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Loch Ard Gorge and Shipwreck Coast

By Richard Moore

Loch Ard Gorge and Shipwreck Coast

Loch Ard Gorge
(image: TikiTouring.co.nz)

In good weather the beautiful coastline along south-western Victoria often appears as a slice of heaven on Earth, but when things turn rough that same area can turn nasty and for mariners - hellish.

There are 700 ships believed to have been wrecked along the Victorian coast, but fewer than a third of them have been discovered.

Tourists travelling down the Great Ocean Road towards Port Campbell can follow the Historic Shipwreck Trail that signposts 25 of the best-known wrecks.

Perhaps the most famous is that of the Loch Ard, an iron-hulled clipper ship that was lost in 1878 while sailing from England to Melbourne.

Voyaging along the southern Australian coast the Loch Ard was caught in continuous fogs that left her captain mistakenly thinking he was some 50 miles out from the treacherous rocks and cliffs.

Instead the Loch Ard was dangerously close to land and on 1 June struck Mutton Bird Island to the east of Port Campbell. Frantic efforts to save the 1700-tonne ship failed and she was dashed on to rocks.

Only two people from the 54 passengers and crew survived. A cabin boy called Tom Pearce helped save a young woman Eva Carmichael, who had been washed on wreckage into the cove now known as Loch Ard Gorge. After they spent the night in a cave Pearce climbed the gorge's cliffs and eventually found help.

Loch Ard Gorge is one of the places to visit in the Port Campbell area and in summertime you absolutely have to pack a picnic basket and spend the day there. It really is one of those sensational spots where you can relax, have a swim or muck about on the beach.

To the east of the gorge are the famous limestone towers of The Twelve Apostles that stand up to 45 metres from the pounding waves of the Great Southern Ocean.

These magnificent structures are formed over thousands of years as the churning seas undermine the soft limestone around them and when that collapses leaves the formation standing out from the cliffs.

Loch Ard Gorge and Shipwreck Coast

The 12 Apostles
(image: TikiTouring.co.nz)

The Twelve Apostles are must-sees and it doesn't really matter if you are traveling in summer or winter, you'll be in for a treat.

Blustery, wintry conditions means rugging up warmly and seeing the power of the Great Southern Ocean as it crashes into Australia. The lighting is terrific in the colder months as the often storm-black skies form the perfect backdrop for a setting sun on the landscape.

In warm weather you can sit for hours and just marvel at nature's beauty and the fabulous colours of the seas and the rocks themselves.

In the 20+ years that I've been travelling down to the area there has been a lot of tourist development and not always for the better.

Once you'd park your car near the cliffs and be one of only a handful of visitors enjoying the view. Now you park across the road near a tourist centre and then trudge with hundreds of others through a tunnel under the Great Ocean Road to the wooden walkways and viewing platforms.

It has to be said the platforms are good - and do save the area from being trampled - but the masses of people are not such fun. And to me the feeling of enjoying something wild and beautiful has been diminished by conservation and so-called progress.

Now if you want to get down on to the shoreline near The Apostles then head for Gibson Steps, which are to the east and signposted from the road. Gibson Steps are fairly steep and can be a bit slippery, but once you are down on the sands then you get a real appreciation of how two of The Apostles look close up and in heavy weather the crashing waves are spectacular.

If you've been driving for a while and the kids are a bit cranky then half an hour by the waves will do them - and you - the world of good. Watch out for the tide though as you wouldn't want to be caught down there.

As mentioned Port Campbell is in the centre of National Park area and is a good place to base yourself.

It isn't cheap though and you do need to watch where you are staying. Budget motel accommodation will still knock you back around $140 - and that is for a grotty two-room place with no heating and a missing smoke detector. I should know - I forked out for it.

Loch Ard Gorge and Shipwreck Coast

London Bridge
(image: TikiTouring.co.nz)

Mind you, no matter the price of a bed, there is always excellent value to be had at the Port Campbell pub. The counter meals are big and are very good value. The open fire and friendly attitude of the staff make this a top spot for couples to have a wonderful night out.

West of Port Campbell is the Bay of Islands National Park and Peterborough, another potential base for zipping around the area.

There are some wonderful sights in this part of the coast, including The Arch, London Bridge (sometimes called London Arch), The Grotto and the Bay of Islands.

All are worth looking at although London Bridge, for mine, is always stunning. It got its name from looking very much like the famous span in Britain's capital, but in 1990 one of the arches gave way and sent thousands of tonnes of rock crashing into the seas.

Having walked out on to the end of London Bridge many times in the 1980s I can imagine the terror of the two tourists who were stranded by the collapse. I would not fancy hearing the fall of rock and then watching from the middle of the remaining arch as water - higher than the height of the rock you are on - rushed away.

I think the Port Campbell National Park and its surrounds has to be my favourite part of Victoria and the scenery, together with an excellent meal at the Port Campbell pub, are highlights of weekends down in the south-west of the state.

And don't forget that an easy drive down the road from the Port Campbell area will get you to Warrnambool and the chance to watch some whales. You shouldn't visit Victoria and not take a tour or drive down to this spectacular part of Australia - it will almost certainly be one of the highlights of your journey.

Parks Victoria

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