The Road Down Under
Published: May 2009
By Stephen Drucker
The Great Ocean Road is Australia's version of Highway 1. Endless views, inventive restaurants, stylish guesthouses, and natural offerings—rain forests and waterfalls, koalas and kangaroos—make it the ultimate driving destination.
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Drive lightly. Carry water. Never bush-bash. The warnings came back to me as soon as I heard the tire blow out.
I had not been driving lightly, even though the asphalt had long ago turned into dirt, even though it had been hours since another car had passed me. (But I hadn't been bush-bashing, or driving off-road.) I did not know how to change a tire, nor did I have a cell phone, nor was I carrying water. I was 10 miles from the nearest hope of a person and 10,000 miles from home. And I couldn't think of anything to do about it.
All I had wanted when I set out that morning was to see one kangaroo in the wild. Now the kangaroos were coming to see me in the wild. They stopped, and they stared, as if they wanted to say something. This was quite a cocktail party I was giving. An hour passed, and another, before a man in a flannel shirt came along in a car sturdier than mine. He didn't hesitate about being in a hurry or getting dirty. He kept calling me "mate." Glad he could help. Where was I from?How long was I staying?Where was I going?Was my spare okay?Let's check it out. Have to be careful. That gravel—some of it's pretty sharp. Let's look at the map. Oh, good, sealed road just a mile or so ahead. You'll be okay.
I wish I had a picture of my mate from the Great Ocean Road.
Australia was so much bigger than I had imagined, and so much harder to grasp, especially on a typical first trip: one day I would be at Ayers Rock getting in touch with my spiritual side; the next day I would be wearing wraparound sunglasses and having a beer and comparing the yachts in Sydney Harbour.
I needed to slow my trip down. I needed to drive. Nothing focuses the world like a windshield.
The Great Ocean Road, where Australia would finally come into focus for me, is often compared to Highway 1 in California. The road is narrow, the ocean views are spectacular, and the guardrails are few and far between. It's all over quickly, in about 100 miles, but so much happens along the way that can only happen in Australia, it leaves you feeling you have finally cracked the country you have traveled so far to see.
What started as a road is now a region, like Big Sur or the Côte d'Azur. And everybody has a different idea of what constitutes a good time here. A fashionable crowd descends from Melbourne each weekend to try this new cheese or that new wine. Couples fill the many B&B's, celebrating anniversaries and eating freshly baked breakfasts around big farm tables. Surfers, a very chic breed of outlaws, come from all over the world to get pummeled by the enormous waves. And families come to tour the rugged coastal scenery and settle into "self-catered apartments" for long holidays. Sometimes you think you're in Malibu. Sometimes you think you're in Bournemouth.
The highway begins several hours west of Melbourne. Soon after you start the drive, you reach Memorial Arch, just past the hamlet of Anglesea. By the time I got there, I had built a picture in my mind of something granite and triumphal and eternal. What I found instead were a few logs hammered together and a marker commemorating the ANZAC's and the Great War. ANZAC is one of those words you never hear before you come to Australia, and then you hear it daily. It's an acronym for Australia New Zealand Army Corps. During World War I, the ANZAC's swaggered like no other army, and came to define the Australian national character for anyone who'd never before met an Australian. Bravery, unfortunately, wasn't enough. A lot of them never came home.
The Great Ocean Road was begun in 1919 as a make-work project for those soldiers who did make it back. With its sculptured twists and turns, it was considered one of the great civil engineering projects of its day; until then, this portion of the seacoast was accessible only by boat. When the highway was completed, in 1932, the men who built it made certain they would never be forgotten, in lookouts and scenic points with names like Shrapnel Gully, Mount Defiance, and Artillery Rocks. Even today those names can break your heart.
The ocean and the road officially come together in Torquay, a little short of the arch. Torquay is surfer territory. It looks like Laguna Beach in 1948, its streets filled with residents who have salt in their hair, its stores selling baggy clothing and healthful foods. One step into the Not Just Fruit market is a good introduction to the Great Ocean Road diet. People here glow when they talk about local products such as Irrewarra Sourdough bread, Meredith Dairy chèvre, and the hippy-dippy brown packages of spices grown and blended by the Screaming Seeds Spice Co. If I hadn't known better, I would have thought an envelope of their Marrakesh Magic could get me stoned.
