Built in memory of those who fell during the First World War, the Great Ocean Road often gets missed out when travellers are planning their itinerary across Australia, perhaps because places such as Uluru and the Gold Coast are so much more well known and publicised. This is a shame, as the South-Western corner of the Victoria Coast from Nelson to Torquay - the surfing capital of Australia - is home to two National parks and is easily one of the world's most scenic coastal routes. Nowhere more than here is it so obvious that Australia focuses all it's energies on ecological tourism much more than building theme parks and nightlife destinations - suggest to an Australian that they should build anything near any sort of natural site and see how long it is before you find yourself hanging upside down from a lamp post. As a result of this national love for the environment, this is one place on Earth where you can still spend days without having to encounter another human being, just wandering through rainforests or visiting natural attractions - and I can't honestly think of a better reason to head for Australia. Tour guides and local information centres also appear to be overflowing with information on the history and ecology of Australia, which is refreshing to those of us who wish to learn about what we're seeing rather than just moving from place to place going "Wow" at regular intervals. Information plates can also be found sticking out of the ground at every site, not just containing a bit of information but almost the whole history of the area. In Britain it's often hard to find a shop where the salespeople know anything about any of the products they're selling, so to be able to ask a question and be given an in depth five minute explanation comes as quite a pleasant surprise.
Tours of the Great Ocean Road can be booked in either direction from Adelaide or Melbourne, and can be taken either on large coaches with groups of tourists or in the form of a more cosy four wheel drive tour. In 2003, Eloise and I booked a two day small group tour along the road and were driven from Adelaide to Melbourne in a six seat vehicle accompanied by just one other backpacker, a young lady called Sarah. Our guide also acted as driver, and would point things out as we drove along and stop off at every opportunity to give us a chance to hop out and take photos of the scenery or have a bite to eat at a small roadside diner. If at all possible, this is the way to explore the route, rather than as part of a large group where the guide has to spread his time among forty people. We stopped for the night at out of the way farm style accommodation rather than big hotels, and felt very much as though we were taking a trip with friends rather than a complete stranger and a guide who did this sort of thing all the time.
Along the way, the Great Ocean Road snakes through rainforest, past spectacular beaches and incredible rock formations - sometimes only feet from the edge of the cliff. At some point in the future, part of the cliff is going to fall away unexpectedly and take somebody with it, but that doesn't stop nature lovers flocking here to make the same road trip year after year. Careful and quiet visitors will even see Fairy Penguins and Seals basking on the beaches along the way, or perhaps even spot a whale tale rising from the waves far out to sea. The National Parks in South-West Victoria are also home to some of the last remaining colonies of the Rufous Bristlebird, an almost flightless bird which only continues to survive here because it makes it's home in the thick vegetation of the cliff tops where predators cannot reach it. Known for it's breathtaking scenery and such natural wonders as the Twelve Apostles and London Bridge, the Great Ocean Road is also a place of stories and legends - all of which are predictably heart warming and romantic as tales of shipwrecks and mysterious rock formations jutting from the ocean often are, but many of which have probably been altered over the years or just completely made up. Nevertheless, these stories create a mythology which brings visitors flocking to this part of the coast in their thousands, and anything that brings the wonders of nature to a wider audience can only be good in my view.
Our first stop along the road was in the Grampians National Park (sometimes in Australia, it's hard to know exactly where one National Park ends and the next begins) to walk the kilometre long path to one of it's most famous attractions, the Mackenzie Falls. The falls are probably one of the most photographed natural attractions in the park, and anybody visiting the Grampians and not coming away without at least one shot of the falls clearly hasn't done enough planning before setting out. The track leading to the falls is paved and well worn by the constant stomp of a thousand feet, but it's nothing if not steep - there are rest points along the way, which older visitors may well need to take advantage of, and the winding flight of wooden steps which leads down the edge of a rough jagged cliff at the end of the trail isn't for the faint hearted. There is another trail which is much gentler and leads to a viewing platform over the falls, but we hadn't come all this way just to wimp out and look at them from a distance. As you descend the steps at the end of the main trail, you can already feel a light spray from the falls and hear the roar of the water, and by the time you reach the bottom and cross a wooden footbridge onto the rocks at the base of the falls you've forgotten how much your feet are aching and just want to jump in, fully clothed, and swim. To be honest, I don't know if this would've been encouraged, or even allowed at all, as we didn't see anyone swimming - there were, however, a handful of people sitting around on the rocks or posing for photographs on the bridge with Mackenzie Falls in the background.
