Matthew Flinders notably said he had never seen a “more fearful section of coastline” – no surprise, considering the Shipwreck Trail acts as a graveyard for many a vessel brought down by the dangerous weather, human error or foul play. Over 700 ships never completed their ill-fated voyages past the terrifying Cape Otway to Port Fairy coastline, only 240 wrecks have ever been found.
Historians and deep-sea divers are fascinated by what lies beneath these treacherous seas but if ghost-infested waters are not your thing explore the Historical Ship Wreck Trail from land. You can even step back in time and visit the rich maritime history of these coastal towns and see for yourself what sea-faring life was like during the 19th Century.
Start your weekend climbing the steep, spiral staircase of mainland Australia’s oldest surviving and most significant lighthouse. You’ll forget the 78 stairs when you reach the 21m high balcony and take in the epic 360 degree views of the Southern Ocean, 91metres above sea level. There couldn’t be a better vantage point to admire the vastness of this ocean and remember the shipwrecks that it didn’t allow to pass by. There are 8 wrecks at Cape Otway alone.
Built in 1848 the ‘Beacon of Hope’ saved hundreds of sea-farers lives and was the first sighting of land for many thousands of 19th century migrants after spending months at sea. Today it is a drawcard for history buffs and sight-seers alike. The lighthouse is just one of the significant buildings to explore on site – there is also the Telegraph Station, a 1942 American radar bunker and you can even stay in the historical Lightkeeper’s Cottage. You must pre-book a tour of this beauty as there is no walk-up access to the Light Station Heritage Precinct grounds.
Built in 1857 this homely historical cottage comes complete with sweeping views of the lighthouse and Southern Ocean. Previously, it was home to Henry Bayles Ford, his wife Mary Ann Ford and their nine children, seven of which were born here. The four-bedroom cottage (which can be broken into two separate two bedroom accommodation options) offers a much more idyllic escape today than it did for the original hard-working and incredibly resourceful light keepers. They not only raised their families in extreme isolation but rescued shipwreck victims and kept the light burning every evening for the safety of thousands of ships that travelled through Bass Straight.
After a morning hearing shipwreck tales it only seems fitting to venture nearby to toast these lost vessels – with nautically inspired gins created in their honour, at Apollo Bay Distillery. Here, you won’t just find the Great Ocean Road’s only gin distillery and impressive copper column still, the anchor of the SS Casino is also on site.
A visit to Apollo Bay Distillery wouldn’t be complete without taking a gin flight consisting of 4 handcrafted gins – SS Casino Dry, Speculant Grapefruit, Captain Chapmans Navy Strength & Amphitrite served with a 2ooml Fever Tree Tonic, ice and garnish. They are distilled onsite using local botanicals which pair perfectly with a freshly made wood fired pizza using only the finest flour and ingredients. It’s great that Apollo Bay Distillery is keeping the nautical spirit of Apollo Bay and the Shipwreck Coast alive.
Wreck Beach brings out the nautical explorer in all of us. Make your way down the 500+ stairs to the shores of the wild ocean that claimed so many unfortunate vessels. Walk the deserted sands past clear blue rockpools and scattered boulders to discover the lost remains of shipwrecks – haunting reminders of the treacherous nature of this coast. You’ll also find the anchors of the Marie Gabrielle and the Fiji (1891) – the most famous wreck of all. Now, it’s a maritime headstone where you can pay tribute to those lost souls still at sea.
Loch Ard Gorge is an idyllic cove created by the destructive power of the waves of the Shipwreck Coast. Here, vast sandstone cliffs plunge straight into the tear shaped bay, so spectacular it’s hard to believe tragedy once struck here.
In 1878 a ship called Loch Ard set sail from Liverpool bound for Melbourne, its passengers leaving Europe for new lives. During a dark and stormy night, within a day’s sail of their destination the ship hit a rocky island and sank within 15 minutes. Of the 54 people on board only two survived – sailor Tom Pearce and passenger Eva Carmichael, both 18-years old. Tom had safely swum to shore when he spotted Eva floundering in the water. He jumped back in to save her before sheltering her in a cave then searching for help. It’s only fitting that the two sandstone pillars in the centre of the gorge be named in their honour. And the neighbouring gorge be named Loch Ard Gorge after the sunken ship and those lost with it.
