There’s something about taking a holiday in your own backyard that feels so much more significant than an overseas adventure. At least, that’s what we – four girls celebrating their twenty-first birthdays – found when we hit the Great Ocean Road in January this year.
Our road trip happened in a very small, fortuitous window of time: in the weeks leading up to our departure, we watched bushfires ravage the southern states of the country, houses destroyed and lives lost and animal populations decimated and earth scorched. The day that we got home to Queensland, the first case of COVID-19 in Australia was recorded. We were incredibly lucky that neither of these crises directly impacted our plans, but did give us a firsthand look into the devastating effect the Black Summer fires and COVID-19 would have on small Victorian towns.
We saw lots of big, breath-taking things on our road-trip: the Twelve Apostles, obviously; the lighthouse at Aireys Inlet where Around The Twist was filmed; Loch Ard Gorge and the London Bridge in Port Campbell National Park. Our research and planning had shown us what we were going to see – that’s why we were going – but actually being there, walking down the Gibson steps or dipping our toes in the famous Bells Beach waves captivated us in a feeling of surrealness and fascination.
Objectively, we were just driving along a stretch of coast, listening to 70s music and looking at big rocks in the ocean. But for some reason, we could stand in front of those big rocks for ages, hardly talking, admiring the intricate veins snaking through the different layers of rock and being mesmerised by the water dancing and surging around the base of the free-standing formations – this was especially true for The Razorback.
We saw lots of big, breath-taking things, but we also saw small, unassuming things that gave us an appreciation of Australia that we weren’t expecting. We spent the first night of our trip with family friends on a farming property in Geelong. The house looked out over vast stretches of parched paddocks as far as the eye could see, and we listened to our hosts remember fondly the last time it had rained enough to fill their tanks – months and months and months ago. The next day, as we hopped in our rental car and started our journey, a few specks of rain hit the windshield. It was barely enough to even need the window wipers, but it filled us with wishful thinking, and sparked a new habit throughout the trip: checking the weather forecast for rain in Geelong every day, and celebrating if there was even a 10% chance that some might fall.
The drawcards of our roadtrip often allowed us to marvel at beauty that we hadn't anticipated. People visit Bells Beach for the novelty, the notoriety – the day we visited Bells, it was completely blown-out, murky, and freezing, and there were still a few guys out on boards, pretending there was something to catch (besides a cold). The black sand on Bells Beach was so incredibly exciting for us Queensland girls too – black sand, this must be Victoria! – and walking barefoot through a texture that we’d never experienced before made the stop at Bells more than worth it.
Similarly, people flock to the Twelve Apostles for … well, you guessed it, and this was certainly one of the most memorable sights on our road-trip. But the short walk from the carpark down to the Gibson Steps on the other side of the Apostles took us through some of the best Australian landscape on offer: past fields of happily grazing cows, swaying grass as tall as us, tumbleweeds (real life tumbleweeds!) and a classic array of Aussie bushes and trees, all just metres from the most famous coastline in the country. Constantly throughout our trip, renowned attractions that had been on our itinerary from day 1 gave us the opportunity to appreciate tiny pockets of beauty in Australia that we weren’t expecting, but which were perhaps even more exciting for that reason.
We passed through many beautiful coastal towns, and stopped often to grab a coffee or stretch our legs or give our carsick friends a reprieve from the winding roads. The people we encountered were always friendly – during COVID-19 lockdown, I can only imagine that some of these towns came almost to a grinding halt without tourists constantly milling through and patronising the small local businesses.
People visiting the Great Ocean Road also might not realise that the ~200km stretch of road is not exclusively along the coastline. We also found ourselves driving through lush rainforest, up into the hills of regional Victoria, and past country that has been devastated by drought. At times it was confronting to see just how dry and brown many fields had become after several years of drought, and it was easy to imagine how quickly a bushfire would tear through such landscapes after witnessing the horror of the Black Summer fires on the news.
Taking a road-trip along the Great Ocean Road is a great way to support these communities that have faced so much in 2020. Visiting the towns along the way to eat, look around, enjoy the sights and visit the local attractions (we highly recommend the Great Ocean Road Chocolaterie and Ice Creamery in Bellbrae, or any ice cream shop along the way, really) will help small businesses who rely heavily on tourism get back on their feet, and buying products made from locally sourced ingredients (again, get on those local ice cream places) will ensure that you’re supporting Aussie farmers. But your Great Ocean Road trip won’t simply help out communities who need it, or even just get you some good photos for the ‘gram: it’ll open your eyes to the astonishing allure of your own backyard.
Words and images by Eve Dalton, avid road tripper and explorer of local places.