From the southern outskirts of Geelong, the Surf Coast Highway (B100) cuts across the Bellarine Peninsula to Torquay, there to become the Great Ocean Road and begin Australia's most famous coastal journey.
Completed in 1932 as a lasting memorial to Victorians who served in WWI, this iconic road trip follows a sinuous route for 260km around Cape Otway to Warrnambool in the west. For most of its length the road shadows Bass Strait, connecting holiday towns and passing through a spectacular, ever-changing landscape of densely wooded hilltops, steep forested gorges and dramatic cliffs that plunge to a coastline pounded by the Southern Ocean.
For good reason, the heritage-listed Great Ocean Road is rated as one of the top 10 travel experiences in the world. But the experience is not just the journey; it also embraces the breathtakingly beautiful Otway Ranges that loom above the road along its eastern half and beckon travellers to explore a hinterland of towering hardwood forests, rolling green pastures and magnificent waterfalls.
WHISPERS OF TIME LONG GONE
The Otway Ranges stretch from Anglesea to Cape Otway, bounded by Bass Strait in the south and the fertile rolling plains of the Colac region to the north. Their highest point lies just west of Lorne. Millions of years ago, the Otway coast formed part of the land bridge with Tasmania, through what is now King Island, and about 10,000 years ago, rising sea levels flooded Bass Strait to isolate the islands to the south.
The ranges’ dissected ridges are a defining feature of the landscape, especially where they extend to the sea at places such as Moonlight Head and Cape Otway. The steep, rugged coastline is fringed by marine cliffs, sea caves and tidal platforms, interspersed with long sandy beaches that link the land to adjacent marine parks. Erosion and ceaseless wave action have scoured the intertidal zone to reveal the region’s unique and complex geological history in the underlying rock.
Many sites along the coast are of international significance for the presence of dinosaur fossils in these ancient formations.
Before European settlement, the Otway Ranges and the plains extending north to Colac were occupied by the Gadubanud, Wathaurong, Gulidjan and Kirrae Whurrong Aboriginal peoples. Within the park more than 100 registered sites provide an extensive archaeological record of their culture and lifestyle over thousands of years, including burial sites, scar trees, stone scatters and shell middens.
The post-European contact history of these Aboriginal groups is marked by violence, disease and displacement. There are many recorded massacres in Western Victoria, including the murder of seven Gadubanud people at the mouth of the Aire River, west of Cape Otway. Following extensive violence and the progressive displacement of clans from hunting grounds that had been settled by Europeans, survivors gravitated to local pastoral stations. Many were eventually moved to Buntingdale Wesleyan Mission near Birregurra and then moved to Framlingham Aboriginal Station, Lake Condah and Lake Tyers in Gippsland.
Lieutenant Grant sighted the Otway coast in 1800 when he sailed through Bass Strait aboard the Lady Nelson. Sealers and whalers began hunting in the local waters soon afterwards. By 1840, the famous Henty brothers had established a whaling station at Portland and later in the decade they had a small whaling station at Point Bunbury, in Apollo Bay. In 1841, while shipping wool from Portland to Melbourne, Captain Loutit was forced to shelter his vessel in a bay near present-day Lorne; the bay now bears his name. Five years later, as master of the schooner Apollo, Loutit was again forced to shelter from a storm in a bay which subsequently took the name of the vessel; the modern-day town on its shores is also called Apollo Bay.
The first Europeans to explore the Otway Ranges were Joseph Gellibrand and George Hesse. In February 1837, they attempted to follow the Barwon River to its junction with the Leigh River, and afterwards make their way to Melbourne across country. The two men did not arrive at their destination and, though search parties were mobilised, no trace of them was ever found.
Nevertheless, the ranges’ hardwood forests did not go unnoticed and, in 1849, William Lindsay, a timber-cutter, became the first settler in Lorne and began felling the area. More timber-getters followed through the 1850s, establishing some 200 sawmills and tramways to convey the timber to ports in Lorne and Apollo Bay for shipping to Melbourne. Logging and milling quickly grew to be the dominant industry in the Otways, making it one of the state’s most productive forest regions.
Simultaneously, farming and grazing made incursions into the ranges’ northern plateaus and in low-lying coastal areas around the river estuaries. As the hardwood stands were exhausted and demand dropped, logging was scaled down and eventually ceased on public land in the Otways in 2008, to be replaced by tourism as the region’s economic mainstay.
