The Great Ocean Road officially runs for about 243 kilometers (151 miles) between Allansford on the west and Torquay on the east along Australia’s south coast. Built by returned soldiers between 1919 and 1932 and dedicated to soldiers killed during World War I, the road is the world’s longest war memorial.
The highway runs along very close to the top of tall limestone cliffs that are under constant attack by waves, wind, and rain. The soft limestone is eroded into many irregular bays and inlets often leaving small islands, sea stacks, and stone arches behind. There are a number of viewpoints with fantastic views of the sculptures that the ocean has created. The first two stops are at two adjacent bays encompassed by the Bay of Islands Coastal Park. A boat launch is provided at the Bay of Islands which allows access to the broad bay with scattered sea stacks mostly near the mouth. The Bay of Martyrs is more open to the ocean. There was no direct explanation of how it got its name, but is probably a reference to the large number of shipwrecks along this coast – I’ll expand on that shortly.
The first three stops in the next park in line, Port Campbell National Park, gave us a look at three stages of coastal erosion involved in creating a sea stack. The first, The Grotto, is a limestone sinkhole that is slightly back from the face of the cliff. The ocean is wearing its way through the intervening wall to create a hole which will eventually become an arch. The Arch is in a finger of rock jutting out from the cliff. London Bridge was a larger section of rock extending into the ocean with two arches through it. In January 1990, the main arch (the one closest to the land) collapsed stranding two people on the new island. They were rescued by helicopter.
We were running a bit ahead of schedule to meet the ferry for our trip from Melbourne to Tasmania, so we stopped for a few days in Port Campbell, still an easy day’s drive to Melbourne. It is named for Captain Alexander Campbell who sought shelter in the bay from rough seas in 1840. The town was established as a fishing port in the 1870s. It is now a small town that seems to exist only because of the tourist trade. It is the only place to stay and shop along this particularly popular stretch of coastline. Therefor they can pretty much charge whatever they want for their goods and services. The campground where we stayed is a nice enough place with clean facilities and very nice staff, but it has turned out to be the most expensive campground per night that we have encountered so far in our nine months in Australia.
We spent most of our time reading, catching up on paperwork, and generally being lazy. However, on one day we drove inland on the 12 Apostles Gourmet Trail, which consists of tastings at seven small businesses each specializing in one type of product: wine, seasonal veggies right from the farm, strawberries, etc. We only stopped at three: GORGE Chocolates, Apostle Whey Cheese, and the combined businesses of Timboon Railway Shed Distillery and Timboon Fine Ice Cream (yes, a rather strange combination). You can guess what each one offered.
We have noticed that there is almost no mention of Australia’s volcanic past. In fact, it appears that most Australians are unaware that there were once active volcanoes on the continent. We learned that this section of the coast was once very active volcanically. The primary sources were Mount Leura and Red Rock. From a distance, they both appear to be no more than one of the various hills in the vicinity, but up close they are classic volcano forms like those found in many places in the United States. Both are considered dormant, not dead – it’s only 10,000 to 30,000 years since the last eruption.
This stretch of the Australian Southern Ocean Coast is also known as the Shipwreck Coast. The primary shipping route from England to Melbourne, known as the Great Circle Route, rounds the tip of Africa, goes well south of India, and skirts this coast to slip through Bass Strait into Melbourne Harbour. The accuracy of nineteenth century navigation being what it was, it was not uncommon for a ship to be 200 miles off course by the time it had been at sea for three or four months. Ships also faced the notoriously rough, stormy seas of the Southern Ocean. Therefore, “threading the needle” into the relatively narrow Bass Strait was as much luck as it was navigational skill. According to Wikipedia, there are approximately 638 known shipwrecks along Victoria’s coast. The locations of only about 240 of them are known.
One of those wrecks was the Loch Ard, a clipper from England carrying 36 crew members, 18 passengers, and 2275 tons of cargo. On the night of May 31, 1878, the passengers and crew held a party to celebrate the end of their three month journey. A thick mist obscured the horizon throughout the night so the light from Cape Otway couldn’t be seen. At 4am, the mist lifted, but it was too late. The Loch Ard struck the point of what is now called Muttonbird Island and most of the wreckage washed into the narrow gorge now named after the ship. Only two people survived: an 18 year old cabin boy and an 18 year old female passenger. She soon returned to Ireland to her extended family; he went on to pursue his career as a seaman surviving another shipwreck later on. Of the dead, only four bodies were ever recovered. They were buried in a cemetery beside Loch Ard Gorge.
Having toured the site of the Loch Ard Disaster, we got back into Winston and prepared to move on. When Jon turned the key to start the engine, nothing happened. He tried the “jump start” trick he learned at Daly Waters; still nothing. We called our emergency road service (ERS) who directed us to the nearest Australian ERS. The mechanic that came to our aid did some testing and determined that the starter (which we had replaced in Alice Springs last August) was shot. He helped us get started by giving Winston a pull while Jon popped the clutch. We drove back to the campground in Port Campbell where, once parked and the engine off, we would stay until a new starter was sent and installed. Of course, this all happened on a Friday, so we had to wait until Monday for parts to arrive and repairs made. Since that was the day we were to board the ferry (that “ahead of schedule” sure disappeared in a hurry) to Tasmania, we rescheduled that for a week from today.