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Australia: Great Ocean Road, Sydney
Great Ocean Road, Australia: Dream ride
by Anuj Bang, India
Ever dreamt of driving along a long twisty road passing through sea cliffs, sandy beaches, sea-side resorts, eucalyptus forests and vast grazing plains? Your dream can just become a reality when you drive along the Great Ocean Road from Melbourne and back. The Great Ocean Road is one of the world’s most dramatic drives, cutting through the majestic coastline starting from Torquay and ending at Warrnambool, passing through beautiful towns and national parks of the Surf Coast and the Ship Wreck Coast.
Surf Coast because the sea and the wind is favourable for surfing, making it one of the hotspots for surfing in Australia. And Ship Wreck Coast because, during the period of non-satellite navigation, more than 50 ships and many lives were lost navigating this treacherous shore.
It is not necessary you need a car to enjoy this dazzling drive. Like me, you can always opt for a day tour with a tour company. There are many operators in Melbourne offering the Great Ocean Drive Package. I chose to spend my day with Gray Line Tours, known for their professionalism and reliability in the industry. Speaking of Gray Line, I must specially mention Russel, our driver and guide for the day, for keeping us entertained and well informed throughout the day in his own humorous way.
It’s a 12 hour, 550 kms. action packed journey. The coach departs from Federation Square sharp eight in the morning and brings you back same place at eight in the evening. If booked with Gray Line, they provide complimentary pick-up and drop-off from most of the city hotels. The package cost is A$153 onwards for adults. It is recommended to book the trip a day or two in advance if planning on a weekend or holiday to avoid last minute disappointment.
Great Ocean Road starts from Torquay, which is about 100 kms. from Melbourne. Before we actually hit the Great Ocean Road we passed through city of Melbourne and its western suburbs. We got good views of Melbourne and Port Phillip Bay as we crossed the West Gate Bridge. Soon after crossing the West Gate Bridge, we hit the plains. The 6 lane M1 highway cuts through vast green and yellow grazing lands. A warm-up treat to the eyes for what is to come soon.
In about an hour from Melbourne, we entered the port city of Geelong on the Corio bay. It is 2nd largest city in the state of Victoria after Melbourne. The economy of the city mainly thrives on manufacturing industries - the main one being the Ford’s engine plant. The city is serviced by the Avalon Airport just minutes away.
As soon as Geelong city boundaries came to an end, we switched from the M1 to B100 - the official highway number of the Great Ocean Road. A short drive on B100 brought us into Torquay. Here we got our first views of the deep blue sea. The Great Ocean Road adventure had started!
Blessed with one of the most favourable surfing conditions, Torquay is rightly called the capital of Surf Coast. Many of the world’s famous surfing companies have their home here, including Rip Curl, Piping Hot and Quiksilver. The population of Torquay nearly triples during the summer months of January and February due to tourist influx.
Taking a detour from the B100, on the south-west outskirts of Torquay is world famous Bells Beach. We had our first scheduled stop here. Bells Beach is home to the world’s longest running surfing competition – the Rip Curl pro Surf & Music Festival. While the event was not on during my time of visit, we just decided to walk down to the beach and enjoy the breeze for some time. It is highly recommended to carry windbreaker jackets as the coastal area is prone to chilly winds and unpredictable weather. Back up to the coach, we had a surprise in waiting. Russel had prepared an Aussie style Bush Billy tea for us, ready to be sipped with lamingtons and vegemite crackers. The tea is brewed with eucalyptus (also known as gum) leaves to take away the bitterness. Russel was unhappy because his usual tree was cut and he had to compromise with a substitute tree!
Back on the B100, we skirted off the precipitous coastal cliffs offering good views of the Bass Strait. A small secret – remember to occupy the left side window seats of the coach for undisturbed ocean views. Time flew past as we were immersed in absorbing the beauty of the ocean. Soon we crossed quite little town of Anglesea situated on mouth of a river. This area of Victoria is known for its bush fires as it has abundance of eucalyptus trees. These trees are highly inflammable when the temperatures go well beyond 40 degrees Celsius during the summer months. Angelsea and the other towns in the area have been frequently burned down to ashes by the massive fires. Fire stations are an integral part of the people living in this part of Victoria.
We continued on the Great Ocean Road leaving behind Anglesea. There is not a moment when you lose the sight of the ocean. The road climbs high to give panoramic views of the ocean and within minutes it reaches down to the beaches where you get close with the dancing waves. Weather had started playing tricks. Spots of rain started appearing on the windscreen. But sun popped up again in few minutes much to our relief. While tackling the twisty Great Ocean Road and changing weather, we made our way into the sea-side resort of Lorne. This town is more famous for the ‘Pier to Pub’ race than anything else. It is a 1.2 kms. open water swimming race, which as the name suggests starts at the main pier and ends in a local pub! There was no time for us to enjoy the swimming or a drink by the pub.
Lorne is also home to the famous Memorable Archway of the Great Ocean Road. Due to this archway, many wrongly believe that the Great Ocean Road starts from here. Actually, it is just built to honour the builders of the Great Ocean Road. For those who don’t know, Great Ocean Road was built as a war memorial for Australian soldiers who had lost lives in World War 1. Hence, stretching 243 kms. this road is the largest war memorial in the world!
