130kms of Australia's infamous, rugged & treacherous Shipwreck Coast
Australia’s Shipwreck Coast is one of the most treacherous on the planet with hundreds of ships wrecking along this 130km stretch of coastline during the early colinisation from the British and again in the gold rush era after gold was discovered near Melbourne in 1851.
Now, it’s home to some of the most beautiful coastline and coastal towns in the country. The Shipwreck Coast stretches from a winner in recent years of The Most Livable Town in the World: Port Fairy in a south-west direction to deep into the Otways forest at Cape Otway, where the land then has a north-east direction to Melbourne.
History of the Shipwreck Coast
Ships would typically follow the ‘Clipper Route’ from England to Australia. The Clipper Sailing Ships would leave England, head around the south of Africa and head west for weeks or sometimes months to then arrive at the south of Australia and navigate into Port Phillip Bay where Melbourne lies.
Part of the Clipper Route was originally used by ships sailing from Cape Town, South Africa to the Dutch East Indies, now known as Indonesia. Ships would head south of Cape of Good Hope and get into the Roaring Forties, which are super strong winds at about 40-50 altitude. After the winds pushed the ships across thousands of kilometers, they’d navigate north to Indonesia.
When ships were heading to Australia from Europe, once they made it around the south of Africa, it was about 10,000kms further to Melbourne.
During the early British colonisation of Australia in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, it would take up to eight months to make journey from England to Melbourne, with no land being seen for months after navigating around Africa. This time frame was heavily reduced by the gold rush era in the second half of the 1800s, typically taking ships 2-3 months to complete the voyage.
The first sight of Australia was along the notorious 130km stretch of coastline between Port Fairy and Cape Otway that is known as the Shipwreck Coast. Over 600 ships have wrecked along this coastline with-in a relatively short history between the late 1700’s and early 1900’s.
Why so many ships wrecked along this coastline
As the ships hadn’t seen land for weeks or months since they passed South Africa, it was quite easy for them to be off course and just a small error could have a massive impact.
This part of the coastline pokes south into the ocean, it’s where the ships would first see land and it could come at a bit of a surprise.
The coastline is made up of huge Sandstone and Limestone cliffs, many of which are 50 metres tall with the trecherous Southern Ocean pounding against them. If ships sailed into this area and there happened to be a storm or deep fog (which is common), they could easily get caught in the strong swell and waves, resulting in the ships smashing against the unforgiving cliffs and rocks.
The Southern Ocean is known as one of the most roughest oceans on the planet and can push ships straight into the rocky Shipwreck Coast. Other than the ships being pulled into the coast by the ocean, it’s said that a lot of the ships were carrying metal to build the gold mine and it threw off their instruments. Navigating in the wrong direction mixed in with the fog could lead ships straight into the cliffs.
Other than the huge cliffs stretching on-and-off for 130kms, there are small islands, sand bars and rock formations under the water that many ships crashed into and fell victim to.
To the south of Cape Otway, which is the most southern point of the Shipwreck Coast is King Island. Once ships had made it past Cape Otway and King Island, it was referred to as “threading the needle” and they were then in the safer and calmer waters between mainland Australia and Tasmania called Bass Straight. Ships would often then stop in at Apollo Bay for ship repairs or supplies before finishing their journey a couple of hundred kilometers to the east in Melbourne.
Gog & Magog Covered in Fog
Must see places along the Shipwreck Coast
The best way to travel the Shipwreck Coast is by renting a car or a tour guide with no itinerary but just a mission to explore.
The entire Shipwreck Coast is packed with incredible coastline and completely diverse. It’s the part of land that pokes out to the south that ships would crash into and stretches for 130kms, so the area isn’t one region due to similar terrain.
Cape Otway is the furthest south-east point of the Shipwreck Coast and the first time that you’ll enter the area if traveling from Melbourne or Geelong along the Great Ocean Road. The main attraction of this area is the Cape Otway Lighthouse, although the area is surrounded by dense dry Eucalyptus forest and an ancient cool-climate rain forest in the Great Otway National Park.
Traveling west from Cape Otway along the Great Ocean Road will give you loads of options to turn left off the main road. By taking any of these for the next 20-30 kilometres (until you’re out of the forest) will take you on a short drive back to the Shipwreck Coast where you’ll find some incredible sights. There are still the remains of a shipwreck at Wreck Beach and thousands of Dinosaur bones have been found at Dinosaur Cove, but these places can be pretty tricky to get down to and can certainly be dangerous with the wrong weather or a high tide.
We’re going on an expedition soon to explore Dinosaur Cove and Wreck Beach, we’ll blog about it in the coming months!
About 20-30kms west of Cape Otway, the forest along the coastline disappears and the terrain completely changes. As you exit the forest, you’ll come to Princetown on the Gellibrand River and you’ll then be in the world-famous Port Campbell National Park.
