The temptation is to look at the view and not think about the road. It’s just a standard ribbon of asphalt, taking us on the scenic route from one place to another. It is etched across the landscape with apparent inevitability. It would be easy to drive its entire 151-mile length without wondering who built it, or when, or why.
The Great Ocean Road hugs the coastline of the Australian state of Victoria. For the first stretch it heads southwest from the seaside town of Torquay along the Bass Strait, which separates the Australian mainland from Tasmania.
At Cape Otway it turns northwest, and the lonely stretches acquire a new dimension of loneliness. When you pull off the road, get out, feel a sharply chill wind on your face and watch foaming waves pound the shore, it is sobering to realize there is no land between you and Antarctica, across 2,000 miles of the Southern Ocean. Now you see the road for what it is: a fragile link to civilization, a thin thread connecting a series of pretty coastal communities.
Until The Great Ocean Road was built, this corner of Australia was impossibly remote. Only a rugged handful of pioneers witnessed its scenic wonders. In 1918, Howard Hitchcock, a Melbourne department store owner, formed a company to build a road along the coast. He wanted it to serve as a fitting memorial to the 60,000 Australians killed in World War I while also providing work for the returning service men and women. Construction began in 1919 and was completed in 1932.
At Eastern View, on the section out of Torquay, a simple wooden arch across the road serves as a dedication to Australia’s war dead, while a poignant statue nearby celebrates the camaraderie of the veterans who built the road. It is the first significant waypoint on the journey west.
Beyond Lorne, the magnitude of the road builders’ achievement becomes clear. The course has been carved into the steep cliffs, winding from headland to headland. This is not a drive you want to make immediately after arrival in Australia, when you’re fuzzy with jet lag and not yet driving on the left instinctively.
But once you’ve acclimatized, a drive along The Great Ocean Road, stopping off for a night or two along the way, is undoubtedly one of the highlights of Australia. If you’re planning to stay in hotels or B&Bs, a compact sedan will be more than adequate for your rental wheels.
Alternatively, you can be self-sufficient in a campervan, making use of the many camping parks on the route. One of the most memorable is at Kennett River, where the surrounding eucalyptus trees provide not only shade but also a home for a large population of koalas. This is one of the best places to see these remarkable marsupials in the wild.
After Cape Otway, the attractions are mainly scenic, with star billing to the Twelve Apostles, a stunning cluster of limestone stacks immediately offshore. The name was conceived with touristic license. There have never been 12; until 2005 there were nine, but then one toppled, leaving eight. Continued erosion of the nearby cliffs will eventually carve new stacks.
Farther along the road is another eroding limestone formation, London Arch (formerly known as London Bridge, until the natural bridge connecting it to the shore collapsed in 2009, making it an island).
The splendor of this coastline is raw and dynamic. It changes with the light throughout the day, and it is constantly reshaped by wave and wind. Thanks to The Great Ocean Road, we can witness the changes, enjoying the best of nature thanks to the best of mankind.
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