Australia’s Great Ocean Road is a drive on any backpacker’s must-do list. It was certainly on mine, and I finally got to cross it off.
Stretching 243 kilometers (151 miles) along the south-eastern coastline of Australia, the Great Ocean Road is heritage listed and known as one of the world’s most scenic coastal drives. It’s an easily accessible trip from Melbourne and a great excuse to get out of the city for a couple of days (or longer!). We spent two days on our trip, but the reality is that you could easily take your time and stretch this trip out for a week or more. With so many sights and adorable little beach towns along the coast, there’s a seemingly endless list of places to be explored.
We rented a car and headed out of the city. If you didn’t know, traffic drives on the left in Australia, and this trip marked my first experience driving on the opposite side of the road.
In lieu of driving the GOR out as well as back, we decided to take the inland route (C155 toward Colac) on our first travel day. While probably not as picturesque as the coastline, it is still an enjoyable drive with a lot of open road and eucalyptus forest. We drove nearly all the way to Port Campbell, where some of the most iconic spots on the Great Ocean Road are located. The GOR actually goes well past Port Campbell, but for the sake of time we made it the furthest point of our trip.
The Twelve Apostles
No saving the best for last for us! The Twelve Apostles are probably the most famous view on the Great Ocean Road, and we stopped here first after driving the few hours out. The two stacks in the pictures above are the same set, and you can gain beach access via the Gibson Steps to get a closer look and marvel at just how tall they really are. Down the road is a vantage point where you can see the rest of the Apostles. There were only ever nine, but they were named the Twelve Apostles for tourism purposes.
The Apostles were formed by erosion of the limestone cliffs into caves which became arches, and then eventually collapsed to form the stacks we see today. They are up to 50 meters (160 feet) high, and their bases erode about two centimeters per year. The pile of rocks in the bottom left corner of the photo above is what remains of the pillar that collapsed in 2005.
If you are visiting the Twelve Apostles, I would recommend getting there relatively early in the morning, or before sunset, when the tour bus crowds have diminished. We arrived in the early afternoon, and could barely enjoy the view for all of the people trying to get their picture taken at the lookout points. The Apostles are stunning, but hard to appreciate while trying to navigate through pathways full of camera-toting tourists. We drove by the next morning on our way out of the area and the lookouts were nearly devoid of people.
Loch Ard Gorge
Loch Ard Gorge is named for a ship which wrecked on nearby Muttonbird Island in 1878. Only a few minutes up the road from the Twelve Apostles, the gorge is part of Port Campbell National Park and you can view a few more rock formations from pathways around the gorge. The precinct is also home to the Razorback and Tom and Eva (named after the two teenage survivors of the Loch Ard shipwreck). You can access a small beach by stair, where we sat to take in the magnitude of the gorge and the beauty of its blue waters.
After stopping in Port Campbell for some dinner and dropping our bags at our hostel, we headed out to catch a few more sights before the sun set. We arrived at the Grotto, and found we had the place completely to ourselves. It’s an arch, rock pool and cave all rolled into one, and even though I wasn’t expecting much before we arrived, it ended up being my favorite stop of the day. Probably because we hopped over the stone wall that is meant to keep visitors in the “safe” viewing area in order to explore the Grotto up close. I’m not recommending this, as there are very slippery and sharp rocks, but the view from the edge of the cliff was pretty spectacular, especially in the early evening light.
London Arch (formerly London Bridge) used to be a natural double arch until one half collapsed in 1990. While two visitors were stranded on the outer half and had to be rescued by helicopter, no one was injured. We arrived just as the sunset was beginning to fade, and once again enjoyed having the view completely to ourselves as our first day of exploration came to a close. We headed back to tiny Port Campbell to unwind and rest up before heading out again first thing the next morning!
Cape Otway Lighthouse
Our first stop of the second day took a little bit of backtracking down the Great Ocean Road and a lot of winding through the forest of the Great Otway National Park (spotting a couple koalas along the way!). The attraction when you make it to the coast is the Cape Otway Lighthouse, Australia’s oldest working lighthouse, completed in 1848. The history of the lighthouse is rather interesting, considering its significance on Australia’s “shipwreck coast” and the fact that the crystal lens is worth about $5 million in today’s money.
It cost us about $20 to get onto the grounds, and other than climb the narrow stairs and look out from the ledge, there wasn’t a whole lot to do once we got there. It was neat to see, but I’m not sure if it was worth the entry fee and the time it took to detour from the GOR. It is supposedly a great place to see the whales migrating in late winter/early spring, so I think that would be a much better time to visit.
After so much time spent driving through the forest, it was exciting to see ocean again. The first town we came across was the utterly adorable Apollo Bay. We stopped here to grab some fresh fish and chips and enjoy our lunch on the beach. I knew I wanted to find Marriner’s Lookout, and after missing the road sign once because it was so small, I started winding our little car up the steep mountainside. We came to a parking lot, which was essentially someone’s backyard, with no one else around and no signs pointing us in the right direction. I almost thought we were in the wrong place until I noticed a gate at one end of the lot. It definitely felt like we were trespassing, but we went through the gate and followed yet another steep path until we arrived at this magnificent view. Better yet, we were again alone to take in the beautiful scenery. We sat in awe for quite some time, staring at the blue water that stretched seamlessly to the sky. I could have sat there for hours, but we eventually made our way back to the car to continue our journey toward home.
Kennett River Koala Walk
Our last official stop on our road trip was at the Kennett River Koala Walk. Yet again, I passed the entrance because there was no indication given of where the attraction was. Once we pulled into the area, we could see people gathered around some trees and we assumed that was where we needed to be. What we found were a bunch of wild birds and yes, even a couple koalas. My friend was desperate to feed the birds, so we bought a little seed from a nearby shop, and it wasn’t long before she had birds all over her. We spent so long enjoying the wildlife at the entrance that we didn’t feel the need to complete the walk to find more.
The remainder of the drive winds tightly around the bends and over the hills of the coastline. With little more than blue ocean and golden cliffs surrounding you, the drive is as much of an attraction as any of the sights along the highway. You would think the monotony would get tiring, but it was just as gorgeous as you came around each new curve in the road. We passed through a couple more beach towns such as Lorne and Anglesea, and stopped to look out over the famous Bells Beach, where the Rip Curl Pro surf tournament is held each year around Easter. After stopping for a drink during the sunset in Torquay, we completed the last stretch of our drive home to Melbourne.
Though we filled two whole days with sightseeing along the Great Ocean Road, there is even more that could be explored. There are a lot of tours on offer from Melbourne that take you out and back in one day, and I would not recommend those. I just don’t see how you would really have time to enjoy everything. Although it would have been nice to have had more time to play with, we had the luxury to hang out at our favorite spots and really take them in. The power of nature is incredible, and seeing what it has done to Australia’s coastline was certainly a reminder of that. It took me three months of living in Melbourne to get myself out to the Great Ocean Road, but I finally made it and can happily check it off of my bucket list!