I am now convinced. A road trip is still a road trip even if you're not driving. There were eight of us, in a minibus with Jeremy, a friendly, talkative and informative driver/guide who took us along the Great Ocean Road to Adelaide.
But, Jeremy Redmond is more than a guide. He’s a director and part-owner of Australian National Treasures Touring, which operates small-group tours to different destinations; Aboriginal Art and Culture, through wildlife to food and wine. And, of course, the Great Ocean Road.
The road was conceived in the 1920s to provide employment for soldiers returning from WWI . Although intended from the outset as a scenic, tourist route, for which users had, originally, to pay a toll, did join together quite a few fishing and logging towns which had previously only been accessible by sea or over the mountains.
I’m slightly reminded here of the south coast of Crete where, even today, the only way out of some villages is by boat or on foot.
Some people think that the Great Ocean Road begins as soon as you’re out of Melbourne. It actually starts near Torquay, which is about 60 miles south of the city.
On the way, we paid a short call to the seaside town of Geelong, and strolled along the promenade, admiring the sculptures which appeared at intervals. They resembled old-fashioned clothes pins, but were painted to represent a sort of cross-section of Geelong’s citizenry.
There are 104 of them, usually called ‘bollards’, all the work of the local artist and sculptor Jan Mitchell. Much of the timber was salvaged from the Yarra Street Pier at Geelong, which was destroyed by fire in the 1980s.
The figures represent figures from Geelong’s history; from explorer Mathew Flinders, who came here in 1802 to John Howard, who was Prime Minister of Australia at the times the bollards were designed.
Jan Mitchell was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for her work on this project in 2006; sadly, she passed away in 2008
We stopped for coffee at the Split Point lighthouse … we bought ‘coffee to go’, and strolled with it to a look-out beyond the lighthouse, from which there’s an excellent view of the coast, and a good foretaste of things to come. The cliffs, and the presence of the lighthouse gave some indication of why this stretch is sometimes known as the Shipwreck Coast.
There was no distinct start to the route; the only indication we had were the brown signs telling us that we were on the Great Ocean Road, rather than pointing the way to it. But, to remove all doubt, Jeremy told us.
Some way along the road, though, there's an arch confirming that you are indeed on the road, but it doesn't mark the start. It commemorates the ex-servicemen who built the road, in memory of their fallen comrades, and there's also a bronze statue to them nearby.
The Great Ocean Road has been described as ‘The biggest War Memorial in the world’. We stopped for a while at the wooden Commemorative Arch, near which there’s a bronze statue dedicated to the ‘Diggers’ who built the road. Part of the statue shows a bemedalled, military jacket draped over a rock. I though … did they really wear their medals to work, or was it purely symbolic, to leave the viewer in no doubt that these were ex-Servicemen?
The first town … and the lunch stop … was Lorne, a pretty but rather ordinary seaside town where, after a pie … everywhere we go in Australia, we must check the pies out! … and a cup of coffee, we wandered around. The highlight of the place was seeing a family trying not to share their picnic with a mob of sulphur-crested cockatoos.
We saw more cockatoos at Kennet River, where we dismounted, armed with a box of sunflower seeds. There were lots of colourful rosellas, too, which perched on just about everything they could find … including the humans feeding them. And, high in a gum tree was a koala, doing what koalas do best and oftenest. Sleeping.
On the way again, and the bus came to a sudden halt as Jeremy spotted a koala, just shambling unconcernedly along the roadside
We walked along the beach at Apollo Bay, where we were to spend the night. The name has nothing to do with Moon missions; the bay was named after a ship of that name took shelter from a storm there in 1845. The town of Krambrook was later established there, which was renamed Apollo Bay in 1898.
When we’d finished our beach walk, we climbed back into the minibus, and drove up the hill to the Beacon Point Ocean View Villas, where we were to stay the night. This is a complex of self-catering cabins that does exactly 'what it says on the tin' … offers great views of the ocean and the town and its eponymous Bay.
We didn’t self-cater, though. After a quick freshen-up, it was back on the minibus for a short drive to the excellent 'Chris's Restaurant'. Its main feature is a Greek-based cuisine, which frequently alternates with Chinese and Italian for the Number One spot on my ‘favourites’ list. I had a delicious Beef Stifado, followed by the best baklava I've ever tasted.
And there was, again, a stupendous view, although we didn't see it to the best advantage, because it was getting dark. But, I loved the atmosphere. It vaguely reminded me of the Troodos Hills in Cyprus, where, if the restaurant was somehow transported, it wouldn’t have looked out of place.
