Barbara Noe, The Daily Telegraph, June 18, 2013
On this early February dawn, glassy Elizabeth Lake reflects primordial gums and giant ferns, and among the many birds flitting about is what appears to be a laughing kookaburra. But I’m here at this tiny lake deep in the Otway Ranges, near Australia’s fantastic Great Ocean Road, in search of the duck-billed platypus.
This odd, elusive, ancient creature – its species is at least 110 million years old – is actually quite abundant along Australia’s eastern coast. At least that’s what my guide, Bruce Jackson, tells me as we walk through damp eucalyptus forest on our approach to the lake. The prospect of actually seeing this animal that I recall from photographs in my elementary school primers is thrilling.
Six of these monotremes – egg-laying mammals – live in Lake Elizabeth. Shy and individualistic, each resides in its own burrow, though every day at dusk and dawn they prowl the lake, in quest of shrimp and other invertebrates.
“Look for bubbles,” Bruce says as we glide slowly on liquorice-black waters in the canoe that he had stashed on the shore. Before too long, he points off to the right. I see bubbles, and a form appears.
“I’ve never seen that before,” Bruce says, staring. The little guy, who appears to have heaved himself on to a log, sits there for the longest while, totally immersed in his personal grooming. I can make out a spoon-like beak, furry brown body, and beaver-like tail. And I can certainly see why, when the British first encountered the platypus in the late 18th century, the scientists back home did not initially believe that the pelt and sketch sent to them were real.
As fascinating as the platypus is, there are plenty of other wildlife experiences to be had along the Great Ocean Road. One morning I go running along a portion of the Great Ocean Walk, a 64-mile track with spectacular views of cerulean waters at nearly every turn. All of a sudden, a 6ft-tall kangaroo leaps out of the bush in front of me. He gives me a look, then bounds ahead along the trail, pausing now and again to see if I’m following. The last time I see him, he’s about 50 yards ahead around a curve, his head peeking up over the brush, and then he disappears.
The area is abundant with eastern grey kangaroos and red-shouldered wallabies. If you drive along the Great Ocean Road at dawn or dusk, you’ll see them along the roadside, standing sentry.
On a hike down to the beach near the historic Cape Otway Lighthouse, Mark Brack – a local guide who grew up in the lighthouse’s shadow (his father was the keeper) – points out the impressions of a wallaby footprint. “They come down here to die,” he says. “After a while, the alpha males are too beaten up to fight for their status any more. They are ousted out of the mob and have no choice but to die on their own.”
I scan the periwinkle waters of Bass Strait, the crashing waves, the vertiginous cliffs, and muse that, if you have to die, this must be the most beautiful place to do it.
Then there are the koalas – six million live in the area. Driving into Cape Otway, midway along the route, you notice two things: many of the manna gum trees are leafless; and cars are stopped all along the side of the road with groups of people gawking upward. Both of these are signs that koalas are in the trees above. They are admittedly adorable, clinging to their branches like teddy bears. I keep reminding myself that they’re not bears (they’re marsupials). And, with their very sharp claws to stay put on branches, they’re not so cuddly, either.
One evening, I stroll through the bush with Shayne Neal, who runs the nearby Great Ocean Ecolodge with his wife, Lizzie. As we walk beneath gum trees, spotting one koala after the next, he tells me that some people find the koalas on Otway to be a nuisance – they directly blame them for literally eating the trees to death.
It’s true that koalas eat a lot, up to 1lb of leaves a day. “But we don’t think they’re killing the trees,” Shayne says. The organisation that he and Lizzie established in 2004, Cape Otway Centre for Conservation Ecology, is investigating the process of decline, convinced that the koalas are simply the last in a chain of events that is contributing to the trees’ demise – including drought, the effect of changed fire regimes, and the encroachment of coastal shrubs – not the cause.
I spot plenty of other wildlife during my explorations of the Great Ocean Road – kites, lorikeets, wombats, sugar gliders, spotted quolls, even a cuttlefish spine on the beach. My only regret is that I never time it right to see the penguins. That’s right – every day, at the striking rock formations collectively called the Twelve Apostles, hundreds of little penguins rush out to sea at dawn for a day of fishing, then rush back at dusk to feed their young in their beachside burrows. Everyone I meet who’s seen them says it’s one of the most exhilarating sights they’ve ever seen. I also missed the glow worms – which are actually the larvae of fungus gnats that illuminate the night-time rainforest of Melba Gully with green lights emanating from their bellies. The only solution: I must return to this magical, wildlife-blessed land.
For more information on the Great Ocean Road, including accommodation and attractions, go to visitgreatoceanroad.org.au .
Contact Bruce Jackson (0061 3 5236 6345; platypustours.net.au ) for platypus tours on Lake Elizabeth.
Mark Brack (0417 983985; greatoceanwalk.asn.au/markstours ) offers private walking tours of the area.
The Great Ocean Road snakes 108 miles along Victoria’s southern coast between Torquay and Warrnambool. Most people start from Melbourne, 60 miles east of Torquay.
Qantas (0844 493 0787; qantas.co.uk ), Cathay Pacific (8834 8888; cathaypacific.co.uk ); and British Airways (0844 493 0787; britishairways.co.uk ) all operate flights from London Heathrow to Melbourne’s Tullamarine airport. Return economy tickets start at £840. Normal flying time is just over 22 hours.
It’s recommended to rent a car to drive along the Great Ocean Road. The main rental companies are Avis (avis.co.uk; from £235 for a week); Europcar ( europcar.co.uk ; £168) and Hertz ( hertz.co.uk ; £265 for a week).
