Motorbike Tour of the Flinders Ranges, South Australia

I did this ride solo on my BMW R1200 GS motorbike. I’ve owned it since new (2008). The bike had its 230,000km routine service just before this ride. The engine is original and has never been overhauled. It performs as it did when new. But a thorough wash and polish no longer brings it up like new.

I rode daily for nine days and covered 3,385kms. For perspective, this is 348kms more than the road distance from Adelaide to Darwin.

The first day was my longest, when I rode 699kms from Apollo Bay to Murray Bridge in South Australia.

I started and finished at Apollo Bay on the west coast of Victoria.

My route was:

Apollo Bay – Ararat – Stawell – Horsham – Bordertown – Murray Bridge – Clare – Orroroo – Hawker – Blinman – Parachilna – Copley – Arkaroola Village – Leigh Creek – Hawker – Orroroo – Peterborough – Burra – Birdwood – Woodside – Strathalbyn – Victor Harbor (two nights) – Milang – Wellington (ferry crossing of the Murray River) – Keith – Naracoorte – Apsley – Naracoorte – Mount Gambier – Nelson – Portland – Warrnambool – Peterborough – Port Campbell – Apollo Bay (bold indicates overnight stay)

I arrived back in Apollo Bay an hour or so before sunset on Friday 23 April 2021.

The rich rolling plains of the Victorian western district. The Grampians are visible on the horizon. I rode to the Flinders on a pretty direct track, the first day taking me through Horsham and Bordertown to Murray Bridge. From there I headed north to Hawker and the Flinders Ranges.
Curious detour from the highway west of Horsham via some dirt roads, and some dirt that was barely even a road.

Murray Bridge to Blinman

I left Murray Bridge before dawn, heading north to Hawker and the Flinders Ranges. Cloud almost prevented me seeing the sunrise.
My route took me through the Adelaide hills well east of suburban Adelaide. There was low cloud and some fog over the higher hills. Reminders of Hans Heysen’s paintings were around every corner.
This layer of stratus over the Adelaide hills was very thin. Had I been in a light aircraft I could’ve overflown this area in clear blue skies at 1000′ feet or so above terrain.
An iconic sight in rural South Australia. This sandstone ruin was well north of Adelaide, not far south of Hawker. A couple of paddocks on from this location there was a substantial but temporary settlement (buildings, containers, vehicles etc) established in a stubble paddock on gently rolling country. Apparently it was the accommodation for crews from the BBC and Stan while they were making a film in the area. On my return trip the paddock was empty again.
Heading north from Hawker into the northern Flinders Ranges. Not in the Otway Ranges any more.
Completely overcast skies are not the norm in this area between Hawker and Wilpena Pound. But there were flash floods here in January this year. This cloud was brought about by a trough passing over the lower part of the state.
Looking south from higher country north of Wilpena Pound. Brief but heavy localised rainshowers fell late in the afternoon.
Blinman, the highest town in South Australia. My GS was checked out by the well known corrugated iron kangaroo on duty in front of the bakery.
The bathroom basin in the Blinman motel. The red sign says: “Do not drink ther (sic) water. Use the box water provided.”
The bore water from the taps was hard but I’ve showered in worse bore water in other parts of rural South Australia.
Behind the motel were a couple of rounded hilltops which were unexceptional until the final moments of the sunset when a narrow gap in the clouds suddenly and fleetingly turned them molten red.
Behind the Blinman motel.
L: Before dawn. R: Same scene at sunset
(Move the circular slider left and right to see the two pictures separately)
Behind the Blinman motel.
L: Before dawn. R: Same scene at sunset

