2017-01-20 07:11:11
Frugal Traveler: Stunning Vistas and Wildlife Along Australia’s Great Ocean Road

I repeated it to myself as if it were a mantra: Stay on the left. Stay on the left.

But the thoughts continued: That’s not the turn signal, dummy! The turn signal is on the right-hand side; you just turned the wipers on. Remember, the transmission is on your left. Careful, here comes a roundabout! Stay on the left. Stay. On. The. Left.

It was an anxiety-ridden first 45 minutes, to say the least, from the time I picked up my rental car outside Melbourne Airport to when I settled in and relaxed, at least slightly. Driving in Australia, like driving in London or Hong Kong, means driving on the left-hand side of the road. And if you’ve never done it before, it can take a little bit of adjusting.

I was determined to make the effort, as this road trip had a particularly appealing payoff. I had just finished a whirlwind tour of Melbourne’s street art scene and had another day in town, and I was resolved to spend it on the Great Ocean Road, considered by many to be one of the world’s most beautiful scenic drives. Beginning in Torquay, a seaside town about 60 miles southwest of Melbourne, and ending in the town of Allansford, to the west, the road is 150 miles of winding coastline, towering cliffs, lush forests, fascinating wildlife and incredible views of southern Victoria.

The construction of the Great Ocean Road dates back to the end of World War I, when returning soldiers set to work on the project. The mayor of Geelong, about 14 miles north of Torquay, had set money aside for the project, which was intended to employ veterans and also commemorate those who had died in the war. Over a decade later, the route was finally completed, both a practical civic improvement and what may be the world’s largest World War I memorial, indelibly carved into the rocky coastline.

After leaving Torquay, the first contact with the ocean comes in the small town of Anglesea. A stiff wind and a small cloudburst caught my little Suzuki as I entered town, setting off my shaky nerves. I took a deep breath and reminded myself that I’d at least gotten the insurance on the rental car. The strong sun had re-emerged but the breeze took the edge off the heat, and the ocean air was sharp in my nose.

I grabbed a snack at the Oaks Bakery Cafe — a chunky prawn and scallop hand pie with a hot, flaky crust for 6.50 Australian dollars (about $4.85). In the parking lot, some friendly wild cockatoos were hanging around, scavenging for dropped food.

I parked on a dirt road near Seventh Avenue, a little ways from the center of Anglesea, and, from a cliff slightly above sea level, was treated to a beautiful view of the beach and ocean: cobalt blue in patches, sea foam green in others. I hiked down the hill through the bush, a small, forested patch called the Lorne Queenscliff Coastal Reserve, past native trees and shrubs of common heath, soft bush-pea and manna gum trees.

Oh, and flies. Everywhere. The flies in Australia are relentless. They’re far more brazen than the meek little house flies in the United States; Australian flies will land on your face again and again, requiring you to constantly wave them off. This continual shooing motion is sometimes called the Aussie salute. At one point I thought I was rid of my companions, but when I turned around and peeked at the back of my shirt, I saw about a dozen of them hitching a ride. You get used to it. But I recommend investing in some bug spray.

The flies eased up once I emerged from the shade of the trees and reached the beach. A long swath of sand greeted me, along with limpid ocean water and the sound of lapping waves. I was the only person on the beach. I was already satisfied with this day-trip, and I’d barely gotten started.

I was satisfied, too, with how I had started the trip — an important decision. There is a local airport outside Avalon, closer than Melbourne to the start of the Great Ocean Road, that I could have flown into (on Jetstar, an Australian low-cost airline) and rented a car. I also considered flying into Warrnambool Airport (Sharp Airlines services this airport regularly), near Allansford, and driving east instead of west, which would have meant renting a car one way and driving it to Melbourne. But the one-way rental would have cost around 200 dollars more.

I knew I had to come back to Melbourne Airport, since I was flying out of there early the next morning, so I rented a car near the airport through Sixt Rent a Car for 44 Australian dollars. The insurance policy (purely elective, but reassuring for those who have never driven on the left-hand side of the road — not purposely, anyway) brought the total to around 70 dollars. I ended up driving most of the Great Ocean Road in the Suzuki, then doubling back near Lavers Hill when it got dark and heading back to Melbourne.

