The Great Ocean Road on the southern coast of Australia is one of the sites on the Australian continent that, due to its scenic beauty, massively draws both local Australians and other visitors. Moreover, the famous stretch of road has a deeply fascinating history – and a trip along the road may reveal long-forgotten fates.
Ainnelise Niyvold Liundbye UPDATED: 21 FEB 2020
We are on a day tour to the Great Ocean Road southwest of Melbourne in Australia. Our group is not big – 15 people and Simon, our tour guide, who is a stout Australian with beautifully tattooed arms – and a former truck driver! This is what he lets us know right from the beginning such that we will have confidence in his driving on the twisting coastal road later today. He has notably driven ten thousands of kilometres across Australia – and he knows his vehicle inside out!
Simon soon shows his excellent skills – not only as a driver – but also as a competent tour guide! As we are leaving the Melbourne area, he little by little reveals both his family background and his profound knowledge about Australian history. He is an entertaining storyteller and catches everyone’s attention with ease – and totally spellbinds the group.
1. History of the Great Ocean Road in Australia
The construction of the Great Ocean Road in Australia was initiated as a project for the returned WWI servicemen, funded by public donations to the Great Ocean Road Trust from 1917. The Great Ocean Road, spanning over 250 kilometres (155 miles), became the longest memorial in the world, a memorial to the Australian soldiers and diggers who sacrificed their lives for Australia! The work they undertook to build the road on the steep cliffs was both extremely challenging and highly dangerous – and some of the workers inevitably lost their lives.
The first stretch of the Great Ocean Road was established around Lorne in 1922. Since then other sections followed – all the time taking the contours of the surrounding landscape into account. More than 3,000 soldiers participated in the construction with pick and shovel during the 13 years it took to build it! The road was initiated in 1919 – and not officially opened until 1932!
Our tour guide explains that from 1922 to 1936 travellers were required to pay a toll to use the road!
Eventually, all the isolated coastal villages and settlements in this part of Southern Australia were linked together by a new, fabulous road, named the Great Ocean Road! The final result was a much more vibrant life in and around the coastline villages and towns than ever before.
Moreover, with time it even became one of Australia’s top tourist attractions – with 7 million annual visitors – to drive on the Great Ocean Road and discover Victoria’s coastline and breathtaking landscapes and seascapes.
We are driving through the port city Geelong and the pretty coastal town Anglesea.
Already on the bus Simon tells us what to do if we spot a kangaroo in order for everyone to get a chance to see it. A loud shout: ‘Kangaroo’ will do! And that is actually what can be heard several times during our ride towards the Great Ocean Road. Agile kangaroos hop around in between the trees and bushes.
Before arriving at the ocean, we have a brief morning stop at a tranquil location overlooking a green field – which surprises with a whole mob of hopping kangaroos well within sight.
2. Great Ocean Road Memorial Arch
Next stop is the Great Ocean Road Memorial Arch, Eastern View, a bit outside the seaside town of Lorne. 1.2 million vehicles pass under this archway each year to admire the picturesque ocean drive!
It is actually the third arch on this site that commemorates the Victorians who served in the First World War (1914-18). The first tribute to the soldiers, the arch from 1939, was replaced in 1973 when the road was widened. A third one was erected in 1983 after a fire, the Ash Wednesday Bushfires, had devastated the second arch. Still, the original sign sits on top of the current arch!
Again, Simon weaves his own family story into the historical facts about the Great Ocean Road. He is out of a soldier family with a link back to the road diggers. Therefore, he has great respect for all the brave men who contributed to the establishment of the famed coastal road. Proud of his roots and his family’s acts, Simon shows a photo of his son in the army uniform – he is going to continue the soldier tradition in the family.
As our bus twists and turns round one of the cliffs, we can only agree that the scenery is absolutely amazing. With great enthusiasm our eager driver even guides us to spot a small herd of fur seals on the slippery rocks on the shore.
Simon is very dedicated to teaching us about Australian culture. He puts on Australian music while we are on the roads, and he vigorously shouts out the rhetorical question once in a while ‘Where are we?’ – teaching us the right pronunciation of Australia: ‘Straya’.
It is actually the perfect trip to see some wildlife. After lunch in the quaint town of Apollo Bay, Simon now takes us to a hidden gem crowded with colourful birds and koalas in the tree tops. The koala bears just sit calmly on the branches chewing eucalyptus leaves – paying no attention to their spectators! He explains that this is a dream of a koala habitat with all the eucalyptus trees around – their preferred food source. Roaming through this stunning koala habitat in the wild, we also get all close to the parrots and cockatoos. We learn how to distinguish the male and female parrots by their colour nuances!
