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.
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
low by now, glistened off the Southern Ocean. It was a winding drive to Fairhaven,
whose spectacular, straighter stretch of sand is a favourite for surfers and
whose cliffs attract paragliders. Then followed the small but
important hamlet of Eastern View and the site of the road’s iconic memorial arch,
where simple white letters, "Great Ocean Road", are etched into a
chunk of wood that spans the route. A bronze statue of two soldiers, unveiled
in 2007, stands by the roadside, honouring both those who died in WWI and those
who built the road. By way of tribute, I pulled over; it was the first time I’d
ever stopped here and I imagined the moment would be special. But while I was
reading the statue’s description, a carload of Dutch tourists pulled over to
ask for directions and I, too, had to get going.
the asphalt started to snake in earnest; "stay on the left" signs cautioning
foreign visitors of Australian road rules. As children, thanks to my father’s
chain smoking and the endless curves, we were routinely carsick, white and
silent in the back. We’d cheer up by the famous bend – a favourite in car
advertisements – a treacherous, though spectacular, 180-degree curve, with
cliffs on one side, rugged rocks and foamy ocean on the other. It indicated our
as I manoeuvred the car around the bend, I was a child again, seeing my mother
in the passenger seat, protectively braking as she muttered furiously about
some “idiot driver” who’d swung out too close to the road’s faded dividing line.
Visible in the
distance was Lorne, my paradise, the attractive seaside spot that has morphed over
the decades from a fishing village to a cosmopolitan resort. Smart holiday
homes and boutique B&Bs tumbled down the tree-covered hill towards the local
beach, a stunning sandy arc on Loutit Bay. I wandered barefoot along the sand, lost
in memories of coconut oil aromas, soggy salad rolls and skin peeling
competitions after long days in the sun.
induced memories, mere grains of sand precipitated a torrent of recollections: my
best friend and I warming our bellies on the sand, our white, zinc cream-covered
noses poking from under our hats. We’d lie in wait for the moment when the
tanned lifesavers, just before launching themselves into large wooden surfboats,
would hitch up their speedos to expose their white buttocks. (This stopped them
slipping on the wooden seats as they oared their way through the surf break). We’d
shriek and giggle. As I sauntered down the beach, lost in my world, I was
overcome with a confusing mingling of delight and melancholy.
day it started to drizzle; weather changes quickly here. The fragrance of wet
eucalypts was both familiar and comforting. It reminded me of how we used to
explore rough bush tracks, keeping our eye out for venomous tiger snakes. Signage
now pointed to waterfalls and viewpoints, and I walked my favourite route, the
7km trail that follows the river downhill from the beautiful Erskine Falls into
Lorne. The path was covered by a canopy of giant tree ferns and rainforest, and
the distinct call of the Eastern whipbird bird cracked through the foliage.
morning, I was up early to take the most rugged stretch of the Great Ocean Road
slowly. This section twisted and turned, the occasional roadside plaque attesting
to shipwrecks during the 1800 and 1900s. I'd covered only 16km before I stopped
for a coffee at the Wye River General
Store, a small shop that used to sell ice-creams and tinned food to hungry
campers. For several years now it’s been on the gastronomic map for its barista-made
coffee, gourmet goodies and home-baked breads and I couldn’t resist ordering a
berry muffin, still warm. It was crowded, so I sat with a group of cyclists,
part of a peloton who stop here on their weekly ride. We chatted. They were
astounded I didn’t know about the explosion of the gourmet scene in the region:
Timboon, Gellibrand and Beech Forest, small hinterland towns once known for
their dairy and potato farms, were now home to brewers and olive growers,
chocolate and cheese makers. I scribbled down a list for my next visit. This
area had clearly moved on.
kilometres further on at Kennett River, I pulled instead into the car park by the
modest Koala Cove
Café and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with a coach-load of Japanese tourists to
photograph the crimson rosellas, cockatoos and hundreds of koalas that were nestling
in the gum trees.
catch the sunset, I raced through the quaint fishing village of Apollo Bay, and
completely bypassed the Cape Otway
Lighthouse, about 30km further on and open to visitors. I was aiming for Port
Campbell National Park, a remote area of windswept fields, rugged cliffs
and an angry ocean. The coastline here is best known for its gorges and eroded
limestone rock formations that protrude offshore. As a child – with little worldly
experience – I found this region too isolated, too boring. I was indifferent to
Apostles, the most famous of the massive rock stacks along this coast. This
time, the rocks were silhouetted against the red and oranges of the dipping sun.
And I was mesmerised. It was way better than I ever recalled.
You can drive along the Great Ocean Road at any
time of the year and return to Torquay and onto Melbourne inland via the
Princes Highway. January sees huge crowds during the summer holidays; February,
with warm temperatures and fewer visitors, is ideal. Winter (June to August)
brings colder temperatures, rain and fog, but also fewer people.