As I stared out of the car window and pulled my scarf tighter around my neck, I tried to get a glimpse of our surroundings between each swipe of the windscreen wipers. Although it was winter in Australia and poor weather was to be expected, I couldn’t help but become disheartened as my visions of hiking, wildlife spotting and al fresco dining slowly faded away. We were heading away from Melbourne towards Geelong and the official start of the Great Ocean Road and the start of my itinerary. Our week of surfing, trekking and exploring was becoming less and less appealing as the rain pummelled our Jucy van.
I was in Australia visiting my boyfriend Gary, who was halfway through his working holiday visa. He had spent time travelling the coast but had since discovered a huge love for Melbourne and was living in a beachside flat in St Kilda. Alongside a trip to Airlie Beach and the Whitsunday Islands, we both decided that we loved the idea of driving the Great Ocean Road and dedicated 7 days within my 6 week stay to this road trip.
Geelong to Torquay
Our first stop was Torquay, a tiny seaside village only an hour’s drive from Melbourne. Known as Victoria’s surfing capital, Torquay is home to Bells Beach, a world-famous surf spot used for the Rip Curl surfing championships. The rain persisted throughout much of our first day, so after finding a campsite to park the van, we mooched around the village, checking out the handful of shops and cafes that line the seafront.
We made one particularly great discovery during our explorations – a frozen yoghurt shop. After filling up on FroYo, dawdling at a local market, and realising we had pretty much covered everywhere (it really is tiny), we settled for a fish and chip dinner and an early night. We checked the weather forecast for the following day and it looked promising – much warmer and no prediction for rain… Hurrah!
As our campsite (Torquay Foreshore) was on a cliff which overlooked the beach, we decided to get up early to watch the sunrise. It was a real struggle getting up at 5am and in the end, Gary stuck a jumper over my head and dragged me out by my ankles! Luckily our spot on the campsite was right next to the stairs to the beach, so we didn’t have far to go in the dark.
Once the first light crept over the ocean, I was soon SO glad to be awake! The horizon completely transformed through a spectacular series of pinks and oranges and definitely went down as one of the best we’d ever seen. From around 5.30am, the first surfers head out to practice too, which was also pretty cool to watch.
Surfing in Tourquay
After cooking breakfast in the van, we headed to one of the surf shops to try to book a lesson. Gary had been surfing before, but I was still a surf virgin. We made the error of rocking up in the morning, and just missed the group leave. As we were planning to move on the next day, we opted to hire a couple of boards and wetsuits instead. After a quick lesson in the shop, we took to the water.
Gary helped me swim out with my board, steadied it whilst I got in position, then gave me a big push whilst yelling ‘GO!’ as soon as there was a wave. Despite all the extra help, I still SUCKED and almost two hours later, I still couldn’t stand up – they make it look so easy! After being surfed over (terrifying) and surfed into (ouch), and swallowing more seawater than I thought possible, I was ready to give up. In one last attempt of encouragement, Gary offered to buy me as much FroYo as I could eat, if I could stand up for at least one second. The promise of free frozen yoghurt was all it took – on my next attempt I was up on that board like a pro.
Torquay to Anglesea, Aireys Inlet, Lorne, Kennet River and Apollo Bay
The following morning, after an evening warming ourselves with soup and a DVD in the van, we set off for our next stop – Anglesea. We were aiming to reach Apollo Bay by the end of the day, but wanted to stop at quite a few places on the way. The main reason people stop at Anglesea is to check out the famous golf-course which is overrun with kangaroos.
After taking a few photos, we were back in our van and heading towards our next stop – Aireys Inlet. A small coastal inlet and town, Aireys Inlet is home to Fairhaven Beach and some very unpredictable waves. Alongside Split Point Lighthouse, one of the town’s main attractions, a horseshoe-shaped reef supposedly offers a great place to swim at low tide. Sadly, we didn’t stay long enough to test that theory. After a picnic lunch on the beach, we were back on the road.
Our next stop was a place called Lorne, another small seaside town. Although renowned for a buzzing arts scene and relaxed atmosphere, you can also opt to take part in copious outdoor adventures. To name a few, there is the Cora Lynn Cascades Walk, the Kalimna Falls Trail which traces the route of an old timber tramway, and the Erskine River Track; a woodland walk to the Erskine Waterfall. The latter is what we opted for, and we spent a couple of hours ambling through the forest, following the track. It was a bit of a trek to get to the waterfall, as we had to walk down hundreds of slippery steps to reach the viewing platform. Despite this, the falls were worth every step. We spent the rest of our time following the river, jumping from stone to stone as it widened beneath the falls and snaked its way through the woods.
