The Great Ocean Road: Australia’s epic road trip

Great Ocean Road Memorial Arch in Melbourne Travel Guide

I wanted to end my time in Melbourne with a bang, so I decided to save the best for last and book myself on a tour of the Great Ocean Road. Below I left for Australia, a friend kindly made a list of recommendations for me. One of the things she said I cannot miss out on is a tour of the Great Ocean Road. It is perhaps one of the most beautiful coastal drives you could possibly imagine. When I arrived at my hostel I went to the rep and booked my tour. I arranged it for my last day in Melbourne so I could leave with a grand finale. 

Early Morning Pickups

It was an early start on my final day, with the pick-up time at an eye-watering hour. I was the only one at the bus stop when it pulled up to collect me. The bus rolled up with its tinted windows, the door sliding open only for a head to pop out and shout my name. I boarded and was greeted by a bus full of people in their mid twenties. They were either solo travellers like myself or in little groups.

It’s always awkward at first joining a tour but soon after I was chatting and making friends. The bus was buzzing with excitement, with everyone introducing themselves and swapping stories. This is my favourite part of travelling. You get a chance to learn from others about what places are worth visiting and what to avoid. But I also a chance to riff my stories off of others and gauge their reactions. I end up treating it as a warm-up act for when I get home. So I can tell a really good story instead of just shrugging and saying “yeah the weather was lovely” when asked if I had a nice time. 

Tour swapping

Shortly after though, we stopped at a hotel with another, identical bus, with the same tinted windows. The owner of the voice that had only briefly before to usher me onto the bus – was now standing at the front with a clipboard and scanning it. Instead of reading out a long list of names, he instead just said one: mine. I raised my hand in acknowledgement and he gave me one look before saying, “You’re going on that bus”.

Confused, I mumbled my goodbyes to my new friends and made my way to the new bus. As I boarded, I scanned the faces of my new tour mates. Gone were the youthful faces of the other bus and instead staring back at me was a bus packed full of couples who at the youngest were twice my age; the oldest, thrice. 

Coffee at Cafe La Hoot

Cafe La Hoot in Australia

By this stage, everyone was settled chatting with their partners or travel companions. So I made my way to the empty seat at the back of the bus. There was a Swedish girl back there who was about my age. I made my awkward hellos and got comfortable, and started to check my camera equipment. We began our drive to our first destination, a small cafe named ‘Cafe La Hoot’, where they would pick up our lunches and we could grab a coffee to wake up. Not being a fan of coffee myself, I picked up a hot chocolate. And of course its perfect pairing, a brownie as a snack for later on. 

Fowl-mouthed cockatoos and other wildlife

As soon as our guide started talking, I knew I had come into some good luck by being moved to this bus. His introduction story about the Great Ocean Road was to warn us about the cockatoo’s bad language. Supposedly; a local had trained their pet cockatoo to swear at visitors and door salesmen. However, one day it escaped and went to live with some wild cockatoos. Unfortunately, the tame bird was a bad influence on the wild ones. Before the locals knew it, a large populace of the cockatoos were ganging up and telling picnickers to f**k off whilst stealing their lunches. Unfortunately, the foul-mouthed fowls eluded me, but hopefully, I will return one day and find one. 

We were doing our tour in the reverse order to most, the idea being that it would be quieter and we’d avoid most of the other tourists who would be taking the more common route. As we made the long drive, our guide regaled us with facts about nature, offered wisdom such as “any tree is a lavatory”. My favourite moment was when he pointed out native wildlife like “the middle-aged man in lycra” when we passed a cyclist. He told us about the Blue Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster as we drove past, describing how they are for everything good and against everything bad. 

Loch Ard Gorge

Brad at Loch Ard Gorge in Australia on a tour of the Great Ocean Road

We made our way to the first stop of the day, Loch Ard Gorge. The gorge earned its name from a large clipper ship named the Loch Ard, which beached nearby in 1878. Tom Pearce, an apprentice; and Eva Carmichael, who was travelling with her family, were the only survivors. There’s even a lookout here named after the two survivors, where you can take in the fantastic views.

