Driving Australia’s Great Ocean Road

There can be few more aptly-named places in the world than the Great Ocean Road which skirts the coastline of the southern Australian state of Victoria. There is Ocean. There is Road. And it is Great, both in its grandeur and its experience.

The exact start and end point of the Great Ocean Road appears to vary according to source; our version – undertaken in April 2010 – starts at Portland in the west and will end 352 km away at Torquay in the east, spread over a leisurely five days.

Having spent a few nights in the Grampian Highlands, we first hit the coast at Portland. Plans to visit Cape Bridgewater are scuppered as the drive from Halls Gap has taken longer than anticipated and, more importantly, it is pissing down. How entertaining would a distant seal colony and a blow-hole be in the pouring rain? So no disrespect to the fine people of Portland but at this stage it represents little more than a first glimpse of the coast and a left turn, before we head 75km east to the delightfully named Port Fairy. Well Hello Sailor!

Our motel apparently boasts once of the best restaurants in Port Fairy, but it’s closed today (a Tuesday). So we head off to check out Port Fairy’s four pubs, three of which are frighteningly empty and the other merely frightening. We stop for a couple of beers in a pub that has more opportunities to gamble than consecutive nights out in Vegas and Macau, but there ain’t much happening in Port Fairy tonight. Mind you, with a population of just 2,835 people, that should not be entirely unexpected.

The following day begins with a walk around Griffiths Island, which is nice enough, home to one of the ‘Shipwreck Coast’s’ four still-working lighthouses, and to a colony of mutton birds, or shearwaters. When the season is right that is, and April is not it. Then we’re back on the road – this is a driving tour after all – heading west towards Port Campbell.

The rental car incidentally, a Toyota Camry, is a dream to drive, particularly in comparison to the VW Golf we’re used to driving. When you’re doing 100kmh in a ten-year-old rattle-trap of a convertible Golf, you know it. When you’re doing 100kmh in a new, super-smooth Japanese saloon, it feels like you’re at home sitting on the sofa.

We stop off at the sizeable town of Warrnambool, and a make quick detour to Logan’s Beach where in the winter months, Southern Right whales are regularly seen in the waters. But obviously not today, although it is a nice spot to stop and take a poke around anyway. So, there’s a valuable tip…if you’re looking for shearwaters and whales, make sure you come at the right time of year.

We continue on up the Prince’s Highway until we reach Peterborough and the Bay of Islands National Park, where the Great Ocean Road hugs the coastline for the first time (or the last time depending on which way you’re travelling). And this is more like it. A strip of coastline where the relentless waves of the Southern Ocean have sculpted the sandstone rocks into a series of spectacular cliffs, coves, caves, arches and stacks.

And just a few clicks down the road there’s more at the Arches Marine Sanctuary in the shape of the more famous London Bridge and The Arch – although London Bridge has infamously fallen down. Previously a double-arched rock platform linked to the mainland by a narrow bridge across which visitors could walk, on 14th January 1990, the bridge collapsed leaving two tourists stranded on the world’s newest island (description courtesy of Lonely Planet). They were eventually helicoptered to safety – doubtless with soiled trousers but one hell of a story to tell (description courtesy of myself).

From there it’s a short drive to Port Campbell and our accommodation at the Sea Foam Motel, slap bang in the centre of town. A stroll around the town takes about two minutes, before an excellent dinner at Room Six restaurant, and a beer or two in the Caledonian Hotel.

Everything in Port Campbell is Loch Ard this or Loch Ard that, and justifiably so. The Loch Ard was a tea-clipper that went down in 1878 with only two survivors, both aged 19, who were fortunately swept into what is now known as Loch Ard Gorge. For some reason Loch Ard Gorge remains in the shadows of the far more famous Twelve Apostles for in my humble opinion, this area is the most spectacular part of the Great Ocean Road coastline. The Twelve Apostles may be more accessible, and the Road itself more scenic between Lorne and Anglesea, but the effect of ocean meeting land is nowhere more dramatic than here.

The entrance to the cove that is Loch Ard Gorge is so narrow that the pincer-like cliffs appear to be moving together rather than being eroded away. The cliff faces are imposing sheer drops, the caves dark and eerie, and with the overcast and rather gloomy weather we’re experiencing today, there is a bleak, threatening and even foreboding feel to the place. It doesn’t require much imagination to conjure up images of wild storms, floundering ships and suffering souls.

Loach Ard Gorge

Loch Ard Gorge

A little way along the cliff-top is a collapsed sink-hole so far back from the cliff face that it appears to have opened up from nowhere. The various features of erosion – sink-holes, blow-holes, and the gorge itself, are all different stages of the same geological process. It’s a living geography lesson unfolding in front of you.