Blinman to Copley via Parachilna Gorge

I left Blinman in still cold air and low light before sunrise. At this point the sunlight had reached the nearby hilltops but was not yet warming my back.
Then suddenly, as if a switch had been flicked, the sun was warming my back. Absolutely everything had a long shadow, even the stones on the road.
About to start my descent through Parachilna Gorge to the dry flatlands to the west. I saw some very healthy wild goats climbing rocks beside this road, including a robust looking shiny black billy goat, with white markings and big horns. There were a few other goats and kids with him. Wild goats seem to have road sense – I have seen plenty on previous rides and have never had one bolt across the road in front of me. Kangaroos, wallabies, emus, cattle and sheep on the other hand seem to lack road sense. On this trip I had moments with all of these creatures except cattle, and one moment with a deer, when I had to brake or steer to reduce risk. None of these were near misses though. The only near miss was with a rabbit sitting still in the middle of the road. My crash bar must have passed his ears with only mms to spare.
As I descended through Parachilna Gorge, I kept finding chilly gullies still in the shade. There were many creek bed crossings, both smaller and larger than this one.
The sun eventually catching up with me as I rode west following the gorge down to the flat country. (In the previous similar photo, the sun was not quite over the ridge).
These magnificent gum trees growing in the creek beds are a sight to see and a mystery. These creeks become deep raging torrents when flooded. Assuming such events are at least annual, how does a young gum tree sapling hold its position in the rocky and sandy soil of the creek beds when water and sizeable natural debris are flooding over it for days or longer?
It is not difficult to see how established gum trees such as this one are secure against all that floodwater can throw at it.
The road between the western edge of Parchilna gorge and the settlement of Parachilna to the west. The curves ended very abruptly. The land is flat like this all the way to Lake Torrens out to the west.

Copley to Arkaroola

Encouraging sign at the start of the dirt as I headed east from Copley.
Off the flatlands to the west of the Flinders, and eastward into the hills and gorges. This part of the road was in great condition.
Not high on the list of things I hoped to see as I rode on this remote dirt road deep in the northern Flinders Ranges en route to Arkaroola.
The triangular red flashing warning light directly under the tacho together with the symbol beside the N in the larger display indicates that the flashing tyre pressure (27 in this case) is below permitted tolerance. The flashing 27 is the reading from the rear tyre internal pressure sensor. It should have been at 42psi, but the air escaped relatively quickly. I had until about 20psi to keep riding slowly to find a suitable spot to fix the tyre. The early warning was most useful for this reason. 36psi is the correct pressure in the front tyre.
The culprit – fencing wire. Other punctures I have had over the years have been harder to find.
Painless extraction.
Perfect location for roadside repairs. Only one vehicle went past just after I parked here. It was going at a fair speed with a lot of dust. I doubt the driver saw me. Didn’t see another vehicle between then and my arrival at Arkaroola.
While I had ridden from Apollo Bay to the site of the puncture with my tyre pressures 36 front and 42 rear (psi), after fixing the puncture I decided to lower them both to 25psi. This lower pressure gives far better traction and control on gravel. At 36 and 42 on gravel roads such as these the bike slides around quite a bit. At 25psi front and back it is much more stable and feels as though it has a much more solid grip on the road. I hadn’t reduced the pressure earlier as the road was in reasonable condition and I didn’t consider it necessary. Even though the bike was moving around a bit it was tolerable and safe. But having done it, the feeling of stability and control was substantially increased. I should have done it on leaving the bitumen as I usually do. My total distance on dirt roads on the entire trip was around 300kms.

The red marker shows the exact location of my roadside puncture repairs. The Spot satellite messenger (the orange device on the left) created this location marker on a satellite image of the area.

On the eastern side of the northern Flinders Ranges, heading out of the hilly gorge country into gently undulating country.
Arkaroola reception building.
Sunset at Arkaroola.
It had been a dusty day. (Photo taken inside my motel room at Arkaroola).
This was taken only a short walk from my motel room at Arkaroola just after the moon had set. The air is wonderfully clear this far inland in good weather. I carted my tripod on the back of the motorbike all this way to allow me to take a few photos such as these in the beautifully clear night air in the ranges surrounded by desert. I’m glad I did.
This image and the following shots of the Milky Way were taken a km or so down the exit track from Arkaroola on the eastern side the settlement. I wanted to get completely away from any artificial lighting. I didn’t have to walk far to achieve this.

