Drive Australia’s Great Ocean Road: Coastal Curves and Cliffs

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The beginning of the Great Ocean Road Australia.

Do you love the idea of a road trip like driving the cliffs of Amalfi Coast or the Pacific Coast Highway in California? If so, get revved up for Australia’s Great Ocean Road, one of the most scenic drives in the world.

If you’re visiting Melbourne and the province of Victoria, definitely set aside one day, if not two days, to drive or take a bus tour to this must-see destination. Enjoy the spectacular coastal views, ascend into a mountainous rainforest and travel the Shipwreck Coast where towering limestone stacks, strong current and shallow waters have bedeviled sailors for years in Bass Strait of the Southern Ocean that separates Australia from Tasmania.

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Make a stop at the beach with part of the Twelve Apostles formation in the distance when you ply the Great Ocean Road.
Beach with part of the Twelve Apostles formation in the distance. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Experience Three Distinct “Drives”

Although the Twelve Apostles’ natural limestone formations are the most photographed monument of the Great Ocean Road itinerary, there is much more than these natural formations to see. There are three distinct sections:

  • The Surf Coast: From the “official start” of the road near the town of Eastern View, the road is cut into steep cliffs that wind like the Pacific Coast Highway near California’s Big Sur. Look down steep grades to the ocean beating at the rocks below as you wind up and down, back and forth over switchbacks. Although only 36 miles, this can section takes at least 90 minutes without stopping to reach the end point at Apollo Bay.
  • Rainforest Coast: Beyond Apollo Bay, the road ascends steeply to cross over the Otway Ranges through Cape Otway National Park to just west of the town of Princeton. This section is about 50 miles long but takes several hours because of the frequent switchbacks and steep curves.
  • Shipwreck Coast: As the road returns to sea level with its most iconic stretch, it’s necessary to stop and walk to the cliffs to see sites such as Twelve Apostles. The official end of the Great Ocean Road is the very small town of Nullawarre, another 40 miles along the road.

From close to Nullawarre, most tours and drivers divert away from the coast to return to Melbourne via the quicker M1 freeway to Melbourne. No matter how you travel, the Great Ocean Ocean Road requires a full day of travel.

SheBuysTravel Tip: For truly adventurous hikers, there is a one-way, 60-mile The Great Ocean Walk that typically takes eight days.

Monument at Memorial Arch from the Great Ocean Road Australia.
Monument at Memorial Arch. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Building the Great Ocean Road

After World War I, the Australian government wanted to commemorate those who had died during the war and to help soldiers. With more than 3,000 returning soldiers as workers, construction of the road began in 1919. With the aid of horse-drawn carts, workers used picks and shovels to carve the winding coastal road out of cliffs along the Surf Coast. The first section from Eastern View to Lorne opened in 1922. Toll gates helped fund the project until its official completion in 1932.

It’s considered the largest war memorial in the world.

The curved roads leading up to the Rainforest Coast along the Great Ocean Road Australia.
The curved roads leading up to the Rainforest Coast. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Tour Bus or Self Drive? One Day or Two?

The first choice to make is whether to take a back seat and let the bus or van driver handle the roads or to drive on the “wrong side of the road.” The navigation is simple. The drive is not.

Most tourists choose the bus/van tour option to allow an experienced driver to navigate the roads and maneuver to the most scenic spots along the road. These trips are inevitably offered as one-day excursions.

On our recent trip, we elected to drive to give us flexibility to stop more often than a bus tour. Having traveled the road many years ago and knowing our taxing schedule for our visit to Australia, we chose a two-day trip, stopping overnight beyond the end of the road in Warrnambool. This turned out to be a great opportunity to explore more of the coast and experience the “most liveable city in Australia.”

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Split Point Lighthouse. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Warm Up to Start in Surf Cities

Torquay and Bells Beach are two of the most iconic surfing beaches in the world. Surf and clothing brands Rip Curl and Quicksilver were founded here. The Rip Curl Pro, the longest-running professional surfing competition in the world, is held annually in Bells Beach. Although the drive from Melbourne to the Great Ocean Road goes through the outskirts of these towns that claim to be “The Start of the Great Ocean Road”, there’s no reason to stop here unless someone in your group is anxious to join surfers catching waves.