A short drive along the coast and the signs point us to the most famous of the Ocean Road’s features, the Twelve Apostles. The Lonely Planet reports of further plans to commercialise the Visitors Centre, although they seem to be doing pretty well so far.

After Loch Ard’s gorges, grottoes and blow holes, the Twelve Apostles are actually something of a disappointment. Aside from being rather busy (who mentioned pots and kettles?), there aren’t Twelve Apostles at all. There are seven stacks visible from the viewing platform, two more in the opposite direction, and of course one fell down as recently as July 3, 2005. One day it was there, and the next it wasn’t. Now you see me, now you don’t. Given time, each of the current Apostles will eventually collapse, but the continuous erosive action of the ocean will doubtless create more. The aforementioned London Bridge will eventually evolve from an arch to become a pair of stacks. And so on. Ad infinitum.

The Twelve Apostles

The Twelve Apostles

Not far from the Indeterminate Number of Apostles are the Gibson Steps, one of the few places along this treacherous section of coastline where it is actually possible to access the beach and see the magnificence of the sheer cliffs from the bottom up. God bless the perseverance of the feller who laboured over cutting the original steps into the cliff face. He must have been exceptionally committed to his morning constitutional swim.

And on. A 12km diversion down some narrow windy roads through thick eucalyptus forest brings us to Cape Otway, the second most southerly point of mainland Australia, and another lighthouse. For AUD 16 you can access the lighthouse keeper’s house, the telegraph signalman’s house, the lighthouse itself, and learn what a dismally desolate life it was living here throughout the latter part of the 19th century. Those were the days when men were men, and they, and their families, bore responsibility with fortitude and stoicism. Twelve years keeping a light flashing on a windswept rocky outcrop with no one else around for miles? That’s the job for me, Sir! I’d’ve abandoned my post and hastened back to the nearest metropolis at the first intemperate gust.

The lighthouse is still working although more for tourist’s and tradition’s sake than any functional purpose having been, as the staff explain, made redundant by GPS. For every technological development that improves our lives something gets consigned to history.

From Cape Otway it is then a 30km drive to Apollo Bay, our next resting place. Dinner is taken in the Apollo Bay Hotel, notable primarily for the size of the portions, something which seems true of most restaurants we’ve visited in Oz. Perhaps it’s part of Australia’s ceaseless quest to become more and more American to follow the Americans even into obesity? On which point Australia seems to be noticeably schizophrenic: half the population are super-fit, super-athletes happily clad in shape-defining Speedos and lycra, while the other half are simply super-sized.

Day four on the Great Ocean Road and it’s a leisurely 45km drive from Apollo Bay to Lorne. And while the distance covered is negligible, this is the part of the road where the Great Ocean Road is at it’s most spectacular, hugging the cliffs as it twists and turns its way along the coastline, at times separated from the ocean by only a few feet of dunes, or a sheer vertical drop. It’s so spectacular that having driven about 15km of this stunning coastline, we turn around, drive back the way we came, and drive it back again.

We arrive in Lorne relatively early in the afternoon, and check in to the reasonably comfortable Comfort Inn Motel. Lorne is the place where a dear old university friend of mine, Steven Morgan, threw himself off the end of Lorne Pier…

…and then swam back to the pub. Neither suicidal nor stupid, it was part of the annual Lorne Pier-to-Pub 1200 metres swim. I can think of easier ways to get to the pub but each to their own.

At this time of year Lorne is reasonably quiet. Early April represents the end of the season before the resorts close for winter. The surf instructors, the life-guards, the bar staff and all the other temporary workers will pack up and move on in search of a warmer climate and more seasonal work.

The following morning we have a 140km drive from Lorne all the way back to Melbourne, although not before stopping first at the picturesque Aireys Inlet, with it’s eponymous inlet, a couple of stacks and the Split Point Lighthouse.

And a further 21km along the coast, just shy of our final destination, Torquay, is Bells Beach, famous to movie-goers the world over for the final scene in the film Point Break, when Keanu Reeves allows Patrick Swayze to escape the law and surf his way to certain death at the hands of a monster wave. More significantly in the surf world Bells Beach is an internationally famous surf beach and home to the world’s longest-running surfing competition, the Rip Curl Pro Surf & Music Festival, held every Easter at Bells Beach. Except that is when the break at Bells isn’t working when it then relocates to Johanna further down the coast.

And I love that…the idea that the sea “isn’t working”. For while the Great Ocean Road itself is testament to man’s ability and desire to conquer his environment, there is a sense all along this coastline that nature rules. The Southern Ocean will continue to shape the coastline, to create the stacks and arches that make it so distinctive. And when those arches collapse to become stacks, and those stacks collapse altogether, the Southern Ocean will just go on to create more.

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