Not surprisingly, scenic touring is one of the region’s most popular visitor activities. The twists and turns of the iconic Great Ocean Road reveal dramatic coastal and forest views, rustic scenes of rolling hills and vibrant little resort towns. To complement this route, an extensive two-wheel-drive road network has evolved throughout the hinterland forests to provide access to lookouts, picnic spots, waterfalls, trail heads, campgrounds and cultural sites. The main loop connects Skenes Creek, Apollo Bay, Glenaire, Lavers Hill and Beech Forest, allowing stops at key attractions such as Otway Fly and Cape Otway Lighthouse; another connects Lorne, Erskine Falls, Forrest and Kennett River, partly on unsealed roads.
Four-wheel-drive enthusiasts are able to access the top of the Otway Range and travel along its spine on several challenging routes that include the Aire Valley Experience (25km), Carlisle Wildflowers Tour (40km), Goat Track (25km), Neck Track (50km), Ocean Track (15–25km) and Sayers Circuit (40km). Check ahead, as some roads within the national park are subject to seasonal closures to protect them from water damage and erosion.
WALK ON THE WILD SIDE
The Otways present bushwalkers with an array of experiences ranging from short clifftop, beach, rainforest and waterfall walks to challenging full-day and overnight hikes along one of the most spectacular coastlines in the world.
Maits Rest is renowned for its natural beauty and is a great introduction to the ranges’ towering eucalypts and rainforests. This family-friendly circuit (800m) has excellent interpretive signs and includes a raised boardwalk over tree-fern gullies and moss-covered roots to provide a unique view of the forest.
The Moggs Creek Circuit (1.8km) is an interesting walk that descends along the watercourse, crossing several small wooden bridges, then climbs to a vantage point over the creek’s fern-lined banks before returning to the picnic area. The trail is rich in birdlife and explores some of the region’s unique native plants.
From the picnic area, walkers can link up with Ocean View (4.5km), a pleasant forest walk though dry woodland and coastal heath with spectacular views to the Split Point Lighthouse, the Fairhaven and Eastern View beaches. Another excellent lookout is accessed by The Gables walk (800m), which features views of the ocean and reefs around Moonlight Head, and some of the highest sea cliffs on mainland Australia.
Lake Elizabeth, hidden deep in the Otways near the township of Forrest, was created in 1952 when one of the heaviest rains on record resulted in a massive landslide that dammed the East Barwon River, turning the remote forested valley into a lake.
A walking trail (2km) ambles through tall forest beside the river to the lake punctuated by the trunks of dead trees. These tranquil waters are home to many platypus that are often seen at dawn and dusk.
Many of the magnificent waterfalls in the park (such as Erskine, Hopetoun, Beauchamp, Carisbrook and Sheoak Falls) are accessible by short/medium walks. One of the most popular and emblematic is the trail to Triplet Falls, which recently underwent a $2 million redevelopment. This beautiful waterfall is accessed by a series of elevated walkways on a 2km circuit through forests of ancient mountain ash and myrtle beech (some estimated to be over 200 years old). Platforms provide views of the distinctive main falls and three impressive cascades flowing through shady rainforests and glades of mossy tree ferns.
MAKE THE MOST OF THE COAST
For decades, the Otway coastline and waterways have attracted large numbers of residents and visitors (the great majority from Melbourne) for boating, canoeing, kayaking, scuba diving, snorkelling and beachcombing. These activities are highly seasonal, with a major influx of visitors over summer. Coastal boat launching facilities are available at or near the towns and, within the national park, at Urquhart Bluff, Blanket Bay and Aire River West, though launching is across the beach and suitable for smaller craft only. There is also a boat jetty at Aire River East.
The use of personal watercraft is generally permitted on inland waters in the park. The lower reaches of the Aire and Gellibrand Rivers are popular for boating, while Lake Elizabeth is favoured for canoeing and kayaking (powered craft are not permitted).
Victorian boating laws apply in the park. The Victorian Recreational Boating Safety Handbook contains important information for recreational boating and the Canoeing and Kayaking Adventure Activity Standards provide guidelines for safe, minimal impact practices for paddle craft.
In coastal areas, the boundary of the Great Otway National Park is the low water mark, except where the national park adjoins a marine park, where the boundary between them is the high water mark. Fishing is not permitted in marine parks and sanctuaries and the collection of organisms other than fish (such as worms, crustaceans, echinoderms and molluscs) from within the national park is not permitted.
Beaches and coastal rock platforms along the Otway coast are used for surf fishing, and many different species are caught. Car parking and convenient access tracks are associated with many popular fishing hot spots. Rock platform fishing can be hazardous under some conditions and safety advice is available from the Victorian Fisheries Authority (visit vfa.vic.gov.au/education/rock-fishing-safety).
Several freshwater areas within the national park suitable for recreational fishing are the Aire and Gellibrand Rivers and estuaries, the Cumberland River and Lake Elizabeth. River fish targeted include River Blackfish, Black Bream and Brown Trout.
