Road to Greatness

19:28, Feb 03 2013
cape otway lighthouse
STANDING OUT: Cape Otway lighthouse is one of Australia's most significant lighthouses, built on one of the country's most notorious stretches of coastline.

Jill Worrall begins a two-part series on driving Australia's Great Ocean Road, a journey begun in heavy drizzle and cold winds, while in the rest of Australia bush fires raged and the mercury soared.

Geelong, little more than an hour's drive south of Melbourne, Victoria, is not an ostentatious tourist town. But there's something honest about Geelong, a place with a heritage of making things for a living and where the vast brick wool stores still dominate the city centre: nothing flashy, but a sense of solidity.

Geelong was founded in the early 19th century, growing wealthy on wool and then the gold being exported through its port from the goldfields, especially Ballarat. Although not as much a manufacturing city as it used to be, it's still home to Australia's Ford vehicle plant.

cape otway telegraph station
USEFUL INFORMATION: The former telegraph and signal station at Cape Otway has been renovated and now houses a museum.

In the 1990s, Geelong's waterfront, which had fallen into disuse, was redeveloped, not only providing the locals with a revitalised seashore to enjoy but also giving motorists heading for the Great Ocean Road reason to pause rather than shooting straight through.

While the coastline here is best described as utilitarian, with port facilities and industrial plants on the shore, it's the public art in the foreground that attracts attention.

Geelong's baywalk bollards, more than 100 two-metre tall wooden sculptures designed like oversized port bollards were the work of a Melbourne artist, the late Jan Mitchell. Mitchell was commissioned to create the works from old wooden piles and other timber from a dismantled city pier.


geelong sculptures
BAYWALK BOLLARDS: Lifeguard sculptures (two of whom have impressive shiners) on the pier at Geelong.

They are whimsical works but based on meticulously researched characters from Geelong's history. There are depictions of the Aboriginal first settlers, demure ladies in Edwardian bathing costumes, the town brass band (complete with battered but real instruments) and a lineup of real dinkum Aussie lifesavers, two of whom sport black eyes.

Every second bollard figure features a rabbit at their feet, a reference to the fact it was through Geelong's port that the pest was first introduced into Australia.

Officially, the Great Ocean Road begins at Torquay, 23 kilometres south of Geelong and ends 255km west close to Warrnambool (although Port Fairy a further 28km west is often considered part of the driving route).

baywalk bollards
WATERFRONT DEVELOPMENT: Geelong's Volunteer Rifle Band (complete with real, if battered instruments) live on as part of the town's Baywalk Bollards.

The road is one of Australia's leading visitor attractions but began life as a work programme for returned soldiers from World War I, simultaneously becoming the world's largest war memorial for those who did not come home. It also provided the first road link for coastal towns, which up until the war could be reached only by sea or very rough tracks. Three thousand men began work on the road in 1919 and it was finished in 1932.

Because of its proximity to Melbourne and Geelong, the first section of the road between Torque and Apollo Bay can be very busy (especially if you visit as we did in summer and are there at the weekend). We gave the surfie centre of Bells Beach and crammed Anglesea a miss and made our first stop at Aireys Inlet.

The lure here for me (a lighthouse geek) was the Split Point Lighthouse, built in 1891 to help guide ships safely around Cape Otway, further to the west. The White Queen as she's known is a classic pillar lighthouse, 34 metres tall and only recently opened for tours.

APPEALING: A koala near Cape Otway surveying a gathering of human admirers beneath it.

Lighthouses have always attracted drama, both in the seas around them and the characters who kept the lights burning. One of the Split Point lighthouse keepers found a novel solution to the problem of how to keep a constant eye on the light while still being able to enjoy a drink at the Airey's Inlet hotel.

Lighthouses on land traditionally had the land-facing side of the lantern (the room at the top of the tower which houses the lens or light) painted so that the constantly flashing light wouldn't annoy nearby residents.

According to a local historian, one keeper, Richard Joy Barker, scratched a small hole in the black paint, directly in line with the pub, so that every time the lens revolved landwards he could see the reassuring wink of light while he supped beer at the bar.

The walkways around the clifftops and down to a sweep of beach are relatively empty, partly because of the unsettled weather but also because unlike the townships either side, Airey's Inlet has only one cafe and no shops in the vicinity of the lighthouse.

Along one stretch of track an echidna popped out of the undergrowth. Echidnas are still widespread in Australia but it was the first one I'd seen in the wild.

It rolled into an impressively large prickly ball as we passed - along with the platypus it's the only mammal species in the world that lay eggs.

