Victoria’s Great Ocean Road has witnessed more than a few changes to the jaw-dropping landscape it traverses, says SAM BISHOP.
You only get one chance, they say, to make a first impression. Likewise, it could be said, you only get one chance to take a first impression. Who can’t remember the moment they first clapped eyes on the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids or the Great Wall; what time of day it was, which angle you came at it from and who you were with?
Imagine, then, getting a second chance to take in a landmark sight for the first time. At 9.18am on Sunday, July 3, last year, the Southern Ocean did just that to one of Australia’s tourist icons, Victoria’s Twelve Apostles. After standing up to centuries of abuse from the seas that hammer Australia’s roughest stretch of coastline, one of the most prominent stacks protruding from the water slong the Great Ocean Road collapsed, changing the Shipwreck Coast’s landscape forever.
The collapse of the 45m-tall sandstone stack, the second from the giant viewing platform, exposed the vulnerability of the eight remaining Apostles and many of the features that dot Victoria’s west coast.
It wasn’t the first time the landscape of the Great Ocean Road was changed in an instant by the destructive power of the Southern Ocean. Fifteen years earlier, London Bridge, a massive sandstone outcrop connected to the mainland by a naturally formed bridge, spectacularly crashed into the sea, stranding two tourists on the outcrop which had, in a matter of seconds, become an island. The tourists were later rescued by helicopter and ferried to safety. Indeed, the stretch of coast covered by the 400km-plus Great Ocean Road is forever changing under the constant assault of the Southern Ocean and Bass Straight.
It’s not called the Shipwreck Coast for nothing – more than 700 ships have come to grief on the rocks and reefs along the approach to the calmer waters of Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay.
Starting at Torquay, 100km from Melbourne, and winding its way through a seemingly endless parade of national parks, which begin as typical Australian bush and gradually evolve into rich tropical rainforest and back to seaside scrub, the road finishes at Warrnambool in the state’s south-west, with an endless array of day trips, overnight detours and attractions along its coastal path.
The road was built over a 14-year span from 1918 and 1932 by returned war veterans in order to connect townships along the coast which had previously only been linked by dangerous sea trips. The first stretch of the road, a 50km drive from Torquay to Lorne, is home to some of Australia’s, and the world’s, finest surf beaches. Just a few minutes out of Torquay is Bells Beach, made famous by the Easter weekend surfing event and Point Break. Despite jaw-dropping views of the natural bay that is Bells and the sight of perfect waves rolling in off Bass Straight, many leave Bells disappointed, having discovered that, while the finale to the film was shot on location, it was a different location to the dry, scrubby and sandy beach revered as one of the best surfing breaks in the world.
Forty minutes on is Lorne, a coastal hamlet now home to some of the most expensive holiday real estate in Australia. Like much of the heavily forested west coast, Lorne was fortunate to survive the 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires which tore through many of the towns along the road. A change of wind as the flames roared down the hill that runs through the town straight into the sea spared the town as its residents took shelter on the beach. Twenty years later, the blackened trunks of trees serve as a reminder of the fires which claimed three lives along the coast, destroyed more than 800 houses and burnt 41,000 hectares of land in the Otway Ranges.
Heading west from Lorne, the scenery becomes even more dramatic. Still hugging the coast, often separated from a 100m drop onto the rocks that bear the brunt of the sea by a worryingly flimsy-looking safety barrier, this is not the place to discover motion sickness brought on by heights and a winding road, especially if the restaurants, cafés or pubs of Lorne proved too much to pass up.
From Apollo Bay to Port Campbell, the home of the Twelve Apostles and enough historic landmarks to make sure you never spend more than five minutes in the car at one time, the Great Ocean Road moves away from the coast and into the rainforest that works its way across the Otway Ranges.
A stunning detour from the road, Cape Otway lighthouse makes it clear how so many ships were lost trying to ‘thread the needle’ between King Island to the south and Cape Otway, the point where the treacherous Southern Ocean becomes Bass Straight, which is the approach to Port Phillip Heads. Perched high on the Cape’s headland, the lighthouse is the oldest and one of the most spectacularly placed on Australia’s mainland.
West of Cape Otway, the most easily identifiable stretch of the Great Ocean Road begins – the Twelve Apostles, Gibson’s Steps and Loch Ard Gorge, the bay where the Loch Ard ran aground in June 1878, killing all but two 18-year-old passengers who swam to safety in the gorge before being rescued and taken to a nearby homestead. Perched atop the gorge is a cemetery where the bodies recovered from the wreck, which killed 52, were buried. A walk around the graveyard is a sombre but fascinating reminder of the history of the Shipwreck Coast and those who travelled halfway around the world only to perish a few hundred kilometres from their destination.
With endless attractions and historical sites dotted along one of the world’s most stunning scenic drives, the Great Ocean Road is a perfect example of a trip being about the journey, not the destination, and it’s one that will leave a lasting impression on every visit.
Life in the slow lane
By Australian standards, the 250km covered by the Great Ocean is a relatively short distance and many visitors think it can be done in a day, but the tough driving conditions – slow, winding, often slippery one-lane roads – attractions and detours that line the road make it almost impossible to see everything comfortably in a day. Plan an overnight stay in Lorne, Apollo Bay or one of the other small towns along the road. During the quieter months, you shouldn’t need to book ahead, but advance bookings are must in the busier summer months.