A few months ago, I received an email from Jetstar, a popular Australian budget airline, about a special Friday fare promotion offering roundtrip tickets from our home base on the Gold Coast to Melbourne’s Avalon Airport for $39. And seeing as how I can’t even buy a half decent bottle of tequila for $39, I bought two tickets and called it a win.
So as one last spontaneous, touristy hoorah for our one year stint in Australia, we decided to take a road trip along the famed Great Ocean Road, a winding drive along Australia’s southern coastline packed with more eye candy than the average Australian footy team.
Driving & Camping the Great Ocean Road
Transportation: “The Chubby”
Having previously done a 3-day campervan trip around Maui, and knowing we couldn’t bring all of our necessary camping gear with us on the plane down to Melbourne, we decided to rent a campervan for a similar kind of adventure in Australia. After contacting a few local companies to see what was available, the kind and generous folks at Travellers Autobarn suggested the ‘Chubby Camper’, a 2-berth manual Mitsubishi Express Van, for our 5 night excursion along the GOR.
Equipped with a cooler (or “esky” for the locals), a full kitchenette with a portable gas cooker, cutlery, plates, cups, cleaning equipment, pots and pans, a double bed, convertible indoor table, sink, two power outlets, privacy curtains, flashlight, beach chairs, outdoor dining table, MP3 plugin, LED lights, sleeping bags, pillows, sheets, towels and a fire extinguisher, there was thankfully very little we needed to bring ourselves besides clothes, shoes, and a generous amount of baby wipes and deodorant.
Since their office is located near the main Melbourne Tullamarine Airport (and not the far away, much smaller Avalon Airport our cheap asses flew into), they suggested we spend the first night in the city and catch the tram to their location for a fresh start the following morning. For those flying Jetstar and doing the same, get a Myki Card and hop on the #59 tram until the funky fresh city of Melbourne becomes much less funky and fresh (at precisely stop 57), and walk the rest of the way. The rental agent was extremely helpful, kind and funny, and went through all of the safety precautions, driving tips and vehicle perks before handing over the keys.
The van got excellent gas mileage and was perfectly sized for two of us without feeling cramped or crowded, and the only aspects we would have added were a surf rack on top of the van, a hatchet for chopping up firewood, and USB ports for charging our devices (which were advertised as included, but nowhere to be found).
Road Trip Tips:
- If you can help it, do NOT book your trip during a public holiday. We accidentally coincided our trip with Victoria’s Labour Day Weekend, which pretty much guaranteed that all the prices went up, the campsites were packed, and the people were plentiful. Bummertown. Check this dandy list of local Public Holidays and be forewarned.
- Download the WikiCamps Australia app. While Travellers Autobarn actually has a somewhat helpful app of their own, I found the WikiCamps one to be the most useful in terms of directions, finding both free and paid campgrounds, points of interest and more.
- Don’t drive at night. While we generally took the opposite approach and arrived at each campsite at approximately 4pm, just in time for the early bird dinner and bingo tournament (we kid), driving past dark here can be sketchy because of the abundance of wildlife. Nothing ruins a magical Aussie road trip like killing a kangaroo with your campervan, so keep your eyes peeled and do your driving in the daytime.
- Avoid toll roads. Travellers Autobarn thankfully mentioned this when we picked up our van, but be sure to set your maps to avoid all toll roads, as those around Melbourne are especially (and ridiculously) expensive.
- Prepare to spend more money than you think. Generally, this is the story of Australia. Even if you’re camping – and thankfully there are a few nice options for free campgrounds – you’ll probably still spend more money than you bargained for. From the costs involved with renting transportation to paying for gas, food, surfboard rentals, etc., it’s certainly not the cheapest of road trips to be had.
- Bring bug spray. Maybe it’s because my blood is the blue meth of the fly and mosquito world, but be sure to pack (or buy) some bug spray. The horse flies, which they call ‘March flies’ here, are rampant and rude as always, and the mosquitoes are relentless in certain areas.
- Take as much or as little time as you want. While I can’t imagine doing this trip in a single day, people do it all the time. There’s easily enough to keep you entertained for 2 to 5 nights, and it really just depends on how much of your experience you want to spend driving versus exploring and taking in the sights.
- Call it quits when you hit the Bay of Islands lookout. Alright, so technically we didn’t drive all the way to Port Fairy (as there was a massive folk festival in town we didn’t have tickets for, so we didn’t see much point), we did drive to the admittedly underwhelming town of Warrnambool. I’m sure it’s got its charm in nice weather, but in my opinion, not worth the extra 100 kilometer return drive.
- Take the shorter route back if you’re in a rush. While we simply turned around in Warrnambool and drove back the way we came (we missed some areas on the drive down), there is a shorter inland route along the Princes Highway back to Melbourne if you feel you’ve seen it all, done it all, or your significant other slash friends and family members are driving you crazy.
