The Great Ocean Roadtrip

The Great Ocean Road is probably Australia's most iconic roadtrip destination. 151 miles (243 km) long, it is studded with stunning windswept beaches, cliffs, and native forest. Oh yeah, and it also just so happens to be the world's largest war memorial. The Great Ocean Road was built starting in 1919 by soldiers who had returned home from WWI in honor of their fallen comrades. One whole century later, this memorial does not disappoint and is pretty much a must-see if you're in the Greater Melbourne area.

After months working a tear-your-hair-out job, Emmett and I were ready to go on the Road as our last tourist activity in Australia. We spent two days driving the GOR and making fast friends with two hitch-hikers we picked up. But more on that later...

Stop 1: Bells Beach

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Just outside of the town of Torquay at the Road's beginning, we stopped at Bells Beach for a brief look around. Though neither of us are surfers (though everyone mistakes Emmett for one with his long hair), we thought it would be cool to see the beach that hosts the world's longest running surf competition. There were a lot of steady breakers but not many surfers on the side of the beach where we stopped.

Stop 2: Aireys Inlet

I love lighthouses, so we had to make a stop at the first one of the Road at Aireys Inlet. Instead of walking along the paved path to the top, we decided to see the lighthouse from below it's clifftop rest. Then, of course, we had to beachcomb for a little while. There were tons of neat shells but it's a protected beach so I did not keep any of the ones I found. We spent about half an hour there just climbing some rocks and peeking in caves.

Stop 3: The Great Ocean Road Memorial Arch

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This spot has a statue dedicated to the workers who made the GOR happen and a few plaques about fallen ANZAC soldiers. However, most people ignore it and wait their turn to take photos in front of the arch. Like this one that Emmett snapped of yours truly.

Stop 4: Sheoak Falls

 Not Sheoak Falls, but a view from the trail leading up to them.

Not Sheoak Falls, but a view from the trail leading up to them.

Just before the town of Lorne, we picked up two Polish hitch-hikers named Lucas & Patricia. For the first hour or so of our trip, we made a lot of small talk. Little did we know, that as the hours continued we would become fast friends due to all of the things we had in common. The two biggest items being that we are all vegetarians who got married just before our travels. We ended up spending the rest of our duration along the Great Ocean Road with them. It was one of those awesome instant kindred spirit connections that I seem to only ever make with like-minded travelers.

Anyway, the first thing we four did together was take a short hike to Sheoak Falls which was a very underwhelming trickle of a waterfall. I won't even bother featuring a photo of it. However, the wooden path to the Falls included the lovely view you see above, so that was nice.

Stop 5: Kennett River

Kennett River is advertised as THE place to see koalas along the Great Ocean Road. All info that I'd found ahead of time had suggested parking at the Koala Kafe and then koala-searching up the trail across the road. It was very easy to find said trail, as it was full of tour-busloads of Chinese tourists. Their tour guides must have brought birdseed because they were all feeding some brightly-colored native parrots when we arrived. We walked along the dusty pebbled trail and saw one very distant koala butt and were honestly a feeling a bit like "..is that it?" Back at the start of the trail near the birds, the tour buses had headed out and we meandered through the gum trees. That's when I spotted this guy very low in a tree, having a peaceful nap. I was amazed at how circular he was when sleeping.

great ocean road koala

Stop 6: Cape Otway

 Thanks, koalas.

Thanks, koalas.

We decided to drive to Cape Otway to see another lighthouse and more koalas. On the way to the lighthouse, we were surprised twice! First by a kangaroo who nearly hit our car and then by the stark contrast of sun-bleached dead eucalyptus against the bright blue sky. It turns out that there are so many koalas in the area that they have killed all the gum trees by over-eating their leaves! Greedy little guys. 

Arriving at the lighthouse, it turned out to have already closed for the day. Patricia, Lucas, Emmett, and I went for a quick hike that gave us a very small peek at the lighthouse through some trees. Then we rushed back to the car so that we could make it to the Twelve Apostles in time for sunset. Spoiler alert: we didn't make it in time to see the actual sunset. That's because on our way out of Cape Otway we stopped a few times and, with the help of Patricia's keen eye, peeped some more wild koalas in the trees down a dirt road.

 Koalas sleep for 20 hours a day!

Koalas sleep for 20 hours a day!

Stop 7: The Twelve Apostles (Pt. 1)

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The sun had already set by the time we'd hurried to the first platform overlooking the beautiful limestone formations known as the Twelve Apostles. The end of day light gave the whole place a very dramatic and moody feel, and I nearly pinched myself. Photos can't really do the Twelve Apostles justice. They are just an awe-inspiring sight to behold. Not only that but we were lucky enough to spot a small group of little blue penguins riding the surf onto the beach below us. What a perfect end to our first day along the Great Ocean Road. But it wasn't truly over yet - we all had to find a place to spend the night.

great ocean road little blue penguins

Stop 8: Lake Elingamite Campground

 Dinner of champions: red wine and breads 'n spreads!

Dinner of champions: red wine and breads 'n spreads!