The Twelve Apostles

Twelve Apostles on the Great Ocean Road Travel Guide

Soon we were piling back aboard the bus to our next stop, the Twelve Apostles. This is usually saved as the grand finale on most tours. I can understand why as it’s an amazing memory to take away. I would really recommend doing the tour in reverse though. You really do gain the advantage of missing all of the crowds, just as our guide suggested. Whilst they are at the start of the Great Ocean Road admiring the sign, you are at the opposite end of the route, enjoying the scenery free of obstruction. Travelling as one big group means, consequently, all of the sites will be crowded for them. However, for me, I had nothing but clear views and no queues.

This entire area is fully decked out, so it’s easily accessible. There was also a gift shop which I loved, it was a tad stormy here; nevertheless, the water was still a beautiful blue. This was the only time I needed a waterproof in my entire month in Australia; luckily for me it soon passed. I had been hanging out with the Swedish girl as the couples had naturally stuck together. We used the gift shop to shelter from the rain; but soon, the clock ran out and we were ushered back on to the bus towards our next destination.

Melba Gully

Next, we were heading to Melba Gully. We pulled up at the entrance to a forest and were told to explore. Australia’s national parks always have very well-maintained paths, so there’s never a fear of getting lost. We meandered along various trails, stopping to admire the views or listen to the babble of the water. As you walk down Melba Gully we were told to head to Anne’s Cascade, a beautiful little route running alongside a river.

When you arrive, it’s incredibly peaceful watching the water flow back the way you just walked. It’s a perfect spot to sit and take a break before heading back. On the returning route, there is a steep path taking you up to the Big Tree. Unfortunately for me, they had decided to close the path for safety reasons, so I wasn’t able to explore. Nevertheless, I quite enjoyed taking the same path back. It gives you a different perspective, allowing you to see things in a new light.

Apollo Bay and Vegamite ice cream

After all this walking we were starting to get hungry. Luckily there was food at our next stop, Apollo Bay. Our guide had been talking about this spot all day; frankly, I think he was more excited here than anywhere else. He talked extensively about their Vegemite flavour and how everyone tried it. Our time here was really short, so it was recommended we grab our food and eat by the bus to move on ASAP.

Dooleys Vegemite Ice Cream Company in Australia

We practically ran to get the ice cream, with only a few among us opting not to have a taste. I grabbed a slice of pizza on the way and immediately headed to Dolloys Ice-Cream Parlor. Although the idea of Vegemite ice cream didn’t appeal to me, there was no way I wasn’t trying it. I’ll be completely honest, it’s actually rather good. I’m not sure I could have eaten a whole tub of it, but it was definitely something different to try. If you do the Great Ocean Road yourself, I urge you to stop off, put aside any reservations and give it a go. I found a few ice creameries on my travels across Australia that I rated, each perfecting their talent all the way from Queensland to Victoria. This came in really handy; after all nothing is more perfect in the hot weather than good ice cream.

Koala spotting

With just a few stops remaining, we arrived at Kennett River Walk. This spot is incredibly popular for koala spotting; in particular, there’s the Koala Sleeping Tree, which many koalas like to call their home. Koalas are generally solitary creatures, spending the majority of their lives in the heights of eucalyptus trees. This means that finding areas in which they live in large numbers is becoming increasingly rare. We arrived to see a flurry of colour; exotic birds have been known to gather under one of the trees near the cafe, where they even sell seed that you can feed to them. I went over to grab some photos, everyone was giggling in delight as the birds perched on the other visitors’ limbs and heads without fear.

