Awesome Australia: A family holiday on the Great Ocean Road

From seeing kangaroos roaming free and dolphins playing in the surf to taking canopy walks, a family trip Down Under to the surf-pounded shoreline of the Great Ocean Road offers wild rewards.

By Adrian Phillips
Published 8 Apr 2019, 23:41 BST, Updated 15 Jul 2021, 15:59 BST
Sunset at the Twelve Apostles on the Great Ocean Road, Australia.

Sunset at the Twelve Apostles on the Great Ocean Road, Australia.

Photograph by Getty Images

As the road winds along the cliff edge, I contemplate the colours in the landscape. There's the dominant blue of the sea and the green of the scrub, but it's the flourishes of white that add texture: frills of foam on the charging waves, clouds like splodges of piped icing, a waft of white butterflies at the roadside. Scenes like this bring forth your artist's eye, they shift something in you, they… "Daddy, daddy — look!"

"What have you seen, Kitty?" I reply with a smile.

"Matty's got a huge bogey on his finger!"

Our three-and-a-half year-old twins are a pair whose appreciation of the proper order of things is a work in progress. They've no lack of interest — they're babblingly curious about everything — it's simply that life is still an unsorted box, and the beauty of a classic seascape isn't yet something they know to cherish above what treasures are available at a finger's reach.

But if anything will stimulate their sense of perspective then it's surely an Australian road trip, with its big landscapes and weird wildlife. We started at Melbourne, spent two lazy days on the Mornington Peninsula before taking the ferry across Port Phillip Bay — escorted by six dolphins — to join the Great Ocean Road. And I've planned a humdinger for the next stop on our itinerary. "Guess what? We're going into the treetops like monkeys!" I announce dramatically, as we follow a trail through the rainforest ferns of Great Otway National Park, towards the world's highest canopy walk. "And then we'll come down again?" asks Matty with a worried frown. "Will there be polar bears?'" adds Kitty.

She means koala bears, of course, and there might be. The Otway Fly is a steel walkway that hangs 80ft above the forest floor, snaking through the branches of myrtle beech and mountain ash. From their boughs, I note immediately that 80ft feels rather higher than it sounds from inside the visitor centre. I clutch the rail while the kids run back and forth like puppies off the lead. They hurtle up a spiral tower with my wife, Monika, reaching a total height of 150ft, and then return to delight in my discomfort as we inch out on to a cantilever that juts out over Young's Creek. It sways in the breeze and bobs beneath every nervous step; a sign says the structure can support 24 elephants, but that sounds like a claim that's never genuinely been tested, and I have minor palpitations when Matty starts stamping and jumping so hard his shorts fall down.

Back on the road, there's time for a brief stop at the Twelve Apostles — the ocean pounding at the eight surviving limestone stacks — before the sky becomes leaden and the rain comes down. Seabirds get scrappy in the air, and the trees bend low in the wind, as if covering their heads with their arms. Nature's in a foul mood; I imagine it clenching its teeth at the stream of too-perky car-radio adverts, for Allansford Cheese World and Timboon Vacuums ('Where everything we do sucks!').

At Port Fairy, the 'world's most liveable community' (there must have been a competition), we turn inland, and the rain stops abruptly, as though we've emerged from a car wash. Scottish settlers left their marks on the map here in names like Hamilton, Glenthompson and Balmoral, and it's at Dunkeld that we cross into Grampians National Park. There's much protest from the back when I refuse to pull over for a closer view of our first wallaby, lying dead and covered in flies at the side of the road. But once the hullaballoo subsides, we settle into a soul-satisfying drive past the craggy hump of Mount Sturgeon and the creamy-sounding Dairy Creek, soothed by the scent of eucalyptus and the ding-dong call of some bird or other drifting through the window.

It's shortly afterwards that I'm attacked by a gang of cockatoos in the Halls Gap Lakeside caravan park. Twenty or 30 of them muster as I enjoy a bag of pistachios outside our cabin, jogging puff-chested towards me with their necks craned expectantly. Without warning, the ring leader flaps up on to my shoulder, and we laugh at his cheekiness. He seems a jovial sort, and I do a few pirate impressions while feeding him nuts from my fingers, but when I decide he's had enough he gives a loud squawk and nips me hard on the ear lobe. Both the twins and Monika later agree this was their favourite moment of the trip.

