World’s Best Drive? The Great Ocean Road

The Great Ocean Road lays claim to being the most scenic drive in the world. Having driven another road with a similar boast in July, the Pacific Coast Highway, I was curious to see which one really is more deserving of the title.

Some history (naturally) to begin. The Great Ocean Road was constructed by returning servicemen between 1919 and 1932 as a memorial to those that passed away in the War. Starting about 90 kilometres from Melbourne and ending in Allansford, it snakes along the coastline for 243 kilometres.

I posed what I thought was a really stupid question to our driver/guide Simon:

“What ocean is the Great Ocean Road on?’

“The Southern Ocean,” he replied.

“Oh” I muttered, “That wasn’t an ocean that I ever learned about in school.”

“It is definitely the Southern Ocean and the Southern Ocean is an Ocean,” he insisted.

I didn’t see this conversation going anywhere, so I demurred. But later that evening, with internet connectivity restored (there’s limited internet on the Great Ocean Road), I turned to my now favourite question responder, Ask Google. “What are the oceans of the world?” I typed. “Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, Arctic and Antarctic, sometimes known as the Southern Ocean,” it responded. So Simon was right, but wait….. Until 2000, the Southern Ocean was not a recognized ocean, so I was also right since my education about the oceans occurred sometime in the 1960’s. When I went to school, there was no Southern/Antarctic Ocean.

Simon was perhaps also wrong on another count. The Southern Ocean is generally regarded (although there is dispute) as ending at the 60th parallel, well below the bottom of Australia, including its most southernmost island, Tasmania. Most would agree the Great Ocean Road’s ocean is the Pacific.

We approached the Road from the west, having driven inland from Melbourne to its westernmost point in order to avoid the expected large number of X-Mas holiday tourists driving the road from east to west. Our first stop was the currently named London Arch. It had previously been called London Bridge, since it had been a double-span natural bridge until January 15, 1990, when one of the bridges collapsed without warning. Two people were stranded on the newly formed island and had to wait for hours to be rescued by helicopters. Not surprisingly, the ditty London Bridge is Falling Down is quite popular here.

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The (now) single span London Bridge

Loch Ard Gorge was the next stop, offering another spectacular view. Named after the clipper, Loch Ard, which ran aground in 1878 after coming oh so close to finishing  its 3 month voyage to Melbourne from England. Only 2 people survived, a teenage cabin boy and a young female passenger, who were washed ashore and took refuge in the gorge. We walked down to the beach and plodded through the silky sand.

The pinnacle of the Great Ocean Road is the Twelve Apostles, named after the (at one time) twelve limestone rocks standing proudly up to 150 feet high in the surf. Thirteen originally stood, earning the name the Sow and Pigs. But with erosion, their numbers have dwindled and they were rechristened the Twelve Apostles. Today there are only 8.

Just as the Pacific Coast Highway has the gigantic redwoods on the Oregon/ California coast, the Great Ocean Road is bordered by temperate rain forests with tall eucalyptus trees. We took a walk through them and stopped for photos:

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Apollo Bay is one of a number of lovely, postcard perfect beach towns along the Road, filled with kids playing in the sand, ice cream parlours and picnicking families. I walked down to the beach, dipped my foot in and immediately took it out. The water was freezing cold, but since this was (perhaps) the Antarctic Ocean, that should not have come as a shock.

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Lighthouse seen from Apollo Bay

Turning inland, we drove to the Great Otway National Park for a koala safari. The park is home to a large forest of eucalyptus trees, the only habitation of koalas, and Otway has one of the largest wild koala populations. Simon drove without stopping past flocks of brightly covered parrots and yellow crested cockatoos; he was on a mission to find koalas. He told us to look among the branches for large grey fur balls. We would be unlikely to see them move, since they sleep for 20 hours a day, eat for 3 and a half hours and spend the remaining time going from tree to tree or mating, but Simon thought we might catch some sleeping.

Sure enough, another tour bus was parked on the side of the road with tourists outside, necks craned upwards, pointing and shooting pictures. We disembarked and saw first one, then another, koala in different trees. They are territorial and keep a good distance away from each other – generally about 30 trees worth. We were in luck; one of the koalas was awake and eating. I managed a photo, but missed my zoom lens.

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All in all, a wonderful day with great weather, glorious scenery and koalas to boot. Was it better than the Pacific Coast Highway? It is hard to say; they are both marvelous in their own way. But the Pacific Coast Highway doesn’t have koalas.

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