On September 19, 1919 Australian servicemen who had just returned from World War 1 began construction on a road along the rugged south coast of Victoria. The project would serve the dual purpose of providing a land route for areas previously only accessed via sea and, at the same time, offering employment to the soldiers who were able to build a lasting memorial for their comrades who fell on the battlefields of Europe. At 243 kilometres long, the stretch now known as the Great Ocean Road is the largest war memorial in the world.
Fast forward almost a century and I set myself the task of discovering what made the Great Ocean Road, well - great. Here in Australia we have many wonders with the title of "Great." The Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef in the world, the Great Australian Bight stretches along the south coast of the country and the Great Dividing Range follows the entire east coast of Australia. But what is it about the Great Ocean Road that should be held in the same company as these other amazing natural phenomena?
So I jumped into my hire car and set off to explore the region - starting from Warnambool and driving east. The official road actually starts just outside Warnambool at Allansford.
In many respects the first half of my drive, heading down towards the Great Otway National Park, is where the big ticket attractions are located. This is where visitors can admire the rock formations that sit effortlessly in the ocean. The most famous of these is the Twelve Apostles, limestone structures that rise 45 metres into the air. Many tourists take delight in counting the structures because in reality, there are no longer twelve standing, as five have been swallowed by the ocean. In July 2005 a 10-metre high Apostle famously collapsed.
But the route is much more than just the Twelve Apostles; there are many other rock formations that are equally impressive. I was genuinely in awe of the beauty of the Bay of Islands and found the Loch Ard Gorge astonishing. The gorge is named after a ship that ran aground with tragic consequences; only two people survived from the 54 on board. I walked down to the beach and across the top of the cliff to admire the Gorge from different angles.
As a piece of nice symmetry to balance the experience, I drove inland from the coastal cliff sights to the Otway Fly Treetop Adventures. This significant attraction, which was opened in 2003, gives eager enthusiasts the opportunity of admiring the terrain of the Great Otway National Park from the tree line. I had the choice of doing the 600 metre long tree top walk with its 47-metre high spiral tower and cantilever or the zip line tour. As fun as gliding through the forest would be, on this occasion, I opted for the walking option. This was a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend the first afternoon of my Great Ocean Road experience. Certainly the parents loved watching their kids fearlessly abseiling from the height of the tree top walk to the forest floor.
That night I stayed at the eco YHA in Apollo Bay, a location that boasts a beautiful arc-shaped beach. While at the hostel I took the opportunity to chat with the owner, Gilbert Brooks, who's been running the hostel with his wife Gay for the past five years.
"In mind the Great Ocean Road is great because of its spectacular coastline surrounded by National Park. It's the geography of it - there are not too many roads on the planet that hug the coastline for such a long distance; the road is literally on the edge. And also the exposed sandstone cliff faces are continually being eroded by the elements to expose fossils from prehistoric plants and animals that lived millions of years ago," said Gilbert.
"My favourite place on the Great Ocean Road is the Loch Ard Gorge. I love going to the Gorge when it's blowing a gale and I visualise that ship being thrust against the rocks in the middle of the night all those years ago and I think about those two people who survived the wreck - I imagine what it would have been like."
The Hostel itself opened in November 2005 and has impressive environmentally-friendly credentials that include a range of energy and water saving techniques.
"The hostel is a great place for travellers to meet other local and international travellers; to sit around the fire, share a glass of wine and perhaps a meal and chat about travel experiences. Our bedrooms are simple in design; so we actively encourage our guests not to stay in the bedroom but to get out and integrate with other guests. Our communal areas are very comfortable. Overall the building has a really good vibe," said Gilbert.
Indeed I enjoyed chatting with a group of friends who, for the past four years, have stayed at the Apollo Bay YHA over Christmas. But while I'd love to linger longer in Apollo Bay, I could hear the call of the ocean propelling my journey forward.
While the drive from Apollo Bay to the end of the official Great Ocean Road in Torquay, lacks the "big ticket" attractions, this section is incredibly scenic. The route hugs the coastline, dipping in and out of cute little bays and beaches.
As I was driving up from Wye River, I glanced into the ocean and noticed something bobbing in the waves. At that point, I wasn't quite sure what it was so I decided to pull over for a better look. At that moment, another marine animal jumped out of the water and then another. I was looking at dozens and dozens of dolphins frolicking in the ocean. For me, this is what made the Great Ocean Road great. Not the famous attractions, which are an integral part of the experience, but the unexpected sight of seeing these incredible animals playing joyfully just off the coast.