It rained heavily through the night and was still misty and drizzly the next morning, when we drove down the hill into Apollo Bay, for breakfast at the Bay Leaf cafe. It was a meal to be lingered over, and the weather had cleared up considerably by the time we finished. And, we still had time for a quick wander around the town, before hitting the road again.
Our first call of the day was at the temperate rain forest of the Great Otway National Park … and if they call it a 'rain forest', I suppose a certain amount of rain is to be expected. This was a bit of a surprise for me. I didn’t expect to come across a rain forest so far south.
We took a short walk down the hill through the forest's gigantic ferns, down to the bottom, where, half-hidden by the overhanging fronds, a little stream cascaded over the rocks. There wasn’t much to see in the way of wildlife, apart from some rather unappetising-looking slugs. But, for the kind of stuff I visualised … we were on the wrong continent!
Next was the best-known site on the Great Ocean Road; the gigantic offshore limestone stacks called the Twelve Apostles. These can be reached on a day trip from Melbourne. But, according to ‘Australian National Treasures’, this is not the way to do it. If you stay overnight nearby, as we did, you’ll arrive earlier in the day, when the light on the stacks is better … and the crowds nothing like as intense as they’ll get later.
From the various viewpoints, we could see no more than half a dozen … there never were twelve, anyway, and erosion by the sea has reduced their number from nine or ten to eight.
Before they were given this rather fanciful name, the formations were called the 'Sow and Piglets', which should have stuck, because the number of piglets was never specified.
The nearby Loch Ard Gorge would stand up as a spectacular attraction in its own right, for it's an almost circular inset of the sea, surrounded by steep, red, imposing cliffs. But, it was here that the only two survivors of the ill-fated 19th Century sailing ship, the Loch Ard were washed, after it sank after running aground at nearby Mutton Island.
On the way there, Jeremy put a CD into the player and we heard the story of how the courageous apprentice seaman, 15 year old Thomas Pearse climbed the almost inaccessible cliffs to find help for his companion, 17 year old Eva Carmichael. At the top of the cliff, he found hoofprints in the ground, and, following them, came upon two riders from nearby Glenample Station, from where a rescue was organised and effected.
If this was a work of fiction, it would almost inevitably end with ‘Reader, I married him!’ or words to that effect. But, they went their separate ways; Tom to be hailed as a hero and to eventually become a ship’s Captain and Eva, with all her family lost, to return to Ireland. She did make something of a name for herself, though, speaking about her experience.
The steps that now lead down to the beach, approximately follow Tom’s route, which is certainly one that you wouldn’t normally attempt without a companion, a rope and some pitons.
Another feature of this spectacular coastline is the London Arch. Originally, this formation was called London Bridge, and was a peninsula undercut by two sea-worn arches, which did resemble the twin arches of its namesake. But, like the London Bridge of the song, it fell down in January 1990, when one of its arches collapsed, fortunately without any casualties. But, it marooned a couple of tourists, who had to be lifted off the new island by helicopter.
There were still more outlying stacks at the Bay of Martyrs, so called because a party of Aborigines are said to have been massacred here, and the Bay of Islands.
Although Australia boasts the fact that it’s the only continent with no active volcanos (whoever made that claim obviously doesn’t count New Zealand as part of the continent!) but there’s plenty of evidence of their former existence around here. It was an eruption 30,000 years ago that formed the crater lake, around which the Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve, Victoria’s first National Park as far back as 1892, and declared a State Game Reserve in 1961.
However, the only wildlife we saw were some emus crossing the road. I know you can see that just about anywhere outside the cities … but there were people on the bus who hadn’t seen an emu before. Indeed, I hadn’t seen one for a while!
Considering that the name ‘Fairy Penguin’ is now frowned upon, I wonder when those responsible will turn their attentions towards Port Fairy? The town was originally so called, it is said, after the sealer Fairy found shelter from a storm here in the 1820s. However, when a settlement was established around here 20 years later, it was called ‘Belfast’ … the name was changed to Port Fairy by an Act of Parliament in 1887.
The town is relatively unspoilt, and there’s some good, photographable architecture here. (I was going to say ‘a step back in time’, but I thought that would be too much of a cliché)
Journeying westward, we stopped at a cheese factory and museum. They showed us around the shop, where we tasted samples of cheese, and were at pains to explain that not all Australian cheese is plastic-wrapped plastic. The museum was interesting, too, but the main reason was to meet Pierre, one of Jeremy’s business partners, who was driving another bus. This would convey two of our group, who had only signed up for the two-day tour, back to Melbourne.
The rest of us would continue, past the end of the Great Ocean Road at the Victoria/South Australia border, and to Mount Gambier, where we would stay the night, and head for Adelaide the following day.