As synonymous with its state as the Harbour Bridge is with New South Wales or Uluru with the Northern Territory, the Twelve Apostles remains one of Victoria’s best-loved natural attractions.
And a trip to the south coast to see these pillars in all their limestone glory also provides the opportunity to take one of the country’s best-renowned jaunts along the Great Ocean Road.
Driving from Melbourne, the fun begins at Lorne – 144km south-west of the CBD – and extends more than 200km west, along some of the most spectacular coastline the country has to offer.
If you’re travelling from the west, plan to start at Warrnambool – 266km from the big smoke along the Princes Highway (inland road) and a worthy destination in its own right. If, like me, you judge a place by the quality of its coffee, the crispiness of the bacon in its bacon and egg sandwiches and the friendliness of the tourist information centre staff, then Warrnambool has the big three. That’s not to mention miles of gorgeous beaches, the pretty Lake Pertobe and the Merri River, which meanders through town.
On the weekend we visited, Warrnambool was abuzz with people enjoying the first taste of summer – the beaches and parks were packed with revellers and the atmosphere was infectious.
Sun blazing and tummies full from our beachside breaky, we headed east, conscious we had a long drive ahead of us but, at the same time, feeling languid and relaxed in that lazy summery way only a hot day can make you feel.
BAY OF ISLANDS
From the west, the Great Ocean Road will propel you inland, through the little country towns of Allansford and Nirranda. But, before long, the road turns south and the big blue rolls out in front of you. If you fancy hitting the coast a little quicker, turn off the Great Ocean Road on to Childers Cove Road, just past Allansford, and head for the picturesque Childers Cove. The cove is home to the wreck of the tallship Children, which was wrecked in 1839 en-route from Launceston, Tas, to Portland, Vic, and claimed 17 lives.
You will enter the Bay of Islands Coastal Park outside of Warrnambool and it stretches 32km along the coast to Peterborough. No matter how many postcards or photos you’ve seen, prepare to be unprepared for your first sighting of the magnificent burnt orange cliffs and layered limestone monoliths rising from the cobalt sea that characterise this stretch of coast. It took my breath away.
The Bay of Islands viewing area is the first official stop along the route and is one not to be missed. With two viewing platforms perched on the edge of the cliffs, each looking out in a different direction, your view of the bay, dotted with magnificent pillars, is panoramic.
Handy signs installed by Parks Victoria at many viewing platforms tell the story of erosion, explaining the geographical processes that occurred to create the natural wonders you’re looking at.
Once you’ve had your fill, hop back in the car and head east. The main tourist attractions and most popular spots are well-signposted and hard to miss. Harder to spot, however, are the unsigned 4WD tracks leading off the main road, through the scrub and into who knows where. Unfortunately, most will advise they are not suitable for caravans due to their narrow width and tight bends but, if you’re travelling unencumbered or can find a spot to safely unhitch for an hour, these detours will lead to some of the most beautiful spots you’ll find along the way.
Shortly after leaving the Bay of Islands, one such track will deliver you to the ‘Captain’s’ car park and a steep sandy path leads down to a wide, white beach which you will, more than likely, have to yourself. Ringed by green hills that protect the beach from the road above, it is an unpopulated paradise. Take a stroll, cast a line into the sparkling waters or just relax and enjoy the solitude and that slightly smug feeling you get from knowing how many others are missing out by sticking to the main road.
The Grotto and London Bridge are the next major attractions and each is worth a visit. The path to the Grotto includes a steep descent and several flights of stairs, making it unsuitable for people of limited mobility. But those who can make it down there will be rewarded by a unique pattern of erosion that occurred on both the coastal and inland sides, hollowing out an arch through which you can see the glistening ocean below.
London Bridge, which partially collapsed in 1990, is still a spectacular sight. The first arch, which connected to the mainland, eroded away and tumbled into the sea on January 15 1990. No one was injured in the dramatic collapse, although two people were stranded on the new island that was created and had to be rescued by helicopter.
