Exploring Loch Ard Gorge

Loch Ard Gorge is possibly the most intriguing place in the Port Campbell National Park and possibly on the entire Great Ocean Road.

The stunning gorge is surrounded by 20-30 metre sandstone cliffs. There are multiple short walks to explore that are flat and easy, although the highlight is taking the stairs down into the gorge where you’ll find a stunning gold sandy beach. It’s normally a bit too rough to safely enter the water, although if you’re lucky to be there on a calm day (maybe a couple of times a month), you’ll experience a swim between huge, ancient cliffs, like no-where else.

Other than the area being a lot fun to explore by foot and admire the towering stone formations, huge cliffs and deadly ocean pounding against them, it’s also the site where the most infamous shipwreck of the Shipwreck Coast occurred when the Loch Ard smashed into Mutton Bird Island, which is just outside the gorge.

Discover the area by foot

From here, you can walk 300 metres past the Island Arch and over to the Razorback to get a view of three of the eight 12 Apostles that can’t be seen from Castle Rock at the official Apostles viewing area. This is just one of three walks at Loch Ard Gorge. The other two include heading down to the beach in the gorge and the Shipwreck Walk to see where the Loch Ard smashed into Mutton Bird Island, from here you’ll get a stunning view back into the gorge.

From the same car park, you can then walk around to hear the roar of the ocean at Thunder Cave and if you have a bit more time, you can walk another few hundred metres further, past Broken Head and over to the Sherbrook River Mouth where massive barreling waves roll into the beach and swallow the cliffs on either side of the bay. These places are pretty cool to explore, but be sure to take care as plenty of people have met tragedy in this area due to the temperamental and ferocious Southern Ocean crashing into the coastline.

Loch Ard Gorge

Swimming at Loch Ard Gorge

Swimming at Loch Ard Gorge can be an incredible experience, it could also be your last. On a calm day, it can be completely safe to head into the water from the beach in the gorge, although this coastline is known to be one of the most treacherous on Earth and the conditions can change in an instant.

Usually, the waves that reach the beach will roll in at 1+ metres, other times they are upto 15 metres tall. If you’re not use to the ocean, then we don’t even recommenced entering the water on a calm day, so swimming here on a rough day is a bit crazy. The waves are super powerful and all of that water is then sucked back out to the ocean, it can pull you under and take you out there with it.

You’re much better off heading into Port Campbell where there is an incredible and protected beach right in the middle of town. Port Campbell is only 5-10 minutes west of Loch Ard Gorge and is possibly the most beautiful town on the entire Great Ocean Road.

The infamous Loch Ard shipwreck

1851, gold was found near Melbourne and from the gold rush that followed, the area grew from being one of the most isolated places on the planet to the wealthiest region on Earth  ..and still pretty isolated.

The gold rush saw masses of people sail to Australia, heading directly to ‘Marvelous Melbourne’, as it became known, before walking to the Ballarat goldfields. Between 1851 and 1871, Australia’s population grew from 430,000 to over 1.7 million people.

Clipper sailing ships would leave Europe, head below the south of Africa and position themselves in the super strong winds of the Roaring Forties that would push them right across to Australia.

After many weeks or sometimes months at sea, land could finally be seen again. Unfortunately for many, they’d be welcomed by death as they sailed into Australia’s notorious Shipwreck Coast. The Shipwreck Coast is a 130 kilometre stretch of coastline where hundreds of ships wrecked during the gold rush era and following years.

In 1878, the Loch Ard, a large sailing ship built in Scotland left England and sailed for Melbourne. After about three months at sea, they had finally reached the Australian coastline.

The ship was carrying value cargo and whole bunch of passengers that were hoping to migrate to Australia for a better life. Onboard, there was a total of 54 people that included the crew and passengers. This included the whole Carmichael family, which was a wealthy doctor, his wife and five children that were going to continue from Melbourne up to Sydney to then open a medical practice.

It was a stormy night as they sailed into the Shipwreck Coast. As they were right at the end of their journey from the other side of the world, in the early hours of the morning of June 1st Captain Gibbs decided to throw an anchor and stay put until the storm had passed.

Unfortunately, Captain Gibbs thought they were much further out to sea as he had low visibility due to some heavy fog, where-as they were just on edge of the huge jagged cliffs that made up the majority of the areas coastline. Some people have since said that the due to the ship carrying some metal to help build the gold mine, that it made the navigation instruments inaccurate.

As the ship got closer to the cliffs, the fog lifted and those still on the deck started to panic. Eva, the daughter of Doctor Carmichael, rushed upstairs to see what all of the commotion was about. As she made her way onto the deck, the ships mast smashed into what is now known as Mutton Bird Island. This caused the mast to snap and crash down, destroying everything and everyone below.

During the chaos, a tough eighteen year old cabin boy, Tom Pearce made efforts to deploy a small life boat, but another wave pushed the ship into the cliff, knocking Tom overboard and flipping the life boat upside down as it fell into the ocean.

Luckily for Tom, he was able to find shelter in the overturned boats hull. He drifted out into the ocean and eventually, with the smallest of chances, the tide pulled him into one of the only gorges in the area that had a soft sandy beach at the bottom of the cliffs. If he was pulled into any other part of the coastline, it would have been certain death.

As Tom was being pulled by the tide into the gorge he could hear the faint screams of a girl. Once he washed up into the beach, although being completely exhausted and traumatised, he then swam hundreds of metres back to the Loch Ard shipwreck and found Eva, still alive but barely conscious.

