A mob of kangaroos grazes in a chilly pasture, then flees in front of an approaching pickup truck. The herd looks like a bunch of deer on pogo sticks.
The scene is unfolding outside the ecolodge window I’m peering from on this early winter morning in August. It’s my second day on Australia’s Great Ocean Road, a scenic highway that follows the coastline west of Melbourne for 151 miles through Victoria.
Admittedly, I harbor some skepticism of this legendary road, wondering how the GOR could possibly rival my favorite U.S. coastal drive: the long, winding, two-lane sections of California State Route 1.
These two drives are probably the only in the world that can claim the same mix: rugged scenery, some of Earth’s tallest trees, sea stacks of towering rock, and surfers.
But marsupial wildlife as prebreakfast comic relief? Well played, Australia.
Of course, I expected to encounter native flora and fauna on this road. What I hadn’t anticipated was how much I would also learn about local history and the refreshingly easygoing Aussies themselves, exemplified by my guide and travel companion, Geoff Reynolds.
We begin our Great Ocean Road explorations as most do, leaving the town of Geelong, about an hour outside of Melbourne, and heading westward through a commercial strip that looks like the outskirts of any U.S. city.
But beyond the generic lineup of McDonald’s, Domino’s, and KFC, something more intriguing appears: the sign for Narana Creations, displaying an Aboriginal-looking painting of a lizard.
Narana turns out to be a craft shop and Aboriginal community center. It’s a fitting first stop, dedicated to the people whose ancestors predated European arrivals by millennia.
Cultural interpreter Ian Kirby, of the Wathaurong tribe, pulls me away from an engrossing map showing the continent’s former tribal territories to demonstrate a didgeridoo. Then he takes us out back for boomerang practice.
“Hold it at the one o’clock position and get a wrist snap into the throw,” he counsels. My boomerang does come back—sort of. Like, over there. Better than Reynolds’s anyway, which whirls off at a right angle.
A bit later, in the town of Torquay—the official start of the designated highway—we get our first look at the circumpolar sea known as the Southern Ocean. At Bells Beach we pause to watch a few wet-suited surfers tackling some eight-foot waves, undeterred by 50-degree winter breezes.
The smooth two-lane GOR winds onward below green coastal hills, a far cry from the one-lane dirt road that first opened along this previously inaccessible coast.
Inspired by the early 20th-century growth of national park tourism in the United States, visionary Geelong mayor Howard Hitchcock championed the new highway. Construction started in 1919 as a project for soldiers newly returned from World War I. It took 13 years to complete and is dedicated to those who did not return. It is said to be the longest war memorial in the world.
At each scenic pull-off, of which there is an abundance, interpretive plaques share insights into area history and nature. One plaque urges protection for local hooded plovers. The visitors center at Erskine River portrays 50-plus species of local orchids.
Another, farther west, reads like a line from Jabberwocky: “southern brown bandicoots, short-beaked echidnas, swamp wallabies.” And how can you not love a bird called the superb fairy-wren?
I find I’m counting on him to be my window on Australian society. At our lunch stop, for instance, I pop into the restaurant’s restroom and encounter a cross-cultural mystery.
An advertisement posted on the wall catches my eye; the poster features a happy-looking bloke standing in front of some kind of carpentry project, urging me to join “the Australian Men’s Shed Association.”
“What’s a shed? Why an association?” I demand of Reynolds when I return to our table. He lights up: “Ah, the Shed!” and launches into a description of this apparently glorious institution.
Yes, it would indeed be in the backyard, and yes, you would work with power tools there. But that’s beside the point. “There’s a television, and several stools so your mates can come around and watch the game,” he says. “It’s got a refrigerator, and it holds only one thing: beer.”
Clearly this is the man cave raised to an exalted level. Funded by the federal government, chapters of the association organize work, health, and community projects—though Reynolds barely mentions this part.
Continuing westward, we enter an arm of the sprawling, amoeboid Great Otway National Park. The park is one reason that the roughly hundred-mile-wide Great Ocean Road corridor, from Torquay to the South Australia state line, is recognized as one of Australia’s 16 “national landscapes.”
Few, if any, other countries have so formally recognized that tourism depends on protecting the landscapes we visitors come to see. Case in point is Maits Rest rain forest walk, one of Reynolds’s favorite stops. “Never has it rained,” he maintains, “until now.”
A wooden walkway winds through an understory of tree ferns. Water drips from the fronds, from the myrtle beeches rising above, and—from far, far higher—towering mountain ash eucalypti, the world’s tallest flowering trees. The park protects much of Cape Otway, the southernmost point on the Great Ocean Road.
