Port Campbell, Victoria: Travel guide and things to do

Port Campbell is an attractive, almost sleepy, windswept little fishing village which is set on a natural gorge at the mouth of Campbells Creek. The population of about 200 regulars is regularly inflated with visitors because of its proximity to some of the finest coastal scenery in the state. To stay in Port Campbell is to be half an hour away from London Bridge (what is left of it!), Loch Ard Gorge and the Twelve Apostles. This small town has grown, almost unwillingly, because of the district's attractions. It has a small number of motels and restaurants and a pleasant beach and jetty and is located 208 km south-west of Geelong, 245 km south-west of Melbourne via the Princes Highway and 281 km from Melbourne via the Great Ocean Road.

Port Campbell was named after a Captain Alexander Campbell who was affectionately known as 'the last of the buccaneers'. He traded between Victoria and Tasmania and, being in charge of the whaling station at Port Fairy, began taking shelter in Port Campbell Bay in the 1840s during his excursions between King Island and Port Fairy.

Shell middens along the coast have provided evidence of the ancient presence, the diverse diet and the lifestyle of the Kirrae-Wurong people. Sealers and whalers were the first European visitors to these shores. As the colony grew Bass Strait became a major shipping route for cargo ships. Pastoralists moved into the area in the late 1840s with Duncan Hoyle establishing Buckleys Creek Pastoral Run in 1846 and Charles Brown leasing Glenample Pastoral Run (it was to feature in the Loch Ard rescue) in 1847.

The coast was so inhospitable that when Governor La Trobe travelled its length in 1845-46 he observed: 'I think a boat might possibly land at Port Campbell in most weathers; but with this exception, I do not know a single spot on the whole coast from Hopkins to Cape Otway where a landing could be effected with any chance of certainty.' Indeed Port Campbell is still the only sheltered refuge between Apollo Bayand Warrnambool.

This section of coastline was so isolated that it wasn't until 1875 that the town site was surveyed and the first land sales in the area didn't occur until 1878. The survey of the town site was probably due, in part, to the establishment of a beacon on the headland in 1874. By 1880 a proper pier had been built proximate to the present jetty.

In 1882 the town became famous throughout Victoria and Australia because it was the subject of one of the country's most famous hoaxes. At the time there was an unjustifiable fear of the possibility of a Russian invasion. Some wit decided to fuel this paranoia by telling The Age that there was a Russian fleet ready to attack. The invasion was to begin at Port Campbell and move across to Melbourne. So excited did the media become that some other Melbourne newspapers actually reported massacres and thousands of Russian troops moving towards Melbourne. Finally someone tried to find out the truth of the rumours and it was discovered there was only one tiny ketch anywhere near Port Campbell.

By the 1890s the coast was opening up to tourism and there were plans for a railway line but it got no further than Timboon in 1892 and passengers wanting to go to the seaside had to use a tramway.

The coast became famous for its shipwrecks. In the period from the 1840s until the 1920s there were over 80 shipwrecks on the coast between Cape Otway and Port Fairy. Nearly all of these were due to the ferocious conditions which can affect this section of coastline which is vulnerable to the Roaring Forties and the bitter winds which blow up from the Antarctic. None was more dramatic, nor more romantic, than the wreck of the Loch Ard at what is now Loch Ard Gorge in 1878. See 'Things to See' for more details of the tragedy.

Today the small township is driven by tourism. There is a still a fishing and crayfish industry and, in summertime, the beach is popular although the waters are rather cold.


Things to see

In the Town
Tourist Information Centre
The Port Campbell Information Centre is located in Morris St, tel: (03) 5598 6089. Next door is the Parks Victoria office, tel: (03) 5598 6382.

Beach and Jetty
A surf lifesaving club operates at Port Campbell Beach in the summer so take the opportunity to enjoy some safe (and cautious) swimming on what is otherwise a treacherous coastline. Ocean swimming is not recommended anywhere in Port Campbell National Park. The jetty offers fine fishing opportunities for those with a licence.

Trading Company
Located at 27 Lord St, the Trading Company sells works of local and national art and craft, including woodwork, pottery, terracotta, jewellery and paintings. They are open daily, tel: (03) 5598 6444.

Loch Ard Shipwreck Museum
Located at 27 Lord St, this interesting museum was opened in 1993 and displays artefacts from five vessels which were wrecked on the coast near Port Campbell. 1. The Schomberg, an iron barque which ran aground in 1855; 2. The Loch Ard, an iron clipper which was wrecked off the coast in 1878; 3. The Fiji, an iron barque which struck rocks off the coast in 1891; 4. the Newfield, an iron barque which ran aground in 1892 and 5. the Falls of Halladale, a barque which ran aground on a reef in 1908. The museum has a fascinating display of the memorabilia which has been retrieved from these vessels. It is open daily from 9.30 a.m. to 5.30 p.m., tel: (03) 5598 6463.

