No trip to Australia would be complete without cruising the Great Ocean Road. This 250-kilometer highway stretches along the southern tip of the continent and provides jaw-dropping views of the coast. Surf towns dot the shores, koalas slumber in eucalyptus forests, and centuries of erosion are evident on steep sandstone cliffs which culminate in the Twelve Apostles rock formations. So what’s the best way to experience the Great Ocean Road: self drive or tour? I opted for the latter for two reasons. First, I was nervous to drive on the opposite side of the road from what I’m used to. Second, I was pressed for time on my two-week Australian holiday yet wanted to see as much as possible. The Great Ocean Road Day Tour offered by Go West Tours sounded like the perfect fit.
The journey began bright and early in Melbourne. I met Go West’s small air-conditioned bus near my hotel at 7am and was soon joined by about 20 other passengers (most of whom were German retirees). The mood was subdued as we groggily left the city, but our outgoing tour guide, Alex, soon had us wide awake with his interesting trivia and cheesy jokes. Alex also had a penchant for playing songs that corresponded to our route, and at times the bus felt like a big karaoke party! We made our first stop around 8:30am to enjoy instant coffee and store-bought cake at a peaceful spot along Australia’s Surf Coast. The autumn weather was overcast and chilly, but that didn’t stop surfers from plying the waves. We had enough time to stroll along the beach and visit the toilets before continuing on our journey.
After pausing for photos by the sign marking the entrance to the Great Ocean Road, we drove to the town of Torquay for another toilet break. Torquay is where surfing began in Australia and is home to popular brands Rip Curl and Quicksilver. The town itself looked very charming and I wish we’d had more time to explore. Had I been driving, I would have lingered here awhile. But then I would likely have missed the eucalyptus grove our bus pulled into next. We spotted two wild koalas snoozing high up in the trees! Colorful birds also swooped in looking for food and attention.
Back on the bus, Alex circulated a menu and order form for our lunch, which was waiting at a Thai cafe in Apollo Bay when we rolled up at 1pm. We had just 45 minutes for lunch, so I appreciate that it was taken care of in advance, but would have preferred to sample fresh seafood at one of the town’s many other restaurants. As it was, most of us slurped down our serviceable noodles to spend the bulk of the allotted time exploring Apollo Bay. Nearly everyone arrived back at the bus with cups full of Dooley’s ice cream, an award-winning local brand.
As we pulled away from the coast, Alex cranked up the song from the Lion King (“In the jungle, the mighty jungle,”) signaling our next destination: Great Otway National Park. We strolled through Maits Rest, a lush primordial rain forest which Alex said was home to the world’s tallest trees after California Redwoods. Indeed, some were so large we could stand inside their trunks! I was most impressed, though, with the giant ferns that looked like they’d been growing since the Ice Age. We were warned (jokingly?) about flesh-eating snails, but everyone survived unscathed. The packed-earth walkways were slick with moisture, so sturdy shoes are recommended.
Then, with the Rocky theme song playing, we finally reached what we’d all been waiting for – the Twelve Apostles! The famous landmark is a grouping of limestone towers that have been shaped by eons of erosion. There use to be nine towers but one gave way to the crashing waves, so only eight remain standing. (They were dubbed “Twelve Apostles” as a marketing gimmick; Originally the rocks were called “Sow and Piglets.” I find that moniker much more charming.) Viewing platforms line the wind-swept cliffs so the formation can be admired from many different angles.
A short drive away, Gibson Steps lead down to the beach for a close-up view of two of the apostles. Take care, though. Several members of our tour group got a little too close and were drenched when they arrived back at the bus! It was an easy climb down the 86 steps, though they were a bit slippery. Alex said the staircase is often closed due to inclement weather and I certainly wouldn’t want to get caught there in a storm.
Our final stop of the day was Loch Ard Gorge. We were told that many shipwrecks have taken place in the rough water here. According to one story, two teenagers survived a wreck and miraculously washed ashore on the beach. Alex played “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic so we were expecting a great love story, but, alas, it was not to be. The rescued girl wasn’t interested in the boy and married someone else.
There are three well-marked walks on the cliffs around Loch Ard Gorge and we had enough time to complete them all. The landscape is constantly changing as the pounding waves take a toll on the crumbling rocks. Two of the current towers, nicknamed Tom and Eva in honor of the shipwreck survivors, use to be connected by an arch that recently collapsed. The power of the water is tremendous.
It was pitch dark on the ride back to Melbourne and the lack of street lights made me glad I wasn’t behind the wheel. At one point a kangaroo hopped across the road and our bus driver, Sue, barely managed to avoid hitting it! We stopped for dinner in a nondescript town with lots of fast food options and made it back to Melbourne around 9:30pm. It was a long, full day and we were exhausted by the end. If I’d had more time, self driving would have allowed for a much for relaxed pace. But we saw a ton in one day, Alex made the adventure fun and memorable, and I enjoyed the camaraderie of my bus mates. Would I recommend Go West Tours? Absolutely!
Would you prefer to take a tour or drive the Great Ocean Road yourself? Tell me in the comments!