But the surfers, not the foodies, are in charge in Torquay. Surf City Plaza is one neon lifestyle megastore after another, selling surfboards and sunglasses and some intense CD's mixed for the surfer sensibility. At the Surfworld Surfing Museum you can stand on a board and learn about point breaks and tube waves and the science of judging the surf. In his own way, any surfer knows as much about physics as J. Robert Oppenheimer. Wanting to be part of their world, if only for an afternoon, I took my Irrewarra bread and Meredith cheese and spent some time at the beaches nearby, like Bells and Jan Juc, where the waves are legendary. All afternoon I sat there hypnotized, watching the surfers paddle out and ride back, paddle out and ride back, in a ritual that was profound to them, but which kept me at a distance. Those CD's were as close as I could ever get.
From Torquay the Great Ocean Road threads through a series of towns, each with its own little point of pride. Anglesea has a golf course populated by kangaroos. Aireys Inlet is lazy, its ancient volcanic beaches decorated with fossils. Apollo Bay has the Bass Strait Shell Museum, where Albert and Dell Leorke have opened the doors of their home to show off a lifetime of collecting and extremely neat label-writing. When you pay the modest admission, you half-expect them to sing a chorus of "When I'm Sixty-Four."
I liked Lorne, which regards itself as the St.-Tropez of this Riviera. Everything happening in Australian food and fashion happens here during the summer. Its gently curved, beachfront main street is called the Mountjoy Parade, and I did parade, from one end to the other and back, stopping at cafés and shops along the way until it was time for the show at the Art Deco movie palace, Lorne's own little piece of Leicester Square. It's painted the perfect shade of Palmolive green, and if the show began with a war newsreel from 1943, you wouldn't be surprised.
The Great Ocean Road is B&B country, pastel and cozy in the Australian way: sweet cottages where ruffles and baskets are plentiful. There is even one enclave where the cabins are shaped like boomerangs and the atmosphere is Old Sausalito. The heroic Neutra-style photos in the brochure for the Phoenix Apartments in Lorne suggested something more my speed. I found the front desk in the hands of a sleek young woman, who took me to a suite that was stark, gallery-like, and extremely white. It was like checking into a Jil Sander boutique. Each day she brought a loaf of good bread and a bowl of fresh eggs to my kitchen, already stocked with local jams and honey, so I could prepare breakfast.
Eating well is one of the reasons you come to the Great Ocean Road. Much of the food is locally grown by small-scale guardians of traditional, organic agricultural methods. The back-to-the-land fantasy sometimes does and sometimes does not work out for these well-meaning people. I'd read about the Cobden Country Style Smokehouse and the Sticky Fingers Honey & T-Room, but when I drove up I found them shuttered because of a lack of business. However, Mount Emu Creek sheep's cheeses and Shaw River buffalo-milk mozzarella and yogurt seemed to be thriving.
At first glance Australian cuisine may appear familiar, but as with most things here, the closer you look, the more you realize it's not. "Fusion" does not begin to describe what goes on in an Australian restaurant. In Lorne, the seafood at Reifs Restaurant & Bar leans toward Asia, but by way of Italy; and Kosta's Taverna, which you would remember forever for its bizarre lightbulb-studded walls, offers an excellent Mediterranean-inspired menu heavy on lemons, olives, and lamb, though the latter might be served with roasted pumpkin. At La Bimba in Apollo Bay, the menu takes breathtaking leaps, from Italian risotto to Thai green coconut curry to Turkish bread to a Moroccan tagine to Greek spinach-and-feta fritters to a Japanese beef salad. At Waves in Port Campbell, you can settle down to a very nice fillet of kangaroo in teriyaki sauce. Local beer is always on tap. And, this being Australia, you are never far from Vegemite.
