How to nail the ultimate Otways road trip

Surfer entering the water

Peter Hanlon

Posted November 26, 2020

Turn off cruise control. You won't want to miss a thing on this stunning Otways road trip.

Among a road trip’s many joys is how little the decision-making matters. Left, right. Up, down. High road, low road – there are no wrong answers, only bitumen and possibilities.

At a stop sign on the Cape Otway Road, after sweeping around the Wurdiboluc Reservoir that’s brimming with water bound for Geelong, the journey’s first conundrum lands. Straight ahead for 10 minutes and we’ll be in the sweet main street of Birregurra where, at Yield, Simon Stewart will be taking his spelt sour loaves out of the oven. On weekends when the restaurant is firing, he bakes a few extra to sell out of the providore. We’ve heard you need to be quick. If we turn left, a scoot through the Bambra hills will put us in Deans Marsh where, being a Friday, Jo Zdybel will be crafting a range of breads inside The Store.

We’ve got a night and two days to escape, and have decided a pursuit of authenticity will guide us like crumbs. Doubling up seems a good start. (More: Three ways to see the Otways)

Forrest Brewery
Otways scenery

How to plan the ultimate Otways road trip

Total distance: 230km

Starting from Torquay

We’ve charted a not-so-common course. From the gateway of RACV Torquay Resort the knee-jerk route would have been a left turn past Bells Beach, hugging the coast along one of the world’s most famous stretches of tarmac. But we’re shunning the Great Ocean Road, chasing instead the earthier delights of the Otways hinterland and the bush to which it stands sentry. With our car freshly serviced and our Emergency Roadside Assistance up to date, we're ready to wind our way through the hinterland's scenic crests, curves, and crevices.

Leaving Torquay, Coombes Road acts as a divider between two worlds. To the left are the relatively modern dwellings of folk who’ve chosen to live where they can at least smell, if not see, the ocean. To the right it’s long-established farms of cattle and sheep, horses brushing fences in faded coats, eggs and pine cones bundled for sale at gates, an occasional row of vines.

Stop 1: Deans Marsh

At our bread-inspired crossroads we opt for Deans Marsh first, where The Store is so homely we stay for lunch. Near our table there’s a hole in the wall beneath a sign that reads ‘Post Office’. We could be in a Little Golden Book; we’re off to a good start.

Stop 2: Birregurra

The 10-minute detour through Birregurra secures the last sour loaf, and by the time we return to our original plan — spending the night in Apollo Bay — our little Mazda MX-5 smells like an artisan stall at a weekend market. It loves the rise and fall of the arrow-straight stretch to Barwon Downs, almost too much. (More: The birth of the Otways' Lake Elizabeth)

Sun through the trees in forest

Stop 3: Forrest

The transition from hinterland to virtual rainforest happens as if through a portal. The Birregurra- Forrest Tiger Rail Trail chaperones us, dotted with foundations that fought steep ground back when timber was hauled out of the Otways by train. People ply different trades around here today. Oh, and there’s the Forrest Brewery!

A mid-afternoon pale ale and cider heighten the wind-down vibe, and this is a nice spot to chill. The shift away from hardwood logging could have ended Forrest, but it has become a tree-change favourite. Central to the revival is mountain-bike riding in the surrounding bush, and rehydrating at the brewery. There’s a sense of community here, of mucking in together.

Stop 4: Skenes Creek

The canopy thickens, ferns are abundant, the little car gobbles up the tight bends. If the boot wasn’t full of bread we could take the tantalisingly named Wild Dog Road at Tanybryn and load up with garden delights at Otway Herbs, a nursery with a hillside location that takes some topping. But we’ve got mates to meet and bread to break, so it’s down, down towards Skenes Creek, where our tyres will touch the Great Ocean Road for the first time.

Stop 5: Apollo Bay

The sea is Midori green as we cruise into Apollo Bay, the beach sprinkled with dog walkers and fisherfolk with long rods speared into the sand. In some coastal towns the sense of seasonal occupation is overwhelming. People live in Apollo Bay, and it shows.

Casalingo might be the best authentic Italian restaurant housed in a former squash court anywhere in the world (contenders apply here). Chef Gavan Rix honed his cooking in Adelaide, surrounded by old mamas who spoke little English yet schooled him in handmade pasta and old-school dishes.

“I fell in love with Mediterranean flavours — capers and olives and chilli and anchovies,” he says. Seafood dominates the menu. This is comfortably the most fun I’ve ever had on a squash court.

Sunset over a road on the coast

Day 2:

Stop 6: Johanna

By mid-morning the next day we’re at rugged Johanna Beach, sand in our shoes and wind ripping at our cheeks. When conditions at Bells don’t cut it, the Easter surf classic is moved here.

Stop 7: Aire Valley

Fringed by gums at first and tempted by the short detour to the Cape Otway Lighthouse, we instead drop down into the Aire Valley as the surrounds transform into rolling hills, lolling cows and spoilt sheep. This is the Great Ocean Road without the ocean. By Lavers Hill, barely 10 of the 56 kilometres we’ve spent on this landmark have been driven with the sea in sight.

Our mates have thrown us another coin toss: do the half-hour rainforest walk at Melba Gully, where the glowworms come out to play by night, or push on to Beech Forest for the California redwoods. There’s no time for both before carrying on to Colac and back along the new two-lane highway to reality, so we choose the exotic over the sleeping worms.

Along the ridge of the Otways there’s a comforting sign: Weeaproinah, average rainfall almost two metres. If it’s not raining here it’s dripping off the trees. Right now it’s raining.

Last stop: Beech Forrest

At Beech Forest we pass the gumboot monument to famous son Cliff Young, park at the bottom of Binns Road and walk to a place that’s more fairytale than forest. Sequoia trees, planted here as an experiment in 1939, have grown and grown. It’s several shades darker and cooler in their midst. The forest floor is a trampled bed of whatever has fallen from above. Trunks dwarf you. All is quiet.

Bread, beer, seafood, the bush, the ocean and now giant trees. In our pursuit of authenticity, we’ve ticked a few boxes.