Starting at Melbourne and heading west, the Great Ocean Road is a highway and coastal region in southern Australia. This is one of the most famous coastal road trips in the world, with some of the biggest waves and best scenery to boot. Looking south from these coasts, there is nothing but water between you and Antarctica. Massive waves roll in from the south to pound against beaches, eerie rock formations and towering cliffs. Remote and desolate grasslands roll up to thick forests, and then everything suddenly falls away into a surging, raging white-capped sea. Small towns and shops beckon to the traveler and give way to rolling hills and wide-open landscapes
Looking out from these coastal cliffs, the feeling of distance, time and remoteness can be palpable. Even so, you are not so far from civilization.
If you drive the whole road, your total distance out and back will be 500 kilometers or so. Overwhelming, no? So this guide will be a little different from my other Photographer’s Guides I’ve written for you so far. In addition to a list of good photo locations, this guide will give you a rough itinerary to follow and show you how to make the most of a trip along the Great Ocean Road, insofar as photography goes.
Some tours will have you in and out within two days. But to really make the most of a trip Down Under, you’ll want to plan seven nights. Get belted in and let’s start driving.
While you can find hotels, B&Bs and places to stay here and there, the best way to experience the Great Ocean Road is in a campervan. Rent one in Melbourne, do this loop I’m going to recommend and return it at the same place. Or you can opt for a one-way rental, keep going west and return in Adelaide (although this option will be much more expensive). Unless you happen to visit on a holiday week/weekend, finding campgrounds shouldn’t be a problem. Also keep your eye out for off-the-grid bush camping areas.
For a full seven night (eight day) itinerary, you can follow my plan here. If you have less time or want to speed up the trip, see the final recommendations below. Or you can cherry pick from the locations I’ve chosen.
Melbourne to Halls Gap
Get up early, grab your bags and get your food, water and RV sorted out. Then hit the road. Your first stop on the Great Ocean Road is… not on the Great Ocean Road at all. Head due west from Melbourne, towards Ballarat. Then keep going. Your ultimate goal on Day One will be Grampians National Park and Halls Gap. With abundant wildlife, kangaroos, wallabies, echidnas and more, Grampians National Park is a wonderland of valleys, lakes, overlooks and craggy mountains.
Halls Gap Zoo
This is the largest zoo in the region, with over 150 distinct animal species. From kangaroos and wombats, to possums, wallabees, Tasmanian devils and crocodiles, here you can see and appreciate nearly all the unique wildlife that Australia has to offer. You’ll be taking a lot of photos here, so plan for a few hours after lunch.
Just to the west of Halls Gap, drive up to the Balconies for a beautiful afternoon view of the Grampians National Park valleys and mountain ranges. Explore the rock formations and take in the sprawling Victoria Valley. Also on the way, be sure to stop at Reeds Lookout.
A series of gargantuan rock formations that overlook Halls Gap and the valley, the Pinnacle is around two miles of round trip hiking from the nearest parking area (just over four kilometers round-trip). For the easiest and quickest hike, start at the Sundial parking area. Late afternoon and golden hour, the viewpoints here will give you some striking photo opportunities.
Halls Gap and Grampians National Park
Grampians National Park is most famous for its sandstone mountain ranges and massive rocky geologic features. So Day Two on this itinerary will have you make the most of this landscape and your trip west from Melbourne, before you begin to loop back on the coast. And if you didn’t have time for the zoo on the first day (because of the long drive), you can pack that in here during the morning.
This is an artificial lake just to the south of Halls Gap. The area is a good choice for birdwatching and nature photography. For some nice views, take a walk along the lakeside during the morning. You’ll find the most interesting areas at the south half of the lake, just off Grampians Road, where hundreds of dead and bleached trees stand like sentries from the lakewater.
Wartook Lake / Mount Difficult Road
Back to the north of Halls Gap, find and take Mount Difficult Road. If you have a regular car, you can only go so far, as the road will eventually turn to a rutted, and sometimes sandy, unimproved dirt track. But even in a regular car, you can get to Boroka Lookout. Enjoy the landscape panorama here, and then if your vehicle allows, keep going until you get to a pullout for Lake Wartook Lookout. The path snakes a way through some rough terrain until you arrive at a special westerly view of rugged rocks and a faraway lake (best during late afternoon).
