Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Beauty and Terror of Loch Ard Gorge (Australia)

In sunshine, the Victorian coastline known as the Great Ocean Road offers panoramas of glistening blue ocean, natural beauty and a sense of serenity. The area is dotted with unusual and striking rock formations (several with evocative names like the Twelve Apostles, London Bridge and The Grotto) gradually being warn by the savage seas. When the weather is nasty, the ocean turns to a inky swirling maelstrom and the wind whistles in evil howls. For mariners, such weather must be hellish.

As such, the area is also known as Shipwreck Coast with over 700 ships recorded as lost through Australia's short history (less than a third have been located).

Days of thick fogs, grey skies, blustery winds and rough seas prevented the captain of the Loch Ard, an iron-hulled clipper sailing from England from completing his journey. Trying to navigate the brutal strait (threading the needle) between King Island and the mainland in the early winter of 1878, the Loch Ard plunged into a tiny rocky island just off the mainland called Muttonbird Island. Within fifteen short minutes, the ship sunk taking the lives of 52 of its passengers.

Miraculously, Tom Pearce, a young man of 18 clung to a lifeboat and was fortuitously swept through the narrow opening of Loch Ard Gorge onto a tiny peaceful beach. Hearing screams and spotting a young woman struggling in the waves clinging desperately to flotsam, Tom swam and rescued the only other survivor, the by-then unconscious Eva Carmichael. Revived by brandy from a washed up crate, both rested in a cave protected by a tiny strip of beach and surrounded by the suffocating cliffs of the gorge. After some rest, Tom climbed the steep cliffs (now a set of wooden stairs) to seek help and both were rescued. Neither saw each other ever after the rescue period, Eva returning to Ireland (Tom became a ship's captain!).

Today, visitors can quietly stroll the beach, visit the small cave, gaze at the vertical walls of the cliff and walk the pleasant trails around Loch Ard Gorge highlighting the peaceful triangle of water and the hidden gate to the Antarctic Ocean and open seas.

Nearby, people can see a living reminder of the unrelenting seas chipping away at the fragile limestone coast. Island Arch stood guard near Loch Ard Gorge for many centuries until in July, 2009 it collapsed leaving two pillars (read news article). These have been named Tom and Eva in memory of the two brave survivors of the area's most well-known shipwreck.

Similarly recent collapses lays witness to the continuing weathering and change in the area. Another of the Twelve Apostles toppled some years ago and London Bridge became London Arch in 1990.

For parts of this beautiful area, the road hugs the water as vistas of the rugged coastline open around each sweeping bend. Many rate it Australia's finest drive. Numerous stops and sidepaths highlight various rock formations and panoramic lookouts. Loch Ard Gorge is a highlight stop giving a glimpse into the feeling of desperation that young Tom and Eva, along with the passengers and crew of the Loch Ard must have felt as brutal weather, poor visibility and the savage coastline played in taking the lives of 52 people and how luck played such a part in saving two souls.

Photo Credit: post collapse Island Arch


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