Camping the Great Ocean Road
by Kyle Johnson
Wednesday, June 29, 2016
An easy and affordable 4 day trip from Melbourne
Living in Melbourne on a working holiday visa, my partner and I are often looking for trips that we can do from the city. The Great Ocean Road is a must-see in Australia, so we set out to do it over 4 days, with a rental car and a tent. This was plenty of time to see the sights and hit all the tourist spots. In fact, 3 days would probably have been enough.
Contrary to our usual travel style, we decided not to book anything in advance, and just go with the flow. It is such a hot tourist spot that you can’t miss much, even if you don’t do any prior research. You just follow the one-lane road and signs, and take your pee breaks at Tourist Info Centers. They’ll provide you with maps and can quickly highlight the hot spots. Easy!
The majority of tourist sites along the Great Ocean Road are free – making this a very affordable trip. As budget travelers, we stayed in campgrounds, and opted to buy most of our food at grocery stores, with the exception of local treats such as the scallop pie. If you are driving a campervan and hoping to find public car parks to sleep for the night, you may be out of luck on this trip. We learned that some shires do not allow this and will heavily fine you. The Surf Coast Shire is one of these. However, paid campsites in the local holiday and RV parks typically only cost $25-40 per night. In total, our trip cost us $350 for 2 people.
DAY 1: Torquay to Kennett River
Torquay is a surfing town, birthplace of RipCurl and Quicksilver. But if you aren’t up for surfing, there are some nice sandy beaches and walking trails along the coast that you can follow. The Surf Coast Walk begins just east of Torquay and stretches west to Fairhaven, so you can park your car at any of the free car parks along the coast, and pick up the trail for any length that you’d like. We started our 1 hour walk at the Point Danger car park. We had originally hoped to do some snorkeling there, as the Point Danger Marine Sanctuary boasts some nice kelp forests and sting rays during low tide, but the water looked pretty rough. So we continued walking along Back Beach and then picked up the Surf Coast Walk which crosses Spring Creek on a nice boardwalk pathway. We continued to Rocky Point for some nice views before returning to the car.
Bells Beach is a renowned surfing beach, but only suitable for the experienced. So if you aren’t surfing, there really isn’t much to see. But if you have serious FOMO like myself, it is a relatively quick detour off the Great Ocean Road to check it out.
The visual of the Great Ocean Road that you likely have, winding along the coast, only begins just after Anglesea. If you are nervous about driving, have no fear – there are frequent pullovers on the road (heading west only), to allow for passing, as well as frequent signs reading “IN AUSTRALIA, WE DRIVE ON THE LEFT”…just in case you have somehow forgotten this crucial piece of information? There are also frequent lookouts for you to stop and take photos. However, driving can become a little difficult at sunset with the sun in your eyes and reflecting off the ocean spray.
Aireys Inlet is worth a stop to check out the beautiful sandy and violent beach, and to make the short walk up to the Split Point Lighthouse. Tours of the lighthouse can be arranged, but we just walked up to the base where there were some lookouts.
Teddy’s Lookout and Erskine Falls are a small detour from Lorne, and definitely worth stopping to see. Teddy’s Lookout is a 1 minute gum-scented walk from the car park to a nice view of the coast. You can take another short walk (100 m) down to a lower lookout, or continue along a longer trail. Erskine Falls offers a nice change of scenery after you’ve been staring at the coast for a few hours. It’s a green drive up to a car park, and a 2 minute trail to the upper lookout. You can continue down a massive set of stairs to the base of the falls for a much nicer view, and even hop across the river if the water level is low enough, to get right up to the base of the falls.
We ended our day at Kennett River Holiday Park, a relatively small RV Campground that has a population of koalas that live behind it! Regardless of whether or not you stay there, you can walk or drive up Grey River Road behind the park, and spot them in the trees. There is also a 30 minute forest walk that you can do at night to spot glow worms. Unfortunately we visited after some devastating fires, and this trail was closed. The Kennett River Holiday Park had a comfortable camp kitchen, BBQ, bathrooms and showers. If you are looking to do more classic camping, nestled in nature without such luxuries, there are campgrounds within the Great Otway National Park. Most must be booked and paid for in advance (usually $28/night and can accommodate up to 6 people), however, there are multiple free campgrounds that operate on a first come, first serve basis.
DAY 2: Apollo Bay to Port Campbell
After Apollo Bay, the Great Ocean Road wraps inland, first through green forested land and then through country side. Maits Rest is a beautiful 30 minute trail just off the highway, along winding boardwalks, through lush rainforest and under giant ferns.
The next turn off is for the Cape Otway Lightstation, which you must pay an entry fee to see. We decided to skip this, but still did the drive out to the lightstation, because it’s a popular drive to spot koalas. Tourists will be pulled over all along the road.
