Great Ocean Road

By Hostelling International / Photo by Betsyweber

The Gateway to Australia's Grampians National Park

Although we had opted for the slightly shorter approach through Grampians National Park, I was still puffing as we rounded the last cliff and saw the elevated promontory ahead.

Railings and steps were one indication of the popularity of the spot; a noisy bunch of bushwalkers taking happy snaps at the top was another. We waited till they descended, then walked the final steps out to the end. The magnificent 180-degree vista was nearly too much to take in—the beauty and vastness of Grampians National Park opening up before us.

The Pinnacles is one of the most popular viewing spots in Grampians National Park.

The two hour round walk sorts out purely day trip­pers from those wanting more: the view more than justifies the effort. It’s part of a great day trip route around Grampians National Park that was outlined in an information sheet the managers of Grampians YHA, AJ and Jason, gave me when I asked, “What can we see and where should we go?” Somehow, I think they had heard that question before.

We made our way to Grampians National Park from Melbourne. We rent­ed a car and headed for the Great Ocean Road. On a strik­ingly clear blue afternoon, Aireys Inlet and Split Point Lighthouse gave us our first taste of the outstanding coastal views ahead. There are roughly 200 kilometres (give or take) from Anglesea to Warrnambool along what is called the Surf and Shipwreck Coast of the Great Ocean Road. Australia is not short of good coastal scenery, but this is one of the finest with its sheer cliffs, long empty beaches, wind­swept points, winding roads—and lighthouses.

Okay, I’m a sucker for lighthouses—I see one on a map and odds on, I’ll drive there. I once went to all the lighthouses on Kangaroo Island (there are three but they are at opposite ends of this deceptively large island!). Split Point was a good example: well maintained, with that bright white look, easy to reach, good photo spots…and a cute tea room. It was an excellent start to the trip.

A lot has been written about the Great Ocean Road—it’s a mar­keter’s dream.

The winding road hugs cliffs with sweeping sea views around every bend, interspersed with atmospheric little towns along the way. You know what I mean. Truth be had, it is a great drive, best undertaken after lunch when all the day tour buses have trundled through. But it should never be the sole reason for visiting this region because there are many other little spots that offer more charm and less traffic.

Both Lorne and Apollo Bay are ideal bases or overnight spots—big enough to offer a bit of browsing, good food, essential sup­plies and a great YHA. Apollo Bay YHA is a gem—one of those special places where the vibe is just right and you want to stay longer. That evening, I eavesdropped on a conversation in the kitchen: two women were walking stretches of one of Australia’s finest, and newest, long distance walks—the Great Ocean Walk. Stretching 104 kilometres from Apollo Bay to the 12 Apostles (amazing rock formations that rest on Victoria’s shoreline), it can be done as day walks, or one long hike.

The women were doing it with a company who drove their gear from stop to stop. A German guest though was about to set off for six days, carrying everything—it was the highlight of his Australian trip. I was quietly envious.

Two days isn’t long enough, but it gives you a flavour of the region.

We did a loop on Day Two—along the Great Ocean Road, a rainforest walk at Maits Rest, then down to Cape Otway Lighthouse. You won’t believe me when I say there are koalas literally falling out of trees along this road. Sitting munching and posing for endless photos from tourists who stop, park badly and gawk—the koalas just seem to know they are the top attraction.

The Otway Ranges form the backdrop to this stretch of coast. A winding maze of forest roads snake their way through the highly forested region. But if you don’t want to go on gravel tracks, there is a loop up behind Apollo Bay on a sealed road that gives you the flavour of this region. Soaring trees, arching views, stupendous trees, ferns and lush vegetation. A break at the Otway Fly falls conveniently at midday. We opt for their elevated walkway rather than the ziplining. Either is a great way to spend a couple of hours.

The sun is shining brightly on Day Three as we approach the 12 Apostles. I’m naturally a little bit wary of any iconic must-see attraction. Too much hype can lead to disappoint­ment. I’d previously been there on a misty dull day—it hadn’t stuck much in my memory.

Amazing, the difference the sun makes—outstanding views in both directions from numerous viewing points.

It’s a well worn trail along the coast; each spot is marked, and you start bumping into the same people walking to the look-outs. But on such a day, it is hard to by­pass any of them, and I’m happy to revise my opinion of the 12 Apostles. I even iPhoned photos to my relatives on the spot—today’s equivalent of a high five.

I would have liked to have broken the journey at Port Fairy, a friendly fishing village with more than a little bit of an alter­native feel. A great lunch at Rebecca’s Café broke the drive, but it was time to head north away from the coast. Driving through rural Victoria, farmland stretched on either side of the road. But up ahead on the horizon a line of mountains gradually came closer and closer.

As the afternoon light began to wane, we wound our way up into the  Grampians National Park through the ancient rugged volcanic range. A region heavily battered by bushfires in the last decade, the park is now well on the mend. A roo hopped across the road in front of us as we approached Halls Gap—the park’s only township in the northern part of the range.

Nestled in a valley surrounding by craggy cliffs, Halls Gap is the perfect mountain town. The smell of wood stoves filled the air, autumn leaves added colour, and there was a bustle of people in the small shopping area. Grampians YHA was the first purpose-built eco hostel and blends seamlessly with its surroundings.

The next day, I sat on a rock near the Pinnacles lookout, munching an apple. There are times in most trips when every­thing aligns and you have a near-perfect moment. This was it. If I could have stopped the clock and sat there for hours soaking in the view I would have.

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