A further 45 minutes ride and we were in Apollo Bay. But before hopping down for lunch at Apollo bay, we had made a couple of quick stops on the way to enjoy the views of the ocean and some camera clicks. One was just stopping roadside in middle of nowhere and another at Cape Patton – a small gallery offering amazing views of the coastline.
Apollo bay is just the right place to grab lunch. You have an option for upgrading your tour which includes a 2 course lunch at the Apollo Bay café or hunt for your own food. I went in for the later. And no regrets, as the town was full of multi-cuisine restaurants. I had a variety to choose from. I settled for a quick bite of pizza at George’s café and went for a beachside walk without wasting time. There is a beautiful garden connecting the road and the beach. If the sun is out, it is recommended to spend some time relaxing or strolling in the garden. Before relaxing, I walked down the beach all the way to a small harbour. Good views of Apollo Bay town and the C-shaped beach were to be enjoyed from there.
Like the Great Ocean Road, there is also a Great Ocean Walk. Starting from Apollo Bay and ending at Glenample Homestead, 104 kms away, near the 12 Apostles. Guided tours are offered by many operators in the area. The walk is estimated to take 8 days. There are several camp-sites spaced at intervals along the track. Anyone interested in indulging themselves totally in nature or looking to reduce a few pounds may certainly take this walk.
After stretching our legs at Apollo bay, we hopped back on our bus ready to depart for our highlight stop of the day, The Port Campbell National Park – home to the 12 Apostles. Actually only 8 remain now as over the years 4 have collapsed into the sea. Call it an ever changing coastline!
It was another hour and a half before we could reach there. Just after exiting Apollo Bay, we made our way into the Great Otway National Park. The road for a while goes away from the ocean and into the forests. The road cuts through tall eucalyptus tree forest. As there was excessive rainfall this year ending a 15 year drought in the region, the forest had full foliage. Eucalyptus farming is very popular here. So the whole forest is technically a big farmland. Trees are planted in cycles and cut every 10 years and then replanted. So we could see many patches where matured trees were just cut and new ones where planted in place. It was good to see they were giving back to nature what they were taking from nature.
As there is abundance of eucalyptus here, how could we be far away from the famous Wild Australian Koalas? And sure enough we spotted quite a few, some just meters away from the coach. Speaking of Koalas, they enjoy a lifestyle to envy upon. They sleep for 18 to 20 hours a day and while awake, eat or try to find a partner to mate! Koalas are shy animals and defend their privacy. They are known to attack humans and other Koalas for getting too close for comfort. Call them cuddly!
As we continued to near Port Campbell National Park, the ocean again came into sight. We were scheduled for 3 stops in the national park. The Gibson steps, the 12 Apostles centre and Loch Ard Gorge. All the 3 locations give a different view of the majestic 12 Apostles coast. Rather than stopping at the Gibson steps first, we went straight ahead to stop at the 12 Apostles centre. You will soon find out the reason behind it.
One can enjoy the 12 Apostles coast from 1000 feet above by taking an 8 minute helicopter joy ride. It is a much recommended ride because the view from top is just unbelievable. You can enjoy the ride for just A$75 if travelling with Gray lines. Just inform the driver of the coach at Apollo Bay to reserve you a ride. The helicopter takes passengers on first cum first basis. So to avoid the rush of other tour companies coming in, Russel took us straight there without stopping at Gibsons steps. Nice move!
If not opting for a ride – no worries. There are free for all walking trails which take you through the edge of the cliff offering magnificent views of the Apostles through strategically located lookout points. Some of the trails were closed for renovation at the time of my visit.
We turned our bus back a few kms. to go to the Gibson steps. Climb down 91 steps and you hit the beach to get a bottom up view of some of the Apostles. The wind had picked up and the waves had started to rise to their full might. We were strictly instructed to keep a distance from the sea. It was a great sight to see 30 feet waves crashing on the rocks.
After negotiating 91 steps back up, we turned again to head towards the Loch Ard Gorge. A place with a story I should say. Ship named Loch Ard crashed into the coast here in 1878 on the eve of their arrival in Melbourne after a 3 month journey from England. Of the 51 passengers, only 2 survived. The arch of the nearby island archway collapsed in 2009, and so the 2 unconnected rock pillars have since been named Tom and Eva – the 2 survivors of the wreck.
Once here, there are 3 trails to enjoy. One is climb down 72 steps into the gorge. Some massive cave formations can be witnessed here. The caves are also a part of the Tom-Eva survival story. The second trail takes you to the edge of the cliff for a view of the gorge from the top. And the third trail takes you to the Island Arch and the Razorback – a grand natural architecture carved by the surf. While returning back from the last trail, it suddenly started to pour down. It seems a bit eerie to get wet in 5 degree Celsius with strong winds blowing, but it was the place to be at that moment.
After some stunning photographic opportunities of the powerful coastline, we headed towards are last stop for the day – Port Campbell. Sun was up and shining brightly by the time we reached there. A great place to have evening snacks while enjoying the walk on the beach promenade, absorbing all the beautiful sights I had been through the day.
Evening was about to set in and so we started our journey back to Melbourne. We took an inland route rather than the coastal route for the return. As it was not possible to enjoy the beauty of the country side in the dark, I decided to watch a movie played on board while some others decided to doze off.
Back to Melbourne, reclining on my hotel bed, thinking – can a dream tonight better this!
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