After a brief rest in the van, our day continued as we drove for half an hour to Kennet River. We had included Kennet River as its famous koala walk is supposedly one of the best places to spot koalas in the wild. As we drove along, I craned my neck out of the window to see if I could spot any, but with no luck. We parked up, ready for a walk, when we soon realised we were completely surrounded by wild parrots.
Tourists have been feeding them over the years and they are now extremely tame; perching on the shoulders of anyone with food. We had no idea this was here, so we were completely unprepared. All we had to offer was half a packet of salted chips…. Luckily a kind man offered us the remainder of his bag of bird seed, and an hour of parrot-feeding fun ensued. I’m a massive animal lover, so this definitely ended up being one of my highlights. Despite not spotting any koalas, we left for Apollo Bay, our final destination of the day, for a takeaway pizza and DVD
Apollo Bay to Otway National Park, Great Ocean Road Wildlife Park and 12 Apostles
Waking up bright and early on our first day in Apollo Bay, we were disappointed to see that the overnight rain was continuing in full force. We had planned to climb to Marriners Lookout which provides panoramic views across the town below and is a popular take-off point for hang gliders. Not wanting to let the rain stop us, we donned our waterproofs and set off for what turned out to be a pretty miserable walk. The rain slowed down long enough for us to get a half decent photo, but I imagine the walk is much more enjoyable in the sunshine.
Following our soggy morning, the weather picked up just in time for our first stop of the day – the famous Otway Lighthouse, reached through the Otway National Park. It was on this drive that we were finally able to spot koalas in the wild.
There were too many to count (although I tried…) and I was able to get up close and personal by sticking my head out of the van’s sunroof – amazing! The Otway lighthouse and the coast, known as the shipwreck coast, is steeped in a gloomy history of shipping disasters and foul play. It was fascinating to learn the details of these stories, and we spent an hour wandering around exploring the different areas. We climbed to the top of the lighthouse too, which provided great views across the ocean, but was extremely windy; I almost lost my glasses at one point and we spent the whole time clinging on to our bags and the hand rail.
It was entirely by accident that I was able to get my next wildlife fix. After leaving the lighthouse, we were on our way to the famous 12 Apostles when we saw a sign for the Great Ocean Road Wildlife Park. The great thing about an open itinerary on road trips like this, is that you can stop wherever takes your fancy. Of course, you’ll have places in mind that you want to see, but it also allows for spontaneous adventures.
The park is a family run business which has been transformed, thanks to volunteers, into an interactive animal sanctuary and self-sustaining farm. When we visited, the park’s dingoes had recently had pups and thanks to being in the right place at the right time, the owner asked if we wanted to get in with them. I don’t think I managed an audible response to that question… it was more of a squeal of excitement. We were even allowed in with the adults afterwards – the whole experience was amazing and we were so glad that we decided to stop.
We couldn’t drive the Great Ocean Road without stopping to try some local produce, so our next few stops were all about food. If you fancy a food-based road trip, there is actually a ‘Gourmet Trail’ you can follow, which takes you to all the top local eateries along the coast! First up was GORGE Chocolates, which as I’m sure you can probably guess, specialises in gourmet Belgium chocolates. Surrounded by luscious countryside, rolling hills and dairy farms, GORGE’s chocolates are made and sold from a working farm shed. We bought some chocolate covered honeycomb, chocolate frogs (we liked the Harry Potter relevance) and some coconut bites. With the sweetest tooth I know, Gary somehow managed to wash his half down with a rich and gooey Belgium hot chocolate.
Next up on our mini food crawl was the Apostle Whey cheese farm, just 5 minutes from GORGE. Another family run farm, Apostle Whey cheeses are made by hand with milk from their own Jerseys and Friesians. After devouring a selection of award-winning cheeses (garlic, smoked, blue.. you name it) we picked a couple to pop in to our van’s fridge for later and set off for our final stop of the day – the famous 12 Apostles.
