Turning off the Great Ocean Road

Published Great Ocean Road Magazine for Tourism Victoria, with photographs.

Sightseeing can be hard work on the Great Ocean Road. There’s too much to see. Too much to photograph. So on this trip I began to turn off the most beautiful road in the world whenever I could. It was like wagging school or stealing time. And that was always when the adventures began.


I decided not to take the well-known turn-offs. At Anglesea people visit the golf course and watch kangaroos try to teach golfers how to relax on a fairway. I even avoided Grey River road at Kennett River where koalas teach travellers how to chill out. I started turning off where I wasn’t supposed to turn off.


In a relatively dry country, especially when there’s no pub around, the best place to turn off is a river. Along the Great Ocean Road, every river and creek has a walking track, a gorge, a waterfall , a cave,  some rainforest or rich birdlife and wildlife. There are fireflies near streams in the Otways. I walked upstream on tracks  at St Georges River,  at Sheoak creek and Cumberland River.   But the waterfalls, and gorges made me want to get my camera out again. I didn’t want to work as a traveller, so I turned back.   


I knew the turn offs to lighthouses would be spectacular. Classic lighthouses on rugged coastal cliffs punctuate the Great Ocean Road. They light up Bass Strait at Queenscliff, Point Lonsdale, Aireys Inlet, Cape Otway,  Port Fairy and Portland. That cut out another six turn offs. I was beginning to run out of options.


I decided to head for the hills at Skenes Creek just before Apollo Bay. I drove up through the hills for about ten kilometres,  till I found a dirt track in the middle of nowhere.  I thought I’d find some boring farm land but instead I found myself driving through a scene from Jurassic Park. Giant tree ferns and mountain ash trees,  misty valleys and silent vast rainforest line Turtons track. The Great Ocean Road may be the most beautiful road in the state but the second most beautiful road is a dirt track.


I gave up at this point.  I realised I wasn’t going to escape the views,  so I called up the Apollo Bay Visitor Information Centre to find a place to stay. These centres are a fantastic resource for travellers. The staff know every place in the region inside and out.  They can just about describe the feng shui of most places. You can tell them what colour schemes you’d like for the night. They know the cuisine and the price range of every restaurant.  And best of all, they are objective.  They just describe places so you can decide.


Lisa Fagan described a self contained house with sea views through the trees, a lovely open plan living area, and “a Japanese come Chinese décor”. She also mentioned that the owners were setting up a cancer carers’ retreat with the money they made from accommodation bookings. That sold me and so did their story.


Bryan O’Neill and Marianne Rieve have dedicated their lives to healing people. Both are former lecturers at the Melbourne College of Natural Therapies and have worked for years with doctors and seriously ill patients. They tired of lecturing about health in the city and decided,  in O’Neill’s words, “to get back out in to the healing workforce, into the field”.


They sold up and bought property at Apollo Bay and Castle Cove to set up a retreat for kids with cancer and their carers. The two believe that psychology and the power of the mind are integral to overcoming  cancer and to a dignified death and this belief will underpin the function of the retreats.  Talks, workshops, alternative research, meditation, massage and reflexology will all be offered to carers – people too often overlooked in the healing process. “Carers need respite as well,” said O’Neill.


They expect to open a two family retreat at Castle Cove by the end of 2004.  And they plan to build a larger retreat at Johanna, a little further down the Great Ocean Road. O’Neill and Rieve have no kids of their own but  they have decided to leave the retreats to a foundation for kids with cancer .


Their story is just one of many creative stories behind the services and activities now offered along the Great Ocean Road. In the last decade,  thousands of people have moved from the city to region to set up a different lifestyle, or pursue a dream. Travellers to the region are the beneficiaries.


O’Neill and Rieve also run Great Ocean Road Massage and Reflexology, which they offer in house at their beautiful Skenes Creek accommodation. “Treebreeze”  is beautifully fitted out with two balconies, a spa, two bedrooms,  sea views through gum trees and a relaxing open plan living area with a wood fired heater.


Other accommodation cottages in the area are attached to herb farms, galleries, music events or craft workshops.  Festivals and markets held most weekends along the Great Ocean Road are a good way to sample the work of the more creative locals.  I particularly liked a design for useless travellers by Forrest local, Matt Bradshaw. His “Smoothie Pedlars” peddle a bicycle connected to a vitamiser.   If only we could all be as productive while travelling,  I thought. There would be no need to go back to work.


I left Apollo Bay, drove through the rainforest and headed for the Twelve Apostles. A bit like Ayers Rock, the Apostles have almost been photographed too much. So instead of taking my camera,  I just sat atop the cliffs and watched for a while. Time is the key to this ancient land. The most powerful thing it can give you is a sense of greater space and greater time. I think that is what the Twelve  Apostles are all about. They reach out to the horizon withstanding the wash of ages. They were made in a time long before ours. An epic time when the earth was formed. When rocks and cliffs and oceans were gods.


Aborigines have a much deeper sense of time. Eucalypts grow slowly,  some of them for 1000 years. Koalas eat slowly and sleep a lot. I took a leaf from the koala’s tree when I got to Warrnambool. I decided to wag a whole day, not just an hour. I rang up the local visitor information centre  and this time I asked for a plain quiet motel,  off the highway,  with no views,  a TV, and curtains that closed. They gave me an address in a few seconds.


I made the mistake of going for a walk before sunset and discovered that even a busy metropolis like Warrnambool has a spectacular beach, with cliffs, near the centre of town.  I had avoided going to see the laser light and sound show at Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village, but I couldn’t avoid the light show provided by the sun setting over the ocean.


