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Jill Worrall: The 12 Apostles

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The 12 Apostles. Photo / Supplied
The 12 Apostles. Photo / Supplied

You could say the 12 Apostles are the Great Ocean Road's poster boys - even though they are simply pillars of resistant rock and that at last count there were only eight of them.

The Apostles, on the state of Victoria's southern coastline, are spectacular 45-metre-high limestone stacks that stand battered by the seas of Bass Strait, which separates mainland Australia from Tasmania. The seas, along what is a notoriously stormy and dangerous coast, are slowly reclaiming the Apostles. The latest to collapse into the sea did so in 2005 and inevitably the others will follow suit.

For students of coastal erosion (not something the bulk of the population wants to admit to I guess, but I'm happy to do so) the Apostles are a prime example of how, in the endless battle between ocean and soft limestone, the sea is always going to win. The rock stacks are the terminal stage of a process that began when wave action ate into the cliffs, creating caves in layers of softer rock. Eventually these caves were transformed into archways, giving the power of the waves more scope to further eat into the limestone. When the archways too inevitably collapsed the result was stacks or remnants of harder rock left exposed on all sides to the sea.

Further west along the coast is another dramatic example of how this process works. Until 1990 London Bridge was a narrow peninsula eaten right through in two places creating two giant rock arches and a natural double span bridge. It was possible to walk out on to this narrow isthmus.

That was until the early evening of January 15 when the archway closest to shore collapsed leaving two people stranded on the newly created island. They were rescued some hours later by helicopter.

While all these geological processes are bound to bring a gleam to the eye of geomorphology geeks like me, it's the human dramas that have played out along this coastline that also clutch at the imagination.

This stretch of cliffs, bays and coves between Port Campbell (which is just a few minutes' drive from The 12 Apostles) and around to Port Fairy, about 100km to the west, is known as the Shipwreck Coast.

There are more than 600 shipwrecks along the state of Victoria's coastline, although only about a third have actually been located. However, many of those which have been found and documented are now remembered on plaques along the clifftops and bays and in some cases in local museums.

The most fascinating of all is perhaps the wreck of the Loch Ard. This three-masted clipper had left England in March 1878 bound for Melbourne. On board were 37 crew and 17 passengers and a 1.4-metre-high Minton majolica-glazed peacock destined for the Melbourne Great Exhibition of 1880.

On the night of May 31 after three months at sea the crew and passengers were celebrating the last night of their voyage. The following day they were due to arrive in Melbourne. Meanwhile, their Captain, George Gibb, was searching anxiously through heavy fog for the "eye in the needle" - the 90km gap between Cape Otway on the mainland and King Island.

Tragically his ship was much closer to land than he realised and at 4am the fog lifted to reveal a terrifyingly close view of cliffs and crashing waves. Captain Gibb made valiant efforts to avert disaster but the winds and tide were against him and the ship hit a reef and ran aground near Mutton Bird Island. Many of those on board were killed by falling masts and rigging.

Miraculously two people survived, 18-year-old passenger Eva Carmichael (her parents, three sisters and two brothers all perished in the disaster) and cabin boy Tom Pearce. Tom had clung to the upturned hull of a lifeboat until it washed ashore. He then heard Eva's cries and swam out to rescue her from the spar on to which she'd been holding for five hours. They came ashore in a tiny cove surrounded by towering cliffs which now bears the ill-fated ship's name.

The cove with its bottleneck entrance to the open sea is a beautiful place, despite its tragic history. There are walks out to the headlands that almost encircle the bay as well as steps down to the water's edge itself. Most poignant of all though is the tiny cemetery on the clifftop nearby. Only four bodies were recovered but there are memorials to all those who died. The sea is gradually eating its way towards this graveyard - the waves may once again claim their victims before too long.

Over the days following the disaster wreckage from the ship and cargo began washing up on the coast. The most remarkable find of all was of a large wooden crate carrying the Minton peacock. Mystery and some controversy still surrounds who exactly rescued this work of art - the best guess seems to be that it was retrieved from the sea twice (having been washed back into the ocean after the first attempt). Remarkably, especially given the peacock may have had three dips in the ocean, it sustained only a chip on the beak and a brief decapitation.

Up until 1975 the peacock remained in private hands when it was bought by the Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village in Warrnambool for $4500A. It is the pride of the village's small museum to this day - and in 2010 was valued at $A4m.

Minton's peacock now revolves in all its glory at the centre of a small gallery dedicated to the Loch Ard wreck and other local maritime disasters. There are only six such peacocks believed to be in existence anywhere in the world and this one is regarded as the most significant shipwreck artifact in Australia.

The Loch Ard peacock alone is worth the stop in Warrnambool. It's jewel-like colours are as bright as ever and the fact that it is so perfect just adds to the legend of its remarkable survival (apparently it was very well packaged in a wooden crate that floated and had probably been stowed in the captain's cabin, which did help). Almost as fascinating however is the ongoing intrigue about the ship's two young survivors. The popular press of the day was rather keen on the idea that Tom and Eva should marry.

This did not happen - Eva returned to Ireland to live with her grandmother and Tom eventually became a ship's captain himself. Incredibly about 50 years later an Australian woman visiting Menton in France met Eva by chance and asked her outright why she'd never married Tom Pearce.

According to this story (which I hadn't read anywhere along the Shipwreck Coast) Pearce had offered to marry her. He'd been engaged at the time of the shipwreck but, owing to them being thrown together had offered to break this off. Eva told her questioner that she felt this would have been wrong as they had nothing in common, also hinting that although he was of good family and had money, they were not exactly of the same social standing.

- nzherald.co.nz

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