No trip to Melbourne is complete without it. It’s heralded as one of the world’s all-time best scenic drives. Like the drive up California’s coast on Highway 1, the Great Ocean Road is a lovely meander that should be on your lifetime list of things to do. It is home to the iconic Bells Beach – the setting for the final scene of cult movie Point Break. Oh and something called the 12 Apostles? Given the limited time we had in Melbourne, the best option was to hire a private bus to drive us around. Neil our driver was such a sweetheart. Although he has facilitated tours countless times, his passion about Victoria’s most endearing sights remained vibrant. The group tour I arranged was a very good deal (bravo to my negotiation skills), but I was hesitant that he would give us a shortened version. It was too good a deal which even included morning tea with snacks and a very tasty and generous greek lunch. Neil was the perfect and most patient tour guide / driver. The tour was definitely much more than we all expected. Tiring as it lasted from 7am to 10PM but fulfilling. We enjoyed the stunning coastal views, spotted kangaroos playing golf, passed through quaint coastal towns, counted as many koalas as we could see — and we even hand fed wild parrots, checked out a lighthouse, was surprised to drive through a rainforest — a nice reprieve from all the beaches and of course rejoiced at the breathtaking geological landscapes that personally sparked spiritual enlightenment.
It was an early morning for all of us. Granted that we only had a day to see most of the attractions along the Great Ocean Road, we had to strictly abide by our driver’s schedule to maximize our tour. Ideally, the scenic route is best experienced by taking ones time digesting the landscapes and stopping over coastal towns along the way. But for those with a tight schedule, commissioning a private tour is the best option so you can plan which stops you would like to spend more time in and move at your own pace.
We snaked our way out of the city and crossed hectares of farmlands and vineyards. Most of us were able to nap for a bit until we reached our first stop – Anglesea. The seaside town is situated on the Anglesea River, between the nearby coastal towns of Torquay and Aireys Inlet. Beach, bush and kangaroos all help shape this town as a favorite holiday spot.
Patrolled surf and swimming beaches surrounded by beautiful forest and coastal scenery make Anglesea a great tourist resort with the vast expanse of sand surrounding the mouth of the Anglesea River being a spot for swimmers.
As we moved along, we breezed by numerous surfer beaches. The region is synonymous for some of the world surfing professionals’ favorite surf spots. Most famous of all is internationally renowned Bell’s Beach, home to the annual Rip Curl Pro event – a hallmark event for Victoria.
The broad beach that is seen on the above photo is part of Lascelles Bay and is typical of the beautiful beaches found along the Great Ocean Road. Views of the beaches can be appreciated from Urquhart Bluff, named after William Swan Urquhart, the surveyor who had surveyed much of the early colony of Victoria, including Ballarat.
We made it to the the Split Point Lighthouse in time for morning tea. We were glad to take a break as most of us only had light breakfast. Neil thoughtfully laid out an impromptu picnic for us with various teas, coffee, pastries and biscuits. It was simple but the effort well appreciated. He also recommended that we try the scones traditionally prepared by Willow’s Tea House. I personally am not a fan of scones as I usually find the ones I’ve tried dry. But this was freshly baked, slightly crisp on the outside and buttery moist inside. They were perfect with the whipped butter and homemade jams specially prepared by the house. That was an enjoyable breakfast in a quaint “Cape-Dutch” like setting.
The Split Point Lighthouse known locally as the “White Lady’ was built in 1891 and towers 34 metres above the coastline.
Victoria’s treacherous coastline necessitated a string of lighthouses being set up from the border of South Australia to Queenscliff. Tenders were called on 2/5/1890 for the erection of a lighthouse, and staff quarters at Aireys Inlet. The construction of this landmark was let to R. Anderson and Sons of Richmond. This was to be one of the last major investments by the Colony of Victoria to help safe passage through Bass Strait.
From the lighthouse, there is a bush walk along the cliff top. It’s an easy path accessible for all ages. We made our way to a balcony overlooking the rock that was split from the mainland. It was because of this natural phenomenon that the lighthouse took its name as “Split Point”.
It was noteworthy to make a quick stop by Fairhaven Beach. Although this wide shoreline appears calm, Neil mentioned that this is an outstanding surfing beach. It is also famous for its visiting whales (between late May to October) where tourists can watch them with their young, swimming and playing just off the shore.
Lunch was at Apollo Bay – a coastal town situated on the eastern side of Cape Otway and along the edge of the Barham River. It is midway along the popular route so it was a perfect spot to take a break. Once the province of timber workers and farmers, the town is now also occupied by artists, holiday makers and beach lovers.
We had a sumptuous Greek lunch in Iluka – a Greek Cantinetta. Interestingly, Greek culture is prevalent in Victoria since the gold rush of the 1850s. The community commenced to consolidate through chain migration – relatives and townspeople joining Greek settlers already here. Today, Melbourne is said to have the largest Greek-speaking population outside of Europe.
