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Weekend Agenda: Road Trip Along the Australian Coast

Anna — a writer, artist, and friend of MiiR — decided to spend her winter a little differently this year. After visiting family in Adelaide, Australia, Anna and her husband rented a van and road-tripped along the Southern Australia coast from Melbourne to Victoria. Join us as Anna writes about her experiences along the wild and colorful Limestone Coast and the Great Ocean Road.

Coastlines are alluring.

They are tumultuous boundaries where land meets sea, one gradually changing into the other. To face the open water is to feel freedom, the responsibilities of life on land out of view, hidden behind your back. Whether it’s a rocky shoreline or a sandy beach, I have always been drawn to this space, intrigued by the sounds and shapes that mark them, the commonalities that these twisting, evolving landscapes all share.

When you stand on a beach, on a cliff, on an outcropping, there is the experience of existing not just in that space, but in a larger one. On a coastline, I am reminded of my connections to the greater world around me. What I see, what I hear, and what I smell doesn’t feel like a specific place in time or geography. Those definitions start to erase, becoming fuzzy and indistinguishable, and I am left standing on land of which we are all stewards, watching the sea whose waters have sculpted the edges since the beginning of time.

For those enchanted by coastlines like myself, coastal road trips have a particular allure. Following the curves of a coast, watching land shift to sea, smelling the salt air through the windows. On road trips, time slows down. Just you, the open road and vast ocean beyond.

The Limestone Coast and The Great Ocean Road in southern Australia provide the chance for just that; rugged coastlines dotted with lively beach towns, a grandiose landscape where you’re encouraged to take your time.

My husband and I had been in Adelaide to visit his family, and planned to drive to Melbourne, following the coastline of South Australia east towards Victoria, then onto the Great Ocean Road. One of the world’s most scenic drives, the Great Ocean Road stretches about 150 miles from Nelson, right near the South Australian border, all the way to Torquay, near Geelong, a chance to watch the wild southern Australian coast unfold.

The coastline of southern Australia is a compelling drive, as long as you remember to stay to the left.

Logistically speaking, roadtripping in Australia is a straightforward affair — as long as you can master driving on the left side of the road and paying extra attention for kangaroos and koalas. A popular tourist destination, there are ample car and campervan rental companies to choose from depending on what you need and what kind of a trip you’re after.

Pro tip: since there are so many travelers who rent cars and vans in Australia, there is a system of “relocation.” If your schedule is flexible, you can return a rental car to its original location, not only doing the car rental company a service, but scoring you a budget-friendly rate (and sometimes even, fuel allowance). We managed to find a Toyota campervan for four days and three nights for around $200.

Starting in Adelaide, we left town, driving towards the Adelaide Hills. The highway quickly climbed up and out of the city and into the dense eucalyptus trees. This part of Australia reminds me of Napa or Sonoma, its smaller roads peppered with wineries and farmstands. Our destination for our first night was Coorong National Park, known to locals simply as “The Coorong.” The large lagoon that is the park’s namesake is fed by the Murray River, and the waterways that have shaped this area are the ancestral home of the Ngarrindjeri Aboriginal people.

A small turnoff near Salt Creek made for camp that night, pinks and oranges silhouetted against the trees and grasses of the lagoon. Aside from the occasional truck driving past on the road, we were alone. If you can get away from the city metropolises, it’s easy to find solitude and ample amounts of natural beauty.

This stretch southeast of Adelaide offers a taste of the coastline just a little bit more off the beaten path than the Great Ocean Road. Known as The Limestone Coast, it is home to a unique combination of natural features and marine environment. It’s also home to Australia’s most recent volcano, Mount Gambier, which last erupted around 5,000 years ago.

At Mount Gambier, Blue Lake shimmers a stunning hue of turquoise.

Blue Lake sits in a crater of the extinct volcano, its blue waters turning to a bright turquoise from November to March; I was reminded of the hue of Crater Lake back at home in the Pacific Northwest. This area is also a growing wine region, and we took a visit to Good Intentions Wine Co. who is taking advantage of the unique geography to make intriguing, place-driven wines. We stashed a few bottles in the back of the van for later.