Save this stop for your golden hour and sunset panoramas, as the views from the top of Mount William are simply fantastic. Note that after a certain point, the road to the top is closed to vehicles. So you’ll have to hoof it two kilometers uphill to the top. When you reach the end of the road at the top, there is a sort of weather station and cell tower area. Press past this to get to the best viewing area, on the rocks just to the north.
Grampians to Portland
Day Three begins, and now the time has come to take to the coast. Your trip back along the Great Ocean Road officially begins. So open up your maps and take the route down to Portland. The change in scenery will be dramatic, as you journey from the inland mountains and grasslands, to a windswept coast of beaches, dunes and cliffs.
Portland waterfront and town
Portland was the first European settlement and town in the Victoria region. As such, the town is home to many 19th century buildings and architecture. Here you can get your first taste of the coast, with a walk through downtown and along the waterfront. If you get here early enough in the day, consider stopping by the Portland Cable Trams museum, with some funky old trams that run along the oceanside.
After you pass through Portland and grab a bite to eat, you can take the road over to Cape Bridgewater. Here you’ll find some walking trails and a “petrified forest” of eroded landforms by the sea. There are also some good views of coastline and ocean from the cliffs. Get out your zoom lens and you may be able to see some seals or whales (if the season is right).
Cape Nelson Lighthouse
Top off your day with a visit to Cape Nelson and the Cape Nelson Lighthouse. Many walking trails meander around the cape and will bring you right up the cliff’s edge in some cases. Watch your footing and enjoy the late afternoon light over the sea and coastal landscape. With the sweeping cliffs and the 19th century lighthouse for your foreground, this will be a perfect spot for some golden hour and sunset shots.
Portland to Port Campbell
You might be getting tired by this point, but stick with it, as Day Four will have you getting into some of the best of the Great Ocean Road. Driving east from Portland, the landscape will flatten out into rolling hills and grassy plains. You’ll pass the cute little towns of Port Fairy and Warrnambool, before getting back into cliff country.
Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve
If you didn’t get enough wildlife photography at the Halls Gap Zoo, or if you just want more time with the unique Australian creatures, spend a couple hours during the morning at the Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve. The park is set on a volcanic cone that rises partially out of a lake (which sounds more impressive than it actually is). The real reason to stop by is the many koalas, emu, wallabies, kangaroo and other animals you can see roaming about.
The Grotto / London Arch
Drive past the Bay of Islands and Bay of Martyrs (don’t worry, we’ll come back here later). At the Grotto and London Arch areas you can get out and stretch your legs to enjoy the seaside views. A walking path will take you along the sandstone cliffs to where you can overlook the Grotto, a spot where waves and tides have cut a way through. The London Arch is exactly what it sounds like, a huge stone arch in the sea. The interesting thing is that the arch used to be connected to the mainland via another arch, which collapsed in 1990, leaving a couple tourists needing rescue via helicopter.
Bay of Islands Coastal Park
Later in the day, you can head back towards Bay of Islands. Watching the swells roll in and crash through the many rocky islands and sea stacks, you can easily spend the whole afternoon here. At the various pullouts and walking areas around Bay of Islands and Bay of Martyrs, you’ll find many opportunities to compose nice shots as the landscape is quite impressive. Here the coastline turns to the north, so the mainly west-facing Bay of Islands and Bay of Martyrs will be excellent for your end-of-day golden hour and sunset shots. (unfortunately, when I was there the weather didn’t quite cooperate during late afternoon)
Port Campbell to Princetown
You won’t cover much ground on Day Five on the Great Ocean Road. But this is because you’ll now be getting into some of the best and most famous photo locations on the trip. The cliffs are higher. The views are bigger. And the panoramas are… more panoramic. Port Campbell National Park is where you’ll find most of the attractions and viewpoints. Drive west from Port Campbell, and you’ll soon enter the national park.