Arkaroola to Peterborough via Copley

I headed south from Arkaroola parallel to this mountain range on my left.
Still heading south.
The mighty GS beneath this solitary overachieving tree (at least in this neighbourhood) as I turned west to ride through the gorge country to Copley.
That left turn ahead leads down to one of many dry creek beds full of stones. The technique which seemed to give the best ride through these stone filled creek beds was to stand on the pegs, put my weight back a bit and give it a squirt of power through the loose stones. The bike would wriggle around a bit (yaw left and right for any pilots reading this) in the gravel, but with the power on and the front wheel slightly unweighted it would track straight to the more stable dirt road on the other side.
Once I returned to Copley, I was on the bitumen heading south to Hawker. I dropped in to a garage at Leigh Creek just south of Copley and restored the tyres to highway pressures (36 and 42psi front and back respectively). The temporary plug that fixed the puncture was holding well. It is said that a plug repair is only good to get you to the nearest garage or tyre supplied. I decided to see how far I could get with the repaired tyre. That highway intersects with this dirt road going off to the left (the east). This is the road to Parachilna Gorge and Blinman. The dip in the range of mountains where the gorge has carved its path can be seen in this photo.
I spent a night in a motel at Peterborough on my way to Victor Harbor. Believe it or not, when I asked at reception about parking options for the bike I was told to put it on the path right outside my door. My sort of motel.

Peterborough to Victor Harbor and the Fleurieu Peninsula

Heading south from Peterborough through the mid north of the Flinders Ranges, I was looking for some sandstone ruins on the right side of the highway so I could take a photo of it well lit by the early morning sun shining from behind me. Had to settle for what was on offer.
Heading south through the Adelaide hills en route to Victor Harbor. There were many similarly impressive avenues of gum trees.

My hosts for two nights, Barb and Colin Francis, who provided me with luxury accommodation and world class hospitality at their home in Victor Harbor. Barb and Col and Liz and I have done some extended motorbike riding together in the Victorian high country. We know them from our days in Port Lincoln in the late 1970s, when Liz nursed at the local hospital with Barb. Col owns a couple of BMW motorbikes, among numerous other vehicles. His tourer is the BMW R1200 RT. Col and I did a relaxing tour of the SW Fleurieu Peninsula on the bikes shown, including a visit to Cape Jervis.

I should also mention the other Francis family member in the photo on the left. Barb is holding Rose (pronounced as in the drink, not the flower) the affable chook. Rose and her companions live in the lap of luxury in quarters (with more than adequate indoor and outdoor living and recreation areas) built by Barb and Colin. They produce eggs (which I had for breakfast and which were delicious), and provide company of sorts. But on balance, I think these chooks came out clear winners in the deal with their life of leisure and luxury fully catered for in return for a few eggs a day which I’m guessing they were going to lay anyway. I suppose there is also the occasional less than onerous social obligation such as this photo shoot, but I don’t think that changes my assessment. As the photo shows, enthusiastic and intelligent social engagement and involvement is neither required nor provided.

Colin took me on this road less travelled on our tour of the lower Fleurieu Peninsula (see the gallery of three photos immediately following), which included the track with this vista of Cape Jervis. The land on the horizon is Kangaroo Island and the water in between is Backstairs passage.

While in Victor Harbour, my puncture repair eventually started to leak. 700kms on the repaired tyre was quite acceptable. I had a new tyre fitted in Victor Harbour.

Fleurieu Peninsula to Apsley, Victoria

Crossing the Murray River at Wellington.

At next to no notice I contacted my friend Ian to see if he was on a flying mission (a regular occurrence) or, improbably as I thought, on his farm east of Naracoorte. Turns out he was home and he kindly extended great hospitality for an overnight on the farm. Ian’s claims to fame beyond aviation and photography are too numerous to mention. But I will note two: (1) at the age of 24 he rode a Honda 50 motorcycle (50cc and top speed less than 40kph) from Adelaide to Darwin in four 15.5 hour days plus a final 15 hour day; and (2), there is cave on the Nullarbor Plain between the head of the Bight and the SA/WA border, accessible only by abseiling down from a high sheer cliff to its entrance which faces the Southern Ocean. This cave is called IOJ cave, named after Ian in honour of his voluntary services with his aircraft to exploration and mapping of cave locations in the cliffs which are visible only from sea between the head of the Bight and Eucla. This involved flying the length of that stretch of coast over the sea and below cliff top level, with high tech cameras recording the sights and other data as they flew. Ian has abseiled off the cliffs directly above the cave bearing his name, and entered the cave with the experts who were exploring, surveying and mapping the caves and tunnels penetrating inland from the cliff under the flat plains above. He is the only friend I have with a cave on the Nullarbor Plains named after him.

