Coastal Drive From Sydney to Great Ocean Road (2007, 2015)

Coastal Drive From Sydney to Great Ocean Road (2007, 2015)

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3000 km, One Week: Sydney-Narooma-Gyppsland-Melbourne-Torquay – Lorne -Apollo Bay-Port Campbell- Warrnambool -Geelong-Melbourne-Sydney

We hover over sheer cliffs that drop vertically down to the blue expanse fringed by frothy waves. On one side, the undulating coastline stretches as far as the eye can see while on the other, verdant hills form a wavy pattern. The sea has donned her bluest hue today, but the frills of her dress are pearly white. The waves furl and unfurl the lacy frills endlessly. From this height it is easy to believe weightlessness and timelessness are not abstract concepts.

I am aloft on a helicopter cruising over Australia’s Great Ocean Road. This stretch of the road goes 278 km, all the way from Geelong to Warrnambool on the south-western shore of the State of Victoria. The helicopter ride is certainly the climax of a kaleidoscopic journey that takes me through some spectacular scenery, spanning such extremes as tropical rainforests and lush vineyards to stunning bay views at every bend. The setting sun bathes the beaches in its golden blaze and the ozone blue of the skies belies climate change.

Not Bollywood stuff

We fly directly over Loch Ard gorge, the cove where, many decades ago on a stormy night, 18-year-old Eva Carmichael clung desperately to a rocky outcrop crying out for help. Loch Ard, the ship that had set sail from England had been smashed to smithereens by a raging storm and the only other survivor was Tom Pearce, a youthful deckhand. It was a dark and ominous night punctuated by the snarls of a raging sea. Tom was drifting precariously under an upturned lifeboat, barely hoping to make it ashore when he heard Eva’s desperate cries for help. Gallant Tom left his refuge and splashed across to poor Eva who could not even swim. Now both of them were tossed and sloshed by the heaving sea, but Tom managed to drag Eva to the safety of a cave hidden some distance away. Cold and miserable, both of them helped themselves liberally to a crate of liquor that had washed ashore from the shipwreck and lay all night in the cave waiting for the storm to subside. Don’t jump to any conclusions yet. The morning after, when the storm died down, Tom clambered up the sheer cliff wall — no mean feat that — and staggered to the nearest village to seek help.

And now for the anti-climax. Not having seen a Bollywood movie before, the young shipwreck survivors did not settle down to a life of marital bliss and live happily ever after. Instead, a traumatised Eva chose to go back to Ireland while Tom stayed back in Australia to live an uneventful life. The twain never met thereafter, or at least that’s how the story goes.

Sculpted by nature

The helicopter ride also gives you a bird’s eye view of the famed Twelve Apostles — limestone rocky outcrops that dot this wedge of the Australian coastline. Sculpted by nature over millennia, these rocks are a big draw for travellers to Victoria. The jagged coastline itself is stunningly beautiful. After all, the Great Ocean Road is the ultimate Australian experience. For the brave-hearted, there are adventures galore. You can glide gracefully on a surf at Bells Beach, don snorkels and slosh about clumsily in shallow waters, or get into a wetsuit and dive deep into the waters for a dress-circle view of the corals and shoals of fluorescent fish. You can also float up lazily in a balloon and survey the vineyards along the coast or swoop down on Twelve Apostles from a helicopter. Of course, the less adventurous can drive along the spectacular winding road that, for the most part, hugs the coastline and serves up fantastic and unhindered sea views.

My own road journey begins at Torquay and goes right up to Port Campbell. A huge arch announces the official beginning of the Great Ocean Road built by veterans of World War I. There is a lovely statue of two ex-soldiers engaged in road construction work.

Jeff Reynolds, my tour guide, keeps up a constant chatter, bringing me up to speed on the history, geography, flora and fauna of this spectacular road.

Spectacular drive

The road winds along the coast for the most part, but from time to time, like a feuding partner, turns away from the sea and meanders up the Otway ranges. One such peregrination takes you to Mait’s Rest, a lush-green tropical rainforest. A narrow walkway leads you to the bowels of the jungle where you are progressively dwarfed by giant myrtle beech trees that soar skywards. You develop a crick in the neck trying to locate their topknots. Their trunks have yawning hollows high enough for you to hide. All the while, you’re gently stroked by the emerald fronds of tree-ferns that grow to an enormous size. The canopy is dense, but shafts of sunlight do trespass here and there. Watch out for wild koalas blithely munching gum leaves. This is pure bliss, the deafening silence of the forest. Even the usually mirthful and raucous kookaburra seems to chuckle in hushed tones here. The roar of the ocean has receded to a respectful distance.

If you’re not satisfied with the worm’s eye view from the forest floor, drive to the Otway Flyer that gives you a bird’s eye view of the lush green canopy. Australia has 600-odd varieties of Eucalyptus trees and many of them grow up to a hundred feet or more, but in order to reach their level, you must first climb the metal walkways that branch off in all directions and culminate in a central tower. Did I speak too soon about silence and serenity? As hundreds of tourist feet shuffle on the metallic planks, they clang, sway and groan and rent the tranquillity of the jungle. If you persist in your climb, you will eventually reach the top from where you can look down upon these giants of the jungle. The entire route is peppered with informative posters that tell you all that you always wanted to know about rainforests and their inhabitants but didn’t know where to look.

Quiet beauty

But my favorite spot on the Great Ocean Road is Chris’s Beacon Point villa atop a hill. I stay in a studio apartment with its own kitchenette and laundry. The entire suite just hangs out on the mountainside. The seaside wall is entirely glass and you have stunning views of the surf and the beach from every corner of your room. With a moonlit sea shimmering right under your wall and a bottle of the best Victorian Pinot Noir by your bedside, you’re bound to spend the night propped up on a pillow and gazing into the horizon yonder. Should you drift off to sleep ignoring this gorgeous scenery, no worries, as the Aussies say. You’re sure to be woken up at the crack of dawn by the mocking cacophony of a dozen kookaburras. Just as well, otherwise you’d have missed the splendid sunrise.

(Published in The Hindu dated June 24, 2007)

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