THE GREAT OCEAN ROAD – TRAVEL DIARY
After filling up on coffee and fruit salad at the airport with the other early morning commuters, I caught my early morning flight to Adelaide. The only detail worthy of comment was watching Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Seriously great film, providing you have a sense of humour warmer than a dead eel. Though it was my first visit to Adelaide, I threw my duffel into a tiny rental car and got the hell out of there. I yearned for national parks, scenic coastlines and small towns full of good people. I was here for The Great Ocean Road. Adelaide would have to wait.
It was 9:32AM and, according to my rough plans, I had the rest of the day to drive three hours and thirty six minutes to Robe, giving me plenty of time to find food, buy gas for my cooker and check out anything I might find worthy along the way. With excitement found only on the doorstep of a new adventure, and my phone’s robotic voice guiding me, I was off.
FIRST STOP FAIL
After leaving the city limits, I spotted a lookout sign and followed it, hoping to find a view of the city. My phone protested at my hasty departure from the fastest possible route and began giving me instructions on how to return, sounding like an obnoxious windbag. “Turn right at the next road, Idiot.” she said, “Then right again.”
The road wound around a mountain, falling away to steep, hilly farmland on either side. Cyclists powered their way up the road as bored cows looked on. “In 200 metres, DO A U-TURN.” Views glimpsed between houses and banks showed it should be quite nice on the other side.
Then I hit the cloud bank. In an instant the world went from lush, wintry farmland to spooky, horror movie. Silent Hill. The Mist. The Last Time Anyone Saw Kaine. I pulled into a carpark, stepped out of the car, and stared down with a somewhat sardonic smile at what should have been a beautiful vista, but was instead a white haze broken by the silhouettes of scraggy trees. “I told you,” my GPS piped, “but you never listen to me.” This was fine. Sure, my first sidetrip hadn’t gone to plan, but it was fine. I kicked absently at the barrier fence and took a spiteful photo. What a load of bullshit.
I did a u-turn. “Finally! Get us out of here, and in two kilometres, turn right.” Drove down the mountain and onto the highway again. Fuck this place. Time to put distance between myself and Adelaide.
With tech house beats playing as loud as the little stereo could handle, I cruised to Tailem Bend. I stopped for food, a gas canister and at a promising but shitty reserve on the Murray River, which looked the kind of place a homeless person would find a dead body in the boot of an abandoned car. Someone calling themselves SPRUNT had graffitied a large but otherwise unimaginative tag on a bridge and there was a lot of mud. Thus far, my impression of South Australia was that it was all-round rather unimpressive.
I stopped briefly at a diner for lunch. It may have had ‘cafe’ on the sign, but it was definitely a diner. There’s a difference. I sat on a diner stool, eating diner food, and stared at an old diner wall. It was several mouthfuls of greasy bacon and eggs before I noticed the poster I was ignorantly looking at. It was a laminated tourist advert with things to do in the area, the kind I would normally never go to for advice, even if it were pointing the way to the toilets. What caught my eye though was Naracoorte. Caves. Bats. Fossils. I was sold.
Some quick Googling and I had a new plan. Stay at Robe and hit the road early. Be in Naracoorte when the caves open at 9AM. Wander around the Wet Cave, then do a tour of Victoria Cave and see a few sweet fossils. Lock it in Eddy.
Back on the road again with slightly more enthusiasm, I carried on along straight roads to Meningie. This town sits on the edge of Yarli, or Lake Albert. It is a beautiful place and if you’re in the area, I sincerely suggest stopping here for lunch instead of at a shitty diner a few towns before it.
Once I passed Kingston, stopping to take a photo of the Big Lobster, the scenery finally changed. This part of South Australia turns from boring farmland to the low-lying, swampy Coorong. The Coorong is a series of lagoons where the freshwater of the Murray River meets seawater, providing a diverse eco-system for both fauna and birdlife. Sam would be happy with how much I’ve retained from reading over her environmental essays.
There are a number of dirt roads heading off the highway into the Coorong and it is definitely worth exploring a few of them. There is a lot of wildlife around and much of it is suicidal, so keep your eye on the road. Emu and kangaroos love to watch you approach for several hundred metres, then panic at the last second like you’ve just sprung from behind a tree. In their haste to escape they will leap to the safest place they can think of, which is usually directly in front of your moving car.
