Frugal Traveler: Stunning Vistas and Wildlife Along Australia’s Great Ocean Road
Warned by periodic road signs reminding me to drive on the left in Australia, I continued from Anglesea down to Aireys Inlet, stopping to see the Split Point Lighthouse, a beautiful, massive white pillar against the blue sea. The lighthouse was constructed in 1891, after a slew of shipwrecks along the rocky coast. I passed on the tour, but there are guided (14 dollars) and self-guided (10 dollars) ones available.
I was feeling more comfortable behind the wheel by the time I arrived in Lorne, one of the towns to which the Great Ocean Road was intended to ease access. (I had set off the windshield wipers just once or twice in the previous hour or so, and had managed to parallel park with moderate success.) The drive was even becoming, dare I say, enjoyable: The constant twists and hairpin turns in the road made for a lot of fun.
I approached a bend in the road in Lorne, near three majestic conifers, and stopped at the imposing Grand Pacific Hotel, an 1870s landmark that was originally accessible only by sea. I had a cup of tea (4 dollars) and a white chocolate macadamia nut cookie (3 dollars). I recommend you do what I did: Take your tea up to the second floor and sit on the balcony. The panoramic views — even in an area with an embarrassment of visual riches — are fantastic.
A friend had tipped me off about the location of some wild koalas, so I made a beeline out of Lorne toward Kennett River, where there is a small park. An access road near the appropriately named Kafe Koala took me into a eucalyptus forest — just as a downpour began.
I had to move fast. I trudged up the muddy road, looking in the branches of the trees: nothing. After a bit more walking, I heard something: a frenetic grunt, a noise I imagined a warthog would make. I looked up, rain pelting my face, and saw two fuzzy gray shapes chasing each other up the trunk of a tree with light-colored bark. Koalas! And they seemed mad. They were spitting and hissing at each other, and making incredibly, well, un-cute noises. Once I noticed these koalas, I saw others everywhere. Perched in tree branches, snoozing, munching on eucalyptus leaves or chasing one another in playful and not-so-playful ways. (Koalas, incidentally, are suffering a horrible chlamydia outbreak. I still found them adorable.)
But it was time to get out of the rain. I zigzagged through a large group of cockatoos and brightly colored crimson rosella parrots and hopped back into the car. I was on high alert again on the road (and of course, when I tried to turn the windshield wipers on, I promptly turned on the turn signal). I had to pull over to let by a big truck that was riding my tail.
On the way toward Great Otway National Park, I recommend checking out a few of the many places to turn off and enjoy the scenery. Cape Patton Lookout Point is particularly awe-inspiring and bucolic, with sweeping views of both the ocean and the surrounding bush. And it’s not just views — access points to the beach are plentiful. I spent some quality time on the beach in Apollo Bay, approaching it from Gambier Street.
Much of what the Great Ocean Road has to offer is simply handed to travelers: Even just driving it, I couldn’t help but take in its beauty. A few things, though, are a bit more difficult to get to. Lighthouses abound in Victoria, and the Cape Otway Lightstation, the oldest working lighthouse in Australia — and “the most important,” according to the website — is worth going the extra mile.
The lighthouse is far south on the tip of Victoria — a detour from the main road through the national park. The environs changed quickly: I was chugging along amid beautiful ocean scenery when suddenly I was in a lush, emerald-green forest. Just as quickly, I was in dry, barren bush that looked almost apocalyptic. About seven miles after I turned off the main road, I made it to the Cape. And after a moderate hike, I was staring at the tiny, perfect lighthouse in the distance.
The area is particularly remote and isolated — I encountered only two other people on my detour. There’s a sense of immense calm about the place, and while it’s not the southernmost point in Australia, it feels just as distant. From that point on, for the rest of my drive along the Great Ocean Road, and back to Melbourne, I felt pretty much at ease. No more freak-outs, no more mistakes with the windshield wipers. Driving on the left wasn’t second nature, but I had definitely gotten the hang of it.
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