RETHINK THE GREAT OCEAN ROAD
There’s no need to be a fair-weather sailor on a road as beautiful as this
WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY NOEL SMART
The Great Ocean Road is a chance to ponder the history of this memorial to those lost in World War 1 and its status now as one of the greatest coastal roads in the world – carved by hand into the rugged South West Victorian coastline’.
These stirring words, from an ABC website commemorating the 75th anniversary of the road, sum up exactly what it is that makes this road so very special.
A MEMORIAL TO THE FALLEN
Before travelling the Great Ocean Road, all Australians should read the incredible story of its construction, especially appropriate in 2015, the 100th year anniversary of that fateful day in WW1. If you do an online search for ‘Great Ocean Road History’ you will find a good number of informative sites that chronicle its amazing story.
Forget the images in your mind of modern road construction. This road, with its awe-inspiring views, came into being when three thousand returned soldiers, in need of employment, set to work with hand tools and horse-drawn carts to carve the road out of the coastline. The first stage, from Lorne to Eastern View, was finally opened in 1922, after two years of labour. Thirteen years later the completed project became the world’s largest war memorial, although that wasn’t the original intention.
We know the Great Ocean Road (GOR) fairly well, and always think of it as being in two sections; eastern and western, divided by Cape Otway. This time we drove from the western end.
TRAVELLING THE GREAT OCEAN ROAD
Most RVers are keen to reduce the travel budget, and travelling the Great Ocean Road in the cooler months usually means that caravan parks have more vacancies, which in turn can mean reductions in site fees and shopping. You’ll find that the road handles larger vans with ease.
The western end of the road would have to rank amongst the world’s great seaside drives, rugged with limestone cliffs, islands, stacks, and beaches. The eastern section has rocky headlands, superb beaches, and some of Australia’s greatest forests. Throughout, distances from point to point are short.
We all know that the Southern Ocean can be wild and dangerous, and there was a good reason for the western section being dubbed the ‘Shipwreck Coast’. An incredible 640 vessels were lost along this stretch. The sheer cliffs made a watery death certain as ships were shredded on the reefs and cliff faces.
The best-known shipwreck is the Loch Ard, which sank after only fifteen minutes. Fifty-two people died, with only two survivors being washed ashore in the gorge that now bears the ship’s name.
Miraculously, a beautifully glazed pottery peacock, made by Minton’s in England, somehow survived the Loch Ard disaster. Now a famous exhibit at Warrnambool’s Flagstaff Hill Museum, it was acquired at auction in 1975 for around $4,500 with funds raised by a local committee and the city council. Now insured for over $4,000,000, it is a popular exhibit with caravanners.
Many cliffs are around 30 metres high. Sometimes, huge ocean swells slam into the cliff faces, spuming into the air and hiding all in glistening white foam. People ponder whether this is the Southern Ocean at its ‘worst’ or ‘best’. To us, it’s easy: it’s nature’s magnificent best.
If you’ve not seen the Shipwreck Coast in these conditions, you haven’t really seen it; but be prepared. Watch the forecasts and rug up to see nature taking on the world as the weather, coming from way down south, blasts you with fresh Antarctic air. Recently we were at the Apostles on a windy, wintery day when hundreds of international visitors were also taking in the view, and were astounded to hear them say in complete awe, ‘This is so beautiful!’ But be warned: those lovely sharp photos you thought you were taking may well suffer from the spray-filled air adding an unintentional ‘soft focus’ effect!
STARTING AT WARRNAMBOOL
Allow yourself plenty of time to visit the many attractions of Warrnambool at the western end of the GOR. Their Flagstaff Hill Museum will enthral with its indoor and outdoor exhibits, and it’s also worth including a trip to the Tower Hill Crater, now an important wildlife reserve.
Out on the road, the first town you encounter is Nullawarre, where the countryside is dotted with placid dairy cows. Milk processing factories tower above the horizon, and shiny silver tankers are now seen. The GOR region is sprinkled with small towns. Don’t just drive through; they all have stories to tell.
READ THE MASSACRE POINT STORY
We then moved on to Peterborough, 52kms from Warrnambool, which was first settled when the racy sailing ship Schomberg was wrecked nearby. Here you’ll learn of other shipwrecks as well of some of the horrors endured in the past by some of the indigenous people. Local lore suggests the men of an aboriginal tribe were driven into the ocean at Massacre Point, with the women and children killed in a nearby swamp. This atrocity is not documented, but population numbers indicate it is highly probable. Beside the Curdie River is an excellent van park. The neighbouring Schomberg Inn serves a great dinner, and there’s a fantastic surf fishing beach. We love its consistent winter salmon fishing. This small town demands a stopover.