Warned by periodic road signs reminding me to drive on the left in Australia, I continued from Anglesea down to Aireys Inlet, stopping to see the Split Point Lighthouse, a beautiful, massive white pillar against the blue sea. The lighthouse was constructed in 1891, after a slew of shipwrecks along the rocky coast. I passed on the tour, but there are guided (14 dollars) and self-guided (10 dollars) ones available.

I was feeling more comfortable behind the wheel by the time I arrived in Lorne, one of the towns to which the Great Ocean Road was intended to ease access. (I had set off the windshield wipers just once or twice in the previous hour or so, and had managed to parallel park with moderate success.) The drive was even becoming, dare I say, enjoyable: The constant twists and hairpin turns in the road made for a lot of fun.

I approached a bend in the road in Lorne, near three majestic conifers, and stopped at the imposing Grand Pacific Hotel, an 1870s landmark that was originally accessible only by sea. I had a cup of tea (4 dollars) and a white chocolate macadamia nut cookie (3 dollars). I recommend you do what I did: Take your tea up to the second floor and sit on the balcony. The panoramic views — even in an area with an embarrassment of visual riches — are fantastic.

A friend had tipped me off about the location of some wild koalas, so I made a beeline out of Lorne toward Kennett River, where there is a small park. An access road near the appropriately named Kafe Koala took me into a eucalyptus forest — just as a downpour began.

I had to move fast. I trudged up the muddy road, looking in the branches of the trees: nothing. After a bit more walking, I heard something: a frenetic grunt, a noise I imagined a warthog would make. I looked up, rain pelting my face, and saw two fuzzy gray shapes chasing each other up the trunk of a tree with light-colored bark. Koalas! And they seemed mad. They were spitting and hissing at each other, and making incredibly, well, un-cute noises. Once I noticed these koalas, I saw others everywhere. Perched in tree branches, snoozing, munching on eucalyptus leaves or chasing one another in playful and not-so-playful ways. (Koalas, incidentally, are suffering a horrible chlamydia outbreak. I still found them adorable.)

But it was time to get out of the rain. I zigzagged through a large group of cockatoos and brightly colored crimson rosella parrots and hopped back into the car. I was on high alert again on the road (and of course, when I tried to turn the windshield wipers on, I promptly turned on the turn signal). I had to pull over to let by a big truck that was riding my tail.

On the way toward Great Otway National Park, I recommend checking out a few of the many places to turn off and enjoy the scenery. Cape Patton Lookout Point is particularly awe-inspiring and bucolic, with sweeping views of both the ocean and the surrounding bush. And it’s not just views — access points to the beach are plentiful. I spent some quality time on the beach in Apollo Bay, approaching it from Gambier Street.

Much of what the Great Ocean Road has to offer is simply handed to travelers: Even just driving it, I couldn’t help but take in its beauty. A few things, though, are a bit more difficult to get to. Lighthouses abound in Victoria, and the Cape Otway Lightstation, the oldest working lighthouse in Australia — and “the most important,” according to the website — is worth going the extra mile.

The lighthouse is far south on the tip of Victoria — a detour from the main road through the national park. The environs changed quickly: I was chugging along amid beautiful ocean scenery when suddenly I was in a lush, emerald-green forest. Just as quickly, I was in dry, barren bush that looked almost apocalyptic. About seven miles after I turned off the main road, I made it to the Cape. And after a moderate hike, I was staring at the tiny, perfect lighthouse in the distance.

The area is particularly remote and isolated — I encountered only two other people on my detour. There’s a sense of immense calm about the place, and while it’s not the southernmost point in Australia, it feels just as distant. From that point on, for the rest of my drive along the Great Ocean Road, and back to Melbourne, I felt pretty much at ease. No more freak-outs, no more mistakes with the windshield wipers. Driving on the left wasn’t second nature, but I had definitely gotten the hang of it.