Not far from London Bridge you’ll pass through Port Campbell before entering the Port Campbell National Park and the Twelve Apostles Coastal Park.
Just over 11km from the town is the turn-off to the Twelve Apostles car park and visitor centre. Take note, though, this is on the nortern side of the road, not the southern side like the others.If you were as lucky as we were to travel the rest of the Great Ocean Road in relative peace and quiet, be prepared to have that shattered when you arrive here. At just over 270km from Melbourne, the attraction is a popular day-trip and busloads of tourists flock here every day. You may be tempted to bypass the mayhem, as we were, in search of a quieter viewing spot – but there aren’t any. So you’ll have to do your best to find a park and join the masses crossing under the road to the coast.
This is also the departure point for helicopter tours of the coast – a great way to see the Apostles in all their glory.
Previously named the Sow and Piglets, the rock formations were renamed the Twelve Apostles early last century as it was deemed to be a more dignified name. If you try counting the pillars and expect to see 12, you will be disappointed. According to some sources, there were never actually 12 – only nine, and the collapse of a stack in 2005 left just eight. Other stories maintain there were once 13 stacks that were counted as Apostles, although several are hidden from view behind the headland or obscured by other pillars. An onsite information sign maintains there are, or were, 12 pillars but not all are visible from the viewing platforms. But however many there are, one thing that can’t be disputed is the sheer magnificence and natural beauty of these piles of rock.
From Princetown, the Great Ocean Road meanders inland once more, leaving the blue sea behind for the brilliant greens of the ancient rainforest and rolling hills of the dairy farmland. At Lavers Hill, the road delves south and then east again, as you head into the Great Otway National Park.
The park itself offers a whole host of activities and attractions – but that’s a story for another day.
Apollo Bay is where the road meets the sea once again and this vibrant seaside town is a popular choice with holidayers of all kinds due to its friendly, relaxed vibe and stretch of beautiful beach.
From here, the road hugs the coast as it heads towards Lorne, Aireys Inlet, Anglesea and beyond.
For a single road, the Great Ocean Road covers some diverse and changeable landscapes – from the spectacular cliffs and cobalt sea to rolling green hills and dense rainforest, there’s not much you won’t see along this drive.
THE LONG ROAD
The Great Ocean Road itself couldn’t really be more travel-friendly. Its spacious car parks cater for passenger vehicles as well as all manner of caravans, motorhomes and longer buses, so parking should rarely be a problem – except, perhaps, during peak tourist season. There are regular turn-out spots along the road so those happy to travel at a slower pace can safely pull in to allow others to overtake. Drivers are, in the most part, courteous and friendly and these spots are well-utilised.
If doing the drive in one day isn’t your thing and you want to take your time enjoying the sights, there are multiple accommodation options along the route.
Warrnambool boasts two Top Tourist Parks, ideal for the start or end of your trip, and there are another six along the length of the road, including parks at Peterborough, Port Campbell, Apollo Bay, Aireys Inlet, Kennett River and Anglesea.
If you’d rather be at one with nature, there are more than a few campsites along the Great Ocean Road and nearby attractions.
Try the Cumberland, Kennett or Wye river campsites – all of which are caravan-friendly – or leave your van at the park and hike in to one of the Great Ocean Walk’s seven campsites that can only be accessed on foot.
For permits and camping information, visit www.parkweb.vic.gov.au.
For trip planning, accommodation and tourist information, visit the Port Campbell Tourist Information Centre at 26 Morris Street, Port Campbell, Vic. Phone 1300 137 255 or visit www.visit12apostles.com.au.
Warrnambool Holiday Park: Simpson Street, Warrnambool, Vic, (03) 5562 5031, www.whpark.com.au.
Figtree Holiday Village: 33 Lava Street, Warrnambool, Vic, (03) 5561 1233, www.figtreepark.com.
Originally published in Caravan World #509, December 2012.