Avian aggression aside, Halls Gap is a wonderful base for exploring the national park. We take a path through a forest blackened by fire to a viewing platform over the thundering MacKenzie Falls, and the kids try to throw sticks into the water from a distance that would challenge a champion javelinist. But the blockbuster moment comes at dusk: the sight of a field full of grazing kangaroos. Some turn to look at us, sentry-like, while others scratch their bellies and give exaggerated yawns. 'They're boinging!' laughs Kitty as three youngsters bounce away, and for a second we're all transfixed, our perspectives in perfect alignment. And then Matty notices some pellets of kangaroo poo, and priorities part ways once more.

The final destination on our circuit back to Melbourne is Ballarat, and a visit to the extraordinary Sovereign Hill — a full-scale reconstruction of the town as it was during the gold rush of the 1850s. This is a truly immersive tourist experience. Actors wander the dusty main street in bonnets and bustles, going in and out of the apothecary's shop and the drapery store. Wheelwrights in waistcoats hammer at wagon spokes, and a paunchy landlord in a stripy apron serves pies to the punters at the New York Bakery.

Matty watches wide-eyed as an actor portraying a digger without a licence is dragged away by 'soldiers'. Kitty revels in dressing up at the Red Hill Photographic Rooms, where — against my better judgement — I'm persuaded into a top hat and cravat for a sepia-tinted portrait that will certainly be used against me if I ever become famous. They both join in the booing as a confectioner at Brown & Co declares that boiled sweets are luxuries and not for children. We all spend a happy half hour shovelling gravel into pewter plates at the gold-panning stream, until Matty falls in and we adjourn to the hotel for a change of clothes.

The kids haven't a clue what's going on, of course; for them, there's no context to the day — they're just dressing up and booing and playing with pebbles. I know that in two or three years' time they won't remember this trip in any case. But who cares? They're loving it in the moment, and I'm loving sharing the experience with them. It seems there really is nothing like an Australian road trip to stimulate a sense of perspective.

Don't miss

Ballarat Wildlife Park
A family-run park operated on founder Greg Parker's philosophy that interaction with animals is the best way to encourage conservation. Kangaroos and emus roam free, and can be fed and stroked, plus there's a host of other animals, too — including the huge Crunch the croc.

Tower Hill Reserve
Free to visit, and worth a stop to see more emus and kangaroos. Located midway between Warrnambool and Port Fairy.

Royal Mail Hotel
All produce for the hotel's top-class restaurants (one of them family-friendly) comes from its own farm. It also has a breeding programme for rare species such as quolls (marsupials), which guests can feed on daily tours. It's located at the southern cusp of Grampians National Park.

Jack Rabbit Vineyard
For a superb family lunch before hitting the Great Ocean Road. Find it near the Queenscliff ferry terminal.

Eureka Skydeck
Unsurpassed views of Melbourne from nearly 1,000ft up. The brave can enter a glass-floored cabin pushed out from the edge of the skyscraper.

Their favourite things

Seeing a cockatoo bite daddy's ear
"It was so funny when you screamed!" says Kitty (prone to exaggeration). "I just wish I'd caught it on camera," adds my wife.

Feeding the kangaroos at Ballarat Wildlife Park
"Their fur was very soft," says Matty.

Ice cream at Port Fairy. And at Dunkeld. And at Ballarat. And at…well, you get the picture
Australia does great ice cream, and the twins are connoisseurs.


Adrian and Monika went on holiday with Matthew (Matty) and Katherine (Kitty), both three-and-a-half-years old.

Best for
Road trip adventure for kids aged 3+

How to do it
Austravel offers an 11-night self-drive holiday from £6,348 (per family of four). This includes accommodation at Adina Apartment Hotel (Melbourne), Woodman Estate Lakeside Chalet (Mornington), Cumberland Lorne Resort (Lorne), Lady Bay Resort (Warrnambool), Royal Mail Hotel (Dunkeld), Halls Gap Lakeside (Halls Gap) and Sovereign Hill Hotel (Ballarat), plus entry to Otway Fly Treetop Adventures, Ballarat Wildlife Park and Sovereign Hill; ferry from Sorrento to Queenscliff; car hire throughout; and return international flights from Heathrow.

Published in the Family 2019 issue, distributed with the Jan/Feb 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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