In the last week of October, as the whales were migrating south down Australia’s East Coast, Our Global Adventure was road tripping North. We had been highly anticipating this last Australian trip before flying to Europe since we left Adelaide. In our many road trips north over the years we had always seemed to miss the coastal stretch from Melbourne to Sydney, and it was time to fill in the gap. In particular, one stretch of road, The Grand Pacific Drive, with its famous Sea Cliff Bridge, was not to be missed as we made our way to Sydney from the Sapphire Coast.
The Grand Pacific Drive is a new addition to the repertoire of Australia’s spectacular coastal drives. Victoria has the Great Ocean Road with The Twelve Apostles, Queensland has the Captain Cook Highway between Cairns and Port Douglas, and now, with the recent opening of the Sea Cliff Bridge north of Wollongong, New South Wales finally had a reason to open a new touring route – the Grand Pacific Drive.
Originally built in the 1860s, the coastal road, carved into the cliffs 40 metres above the ocean, serviced the coal mines of the Illawarra Escarpment. Despite the breathtaking beauty of the view over the ocean, this stretch of road wasn’t really on the tourist radar. It served mostly local communities making their way between pretty coastal villages, but it had a reputation for danger. The cliffs, especially the section between Coalcliff and Clifton, had a terrifying tendency to slide into the sea, sometimes taking sections of the road with it!
After dozens of near misses, and one final rock fall that took out a section of road, part of the Lawrence Hargrave Drive was finally closed in 2003 while a final solution was negotiated with the community. Two years later, the beautiful 665-metre-long multi-span balanced cantilever bridge curving around the cliffs 50 metres out to sea, provided a safer option away from the danger of falling rocks. The Grand Pacific Drive is a 71km tourist route that meanders along the coastline just south of Sydney, following the Lawrence Hargrave Drive down to Nowra, boosting tourism to the area and showing off the fabulous new Sea Cliff Bridge.
We had first heard about the Sea Cliff Bridge from a Pinterest search of ‘things to see in New South Wales’. Without doing much research, we figured that since we were heading north to Sydney anyway, we’d take the scenic route, hoping to drive over the new bridge ‘somewhere near Wollongong’. Just north of Nowra, on the Princes Highway, we were greeted by markers leading the way to the Grand Pacific Drive. “That must be it!” we exclaimed, and negotiated our way through the traffic to take the turn.
Perhaps, we should have done more research. After twenty minutes on the road from Nowra, we’d not yet caught a glimpse of the ocean, after forty-five minutes we were consulting Google Maps, wondering how long we might continue to pass farm land. As we approached Kiama, the road narrowed and bottlenecked with local traffic, raising our concerns for how long this search for the bridge might add to our road trip to Sydney. In all honesty, it was really the famous cliff section of bridge that we were interested in the most. Don’t get me wrong, the coastal villages along the Grand Pacific Way are pretty, but having just spent three months exploring similar towns further south down the New South Wales coast, we needed to keep an eye on the prize if we hoped to arrive in Sydney for dinner!
By the time we found ourselves crawling along in local traffic of a second fishing village, a decision was made to get off of the Grand Pacific Way, and back on to the Princes Highway until we reached the section with the Sea Cliff Bridge just north of Wollongong. If you make the same choice as us, in your search for the bridge, please note that you will need to go through Wollongong if coming from the south, as there is no exit before the bridge off of the Princes. This didn’t bother us at all, the cliff hugging section is short, and we were glad to drive it in both directions, first south, and then back again north!
If you are not in a hurry, (or have dinner plans like us!) by all means, meander through the little seaside villages along the way, they are very pretty spots for a coffee break or a stroll along the sand. If you’d like to shave just a little time off of the route, pick up the Grand Pacific Drive at Kiama, not Nowra, as that section was probably a bit further than needed to be included for the sake of tourist viewing. Or, if it is just the Sea Cliff Bridge section that you’d like to drive, this can be found between Coalcliff and Cliffton, which is easy to access if you are coming south from Sydney, but will require some back-tracking or a drive through Wollongong if heading north.
The Sea Cliff Bridge did not disappoint. It’s an impressive piece of engineering providing locals and tourist alike with a view over the ocean wide enough to see the curvature of the earth. The best view of the bridge itself can be found from the windy lookout on the northern side. In all, our search for this stretch of road probably added about an hour to our drive to Sydney, but we still arrived in time for dinner with some old friends.