The gateway to the Great Ocean Road near Torquay. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
The Great Ocean Road starts at Torquay and travels 244 kilometres westward to finish at Allansford near Warrnambool. For a good part of that distance, it's paralleled by the infamous 'Shipwreck Coast' stretching between Port Fairy and Warrnambool. At just 130-Kilometres in length it's the single most dangerous stretch of Australia's coastline with more than 600 vessels reportedly lost there. Of those 600 plus only 240 have been located.
History records the loss of vessels such as the NEWFIELD, FALLS OF HALLADALE, ANTARES and SCHOMBERG, dashed onto the rocky shore in bad weather and reduced visibility.
But along this coast, there is no more dramatic story than that of the LOCH ARD. A steel-hulled Clipper she was en-route from Gravesend to Melbourne carrying general cargo and fifty-one passengers and crew when, at about 4 AM on June 1st 1878, a victim of inexact navigation and with the looming shoreline obscured by a thick sea fog, the LOCH ARD was driven ashore at Mutton Bird Island.
The only two survivors of the LOCH ARD disaster were swept through this narrow entrance to the gorge that now bears the ships name. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
The only two survivors of the wreck, Eva Carmichael, daughter of the ships doctor, and Tom Pearce, the ship's apprentice, were both carried by raging seas into the gorge which now bears the ships name. After recovering briefly in a cave Pearce made his way to the top of the gorge and eventually met up with two stockmen from nearby Glenample Station, returning with them to rescue Eva. Four bodies, including Eva's mother and sister, were recovered and buried in a nearby headland.
Loch Ard Gorge is just one of many attractions within the Port Campbell National Park. Adjacent to it are The Blowhole, Thundercave and the magnificent Twelve Apostles, sheer rock stacks of postcard fame, isolated from the coast by centuries of erosion. But don't expect to see twelve, only seven of the towering rock columns remain visible from the viewing area.
Just east of the Apostle's it's possible to get down onto the beach using a series of steps cut into the cliff face by Hugh Gibson, a pioneer settler of last century. To descend 'Gibsons Steps' and stand on the pristine beach is a breath-taking experience, but not something to be taken lightly or attempted in other than ideal conditions and at low tide.
You'll find this stretch of pristine beach at the base of Gibsons Steps not far from the 12 Apostles. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
But no visit here would be complete without taking the short 12-kilometre detour off the Great Ocean Road to the Cape Otway Lighthouse, the eastern extremity of the 'Shipwreck Coast'.
In continuous operation from 1848 to 1994 the Cape Otway light owes its existence to Australia's worst-ever civil maritime disaster, the loss of the CATARAQUI with 400 passengers and crew on a reef just offshore from King Island in September 1845.
Construction of the lighthouse began in 1846 and at the time of its decommissioning in 1994 Cape Otway held the distinction of being the longest continuously operating lighthouse on the Australian mainland.
Once Australia's longest continuously serving mainland lighthouse ......
..... the views from the top of Cape Otway Lighthouse are spectacular. Photos: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
Port Fairy lies at the western end of the 'Shipwreck Coast'. Originally named Balfast, the bustling little port was renamed by a special act of Parliament in 1887 honouring the cutter FAIRY which, commanded by Captain James Wishart, is thought to have been the first European vessel to enter the Moyne River.
The Moyne River at Port Fairy. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
A sense of history is everywhere in Port Fairy reflected, along with its past prosperity, by more than 50 buildings classified by the National Trust. Along the town's Moyne River waterfront it's possible, with just a little imagination, to visualise the hustle and bustle which saw Port Fairy rival much larger cities for the title of Australia's busiest seaport during the late 1850s. Back then majestic Clipper ships routinely called to off-load immigrants and cargo, returning to Europe their holds laden with wool or wheat from Victoria's rich Western District.
Port Fairy's Griffith Island Lighthouse is just a short walk from the centre of town. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
The Clippers and coastal traders have long gone, given way to crayfish or abalone boats and a good-sized pleasure fleet, but the rustic charm of Port Fairy's waterfront lingers on.
Located more or less mid-way between Port Fairy and Cape Otway Port Campbell is the unofficial capital of the 'Shipwreck Coast' and only minutes away from some of the areas major natural attractions including the Twelve Apostles, Gibson's Steps and Loch Ard Gorge.
The jetty at Port Campbell, the unofficial capital of the Shipwreck Coast, is a popular fishing spot. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
A popular seaside holiday destination on the Great Ocean Road the coastline around Port Campbell consists of long stretches of steep and fragile rocky cliffs punctuated with small picturesque bays and magnificent beaches. The township itself sits on Port Campbell Bay and boasts an attractive foreshore, a sheltered sandy beach suitable for swimming and a substantial jetty. A popular Discovery Walk is a feature of the high ground above Port Campbell and provides some spectacular coastal views.
The Port Campbell Discovery Walk provides some great views from the high ground above the town. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
Services in the town are limited but there is a small caravan park right on the beach providing a laid-back base camp from which to explore this fascinating stretch of coastline.
The famous Twelve Apostles are just 7 kilometres east of Port Campbell, surrounded by the 7500 Hectare 12 Apostles Marine National Park and serviced by the Parks Victoria Visitor Centre.
But if you're looking for one single place to encapsulate the history and drama of the 'Shipwreck Coast' it must surely be Warrnambool's Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum.
There can be few places more appropriate to house what is often described as the nations finest collection of shipwreck relics and memorabilia than here slap in the middle of the most dangerous stretch of coastline anywhere in Australia.
Flagstaff Hill itself is a State Heritage-listed site, the location of two significant lighthouses and the former home of the Warnambool Garrison.
The concept of a local maritime village and museum was first floated by the Warnambool Chamber of Commerce in 1974. Today, 45-years later, millions of visitors have enjoyed this award-winning tourism precinct including perhaps the highlight of any visit here, the nightly Shipwrecked Sound and Laser Show, a dramatic re-enactment of the loss of the LOCH ARD.
But my pick of the coast is Apollo Bay. Here there's room to move amid the charm of a working seaport. Ready access to beaches and features including great accommodation, fine wining & dining including fabulous and readily available seafood, the recently refurbished Apollo Bay Hotel and The Great Ocean Road Brewhouse all combine to make this an excellent short break option or the perfect base camp for an extended Great Ocean Road experience.
As well as being a major tourist attraction along the Great Ocean Road Apollo Bay is also a working fishing port. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
The Great Ocean Road and Shipwreck Coast is a feast of fabulous scenery and colourful, often tragic history as well as a modern tourism mecca showcasing great accommodation, local produce, food & wine.
A visit here should certainly be very near the top of any wishlist of things to see and do in Victoria.
One of the many standout attractions on a tour of the Great Ocean Road and the Shipwreck Coast is the magnificent 12 Apostles. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
Getting There .....
The Great Ocean Road officially starts at Torquay, 105 Kilometers southwest of Melbourne, about a 1 hour 20-minute drive via the M1 Freeway to Waurn Ponds then the C134 to Torquay. If you're coming from the west the adventure begins at Port Fairy, the western end of the Shipwreck Coast.
Why? Take a value packed trip along Victoria's southwest coastline and enjoy a two for the price of one deal when you tour the spectacular Great Ocean Road and the treacherous Shipwreck Coast.
When:Anytime is a great time to visit this spectacular part of Victoria but go between May and October for the opportunity to view Southern Right Whales and their newborn calves frolicking off Warnambool's Logan Beach.
Phone:12 Apostles Visitor Information Centre 1300 137 255