We drive out to the Otway Lighthouse, passing through woods of manna gum eucalypti largely denuded by koalas. Deforestation and other habitat loss in much of the koalas’ natural range have led to overpopulation inside this reserve. In one tree I count more than a dozen of them curled up asleep. It’s an infestation of fur balls.
Conservationists Shayne Neal and Lizzie Corke welcome us to their nearby Great Ocean Ecolodge. Guests around the dinner table include a couple from New Zealand and an esteemed economist from Austria.
After nightfall, Neal asks, “Want to see the gliders?” We pick our way over dark marshy ground to an outbuilding. Inside, illuminated only by soft red light, we see them.
Sugar gliders are the marsupial parallel to North America’s flying squirrels, only bigger and cuter, with huge eyes for night vision. The economist marvels as they willingly feed out of his hand.
The next morning, Otway park ranger Mick Cannon arrives in his truck to take me to the Great Ocean Walk, a trail that traces the coast for 57 miles. He’s picked a less traveled section on the east side of Cape Otway for our morning hike.
First, though, we have to contend with a big wallaby sitting squarely in the middle of the road to the trailhead. The animal stares at us, refusing to budge and forcing Cannon to squeeze the truck around it.
Once on foot, we file through red-barked trees. The ranger points out some carnivorous little sundew flowers at our feet, their blooms sprouting hairs tipped with a dot of sweet insect-trapping glue. Farther into the woods, yellowtail parrots poke around in the upper boughs.
After my walk, Reynolds and I stop for lunch at the Princetown General Store and Do Duck Inn café, where we find a counter and two or three customers. The place has all the formality of a bachelor’s living room.
One of the guys in charge takes our order and a few minutes later comes around the counter to present another customer with a sandwich, held in a pair of tongs. Reynolds finds this amusingly dainty. “Getting kind of toff here,” he teases, a typical gibe in anti-classist Australia.
He’s rewarded with a grin and some one-downmanship. “Yeah, I licked the tongs clean before I served ’im.”
The mighty sea stacks mislabeled the Twelve Apostles constitute what many consider the climax of a Great Ocean Road trip. I say mislabeled because there are only eight of them, Number Nine having fallen into the sea some time ago.
There were never 12; authorities adopted the name as a stronger tourism pull than the previous moniker, Sow and Piglets. Stacks of golden-layered limestone tower up to 15 stories high. Hacked out of the coast by the relentless surf, the massive Apostles attest to the power of the treacherous Shipwreck Coast.
One of the roughest sea passages in the world lies offshore, where ships have to “thread the needle” between Cape Otway and King Island. Storm waves can lift more than 50 feet high.
In the 19th century, this was the only practical way to reach Melbourne from Europe. At least 180 vessels failed. The most famous wreck provided one of Australia’s greatest rescue stories and gave its name to the Loch Ard Gorge in Port Campbell National Park. Reynolds and I gaze down at the gorge, watching tourists clamber up and down the stairs.
I wonder how many bother to learn the story: During a winter storm on June 1, 1878, the clipper Loch Ard, having departed from England, crashed on the rocks of nearby Muttonbird Island. Only one of the 54 on board, apprentice sailor Tom Pearce, managed to struggle to shelter, in this gorge. He then heard the cries of the only other survivor, Eva Carmichael, 19, clinging to wreckage at sea. Pearce plunged back into punishing surf against all odds to save her.
There was, you could say, a third survivor, made of porcelain. It awaits us just before the GOR enters Warrnambool, at the Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village. Next to this re-created cluster of 19th-century buildings, a maritime museum features a delicate four-foot-high ceramic peacock, now valued at some $4 million, rotating on a pedestal protected by invisible-beam alarms.
It had been headed for the 1880 Melbourne International Exhibition and miraculously remained intact amid the Loch Ard wreckage. Sites like this village will be packed come summer.
In Port Campbell, Reynolds had introduced me to John McInerney, a retired park director and tour leader. “Seventy percent of visitors come from Melbourne on day-trips,” he told me. That’s not long enough.
They need more experiences to be, as he calls it, “converted” to the region and its people. On this winter day, we’ve got the village almost to ourselves. I stroll past the Leadlight Emporium, the Clock and Instrument Repairer, the Undertaker (“funerals solemnly conducted”).
A fire burns in an empty pub. Just then, three musicians show up. This evening, they tell me, there will be sea chanteys and old Irish tunes. Alas, I’m out of time.
This piece, written by Jonathan B. Tourtellot, appeared in the August/September 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.