If the "wide brown land" of Australia is a Hob Nob then the Great Ocean Road is where it has been dunked into the roiling tea cup of the Southern Ocean. The road – perennial candidate for the title of World's Most Scenic Drive – runs westward for 242km along the crumbling coast of south-west Victoria from the town of Torquay, just west of Melbourne; keep on going around the coast and you hit Adelaide, 800km later.
But what if – and this is an entirely reasonable desire – you had only a long weekend to spare and wanted to return to Melbourne? We set off on a Friday lunchtime in a battered Toyota to find out.
Melbourne has many loveable qualities, but its suburban muffin-top isn't one of them. Avert your eyes until you're past Geelong, where you will bear left and make for the ocean and Torquay, which is where 300 First World War servicemen began work in 1919 on what became, after 13 years of labour, the Great Ocean Road. There were lots of these nation-building post-Great War projects; in a way, they were individual and collective therapy. In 2011, the Great Ocean Road – the nation's largest war memorial – was added to Australia's national heritage list.
Just after Torquay we turn down a side-road and take our first pit stop in the car park at its end. Huddled in hoodies, we look out at the rows of waves rolling in from Antarctica and breaking on Bells Beach. This surf beach has a reputation that exceeds its size. Lean, tousle-haired men and women zip up thick wetsuits and trot down the steps to the shore. We get back in the Toyota and rejoin the Great Ocean Road. Several towns along the first third of the road, such as Lorne, have perfect conditions for first-time surfers: sheltered bays, sedate waves and surf schools with fellow students who look equally awkward popping up on their beginner boards.
After Lorne, the road begins to rise and fall, twisting back on itself and edging around cliff-top bends. It winds through eucalyptus forest (look for furry grey bundles in the crook of a branch), all the while delivering vast ocean views to the left. It's impossible to drive fast, not least because sections are often closed for patching up. Erosion is eating away at the work of those 300 servicemen.
Apollo Bay, one misguided Sydneysider says to me, is daggy (trans: comfortably unfashionable). It's not. It's delightful, an unpretentious seaside town with a chippy, shops selling boogie boards, and barbecue pits on the grassy area behind the broad crescent of sand that lends the town its name. Here, where the Southern Ocean meets the green folds of ferns and mountain ashes of the Otway Ranges, is the perfect place to break your journey. We check into our double-room, a block back from the beach, in our top tip for Apollo Bay accommodation: the sleek Eco-Beach YHA, run by Gilbert and Gay Brooks. From the rooftop we watch galahs playing and then the sunset. Later, after locking up, Gilbert will wheel his sea kayak down to the beach for a moonlit paddle.
The next day, after a bracing swim, we set out to meet the 12 Apostles. Viewing these limestone stacks, evidence of immense elemental forces, is a sanitised experience. There's a visitor centre and guardrails. We take a windswept photo but don't linger: we have to continue to Port Fairy, a former whaling station, and then divert inland on the C184 to Hamilton, Dunkeld and, three hours later, our destination, Hall's Gap, adventure hub of the Grampians National Park.
From here it's three hours back to Melbourne on the freeway, via the gold-mining town of Ballarat. Kangaroos bounce around Hall's Gap and tomorrow we'll stretch our legs, too, on the bush walks in the Wonderland part of the park, but tonight we wash the salt from our skin.
More road trips
1. Take a trip along the Gibb River Road, a 600km former cattle route, to see some of Western Australia’s most atmospheric landscapes and lodges, including the homestead at El Questro Wilderness Park (elquestro.com.au)
2. Drive the Dempster Highway and ice road in the Yukon, and follow terrain that thwarted pioneers (travelyukon.com)
3. This year’s Tour de France will mark its centenary with a leg in Corsica. Tackle the roads summiting granite peaks, through deeply wooded valleys and pine forest trails on a new cycling tour launching this May (utracks.com)
4. Take a guided motorbike tour of Bosnia, Montenegro, Croatia and other spots on the Adriatic Coast. The 15-day Balkan adventure cuts through mountains and skirts the sea, with some island-hopping too (smtours.com)
5. Use pedal power to propel you between Vietnam and Cambodia, on a cycle tour that takes in the villages of the Mekong and the temples of Angkor (skedaddle.co.uk)
6. Namibia is one of Africa’s best road-trip destinations with deserted highways, red dunes and the spectacular Skeleton Coast to explore plus tribal and safari experiences (safaridrive.com)
7. Take a drive between National Trust properties in Dorset, Gloucestershire, Somerset, Hampshire and the Cotswolds at the wheel of a classic car. Vintage Classics offers rentals of 1960s Austin Healeys, E-type Jags and old Alfas (vintage-classics.co.uk)