I stopped several times to take photos, carefully keeping an eye out for anything that might bite, kick or sting me, which is anything that moves in Australia.
If you are planning to travel this area in winter, I would suggest having a better car than a tiny box with tiny wheels, especially if it has been raining heavily. I managed to avoid getting stuck however there were a few moments where I was close.
I left the Coorong and made my way towards Robe, stopping at a supermarket to picked up essentials. Plastic spoons and lollies. Yes, essentials.
I set up camp for the night and settled in for a nice evening alone with strong winds and pouring rain. I got up once to tie my tent onto the car. I’m not sure which of these I was worried about blowing away. Maybe both.
I am not a great sleeper and my first night outside is usually pretty terrible, but I was asleep by 8:30PM and thus I was awake before 5AM. I lay listening to the wind and hoping it was drying my tent after the night of rain. Packing down a wet tent sucks.
As the sky lightened with approaching daybreak, I was in the car heading to Naracoorte, having packed up and eaten breakfast.
The Naracoorte National Park holds a series of limestone caves that were eroded by groundwater over several million years. The first caves were discovered in the mid-to-late 1800s and more have been discovered since, including the Wet Cave and the more famous, and more interesting, Victoria Cave.
I walked into the ticket office, where a very friendly woman called Sarah looked almost surprised at my being there. Unfortunately the cafe wasn’t expecting anyone to be there either, so there was no coffee available. A suboptimal set of circumstances for someone who had risen several hours before the sun.
I am not a fan of being in caves. They are beautiful and geological interesting, but the thought of being trapped underground and starving to death makes me nervous. I am going through a phase of facing some of my weird irrational fears, accurately titled the ‘stop being a fucking chickenshit phase’, so I stomped down into the Wet Cave on a self-guided tour.
The Wet Cave is wide and easily accessible for anyone who doesn’t trip over their own feet. I was completely alone as I walked through; sensor lighting throwing shadows across stalagmites and stalactites, pillars and shawls, and while it could easily have been terrifyingly creepy had I just watched The Descent, I wasn’t scared at all because I didn’t think of it at the time. It was really cool and I had a good wander around by myself while I waited for the 10:15AM Victoria Cave tour.
The Victoria Caves is a cave structure that has been acting as a pitfall trap for animals for the last half a million years. When it was discovered in 1969, the two guys crawling through on their bellies discovered the floor was littered with fossils. This turned out to be a treasure trove of Australia’s megafauna. If you think the animals alive today in Australia are weird, you should see some of these.
I was filled with wonder, at this truly amazing place, and a boyish fascination of things dead for a length of time I cannot comprehend without going through an existential crisis.
As we finished, the cafe opened. My first coffee was purely medicinal and I sat on the second for slightly longer, wandering around and looking at stuffed toys and beer coolers which are a favourite of every Aussie souvenir store.
Back in the car, I pulled onto the road, and caught the earnest eye of a young man who immediately smiled at me and stuck his thumb out. Fuck it, why not? I pulled over and he climbed in, dumping his bag into the back seat.
I managed to get in a quick “Hi” before a tsunami of chatter hit me. As I pulled out onto the road, managing a quick nod to his “Mt Gambier?” question, he continued to talk. And thus the next hour and four minutes consisted of me occasionally nodding, opening and closing it my mouth without being able to get a word in, and glancing out the window for a soft landing so I could launch myself out the car window.
We parted ways at a gas station and I hit the gas lest he decide to stick with me until the end of my trip and not give me a chance to say another word before Melbourne.
Having put enough distance between us, I drove through Mt Gambier town, toward the Blue Lake. Parking as close as I could to where I figured it would be, I strolled in a lazy loop around the side of the hill towards the top, enjoying the weak sun filtering through the clouds. Here was a crater lake that was mostly groundwater and thus a high mineral content; apparently enough to turn the water a sapphire blue.
It was not sapphire blue. It was dark green with maybe a tinge of blue. I suppose. Definitely not the iridescent colour I had been promised by the tourist brochures. Luckily, it was free and it was on the way to where I was going. I took a few photos anyway as, even though I was lied to, it was still a cool volcanic crater.
I took my time driving to Portland, the border between South Australia and Victoria passing unnoticed somewhere on the road. A large sign pointed me towards Cape Bridgewater with seal colonies and blowholes. Half an hour later, passing beneath the huge arms of giant windmills, I pulled into a small carpark. With wind rocking my little car and rain blinding me, I walked towards a sign that stated I would be expected to walk another 10 kilometres to see seals, but the blowholes and a petrified forest were only moments away.
