Loch Ard Gorge on a still moonless night is a dark and beautiful place. I stood on the beach there last Tuesday night, not another soul present, not another car in the car-park, and virtually no cars passing on the Great Ocean Road. A light warm northerly blew against my back. I was ready for the darkness and the beauty. I had not anticipated the power of the sense of being alone late at night in such a place.
My old Volvo beach car was not ideal for this trip, but given the number of roos and other wildlife I encountered, the motorbike was not an option for this 250km drive more than half of which was after dark.
As it turned out, I took around 200 photos from seven different locations: Peterborough, Port Campbell, Loch Ard Gorge, Gibson Steps, Princetown reedy swamp (Gellibrand River), Castle Cove and Marengo beach. I returned home around 1:30am. The photos were culled to 36 images which I thought worthy of editing. These were further reduced to 25 for this post (there are 28 photos below which include one repeat, and a couple of ring-in images from last year of Pt Campbell in rough conditions for a comparison with the millpond seas I found on this night).
While the prospect of taking some interesting photos at Loch Ard Gorge after dark was my motivation for the drive to the Pt Campbell coast for the evening, it turned into something of a solo night odyssey as the number of locations of interest grew as I drove around. Loch Ard remained the focus of the mission, but as usual, plenty of other subjects of interest just appeared once I was on a roll.
Each of the following photos is a single shot. There are no composites, no stitching, no layers. One click, one photo.
Loch Ard Gorge late afternoon. The Great Ocean Road, the car park, the walking tracks and the beach in the gorge were all crowed with tourists. I visited in daylight to get my bearings for my return after dark.
Whiling away the last of the daylight hours I drove on a further 12kms to Peterborough where the ocean was, unusually, about as calm as nearby Curdies Inlet around which the town is located. The low-angle golden light of late afternoon rendered most things photogenic.
I have never seen Port Campbell this calm. Conditions were mellow, windless and waveless. In June 2016 I visited the area to see a few guns surfing a huge swell at Two Mile, just around the corner from Pt Campbell. They surfed waves with faces of over 35 feet. The two photos below of Pt Campbell harbour were taken that day. They show the bay at the mercy of big seas. There was not a strong wind that day.
By way of further contrast, these were the conditions in Port Campbell bay on 2 July 2008, a day of epic rough seas on the west coast. There were very strong winds on this day, combined with a very big swell.
I decided to wait at Pt Campbell for darkness to descend and stars to appear. I have an app on my iPhone which gave me accurate information as to where and when and in what part of the sky the Milky Way would appear from the vantage point of Loch Ard Gorge.
Having swum the annual Port Campbell 1.2km ocean race in this bay many times, I have never seen it even close to this calm.
A couple of grommets eating and sharing fish and chips on the foreshore at Port Campbell after swimming in the bay which on even this hot day still required wetsuits.
The seagulls knew the drill, as did the youngsters. Plenty of chips for everyone.
Every time the seagulls got a bit pushy one of the children would run through them to momentarily scatter them.
The seagulls were not easily deterred. I suspect the kids just liked running through them and getting them airborne.
Last chips of the day.
Taking editing liberties
After the sun was below the horizon the sky colours went through some short-lived but spectacular changes. This was the golden phase. There are not many days of the year that a fisherman could confidently stand upright in a dinghy in the middle of this bay.
Above and immediately below: as the daylight faded the jetty lights produced their own colourful light show, illuminating the cliff behind and casting a silver trail across the water.
Yes, this photo of Loch Ard Gorge is at the start of the post. But I thought it worth putting it at the head of this sequence of five photos of the Gorge tracking the transition from bright late afternoon light to the black of a moonless night.
Same spot, different day.
A contrasting set of conditions a few years ago in a nearby cove.
As the sea and landforms lost their brilliant colours, the show merely shifted to the sky which grew more luminous by the second as newly visible stars sparkled into view.
I was a little concerned by this mid-level cloud radiating out from the southern horizon as night fell. But fortunately it disappeared as the night wore on. I was not unhappy about the perspective and framing it gave to the emerging stars in this image.
It was quite black as I walked down the zig-zagging stairway to the beach at Loch Ard Gorge. A torch was needed. Unlike my visit a few hours earlier, there were no cars on the Great Ocean Road as I drove here, there were no cars in the car park, there was not another soul on the walking tracks or on the beach. I felt a bit awestruck and had a powerful feeling of being really alive and that all was exactly as it should be as I stood on this beach. I don’t know whether it was knowing the story of the wreck of the Loch Ard at this location, or whether it was being surrounded by these silent ancient cliffs towering black and intimidating on nearly all sides of me, or whether it was being at the Southern Ocean’s edge as it lapped quietly on the white sandy beach in these calmest of calm conditions, or whether it was in fact being so singularly alone on this beach, at this ocean, under the stars of the southern skies. Probably a bit of all of these contributed to the unanticipated power of the place when visited alone and after dark.
A truly black night. The grand sweep of the Milky Way was mimicked by a wispy diagonal layer of cloud parallel to the galaxy and just above above the cliffs guarding the gorge.
My next stop just a few kms east of Loch Ard Gorge, was Gibson Steps – another favourite spot of mine. This limestone stack is not one of the twelve apostles, which are just around the corner from it. It is imposingly tall, but between me and the beach beneath it was a very narrow spit of sand with the ocean seemingly lapping at the foot of the cliffs. In the pitch black, and within sound of even small waves breaking, I stayed on the wider part of the beach to ensure my feet (and the rest of me) stayed dry. There were a couple of fishing boats out to sea visible on the horizon. The Milky Way in all its glory shone from the western heavens. The core of the Milky Way is in the middle of this image.
This was taken from the same spot as the preceding photo, but looking to the darker south eastern sky over the beach at Gibson Steps. The greater Magellanic Cloud and the end of the Milky Way form an incomplete V pointing down at a low layer of cloud on the horizon, and at the ocean with gentle breaking waves rendered ghostly and nebulous by the 20 second exposure.
At Princetown, the Gellibrand River flows into the sea. This fenced and reedy body of water is just below the hill on which the few buildings that are Princetown sit. The light northerly wind was imperceptibly ruffling the water, visible only as slight elongations of the star reflections. This photo was taken around midnight. Princetown was very asleep.
Peaceful Princetown late at night.
My trusty transport, a 1985 Volvo which usually just drives a couple of hundred yards to the beach and back, was called upon on this night to produce 250 continuous kms, which it did without any problems. It is shown parked beside the reedy waterway at Princetown.
It was after midnight, but the road home took me right to Castle Cove. This is the view to the east from the lookout. There was something ethereal about the light over this beach and bay.
This is the view to the west from the Castle Cove lookout, the Milky Way faintly illuminating the sea and the white water and the very small waves breaking over the reef.
In the early hours of Wednesday, the Volvo cruised down the hill into Apollo Bay, and the sky was so clear that I took one more shot for the night from the beach at Marengo. This is the Apollo Bay township sound asleep. The ocean here in Mounts Bay is rarely a millpond as it was that night. There was some ambient lighting from the caravan park behind me, which was enough to give the grass and sand some form and colour. The orange glow over Cape Patton on the right comes from the lights of Kennett River and Wye River, the next two towns along the GOR. This was a lovely peaceful scene with which to call it a night – which I shall remember as the Loch Ard night.