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Their hearts still went on

SHEILA KUMAR travels along Australia's Great Ocean Road and tells the tale of the ill-fated Loch Ard and its two survivors.


Breath taking in every respect.

IT is a spectacular ride by any and every standard. The Great Ocean Road which starts at Geelong, 75 km from Melbourne, and which winds up at Nelson in western Victoria, offers up some of the most dramatic sites ever created by Nature. Merely feet away from the loop of navy ribbon that is the road, fall away austere, and very steep, cliffs. Way down below, the seas crash against rock, roaring as they do the destructive tango they have been doing since time first began. En route lie shady coves, serene bays and beaches, including Bells Beach where the surfer classic, "Point Break", was shot. Bells Beach, with its tsunami-size breakers, annually hosts the "Rip Curl Pro" and "Sun Smart Classic", the most prestigious World Championship Surfer events in the world.

The Great Ocean Road also winds in and out of picturesque coastal hamlets like Port Campbell, Lorne and Anglesea, alongside rainforests and the really awesome rock monolith formations of the Twelve Apostles and London bridge. Those going on the ride can get to see kangaroos, penguins and seals ... and, if one is lucky, even a whale. Warrnambool plays host from May to September to the rare Southern Right Whales which calve in the shallow waters off Logans Beach. A special observation platform attracts hordes of whale watchers.

This long and looping road was built by soldiers who came back to Australia after World War I, as a permanent and very unusual memorial to those of their fallen comrades who didn't make the trip back home.

While virtually everything on the Ocean Road makes for compelling viewing, it is Victoria's Shipwrecked Coast, steeped as it is in its strange history, that is by far the most interesting stop. The waters between Moonlight Head and Port Fairy, coastal towns that look as if they are picture postcards, have, over the years, become the tumultuous graveyard of numerous 19th Century vessels of varied shapes and sizes.

For inbound craft, the waters of the Bass Strait were one of the main approaches to eastern Australia, hence there was much sea traffic in the 19th Century. It does not take too great a leap of the imagination to realise just how treacherous these seas can be. The sailors and their vessels had to contend with whammy upon whammy: wild rolling seas, multi-layered rocks upon which ships crashed and splintered as easily as snapped matchsticks, implacably unyielding cliffs and the ever-rolling diaphanous layers of mist. All that is missing from this picture is the mythical Siren but even without her, far too many ships have come to grief.

With the Western penchant for turning any tragedy into a tourist attraction, today, the Historical Shipwreck Trail takes you past as many as 25 known wrecks. However, as one looks down into the impossibly blue waters, it is all too easy to imagine all those ghost vessels it has taken deep into its bosom, all those lives cruelly cut short by elemental fury, all those hopes and aspirations turning to numb terror in the face of implacable walls of rock and the howling waters. One such case is that of the Loch Ard.

The Loch Ard was an iron clipper that sailed into the Strait one foggy night in 1878. Rather in the fashion of that better-known shipwreck, the Titanic, there was a breaking-up party (thus showing how ironic fate can be) aboard the vessel when it hit rock. Within the hour, just about everyone and everything on board sank. All but two people: the ship's apprentice, a lad named Tom Pearce and one of the women passengers, Eva Carmichael. Both were washed into a gorge close to where the ship had struck rock. As Tom lay exhausted on the beach, he heard Eva's cries, swam out to her and managed to bring the semi-conscious woman ashore. Resuscitation efforts were aided when a cask of the ship's brandy bobbed alongside. Tom then carried Eva into one of the low-lying caves, looking to keep her warm and thus, alive.

Tom Pearce truly seems the stuff heroes are made of. Leaving a near chilled-to-the-bone Eva in the cave, the young man climbed the steep cliff that loomed in front of the gorge, in a desperate effort to seek help. Help, miraculously, appeared in the form of two boundary riders from the nearest dwelling, the Glenample Homestead. Both the survivors of the Loch Ard were taken to the Homestead to recover from their physical and emotional trauma. While most of the ship's property and cargo sank without a trace, a life-size earthenware peacock, called the Minton Loch Ard Peacock, was washed ashore safe in its packing case. This and other small relics are now housed at Warrnambool's Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum. And the anchor of the ill-fated vessel leans against the Visitor's Centre at Port Campbell.

Since everyone loves a happy ending and also because both Tom Pearce and Eva Carmichael were young, there is the inevitable question as to whether they got married. Well, they didn't. Both went back to the mother country, England, and both married, though not to each other. Tom retired after many sea-faring years, having bizarrely though, lost two of his sons out at sea. Today, the Loch Ard lies buried under 90 feet of rolling and churning, ever-moving waters.

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