Watching carefully for kangaroos, Mike weaved the car’s wheels through dense rainforest, past ocean-front communities and alongside a furious Southern Ocean. We were only a few kilometres into one of the world’s most stunning roads, but already I was gawking as the rounding of each new headland revealed scenes more astonishing and varied than the last.
“Are kangaroos a concern for motorists around here?”, I asked, only half-joking; having enjoyed my first face-to-face contact with Australia’s poster-boy only two days before, I wasn’t keen on the idea of going jumper-to-bumper with one. “Nah, not around this bit particularly, it’s wombats you wanna watch out for, especially at night. The tarmac stays warm after dark, they like that.”
Indeed, only two hundred metres past the timber arch signifying the start of the Great Ocean Road, a yellow sign warned of the danger of collision with the muscular marsupial. “That’s more for your safety than theirs”, Mike continued, “hit one of those fellas and your car’s a write-off.
About an hour’s drive south-west of Melbourne in the Australian state of Victoria, the Great Ocean Road is one of the world’s most stunning coastal drives. Running over 150 miles between the towns of Warrnambool and Torquay, the route isn’t just a pretty face of Aussie tourism; it’s also the world’s largest war memorial.
Opening up a stretch of coastline previously only accessible by ship or through dense bush, the project of building the road was an initiative by the local government to give jobs to unemployed servicemen returning from World War One. The road took twenty years to build and reached completion in 1932, when it was dedicated to the Australians who lost their lives during the conflict.
Back on the road, surfers were visible riding the foaming waves. Paddling into the path of a breaker, the boost of momentum propelled those who managed to get to their feet closer to our passing car. Others, evidently newer to the sport, remained on their bellies or disappeared under the surf, the only sign of their presence a tugging on the still-buoyant surfboard, secured by leash to a submerged leg.
The Great Ocean Road, when encountering a particularly exposed headland, pushes inland to avoid flirtation with the accelerated course of erosion. These brief diversions from the coast cut through dense rainforest, where the tightly packed trees form walls of timber; difficult to see through while negotiating the road’s snaking bends. Cars coming the other way will get only passing glimpses of oncoming traffic, a visibility problem solved by Australian road users through the flashing of headlamps and the blaring of horns, a method much preferred to the more reasonable alternative of slowing down.
After a further few hours driving and half of Presley’s back-catalogue (Mike was an aficionado to say the least), we arrived at the road’s most famous attraction: The Twelve Apostles. It’s little surprise that the full complement are no longer standing (only eight remain); bright yellow limestone stacks jutting skywards out of the raging ocean below, the features stand at over 45 metres in height. A tourist viewing platform at the eastern end was packed with day-trippers, despite our having encountered few signatory horns on the approach.
As the immense waves, unhindered over two thousand miles of open ocean from the Antarctic, crashed into the cliffs below, spray rocketed upwards to douse those posing for photos. Their poor timing leaving a more memorable moment for the mantelpiece.
The sun began to set behind the enormous rocks, casting a soft red light over the surrounding yellow cliffs, the limestone stacks and the unrelenting sea below; it was time to head back. Jumping into the car, turning ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ up a few notches and pointing in the direction of home, we made our way back down a route it would be difficult to forget, watching extra-carefully for wombats along the way.