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Revised, Researched, Rewritten and Revisited
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Ghosts of the Great Ocean Road

The building of the Great Ocean Road on the Victorian Coast Line (about 370klm) began in 1919 the labour of some 3000 ex-service men from WW1 as a repatriation and re-employment endeavor. Constructed with just picks, shovels and crowbars it was finished and officially opened in 1932 and is recognized as one of the worlds leading tourist drives. And so it deserves to be.

Driving the Great Ocean Road is a wonderful experience, the limestone cliffs were formed some 10-20 million years ago while beneath the waves. Having emerged from its watery cradle the exposed ocean escarpment is breathtaking… the pounding surf against the limestone stacks, cliffs and rocks, the majesty of it all is simply thrilling. 

But if we think back to yesteryear, the view would not have been from the coast line, but from the ocean and from this point the coast is like a jagged wall of horror once viewed by simple folk on a voyaging odyssey, often imposed more than chosen; a voyage taking them half way around the world and away from all they knew. 

Blasted by the errant winds that rip through the Bass Strait, the ocean passage before the cliffs becomes terrifying and there are hundreds of wrecks along the coast, lives lost, struggles and tragedies untold. The vast numbers compounded by the passage of convict ships, transporters and local traders taking the sea route around the bottom our Australis Terrafirma. Only one quarter of the eight hundred known shipwrecks in the century of ‘sail’ have ever been salvaged in this region due to the savagery of the ocean.

Blown by the roaring forties, subject to the sudden squalls and storms of the Great Southern Ocean the ships had to pass through the narrow Straight, a mere 90klm wide passage between King Island and the Mainland and as the region is often blanketed in low cloud. Ocean bearings were impossible making the passage something of a hit and miss in navigation likened by Ship Captains to ‘threading a needle’, using anchors and sails to counter the wind driven path of the great ships. The endeavour of which literally resulted in many shipwrecks along the SW coast of Victoria, King Island and the NW coast of Tasmania. The most famous shore being the ragged beach line of Loch Ard so named for the infamous shipwreck that claimed 52 lives, leaving but two to tell the tale.

The list of wrecks is incredibly impressive, the little Oceanside villages and ports that dot the coast now, commonly post long lists of ghosted ships and victims in their regions history.  To add to these tragedies’ there were then and now, the ‘Wreckers,’ who more often than not plundered the wrecks before the constabulary of the day could salvage the same. These were local people trying to elk out a living in colonial times mostly where the shores were remote from any settlement and farming the land a difficult struggle. Often local salvage washed ashore came with comic results… like the guy who nicked a box which landed as flotsom from the ‘Schomberg’  wrecked in 1855…. The crate was full of wellington boots, a good catch, only they were all only the left foot. This resulted in many of the natives still in the region having two left feet around Warrnambool, for a considerable time.

Though my favourite story has to be of the wreck of the ‘Sacramento in 1853.  It had a valuable cargo of large wooden vats of wine which drifted in and out of the rip with the tides, unable to be managed ashore.  When they finally managed to land one large vat the government salvage men handled it onto the wooden jetty decking and placed it under guard for the night as they were unable to get it ashore proper. Some enterprising fellow took a skiff out from the beach and maneuvered it under the jetty and with an auger, drilling through the jetty and the bottom of the vat he was able to siphon off numerous buckets and containers of the fine wine much to frustration of the Customs men who arrived the next day. Now there is good Aussie enterprise for you, we need not wonder from where our national character emerged.

Then of course there was the Bass Strait Pirates, a little acknowledged part of our history… they operated particularly around King Island, building bonfires as beacons to lure ships to their demise and plunder their cargo.  The activity of ‘wrecking’ as it is known, was of course illegal and would earn a culprit years in gaol. So many buried their plunder and years later often a farmer would plough up the oddest of goods. Now-a-days they prize bottles, apparently they are worth a pretty penny as are cutlasses’ and other colonial oddities. The stuff in the bottles isn’t much good, but who would have thought that the bottles themselves were so valuable in time.

The centerpiece of the region is of course the 12 Apostles, the tourist crowds at this lookout are incredible in that the site is the closest to Apollo Bay and Melbourne. Being within reach, the Melbourne day trippers to the area are a problem of volume.  The main lookout is thankfully quite accommodating and built for these crowds. The mornings are the time to visit as the crowds don’t seem to build until around lunch time when the touring busses begin to arrive and thankfully we had managed to explore the picturesque stretch by then. Though given the saintly name of the Apostles, with the history of wreckers at hand, who used these majestic statues as their favoured tool is somehow in reflection incongruous. Perhaps this explains the torturous demise of the Apostle numbers in the passage of time as the Gods frowned down on the unholy practice.

Most recently, in 1989 illegal salvagers were still working on the remnant of the Loch Ard which was wrecked in 1878, nicking brass and other artifacts as they salvaged, working from the beach. The Commonwealth and State police put a stop to it in the end, once they had settled the matter of who was in authority, itself a historical dilemma. 

People weren’t the only ones to profit as many of the buildings around Apollo Bay are built and ornamented with salvaged timber from the wrecks. Particularly the choice American timbers from the ‘Eric’ wrecked in 1880 whose cargo was destined for the Melbourne Exhibition. The stories are rich and colourful and it has been fun researching them. If ever you get down this way, when you look over the cliffs and the Apostles, bring to mind not only the labouring soldiers but also the mariners and the passengers of the many wrecks thrown against the cliffs, but think also of the people left to survive by whatever means possible, including that washed ashore in the early colony of that which is our land…. It is an interesting tale.

We set up night camp at Beauchamp Falls Forestry reserve which was just delightfully quiet and lonesome after the invading crowds of the 12 Apostles lookout. The birds are lovely and we really appreciated the peace of the place. It was some 17klm up a dirt track but the surface was firm and I just fully enjoyed the night noises of the bush even though it was only 7C. However on the hinterland plateau it should be warmer and that will make a nice change from our present sojourn into winter.

Tomorrow we head up onto the Victorian plateau country and the gold towns of central inlands. Catch you again soon.

© jan hawkins 2008