Torquay to Yuulong
Running along Australia’s southern coastline in Victoria, the Great Ocean Road is considered one of the world’s most picturesque drives. The official length of the route is 151 miles, from Torquay (about an hour southwest of Melbourne) to Warrnambool, and is laden with small surf towns, quiet beaches, and scenic views of the craggy sea cliffs. As many other travelers suggest, though, we extended the drive about 50 miles west to the quaint, seaside town of Port Fairy.
As recommended, we split the drive into two days to make sure we had a bit of time to take in all of the sights along the way. Additionally, rather than beginning in Melbourne, we stayed overnight in Geelong, just outside of Torquay, to shave off an hour of highway driving and dedicate more time to the actual scenic route. Our first day took us along the surf beaches of Torquay (nearby Bells Beach is home to the world’s longest-running surfing competition), and over the rocky coast of Anglesea. We stopped for lunch in Lorne, a charming little town with a few small cafes and ice cream parlors across the street from a sandy beach. Stephan eagerly indulged a basket of fish and chips (freshly-caught blue grenadier cooked to order) under a shaded picnic table, all the while entertained by a handful of grazing galah.
From Lorne, we followed an especially-scenic portion of the route along soaring, fertile bluffs that tumbled to the turquoise waters of the Bass Strait. After about a half hour of driving, we reached Kennett River, a village within Otway National Park that we read was a top spot for viewing koalas in the wild. We turned off the main drag and headed up Grey River Road, a steep, gravel track draped with fragrant eucalyptus trees. After driving less than a kilometer, we spotted our first, furry friend about halfway up a tree to our left. I (as one could probably guess by now) was immediately bursting with excitement. I think we furiously snapped about 8,327 photos of the little guy, thinking we may not see another. Our detour through the forest, though, proved to be much longer than expected, as we counted 17 sleepy koalas along a roughly 2-km stretch. Each one was contorted into some hilariously adorable sleeping position – one curled into a tight ball, one hugging the trunk of the tall trees, another splayed out on one of the horizontal branches.
We finally dragged ourselves away from the forest full of koalas, and pressed forward on the last leg of the day. As the sun fell lower in the sky, we navigated around Apollo Bay and past a beach that was blanketed with cairns. Nearly every square inch of sand was covered with perfectly-balanced rock sculptures, transforming the petite inlet into an eye-catching work of art. From here, we continued through the long stretch of Otway National Park to the Cape Otway Lightstation, a 66-foot tall lighthouse marking the rocky coastline where the Bass Strait and Indian Ocean converge1.
Not far from Cape Otway, we stopped for the evening on the outskirts of Yuulong, on a rambling dairy farm with the company of Vivien & Rooey. Eager to share information about the scenic area, Vivien suggested an evening walk at the nearby Melba Gully, an area abounding with glowworms. The humid rainforests of Melba Gully are one of the wettest locations in Victoria, with an annual rainfall of over 2000 mm (80 inches). The damp environment is perfect for the [fungus gnat] larvae, which cling to the wet, mossy rocks beneath the dark canopy. We previously observed the luminous critters in Waitomo, New Zealand (supposedly the same genus), but we were excited for a second opportunity. We headed down Madsen’s Track just after sunset, flashlight and tripod in hand. Upon reaching a rock wall along a small stream, what we considered to be a prime spot for the glowworms, we optimistically flicked off the torch. The pitch black was suddenly interrupted by the twinkle of glimmering blue lights scattered among the ferns and branches, guiding us as we wandered through the darkness. When we emerged from the forest we were met with the most star-filled sky I think either of us had ever seen. Vivien had told us that the stars were incredible out here in the country, but we didn’t expect so many. Having seen some incredible night skies in the remoteness of Peru and Kilimanjaro, we didn’t think this could possibly compare… always prepare to be surprised.
