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The great ocean road

Print edition : Apr 08, 2005 T+T-

"In the vaunted works of Art, The master-stroke is Nature's part."

- Ralph Waldo Emerson.

AUSTRALIA is a haven for lovers of nature's artistry. Not just for tourists who love the great outdoors but for anyone who wants to know how the protection of nature can be a boon for the economy, the environment and the tourist alike. Few countries have done a better job of developing tourism around naturally occurring attractions. Australia has no Taj Mahal, no Red Fort, no Mamallapuram, yet it draws twice as many foreign tourists a year as India.

That is because Australia has turned its natural environment into unique 'event destinations' catering to niche markets such as eco-tourists like my father and me. Nowhere is this more apparent than along the Great Ocean Road x one of the greatest scenic drives on the planet. The popularity of this destination, south-west of Melbourne, in the State of Victoria, shows how targeting tourism to a very specific market can be successful for everyone involved.

Hewn out of the seaside cliffs, using pickaxes, crowbars and shovels, the road was built between 1919 and 1932 by soldiers as a memorial to the victims of the First World War. As the road traverses the coast, often only metres away from cliffs plunging towards the ocean below, it is like the frame that holds the Mona Lisa. Everything about the road is set up so that the tourist can fully appreciate the stunning natural surroundings that the area offers. You will not find multiplex movie theatres, theme parks, shopping malls or anything meant to draw the generic tourist. Thankfully, the progressive planners of the region have organised its development around the environment, not over it. As a result, rather than hurting the area's economy, tourists have come at the rate of over a million a year.

The road begins in a town called Torquay, about 120 kilometres west of Melbourne. From there it travels over 300 km along the coast before turning inland at Nelson. Along the way, huge cliffs, raging surf, tranquil bays, beautiful beaches and lush forests enliven the route. Torquay is considered the surfing capital of South Australia, and with its abundance of huge waves and beaches only minutes from the town, it is a good introduction to what the region has to offer.

A stop at the large tourist information centre there is revealing. At every government tourism office, the staff are knowledgeable about the needs of not only everyday tourists (restaurants, accommodation, shopping) but also eco-tourists. Enquire about the birds of the region, good hikes, waterfalls, beach walks or geological features, and your hosts will provide you with a number of options. And if you need them to, they will cut them down to the best 10.

From Torquay, the road continues through the surf coast region, which has low coastal scrub habitat, white sandy beaches and strong ocean waves. It is a transition zone between the developed city suburbs and the wilder rainforest and cliffs that will follow. Here, the road travels along the water, mostly at sea level, and is busy with small towns, shops and day-trippers from Melbourne.

Quite suddenly, the road begins to climb, and still driving along the water you notice your car rising higher and higher above it, with sheer cliffs extending below. This point makes you realise how difficult it was to construct the road and the special place it holds among the scenic drives of the world. The many lookouts become irresistible because they provide panoramic vistas for hundreds of kilometres in each direction.

Because of the altitude change there is more rainfall in this region, called the Otways. As a result the habitat changes from dry coastal heath to wet rainforest, interspersed with eucalyptus forests. Here the road turns inland to save hours of driving time along the outstretched point of Cape Otway. From the steep cliffs and ocean spray, we head into a mixed habitat. On the coastal side, the dry sea breeze and the harsh climate favours hardy species such as the eucalyptus and dry grass. A paved road leads off the highway, heading 20 km to the Cape Otway lighthouse, the oldest in Australia. The long drive was a disappointment because the views were no better than those along the highway and the lighthouse was quite expensive to visit. However, on our way back we noticed a line of six parked cars and a number of tourists staring into the trees. We pulled over and after some help were amazed to see an entire family of koalas.

A koala is a medium-sized marsupial, somewhat like a mix between a small bear and a sloth. Its diet consists solely of eucalyptus leaves. Koalas are difficult to spot because of their sedentary lifestyle and their grey-and-white fur that allows them to blend seamlessly into their surroundings. Here there was a male, bellowing out his pig-like call. There was a mother and young koalas of various ages playfully learning how to climb and eat. The koala is a rather graceless creature, and watching the young ones was quite a harrowing experience because it looked like they were on the verge of falling off the tree.

Back on the highway we were excited to see some of the last remaining temperate rainforests on the earth, comprising the Otway National Park. Along the many trails in the Otways region, one can see waterfalls, lush ferns, moss-covered forest giants such as Myrtle Beech and Blackwood, and an abundance of flora and fauna. Literally everything around you is green with moss, from the rocks to the tree-trunks.

There are at least 15 waterfalls and many easy rainforest trails, of which the Mait's Rest Walk is the best. This stand of forest giants, concealed in a small gully, was hidden from loggers by local residents in the early 1900s. When it was finally protected, it was found to have some of the largest and oldest trees in the area. At night glow-worms abound, lighting the trail.

