By R. Arun Kumar
Imagine if you were asked, “When did you feel the happiest?” or its derivative, “What makes you feel full of life?” I might fumble with my reply if the question came out-of-the-blue, but when I am sitting behind the steering wheel of my car, peering ahead at an empty stretch of road that seems to go on forever, an azure blue sky beckoning me on, places crossed out in a folded piece of map waiting to be explored, the answer has always seemed so clear to me. I love the open road and all its possibilities….
I landed up in the US, the birthplace of cars and highways, eight years ago, after having lived in India with its crowded streets and badly maintained roads. I was fortunate to have moved to California directly, with its breath-taking natural beauty, superb roads, widely varying terrains, a wonderful system of freeways, state highways and back roads, and what is arguably the most scenic drive in the whole world, the Pacific Highway 1 through Big Sur. That is when the art-of-the-possible dawned and the ‘long-drive’ bug really bit me. I have been on several other memorable road trips since, but the gold standard has always been the Pacific Highway, so when I was told that the Great Ocean Road in Australia rivaled it, I almost did not believe it. During a business trip to Oz , I had an open weekend and I decided to commit myself to the 3 to 4 hour drive to my chosen end point on the Great Ocean Road, the mystical and majestic Twelve Apostles.
I started out with some trepidation and a large dose of anticipation. You have to hand it to the Aussies and to the aborigines who originally inhabited this island continent – the names of their towns and villages are charming and evocative. How could a trip that passes through Geelong (pronounced jeee-long), Torquay (tor-key), Angelsea and Aireys, not be worthwhile? I drove about 45 minutes out of Melbourne till Geelong on the intriguingly named Princes Highway. The turn-off south leads to Torquay, the gateway to the Great Ocean Road and the self-proclaimed Surf Capital of the world (take that Huntington Beach, Santa Cruz, and Oahu). They say the West owns surfing, it was born there. Whatever…Torquay doesn’t care! It sits snug and comfortable knowing it has some of the most beautiful beaches, the best mild and huge-waves that appeal to surfers and has the hipness that comes because the young, the fit and the cool converge here. And some of the most famous surf companies, including Rip Curl, are based in Torquay – case closed. Not being a surfer myself, I drove along what was now an increasingly beautiful coastline, to the next scenic stop at Angelsea. From here till Apollo Bay, which is an hour or so further down, the road almost hugs the dramatic coastline facing the Bass Strait, and the views are almost exactly same as one would find on Hwy 1; gentle green mountains and ridges on one side, narrow white bridges in the middle, shimmering blue water on the other. One can stop at a few well-marked spots and take quick hikes to some hidden jewels of waterfalls dotting the road. This is the benign part of the Great Ocean Road: once you are on the other side of the coastal hump, demarcated by the Cape Otway and the Otway National Park, it starts being called the Shipwreck Coast. That part of the coastline was typically the first land mass seen by ships from England and other parts of Europe, coming around Cape of Good Hope and keeping as close to the lower Antarctica Circle to take advantage of strong ship-friendly currents. Little did they realize the pitfalls that awaited them in the jagged shoreline with hidden rocks and sharp cliffs. Eighty shipwrecks have been recorded in the 80-mile coast along this part of Australia. Getting to the Shipwreck side involves a really twisted stretch that snakes through a dense forest (Otway National Park) of massive eucalyptus, mountain ash and waterfalls. The weather changed perceptibly after I crossed the forest. It was cloudy, windier, and it threatened to rain. The sunny Melbourne sky seemed as if part of a different world altogether. There was a slight drizzle when I reached the visitor center for Twelve Apostles. In an artistic tribute to the ocean, there are half a dozen scrolls drawn up on wavy sheet metal stands or stone casts that stretch almost halfway to the ceiling. Each one of them has haunting, memorable poetry and some sublime painting or sketch. Lingering awhile, goosebumps increasing with every scroll, my thoughts were no longer in the present – I was one of these survivors of a shipwreck, I was immobile as an apostle guarding the coast from the ferocious sea, I was the sea-wind, salty and peppery at the same time… Here is one of the odes to shipwreck that made my hair stand on end: Immigrant, you shriek – I hear you – I am the land you seek. In sight of salvation – Miscalculation – Welcome to my deep. Twelve thousand miles to plan. Just a shout From beach and farm. Just a breath From fear and harm. Can you not swim Into my arms? Finally, the Twelve Apostles! These are limestone rock stacks formed up to 20 million years ago and created by the sea gradually eroding the sheer cliffs over a period of time. There are only 8 of the original 12 remaining now, others ground to dust by the merciless swirling waters. Fifty years ago, these were known as the Sows and Piglets – the new name of course has more impact! Nothing, not even the build up on the drive, had prepared me for the majestic grandeur of these gigantic, isolated structures strewn along the rough coast. I stood awe-struck, humbled by the power and beauty of nature’s creation. I ran from one view point to the other, and then back again. Feasted my eyes on every possible detail. Etched them into memory, both the photographic and grey cells variety. There was a steady drizzle going on. Maybe the gods were themselves shedding tears on the tragic history of the coast, or were giving the apostles much-needed company. Were you halted marching south, or anchored climbing to the beach? Did you yearn for freedom through the endless years? Is the mystic Southern Ocean, yours to rule or empire lost? The mists around you rain or wasted tears? Are you prisoners or guardians, at the clash of rock and wave? Do you feel us gaze in wonder at your might? You have seen the stars before us, and beyond us you will stand. Forever at the edge, through day and night. Poetry courtesy Twelve Apostles Visitor Center The Great Ocean Road, Victoria, Australia Maps and Driving directions from major cities in Australia can be found here Excellent answers to some FAQs on The Great Ocean Road here For those interested in exploring other delights of Melbourne and Victoria in Australia, a good place to start is here . Arun is a wannabe writer, also afflicted with wanderlust. His sales career with a leading IT services firm makes it hard to bring all that together but he is trying. He lives with his wife and two sons on the edge of the faultline in the Bay Area in California.