In 1834 a Ladybird floated into a beautiful bay and birthed a Colony that would become the richest state in early Australia – Victoria. This tiny town, Portland, became the first permanent settlement of Victoria and is to be our first port of call as we make our way along one of the greatest road trip routes of the world – the Great Ocean Road. The former domain of sealers and whalers and the graveyard of many a ship, the rugged coastline is buffered by fierce winds that can blow in at any time from the Southern Ocean and the morning we wake, we experience firsthand the turn of the weather and coldness the great southern can bring.
Despite the wet, windy, chilly...no make that icy, weather (in December?!), we’re enthralled by our surrounds. Living history encases us from the moment we open our eyes in our room in the gorgeous Gordon Hotel - the oldest continuous license in Victoria (1841). As we breakfast on the balcony, we don’t know where to look first – at the bay filled with small sail boats, over to shipping wharf where enormous cargo ships loom or soak in the views of blue stone public buildings which are still in government use since built;, such as Customs House (1849), or the stunningly beautiful Mac’s Hotel (1856) and the majestic former post office (1883). However, this time it’s not buildings I want to explore, it’s the natural wonders of the ‘Discovery Coast’ and we leave early to trek through the petrified forest.
Green pastureland with windswept trees leads to hills lined with wind turbines, then the green stops abruptly and a moon like landscape appears. Perfectly formed circles with jagged edges jut upwards. Cement hard, yet inside sits soft sand almost dust like, the limestone rings scatter across the land in front of us, their brownness smashes against the deep blue of the ocean and even with the grey skies, the colours are sharp and vibrant. No one knows how this amazing scene has formed; some experts say it’s a forest of Moonah trees smothered by sand thousands of years ago. Other experts say it’s a natural erosion of stone by earths minerals. Either way, up close it looks to me like beautiful ancient organ pipes playing nature’s tune of the wind with the stand of majestic white windmills in the background mixing the ‘synthesized’ tones.
To the other side the ‘forest’ is the remains of a lava flow; rippling black rock ‘spills’ midair into the ocean and creates a spectacular cliff face. The ocean slams against its edge and sprays across the rock beds below. Just off this point the watery grave of the Isabella. Around the ‘corner’ at Cape Bridgewater is the start of the ‘Shipwreck Coast’ where some fifty plus colonial vessels met their fate in the great southern ocean.
The lighthouse at Cape Bridgewater begins my ‘avenue of lighthouses’ fascination (although Big M makes it very clear that we’re not going to start at the very beginning – Cape Nelson – I see a new list starting). The lighthouse is adorable, not as spectacular as ‘our’ Byron Bay beauty, but still very picturesque...despite our scaffolding tour of it. I love it’s bright red cap. I will find that red is the colour of lighthouses here.... We are also in for a bit of a treat when we notice the sky is full of yellow capped Gannets flying above us. Beautiful white birds with the most gorgeous blue rimmed eyes and black tipped wings.
Time was getting away so we made headway for Port Fairy, bypassing the seal colony and further exploration of Portland (but not before a quick stop at the cutest little lighthouse at Portland – red cap and red door...so sweet) and decided to continue our nature theme of discovery, unpacking the bike and riding across the foot bridge to Griffiths Island. The island is a protected reserve rookery for Muttonbirds and we were fascinated riding through the dunes to see the burrows covering the island.
As the track became narrower and rockier I began to wonder (aloud) if we were even allowed to be riding bicycles on the island, then became convinced that we were definitely not allowed and knowing our luck, get fined for bringing a ‘vehicle’ onto the island....much to the annoyance of Big M... when we found ourselves at a huge rock bed on the beach. There was no way one could ride a bike here and for almost a kilometre, I pushed and carried my bike across the rocks and tussocks of the island.
Finally, we arrived at the Lighthouse... another picture of prettiness with red cap and red door and this time, red window inlets... and to my intense relief the gateway was a sea of bikes. The island was originally a whaling station established back in 1835, now it was popular for whale watchers who came to see the beautiful Southern Right Whales. Back in the township we watched the fishing fleet coming up the Moyne River and ogled one boat unloads crate after crate of enormous orange-shell crayfish.
The main streets had a festive ambiance with a band playing in the central park and we peddled along soaking up the history, gasping at the gorgeous buildings from yesteryear. This town has over 50 heritage listed buildings, some on a grand scale, others the quaintest cottages of timber and stone. A restored coach; quite possibly a Cobb & Co coach, drawn by two horses clip-clopped down the street capping off the feeling of being in a colonial ‘fairy tale’. Little do we know that our dream day is about to have a nightmare evening.