Is the Great Ocean Road, one of the most visited parts of Australia, overrated? I kinda thought so.
Don’t get me wrong. The beaches are beautiful, the towns are cute and the coastal views from the road are great (well, on one stretch anyway) but despite all this, I felt it was lacking. Lacking in that extra something special.
It just didn’t wow me.
I am sure I will have some people up in arms about my take on Australia’s classic road trip but not everyone loves the same things; how boring would life be if we did. Just because it didn’t wow me doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go there and judge it for yourself. There were a few factors that could have made me feel this way. The unseasonably cold weather. Driving it backwards from Port Campbell rather than from Melbourne. Not having the time to properly explore the area. Not hiking at all – which is almost unheard of for me these days. Not driving the whole thing.
In other circumstances maybe I would have felt differently.
We left Melbourne for our three day camping trip along the Great Ocean Road after a late start packing the car and food shopping. The plan was to drive inland to reach the Twelve Apostles before it got too late, and then driving back along the Great Ocean Road over two days.
The flat landscape and brown, sunburnt grass was bland and uninspiring as we headed out of the city. Summer in Victoria can be brutally hot and the landscape reflected that.
Stopping for lunch in the small, non-descript town of Colac, we were hard pressed to find something worth eating. My lunch of a cheese laden fatayar, a type of Lebanese pie, was tasteless and fatty.
Things didn’t start out well.
After what felt like hours of driving we finally arrived at the Twelve Apostles; the most iconic spot on the Great Ocean Road. There were a lot of cars but we surprisingly managed to find a parking spot straight away. We followed the short Cliffside walkway out to a viewing platform that overlooked the rugged golden beach with crashing surf below.
The Twelve Apostles were a sight to behold, magnificent and untouchable. Surrounded by churning water, these majestic rocky formations jutted out of the sea in all their glory. Despite their misleading name (there aren’t twelve of them), they were beautiful.
I could see why this was such a popular tourist attraction. It obviously would have been even better if we didn’t have a large jostling crowd to contend with but I was impressed by the grandeur of these incredible rocks none the less.
Because of the formidable sea cliffs there was no access to the beach below, which made the view over to the Twelve Apostles even more grand.
After a lacklustre beginning, the day was definitely looking up.
A bit further along the Great Ocean Road we stopped at Loch Ard Gorge. Another short path lead us down steep stairs to the sandy beach that formed part of the gorge. Waves gushed through the narrow opening in the cliffs, then pummelled onto the beach. A large Indian family were enjoying the crashing waves; holding hands and standing in a line at the water’s edge to face the watery onslaught together.
The furthest point we visited on the Great Ocean Road in a Westerly direction was the small seaside town of Port Campbell. Despite only a brief stop there for refuelling and snacks, I liked it. There was a pleasant family friendly beach, a mellow main strip of shops and motels and it had that holiday town, chilled out vibe that I love. It reminded me of the Coromandel Peninsula of New Zealand where I spent my childhood summers.
Our home for the night was the basic campground at Johanna Beach, to the North West of Cape Otway. I don’t go camping enough these days so it felt great to spend the night in our dome tent, listening to the rain spatter on the mesh. After cooking dinner on the camp stove we took it down to the beach to eat and to watch the sunset. And what a sunset. A fine sea mist captured the last of the light and gave the beach an ethereal feel.
Johanna beach is long, rugged and undeveloped. Yellowy green sea grass covers the top of the sand dunes that drop down to the beach. We sat in the dunes while the clouds lit up like they were on fire, then the sky darkened and the stars blinked to life. It was one of my favourite experiences on our road trip.
Back at the campsite we lay under a million stars before turning in for the night.
The morning started with bacon and eggs at our campsite before driving into the gum tree filled Great Otway National Park. Gumtrees equals koalas around these parts and we saw dozens of the languid creatures perched high in the trees as we drove slowly along the road into the park. We even saw a baby that we watched for a while, sitting with its mother and munching on leaves.
Koalas don’t have a lot of energy due to their diet of gumtree leaves that are lacking in nutrients so it isn’t common to see them moving around much.
But we did.
The baby started quickly climbing a thin branch further up from the mother. It was quite the sight and we were worried that the branch would snap and the baby would fall. Once reaching the top of the spindly branch, the baby koala started eating the leaves at the end. It is amazing how fast they can move and we were lucky to see it.
