CC Road Trips: The Great Ocean Road in Victoria, Australia

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It’s summertime in the Northern Hemisphere, and nothing says “summer” like a beautiful drive along the coast. In the summer of 2012, I had the pleasure of driving the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, one of the world’s most scenic roads.

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The Great Ocean Road is the world’s largest war memorial. Built by returned soldiers between 1919 and 1932, it was dedicated to those soldiers whose lives were lost during World War I. Australia’s population at the time was only a few million. Around 330,000 Australians went overseas to fight, and 60,000 of them never came back. Those that did return needed to work, and although many went back to their former occupations or took up farming, there were plenty still that required employment.

great ocean road constructionHistorical photos courtesy of Lorne Historical Society

The south-west coast of Victoria was accessible only by sea or rough tracks, so a road connecting these coastal towns would prove very useful. County Roads Board chairman William Calder proposed this grand plan for employing soldiers and linking isolated towns. Mayor of Geelong, Howard Hitchcock, agreed this could be a fitting memorial to Victoria’s fallen servicemen and also a lucrative tourist destination. Geelong, situated between Melbourne and the eastern terminus of this planned road, would benefit greatly from the new road.

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The Great Ocean Road Trust was formed in 1918 as a private company, sourcing funds from loans and donations totalling £81,000. Hitchcock himself contributed £3000 of personal money. The money would be repaid by charging drivers a toll and, once the funds were repaid, the Trust would donate the road to the state. The project provided work to 3,000 returned servicemen and it was often gruelling, with much of it done by pick and shovel. Several lives were lost during construction.

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In possibly the most Australian story ever, a steamboat ran aground in 1924 and had to jettison 500 barrels of beer and 120 cases of spirits. A two-week-long drinking break was had.

great ocean road historical photo

The road was opened in stages, but the entire course was completed in November 1932. Hitchcock, one of the road’s fiercest supporters, had sadly died just a few months prior and his car was driven behind the Governor’s in tribute. A memorial was also constructed in his honor. The road was officially handed over to the State Government in 1936.

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Measuring 151 miles long, the road is full of twists and turns. It runs alongside steep cliff faces, sandy beaches and rolling hills, through quaint towns and past extremely expensive real estate.

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Our rental Hyundai i30 (Elantra GT in North America) was a comfortable and quiet if unexciting companion. The latest Hyundais really impress with their feeling of solidity and refinement, although they lack the dynamism of, say, a Mazda. Australia also receives the mechanically related Elantra (we are one of the few markets to receive both European and American/Korean Hyundais) but the i30 is the bigger seller and is always in the top 10 best-sellers list. Only the Mazda3 and Toyota Corolla consistently outsell it.

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It wasn’t a loss to have such a sensible and unexciting car. Those expecting to rocket through the twisties on the Great Ocean Road would be disappointed, particularly during the summer months. Much like California’s Pacific Coast Highway, there is a lot of tourist traffic. This is apparent by the sheer number of signs dotted along the road reading, “In Australia, Drive On The Left.”

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This Memorial Arch is actually the fourth such arch constructed in this very spot. The first was part of the toll-gate and was demolished when the tolls were removed in 1936. The second was constructed in 1939 and weighed 50 tonnes, but the County Road Board deemed it a traffic hazard and called for its demolition. Public outcry spared it from destruction, but failed to spare it from a truck…

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The third arch was destroyed in the devastating Ash Wednesday bushfires of 1983, and finally a fourth arch was constructed which stands to this day and serves as a popular photo stop. It was a spectacularly sunny day when Brandon and I had our photo taken in front of it, so my pasty self is almost completely washed out.

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At points, the road snakes back away from the coast. It was at one of these less scenic sections of the road where we found ourselves stuck behind an elderly couple in a lime green Hyundai i20. With double white lines painted in the middle, we were not permitted to overtake them and soon it looked like a funeral procession as six more vehicles queued behind the little green hatchback. Once the road straightened, the poor old couple must have been surprised to see seven cars simultaneously overtaking them!

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The speed limit is quite low in parts, and given the road’s popularity and Australian police’s obsession with speed cameras, it’s best to stick to the speed limit. Of course, with such beautiful scenery along the drive, you needn’t be in a rush!

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Sometimes it’s as though you’re right on the beach.

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Other times, you’re driving inland. The scenery is still very pretty even when you’re not on the water.

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The water, though, is gorgeous.

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The various hills devoid of trees remind me of the Pacific Coast Highway.

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Even the man-made scenery can be interesting.

aireys inlet lighthouse

This is the lighthouse in the quaint town of Aireys Inlet.

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Some of this town’s residents are obviously quite wealthy.

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Here’s another view of the lighthouse. Nowadays, there are far fewer ships unloading on these shores so this lighthouse probably doesn’t get much use.

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It’s understandable why you would pay so much for a house here, miles from the nearest big city, when you take a look at the view.

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This beautiful building is the Grand Pacific Hotel in Lorne.

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There are sights to be seen off the road, as well. We pulled over at one of the small towns and found this fascinating pedestrian suspension bridge built over a tidal inlet.

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The beaches along the road are beautiful and pristine.

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The Twelve Apostles, limestone and sandstone rock formations just off the coast, are one of the most breathtaking sights along the road. We pulled over at this point to take a look, but the heat and humidity had attracted an obscene number of flies. We saw an older couple who came prepared: they wore beekeeper masks!

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The annoyance of swatting away flies quickly gives way when you cast your eyes upon these gorgeous rock formations.

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You can take the road all the way to its western terminus in Allansford, just near Warrnambool, but we peeled off at Port Campbell and took the inland route back to Melbourne. Once you get off the road, there are no more “Drive On The Left” reminders. So, try to remember!

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Surprisingly, Curbside Classics were sparse along the drive. It’s the perfect road for taking your classic convertible for a weekend cruise, after all. Much like the PCH, the majority of traffic consisted of new rental cars. However, I did spot this 1980s Toyota Crown. Like the conceptually similar Datsun/Nissan 280C/300C (Cedric), these weren’t very popular here.

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If you’re ever in Victoria, you simply must take a day trip along the Great Ocean Road. It’s not far from Melbourne (around an hour’s drive) and you can easily drive it in a day.

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If you do drive the Great Ocean Road, drive responsibly and enjoy the scenery. As us Aussies would say, “Don’t get done by a speed camera!”