P.S. The Stuart Highway which connects Adelaide and Darwin was not fully sealed until February 1987. Ian’s epic ride on the Honda 50 was well before then.

This is Ian’s much loved C210 which he uses for his aerial photography business which regularly takes him to all parts of Australia. The original connection I made with Ian was through a flying instructor from the Eyre Peninsula who taught Ian to fly, and who also did all my training for my commercial pilot licence. His name was Barry Firth. He was a very good friend and flying mentor to both of us. Sadly he died 10 years ago.
The 800m (or so) private airstrip on the farm.
I do like an open fire, and I have one at Apollo Bay. But the thought of firewood in this quantity and of this quality is beyond my wildest dreams. Firewood is in plentiful supply on this farm.

There is an intermittent creek, dry when I was there, which meanders through a paddock beside the airstrip paddock. It supports an exotic array of beautiful gum trees of which these are only a small sample.

Apsley to Nelson via Piccaninnie Ponds

While South Australia is the driest state on the driest continent on earth, the south east of the state never got that memo. It seems to have more than adequate rainfall, great soil and things seem to grow very well here. Towns like Naracoorte and Mount Gambier are quite unlike Blinman and Copley.
Piccaninnie Ponds. This unprepossessing looking body of fresh water, not far from large coastal dunes and the Southern Ocean, is quite remarkable. I was drawn to it solely because of that fact, even though I had no plans to swim or snorkel here. Below the surface of this ‘pond’ is a limestone sinkhole with caverns and tunnels that extend to depths of over 130 feet, with water visibility in excess of 100 feet. I wonder how long the early settlers here looked at this little coastal pond before realising what was beneath the surface?
It is a good principle of motorcycling not to ride your motorbike up every interesting looking little track. I believe this narrow track leading to the ocean but consisting entirely of sand would have ended in tears, a lot of sweating and possibly pulled muscles. Damage to the bike would be highly unlikely though.
The Glenelg River mouth at Nelson (not far from the S.A. border).

The Spot Satellite Messenger showing three greens, which indicates that my message identifying my location for the night has been sent to my family. They each receive an email with information including a satellite photo showing my position. The blue dot with the red marker is where the motorbike was in the picture on the left when I activated the Spot device. The Spot Messenger will work anywhere on the face of the earth. It uses satellites, not telephone networks.

Narrow road between Nelson and the river mouth. I stayed too long enjoying the sunset over the estuary. This track had a virtual guard of honour of wallabies, all on duty for the night shift as I rode back into town. The GS did not leave the factory with headlights of this quality. In fact the headlights it was delivered with when new, could probably have been used as safe lights in a darkroom during photo processing. But thanks to brother Noel, my bike now sports a proper set of driving lights as shown.
After riding around in the rain and dark near Nelson, I headed straight to the only pub in town for a warm up and a meal, before going to the Pinehaven motel and cottage. The publican and locals were very welcoming. I was even offered access to a shed in which to park my bike while I had a meal. But it seemed pointless for it to be undercover for 60 minutes out of 9 days (plus of course the one night at Peterborough when it was under a verandah). So I parked it in the rain on the footpath in front of the pub. The locals were either in the restaurant eating, or at the bar sorting out their footy tips and engaging in loud and convivial Friday night banter. I headed for the fire to dry off my riding jacket, and to eat some delicious local seafood. A welcome respite after a cold (and sometimes wet) day’s riding.
Back in totally familiar territory on the Victorian west coast. This is Boat Bay a few kms west of Peterborough. I did a very memorable swim here on 14 March 2015. My account of that swim is in an earlier post on this blog, titled: ‘Two Ocean Swims West of Cape Otway.’ Suffice to say that conditions were nothing like this on the occasion of that swim, when we swam most of the way to the most seaward stack in the picture.