Before arriving at the memorial gate that marks the beginning of the road, drivers will also pass through Anglesea and Aireys Inlet, where you can stop at the Split Point Lighthouse for a first real glimpse of the ocean.

Following the most popular sightseeing route, this story of the Great Ocean Road tour begins close to Melbourne and continues with towns and stops following in a southern and westerly direction. There’s a contrarian viewpoint that suggests driving the fast route along the major highway from Melbourne to Port Campbell National Park and then going against the tide of tourists by heading east along the coastline. In that case, read from the bottom up of this story.

The Great Ocean Road Australia gives you the seaside view of Lorne.
Looking south toward Lorne. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Discover Charming Lorne & Teddy’s Outlook

Within just a few miles after passing under the Great Ocean Road Memorial (pictured at the top of this story) drivers arrive at the charming seaside town of Lorne. Like Torguay and Bells Beach, the town feels more like an end-point, a weekend destination of frazzled Melbournians. It’s a charming seaside town with a lively atmosphere, cafes with wine from local wineries, breweries, beautiful beaches and access to hiking trails in the Otway Ranges. Even thirty years after first experiencing this drive, my wife has insisted that for our third trip to Australia, we spend at least one night in Lorne.

After Teddy’s Lookout is a stopoff that provides panoramic views of the coastline and surrounding forests. Like many stops along the way, there is a parking lot and a series of viewing platforms from which to take photos.

Once south of Teddy’s Lookout, drivers and riders will get their driving thrill along a section of the highway that seems more like a roller coaster than a road.

SheBuysTravel Tip: In heading in the typical westerly direction, those seated on the passenger side of the front seat will have an eerie sensation over the guardrail straight down cliffs to the ocean. For those who find the view disconcerting, best to sit behind the driver.

Take a break from the Great Ocean Road Australia and take a walk on the Kennett River Nature Walk.
Kennett River Nature Walk. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Drivers Beware: Kennett River to Apollo Bay

Kennett River is a small coastal hamlet known for its population of wild koalas, which can often be spotted in the eucalyptus trees along the roadside, making it a popular stop for wildlife enthusiasts. Stop in the parking lot next to The Kafe Koala General Store (excellent food!). From there or the nearby park, follow the path along the Kennett River to look for the koalas.

There’s a particular skill in spotting koalas which are typically up high in the trees. They look like brown fur balls often resting in the bottom of the “v” where two branches split from the main trunk. It’s helpful to google “eucalyptus trees” before embarking on a spotting, because there are a variety of tree species along the Kennett River and you want to be staring up a eucalyptus tree. Also, a pair of binoculars may be helpful.

Continue another 20 miles south and west to Apollo Bay. It seems like every bus tour has planned a rest stop or lunch stop here, for good reason. Beyond The Kafe Koala General Store, this is the only place to grab a meal or a snack for many more miles on the Great Ocean Road Trip. There are plenty of restaurant owners and shopkeepers eager to serve the tourist trade in Apollo Bay.

Heading out of Apollo Bay, drivers will make a sigh of relief knowing the roads carved into cliffs are a thing of the past. But, now it’s time for another driving adventure.

A grand kookaburra bird found along the Great Ocean Road Australia.
A grand kookaburra bird found along the Great Ocean Road. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Head Up to the Rainforest Coast

Heading up to the Otway Ranges, the two-lane road twists and turns and switches back on itself. It’s not perilous driving but it is slow and choked with traffic that seemingly wants to pass at every straight section or slow down at the prospects of a switchback. Unlike the Surf Coast, the drive through the Rainforest Coast and the Great Otway National Park features lush, dense forests and less opportunities to pull over for panoramic views, although a few waterfalls are visible from the road.

There’s access on a rugged 7-mile drive to the historic Cape Otway Lighthouse that has guided ships through the treacherous waters since 1848. The cape offers stunning ocean views and opportunities to spot native wildlife like koalas and kangaroos.

There’s an alternate inland road if visitors want to stop at Otway Fly Treetop Adventures, an elevated walkway and zipline course through the rainforest.

Descending from the Otway Ranges, the landscape turns into rolling farmland. While the ocean is not far away, there are only rare glimpses of it from this section of the “ocean road.”

