The Great Ocean Road

Monument and sign to the builders of the Great Ocean Road. Most of the workers were veterans of WWI.

What are the top drives you’ve taken? By that, I am referring to very scenic stretches of road where the journey is really the destination. On my current trip, I’ve only rented a car a few times, but in those few times, I’ve taken several spectacular road trips. The Hana Coast Road in Maui was certainly near the top. The west coast road on the South Island of New Zealand was pretty amazing. The drives up to the cedar groves on Yakushima Island very beautiful. Before my trip, I’d say that the most amazing drive I’ve ever taken was from LA to San Francisco along the Pacific Coast Highway, which I did back in March 2000. (I still think that the Pacific Coast Highway is the best drive I’ve ever taken. It is on my list of things to do again.)

The Great Ocean Road had received a lot of build up as I was sitting in Melbourne. Everyone I talked to told me how amazing it was and how it was the greatest stretch of road in the world. The “great” in Great Ocean Road is certainly merited, but I won’t go so far as to say it is the “greatest”. Probably a top five road.

The Twelve Apostles
The Twelve Apostles

What makes the Great Ocean Road so great are the erosional features you can see on the coast. The southern part of Victoria where the road is located on the coast of the Great Southern Ocean. (Ok, you won’t find the Antarctic Ocean on any maps, but it is often considered a body of water in its own right given the unique currents which exist around Antarctica.) The seas in the southern ocean are the roughest in the world and the cost of Southern Victoria is limestone.

The most noteworthy of these erosional features are the Twelve Apostles. As the cliffs are eroding, they do not erode in a uniform way. Depending on the angle the waves hit the shore, you can get inlets, coves and other formation which develop. The Twelve Apostles are limestone stacks where everything else has eroded around it. They are popular because you can see so many of the stacks next to one another in a single location. One reason why I don’t rate the Great Ocean Road higher on the list of all-time great drives is that the formations are sometimes difficult to see from the road. Had the visitor center sign not been on the road, I would have missed the twelve apostles entirely.

Inside the Loch Ard Gorge
Inside the Loch Ard Gorge

Near the Twelve Apostles is the Loch Ard Gorge, which is a small inlet and beach carved out into the rock. The gorge is named after a ship, the Loch Ard, which sank nearby in 1878. (there were a LOT of shipwrecks in this area). If it wasn’t so populated with tourists and the water so cold, the beach in Loch Ard Gorge would be a great beach. It is hidden and well protected from the wind. It reminds me of the green sand beach on the Big Island of Hawaii in some respects.

The other big name attraction in the region is the London Arch. It originally got its name because it had a resemblance to London Bridge (now located in Lake Havasu City, Arizona).

The London Arch
You can see the span where the London Bridge collapsed. After the collapse, it was renamed the London Arch.

The history of the London Arch over the last few decades is a good reminder of how geology, even though it usually acts slowly, is an ongoing process. Every day, every hour, every minute, the cost along the Great Ocean Road is slowly getting eroded. The base of the towers of the Twelve Apostles slowly become narrower and narrower until at some point, it will collapse in a dramatic fashion. One of the Twelve Apostle towers actually did collapse in 2005. Likewise, the London Arch was totally connected to the mainland back in 1990. On January 15, 1990, while several tourists were on the end of the rock formation, the span to the mainland collapsed, stranding two tourists on the rock. No one was harmed, but the two people stranded had to be evacuated by helicopter. (If you are American, take a look at the New Hampshire quarter sometime. The image on the quarter is of the Old Man of the Mountain. It doesn’t exist anymore. It collapsed in 2003. The quarter was released in 2000.)

There are many other formations to see along the route, not all of which had names (or at least not signs pointing out the names). If you are diving from Melbourne, it is possible to at least see the Twelve Apostles on a day trip if you leave early. The nearest city to the major formations is Port Campbell, which has small hotels, campgrounds and hostels.

Question for commenters: What is your favorite scenic drive?