The Great Road along the Ocean and Other Delights

A chill had started to wake me in the morning and proceed me to bed in the evening over the last week and I was really starting to worry about my first winter in Melbourne – which was still another three months away.  So I can’t tell you how pleased I was to see this princess sky when I left my apartment for the day ahead, not a touch of chill in the air despite the early hour.  Today, I was heading out of the city to revisit the Great Ocean Road, and the change in the weather was a good omen.

Good Morning Melbourne!
Good Morning Melbourne!

Surprisingly, the Great Ocean Road is one of the top three tourism experiences in Australia.  It’s in good company with Uluru and the Great Barrier Reef – neither of which I’ve seen (yet).  I have at least visited the Great Ocean Road before, but so long ago that it’s almost irrelevant.  It was a great opportunity to get out of the city for the day and get re-acquainted with the road, so I joined up with a local small group tour company (Melbourne Coastal Touring), and quicker than you could say ‘Eureka’ (oops, sorry, that’s for another day), we were travelling through Melbourne’s outskirts and heading for the coast.

Our guide asks how long ago my last visit was, which I dismiss with a wave of my hand.  ‘Oh, a few years’.  You don’t need to know how long ago it was since I visited, but let’s just say I was in my teens and we know that wasn’t yesterday.  I’m not sure how time flies so fast.  Where do the years go?  It’s a good reminder that time doesn’t stand still and can pass you in the blink of an eye.

The Great Ocean Road is Australia’s most famous stretch of road and traverses approximately 250km from Torquay (spiritual home of Rip Curl) to Warrnambool.  Along the way you amble through the beachside towns of Anglesea, Lorne and Apollo Bay.  Lorne plays host to the annual pier to pub swimming race, an extremely popular 1200m swim.

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The Great Ocean Road is a permanent memorial to those who died in World War I.  A massive engineering feat – being carved out of rock, it was built by returned servicemen and was a way of creating much needed employment after the long war years.  Survey work commenced in 1918 with the road being officially opened in 1932.  During the early years, drivers paid a toll to use the road, however this was removed in 1936 and the road was handed over to the State Government.

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We have a short stop at Kennett River for some koala spotting.  Our guide tells us there has been recent culling of koalas in the region, and before he’s overtaken by sympathetic ‘oh no, how cruel’, he explains its seen as being for their own good.  You see, koalas rely on the eucalypt forests for survival.  If they breed to an unsustainable level, they will breed themselves out of existence with nowhere to go once the trees have been eaten bare.  Attempts have been made to relocate them, but they have been unsuccessful to date.

It’s an ongoing problem and over 700 koalas were culled in 2013 and 2014 in the Port Campbell Cape Otway region.

There are several koalas lounging about the trees when we arrive, including one of the fastest moving koalas I’ve ever seen:

So cute.  We all stood around, faces pointed upwards waiting for any further glimpses of these cute little creatures.

After driving through the forests, which were reminiscent of Boranup forest in the south west of Western Australia, we reach Melba Gully for a quick stop.  Breathtaking views out over the trees towards the ocean await us, as sheep gently nibble on the wet grass.  And I mean wet.  In fact, Melba Gully is one of the wettest places in the state.  I’m guessing it received its name after the great Dame, however I can’t find any reference to this.  Its also reputedly a great place to see glow-worms, but we are obviously here at the wrong time of day.

Lunch is a short stop at Port Campbell at the door to the Port Campbell National Park.  The Park, which is part of the Shipwreck Coast, is home to many of the region’s tourist attractions including the Twelve Apostles, the London Arch (London Bridge), Loch Ard Gorge and Gibsons Steps.

The Shipwreck Coast was a treacherous stretch of water, where more than 200 wrecks occurred, most during the mid-19th century. Captains encountered uncharted reefs and difficult sailing conditions due to strong winds and storms and these took their toll.  Some ships ran aground allowing the crew and passengers to reach land safely, however many ships weren’t so lucky.

One such wreck was that of Loch Ard, from which there was only two survivors.  But I’ll tell you a bit about that in a minute.

Port Campbell
Port Campbell

We all know them now as the Twelve Apostles (even though that’s now a little misleading), but they weren’t always known by this name.  They were initially called the Sow and Piglets, the Sow being Mutton Bird Island and the piglets being the formations to the east of that.  The name was changed in 1846, though no-one knows why as twelve formations have never been visible from the current viewpoint.

These limestone stacks were created by erosion which was caused by the harsh weather conditions in the Southern Ocean.  The erosion, which has occurred over the last 6,000 years, caused soft limestone caves to become arches, which in turn collapsed, leaving the remaining six stacks you see today.

The 12 Apostles
The 12 Apostles

It’s a little overcast today down this way, but when the sun shines intermittently from the clouds, it’s easy to see why the area is so famed for its stunning beauty.  The pictures speak for themselves.

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Along from the apostles, is Loch Ard Gorge, site of the wreck of the Loch Ard, where 52 lives were lost in 1878.  The Loch Ard was a rigged iron sailing ship which left England for Melbourne in March 1878.  The Captain was expecting to see land on the 1st of June, but fog obscured his view and when it lifted, he was surprised to see it much closer than expected.  Despite his efforts the ship struck a reef at the base of Mutton Bird Island and the ship was wrecked.  There were only two survivors – Tom Pearce who was an apprentice crewman and a female passenger Eva Carmichael.  Eva lost her family in the tragedy and was only saved by Tom when he found her clinging to a reef in the gorge.

Tom was lucky enough to happen upon two men from a nearby homestead, who rode off to get help.  Rescued and taken to the homestead to recover, eventually Eva returned to Ireland and Tom went to Melbourne, where he was presented with a medal for his heroics and a cheque from the Victorian Government.

Loch Ard Gorge has several walking trails around it’s perimeter, all of which show you stunning views of the coastline, so you should be sure to leave enough time to wander and soak up the majesty of it all.

The day ends overlooking the ocean by Gibson’s Steps, all 86 of them.  The steps, named after pioneer Hugh Gibson who created them to access his favourite fishing spots, were originally carved out of the cliffs by Gibson.  Later replaced by concrete, they were an easy way for him to access the ocean and transport goods to his nearby Glenample Homestead.

Glenample so happens to be the very homestead to where Tom and Eva were sent to recover after the Loch Ard wreck.

It’s been a long day, the drive back to Melbourne (mostly in the dark) making it even longer.  I think I can leave it another twenty years before I return.

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