3. Otway Ranges
Driving along the fringe of the Otway Ranges, we explore the coastline and make a stop in the temperate rainforest at Anne’s Cascades in the Melba Gully State Park. It is one of the few remaining rainforests in Victoria. Here we just have time for a short hike on Madsen’s Track which between the ferns hides an old tramway line from the timber cutting days. Trickling streams and ancient moss-covered giants appear side by side in the lush forest. It is stunning, ancient rainforest scenery here!
It was in the 1880’s that European settlers began a timber industry in the Otway forest. In the beginning of the new century they built narrow gauge railways for the log and timber transportation, and sawmills were established.
Going much longer – over a million years – back in time, the Otway rainforest was, by then, within the Antarctic Circle, and the rainforest was home to now extinct dinosaurs. Millions of years later the indigenous Gadubanud people were the first humans who set foot on the Otway coastline. Their descendants are still today represented in the area.
The rainforest in the Great Otway National Park features particularly tall eucalyptus trees – and actually has the second largest trees in the world – only surpassed by the Californian redwoods.
Our Australian tour guide makes a real effort to teach us some Australian vocabulary. Not only the conventional ‘G’day mate’ – but certainly also all the animal nicknames. Soon we master the local colloquial terms for a koala, a kangaroo and an emu. A koala is a tree fluff, a kangaroo is a hopping chicken and an emu is a speedy chicken!
Besides the Australian animals, that we get the chance to view, the region is home to a wide range of other fascinating animals like wallabies, echidnas, platypuses, southern brown bandicoots, flying foxes, glow worms and a lot more…
4. Twelve Apostles on the Great Ocean Road in Australia
Finally we arrive at the location of the Twelve Apostles – limestone stacks that were formed by erosion and carved out by the mighty ocean over millions of years. Standing up to 45 m (150 ft) tall off the coast, they are a most impressive sight. The early explorers of the 19th century named them ‘Sow and Piglets’ – which remained the unofficial name until beginning of the 1900s. Another name previously used for the collection of stacks was ‘The Pinnacles’. The official name today has, due to the awe-inspiring, monumental formations, biblical origin since it refers to the biblical 12 Apostles.
We follow the boardwalks to the lookout points to catch a glimpse of the marvels from different angles and with altering looks as the light changes. July is a good month to visit to get some windswept shots of the iconic stacks.
In fact, there were never 12 of these soft rocks created and composed of layers of shells and other sea life. Only 9, but the 8th and the 9th collapsed in 2005 and 2009 – leaving just 7 limestone wonders on the site today. However, there are more limestone stacks on other sites along the coast towards Port Campbell – which are similarly exposed to erosion and also slowly crumble into the ocean.
5. Loch Ard Gorge
We now set out on a journey along the Shipwreck Coast – named after the uncountable number of incidents where ships were unforgivingly crashed towards the abruptly falling cliffs on the southern coast.
Many ships passed Cape Otway on the sea route between Europe and New South Wales in the 1800s. It was a dangerous coast and many ships were wrecked here along the Port Campbell National Park – from where it got its name the Shipwreck Coast. It is estimated that at least 700 ships were tragically wrecked here – and many of those were never found again.
One of the famous lost ships was the clipper Loch Ard which suffered the tragic fate in 1878 on its way from England to Melbourne under harsh weather conditions. Due to the fog, wind and current, the bow struck a reef and it was brutally crashed by the smashing waves against the limestone cliffs. Subsequently, the site was named the Loch Ard Gorge after the ship. Only 2 of the 54 passengers and crew members survived the swelling sea wiping everyone overboard. A young, Irish woman, Eva Carmichael, and the cabin boy, Tom Pearce, were fortunate enough to be brought ashore by the current and the tide, after hours of drifting around.
We walk along the cliffs at Loch Ard Gorge and the incidence suddenly feels very authentic as if it had just occurred. The views over the cliffs and the powerful ocean are absolutely breathtaking.
Simon has all during the day linked so many historical facts and geographical sites to his own family story and passionately conveyed it to our group. We therefore almost feel that we have a personal relation to many of the locations we see along the road. The Great Ocean Road is really an ingenious piece of work, at the time built on the untrodden cliffs by brave Australian men!
Read more about Australia: 15 Cool Things to Do in Melbourne – Victoria in 3 Days and Best Things to Do in Sydney – Explore Sydney in 4 Days
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