“Stick your finger in and watch it close.” I’ve got a seven-year old and a 10-year-old excitedly yelling in my ear. They are urging me to stick my finger in a sea anemone in a rock pool, along the Great Ocean Road.
Their mum, standing right behind them is no better. She’s spurring them on, telling me how cool it feels. And when she says cool, she’s not talking about the temperature in the rock pool – though that too is very cool, in the literal sense.
“You have to leave it in there,” she tells me. “Don’t pull it out.”
So I put my hand in the rock pool and tentatively leave my finger in the middle of this plant-like being sticking effortlessly to the side of the rock.
And within seconds I feel its tentacles close around my finger, the soft fringe of its ends tickling my fingertips.
Ah, I think to myself, the delights of travelling with children. What more might I learn and experience on this trip along the Great Ocean Road.
No sooner have I been trapped by a sea anemone than Aaron, the older of the two boys, picks up a starfish and flashes it in front my face.
“You have to be gentle with it,” he urges me. “Just gently stroke its back.”
But there is no way I’m touching this one, even if the dull orange coat does intrigue me. I’ll just look at it from afar, having grown up on tales of the dangers that lurk in our Australian oceans.
He puts it back in the rockpool from whence it came and we move on; slowly making our way along the rock pools checking out the seaweed, more starfish and sea anemones, crabs and shells.
And then we look up to watch the sun as it begins its descent over Apollo Bay. We sit on the rocks and watch as the sky changes to a dusty pink, changing the colour of the sand with it.
Within minutes the sky explodes with colour. Reds, oranges, purples, pinks – every time we blink or turn away for a minute a new colour appears in the rainbow in front of us.
We see it as a positive sign that we are in for good weather the following day, the kind of weather perfect for hanging out on a beach and boogie boarding over the waves. But, alas, this is Victoria and while temperatures of up to 38 degrees had been predicted for Melbourne, at Skene’s Creek, the temperature reaches a mere 22 degrees, pleasant yes, suitable for swimming? Um, only the seven year old was brave enough to tackle the ocean.
Fortunately there were more rockpools to explore, and shops and a children’s park at Apollo Bay and an excellent tourist information centre for ideas on what to see – in case you have time to see more than just the 12 Apostles and the coastline in this part of the world.
We pick up some maps and a guide to walks in the area and plan out a basic itinerary for the next couple of days.
Our first trip is further along the Great Ocean Road and out to the 12 Apostles and Loch Ard Gorge, but we can’t help but stop at the various viewing platforms dotted along the way to see the rugged cliffs and angry ocean smashing against the rocks below.
The boys reluctantly hop out of the car and come with us to the first stop, by now they’ve switched on their ipads and we’ve lost them to the marvels of Apple technology.
But further down the road, when we spot a car parked on the side of the road and five people opposite it peering up into the trees, cameras at hand – a sure sign a koala is there somewhere – we all jump out eagerly and crane our necks to see the koala napping in the tree.
Our first official stop is the 12 Apostles. Of which, of course, there are now only eight. We join the hundreds of tourists making their way along the timber walkway stopping at the different vantage points to take in the limestone stacks slowly being eroded by the swell of the ocean.
The sky clears while we are here turning the previously dull grey water below into a brilliant turquoise. The trick at the 12 Apostles is to look both through the fence to see along the coast as much as possible rather than over it and to look both ways! If you’re short, the vantage points along the way are much better than the large viewing platform at the very end.
We stop at the Visitors centre just long enough to check out the map, to see where we are along Victoria’s southern coast and to see which other natural attractions to stop at. As well as Loch Ard Gorge we add London Arch and the Grotto – which ranked high on the list for the two boys!
But when we head off, we see a sign for the Arch and decide to add one more stop. The Arch, not to be mistaken with the London Arch further along, is a single archway eroded into the limestone coastline. When the tide is in the water gushes through the centre of the arch, but alas, today, the tide is out and while it laps at the base of the arch, it doesn’t go through the middle.
