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Drive the Great Ocean Road

I have travelled the Great Ocean Road twice. Once for me, it seems, just wasn’t enough. The Great Ocean Road is all about the road trip and the freedom of an open road that winds along the beautifully rugged south Australian coastline. It is a 243 kilometer stretch of Australian National Heritage between Warrnambool and Torquay in the state of Victoria.

Speeding along this famous stretch of tarmac, from location to location to location (The Twelve Apostles, The Great Otway National Park, Bells Beach, the Surfer’s mecca of Torquay, and so on..), is unreal! Put it on your bucket list.

To be perfectly honest, I do not remember quite so much about the first time I hitched a lift down the road they call Great Ocean, which may, in no small part, be due to the fact that it was my first travelling experience fueled by large quantities of cheap cask wine (aka “goon” in backpacking circles), and it was almost ten years ago. Second time around, a little older, more mature (I like to think) and attempting, at least, to be a bit more sober, it was unforgettable. This time me and a posse of fellow travellers had bought ourselves a Ford Falcon, loaded it up until we could barely see out of the windows and had somehow managed to make it in one piece (minus the original exhaust pipe, which dropped off somewhere near Adelaide) across the Nullarbor Plain heading towards the great metropolis of Melbourne. But by the time we hit the Great Ocean Road, it didn’t matter where we were going. I seem to remember hoping we could just keep going forever.

The famous highway officially starts at Warrnambool. Here, if your timing is right, you can go Whale watching at Logan’s beach between June to October. Unfortunately, our timing was way out, so we cruised on from here and enjoyed the views of the dramatic coastline of the Bay of Islands National Park and Portland National park, which is home to the famous Twelve Apostles. Actually only six steadfast and determined towering islands remain, standing resolutely before the retreating coastline which abandoned them. They are slowly but surely being worn away by the tides as well, but there is still plenty of time yet to get those coveted shots that have become emblematic of the Great Ocean Road. Or better still, jump into a helicopter and see them from an aerial view! I found it quite interesting to learn that they were  originally named “ The Sow and Piglets”. It is uncertain when the name was changed, possibly when they started becoming a marketable attraction, but I certainly think they are worthy of a moniker of a more majestic and biblical resonance, although I do quite like The Sow and Piglets.

The Twelve Apostles are far from the only attraction on the road. The signs to scenic points are so numerous I would advise you not to get too comfortable in the car, because you will be in and out of it all day. Imaginatively named places like “The Grotto”,  “Gibson Steps” and “The Loch Ard Gorge” are great fun to discover. Being a predominantly British carload, we had to stop off at the London Arch, another renowned rocky landmark. Its dual arches bridging into the ocean earned it its name and comparison to London Bridge. That was until, in 1990, one of the arches collapsed (incidentally stranding a group of unlucky tourists on the far side) and it is  now a singular lonely arch.

My favourite part of the route was the The Great Otway National Park where we spent the night in a camp site. We veered off the main highway and wound our way into the forest. The park has quite a large population of Koalas. In fact, you can spot them very easily from the road. Like strange marsupial fruit they were dotted about the gum trees and clinging to the branches deep in slumber, despite their precarious positions. They were also seemingly oblivious to any commotion or excitement they were causing at ground level. We actually had an even closer encounter later in the dark when my friend almost fell over one that was making its way to the tree near our tent. This caused a bit of a fright as they are apparently unassumingly ferocious. As much as you, and definitely I, would love to squeeze one in a great big bear hug, don’t. Thankfully this one was too intent on getting back up the tree, and presumably back to sleep, to be bothered by us, but we kept our distance just in case. If you can tear your eyes away from the Koalas, the park itself is beautiful. You could lose a few days in here hiking through the rainforest and exploring secluded bays and waterfalls, fishing, horse riding, whale watching and spotting more native wildlife. It is a wonderful place to be for a while.

Back on the road, we were all unanimous that we had to make a stop off at Airey’s Inlet. Not because it is a beautiful town famed for its music events and arts, which it is, but because it is home to Split Point lighthouse, which we all remembered from the children’s programme “Round the Twist”. Singing our own renditions of the theme tune, we stopped off here to visit the lighthouse, chill out on the beach and imagine that strange things happen when you are going around the twist. Two weeks in one car and I believe we very nearly were.

The Great Ocean Road ends at Torquay the home of surfing brands Rip Curl and Quiksilver,  beautiful holiday villas, restaurants, cafes, bars and surfing shops. Tramping through in a clapped out Ford and smelly camping gear, I am not sure we really fit in with the surfing set, but we did try. It is a lovely, friendly town. This would be the place to take a break, take in some retail therapy, enjoy a well earned stubbie of Victoria bitter and, in our cases, take a bath! It is also here you will find Bell’s Beach, where Point Break, unfortunately, was not filmed, but where every year they do hold one of the longest running surfing competitions.

You could take a day or take two weeks, but if you get the chance you should really take some time to experience Australia’s most famous scenic route. Forget where you are coming from and where you are going to, and just enjoy the ride through fantastic picturesque seaside towns and fishing ports, dramatic coastline, and more activities and sight-seeing opportunities than you can shake a didgeridoo at. You could do the Ocean Road in a camper or in a limousine, if you so wish; in luxury or equipped with a leaky tent and squashed into an old Ford with buffalo horns emblazoned on the back windscreen and the words “please clean me” etched into the dirt.

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