Nelson to Apollo Bay

Port Campbell for lunch at ‘Forage on the Foreshore’. This was the view I had as I ate. There was a solid swell blown out by strong onshore winds. Only 97kms to run to Apollo Bay.
Great food at this restaurant. As usual, I had their delicious French toast, comprising the following (I quote from the menu even though I don’t understand each and every word):
Thirty-Two 80 Specialty Bakery Japanese milk loaf, caramelised bananas, Istra bacon, Schulz’s Organic Dairy quark cheese, Otway Walnuts
A casual roadside stop on a side track between Lavers Hill and Apollo Bay. The Otway Ranges has very high rainfall and does its main feature, the cool temperate rainforest, very well. Grass like this just happens and appears without bidding or effort.
Just out of idle curiosity, I wonder if these sheep in their red dusty paddock (which I photographed in the mid north of the Flinders Ranges a few days earlier) would, if shown the previous photo, believe that grass such as this even exists.
The winding curves of the Great Ocean Road through the cool temperate rainforests of the Otway Ranges, between Lavers Hill and the Johanna beach turnoff.
Back in familiar territory in the Aire River valley, 25kms or so from Apollo Bay. The bridge over the Aire River is just a dozen steps behind the bike.
I spend quite a bit of time in Apollo Bay watching weather and swell forecasts to ensure I don’t miss out on being present on the relevant dune, point or clifftop to take photos of significant swell events. It turns out that while I was enjoying day 9 of my ride, the biggest swell of the year to date hit the entire west coast. From all reports it was bigger in the morning than the afternoon when I returned. The above wave was breaking over Little Henty Reef off Hayley Point at Marengo, just south of Apollo Bay.
The surf was blown out along the beaches I could see while riding home. But apparently at Bells Beach it was memorable and rideable – well, sort of. It was reliably reported to me (first hand) that at Bells there were about 200 spectators on the cliffs at Bells and 5 surfers in the water. One young fellow ended up in hospital (broken jaw) after a big Bells wipeout on a 9′ 4″ long board connected to his ankle by a leg rope. He was rescued by jet ski, and taken a few kms east to a sheltered beach at Torquay from where he was taken to hospital by ambulance. He’ll be OK. Gutsy effort surfing at Bells at all that day. Even gutsier on a long board, and next level hanging five on these massive faces prior to the wipeout that injured him. I have seen the video of his hang five rides.
This photo and the one above it were taken just before sunset. It was generally overcast but a few sunset rays got through to put a hint of pink on the cumulus clouds over this part of Bass Strait.
This shot was taken just after the sun had set and the light was seriously dropping. Great to know that I don’t need a 3,000+km ride to see sights like this.
This was an unexpected and very fitting coda to a great ride.

Postscript

During my motorbike ride, this blog ticked over its ten thousandth visitor. WordPress defines the ‘visitors’ metric as “the number of unique users that have visited the site.” It defines the ‘views’ metric as, “when a visitor loads or reloads a page.”

This blog commenced with my first post on 24 June 2017. I have published 135 posts in total. The blog currently has 139 followers. A follower is someone who receives notice (by email or on their WordPress reader) when I publish a new post. Being an email follower is the simplest means of receiving such notice. Instructions on doing this are on the top of the right hand column of each post, when viewed on a laptop or larger screen device. It simply requires that you enter your email address in the space provided and then press ‘follow’.You will then receive an email with details of your subscription (it’s free) and an unsubscribe link.

While the majority of visitors are from Australia, overall since the blog commenced, it has been viewed by visitors from 84 different countries.

The most viewed post by a good margin (published on 27 August 2019), is “A Swim and a Walk at Cradle Mountain.” It has been the most viewed of any blog post since the blog commenced (572 views to date, and counting), and for the last year, the last quarter, the last 30 days and the last 7 days. The link to this post is:

A Swim and a Walk at Cradle Mountain

I have no explanation for the apparent popularity of this particular post.

