Page 119: The “Twelve” Apostles

The Southern Ocean between the Antarctic and Australia's south coast can be, and frequently is, a violent and hostile environment as many mariners and yachtsmen can attest. The Victorian coastline is rugged and equally hostile, so when the two meet it makes for an interesting and sometimes violent confrontation; a battle in which the ocean will inevitably triumph. This is a coastline of giant vertical cliffs, arches, sheer-faced inlets, small islands standing high out of the water and vertical rock stacks. Anywhere the water washes against land it undercuts the rock until the land finally yields and collapses into the sea.

One outcome of this has been the creation of several rock stacks that have been left standing as the sea has worn back the land over the millennia. Today they are well known as the Twelve Apostles due, I'm sure, to some extremely clever marketing by the Victorian Government. It wasn't always so; sixty years ago these rocks were known – as far as they were known – as the Sow and Piglets. Today the Twelve Apostles attract visitors from all over the world. In fact, when we visited – in mid-winter – the tourist buses were queuing to get in and we seldom heard English spoken.

Why so popular? For one thing, the Victorian Government has provided a visitor centre where refreshments and souvenirs can be purchased. It has a huge car park and toilets. An underpass allows visitors to walk under the Great Ocean Road to the cliff tops.

For another thing, a wonderful job has been done of making the cliff tops safely accessible along wide, paved, fenced pathways from the visitor centre to the many large, well-fenced lookout platforms giving visitors spectacular views. To park and walk to the lookouts costs nothing. The same standard of pathways and lookout platforms can be found all along this coastline. Far be it for me to give credit to any government, but whoever is responsible for this high standard deserves acclaim.


The sturdy two-level viewing platform high over a gorge and looking across to Mutton Bird Island.
Every lookout has explanatory plaques conveniently placed.


A constant succession of helicopters was lifting off from a base right next to the car park, carrying out short circuits which took them to the west, out over the ocean and then back east following the coast to give a panoramic view of the coastline and the Apostles before turning inland again and returning to land, usually hot on the heels of another lifting off. We timed the flights at between six and seven minutes. The cost per passenger was $95.

  Brand new Robinson R44 II Raven, VH-ZVE, about to touch down with three passengers.
C'mon Mate, get your hands out of your pockets, try and look interested.

At this time of year there were three helicopters operating but I observed that there were five landing pads and enquiries revealed that during peak periods, such as Christmas, they operate eight aircraft simultaneously. The three which were flying were quite bad enough – the constant noise quickly became irritating in such a pristine, wild environment.

Most people have heard that some of the Apostles, over the years, had surrendered to the never ending erosion of the sea and fallen. So how many Apostles are there? To answer that you would first have to define an Apostle as there are so many rocks and small islands. Actually the quantity at any one time doesn't matter for even as some collapse others are slowly being formed by the relentless waves. What is a small island today might become an Apostle tomorrow is its circumference is worn away. And anyway, the actual Apostles pale into insignificance alongside the majestic and terrifying splendour of the cliffs, gorges and the restless ocean itself.

  Excuse me, you two. Are you islands or Apostles?  

Note the similarity of the islands in the picture above to the Apostles in the picture below.

  Doubtless some of these are Apostles. Looking west from the prime lookout platform.  
  Looking east, rare winter sunshine illuminates two rock stacks known as Gog and Magog. They are not considered to be part of the Twelve Apostles. Gog and Magog? Try Googling them if you want to end up totally confused. Every country and every religion seems to have its own description of these two. Sometimes they're places, sometimes people, other times one of each or even giants.  
  This jutting rock is called the Razorback. It used to be much longer but its outer end keeps wearing away.
You can see how it is crumbling at its outer end now. Vertical cracks, as can be seen in the picture,
are weakened by rainwater. It's not difficult to imagine that slice soon falling into the sea.

The people on the beach give this picture perspective.
The beach is at the inner end of a long gorge and steps enable energetic visitors to descend.

  Here the water has opened up a cavern in the cliff. In the books I read as a child it would be used by smugglers with
mysterious lights seen at night by young kids whose parents thought they were in bed. Today they would
be heroin importers. A fresh water stream falls into the bay on the left.
  The Demise of the loch ard.  

In March of 1878 the clipper Loch Ard left Gravesend, England, bound for Melbourne commanded by Captain George Gibb. She was carrying 2,275 tons of mixed cargo and seventeen passengers with a crew of thirty seven.

On 31 May the crew and passengers threw a party aboard to celebrate the end of the three month voyage. As night fell a thick mist descended and obscured both the horizon and the Cape Otway light. Concerned, Captain Gibb remained on deck all night. At four o'clock in the morning the mist began to lift. “Breakers ahead, breakers ahead!” screamed the lookout. High, pale cliffs became visible. They were on the southern extremity of Mutton Bird Island.

Full sail was ordered by Captain Gibb to turn the ship away from danger but the wind and current drove the ship towards the cliffs. The Captain ordered the sails lowered and anchors to be dropped, but the Loch Ard dragged her anchors. In a final, desperate attempt the anchor ropes were cut and the sails again raised. The ship began to make headway and very nearly cleared the cliffs but the bow struck a shallow reef and stuck fast. With each swell the yardarms smashed against the cliffs bringing down rock and parts of the masts. Waves swept across the decks, hampering attempts to launch the ship's boats and flooding the cabins. Terrified passengers clung to each other and, amidst their screams and cries, the Loch Ard slipped into the silent depths below.

  The seaward end of Mutton Bird Island where the Loch Ard struck.  

Eighteen year old Irish immigrant, Eva Carmichael, and ship's apprentice, Tom Pearce, were the only survivors. Tom drifted for hours beneath an upturned lifeboat. When the tide turned at dawn he was swept into a gorge and emerged from the water battered and bleeding. No sooner was he safe on dry land than he heard cries from the sea. It was Eva who was clinging to a spar. Tom plunged back into the waves and after struggling for another hour he brought Eva ashore. He sheltered her in a cave and gave her some brandy that he found washed up. Then, utterly exhausted, they both slept. Upon waking Tom climbed out of the gorge and found help. Soon Eva Carmichael was rescued from the gorge. Poor Eva lost seven of her family in the wreck; possibly more if any had a different surname. Despite heroic efforts, only four bodies were ever recovered from the Loch Ard. They are buried in a cemetery on the cliff top.

Wreckage was piled over two metres high in the gorge. Salvagers only recovered goods worth about £2,000 despite the cargo being valued at over £68,000. Most of it was looted or lost in a later storm.

Tom Pearce became a national hero and was awarded the gold medal of the Humane Society in front of five thousand people in the Melbourne Town Hall. The romantic sentiment of the time was that Tom and Eva should marry but . . . it was not to be. Within three months Eva had returned to Ireland and they never saw each other again.

The Loch Ard was only one of very many fine ships that came to grief along what has come to be known as the Shipwreck Coast.

Please note: The story of the wreck of the Loch Ard was taken, often verbatim, from the information boards at the scene. Whoever wrote the text was far better at telling the story than I.

The Loch Ard was named after a Scottish lake, or loch, about 30 miles north of Glasgow and not far from Loch Lomond.

  The landward end of Mutton Bird Island has a tunnel worn right though.  

Sometimes the coastline resembles something of a maze. Imagine getting wrecked and, having swum to land,
being faced with scaling these cliffs. The closest cliff has a slice that appears ready to break away.

  Looking over the top of the Razorback. Any of these Apostles? Those two suggestive looking erections are connected lower down.  
  What a spectacular coastline! I think that's Mutton Bird Island in the centre of the picture.