The Great Ocean Road

It was a grey and drizzly morning as we made our way out of the small forest where we’d hidden for the night. Today was the day we’d ride the famous Great Ocean Road and we would’ve liked to wait for better weather, but the forecast was grim for the rest of the week so we had no choice but to tough it out and ride through to warmer climes.

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The drizzle soon turned to a downpour, and we pulled over in the little town of Anglesea, taking shelter under a shop verandah and making an early lunch of sopping wet bread and potato salad, mainly for the sake of having something to do. We eventually resigned ourselves to the fact that we’d be spending the day getting rained on and after a couple of laps of the car park to push-start Maria’s bike (who’s battery had been dead for weeks) we heaved ourselves reluctantly back into the saddle.

The coast soon appeared through the mist, and the official start to the Great Ocean Road was announced by a sign arching over the road, where a few wet and shivering tourists had left the comfort of their coach for a quick selfie.

The road was a nice mix of tight bends and views of the sea and surf, but I was struggling to see what all the fuss was about. We’d just come from Tasmania, where roads of this calibhre were too numerous to count, and often only got a passing mention from locals. So why the fanfare here? I decided the weather was affecting my judgement and I determined to appreciate it for what it was. Of course it was suffering from the affliction of over-hype and besides, it was all about those famous rock formations; the ‘twelve apostles’, right?

Eventually the lauded rocks came into view. I had expected it to be a sort of side-of-the-road, hop-off-and-photograph affair, but as it turned out there’s quite the little economy built up around this particular bit of stone. We followed the signs and the other cars into the vast ‘twelve apostles visitors centre’ car park, which could hold at least a hundred cars and a few dozen coaches, and was full.

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We made use of the hand dryers in the large bank of toilets to dry off and chase away the chills, then wandered down the wooden boardwalk past literally hundreds of tourists of every nationality, each brandishing a selfie stick.

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We reached a viewing platform at the edge of a rocky outcrop where I elbowed my way to the railing, braced against the wind and snapped a few pictures. A queue quickly formed behind me of other tourists, cameras in hand and waiting for a clear view.

Helicopters buzzed overhead giving an exclusive view to those priveliged few who could afford it. I felt like a paparrazzo hounding some unmoving, long-suffering celebrity, and it made me feel a bit queasy. Rain or no, I was keen to get back to my bike.

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Back on the road, it was still drizzling, but the strong wind and occasional torrents of hail had abated, and the sun was beginning to peak out. We passed signs for more ‘attractions’ – rock formations that looked like london bridge, or created impressive spray when a wave struck the cliffs, but all had car parks full of coaches, so we passed them by.

It was starting to get late and our minds were turning to a hot meal and a dry bed, so we started looking less at the coast and more at potential spots to camp. We explored a few side roads, but all led to farmhouses, and we soon realised we were in the middle of a regimented grid of roads dividing up the area’s arable land. No friend to the wild-camper, this.

One final try before we moved to a different area, and this time the track was showing more promise. It was a bit wilder, a bit less well kept and clearly seldom used, but most encouragingly, it was leading us in a beeline towards the coast, which could only have been a few kilometers away. Sure enough, as the rain finally gave way to a warming afternoon sun, we slipped through some muddy puddles and crested a hill, and were greeted with a spectacular view.

We had ridden to one corner of a sweeping cove, a hundred meters above sea level, that afforded us dramatic views of the surf crashing against the cliffs below. We parked the bikes not five metres from the cliff edge and spent a few minutes just taking in the view. Monolithic pillars of rock formed a line from the opposite tip of the cove, pointing to the horizon. Who cares if they don’t look like Queen Victoria or a giant onion? They were magestic, and all ours.

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We set up our tent, cooked some food, and sat eating our dinner with our legs dangling over the ocean. Neither of us spoke much. We just watched the sea birds circling, the waves rolling in, felt the vibrations beneath us as they crashed against the side of our cliff.

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My eyes drifted to the opposite edge of the cove and a thought struck me. ‘If I could get my bike up there it would make for a cool photo’. With only an hour of daylight left I gave Maria a crash course in using my DSLR, jumped helmetless onto my bike, and rushed off down a small track that ran parallel to the coast.

I took the first opening I could find that led me back towards the sea, rode to the top of an outcrop and phoned Maria. Screaming to be heard over the howling wind, she said she had me in her crosshairs, but I was much too far away for a good picture.

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I turned the bike around, rode to the track and started back the way I came, trying to guess the distance to a high point I’d seen between Maria’s vantage point and mine. With no other paths to make use of, I picked a random point and swerved into the scrub, weaving through trees, scattering sleepy roos and bumping over two foot desert bushes. I twisted my ankle on a protruding rock, over-revved the engine (which drove the electronics haywire), and eventually dragged the bike clear of the flora where its silhouette stood out against the coloured sky.

There was no need for a sidestand; the bike was wedged between two bushes and stood where I left her when I swung myself out of the seat and stood for a minute, catching my breath. I got back on the phone to Maria and tried to use a few landmarks to explain where I was. She confirmed that yep, she could see me and….. Her phone had run out of battery and died.

I stood for a while watching the colours change in the darkening sky. I could have stood for hours, but I’d need to use the remaining light to find my way back to the track.

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I put one hand on a pannier and one on the handlebar to wrench the bike free of the bushes, and a searing pain hit my chest. I’d cracked a rib a couple of weeks earlier and obviously had just undone any healing that had started. There was nothing for it but to carry on thouigh. We were the only people for miles around and with Maria’s phone down, I had no way of asking her to come and help.

I yanked at the bike again, pulling her free, and steadied her against my knees. I swung a leg over and started to edge away from the cliff. Not wanting to fight my way back through the overgrown scrub again I found an easier path out by the cliff edge which I gingerly crawled along, watching carefully for any sign of the ground under me starting to crumble away.

As soon as my wheels hit the farm track the heavens opened and I raced back through a torrential rain to the tent, where Maria had already rescued our gear. The pictures hadn’t worked out: by the time I’d found my spot it was too dark and the vague silhouette of me and Pip was too blurry to use.

It didn’t matter though, because I felt validated. This was why we were here: This. To ride between car parks and over-hyped attractions wasn’t for us. We were here to choose our own roads; to find a quiet spot to appreciate nature; to tear yourself and your bike to shreds for no better reason than a potentially cool picture; and to lie in your tent exhausted, in pain, and exhilarated, feeling the vibrations as the waves a hundred meters below you crash against the cliff edge three metres from where you lie.

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