My blog remains totally uncommercial and entirely uninfluential. I enjoy sharing some of my photos and some of my experiences and observations. I am pleased there are some out there who apparently enjoy viewing and reading the random content on my posts. I always welcome comments – statistics as to readers are so dry.

Big Swell Hits the West Coast

The forecast was for gale force onshore winds with an 8m+ swell around Pt Campbell on Sunday, peaking a few hours after midnight – and that’s what happened.

Coastal cliffs just west of Loch Ard Gorge & Mutton Bird Island

The wind at the time this was taken was blowing from the SSW at 30-44 knots according to the BoM observations. When I took this photo it was in the higher range and blew me off balance requiring a few backward steps to stay upright.
Just after dawn when the wind was strongest, the seas at all locations I visited were generating a lot of foam. The gale force wind picked it up from the waves and lifted it up and over the clifftops in sizeable foamy clumps. I tried unsuccessfully to capture a shot of the flying foam. But when editing the photos I noticed I had inadvertently caught this clump whizzing past me. The flying foam pieces looked as though someone was throwing scones up and over the cliffs. Car parks were covered in pieces of foam as if there had been a snowball fight.

Port Campbell

The Pt Campbell jetty, looking out to sea. Any ocean swimmer who has done the annual ocean swimming race at Pt Campbell will know that conditions like this at the seaward turn buoy would be a daunting sight.
This photo was taken pretty early in the day. I arrived at Loch Ard Gorge at sunrise just after low tide. This line of kelp and seaweed on the nature strip at Pt Campbell is stark evidence that I had clearly missed the main show in the dark early hours of the day. Even if only momentarily, at some point, this was the high water mark in the wild conditions after midnight! This bay faces south west, the exact direction the wind was coming from at that time. Later in the morning the wind eased slightly and backed around to the south.
I have never seen Pt Campbell beach sand lifted by waves on to the elevated nature strip as shown.

Views from Curdies River mouth at Peterborough

This photo was taken looking east from the lookout in the middle of Peterborough, which overlooks Curdies River mouth and the exposed rocky reefs just offshore which have claimed more than one sailing ship in the nineteenth century. The larger of the two points shown is Point Hesse (which is the point with London Bridge on its western side).

View from cliffs near Two Mile

There is no maintained or marked path to this location. After bush bashing for a short distance to one of my favourite vantage points on this part of the coast, a squall line moved in with very strong gusty winds and driving rain. Luckily I was in fully waterproof gear. The short duration storm was so wet and wild that sitting in the lee of this bush appealed more than taking it all on the chin. As shown, my Nikon with its 150-600mm telephoto lens fitted also has fully waterproof cover. The camera stayed dry all day. I was soaked more than once, including by saltwater from spray and water blowing up and over clifftops at some locations. This photo was taken a few kms west of Pt Campbell.
With gale force onshore winds, Two Mile (a big surf location, also known as Easter Reef) was blown out. But waves of significance were still marching to the cliffs over the offshore reef here, even if they were closing out as shown. The green face of this wave would have been at least four times overhead in my estimation. I readily acknowledge that surfers would call it a ‘solid 8 foot’.
The immediately preceding post on this blog discusses rips including this one near Pt Campbell. The long line of unbroken water heading from inside Pt Campbell bay and out to sea, is a deep channel. In surf of this size it is the location of a strong rip (shown by the arrow in the second of these two shots) as all that water coming ashore with the swell finds it way back out to deeper water.
The channel going out to sea from Pt Campbell bay.
The very centre of this image shows where the rip coming out to sea via the green channel finally reaches deeper water and slows down and dissipates. The area of surface turbulence as currents and wind oppose each other is clear. The water is also discoloured in the rip as sand and other material from the seabed inshore is carried seaward by the rip. It would be quite a quick trip paddling a surfboard from the beach inside the bay at Pt Campbell out to this point beyond the zone of breaking waves. As for paddling back in, surfers would have no option but to use the white water either side of the rip, with wind and waves assisting the passage back to dry land. For the record though, I didn’t see a single surfboard off car racks west of Cape Otway. Had the wind been offshore with this swell, there would’ve been some epic surfing and the day would’ve gone down in local surf lore as Big Sunday.

