I don’t know if I’ve managed to adequately convey, at this point, just how little Hayley and I actually did in preparation for this trip, though I know I’ve hinted at it. Up until now, we’ve been operating on a mish-mash system of prudent planning and total ignorance, booking flights and hostels ahead of time, giving ourselves a random number of days in each place, and then simply wandering the streets of Australia aimlessly until it’s time to move on to our next destination.
This system, admittedly, had been serving us fairly well, if only because we’d just been hitting cities: cities are compact and obliging; they tend to unfold logically and present you with one lush garden and famous building and waterfront watering hole after another until you feel you’ve somehow discovered it all on your own terms. And when you leave, you reason that you can easily fly back in at any time on any major airline; you tell yourself you can always see more next time even if you know there probably won’t be one.
Unfortunately, applying that same logic to a sprawling, loosely defined, somewhat out-of-the-way destination like the Great Ocean Road doesn’t quite work as well. There are rental cars to be booked, routes to be mapped, side trips to be accounted for, and dark nights on serpentine roads to be considered. There are even, I hear, guidebooks to be consulted in preparation. But the furthest Hayley and I managed to get before leaving New Zealand was to book the rental car. For three days. This ended up being a colossal oversight.
Let me explain: the Great Ocean Road is only a few hundred kilometers long, and, from what we’d read, or heard, or perhaps just done an extremely convincing job making up, runs roughly from Melbourne to Adelaide. From our blissful state of ignorance and mild inebriation way back in Arrowtown, we’d figured we’d set off from Melbourne, spend three days with a rental car driving the whole, legendarily scenic stretch, drop the rental off in Adelaide, and fly from there to Perth.
It turns out, of course, that the Great Ocean Road doesn’t deserve to be cruised so much as appreciated at a leisurely pace. And while the road is, indeed, only a few hundred kilometers long, it does not, in fact, run all the way from Melbourne to Adelaide. No, the distance between those two cities is closer to about 13 hours by car, only about three or four of which are actually spent on the Great Ocean Road. So not only had we done ourselves a disservice allotting time for the Great Ocean Road as if it were a route instead of a destination, we’d unintentionally forced ourselves to spend an entire day (and night) of that time driving along unlit backcountry routes to Adelaide – a city we didn’t particularly want to see in the first place.
All this reflection on what we did wrong in “planning” for this trip, of course, wouldn’t even be happening if what we did manage to see of the Great Ocean Road weren’t so spectacular as to make me wish we’d spent much longer there.
Even if you plan absolutely nothing ahead of time, the designers of the Great Ocean Road seem to have compensated with thorough thoughtfulness: every 20 minutes or so, you glide under a thick forest cover or out onto a coastal edge where you swear the waves will rise to touch your tires at any moment. Then you see a sign announcing some new mythical-sounding point of interest: the 12 Apostles, or the Archway, or the Cape Otway Lighthouse. You pull off, you check it out, and then you head back down the road. It feels a bit like being on the Haunted Mansion ride at DisneyLand; being automatically rotated towards whatever ghost or goblin those crafty Imagineers wanted you to see when they designed the whole thing and then shuttled back along your way.
Which is fantastic for hitting the major points of interest. But I think it will surprise no one that I was also interested in a few sights that there were no signs for.
Problem is, when the driver (who may even be driving on the left-hand side of the road for the first time and should thus, I’m just saying, be excused for driving somewhat slowly and erratically in the first place) pulls off without warning every ten minutes or so, what looks like a 2-hour drive on the map ends up taking all day. You run out of time to make all the stops you want, to clamber down to the sand and spend an afternoon walking along the beach, to explore the awesome little coastal towns along the way. This is a truly remarkable and gratifying “problem” to have and is, I suppose, a distillation of the only downside of travel in the first place: you never really have time to do and see everything you’d like. Some places just make it more obvious than others.
So, please: go see the Great Ocean Road some day. Take your time – more than you think you might need. And – and this last part is paramount – please take me with you.