Get your foot of the pedal on the Great Ocean Road and hit the Gibson Steps.
The Gibson Steps. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Take Steps to the Shipwreck Coast

It is possible to hurriedly drive in two and half hours from Eastern View to the beginning of Port Campbell National Park and the famous limestone formations in the ocean. However, for most people starting in Melbourne and then traversing the Surf Coast and the Rainforest Coast takes at least half a day or more.

But now, as the Great Ocean Road leaves the Otway Ranges, it starts to parallel the coastline. The dramatic formations are up ahead and will require frequent stops every few miles. Don’t hurry. This is what makes the ocean road “great.”

Just before reaching the Twelve Apostles formation, there’s a small turn off for the Gibson Steps. If there’s room, park here. Walk to the viewing platform. Time for exercise!

The Gibson Steps are a set of carved steps leading down a cliff face to a beach. This is one of the few places along this stretch of highway where visitors are encouraged to walk to the sand. Located just minutes from the famous Twelve Apostles rock formations, the steps provide access to a stunning stretch of beach with views of the limestone stacks known as Gog and Magog. This is not a place for swimming or sunning.

GEt of the Great Ocean Road for the views of the Twelve Apostles.
The Twelve Apostles. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Try Not to Count All Twelve Apostles

More than a million people each year visit the Twelve Apostles, a series of towering limestone stacks that rise dramatically from the Southern Ocean. Visitors typically experience the Apostles from the extensive boardwalk and viewing platforms, offering breathtaking vistas of these coastal monoliths against the crashing waves and rugged cliffs. While only seven stacks remain today due to erosion, their ever-changing forms create a dramatic spectacle, especially at sunset when the golden light casts a warm glow over the rock formations.

If the parking lot at the Gibson Steps is full, it’s possible to walk there from the parking lot at Twelve Apostles where every bus tour, charter van and individual driver is bound to stop on the trip.

SheBuysTravel Tip: This is the only major stop on the trip with ample public restrooms and information kiosks. Plan ahead!

The Lorch and Gorge off the Great Ocean Road Australia.
Loch and Gorge. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Stop at Infamous Loch Ard Gorge

If it’s not apparent from Twelve Apostles why this rugged coastline was and is treacherous for sailors, stop at the nearby Loch Ard Gorge viewing point. In 1878. The Loch Ard, a clipper ship sailing from England to Melbourne, was caught in a thick fog and struck Mutton Bird Island near the gorge, sinking rapidly. Of the 54 passengers and crew aboard, only two survived – 18-year-old sailor apprentice Tom Pearce and 18-year-old Irish immigrant Eva Carmichael. Tom was swept into the gorge and managed to make it ashore, later rescuing the unconscious Eva from the waters. The two rock pillars nearby are named Tom and Eva to honor the survivors.

Views of cliffs along the Great Ocean Road.
Cliffs along the Great Ocean Road. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Stop for a Bite after The Arches

The next nearby stop is to view The Arches. The larger of the two arches stands about 82 feet tall – an imposing limestone archway with a curved top spanning an opening that frames the crashing waves and rugged cliffs beyond. The smaller arch is more delicate in structure, with a narrower opening and thinner sides. Both arches have a warm golden hue from the iron oxide in the limestone, contrasting beautifully against the deep blues and greens of the ocean.

After Apollo Bay is the small town of Port Campbell, a place to stop to eat or shop. There won’t be any other cafes or restaurants until drivers have left the Great Ocean Road, either to head for an overnight stay in Warrnambool or to return to Melbourne.

The Long Arch along the Great Ocean Road.
The Long Arch along the Great Ocean Road. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

London Bridge Fell Down

London Bridge was once a natural double-span rock formation that resembled its namesake in England, until part of it unexpectedly collapsed in 1990, leaving two visitors stranded on the outer span. The remaining section known as London Arch is the next stopping point after leaving the town of Port Campbell..

The
The Grotto. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

At Grotto, Line Up to Take a Photo

The second most photographed location on the Great Ocean Road is The Grotto with its natural rock pool and cave-like setting looking out toward the ocean. A series of steep steps allow visitors to reach a platform at sea level for the optimum photo op. At most times of the day, visitors stand in line at the steps taking turns at the bottom to capture the perfect selfie or thumbs-up pose framed by the limestone rock.