The Twelve Apostles

The Twelve Apostles as viewed across wild seas. A less common perspective on these iconic sea stacks (of which there are actually 8, and counting, down).

Broken Head viewed from headland near Bakers Oven Rock

Broken Head as viewed from the adjacent headland west of it. Loch Ard Gorge and Mutton Bird Island are just to the east of this promontory. The more vivid colours in this shot are attributable to a brief appearance by the sun. For perspective, visible on the very left of the image on the headland, is a multi-strand wire fence of conventional waist height. The difference in water level ahead of and behind the wave in the foreground is a good indication of the size and power of the swell. The unbroken waves in the top right above the headland also give some idea of the size of the swell.

Mutton Bird Island, viewed from Broken Head

This is the southern tip of Mutton Bird Island, which is where the sailing ship Loch Ard was shipwrecked just before dawn on 1 June 1878. The Loch Ard was a 263 foot clipper, carrying freight, 37 crew and 17 passengers. Only two passengers survived, Tom Pearce (a crewman) and Eva Carmichael (a passenger). They were both around 18 years of age. Parts of the wreck are still visible and divers continue to visit the site. The story of the Loch Ard shipwreck is well worth reading.
Note the difference in water level ahead of and behind this wave. Duck diving under this wave would be a singular experience.

Broken Head & Survey Gorge

I took this photo while standing on Broken Head. The white spray in the foreground is rising from the gorge which feeds into Thunder Cave. The other higher curtain of spray is in the adjacent Survey Gorge.

Thunder Cave at Broken Head

The water was constantly white and turbulent as wave after wave poured untold volumes of water into this narrow gorge, with the water level rising and falling up the rough walls
At the head of the gorge, in a pattern repeated right up and down this coast, the water has created a cave by flowing in and out with great force in sea conditions such as these, thereby progressively undermining the land above it. (See the videos below).

Little Henty Reef, from Hayley Point

No big swell day would be complete without a trip to Hayley Point at Marengo, located a couple of kms from where I live. Readers of this blog will know that I have taken countless photos of big waves breaking over the reefs comprising Little Henty Reef. There are many more to come.
The wave in front has some substance. The looming peak following has more.
The nature of the reef, the seabed and the surrounding channels at Little Henty mean that waves rarely break simply in text book fashion on this Reef. I find it endlessly fascinating when the swell is up, and I spend hours on my photographer’s eyrie on the tip of Hayley Point rugged up, camera in hand. I saw a lot of waves along the coast on Sunday, but none quite like this one.

Classic Spring Weather in Apollo Bay

Spring arrived as if a switch had been flicked. The air is warmer, the sun is brighter and the ocean somehow no longer looks wintry. Well, at least that was how it looked before the gale force winds arrived.

All these photos were taken in the first 7-8 days of spring 2020.

A morning ocean swim under a clear blue sky

This beach is 300m from my front door. It’s not always this calm.
I was the only person in the water when I swam. The wind was very light and on my back as I entered the water.
The figures on the beach in the centre of the image are Sue and Marion, swimming friends of mine. They were walking north to enjoy the swim back to the harbour wall in these conditions. I have taken better portraits of my friends. This was taken during a pause in my swim when I was directly out from the surf life saving club.
Glassy green waves standing up over the sandbar.
Behind the wave as it breaks. That’s not rain hitting the water, but spray which the offshore wind was blowing over the back of the wave as it broke. It falls like rain, and pings on my wetsuit hood or cap just as rain does.
More spray being blown over the back, not rain. Marriners Lookout on the horizon.

A cold front passes over Apollo Bay

We woke to near gale force winds this morning. A cold front was approaching and the north westerly wind increased in strength as it got closer. I timed my morning swim to coincide with the arrival of the front. Cloud cover increased and the wind slowly backed around from NNW to NW and eventually around to the W. It progressively eased as the front moved through and headed for Melbourne and eastern Victoria.