The Port Campbell National Park is the absolute highlight of the natural sights along worth visiting on the Shipwreck Coast. It’s where you’ll find the 12 Aposltes, which is Australia’s most visited natural tourist attraction and the infamous sight of most well-known shipwreck on the entire coastline, the Loch Ard Gorge and Mutton Bird Island.
This national park is incredible. You can easily spend many days here and stay at the beautiful town of Port Campbell that is full of accommodation, from luxury options to a backpackers hostel. If you’re staying overnight or just passing through for the day, make sure you take a look at our Port Campbell National Park Travel Guide for way more information & plenty of other places that aren’t mentioned here.
Once you leave the Port Campbell National Park, after checking places like the Grotto and London Bridge, there are dozens of more similar sights that you can take a look at. After you go past Peterborough and reach the Bay Of Islands, you’ll be out of the national park but only about half way along the Shipwreck Coast.
Further west is Warrnambool, which famous for Whales breeding there each year and it’s the largest city between Melbourne and Geelong and Adelaide, making it the largest city on the Shipwreck Coast. The Great Ocean Road ends in Allansford, which you’ll drive past just before you reach Warrnambool. If you have the time for it, this is a really nice place to take things a bit slower and go on a search for wildlife. Other than being one of the best places in country for spotting marine life, there are also hundreds of birds that live in and around the town.
Finally, you’ll reach Port Fairy, which was recently voted the worlds most livable town. This is a really beautiful small town and where the Shipwreck Coast ends. heading further west from here has a similar coastline all the way into and past the Limestone Coast in South Australia.
Although we’ve explored the start and end of the Shipwreck Coast in detail, we haven’t yet taken videos and photos, but we’re working on it! We’ve put together a small guide on the Port Campbell National Park, the main attraction of the area and over the second half of 2020 we look forward to adding a whole heap photos and information about the rest of the Shipwreck Coast for you to take a look at!
How the rocky Sandstone & Limestone coastline formed
Around 20 million years ago, the entire Shipwreck Coast was underwater at the bottom of a deep ocean. Fish and plants that died and sunk to the bottom of the ocean with sand that flowed in from the rivers and other debris all compacted and created the Sandstone. A lot of stone is made up of more than 50% of fossils, making it Limestone and this makes up the majority of the coastline today, including the huge cliffs and the land close to the coast.
Over millions of years, both below the oceans surface and above, this coastline has been battered by strong waves and wind. At a rate of about 1.5-2cms per year, the coast has eroded away with some weaker areas disappearing much faster, leaving incredible arch ways, tunnels, caves and bays right along the 130km coastline.
Island Arch, Loch Ard Gorge
Camping and Accommodation along the Shipwreck Coast
When it comes to camping and accommodation along the Shipwreck Coast, you’re in for a treat!
As the Shipwreck Coast begins more than a three hour drive west of the states capital city (Melbourne) and then stretches for a further 130kms west, a lot of tourists visiting the area end up staying one or several nights. The huge volumes of tourists has resulted in hundreds of accommodation and camping options on Shipwreck Coast from camping in a national park to luxury ocean front villas.
On the eastern (south-east) point of the Shipwreck Coast is Cape Otway and there is some accommodation, however it’s mainly camping and for those that have booked Great Ocean Walk tours. Surrounding Cape Otway are hiking trails and campsites. Most of the hiking trail campsites can’t be booked (first-in get the sites), but there are other incredible campgrounds such as Blanket Bay (our favourite) or Aire Crossing Campground that can be booked via the Park Vic website.
There are loads of other small campgrounds in the Great Otways National Park or larger campgrounds like Johanna Beach, but if you didn’t bring the tents or camper van and you’re looking for some more comfortable accommodation, then it’s best to head further west and come out of the forest.
As you exit the Otways, the first (very small) town that you come across is Princetown. In the centre of Princtown you’ll find affordable accommodation at the 12 Apostles Inn or go camping across the road at the Apostles Camping Park & Cabins. If you’re wanting to camp right next to the Kangaroos and hear the ocean crashing into the Gellibrand River Mouth, then head down to the Princetown Recreation Reserve where you can set up a tent cheaper than almost anywhere else on the entire coastline. Princetown is a nice and quiet place to spend the night with loads of things to do, like exploring the wet lands or walking to the 12 Apostles.
Princetown is the closest hamlet to the Apostles, although Port Campbell is about the same distance, but to the west of the Apostles and it’s a much larger place.
Port Campbell is one of the most beautiful small tourist towns along the entire coast. The whole place is aimed at attracting families and international tourists and it’s always busy due to how close it is to the wonders of the Port Campbell National Park.
If you’re looking for a larger town or small city, then either chose from Warrnambool (the largest city in the area) or Port Fairy, which are both still close to loads of incredible natural sights and beaches and on the Shipwreck Coast.
Although we’ve been visiting the west half of the Shipwreck Coast for many years, we’re only just now documenting it all for you. Be sure to come back over the coming months where we’ll have much more information. In the meantime, take a look at our finished small guide to the Port Campbell National Park or our much larger Great Ocean Road Travel Guide that’s still being put together.