Great Ocean Road Recommended Stops:
Clocking in at about 240 kilometers (150 miles), the Great Ocean Road is packed with worthy stops for all kinds of interests and activities. While we didn’t hit every single lookout point, surf break and hiking trail (even in our 5 nights), we did find plenty of attractions to keep our eyeballs stoked and our thighs’a burnin’. We’ve listed our favourite stops from beginning to end, assuming you’re starting in Melbourne or Geelong.
Grab a surfboard and wetsuit (“wettie”) rental from Go Ride a Wave and hit the waves, or enjoy a picnic with a view. Torquay is a great place to stock up on groceries and booze at the local IGA, as prices increase the further you drive.
Located only a short distance from Torquay, this iconic surf spot (and its neighbor break of ‘Winkipop’) is generally reserved for those with a bit of experience. Regardless, it makes for some seriously scenic views and a relaxing lounge in the sand when the weather decides to play nice.
A tiny town with a shit ton of kangaroos, Anglesea also apparently has a 2.5 kilometer art walk through the town, if that sort of thing interests you.
Make a stop in Aireys Inlet to check out the Split Point Lighthouse and surrounding lookout points, and stop into Skinny Legs Cafe for a filling brekkie and cup of coffee. Overall, a cute town with stunning views and the occasional funky event or three.
Apparently this is the hippie town of the Great Ocean Road, though perhaps no fuller of rasta pasta than any other particular location, in our opinion. Either way, this town was probably my favorite along the Great Ocean Road, simply because there’s a solid combination of delicious food, animal life, waterfalls, jungle scenery and beach scenery, and overall it just makes for a relaxing day out and about.
Make the quick drive to attractions like Teddy’s Lookout, Erskine Falls, and Qdos Arts sculpture park, and take a walk down Lorne Pier to spot the massive stingrays and adorable resident seal. For food, grab a burrito at Mexican Republic, upscale Greek grinds at Ipsos or hefty burgers and chips at The Bottle of Milk.
Another 45 kilometers down a winding ocean road will get you through Wye River and Kennett River (home of wild koalas galore) and into Apollo Bay, a semi-strange town with a gorgeous beach and arguable old person vibe.
The stretch of road from Apollo Bay to the Gibson Steps may be my favorite, as it’s filled with lush greenery, breathtaking lookout points and secluded beaches. We even drove straight through some thick clouds, which, if you’ve yet to drive through a cloud, is a rather magical thing to do on a road trip.
If you’re looking for a serious surf spot or picturesque beach, Johanna’s got both. Expect deep golden sand, dangerous swimming conditions, low tide rock pools and the occasional fisherman, and there’s also a campground, bathrooms and coastal walks directly onsite.
Located down a nondescript gravel road not far past Johanna, Wreck Beach makes for a prime, non-touristy escape off the beaten path. Whether it’s due to the 350+ steep steps it takes to get down to the beach or lack of obvious signage off the main road, I don’t know, but my assumption is that it’s a touch of both. Take a right turn at the bottom of the stairs and walk along the mostly deserted, dramatic, deep sand beach to reach the Marie-Gabrielle and Fiji anchors and rather rad tide pools.
If you’re looking for more of the Great Ocean Road’s best kept secrets, this ain’t no secret. Nor are any of the others I’ve listed below, honestly. That being said, the Gibson Steps are stunning, and definitely worth the quick walk down. Go at low tide to walk along the beach, and remember, less is more when it comes to selfies, y’all.
Just a two minute drive from the Gibson Steps, the Twelve Apostles are the most photographed attraction on all of the Great Ocean Road. And while yes, I agree that they are magnificent looking in the sunshine, and likely even more so at sunrise or sunset, the hoards of tourists you’ll probably have to share the view with make it more of an in-and-out situation than a stay-and-savor.
Loch Ard Gorge
Also located in Port Campbell National Park, and only a 3 minute drive west of the Twelve Apostles, Loch Ard Gorge is up there with the most breathtaking of beaches I’ve stepped foot on. With clear turquoise water flanked by steep cliffs and a narrow opening of rumbling waves, I highly recommend an extended stop here.
Follow the nearby parking lot from Loch Ard Gorge and make the 5-10 minute walk to Thunder Cave. With serious currents and bellowing sounds from crashing waves inside the cave walls, it’s a beautiful reminder of the power of the ocean. 100 cool points for caves, mother nature!
A tiny coastal town tucked between several major scenic points, Port Campbell is an endearing place, and a lovely spot to stop for a lazy beach day. Order an approximate heap of inexpensive fish ‘n chips from Frying Nemo’s, and go on about doing what you do.
Quick stop with drool-worthy views.
We honestly almost skipped this spot, but I’m so glad we didn’t. While the arch itself is pretty magnificent, it’s the crashing shorebreak and bright blue waves lapping on the wide beach below that sets the whole scene. I would warn you against the dangers of walking across the bridge to stand atop the arch, but seeing as how two people were trapped there (and later rescued by a helicopter) when London Bridge literally fell down in 1990, it’s clearly too late for that.
