Being fifty-something, I love journeying back through time, revisiting places woven into my past. When I was in my late teens, the Great Ocean Road was a rite of passage: a destination for every newly licensed driver and a carload of their friends.
We lived (and still do) within an hour’s drive of the sweeping coastal road and iconic sights beyond such as the Twelve Apostles, London Bridge and Loch Ard Gorge.
Then, the road was uncrowded and undeveloped. You simply pulled off the side of the bitumen onto a patch of dirt for a cliff top view. No sprawling, bus-accommodating car parks. No under-the-road access tunnels or viewing platforms. At Loch Ard Gorge, there were no walking trails or interpretive signage; you just poked around the landforms, dipped your toes into the waves and learned the legends from teachers on school bus trips or friends who knew their stuff.
Fast-forward thirty-something years and I make a living writing the stories for the educational signage boards and travel guides. We often wander along the coast to enjoy lunch at beautiful Lorne. We’ve camped at Kennett River. Yet, it’s been thirty-something years since we’ve laid eyes on the Twelve Apostles or Loch Ard Gorge. And so, we decided to make a pilgrimage in the little camper van that could to spend a couple of days exploring the extraordinary coastline between Princetown and Peterborough.
It’s twelve months (almost to the day) since we took this little trip. Since then, so much has happened in the Great Ocean Road region: devastating bush fires last summer and, over the last couple of months, road closures after heavy rains.
It’s a natural environment; stuff’s going to happen.
Still, tourist operators are feeling the pain. Many would-be visitors perceive the Great Ocean Road as the central journey in the region and figure when it’s closed, travel comes to a halt. In fact, there are many alternative inland routes and ways to reach different points on the coast. The bonus is, you get to experience a different landscape and environment: perhaps a drive through ancient rainforests or lush farming land and tiny villages. With the peak summer season looming, it seems timely to share this little trek-tale now.
Our decision to travel is spontaneous, so we bundle our home fridge contents into the van’s bar fridge and head off mid-morning, planning to save some travel time by journeying inland on Highway One to Colac before heading south through the stunning Otways to the coast.
Our sights are set on Carlisle River, a tiny logging town in the Otways. We think we’ve found a free camp there but we’re soon moved along by a gentleman who claims to have the whole precinct booked out for a big birthday celebration. Turns out to be the best thing for us because we get to discover the Apostles Camping Park & Cabins at Princetown.
This gorgeous little park has a big view across the Gellibrand River. From your campsite, you can hear the Southern Ocean thundering. The campsites have hedgerow borders for extra privacy, and the facilities are great. Call into the pub just across the road for a beer with the locals or wander the river trail to see kangaroos grazing on the flats at dawn or dusk.
The breakfast view is stunning.
Next morning, we head off early to beat the tourist bus rush for the most popular sights, which begin just a few minutes drive away.
The Twelve Apostles are even more spectacular than we remember. Perhaps we have more context for their majesty now that our world view has been expanded by several decades of experience. A couple of the leviathan sandstone stacks have surrendered to the ocean and London Bridge no longer bridges. It’s a chance to reflect on the passage of time, natural evolution, change. To recall the day London Bridge collapsed.
It’s a natural environment; stuff’s going to happen.
Still, we fail at the famous Twelve Apostles selfie.
On to Loch Ard Gorge and the many other dramatic landforms along the coast.
The crowds are catching up with us so we push on for the road less travelled, beyond the better-known sights to the more remote Bay of Islands. It’s beautifully uncrowded and windswept and we could spend hours wandering the cliff trails and snapping pics.
We drag ourselves away and head to Peterborough where we book into the Great Ocean Road Tourist Park. We opt for a site “up the back” right on the river’s edge. It’s a big park with all the bells and whistles. The recreation room is bigger than any we’ve come across before and the ladies loos remind of those at an international airport … no queues here. Everything is clean and new and the staff are friendly. We ask and we receive … a fire pit on wheels that we push down to our site. We’ve brought along our own firewood and enjoy a lovely evening with a glass of red by the warm, crackling fire within earshot of the ocean waves crashing onto the beach beyond the dunes.
Come morning it’s time to head back towards home. We head inland, stopping at Timboon for a coffee before wending our way back through the rolling rural countryside that is the hinterland.
We’ve re-ticked a few things on the virtual bucket-list and found a couple of favourite camping spots worth revisiting. And we’ve reminded ourselves that places change and evolve and that rekindling a place memory from long ago can be a very satisfying pursuit.