The Great Ocean Road: Australia’s best unkept secret

It’s early. The day is barely 8 hours old, and the sun has already crept into the sky, painting everything a shimmery golden glow. There is no sound of a human-inhabited morning – no chatter, no honking cars, no rumbling trains.

Instead, there is the rhythmic crash of the surf far below the cliff on which I am standing. Waves are washing up onto the shore of a golden, untouched beach that stretches out to meet rugged bluffs. Birds are stretching their wings in the crisp sky, swooping low above the water to catch their fresh breakfast. Insects hum in the briny bushes that jut out over the cliff’s edge. Behind me, the smell of coffee suddenly reaches my nose and reminds me that I am not alone.

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I am on a bus tour of one of Australia’s most underrated attractions: the Great Ocean Road. It winds its way along the southern coast of the country between the towns of Torquay and Warnambool (it was originally shorter, but “everyone wants to be part of the Great Ocean Road,” according to our driver, Adrian) and features some of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the world.

When I first looked into traveling the Great Ocean Road, almost everyone recommended a self-driven tour. Rent a campervan, pitch a tent, and soak it all in, they said. Bus tours cram it all into one day, departing and returning to Melbourne within 12-16 hours.

Well, I would love to have rented a campervan – if I had some friends with me. Shortly into our journey, I saw clearly that the slow, self-guided method would be absolutely the best way to maximize your journey and enjoy the delights of the route to the fullest.

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So I compromised. Instead of cramming it all into one day, but still too fearful of driving on the left, I booked a hop-on, hop-off tour with Otway Discovery. You choose which town along the route you want to stay in overnight, the bus drops you off, and then picks you up the next day.

I chose Port Campbell, which turned out to be the last attraction on the day tour’s itinerary anyway. Meaning: I got to enjoy the entire journey and then get off and settle into a small beachside town while the rest of the tour attendees faced a five hour drive back to Melbourne.

Here are the highlights of the trip:

– Walking through Otway Rainforest
As the road turned inland away from the coastal vistas we had enjoyed for over an hour, we stepped out into the late morning sunshine outside a temperate rainforest. Adrian led us on a half hour walk beneath the canopy of trees, only casually warning us about the presence of snakes (a dread-inducing word in Australia). He also decided to tell me, since I was at the front of the line, about the delights of blood-sucking leeches in the swampy areas of the forest.

I was in flip-flops.

I also learned the very crucial lesson that if you do find yourself with a newly attached companion, do not pull it off. Although this is everyone’s knee-jerk reaction, it actually is the worst thing you can do: a leech’s teeth are soft, so if you rip off the body, the teeth stay embedded in your skin and get infected. The proper solution? Either salt the bastard to death so it shrivels up and falls off…or let it have its feed and it will eventually leave by itself. Between the two, I’d personally be dumping a gallon of salt on that sucker. (No pun intended.)

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Other than the fear of these creatures, the rainforest was beautiful, and full of ancient trees that grow to be bigger than the California Redwoods.

And I saw neither snake nor leech, much to my relief.

– Spying koalas in eucalyptus trees
We pulled up beneath a grove of eucalyptus trees to go koala hunting (picture hunting, that is). Adrian described Australia’s famous marsupial as “beautiful buggers with ugly personalities.” Indeed, koalas are known for being downright cranky.

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Feeding on eucalyptus leaves, which provide very little energy, they sleep 20 hours a day and feed for four. They are solitary beings, and prefer to claim their own swath of tree real estate; even mating is done very matter-of-factly.

Babies are born the size of a jelly bean, and crawl into their mother’s pouch where they feed on milk until they are big enough to venture out. The mother has a loving method of weaning, too: when she feels the baby can be independent of her milk, she takes a right big scoop of her own poo, mashes it into the supply of milk, and feeds it to the poor kid. Junior then realizes that poo milk is not as tasty as real milk, and stops quite quickly.

That’s what I call tough love.

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We also learned not to stand beneath the beasts, as the only waterfalls we would see on this journey would be quite unpleasant. On the other hand, koala poo, since it consists primarily of the sweet eucalyptus leaf, smells surprisingly quite pleasant.

– Cape Otway Lighthouse
As the Road progressed, the towns got smaller and quainter. At a remote cape, where the only occupant was an old lighthouse, a giftshop, and all the passing day tour busses stopping in, we took an hour break and had a proper barbecue lunch beneath the bright sun.

