In May 2013, my friend and I were nearing the end of our time in Australia, having travelled the length of Cairns to Melbourne by bus. We were determined to end our trip on a high. After packing an esky full of beer and sausages, we set out for one final road trip, this time driving the Great Ocean Road. It didn’t take long to realise that we had definitely saved the best till last.
The Great Ocean Road is a 250km stretch of road running from Torquay to Warnambool. As the name implies, the road is famous for running past some of southern Australia’s most dramatic coastal scenery. The inland scenery is equally spectacular too, taking in everything from rolling hills to ancient rainforests.
While it’s definitely possible to do the drive as part of an organised trip from Melbourne, I was so glad we decided to drive it ourselves. We had no time constraints, no set itinerary and nothing to stop us deviating off the beaten track. In the end, we spent three days on the road. We were lucky enough to be able to borrow a van from friends. (It’s a debt I’ll be eternally grateful for!).
While it’s near impossible to put into words how beautiful this part of the country is, here’s a round-up of some of the highlights:
For many, the small surfing town of Torquay marks the starting point of their Great Ocean Road adventure. For us, it became our first resting point, after a few mishaps leaving Melbourne!
Because we were there in Winter, the town was practically deserted. There was little else to do other than to take a walk up the coastal path to the war memorial, where we felt blessed to have views like this to ourselves:
Just a little further along the coast from Torquay lies Bell’s Beach, home to the world’s longest-running surfing competition – the Rip Curl Pro Surf & Music Festival. I was amazed when we arrived at the beach, both at how inaccessible it seemed (the cliffs are really, really high!), and by the fact that despite the freezing cold temperatures, there were surfers out and about doing their thing! The waves here are seriously impressive. Even if you’re not a surfer yourself, make sure you spend some time checking out the skills on the surf.
Anglesea is a pretty little holiday town, famous for its beach, rare flora, and resident kangaroos. Rumour had it that the best place to spot the cheeky ‘roos was actually the golf course. Naturally, we had to check it out for ourselves….
This photo cracks me up every time. The fact that the golfer and the kangaroos are equally unaffected by each other’s presence sums up everything that is great about this country.
Lorne is a colourful and charismatic town with a cracking beach and an amazing selection of cafes and bars. It’s the perfect place to stop for refuelling along the way. We stopped here on the second morning of our trip, where we had some seriously epic pancakes at the gorgeous Lick & Sip cafe.
As pals will no doubt verify, I built up somewhat of an obsession with koalas throughout our time in Australia. I don’t really know why. Maybe it has something to do with how cute and fuzzy they are. It could be the fact that they look like grumpy old men. Perhaps it’s because 90% of their lives are spent sleeping, eating or getting high on eucalypt.
Whatever it is, I just love the little fuzzballs. I became increasingly determined throughout our travels that we simply had to find koalas. Not in a zoo or a visitor park – it had to be wild koalas. Unfortunately, the little critters are notoriously hard to spot. Despite many a lengthy trek through the Australian wilderness, it seemed we were running out of luck. Then came Kennett River.
This sleepy little hamlet is as much famous for its resident koalas as it is its landscape. As you can see from the signs, the town’s marsupials have gained somewhat of a celebrity status:
There’s only 45km between Lorne and Apollo Bay, and yet the journey feels significantly longer. Until this point, we had mostly been driving through low-lying beach towns and agricultural land. Now, we were faced with a long and winding road that hugged the clifftops closely. It was a drive that had to be taken slowly, not just for the sharp bends and sheer drops, but in order to better enjoy the views.
There are several viewpoints along the way which are well worth the stop. It’s not uncommon to see whales between May and September. Though we weren’t quite that lucky, the views out over the colossal hills are just incredible.
By the time we reached Apollo Bay, we were glad to be down at shore level again. We were even happier to discover that not only is the town home to one of the most beautiful beaches we had found yet in Australia, but it also did a mean fish and chips!
Great Otway National Park
On our third morning, we decided to venture inland to explore the Otway National Park. Within moments of leaving Apollo Bay, the landscape changes dramatically. Gone are the low, sloping sands and in their place lies lush, dense rainforest. We took a drive up into the hills to the Triplet Falls Rainforest Walk. The walk itself probably takes an hour, but it’s well worth it, as the giant ferns and 200-year-old trees loom at you from above.
Cape Otway Lighthouse
In case you hadn’t noticed, I’ve got a bit of a thing for lighthouses. This is partly because I grew up on an island where lighthouses have an important presence. It’s also because my granddad was a lighthouse keeper, a tradition which sadly no longer exists.
The station at Cape Otway is the oldest surviving lighthouse in mainland Australia, having been in operation since 1848. For thousands of immigrants, after many months at sea, Cape Otway was their first sight of land after leaving Europe. The lighthouse itself marked the end of a very long journey. We decided to make the hour-long round trip to visit the lighthouse, but were a little surprised to be met with a charge to go beyond the car park.
The Twelve Apostles
The Twelve Apostles are, without a doubt, the stars of the Great Ocean Road. Many people will make the drive just for a quick photo opportunity!
These limestone sea stacks are the product of coastal erosion. What you can’t tell from a photograph is just how tall these structures are. At 45m above sea height, it’s incredible to think that anything that size could withstand the force of the waves for so long!
I was amazed too by the colours. Australia is famous for its red soil, and yet I had never seen it so clearly exposed as it was here in the layers of the cliff faces. There are lots of great walkways and viewing platforms which give photo opportunities. Be warned though – it gets incredibly busy and stressful! To avoid the crowds, I’d recommend taking a walk down nearby Gibson Steps. There, you can look up at The Apostles from the shore, though it’s important to take into account how quickly the tide comes in. It’d also be worth making the effort to come at sunrise or sunset when things will be quieter and you can enjoy views like this to yourself:
Loch Ard Gorge
This beautiful gorge, just a short drive from The Twelve Apostles, was named after Loch Ard, a ship which ran aground on nearby Muttonbird Island in 1878. According to the story, the ship was making its way from England to Melbourne when it ran into trouble shortly before reaching its final destination. Of the 54 people on board, only two survived after making it in to the calmer waters of the gorge.
This part of Victoria is often referred to as the Shipwreck Coast. Over the years, it’s believed that 700 ships have succumbed to the waters here, with less than a third of those ever being discovered. At various points along the Great Ocean Road, you’ll find signs marking points of interest along the Historic Shipwreck Trail.
Port Campbell will always hold a special place in my heart. Not just because of its simple and natural beauty, but because it marked the end of our Great Ocean Road adventure and thus the end of our time in Australia. We had literally reached the end of the road.
Pulling up at our final stop, we knew that there was nothing else for it but to crack open a beer and sit down by the shore, watching the tide come and go. As the sun slid lazily through the clouds, a quietness came over us both. Our time on the Great Ocean Road had been so meaningful. Not just because of the places we had seen and the landscapes we had encountered, but because of how great it felt to be on the road with no constraints, no responsibilities and nothing but the sense of adventure driving us on. This truly was Australia at its best and boy, were we going to miss it.