Ernie goes to the Great Ocean Road (July 2019)

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On the Road to Geelong

I have a love-hate relationship with driving on holiday – on the one hand driving allows us to make our own own schedule, to stop whenever and wherever we feel like, and to see more of a place than what we can see on foot or within the rigid timetable of a tour group. On the other hand I drive so infrequently during the year, basically only on holidays now, that I get stressed out just thinking about navigating unfamiliar roads in unfamiliar traffic conditions, or committing some sort of location-specific faux pas. It always turns out fine afterwards – we get to go off the beaten path and see amazing things and my driving record has stayed (relatively) clean, but I definitely recall how my worries about driving on the “wrong” side of the road in Okinawa, through near-Arctic wintry conditions in remote Iceland, and along cliffside mountain highways in Oman kept me up some nights. And all of that was prior to having a baby.

The Great Ocean Road is a 243-kilometre long two-lane road that largely hugs the coast of the Southern Ocean between the towns of Torquay and Allansford in the state of Victoria. Scattered along its winding route are golden beaches, lush rainforests, emerald hills, and azure waters – and you might even see a wild koala or two. I’ve heard it compared to the Pacific Coast Highway in California, another world famous drive with stunning coastal views, though when we drove it back in 2017 the Big Sur section was closed due to mudslides – the rest of the drive was still beautiful though.

Ashley and I debated whether or not to add the Great Ocean Road to our holiday itinerary – adding a baby to trip logistics is more of an exponential equation than a linear one – and then once we decided that we could handle it, the decision came down to whether we should try to do it all in one day or split it up over two. In the end, it came down to whether we’d be able to see everything we really wanted to in one day, and whether we’d be able to last all day in a car while taking care of Miles. Conclusion: a two-day road trip with a stop somewhere in the middle.

To get properly started on the route, we first had to get out of Melbourne and drive in the direction of Geelong, a small city on the opposite end of Port Phillip Bay. The first hour or so was the usual congested highways and suburban corridors that mark the boundary spaces of many a city, but as we passed through Geelong and, soon afterwards, the town of Torquay, the landscape transitioned into shrubby bushland, coastal cliffs, and the deep blue of the sea beyond.

Our first stop was Bells Beach, a legendary surf spot and home to the world’s longest continuously running professional surfing competition. The sky was slightly overcast when we arrived, which actually worked well to highlight the lovely golden browns and deep greens of the shoreline below. It soon cleared up though, and it stayed that way through most of our drive over the next couple of days. Friends had told us to expect grey skies and strong winds when driving the Great Ocean Road during the Southern Hemisphere’s winter time, so that was a nice bit of good fortune on our end. It was fantastic to get a good view of the ocean again as well, after a few days in Melbourne. To be honest, ocean views aren’t exactly a staple of our day-to-day lives either, even though we live on an island. To get these kinds of views in Hong Kong you’d have to get out to the furthest eastern reaches of the territory, by foot or by motor boat, and that’s not something we did very often, even before we had Miles. So yes, when we got out of the car and took a deep breath of salty ocean air while surveying the endless blues below, it was something we had long looked forward to, and maybe we didn’t even realise it until we got there.

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Anglesea Beach … Maybe?

Our next stop was supposed to be Anglesea Beach, but our GPS wasn’t the most accurate device and I’m not sure we actually got there. We ended up somewhere in the vicinity of the beach, I know that much, but we either overshot or undershot the turnoff and found ourselves in front of a small lot overlooking an empty stretch of cliff and sand. A wooden staircase connected the lot to the pale shoreline, and we took Miles down to the water to experience the first actual beach in his young lifetime. When he was just a few months old, we used an app that came with a bunch of different sound effects – a waterfall, a washing machine, and, yes, the ocean, lulling him to sleep through the magic of white noise. Perhaps there was a beat of recognition there that day at Anglesea Beach, a memory jogged from a not-so-deep place inside as he gazed at the surf endlessly breaking on the shore. Or maybe he’s just a baby, and he likes looking at noisy shiny things.