There’s a beautiful hiking path here just behind the tree. We set off at a gentle space after feeding the birds, our necks craned upwards into the trees searching for koalas. The biggest giveaway one’s close is a group of excited tourists huddled beneath, pointing and whispering in hushed tones. Without that though they can be tricky to spot, their brown fur camouflaging perfectly in the canopy. The giveaway is often a small dark ball curled up. Seeing koalas in their natural habitat is incredible. But with issues such as lack of food sources and chlamydia, it’s becoming increasingly rare.

Viewpoint on the Great Ocean Road from the Kennett River Walk.

We decided to walk a little further up the path; the higher we climbed, the thinner the tree-line became. Offering us glimpses of the beautiful Southern Ocean and the Great Ocean Road itself. When we were completely out of the trees, we decided to stop and admire the view one last time, before heading reluctantly back to the bus. 

Memorial Arch: Entrance to the Great Ocean Road

Great Ocean Road Memorial Arch in Melbourne Travel Guide

It was time for our final stop of the day; or on most tours, the first. Having gone in reverse, we had now reached Memorial Arch, often known as the entrance to the Great Ocean Road. By this point, the afternoon was getting on. Although we had a few hours of daylight left, the first hints of sunset were starting to appear, bathing the arch in an orangey glow. The arch was constructed following the completion of the Great Ocean Road; it stands in honour of the 3000 soldiers who returned from WWI and built it. With construction starting in 1919, the 243-kilometre stretch of road was completed in 1932. Some soldiers lost their lives whilst it was being built, and now the road is a dedicated war memorial, making it the longest in the world.

Our Journey home

We took some photos by the arch, the couples all posing together. But soon, we had to start making our way back to Melbourne. We were in for a treat though; on our long drive home our driver pulled over by the edge of a field. As we leaned against the fence in the distance we could see a mob of wild kangaroos hopping. We watched in silence as they hopped out of sight. Getting back in the van, we were all clearly tired. As we set off on the final leg of our journey we passedby the Split Point Lighthouse. Our faithful guide stood up and decided that this was the right time to tell us the best way to cook Kangaroo. 

If you ever find yourself in Melbourne, you have to make time for the Great Ocean Road. It’s a day out with so much to offer, and one of the best road trips you can ever make. If you decide go with an organised tour, there are booking links below. But if you go on your own take the slow route and savour every moment.  

Great Ocean Road FAQs

How should I see the Great Ocean Road?

When it comes to it, you have two options to explore the Great Ocean Road. You can either rent a car; or fork out the money for a tour. I tend to prefer tours over doing it yourself, you get the knowledge of a local who can tell you about the history of a place. You also don’t have to worry about getting lost or missing out on something amazing, and you get the chance to meet new people. However, if you go solo you get to skip to exactly where you want to go. Allowing you to visit those locations at your own pace. At the end of the day, it’s very much a personal choice. Do what you think will allow you the most joy out of your experience.

How can I book a tour of the Great Ocean Road?

The easiest way to book a tour is with Get Your Guide. I have used them on many of my trips and the process is always so easy. They have plenty of options to choose from. I have set up a widget below so you can check availability, I always select the prices in the local currency when I can. Or you can click here and check out more tours. By booking through my widget or link you won’t be charged any extra but I may receive a small commission which helps support the blog.

Where should I make sure to visit?

There’s a lot to see on the Great Ocean Road. However whether you go with a tour or go alone, all trips should start and end with the Twelve Apostles and Memorial Arch. Of course I would always recommend lunch in Apollo Bay with a scoop of Vegemite Ice Cream for dessert.

How long does the Great Ocean Road take?

That’s an entirely personal choice, however if you are shot on time you can explore it in a day from Melbourne. That’s what I did and I managed to see so much. Of course if you are opting to drive yourself you can take it slower and spend more time enjoying each spot.

When is the best time of year to do the Great Ocean Road?

Summer months will often give you the best weather. But travelling in Spring or Autumn will mean less crowds. Travelling in shoulder seasons means you can still get great weather and its easier to get photos without other tourists.

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