I wandered towards the petrified forest and was soon staring in curious fascination at the remains of what was clearly once a forest, but was now completely solidified rock. So caught up with looking at the forest, I hadn’t noticed I had wandered into the path of the blowholes.
Waves from the Southern Ocean hit this coast with a large amount of force, especially when there is a strong southerly wind blowing. Such force sends volumes of water into the air and can quite literally saturate an unprepared person who is bent over staring at the stump of a tree that has turned to stone.
Back at the car, I stripped off to put on dry clothes, at which time every person in Portland decided to visit the previously empty carpark. As anyone knows, putting on pants in a hurry usually results in taking three times as long to get them on. Luckily, only half of them had cameras.
I recovered my dignity on the drive to Port Fairy, where I spent a very comfortable night, sleeping soundly through rough winds and hammering rain.
THE GREAT OCEAN ROAD
Driving out of town the following morning, I spotted a sign for the beach and decided to turn off on a whim, which is the best part of going on a road trip by yourself. I was treated to a beautiful sunrise. The rain was blowing in horizontally and the clouds were thick and greasy, but what a sight. I stood next to the car and sipped my coffee until this near perfect moment passed.
I carried on to Allansford and the official start of the Great Ocean Road, depending on which way you’re driving. While I had already done so many things this was still an exciting moment. Finally I was on the Great Ocean Road; the iconic, 243 kilometer stretch of road connecting coastal towns along Australia’s southern coast, between Allansford and Torquay.
It was built after the Great War, during a time when a large number of young men had returned home to a world they no longer fit into and was dedicated to the young men and women who had lost their lives during World War I. I have yet to see a more beautiful memorial.
My first stop was the Bay of Islands, named so because it is a bay and there are lots of islands. This entire coast has been the subject of continued abuse by the Southern Ocean and the resulting erosion causes these islands to form into columns of rock, standing as sentinels against the relentless attack. Layer upon layer of rock and stone wear unevenly, making them crooked, like something from a Dr Seuss drawing, while the water surrounding the base, gnaws away at the foundations. Arches and caves have been worn deep into the sheer cliffs. Wildflowers cling to the cliff edges, doomed to eventually fall. Yet between these huge cliffs are pristine beaches to wander along and spend time staring out into the wind, lost in thought.
They are spectacular and while I can only show photos and describe them as best I can, it is nothing compared to seeing them for yourself.
The Bay of Martyrs makes up part of the Bay of Island park and has a controversial history depending on who you talk to. According to some sources, the name comes from a time when European settlers forced a large number of aboriginal men off the cliffs, killing them all. There is little evidence, apart from an oral history and the notable absence of the local aboriginal tribe after this event. Beach access here is much easier than many other spots, though be careful of the local birdlife as many species nest on the beach.
The Grotto is a eroded cave and sinkhole that generally just looks bloody awesome. See for yourself. You can see through an arch, over a pool to the ocean. Cool.
London Bridge was a cool series of arches that resembled London Bridge until a portion of it collapsed unexpectedly in 1990. It is now called the London Arch. I believe they kept the ‘London’ part to stop people getting confused.
Loch Ard Gorge is named after a boat that ran aground close to there while sailing from England to Melbourne. Two people survived of the 54 on board, both of them teenagers. There are stairs down to the beach and it is worth going down to have a look, assuming you aren’t going to be washed away.
The 12 Apostles was busy, as expected, as this is the most recognised landmark in the area. While it was definitely impressive, having already seen the other bays, I didn’t feel the same awe as the busloads of tourists swarming the site. There was also a child who was screaming the entire time. The only regret I have is he shall spend his entire life not knowing how close he was to becoming a 13th Apostle. I wish I could have shown him.
The road veered away from the coast after the 12 Apostles and thus the landscape changed, blending from open, scrubby plains to blackened rain forest, damaged by bushfires in January. The bare branches of trees reaching for the sky looking dead and skeletal.
I left the Great Ocean Road, turning towards the coast again and Cape Otway with its historic lighthouse. It was an hour from the main road through more fire ravaged trees. What I hadn’t heard about this lighthouse was that it cost $19.50 to get into the grounds. Having driven all this way and the last half hour on a full bladder, I wasn’t about to turn back, so I coughed up and went for a wander through.
