A road trip toward holiday nirvana

Kate Armstrong takes on one of the world’s most iconic road trips, reliving memories of coconut oil aromas and honouring the soldiers for whom the route was built.

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.

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.

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.

The sun, 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.

From here, 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 imminent arrival.

This time, 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.

While scents 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.

The next 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.

The following 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.

A few 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.

Keen to 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 the 12 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.