At Lavers Hill, you can take a detour along the C155 to go to the Otway Fly Treetop Adventures (paid activity), or to see Triplet Falls, Hopetoun Falls, or The Redwoods. Parks Victoria calls Triplet Falls one of the iconic sites within the Great Otway National Park, but we weren’t very impressed. Perhaps there just wasn’t enough water flow at the start of February when we visited, but with the heavy vegetation and the low flowing waterfalls, we didn’t see much at all. The trail was beautiful though, very similar to Maits Rest, except it involved a lot of stairs and included some history and artefacts related to the logging industry.
The Great Ocean Road will then meet back up with the coast. The next major stop is Gibson Steps, which are a MUST if you are able to do stairs. The steps lead down the sheer cliff to a beautiful sandy beach, where you will have a view of 2 Apostle-like rock formations. But these are not considered part of the Twelve Apostles.
Very nearby are the Twelve Apostles, themselves! There is a large car park, bathrooms, information centre, and a trail that crosses under the Great Ocean Road to multiple viewpoints of the rock structures and beautiful coastline. We caught them at sunset, when the cliffs glow yellow and mist lingers in the air.
After the Twelve Apostles, it was a little too late to stop and see Loch Ard Gorge, so we decided to leave it for the following day and stay in nearby Port Campbell for the night. We stayed at the Port Campbell Holiday Park, located in town, next to the Tourist Information centre. It had a very nice and large kitchen, as well as bathrooms, and other shared indoor spaces.
DAY 3: Port Campbell to Warrnambool
We decided to do the 12 Apostles Gourmet Trail on Day 3. So we started by backtracking along the Great Ocean Road to Princetown Road, which takes you inland to the various stops along the trail. On the way to Princetown Road, we stopped to see Loch Ard Gorge, which is a really beautiful area with an interesting coastline and history. It is easy to see what makes it part of the “Shipwreck Coast”. From the car park, there are nice and easy trails to various lookouts, as well as a gorgeous beach sheltered by rock walls on either side that you can walk down to.
We then decided to re-visit the Twelve Apostles, since it was on our way. It looked quite different at 11 am. Compared to our misty, romantic, sunset view the previous day, it was much brighter and clearer. We were glad that we took the 20 minutes to stop.
After turning onto Princetown Road, the Gourmet Trail took us approximately 2 hours to complete, but we only made 3 stops in between all of the countryside driving. It may not be worth doing if you are crunched for time, and don’t intend to buy anything. We stopped at Gorge Chocolates for a few little samples and to buy a tiny treat, then continued on to Apostle Whey Cheese where we participated in a free tasting session of their 12 cheeses. Then we hoped to stop at Newtons Ridge Winery but it was closed. Many of the places along the Gourmet Trail have seasonal hours, so if you are hoping to stop somewhere specific, it is best to confirm their hours. We continued to the town of Timboon to check out the Railway Shed Distillery. We had expected to see a real distillery in operation, but were disappointed to find that it was really more of a very stylish restaurant with some whiskey samples.
From Timboon, we returned to Port Campbell to join back with the Great Ocean Road. From here we made quick stops at The Arch, London Bridge, The Grotto, the Bay of Martyrs, the Bay of Islands, and Boat Bay. These were all worth stopping for, as they were all right beside the road and required very little walking…but after staring at the amazing coastline for 3 days, our stops started getting quicker and quicker. Plus, we were trying to make it for Cheeseworld in Allansford before its closing time at 5 pm. We made it just in time to try some of the samples and make a couple purchases at the store (very affordable cheeses!), but once again we had hoped to see an operating factory – which is not offered due to Health and Safety Regulations.
We then drove through Warrnambool to Kilarney to check out the Kilarney Beach Camping Reserve, which sounds beautiful and only costs $20 per night for a site. But upon arrival, we didn’t even need to get out of the car to realize that we didn’t want to stay there. The campground consisted of a cricket field and clubhouse in the middle, and RV sites surrounding the perimeter. Blaghk! Typically we wouldn’t care about the lack of luxury, but it was a rainy night, and we had been spoiled by having indoor camp kitchens. So we returned to Warrnambool, a sizeable city, where we grabbed some groceries and then pitched our tent at the Fig Tree Holiday Village. It was a comfortable campground with lovely owners, and we were lucky enough to spot a koala in a tree within the campground.
DAY 4: Back to Melbourne!
By Day 4 we ran out of things to do, because we didn’t care to continue any further west. However, worth a stop is Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve, which sits within an extinct volcano crater. From here, you can return to Melbourne via the Great Ocean Road, or take the inland route which will save you more than 2 hours of driving. Remember that if you chose to take the Great Ocean Road home, you won’t be able to pull over on the side of the road to let speedy people pass or to appreciate the view quite as easily as you did heading west. We chose the inland route, and broke up our drive home with a stop in Geelong. Depending on the day, you could stop for a tour at the Little Creatures Brewery.