The Great Ocean Road

The Great Ocean Road, skirting the coastline from Geelong to Nelson on the South Australian border, is one of Australia’s great scenic drives.

It’s also a tribute to the determination of soldiers who returned from World War I and, with picks and shovels, built the road to commemorate their comrades who died in the war.

Before heading off on the Great Ocean Road, Geelong is worth spending some time to have a good look Cat City (the Aussie Rules footy team is the Cats). The city fathers have allocated a fortune into rejuvenating the place, especially along Corio Bay.

‘Bollards’, answered the lady behind the information desk with a smile. ‘Pardon?’ I replied, having previously asked what to check out in Geelong. ‘The bollards,’ she said. ‘Start with the bollards along the waterfront. There are 104 of them and every one of them tells a story about the city. And, if you have kiddies, get them to look for the rabbits.’

Millions upon millions of dollars have been spent tarting up the waterfront of Corio Bay and the bollards work a treat. And the rabbits painted on some of them aren’t there just for a 3-D game of ’Where’s Wally Wabbit’: Thomas Austin arrived in Corio Bay in 1859 with the first pairs of rabbits for his hunting pleasure, and they bred like, well, rabbits. Statistics say there are around 300 million rabbits in Australia, though I’m not sure whose job it was to count them.

Local artist, Jan Mitchell painted the bollards, over several years, to represent aspects of life in Geelong and some famous locals. From small groups of lifesavers to lone figures, the tall round poles were used originally to tie boats to wharves, and many have come from old piers in the district. They are colourful and fun, and add to a stroll along the foreshore. My favourite is Nancy Nattyknickers (right). She sits astride her velocipede (the first made in Geelong in 1869) brazenly flaunting her wearing of trousers that finally allowed women to ride the contraptions.

The pier and beachfront area is attractive and there’s safe swimming as well as casual and fine dining. The upgrading of the area led to the rediscovery of a mineral water spring at Eastern Beach, which now again produces extremely pure, sparkling water from the spring without need of a pump.

Oh! BTW, the helpful lady was behind the information desk in the foyer of the National Wool Museum, which is also well worth a visit if you are interested in wool.

The beginning of the Great Ocean Road has some of Australia’s best surfing beaches. These include Torquay and Bells Beach.

Torquay (right) is a major centre for the manufacture of surfing gear and many claim it has the best waves west of Hawaii. The Surfworld Surfing Museum includes displays from historic memorabilia to interactive videos. Bells Beach frequently hosts major international surfing championships. The swell can reach 4 metres but on my last visit it was very gentle; there were still a few optimists sitting above the sedate rolls to say that they had ‘surfed Bells’. Some surfers from the northern States believe Victorian surfers are lazy, because the waves take them all the way into the beach and then it’s just a walk to the point and a short paddle out again. Others would say they were lucky.

I reckon my first encounter with Bells Beach was in the 1966 seminal surfing move, The Endless Summer. I was 12 and not a ‘surfie’ but I found it totally captivating.  I fell in love with the theme music and taught myself how to play it (badly) on guitar.  For the record, I also learnt to surf, at the tender age of 40. The resulting soreness pointed out that surfers use muscles the rest of us let sit idle.

Anglesea is a lovely spot to stop for a round of golf because you’ll share the course with grazing kangaroos. Lorne feels a little ‘surf ‘n’ chic’, with its tasteful, eco-friendly housing looking over the water. The chimneys on many of them point out that it’s not a ‘sun and sand’ resort all year round. Apollo Bay also has good surf but is less chic and more ‘family’. The fish ‘n’ chips, and fish souvlaki are excellent.

The 13 000-hectare Otway National Park, with its towering rainforest trees, straddles the Great Ocean Road as it nips inland west of Apollo Bay.

A gentle 45-minute walk from Maits Rest wanders through ferns, mossy gullies, and beech and myrtle trees, some 300 years old. The old Cape Otway Lighthouse is at the end of a short track, which runs south from the main road 4 kilometres beyond Maits Rest.