Even before we set out for our roadtrip, Emmett and I had planned to channel our New Zealand road-trip selves and sleep in our rental car for the night to save some money. But the real question was: where to park? Patricia and Lucas had a tent, so the four of us were hoping to find a freecamping site somewhere we could park/camp just off the Great Ocean Road. With the help of the ever-useful Campermate app on Lucas' phone, we ended up driving 45 minutes north to Lake Elingamite where the nearest freecamp site was located. It was pitch dark when we arrived - and quite chilly - but the four of us stayed warm and entertained by drinking wine and talking about our worst hostel experiences and anything & everything under the moon.

Stop 9: Gibson Steps

 Patricia and Lucas as seen from up above on the Gibson Steps.

Patricia and Lucas as seen from up above on the Gibson Steps.

The Gibson Steps are a narrow, windy staircase leading down to a dramatic beach with views of some nearby limestone stacks. We arrived just at the tail-end of a quick rainstorm and had the beach to ourselves for all of 5 minutes. The four of us took turns posing for photos featuring the stunning landscape.

Stop 10: The Twelve Apostles (Pt. 2)

 Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

Seeing the Twelve Apostles was even better during the daylight. The four of us really took our time exploring the boardwalk along the cliffside, taking in each breathtaking view while fighting some of the worst wind the Melbourne area has seen in years. Yes, that's right. We happened to be at the top of a cliff next to the ocean with insane winds nearly blowing us away. We could barely stand in one place without feeling totally wind-whipped. The strong gales also blew a lot of salt spray onto my camera lens, giving all of our first dozen photos or so an antique looking misty quality.

Honestly, I think I took over 50 pictures of some of the same viewpoints over the 12 Apostles. They are just so incredibly photogenic. Each view and each new type of lighting thanks to the wacky weather was just frameable. I'm so glad we came back to the 12 Apostles again to really soak up the majestic scenery as much as possible.

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Stop 11: Loch Ard Gorge Nature Park

Our crew did a few short walks around the area surrounding the Loch Ard Gorge. Every single walk seemed to end in yet another incredible view of surf-carved limestone formations. We couldn't get enough, honestly.

The four of us had a beach picnic at the Gorge after all that walking in the on-again, off-again drizzle. There was an area just past the steps back up the cliffs that was full of dripping stalactites and, thankfully, very buffeted from those brain-rattling gusts. 

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After that, we fought the small crowds for a view of the gorge that took the life of 52 passengers aboard the Loch Ard  in 1878. It's easy to see why - much like the rest of this part of Victoria, the powerful surf and strong winds battering the limestone coast are just a recipe for fatality.

Stop 12: The London Bridge aka the London Arch

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We actually stopped to take pictures at one more place after this (Bay of Islands) but they didn't turn out well and we were there of all ten seconds before the rains came again. So, effectively our last stop of our Road Trip was the London Bridge. This formation used to be attached to the land at the left until January 1990 when the stone collapsed and crumbled into the sea! Two tourists were actually stranded above the arch bit and had to await helicopter rescue! And that's the reason why you are no longer allowed to walk out onto the cliffsides because erosion is dangerous and can occur at any moment.

Parting Thoughts/ Know Before You Go

I am so glad that we took the time to see the Great Ocean Road before we left Australia. Despite being in the country for 7 months, we didn't spend much time as tourists; we just worked our butts off. This roadtrip was such a perfect, condensed version of what's great about travelling in Oz - blue skies, jaw-dropping natural beauty, amazing wildlife... What more could any visitor to the sunburned country want?

Know Before You Go:

+ Grab a map for your journey at one of the Visitor's Centers in Geelong or Torquay. It's really helpful to have a paper map when your phone is out of service or dead. Plus paper maps mention more attractions than something like maps.me offline.
+ Try to avoid driving at night as much as possible. This is honestly true of most of Australia. Anywhere outside of well-lit metropolitan areas, you are in danger of injuring native wildlife and yourself by driving after sunset. We unfortunately had to do a bit of white-knuckle driving at night on the way to our campsite during which we saw too many wallabies. Luckily, though, we didn't hit any animals.
+ Pay attention to your gas tank. There are a couple of longer stretches of road where it would be at least 20 minutes or so before you made it to a gas station or "servo" as the locals say. I suppose the only plus side is that it is a very frequently traveled road, so it's not like you're too far from help if you do get stuck.
+ Be prepared for weird weather. This part of Australia faces the Southern Ocean and Antarctica for pete's sake - there's bound to be a strange storm sweeping in at any time of year. Bring your raincoats or umbrellas just in case and sunscreen too.
+ DON'T LITTER. The Great Ocean Road is very well-kept but we still saw the occasional tourist leaving litter behind. Don't litter EVER, let alone on a national treasure like the Great Ocean Road.
+ Don't be that dummy who puts himself and everyone else in danger by just barely pulling over on the shoulder and jumping out of their car into oncoming traffic for that "perfect picture." There are plenty of overlooks and parking areas along the road where you can get some good shots, trust me.
+ In that same vein, PLEASE DON'T JUMP FENCES OR SNEAK UNDER BARRIERS ALONG THE CLIFFSIDES. These are put in place for your safety and for the safety of the native environment. Not only could you fall in the unforgiving sea when the next cliffside crumbles but you're also trampling a fragile ecosystem under your feet when you leave designated paths.