A version of this article appeared in the South China Morning Post’s Post Magazine
There is only one way to see Australia. Actually, come to think of it there are several, but I’d recommend driving unless you can get a hold of a private plane, and even then you’d miss out on the spectacular minutiae of that stretch of coastline, an hour and a half south-west of Melbourne, that they call the Great Ocean Road.
They take their freedoms seriously, the Aussies, and there can be few greater freedoms than that of the open highway between Torquay, south of Geelong, and Warrnambool, 150 miles to the west. In consort with the coastal formations it skirts, the road soars and plunges, here winding along cliff tops and promontories that look out on to the Bass Strait and Southern Ocean, there dropping away from eucalyptus-covered hills to the edge of some deserted beach, now slicing inland through lush rainforest or gentle pastureland. And nary the sign of a speed camera.
If that’s not how they describe it in the books, then maybe they should hire me to write them. An ex-pat friend told me before I left Melbourne that the GOR wouldn’t seem “all that” if I’d driven round Scotland. I ignored him, called the blonde (well, she used to be blonde; since venturing to the Antipodes on a working holiday visa she has gone an indeterminate ginger colour) and told her I’d pick her up in an old MG. They gave me a Mitsubishi but she got in anyway.
And so we were off, the steel, glass and bohemian chic of Melbourne behind us, beforeus the promise of rock stacks and waterfalls, sea air and summer skies stretching out beyond an absent ozone layer, wildlife and woodlands and National Parks. Everything seemed to us amenable: well-kept roads; cheap fuel; Springsteen on the iPod.
But the Great Ocean Road is of that order of things that should give pause. It’s easy now to pitch up in a Winnebago, get a few snaps of the wife standing in front of some limestone cliffs then hit the road again; or to wander the beachfront at Lorne admiring the holiday homes that cluster the hillsides and think how perfectly genteel everything looks. How soon man forgets the travails of his ancestors, or the triumph of their genius. A century ago, these coastal communities and their idyllic surrounds were isolated and unattainable except via rough coach tracks through dense bush.
That all changed when civic-minded men decided to get up a fund to finance the building of a new road, partly as a way of ensuring soldiers returning from the First World War had employment, but also to serve as a permanent monument to Australians who had been killed in the conflict. The money was raised through private subscription and borrowing and was to be repaid by charging drivers a toll until the debt was cleared, after which the road would be gifted to the state.
Work began in August 1918 and was finally completed in 1932. The soldiers were paid 10 shillings and sixpence for eight hours’ work per day and lived in tents. They had access to a piano, a gramophone, games and newspapers and when, in 1924, a steamboat casino hit a reef near Cape Patton and had to jettison 500 barrels of beer and 120 cases of spirits, they obtained the cargo, laid down their tools and enjoyed an unscheduled two-week drinking holiday. It is sobering, however, to think of what they gave of themselves: construction was done by hand – using explosives, picks, shovels and wheelbarrows – and several men were killed on the job.
You would be pushed to think of a finer monument to the bravery and spirit of ordinary soldiers anywhere in the world, but surprisingly there is no museum about the road itself. What you will find is a museum about surfing at Torquay, and, at Warrambool, some rather lurid divertissements on the theme of shipwrecks. The treacherous stretch of coastline from Moonlight Head and Port Fairy, it is said, claimed more than 180 ships in the days before radar, but one wreck in particular, which gave its name to Loch Ard Gorge, seems to have spawned quite an industry all of its own, quite why I’m not sure. Shipwrecked, I learn, is “a multi-million dollar sound and laser show that brings to life the tragic story of the Loch Ard disaster in a uniquely entertaining presentation.” Gulp on that, all ye drowned folk.
Not far from the Loch Ard Gorge itself is perhaps the whole coastline’s most stupefying attraction. The Twelve Apostles are enormous limestone rock stacks created by erosion from the sea, the wind and the rain; one of them disappeared by the same method in 2005, leaving only eight – the other three never existed but who ever heard of the nine apostles? Centuries in the making, they are bits of the mainland that have become separated from it. Years from now, of course, the viewing areas and boardwalks on which visitors currently sport themselves – in their multitudes: it’s like stumbling on a religious convention in the desert – will also have become detached or washed away. The risk is worth running for now, though: brilliant yellow in the vapoury sunshine, the Apostles are like great gods of the sea; at sunrise or sunset, I’m told, they loom in towards you, dark and foreboding.
And if the car park and visitors’ centre feels like Times Square, the peace and tranquillity of nearby Port Campbell is little short of incredible. Where do they go, the busloads? Built around the comeliest of coves, hemmed in by two extruding headlands, the “port” is a place of changing light and quietude and its several decent restaurants and thriving fishing harbour belie its sense of remoteness. We spent a night there and I would have stayed longer but for the necessity of going back to Melbourne to visit more smug ex-pat friends.
Lorne, where we spent our other night on the road, and where – a few months earlier – the blonde fell head over heels for a surfer named Jesus – isn’t as sleepy, but nor is it Ayia Nappa. Jesus, I am told, was a very handsome man, and everything else about Lorne is immaculate, too; immaculate, but not in an unwelcoming way. An abundance of cafes and restaurants serve local seafood at reasonable prices and their hospitality generally extends to visitors in flip flops.
The coastline near Lorne may not be as sheer as the Shipwreck Coast, but it has its own lookouts on sandy bays and creeks spilling into coves and the glistening seas that stretch out to New Zealand and the Pacific in one direction, to Antarctica in the other. A detour a few miles inland brings you to Erskine Falls, a stunning 90ft waterfall set within ancient rainforest in Great Otway National Park. I was quite happy swimming in its plunge pool until the blonde started going on about snakes.
Besides Erskine Falls, Lorne and Torquay there is an Angelsea and a Peterborough on the Great Ocean Road, and a Portland. There is even a rock formation named after London Bridge. It may be a hackneyed observation that place names in Australia often refer back to somewhere in old Blighty; but after three days on the road I began to think my old chum in Melbourne might have had a point about there being echoes, not just of Scotland but of the whole British landscape: this part of Victoria seems almost like the British Isles in miniature, or at any rate an exaggerated, romanticised version of them, as though translated via the easel of a Constable or a Turner or a Horatio McCulloch. All of which is to say that, unlike many other great swathes of Australia, the Great Ocean Road throws up an astounding diversity of vivid, painterly landscapes: those rugged coasts, the wet pine forests and fern glades that might at some time have reminded settlers of the Highlands, and the verdant river estuaries and rolling hills that hit you foursquare with all the force of an English pastoral idyll.
Of course, there are crucial differences. Where in Britain can you go canoeing in search of that 100 million year-old egg-laying mammal the platypus – as tour guides will assist you in so doing on Lake Elizabeth, deep in the Otways – for example? Or eat in a winery restaurant, still far less drink decent wine from the cellars of its producers? But then not even the Aussies were doing that 30 years ago, never mind a century ago when the Great Ocean Road was still but a pipedream. Forget the ex-pats: the whole state of Victoria probably has a right to feel smug.