Descend the singular set of stairs to the Grotto to view the ocean and natural rock pool through the cave-like formation. Noice!
Bay of Martyrs
Despite being a well known place for bird watching (bleh, birds), the Bay of Martyrs is certainly easy on the eyes.
Bay of Islands
Part of a 32 kilometer stretch of coastal reserve, the Bay of Islands is our final recommended stop along the Great Ocean Road. You’ve made it! Time to celebrate… and then, you know, drive back.
Free & Paid Campgrounds:
While we intended to camp only at free campgrounds during our trip, sometimes the task of driving into the bush – meaning “the woods” for my fellow Americans, and where most of the free campgrounds are located – not to mention the lack of power and the possibility of it already being full (again, avoid holiday weekends), became too much a task. Combining a mix of paid and free campgrounds, we’ll give you tips on which ones to hit and which ones to miss.
Hammond Road Campground
Located only about 45 minutes past Torquay, the Hammond Road Campground is ideal for those spending more than a night or two on the Great Ocean Road and who aren’t in a rush to make tracks. It also happens to be completely free, peaceful, beautiful, and full of friendly kangaroos who hop the fence into the campground to snack on the grass and leave vast amounts of poop pellets as presents.
Keep in mind that your campervan rental agreement likely doesn’t recommend driving on unsealed roads, and this campground requires at least a 30 minute drive along gravel roads, which may be iffy when it’s been raining for days prior to or during your trip. That being said, we saw much smaller and less equipped cars make the journey, so you’ll likely be just fine. If this campground happens to be full when you arrive (highly unlikely), there’s also a second, slightly more primitive campground just down the road.
Amenities: Free (!!), non-flush toilets, fire pits, no firewood (plenty to collect in the area, though), no drinking water, no trash cans, 20 spots for both for tents and campervans, no prior bookings, first-come first-serve basis.
Lorne Foreshore Caravan Park
Located both adjacent and opposite of the Foodworks, Lorne Foreshore Caravan Park offers a prime location for easy camping if you’re feeling lazy and don’t mind shelling out a bit of cash to crash. I will say that Lorne is full of white cockatoos, which, while amusing in the daytime, become increasingly less so when dropping mass amounts of poop across your undeserving vehicle and squawking at alarming levels of volume at the most terrible of early morning hours. Friggin’ birds.
Amenities: $44/night for a powered campsite, no fires allowed, drinking water, trash cans, mix of tent camping/campervans/caravans/cabins, nice bathrooms and showers, great location, non-scenic campground, close proximity to other campers, kiddie playground, bookings recommended on busy weekends.
Apollo Bay Recreation Reserve
Undoubtedly one of the most unfortunate debit card purchases we’ve ever made, the Apollo Bay Recreation Reserve was the result of a semi-late evening, last minute resort after all the other free and paid campgrounds we could find were at capacity. Basically avoid this campground if you can, as you’re basically paying a ridiculous fee to park your car around an unexciting footy field, if you can even call that camping.
Amenities: $40/night for an unpowered campsite, no fires allowed, drinking water, trash cans, mix of tent camping/caravans/campervans/cabins, nice bathrooms and showers, convenient location, non-scenic campground, close proximity to other campers, covered BBQs and picnic tables, bookings recommended on busy weekends (though we wouldn’t recommend booking it, obviously).
Brucknell Park Scout Camp
What a sweet find! Thanks to the abundance of positive reviews we read about this campground on WikiCamps, we opted to take the 30 minute drive inland from Port Campbell to reach Brucknell Park Scout Camp. Passing a posse of camels – yes, camels! – along the way, as well as the intriguing town of Timboon, home to its own Cheesery (pretty sure they made that word up), Railway Shed Distillery and berry farm, we were welcomed by the sweet couple who own the camp with open arms. I’d highly recommend this campground for its amenities, pretty location and personal touch.
Amenities: $20-$25/night for a powered site, uncrowded and scenic campground, fire pits, free firewood onsite, walking trails, animal life, laundry facilities, bathrooms, drinking water, trash cans, covered BBQs and picnic tables, large open space for tents/campervans/caravans.
Travellers Autobarn Parking Lot
For those times when your boyfriend books an 8am flight out of Melbourne and you don’t trust yourself to drive a manual van on the other side of the road at a god awful time of morning, especially when you didn’t opt for the extra insurance. Ahem.
Amenities: Streetlights, extremely convenient location for early morning vehicle returns.
Big thank you to Travellers Autobarn for the discounted wheels, and to boyfriend Peter for being the best driver, fire maker, photographer, travel partner and general outdoorsy gent this gal can hope for. All exceptional photos taken by Peter Rimkus of Two Tank Photo. All average and unedited ones taken by yours truly.