Sparkes Gully Lookout
You’ll have to keep an eye on your map for this one, as there isn’t a sign or official road. But stop here, and you can enjoy a solitary view of headlands, cliffs and a sizeable, wave-sculpted gully between the two headlands. Did I mention there probably won’t be any crowds?
The Sherbrook River was one of my favorite stops during this section of the road. Park at the Loch Ard Gorge lot, and you can take a short walking track over to the ocean. The river is blocked with a huge sand dune, and one side you can walk out along the rocks and really get a feel for the power of the surging waves. On the other side, a beach runs in front of dunes and then along the base of high cliffs. Keep your camera at the ready and watch for the bigger waves as they pound against the little islands and sea stacks.
Loch Ard Gorge
Once upon a time, this section of coast was also called the Shipwreck Coast. And here you’ll get a good sense of just how treacherous and powerful the seas along the south Victoria coast can be. At Loch Ard Gorge, the waves have carved over time a massive gorge between headlands. And the gorge is so named for the Loch Ard, a clipper ship that ran aground nearby in the late 19th century. The view is especially nice for panoramas, and you can hike down to the sheltered beach between the headlands.
Twelve Apostles Viewpoint
This is the world famous viewpoint where you can photograph the towering sea stacks of the so-called Twelve Apostles. There were twelve rock spires at some point, but over the years some have collapsed due to storms and erosion, leaving us with something like seven or eight apostles (which doesn’t have the same ring to it). There are a couple official viewing platforms here and a path that leads out to the Castle Rock headland. I was expecting this stop to be jammed with tourists, coming and going on buses, and that’s exactly how it was. Unless you are going to wait here for sunset or a blue hour shot, I recommend just grabbing a panorama and moving on.
Get some lunch and save Gibson Beach for your afternoon. (this was by far my favorite stop on the Great Ocean Road) If you visited the Twelve Apostles viewpoint, you can see this beach running along the base of the rugged cliffs to the east. You might also wonder how you might get to that beach, as the cliffs are around 70 meters high. Don’t worry, the Gibson Steps are here, providing access to the beach below.
Once down the sandy and steep steps, walk back to the west. During low tide, you can almost get out to the bases of some of the sea stacks. And the area is wonderful for photography during late afternoon, golden hour and sunset.
Princetown to Apollo Bay
Day Six on this itinerary will bring you down and through the hills and winding roads of Cape Otway. And then you’ll end the day at picturesque Apollo Bay. Charge your camera batteries and get buckled in, because this is going to be a long one, with plenty to see and do, and more to photograph.
This is a broad beach facing the ocean, with big waves and even bigger cliffs. Walk east and around the headlands for expansive coastal views with nary a soul in sight. And if you get here early enough, they say you can see kangaroos on the beach. (I’m not a morning person, but that’s what another traveler told me!)
The lighthouse and any views of it are totally overrated in my opinion. But the road south towards the lighthouse will plunge through a dense and towering forest, before coming to the windswept headlands. The main reason for taking this drive into Great Otway National Park is the opportunity to see wild koalas literally hanging around in the various eucalyptus groves. Another interesting stop is at the skeletal, bleached stands of manna gum trees, plucked clean by the many koalas that call the area home.
Just east of Apollo Bay, where Stony Creek runs to the ocean, you’ll find a fun spot to make some photos. Travelers and tourists have taken to balancing the polished, round rocks of the creek into cairns. When I visited, there were maybe three dozen of these, just before the creek reaches the beach. Following my itinerary, you can stop here in the afternoon and also stroll along the gently sloping beach, while looking back towards Apollo Bay.
Take the road back towards Apollo Bay and stop here for the best view of the area. At the end of the Marriners Lookout Road, a short track will take you up to an unbelievable panorama of the town and the coast.
Apollo Bay Waterfront
You probably saw the Apollo Bay beach, waterfront and harbor during your drive through town. But it’s best to save this for golden hour and sunset photos. Park in the lot at the end of Trafalgar Street, and walk out on the jetty. With the town and the curving beach in the foreground, and the distant hills and mountains behind and to either side, you’ll be able to frame up some nice compositions. You can also keep walking to the boat harbor, for some possible shots of ships and fishing boats.
