In KP's tyre tracks
Midway through the 2010-11 Ashes, Kevin Pietersen was caught speeding by Australian police. He was hurtling along in a yellow Lamborghini that had been organised for him by Shane Warne (who is, unsurprisingly, an ambassador for the luxury sports car brand) and the story was lapped up by a bemused media. For beleaguered Australians, KP's downfall along the path of excess, following upon his imperious double-century in the Adelaide Test, was something to jeer about.
This gilded way of glut was actually the Great Ocean Road, the most stunning and easily accessible of Victoria's natural wonders. It's a winding, five- or six-hour drive past achingly beautiful cliffs, limitless surf, and fern-laden rainforest. Melbourne lacks the warm, languid beaches of Australia's other coastal cities but swell-battered rocks are - strangely - rich compensation. "Gorgeous drive!!" pronounced KP on Twitter which, like any attempt to describe the Great Ocean Road, does poor justice. Even the most grizzled Australian yobbo will try to extol its wonders, though, and implore you to visit.
It's not immediately apparent from the official website, but there are three distinct sections to the Great Ocean Road. The opening stretch winds along beaches, midway the road climbs inward through forest, and the final leg passes jagged cliff formations. Although the road can be treacherous and requires concentration from the driver, it's a fairly straightforward route and you won't get lost if you keep to the track. There are, however, several matters to keep in mind to make the most of a trip:
It's best to make the journey privately by car (Melbourne has a host of hire-car dealers). Tour buses are best avoided. Coaches mindlessly hurtle through to the Great Ocean Road's more well-documented sights and the company on board is often irksome.
It's also best to start early - preferably at dawn. By mid-morning the Great Ocean Road can be swamped with day-trippers. An early rise means the road can be travelled in its entirety at a leisurely pace.
Be careful swimming. The beaches along the way are visually superb but the waters are treacherous. If the beach is unpatrolled by lifeguards, do not go further out into the water than you can safely return from. Also, the sea is chilly at best. Even though it's broiling Australian summer, the road lies upon the Southern Ocean (which is the northern end of the Antarctic).
Getting there and the opening leg to Apollo Bay
Leaving Melbourne westward over the West Gate Bridge, getting to the Great Ocean Road is a fairly bland hour on the freeway. Follow the signs bypassing the city of Geelong to head straight to the town of Anglesea. From here, as road meets coast, an expansive vista of sea and blasted clifftops begins to reveal itself.
After the town of Lorne, the road enters its most sublime stretch, hugging the cliffs and skirting along beaches. This reach is to be enjoyed leisurely: stop at the lookouts, gaze upon the coastline and if an overzealous sports car scoots up behind (like Kevin Pietersen may have done) remain unfazed and let them go by. In addition to the magnificent drive, good short walks abound. The coast is scattered with shipwreck sites and wilderness spots among the hills. From Apollo Bay a stupidly wonderful half-hour return drive may be made up the Barham River Road through fields of Shetland ponies and gambolling stallions to the aptly named Paradise. From the Great Ocean Road, turn right on to Gambier Street at the end of town.
The hamlets that line the Great Ocean Road are a strange counter-balance to their stunning setting. Housing affable beach shacks and glass-plated designer weekender homes, a visitor's experience of one of these coastal towns is likely to be an overpriced yet underwhelming lunch. Most contain a visitor information centre, which is a useful place to collect a map, but it is nature that is the region's attraction, not its settlements.
The drive inland
Past Apollo Bay the road lurches inland and the sweeping coastal views give way to dense forest. This region of wooded mountains, the Otways, is an exploration on its own of rainforest and waterfalls. Without leaving the Great Ocean Road, a short walk can be made into the rainforest from the trail of Mait's Rest while a diversion down the Cape Otway Road guarantees sight of a koala. The road careers onward through the emerald Aire Valley and hilltop town of Lavers Hill before rejoining the coast.
The Twelve Apostles and epic cliff sights
The final stretch of the Great Ocean Road is broad and straight, with the view from a car less riveting than what has gone before. Hidden beneath the overhangs, though, are sheer bluffs and astounding rock formations, including the much-lauded Twelve Apostles, a collection of rock pillars set within crashing surf that provides the images that promote any tourist package of the region. A walk along the cliff-side boardwalk to behold the sight is marvellous but be prepared to share it with the masses. The rugged spectacle is diluted by parties of camera-wielders disgorged by buses. It's almost as much fun to study the strange gaggles of tourists as it is the rocks.
The road's final viewing site, the Bay of Islands, is another flabbergasting collection of sea-stranded, free-standing scrubby rock pillars, which is arguably as fantastic as the Twelve Apostles. Standing at the end of the road, though, it's comparatively little frequented. By this point the day will be starting to give way, and in the golden light the sight is ineffable.
After the Bay of Islands, the road draws away from the coast and from here the return should be made to Melbourne. Generally there isn't enough time to go back along the Great Ocean Road, so the journey leads inland. While the green fields of cattle and wide streets of country towns are by no means unpleasing, it's anticlimactic after the heady coastal sights. The Princes Highway is the most direct route back to Melbourne (a three-and-a-half-hour hour drive) although the more intrepid driver may like to detour through the Otways or by the volcanic Red Rock north of Colac, daylight permitting.
Dwelling upon the majesty one has witnessed along the Great Ocean Road, one may even like to spare a thought for KP and wonder whether the cricketer felt similarly elated in his galloping Lamborghini.
Benjamin Golby, a resident of Melbourne, is writing a thesis, "Music about Donald Bradman"