After lunch, the kids checked out the skate park while the rest of us explored the shops. We chanced upon this unassuming ice cream shop – Dooley’s which was supposedly a multi awarded ice cream brand. Out of our excitement, we tasted so many flavors that it was so confusing to decide which one was the best to order. Everything was so good – deserving of its awards. Pressured, I finally settled with Ricotta Ice Cream. I was happy with my choice as others were savoring their spoonfuls in the bus.
Just when all were ready to doze off for a quick nap, the series of GOR highlights began. From this point on, the attractions were building up to its best performance yet. To introduce, Neil was telling us about a trailer camp in the middle of a Koala Reserve. Kennett River Holiday Park allows visitors to commune with koalas and native birds in their natural habitat. There were countless Koalas clinging on to their beloved Eucalyptus homes as we drove by. It was amazing! We were even able to see them up close as we walked around while they were nonchalant towards visitors. One even peed lazily in his sleep – almost marking his territory on Joaquin. We also noticed how friendly the Rosellas were. Neil gave us some bird seeds to feed them and as soon as we extended our hands, they hurriedly flew in. The kids were so amused to touch them. Even I was fascinated to be able to interact with these wild creatures.
We drove through a rainforest in the Otway Ranges. How pleasant it was to enjoy a quick contrast from coastal views to a cool, lush and green scenery.
Neil was shaking his head when he saw this fellow rock fishing along the Great Ocean Road. He explained, rock fishing is a popular past time in spite of it being discouraged. The waves can easily engulf the rocks and pull you back into the Ocean. Very risky but apparently thrilling for some.
And so we arrived at the tour’s Pièce de résistance – The Twelve Apostles.
Situated in the Port Campbell National Park, the massive limestone structures that tower 45 meters above the Southern Ocean, leave its visitors awe-struck in wonder at their size and beauty. Behind the eight remaining stacks (five have fallen since their discovery) are cliffs, around 70 metres high. The views were breathtaking! It was humbling to be at the forefront of Mother Earth’s evolution.
Another majestic view located within Port Campbell Park is the Loch Ard Gorge. The Gorge is named after the sailing clipper Loch Ad, which ran aground on nearby Muttonbird Island on 1 June 1878. As told, the ship was nearing the end of a 3 month voyage from England to Melbourne. Only 2 of the 54 passengers and crew survived. Both were 18 years old. Tom Pearce, a ship’s apprentice, was washed ashore here and heard the cries of Eva Carmichael, an Irish emigrant whom he pulled from the water. Tom then climbed out of the gorge to find help from local people.
Accessing the gorge involved traveling down numerous flights of stairs until you arrive at the mouth of a massive limestone cave. I was imagining how Tom Pearce did it sans the steps. The going down was easy, with views so worth it that you’ll forget about the cardio-workout going up.
The kids were excited to get their feet wet as we were just trigger happy. The place has a very calming feeling with its still waters and very secluded beach. But secluded would be an understatement if it were the height of summer. We were just lucky to have this place almost all to ourselves.
Apart from the beach, the gorge also has some remarkable rock formations. Since we didn’t get to go down the beach to see the brilliance of the Twelve Apostles up close, this was a good alternative for us to marvel at the structures. Joaquin actually climbed up one. It looked really dense and solid.
As we moved on to our final stop. Neil played a tape featuring a poem written by John Foulcher describing the Loch Ard Gorge. It tells the story of the two survivors and exemplifies the gravity of how perilous their experience was… Adi and I were shuddering as we imagined the times..
We climb along weathered cream precipice,
look down into the waves,
tide thrust into the dark interior of earth
with a sound like fire uncontrolled
A century ago, there was a shipwreck here. Its gravestones hump the grass
A hundred yards away – you can just make out their names,
the hammocks of bone and meat
lugged from the sea and dumped in the soil.
Sheep and cattle surround the lace,
kicking tufts of unconcern
through the sea’s brittle, incessant static,
their heads slung to the grass, their teeth locked on the earth,
while somewhere past the unfinished cliffs,
savage dark fish are tearing their prey apart,
blood phrasing the water decked with light
By this time, we were dragging our feet up and down the bus. All the excitement was dissipating as it was a long day. We were not so enthusiastic when he asked us if we wanted to see Australia’s version of a London Bridge. We saw the highlight of the GOR adventure – being the Twelve Apostles, and the Loch Ard Gorge was fantastic too, so what else could be impressive? The fatigue was kicking in so we were getting skeptical and conscious about heading back. It was a good thing that he really insisted that we see it – even for a bit. As we sluggishly walked towards the end of the path, lo and behold… it was indeed a bridge-like rock formation – or what was left of it. It was such a lovely sight – especially with the sun setting beyond it.
London Bridge was formed by a gradual process of erosion, and until 1990 formed a complete double-span natural bridge. The arch closest to the shoreline collapsed unexpectedly on 15 January 1990, leaving two tourists stranded on the outer part until they were rescued by a helicopter. No one was injured in the event.
Content in all senses, we were ready to head back to the city. As we drove by sprawling shires, we were greeted by a most striking sunset. The orange hues were just so surreal like it was a painting. Neil was so moved by it, that he had to stop to take a photo of it too. It was indeed a memorable ending to a very fulfilling day – for the whole family.