Riding Australia’s Great Ocean Road

Australia Motorcycle Touring

I’m about to unlock our rental motorcycle after having had lunch in Apollo Bay, on The Great Ocean Road about 125 miles west of Melbourne, when an Aussie in his early 40s addresses me. "You seem to be living your dream."

I look up and see a man dressed in what seems to be the mandatory attire of this nation-shorts, tank top, flip-flops and a sports cap. He looks at our Kawasaki Nomad with jealous eyes and nods at me in understanding. I barely have time to respond before he is on his way. His comment lingers, and who am I to contradict?

It is 95 degrees hot when Cathrine and I pick up our motorcycle at Garner’s Motorcycles in central Melbourne. The proprietor offers us thinner jackets, but we decline after much consideration, due to lack of space and a predicted thunderstorm a few days later. It’s a decision we regret instantly upon leaving the shop. Getting wet on the last day we could have survived; the heat is far worse.

Australia’s Great Ocean Road is one of the world’s most famous coastal routes, starting between Torquay and Anglesea, about 60 miles southwest of Melbourne. As if to underline our foolish decision on the jackets, we don’t head straight for the coast. Instead, we drive into Geelong to visit a friend, with all the red lights that come with a population of 160,000. Add a highway breeze with a warming rather than the aspired cooling effect, and you get our personal Jesus of the day in the shape of an air conditioner in my friend’s tattoo studio. The relief is beyond words.

As we reach the coast, we drive down winding roads surrounded by tall eucalyptus trees and colorful parrots, and the sea breeze finally cools things down. For the first time, we can relax and enjoy the ride, even if Cathrine has double feelings in the back, this being her first ride ever. The Great Ocean Road is about 150 miles long and ends right before the bedbug-infested city of Warrnambool. It then continues towards Adelaide under the name of Princes Highway.

In 2001, I did the same trip by car with a friend, and nine years later it is as beautiful as I remember. The road follows the dramatic coastline, but it often turns inland going through vast, yellow fields and cow paddocks. The ride is said to be popular among motorcycle enthusiasts, but we actually see surprisingly few two-wheelers during our five days on the road.

However, a ride on the Great Ocean Road is not just about the coastline; it is as much about what’s inside of it. The rainforest is often near, with its plentiful waterfalls and abundant wildlife. Close encounters with koalas and kangaroos-as well as cockatoos, parrots and emus-are common, especially if you choose to go through Mount Eccles and Grampians National Parks on the way back to Melbourne.

In Lorne, where we spend our first night, we wake up to our first of those close encounters when Cathrine feeds a cockatoo sitting on the railing outside our room. Suddenly, we are surrounded by big, white birds with yellow crests on their heads. Later, as we reach Kennett River, we see koalas sleeping, or at least drowsing, on branches, just inches from our heads. It is difficult to explain the feeling you get the first time you see these unreal, almost mythical, animals up close, but that alone makes Australia worth the trip.

We feed parrots with a group of tourists and their guide and I get to host a fight of life, death, and bird seed between two king parrots on my now-scarred right arm. The only down side to Kennett River is that it is a well know stop and we are far from alone.

The ride between Lorne and Apollo Bay is mostly at sea level and, if you’re keen on swimming, you just need to find a beach without too much current. The temperature is pleasant and our Nomad gracefully takes us through the coastal towns of Victoria. The lack of other motorcycles on the road increases the sense of being King of the Road, and the bike is working well.

After lunch in Apollo Bay, where we get to see black cockatoos, in addition to being told we’re living our dream, we continue on even tighter roads through Otway National Park. We stop for a short walk through the rain forest before we reach the most famous stop on the Great Ocean Road-The Twelve Apostles, but they are not twelve anymore.

The limestone formations that line the coast have slowly eroded over the years, and some of them have disappeared altogether, but the water is still eating its way into the coastline creating new apostles. Nine years ago I came here at sunset and, even if this visit is majestic as well, I recommend coming here when the dying hours of daylight illuminate the cliffs.

We turn inland on country roads, enveloped by dry, yellow farm properties with their strategically placed tool sheds. The roads are straighter and we speed up a little bit for the first time since the highway to Geelong. During the final portion of Great Ocean Road, you only see the ocean a few times, but it only contributes to the diversity of this ride. Here, I get the same feeling of the Wild Wild West I experienced when I drove through the central parts of the United States.

