If I had a top 5 list of things to do in Australia, The Great Ocean Road would make that list. I booked my tour with Go West Tours, it was a small group tour (about 18 people) and the tour bus had free wifi. I chose this tour over others because I wanted a small group tour and the free wifi sold me, traveling to another country for 3 weeks, free wifi for a day is a consideration, at least to me. This tour was one of the best day tours I have ever done in my life, due to a combination of a great group of people, great guide, good weather and beautiful sights.
The tour starts with local hotel pick ups, and then we head south and got a little bit of history and info about Melbourne, but not too much, it was pretty early in the morning. Our first stop was at Bells Beach, the home of surfing in Melbourne. If memory serves me, we were a good hour from the city. Depending on who you ask, Bells Beach is the start of the Great Ocean Road. If you ask a different person they may tell you that the Great Ocean Road starts further up at the Memorial Arch.
The history of the Great Ocean Road is not unique, but is still interesting. Towards the end of WWI the Great Ocean Road was conceived to help connect the sparsely populated coast and give jobs to returning servicemen. It was financed through private means during the post war depression, and after tolls collected paid off its debt, it was gifted back to the state. Today, it is a free and gorgeous ride, though it can be a bit touristy in spots.
Shortly after the Memorial Arch our tour stopped for morning tea. We stopped at a gorgeous beach/rock area and had tea with breads and enjoyed the amazing view. This stop was one of many and the a great occasion to get to know some fellow tour members. It was a very diverse group – American’s from Ohio and Las Vegas. A German in Australia on a working Visa and a dutchman on holiday. I liked the international flare and the fact that everyone I spoke to had traveled extensively. It could have been a fluke that this tour was so great, but the people really did make a difference.
We made another morning stop to see some local wildlife, Koalas and birds living in their natural habitat. The birds were pretty, but Koalas are animals that aren’t all that much more interesting in the wild. Since Koalas sleep like 18 hours a day and spend a lot of their awake time just hanging out in a tree, they’re not the most exciting animals. But there is always a different feeling when you see an animal living in the wild, versus in a habitat, not matter how well they are cared for.
The Great Ocean Road consists of many small towns, many of which are set up to host tourists and local vacationers. We did not stop in Lorne, but it was one of the biggest towns we passed. It’s also close enough to the start of the road that it’s an easy ride. But also far enough away that you feel like you are far from your regular life.
Apollo Bay was our lunch stop, and the lunch spot for most day tours. Aside from Port Campbell it is probably the biggest town in the area with lots of shops and restaurants. Our included lunch was from a Tai place (with choices to fit just about any tastes) and was delicious. We had the option of eating at the restaurant or taking our food in take away containers so we could see more of the town. I opted for a quick meal in the restaurant and had enough time to check out the beach and get an ice cream.
Of course what is a meal without a chance to burn off the calories? We did this with a short but refreshing walk through a rainforest. The walk was 15-30 minutes and easy enough for anyone who doesn’t suffer from a physical limitation – I wouldn’t recommend this for someone with walking issues. The walk was optional though, if you weren’t up to it you could stay back with the bus. But the walk was though beautiful landscapes with tall eucalyptus trees.
Our final stop of the day was in the Port Campbell area to see the 12 Apostles and London Bridge. I booked the helicopter ride, it was a bit expensive at $75 for a 10 minute ride. But, the 10 minute ride was enough time and the views were spectacular of the 12 Apostles and London Bridge. It was also an amazingly quick process. They had a safety video playing in the lobby, and then outside you stood in line waiting for space in a helicopter. While you waited the staff gave you instructions on how to get belted in, they helped but life vests on and then when it was your turn you boarded up and off you went. The process was so quick that in 45 minutes I took the helicopter ride, and took a quick walk down to see the 12 Apostles from the viewing platform.
As for the 12 Apostles, there are only currently 8 of them and they are basically limestone stacks created by erosion. I’ll be honest, I never figured out which of the stacks made up the 12 Apostles, but they were still pretty cool because they are quite tall and kinda funny shaped.
Further down the road we had a stop at Lord Ard Gorge. Here we had the option of walking down a tall steep set of steps and find ourselves on a really cool beach in a gorge. The shape of this little piece of land, with the ocean water rushing in was really cool and on this day serene. I could see the potential for this to be a volatile place to get stuck in a storm. Good thing it was the perfect weather day.
Finally we made it to London Bridge, the other one that also fell down. This is not the one from the song, but it’s resemblance (before falling down) to the one in London is how it got its name. On the helicopter we were told that when the bridge fell in 1990 that there was a couple on the far side that had to be rescued by helicopter. A helicopter that had to come from Melbourne.
I think our tour guide used a little touch of Australian story telling when he shared the story of the couple that was stuck on the far side after the collapse. His story is that a new helicopter came to rescue them, but the couple hid from them, forcing a rescue helicopter to come from Melbourne. When they were rescued they quietly slipped away and hid from the press. When they were eventually found it turned out they were on a romantic rendezvous. Both had called in sick for work, so they could have a romantic day together, away from their spouses. Opps. Like I said, I think that story is made up, but it certainly is more entertaining.
After London Bridge we headed back to Melbourne via back roads in the interest of time. We did have a dinner stop in a town with a variety of fast food restaurants. The only problem with this leg of the journey is that we were missing the beautiful views we had going out and because we were in pretty lightly populated areas, the wifi signal sucked. Owell, it had been pretty good for most of the trip and since everything else was amazing, I couldn’t complain.
As for whether you should do the Great Ocean Road as a tour or individually… If you can find a small group tour, the tour is worth it. While you lose a bit of flexibility, it is a long day (12-14 hours) and if it is warm, it can really exhaust you. Also, if you’re driving, you can’t concentrate on the views. If you are doing the drive independently, I would suggest an overnight in one of the the towns so you can properly enjoy the relaxing atmosphere of the area.