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Teddy’s Lookout

After grabbing lunch in the seaside town of Lorne, we drove up into the surrounding hills to take in the views along this stretch of the Great Ocean RoadTeddy’s Lookout is located at the end of George Street, where the margins of the town creep up in elevation and cast shadows on streets below, and it’s a popular viewing point that roughly divides one section of the Great Ocean Road from another. Looking down from the wooden platform set into the hillside, you can see the rocky mouth of the Saint George River, the electric blues and aquamarines of the Southern Ocean, the lush hillsides storming into the ocean across the river, and the two lane road winding in and out along the contours of the valley, cut into the very sides of the earth. It’s one of the most romantic views I’ve ever seen – romantic in the sentimental 19th Century sense, that combination of awe and aesthetics with a hint of adventure.

The drive from that point forwards was absolutely stunning. As the road weaved in and out along the coast, we were treated to incredible landscapes around each new corner, and I must have stopped around a dozen times in the next hour or so just to get out and take some photos. To be honest this is what I thought the Pacific Coast Highway would be like, and maybe the Big Sur section that we missed out on is like this, but with this stretch alone I think the Great Ocean Road more than holds its own. And while our PCH drive seemed to be covered in fog for half the trip, we had some truly brilliant weather down under with just the right amount of ocean mist to lend the scenes a touch of the divine. I should note here that the Great Ocean Road should ideally be taken from east to west, given that Australians drive on the left and that’s the side closest to the ocean. There were a ton of spots to pull over and enjoy the views from the side of the road, and I don’t even know if the right-hand lane had anywhere to stop other than close to towns.

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Kennett River

About half-an-hour’s drive from Lorne and Teddy’s Lookout is the small town of Kennett River. Small is really the key word here – Wikipedia gives a total population of 41 as of the 2016 census, and there hasn’t been a working post office since the 1980s. Clearly there’s not a whole lot going on for people on this particular stretch of the Great Ocean Road. The population of non-humans, however, especially the furry, black-nosed, symbol-of-Australia inhabitants of the area’s eucalyptus groves, is another story, as Kennett River is considered one of the top places in Australia to see wild koalas.

After parking our car beside Kafe Koala, a roadside pitstop that marks the entrance to the town, Ashley and I took turns walking along Grey River Road, a winding path that goes up into the coastal hills – and where the chances of seeing koalas are the highest. The lower section of the road was filled with fellow tourists taking photos of the other non-human denizens of the area – cockatoos, parrots, and various other birds that I couldn’t really identify – but I didn’t see any koalas, so I just kept walking uphill. I must have walked for about ten minutes before giving up and turning around in defeat, but at about the halfway point I ran into a group of people looking up into the highest branches of one particular tree – and there it was, my first sighting of a wild koala! I speed-walked back to the car to switch with Ashley, who was looking after a sleeping Miles, and she was able to see a couple of koalas as well.

Seeing a koala wasn’t a high priority item for us when planning this road trip – it was always going to be more about the views than anything else. I’m glad we were able to fit this stop in, though, and even more glad that we were able to actually catch glimpses of koalas in the early evening light through the shadowy thicket of leaves and branches. Australia is known for its unique wildlife and this made our trip feel a little bit more complete. This was our last sightseeing stop of the day as well, with sunset fast approaching. We had a couple more items on the itinerary, but we had a later start to the morning than anticipated, and, with the increased chances of encountering wildlife on the roads at dusk, we decided to spend the night in the nearby town of Apollo Bay.