Perhaps the most memorable meal is a platter of Timboon Farmhouse cheese. This biodynamic dairy, started in 1974 by Hermann and Marlis Schulz, is the great local success story; two years ago the Schulzes sold their business to King Island Dairy, Australia's largest distributor of specialty cheeses. Today its "artisanal cheeses" can be found in Australian supermarkets, but still taste their best at the farm and lunchroom in Timboon, a short drive from Port Campbell, where somebody behind the counter will create the perfect plate of bread and crackers and your choice of cheeses. Timboonzola is a delicious blue, and there are also beautiful tortes, one garlicky and wrapped in herbs, the other rolled in a rainbow of cracked peppercorns. For an hour I forgot about fat content and ate everything. I was embarrassed by the minuscule bill.
As I drove westward, the great Ocean Road became wilder and wilder. Between Lorne and Apollo Bay, the curves are the tightest and the embankments the steepest, and since I never entirely believed I was supposed to be driving on the left, the road commanded my undivided attention. (But then you turn around and do it all over again in the opposite direction, because the spectacular views are completely different driving back.)
Fearing another flat tire, I crept down unpaved Red Johanna Drive at 10 miles per hour to Johanna Beach, one of the most rugged and dramatic beaches I have ever seen, and I had it all to myself, not counting a long-expired whale. Every beach you see is the most rugged and dramatic you've ever seen, at least until you see the next one. An hour down the road were the Gibson Steps, steep and cut from the cliffs, which took me down to yet another beach where only a crazy person would go in the water. Just standing there, knowing those steps were the only way out, made me hyperventilate. A decade ago a group of tourists strolled out over the surf on a natural bridge called London Bridge, and while they were enjoying the ocean view, a piece of the bridge collapsed; they needed a helicopter to get back to the shore. Now everybody visits London Bridge to see what's left of it, secretly hoping for the wave that will knock that down too.
The Great Ocean Road isn't all beaches, however. In the clammy air of the rain forests at Maits Rest and in Melba Gully State Park, under gargantuan ferns and trees that don't know the meaning of light, I had to bundle up; whoever thought you'd need Polarfleece in a rain forest?I also developed a sudden interest in waterfalls. There were dozens of them to see, each with a distinct personality. Some were tall and graceful and seemed to hang in midair; some were compact and powerful; some were soloists, and others worked in ensembles. I became quite a student of them, racing from Erskine Falls to Triplet Falls to Hopetoun Falls, the way I might knock off Giottos in Florence.
Everything you think of as Australian turns up somewhere along the Great Ocean Road, and not in captivity. Kangaroos simply go about their business on the back roads. To see glowworms, you have to join a nighttime tour in a rain forest with a naturalist and his flashlight. But finding a wild koala is as simple as asking the attendant at a gas station: "Oh, try the Grey River Road, up about a mile or so. I saw a few there just last week." Watching a koala climb a tree is one of the better ways to spend an hour in Australia.
The tour buses that sometimes tailgated me were on day trips from Melbourne and headed for the Twelve Apostles. Known somewhat less romantically during the 19th century as the Sow and Piglets, this group of limestone stacks rises theatrically from the beach and is washed by furious surf all day long. There were only seven of them visible, but I tried not to dwell on that. I visited in the morning, and again at sunset; I went in the morning fog, and in the noon sun; the Apostles never looked the same. I stood there in a reverent hush, I took pictures of people smiling in front of them, I watched the golden rays of low afternoon sunlight streak down through the clouds, Annunciation-style. I could never quite bring myself to say I'd had enough. This was one elegant lesson in eternity.
When the sign for the Cape Otway Lighthouse appeared, my first thought was a healthy, skeptical, Oh, no, not another charming lighthouse. But this lighthouse wasn't all charm. It forced me to really think about the country I was visiting. Until the end of the 19th century, the only way to reach Australia from England was on a sailing ship that took three to four months. Ships traveled the length of the Atlantic to Cape Town, then hurled themselves far south toward Antarctica, dodging icebergs, in hopes of catching favorable winds that would propel them back north. It was not exactly the obvious route, but experience had proved it the fastest.
On the last leg of this voyage a ship had to find a channel through a treacherous strait 50 miles wide. Fifty miles was not as generous then as it sounds now. Captains made mistakes, their instruments made mistakes; the winds were powerful, the surf perilous, and the shallows hidden. A captain often had far less control over his ship than his passengers wanted to believe. The Cape Otway Lighthouse, built in 1848, gave people at sea half a chance. But sometimes there was nothing that could save them. Ask any ghost on the stretch of the Great Ocean Road known as the Shipwreck Coast.
