The most awe-inspiring formations on the coast are the Twelve Apostles – gigantic limestone pillars, some rising 65m out of the ocean, which retreat in rows as stark reminders of the power of the sea (the cliff faces erode at a rate of about 2cm a year). The (unstaffed) Twelve Apostles Centre at the car park on the northern side of the road provides clean toilet facilities and welcome shelter from the winds blowing off the Southern Ocean. It features wall-length panels of sailcloth with scripted poems about the Shipwreck Coast’s awesome, dangerous beauty. Covered walkways lead through a tunnel under the road to the lookout points and a short walk along the clifftop. Sunset here (summer around 9pm, winter 5.45pm) is a popular time for photographers and, unfortunately, crowds. Wait ten minutes or so after dusk, however, when the tourists have jumped back on their coaches and left, and you’ll be treated to another fantastic spectacle, as hordes of fairy penguins waddle onto the shore in droves.
Next stop is underrated Loch Ard Gorge, where a small network of clifftop walks and a staircase leading down to a beach give you the chance to view the fantastic rock formations all around. It was here that the Loch Ard, an iron-hulled square rig, hit a reef and foundered while transporting immigrants from England to Melbourne in the spring of 1878. Of 53 people on board, only two survived: Eva Carmichael and Tom Pearce, both in their late teens. They were swept into a long gorge and Tom dragged Eva into a cave in the western wall of the gorge before going for help. A walkway leads down to the beach, covered with delicate pink kelp, and you can scramble over craggy rocks to the cave where Eva sheltered, now a nesting site for small birds. The Loch Ard cemetery, where the ship’s passengers and crew are buried, is on the clifftop overlooking the gorge. As you drive further, you pass more scenic points, with resonant names such as Blowhole and Thundercave, before reaching Port Campbell.
For a bird’s-eye view of all this, take a helicopter ride with 12 Apostles Helicopters based on the Great Ocean Road near Loch Ard Gorge, just east of Port Campbell (t03/5598 8283, wwww.12apostleshelicopters.com.au).