THE GREAT OCEAN ROAD LESS TRAVELLED

By Jennifer Stokes

 

Rounding the Irrewillipe bend towards Simpson, a yellowing, overgrown oval is hosting an afternoon’s cricket. There are no spectators in the withered bus stop like stand, only the odd passing car and a dog tethered to the temporarily defunct big sticks. As I drive further towards the southwest Victorian coastline, lush green pastures of grazing cattle and wind-bent trees replace the volcanic hills and stony rises of Colac, Camperdown and the further Western District. Milk-churn letterboxes whizz by the window, and long dusty driveways bordered by knots of vintage tractors and rusting ploughs weave between endless paddocks, ponds and coppices.

 

Inside it’s buoyant and warm, thanks to the free whisky and liqueur tastings on offer…”

 

Forty minutes from Colac, provided you don’t have to stop for a cattle crossing, sits Timboon, sunken into a cool wooded valley of earthy-smelling eucalypts. In the heart of the town is the popular Railway Shed Distillery. The car park is full from the lunch rush of Port Campbell buses and people eating their way along the 12 Apostles Gourmet Trail. Inside it’s buoyant and warm, thanks to the free whisky and liqueur tastings on offer, and the cagoule-clad tourists, greedily clutching shiny new Canons, are busily sipping lattes and licking liquorice ice-creams.

 

 

Great Ocean Road

 

Back in the car, with significantly lighter pockets and a back seat full of cheese and whisky, I ask Google to navigate me to the Boggy Creek Hotel, Curdievale. She gets confused. My hackneyed American accent gets her back on side and she compliantly guides me to my next watering hole.

 

It’s 3pm when I arrive. The Boggy Creek Hotel sign creaks on its hinges. I enter, cautiously, half expecting to be pitch-forked out of town in my sea green European car. Inside, the local footy tipping is still neatly marked on a whiteboard and a 1930s fridge set in the bar reliably chills the locals’ pot glasses. The familiar smell of stale beer and cigarettes lingers in the well-trodden carpet. I drink down my respectable house red, wishing I still smoked, as a giant flat screen booms out David Warner’s double tonne highlights to an empty snug. It’s the barman’s brother’s 21st here next weekend.

 

Great Ocean Road

 

 

Driving ever deeper into the horizon, the landscape flattens and grows bleak. Tree barks are greying and gnarled, and the wind picks up over the flat grassy plains. Wedge-tailed eagles dip into paddocks circling effortlessly upwards on warmer air currents, and giant black crows croakily guard fence posts and road carrion. Rain beats heavily out of a thick purple sky as I approach Port Campbell. I stop to buy an obligatory ice-cream, and eat it in the car in front of the near-empty foreshore, before continuing east. The road southwest weaves busily with mini vans filled with tired tourists who left Melbourne early that morning to beat the bottleneck of sightseers.

 

A few hundred yards north of the Twelve Apostles I stop off at Gibson Steps. The narrow stone stairs, once a precarious vertical mud path, lead down the limestone cliffs to a glistening caramel beach. Alone beneath the awesome majesty of these striped giants, the cold salty breeze and thrashing ocean are somehow both peaceful and frightening. The rain pelts and the frothy surf is lapping at my wet shoes. I turn my back on the ocean only to heave myself back up the steps to the warmth of the car.

 

Great Ocean Road

 

 

Back on the road and the sun appears out of nowhere. I want to make one final stop before heading to Bimbi Park, where I’ll be staying overnight. About forty minutes southeast of Port Campbell is Johanna Beach, famed for its surf when the rest of the coast is pancake flat. I turn left onto Blue Johanna Road, up a steep incline and along skiddy, gravelled tracks dotted with holiday lets and sheep paddocks. The sun gently eases over the dunes as I pull up to the beach. The air is clean and fresh, whipping up the wiry brush on the headlands. Waves smash into each other and collapse onto the shore at my feet, and the sky is wild and heavenly like an Oceanian Turner painting. A local fisherman has his rod dug into the sand and is lying on the beach just staring out at the sea.

 

It’s another short drive to Bimbi Park, through the wet green flood plains of Glenaire and the straight, bark-dripping rainforest trees of Cape Otway National Park. I collect my keys from the office and head to my meagre caravan accommodation. It’s musty but it’s clean and comes with the basic stovetop, fridge, bed and crockery. Leaving my wet sandy Allstars on the veranda to dry out, I uncork the whisky, tuck into my Timboon cheese board, and read until it’s dark. There’s no phone reception down here, no radio, no TV, and only a sparse shop stocked with tins, lollies and camping essentials. As I tuck into bed the sweet smell of wood smoke from various campfires drifts in through the open window, and koalas prowl the scrub, growling like demonic bunyips haunting sleeping children.

 

Great Ocean Road

 

 

I’m up with the magpies at six. My shoes are still damp so I chuck them at the back seat. The roads are empty as the sun rises through the Otway treetops. Koalas saunter across the road, fearlessly stopping to look at you as you approach them head on. A couple of black wallabies hop stiffly through the scrub, darting ghoulishly between the bushes as I steadily climb through the dense mountains. It’s not long before Apollo Bay emerges through the trees. Its crystal calm waters bathed in a sunny halo welcome me down onto the promenade. The cyclists, dog walkers and surfers are up, but it’s still peacefully unpopulated. I stop briefly for a takeaway coffee, and an egg and bacon roll before heading back northwest through the Otways towards Melbourne.

 

Facebook updates and the inevitable lure of Monday morning.”

 

I savour the last vestige of fresh air and countryside between Barwon Downs and Winchelsea, taking in the sweeping fields and provincial streams. A Garth Brooks number crackles through the radio, trying desperately not to give out. In just under an hour I’m back on the Princes Highway amongst the traffic towards Geelong, back to smooth roads, Facebook updates and the inevitable lure of Monday morning. I wiggle my toes and feel a few gritty grains of sand still between them.

Jennifer is a freelance arts and opinion writer living in Coburg. Originally from the UK, she enjoys reading and travel, and believes you can never drink too many cups of tea.

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