Port Campbell, the GOR hub and mecca of food outlets and accommodation, and named after Campbell’s Creek, is a 13km drive. While we were there we spoke with three men completing the war memorial’s restoration before the re-opening ceremony planned for the next day, on the ANZAC Anniversary eve. A serendipitous encounter when travelling along the world’s biggest war memorial!
THE GROTTO IS DIFFERENT
Check out the Interpretive Centre and many viewing points in the Twelve Apostles area, although their number has dropped to eight as a result of the ocean relentlessly attacking the limestone formations. You’ll find detailed information boards that explain all you see and more, a good way to showcase the area to the 1.2 million people that visit here annually. The world-famous Apostles (once called the Pig and Piglets) are photographed endlessly, but we love the ‘Grotto’. This amazing in-ground formation is the only one created by inland water, not the ocean. You will read, too, of the people marooned on London Bridge when it collapsed in 1990. Fortunate not to be standing on the section that collapsed, they were eventually rescued by helicopter.
Princetown, where the pretty Gellibrand River snakes toward the sea, is only minutes away. Enjoy a delicious coffee and cake or meal at the tavern.
From here the road cuts across Cape Otway via Lavers Hill, through natural stands of Blackwood and majestic Mountain Ash trees. There are some beautiful rural valleys on this section, but it’s often wet, so come prepared!
THE BEAUTY AND HEART OF THE GOR
The section of the GOR on Bass Strait, rather than the Southern Ocean, is more sheltered. Driving into Apollo Bay you see long sweeping beaches, and you’ll find lots of shops – with especially yummy fish and chips – and places to park a van. We usually stay at the Recreation Reserve Park by the Barham River, just out of town toward Marengo. There’s good surf fishing close to the park, and some nice short drives are available. Walk the main street; the excellent wooden sculptures on the foreshore deserve a few pictures.
From here to Lorne the road hugs the shoreline. You’ll be delighted by the endless ocean views with green water, golden sands and waves rolling onto alternating headlands. Rainforest valleys densely filled with magnificent trees and ferns slope to the sea. While others prefer the Shipwreck Coast, to us the beauty and heart of the GOR is in the colours of the Surf Coast, and it keeps getting better.
On the way to Lorne check out the Kennett River Koalas, right in the town centre, where people hand-feed wild ducks and crimson rosellas. The Grey River Road Koalas are often heard barking across the valleys. Continuing on that road, without the van, soon takes you to a lovely fern-filled picnic area.
This is a wonderful drive where you can stop in and browse around at all the small towns along the way. There’s a story for each, as well as – naturally – spectacular scenery.
Lorne is a walker’s paradise, and reputedly the best beginner’s surf to be had on the coast. The pretty Erskine Falls look great after winter rains; you can walk down the steps for better photos, but be aware that the climb back is rated as ‘strenuous’. Some friendly black ducks also found their way into photos of the Erskine River and Swing Bridge!
Teddy’s Lookout is a magnificent place to see the GOR’s trademark headlands and coastline, but all good things, even this great road, must end. The final leg is through pretty Aireys Inlet and Anglesea to busy Torquay, the home of 54 years of Bell’s Beach professional surfing. Approaching Torquay you pass under a Great Ocean Road memorial arch, but the official end is near the bridge in town. The entire town is a gastronomic delight, and a fitting end to one of Australia’s greatest drives.
If you’re thinking of taking at look at the Great Ocean Road, don’t put it off until the warmer months. Caravanning, like life, is not all sunshine and blue skies, and it’s a shame that more people can’t see this amazing spectacle in winter, seeing the wildness and majesty first-hand.
I challenge you: dare to be different!
Rethink your GOR journey: stop being fair weather sailors, and turn blustery winter days into great memories. We spent three weeks on this journey and it was hardly enough. Of course, you may well set off hoping for a violent watery spectacle only to find that our fickle weather might deliver sunny winter days – but if that happens on the Great Ocean Road, you have lost nothing; it’s still one of our greatest caravanning experiences, with lots more to see at both ends. Just do it!