Several companies offer fly-drive packages with itineraries taking in the Great Ocean Road. They include Austravel (0800 988 4834; austravel.com ) from £1,499 for seven nights combining Melbourne, the Great Ocean Road and the Grampians, with four nights’ accommodation and five days car hire, plus flights); and Trailfinders (020 7368 1200; trailfinders.com ; from £1,499 per person for seven nights combining Melbourne and the Great Ocean Road, with seven nights’ accommodation, car hire and flights).
What to do and see
A relaxing seaside town near Great Otway National Park overlooking Loutit Bay, with pavement cafés and a plethora of holiday homes.
Snuggled in the foothills of the Otways, this bustling seaside village, with a splendid crescent-shaped beach, is the focal point of Great Ocean Road restaurants and hotels.
Great Otway National Park
The Otway Ranges boast waterfalls, rainforest walks, and the Cape Otway Lighthouse, Australia’s oldest surviving lighthouse, established in 1848.
Port Campbell National Park
Harbouring the Twelve Apostles, the spectacular limestone stacks that have brought fame to this coastline, the park runs between Princetown and Peterborough. Stop in Port Campbell village for its lively strip of restaurants and cafés.
This town is famous for surfing and for whale-watching: between May and September, Logan’s Beach turns into a nursery for southern right whales. Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum re-creates a 19th-century coastal port.
Tower Hill Game Preserve
An extinct volcano provides a unique haven for all kinds of wildlife, including koalas, kangaroos and emus.
Perched at the western end of the Great Ocean Road, this tiny fishing village showcases 19th-century cottages and stone churches along its pine-shaded streets.
Where to stay
Be lulled to sleep by chirping frogs and undulating waves in your very own luxury tent, equipped with comfortable king bed, electricity for lights and fan/heater, and en-suite bathrooms. There are no nearby restaurants, so come with your own supplies to cook at the communal gas barbecue or microwave. Access to the Great Ocean Walk – and a stroll to the Twelve Apostles – is just steps away (Great Ocean Road, The Twelve Apostles; 3 5243 3579; pebblepoint.com.au ).
Great Ocean Ecolodge
This friendly, environmentally sustainable lodge in Cape Otway sits on 165 acres visited by kangaroos at dawn and dusk. The rooms are lovingly decorated, and have hardwood floors and views out to the Otway Ranges or the kitchen gardens. Dine with other guests in the evening on delectable dishes made from local produce; breakfast and afternoon tea included (635 Otway Lighthouse Road, Cape Otway, Great Otway National Park; 3 5237 9297; greatoceanecolodge.com ).
Oscars Waterfront Boutique Hotel
Decorated in French provincial style, this smart hotel in the seaside village of Port Fairy overlooks a yacht-dotted marina. Save your appetite for the gourmet breakfast, served on the veranda in fair weather (41b Gipps Street, Port Fairy; 3 5568 3022; oscarswaterfront.com ).
Where to eat and drink
A locally driven menu – try blackened gummy shark fillet with sheep yogurt, cucumber, and dill tzatziki or kangaroo sirloin with braised beetroot and master stock jus – is served in this funky restaurant on Lorne’s main road (124 Mountjoy Pde, Lorne; 3 5289 2787; marksrestaurant.com.au ).
Waves Café, Bar and Restaurant
A local favourite on Port Campbell’s main street with a weekly changing menu based on regional ingredients – try the fish and chips or seafood marinara (29 Lord St, Port Campbell; 3 5598 6111; wavesportcampbell.com.au ).
An innovative, highly acclaimed, Greek-inspired menu using fresh produce offers such delights as Kakavia soup, rich with mussels, prawns, calamari, scallops and salmon; and beef on oxtail terrine, served with potato galette, crispy bacon and leek, and pepper sauce. Floor-to-ceiling windows look out on the sparkling Bass Strait (280 Skenes Creek Rd, Apollo Bay; 3 5237 6411; chriss.com.au ).
It’s possible to drive the entire length of the Great Ocean Road in a day. But two days will allow you to be more leisurely about enjoying the coastal sights and towns. Three days are necessary if you want to do some hikes or other recreation.
The most touted sight along the route is the Twelve Apostles, a collection of eight – not 12 – limestone stacks rising out of the surf (and site of the penguin parade). The best time to visit is in the morning, when the rising sun casts them in golden light.
The Great Ocean Walk is an excellent way to experience some of the region’s wildlife (including tiger snakes – be careful). It extends 65 miles, connecting Apollo Bay with the Twelve Apostles. The best section is the 4.3 miles from Castle Cove to Johanna Beach, which has gorgeous scenery and few hikers.
There aren’t many places to eat between towns along the Great Ocean Road. Be sure to pack picnic supplies with you, or plan to eat in Torquay, Bells Beach, Anglesea, Aireys Inlet, Lorne, Apollo Bay, Port Campbell, or Warrnambool. The Cape Otway Lighthouse has a diner, but you must pay the £11 lighthouse entry fee in order to eat there.
There are so many viewing points along the road to admire that there is a danger of vista fatigue; be sure to decide in advance which attractions you absolutely don’t want to miss, and throw in some extra ones along the way – but not too many.
Be wary of treacherous currents. Strong riptides and undercurrents exist along the coastline; be sure to observe local signs (swim on patrolled beaches between the yellow and red flags) and ask local advice on the best places to take a dip.
The danger is extremely low, but keep an eye out for venomous snakes, including tiger, copperhead and red-bellied black; as well as such poisonous spiders as the redback and white-tailed.
Australia’s sun is famously strong; take proper precautions against sunburn by wearing a shirt, a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses and sunscreen.