I am not much of a lighthouse enthusiast, but it was interesting enough. Having made my way to the top of the lighthouse I met a charming British lady who told me the history of the lighthouse, before telling me I should take a walk around outside. Eight seconds later I was inside again having been turned inside out by the wind.
It took 70 men, ten months to carve the stone by hand and slot it together, without mortar, in such a manner it wouldn’t fall over with the first gust of wind; a task well beyond my skill and engineering knowledge. This lighthouse has likely saved thousands of lives. Unfortunately for Australia, many of these lives were England’s convicts, so I’m unsure if they really thought it all the way through.
I wandered around the lighthouse grounds, trying to squeeze $19.50 worth of interest from the lighthouse keeper’s furniture and the empty shell of a World War II bunker, before getting back to my car and moving on.
Back the Great Ocean Road, it eventually reconnected with the coast. It is this section that gives it its name. It winds along, hugging the steep cliffs from Apollo Bay towards Lorne. This section beautiful drive and there are hundreds of places to stop and admire the views.
Having spent two nights sleeping in my tent, and with rain pelting against the windshield, I made an executive decision; it was time for a night indoors. I soon spotted a hostel. The owner booked me in, mentioning there weren’t many other guests. I believe she meant there were no other guests. My concerns about ending up in a pillow fight with six scantily clad European girls were replaced with being butchered by demons in this creepy-as-fuck old house.
I passed the evening watching loud action movies on my laptop and washing a freeze-dried meal down with scotch. Fed and sufficiently watered, I slept.
Leaving all trace of modesty behind, I am a lucky bastard. Sure there are times when I think “Why me?” but it is usually because I have done something stupid, like jumping into a rip with my wetsuit tied around my waist; one of the many times I have nearly died.
My arrival at Teddy’s Lookout, while not as life altering as a near-drowning, was quite lucky. Having spent the morning driving through pelting rain, I turned up a road with the intention of seeing what was at the end. As it happened, it was a lookout. I parked the car as the rain stopped and walked to the lookout platform just as a double rainbow appeared before me. Sometimes I have to give myself a high five.
I had planned to meet friends later that evening in Lorne, so I spent the day driving to the end of the Great Ocean Road so I could look people in the eye and say I had driven it from end to end.
THE MEMORIAL ARCH
I stopped at the Memorial Arch for the Great Ocean Road and waited patiently as a busload of tourists poked each other in the eyes with selfie sticks, trying to get themselves and the landmark in frame. I don’t like taking photos of strangers, so this display set my teeth on edge.
Soon they piled back into their bus, still poking each other and jostling each other with bags. I could hear the muffled voice of the driver, himself being poked and jostled, asking people to sit down before the engine chugged into life. I was finally alone to take photos.
My final stop of any significance was in Torquay; the opposite end of the Great Ocean Road. I parked at the beach in Torquay to sip on a coffee and think about the last few days, while staring at the ocean in a manner I feel Hemingway would have been proud of.
I slowly drove back to Lorne and met with my friends. We were staying at an AirBnB in Apollo Bay for the weekend. After several days of talking to strangers, I thoroughly enjoyed sitting next to a fire, sipping whisky, and listening to intelligent and interesting people shoot the shit.
The following day we did a short trail walk to Kalimna Falls, close to Lorne. If you are in the area with a few hours to spare, I recommend having a look.
The easy trail leads to two sets of falls, the upper and lower. I recommend seeing the upper falls first. Water falls from 15 metres, leaving the viewing platform wet and slippery. The lower falls are where it’s at though. A hollow has formed under the lower falls, perfect for eating lunch while watching the water cascade into the nearby pool. It is worth the walk to see this one place.
The following day, I bid farewell and drove to Melbourne. The drive was uneventful apart from an ordeal trying to get the rental car back to the rental car office. I am quite certain there is something crooked in the minds of the people who design roads around airports. I am also certain, the people who hang the road signs haven’t actually driven on the roads they’re signposting.
Within hours I was home where I opened my duffel and dumped everything onto the ground. I pulled my tent out to dry and my sleeping back to air. It could stay like that for several days. Another successful mission completed.
The Great Ocean Road is definitely worth doing. I definitely recommend taking your time and cruising. While I only did a fraction of what there was on offer it was still a very full week away.
If you are in Australia and want to see more of the country, give this a look.