There is a lighthouse at Cape Otway that I was looking forward to seeing but once we drove out there we found out that entry cost $20! I thought that was a great shame as I haven’t been to any other lighthouses where you have to pay just to look at it. So we turned around and left.
With a headache coming on and the longing for coffee getting stronger, we drove to the biggest town along this section of the Great Ocean Road: Apollo Bay.
Apollo Bay is a holiday town with a long main street running parallel to the beach, filled with souvenir shops, cafes, restaurants and the like. It was buzzing with people there for the Australia Day weekend and it lent the town a festive atmosphere.
I got my much needed coffee and my headache departed. While walking along the main street the heavens opened for a quick, but energetic down pour. Sitting on the beach later the rain swept in again, catching us off guard and drenching us again. I think the Crowded House song “Four Seasons in one day” must have been written about Victoria in general rather than just Melbourne.
Not far from town there is a large riverside camping ground. We decided to camp there rather than the basic campsite that we had booked in Great Otway National Park. It was windy and we were worried that the campground in the park would be too exposed.
And we wanted hot showers. They were amazing.
After settling in, we went for a walk out to the quieter beach north of town. The wind was blowing gales and the temperature dropped markedly as the day wore on. Sand blew in our faces and tangled our hair. We headed back to the campground.
Dinner was sausage sandwiches with homemade tomato chutney. By the time the sun set it was so cold that my hands went numb. I always thought that Victoria had extreme heat in summer but apparently that is only a small percentage of the time.
It felt like winter in Sydney. The warm interior of the local pub was calling.
There are a couple of pubs in Apollo Bay and we visited both of them. My favourite was the cosy wood panelled Apollo Bay Hotel. It was packed full of people and there was live music. The biggest draw was how warm it was in there. I was reluctant to leave and re-enter the chilly world outside the pub doors.
The wind had died down by the time we left but it started up again in the early hours, complete with driving rain. Our poor little tent didn’t know what had hit it and we had some minor leaking.
Luckily the sun was out again by the time we emerged from our soggy tents in the morning.
Packing up and hitting the road, the Great Ocean Road finally started living up to its name. We hugged the windy coastline, twisting and turning with sheer cliffs on our left and turbulent waters on our right. My favourite part of the drive even though the bends made me feel slightly car sick.
Breaking up the journey we stopped in the small, upmarket settlement of Lorne.
Like Apollo Bay, Lorne was busy with visitors and the beach was packed. There was a cool wind coming off the sea so we didn’t feel like swimming, instead walking around the rocks to the Wharf then back along the tree shaded road instead. The small town centre is full of fashion boutiques, home wares and a myriad of eateries. It had a more polished feel than Apollo Bay which felt a bit rougher around the edges.
Lunch was fish and chips from the Salty Dog, eaten at a picnic table in the sun. It was pretty good too.
Hitting the road again our next stop was Anglesea, another small coastal village. There weren’t the crowds there that we had encountered in Lorne and Apollo Bay, and our walk out to the beach and along the river felt a lot more peaceful for it. It felt like we were away from it all in Anglesea and I liked that. Large crowds of people get on my nerves.
The last place we visited on our Great Ocean Road trip was the iconic Bells Beach, famous for hosting the Rip Curl Pro – the longest running surf competition in the world. It is also the beach where the last scene of the movie Point Break was set (although it was filmed at Ecola State Park in Oregon), where Patrick Swayze’s character Bodhi surfs a once in a lifetime wave to his death. The waves are known to be fickle at Bells so when there aren’t big enough swells for the Rip Curl Pro, the competition moves to Johanna Beach, where we stayed on our first night, instead.
We were running short on time to get to the airport for our flight back to Sydney so we didn’t walk the numerous stairs down to the beach but admired it from the lookout point above instead. The swell wasn’t big but there were a few surfers out there.
So it wasn’t a bad long weekend by any means, it was just less than spectacular. I would give it a second chance if I found myself in the area again, being sure to do some hiking next time. I think I would like the area much more if I had more time to spend and if I was able to explore more on foot.
The Great Ocean Road may not have been great, but it was good.
Have you ever been anywhere that you were less than impressed with?