Great Ocean Road and Grampians and why not all organized tours are terrible

January 17, 2019 by Loes Kieboom

Why I hate organized tours

Yes, it’s a bit weird to start an article about an organized tour with a speech about how much I hate this kind of traveling.

But this sort of trips are seriously driving me crazy – following these kind of over-performing guides, being forced to roll my eyes about the stupid jokes which should keep the customers happy, accompanied by a pack of niggling co-travelers, who keep getting into my way, where I just would like to observe and enjoy the location or make a photo.

As an individual solo traveler I’m already fighting with the existence of these groups when they rush into a – before – beautiful tranquil place. Then I just hope that it is one of these Asian groups, who leave as fast as they came. So I don’t have to see all this selfie show accompanied with the annoying humor of the tour captain and their uncultured convoy.

I have been living a big part of my life in Salzburg in Austria, which is packed with these tour groups all year round – from the Korean ‘Europe in two weeks with lunch breaks in Chinese restaurants’-tours, to Italian ‘I cannot travel on my own and there is a reason for it’-tours and of course the American ‘Sound of music and singing Edelweiss, which is – for heaven’s sake – not the Austrian anthem’-tours. You start to hate these kind of groups when you get stuck into one of these gangs while leaving your home’s entrance, just trying to get to the next supermarket. Ok – I’m over-performing here as well (please don’t take the mentioned nations in a racist way, I’m far away from being this kind of judging person), but I think you get my point of view now.

So it might need some explanation how I got in this terrifying situation to join a more-day tour in Australia along the Great Ocean Road and the Grampians and why I actually enjoyed it.

How an individual solo traveler found herself sitting in an organized tour bus

I was not planning to go to Australia on my current trip, which is not a big surprise actually, as I have not planned anything. But Australia was really not very high on my bucket list anymore.

My childhood dream to visit Australia

As a child I was absolutely fascinated about Australia. After reading the book ‘Walkabout’ in my English course I literally soaked everything which had to do with Australian nature and culture. When we would have to do a presentation in any subject I somehow tried to choose Australia as a topic, when somehow possible.

I read about the Ayers Rock, about the animals, which are so different and exotic compared to European fauna, about the Aborigines and their strong connection to nature and their art. I visited exhibitions of Australian Aboriginal art and learned about their myths and their believing in dreamtime. Every single documentary or movie about Australia was Loes’ TV time (or at least Loes’ recording time). Actually Australia was the first country to be on my travel bucket list, before I even knew what a bucket list was.

Maybe I have been kind of ‘over-reading’ about Australia and I felt I knew the continent already, just with reading, asking and seeing everything about it. Also I found out that the culture of the Aborigines was slowly dying out, being existent as tourist attractions with the oppressed indigenous people being the actors of something which is in reality not existing anymore. Ever going to Australia, which was a kind of a childhood dream, was not really existing in my head anymore. Many years later also being the high prices one other reason for it.

Australia as a part of a perfect ‘around the world’ itinerary

I found myself in the situation that I was searching for a cheap flight from Asia to Central America, which was actually via Europe. That felt kind of wrong – that was the direction I came from. As a ‘world traveler’ you want to do a kind of round trip and move on – not back. So after some research I found a similar price option, heading from Indonesia to Australia, Hawaii (another surprise on my travel list 🙂 ), Los Angeles to my final destination in Guatemala. And flying through these stops without leaving the airport is a no-go, so I did some research about what is possible with a lower budget.

Australia is really expensive, so either you would do it slow and work – or as I did – just visiting within a shorter time.

Traveling in Australia on a budget

More thinking practical and about not spending a massive amount of money, I planned my trip to Australia, which I decided to cut down to the areas around Melbourne – as a flight in – and Sydney – as a flight off point. My trip would have to contain a bit of everything, which once exited me about Australia: koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, the bush or outback, the wide landscapes and Aboriginals culture. I really tried to squeeze in Ayers Rock and the area around, but it would have left a pretty big hole into my travel purse. Still regretting it a bit, so think about it, before your make the same mistake.

