There’s something magical about the beginning of a road trip. It’s that high that comes from leaving obligations behind and hitting the highway with the windows down and music blasting — when it’s just you, your friends and all the freedom of the endless open road. And let me tell you: of all the road trips I’ve been on, our recent adventure on the Great Ocean Road was one of the best. With two winding lanes that curl between crashing waves, lush orange cliffs and heartachingly scenic seaside towns, the Great Ocean Road was made for sublime road tripping.
We saw a lot of groups traveling the Great Ocean Road by tourbus, but for us, the luxuries of having our own vehicle and time to explore were everything. It’s also worth noting that if you start the trip in Torquay about an hour and a half outside of Melbourne (as opposed to in Warrnambool, the road’s western endpoint), you’ll be driving oceanside — meaning, of course, all the best views for your first impressions! Here’s what we explored during our three and a half days road tripping.
DAY 1: ON THE ROAD, RAINFORESTS & CAMPING WITH KOALAS
We left Melbourne early (well, by mid-morning at least!) and headed for Torquay in our minivan rental. Even though I’m lucky to wake up and fall asleep to bay views everyday from my St. Kilda apartment, my first glimpse of ocean still made me want to jump out of my seat. We spent our first day enjoying the drive and soaking in all of the crazy beautiful scenery, relishing our freedom to stop whereever and whenever we wanted. Still, we did make time to visit a couple of specific sights.
Part of Great Otway National Park, Mait’s Rest makes for an easy rainforest walk. Just under a kilometer long, its raised boardwalk loops around giant old trees and beautiful ferns, all perfect endless green. We were also pretty psyched to spot a cute little echidna curled up next to the trail — our first real wildlife spotting of the trip!
About an hour past Mait’s Rest is one of the Otways’ most popular attractions, Triplet Falls. The hour-long loop to the falls and back is just as impressive for its huge trees as it is for the cascades themselves.
Camping with Koalas
We spent our first couple of nights camping at Bimbi Park in Cape Otway, which promotes itself as the place to camp under koalas, and trust me — they are not kidding! We were blown away by how many koalas were sleeping in the trees around the campground (on our second night, there were even two mating above our tent!). Just outside of the campground (a few minutes before the entrance to our left), we also passed a field filled with dozens of kangaroos — we almost drove past them! For us, Cape Otway proved to be wildlife heaven.
Since we’re all living out of backpacks in Australia and didn’t want to invest inbuying or renting camping equipment, we threw together a definitely passable and kind of impressive makeshift campsite. With the help of gear borrowed from friends and seats that folded down in the van, we rotated sleeping between a tent, two hammocks and the van. For three days, it worked just fine. The campground’s awesome kitchen and bathroom facilities didn’t hurt either. For us, the campsite was all about campfire by night and koala-spotting by morning.
We did almost run into one little problem our first evening. After an accidental detour driving through farmland for an hour, we nearly ran out of gas. Ethan and Jake left to find gas that night, and when they returned they tricked us into believing that they had to push the minivan a little ways. It didn’t really happen, but we were close! Gas up, people.
DAY 2: PORT CAMPBELL NATIONAL PARK
After an early morning at the campground, we spent all of our second day exploring Port Campbell National Park. We got pretty lucky with our timing, too — almost everywhere we stopped, we seemed to just beat the crowds pouring from the tourbuses. In fact, with the exception of the Twelve Apostles, we had almost every site entirely or nearly to ourselves! This is what we saw.
The Twelve Apostles
For all it has to offer, Port Campbell National Park is best known for the Twelve Apostles (which weirdly only ever numbered nine, and since a collapse in 2005 have been eight). After an early morning at camp and quick stops at a lookout and general store, we started our day here. Honestly, I almost gasped at my first view of the giant rock pillars, limestone that has the ocean has gradually beaten down from caves to arches to tall columns; it completely exceeded my expectations. Still, after having explored the rest of the park, the Twelve Apostles felt like a warm-up — and while we missed Gibson Steps (which takes you down to the beach), I think the rest more than made up for it.
Thunder Cave & Thunder River
Easily one of my two favorite spots. Accessible from the same parking lot as the more popular Loch Ard Gorge, Thunder Cave and Thunder River were perfect for aimless exploring, all big skies and brush-swept red rock. The best part was the long beach where the river meets the ocean — I think I could have watched the huge waves crashing against that wide, lonely beach all day long. Having this to ourselves was hands down one of my favorite parts of the whole trip.
Loch Ard Gorge
Named for a shipwreck that spared only two teenaged survivors, Loch Ard Gorge is home to a beautiful stretch of beach. We spent our time here basking in the sun, playing in the cold waves and exploring the surrounding trails — a perfect mid-day break for some relaxing.
What struck me most about all of the attractions in Port Campbell National Park is that for me, the famous rock formations weren’t even the most impressive part. Again and again, it was the ocean that captivated me — the knowledge that the tremendously powerful waves I was watching had carved all of that massive orange rock, that the churning ocean was shaping those caves and arches and cliffs even as I stood there. I felt this especially strongly at the Arch, an incredible structure that paled in proportion to bright, endless ocean surrounding it.
The other of my two favorite stops, the Grotto is a sinkhole nestled within limestone caves. From the bottom of the steps, it feels like a portal looking out to the ocean. If the waves hadn’t gotten so big that they seemed about to swallow us, we might never have left our perches watching the water from inside the cave.
Bay of Islands
We made it to Bay of Islands just in time for sunset and shared the view with only a couple of other tourists. The rock formations here are impressive but much less visited than Twelve Apostles, and the view here sans the crowd was spectacular.
DAY 3: CUMBERLAND RIVER & TORQUAY
We spent the last day and a half of our trip relaxing and exploring a couple of the small seaside towns towards the eastern end of the Great Ocean Road, Lorne and Torquay.
In Torquay, we meant to watch the Rip Curl Pro at Bells Beach, but bad surf meant the competition was cancelled both mornings. Instead, we met friends for burgers at Bottle of Milk and enjoyed a lazy afternoon in the cute beer garden at Blackman’s Brewery next door. (I returned to Torquay to catch the surf competition with some friends a couple of days later and already have plans to return. I’ve fallen in love with this small world-surf-capital town!)
We stayed about 45 minutes away at Cumberland River, a holiday park just outside of Lorne recommended to us by a fellow camper at Bimbi. While the facilities and wildlife didn’t compare to Bimbi, the site is incredible. We spent our morning here exploring behind the campground to some small cascades, and while we didn’t see any more koalas, we did spot a wallaby hopping away from us on the trail! If our road trip had to end, then I’d say our beautiful little morning hike and lingering brunch in Lorne made for a perfect way to go out.
Notes for Visiting
Getting there: We rented our minivan from Y Not Rent A Car in St Kilda and have since used them again for a return trip to Torquay. Impressed by both the rates and easy, convenient service.
Staying there: I couldn’t have been happier with our stay at Bimbi Park in Cape Otway, an easy twenty minutes past Apollo Bay on the way to Port Campbell National Park. When my sister visits me in Australia next January, I definitely hope to return and explore the area more! While Cumberland River Holiday Park was stricter and less impressive in terms of facilities and wildlife, its location bounded by huge cliffs across from a beautiful surf beach is absolutely spectacular.
Costs: The minivan rental for four days cost about $370, plus a $200 deposit that you get back when you return the vehicle without any problems. We spent a total of $180 on gas, while the campgrounds ran us between $90 and $120 a night for unpowered sites. With a couple of random grocery and firewood costs thrown in the mix, our group of seven spent $135 each. While this doesn’t include any restaurant or alcohol costs, I was happily surprised by the relative cheapness of the trip.