Port Campbell National Park
Towering, wave-sculpted limestone cliffs face the pounding seas of the Southern Ocean and the world-famous Twelve Apostles and other rock formations that are strung along the coast of Port Campbell National Park. In addition, the area is well known for its Aboriginal heritage, shipwreck history, its woodlands, wetlands, and fascinating birdlife.
Surging seas and winds blasting in from the Antarctic have shaped one of the country’s most dramatic stretches of coastline, particularly memorable for its lofty limestone outcrops and the brilliance of its sunrises and sunsets. The wild weather and stormy waters proved treacherous for many sailing ships – the region is dubbed the Shipwreck Coast. Make sure to stop at the highly informative interpretive centre near Port Campbell.
From Melbourne via Princes Hwy to Colac then south through Gellibrand to Great Ocean Road; or via Princes Hwy to Geelong then Great Ocean Road; park is located between Princetown and Peterborough
Any season; winter can be especially dramatic
250 km west of Melbourne via Colac or 285 km via Great Ocean Road
PV 13 1963
Peterborough/Port Campbell/ Princetown (03) 5598 6059, 1300 137 255
Warrnambool (03) 5564 7837, 1800 640 082
Featured Activities in the National Park
Marvel at the dramatic Twelve Apostles glowing at sunset
Follow the Port Campbell Discovery Walk for some breathtaking views
Visit the Glenample Homestead and picnic in the grounds
Descend the Gibson Steps down the cliff-face and onto the beach
Follow the signposted Shipwreck Trail
A look at the past
In the 1800s ships plied this coast on the busy route from Europe to the young colonies of Victoria and New South Wales, but dozens of ships never arrived at their destination, destroyed by the blustery weather and surging waters, or foundering on the rocky coastline of these foreign shores. Six ships were wrecked in the waters bordering the park, the best known the famed Loch Ard.
Whalers and sealers were probably the ﬁrst Europeans to land along this coast, with pastoral settlement beginning in the 1840s. The township of Port Campbell was established in the 1870s.
The Great Ocean Road, which provides access to the park and offers stunning views of the exceptional coastal scenery, runs along the northern perimeter and through the park. The road has an interesting history, built during the Depression of the 1930s, and instigated to provide work for unemployed workers and soldiers returned from World War I.
This is part of the traditional land of the Giraiwurung people. The coastal region provided a rich source of food and signs of long occupation, including shell middens and scraping tools, remain scattered along the coast. The Giraiwurung continue to live in this area and to honour their traditional culture.
The coastline’s original limestone was formed 10 to 20 million years ago, an accumulation of layer upon layer of the skeletons of tiny marine creatures. As the ocean level fell, the limestone was exposed and the pummelling action by wind and waves eroded it to form caves, arches and blowholes, and leaving towering stacks marooned just off the coast.
The erosion process continues, with the former London Bridge formation collapsing in 1990 (leaving two tourists stranded – they had to be rescued by helicopter), and one of the Twelve Apostles tumbling into the ocean (only eight remain).
Although the Twelve Apostles are perhaps the best known of the formations, there are other sites, such as the evocatively named Pudding Basin Rock, the Razorback, Thunder Cave and Bakers Oven. The deeply indented coastline itself is also awe-inspiring – the pale limestone captures the changing light of the often-brooding skies and makes it a favourite location for photographers.
Low and scrubby vegetation cloaks the exposed cliff tops, stunted by the heavily salt-laden winds and the nutrient-poor soils. More sheltered sites, such as the area near Loch Ard Gorge, have open eucalypt forest, with swamp gum and messmate the predominant species.
The somewhat bleak vegetation – largely heathland and low coastal scrub – along the cliffs provides refuge for a surprising variety of birdlife. More than 150 species have been recorded in the park, some permanent residents, some migrating with the seasons, and others rarely seen. The shy southern emu-wren and the more common superb fairy-wren ﬂit amid the heath and coastal banksia, building grass-lined nests in the low shrubland. The elusive rufous bristlebird inhabits the coastal thickets, nesting in small trees or tall grasses. The red-billed, beautiful ﬁretail lives in densely vegetated areas, preferably near creeks. Honeyeaters are a frequent sight, including the solitary, singing honeyeater, which raids the berries from fruit-producing plants near the coastal dunes.
