Cape Otway lighthouse

By Carolyn Barry 28 September 2011
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The Great Ocean Walk area also boasts an important part in the history of Australia.

THE GREAT OCEAN WALK area also boasts an important part in the history of Australia.

Cape Otway’s well-known lighthouse once played an essential role in guiding ships of convicts and first settlers through one of the most treacherous sea routes in the world.

It was also the place that was the first glimpse of Australia for many thousands of people, says Mark Brack the son a lighthouse keeper. Mark, along with his nine older brothers and sisters, was born at the lighthouse.

“Can you imagine, travelling all that way, and this is where you first see Australia?” he says.

Australia’s history wrapped up in a lighthouse

The lighthouse, operational since 1848, was built in response to the hundreds of lives lost when ships made the perilous journey of ‘threading the needle’. Until then, ships had to sail around Tasmania (Ven Deimen’s Land back then), taking an extra 40 or so days, so when Bass Strait was discovered by Matthew Flinders around 1799, it was a game-changer for shipping routes. And so a lighthouse was eventually commissioned.

The path between King and Flinders islands, and the mainland, however, is still treacherous. The might of the Southern Ocean is forced through a passage merely 75km wide, and up onto a continental shelf where the sea bottom become relatively shallow. In these parts, swell of 10-20m is not rare. On a typical day the swell is about 6m.

But the main job of a lighthouse, says Mark, who’s now a local guide, is not actually as a warning, but as a old-style GPS. Each lighthouse has a unique signature through its flashing light – the Cape Otway one, for example, flashes three times in 18 seconds. Ships’ captains have a code book which they can use to decode which lighthouse they’re seeing, and hence pinpoint their location on a map.

Like just about all lighthouses, the Cape Otway one was decommissioned as technology improved and solar power replaced the need for a keeper to change the lamp oil and ventilate the lighthouse from fumes. In 1994, it became a tourist attraction and today you can actually stay in one of the small bunkrooms at the light station.


Shipwrecks are an integral part of the area, both physically and historically. Many of the beaches are named after wrecks, like Johanna and Milanesia. In fact, there’s barely a beach or cove that doesn’t have some story attached to it.

Ryans Den for example, was named after Dr Charles Ryan, who managed to haul himself up the beach, where he’d broken his leg in the 1900s. He made it over the ridge and down to the Gellibrand River, where he eventually he found help.

Johanna Beach was named after a shipwreck in 1843 of the brig, Johanna. The local Aboriginal tribe helped the survivors get to Geelong. The ship’s bounty – cases of liquor – were too valuable to leave, but attempts to salvage the booty resulted in several drowning deaths. Locals didn’t leave much of ships that were near enough to access – they used just about all of the materials, including sails, which made great ceiling insulation. Some of the old places may still have remnants of old shipwrecks built into their core.

A few anchors are mostly what remains of these ships. Some have become part of the rock as weathering has rusted the metal and worn the rocks away, burying them in sand. Others have been set in concrete in a perpetual reminder of the lives lost on this coast. 

Keep your eyes out for artefacts, as the occasional bottle, crockery or equipment is revealed as burried treasures are revealed by the pounding waves. You may just find yourself a piece of history.