The magnificent views of the restless ocean must be worth millions but its true value is priceless. And in recognition of this, the views are deemed to belong to no one, and as such, it belongs to everyone.
That, it seems to me, is the greatest bit of the Great Ocean Road that runs a glorious 200-plus km along the southern coast of Victoria, Australia. There is a certain determined egalitarian spirit about this road, fittingly so because it was built by men and women who had survived the trenches of World War 1. The road, thus, belongs to all, and its views as well.
There are no tolls imposed, and the best views are reserved for the people who drive the road or use the beaches. The grandest mansions set way back from the ocean. They still get the views but hey, the marhaen rakyat get a better one! That, to me, is magnificent.
This is my second time driving the entire stretch, and I was as enchanted as my first time two years ago.
Like my last trip, this one was also made in a tiny compact hired car, a Toyota Yaris. It was so light that it almost felt like it was floating especially in strong gusts, but it worked great. Smooth and easy to drive, it took us around for five days without problem.
We began our trip from Melbourne to the Mornington Peninsula where we stayed a few days in St Andrew’s Beach to explore the area. I’m familiar with the area but a visit to Cape Schanck lighthouse still thrills me, and picking strawberries is still great fun. And this time, Paulus was with me, so it added a new dimension to the trip!
Mornington Peninsula was gorgeous, as always, the wild seas all around, crazy soft sand dunes, and so much space to get away from it all. That was always its appeal to me, and at one time, I entertained the crazy the notion of buying a tiny house hidden in the dunes with the ocean’s roar at its doorstep.
Or perhaps, one of the rolling farmsteads with a view of the ocean.
From Mornington Peninsula, we headed to Sorrento to catch the ferry across to Queenscliff to begin the Great Ocean Road drive. With an hour to kill, we browsed Sorrento’s coastal chic shops, and were amazed at the prices of the rustic goods to tempt holiday-makers. AUD180 for a reed basket?! From Sorrento, we took the car onto a ferry for a 40-minute ride across Port Philip Bay to Queenscliff. As the ferry neared the jetty, we thought we spotted a seal in the water. But then, maybe not.
Our adventure began in Queenscliff where the lack of signages soon led us in circles! But that was easily resolved by the tourist office lady who fished out a sheaf of maps to lead us to the start of the road in Torquay. Without those maps, we would have gotten lost, for sure, as there were not enough signs. But that glitch was soon forgotten, and soon, the anchor sign began to appear regularly enough to assure us that we were heading the right way. Not that there was any real doubt, the ocean on one side all the way was reassurance enough.
The story of the Great Ocean Road is as magnificent as the views. It was built by returning soldiers of World War 1 as a memorial to their fallen comrades, and much of it was built by hand. The story can be read on plaques at the many viewpoints along the way, and in the Lorne tourist office. What an amazing story, and as lovely as the fact that the road had been built with the ordinary person in mind. A gazillion viewpoints and rest stops ensure that visitors (especially drivers!) get a chance to take in the views, and best of all, a large part of the road runs along the coast or on cliffs high above the ocean. There is nothing to block the view because all other buildings including expensive mansions are set back from the road. That, to me, was really one of the nicest bits of driving the Great Ocean Road – this regard for the common man. In many other parts of the world, the choicest views would have been cordoned off for those who can pay but here, it was the other way around.
Oh yes, there’s another great thing for the modern traveler – free wifi! There’s free wifi at the tourist offices along the way, many of which are situated just off the road with plenty of parking and space to stretch the legs. I discovered that when we took a break at Anglesea’s pretty tourist office with a walkway overlooking a reedy river. Ah, wifi! What a lovely surprise. We tarried there for a while, then went on our way. We also stopped at Lorne to look at the exhibition of the road’s construction, browsed the gift shop, had a coffee, and went on our way again.
Our stop for that night was Apollo Bay, a small town with a charming view of the sea. As it’s almost off-season, it was quiet. And as we had a kitchen, we decided to cook a simple meal to eat by the heater. It was a chilly night! It was nice to eat at home, just both of us.
The next day dawned cloudy – our first cloudy day since we got to Australia. It lent a different mood to the day, and the sea looked ferocious yet melancholy at the same time. The road led us into the mountains and woods as it went through the Otway National Park. We took a detour to Cape Otway to see the koalas and kangaroos but skipped the lighthouse as it was raining by then. No fun in a lighthouse in the rain.
An on-off drizzle accompanied us for most of the drive, although the sun was determined to break through occasionally, often when we reached a particularly lovely spot. It suddenly turned sunny when we reached the iconic Twelve Apostles. Us and a million other bus tourists. Such is the fate of popular sites. We got ourselves coffee, and strolled along the boardwalk to admire the views of the ‘apostles’ which are free-standing rocks in the sea. It was too crowded for any sort of serene reflection though, so we didn’t stay long.
Back on the road, and straight onto Port Fairy, a sweet town filled with elderly people. Like everywhere else in the world, urban migration has left many country towns and villages the province of the old and very young. Port Fairy is a just a small town that didn’t have much prospect for chic shopping but there was a supermarket and a number of cafés. Its old quarter is picturesque.
After a night in Port Fairy (named for penguins, I think, not elves), we took the inland Prince’s Highway back to Melbourne. That drive was just as scenic, taking us past farmland, homesteads, and rolling hills. Australia is indeed scenic and beautiful.
And best of all, the drive went well, despite me not having driven long distances in ages! My feet did not forget how to drive.