Our next stop is London Arch, which until 1990 stood as a bridge with two archways much like London Bridge in, well, London. Prior to 1990 the rock formation was known as London Bridge after the famous English bridge. It was renamed the London Arch following the collapse. Fortunately no one died in the incident but two people were stuck on the remaining arch and had to be lifted out by helicopter. I remember as a kid walking out across the arches to the end of the bridge, but now we are content viewing it from afar.
The boys’ interest starts to wane so we load back into the car and head on to Loch Ard Gorge. There are a number of different walks you can do here – the shipwreck, graveyard, viewing platform or head down the narrow timber stairway into the gorge itself. Since we have limited time, we decide to make our way down into the Gorge to check out the caves.
It’s a good move, the boys start asking us about pirates and shipwrecks and are keen to explore as much of the Gorge as they can. As the tide is out we gingerly make our way across a pile of rocks and head inside the largest cave, it’s cavern goes back about 100-200 metres and you can walk all the way inside, perfect to view the deep green moss covering the walls and dream about buried treasures.
Not far up the road is our final stop for the day – the Grotto. Less famous and less visited than some of its famous cousins along the Great Ocean Road, the Grotto is by no means any less impressive. The result of a sinkhole in the limestone walls of the coastline, the grotto is a series of open caves and rockpools. A stairway leads down into the cavern and to a viewing deck.
A man-made rock wall provides a safe viewing platform through the archways, across the rockpools and out to the ocean. But for those that are a little more adventurous you can climb over the wall to explore further. It’s not too difficult, though it is very slippery and be aware that the cliffs here are very unstable.
The Grotto didn’t disappoint, with cries of delight from the seven and 10 year olds as they made their way across the rockpools and into the heart of the sinkhole – I ‘m pretty sure they enjoyed it even more than the games on their ipads.
After spending so much time in the car, the next day we decide we all need a good walk so make our way inland into the Great Otway National Park. Whereas just a day before we were chasing ocean views and stunning cliff top sceneries, today we are following a narrow, winding road through lush rainforest and towering trees.
We had decided to do two walks – the Beauchamp Falls walk and the Hopetoun Falls, both within close proximity to each other but we are forced to stop at the intersection that separates the starting point to the two walks by a koala sitting happily in the middle of the road.
Once again the boys willingly put aside their ipads to watch the koala. He doesn’t move, simply poses for photos for the three cars now stopped to take in this sight. The 10-year-old tries to jump out the car to rescue him, but we warn him of the koala’s claws. He may look cute and cuddly but could cause some nasty damage with those claws, we warn.
We drive on and reach the parking lot for Beauchamp Falls, what we think will be a half hour walk turns into a one-hour return, but the views are beautiful. A small creek runs along the side of the gravel footpath for much of the walk and signs explain how the area was once set aside for a colony. We marvel at the strength of the families who made their way into these mountains in bull and carts and undertook the mammoth task of clearing the bush to make way for their homes.
Today the signs are the only indication there was ever any settlement here.
We didn’t make it to Hopetoun Falls, but did get to the see the koala again who by this time had wandered up the road away from the intersection and was now meandering along the edge of a dirt track.
We spent four days exploring the Great Ocean Road and its surrounds and despite having been here many times over the years, I marvel that you can always find something new to explore here. The landscape changes by day and sometimes by the hour– the colours, the ocean swells, the wildlife are always different – ensuring that every time you explore this part of the world you have a unique experience.
We stayed at an AirB&B at Skenes Creek.
We were here for four nights.
Was it long enough? There is so much to see along the Great Ocean Road and in the Great Otway National Park, you could spend a lot longer here. But five days was enough to experience a bit of everything.
Highlights: That sunset over Apollo Bay was magical! Seeing the koala so close and the Grotto and Loch Ard Gorge were amazing.