Great Ocean Road
The Great Ocean Road is a 243-kilometre stretch of road along the south-eastern coast of Australia between the Victorian towns of Torquay and Allansford. Renowned for its rugged natural beauty, shipwreck stories, surfing culture and its often changing and dramatic landscapes and views this stretch of road is Australia’s most famous coastal journey. In 1962, the road was judged by the Victorian Tourist Development Authority to be one of the world’s great scenic roads. In 2011 it was placed on the Australian National Heritage list which states it is an outstanding and iconic coastal journey. Stories and scenery along the road and coastline help to understand Australia’s history, prehistory and ongoing coastal processes.
Before the road, travel between the coastal settlements along the rugged south coast was by coastal shipping. In the 1870s, a trip from Lorne to Geelong was long and arduous via a rough coach track through dense bush to the railway at Winchelsea.
Plans for an ocean road emerged in the 1880s but only gained real enthusiasm towards the end of World War I. The chairman of the Country Roads Board, Mr W Calder, contacted the State War Council with a proposal that funds be provided for repatriation and re-employment of returned soldiers on roads in sparsely populated areas. Calder submitted a plan he described as the ‘South Coast Road’ which suggested a road starting at Barwon Heads, following the coast around Cape Otway and ending near Warrnambool.
It was Geelong mayor Alderman Howard Hitchcock who brought the plans to fruition. He formed the Great Ocean Road Trust and set about raising the money to finance the project. He saw it not only as a way of employing returned soldiers but of creating a lasting monument to those who had died in the war. Alderman Hitchcock also believed in the road’s worth as a tourist attraction with its ocean, mountain, river and fern gully scenery better than the Riviera in France, the San Francisco Road and Bulli Pass in New South Wales (A Hitchcock memorial is at Mt Defiance Lookout south of Lorne).
Survey work began in August 1918 and thousands of World War I returned soldiers descended on the area to start work. It was back-breaking work with no heavy machinery to help – only picks, shovels and horse-drawn carts. With the sea crashing below, they lowered themselves on ropes and carved their own footholds before they could turn their attention to constructing the road itself. Records are imprecise, but it’s understood several of them died. It took more than 3000 returned soldiers and 13 years to conquer this difficult terrain and extreme weather to build this remarkable road.
The first stage linking Lorne and Eastern View was completed in early 1922. Over the next decade, the Great Ocean Road Trust continued its work on the road linking Lorne with Cape Patton and Anglesea, while the Country Roads Board built the Cape Patton to Apollo Bay link.
On 26 November 1932 the route was officially opened by the Lieutenant Governor, Sir William Irvine. The opening comprised a procession of 40 cars and schoolchildren lining parts of the route. The road was a huge engineering feat ending the decades of isolation for Lorne and other coastal communities.
Road travellers during the early years paid a toll at gates at Eastern View, where a memorial arch was erected. Drivers paid two shillings and sixpence and passengers one shilling and sixpence. The toll was abolished when the Trust moved to hand over the road as a gift to the State Government on 2 October 1936. The Great Ocean Road is now a permanent memorial carved in rock to those who died while fighting in World War I.
The Great Ocean Road abuts the rocky coast in many areas, particularly between Lorne and Apollo Bay as it adjoins the ocean swells of Bass Strait. The hinterland contains a diverse natural environment including temperate rainforest, heathlands, wetlands, sheer cliffs, ancient rock stacks and spectacular beaches. The panoramic views from designated lookout points and whilst travelling along the road are outstanding.
Memorials exist as key features along the road; the Arch at Eastern View is a major commemorative feature, and the bronze sculpture of returned soldier road workers. Mount Defiance Lookout is an historic view point with a memorial stone wall and associated historic stone retaining walls and culverts. Camps that housed the workers who constructed the road were located along the length of the road, typically on flat land near a source of fresh water such as a creek. However no above ground evidence of these camps can be seen today.
Famous shipwrecks occurred along this coast during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. All shipwrecks off the coast of Victoria wrecked more than 75 years ago are protected historic shipwrecks, and are listed on the Victorian Heritage Register. Some of the victims of these tragic events were buried nearby, and their graves are also protected sites. A memorial grave stone for two mariners who drowned when trying to salvage cargo from the Godfrey shipwreck is located in coastal ti-tree adjacent to the road just east of Lorne. The graves of the drowned men were discovered by the workers when constructing the road.
In June 2020 a bill established the Great Ocean Road and Environs Protection Act 2020 that recognises the state significance of the Great Ocean Road and its landscapes, and establishes a new dedicated coast and parks management authority. In December 2020 the new Great Ocean Road Coast and Parks Authority (GORCAPA), came into being to protect and manage coastal Crown land along the length of the Great Ocean Road.
Visit Victoria. History and Heritage. Building the Great Ocean Road. Available from
Australian Government. National Heritage List. Great Ocean Road, Victoria. Available from
Victorian Government. Great Ocean Road Action Plan. Available from
Photos from the Keith Cecil Collection, Surf Coast Shire