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"I have seldom seen a more fearful section of coastline", wrote explorer Matthew Flinders when first rounding Cape Otway. Some 80 shipwrecks and many hundreds of lives later, the beautiful but treacherous 130 kilometre stretch between Moonlight Head and Port Fairy had earned the title 'The Shipwreck Coast'.

Last Century the southern waters of Bass Strait were one of the main approaches to eastern Australia. King Island divides the entrance into this strait into two channels. The southern channel could not be used as it was obstructed by reefs. So ships chose the northern passage which was only 75 kilometres wide. Since there was no guiding light on King Island until 1861, ships would hug the Australian coastline, anxious to find the Cape Otway light. But thick fogs and wild seas led to miscalculation and the coast claimed many convict transports, supply and immigrant ships as they innocently sailed through turbulent waters to the new colonies. Today, the evidence of these shipwrecks still exists and the drama and tragedy has been brought to life in many ways.

The Historic Shipwreck Trail from Lavers Hill in the east to Port Fairy in the west, has markers indicating the sites of 25 known shipwrecks. Occasionally you will stumble across isolated relics, like the old anchor from the "Loch Ard" which leans against the Visitors Centre at Port Campbell, and the anchors of two ships wrecked off Moonlight Head, which lie at the base of these cliffs.

One of the most famous sites is Loch Ard Gorge where the iron clipper 'Loch Ard' floundered in 1878. A thick fog caused the ship to crash against the rocks and she sank quickly, leaving only two survivors. They were Tom Pearce, who clung to an upturned life-boat and Eva Carmichael, who had clung to a chicken coop and then a spar. The strong seas swept both of them into the gorge and Tom was able to drag the barely- conscious Eva to a cave and then go for help.

Only four bodies were recovered. You can see their graves at the nearby cemetery as well as a memorial to all those who lost their lives in the tragedy. There are other cemeteries along The Shipwreck Coast which have historical graves. Near the Cape Otway lighthouse, you can see those of lighthouse staff, pioneers and shipwrecked sailors.

Other ships that went down along The Shipwreck Coast include the 'Schomberg', 'Tails of Halladale', 'Young Australia' and in recent years, the 'Casino'. Having completed 2500 trips between Melbourne and Portland, she was wrecked offshore from Apollo Bay in 1932.

At the Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum many items recovered from some of these shipwrecks are on display. A prize piece is the spectacular Minton Loch Ard Peacock, which was to be exhibited at the 1880 International Exhibition in Melbourne, had the ship not gone down and taken the peacock with it.

Other exhibits you will see include the awesome Schomberg diamond. The roof of the Museum is made of slate salvaged from the 'Falls of Halladale' and the canons of the 'Schomberg' and 'Children' are also on display. The Old Cable Station Museum at Apollo Bay, and the Blackwood Gully Tourist and Heritage Centre at Lavers Hill provide a fascinating insight into the natural heritage and intrigue of shipwreck history.


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