Standing on the southernmost point along the Great Ocean Road, it marked the entrance to Bass Strait and, for its first 50 years, was only accessible by boat. A modern solar-powered light now does the job. Lighthouse tours and accommodation (booking is a must) are available.

One of the most spectacular stretches of coastline is the 27-kilometre stretch of the Port Campbell National Park. This area is home to the postcard-pretty Twelve Apostles, which jut out of the sea near the limestone cliffs to which they once belonged.

Yes, they are incredibly beautiful, but there is a feeling of an anti-climax because we’ve all seen them before in photographs and, unlike Uluru, there is no feeling of spirituality. This is not to suggest you should drive on by. For those feeling fit, Gibson Steps lead down a 70-metre cliff face to a beach, to give a sea level view of the amazing outcrops. I think there are only seven Apostles left these days. Wonder if they will still be called the Twelve Apostles if/when erosion brings it down to one?

Lookouts have been placed at strategic points along the coast, which is the graveyard for many ships. The winds and pounding waves leave no doubt about its name, The Shipwreck Coast. The most famous of the 160 ships to meet a watery grave was the Loch Ard, a huge iron clipper ship, which hit a reef in 1878 carrying 54 people from England.

Port Campbell is small and friendly; Warrnambool is big and friendly. For some hard-to-decide eating choices in Warrnambool, head down Liebig Street to Timor Street for Mexican, Japanese, seafood, family fare and even Scottish.

Lady Bay Beach and the adjacent, award-winning adventure playground is a popular picnic spot, and nearby protected Stingray Bay is extremely safe for young kids.  Seeing little penguins on a guided tour is a delight but discovering them for yourself gives you a much bigger thrill.  On my first visit to this neck of the woods, my then nine-year-old son found one in a small rookery, just sitting, moulting, as they do (penguins, not nine-year-old boys).

He picked up on the smell and further exploring uncovered a few more little caves and around ten of the little critters. Sadly, on the headland we found quite a few more dead ones. At extremely low tides, foxes and packs of dogs cross the channel to the headland and run amok.

The Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum presents the way an early-fortified coastal town may have looked, incorporating 1887 fortifications, and old and re-created buildings. It has two working lighthouses and a collection of vessels from bygone days, including a small passenger steamer.

Warnambool is also a breeding ground for the rare Southern Right whales (May to September). These giants grow to 15 metres and 60 tonnes. An observation platform overlooking the shallow water of nearby Logans Beach provides good views of the mothers with their calves.

Tower Hill was Victoria’s first designated National Park (1892). Settlers clearing the land had virtually devastated it and a re-vegetation program began, based on an early painting by Eugene Von Guerard. It was so detailed it allowed plant species to be identified, and the painting now hangs in the Warrnambool Art Gallery. Tower Hill is a natural free-roaming haven for kangaroos, emus, koalas and a variety of water birds.

From Warrnambool it’s 15 kilometres to Port Fairy, which is an absolute delight – the sort of town you enter and say, ‘I could live here’, with gorgeous waterways and homes with gardens full of pride and talent. After a perfectly cooked breakfast served with a smile, we wandered past old houses and pubs and found a house for sale – tastefully renovated with a superb garden, its own jetty and a P.O.A. on the sign. Curiosity got the better and we stuck our head into the real estate agency to A about the P. Ahhh, I see… so we have tipped well over the magic million dollar mark…  Moving right along then…

Along the coast is Portland.  It’s larger, and still a nice spot, but it hovers under the umbrella of being ‘industrial’. Nelson marks the end of the road and pretty much the State. It’s a sleepy little place where you can hop a relaxing river cruise and visit the Princess Margaret Rose Cave. There are good bushwalks and a wild, sweeping, walkable but un-swimmable beach. A sign tells you that the hooded plover is down to around 600 thanks to foxes and, if you have kids, stick to the main tracks as 1080 poison baits have been laid to improve the odds for the wee, shy birdies.

