When people travel, they usually go to a specific destination: a city, beach, mountain or lake. Sometimes, however, the road itself is the destination. This is true of some of the most famous roads in the world: for example, the Stelvio Pass, the classic Italian Alpine road that leads to Europe’s second-highest pass. Here, after 84 hairpin bends and an average gradient of 7.6%, motorists reach a height of 2,758 metres above sea level. Another European road well worth the trip is “Ceausescu’s Folly”: brainchild of the Romanian dictator to defend the Carpathians in the event of Soviet attack, it is 152 kilometres of curves through ever-changing, always-interesting landscapes. The historic Route Napoleon in France retraces the route Napoleon took on his return to Paris after being exiled on Elba, while the Atlanterhavsveien in Norway, a road just 8 kilometres long, leaps from islet to islet over daring bridges, and is famous for being the world’s most dangerous road. Beyond Europe, there’s the legendary Route 66 that runs between Santa Monica and Chicago, and in Argentina Route 40, which reaches an altitude of 5,000 metres above sea level. By rights, any list of the world’s most beautiful and scenic roads should include the Great Ocean Road in Australia, which runs between the city of Torquay and Allansford on the south coast. Let’s see why it is an Australian national heritage site.
How long is the Great Ocean Road?
As the name suggests, the Great Ocean Road is a famous coastal road with stunning ocean views. The 243 kilometre route takes about four hours to drive at a moderate speed, leaving time to admire the beautiful nature and views along Australia’s coast south of Melbourne. As it winds its way westward, the road takes in waterfalls, rainforests, dreamy beaches and stunning natural sculptures. One thing that makes this road particularly unique, even before taking in the landscape, is how it was built.
Why Was the Great Ocean Road Built?
The Federated State of Victoria’s south-eastern coastline was accessible only by sea or via challenging forest trails right into the 20th century. Not surprisingly, this hard to access part of the country supported only small, isolated townships. This was the first reason that led to the idea to build the Great Ocean Road. The second reason was the end of World War I, as the country sought to find jobs for Australian soldiers returning from the front. This major public works project provided employment for thousands of men. Geelong City Mayor Howard Hitchcock founded a private company, the Great Ocean Road Trust, in 1918, raising a total of $81,000 in capital through private investment and loans, and contributing $3,000 himself. The initial idea was to recoup the outlay with an initial toll fee for motorists: once the debt was repaid, the road became Victoria State property.
Given that it was built by soldiers returning from World War I, it should come as no surprise that the entire road is dedicated to the war dead, in effect making it the world’s largest war memorial.
Great Ocean Road: Construction
Construction work on the Great Ocean Road began in September 1919. Some 3,000 former Australian soldiers went to work, on average building 3 kilometres of road per month. Construction was undertaken almost exclusively by hand, using only very small items of machinery. The bulk of the work was done with shovels, picks, wheelbarrows and explosives. The ex-soldiers earned ten shillings for an eight-hour day, and worked a half-day on Saturdays; the entire workforce slept in mobile tent camps.
On 18 March 1922, a ground-breaking ceremony was held for the first section of the Great Ocean Road, from Eastern View to Lorne. It would take another ten years for the section between Lorne and Apollo Bay to be completed and the road finished. The road’s main promoter, Hitchcock, died a few months before the opening, on 22 August; despite this, to open the road, his car was driven along the entire route, just behind the governor’s car. A memorial on the road near Lorne is dedicated to Hitchcock, the “Father of the Road” .
In its first few decades, and at least until the 1960s, despite continuous improvements the Great Ocean Road was a scenically-stunning but challenging road to drive: so much so that the Victorian Police Motor School used it to train its drivers.
Great Ocean Road: Points of Interest
It is no surprise that the Great Ocean Road is an increasingly-popular tourist destination. Between Torquay and Allansford, motorists are spoilt for choice when it comes to beauty spots. The highlight is the Twelve Apostles, a set of magnificent limestone stacks that rise majestically from the ocean waters.
The start of the road is Torquay, a destination for surfers at Bells Beach; its annual competition attracts the world’s finest athletes. The City of Lorne, an elegant seaside resort packed with culture and a famous beach, is another must-see stop. And make sure you keep your eyes peeled as you drive the Kennet River stretch of the Great Ocean Road: where else can you spot whales on one side of the car and koalas on the other?