Australias Great Ocean Road

By: Graeme Lanham,

If you are visiting Melbourne , why not spend some extra time exploring Victoria , Australia 's southernmost mainland state.

One of the most popular tours is the Great Ocean Road and to discover its natural beauty you will need to be an independent traveler. The hidden gems we discovered, were made possible by hiring a car and talking to the locals.

A number of car hire options are available. All are competitive. We received the best deal from Europ Cars and as a bonus, received a free upgrade to a Subaru Impreza. This vehicle, with its all wheel drive proved ideal for the numerous hairpin bends on The Great Ocean Road. Our odyssey took 5 days, but because of the short daily distances, it could be covered in three days.

Day One: Melbourne to Apollo Bay
The first part of the journey is on a freeway to Geelong , Victoria 's second largest city. The speed limit on this and most rural roads in Victoria is 100 KPH or 62 MPH. If you have the time, it is worth spending a day exploring this attractive city. We had a strict time limit and pushed on to our first stop at Torquay , Australia 's ' Surf City '.

The stretch of coastline near Torquay is recognized as having the best waves outside Hawaii and each year in April, Bell 's Beach hosts 2 prestigious World Championship Tour events, the Rip Curl Pro and Sun Smart Classic.

Approaching Lorne, the road hugs cliffs and offers magnificent ocean views around each corner. If you are driving, take extreme care. Do also take advantage of the numerous stopping places to enjoy the views and take photos.

While enjoying a coffee at Lorne, A popular surfing town and one of the prettiest on the coast, we enquired about seeing koala bears in their natural environment. 'The best spot is sausage gully near milepost 168,' was the prompt reply, 'but keep your eyes peeled or you'll miss the sign'.

And there they were, just the koalas bears and us, so close and unafraid that you could almost touch them. My wife could barely contain her excitement at the sight of these beautiful, furry and protected creatures. We felt privileged to share the forest with these vulnerable little animals, existing on leaves from a limited variety of eucalypt trees.

Our overnight stop was at the scenic coastal village of Apollo Bay .

After a full day's traveling, we were tired and hungry. We looked forward to relaxing with a glass of wine and tasting the local seafood. Our enquiry with a local resident was greeted with enthusiasm. 'No worries mate. Apollo Bay pub. Best tucker in town'. We weren't disappointed. The freshly caught snapper was delicious.

Day Two: Apollo Bay to Port Fairy
Immediately after leaving Apollo Bay , we entered the Otway Range National Park . It is worth stopping at Mait's Rest to enjoy the superb rainforest walk through lush tree ferns and past moss covered trunks of giant Beech trees.

More rain forest scenery awaits you at 'Otway Fly', where you can enjoy a treetop walk through the forest canopy. The views from this giant, steel structure are breathtaking and although you pay an entrance fee, it is worth visiting.

Close by, you can view the Triplet falls, cascading into crystal clear rivers under a canopy of giant trees and ferns. It can be a tiring walk from the car park down to the falls, but the lush rainforest scenery and people friendly boardwalks reward you with a rain forest experience equal to the best in Australia .

Most travelers on the Great Ocean Road , come to see the amazing limestone structures jutting out of the ocean. The most famous of these is the Twelve Apostles, but others including, Loch Ard Gorge, London Bridge {which recently fell down!} and Bay of Islands , are also impressive. Take your time at these spectacular spots, park your car, take photos and enjoy some of the most impressive coastal scenery in Australia .

Close to the Twelve Apostles car park, was a heliport. From here you can take a short ride over these natural formations. The views are spectacular, but it's expensive.

Port Fairy, marking the western end of the Great Ocean Road , was our overnight stop. Originally named Belfast , this historic town was the base for a prosperous whaling industry in the 19th century. As many of the whalers were Irish, buildings and street names reflect this heritage.

Day Three: Port Fairy to Hall's Gap
The next part of the round trip takes us away from the coast and north to the impressive Grampian mountains . The lush coastal vegetation supporting dairy farms and a huge cheese and butter industry, disappears. The lower rainfall is more suitable for wheat and sheep farms.

Low rainfall and dry vegetation, provide ideal conditions for bushfires, an ever present danger in the dry Australian summer, particularly in the southern states. Many are caused by lightning, sadly, others by arsonists.

Driving through the Grampians on our way to Hall's Gap, we were surprised at the devastation caused by huge bushfires in January 2006. We were equally surprised at how quickly the country had recovered. Eucalypt trees, blackened by the fires were already recovering, with fresh green shoots sprouting over the full length of the trunks.

Despite the fire damage, we were impressed with the Grampians. They provide some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in Victoria , all within a short driving distance of Hall's Gap. The best viewing spots are Baroka lookout, Reed lookout and a short walk further along, the Balconies lookout. MacKenzie Falls lookout is a short drive to the western side of the mountains.

Day Four: Hall's Gap to Ballarat
We left Hall's Gap, humbled by the tales of hardship experienced by the people in this pretty little town. The drive to Ballarat through undulating country past wheat and sheep farms, typical of much of rural Australia , takes less than 2 hours. Ballarat was the centre of the Victorian gold rushes in the 1850s and is Victoria 's largest inland city.

To enter into the spirit of life in the gold rush days, a visit to Sovereign Hill is a 'must'. It is a complete village replicating life in the mid 19th century. You can ride a stage coach, visit a mine and gold crushing battery, pan for gold, shop for souvenirs and enjoy a meal in one of the many authentic restaurants.

Day Five: Ballarat to Melbourne
This completed our Melbourne round trip. We left our trusty Subaru at the Europcar depot in Ballarat and finished the rest of the journey by train. We did this for a number of reasons. It saved the cost of an extra car hire day and enabled us to enjoy the 2 hour journey in luxury without having to wrestle with peak hour city traffic.

Trains run hourly from Ballarat to Melbourne and you don't have to book. The Melbourne rail terminus at Southern Cross station, is conveniently situated in the heart of the city.

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