Cape Otway Lighthouse, though small and humble, is famous for two things: the view of the wild coastline and untamed ocean surrounding it, and the ghost of the little girl who haunts it.

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Legend has it that an old lighthouse keeper lost his little daughter to disease back in the day, and being in such a remote location, couldn’t get a coroner or medical examiner out for weeks. In the meantime, the keeper and his wife kept the body of their little girl in the coldest room they could find, to preserve it. When the coroner and examiner finally arrived, the body was gone. She had a favorite lullaby too, and to this day women can hear strangled echoes of old nursery rhymes reverberating through the lighthouse tower walls.

Luckily for me, I heard nothing but the crash of the waves and the whipping whistle of the wind at the top. So tight and steep you had to descend the tower backward, I climbed up and enjoyed a private view while everyone finished lunch – before they all crowded onto a tiny tower never meant for mass tourist crowds.

But the view was worth it.

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– Twelve Apostles
One of my most anticipated sights, the Twelve Apostles didn’t disappoint. Just outside of Port Campbell, these limestone stacks rise up out of the ocean mysteriously. Or really, not so mysteriously: they are the remnants of ancient land bridges that were worn and broken down by the pounding waves. They started as fingers of land sticking out from the main landmass, until millennia of erosion ate away upwards until archways were formed. Eventually, the supporting arches gave way, crumbling into the sea and leaving islands or separated narrow stacks of land remaining on the end.

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Ironically, there never were twelve of these formations. When a Victoria governor decided they needed a noble enough name to match their majesty, he dubbed them “the apostles.” Word of mouth spread, and they came to be known unofficially as the “Twelve Apostles,” since everyone assumed a reference to the Bible. There were, in fact, only nine; today, only eight remain.

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For some reason, I have always been entranced by the idea of them. Geological explanation aside, I find them enchanting. Seeing them in Internet and book photographs is one thing; seeing them in person was simply awe-inspiring…and mystical. Like much of the nature down here, they are unique, and breathtaking.

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– Shipwreck Coast/Loch Ard Gorge
Blessed as I have been with weather this trip, my visits to these sights were beneath a brilliant summer sky and a strong sun. It was hard to believe that the stretch of coastline known as Shipwreck Coast could mean what it was named for…but it does. Many a vessel has met her fate along this wild and fearsome region, and many tragic stories abound.

One in particular includes the romanticized tales of a shipwreck near Loch Ard Gorge, home to thundering surf and treacherous swells that reach far along the sandy cove to fill up inland caves. A commercial vessel ran aground and sank quickly, killing almost everyone on board – except a young Irish boy who survived by floating around on a barrel for four hours. When he finally came back to shore, he scrambled up to the cave to dry off and recover. It was then that he heard a young woman screaming, stranded out in the water as she clung to a partially submerged piece of the ship’s mast.

The boy rescued her – she was also Irish, and also 18 – and hauled her back to the cove for safety. He then ventured off on foot through wild seaside bush to the nearest civilization a few miles away, where he found help. Both the boy and girl were rescued and saved; the girl returned to Ireland and the boy was made a local hero. Naturally, the public cried out for a romance between them, but they remained nothing more than pen-pal friends (perhaps an example of the Irish caste system at the time.)

As I stood on the warm golden sand and watched the gentle waves lap the shore, I found it hard to believe any ship could ever meet her match here. Such is the power and deception of Mother Nature.

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– Port Campbell
It didn’t take much to convince me I had done the right thing by deciding to stay overnight along the Road. When Adrian dropped me off in the small town, I instantly fell in love. I stayed in a lodge only a five-minute walk from the beach – and it wasn’t the fact that the crowds had checked out earlier that day, and that I had a room all to myself, that made it worth the stay. It was late afternoon when I arrived, and after a peaceful dinner I asked the boy at reception where I could best watch the sunset.

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Following his advice, I climbed stone steps leading off the beach and up into the bluffs, where a nature trail wound its way through seaside grasslands and forest, and the Southern Ocean drummed its rhythmic beat against the cliffs. Hurrying along, I stepped beneath canopies of trees, across rolling ocean plains, and down through steep dirt pathways, arriving just in time for the grand finale.

I had a front row view, and it was all mine.

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On the way back, birds I’ve never seen before sang an evening song to me, silhouetted against the twilit sky. Crickets chirped in the shrubs, and cicadas hummed contentedly in the trees.

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And Port Campbell came back into view, painted soft colors in the gathering darkness, while a starry sky opened wide, above an ocean that stretched to the end of forever.

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