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Going Deep Into Koala Country on Australia’s Great Ocean Road

 Going Deep Into Koala Country on Australia’s Great Ocean Road

There are really just eight Apostles, but they’re still amazing to look at. (All photos: Bill Fink)

The plan: Australia’s Great Ocean Road is rumored to be one of the best drives in the world, with awe-inspiring views, outdoor adventures, and “koalas falling from trees like a rain of coconuts.” Or that’s what the guy in the pub told me, anyway. It sounds good. But is it “great”? I hopped in a rental car to find out.

The route: The Great Ocean Road winds about 150 miles along the southern coast of Australia, beginning south of Melbourne in the surf town of Torquay and ending near the fairyland setting of emus, wallabies, and dollhouse-like cottages in Port Fairy.

The car: A standard rental Toyota Camry. But something is odd about it. Ah yes, the steering wheel is on the right-hand side. I realize it may be a challenge to simultaneously enjoy the views and remember to drive on the left side of the road.

Miss Geelong

Miss Geelong (at left) and the gang.

Bathing Beauties 

Miss Geelong, 1937, welcomes me to the port town of Geelong, the gateway to the Great Ocean Road. Despite her age, she’s still a perky girl, with erect, um, posture, posing next to a few other bathing beauties. She’s one of over a hundred carved and painted timber posts recovered from the harbor to make up the Bollard Trail along the parks of the restored Geelong Waterfront. Bars, cafés, restaurants, playgrounds, swimming areas, and even a vintage steam-driven 1890s carousel create a festive atmosphere reminiscent of the town’s glory days in the early 20th century. The Geelong Wine Region, scattered along the coast and nearby valleys, not only offers up some fun winery tours but also makes sure that local restaurants can provide me tastes of the best of the “cool climate” varietals.

Related: Where Hip Meets Hop: 11 Fascinating Animals on Kangaroo Island

Torquay surf

Looks pretty easy to us.

Surfing Safari  

The town of Torquay, the official beginning of the Great Ocean Road, is famous for its great ocean surfing. Completely by chance while I’m there, I stumble upon day one of the international Rip Curl Pro surfing competition at Bells Beach. The best surfers in the world are making acrobatic moves on 10-foot waves look almost easy enough to lure me into the ocean to try a set. But I think better of it and focus on the town’s land attractions, including the Surf World Museum and the Surf City Plaza complex, containing the original stores for Quicksilver and Rip Curl brands. As I continue down the road along the Surf Coast, nearly every beach has surfers paddling out into the breaks. When the beaches disappear and the cliffs become more sheer, the road recalls the winding turns and dramatic viewpoints of California’s Pacific Coast Highway.

Memorial Arch

An arch near the 12 Apostles.

Memorial Arch

The Great Ocean Road’s resemblance to the Pacific Coast Highway is not coincidental — the California road was used as a model when the project began in 1918. Three thousand workers on the highway were mostly returning Australian servicemen from World War I who essentially carved the road out of precarious cliffside rocks over the next 12 years. The Memorial Arch at Eastern View past Aireys Inlet commemorates both their effort and their fallen comrades in the war. The entire Ocean Road itself is dedicated to the soldiers killed in World War I, making it perhaps the largest memorial in the world.

Related: Royalty, Sheep, and Blood Sausage — the Wales Coast Path

koala tree

How do those koalas stay up there?

Koalas and Kangaroos

It seems like a cliché, but as advertised, roadside trees and fields are practically infested with cute, furry creatures. The koalas are not falling onto cars, as my drunken pub buddy warned, but they do look to be dangerously dozing off on branches overhanging the road. I see at least a dozen in what must have been a particularly tasty grove of eucalyptus trees on one curve along the Surf Coast. Kangaroos are actually considered a nuisance in many areas, messing the well-groomed grounds of gardens and golf courses at Anglesea, and jumping into traffic without warning at night, causing accidents all along the Great Ocean Road. But as I watch them hop along through fields roadside, I can’t help but be entertained by their goofy gait. The cows in the nearby pasture remain unimpressed.   

rainforest maits rest

The rainforest along the Maits Rest trail.

Jurassic Park Down Under

A rainforest? This road really does have everything. It seems like a different world from the sunny beach party of Surf City, but only a slight detour off the road leads me to the Great Otway National Park and the Maits Rest trail, where I walk along boardwalks through a thick jungle of giant ferns, mossy trees, and rushing waterfalls. I half-expect a velociraptor to come charging from the primeval forest, but it fortunately remains only a peaceful interlude along the drive. Had I come by at night, I could have checked out the glow worms wiggling around in the mossy grounds of Melba Gully.

Related: Road Trip: Searching the Willamette Valley for the Perfect Pinot

great ocean road sign

An important driving tip.

12 Apostles

One of the highlights of the trip is seeing the collection of jagged limestone stacks jutting up to 80 feet high from the ocean on the approach to Port Campbell. Called the 12 Apostles, for their stark, lonely stance amid the crashing waves, the collection has actually never had more than nine of the pillars (and now there are eight after erosion toppled one into the sea in 2005). They were created millions of years ago from the ocean’s constant battering at the cliffs: First, arches were created in hollowed-out segments, and then the bridges to the mainland eventually collapsed, leaving only the iconic rock towers. You’ll know you’re getting close when you see the tour buses. Despite lingering on the cliffside boardwalk for a while watching waves blast into a large arch, I don’t see any collapse imminent, so I leave the remaining eight apostles to their duty guarding the shore.

great ocean road surf

Surfing + lighthouse + rainbow = a very scenic photo at Aireys Inlet Beach.

Port Campbell

Along the appropriately named Shipwreck Coast, the small town of Port Campbell houses the noted Surf Life Saving Club, where I watch trainees undergo some exhausting lifesaving practice sessions in the high, cold surf. Above the town, I hike the three-mile Discovery Walk along cliff tops overlooking the Southern Ocean, leaving the shelter of the bay to once again witness the power of the sea crashing into the rocks. Seabirds fly up squawking from their nests, the wind whips across the exposed plateau, and I’m glad I’m not a sailor trying to find a safe port of call. I retire to a local motel and rest up for the return trip.

beach cricket australia

Some beach cricket at Lady Bay.

End of the Road—and a Beginning

The Great Ocean Road officially ends once it connects with the A1 outside of Warrnambool. But I extend the trip to check out the old fishing town and nearby Port Fairy. The Port of Warrnambool once handled more cargo than Melbourne, but the town is better known now for its artisan foods (check out Allansford Cheese World!), craft shops, and outdoor activities. I drop by the beach at Lady Bay, where rather than volleyball or soccer, families are living up to their colonial heritage and playing games of cricket on the sand.

I briefly consider continuing west, where just another 2,000 miles will bring me to Perth, but I’ve been told about the newly launched “12 Apostles Gourmet Trail” heading inland from the Great Ocean Road. The lure of wine, cheese, fresh strawberries, and some artisan whiskey amid rolling farmland is irresistible, and perhaps an explanation for what happened to all those missing apostles in the ocean — they’ve gone inland to “have a feed.”

great ocean road sign

While my drive on the Great Ocean Road covered less than 200 miles over three days, it still seemed that there was a great deal of stuff I missed out on. Next time, I’ll take it even slower, perhaps by foot, trekking the 60-mile Great Ocean Walk to catch every last attraction — and perhaps a falling koala.

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