The beaches provide some good birdwatching spots – look for hooded plovers, swooping peregrine falcons, swamp harriers, grey goshawks, Australasian gannets, terns, dotterels and wandering albatross. There is a small colony of little penguins near London Bridge. Migratory species come to these southern shores to feed and breed each year, with the short-tailed shearwater one of the most conspicuous. They ﬂy up to 30 000 kilometres a year from North America, and nest in their thousands on Muttonbird Island between October and late March. The best time to see the birds is at dusk when they return in great numbers from a day’s feeding at sea. In winter black-faced cormorants make their home on Muttonbird Island. Along the estuaries and wetlands look for pelicans, swans, ducks and egrets.
Other animals inhabit the grasslands, back from the cliff tops, including southern brown bandicoots, swamp antechinuses and echidnas. Eastern grey kangaroos and swamp wallabies shelter in the open eucalypt forest inland from Loch Ard Gorge.
The development of the south-west coast as a major tourist destination in Victoria started as early as 1932, with the opening of the Great Ocean Road. Nowadays there is a good variety of options for exploring the area; short walks lead to viewing platforms overlooking awesome coastal formations; longer walks provide a chance to experience the full drama of the weathered cliffs and the wildlife of the heathlands; and anglers can ﬁsh from the beach or launch a boat from Port Campbell – there is a launching ramp – and try their luck offshore.
The Gellibrand River is a lovely spot for some peaceful canoeing. Set off from the picnic ground at Princetown.
Coastal walks and scenic views
Try the Port Campbell Discovery Walk (4.4 km, 1½ hours, medium difficulty) if it is your ﬁrst visit to the national park. Follow the signs from the Port Campbell Town Lookout carpark and follow the cliff top to Two Mile Bay.
There are signposted, self-guided walks around the Loch Ard Gorge area and a series of steps leads down to the beach, where visitors can explore the crevices, caves and blowholes gouged out of the soft limestone by the sea. Another option is just to go beachcombing, enjoying the ocean views and marvelling at the awesome scale of the cliffs. Special boardwalks provide excellent access to see key sights such as the Twelve Apostles. This isolated group of eight stacks – probably the most photographed natural phenomenon in the state – is a lonely line of structures, standing sentinel-like some distance from the land. The light-reﬂective stone of their surfaces creates an eerie impression, particularly towards the end of the day, when the setting sun turns the ancient shapes into rugged blocks of brilliant colour, rising majestically up from the waves.
The district is known for its superb wreck and reef diving, but the wild conditions mean it is often dangerous and many dives have to be cancelled, so always check with local divers or the park ofﬁce before setting off.
Try your hand at some ocean ﬁshing at Newﬁeld Bay, Gibson Steps Beach, Clifton Beach or Port Campbell jetty. At Gibson Steps beach anglers cast at night for Australian salmon, gummy shark and snapper. The Port Campbell jetty can yield whiting, snapper and trevally. Curdies Inlet and Gellibrand River are other options. A dinghy can be launched in the Gellibrand River at Princeton, with the chance of catching mullet, bream and Australian salmon. At the Curdies River at Peterborough, bream, mullet and Australian salmon are the target ﬁsh in the shallow inlet while further upstream bream is the main catch.
There are plenty of historic sites to explore. Follow the signposted Shipwreck Trail and visit Glenample Homestead, where displays explain the story of the Loch Ard shipwreck. The Shipwreck Trail stretches between Moonlight Head, in Great Otway National Park (see page 92), and Port Fairy, located some 28 kilometres west of Warrnambool. As you drive along the Great Ocean Road there are informative signs, pointing to the locations of the 25 shipwreck sites that are scattered along the trail (detailed Shipwreck Trail brochures are also available).
In the Port Campbell National Park section of the trail, there are ﬁve wrecks along the coast. Information plaques on the cliff tops give details of the coastal trading boats and the large sailing vessels from Europe, North America and northern Australia that came to grief here. Near Peterborough are three wreck sites: the Schomberg, an impressive sailing ship that drove ashore at Curdies Inlet in 1855; the Young Australian, carrying rum and sugar from Queensland, which ran aground during a storm in 1877; and the Newﬁeld from Scotland, which was destroyed in bad weather in 1892, with the loss of nine lives.
In the vicinity of Port Campbell township, the Loch Ard went down in 1878, and adding to the tragic loss of life in that disaster, the steamship Napier was wrecked while trying to salvage the sunken ship.
Call in at the park’s excellent interpretive centre near Port Campbell to learn about the district’s environment and heritage. A tunnel leads from here under the Great Ocean Road to a cliff-top boardwalk, from where you can view the remaining Apostles.
Most of the beaches are not suitable for swimming due to strong currents and heavy seas, but the bay at Port Campbell is more sheltered and is patrolled by lifesavers during summer.