Port Campbell National Park
Port Campbell National Park was dedicated in 1964 and in 1981 it grew from its original size of 700 hectares to its current size of 1750 hectares. It extends east from the eastern side of Curdies Inlet at Peterborough to Point Ronald at Princetown. It features some beautiful vantage points atop the sheer cliffs overlooking offshore islets, towering rock stacks, gorges, arches, blowholes and other spectacular coastal scenery. There are opportunities for snorkelling, walking, beachcombing, photography and surf fishing. As the Great Ocean Road passes right alongside most of the coastline in question it makes for some excellent scenic driving. Tourism Victoria has put together the Shipwreck Trail, the Great Southern Touring Route and the Volcanic Trail and information on these should be available from the information centre at Port Campbell. Otherwise ring Tourism Victoria on (03) 9653 9777.

The sculpted coastline has its origins around 10-20 million years ago when billions of tiny skeletal fragments accumulated beneath the sea gradually creating limestone formations. The sea then retreated leaving the soft limestone exposed above sea-level to violent seas and strong winds which have carved out some remarkable features.

The salt-laden winds on the exposed clifftops have not managed to deter the development of some fragile grasslands and heathlands which support a half-dozen nationally significant plant species including the metallic sun orchid and the scented spider orchid. In the protected areas of the coast it is possible to see sea box, coast beardheath, bower spinach, coast daisybush, small daisies and cushion bush. In the wilder terrain there are she-oaks, dogwoods, correa, messmate, trailing guinea-flower, woolly tea-tree and scented paperbark.

The fauna is mostly ornithological - honeyeaters, southern emu-wrens, superb fairy-wrens, swamp harriers and the rare rufous bristlebird which lives near the ground amidst sword-grass tussocks and coast beard-heath (look for the long uplifted tail which jerks upwards and bobs about as it runs through the grasslands). Peregrine falcons can sometimes be seen flying above the cliff-tops. Pelicans, ducks, black swans and egrets inhabit the estuaries and wetlands. Penguins, terns and dotterels hang about the shoreline and hooded plovers nest in very exposed beach locations so watch for eggs when walking above the high tide line. Australasian gannets, wandering albatrosses and short-tailed shearwaters can be seen out to sea. Southern brown bandicoots, swamp antechinuses and echidnas are also found in the park.

Camping and sleeping overnight in vehicles is forbidden but there is accommodation available atPeterborough, Port Campbell and Princetown.

For more information ring Parks Victoria on 131 963 or you can contact the Port Campbell office, tel: (03) 5598 6382. Apart from excellent brochures it also has the original anchor from the Loch Ard outside the building. There are good opportunities for reef and wreck diving off the park but it is advisable to check with local divers first or ring the Port Campbell office.

To the East of the Town
Loch Ard Gorge and Muttonbird Island
About 7 km west of Port Campbell is a turnoff on the right which leads to Loch Ard Gorge which was named after the iron clipper the Loch Ard which left England bound for Melbourne in March 1878 and was shipwrecked here on 1 June that same year. The Loch Ard was not a large ship. At the time of the shipwreck it was carrying only 17 passengers and a crew of 37. As the ship travelled along this dangerous stretch of coast it entered a heavy mist near Port Campbell. Visibility, combined with huge waves and strong winds, drove the ship towards land. It hit Muttonbird Island so violently that the mast collapsed and the whole of the wooden top deck was ripped away from the hull. Being so exposed it needed only a single huge wave to sink the vessel. Of the 54 people aboard only two survived - Eva Carmichael (the captain had told her 'if you are saved, Eva, let my dear wife know I died like a sailor') and a ship's apprentice, Tom Pearce, both were aged 19. Pearce managed to swim ashore and then managed to save Eva who was clinging to part of the ship's spar. Eva was wearing only her night dress. Pearce managed to carry her to a cave where he covered her with grass before heading back to the coast to search for other survivors. At first light Pearce clambered up the cliffs of Loch Ard gorge (these days there is a pleasant set of wooden stairs from the beach to the top) where he found horse tracks and followed them until he reached Glenample Station.

Pearce's bravery and the story of the shipwreck quickly spread around Melbourne and Sydney. Pearce became known as 'the hero of Loch Ard' and was feted everywhere he travelled. He was awarded a gold medal from the Humane Society in Melbourne, a gold watch and £1000 from the Victorian Government, a set of nautical instruments from the people of Sydney and some new clothes from the citizens of Warrnambool. An amusing postscript: Pearce had seen Eva in her nightgown and the morality of the time insisted that he propose marriage to her. Fortunately for all concerned she declined and shortly afterwards returned to her native Ireland.

There are three self-guided walks around the Loch Ard Gorge area. One, based around the wreck, takes in a plaque at the top of Loch Ard Gorge, the cave where Eva sheltered while Tom went looking for help and the cemetery where the dead were buried. Another walk focuses on the geology of the area (including The Island Archway, The Blowhole, Elephant Rock and Broken Head) and the third contemplates the ecology of life on the cliff-tops.

