Located just 3hrs 30mins from Melbourne, Cape Otway sits right on the southern tip of Victoria’s Western Coast, where the Southern Ocean collides with Bass Straight. It is also known as the Ship Wreck Coast. It’s home to Australia’s oldest working lighthouse, aptly named ‘The Beacon of Hope’. Built in 1848 this beauty has saved hundreds of sea-farers lives and today is a drawcard for history buffs and sight-seers alike. Surrounded by the Great Otway National Park there is so much to see in Cape Otway – rocky cliffs make way for hidden sandy beaches, tranquil rainforests hide bubbling streams and even huge towering waterfalls. It is also home to Australia’s largest koala population and that alone makes a weekend at Cape Otway a must.
Why delve into history when you can stay in it! My partner Sam and I were lucky enough to be calling the heritage Lightkeeper’s Cottage home for the weekend. Built in 1857 this homely, historical building comes complete with sweeping views of the lighthouse and Southern Ocean. 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 (deliveries came by boat only twice a year) but rescued and fed shipwreck victims and kept the light burning every evening for the safety of thousands of ships that travelled through Bass Straight.
These days the only resourcefulness guests need is the knowledge they can request gourmet grazing platters and a range of delicious meals supplied to their accommodation by the Lightkeepers Cafe. Along with a bottle of Shiraz we took our grazing box down to enjoy the spectacular view of the sun setting over the lighthouse – one reserved for the small number of very lucky overnight guests.
Cape Otway Lighthouse opens daily from 10am-4.30pm. Climb the 78stairs to reach the 21m high balcony and take in the 360 degree views, 91metres above sea level. There couldn’t be a better vantage point to admire the vastness of this ocean and remember over 300 shipwrecks that it didn’t allow to pass by. There are 8 shipwrecks at Cape Otway alone. These include The Marie (1851), Sacramento (1853), Schomberg (1855), Loch Ard (1878), Joseph H. Scammell (May 1891), Fiji (September 1891) and the Casino in 1932. The first American vessel sunk during World War II, the SS City of Rayville, was also sunk off the Cape by a German mine in 1940, which sank less than 24 hours after the British Ship S.S. Cambridge off Wilsons Promontory.
The lighthouse is just one of the significant buildings on site. There is also the Telegraph Station which was added to the site in 1959 when Tasmania was connected to the mainland by a submarine telegraph line from Cape Otway to Launceston in 1859. And also an American radar bunker built on the Cape in 1942 which you can also explore.
After a morning hearing shipwreck tales it only seems fitting to venture nearby to toast these lost vessels – with the nautically inspired gins created in their honour, at Apollo Bay Gin Distillery. Here, you won’t just find the Great Ocean Road’s only gin distillery with impressive copper column still but also the anchor of the SS Casino on site in one of Apollo Bay’s oldest buildings.
A visit to Apollo Bay Distillery wouldn’t be complete 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 pairs perfectly with a freshly made wood fired pizza using only the finest flour and ingredients.
Sit back on the deck and take in the ocean and mountain views, it’s great that Apollo Bay Distillery is keeping the nautical spirit of Apollo Bay and the Shipwreck Coast alive.
The Great Otway National Park has secret pockets of sandy beaches. One well worth a visit for fishing, swimming or exploring alike is Blanket Bay. The first campground for those on the Great Ocean Walk (we’ll get to that in a future episode!) The sandy foreshore of Blanket Bay is 200m long and surrounded by steep sloping Manna Gum trees and rock and reef coastline and is met by its own creek. At low-tide you can still find the remains of an 1880’s jetty built for landing supplies to this remote area, it still feels remote today.
Take a walk on the wild side of the Great Ocean Road at Apollo Bay’s newest attraction – Wildlife Wonders. For an informative 75 minutes you will explore this spectacular bushland wildlife walk with your own conservation guide – and if luck is on your side meet the animals that call the Otways home. The odds are in your favour as Cape Otway has the largest koala population in Australia.
Keep your supplied binoculars at the ready as you walk along the 1.4km all abilities walk. It was designed by the art director of ‘The Hobbit’ films and landscape designer of the award winner ‘Hobbiton’ in New Zealand. What make you feel as warm and fuzzy as a koala is that all profits from your visit go towards projects being under taken by the Conservation Ecology Centre. As part of your walk you will be able to stop into the Research Base where you’ll be able to learn about the local projects they have on the go. On our visit, a koala strolled right up to the centre, it must have wanted to check them out too!
See research in action as you make your way back to the visitor centre to browse the gift shop or enjoy a well-earned snack or drink at the café. It’s the perfect spot to plan the next leg of your trip!
The Great Otway National Park not only has the largest population of koalas, but it also has its fair share of waterfalls too – it’s rumoured there are over 400 here. Our next stop was the roaring Hopetoun Falls, it plummets 30m into the Aire River. Soak up view from the upper platform (20m from the carpark) or descend the 200 steps and feel the spray for yourself. The lower platform is roughly a 1km, 30m minute trip but don’t worry, there’s a rest stop at the bottom to rest the weary legs, just say you’re taking a moment to ‘admire the view’.
The Aire River flows through another must-see of the Otways – The Redwood Forrest. Its banks are lined with native ferns that make way for the towering 85 year-old California Redwoods. On this 500m easy walk you’ll wander through their massive trucks and gaze up at an awe inspiring canopy. The lack of undergrowth muffles sound making it feel like a magical hideaway – the perfect for a picnic or pic for the ‘gram.
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.
Staying in the historic lightkeepers house
Having the lighthouse to yourself for sunset – with snacks courtesy of the Lightkeepers Cafe
Up close and personal encounters with koalas at Wildlife Wonders
Sitting in a rainforest soaking up the spray of Hopetoun Falls
Wandering the tranquil Redwood Forest
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Great Ocean Road Regional Tourism acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of the Great Ocean Road region the Wadawurrung, Eastern Maar & Gunditjmara. We pay our respects to their Elders, 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.