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Gibson Steps

The next morning, we set out again along the Great Ocean Road for the more well-known limestone structures further down the coast. While the first day had us winding along lush hillsides and sandy beaches, the second day would see the landscape shift towards drier, shrubbier vegetation and exposed cliff-sides. Our first stop of the day was the Gibson Steps, a wooden staircase leading down from the clifftops to the wild beach below. You can get right down to the water at the bottom steps when the tide is in, and we had to scramble up a few steps a few times as the incoming waves overwhelmed the staircase where it met the beach. There were a couple of thrill-seeker types splashing through the water and jumping up on piles of rocks gathered at the base of the cliffs for the sake of a few cool photos, but my cautious self was very happy to snap away from above sea level.

There was a massive limestone stack a few hundred meters away, but the ocean had the bulk of my attention, to be honest. Being at the the southern edge of inhabitable land with only the blue waves and white foam between us and Antarctica drew out irrational fears in me that were reminiscent of things I felt when Ashley and I drove around the Snæfellsnes Peninsula in Iceland a few years ago. Both times, the perceived greater proximity to the earth’s alien poles made the ocean seem a little wilder and more dangerous than, say, our beach holidays in Boracay or Sri Lanka, and the prospect of getting swept out to sea here, regardless of how low that risk actually was, had me on my toes the entire time I was on that staircase.

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The Twelve Apostles

Probably the one “must-see” on the Great Ocean Road is the Twelve Apostles. Every guidebook and travel blog with any mention of this drive will feature them prominently, and for good reason. These dramatic limestone stacks (numbering only seven) were formed as the Southern Ocean waves pounded the soft headlands into submission over millennia, carving out caves that withered into arches, and arches that eventually disintegrated into the stunning pillars we see now. We had some truly cooperative weather that day – blue skies all around and perfect visibility – and the view of the Twelve Apostles arrayed along this wild coast was incredible. The simplicity of the colour palette – the deep blues and whites of the ocean, the tans and browns of the limestone stacks – and the distances between the pillars lent it a kind of stark beauty, as well as highlighting a sad truth. With the continued erosive forces of the ocean and the air working upon each of them individually, it’ll only be a matter of time before they crumble into the churning seas below. They’ll keep standing proudly in formation, though, until that time comes.

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Loch Ard Gorge

I haven’t talked much about Miles yet, but he was a total trooper throughout the road trip. He adjusted to the driving schedule with no complaining, his sleep times were all over the place, and he tolerated the constant getting in and out of the car with the long-suffering of a tiny saint. By the time we reached Loch Ard Gorge, however, his patience was starting to fray. I don’t really have much to say about this particular stop, unfortunately – we did a quick walk along the clifftop, but we didn’t make it down to the half-enclosed beach that Loch Ard Gorge is famous for. After one-and-a-half days of a disrupted schedule it was time for us to give Miles the rest he needed, and we decided to head straight back to Melbourne. The drive back was a long and uneventful one, though there was a nice winding stretch between Beech Forest and Mount Sabine that made for some interesting driving. We arrived in town some time in the early evening, and after checking back into our hotel and putting Miles to bed, we got takeaway from Nando’s and called it a night.

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Final Thoughts

We stayed in Melbourne for a couple more days, some of it recounted here, but the road trip was our last major endeavour on this holiday. As a first vacation with just Ashley, myself, and Miles, without family and friends to lend a helping hand, I’d say this was a big success. Choosing family-friendly Melbourne played a big part, no doubt, but I also think we learned some things about ourselves as a three-person unit, and some things that we will need to adjust for in future holidays as a family. Ashley and I still have some lingering habits from how we used to travel as just the two of us, or at least I do, and it’s a slow process of finding out what we can keep and what we need to change. One thing that I really appreciated this time around though was having Miles’ complete attention all day. I’m still getting used to the idea of being a father, and during the work week I usually only see him for an hour or so in the morning and maybe right before he goes to bed if I get home in time. To be able to spend all day with him and Ashley in Australia was a joy and a blessing, and even with the great food, the brilliant coffee, the beautiful architecture, and the stunning landscapes, those times with Miles are probably my favourite memories of this holiday.

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