The winding path of Victoria’s Great Ocean Road is getting busy as travellers again pile into cars, buses, and caravans to traverse one of the world’s most famous road trips.
But for thousands of years before the coastline became a tourist attraction – back when perhaps all the Twelve Apostles were still standing – the trail was already being trod by the region’s first inhabitants.
There’s now a much greater appreciation for the Indigenous heritage of the Great Ocean Road, with people looking for more than just those gorgeous sweeping vistas.
Thankfully, new visitor experiences can now take you deeper into that story, while also introducing native wildlife and some incredible food experiences. Here’s why it’s time to get off the beaten road:
Narana Aboriginal Cultural Centre
I’m feeding a wallaby from the palm of my hand when it decides my finger also looks tasty. Ouch!
But you can’t get a more hands-on (and almost fingers-off) introduction to the Great Ocean Road than this.
The wallaby is just one of the animals you’ll find, along with kangaroos and emus, in the native garden at the Narana Aboriginal Cultural Centre near Geelong.
However, the focus here is the region’s Indigenous culture, and there are free exhibitions about traditional activities like hunting and music.
A gallery displays modern art pieces, while you can also join a tour to learn more about the ancient dreaming stories and songlines.
And, for your first taste of the coastline’s bounties, Café Narana has a menu inspired by native ingredients and Indigenous flavours.
About 100 kilometres further along the Great Ocean Road, Wildlife Wonders tries to recreate the environment as it was hundreds of years ago.
There’s no feeding the animals here – this is a predator-free area that’s home to species like koalas, bandicoots, wallabies, and (unbelievably cute) potoroos.
Along with scientific programs on the site, the idea of Wildlife Wonders is to protect the native animals and give visitors a chance to see them in their original habitat.
There are guided tours you can take throughout the day, but I join conservationist Jack Dickson for one of the special dusk tours, when some of the animals are more active and the nocturnal species begin to wake.
The specially designed trail of boardwalks and accessible paths leads through a range of different landscapes, including lush tree fern gullies and eucalypt woodlands.
You don’t just get to meet some of Australia’s furry residents, you’ll also get spectacular views across the water and the Otways.
Moyjil (Point Ritchie)
As the road approaches Warrnambool, a turn off takes you to one of the most significant Aboriginal sites in the southwest of Victoria.
Moyjil (Point Ritchie) was a meeting place for local Indigenous people, with evidence of shell deposits and fireplaces going back tens of thousands of years.
With a golden sandy beach along the water and viewpoints from the rocky bluffs, it’s easy to see why it was (and still is) a popular place to gather.
It makes a nice spot for a break, a walk, and (if you can handle the cold) even a swim.
Moyjil is currently a cause of controversy in the scientific community because some experts believe charred rocks and shells found on the site are evidence that Indigenous people were living here at least 120,000 years ago.
If that was proved to be true, it would upend the fundamental understanding of early human migration out of Africa.
When you’re at Tower Hill, it can be hard to tell that this natural reserve is actually in the centre of an ancient volcanic crater about three kilometres wide.
Native shrubs and eucalypts roll down the slopes from the crater’s rim to a small lake surrounding the land in the centre, where artefacts including ancient tools show how this became an important site for the local Gunditjmara people.
Most days, you can join a guided tour to explore the natural environment and its relationship with the Indigenous people – how they used the plants for food, medicine, and other customs.
Guide Reuben Smith gives me native celery to taste (which is really nice) and also bush spinach (not so much), and as we walk from the bushland into the wetlands, he paints a fascinating picture of how life was here.
New food experiences have popped up along the Great Ocean Road in recent years, but one of the most exclusive is in the small town of Port Fairy, sometimes skipped by travellers who think the route ends at Warrnambool. (It only ends when you say it ends!)
From the street, Fen looks like a food and wine store, but go through a secret door at the back and you’ll find yourself in a small restaurant with seats for just 14 people.
Guests all arrive at 6:45 for a three-hour session of a set 12-course tasting menu that changes nightly and often takes inspiration from local native and bush foods.
Opened only in April by former two-hat chef Ryan Sessions and partner Kirstyn Sessions, it’s yet another reason to give the coastal drive another look.
From Port Fairy, it’s just another 30-minute drive west to Budj Bim which, although not technically on the Great Ocean Road, is definitely worth the extension.
It’s Australia’s latest World Heritage Site (added in 2019) but certainly not our newest – showcasing the aquaculture systems built here at least 32,000 years ago, after the Budj Bim volcano erupted!
The eruption changed the landscape, covering it with stone channels that the local Gunditjmara people harnessed to create traps and pools to harvest short-finned eels, in what’s considered one of the world’s earliest engineering projects.
New visitor infrastructure has just opened in several sections of the site which, along with guided tours, take you through the intriguing Indigenous heritage of stunning landscapes infused with spirituality and ingenuity. It’s a fitting way to end a drive along an ocean road that just keeps getting greater.