On a map of the road out to the Otway Lighthouse the motel owner draws a big circle about half way along the road and tells us there are koalas there. I’m thrilled and excited, and driving out there immediately goes to the top of the list of things I want to do in the area. I was born and raised in Australia and have seen koalas many times: as a child in an enclosure at a wildlife sanctuary near Melbourne, as a teenager at another sanctuary near Canberra, at the zoo in Sydney, and at a reserve near Cairns where Don got to hold one. But I’ve never seen them in the wild, in their natural state, and I’m excited to get the chance. At the same time I’m skeptical. Koalas are small. Gum trees are big and leafy. How are we ever going to find them?
Don is driving. Slowly. I’m leaning forward peering through the windows from side to side hoping to spot a koala in the trees. How could it be possible? Should we stop somewhere and walk into the forest to try to find them? Then suddenly up ahead we see a car stopped by the side of the road and a small group of people staring upwards. Of course we stop and join them, and there they are: two koalas in the branches of a gum tree right by the road. And a little further along are two more. And not high up or hidden at all. They are unconcerned by us, and are simply doing what koalas do: moving around in the trees, eating the leaves,
This one is a baby and half the size of the others, a not much bigger than a child’s teddy bear. Adults weigh in at about 12kg.
Koalas are fussy eaters. There are over 600 species of eucalyptus trees and koalas prefer the leaves of only 30 them. Wherever these particular species grow you will find koalas and one of the greatest threats to them is loss of habitat.
We continue on out to the old Otway Lighthouse, which is no longer in use except as a tourist attraction, and on the way back stop again and see four more koalas, all of them close by the road and low in the trees. Eight in one day! I never thought I’d get to see koalas in the wild, though I do know of people who live in rural areas and see them frequently. For Don and me it is an extraordinary and exotic experience. Real koalas! In the wild!
Next on the list? Wombats! Except that will require a middle-of-the-night excursion somewhere in the dryer southern part of the country.
After visiting the lighthouse we drive inland through the Great Otway National Park, regretting that the weather does not entice us to hiking – in other words it is bucketing down rain most of the time, but we do see some pretty scenery.
In March 1878 a ship left England with a crew of seventeen, a mixed cargo of linen, pianos, candles, clocks, porcelain, pipes, perfumes and umbrellas, as well as cement, railway irons, lead and copper, and thirty-seven passengers, all bound for the prosperous city of Melbourne. The Loch Ard was under the command of one Captain Gibbs, twenty-nine years old and recently married. Three months later it ran aground on a reef off Muttonbird Island off the south coast of the State of Victoria.
The fog was so thick that the lighthouse signal could not be seen, the very same Otway Lighthouse we had visited. The captain could not tell how close the ship was drifting towards the coast. When the fog lifted sails were hoisted as quickly as possible to try to steer the ship away from land, then anchors were dropped 50 fathoms deep to try to hold the ship off the rugged cliffs. All to no avail. In a rough savage sea the ship struck the reef with such force that the masts came crashing down, killing several people in the process and making the proper deployment of life rafts impossible. The ship sank within about fifteen minutes.
There were two survivors. A young apprentice, Tom Pearce, survived by clinging to the underside of an upturned life raft and was eventually washed ashore on the incoming tide at a place that is now known as Loch Ard Gorge. He heard the cries of Eva Carmichael who had been clinging to a spar for hours, and swam out to rescue her. He revived her by opening a case of brandy that had washed up on the beach, and then went for help. She lost her entire family to the sea.
Loch Ard Gorge
This is but one story of hundreds of ships sunk on the Shipwreck Coast, that section of coast from Cape Otway west to Port Fairy on the south coast of Australia. Approximately 800 ships have been shipwrecked since 1797 although less than 250 have been discovered. All those ships. All that cargo. All those people. Hundreds of them. Bound for a new life in Australia only to die when they were nearly there. Sailors feared that coast. And with good reason.
Our own visit to the Shipwreck Coast was comparatively uneventful, but then we were on land, not on the surging water.
The Great Ocean Road begins peacefully enough at Torquay, and winds its way to Anglesea, both popular holiday destinations.
From there, heading west, like all coastal roads it twists and turns,
until you reach Cape Otway. From then on the coast becomes more and more treacherous.
The first real sign of just how wild this coast is comes with the iconic Twelve Apostles. It was originally known as The Sow and Piglets, but in 1922 it was renamed for tourism purposes. So much more appealing, The Twelve Apostles, despite the fact that there have only ever been nine of them.
We didn’t understand why The Twelve Apostles gets all the good press. Heading west from there as far as Peterborough the coast is continually as harsh, craggy, rugged and beautiful. Unless you’re sailor. We were not surprised to hear of so many shipwrecks.
East of Cape Otway the coast is dotted with many small beaches. We stayed in the village of Marengo, and from there walked along the beach
to the rock shelf revealed at low tide.
Up the road in Apollo Bay, a flowering gum. It had been so long since I’d seen one in full flower I had to go right up close to it to be sure that a tree with such an abundance of brilliant, crimson flowers was actually a eucalyptus tree.
To illustrate the enormous variety within the botanical family, this also is a eucalyptus tree, known, unsurprisingly as a stringy-bark.
On returning from our excursion to the Great Ocean Road we reunited with the family and went to the beach for a week. Next post: Guerilla Bay, Batemans Bay, Mossey Point, and Broulee – some of the many fabulous beaches on the coast east of Canberra. And giraffes and meerkats at Mogo Zoo.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.