Driving the Great Ocean Road: A Self Drive Itinerary

By Abi King | Australia

Feb 07

A Self-Drive Itinerary for the Great Ocean Road

Driving Australia's Great Ocean Road is one of those once in a lifetime experiences.

The scenery, of course, is stunning. But beyond that, there are deep and moving stories of love and loss to be found. Perhaps surprisingly, it's also remarkably easy to drive the route yourself. 

Here's my Great Ocean Road self-drive itinerary, plus my thoughts on what it felt like to drive the route alone.. Read, plan and enjoy!

About the Great Ocean Road

You probably, as I had, have seen pictures of this road before: a dazzling honey-combed rollercoaster of beauty, framed by impossible blue skies and achingly turquoise fresh foamy waves

This 243 kilometre stretch is a mere hour and a half from Melbourne, Down Under’s most civilised and cosmopolitan city (according to Melburnians, that is.)

What you’ve less likely seen are the reflections of said majesty, bathed in dripping charcoal skies and raging, racing waves.

And what you’ve definitely not seen, even though they're the best part of all, are the people who come out in the rain to make a soggy jetlagged pommie feel at home.

So, yes. The Great Ocean Road is bucket list territory. But ultimately, it's the people you'll meet that will make the experience for you. 

How to use the self-drive itinerary

This route shows you all the different landscapes of the Great Ocean Road, from the iconic Twelve Apostles and the sandy surfy beaches to grasslands, secluded nature reserves, foodie co-ops and art galleries.

If you love hiking, then reserve time for the Great Ocean Walk outlined below. However, if that's not your thing, you may be able to shorten this itinerary by a few days.

Can you drive the Great Ocean Road in one day?

Yes and no! From Melbourne, you can technically hit the road and see the ocean and get back by night time. But you're really missing the best part. Take your time. Budget a few days, if not a week. And explore the Great Ocean Road. 

The Great Ocean Road Itinerary

Nights 1-3 - Recover from jet lag and enjoy Melbourne

Highlights: cafe culture, beautiful parks, funky art and (ahem) the filming location for Neighbours.

Night 4 - Lorne

Highlights: wide open beaches, surf life and art galleries. Stop off at Erskine Falls. Visit Qdos art gallery and stay at the deliciously charming La Perouse B&B.

Nights 5 - 8 - Twelve Apostles Eco Lodge

Escape the crowds at a dedicated eco-lodge and hike the luxury way (without having to carry your luggage.)

Highlights: spot koalas and kangaroos at the side of the road and watch wallabies bounce up to your door.

En route: stop off at Apollo Bay in the green foothills of the Otway Ranges. If time is on your side, visit the holiday hamlets of Cumberland River, Wye River, Kennett River and Skenes Creek.

Food: get supplies at the characteristic Wye River General Store, eat crayfish fresh from the water in Apollo Bay and enjoy the healthy picnics and on site dining at the Eco-lodge.

Walks: plenty of choices but make sure to catch the landmark Cape Otway light station.

Optional extra: the Great Ocean Ecolodge has hit the headlines for its pioneering wildlife work. It's possible to stay here but competition for rooms is fierce!

Nights 9 - 11 - Aire Valley

Turn inland for a while to head to the Aire Valley Restaurant and Guesthouse, notching up a different kind of landscape as you go. The period house overlooks Aire River Wildlife Reserve and the Great Otway National Park and gives a taste of Australia in the 1890s, albeit with a more modern and refined touch.

Then it's time to drive to the big one: the Twelve Apostles rock formation (with the option of a helicopter tour.)

Night 12 - Geelong

Head to Port Campbell for the day before turning back towards Melbourne with a stop off in the overlooked port town of Geelong.

Highlights: cool art on the coast of Geelong without the crowds and an optional drive to Jack Rabbit's vineyard.

Night 13 - Return to Melbourne

Neighbours. I dare you.

Driving the Great Ocean Road: what it was like

You probably, as I had, have seen pictures of this road before: a dazzling honey-combed rollercoaster of beauty, framed by impossible blue skies and achingly turquoise fresh foamy waves

This 243 kilometre stretch is a mere hour and a half from Melbourne, Down Under’s most civilised and cosmopolitan city (according to Melburnians, that is.)

What you’ve less likely seen are the reflections of said majesty, bathed in dripping charcoal skies and raging, racing waves.

And what you’ve definitely not seen, even though they're the best part of all, are the people who come out in the rain to make a soggy jetlagged pommie feel at home.

Good to have someone looking out for you

Meet Doug: A Child When the Great Ocean Road Was Built

Everything about Lorne and the Great Ocean Road, that is, because at the paper-thin-skin-on-hands age of 92, he was a child when it was built. And though he’s far too classy to use the expression, he did then actually write the book about it.

As he says in Lorne, A Living History “life in Lorne was a struggle in many ways because of the isolation due to poor overland access.”

The stunning terrain that brings joy to our hearts and viewfinders to our eyes also brought treachery, difficulty, effort and fear to the simple task of getting around at the turn of the 20th century. Steep inclines, sticky mud, and snakes (not that many, Roger is keen to relay) scuttled and scurried and sloped amid the fabulous beach views and koalas.


The trigger to do something about it came in the shadows of the then called the Great War in 1918. Servicemen, battle-scarred and traumatized, returned from the mud and misery of Europe to sand and sunshine -  but also a sense of isolation and loss amid the ragged waves and acres of rainforest.