Yuulong to Port Fairy
Because we had driven a bit further on the first day (Apollo Bay seems to be the popular overnight spot), we began our second day only about 20 minutes from the 12 Apostles, one of the Great Ocean Road’s most iconic features. It’s a good thing this was the case, as I was not anticipating having a little joey to play with for half the morning. When we finally did get back on the road, arriving shortly at the 12 Apostles, I’ll admit I was ready to be underwhelmed. The eroded, limestone rocks are so highly touted by travelers and guidebooks that I couldn’t help but wonder if they were really that spectacular. Verdict – they are really that spectacular.
The remainder of the drive continued to be immensely scenic, but I’m not sure anything quite compared with the towering, sun-kissed apostles, rising so dramatically from the aquamarine waves. Loch Ard Gorge was quite beautiful, with short walking paths that we followed to Loch Ard Beach, Thunder Cave, and Mutton Bird Island.
About two miles west of Warrnambool, en route to Port Fairy but technically off of the official Great Ocean Road, we stopped at Tower Hill Reserve, a dormant maar volcano with a large crater lake (a maar volcano erupts when magma and groundwater interact, typically resulting in the formation of a crater lake). The reserve is noted for its abundance of wildlife and birds, making it an obvious must-do for the two of us. When we pulled into Tower Hill, we were pleasantly surprised to find the park nearly deserted. Perhaps this was because it was a bit off the well-driven track, or that it was later in the day, or maybe because the scenic coastal overlooks outrank the wildlife (or a combination thereof) – regardless, we were delighted to stroll around undisturbed. Walking around the paths as dusk approached, we were able to spot a number of songbirds, a few koalas, and a group of black wallaby who seemed fairly unfazed by our presence. At one point as we slowly ambled down the boardwalk, a wallaby was just feet off the path; he was busy eating while I was looking the other way for birds. I think we each realized the other was there at the same moment, and both leapt startled into the air. We also managed to spot an echidna, a particularly shy, spine-covered monotreme, as well as an emu, who was much less bashful and content to graze around in the grass nearby. The large, flightless bird is the world’s third largest and can run at speeds up to 48 kph (30 mph). A sign at the park advised that if pursued by one of these birds, stand still and raise your hand up over your head, that way you’ll “look like a bigger emu.” I am pretty sure that at 5’2” – even on tiptoes with arm stretched skyward – the emu is not likely to be convinced that I’m an intimidating fellow bird (and here’s to hoping we don’t have to test that hypothesis).
After walking the trails at Tower Hill, we eventually made it to Port Fairy, a short 15-minute drive west, where we stopped for the evening. We spent the next morning exploring the small seaside town, which was actually one of Australia’s busiest ports in the 1850s. The town center runs along the diminutive Moyne River, with quaint cottages and small schooners lining the picturesque wharf. At the southern tip of town, a small footbridge leads over to Griffiths Island, a small islet that is primarily a dedicated mutton bird (short-tailed shearwater) breeding colony. A short walking path (~3 km) winds around the perimeter of the island, passing by a couple of secluded beaches and the island’s only landmark – a squat lighthouse built in 1859 that still currently operates, though now on solar power. Before we headed out of the village, we treated ourselves to a few handmade confections at Slitti, a local chocolate shop. The girl behind the counter informed us that the pistachio-sprinkled chocolate is their award-winning praline, however we found ourselves partial to the dark chocolate with black pepper.
1The Australians still refer to this as the Southern Ocean, although by current standards (based on currents) it is technically the Indian Ocean. Interestingly, the Australian constitution defines the country’s southern boundary as the Southern Ocean. To have another ocean to the south, therefore, would conflict with the legal geographic definition of the country. Looking back at the history of the Southern Ocean’s northern limits, the Great Australian Bight (everything south of Australia) was considered part of the Southern Ocean in 1928 (when the northern limit of the ocean was delineated by a landmass). Currently, as there is no longer a definitive northern geographic boundary to the world’s southernmost ocean (the southern boundary is Antarctica), the limit is constantly both contested and evolving. Supposedly, the current goal of the international committee is to set a line of latitude as the firm northern marker. If you’re interested, do some reading and pull some maps… this dweeb (actually, both dweebs) found it pretty interesting.