Extending 285km along the southern coast of Victoria, the Great Ocean Road was constructed between 1919 and 1932 by returning veterans of the First World War as an employment scheme. Hacking their way through rugged bush-covered hillsides equipped with little more than picks and shovels, the men carved out a sinuous route that runs along the clifftops which bear the brunt of the southerly gales. Technically the road begins at the seaside resort of Torquay and ends at Warnambool, where it joins the Princes Highway. It was a three-hour run down to Torquay from Kyneton, skirting round Geelong (pronounced “Ja-long”) and a few small settlements on the way. Torquay was sunny but out of season – half the cafes in town were closed, but we found one that was open which seemed popular with retired people. In fact we were the youngest customers by around 30 years.They sat in the companionable silence of long familiarity while we murmured to each other in low voices over our flat whites, not wishing to disturb the general somnolence. Finishing our coffees we took a stroll down to the beach, which curved around a beautiful bay lined with Norfolk Pines. We were the only people on it. A fresh breeze raised small waves which rolled in and unfurled, the water a translucent turquoise in colour. Torquay appeared to consist of numerous surf shops and the occasional shopping mall, with several large building projects underway – presumably more surf shops. We decided to press on to Lorne, described as a popular holiday resort, and we headed along the coast in a golden afternoon sun. Away from the bay the ocean grew darker – a deep, abyssal blue with occasional whitecaps. It somehow conveyed vastness; this was no mere sea, but the great Southern Ocean – a sort of maritime never-never – where the world’s great oceans, the Indian, the Atlantic and the Pacific, merge into one, which in the latitudes beyond Tierra del Fuego and the southernmost outlying islands of of New Zealand, spans the globe uninterrupted by landfall.
The road was well-furnished with laybys and scenic viewpoints, and we pulled over repeatedly for photo opportunities. In the manner of these things, our stops became fewer the further we went, as one stunning scene after another revealed themselves around each successive headland. Occasionally we’d pass large studio flats on the hillsides which commanded spectacular views out to sea, all of which seemed to fit the same architectural template – a kind of Scandinavian modernism, glass-fronted and with abundant pillars. A short time after the resort of Angelsea fell behind us, Lorne itself appeared, not as the bustling tourist resort that I had anticipated, but as a rather sleepy seafront with a few pavement cafes, many of which were again shut for the low season. We parked up a hill off the main street and walked along the promenade looking for somewhere to get lunch. There were a couple of cafes blaring loud music to occasional customers who sat in ones and twos, but nowhere that seemed appealing. The Rough Guide had mentioned the Lorne Hotel – a large building at one end of the promenade – as being the best budget food in town, so we wandered in to have a look. Perhaps six or seven tables were occupied in a cavernous dining room, with an odd assortment of customers: elderly couples, a young family, and a couple of rather anxious-looking girls in harem pants and large backpacks who presumably also had a copy of the Rough Guide and had belatedly spotted the prices. Looking at the menu we found that most of the main courses were upwards of $25, far more than we would normally spend on lunch, so we decided to take our chances back along the promenade. It was fortunate that we did so – down at the opposite end of town we came across a few tables outside a burger bar called The Bottle of Milk. Burgers were around $13 each, and turned out to be some of the best burgers we’d ever had. In fact, bar a couple of mishaps (usually involving pies), the food has been consistently excellent here, and I can see why Victoria Tourism has gone for the gastronomic angle in its brochures – even a tiny cafe in some out of the way little town will have good food.
As we made our way further along the Great Ocean Road from Lorne we entered the Great Otway National Park, and the road cut inland for a while, passing through forests of wattle and eucalyptus. The landscape reminded me of New Zealand – perhaps the Norfolk Pines, that same coruscating light, and the subconscious knowledge of being beside a vast ocean. In fact the sense of deja vu was so strong that I felt obliged to comment upon it with monotonous regularity. We were making for Apollo Bay for the night, where we had booked a room at the YHA. This proclaimed itself to be an eco-lodge, so I was slightly wary, fearing lukewarm showers, nagging notices about recycling and compost toilets, but this proved to be unfounded. The hostel (or “host-ell” in Australian, as in “hotel”) was large, modern and well-furnished. A log fire crackled in the lounge, drawing the hostel’s few residents in to a convivial huddle around it. Able to accommodate upwards of 100 guests, that Monday night there were perhaps nine staying. A storm was brewing, and an unseasonably warm wind whipped up the main promenade as darkness fell, causing lamp posts to sway. The first two places listed in the Rough Guide turned out to be closed, but we found the Apollo fish bar open, with a solitary diner sitting beneath the fluorescent lights in front of a large television showing the sports news. I hadn’t yet tried fish and chips, having something of the coastal dweller’s prejudice about eating it inland, but here beside the sea I was happy to indulge. All the fish was different, however – there was nothing that I recognised from a British menu. Most popular seemed to be flake, used as a catch-all term in Australia to denote several small species of shark, such as the gummy shark. I wasn’t entirely happy about eating shark, so ordered the butterfish instead, which was very good. The chips, however… well, perhaps it’s a British preference for the kind of thick-cut soggy wedges dripping in oil that our chippies generally produce, but Australian chips all seem to be dry oven chips. Not impressed with the chips.
The YHA have a policy of not permitting the use of sleeping bags for hygiene reasons, but there’s no mention of patoos – my woollen Afghan blanket that has been to Afghanistan and back twice, and which I have become very attached to. The room came with sheets and duvet (or “doona”) and, despite being furnished with the breeze block style of decor, was very comfortable. A bed in a dorm cost around $23, a double was $90. It seemed good value, given the generally high cost of living here. In fact we were due to stay in three different YHA’s on the trip, and each of them were quite different, with Apollo Bay being modern and comfortable, Port Fairy being older but somehow having more character, and the Grampians being malodorous and generally ramshackle despite being a similar design to Apollo Bay. We sat in the lounge and exchanged travel stories with the other guests – a lady in her 50s from Michigan who was on a group tour of some sort, and who had found being alone on the Paris metro “terrifying”, a Canadian girl who had been doing sea turtle research in Japan, and a Singaporean chap who I found very difficult to understand, but who gave us a great tip for the next day by telling us about Mariner’s Point, a lookout high above the town which offered incredible views along the coast.
The next morning we set off again into another dazzling day – the storm had blown itself out in the night. After a short walk up the hill to Mariner’s Point we headed out along the road west. The coastline here is known as the Shipwreck Coast due to the high number of wrecks over the years – Cape Otway lighthouse, with its signature three white flashes every eighteen seconds, was often the first sight of Australia for many of the ships arriving from England after a four month voyage. Twelve kilometers down a winding road towards the ocean, past windswept heathland that looked like the Suffolk coast, we arrived at Cape Otway. There’s an old telegraph station which has been turned into a museum, an old Second World War radar post, and the lighthouse itself – built in the 1840s. It looks out over a deep ultramarine sea, set upon rugged cliffs against which the breakers roll in, booming and throwing clouds of white spray into the air. Ascending the spiral steps we met the lighthouse keeper, a woman with a strangely familiar accent. It turned out that she came from Leicestershire, but had moved to Victoria with her Australian husband a couple of years earlier. She was very enthusiastic about her new surroundings, and indeed it must have been a dramatic change from the English Midlands. I told her that there was a lighthouse which looked similar in my home town on the Suffolk coast, and she produced a lighthouse guide. Together we leafed through the pages until we found Southwold – date of construction, height, signature: one white flash every ten seconds – and there, standing in the turret of a lighthouse off the southern tip of Australia, I looked at a picture of Southwold lighthouse, and my grandmother’s flat just next to it.