The Great Ocean Road: Seeing wildlife long one of Australia's best coastline

The disgruntled golfer, having given his tee shot the most ugly of hooks, stomps off into the bushes to find his ball.

Anywhere else, it would be an almighty surprise to encounter half-a-dozen kangaroos bounding out to greet him. But at Anglesea Golf Course in Victoria, Australia, this is just a normal round. The roos are as much a standard hazard as the bunkers and the water features.

Near the start of the Great Ocean Road, this is quite probably the most visited golf course in the country. Most aren't shelling out for the green fees, though. It's just the perfect spot for most overseas visitors' holy grail – reliable sightings of kangaroos in the wild.

After years of people rocking up and wandering around, the club has got wise and started offering 30-minute tours in golf buggies. These head out to the spots where the roos most often hang out, and that's generally the bit of bushland that the course was built around.

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Koalas - rarely awake.
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Koalas - rarely awake.

"There are around 300 of them," says a volunteer guide. "About 250 on the course and 50 around town, dodging the cars."

Some are adorably cute, too. Especially the little joeys just out of mum's pouch and tottering around nervously rather than confidently bounding. Apparently, they do occasionally get hit by a flying golf ball. The most dangerous time for this to occur is in the morning, when the roos feed on the fairway.

The Great Ocean Road is usually regarded as a classic drive because it twists and turns around the coast, showing off delightful beach towns and impressive rock formations. But it's also a good route and a half for taking in native wildlife. Park and wander down any number of trails in the Great Otway National Park and you'll be serenaded with birdsong. Complete an hour-long bushwalk without spotting at least a crimson rosella or a parrot flitting by, and you can count yourself as rather unlucky.

The most notorious birds, however, are the cockatoos at Kennett River. Outside the holiday park, there are dozens of them, strutting about like they own the place and monopolising the wooden posts on the Grey River Road. It feels slightly wrong to be entertained when unsuspecting tourists scream in weirdly fascinated terror as the cockies try to snaffle sandwiches. But, let's face it, it's like when monkeys try to steal handbags – a little scary for the person set upon, while amusing for those watching.

The world-famous Twelve Apostles on Great Ocean Road.
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The world-famous Twelve Apostles on Great Ocean Road.

Less amusing are the most famous residents of the Grey River Road. The koalas do what koalas do: sleep. Amble up the road and it shouldn't take too long to spot one but it's likely to be a furry grey ball in the branches of a gum tree. The creatures that every visitor to Oz wants to see rarely put on a performance.

Thoroughly reliable showmen can be found further along the coast at Apollo Bay, however. Here the Marengo Reefs Marine Sanctuary is designed to protect the fish found around two reefs that jut out of the ocean. But it's what's sitting on top of those reefs that Mark Kininmonth is interested in.

Kininmonth has been running Apollo Bay Surf and Kayak's paddling tours for 15 years. While it offers the thrill of taking on the swell and breaking waves in a kayak, the main attraction is getting up close to the Australian fur seals.

"They haul out here," says Kininmonth . "It's where they come to rest, and they're mainly adolescent males. The big boys are elsewhere, with plenty around Phillip Island."

Kangaroos are a moving hazard at Anglesea Golf Course.
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Kangaroos are a moving hazard at Anglesea Golf Course.

This is why you don't tend to see those other, less cute creatures that regard fur seals as a delicious snack. The Apollo Bay colony is not a pupping colony as it's full of awkward teenagers who can't get laid – and it's the pups that are the easy targets for sharks, rather than those who've already proved they can swim hundreds of kilometres from their birthplace.

Seals are superb to watch. They're grumpy, feisty and forever picking fights with each other. They look ridiculous when they heave their way down the rocks into the sea and once in the water, they leap around in high arcs like dolphins and warily check out whoever's in the bobbing kayak. They sound like a bad-tempered hospital ward, grunting and barking and moaning without the faintest shred of decorum.

Soon after entering the shallows created by an arm of the reef, Mark says: "We'd better get out of here. They're about to move." We get out just in time to witness something genuinely extraordinary. About 20 of the seals suddenly break into a galumph down the rocks, charging directly towards us. It's not done in a threatening way – they've all just decided to go for a dip. They breach and dart all around the kayak, and are soon joined by a second wave. The whole scene is an absolute privilege to witness.

Castle Cove Lookout on the Great Ocean Road.
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Castle Cove Lookout on the Great Ocean Road.

After Apollo Bay, the Great Ocean Road heads inland through the lush, green and thickly forested Otway Ranges. It's the bit people whiz through on the way to the Twelve Apostles but is home to several walking trails, including the multi-day Great Ocean Walk.

One chunk of this – a cheat's method two-kilometre round trip accessed via a dirt road – heads down to Shelly Beach. It's as good a short bushwalk as you could ever wish for, descending through soaring silvery gum trees with peeling bark and ferny forest floor towards a deserted beach covered in mysterious boulders. Birdsong soundtracks every footstep, but then come less pretty grunting pig-like sounds.

Unless that's a wild boar, one of the koalas is awake. But he's hidden from view. Ever the disappointment, koalas.

That's an opinion that lasts for about half an hour. Driving back towards the main road, something emerges from the ferns and starts padding down the track. It's a mama koala, and she's carrying her joey on her back. Suddenly, all my bitching about them has to be taken back. It's one of the cutest sights I've ever seen – and the memory lingers long after the koalas scurry back into the bush.

Great Ocean Road winds around the coastline.
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Great Ocean Road winds around the coastline.

Five GOR animal hotspots
Penguins

Hang around at the beaches and viewing platforms at the Twelve Apostles and London Bridge, long after the tour buses have departed – the penguin colonies will come in from the sea about sunset. See visit12apostles.com.au

Glow-worm caves

Living glow-worms mean the walking tracks around Melba Gully in the Otways twinkle at night. See visitotways.com

Platypus

The elusive monotremes can be found in Lake Elizabeth. Otway Eco Tours runs dawn and dusk canoeing trips to see them. See platypustours.net.au

Whales

Between June and September, a parade of southern right whales passes by Warrnambool, best spotted from the viewing platform at Logans Beach. See visitwarrnambool.com.au

Emus

The Tower Hill Reserve, 20 minutes' drive from Warrnambool, hosts roos, echidnas and picnic-snaffling emus inside an ancient volcano crater. See visitvictoria.com

TRIP NOTES

David Whitley travelled courtesy of Visit Victoria.

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visitvictoria.com

TOUR

Tours of the Anglesea Golf Club cost $12. See angleseagolfclub.com.au

Apollo Bay Surf and Kayak's seal kayaking tour costs $75. See apollobaysurfkayak.com.au

STAY

Hilltop villas at Chris's Beacon Point near Apollo Bay have ocean views and abundant birdlife fluttering around in the morning. Rooms from A$250, breakfast included. See chriss.com.au


- Traveller