The Great Ocean Road follows the Victorian coast west for 243km from Torquay, just south of Geelong, to Warrnambool, not far from the border with South Australia, and its name sums it up: it's a great road that follows the ocean. It's also one of the most breathtaking drives around – it hugs the coast, sandwiched between the sea (which I think is called the Bass Strait, but it varies depending on which map I look at) and the various mountain ranges inland. It's one way to test the steering on the car, anyway... one slip and you're history, geography and biology all rolled into one.
My first stop was Lorne, a popular tourist spot on a lovely bay about an hour from Geelong. If I was here with the boys from London, you know exactly what sort of holiday this would be: beers for breakfast, down to the surf beach for sunbaking1 and swimming and more beers, then back to the tent for a quick kip, a shower and then on to the pub to check out the scene. Luckily I'm turning into my parents, so instead I spent two days in Lorne, testing out my camping equipment and getting the hang of living under the stars. Typically the weather wasn't great – really cold at night and a bit cloudy in the mornings – but I survived the first real pitching of the tent, the first self-cooked meal and all the rest of the stuff that soon becomes second nature.
I spent the first afternoon lazing around on the beach, but on Sunday I decided to go on a bush walk to Erskine Falls, 8km north of Lorne. They were gorgeous, and I saw my very first snakes on the way back, slithering off the path just where I had to walk to get home. The secret is to stomp around; snakes are more afraid of you than you are of them. Not surprisingly, after a 16km round trip on foot, I hit the beach, jumped some of the surf, and relaxed. If you're not careful, Lorne can very easily become a procrastinator's paradise, so the next day I headed off west along the coast to Apollo Bay...
...which is another coastal beachside resort, but slightly smaller and therefore less crowded. The inland geography changes to rolling hills around the bay, although the Great Ocean Road is both hairy and spectacular between Lorne and Apollo Bay. It gives Apollo Bay a much more 'open' feel, with its long curved beach and one street of touristy and expensive shops. I get the feeling that when you've seen one beach town you've seen then all, but so what? It's still pleasant.
The Bass Strait stretches as far west as Cape Otway, my first stop on leaving Apollo Bay. Cape Otway is a really treacherous area of the coast – for ships, not Toyotas – and there's a great little lighthouse 14km off the Great Ocean Road, so I took the turn and went on a guided tour of the blighter.
Bloody hell, there's always one. Take any collection of people who are on a guided tour, and there's always one person who wants to talk to the guide as much as is humanly possible. It's so annoying: we're paying the guide to tell all of us about it, not just you! If I had a penny for every over-keen know-all who's tried to hijack a tour I'm on, I'd be able to buy quite a few penny chews. Still, it was a most pleasant tour, with a very informative – and patient – guide, and the view along the coast from the top of the lighthouse was astounding.
The coast between Otway and Warrnambool is incredible – Warrnambool is Victoria's fifth biggest city, and signals the end of the Great Ocean Road, but we'll come to that later. In the meantime, marvel at the Twelve Apostles! Prepare to be amazed by London Bridge! Steel yourself for Loch Ard Gorge! Gasp in awe at the Arch!
Yeah, OK, it's amazing coastal scenery, but after a while it did get a bit like, 'Oh. Another amazing and unlikely rock formation etched out by the sea over millions of years. Must tell the kids.' Yes, the coast is incredible, and London Bridge – which used to be two arches, like a bridge, until the landward one collapsed in 1990, stranding two extremely surprised, not to mention lucky tourists on the newly formed island – is wonderful, and the Twelve Apostles – huge stacks of limestone, 12 of 'em, that rear out of the sea right next to sheer cliffs – are like 12 Old Men of Hoy all together, but somehow it didn't quite click for me.
Meanwhile, the Great Ocean Road ends in Warrnambool, which turned out to be an oldies' paradise. I hadn't seen so many pensioners in one place since the last time I went to Southport on a cold and windy day. So Victoria's fifth city turned out to be one of its most boring, but all I wanted was some kip, some fish and chips, and a tank of petrol, and for that, it did the job.
1 Australians don't sunbathe, they sunbake. In fact, Australians don't even sunbake, they cover themselves in sunblock when they hit the beach. Only tourists sunbake; it's an indication of the seriousness with which Aussies take the threat of skin cancer.