Back in summer 2000 when I undertook a trip around the USA, I did two of what are purported to be the best drives in the world: the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Pacific Coast Highway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Unfortunately, the fog was so thick when I did the former that I could barely see the bonnet of my car, and during the latter I got a puncture and had to do most of the drive on the running spare tyre, which was the size of a polo mint. But nevertheless, I had done two of the drives which appear on numerous lists of one sort or another.
One drive which I always wanted to do, and a place I wanted to see probably more than any other place in Australia, was the Great Ocean Road, which runs along the Victorian coast and the southern ocean. I had far more interest in doing this than, for example, going to see Ayers Rock (I don’t call it Uluru for the same reason I don’t call Mount Everest Chomolungma or Sagarmāthā), and as it’s located not far (by Australian standards) from Melbourne my wife and two colleagues picked a weekend in September and made the trip.
Here’s me at the start.
The Great Ocean Road is actually a war memorial, built by soldiers returned from WWI to honour the dead. In order to keep additional numbers of dead to a minimum, there are signs every few miles reminding drivers to keep to the left, presumably for the benefit of dimwitted non-British foreigners who insist on driving on the right. The first part of the coast reminded me a little bit of the west coast of Sakhalin Island, south of Nevel’sk.
We drove through the towns of Anglesea and Lorne, stopping in Apollo Bay for lunch. These places were tiny, looking exactly like the holiday towns that they were, with some impressive luxury properties perched up on the hillsides. Strange dark clouds rolled over throughout the day.
We turned off the road to go to look at Cape Otway lighthouse – “Australia’s most significant lighthouse” – but found the whole place fenced off and an entrance fee of close to $20 per head to get in. Thanks to the fence you couldn’t even get to look at the lighthouse, the cliffs, or the sea without paying the fee (presumably because most people want to see the view more than climb the lighthouse), so we abandoned the idea and returned to the Great Ocean Road. On the way we passed a lot of people watching a solitary koala bear munching on leaves up in a tree. It was very cute.
The main attractions along the Great Ocean Road are the limestone and sandstone cliffs which the ocean has pounded into various interesting geological features. The most famous of these are the Twelve Apostles, a collection of limestone stacks of which there are eight (insert jokes about the ability of Australians to count here). However, the first point of interest you come to when heading from Melbourne are the Gibson Steps, a mile or so before the Twelve Apostles, which lead down to a sandy beach beneath enormous cliffs. We parked the car, clambered down, and stood on the beach (or, in the case of my wife, paddled in the freezing seas and rolled about in the sand, most of which is still in my car).
Down at this level the force of the ocean could be truly appreciated, with the enormous rolling waves generating a constant roar. I grew up by the sea, and have seen waves crash on a beach during a storm, but rarely seen genuine ocean waves generated by a swell that has run unhindered for thousands of miles before smashing against a coast. The raw power is incredible, and not for nothing is this section of Australia called the Shipwreck Coast. Speaking of this lee shore of epic proportions, Matthew Flinders said “I have seldom seen a more fearful section of coastline,” and Flinders knew his stuff.
The next stop was the Twelve Apostles, where a series of walkways and lookout points had been installed to stop clowns falling over the cliffs. Judging by the erosion on the other side of the fencing, a lot of people used to walk awfully close to the crumbling edges. When we first stopped here we found the weather had clouded over and Chinese tourists had shown up by the coachload, so we came back the next day, quite early in the morning, and took these pictures in perfect weather.
Incidentally, the pile of rocks you can see in the foreground of the photo immediately above was until 2005 a stack much like the others, before collapsing into the sea in front of a rather surprised bunch of tourists.
After that we drove the short distance to Port Campbell, a tiny resort town whose continued existence largely depends on the remaining Apostles staying upright, which consisted of two or three streets and one or two restaurants (which close at 10pm). It reminded me a bit of Freshwater East. We stayed in a place called Sea Foam Villas which were very reasonably priced, and had a balcony looking over a small beach. For any couple or group looking for accommodation in Port Campbell, I can recommend them.
The next day we stopped to look at some more scenery, and I was again reminded of the south Pembrokeshire coast near St. Govan’s head. The cliffs here were on an altogether different scale, but the shape of the headlands, the coarse, hardy vegetation, and the smell of the sea brought back memories of a place I’d not been in a long, long time.
And once I’d had my memory jogged I was seeing bits of the Pembrokeshire coast everywhere!
Nearby was the formation known as London Arch, formerly called London Bridge. Named originally for its resemblance to the old bridge over the Thames with its multiple arches, the middle section collapsed rather dramatically in 1990, leaving two tourists stranded on the outer part who had to be rescued by helicopter. I’ll bet they needed a new pair of underpants each, too. What are the chances? It was impressive to watch the ocean smashing its way into the narrow channel before receding, hissing loudly, with a hypnotic rhythm I found hard to turn away from.
Finally we stopped at Loch Ard Gorge, a deep but narrow inlet named after a ship which was wrecked nearby in 1878 with the loss of 53 lives and only 2 extremely lucky survivors. Judging by the account on the plaque below, it must have been terrifying.
Steps led down to the beach, which was lovely.
The major sights seen, we drove home via the inland highway, stopping in a town called Colac for lunch. Try as we might (with a Frenchman and a Spaniard in the car) we couldn’t find anything resembling a decent restaurant, presented only with a choice of McDonald’s or KFC. We chose the former and found it packed to the rafters with yet more coachloads of Chinese tourists undoubtedly on their way from Melbourne to the Twelve Apostles. It was also full of Colac’s faithful who had just tumbled out of the nearby church, and the fact that they were all in McDonald’s suggested there wasn’t much else by way of eateries in town. Colac itself was a bit of a dump, looking all the world like small town America: strips of square, concrete buildings built along a dead-straight highway with an intersection forming the town centre, and few signs of life. Most businesses that lined the highway were to do with agriculture, and there was little else. It’s one of those places you’re glad you didn’t grow up in. The inland drive offered little visual interest, and the whole area was clearly agricultural with enormous, mainly flat fields filled with sheep and dairy cows. I got the impression from this trip that outside the main cities, Australian towns are tiny; and (with the obvious exceptions such as the Bendigo area) turning inland from the coast will likely put you in a place where there is not very much at all.
In summary, the Great Ocean Road impressed, and is very much worthwhile. It was a trip I am very glad we made.