From the rainforest, we again drive inland through farming areas with anticipation because, apparently, the most spectacular section of this highway will begin once the road rejoins the coastal cliffs. Given that the drive is very long, it is essential to spend a few days on this amazing journey. There are plenty of pleasant towns to stop at, each one replete with luxury accommodation, clean and functional motels, excellent information centres and great food.

The next day we began our tour through the region known as the shipwreck coast because its barren and harsh landscape has caused over 600 wrecks. Sheer cliffs drop 70 metres into the water, which is whipped wildly by strong winds and is filled with unique rock formations. There is no mystery as to why this section of the coast has proven so deadly. The site of the most famous wreck, Loch Ard, tells the tale of the ship, which was run aground by a storm in 1878. Only two passengers survived, and they became celebrities in the region. The dead are commemorated in a haunting cemetery.

However, the highlight here is the harsh landscape, most of it protected by the Port Campbell National Park. A unique confluence of events has led to the creation of some of the most unusual and stunning rock features seen anywhere in the world. Driving from the Otway National Park, you will first come upon the most famous of these, the Twelve Apostles. If you have time for only one thing on the Great Ocean Road, this is it.

Originally part of the coastal cliffs, the processes of wind and sea erosion created these stacks of rock, some up to 45 metres tall.

The cliffs of this area are made of limestone. The salty air and the relentless waves have eroded the weaker seams of limestone faster than the harder parts of the cliffs. As a result, caves were created, which turned into arches. Eventually the arches became too wide, and the 'bridge' of each arch collapsed resulting in the twelve features here.

Interestingly, all twelve are not visible from land but the new name is much better for marketing purposes than the previous one: the sow and piglets. The Apostles present a breathtaking view that cannot be had anywhere else. The reddish tinge of the rock and the amazing shapes they take on make for an unforgettable experience. It is important to come at either sunrise or sunset to get the full effect of the colours.

Even now, the cliffs and the Apostles are eroding away at the rate of about two centimetres a year. Eventually, some of the existing stacks will collapse and new caves, arches and islands will be created. It is a landscape in a state of flux, an evocative illustration of the power of the sea.

The erosion of the coast has also created many other amazing features, which are north of the Apostles and past the town of Port Campbell. With names such as Pudding Basin Rock, Island Arch, the Razorback, Muttonbird Island, Thunder Cave, Blowhole, Bakers Oven, London Bridge and the Grotto, these features represent the various stages in the transformation from cave to arch to island. All of them are worth seeing, and the detailed signs at every location explain the geological processes in great detail.

The protected habitat of the Port Campbell National Park is also home to some interesting wildlife. Of greatest interest to bird lovers is the Rufous bristlebird. This is a relict species, meaning that it has survived relatively unchanged from an older period of evolutionary history, while other related and similar species have become extinct. It originally had a much wider range but its habitat has been degraded so much that it is now found only in particular areas. It thrives where it has access to clifftop heath land, especially steep densely vegetated slopes where predators cannot penetrate. Thankfully, the parking lots and trails of this park provide this. Therefore, this shy bird, one of the rarest in Australia and almost impossible to see elsewhere is abundant here. It has short wings and is barely able to fly, so it can often be seen scurrying across the trails or seeking shade and shelter under parked cars. The bird provides a look back in time, to when ground birds were just beginning to develop the ability to fly.

In contrast, soaring, sweeping flight provides the other wildlife experience of this area. Muttonbird Island is a scenic, rocky outcrop by day. But by night, it is the roost of over 50,000 muttonbirds, properly known as Sooty Shearwaters. These ocean-going birds breed on the island, but spend the entire day feeding out at sea. After sunset they come to roost. A viewing platform has been set up to see the show.

When we arrived at sunset, the island was deathly quiet. Then it got darker and colder, gradually. Suddenly, the first birds began to appear. Cascading in off the ocean, they swooped into the island from the air, barely making a sound. However, as the minutes progressed, more and more appeared, until the sky was filled with these darting forms, and as far as the eye could see across the ocean more were flying in. The night became filled with the sound of their nesting babies crying out.

The parents spend all day collecting food, and at night each pair must find its small nest, crammed among thousands of others on the rock. Despite the seemingly chaotic process, each parent instinctively recognises the call of its young and the location of its nest. The complex pattern of birds flying this way and that actually represents an ordered system of returning home and finding a nest with each bird following a similar route each night. The Sooty Shearwaters come to land only to breed, and the breeding season is in November and December. For the rest of the year the birds are out at sea even sleeping in flight.

This event provided a fitting end to our journey through nature's artistry. Again, the wonderful infrastructure of the Great Ocean Road had provided the frame through which to view the splendour of nature. Along this road, a great deal of time, effort and money have gone into creating infrastructure for the viewing of natural phenomena. The Great Ocean Road is a lesson to us all x that in order to attract tourists it is not necessary to tear down everything old and build shiny, new structures. Often, all that is needed is to protect the beauty of nature and make it easily accessible to all.