Not being a big fan of driving a car and the public transport is pretty much limited within or in between the bigger cities. As I really wanted to get out of the larger urban areas as well, I found this three-day tour going along the Great Ocean Road into the Grampians promising kangaroo, koala sights and a visit to a Aborigines center returning back to Melbourne afterwards, which covered my needs in regards to my needs in things I wanted to see, but also the budget. I ensured with the travel company that it was a small group only. The tour itself was with overnight stays in dorms or camping, so it already limited the kind of participants to a bit more open and adventurous travelers.

That’s how I found myself booking the only overnight organized tour I did throughout my whole trip since 2017, indeed I have not participated on these kind of tours since my first travel to Indonesia in 2010 (where I actually decided not to do these kind of trips anymore). Being around in a group with a limited time, not being able to choose the locations myself is a bit tough for an individual traveler, so I did not have the greatest expectations on this trip.

I arrived from Bali to Melbourne and already the next day I would start the trip to the Great Oceans Road, being more or a less the first experience in Australia.

By the way, this is no paid article, no advertisement, so actually it’s not really needed to mention the company I went with. But at this point I was thinking that some of you might want to know which tour operator I have been chosen. So in secrecy: *whisper-mode-on* It was Bunyip Tours *whisper-mode-off*. Don’t tell anybody!

The tour itinerary

The tour I booked was with a small bus with 12 people only, with an adorable guide and driver. I always find the guides a bit too enthusiastic and a bit over-performing, but I also learned during my travels – when traveling within a group with a lot of different individuals – this kind of behavior is just needed to keep the group together and getting some rules communicated, in order to keep sticking to the schedule.

On the other hand it was also a kind of luxury for me to be able to get my backpack into a vehicle and not to think about where to get off, where to sleep, which places to visit and not to bargain about all this stuff (I spent almost a year in Asia before, it’s amazing how much time you gain, when you don’t have to fight for your prices anymore), so I enjoyed the long ride towards the coast.

The Great Ocean Road

At the first day we did all this classical stops which you are supposed to do along the way, stopping at the arch saying ‘Great Ocean Road’. We had the first glimpse on the clear water and cliffs, a stop at Torquay beach – a famous surfer spot – we went through a Eucalyptus forest to spot Koalas, did a lunch stop along Cape Otway Lighthouse, where you can also find a little Aboriginal hut with some information on their culture.

After that we went on to the infamous Twelve Apostles and further along the coast to the Loch Ard Gorge and the Razorback before reaching our hostel in Port Campbell, a sleepy village along the ocean. Due to the fact that we did a more-day trip – unlikely other tours which take the long road to the Twelve Apostles on one day with a return to Melbourne on the same day – we split some other sights along the Great Ocean Road such as the London bridge, Bay of Martys and the beach of Peterborough to the morning of day two.

At each stop we had plenty of time to look around at the major sights and it was not about following the guide, but more something like telling what there was to see at the current site and ‘be back in an hour/two hours’ or ’15 minutes’, when it was really just for making a picture. Our driver/guide was happy to stop when we wished and we would be able to ask for something when wanted, so it was at least a bit flexible. Also I had the feeling that the visits at most of the spots were scheduled and chosen well, so that the places where we stopped were not crowded (besides from the really infamous ones like the Twelve Apostles of course).

At the end of the day in Port Campbell there was even enough time to take a dip into the ocean (at least for me it would not be more than a dip, after only swimming and diving within the Asian tropics the year before, I could kind of feel that the sea water was coming more or a less directly from the Antarctica), so there was at the next day at Peterborough beach before we hit the Grampians.

Grampians – Victoria’s bush mountains

On the way to the Grampians we did a lunch stop at the picnic area of the Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve which was inhabited by emus and koala bears. With a drive to a scenic viewpoint over the the volcano lake and craters afterwards.

As I have been growing up in Austria (Austria – not Australia – no kangaroos in Austria!) I would have expected the drive into the Grampians, known as the Victoria’s mountain area, a bit more impressive. As everything in Australia also mountain ranges are wide. However, we made some stops on the way, where you would see the first mountain peaks.