In Warrnambool we step into the popular 1980s Australian television series, The Flying Doctors, when we find a genuine Australian pub hotel. It is easy to imagine all the local sheep shearers winding down here after a day’s hard work.

We check in and eat a steak before we sit down next to Ian, an already very intoxicated man in his 50s. He is an engine driver who grew up in Warrnambool, and we notice quite quickly it is not all sunshine and dewdrops coming out of his mouth. Cathrine keeps shooting down his sexual innuendos, which triggers him, and he keeps calling us "bloody good people" about a hundred times. I’m also "a great bloke, you big hairy bastard," at least as often.

When his sister and her husband leave, he becomes even cruder, but as time passes so does his spirit. He tries everything to keep it up, but the alleged 30 beers are taking their toll, and he becomes a bit too obtrusive even for us. He unsteadily makes his way to the bar to sign his receipt and, after Cathrine helps him put his credit card back in his wallet, he stumbles out through the door and out of our lives.

The third day is the warmest and, again, the breeze heats us up rather than cools us down. We leave the coast and ride towards Grampians National Park, stopping at Tower Hill Reserve and Mount Eccles National Park. A mob of emus in Tower Hill greeted me on a previous trip, and I had two running in front of my car. Today, we’re not so lucky; that might be because it is already far more than 85 degrees. Not to be completely disappointed, we do see two from a distance.

As we reach Mount Eccles, the heat is unbearable. We don’t have room for much water in our panniers, so we both have headaches, our mouths are dry, and we have learned one valuable lesson-the bathroom water in the National Parks in this area is normally untreated creek water and, therefore, not potable.

Fortunately, there’s a ranger station in Mount Eccles. The friendly ranger lets us keep our gear in his office, and he fills up one of our bottles from a drinking fountain. Without water and fewer clothes, the one-hour walk around the crater lake in 100-degree heat would have been impossible, and we would have missed out on the five koalas we manage to spot. Unlike at Kennett River, we are alone, making the experience a bit more personal.

It is not hard to understand why the state of Victoria keeps experiencing annual devastating fires-drought. Wherever we go, we are asked to save water. At Tim’s Place in Hall’s Gap, the main town in the Grampians, there’s even a bucket in the shower to gather water to be used in the garden behind the house. That garden nightly hosts about 30 grazing, and sometimes boxing, Eastern Grey Kangaroos.

After the shower our experience of spending the night in a genuine Aussie pub hotel is clouded by the fact that I discover about 100 genuine Aussie bed bug bites on my body. I itch like crazy, and it looks like I have contracted some sort of tropical disease. Cathrine, on the other hand, did not receive a single one, although she slept right next to me-talk about waking up in the wrong side of the bed.

We spend the next day riding the serpentine mountain roads of the Grampians, viewing waterfalls, visiting the fantastic lookouts, and taking short hikes. At McKenzie Falls, we are again out of water and the supply kiosk is unexpectedly closed. Luckily, we encounter a helpful Australian couple that shares enough water for us to walk down the steep steps.

As we reemerge from the falls, the kiosk is still closed and we feel a sudden gust of thirst-induced panic. We set sail for the car owners in the parking lot when we suddenly spot a big bottle of water next to our motorcycle. Our earlier Samaritans came through for us again, and I hope they understand how much that little gesture meant to us. How nice it is to experience such voluntary kindness in a world where people are not always so altruistic.

On the way back to Tim’s Place, we drive through an area suffering from a recent forest fire. Suddenly the green ends and is replaced by black, brown, and grey. It is both beautiful and sad, as you can see new buds emerging from the burnt trunks. It feels like we are riding our Kawasaki Nomad into a set from a Tim Burton movie. It still smells of burnt leaves and you almost expect a polite skeleton among the charred trunks in the background, singing and dancing to a Danny Elfman soundtrack.

Five days turn out to be just right for this trip. Had the weather been better the last day, we would have had time for another of Australia’s many National Parks, but fog and rainy clouds make us turn straight back for the city. However, the alleged thunderstorm, because of which we chose the thick jackets, is nowhere to be found-maybe in a dream.