I always shake my head in disbelief when I hear of tourists planning to “do” the Great Ocean Road in a day. It is Australia’s most iconic road trip, taking in the dramatic rock formations of the southern coastline. The most famous of these is the Twelve Apostles.
Yes, it is possible to drive out of Melbourne down the Great Ocean Road, take a photo of the Twelve Apostles, then head back to Melbourne. You may have “ticked” a bucket list item on your travel itinerary. But it is simply not possible to see everything on the Great Ocean Road in less than two days driving. We’ve actually spent a week exploring in the past and have not seen everything. You’ve spent so much time and money getting here, do you really want to speed past some of the major sights along the way?
Some tourists only have one day available. If that’s the case, there are many excellent tour companies operating one day tours out of Melbourne. So if time is limited you are best to book an organised tour. They know the roads, the most important things to see and most importantly, the time factors to keep you on a tight schedule.
If you are planning to drive, however allow at least two days to give you time to explore everything along the way.
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Stretching 243 kilometres along the southern Victorian coastline, the road from Torquay to Warnambool and the South Australian border, WWI servicemen built the road as a memorial to those who had lost their lives. Construction began in 1919 and was finally completed in 1932.
The Great Ocean Road has since become a major Australian tourist attraction, with more than just the famous rock formations along the way.
See how the rock formations along the Great Ocean Road have changed over time
Heading out of Melbourne, you will first pass through the historic city of Geelong on the shores of Corio Bay. You could easily spend a day or two in Geelong exploring the pier, the history and all this town has to offer. Like these bollards around the bay, depicting the local football teams.
From Geelong you will head to the start of the Great Ocean Road at Torquay, and the popular holiday towns of Lorne and Anglesea. Torquay is best known for the famous “Bells Beach”, where surfing enthusiasts will certainly want to pay a visit.
Appollo Bay has always been one of our favourite stopovers on the Great Ocean Road. Not only for the serenity of camping by the Barham River and beautiful beaches, but also for it’s proximity for exploring the nearby Great Otway National Park.
Great Otway National Park
Located on the southernmost tip of Victoria, Cape Otway National Park is home to many species of Australian wildlife. Here you have the chance to see kangaroos, wallabies, echidnas, platypus, koalas, glow worms, birds, seals, penguins and even migrating Southern Right Whales.
It is also a place of great natural beauty. Rugged coastal beaches in the shadows of the Otway ranges. A number of boardwalks take you through temperate rainforests and cascading waterfalls of the National Park. Be still and listen to the birdsong echoing through the cool air and marvel at some of the largest trees in the country.
There are a number of more challenging bushwalks available for hiking enthusiasts. The 100 kilometre Great Ocean Walk from Apollo Bay to Port Campbell passes through the Park to the Twelve Apostles rock formations.
Cape Otway Lighthouse
The 1848 Cape Otway Lightstation perches on cliffs overlooking Bass Strait.Visitors can climb to the top of the 1848 lighthouse, visit the keepers quarters and telegraph station.
It is not until nearby Princetown that the rock formations begin. We’re not yet at the one that tourists take a “day tour” to get a selfie with and we could easily have taken three or four days out of Melbourne.
Parking at the 12 apostles, a two kilometre return walk along the Great Ocean Road Walk brings you to Gibson’s steps, where you can enjoy the scenery from the viewing platform. At low tide walk down the steps carved into the 70 metre cliff face onto the beach and appreciate the true magnitude of these formations. Looking closely, you will see our two sons walking along the beach on the bottom right of the photo to give you an indication of scale.
Gog and Magog aren’t considered to be part of the “12 Apostles”, but they are still truly magnificent natural rock formations.
London Bridge at Peterborough is one of the most popular tourist spots on the Great Ocean Road. The formation originally had a double arch that tourists could walk, and even drive across today at one stage. We took this photo around 1985.
However the inner arch collapsed suddenly in January 1990. Today you can view the formation and the colony of little penguins returning from their day’s fishing from one of the many safe viewing platforms. If you wish to see the little penguins, it is important to time your visit for later in the day. Another good reason why you can’t “do” the Great Ocean Road in a day. The photo below is how London Bridge looks today.
The Twelve Apostles are the formations visitors think of when they mention the Great Ocean Road. In fact there are now only seven apostles remaining. Like London Bridge, the very forces of nature which formed them over the millennia are now reclaiming them into the sea. We have been very fortunate to see many of these formations before they fell.
Originally known as the “Sow and Pigs”, the formation in the foreground tumbled into the ocean suddenly in July 2005. All that remains is the pile of rubble below.
The Twelve Apostles is the best spot to view little penguins at dusk, returning from a day’s fishing.
Loch Ard Gorge
The area around Loch Ard Gorge is one of the most dramatic and moving sections of the Great Ocean Road. Not just for the spectacular rock formations.
It has a sad history of shipwreck, notably the clipper ship Loch Ard which beached on Muttonbird Island in 1878. Only two of the 54 passengers survived. The area is also home to colonies of muttonbirds, who can be seen returning at dusk. Once again, we were fortunate to see the Island Arch at Loch Ard Gorge intact.
The Arch in this photo collapsed into the sea in June 2009. The waters looked calm and inviting on the day we took this shot, however they can be treacherous.
The area offers a number of coastal walks of just a few hundred metres to viewing platforms, to three kilometre walks along many marked trails.
A one kilometre walk along bitumen roadway brings you to the Thunder Cave, where you can hear the roar of the Southern Ocean as she erodes away the rocks below.
Port Campbell has always been another of our favourite stops along the Great Ocean Road. It provides a great base for exploring many of the coastal walks and scenery around the area. From here you can continue along the coastline to Warnambool and Port Fairy, known as one of Victoria’s prettiest coastal towns.
One of our family’s favourite places to visit along the Great Ocean Road was always Flagstaff Hill, the Maritime museum at Warnambool.
Having almost reached the South Australian border, you can either turn around and retrace your drive, continue along the dramatic Limestone Coast of South Australia, or head back slightly inland. Taking the “Limestone Loop” back to Adelaide brings you through vineyards, historic towns and the limestone caves and crater lakes in the region.
So if you are planning road trip along the Great Ocean Road, allow plenty of time to make the most of this spectacular part of the world.
The Great Ocean Road- then and now
Take the coastal drive from Sydney to Melbourne
Take the inland route from Sydney to Melbourne
Driving in Australia
Planning an Australian Road Trip
Driving inland from Port Fairy to Melbourne