Coastal pearls

02:54, Feb 18 2013
12 apostles
DRAMATIC PAST: Loch Ard Gorge is a tiny, picturesque cove with a tragic history.
12 apostles
MAIN STREET, CLUNES: Just before the next tumbleweed appeared.
12 apostles
DWINDLING: Only eight now remain of the 12 Apostles on the Great Ocean Road.
12 apostles
LONDON BRIDGE: Now properly London Arch - it collapsed spectacularly one evening in 1990, leaving two tourists stranded on the far end.
12 apostles
OUT OF PROPORTION: Mark Twain described Maryborough's station as a "railway station with town attached".

Jill Worrall continues her drive along the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, which true to form did involve some diversions off the usual route.

It may be time for Victoria's tourism authorities to rethink the name of the Great Ocean Road's premier attraction . . . after all, the 12 Apostles are now reduced to eight.

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. However, 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.

The Apostles are a prime example of how, in the endless battle between ocean and soft limestone, the sea is always going to win. Further west along the coast is another dramatic example of this. Until 1990 London Bridge was a narrow peninsula eaten right through in two places creating two giant rock arches. 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 this is 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.

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There are more than 600 shipwrecks along the state of Victoria's coastline and one of 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.

Only 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, however, is the tiny cemetery on the clifftop nearby. Only four bodies were recovered but there are memorials to all those who died.

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).

Up until 1975 the almost completely unscathed peacock remained in private hands when it was bought by the Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village in Warrnambool for A$4500.

It is the pride of the village's small museum to this day, and in 2010 was valued at A$4m. 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 artefact in Australia.

The Loch Ard peacock alone is worth the stop in Warrnambool. Its 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.

From Warrnambool and nearby picturesque Port Fairy, the majority of travellers returning to Melbourne do so via the Grampians Mountains and Ballarat. That's unless, like me they have relatives buried in rural cemeteries well off the touring route.

For some reason, now lost in the mists of family history, when several of my ancestors opted to emigrate from Liverpool to the goldfields and fleshpots of the South Island's West Coast, others instead decided to settle near Ballarat in Victoria.

Unfathomably, rather than sharing the family obsession with gold mining (one that I hasten to add, lest the editor who pays me is reading this, has not led to any enrichment at all of my bank account), the Aussie branch of the family appeared to go farming rather than prospecting.

The journey to this area began, however, with a short visit to Koroit, just off the Princes Highway-Great Ocean Road in between Warrnambool and Port Fairy. It had absolutely nothing to do with any family connections . . . just plain curiosity about a town described as one Australia's best examples of early Irish settlement.

The Irish legacy lives on in street names and shop fronts, but appropriately enough is best expressed in the Koroit Hotel, also known as Mickey Bourke's (the Bourke family owned the pub for about 80 years till 2000). The first pub on this site was built in 1853 but what you see today is an example of Australian rural Art Noveau after a remodelling early in the 20th century.

Just in case you had missed the town's Irish connections, there's a signpost outside the pub showing distances to Dublin and various Irish counties. Immediately inside the main door in the pub's lounge bar is the green and gold, not of the Aussie flag but of County Kerry. A hurling stick is propped up over the flag.

The pub is the headquarters for the town's annual Lake School of Celtic Song and Music Festival and is a key component, not surprisingly, in the town's Irish festival which, the publican, who was finishing his lunch when we called in, said, features a street parade with local school kids bearing Irish county flags, Irish dance and just a few drinks in the local.

Apparently we'd just missed the music festival (I could have had lessons in the uillean pipes, the bodrahn, the harp, Irish dance and even discussed the writing of James Joyce).

How often does a traveller's heart sink when they hear those words: "You should have been here last week . . . "

Koroit's Irish heritage dates back to 1843 when Irishman William Rutledge bought land in the area and then encouraged Irish immigrants to become his tenants. After the great Irish potato famine of the mid-19th century, the Irish population swelled further till Irish settlers outnumbered the English and the Scots.

We now headed north, through harvested grainfields bleached almost white in the sun and into the rolling country known as the Pyrenees, north- east from Ballarat. Our destination was the miniscule township of Amphitheatre where my ancestors used to farm. Some had branched out, however; the Amphitheatre pub was once owned by my Great-Great-Uncle Henry. Due to rural depopulation, I presume, the pub is no longer open every day.

My disappointment in finding it closed was heightened by the fact that the new owners make an award- winning icecream, which, according to a reviewer is "better than sex". I guess I'll never know now.

By now it was nearly mid-afternoon and lunch seemed a good idea, and the Maryborough station was a stunner. Built in 1890 it's a magnificent brick edifice complete with imposing clock tower. It seems out of all proportion with the town itself which is presumably why Mark Twain, who visited in 1895, aptly described it as a "railway station with town attached".

The cafe with its restored wood- panelled walls and mosaic floor is a beauty too, but, said the waitress firmly, meals had ceased to be served at 2.30pm. The old clock on the wall had just ticked past 2.32pm.

Which is how we ended up in Clunes. At first I thought now slightly weak with hunger, that my imagination had conjured up a town straight from the American Wild West. A main street, wide enough to handle about six stagecoaches abreast, stretched all but empty between two rows of almost intact Victorian goldfield-era buildings complete with verandas and original facades.

We'd stumbled on the site of Victoria's first gold strike and a town that has starred in many films, including Mad Max and Ned Kelly. Clunes is now also an official book town (there are 16 of these around the world, the best known of which is Hay-on-Wye in England).

We downed a welcome cup of tea in Widow Twankey's Ice Cream Parlour and browsed in two of the bookstores. One proprietor tried to persuade us to found New Zealand's first book town when we got home to Timaru.

The Timaru Herald