“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.” Ernest Hemingway
If you’ve read many of my blogs, you’ll know that the Great Ocean Road is a place close to my heart. So when the opportunity came for me to do a bike ride from Warrnambool to Port Fairy, I jumped at the chance. At the time, the Port Fairy to Warrnambool Rail Trail wasn’t quite complete – they still needed to build boardwalks across a significant area of swamp lands – so I took the opportunity to explore some alternative routes and side trips. Below is a version of an article I wrote for Bicycle Victoria Network’s Ride On magazine, along with many more photographs.
Note: The Port Fairy to Warrnambool Rail Trail is now open. For more information, click here.
We drove from Koroit to Warrnambool on the Great Ocean Road, psyching ourselves for a wild and blustery ride. In typical Victorian fashion, the weather had changed from heavy rain to brilliant sunshine to softly falling drizzle in about 15 minutes – and a comment from my niece, who lives locally, about ‘windy Warrnambool’ didn’t inspire further confidence. But with only two days in the area, nothing was going to deter us from getting on our bikes. The plan was to explore Warrnambool and then ride back to Koroit on the first day, followed by a ride to Port Fairy the next day.
The car park at Warrnambool’s breakwater was practically deserted and, as we headed off along the Foreshore Promenade, there was rain to the right of us, sunshine to the left and a rainbow spanning from Flagstaff Hill to the choppy waters of Lady Bay. After about a kilometre, I was surprised to see that we weren’t the only ones braving the weather. However, we were the only ones not participating in ‘water sports’ – there was a group of teenagers learning to surf and a couple of kite-surfers riding the waves, occasionally soaring skyward.
While the kite-surfers were enjoying the sudden gusts, I was silently cursing the tough headwind and persistent rain. But just as I was about to suggest stopping for coffee at the Surf Lifesaving Club – after our strenuous two kilometre pedal – the dark clouds lifted and the sun emerged. We still had the wind, but the scenery was spectacular – a pristine beach with huge waves crashing ashore and a trail winding its way through tea tree bushes and sand dunes, with occasional access points to the beach. Wildflowers were also abundant; signs of spring on a chilly October morning.
The Foreshore Promenade is a lovely six kilometre ride from the breakwater to Logan’s Beach and is suitable for all levels of cyclist. There are only a couple of short steep sections and the first of these takes you past Granny’s Grave, a monument erected for the first white woman settler. While the monument itself is not all that exciting, it’s a good place to stop for a breather and the views along the beach in either direction are wonderful. From here the trail meanders through parklands, down to the Hopkins River, across the bridge and then uphill to Logan’s Beach.
There are a couple of detours you can make – to Point Richie for a view of the river meeting the sea and, once across the bridge, to the mouth of the river. But we decided to continue on to Logan’s Beach lookout, hoping to see the last of the season’s migrating whales. Each year, between June and September, Southern Right Whales journey via these waters to the sub-Antarctic. Unfortunately, visibility was difficult because of the choppy waters and I think we were also about a week too late to see the whales.
Our ride back was quick, thanks to the tailwind, and I barely noticed the uphill sections. We stopped for an early lunch at Simon’s Cafe in the Surf Lifesaving Club, enjoying views of the bay while tucking into delicious seafood chowder, and then rode to the nearby Flagstaff Hill to step back in time for an hour. We explored an 1870’s village and had a quick look in the museum – most impressive was the life-sized Loch Ard Peacock, a Minton porcelain statue washed ashore when the Loch Ard ran aground on the Shipwreck Coast.
After our interlude at Flagstaff Hill, we rode around the picturesque Lake Pertobe before making tracks for Koroit. Our original plan was to cycle six and a half kilometres to Levy’s Point along the Warrnambool to Port Fairy Rail Trail and then detour around Kelly’s Swamp (which was the one section of the rail trail that wasn’t open at the time), before reconnecting with the rail trail for the last five kilometres into Koroit. But, after speaking to staff at Flagstaff Hill, we realised that there was no easy detour around the swamp and we’d be better off finding a more direct route.
We cycled to Koroit via the Princess Highway and Illowa Road (the Old Princess Highway) before rejoining the rail trail about four kilometres out of Koroit. From there, we detoured to the Tower Hill Reserve, where we are meeting friends for a picnic dinner.
Tower Hill is a nested maar volcano that erupted about 32,000 years ago, followed by further smaller eruptions and explosions that shaped the islands and hills. The crater, now a lake and wetlands, has an 11km circumference and is 3.2km across. There is evidence that Indigenous communities were living here at the time of the eruption, with artefacts found in volcanic ash layers. Tours with Indigenous guides are available at the Worn Gundidj Centre (located inside the crater, near the picnic ground) and there is also a cultural display.
From Koroit, it’s about a five kilometre ride to the reserve entrance (via High Street, Lake View Road and the Princess Highway) and en route there are several lookouts with stunning views across the shimmering lake, islands and, further afield, the ocean. We had to carefully negotiate a short section of highway – about 500 metres over the crest of a hill and a right turn across traffic to reach the entrance. Luckily there was very little traffic on this day and, once in the reserve, we enjoyed the one-way road with its speed limit of 30kph.
Even on a bike it was tough staying under the speed limit on the initial descent into the crater, but we weren’t in a hurry and there was plenty of wildlife around. Almost immediately, we saw kangaroos and wallabies grazing alongside the lake and, further into the reserve we spotted a koala, well-concealed in a leafy tree. A couple of emus strutted alongside the road ahead of us before diverting suddenly into the bushes, spooked by our approach.
Tower Hill Reserve was declared Australia’s first National Park in 1892, but much of the land was initially cleared for farming. It wasn’t until the late 1950s that a revegetation project began and native animal and plant species have since returned in abundance – thanks to the work of volunteers, naturalists, school children and local groups. Birdlife is also prolific and, while we were waiting for our friends, we spotted a Cape Barren goose with three goslings, spoonbills and a variety of ducks, including some beautiful Chestnut Teals.
The following day we cycled from Koroit to Port Fairy via the rail trail. It was an easy 18km ride with a downhill gradient, only tempered by a slight headwind as we got closer to Port Fairy. This section of the rail trail opened in mid-2010 and meanders through lush green farmland that is extremely fertile because of the volcanic ash that once poured out from Tower Hill. It was also particularly wet on this weekend, with some paddocks almost completely under water. But the cows, sheep and alpaca that we cycled past didn’t seem to mind, as they happily grazed alongside the fence.
The Port Fairy to Warrnambool Railway line opened in 1890 and operated for 87 years, before closing in 1977. The Goods Shed and Station Master’s Cottage remain near the end of the trail, where you’ll also find the tourist information centre.
There is so much to do in Port Fairy that it’s hard to know where to start. There’s a walk around Griffiths Island to see penguins, mutton-birds and wallabies. There’s the Historical Society Museum, where you can learn about the Irish heritage of the region. There are also self-guided walks for discovering the arts, shipwrecks or historic buildings. But we were content to spend our time cycling along the wide shady streets and eventually found another bike path that cuts through the Russell Clark Reserve to Ocean Drive. Here we enjoyed views of the Southern Ocean and Griffiths Island, as we made our way to Fisherman’s Wharf.
I must admit, I’d delayed visiting this region, waiting for patiently for the rail trail to be finished. But, after a great weekend of discovering alternative trails and roads around Warrnambool, Koroit and Port Fairy, I’m glad I didn’t wait any longer. And now, with the rail trail completed, there’s even more incentive to return.
A version of this article was first published in Bicycle Network Victoria’s Ride On magazine.