Pick a beach facing south east along the Great Ocean Road and you’ll see a sunrise over the ocean. Pick a beach or cape facing south west and you’ll see the sun set over the sea.  If  you are inland, head to the top of one of the old volcanoes or the rim of a crater lake. Or just stop and watch it go down over farm fields catching the rusted iron of tin sheds and windmills. Sunsets are cliched but when you slow down with them,  they provide a backdrop for letting go. 


The next day,  instead of rushing off to see another spectacular  sight, I took the morning off and did some of the things I like to do at home. I read and wrote a little over a long slow breakfast. I wandered lazily into a few shops. I walked to the local art gallery. The Warrnambool Art Gallery has a number of epic landscapes by Australian masters depicting local scenes at Loch Ard Gorge and Tower Hill. It was intriguing to compare 100 year old paintings with scenes I had photographed. It was also a great way to see spectacular landscapes without driving around the countryside!


Warrnambool art gallery reminded me what a holiday is supposed to be all about. The practice of relaxation. Finding ways to get back in touch with the things you love. So you can be centred and calm when you go back to whatever  it is you have to go back to. 


It becomes easier to slow down the further you drive along the Great Ocean Road. If Port Fairy moves at walking pace,  Portland ambles. And the countryside around Portland stands as still as a cow in the shade on a hot day. At Cape Bridgewater,  with it’s ancient volcanic cape and sweeping white beaches,  you can forget about time altogether. 


But it is inland Australia where time moves slowest of all. “The coast is not as relaxing,” said Denise Bond of Terang. Most travellers take their time along the Great Ocean Road and then speed back to Melbourne via the inland highway.  But inland is where you start to get a sense of the oldest Australia. Chimneys standing without houses in paddocks. Old tin sheds, forgotten windmills and falling down farmhouses. There are fences made from stones cleared from paddocks 100 years ago. The light gets more golden over the suntanned fields.


Aboriginal history also lives in the country. There are Aboriginal cultural centres at Tower Hill and at Framlingham outside of Warrnambool and at Heywood and the Grampians. These turn offs will take you into a different world.


On the drier inland route,  turn offs at creeks and rivers often lead to swimming holes - deep pools in a creek ringed by gum trees,  shade and rocks. Australian oases. You usually have to ask a local to find them but every small town has one. I found one next to the highway at Panmure. It even had a diving board. Beautiful sweet water.


There are towns along the Princes Highway that have just one pub and a church.  All the houses are out in the bush or on farms. Mind you, when you think about it, a pub and a church are the only two essentials of civilisation. A place to sin and a place to redeem yourself…


Australian history lives in the country. Falling down like an old tin shed. In paddocks cleared to farm sheep and cattle.   In communities that still work the land and do things for themselves and not for tourists. I took one last turn off before I got back to Geelong and urban civilisation. The sign between Camperdown and Colac read “Purrumbete Homestead,  circa 1842”.


I drove up the tree lined avenue into another history of Australia. Purrumbete was the original home of the Manifold family, one of the richest early farming families of western Victoria. Their first house was built in 1842. There are murals of fights between the first Manifolds and Aborigines inside. The Manifolds built a renovated mansion in 1901 with some of the finest art nouveau panelling and wood carving to be found anywhere in Australia.


Purrumbete is now a luxury guesthouse by its own lake. New owner, Ann Magilton has spent two years restoring and renovating the property. She has done an immaculate job. Purrumbete is opulent without being over the top. Every bedroom has a different colour scheme and theme and all of them look like shot from early twentieth century Vogue. The top suite has a 1760 four poster bed brought out for the Duke of Edinburgh’s visit to Victoria in 1860. There are palatial entrance halls, reading and dining halls and 17 fireplaces in all.


That’s where my road trip ended because I decided to retire there. You’ll find me at Purrumbete one day writing my memoirs and various essays on how to see the best country in Australia without doing very much at all.




What the locals know...


Australia is so big that local residents usually make the best tour guides. So it will help travellers to know what locals do along the Great Ocean Road.


When the seas are calm, the fishing and diving boats go out. Boat charters can then take you close to the beaches or the cliffs around the Apostles. But when the seas are high, and the wind is off shore, the surf will be worth watching. Ask in a surf shop where the best local breaks are if you want to watch some big wave surfing.


When the wind is soft, the helicopters and the yachts are worth catching a ride on. When the wind is stiff, there is always a beach that is sheltered by high cliffs along the Great Ocean Road. Ask a local. When the wind is howling south west, you just find one of the many relaxing pubs along the road. Some of the most colourful pubs have joined forces under the banner, The Great South West Pub Trail.


When skies are blue there are a million things to do but there’s not much better than an outdoor barbecue. When skies are grey,  there is just as much to enjoy. The kangaroos at Anglesea Golf Club are just as sociable when skies are grey. Bush walking, bike riding and horse riding are easier when it’s a bit cooler. Along the Great Ocean Road, “bush walking” means walking by waterfalls, tree  fern glades and rock gardens.


Locals visit the markets on the foreshore every weekend at one town or another. And locals also know where the best secret lookouts are, the best secret rockpools and caves, and, of course, the best fishing, sunbaking and surfing spots.


Introduce yourself. Tell a local where you’re from. Use the highway turnouts if you’re driving slowly. And locals will gladly help you have the best time of all.

Published Great Ocean Road Magazine, Tourism Victoria

© 2004 andrew bock

© Copyright Andrew Bock 2010. All rights protected.