At the Brambuk Cultural Centre, which is a small museum about the Aboriginal culture, which I really wanted to go because of the cultural aspect, another experience would be much more exciting for me: My first wild kangaroo sight. I really enjoyed the walk through the forest and fields around the area and seeing these elegant creatures trying to hop as far and fast as possible away from us.

In the cultural center there was a small exhibition on Aboriginal art and some more exhibition pieces on the traditional way to hunt. There would have been the possibility to learn more within the center, also with the opportunity to have a longer chat with the people working there and watching a movie, but to be honest I lost quite some time within the woods to observe the kangaroos.

We then went further on to our second overnight spot which is on a place which is named ‘Grampians airport’ at Google maps. This might a bit different and more quiet then you expect. This site is a two hours drive away from the next supermarket, in the middle of the bush and most traffic on the airport landing strip is defined by the the kangaroos hopping around on it. Which is very practical to keep the grass low – as planes are landing maybe once a month or less on it.

The lovely owner of the cabins, camping area, ‘airport’ and the several hectares of land around it, and his three herder dogs was just what you would expect there in the middle of nowhere. This was truly a special place to stay, for reasons I will tell you further below.

The next day started early with a ride to the Mackenzie Falls, Reed’s Lookout and the Balconies. For lunch we went to Halls Gap, where you could choose to spend your time to do a small hike – actually everybody went to the Venus Baths – or just hang around and enjoy some ice cream which was obviously the thing to do in this small, a bit touristy mountain town. The time afterwards was actually about dropping some of the participants off to the bus station in Beaufort to Adelaide and a long drive back to Melbourne with the rest of us.

What not to expect on an organized tour

Although we really had good amount of time at each stop, which seemed to be enough for all other participants, I found it a bit hard to squeeze in everything, which I wanted to do, at some of the locations. Which was most of the times very clearly related to the fact that I wanted to make some photos as well.

Don’t expect to have unlimited time as ‘The Photographer’ without singing

As all guides probably do, they are checking out the group dynamics to be able to adjust to the wishes and needs of their customers. I had the nickname ‘The Photographer’ very soon (glad it wasn’t ‘The Smoker’ though, as I also had to squeeze that somehow into the stops).

I’m Dutch, my zodiac sigh is virgin, so I’m punctual 🙂 , but definitely most of the times the last one hopping into our mini bus (yes, also because of enjoying a cigarette before doing so). As our guide made up a rule that late-comers would have to sing and I really did not want to torture my fellow travelers I have beaten the clock EVERY SINGLE TIME.

I usually approach a location or a photo subject by observing, enjoying the scenery and slowly start making photos. This was clearly not working on most of the locations, with some exceptions of course. Usually at every stop there were several different walking paths and view points and I often just rushed from point to point to be sure to have the best catch.

Don’t expect to visit all locations which you see on fancy photos

I did not really inform myself about the details of the settings at the locations in advance. For example it would have been interesting to be able to go down to the beach at the the Twelve Apostles. I saw pictures from that place and also I saw afterwards that there are stairs down to the beach. I’m definitely sure that that I would not have been able to do it within that time frame, which we got at that location or it would have been an ‘either or situation’.

I suppose it would even have been possible to ask for more time, as we were traveling within a small group. At least in case more people being interested in the same thing.

I also had a location with huge anchors along the beach in my mind, which was located at the so-called ‘Shipwreck Coast’, which we would visit as well. Finding out that almost the whole coast was called Shipwreck Coast, so I am still not sure where this spot would be. I did not ask for it anymore, as I let myself guide and had the impression that I was seeing already more than expected.

If however, you are interested in some special locations, inform in advance, ask the tour operator if you will pass by – especially when traveling with smaller groups they might be able to make it happen that you have a stop or more time at a certain place.

