The Great Ocean Road Trip, Part 2

After a few days exploring the lush Otway rainforest in Lorne, my Laddie and I set out along the most dramatic segment of the Great Ocean Road. We’d originally planned to drive it across two days, taking time to hike lengthy sections of the coastal trail, but since the weather forecast indicated this would be our last dry day of the trip, we opted to tour the whole stretch to Port Campbell. The first hour followed a serpentine road hugging the cliffs. Returned ANZACs who built the road carved most of it manually, without mechanized assistance. How did that labor seem to them after combat service? I like to imagine that, like my Saturday morning long run after a rough week at work, the rhythm of physical activity purged mental shadows.

The scenery surely helped. Rock faces tower on one side—scars of Australia’s severance from Antarctica 50 million years ago—and plunges seaward on the other. Hypnotic breakers scroll across the bight below. It’s fun to drive on a day with almost no traffic, but must be a nightmare during high season. Signs every few kilometers remind motorists to drive on the left in Australia. My hands tensed on the wheel at the thought of navigating these loops and lookouts amid a throng of distracted tourists.

Postcard-perfect vistas conceal some harsh history. In 1846, a group of indigenous Gadubanud people assisted a colonial surveyor in charting the Blanket Bay area. When a member of the exploration party reportedly “interfered with” a local woman and her husband killed him, the surveyor launched a revenge campaign, murdering eight. Another attack on native residents occurred the next year. The Gadubanud are believed to have died out soon after the subsequent European colonization of the area. Ironically, this made the landscape even harsher for its new inhabitants, as Aboriginal fire-stick farming had maintained trails through the wild bush.

Cape Otway gave us a glimpse of this lush wilderness as the highway curved inland through farms and ferns. A rutted gravel road led us to Wreck Beach, named for two ships that foundered there, the Marie Gabrielle and the Fiji. Both anchors remain as memorials, visible only at low tide. I timed our visit precisely to suit this window, but couldn’t control the weather within it. No sooner had we descended the steep stairs from the trail than the sky tore open. Rain gushed from the thick grey clouds. Separated by a few hundred meters of sand, my Laddie and I dove for individual shelter.

I cringed under a tree with my back against the cliff. Branches spared me the worst deluge, but the suddenness and savagery of the storm stunned me. I couldn’t see my partner, or much of anything beyond the fury of water. Muddy torrents ran down the rock beside me and carved streams to the sea. Plumes of sediment swirled along the glassy face of each wave before it slammed against the shore. A higher tide would have soaked my boots with surf. Small wonder this is called the “Shipwreck Coast”: no inviting sand or gentle foam, just pure elemental power. Wind gusts carried me whispers of the fear those mariners must have felt as their vessels splintered. When the squall passed, we splashed back up to the road, drenched and humbled.

I expected further awe when the road swung seaward again toward Australia’s second-most famous geological feature: the Twelve Apostles. (Technically, there were only eight stacks to start with, and one collapsed in the early 2000s. I’d vote for restoration of the earlier moniker, the “Sow and Piglets”, which is cuter and skirts the mathematical inaccuracy.) Maybe too many calendar images had jaded my eyes, but ranked among the many stunning coastal vistas I’ve been privileged to see in Australia, I wasn’t that impressed. The Apostles seemed weary, ready to return to the sea. Erosion has gnawed away so much of the rock that one can’t appreciate the strata. Of course, it’s hard to appreciate anything from an observation deck crowded with selfie-snapping holiday-makers in impractical footwear. One particularly oblivious couple blocked the stairs in full gown and tux, taking a wedding portrait with the rocks behind them.

Our final stop at Loch Ard Gorge renewed my spirits. The Loch Ard was a ship that wrecked here in the 1870s. Only 2 of the 54 people aboard survived, with only 4 bodies recovered for interment in a cemetery atop the cliffs. Cargo washed onto the beach included china, concertinas, and, a porcelain peacock statue now housed in a local maritime museum. A sunny afternoon seemed belied that violent past. Kids built sand castles. Someone tossed a stick for his dog. One young woman posed in a flimsy white dress, shivering while a friend snapped phone photos of her. I wondered whether her Instagram story mentioned that her beachy backdrop harbored human skeletons.

Early the next day, I returned to the area despite misty weather to photograph birds in Princetown’s wetlands. As I approached Loch Ard Gorge, light broke through the clouds. Chromatic colors glittered against the gray. Gasping, I veered into the carpark and dashed up the path to the overlook. A dazzling full rainbow spanned the chasm. The only witnesses were seabirds, shipwrecked souls, and one nature nerd firing madly away with her Nikon. When the rainbow faded, I climbed back down to the now-deserted cove. Overnight tides had erased the crowds’ footprints from the sand. The place felt eerily serene. Who would guess that the vibrant turquoise water had drowned hundreds of people, or that the tawny rocks had pummeled ships to sawdust? 

The Great Ocean Road honors the dead of World War I, but also provides points of remembrance for indigenous victims whose names went unrecorded, the luckless seafarers who sleep on the ocean bed, and the wildlife eking survival from human encroachment. Our individual existences dissolve like spray peeling off the breakers, but these antediluvian cliffs remain. Perhaps that’s why we chisel paths through them, or reduce them to our personal portrait stage. In stamping ourselves on the stone, we hope it will serve as our memorial, too.

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