The sinking of the Titanic in 1912 seems immediate and terrifying even today, but the wreck of a sailing ship only a generation or two earlier seems to belong to Homer and The Odyssey, at least until you hear the stories of the ships that never made it to Australia, the Loch Ard in particular. She sailed from England with 54 passengers in the spring of 1878. Her three-month voyage was uneventful. She was practically there when, in a gale, her captain misjudged her position, the breakers hurled her into the rocks, and she foundered. One sailor, Tom Pearce, clung to a capsized lifeboat for hours. Somehow he came upon Eva Carmichael, who had saved herself in much the same way. They were the only ones who hadn't drowned, and she couldn't even swim. Tom and Eva, both 18 years old, became the Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet of their day. All of Australia hoped they would get married.
It is impossible to visit the Loch Ard Gorge and not be drawn into the story of that night. You relive it all, from the gorge—formidable even in daylight—to the sheep station where Tom and Eva took shelter after the wreck, now a museum with a few items from the lost vessel. You have to wonder about Tom and Eva. They traveled all that way to Australia, fought desperately for their lives, and then turned around and went home. They never saw each other again.
WHERE TO STAY
Allenvale Cottages 150 Allenvale Rd., Lorne; phone and fax 61-3/5289-1450; doubles from $70. The best and coziest of the traditional B&B's in the Lorne area. A few miles outside town.
Phoenix Apartments 60 Mountjoy Parade, Lorne; 61-3/5289-2000, fax 61-3/5289-1298; doubles from $70. The B&B for die-hard minimalists. Ideal in-town location.
Shearwater Haven 3 Pleasant Dr., Port Campbell; 61-3/5598-6532, fax 61-3/5598-6302; doubles from $73. A bit plain, but its friendliness and comfort will win you over.
Waves 29 Lord St., Port Campbell; 61-3/5598-6111, fax 61-3/5598-6037; doubles from $82. The architect must have visited Venice, California. Edgy on the surface, folksy at heart.
WHERE TO EAT
Kosta's Taverna 48 Mountjoy Parade, Lorne; 61-3/5289-1883; dinner for two $48.
Reifs Restaurant & Bar 84 Mountjoy Parade, Lorne; 61-3/5289-2366; dinner for two $44.
La Bimba 125 Great Ocean Rd., Apollo Bay; 61-3/5237-7411; dinner for two $50.
Waves 29 Lord St., Port Campbell; 61-3/5598-6111; dinner for two $44.
The Great Ocean Road Touring Map Series, available at tourist offices along the way, are indispensable. Most useful are The Surfcoast, The Otways, and The Shipwreck Coast. The ideal guidebook is Explore the Great Ocean Road: Geelong to Mt. Gambier ($11).
Day 1 Leave Melbourne mid-morning via M-1. Lunch at Torquay. Explore Bells and Jan Juc beaches. Continue on B-100 to the Great Ocean Road. See the kangaroos on the Anglesea Golf Course, an Aireys Inlet beach, and the Memorial Arch. Overnight in Lorne.
Day 2 Leave Lorne on Erskine Falls Road; don't miss the falls. Continue via the hamlets of Forrest, Barramunga, and Beech Forest to Lavers Hill. (Four-wheel drive is best on these roads, though cars are acceptable.) Take the Great Ocean Road back toward Apollo Bay, touring Maits Rest rain forest and the Cape Otway Lighthouse. Stroll through Apollo Bay, but get back to Lorne before dark—the road is very winding here. Overnight in Lorne.
Day 3 Depart Lorne in the early morning. Look for the Grey River Road, where you can spot koalas. Continue to Red Johanna Drive and visit the beach. Return to the Great Ocean Road and proceed toward Port Campbell, stopping at Melba Gully, the Gibson Steps, the Twelve Apostles, and the Loch Ard Gorge. Arrive at Port Campbell in the late afternoon. Head back to the Twelve Apostles for sunset. Overnight in Port Campbell.
Day 4 Go to London Bridge and the Shipwreck Coast, then up to Timboon Farmhouse Cheese for a late-morning lunch. For the fast inland return route to Melbourne, follow any of the scenic back roads to the A-1 (Princes Highway).