At this point, most scheduled one-day tours return to Melbourne. If you have the time in a one-day itinerary or are heading to Warrnambool to stay overnight, keep going. Several picturesque sites await..        

Amazing views of Bay of Islands from the Great Ocean Road.
Bay of Islands. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Journey’s End at Bay of Islands

At the small town of Peterborough, the road forks. Stay to the left and continue to a flat section with long, panoramic views of the stunning coastline of the Bay of Islands. This is literally the road less traveled. Visitors will be rewarded with several viewing platforms and a short walk to the cliff’s edge.

After the Bay of Islands, the road turns inland and ends rather unceremoniously at Nullawarre.

Views of the Merri River estuary at the Southern Ocean off the Great Ocean Road.
Merri River estuary at the Southern Ocean in Warrnambool. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Warrnambool: Surprising Overnight Stop

When searching for overnight accommodations along the Great Ocean Road, the choices are limited until visitors reach Warrnambool or Port Fairy to the west. While Australians in the state of Victoria have discovered Warrnambool as a seaside vacation destination for camping and cabin rentals, from a seat at a computer in the States, it’s difficult to discern any reason to visit Warrnambool. That’s a mistake.

Capturing the vibe of an English coastal town, Warrnambool is a delightful overnight stay. It’s downtown has a diverse range of dining options – Mexican, Asian, Sri Lankan, pubs and cafes. For wildlife lovers, in the early morning or late afternoon, sea birds frequent the estuary of the Merri River as it meets the Southern Ocean. There are boardwalks and paths along the oceanside to walk among the cliffs.

A surprising hotel find is the Deep Blue Hotel & Hot Springs, which includes the very popular hot springs where locals and visitors hang out in 15 different geothermal pools. For a “deep dive” review of staying there at the Deep Blue Hotel, click here.

You will see Kangaroos in the wild at Tower Hill Reserve of the Great Ocean Road Australia.
Kangaroo in the wild at Tower Hill Reserve. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Wild Wildlife at Tower Hill Reserve

Having once visited an extinct volcano wildlife reserve in Africa with elephants, rhinos and cheetahs, my wildlife spotting antennae were alerted when I read that the dormant Tower Hill volcano is home to emus, kangaroos, koalas, swans, ducks and blue wrens living inside a park where volcanic cone-shaped hills rise from the lakes. Fortunately, our itinerary lent us an opportunity to visit this magnificent park just a short drive from Warrnambool. Either on its one-way drive or on trails that offer easy boardwalks to scenic climbs, the Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve should be a highlight on everyone’s Great Ocean Road itinerary if time allows.

On a recent visit in the morning, we chose the mile-long, flat Lava Tongue Trail. Almost immediately along the boardwalk over a marshy area, we saw a lounging kangaroo, then two, then three, then five who were unconcerned by us Americans gaping in wonder. Further on the trail, we looked to the top of the trees hoping to maybe spy one koala in the wild. Sure enough, there was one furry ball hanging out at the top of a tree. Once we figured out the koalas’ preferred trees and position, we were able to spot a half dozen more along the trail. Finally, two emus completed our wildlife checklist by sauntering in the trail in front of us.

Be sure to check out the Tower Hill Reserve, easily spotted on a map with its crater shape and lakes within.

R.C. Staab is a New York-based author, playwright, musical theater writer and lyricist. His latest book, New York City Scavenger: The Ultimate Search for New York City’s Hidden Treasures, was published in Spring 2023. His first book 100 Things to Do at the Jersey Shore Before You Die was published in 2020 and is now in its second printing. In 2021, he walked the entire 139-mile coastline of the Jersey Shore from Sandy Hook to Cape May the book, generating more than 200,000 views on social media. He frequently contributes to New Jersey Monthly magazine and online travel publications. He is long-time member of the Society of American Travel Writers having traveled to 49 of the 50 US States and more than 60 countries. He specializes in cultural tourism, adventure travel and historical sites. His off-Broadway musicals and plays have been produced in New York, San Francisco, England and the Midwest. He is a two-time nominee for England’s Best New Song competition. He lives in New York City with his wife, Valari, and his dog, Skye.
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