If you could get an aerial view of this stretch of the coast you would notice a large and unusual island which juts out from the coast to the west of Loch Ard Gorge. It is known now as Muttonbird Island but in the past as 'The Sow' - a fitting complement to the Twelve Apostles which were known as 'The Piglets'. It is possible to drive to look across to the island but it is hard to get an appreciation of its size. It is only 60 metres from the mainland and is home to some 200 000 short-tailed shearwaters which migrate about 30 000 km every year passing summer in the northern Pacific Ocean and returning in the last week of September to nest in rookeries within Bass Strait. They fly in by the thousands on summer evenings to their nests on the island. They can be seen from October to April but January and February are the best times.

Twelve Apostles
The Twelve Apostles are probably the most famous formations off the coast of Victoria. Over the years they have become the state's most potent advertising image. The reality does not disappoint. The 'stacks', as they are known, are vertically jointed and flat-bedded limestone. Some of the largest stacks stand 65 metres above sea-level. They are best photographed in the early morning.

A state-of-the-art, energy efficient visitor centre is now located by the Twelve Apostles for the edification and comfort of visitors. There is a large car park and walkways which lead to the viewing areas.

For the really enthusiastic there are helicopter and small aeroplane flights over the coast which go as far west as Port Campbell and sweep across the Twelve Apostles.

Gibson Steps
Another kilometre along is another turnoff on the right to Gibson Steps which lead down 90 metres to Gibson Beach - a good fishing and beach walking area. The original steps were carved into the rock by Hugh Gibson, the original owner of Glenample Homestead (see next entry) though they have since been concreted. As a general principle it is unwise to swim in these very dangerous waters.

Glenample Homestead
Just beyond the turnoff to Gibson Steps, on the other side of the Great Ocean Road, is the turnoff to Glenample Homestead Interpretation Centre. It was to this house that Tom Pearce walked to seek assistance after the Loch Ard shipwreck. Over the years the homestead fell into disrepair but in recent times it has been restored to its original condition. Built from locally quarried sandstone in 1869 by Hugh Gibson it is an interesting remnant of a bygone era. Artefacts of the disaster are on display.

The house is open at varying times in the course of the year. Generally speaking they are open daily from 10.30 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. in the school holidays while, at other times they are open from 10.30 a.m. to 4.00 p.m. from Friday to Monday. However, hours may vary with circumstance, especially in winter, so it is strongly advisable to ring first to check, tel: (03) 5598 8209. There are picnic facilities, toilets and information boards at the site.

Princetown is about 18 km east of Port Campbell at the mouth of the Gellibrand River which marks the eastern boundary of the National Park. There is a post office, general store and the Apostles Camping Park (tel: 03 5598 8119) which has caravan facilities but no on-site vans. There are also some backpacker units. A picnic area is located beside the river which has tables and a launching area for canoes. The river offers excellent fishing opportunities.

To the West of the Town
Town Lookout and Port Campbell Discovery Walk
You can start this walk near Port Campbell Beach by crossing the mouth of Campbells Creek. Alternatively, follow the signs from the Town Lookout Carpark on the Great Ocean Road (western side of town). Instead of taking the road to Timboon, turn left, cross Campbells Creek and about 1 km further on there is a walking trail clearly signposted on the left hand side of the road. This 3.8-km trail offers excellent views across Port Campbell to the township and winds around the cost to Two Mile Bay. It is an ideal introduction to the coastal heathland and terrain which characterises the area.

The Arch, London Bridge and the Grotto
A little over 3 km from the turnoff to the Discovery Walk is the lookout over The Arch, a rock formation caused by water erosion.

About 600 metres further west, just beyond Point Hesse, is the turnoff to four viewing platforms over London Bridge. There are still plenty of photographs of London Bridge looking moderately like a bridge across the Thames in London. Historically the London Bridge formation was a natural archway and tunnel in an offshore rock formation caused by waves eroding away a portion of softer rock. However it collapsed on 15 January 1990 and became a bridge without a middle. Two people were on the bridge at the time but no one was injured. Artificial burrows have been built to encourage the nesting of fairy penguins. There is no access to the beach. It is located 7 km south of Port Campbell and has good parking facilities and plenty of vantage points where visitors can inspect the formations and take photographs.

About another 2 km west, via the Great Ocean Road, is a turnoff on the left which leads to a lookout over 'The Grotto' - a geological formation created when sinkholes in the limestone cliffs met with a receding cliff line.

2 km further west is Newfield Bay which is a popular surf-fishing and beach-walking spot at the western extreme of the National Park. Just beyond the bay are Curdies Inlet, Peterborough and the Bay of Islands Coastal Park.

A Book About The Great Ocean Road

The best book about the Great Ocean Road is the remarkably cheap ($19.95 for a full colour hardback) book by Port Campbell photographer, Rodney Hyett. It is 96 pages long and has everything you could possibly want - great photographs, maps of the area, a potted history of the area, details about national parks and visitor information centres, accommodation, walking tracks, even details of the region's eight lighthouses and succinct (not as detailed as this website) pieces of information about all the major destinations from Queenscliff to Cape Bayswater.  If you are planning to travel the Great Ocean Road and explore the totality of its attractions this is a small masterpiece of publishing and a great travel guide.  It is available from many shops along the way and can be ordered from Port Campbell Shopping at http://www.portcampbellshopping.com.au