Don’t expect to be alone without a ‘pack’ of (lovely 🙂 ) fellow travelers

Furthermore – although traveling with a small group only – you don’t have the location for yourself, so I felt myself often keeping to rush to the place to be just a bit earlier to be able to have a spot ‘co-traveler-free’. Or of course waiting until the ‘pack’ is gone (not being a judgement of the fellow participants of course, all were lovely on their own way 🙂 ).

The best example I might have was the stop at Brambuk Cultural Centre. The guide told us to hike the little trail close by, where for sure kangaroos would be around. We had a some younger people on our tour, who came along well and I was happy for them having a good time. On the other hand they got very chatty, which is not very helpful when trying to approach wild animals. So I really more a less ran into the bush to be able the first one and leaving the noisy ‘pack’ behind. At least my plan worked. Although it felt just like a couple of seconds: I was very very close to a kangaroo, which kept be standing there for a while, just looking at each other. This magic moment ended of course as soon as my ‘noisy pack’ was approaching, my signs to keep them quiet at least helped, so the kangaroo hopped away in a very slow, chilled way.

Well, what should I say, don’t try to make wildlife photography with a bunch of happily mixed tour participants.

Don’t expect to have the best light or weather conditions

The following con should not surprise, but actually somebody on the tour complained about it, so enough to mention: You will not always arrive at the sights at the time of the best light conditions, but just due to time schedule of the tour route. Not even talking about the weather – but seriously – your tour operator can do nothing about that!

However, when it’s about the main sight of the tour – the Twelve Apostles – which are the photographer’s dream during sunset: It might not happen at that time, especially when doing the tour during Australian summer time, as we did. The sunset at that time of the year is simply happening when people usually had dinner already, wanting to be a bit tipsy from their first beer(s) and/or maybe even be tired about a long day, so thinking about to hit the bed.

I found the light situation especially at the Twelve Apostles actually quite interesting. We had a cloudless blue sky with a heavy back light on the main rocks. With a good camera and the ability to handle this technically (also with the editing afterwards) I found it quite impressive and had fun with the shoot, besides from the massive amount of tourists. I understand that it’s more difficult with with mobiles and compact cameras to get a good shot, but hey – everybody can do sunset, hm?

On the other hand I also suffered from the light situations on other locations now and then. Sometimes we just had to hop into the bus when the sun came out and lightened the beauty of the location (seriously, that was not funny to be so close to the pressure of being forced to sing, just because wwanting to make some last shots while the sun came out). Also in the morning, the cliffs along the Great Ocean Road just make some ugly shadows on some of the sights.

When you really want to go there to make your perfect pictures you will just need to take some more time and organize an individual trip.

Don’t expect to have your complete outdoor adventure

One of the other trip’s cons was about the part in the Grampians. While there was a description in the itinerary of being able to choose from some different hikes, nothing of that what we had time for can be called a hike (maybe due to the fact that I have grown up in the Austrian mountains and I have another comprehension about the activity hiking, however, also some other participants commented the same).

In case anybody of us would have liked to go the beautiful view points around Halls Gap (which seem to be fantastic, looking at the pictures which we could not make), the time frame would never have been enough. Maybe that’s what you would have to expect when going with a tour, but I really believed to be able to do a larger hike through the mountains of the Grampians.

Why the organized tour was not bad at all

So you read a bit of a dry explanation about the outlines of the tour I did, some convincing cons not to join an organized tour. Now we are getting to that point where I will tell you, why *whisper-mode-on* I would do this organized tour again *whisper-mode-off* (PLEASE – don’t tell this anybody as well! 🙂 )

Surprising wildlife

The first surprise was already at our second stop when seeing a bunch of cockatoos. I have never seen parrots in wild before and also I wasn’t aware of these living in Australia. In the grampians I even saw the classical mainly colored red parrots, which I only know from behind the cage grids in Europe. Also I forgot that there are emus in Australia. I really enjoyed them sneaking around at our lunch at the Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve.

Talking about Australian’s animals, I really liked the way, how we searched for Koalas. We were driving into a large eucalyptus forest, went for a little walk along the road and our guide let us search for them on our own. A kind of method how to motivate children with the unspoken rule that the first one, who will spot a koala, will be the winner. But I must say this game is working very well on adults as well (although I didn’t win 🙁 ).

