Australia Days 36 to 41 - Great Ocean Road
The one at the end...
Adelaide to Mount Gambier 274miles
Today we set off on the last leg of our trip, back to Melbourne along the Great Ocean Road. Before we get to that though we needed a midway point to break up the drive. I’d looked at several route suggestions online, and Mount Gambier came up as a good option, although that was still a good 5 hour drive from Adelaide.
Once we left Adelaide I thought the route we would be driving would be coastal but actually Coorong National Park is a protected wetland area with a chain of saltwater lagoons sheltered by dunes, which stretches for 130 km. There was no view as such,
the landscape flattened out and for mile after mile it was just vast flat agricultural land.
About half an hour from Mt Gambier the landscape changed completely to vast pine forests. I’m not sure what I expected from Mount Gambier, but it was nothing like the small village I had envisaged. It’s a very large, busy town, the complete antithesis to the places we visited on our drive from Melbourne to Sydney all those weeks ago. We are staying at the Mount Gambier Hotel, which is a weird mix of a boutique hotel upstairs (10/15 rooms) and what feels like a Wetherspoons downstairs. The hotel has been recently refurbished and the room is lovely, very big with a great bathroom, but the restaurant has 70 tables and there are even tables on the landing outside our room.
We ate here tonight because it was easy, the food was ok, but they brought the main courses out and left them on the table before we’d even finished our starters. We are getting a little jaded with eating out every night now!
We had split the driving between us on this leg but we were both tired and after dinner we went back to our room and watched Netflix while I wrote this. We don’t really have a plan for tomorrow so will see what happens in the morning!
There’s no one big tourist draw around here so we make use of the car to drive around and see what we can see. Our first stop is a big hole in the ground - Umpherston Sink Hole. Yes really! Otherwise known as the “Sunken Garden,” the sinkhole was formed when the ceiling of a large subterranean cave collapsed into itself, leaving a giant hole. The hole began its transformation in 1886 when local James Umpherston began planting a garden in it. Today the sunken garden is a strange green space with rows and terraces of perfectly manicured greenery covering the floor of the sinkhole. It’s quite something but it was crazy busy, it’s he first time we’ve felt like we’ve been anywhere touristy, even the Sky Rail to Kuranda in Queensland felt less touristy than here. It was quite tricky to photograph but we had a go!
From there we went to the “Blue Lake”. We had quite low expectations as we know the height of blueness occurs in midsummer, and usually fades by March but it was still blue. All you can do is look at it though because it’s the main water supply for Mount Gambier!
Next stop was something we discovered by accident. Valley Lake Conservation Park promised kangaroos and koalas and as we are running out of time to see koalas in the wild we stopped off to have a look. It was a really nice area, fenced in and fairly large. We spotted kangaroos immediately and they were completely unfazed by us.
After wandering round there for a good hour we bumped into a couple of volunteers who were doing some maintenance. Ian asked about the Koalas and the man told us that they used to have a group of 6 but despite installing an electric fence to protect the wildlife they had all escaped. He said if we were passing Cape Otway that would be a good place to see them because the habitat there is quite small and they’re fairly concentrated in a small area, so we tucked that nugget of information away for later in the journey.
As we had exhausted the ’attractions’ in the immediate vicinity, we took a drive down to the ‘Most Southerly Point of South Australia’ which seemed to promise a lighthouse. We were a bit disappointed to find that the lighthouse was inaccessible but we enjoyed the rugged coastline and got the tourist shot. We declined the opportunity to climb up the dormant volcano Mt Schank.
Given that the hotel restaurant was fully booked this evening we had booked into a local Thai restaurant. We still didn’t know why everywhere was so busy but at least it was busy enough for the restaurant to stay open past the obligatory 9pm and the food was really good. I actually don’t think we have had a bad meal the entire time we’ve been here, although we have had a few mediocre ones.
We are both feeling a bit lacklustre now, with the end of the trip in sight, and this place all feels like a bit of an anticlimax. I am also especially sad to be leaving without being able to see Harry again before we go.
Mount Gambier to Apollo Bay 212 miles
Today we get to the Great Ocean Road proper. It’s another 5 hour trip but we don’t have any planned stops other than The 12 Apostles. I liked the sound of Port Fairy though, which is supposed to have a picturesque harbour, so we make that our first stop. Or rather we try to. We arrive in the middle of some kind of event which we later discover is the Port Fairy Folk Festival. There are multiple road closure and cars parked in every official (and unofficial) parking space. We give up on Port Fairy and move on to Warrnambool (try saying that out loud by the way) where we stop at a lovely looking cafe. Their opening gambit at 1:30pm though is “we’ve just closed the kitchen”. I mean, at 1:30 on a Sunday lunch time? Fortunately we could still have coffee and cake.
We drive on and reach Allansford which is officially either the last or first town on the Great Ocean Road. Not entirely sure there is a direction that you ‘have’ to go along the GOR but it is usual to begin from the Melbourne end, from Torquay and that is listed as the ‘start’. But we like to be different.
The start is little underwhelming (although we do pass a sign for the cheese museum) until we get to the stop for Loch Ard Gorge and The Razorback. We pull off here and find the car park rammed. We assume it’s just because it’s a Sunday but again it feels super touristy with large coaches parked up. We find a space and take the walk out to get our first glimpse of the amazing rock formations that make this road such an attraction. Of course it is raining but we make the most of the “interesting sky”. The coastline is beautiful.
Our next stop is the 12 Apostles themselves. The famous limestone rock stacks actually number 7, there were never 12, although there were 9 at the beginning of the 21 Century. One of those collapsed on 3 July 2005 and another in 2009.
