Finally.  I've done it.  The Great Ocean Road between Torquay and Warrnambool.  Despite not making National Geographic's "Drives of a Lifetime", it has been on my list a very long time.  And having done many of those drives, this one definitely belongs on that list.

In some ways, yesterday's drive was meant to be my 40th birthday present to myself.  On several visits to Australia, I have wanted to do this drive, but the time wasn't there or I was too fatigued or there were other things to see and do.  The gift wasn't just that I got to see some of Australia's amazingly natural beauty; but also a small gift of independence.  Though I had read a lot about the Great Ocean Road in preparation for the drive, I had no pre-defined itinerary for the day.  I packed a small overnight bag on the thought of perhaps stopping along the drive for the evening and heading back to Melbourne in the morning, but in a very un-Ed approach, I did not book ahead anywhere.  It seemed that it was time to just let the road take me somewhere.

The rented Toyota Prius may not have been the ideal choice for the Road -- as many said, a convertible in spring or autumn would have been ideal; the driving had too many inclines for the electric side of the engine to be productive; the handling in the twists and turns wasn't exactly German sportscar.  But it was fun for a Prius to overtake the clueless 80 km/h drivers on the straightaways who had ignored the numerous signs to consider the traffic behind them.  What wasn't as fun was the lack of an MP3 input on this 2007 model; about half the drive was in a radio-free area, and it's been a long time since I packed CDs for a business trip.

It was an ideal Saturday for the drive.  Other than the famous Twelve Apostles, most sites along the route were very quiet.  West of Port Campbell, there were many times that I had the road to myself...so much so that I'll admit that at one point, I pulled away from a stop and started out on the "wrong" side of the roadway.  I quickly realized the error, but there was so little traffic that it was up to me to remind myself (well, there are those occasional "drive on the left in Australia" signs).  The only place I saw a crowd was the Apostles and during lunchtime in Apollo Bay -- where my lunch was a sandwich that was aptly called "The Legend".  Most of the rest of the drive, a "scenic lookout" would have three or four cars visiting at most; half the time, I had them to myself.  The drive was beautiful -- open plains and dairy farmland at times, lush rainforest-like canopy at others.  Sighting koalas in the trees at Cape Otway was pure fun; it was almost a game of "tag" whereby each new tourist who pulled up was helped with the koala sightings by those who were already there.

It is interesting how much marketing comes into play.  The Twelve Apostles was madness -- helicopters taking off every ten minutes, busloads of tourists schlepping their way to the lookouts -- but was hardly any more interesting than the Arch at Loch Ard Gorge or Eagle Rock.  On the other hand, the drive west of Port Campbell is hardly an "ocean road" -- it is so far inland that at times, I had no clue where the coastline actually was.  Yet the twisting, mountain-hugging sections away from the ocean that climbed steeply in altitude were worthwhile contributors to the character of the road.  They contributed to a bit of a queasy feeling, too, but the sights they brought were worth it.

I'm sure the road would be quite different in warmer weather -- it's not like I wanted to stop and hang out on the beach at any point along the way, which certainly would have changed the character of the drive.  In the end, that may be why I decided to turn back to Melbourne at Warrnambool.  First of all, I got into Warrnambool around 4 PM -- much earlier than I expected, and still light enough to see the whales at Logans Beach.  In my mind, I was going to get in two or three hours later, and then whale-watch and visit Port Fairy in the morning before heading back.  After seeing the whales, I tried to find something much harder -- a decent dinner.  The city centre had nothing to offer, I'm afraid; mostly takeaways.  The McDonald's seemed the busiest place in town (seriously - the queue was 30 people deep, and the McDrive had over a dozen cars).  I tried Google maps on the GPS, which found few "restaurants" in Warrnambool; the first one it took me to appeared to be closed.  The other factor that lead me to decide to head back to Melbourne was the accommodation choices.  Most were motor-hotel quality, and were on the A1 main route through town.  There didn't seem to be many of the oceanfront cottages that had dotted the Great Ocean Road, like the breathtaking properties near Apollo Bay.   (I found out about this place too late; perhaps because the tourist information centre was closed by the time I reached it).

I knew from my preparations not to expect much from the mostly two-lane A1 "Princes Highway".  But at nightfall, it was something quite different to be driving completely alone, without even a radio signal, between Warrnambool and Camperdown.  It was hard to believe it was only 6:30 PM, because it was pitch dark, desolate and deserted on the "main road".  I found myself almost frightened to pass an oncoming car in the darkness at 60 MPH; the frequent warnings to "powernap" if tired not exactly inspiring my confidence in my own level of drowsiness.  Even the few towns the A1 passed through were completely closed up for the night -- I think I saw a fish & chips place open in one of them.

I pulled back into Melbourne about 9:15 PM.  The Crown Casino complex (where I am staying) was wall-to-wall people.  I found a quiet spot at the noodle bar "Sho" to grab some dinner and then returned to my room to check out the photos taken along the way.  It was immensely validating to see some of these shots in full screen -- they really were as amazing as the drive itself had been.  I may only have had a day on the Great Ocean Road, but it was a spectacular one.  Take a look for yourself.


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