I’m hanging my head out of the car window like a dog, scanning the treeline as we swoop around another corner. The mighty Southern Ocean hurls itself against the cliff face a few hundred metres below us but that’s not what I’m interested in at that particular moment, as there’s a whiff of eucalyptus on the sea breeze which means they’re close! And by ‘they’ I mean fuzzy grey koala bears! There are dozens of them dozing in the branches of the eucalyptus trees around Kennett River along the Great Ocean Road. It’s just one of the many unexpected delights that can be found along this iconic route.
When we left Melbourne in our hire car bound for one of Australia’s most scenic coastal destinations we had high expectations, having read about the famous 12 Apostle rock formations, pretty seaside towns and gorgeous beaches. The road delivered on those and then some! The guidebooks barely mention the fact that the route winds through some of the most pristine and aromatic rainforest in Australia. Nor do they mention the incredible surf which pounds the shoreline with such awesome force it’s almost hypnotizing. And hey, why not appreciate the mighty ocean from one of the many pristine empty beaches where yours will be the only footsteps. There are also lighthouses to visit, waterfalls to dip your toes in, bush walks located handily straight off the main route. Plus, of course, the afore-mentioned koalas and jaw-dropping views galore. Safe to say, the Great Ocean Road far surpassed our expectations and that was before Rich proposed!!!!
With so much on offer it can be difficult to know how to spend your time on the Great Ocean Road. Here’s our route and tips for getting the most out of one of Australia’s greatest coastal road trips.
Melbourne – Bells Beach, Torquay ( 1 hour 30 mins)
It’s an easy drive out of Melbourne along the M1 to the start of the Great Ocean Road. Once you pass through Geelong you’ll pick up signposts for the route at which point you can ditch the sat nav, sit back and enjoy the views!
Our first stop was Bells Beach, home to the world’s longest running surfing competition, the Rip Curl Pro. Take in the awesome view over this picturesque little bay via the clifftop walk, then descend the steps to the beach and wade out into the cool frothy water. The Great Ocean Road may have some of the most beautiful beaches in the world but the current is incredibly strong, so swimming is not advised. Just standing in the shallows you can feel the powerful pull of the ocean trying to suck you in! Instead sit back on the sand and watch the handful of brave surfers negotiate the waves with impressive skill.
Bells Beach – Lorne (50 mins)
After Bells Beach the road passes through several seaside towns all lined with incredible beaches so take your pick of picnic spots. We stopped at Aireys Inlet, home to Split Point lighthouse which stands proudly overlooking Fairhaven Beach. From here it’s a short hop onto Lorne and Great Otway National Park where we spent the afternoon. There’s loads to do in this rainforest wilderness of eucalyptus and pine trees that smell so good you’ll be hanging your head out of the window filling your lungs with huge gulps of grade A fresh forest air!
Next stop at Teddy’s Lookout, which is a short detour signposted from Lorne town centre. The viewpoint offers incredible coastal views. You can see the Great Ocean Road hundreds of metres below snaking around the cliff like a fragile strand of ribbon as the surf breaks ferociously on the rocks beside it. There’s also a lovely short bush walk from the lookout point that’s definitely worth doing.
From here you can continue onto Maits Rest Rainforest Trail and Erskine Falls, a pretty waterfall deep in the rainforest. Make the most of the photo op at the top then take the 250 steps down to the base where you can explore further. Find more walks on the Great Ocean Road
Lorne – Apollo Bay (1 hour)
The section of road between Lorne and Apollo Bay has truly stunning views and brings you so close to the cliff edge you can almost feel the ocean spray as you wind around the incredible coastline. Look out for Kennett River en route where the koalas and parakeets can be found hanging out in the eucalyptus trees.
We spent the night in Apollo bay which has a lovely beach and plenty of cafes and accommodation. It’s also only a short drive to the 12 Apostles so you can get there early the next morning to enjoy this natural wonder in peace before the tour buses descend!
Apollo Bay – Port Campbell National park (1hr 20 mins)
The next morning we made a stop at Cape Otway, the second most southerly part of mainland Australia and a 30 minute drive from Apollo Bay along the Great Ocean Road. Clamber up on the rocks at Blanket Bay and gaze out to sea, knowing there is nothing between you and the Antarctic!! It’s pretty inspiring stuff and will leave you feeling in awe of nature and also pretty drenched from the wild ocean spray!
From Blanket Bay, continue along the road until you reach Port Cambell National Park and the start of the famous 12 Apostles. These huge limestone stacks have been pounded into shape by the ocean over thousands of years and continue to erode at a rate of 2cm each year. Stop first at Gibson Steps where you can view the apostles from the beach at low tide.
We then went onto view some of the individual apostles including The Grotto, The Arch and London Bridge. All have their own viewing platforms, or if you’ve got cash to splash you can arrange a helicopter flight for a birdseye view. We timed our visit to the the main 12 Apostle viewing deck to coincide with sunset. From here you can see most of the Apostles stretching along the coastline in their varying shapes and sizes. As the sun sets, the scene is a breathtaking kaleidoscope of colour as the rocks turn from orange to red and the turquoise oceans becomes streaked with orange reflections. It’s an experience not to be missed! Learn more about the 12 Apostles’ names and locations
Port Campbell – Melbourne (5 hours)
We stayed the night in Port Campbell, just a few minutes drive from the 12 Apostles. The next morning we stopped off at Loch Ard Gorge which has a secluded beach and is one of the most picturesque of the Apostles before retracing our steps back to Melbourne. It’s a long drive back to the city, there’s no denying it. There is an inland route which is a little quicker, but we chose to enjoy the coastal scenery and visit some of the places we’d missed on the way such as Castle Cove in Glenaire. The cove sits on a spectacular stretch of road and protects a perfect crescent of golden sand. The beach will always hold a special significance for us as it is the place where Rich proposed! We also saw our first kangaroo there! Two equally significant life moments!
So that’s our pick of the best things to see and do on The Great Ocean Road. As far as road trips go, this one is definitely up there among our favourites. There’s so much to see along this spectacular route, you could easily fill a week exploring the stunning rainforest and coastline. It’s also great if you’re travelling on a budget as after car hire and accommodation costs, most of the activities are free!
General info and tips
- Car hire for 3 days cost us £70 through East Coast Rentals
- Watch out for kangaroos hopping across the highway after 6pm – they are one of the main causes of accidents on rural Australian roads
- Dress warmly if travelling in March/April time – it’s much cooler on the south coast and the weather can be very changeable.
- Hostels and guesthouses on the Great Ocean Road are pricey and fill up fast so book in advance for a good deal if you’re travelling on a budget Find accommodation
- Don’t swim in the sea, the currents are really strong
- Keep your eyes glued to the eucalyptus trees as there are loads of wild koalas along the road.
- Other things to see and do on The Great Ocean Road