Victorian fishing laws apply within the national park and the adjacent coastal waters. Adults generally need a Victorian Recreational Fishing Licence, which is available from the Victorian Fisheries Authority online at www.vfa.vic.gov.au, or your local fishing licence outlet.
Swimming and surfing are popular activities at the long sandy beaches and exposed headlands in and adjoining Great Otway National Park, with world-renowned surf breaks at Bells, Southside and Addiscot Beaches near Torquay, and Johanna Beach just west of Cape Otway. However, the beaches can be dangerous for swimming because of rocky reefs, large swells, strong currents, rips and cold temperatures. Beaches are not patrolled within the national park and swimmers are encouraged to use only the beaches patrolled by lifesaving services outside the park at Anglesea, Fairhaven, Lorne and Apollo Bay.
CAPE OTWAY'S UFO MYSTERY
On the heritage trail within the Cape Otway Lightstation precinct, at a location poignantly overlooking an empty sea, a plaque commemorates the disappearance of Frederick Valentich in what many believe to be Australia’s most credible UFO mystery.
The 20-year-old pilot had a Class Four instrument rating and 150 hours of flight experience when he filed a flight plan at Moorabbin Airport, Melbourne, on 21 October 1978. His stated intention was to fly to King Island in Bass Strait via Cape Otway, to pick up passengers, and return to Moorabbin.
He departed Moorabbin at 18:19 in a Cessna light aircraft and reported flying over Cape Otway at 19:00. Visibility was good and winds were light. Six minutes later, Valentich encountered a large, brightly-lit aircraft, which approached at high speed and began "orbiting" about him, as though it were “toying” with him. He described the craft as long in shape with a shiny metal-looking surface and a green glow.
After a brief departure, the other “aircraft” returned, at which time Valentich reported experiencing engine problems with his plane. He then transmitted, “it’s hovering on top of me again … it’s hovering and it is not an aircraft”, followed by 17 seconds of unidentified noise, later described as being "metallic, scraping sounds”. Then all contact was lost.
When Valentich had not reached King Island by 17:33, an extensive air and sea search was initiated and continued for a week, but found no trace of him or the Cessna. A two-week Department of Transport investigation into the disappearance was unable to determine the cause, but found that it was "presumed fatal" for Valentich. To this day, the incident remains a mystery.
THE PARADOX OF FIRE
Fire is an integral part of Aboriginal culture and continues to play a vital role in maintaining the health and regeneration of the Great Otway forests and ecosystems.
However, there have been several major wildfires in the Otways that have caused serious loss of property and life, including the 1939 ‘Black Friday’ fires and the 1983 ‘Ash Wednesday’ fires. The latter decimated over 41,000ha, claiming three lives and destroying 729 houses in the coastal townships of Lorne, Fairhaven and Aireys Inlet. Following the 1939 bushfires, a network of fire observation towers was constructed across the ranges, of which the one at Mt Sabine is the only original tower remaining in the park.
Great Otway National Park is in the South West and Central fire district. Anyone entering the park during the bushfire season needs to be aware of forecast weather conditions and the fire danger rating. On Code Red fire danger rating days the park is closed for public safety, with closure signs erected at some locations. No fires may be lit on total fire ban days, although gas stoves may be used under certain conditions for food preparation.
So, by all means do the Great Ocean Road, but take the time to explore the magnificent Otways, which make the journey one of the best travel experiences in the world.
What to do
There are multiple long walks for keen hikers, including the Surf Coast Walk (30km) featuring spectacular clifftops, beaches and wind-swept heathlands from Jan Juc to Moggs Creek, and the Old Beechy Rail Trail, a 45km shared track linking Colac and Beech Forest.
The mountain bike trails are world class if you’re keen to rail the berm through 16 meandering or winding trails graded from beginners, intermediate to advanced. Don’t have a mountain bike? Hire one from Forrest Hire Bikes, $50 for a half-day or $80 for the full day.
Where to stay
Popular coastal camping areas, some suitable for caravans and camper trailers, include Blanket Bay, Parker Hill, Johanna Beach, Allenvale and Aire River. Hinterland camping areas include Lake Elizabeth, Dandos, Stevensons Falls and Big Hill. Some camping areas require booking and fees.
Outside the national park, accommodation in cabins, motels or commercial caravan parks and camping grounds is available at or nearby Anglesea, Aireys Inlet, Lorne, Wye River, Kennett River, Skenes Creek, Apollo Bay, Marengo, Lavers Hill, Forrest, Gellibrand and Colac. Contact the Great Ocean Road Visitor Information Centre for details on (03) 5237 6529.