Everyone’s heard of it. It’s widely acknowledged to be one of the most scenic roads in the world – and a great biking route, from the number of people suggesting I ride it. And it’s true: miles of brilliant corners, spectacular views and loads to see when you get off the bike. Pretty much a perfect touring destination. So why does riding Victoria’s Great Ocean Road leave me a bit deflated?
I set off from Beachport in South Australia, following the Prince’s Highway. It’s a hot day and passable road – mostly long straights and swooping turns but at least most of it has a 110kph limit (so I ride it at 68mph to keep a few kph in hand). Crossing into Victoria, that limit drops to 100kph but I’m still rolling along.
Just after Allansford I turn onto the B100, the Great Ocean Road. I’m not planning to ride it all – though the road runs for only 150 miles to the surf capital of Torquay so, in theory, it could be do-able. However, my goal for the afternoon is far more modest: Port Campbell, just 35-odd miles further on.
But that’s because I know I’m not going to be solidly riding on this stretch. I want to take a bit more time than usual to get off and stretch my legs to see the sights – because there are some incredible sights to see, if you like landscapes. Not that there’s much to look at for the first few miles: straight roads and meadows as the road cut towards the coast.
Mr Wikipedia tells me the Great Ocean Road – the route as we know it today, anyway – was built after the First World War by returning veterans as a memorial to fallen comrades. They certainly started with fireworks, as the road meets the sea at the Bay of Islands. This is neatly signposted from the road, with a car park provided and good walkways to viewpoints – all the major sites are accessed this way. The road’s much twistier now, but it also has an 80kph limit to make up for it.
The Bay of Islands (clue’s in the name…) is beautiful in the afternoon sunshine. I stomp about between the viewpoints, loving it, then get back to the bike and move down the coast to the Bay of Martyrs, passing the village of Peterborough (and for the first time the phrase “Move to Peterborough” sounds appealing). Then to The Grotto – which involves a few stairs this time, but is utterly fabulous even though getting there in the heat is exhausting in bike kit.
When I move on to the huge stone arch of London Bridge, I put my wallet and passport in the topbox and leave my leather jacket on the bike with my helmet and gloves. I’m sure they’ll be fine: I’m seeing the same people at each car park, as we all go down the Great Ocean Road together, and they all seem nice (apart from the woman who can’t park her huge 4x4 properly… ahem). It’s all safe when I get there, so I do the same at The Arch, then get to my motel in Port Campbell. All this has been new to me and I’ve had a great afternoon.
Next morning, I start the day at the deserted Port Campbell beach. It’s a bit overcast, though nothing like as bad as when I was last here, more or less exactly 13 years ago. I was with the family and, despite the drizzle, I remember the kids playing in the surf on the beach. That memory puts me in a slightly more reflective mood as I head off to the next sites: first the astonishing Loch Ard Gorge (named after an unfortunate ship wrecked here in 1878). Again, I leave my kit with the bike so I don't melt as I walk in the muggy heat. There are steps leading down to the beach and I find myself why we didn’t stop here in 2006. I walk along to the Thunder Cave, where the waves slap into the cavern at the base of the cliff with an echoing roar – my kids would have loved it.
I move down the coast to the big attraction, the one everyone’s heard of: the 12 Apostles. There’s a fancy visitor centre that I don’t remember from my last visit, but the throngs of people are pretty similar. Even so, I love the views along the coast, as white-capped waves smash at the feet of the limestone stacks and break on the beaches at the foot of the cliffs. It’s such a strange coastline, almost like something from a science-fiction set.
You can access the Gibson Steps – another cool site – from the visitor centre, but it’s so muggy I decide to skip the walk (to avoid melting) and just ride for a bit. The road swings inland to Princetown, running parallel to the coastline for miles. This is good riding, cutting through farmland and wooded bush: doesn’t matter that it’s mostly 80kph as that’s about the optimum speed for relaxed but satisfying cornering on the tighter bends.
At Lavers Hill I nip inland, looking for more riding and finding plenty – 75 gloriously twisty miles in a loop to Colac and back to pick up the Great Ocean Road where I left it, heading south to the Great Otway National Park. This is every bit as much fun on the bike, as the road corkscrews its way into a forest, bursting out to run along a ridge with the sea on one side and the farmland on the other. Diving back into another dense, dark forest of tall white-trunked trees, I turn south to the Cape Otway lighthouse.
This is another bit I’ve done before (though, again, the visitor facilities seem to have been upgraded since I was last here). I’m finding it quite hard being reminded of the family I don’t have any more, thanks to the divorce: I look at the lawn before the lighthouse and remember the kids laughing on it; I remember watching everyone else go up the lighthouse and waving to them when they appeared at the top (I didn't go up as I was still walking with a stick after a bike crash and stairs were my enemy). This time, rather than go up, I go into the café and get a late lunch.
From Cape Otway I head into Apollo Bay, riding past the house we’d rented with my friend Damo and his family (he’s still deep in the divorce process, poor sod) and get onto the stretch of road I really want to ride. When we came down before, Damo did all the driving – which was fine, as he was an ex-Formula 1 driver… (okay, he drove lorries for McLaren rather than race cars, but whatever…). But I’d wished I’d been in control and on a bike. Now I am...
This is the bit most people think of when imagining the Great Ocean Road: running along with the sea on one side and cliffs on the other, rising and falling, with plenty of tight turns. I dive up Skenes Creek Road for a few miles, but as time’s getting on I don’t go more than a mile or two, turning round at the top of the hills. It’s a short stretch but might just be the best bit of riding of the day…
Back at sea level, though, the Great Ocean Road makes a case for itself. This is very much like the Big Sur stretch of California’s Highway One, the Pacific Coast Highway. The difference is that there’s less traffic and fewer roadworks (though there are some) and the hills on the inland side aren't quite so high here as in California. It’s easy to get into a good rhythm and I have a fantastic ride all the way to my overnight stop in Lorne.
Usually I’d be buzzing after a ride like that, but I am subdued when I get off the bike. I know why: it's the memories that have been swirling around me all day – and the acceptance that, as desperately as I miss my kids, we’ll never be a family again. The whole point of this extended ride was to help me move on from that, to draw a line under the shock and pain of it… yet here I am, almost at the end of the trip, and I seem to have lumped myself back there. Except, I don’t think I have. The hardest thing to do is to just let go and perhaps this sentimental journey is that final step. It is sad, but I feel like I’ve finally goodbye to my old life.
I get up next morning to do the final stretch of the ride into Torquay and then on to Melbourne. After taking still images for the previous two days, I’d planned to shoot video on the next stretch, as the cliffs are higher, the turns tighter and the views down to the crashing waves more dramatic for the first few miles out of Lorne… but it’s absolutely hammering down. I arrange a slightly later check-out, hoping the rain will stop, but it doesn’t. I stop at the famous Bells Beach, but it’s like the final scene of Point Break – only without Keanu Reeves. I saddle up and head on to Melbourne, where a ferry is waiting…