Tim McKnight is a Melbourne-based writer and weekend escapee
Published June 7th 2012
Victoria's western entrance to the notorious Bass Strait is an infamous graveyard for many a sailing ship. The aptly named Shipwreck Coast stretching along the Great Ocean Road is a testament to that, with famous wrecks such as the Loch Ard – and perhaps the elusive Mahogany Ship – coming to grief along the beautiful but treacherous coastline that reaches Warrnambool and beyond.
After three dreary months traversing the savage ocean, clippers, square-riggers and barques, those romantic ladies of the sea from the golden age of sailing ships, faced the delicate navigational act of 'threading the needle'. It took a sharp captain to locate the 80-km gap separating mainland Australia from King Island to the south, where the mighty Southern Ocean and restless Bass Strait clash. One mistake could have the ship tragically lending its name to a landmark, or perhaps passing well south of Tasmania.
So how did traders and migrants find their way safely into Port Philip Bay from the western approach? With more than a little help from Australia's most significant lighthouse – Cape Otway.
The Cape Otway Lightstation boasts a fascinating history and has played a vital role in Victoria's early settlement and subsequent development. Completed in 1848, it saw ships burning with gold fever carrying prospectors from distant lands keen to find their fortune in the rich alluvial goldfields. Visible from 48 km out to sea, it guided ships towards Melbourne carrying displays for the 1880 World Expo, and served as a station for the first undersea telegraph cable between Victoria and Tasmania.
Visitors approach the lightstation precinct via a turnoff from the Great Ocean Road. The 13-km sealed road winds through old stands of eucalypts that are home to a plethora of koalas. Pull into the wayside stops to see these adorable marsupials nonchalantly munching on a lunch of manna gum leaves or gazing curiously at the camera wielders below. Springtime may also afford irresistable glimpses of mothers with joeys clinging on for dear life.
From the entrance and souvenir shop, a self-guided tour etches its way past the old telegraph station, flagstaff and Head Lightkeeper's house (now accommodation), alongside ideal picnic sites, before arriving at the lighthouse itself, a tall, gleaming tower perched 80 metres above the churning sea. A climb up the narrow staircase and chat with the guide will reveal why lightkeepers often went mad, and uncover the none-too-leisurely daily tasks that ensured the structure fulfilled its purpose. And an old salt's advice: hang on to your hat.
Just a short jaunt up the path is the café, housed in the assistant lightkeepers' residence. Blessed with stunning views, the café serves reasonable food and drinks at tourist attraction prices. Take a few minutes to watch a short documentary film about the lighthouse's history to add an extra dimension to you experience. From September 2011 to February 2012, the café is hosting a maritime art exhibition by the late painter Jack L. Koskie, titled The Ships That Shaped Australia.
Tracking further along the path through some scrubby bush finds you at the remains of an old radar bunker, which was built during World War II following the sinking of a US steamship by a German mine.
The walk is topped off with the Aboriginal Cultural Site, which tells the story of the area's original inhabitants and displays art and artifacts in a tranquil bush setting.
Allow at least couple of hours to take in the lighthouse and surrounds, or perhaps stay overnight in the Head Lightkeeper's residence or the Manager's House (from the 1970s). The Cape Otway Lighthouse is truly worth a visit as an integral part of a Great Ocean Road journey.
How to get there: Cape Otway Lightstation is approximately 220 km / 3.5 hours from Melbourne CBD via the Princes Freeway and Great Ocean Road.