Originally our travel plan for Australia was to hire out a camper van and travel around the coast – with the probable exception of parts of the Northern Territories. (Given Sams’ fear of this area after watching the movie Wolf Creek too many times!!) The romantic idea of life on the road was quickly jettisoned for a number of reasons. The thought of spending hours in a small metal box in temperatures regularly over 30 degrees wasn’t hugely appealing. We both don’t have the greatest backs in the world and figured sleeping on a camper van mattress for several weeks might result in a lot of pain and a large and prolonged chiropractors bill. Finding the right places to park up, especially in the cities, also felt like another hassle that could spoil our time in Melbourne and Sydney. The likelihood being we’d be stuck on the outskirts in a trailer park when we wanted to be in the hustle and bustle of these amazing cities. Being 50+ flash-packers, not backpackers, means we just aren’t cut out to rough it very much anymore. Instead, the combination of house sitting, AirBnB and a decent rental car proved to be far more appealing.
We picked up our car in Adelaide and headed south on the first leg of our drive that would see us motoring along the coast all the way to Sydney over the course of the next few weeks.
The Great Ocean Road is one of, if not the highlight of any Ozzie road trip. It’s quite a drive from Adelaide before you reach it but these less heralded strips of coast offer a great deal of pleasure, beautiful small towns, wonderful hospitality, wildlife and cracking coastline scenery – hence the barrage of photos in this blog.
Driving south from Adelaide we reached the Coorong National Park – a seemingly endless stretch of quiet sandbars, lagoons, and dry salt lake beds creating wide open barren spaces and a strange isolated atmosphere. It has a Hollywood claim to fame being the setting for the film “Storm Boy”.
Although there was very little traffic and few people around to share the Coorong experience, we weren’t alone, with large gatherings of pelicans on the waters.
Seeing them so close up makes you realise what a bizarre bird they are with their giant bills dominating their features. However, they glide with such grace, with an astonishing wingspan. With rather less grace, Sam managed to capture me with a rather unfortunate pelican appendage while I was adopting a pelican pose…
Our first stop was the lovely town of Robe on what has become dubbed Australia’s “Limestone Coast” – it seems the tourist marketing people just can’t help themselves when it comes to branding and badging. With the school holidays over and the first signs of summer waning, Robe was very quiet and extraordinarily windy. The beaches looked great but it was far too blustery for a dip.
After an overnight stop in probably the best AirBnB we have ever stayed in (not often you arrive to be greeted with wine and chocolates!), we headed off the next day immediately taking a detour to the even smaller town of Beachport. One of the pleasures of a leisurely road trip is looking at the map and picking random places to pop in and take a look at just because you like its name. Beachport has a huge jetty that provided us with a bracing morning walk that blew away the cobwebs and had us struggling to remember the searing heat of Adelaide.
Mount Gambier was our next port of call, partly because it was the largest town on this stretch of the route, but also due to its famous Blue Lake, which the blurb assured us was bright blue. It’s easy to be cynical about these boasts, the biggest, best, tallest, oldest etc. but for my money Mount Gambier really isn’t doing its Blue Lake justice – it really is the brightest blue lake we’ve ever seen. The lake sits in a volcanic crater and it apparently turns a bright turquoise blue overnight during November and stays that colour until March. It’s one of those sights that is so remarkable it looks slightly unreal, and you have to keep looking to convince yourself it really is that blue. After some double takes a smile creeps across you face and you think “yep, that’s worth boasting about – that is the bluest blue lake ever”. A road with several viewing points circles the lake and every time you jump out and take another look it repeats the trick of astonishing you.
On the second night of our trip we stayed just outside the improbably named Port Fairy, close to Tower Hill Nature Reserve. Our AirBnB hosts advised that we would probably see a few Koala’s in the reserve – which filled us with excitement – but the first encounter we had was with a couple of Emu’s that were roaming around oblivious to our attentions.
After wandering around various trails in the reserve we hadn’t seen any Koala’s and were resigning ourselves to having to wait longer to see some of these adorable creatures in the wild – which is of course when we finally found two, snoozing away in Eucalyptus treetops. Almost as evocative as the Kangaroo, the Koala just looks like it needs to be hugged – although with the claws they have, that probably isn’t the best idea. Unlike many Kangaroo’s, Koala’s are great subjects to photograph, rarely moving a muscle.
Our third day would see the start of the Great Ocean Road proper, making our way out of South Australia into Victoria. We started the day by visiting another recommendation off the tourist trail (an advantage of AirBnB – getting locals top tips), a rocky secluded beach tucked away just beyond the western end of the Great Ocean Road – Childers Cove, which we had all to ourselves – the only time we were going to experience that feeling all day as most tourists heading from the east in Melbourne don’t stray much beyond the Twelve Apostles and its neighbouring sites.
We headed west and started making the obligatory stops at what are the crown jewels of the Great Ocean Road: Loch Ard Gorge, London Arch, and the highlight, Twelve Apostles. You know you are nearing these attractions as helicopters buzz into view, whizzing passengers along the cliff line for what must be a tremendous view. The other tell-tale sign was the growing traffic and heaving car parks that left us wistfully thinking about the solitude we had left at Childers Cove.
There is no question that the scenery is ruggedly beautiful, showcasing the power of erosion that is reshaping the coastline and ultimately has and will continue to wear away these iconic rocks.
