The Great Ocean Road
really is Great
Text and photos by Christopher Johnson
Like the Pacific Coast Highway in California or the Sea-to-Sky Highway near Vancouver, the Great Ocean Roadin southern Australia is one of the greatest drives on earth.
For many Asian travelers, who can only afford a 3 or 4-day trip to Australia, the Great Ocean Road offers much of what they want to see on the sprawling continent: koalas, colorful birds, jungle plants, and breathtaking views of dramatic cliffs, secret coves and fragile sea stacks – all in a day beginning in Melbourne, one of the most pleasant cities in the world.
Between Torquay and Warrnambool in the state of Victoria, the Great Ocean Road is becoming one of the most popular destinations in Australia for Asian visitors in particular. More than a third of all Chinese tourists in Victoria saw the Great Ocean Road, their favorite destination.
According to Tourism Victoria’s website, the state hosted 235,000 Chinese for trips lasting at least one night in the year ending June 2011, a whopping 41 percent rise over 2010, and six times the number of Chinese visitors in 2000. Chinese tourists in 2011 almost outnumbered visitors from neighboring New Zealand.
While the number of Japanese has steadily declined, from 78,000 in the year 2000 to only 35,000 last year, the numbers of visitors from India, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and South Korea have more than doubled in the past decade.
Asians are arriving in droves because the Great Ocean Road really is great. It’s not only the spectacular views of the Southern Ocean and the idea that Antarctica is over the horizon. It’s a masterpiece of natural wonders and human achievement, “Victoria’s largest war memorial,” as The Age newspaper calls it.
Between 1919 and 1932, more than 3000 returned soldiers built the road to honour the 60,000 Australians killed in World War I. Surveyors needed a month just to whack three kilometers through the dense bush. Sleeping in tents through violent storms, workers built the road by hand, using picks, shovels, wheel barrows and explosives. The road not only connected isolated fishing villages and logging camps, it spurred a tourism industry that is continuing to grow, attracting a 12 percent increase in international visitors to Victoria last year.
My trip with Autopia Tours started with a 7:30 am pick-up at the Regent Theatre on Collins Street, just a few minutes walk from the main Melbourne train station. In a bus full of young travelers mostly from Asia and Europe, a mirthful Australian drove us to Bell Beach for breakfast, and then onto a narrow, twisting highway, one lane each way, with signs warning foreigners to drive on the left, watch out for falling rocks, and by the way, don’t drive off the cliff. “Don’t fall over the edge,” quipped the driver, as we stopped at a vista. “I don’t like the paperwork.”
On a little side-road in Kennett River, we stopped at one of the best places in Australia to see fuzzy koalas sleeping or climbing in gum trees, their natural habitat. Since they are threatened by fires, droughts and floods, you can’t cuddle the wild koalas, though colorful birds are happy to pose for pictures on your shoulder or eat out of your hands.
Between Lorne and Apollo Bay, the highway winds above sheer cliffs and waves crashing onto the rocks far below you. After lunch at Apollo Bay, a nice spot to swim or lie on the beach, the road winds into the heart of the Great Otway National Park. With a boardwalk meandering past giant trees and ferns, it’s a more convenient way to sample the Australian jungle than flying across the continent to Cairns.
The road returns to hug the coastline through Port Campbell National Park, home to stunning rock formations called the Twelve Apostles, even though only 8 sea stacks currently remain. From the visitor’s center, a boardwalk stretches along the edge of sheer cliffs for astounding views of waves lapping at the jagged edges of the stacks. Attracting two million visitors a year, viewpoints can be crowded at times, especially on weekends. For more privacy, you can take a helicopter ride over the stunning landscape, and capture incredible photos by shooting ultra-wide or long lenses at high speeds.
Like a sculpture artist, the wind and waves gradually whittled the soft limestone landscape into cliffs and thenarches that collapsed into stacks up to 45 meters high. This natural process of erosion is still underway, at a rate of about 2 centimeters per year. In July 2005, a 50-meter high stack imploded into a pile of rubble, and others seem on the verge of crumbling as well. But don’t worry; many geologists believe that nature is carving new stacks for future visitors.
Further along the road, after more spellbinding formations at Loch Ard Gorge, the London Arch used to be called the London Bridge, until a section collapsed unexpectedly on January 15, 1990. According to our driver, the romantic couple stranded there weren’t thrilled to see TV crews arriving in helicopters, since they were in the midst of some kind of mischief.
A good driver can really make a group van tour more interesting than a solo journey in a rental car. At the Shipwreck Coast and other historic spots, our loveable Aussie, who has since gone up to work for bigger bucks in the Queensland mines, made Australia’s wild history come to life, with tales of workmen risking their lives to save kegs of beer and spirits off sinking ships.
If the drive is too fast for you, the Great Ocean Walk, opened in 2004, connects 104 kilometers of trails along the coast between Apollo Bay and the 12 (actually only 8) Apostles.
A treasure trove of tourism revenue, the Great Ocean Road this year was finally added to the Australian National Heritage List. Environmentalists have so far succeeded in blocking seismic explorations and other threats to the pristine beauty of the area, which is truly one of the natural wonders of the planet.
So far at least, nobody is insisting the Great Ocean Road be called by its official name, the B100.
–Autopia Tours, autopiatours.com.au, offers a package for $130 per person, including bus tour, GST, national park fees, breakfast, lunch, and free ticket to Skydeck 88 and The Edge, a harrowing way to see Melbourne while dangling out a downtown skyscraper. Add another $70 dollars for the helicopter ride over the Apostles.