An encounter with an endangered species was promised at our next stop along the Great Ocean Road, at Cape Otway, although I was dubious about our chances. I've driven thousands of kilometres in Australia over the years, past dozens of those yellow signs warning of kangaroos over the next x number of kilometres. As yet I've not seen one where the roading authorities tell me I should. The tourist brochures were promising that koalas were very easy to spot on the road to Cape Otway.

Based on my experience, I reckoned there'd be about as much chance of viewing them in the wild as seeing tapdancing tasmanian devils.

The road into Cape Otway is for most of its 13km through gum woodland, which I had to admit, did rather suggest ideal koala habitat.

But I was still steeled against disappointment, which is why I nearly drove past a bundle of fur wedged in the fork of a tree overhanging the road.

It took several seconds to register that, yes, this really was a koala and what's more, there were at least a dozen more perched in neighbouring trees. It being close to midday and hot, the majority of the koalas were asleep, some with limbs endearingly wrapped around tree branches.

However, one or two were awake, slowly stuffing handfuls of gum leaves into their mouths, or simply gazing into space while idly scratching. They were almost impossibly appealing.

Several other motorists had stopped as well and without exception, tourists and Aussies alike, male and female, old and young, could be seen gazing up into the trees with silly grins on their faces - the universal effect of cute, furry animals.

Sadly, it turns out, that what looked like koala heaven, is in reality far from idyllic. The koalas are literally eating their way out of house and home.

Their current haven is surrounded by dead and dying trees, and regeneration is slow (it is thought partly due to fire controls which prevent the natural cycle of fires destroying coastal scrub. The latter inhibits the growth of replacement trees for what is now a too plentiful population of koalas).

But I didn't know all that at the time.

On the Cape Otway road it was just a time for heedless enjoyment and idle curiosity as to how long it was safe to stand directly under a koala's bottom.

If I'd gone no further down the Cape Otway road, my day would have been complete but I was just a few kilometres away from Australia's oldest surviving mainland lighthouse.

The lighthouse was completed in 1848 following a public outcry at the sinking of the Cataraqui in 1845, with the loss of 350 lives. This stretch of coast, where the Bass Strait meets the Southern Ocean, has been the scene of more shipwrecks than any other coastline on the continent.

What makes this more tragic is that Cape Otway was often the first sighting of land after months at sea for those 19th century sailors (crew, passengers, convicts). For hundreds of them it would also be their last.

There is only 90km between Cape Otway and the offshore King Island, which might sound a lot to landlubbers but to sailing ship captains equipped with often poor aids to navigation, faced with often heavy seas, reefs and a forbidding coastline of high cliffs, it was a perilous undertaking.

The Cape Otway lighthouse was first lit in 1848, with the lantern (light) components being brought ashore on small rowboats through heavy seas.

The lead crystal lens cost the equivalent of A$5 million. At first, the light was powered with sperm whale oil, then later kerosene, but by 1939 was running on electricity. Since 1994 the small beacon that replaced the old light has been fuelled by solar power.

The lighthouse is the most prominent and most dramatic of the complex of historic buildings at Cape Otway but if you visit, allow several hours because this spot is steeped in history.

An Italian-style villa that once housed the equipment for the first underwater telegraph cable between mainland Australia and Tasmania has been refurbished and converted into a museum. It explains to the cellphone generation how telegraph worked, and also highlights the hardships the lighthouse keepers and the telegraph station staff had to endure in such a remote position.

The lighthouse itself is open for visitors. It's a reasonably easy climb to the lantern room and then out on to the narrow platform that encircles it.

The views along the coast are breathtaking, especially so if you're not good with heights: the tower is perched very close to the cliff edge.

Just up from the path from the lighthouse is the assistant lighthouse keepers' cottage (this housed two keepers and their families) which has been converted into a cafe.

Two more cottages have been turned into self-contained accommodation - it would be a wonderful place to stay, especially after all the day visitors had gone home, and even better in winter when whales can be spotted off the coastline.

A wintry, stormy night in one of these lonely cottages could also be the perfect time to contemplate what happened to Frederick Valentich, whose mysterious disappearance is commemorated on a plaque beside the path to the lighthouse.

Valentich was a 20-year-old pilot who was flying his Cessna plane from Melbourne to King Island in 1978.

His last radio contact before he disappeared without trace was over Cape Otway. The words of his final radio message were: "That strange aircraft is hovering on top of me again and it is not an aircraft."

The Timaru Herald