I’d seen incredible photos of the Apostles before and had always assumed they must have been photoshopped, but as soon as we arrived I began to doubt my theory. I have to say, they are equally as impressive in real life. Relentless battering from the ocean and powerful coastal winds have eroded the former cliffs into a cluster of rugged limestone rocks that appear to float mysteriously along the coastline. Although there were once 12, there are sadly now only 8 Apostles left standing. I can imagine it’s an amazing sight at sunrise/ sunset, but I still managed to get some great photos in the afternoon – despite another onset of rain.
Port Campbell to Warrnambool
Waking up in Port Campbell the following day, it was time for another van breakfast before we set off for our final destination of the whole trip. On the way, we decided to head to a couple more food places, but unfortunately the first two we tried were closed for winter.
It was third time lucky when we reached the Timboon Railway Shed Distillery, which has a restaurant selling a range of local produce, as well as a large collection of whiskies and spirits. It is also the starting point of a 34km rail trail which runs through grassland, woodland and heathland which can be explored through walks, bike trips or even horse riding.
After the Distillery, we stopped at a small place called Red Duck Micro-Brewery. Also serving locally sourced lunches, Red Duck’s speciality is its great selection of craft beers. We stocked up on a couple of different flavours, including vanilla and juniper berries… both delicious.
Our final stop, with by far the best name, was a place called Warrnambool. Our campsite here (Hopkins River) had an indoor pool, spa, kitchen, lounge and an en-suite cabin for our van – luxury. They even had a giant inflatable ‘jumping pillow’ which, although clearly designed for children, still entertained us for a good hour.
That evening, we decided to go to Flagstaff Hill, an award-winning Maritime Heritage Centre which is home to a well-known laser show titled Shipwrecked. Describing the true story of a famous shipwreck which took place along the coast, the show is performed within a realistic 1870’s style Maritime village. You sit in an auditorium outside to watch the show, which is projected on to and above a pond, thanks to the clever use of lasers. To reach the auditorium, you have to walk through the village, over the cobbled streets, using lanterns to light the way… it’s hard not to feel like you have gone back in time.
Alongside beautiful countryside and beaches that stretch for miles, Warrnambool has a lot of charm. We spent some time whale watching at Logan’s Beach and were lucky enough to see a mother and baby, which was incredible as they were so close to the shore. They even swam within a couple of metres of some stationary surfers at one point, which I’m sure was amazing, yet terrifying for them.
We also visited Hopkins Falls, which was a real find amongst endless countryside, miles from anywhere. The falls themselves weren’t overly impressive, but the drive there definitely made up for that.
Lastly, being an animal lover, I couldn’t leave without a trip to Tower Hill Nature Reserve. Found in the crater of a dormant volcano, bordered by beds of volcanic ash, Tower Hill provides optimal conditions for hundreds of different species including emus, koalas, kangaroos and more. Although you can choose to go on a guided walk, we decided to opt for the independent option. We drove through before parking up and choosing the ‘peak climb trail’ which took us to the highest point on the reserve, just in time for the sunset. It was a perfect end to our amazing week exploring the Great Ocean Road.
Warrnambool to Anglesey
The following day we packed up to head back to Melbourne. We actually ended up having another overnight stop in Torquay, as we realised we had a bit of a soft spot for the place! FroYo may also have had something to do with it…
Anglesey to Melbourne
If you ever find yourself in Melbourne or nearby on your travels, PLEASE consider driving the Great Ocean Road. If you can’t drive, there are tours that will stop at most of the places we visited. However, I would advise at least a two day trip. There are lots of day tours available, but I can’t imagine how rushed these must be – if it took us a week, how much are you really going to see in a day?
This was my first road trip and definitely not my last! You can be completely flexible and spontaneous with your stops, and you can really make the trip unique to you. If you are the kind of person that prefers to plan, that’s cool too – there are hundreds of sites to help you plan your route.
It’s crazy to think that out of all the incredible (and sometimes expensive) things that I did during my six-week trip to Australia – including a five-course meal in a tramcar and three nights on a boat surrounded by postcard-perfect islands – the part I actually enjoyed the most was living simply in a van for a week.
Jucy for camper van hire
Lonely Planet Guide to Australia for more itinerary planning:
Hostelworld for dorms and cheap private rooms in Australia.
Intrepid Travel if you prefer a tour company than a book-it-yourself itinerary
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Have you ever driven along Australia’s Great Ocean Road? Any other places you’d recommend visiting? Share your tips in the comments below.