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Between 1919 and 1932, 3,000 returned Australian WWI soldiers and sailors toiled with picks, shovels and carts to complete a daunting task – hewing bedrock to form a cliff-hugging road along Victoria's southern coastline. As well as providing employment to the soldiers, it served as a monument to those who had died in the war, and linked coastal communities that were previously only accessible via rough inland tracks or the ocean.

The labourers could never have imagined that the route they painstakingly forged would become one of the country's most iconic road trips, driven by millions of travellers each year.

Great Ocean Road Victoria Australia
Aerial of the Great Ocean Road and Otway Ranges. (Rodney Hyett/Getty)

The Great Ocean Road runs for 243 scenic kilometres from Torquay – Australia's surfing capital and gateway to the famous Bells Beach – to Allansford – a dot on the map just before the historic whaling town of Warrnambool. The area encompasses 103sqkm of the Great Otway National Park, whose rainforest, Stringybark eucalyptus trees and bracken-strewn scrub form a beautiful backdrop.

In the 1970s and '80s this road led me to Lorne, my holiday Nirvana. Lorne meant simple pleasures: spotting wallabies and echidnas; waking up to raucous kookaburra laughs; collecting seashells; breathing in the scent of flowering wattle; listening to the high-pitched chirps of white-throated treecreepers; and nibbling on steaming chips to warm my shivering body (the Bass Strait hovers at a chilly 16C). Later, as a teenager, it meant a fumbled – and sandy – first kiss, long days of bikini-clad sunbathing and flirting by beachside bonfires. Modest as they were, these pleasures meant temporary independence and freedom from a mundane school year.

For years I have resisted driving the entire route, wishing perhaps to savour old memories. On mentioning this to a friend, she told me I was too romantic, citing Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale: “When we think of the past it's the beautiful things we pick out. We want to believe it was all like that.”

I laughed, but her words remained with me.

Bells Beach Victoria Australia
Bells Beach, Victoria. (Getty Images)

This year was different – 2014 marks the centenary of WWI. Now living overseas, I returned to Australia to watch my elderly father participate in an annual Anzac Day parade, commemorating the Australians and New Zealanders who served and died. After attending the dawn service, during which a moving rendition of The Last Post was played, I decided to finally tackle the entirety of this extraordinary legacy.

My first stop, to relive a family habit, was at the small golf course in Anglesea, a family-friendly town at the mouth of the Barwon River backed by golden cliffs. My objective? To view the mobs of kangaroos that nibble on its fairways. I was relieved to see they were still there. (While the club doesn't go out of its way to promote its "residents" for fear of attracting tourist hordes over golfers, word has been out for years).

After Anglesea, the view alternated between the white caps of the Bass Strait and swathes of gum trees. For several kilometres I headed through bushland, waiting for the ocean to reappear. So far, little had changed.

I emerged at the small town of Aireys Inlet, whose famous historic landmark, the striking, red-topped Split Point Lighthouse, loomed ahead. As though an old photograph were suddenly placed before me, I had a flashback: it was 1983, the day after Ash Wednesday when bushfires destroyed a large section of this coast, including Aireys. Incredibly, a policeman permitted my father and I to pass a protection barrier and we drove slowly along – one of few cars on the road – stunned by the sombre scene before us: smouldering blackened tree stumps and white ash where houses once stood. These days, looking at the regenerated landscape of grasses, gum trees and smart houses, it was hard to believe this terrible event ever happened.

Great Ocean Road Victoria Australia
The Great Ocean Road’s memorial arch. (Kate Armstrong)

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