One of the things which makes Mackenzie Falls special is that it's one of those magical waterfalls where the sun manages to spill through the trees and fall into just the right spot to create an almost constant rainbow. I really can't emphasise enough how it feels to be able to stand at just the right point on the steps where they make their first turn to head up the cliff, and be so close to a rainbow that you feel as though you could reach out and touch it. One end of the arch disappears into the cascading water, the other falls a little distance away into the small lake at the bottom. Of course, as any scientist will tell you, the answer to the question of what a rainbow looks like from the other side is that there is no "other side" - light from the sun needs to bounce off the droplets of water in the air before reaching our eyes - so you have to stand with the sun behind you to see one. Some of the people on the rocks below, with the sun in front of them, clearly had no idea what we were getting excited about standing on the steps and reaching out to touch the air in front of us!
Making our way back to the vehicle was a b****. At least, on the way to the falls, you can walk with your body leaning slightly backward to stop yourself from tripping and rocketing forward down the slope at several hundred miles per hour - on the way back, this luxury is gone. For a start, you have to climb back up what seems like several hundred steps, each of which is just far enough above the last to ensure that all sweat is drained from your body by the time you reach the top. Then, there's the kilometre long steeply inclined trail to follow back to the car park - this time, in the wrong direction. You may well spend many a happy hour at the base of the falls, lazing around and taking advantage of the natural air conditioning formed by the drops of spray in the air and the shade of the trees lining the rocks, but unless you've come equipped with your own hot air balloon to carry you back up the cliff to the car park, you really are going to shag yourself out returning to your vehicle.
In early 2006, a forest fire in the Grampians National Park wiped out nearly fifty percent of its trees and left the region as a scorched wasteland which is only now starting to recover. This might sound like a terrible thing but many argue that forest fires are a necessary part of the circle of life for large wooded areas, as it is these fires which stimulate the germination and growth of many trees and allow seeds to take root which were previously unable to receive any light or heat from the sun because of the thick canopy above. Certainly, gum trees actually require fire to reproduce, and the ferns which litter the forest floor only produce their long seed stems which stretch upward in response to detection of heat - allowing the seeds to spread on the wind away from the fire and produce more widespread growth. Many land owners and farmers perform controlled burns in preference to allowing an accidental fire to get out of control - but it is nevertheless sad to watch on the news as large sections of forest burn out of control. When Eloise and I passed through, our guide was able to take us on a short walk along a thick tree lined path which looped through the forest, although even then we were shown areas which were scorched by previous smaller fires. At one point, the path brought us to the edge of a cliff where we were able to photograph another of the Grampian's tourist attractions - The so-called Balconies. Until recently, the Balconies were known as the Jaws of Death (the reason should be obvious from the photo) but this was changed because local officials felt that the name might be scaring away potential visitors. Personally, I don't know if I agree with this logic - for a start, it's possible to actually walk out onto the edge of the Jaws to have your photograph taken or to sit with your legs dangling over a very long drop to a very sudden death in the valley below, so I would hazard a guess that the sort of people who are going to traipse through a forest to the edge of a cliff to dice with death would probably not be put off by the name. At the time of our visit, however, we were told that visitors were not being allowed to walk out onto the jaws any more as the authorities were getting fed up with having to scrape people off of the rocks below, so we instead had to make do with walking out to an adjacent viewing platform and taking photos from there.
