There are only a few roads around the world that have captured public imagination. The first to do so was probably Marco Polo’s Silk Road from Cathay to the door of Europe. Others like the Great North Road across India, and the Trans American Highway from the top of Canada to the tip of South America span great distances. The Karakoram Highway from Pakistan across the Himalayas into Tibet is an engineering marvel.
Victoria’s Great Ocean Road, extending 200km along the state’s south west coast from Torquay to Peterborough is much shorter than any of these – and infinitely better surfaced. However, the variety of scenic highlights along the way have made it world famous. Motorcyclists, in particular, have it on their touring lists, a fact attested to by the number of interstate and international number plates to be seen down here.
At first, it’s hard to see what the fuss is about. The freeway from Melbourne to Geelong, Victoria’s second largest city, is fast and featureless, but things get better. In Geelong visit the city’s vibrantly revitalised waterfront precinct. Just 23km from the suburbs of Geelong lies the seaside community of Torquay. Bells Beach is legendary in surfing circles: even as an observer one can see why surfers go out of their way to experience this perfect break. Check out the Australian National Surfing Museum in Torquay.
Bells Beach is a gateway to the Surf Coast of Victoria
From here, the Great Ocean Road swoops and soars along the coast. At some points you are high above the water following a narrow slot cut into the cliff face. A few minutes later, you are only metres above the high tide mark, passing by sandy beaches and through quaint seaside villages such as Anglesea or Lorne. The Great Ocean Road was built during the Great Depression to honour the Australian servicemen of World War I. It’s a fitting, internationally renowned memorial.
At Lorne, the Otway Mountains form a rampart that keeps you right on the coast. Apollo Bay is one of the most dramatically located resorts in Australia: looking out to waves sweeping from Bass Strait and breaking into the bay.
The road skirts inland around Cape Otway National Park, with its mass of tracks and the road out to the picturesque lightstation that was built in 1848 and is now Australia’s oldest surviving lighthouse. If you have the time it’s well worthwhile spending a few days walking here – or at least taking the Otway Fly Treetop Walk into the top foliage of this dense cool temperate rainforest.
Immerse yourself in the lush nature at Great Otway National Park
Along this section the Great Ocean Road itself takes on the character of a rainforest drive. It appears as if the road makers set out to weave a path around every single tree. Although the rich greenery makes a change from the blues of sea and sky, one misses the coast.
However, when the coast reappears, you realise it was worth the break. There is a stretch of some 30km of Port Campbell National Park where you have to stop every few minutes. The best known features of the national park, and indeed, the Great Ocean Road are the Twelve Apostles, giant sandstone stacks standing in a foamy surf seaward of a spectacular cliff face.
The magnificent splendour of the Loch Ard Gorge
It’s too easy to use all your time here then drive on a few kilometres to discover Loch Ard Gorge. This is named after a vessel wrecked here by Muttonbird Island in 1878. Muttonbirds, by the way, are short-tailed shearwaters. Only two people survived: a young apprentice and a female passenger he rescued. This incident became the opening scene of Nancy Cato’s novel ‘All The Rivers Run”, later a television mini series with Sigrid Thornton. The gorge is a beautiful sheltered cove with only a narrow opening to the sea.
Sentinel Rock then the Arches – natural curiosities litter the coast. If you have a very old map or guide book it may even refer to London Bridge as joined to the mainland. For many years tourist walked across this double-span arch to take photographs of the coast and to capture pre-digital selfies. When the span closest to the coast collapsed in January 1990 it left two visitors stuck on the remaining arch to be rescued by helicopter.
The fishing village of Peterborough around Curdies Inlet marks the end of the Great Ocean Road. However, one should venture westwards beyond Peterborough for a few kilometres to the Bay of Islands. This is a variation on a theme: if the Twelve Apostles is the main melody, this is a counter point. Unlike the proud apostles, the myriad towers, islands and rocks that create the mariners’ maze known as the Bay of Islands look as if they have been battered and cowed into submission. Standing here, you are looking into the inevitable geological future of the apostles.
Why not take a hike on the Great Ocean Walk and witness the world famous Twelve Apostles?
As if the coast becomes irrelevant when the natural splendour fails, the road immediately turns inland at Boat Bay. If you have a similar attention span, proceed to Warrnambool where you should take the time to view the Warrnambool Art Gallery (est. 1886) then take the Princes Highway back to Melbourne.
Alternately, turn around and retrace your drive along the Great Ocean Road. The mood of each feature changes dramatically depending on the time of day you visit. Also, keep an eye open as koalas may be spotted in the trees close to the road.
There are a lot of renowned tourist sites around the world that fail to live up to expectations. The Great Ocean Road isn’t one of them. Even when seen in the company of bus loads full of day trippers or a conga-line of cars, it retains its grandeur. Variety gives it a scenic richness that is special.
Have you travelled the Great Ocean Road? Where are your favourite road trips?
Photography: (feature) Robert Blackburn / Visit Victoria; (in-text) Robert Blackburn; Mark Watson / Visit Victoria