper towel full of ground coffee, into a pot below. But no pot, no paper towels, no colander. Try as I might, I could not figure out how to make coffee using only an electric wok, kettle and rice steamer.

So we found ourselves wandering the streets of Warrnambool at six-thirty on a Sunday morning, looking for someplace selling coffee. The fresh air was a welcome change from the musty stench we had slept in. Down the street, a dubious looking mob lingered outside a pub, probably still awake from their previous evening’s exploits, Frank speculated. We headed in the opposite direction, up the street, coming across a bored taxi driver leaning on his cab.

“Where can we get a cuppa coffee around here?” I asked.

“Good question” he replied, rising to scan the street. “The bakery there is good, but they’re closed.” he said, pointing across the street, stating the obvious. “I s’pose Macca’s is your best bet – if you are that desperate.”

We were. Low standards, indeed. Two blocks further along was McDonald’s, where two cups of coffee and one muffin came to $13. Never mind the five dollar muffin, since when does McDonald’s coffee cost four dollars a cup? I felt very old.

Afterwards we hopped on the bikes, sans baggage, and pedaled the five kilometers to the only place in Warrnambool one can rent a car on a Sunday morning. Locking up the bicycles, we set out by car on the Princes Highway, westward towards Portland and Cape Bridgewater, to check out our “wind farm”.

The story behind how we became “wind farmers” is a testimony to the idea that if one must choose between being smart and being lucky, choose lucky.

We had been looking for a place to park our house money in real estate for a couple years while we were out of the country. Undeveloped land was attractive because it did not involve having tenants. I was uncomfortable with being a landlord, even though I’d been one a couple times and never had any trouble. It just doesn’t sit right with me, owning somebody else’s home.

Before the wind turbine
The Blowholes

We found a thirty acre parcel at land’s end on Cape Bridgewater which boasted several unusual attractions. It was on the waterfront, except for a hundred meter wide strip of crown land which wrapped around it. There, the highest cliffs on the Victorian coast had been attached to Antarctica only a few million years earlier. The Blowholes were a well-known tourist attraction, where the monstrous swells of the roaring forties made first landfall since Argentina in spectacular fashion. Upon and adjacent to the land is the so-called Petrified Forest where Charles Darwin himself came ashore and made copious notes, having anchored the Beagle just offshore. The Great Southwest Walk, one Victoria’s premier hiking trails, follows the Crown land for its length. It is truly a remarkable place.

A man who owned a gazillion acres out there had decided to sell the small parcel because of two quirks. First the State had built a road to the Blowholes, bisecting his land, giving him the legal right to subdivide using the road as a border, which he did. And last, while the parcel was subject to an option to build wind turbines upon it, the company that held the option had submitted its plans to the State, and the plans showed no intention to build wind turbines anywhere near the parcel, citing community concerns to keep the area around the Blowholes, the Petrified Forest and the Great Southwest Walk free of visual clutter. Instead, they’d put the wind turbines on the other side of the cape, near the beach.

IMG_1366We bought the land. Then the State rejected the option-holding company’s plan. In effect, the State told them to keep the turbines out of sight of the beach, and by the way, they were not fussed about visual clutter around the Blowholes, the Petrified Forest and the Great Southwest Walk. A couple years later our small investment is providing a five-figure annual income (depending on how the wind blows, literally) for the next twenty-five years.

I’ll take dumb luck any day.IMG_1368

It is difficult to overstate just how dumb our luck has been. Prior to settlement, our lawyer went to great lengths to make sure the land came with an approved building permit for a house, telling us the land was virtually worthless without it. After the purchase, we let the building permit expire. Then we discovered they wanted to build a wind turbine on our land, which included the second windiest spot on the cape. Soon the wind turbine, thirty stories high, was built and money started rolling in.

How difficult could it be to get another building permit for a house? As it turned out, next to impossible. When we tried, the shire had completely changed the planning scheme. Our application was rejected with a list of reasons a mile long, none of which made any sense. Strangely, the massive wind turbine structure — thirty stories tall, mind you — was deemed to be legally invisible, the State’s renewable energy policy trumping the shire’s desire to keep the land undeveloped. Despite this, any house would have to be really invisible, mostly underground.

IMG_1371There’s a fair amount of animosity in the Portland area towards landowners with wind turbines. On one visit we stopped in to have a chat with the real estate man who brokered our purchase. He launched into a tirade about how we were idiots who had made a huge mistake. I could not defend the idiot accusation, but I did point out to him that he had said something very different when he sold us the land subject to the option to build the wind turbine.

Unsurprisingly, landowners enjoying the cash flow hope wind power will save the world. Equally, neighbors without such enticement believe the wind turbines to be a curse, devaluing their land, a visual blight, the inevitable cause of extinction of numerous species, the trigger of epileptic seizures. They may be right about all those things. Although I am no doctor, I have difficulty believing that windmills cause cancer and bleeding from the ears, the most peculiar evils of which they have been accused.

We arrived and began a tromp around the property line before noon. All of the dozen or so wind turbines in sight, including the one on our land, were twirling away, saving the planet. Our fences had deteriorated a bit, and we found a few carelessly discarded beer bottles, but there was nothing new in that. We came across the family of eastern grey kangaroos – properly referred to as a “troop”, by the way – that have lived there for some years. IMG_1381They regarded us with the suspicious irritation due tourists from locals, then jauntily bounded off into the bush. All was well.

We tried to get lunch on Cape Bridgewater Beach at the Bridgewater Bay Café, which generally puts out an excellent product. The place was a madhouse, an Australia Day weekend line stretching well out the door.

Instead, Cafe Bahloo back in Portland provided an excellent and unexpectedly cheap lunch. Recommended. Comfortably perched on the patio we relaxed watching the port and foreshore, crazy-busy with holiday-makers.

Portland is a pretty yet gritty working class town. Its biggest employer is an Alcoa aluminium smelter, and it has a busy deep water port that exports things such as wood chips and mineral sands. Like many of Victoria’s regional centres, the streets were designed wide enough for a coach-and-eight (horses) to bang a U-turn, and most intersections have broad traffic circles instead of traffic lights. To this day, it works well for the many trucks that trundle through town.

In recent years Portland has come to view itself as a hub for green energy, with wind turbine manufacturing, solar energy, tidal or wave energy, and geo-thermal energy plants or demonstration projects underway. Portland has yet to embrace its tourism potential, and I think it doubtful that it ever will. Signs warn pedestrians to give way to vehicular traffic, encouraging strollers to get back in their cars, and motorists to motor on past.

By four o’clock we had dropped off the rental car and were cycling back into Warrnambool. Confronted with the unpleasant prospect of entering our prepaid AirBnB accommodation once again, we stopped in a nice hotel to see if anything had become available. . Hope springs eternal. They did have one room available, but at ridiculous cost, particularly in light of the money spent on the other accommodation. Rather than dwell in our prepaid dismal surrounds, we decided to stay out late, to experience all Warrnambool had to offer on a Sunday night.

Lake Pertrobe

It worked out okay, much to my surprise. We took a bottle of wine down to a bluff overlooking Pertrobe Lake and the sea. The sun set while we sat at a picnic table, torturing seagulls by not offering them any of our nibbles. Dinner at Bojangles (decent pizza) with another bottle of wine followed. Then, we bowled two strings of ten-pin at an unlicensed bowl-a-drome. IMG_1386How does a bowling alley stay in business without a liquor license? Finally, we had a last bottle at a quirky restaurant named Images with a pleasant sidewalk café, ensuring we were snockered enough to fall fast asleep in a hurry once back at our rooms.

We did.