You can visit both historic sites when you walk along the 1.4-kilometre track, taking a mere 50 minutes to complete. Take the left path from the carpark to the Tom & Eva Lookout. You’ll see the stunning view of ‘Tom’ & ‘Eva’ standing victorious from the swirling sea. Then, return to the carpark and take a right to walk the cliffs high above the white sands of Loch Ard Gorge. You’ll visit the very cave that sheltered Tom and Eva and have the opportunity to pay tribute to those who didn’t reach these shores at the clifftop cemetery.
Stroll down the cobblestone streets of the 1800’s maritime village and step into the past as you explore what life was like for the Shipwreck Coast’s first European settlers. This is Victoria’s most active maritime museum with Australia’s most significant shipwreck artefact collection. It’s also home to the stories of hundreds of 19th Century ships, their crewmen and passengers, passed on by the lucky few who survived the journey to start a new life in a foreign land. Flagstaff Hill is a place where you can walk through history, to remember and experience the stories of these early battlers who laid the foundations for life as we know it today.
Once you’ve enjoyed the historical village of over 40 buildings – including a school, fire station, boat builder’s yards and even a blacksmith’s forge, climb the hill which gives this site its name. Here you can scale the lighthouse staircase, inspect the 80-pound cannon and take in some of the best coastal views in Warrnambool.
Pick up a self-guided walking map from the Port Fairy Visitor Centre (or download one here) and explore Port Fairy’s maritime history by foot. Walk the famous Port, past the wooden sheds of the port services and bluestone river warehouses and mills, visit shipwreck memorials and the historic lifeboat station before exploring the canons and powder magazines of Battery Hill. Continue the tour to the wildlife reserve of Griffith’s Island and 1859 lighthouse before trying to catch a glimpse of the 17 (not necessarily visible) shipwrecks of East Beach.
As night falls it’s well worth returning to Flagstaff Hill for the spectacular ‘Tales of the Shipwreck Coast’ Sound and Light Show. By lantern light make your way into the 19th Century via this multi-million dollar showcase at the custom built whalf-front theatre. You’ll experience three great stories told through projections on a 9m water wall – from local Aboriginal tales to the colourful whaling history to the past events that gave this coastline its name.
If you venture a little further from the Shipwreck Coast you’ll find another opportunity to experience a night in the life of a Lightkeeper. From your private Cape Nelson Head Light Keepers Cottage you can hear the high seas and see the bright, guiding lighthouse beam. I bet the 19th Century Light Keepers wished there was the hot tub, fully equipped contemporary kitchen and coffee machine when they lived here!
After a relaxing morning enjoying the supplied breakfast on our lighthouse view porch it was time to join Gordon’s 11am tour. Still in operation today, this lighthouse has been keeping many sailors safe on the treacherous Shipwreck Coast since 1884. As you climb the circular staircase Gordon tells tales of its nautical history and paints the picture of what a lightkeepers life before you reach the ginormous light itself, still spinning even in daytime. Then, hold onto your hat as you step out onto the (approx.) 100m high balcony, if the wind doesn’t blow it off the spectacular view will.
For one last stop before venturing home, visit Portland’s very own maritime hero – the 1858 lifeboat used to save dozens of lives, most famously during the sinking of the Admella in 1859. This humble hero is one of the oldest surviving wooden vessels in Australia and deserves her proud, lovingly restored place in history. She is just one of the local maritime stories you’ll discover at the centre.
The most direct way to Cape Otway from Melbourne is inland via the Princes Highway, Cape Otway Road and Birregurra-Forrest Road – 3h and 30 mins.
The Shipwreck Coast then stretches 130km along the Great Ocean Road to Port Fairy.
Discovering remains of lost ships on Wreck Beach
Visiting the 19th Century Maritime Village of Flagstaff Hill and experiencing the spectacular Sound and Light show
The clifftop walk to visit Tom & Eva Lookout and Loch Ard Gorge
Viewing fierce swells of the Southern Ocean from the soaring lighthouse balconies
Staying at two historic Light Keepers Cottages
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Great Ocean Road Regional Tourism acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of the Great Ocean Road region the Wadawuurung, Eastern Maar & Gunditjmara. We pay our respects to their Ancestors, past present and emerging. We recognise and respect their unique cultural heritage and the connection to their traditional lands. We commit to building genuine and lasting partnerships that recognise, embrace and support the spirit of reconciliation, working towards self-determination, equity of outcomes and an equal voice for Australia’s first people.