We flew from Christchurch to Melbourne feeling sad to be leaving New Zealand after three fabulous months, however it was time to explore Australia. Unfortunately this is a devastating time with a huge part of the country under siege with out of control bush fires. It is heartbreaking for the many people affected by these events. We are hopeful we can continue with our planned Australian itinerary over the next 6 months.
Flying into Melbourne we began to smell the smoke as we descended through the haze into the city. Upon landing visibility was very limited due to a combination of low rain clouds and smoke haze. We picked up our car and drove out of Melbourne, spending the night at Waybourne Vineyards, before continuing the drive on to Port Campbell. There are two routes to Port Campbell, the inland highway taking 2.5 hours, or the incredibly scenic Great Ocean Road taking 3.5 hours. We took the long route because that’s why we are here, to see the world famous coastline. The Great Ocean Road is one of the world’s most scenic drives spanning 400 km (249 miles) of the South Australia coastline. Port Campbell is situated on the Great Ocean Road, where we spent one week exploring the coast and inland towns. We had pretty good weather for most of the week, only one rainy day and the occasional smoke haze.
Our first day was sunny with light cloud so we headed out to a few nearby viewpoints. Driving west we visited The Arch, London Bridge, The Grotto, the Bay of Martyrs and the Bay of Islands. Each one offering breathtaking views of the spectacular coastline. The constant erosion of the limestone cliffs, beginning 20 million years ago, by the stormy southern ocean and blasting winds, gradually erodes the soft limestone creating caves in the cliffs. Eventually the caves become arches and as they collapse isolated rock stacks are left standing in the ocean. Eventually they too will be eroded until they are claimed by the sea. We found much of the coastline similar in appearance to The Algarve in Portugal, one of our favorite places to visit.
We read that one of the best times to visit the 12 Apostles was early in the day, for nice lighting and to beat the crowds, so off we went at 7:30 am one fine day. The visitor center is only 15 minutes from our Airbnb and when we arrived there was a haze all along the coast, possibly early morning fog or smoke from the fires, I am guessing partly smoke by the slightly darker color.
We wandered around the 12 Apostles viewing platforms then walked along the top of the cliffs to Gibson Steps. Here you can descend to the beach below and experience the crashing waves close up. Down at sea level you realize how big the waves are. After our beach visit we walked a little further along the clifftop pathway but had to turn around with the black flies becoming unbearable. I think we need a net covering our head and face!! Reaching out to our online friends for advice it seems these very annoying flies are common during the summer months 😢 That pretty much eliminated any hiking we had hoped to do!!
Located 90 min west of Port Campbell is the Port Fairy Lighthouse, a quaint red and white sentinel built in 1859, standing on the easternmost tip of Griffiths Island. To reach the lighthouse we strolled along a scenic causeway admiring views of the rugged coastline. Griffiths Island is home to a large breeding colony of short-tailed shearwaters, with an estimated 100,000 burrows. The shearwater colony is a tourist attraction in spring and summer, watching the birds as they return in a swarm to their burrows at dusk. Other animals resident on the island include swamp wallabies and the highly venomous tiger snake. Yikes, very happy we did not see a snake but we did see a very cute swamp wallaby in the bushes.
Working our way back to Port Campbell we stopped at the Logans Beach Whale Watching Platform, just outside the town of Warrnambool. We are out of season to see the whales but the view of the beach was amazing, a huge stretch of beautiful sand and only 2 people there! If you are here between June & September, female Southern Right Whales return to the waters of Logans Beach to calve. They often swim within 100 meters from shore to give birth and can be viewed from the large platform constructed here, this must be quite an event to witness.
From Logans Beach we detoured inland to Hopkins Falls. I suppose we should not have had high hopes since these falls are reportedly spectacular in the winter, it is currently summer so the falls were quite sparse.
Port Campbell is on the 12 Apostles Gourmet Trail, a food artisan route through the nearby countryside. We picked a couple of places on the route which interested us and enjoyed a scenic drive through the farmlands. First up was Gorge Chocolates, making their own Belgian style chocolates fresh daily on site. With a large variety of chocolates it was difficult not to overindulge. Second was Apostle Whey Cheese for an informative tasting of 11 cheeses made on site. We left there with 3 different cheeses, all quite amazing, purchasing the Harvest Garlic, The Grotto Camembert and their Hot Chili Feta. They also sell fresh milk and gelato made onsite if you are looking for something sweet.
We visited the Great Ocean Road Wildlife Park on the recommendation of our Airbnb hosts, specifically they suggested we pay extra for the Dingo Tour which turned out to be the highlight of our visit. The owner is passionate about the survival of this species and their crucial role in the ecosystem, being the apex predator on the Australian continent. Entrance to the park costs AUD $25 (USD $17.25) each for a self guided walk around the property, the petting area being a favorite. We purchased a small bag of food and enjoyed feeding the kangaroos, wallabies, alpacas and emus. My favorites were the small wallabies, extremely gentle when eating out of my hand and so darn cute. The Dingo Tour costs AUD $15 (USD $10.35) extra for a 15 minute talk on the history and conservation of this misunderstood animal, plus a chance to go into the pen and interact with them. Our host, the property owner, is so passionate about these animals he spent 45 minutes with us discussing the Dingo and what amazing animals they are. Here is a good website explaining more about this endangered species. We learned so much and realized we knew nothing about this fine animal. We enjoyed the opportunity to be close to them, they are just like a puppy wanting attention.
Wanting a different view of the 12 Apostles we visited at sunset, we were not the only ones!! The lighting was completely different with the setting sun lighting up the cliffs in a beautiful sponge toffee yellow color. This was definitely my favorite view of the area.
Our second early morning visit to the 12 Apostles was a little more successful than the first but the coastline was still hazy, perhaps this is the norm for early morning because it did clear a little the longer we were there. The bonus of going at 8 am is the lack of crowds, we saw about 10 other people, unlike sunset when there were a few hundred people milling about the boardwalks.
We spent one week in Port Campbell and I think it was a bit too long, but it gave us time to slow down and relax. There are only so many times you can view the coastline and other than that there is not an awful lot to do here, 3-4 days would probably be enough to see the main sights. Plus, if you are here in summer, the flies will surely make you want to leave!!
Onward we go for a big city experience in Melbourne, an exciting sporting event and meeting up with a friend…
While Port Campbell is very small, in our opinion it is the best place to stay, close to the 12 Apostles and other clifftop viewpoints along the coastline. There are many popular seaside towns but you will spend more time driving to see the top sights.
The 12 Apostles viewpoint is hugely popular. To avoid the crowds, early morning is the most peaceful time to visit. Sunset offers magical views and is busier, but not near as busy as the middle of the day when you will find busloads of tourists.