Entering South Australia from Victoria, the border goes pretty much unnoticed and, travelling west along the coast road, you can’t help but bump into Mount Gambier. It’s a large town pretending to be a city (or maybe it’s the other way round) and is home to the mysterious Blue Lake. This large crater lake sits up the hill from the main town and supplies the population with water.

Every November, over a few days, the lake changes from a greyish blue to brilliant turquoise and then returns to its winter colour in March. For the adventurous, another attraction is to dive the Engelbrecht Caves. I imagine there would be some good dining options in town.  Any town large enough to keep a tattooist in business usually has disposable income to keep cafes and restaurants afloat.

From Mt Gambier it is easy to take a little, rewarding side trip. It takes about an hour and twenty minutes to get to Naracoorte but you want to allow more time than that.

About half way is the delightful little town of Penola. It has some fine examples of 1850s slab and timber cottages in Petticoat Lane, a terrific bakery in the main street, an interesting antique shop but is mainly known for St Mary MacKillop.

The Mary MacKillop Interpretive Centre is a classy, modern building that tells the story of this Josephite nun, as does the little stone schoolhouse where she taught. Her school was the first in Australia to cater for any child, regardless of income or social standing. There’s a slightly eerie feeling when you enter the classroom – a bit like a church where you feel forced to whisper. Once excommunicated from the Catholic Church, MacKillop is now Australia’s first saint.

While the imagination easily takes you to this busy nun in her austere frock looking after her flock in the middle of nowhere, it’s a little harder to imagine her global ‘jet setting’ in the mid-1800s. She was granted an audience with the Pope and, unaccompanied, travelled to the Vatican. She also visited Scotland and New Zealand.

Here’s a nice irony… having taken her vows of poverty and chastity, Mary MacKillop was also against the ‘demon drink’, yet she befriended John Riddoch who founded the Coonawarra wine industry. And it’s that link that takes us around 8km north of Penola. The Coonawarra has to be the most accessible wine-producing area for those who want to sample some great grapes.

The region is famous for its full-bodied reds. Either side of the straight road are around 20 wineries offering cellar-door tastings. It’s a Disneyland for tipplers with the big names including Riddoch, St Hugo, Limestone Ridge, St George, Jamieson’s Run and Rouge Homme, along with many boutique wineries. Unlike the Barossa or the Hunter where you can travel a bit between wineries, these are pretty much back-to-back. The landscape brings Noel Coward to mind: ‘Very, very flat, please send alp’.

It’s only a short hop north to Naracoorte and the World Heritage limestone caves. It’s usually a few degrees warmer here than down south, and it’s a big enough town to dish up both country relaxation and some nightlife (population around 5000).

You need close to a full day to do the Naracoorte Caves justice. The self-guide Wet Cave will give a feel for what’s there, but also allow time for Blanche and Alexandra caves, which have spectacular stalagmites and stalactites. There’s a high-tech bat-viewing interpretive centre (and nightly bat tours) and, in school holidays, fossiling for kids.

My spell check says fossiling isn’t a word but, whatever, it’s a well-run activity where kids become palaeontologists for a couple of hours, while Mum and Dad can either join in, explore a cave or two or have a coffee in the civilised little restaurant.

My yardstick on attractions is the children’s boredom factor. My two showed no sign at all over more than 6 hours.

Just south of the Naracoorte Caves is Bool Lagoon Game Reserve, a must for birdwatchers.

Back in town, the Naracoorte Museum has more than 100 collections, including butterflies, artifacts, gemstones, clocks, bird eggs, antiques, guns and horse-drawn vehicles. Local reptiles, including venomous snakes, lizards and turtles can be viewed in outdoor enclosures and under glass.

For those not familiar with Australian snakes: of the world’s ten most venomous, Australia has them all.