The view of the Grampians National Park stretching out below was simply spectacular - it was a perfectly clear day and we could see the hills and mountains stretching away into the distance, every inch of land covered in forest. From where we were standing at the Balconies viewing platform, the gigantic cliffs which towered over the trees below looked like tiny steps, although I knew perfectly well that there were expert mountain climbers scaling them at that very moment. It always restores just a little bit of my faith in human nature to see such a wide expanse of natural habitat, presumably teeming with wildlife, and know that it is all protected national park and that nobody can just walk into it and build a road. It's always something of a nightmare trying to get into Australia, or even crossing from one state to another, due to the seemingly ridiculous extremes they go to in order to ensure that nothing enters the country which might harm the flora or fauna, but when you stand up above it all and see how beautiful their country is, it suddenly all makes sense. I can't remember exactly where it was, but on one of our internal flights within Australia Eloise had a single apple buried at the bottom of her carry-on bag. There had been signs saying that we weren't allowed to have any fruit with us, but to be honest neither of us really thought that an apple would make any difference. We weren't coming from another country where apple diseases were virulent, after all - we were only effectively hopping over state lines, something which any pest would presumably be able to do on its own if it wanted to without having to get on a plane. Upon arriving at our destination, we were walking into the arrival hall from the plane when a dog came wandering casually over, put a paw on Eloise's bag and sat down obediently by her foot as though bored out of its skull. The customs official then waved his finger at us in a condescending way, confiscated the apple and tossed it into a nearby open topped bin labelled "prohibited organic products", which didn't exactly strike me as particularly designed to prevent creepy crawlies from climbing out should they wish to. I don't know what I had been expecting - a team of crack operatives from the local bio-hazard team to come swooping in dressed in spacesuits and hose down the bin with chemicals, perhaps. Personally, I think the customs guys just take the bin bag to the canteen at the end of the day and have a free lunch!
In the evening, we arrived at our stop for the night and found that we were staying at a small purpose built building on the outskirts of a farm. As the van arrived and turned into the drive, our guide jumped out and swung the large metal gate open so that we could drive through. We were greeted by a single sheep - we'll call her Dolly since I can't for the life of me remember what our guide said her name actually was - who seemed to be more of a pet to visitors than any part of the farm. By the time our van had driven through the gate and we had got out to close it again, Dolly was half way down the drive to freedom and we had to do our best sheepdog impression to get her back into the compound again. Eloise and Sarah immediately showed their empathy with animals, and Dolly was more than happy to be fussed over and petted by anyone willing to do so - so while the driver quickly came to the conclusion that he was pretty much on his own getting the bags out of the van, his three guests simply stood around making baby noises at his pet sheep!
It was hard to come to any other conclusion than that the converted barn style building in which we were staying was designed for the sole purpose of housing backpackers on their way along the Great Ocean Road. Inside, the front door opened onto a large kitchen area which was dominated by a table large enough to seat about fifteen people, and a corridor led off to a small toilet and shower room as well as five bedrooms containing bunks, single or double beds - so they were prepared for any type of visitor. In a cupboard in one corner of the kitchen were various board games and a pack of cards to keep us amused, and that was pretty much the limit of the facilities - but all we really wanted to do with the evening was sit around chatting with Sarah and the driver about our travels, making a fuss of Dolly the sheep, and getting an early night in preparation for the long day ahead of us. To be honest, I can't even remember what we ate - I'm guessing that the place wouldn't have been stocked up for our arrival, so we must've brought food with us from Adelaide. Probably baked beans. I do remember the evening passing very pleasantly, though, and thinking how nice it was to be staying on a farm away from the city and to be the only three people occupying a place designed with many more in mind. Our driver didn't stay with us - he obviously had a room booked at the Ritz or a nearby lady friend or something because, after our chat, he made sure we were settled in before vanishing into the night in the van and returning to collect us in the morning. We got out of bed and wandered bleary-eyed into the kitchen where we found him sitting at the table with a cup of tea reading the paper and waiting for us.
About Simon and Burfords Travels:
Simon Burford is a UK based travel writer. He will be re-publishing his travel blogs, chapters from his books and other miscellaneous rantings on these pages over the coming weeks and months, and the entry on this page may not necessarily reflect todays date.