We had a feeling of deja vu as our visit coincided with the Chinese New Year, and hundreds of holidaying Chinese tourists making their way along the Great Ocean Road in fleets of coaches and mini-buses.
Having travelled from the west we reached Twelve Apostles reasonably early in the day and before the day-trippers from Melbourne could get there. Nevertheless it was very busy and by the time we had wandered around, taken in the awesome views and slipped out of the car park it was starting to feel a bit over-run.
Our last stop along this section of coast was a winding drive through the forests Great Otway National Park to its lighthouse – one of the most southerly points of mainland Australia. This is a bleak unforgiving spot, and the gale force winds that hit you as you step out on to the balcony of the lighthouse feel a million miles from the heat on the beaches of W.A. and Adelaide.
Our AirBnB experiences on our Oz trip had been excellent up to this point, however, that was about to change. The omens were not good as we drove through the popular resort of Apollo Bay and the rains came down. Nowhere looks great in the drizzle and Apollo Bay reminded us of Blackpool on a cold grey wet February afternoon – thoroughly grim! Our accommodation was a few miles further on in Wye River in what was described as a former monastery set right on the coast road – it sounded great and had an appealing name “Seacroft”. It wasn’t!! As we entered our hearts sank at the sight of portacabin type accommodation and communal mixed sex toilet blocks. “OMG, we’ve been banged up” I said to Sam. We walked along a grim concrete pathway to our “cell” and I couldn’t help repeating the opening lines of Porridge: “Norman Stanley Fletcher, you have pleaded guilty to the charges brought by this court. You are an habitual criminal, who accepts arrest as an occupational hazard, and presumably accepts imprisonment in the same casual manner. We therefore feel constrained to commit you to the maximum term allowed for these offences: you will go to prison for five years.”
Thankfully our sentence was only to be one night – the punishment handed down for the crime of gullibility: believing rave reviews on AirBnB from previous guests who presumably had subterranean expectations compounded by acute myopia. We glumly surveyed our room and its generous helpings of dust and peeling paintwork. The mattress had clearly seen better days and as soon as we hopped on it from either side we both rolled to the middle as it sagged under our moderate weight.
At first light we tried to complete discrete ablutions in the toilet block and promptly hit the road. Mercifully the sun was back out and we started the next stretch of the Great Ocean Road, our mood lifted by the wild gorgeous beaches…
This is where the road hugs the cliffs alongside superb beaches and crashing surf – stunning views combined with rally-like bends as you weave your way along the hillside, with one “wow” moment after another. This felt like the heart of the road trip and it’s difficult to recall a more impressive scenic drive.
This tremendous drive was made even better by pulling up at Lorne – a place that is everything Apollo Bay isn’t (think Brighton vs Blackpool). Stylish, great shops and restaurants, quaint buildings and a buzzing beach filled with children learning to surf – a thoroughly wholesome place where we had a lovely healthy breakfast followed by bit of retail therapy and a dip in the sea.
A short drive inland took us to Erskine Falls – another beautiful detour that further endeared Lorne to us. We really wished we had stayed here rather than at HMP Seacroft, but you occasionally have to take the rough to cherish the smooth.
All too soon we were rolling into Angelsea and the official start/end point of the Great Ocean Road. Here we made a quick detour to see the famous local golf course that is inhabited by kangaroos..
After a final night in Queenscliff, part of the promontory of Port Phillip Bay, we started to make our way to Melbourne. This is another pretty and relatively un-touristed part of Victoria that was recently featured in the TV series “The Cry”, – a neat journey bookend to “Storm Boy” in Coorong. Before reaching Victoria’s capital we stopped off to check out Geelong (still don’t know how to pronounce it) which was the largest place we had seen since Adelaide. Geelong has a potentially lovely pier part of which is inexplicably used as a car park – which is a real shame as the front is picturesque with a nice mix of old and new. Geelong is famous for its colourful wooden statues which can be seen all along the front that hark back to its seaside and seafaring past which adds to its sense of fun and frivolity.
After five days driving and four nights we had completed a leisurely drive from Adelaide to Melbourne, including the Great Ocean Road itself. It’s certainly a trip we would recommend, and if you have time investigating the western end into South Australia is worth it. The Great Ocean Road itself feels as though it has two quite distinct characters. You can’t fail to be impressed by the coastal scenery of the Twelve Apostles area, it is striking and it lives up to the hype. However, be prepared to share this experience with hundreds of other sightseers slowly shuffling around the viewing points and searching for a space in rammed carparks. The drive in this section doesn’t routinely offer sea-views, although the forests of Great Otway National Park does compensate for that. The drive just north of Apollo Bay to Angelsea is superb. There isn’t a single iconic scene to pick out here, but it delivers sheer driving / sight-seeing joy with the added bonus of delightful Lorne – do stop here if you have the time.
Top Travelling Tips
Despite our one mishap on this part of our journey, for us AirBnB remains a far better experience than hotels. Warm greetings, the personal touch, great insider tips on what to see, where to eat, and of course great value for money. We’ve stayed in some beautiful homes in fabulous locations. Once in a while things go a bit pear-shaped, but that’s usually down to not spending enough time researching options.
Next Up: Melbun & Miriam Margolyes