Although Australia may have its fair share of impressive roads, none are quite as impressive as the Great Ocean Road – a 243km ribbon of truly epic tarmac that hugs the Victorian Surf Coast and Shipwreck Coast known around the world as one of the very best driving roads our planet has to offer.
“It’s a classic sightseeing trip from Melbourne but there’s so much more to the road than just being a conduit for campervans and cars on the tourist trail,” is what Lonely Planet’s Epic Drives of the World book has to say about it, and I couldn’t agree more after taking a trip along it late last year in the sporty BMW X4 M40i while the tourist season was just kicking off, but before it really went into full swing.
While Maui Motorhomes, caravans, and Sunday driver types in rented SUVs do litter the road even at quieter times of the year, this flotsam is easily avoided as most will typically stop in at one of the many towns closer to the Melbourne-end of the road, while both times I’ve driven it myself I’ve been fortunate in getting a clear run for the faster latter half of the road on the Adelaide-end, which is where you can really feel out what your car is capable of.
But even with tourists dawdling at half the speed limit in front of you during the earlier stages of the drive, assuming you’re heading from Melbourne as I did, it does at least give you an opportunity to admire and savour the truly jaw-dropping coastlines that line this drive.
Although not the first time I had personally driven it, having done it once before on my P plates in what was then my parents’ Subaru Liberty, it was the first time all three of my passengers accompanying me had been, so there was still very much a sense of wonderment in the car at the breathtaking beauty you’ll encounter on this drive that certainly wasn’t lost on me despite knowing what I was in for.
Just as impressive as the scenery, however, is the history of the road and the story of why and how it was created, which traces back over 100 years now. At the end of World War I, the Great Ocean Road was built by 3000 returned Australian soldiers as a tribute to their fellow fighters who had fallen in the field.
Construction began in 1919 and the road was completed in 1932, at which point it became and still remains the largest war memorial in the world, with the road also being Australian National Heritage listed.
Beginning in the surf town of Torquay, the first leg running from there to Lorne that passes by Anglesea and Aireys Inlet is within such an accessible reach of Melbourne – it’ll take you around two hours to get to Lorne from the Melbourne CBD – that many urbanites may just duck down this far for a quick weekend getaway or an Instagram post from the Memorial Arch at Eastern View.
You’ll want to keep pressing on from here, however, as it’s not until after Lorne that the road really starts to get inspiring. Not only do the sea cliffs get taller and the mesmerising waves crash harder, but the road becomes a truly remarkable drive.
While the speed limit may not rise above 60km/h terribly often or for terribly long at this point, that’s quite frankly enough for the most part at this stage as tight corner after tight corner awaits you, with the angles only seeming to get sharper the more you push on.
It’s at this point the X4 did show why SUVs aren’t quite as good as, say, a wagon for this sort of drive, as while it’s firm M-tuned suspension may have helped it remain about as flat as you could hope for an SUV to through such bends, some minor-level carsickness was starting to be felt by all in this high-riding beast by the time we stopped for a breather and some supplies at a shop in Wye River.
If you’re wondering what was on the menu for lunch both days of this particular trip though, I have just three words for you – fish and chips. When you’re by the sea like this, it’s about the only thing that seems right to eat, and both days we got lucky with it tasting world-class at the two places we went two, which is certainly a good thing for impressionable tourists.
But while the coastal views from Torquay to Apollo Bay are pretty incredible, it’s once you’re past the latter that the road starts to get properly fun as far as I’m concerned. While the first half of the road is all about the scenery, the second half, particularly after you hook a necessary left at Lavers Hill, is all about the drive.
The road finally starts to open up with a proper triple-digit speed limit now posted, and although still just two lanes wide – one in each direction which the entire road is – the corners become longer, further apart, and properly cambered, allowing for you to carry max speed through all of them.
One buttock-clenching encounter with a tourist-driven rental that understeered around a corner aside, the road here may be at its fastest, but it’s also at its smoothest and easiest despite the high-speed corners, which was evidenced by all in the car – aside, of course, from a coffee-fuelled me behind the wheel – were asleep through this, the stretch I was pushing the rapid straight-six Beemer hardest through.
There’s one surprise, however, when you get to this stage, which is that on this, the Great Ocean Road, the sea itself is practically nowhere in sight from just past Apollo Bay until you’re at Princetown, with the exception of a quick glance of it at Castle Cove, with the scenery instead changing to dense forestry and fields of cows.
With some Tame Impala playing through the Harman Kardon stereo – finally, some music I actually enjoyed, with my friends having hijacked the Spotify account for the whole trip up to this point – and all others dozed off, the X4 and I were left to our own devices to devour the beautifully progressive stretch of tasty bends that led towards the biggest attraction of all – the Twelve Apostles.
A set of limestone stacks created by endless years of erosion that will eventually make the postcard icons disappear, the naming of the formation is something I’ve long taken issue with. While just seven stacks stand after the collapse of one in 2005 leaving only its base visible, which has led to me affectionately referring to them as the Seven-and-a-half Apostles, and just eight having stood at the time the name was officially given to them after being previously known as Pinnacles or the Sow and Piglets, it is likely many more than just the ‘original’ eight stood years ago, and as the soft limestone continues to erode, over time, all seven of those remaining will fall and the coastline itself here will eventually turn into new apostles.
A short drive later, you’ll arrive at Port Campbell, our overnight halt at which we stayed and enjoyed breakfast the next morning looking over the ocean in which nothing lay between us and Antarctica, before turning back around to head back to Melbourne – although, had we have chosen, we could have gone further in the opposite direction to Allansford, near Warrnambool, where the Great Ocean Road officially ends.
For travel fans and car enthusiasts alike, given a good cross section of both was sat in the big silver Beemer on this trip, there’s an awful lot to like about this marvellous road. Breathtaking views, remarkable natural wonders, and some inspiring corners through which to put your car and driving abilities to the test, this is a road you need to drive along at least once in your life. And for me personally, I can’t wait to go back and drive it for a third time having only just done it mere months ago.