Tom rescued Eva and they both found shelter in a cave at the bottom of the cliffs in the gorge. Once the storm had settled, Tom climbed out of the gorge to go find help as Eva was severely wounded.

In 1878, there were very few people settled in the area. If Tom walked west, his chance of survival would have been almost non-existent, although he happened to see some sheep prints in the dirt and followed them east. Incredibly, about 7-8 kms later, Tom came across two farm hands. This happened to be at Glenample Homestead on Mr. Gibson’s farm, (Mr. Gibson is famous for rebuilding the staircase Gibson Steps down to the beach below Gog & Magog, just near the 12 Apostles). The group of them then went back and rescued Eva.

Tom and Eva were the only two survivors. Although they were both 18 years old and the media put pressure on the two of them to marry, Eva went back to Ireland after her 3 month recovery at Glenample Homestead.

Once Eva returned to full health, she then went back to Ireland for the remainder of her life, marrying a doctor named Tom. Ireland also has a treacherous coastline named the Shipwreck Coast and the both of them moved into a house in the area.

Tom Pearce remained working on the water. His father died New Zealand in a shipwreck when he was young, then his step father (Mr. Pearce) also died in a shipwreck near the Great Barrier Reef around the same time as the Loch Ard disaster, so in a tragic way, he had a close connection to sailing.

Tom ended up married with two boys and a girl. Horribly, one of his sons died on a shipwreck and the other also died on the water when his ship was attacked. Tom’s daughter kept her feet dry and had two daughters of her own, both of which passed away in car accidents.

Many years later, Tom was the captain of ship and sailed to Ireland. As they were passing Ireland’s Shipwreck Coast, tragedy struck and the ship crashed into the coastline. Apparently, everyone was killed but one man. Eva Carmichael’s husband, Tom rushed to the scene and rescued this man, bringing him back to their cottage to take care of him.

Many years later in an interview with Eva (when she was elderly), she explains that she nursed this man and days after his rescue, the man began to recover and become recognisable again. One morning as she entered the room, Eva locked eyes with the man. They both realised that they knew each other and had been in a similar siuation before, as the man was Tom Pearce.

Eva went on to live a long life and died in 1934 at the age of 73, where as Tom continued to sail and eventually became a victim of the ocean when he died 24 years early than Eva, in a shipwreck aged 49.

Make sure you reach out to us if you’d like a tour of the Great Ocean Road and Loch Ard Gorge.

Note: As a Great Ocean Road tour guide and someone that grew up nearby, I learned this story over dozens of visits to the area. A lot of this story is showcased in local museums, other information was passed down.

Beach in Loch Ard Gorge

How Loch Ard Gorge formed

This whole part of the coastline is made up of Sandstone and Limestone. Limestone being Sandstone with at least 50% of it made up of fossils. It all formed at the bottom of a really deep ocean, a really long time ago.

More than 20 million years ago, this part of Earth was positioned somewhere else on the planet and at the bottom of an ocean. All of the plants and fish that died and sunk to the bottom, alongside sand from the rivers and other ocean debris all compacted beneath the water for thousands of years.

After continental drift and time, this coastline has changed, the ocean has retreated, risen, fallen and the current level was set about 6,000 years ago after the last Ice Age and has since been eroding from the wind and the pounding waves from the Southern Ocean.

The water and wind erodes the stone at a rate of about 1.5-2cms per year.

Loch Ard Gorge Beach

Loch Ard Gorge Tours

It takes about three hours to drive to Loch Ard Gorge directly from Melbourne, so heading here just for the day and returning to Melbourne is possible, however, we don’t recommend express tours to Loch Ard Gorge.

There’s definitely enough things in the area to keep you busy for the day or several. Only several kilometres down the road are the 12 Apostles, with hundreds of kilometres of incredible coastline in either direction, all waiting for you to explore it.

Although you can do an express Loch Ard Gorge and 12 Apostles tour, instead consider spending a bit longer and discovering the entire Great Ocean Road, as these are just two of dozens of incredible places. If you want to do a full Great Ocean Road tour in one day, just make Loch Ard Gorge your first or last stop.

For more information about Great Ocean Road or Loch Ard Gorge tours, make sure you contact us as we have loads of experience in this area and can either take you on a tour or recommended a tour operator based on what you’re hoping to do and see.

Accommodation & camping near Loch Ard Gorge

Loch Ard Gorge and the 12 Apostles are part of the Port Campbell National Park. Camping is possible in this national park, but that’s it. There aren’t any campsites at Loch Ard Gorge.

For accommodation, you’re best option is Port Campbell, which is only a 5-10 minute drive west and has loads of options, from luxury beach houses to a backpackers hostel and a camping park. Consider staying at Choice Hotels in either Port Campbell or further west in Warrnambool.

Heading the other directtion (towards Melbourne), Princetown is a 15 kilometers drive east of Loch Ard Gorge. There is the Princetown Inn with affordable accommodation. Across the road from Inn is the Apostles Camping Park & Cabins, which is our preferred place to pitch a tent (if we’re not looking at going out to the bush to somewhere in the Otways like Aire Crossing Campground or Johanna Beach and want somewhere comfortable) as it’s clean with good facilities. Otherwise, a great option is heading down to the old Princetown cricket oval where you can camp cheap and there are loads of Kangaroos right next to the campsite.