The Great Ocean Road

February 8, 2010 · 10 comments

This is a guest post by Katie Oakes from The Tap Tap Bus. She is embarking on her own adventure with partner Richard across Australia and is a fellow MatadorU travel writing student. Luckily she managed to drive down the Great Ocean Road, which I completely missed on my drive from Perth to Sydney. Here is her take on one of the most handsome roads in the world.

Great Ocean Road arch

Nice place for a silhouette shot

“Driving on the motorway isn’t as hard as I thought it’d be,” Richard comments, hogging the middle lane as cars zoom past on either side.

“You’ve not driven on the motorway before?” I ask, incredulous.

He shrugs his shoulders as another car flies past and veers back in front of him. “They don’t have any in Northern Ireland.”

We’ve just hired a car from Travellers Autobarn to drive the Great Ocean Road in Victoria. Richard, as the only male, agreed to do the first leg of the trip, keeping his motorway virgin status to himself.

Melbourne soon fades away, replaced with a straight road and a great expanse of nothing. The orange countryside stretches out to the horizon, and probably further after that. This is agricultural land. A huge piece of farm machinery that looks like a tarantula swings its metal legs, irrigating the only green patch in an otherwise dusty setting.

First stop is Torquay, the start of the Great Ocean Road. Rip Curl was born here and its headquarters still dominate the main street. Flanking it on all sides are other surf outlets where you can buy everything from boards to bikinis, wetsuits to wax. Shaggy hair, a rolled down wetsuit and a very flat muscly stomach are the order of the day here. Feeling slightly inferior, we head to the supermarket to stock up for the trip.

GOR view

Spectacular views grace the Great Ocean road

Half an hour later, car bursting at the seams, I take the wheel and we drive westwards in search of fantastic views and secluded beaches. First stop is Bells Beach, a famous surfing beach 7km west of Torquay, reached by a dirt track off the main road. This is what Australian travel should be like, I think as the sea comes into view. A battered, old car bumping down a long, straight dusty track with the promise of a beautiful beach at the end of the road.

I dip my toes in the water at the edge of the steeply sloped beach, beaten and battered by centuries of Southern Ocean waves. Two surfers are battling these waves now, rising and falling with them until one comes that looks much the same as the rest, and suddenly they are both up, gliding effortlessly with the surging water. Their dogs are on the beach, barking helplessly each and every time their owners disappear from view.

It’s January and according to Lonely Planet, our Australian friend and anyone else we speak to, this is the busiest time of year to do the drive and we will be lucky to find anywhere to stay, with or without a tent. Slightly concerned, I phone a couple of campsites and there is space, but it’s costly.

“$60?” I ask. “For what? A piece of grass to put a tent on?”

Inside the tourist office in Lorne, however, things start to look up. A big map is produced and campsites are being deftly ringed in blue biro. We’re pleasantly surprised to discover that each and every one is free.

“Big Hill campsite will be the quietest as it’s the most remote”, says the man with the biro.

Envisaging a night in the bush, with a few beers, some sausage sandwiches, and the novelty of sleeping in a tent for the first time in years, we head straight there. As we set our tents up, at no point did we consider the temperature and hardly noticed that whilst Travellers Autobarn had provided us with a tent, they had given us nothing to go inside it. No roll mats, no sleeping bags, no blankets, nothing.

We sit around playing cards, giddy from the freedom of our first day on the open road. Big Hill campsite is a clearing in the forest with room for about 20 sites. Two parrots chase each other before settling, twittering in the trees above us. The sun dips below the trees and it starts to get chilly. Natasha has to use a top as a scarf, and spends the rest of the night with sleeves dangling down her front. The temperature dips further and we retreat to our tents, now wearing everything we have, noisily cursing Travellers Autobarn for not giving us anything to sleep on, as well as our own stupidity at not realising this sooner.

After a seemingly endless night, the first light of dawn and a cacophony of birds signal we can now leave the torturous tents. Back in Lorne, the ladies in the hardware store chuckle at our misfortune when we go in to buy sleeping bags. “I take it you’re all Irish,” she grins. I’m not Irish, but the others are and I decide being a “whinging Pom” would at this point be as bad, if not worse than being one of the Irish.

“The Irish are sooo disorganised,” she continues. “Now, the Germans. We can’t sell the Germans anything except gas cylinders. But the Irish…” This goes on for some time. We smile through gritted, still slightly chattering teeth until we are finally free to emerge into the sunshine. We sit for a while, basking like coldblooded geckos until the goose bumps subside.