Apollo Bay to Airey’s Inlet
Starting at Apollo Bay and continuing for almost the entire remaining length of the drive, the road hugs right to the ocean. So there are many obvious overlooks and viewpoints you will pass on the way that I will not point out, except for the most photogenic. Another comment is that on Day Seven, you’ll want to do the drive to Airey’s Inlet during the morning, as most of the photo-worthy locations are near the end of the journey.
Wye River Coastal Reserve
Wye River is just a small town or wide spot in the road (as we call them in these parts). But a couple kilometers northeast, you’ll find an area where you can walk down to the beach and ocean. Jagged rock platforms jut along the water, along with some interesting “tessellated” rock formations.
Mount Defiance Lookout
This is the best pull-out during this section of road to stop and take some shots of the rugged coastline. Here, the mountains seem to march right to the sea and drop off directly into rocks and waves. Probably best viewed in the morning, as the main overlook area faces east.
For a change of scenery, stop by this tranquil waterfall. You can access the falls in a small box canyon, a short hike away from the parking area. Go wide angle to capture the falls and the small pool in front. There is also another trail that leads to the “castle rock”, with an ocean and coastline overlook.
Split Point Lighthouse / Eagle Rock
Arriving at Fairhaven and Airey’s Inlet, look for this park on the hill southeast of the main town center. You can easily spend the afternoon here, strolling the long beach, bird watching and looking for photo opportunities among the waves and sand and tidal pools. Multiple viewpoints look out along the coast, with ample views in both directions.
Land’s End Lookout
Beautiful views and another so-called “castle rock”. Here you can make a classic composition of the coastline, ocean and the Split Point lighthouse. Best during afternoon and golden hour.
Loutit Bay Lookout
Save this spot for the end of your day, and look for the viewpoints on the west side of the hill near the Split Point Lighthouse. These spots will give you a nice view back and to the west, over the sandy beach and the estuary. Really nice spot for golden hour and sunset photography!
Airey’s Inlet to Melbourne
You did it! You made your own way out and back on Victoria’s famous Great Ocean Road. And if you followed this guide, you managed to hit a couple other memorable places on the way. Starting out on your last day in Airey’s Inlet, you probably have plans to turn in your RV or campervan back in Melbourne and continue your trip elsewhere. But if you have some free time during the morning, you can make a couple stops to enjoy some swimming and final views of the southern Australia coastline.
The hills and cliffs of the Victoria coast once again rear up to sizeable height on this final section of the Great Ocean Road. Stop at Point Addis and walk the boardwalks here to enjoy your last views of this majestic coastline. These overlooks will be good to stitch up some panoramic ocean and cliff shots.
More big waves and big cliffs. Take the trail down from the Point Addis parking area, and you may be able to catch some surfers riding the waves. A little further to the north and east, you’ll find nice photo compositions between the cliffs and the rocks. Weather and water temperature permitting, this is also a nice place for a swim. (by the way, if you go too far, you’ll run into the Southside nudist beach area)
If you have less time or want to speed up the itinerary, here are some recommendations to help you still see the absolute best of this wild corner of the world. For a shorter time on the coast, you can cut out Portland. When you leave Halls Gap and Grampians, head due south to Port Fairy. Then pick up the itinerary from there. You can also choose to head straight back to Melbourne after Apollo Bay, and you still will have experienced the best of the trip around Bay of Islands, Port Campbell and the Twelve Apostles Marine Park.
To help plan your overall driving and where to stay, I’m including this route map. Take a lot of photos and have fun out there!
Additional Creative Commons photos from Flickr:
Skilled photographers know that good photography is about subject, lighting and composition. The Photographer’s Guide series on DailyPhotoBlog aims to give you the best chance to create shots you love, by bringing you to the most photogenic places and the most beautiful viewpoints (i.e. the subjects). The composition and lighting are up to you!