Doug hands me a yellowed paper rich in thick, curving font:

“Motorists and Tourists who assist to build The Great Ocean Road will have helped to found a worthy Memorial to all Victorial Soldiers, and a National Asset for Victoria.”

As it turns out, The Great Ocean Road, built by returning soldiers, is the world’s largest war memorial.

The Great Ocean Road, built by returning soldiers, is the world’s largest war memorial.

The next morning, the horror film soundtrack has changed. Cool morning light streams onto pale blue and white stripes that cover the bedspread. And I’m summoned to breakfast – and piping hot coffee – by a tweet from the owners in the house nearby.

These two women, Laurel and Sue, it turns out, have followed their dreams here to Lorne. Previously nurses, they made the leap into opening up a French-styled B&B called La Perouse and lavishing it with love

They look at my map – point out where I’ll see koalas (koalas!! ) and wish me on my way.

I make a better job of negotiating my suitcase through the rain-glittered leaves but manage to cause a rumpus anyway by somehow jamming my key in the door.

“I think you’re the first person to use it,” they say as they manoeuvre the key free. "No-one locks their doors here."

After a quick stroll along the shore in the morning mists of Lorne, watching surfers stride to their stage, I hit the road: off into the wilderness and on to Apollo Bay.

The road swoops and swerves with all the joy and abandon I’d dreamed of, plus some responsible town planning with little lay-bys for snapping photos.

One eyebrow is raised when I spot the first of many signs reminding people to drive on the left. The second goes up, along with a rush, of delight when I finally see my first kangaroo sign.

Yes, dear Aussies, I can fully understand why you moan and groan about this. That you don’t have roos in your cities, koalas in your cloakrooms and you never wear cork hats. (Allegedly. There must be some of you who do.)

But hold the phone, Batman. You do have koalas snuggled into roadside trees and you do have that hopalong yellow diamond sign with a picture of Skippy.

I did the only thing a self-respecting tourist could do. I pulled over and took a pic.

And then, it was time to drive on to Apollo Bay.

The Great Ocean Walk

Australia’s Great Ocean Road is justifiably famous for its sweeping coastal views just outside of Melbourne. But there’s a Great Ocean Walk, too, that reaches even more hidden and spectacular parts. Lace up your boots and prepare to meet koalas, kangaroos and quietness.

I am alone. Beautifully, soft-earth-thumpingly alone. The skies are clear but the path still springs with the rainfall of the last few days.

The fur coats of the koalas still glisten and rhinestone diamonds still wibble and quibble on kangaroo ears.

The road, the Great Ocean Road, may swoop around the coastline like a car ad run wild but, impressive as it is, there are still some places it doesn’t reach.

For that, there’s the Great Ocean Walk, a 100km or so path that takes around a week to complete. 

The entire Great Ocean Walk can be done in seven days, but there are shorter options.

 Because of time constraints, I’m just clomping through a taster. And I’m doing it alone.

The Greatest War Memorial

But just before that happens, in the moments when I am still alone, some words and visions fall into the march of my mind.

Of men bent double in trenches, spending months upon months on ships. Of returning from that so-called Great War. Survivors, yes, but very much still in need.

I think of Doug, the 92 year old author I met on my first night here in Lorne.Though only a child when the Great Ocean Road was built at the end of the First World War, he was called to serve a generation later during World War Two.

“A strong bond develops,” he told me, “there’s a strong a camaraderie in war. You live in danger. You have to depend on each other. You see friends die.

“When soldiers come home, they can find civilian life difficult. Even if they have their family around them, they can feel very, very alone.”

I listen, I agree.

“This project, the Great Ocean Road, helped them to transition. They were working side by side with men they knew, with men who understood. That was the deeper value of the project.”

The Great Ocean Road runs for more than 243 km and it’s easy to see why it’s called the Greatest War Memorial in the world.

And while that may be true, perhaps when it comes to the number of men involved and the sense of brotherhood and support, perhaps another phrase is more appropriate.

Perhaps it’s this, and not the Taj Mahal, that is the Greatest Memorial to Love after all.

 Bothfeet drives hikers to the starting point in the morning and picks them up again when their day is done.

There’s a mudroom, home cooked food, a smattering of wifi and a cosy communal lounge.

There’s also a dedicated line of foot spas. Trail mix appears in the morning and rooms follow simple clean lines.

They also overlook the forest, from whence a wallaby appears.

Disclosure - This road trip along the Great Ocean Road forms part of the #MelbourneTouring project with iAmbassador, Visit Victoria and Visit Melbourne. As ever, as always, I'm free to write whatever I like here on Inside the Travel Lab.

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About the Author

Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more.

  • Rosemary says:

    It’s always great to see posts being written about places (almost) in my backyard (being a Melburnian)!

    • Abi King says:

      I agree – always something nice about reading something close to home!

  • Sarah says:

    Beautiful photos. Melbourne and Australia is on my bucket list for places to visit.

  • Kadri says:

    Nice photos, can’t wait to visit Australia one day.

  • The Hopeless Wanderer says:

    I love Australia’s signs, they never cease to crack me up with how blunt they are!

    • Abi King says:

      I like one I saw in Canada too (I think it was Canada) – Wrong Way, Go Back.

      Classic

  • Jocelyn says:

    Hi, I’d just like to say that I loved your post and my English class is actually studying it as a great example of a blog post.

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