The Great Ocean Road

I am re-publishing this story, because of the recent news about the Federal Government opening up an area near this spot for gas exploration. The story is of a wonderful adventure I went on with my Dad , Marko, his friend, Fred, and my two brothers Stephen and Mark.

Gibson’s Steps and the Great Ocean Road have changed dramatically since this adventure. It would have been in the mid 1970’s I guess. But it is still an area of outstanding beauty and on its day wild fury.

It was my back yard when I was a young person. I can remember sitting on a cliff watching the waters form giant whirlpools while the next day I could scramble down to a tiny sandy beach. It was always magical and absolutely awe inspiring.

Gas exploration has no business being anywhere near here.

photo of body of water
Photo by David Jia on Pexels.com

Gibson’s Steps

Dad would occasionally take the boys out fishing, for crayfish usually. He went out with a neighbour, Fred, a quiet man from memory.

Crazy stuff, fishing alongside the Apostles, riding mighty waves powered by the southern swells. My brothers told me of a time returning early, trying to outrace a fast moving storm, their boat had rode a huge wave that brought them safely to harbour. 

I wish I had listened to the stories more, because they were full of playful dolphins and pesky sharks. Of rogue waves and giant rock stacks. Of danger and adventure. But it happened mostly at night time and the stories took on a dream like state. Although the crayfish were very real.  Dad would put them in the old concrete sinks in the laundry.

But today he was going to “the beach” and I was invited. I jumped at the chance. I think “the beach” was for mum’s sake, to ease her anxiety and give her a false sense of security.  I was excited. I don’t think I had been fishing with dad since we had been out on the Wacol after Murray cod.

I was still thinking about a nice day at the beach when we arrived at Gibson’s Steps. Today the steps are made out of  timber and concrete and as long as you’re fit anyone can make it down and back. Back then, they were carved out of the cliff face. There were definitely steps, in places, no hand rails and sometimes you were a footstep away from disaster.  The fall may have been on to sand but it was a long way down.

They had been named after Gibson, owner of Glenample Station during the middle part of the 19 Century. The beach and steps probably had a much older name but I can find no record of that now.

It was low tide and it was a pleasant walk along the beach. The reef was on our left as we walked towards the very end of the beach. It was a beautiful day. Made more beautiful because we were the only ones there. There was a gentle breeze and the sun was shining. 

We had learnt never to take the conditions of this coastline for granted. We never swam in the ocean except at Port Campbell, off the beach and the pier. We swam in the river not far from here.  But never at the beach. Currents converging into a rip that roared into the southern ocean. Someone had died there when I was young. A visitor, a local wouldn’t have swum there. A tragedy for some family. But people I knew had died underestimating the sea. Washed away while fishing high up on the cliffs. 

Beaches were for sightseeing and fishing. We had reached the end of the beach and we entered another world.  At some stage in the past water had carved a tunnel through the limestone cliff.

Much as the ocean had formed the Apostles that brought the tourists, it was in the process of creating another. The tunnel was long and could only be accessed at low tide. It had a gate on the eastern side. To keep out the foxes I was told.  

We entered the tunnel, no light, and pitch dark. The floor was sandy and there was plenty of room. We pretty quickly saw light coming from the other end. You just had to hold your breath and not think about rogue waves or earth tremors.

Out the other side, it was a scramble over some rocks and small beaches only visible at low tide. The cliffs, sheer, 100 metres tall, no escape there, just had to hurry now.  There was nothing to hold the water back when it came. The beaches sloped down into the water. We raced towards rocks above the water line and a small beach protected by the rocks.

I was a bit late rounding the last point but luckily just got wet, just had nowhere else to go. Could see it coming, thought I had time, but it just got bigger and bigger. The wave smacked into me. Luckily we had a change of clothes.

Dad and his mate disappeared to fish and left us three kids to entertain ourselves.   Dad and Fred were after crayfish and it probably didn’t matter to them if they caught any.  The exhilaration of fishing in a place no one knew about was enough.

There were lots of little footprints in the sand and we discovered pretty quickly that they belonged to the Little Penguins.  Despite us meaning them no harm the few that were out and about quickly retreated to their homes in the rocks and we entertained ourselves for a short time by sticking our fingers into their homes and getting them bitten.

We didn’t know then that for the Little Penguin life was pretty tough on the mainland of Australia. Predation by foxes, dogs and cats had made life precarious, which explained the gate at the entrance.  But for a few hours we spent happily sun baking, exploring, and eating our sandwiches.  In a short time evidence of our visit would be all gone and the Little Penguins would reappear to go fishing.

When the tide turned we made our way out. You get a sense of just how violent this coast is, even on this calm and sunny day. We were nearly at the tunnel entrance and one of my brothers decided to risk the ocean side of a large rock and ended up to his neck in the sea water that had remained as the tide had receded. Both funny and terrible at the same time.

The tunnel no longer exists. It would not be safe for the millions of tourists that come to see this wild and wonderful coastline. The Little Penguins can continue to flourish on their rock covered beaches without the presence of foxes, cats and dogs and humans. And I can be thankful to my Dad and Fred for giving me a most wonderful adventure.

Port Campbell

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