We spend the day living in the lap of homeless luxury. Australia is now so used to backpackers; it seems to have put amenities in place just to make life easier. We have nowhere to shower, but when we stop at Skenes Beach for a swim, there are free showers. We reach Apollo Bay, a seaside town about half way down the road, starving but with minimal gas for the stove. Luckily, in this town, as in all the towns along this coast, free electric BBQs line the foreshore. This is still national park territory so there is, once again, a big choice of free campsites.

It’s only on the final day that we see all the advertised beauty spots of the Great Ocean Road. The 12 Apostles is the main selling point of the drive. There used to be 12 rock pillars just off the coast, the result of a long process of erosion. The erosion has continued to the extent that there are now only 5 remaining, standing bold and majestic in the midday heat. The Grotto, The Arch and London Bridge, are other equally impressive rock formations further down the road.

GOR views

The natural stacks along the Great Ocean Road

London Bridge used to be attached to the headland until 1991 when the connecting rock fell into the sea leaving a “couple” stranded on the now detached rock. The couple in question turned out to be a married man and his mistress, who were subsequently thrust into the media spotlight, with dreams of a clandestine meeting on the Great Ocean Road shattered by the Ocean itself.

By this point, it is over 35 degrees, and the South Coast is on its way to a heat wave. We will drive towards this until we are baking in a furnace-like Adelaide two days later. For now, as we arrive at Warrnambool, the official end of the road, it is just mildly unpleasant. Sadly, our run of free campsites has also ended, as has our run of quiet ones and we are shoehorned into the corner of a swarming caravan park, “Shipwreck Bay”.

Hot, sweaty, agitated and frustrated, we finally get the tents up and climb over the sand dunes to the beach. It’s a huge, crescent shaped bay, with white sand and calm, inviting water. From here, the next land mass is Antarctica. We’re at the bottom of the world.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Stetson February 8, 2010 at 7:40 AM

It strikes me that Australia enjoys one of the only fully habitable landscapes in the world that still can be called virgin.

For example, when I travel in the Philippines, the country is indeed beautiful.

However, with 90 million people on the islands, it is almost impossible to go anywhere where there aren’t lots of folks already there.

Even in what would be the remotest parts of any of the islands you are likely all of a sudden to be faced with a shanty town or at least a group of folks camped by the side of the road or in the field or in the forest patch.

When you describe a road with nothing there at all, you have a treasure that one doesn’t really appreciate until it is gone for good.


ToysPeriod is a leading online shop specializing in lego sets and model railroad equipment.


Candice February 8, 2010 at 7:39 PM

Yup, another to add to the life list.
.-= Candice´s last blog – Another Reason to Love Newfoundland =-.


AdventureRob February 9, 2010 at 1:25 AM

Stetson – I didn’t realise the population of the Phillipines was so high. You make a good call about the land though. Australia has a population of 22 million, yet you can fit 31 UKs (UK has population of roughly 70 million) into the land mass.

Candice – yes, I’m going to go back and do it, missed out here.


sarah February 9, 2010 at 4:15 AM

i have always wanted to do the drive along the great ocean road but havent yet gotten to it. if you go to sydney in the future and have a spare day check out this website, it is a tour company that does ecofriendlyday tours to the royal national park which is just south of sydney. i went on it a few weeks ago and had the best day. it is beautiful wih the bush and the beach. its got spectacular views and you learn so much about australian wildlife, culture, history and more. australia is a beautiful country, hope you enjoyed every bit of it!!


AdventureRob February 9, 2010 at 4:29 AM

Thanks for link and comment Sarah, I’m in Sydney now (so will Katie be tomorrow actually), so will check that out.a


Vi February 9, 2010 at 1:58 PM

How did you drive from Adelaide if you missed great ocean road?
.-= Vi´s last blog – Things to do in Sydney in January =-.


Katie Oakes February 10, 2010 at 6:07 AM

Hey hey!
Thanks for the comments. Sarah, I’ve just been to stay with a friend in Bundeena so had the pleasure of a few days in the Royal National Park. beautiful!


yaniv August 21, 2011 at 3:46 AM

quite a trip to austrelia but then who dosent take a slepping bag to a campsite lol


AdventureRob August 25, 2011 at 5:12 AM

Someone who has a perfectly good campervan to sleep in :-)


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