Shipwrecked in Warrnambool

Down under

I am entranced by the sight of the glazed earthenware Minton peacock in iridescent hues standing proud on a grey mound, with flowering blackberry and ivy and clumps of foliage.

Created by an imaginative French artist and made by skilled craftsmen of the famed British pottery company Minton & Co, it symbolises to me the triumph of man over nature.

The peacock, intact in its packing case, drifted ashore two days after the Loch Ard shipwreck. It was modelled by an Italian artist and was to be exhibited at an international exhibition in Melbourne in 1880. Except for a chip on its beak, it survived the stormy seas and the dangerous reefs.

Today, it is valued at over $4 million!

Along the southern coast of Australia is a rugged stretch called the Shipwreck Coast, between Moonlight Head and Port Fairy. Many ships have come to grief on this stretch in the early 1800s and 1900s, because of the ferocious weather conditions, thick fog and treacherous reefs. On our drive along this winding road with swoops and loops, we read a series of plaques along this disaster zone, marking these tragedies. 

I am in Warrnambool, Victoria’s most active port in the 1880s, situated on one end of the Great Ocean Road. Today, this seaside town with a charming vibe is the place where visitors spend a night before they explore the charms of the winding Great Ocean Road, with its superb vistas of windswept cliffs, rocky promontories, rainforests and amazing wildlife. Between June and September, visitors flock to Logan Beach to witness female whales give birth and nurse their calves. 

The town is also home to the iconic Fletcher Jones clothing manufacturer’s factory, with a landscaped garden, waterfalls and a hawker’s wagon created on an old quarry site when the company built its first factory in 1948.

The Sebel Deep Blue, our unique hotel, is set on top of an underground aquifer and uses this mineral-rich water in its deep water bath house as well as plumbing and room heating systems. Visitors flock to the Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village, which was created around an original 1859 lighthouse, to give visitors a back-in-time feel and an experience of life in a 19th century port as well as showcase the maritime heritage of this region.

Built around the original lighthouse and keeper’s cottage, this four hectare site has a chapel, shops, cottages, a cozy Victorian tea room, a Masonic Temple and a sail maker’s workshop. We join the atmospheric Loch Ard Lantern walk… it’s a pitch dark night with the wind howling, as a bunch of adults and children tread cautiously on the winding cobblestone streets with lanterns in their hand, listening to the guide’s narration. We first watch a film in the Gravesend Theatre on the journey of the immigrants and their lives. The voyage to Australia was a long and hazardous one for immigrants. They lived in crowded conditions and had to battle disease and lack of food. Faster but more hazardous routes were adopted by captains under a pressure to reach Australia quickly.

It was a wild and stormy night in 1878. The rough seas, the dense fog and the notorious rock outcrops in this treacherous coast were the death knell for the clipper ship Loch Ard with 54 passengers aboard, almost at the end of her three-month journey from England. The ship struck a rocky reef off Mutton Bird Island at the entrance to what is now called, Loch Ard Gorge. 

There were only two survivors: a handsome man called Tom Pearce who managed to cling to a lifeboat and was swept into a gorge and a young girl called Eva Carmichael who clung on to some wreckage for five hours, before she was spotted by Tom. They took refuge in a sheltered cave until Tom scaled a sheer cliff, ran into some farm workers from a nearby sheep station and got help!

The multi-million dollar hi-tech sound and laser show called ‘Shipwrecked’ is projected on a wharf theatre, where we become part of the Loch Ard’s final voyage. The maritime village is the background and the story is projected on to a water fountain and uses images, lasers, illusions, mist effects and giant water screens to make the experience real. The walls slide away as we watch the scene entranced — chimneys spout ribbons of smoke, the Steam Packet Inn is filled with exuberant drinkers and colourful boats are moored on the silent waters. Suddenly a storm brews, rain and lightning lash the skies and the pounding ocean and a sheer cliff where Tom is swept away is all before our eyes. Technical wizardry makes our experience almost surreal.

The seats rock from side to side, simulating the ship on the pounding surf. We get drawn into the story of Tom and Eva and their survival against all odds. There was a lot of romantic expectation from the public that Eva and Tom would fall in love and marry. But Eva was a daughter of a British aristocrat and Tom Pearce was a mere seaman. Eva returned to Ireland and Tom went on to become a captain of a ship. Their miraculous story lives on...re-enacted every night in this seaside town.

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