Regardless, they are a very impressive sight - something borne out again by the sheer number of people here. There is a very well organised visitor centre and the roadsides are all fenced off to prevent people parking there. A tunnel passes under the main road to avoid anyone needing to cross traffic and takes you to the viewing platforms. It did feel a bit selfie central. They are undertaking some work to build a new glass viewing platform which will be incredible when finished if the drawings are anything to go by. I had seen photos of people on the beach though and I wanted to get down there. It took us a while to work out that we had to return to the visitor centre and walk the 1km to Gibson Steps, the 89 steps carved into the cliff face that take you down onto the beach in front of the apostles.
It was at this point that I texted my brother and asked why everywhere was so busy and he told us that tomorrow is Labour Day in Victoria which of course explained why everyone was on a day out/weekend away.
However once we got down the Gibson Steps and onto the beach itself there were much fewer people and we had a chance to take in the enormous stacks.
We finally get to the Sea View Apartments (cheap and cheerful) at Apollo Bay at about 6:30pm. We drop our stuff at the apartment and go back out for dinner as soon as possible. We end up just having fish and chips as everywhere is so busy, but it’s good fish and chips and we pop next door to the bottle shop and return to the apartment and chill after another long drive. We are here two nights so tomorrow we will have a day in the local area.
We decide to have breakfast out but it is still busy with long-weekenders so end up back at the apartment with some hot cross buns and orange juice. We have had hot cross buns in most of the apartments and we have discovered that Australian toasters are TINY and we’ve had cause in one place to slice one bun into 3 to fit it in the slot. (I did check out my brother’s when we got back there and his is a normal size toaster, so maybe it’s just Air BnB places that have tiny toasters?).
We headed back down the road for the morning at Cape Otway. The whole surrounding area is Cape Otway National Park, but we are heading to the Cape Otway Lightstation. I’m dreading everywhere being busy again but it seems that most people are using the day to return home and the lighthouse is pleasantly quiet when we arrive. We are on the lookout for koalas as promised by the people we met in Mount Gambier but we don’t see any. We do, however, see a small group of people looking up at a tree but there is no where to stop so we make a note of the location and say we will stop on the way back past.
The lighthouse is exactly what you imagine when someone says the word lighthouse - perfectly white against the stunning blue sky, with red trim. I have every intention of going up the lighthouse but I am surprised when Ian says he will come too - he is scared of heights so I usually do these things alone. I was really proud of him walking round the balcony! I think I quite fancy living in a lighthouse. You can actually stay here but sadly only in the former keepers’ accommodation, not in the lighthouse itself. Recommend this as a place to visit - it has a fascinating history both as a lighthouse and also as a WWII radar station.
This is only the fourth attraction we’ve paid for on our trip ( the others being Skyrail and the Koala Rescue Centre in Queensland, and the Impressionist exhibition in Melbourne). I have been really impressed while we’ve been here that there is free parking everywhere - at every lookout and beach stop there is free parking and so many public toilets (clean too!). Try that in North Norfolk!
After we visiting the lighthouse we try to find the koalas but even thought the one that everyone had been staring at was still there he was resolutely sleeping with his back to us.
Later that afternoon we took a walk at Maits Rest Rainforest, which felt a bit tame after the wilds of Queensland, however the huge tree ferns were stunning and it was nowhere near as warm as the walk round Mossman Gorge!
After last nights problem getting a table we had stopped off at the Apollo Bay Distillery that morning and booked a table for 6:30 (“Matt, are we doing tables at 6:30?”) for a dinner and a gin flight.
This was our best night for a few days, I texted my brother telling him we were there and he came straight back with an order for their navy strength gin! We had a great experience here and the food was really good too. Sadly you can't buy Apollo Bay Gin in the UK but obviously I managed to bring some back with me.
Apollo Bay to Melbourne 124 miles
Today brings us full circle as we return to Melbourne. We both feel a bit down but also know it's time to go home now.
We continue the Great Ocean Road, and it's a stunning drive. Along the way we stop at countless lookouts, at Lorne, at the Memorial Arch of course, Split Point Lighthouse, and finally Anglesea before leaving the road for the main road back to Melbourne.
We spend our penultimate night with my brother and his family (our final night is spent in the Holiday Inn Airport hotel as our flight is at 6:30am). It feels so bizarre to be here again, six weeks after we arrived. It feels like both 5 minutes and a lifetime ago. I don't want to go home, but I can't wait to sleep in my own bed and get on with finishing the house.
Will we come back? Most definitely and we won't leave it 20 years next time. I'm not sure if Australia would have been on my trip bucket list if my brother hadn't emigrated there, but I'm really glad we finally went. It feels like we packed a lot in, but there's plenty to go back for. I'd especially like to visit the Blue Mountains and Tasmania, and depending on where Harry is we will likely want to visit New Zealand too, but it is a really, really long way to go! We flew business class with Emirates and it was the best business class experience we've had since KLM in 2019, but it's still a good 26 hours stuck on a plane. I was very grateful of that lie-flat bed.
3 hire cars
a handful of koalas
a few kangaroos
Countless beaches and coffee shops
Enough memories to last us a lifetime.
I will do a follow up post about things I may or may not have done differently but please feel free to contact me if you'd like any specific information about our trip, or Australia in general. If it's a trip you are considering I'd say go for it, but think carefully about *why* you are going so you know where exactly you want to go, each place we went offered something completely different - having the Queensland part of the trip in the middle felt like holiday in itself. I did a lot of research,
(social media was useful, there are lots of verified tourism accounts on instagram and also I had lots of suggestions from friends about must-see places), spent time talking to my brother and also Harry about where we wanted to go. We also considered our limitations - Ian's knee meant we couldn't undertake some of the more mountainous hikes that we might have done otherwise - but we found so much else that we didn't need to hike for!
I once dreamt of going to Australia, now I will remember it forever.