Well scheduled tour to the target customers

I found that some of the stops were chosen really well, so was the timing and the time frame we had there. Most of the spots we had for our group only. Sometimes I saw another group rushing in – making some pictures – and rushing out, which made me aware that taking a more day-tour, especially to the Great Ocean Road, was a good idea.

The last stop along the Great Ocean Road at Peterborough beach was definitely the best example on this. This beautiful wide white sanded beach with some interesting rocks was just perfect for a longer stop where everybody could do whatever would be appreciated. Some went for a longer barefoot walk, one girl even went for a longer run along the beach, some went swimming, some were making selfies at the reflecting water around the rock formations, some just having a second breakfast and some made pictures of all these actions (yes, exactly, me! ‘The Photographer’).

As I mentioned in the beginning, the kind of tour I have been chosen was made for a bit more independent, easygoing travelers. Not talking about the the age at this point, as this is not necessary related to each other, also our group was widely varied when it’s about the ages and nationality of the participants. So when you choose to do an organized tour – be sure that you kind of fit into the target group of customers, which the tour operator wants to approach.

Wild bush lodge in the Grampians with surrounding kangaroos

One of the best parts of the trip was the stay next to the ‘Grampians Airport’ at the ‘Asses Ears Wilderness Lodge’.

There was a huge land around the cabins and I went for a lonely walk (so without my lovely ‘pack’ 🙂 ) within the beautiful last orange light of the day. Along the dirt roads I crawled over several trees and branches to have this experience, how you would imagine Australia – dry, wide, always having in mind that it’s also home to some of the most poisoned animals in the world, including snakes (I did not see any though). In the far kangaroos were hopping into sunset.

When it got dark the advantages of the lack of light pollution got visible, as the night sky turned its star show on. That’s how an airport landing strip in the middle of the Australian bush should be used: arm yourself with a mat and a beer and enjoy the light show of our universe. In case you are from the northern hemisphere it is not even a lie, when saying that you will see stars you never saw before.

For the next morning a co-traveler and I decided to get up early to watch kangaroos, which should be the best time for it. Unfortunately one of the lovely herder dogs of the lodge decided to join in as well. Instead of a pack of tourists we now had the problem of a barking and hunting dog keeping the kangaroos on a good distance. Nonetheless we had a nice walk with the dog with a couple of kangaroo sights (some even a bit closer) including a sunrise coloring the cloudscape like red fire.

A childhood dream came true

For me – a lot of the exiting experiences I had on this trip were related to the fact that some childhood memories came up. The things I once talked about in presentations in school, read about or saw in documentaries. The experience of walking through the deserted Australian bush with kangaroos, the sight of leafless eucalyptus forests, which remembered me that all this exotic animals are sometimes also considered as a plaque (as koalas are actually eating their own homes), the paintings of the Aboriginals about dreamtime, the drive along the wide Australian landscapes covered with sheep, cows and a sight of a farmhouse with the typical windmills now and then – all this reminded me that I finally reached one of my childhood dreams: to visit Australia, which I actually was not really aware of anymore.

Best of Australia in three days – with Tim Tams

Also, for me – it were the first days in Australia, so I enjoyed random things obviously more than my co-travelers did. Put me into an mall in a little sleepy Australian town in the middle of nowhere and I will be able to appreciate the experience about observing the locals, loading their pick-ups and listening to the little chats when people meet each other – while the other participants were asking about when we are finally going to leave.
Of course I had a lot other sweet experiences in Australia afterwards, but in fact this trip had done the job to introduce what it is about in Australia perfectly – like a ‘Australia in three days’-tour.

While a ‘Australia in three days’ might even sound worse than the above mentioned ‘Europe in two weeks’-tour – sometimes when you’re inside the comfortable bubble of somebody else taking care of your travels due to your needs it’s not bad at all AND – most importantly – at least I have been eating some ‘traditional food’ – kangaroo meat and lots of Tim Tams.

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