Thanks to one of the guys working at the winery, we were tipped off that the best campsite in town was a beach parking lot just east of Port Macdonnell. The only campervan in the lot, we had a sunset picnic on the beach, watching the last of the beach-goers head in for the day.

Five star accommodations.Cheers!

After brewing an oceanside coffee, we headed off towards Cape Bridgewater. Once a volcanic island, today it’s joined to the mainland by calcified sand dunes, and along the cape’s rocky edges lives a colony of Australian and New Zealand fur seals. Almost entirely wiped out by the fur trade in the mid-1800s, today the two colonies thrive thanks to their home on the rocky cliffs, which you can see by hiking along the ridge of the cape to a viewing platform.

The hike at Cape Bridgewater takes you along Victoria’s highest coastal cliff, overlooking Bridgewater Bay.

Dropping down into Portland, the highway then hugs the coast, taking you towards Port Fairy (where there’s excellent ice cream at Poco Artisan Ice Cream, with flavors like pavlova with mango and strawberry), through the major center of Warrnambool and then into Port Campbell. This is the “hub” of the Great Ocean Road, close to some of the main geological attractions that make this coastline so famous, many of them part of the Twelve Apostles Marine National Park. As you drive, the road is lined with turnoffs to viewpoints and hiking trails. Dark golden cliffs jut out of the water, the waves churning at the base, turning the dark blue of the ocean into a frothy white.

All roads lead to the Great Ocean Road. Awe-inspiring sights, colors, and company.

Before dusk set in, we made our way to the simple campground in Port Campbell. Parking the van in a quiet corner, we crammed our wine thermos and glasses in a backpack and walked into town to pick up an order of fish and chips from Frying Nemo. I’ve never seen a larger $6 order of fries in my entire life, all wrapped up in newsprint and easy to carry down to the beach, overlooking the Port Campbell Jetty.

Soak in the evening light at the beach in Port Campbell.

We got up early the next morning to explore a few of the stops we had missed the day before, and then we continued on towards the Twelve Apostles. These dramatic rock stacks were created some 10 to 20 million years ago, the result of the erosion of the mainland’s limestone cliffs. Sea and wind continue to batter them, and only eight are left today.

This is certainly the gem of the Great Ocean Road, the thing you see on all of the brochures and in guidebooks. It’s easy to gauge the area’s popularity simply by looking at the amount of car parking that is available.

Reminiscent of the North American PNW.

We brewed a thermos of coffee in the van in the parking lot and then, wanting to take in the surroundings a little more in-depth, hiked to Gibson Steps, an access point that quickly drops you down 86 steps from the high cliffs above and onto the beach. This is a beach full of drama, plenty of signs to warn you not to swim on account of strong ocean currents which could pull you off the sand and out into the rolling water. Despite it being the height of summer, it was a cool and misty morning, more reminiscent of mornings spent on the coastline of my native Pacific Northwest. But the gray skies made for a moody background, dampening the sounds of visitors as their voices were tuned out by the violent sea.

The rugged waters have cut into the limestone along the Great Ocean Road, creating its most well known landmark, the 12 Apostles.

From the Twelve Apostles, the road sneaks along a twisting, winding, hilly route through the rainforest in Otway National Park. Driving through, even without the windows down, the smell of eucalyptus wafted into the van.

At Apollo Bay you’re back on the coastline, the towns that follow are busy with crowds that come from Melbourne for weekends and holidays. The stretches here reminded me of Highway 1 in Northern California, and even sections of Highway 101 in Oregon where cliffs drop down into churning waves. By now the morning mist had worn off, the summer sun intense with heat and turning the ocean a deep cobalt blue.

A friend had recommended we stop for lunch at the Wye General Store, a cute cafe and local grocery store that sits at the mouth of the Wye River overlooking the beach. After driving to and dropping the van off in Melbourne, we sat in the backyard at our friends’ house, sand still in our hair and shorts pockets, not quite ready to wash off the smell of the sea. We cracked open a beer, the freedom of the open road now behind us, the coastline always calling us back.

Wherever we travel, it is important to understand the connections between place and people. Thank you to the traditional custodians of the land who honor, respect and protect this landscape that offers so much to so many.

Our kind of beach activity.

Thanks for reading along! Check out Anna's website and follow her next adventure on her Instagram

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