Unlike swimming conditions in recent days, the sun struggled to put in an appearance. The best it could manage through the thickening cloud was this pale white light which looked more like moonlight over the water than morning sun on a spring day.
As the cloud cover increased the sun’s last hurrah before the front and the rain arrived was this weak torchlight display over Cape Patton.
Then the sun disappeared behind the cloud that arrived with the front. I was swimming not far from shore over the sandbar which is where the waves were standing up green and clean (as shown) before breaking in the shallows. This wave is very similar to the wave in the fourth photo in this post. But the difference in the light (sunny skies compared to dull overcast) casts a very different colour and appearance on the water.

Some ocean swimming markers

Most of my ocean swimming is done between the Apollo Bay harbour wall and points north. Some trips are one-way, but mostly they are out and back swims. The Tuxion beach steps, the wooden lookout structure on the dunes and the surf life saving club building are frequently used distance measuring and/or turning points. The following three images show these locations. Use the slider to better locate these reference points.

These photos (and a few others in this post) were taken with my GoPro camera on a dull day while rain was falling. The GoPro (or at least the model I have) excels in bright light but not otherwise. Apologies for the lack of clarity, especially on the magnified parts of these three photos.

The steps at Tuxion beach on a day of very small swell. When we swim in solid swell it is usually much bigger at this spot than in the south of the bay near the harbour wall where in most conditions the water is more protected. There are days when we have swum north from the wall and paused directly out from these steps before swimming back that the size and force of the breaking surf between us and the shore (we swim well offshore on such days) is enough to make the 800m return swim back to the wall a decidedly more attractive option than swimming ashore through such shorebreak. Sometimes the distance from shore we have chosen to ensure we stay seaward of the big breaking waves proves to have been underestimated and we have to duck dive under a breaking wave as a big set comes through and breaks seaward of us.
The lookout. This is located just 100m or so south of the servo (another popular turn point and distance measurer) or Thompson St to be more formal. The lookout has a peculiar non-rectangular plan form such that there are quite a number of spots out to sea from which it can be viewed and from which it appears you are on a line at 90° from the shore. Accordingly, I consider myself directly east of it when the light pole some distance behind it appears in line with the lookout, as shown.
The Apollo Bay Surf Life Saving Club building. The marker here for me is the clearly defined track through the dunes in front of the clubhouse. I consider myself at this landmark when I can see the fence on both sides of this track.

Rain drops, not spray from a breaking wave

One reason for planning my ocean swim to coincide with the arrival of the cold front and the band of rain it brought, was the hope of swimming in strong winds and heavy rain for a short time, perhaps with a bit of thunder in the distance for atmosphere. As anybody who has done it can attest, swimming in such conditions is most enjoyable. But it was not to be. Instead of rampaging across Apollo Bay, this front just sauntered in to town, taking its time, being polite, saving its thunder for some other day and providing merely grey clouds and steady light rain with not much wind at all. I don’t believe any rain even registered in the gauge. This photo shows a few raindrops, not spray from breaking waves. The swim was still very pleasant. There was a small bit of swell between me and the harbour when I took this photo. Near the top left of the image the masts of yachts in the harbour are visible.

Silver gulls at Peterborough

The mature silver gull has bright orange bill, legs and eye rings. These birds were juveniles. The colour of the legs etc on these birds has been faithfully reproduced in these photos.

This photo was taken on a cold day. This bird looked very cosily covered in feathers to survive the cold air temps and colder sea temps on the Victorian coast in winter. This might be a ‘Peterborough and surrounds’ evolutionary thing for silver gulls. It can be very cold there by the sea in winter.
What a fine, healthy and self-assured looking specimen. Am I imagining just a hint of sternness in where its right eyebrow would be if it had one? It did not tolerate me getting very close to it. This was taken with a large telephoto lens.

A calm, golden evening at Apollo Bay

Apollo Bay harbour late afternoon. I generally consider buying a cruising yacht on these walks. But when I mention it to Liz, she says ‘Fine’, then adds, ‘Write to me.’ She has a way with words.
The fleet of working and recreational boats. Only one visiting boat that I could identify here. A local sailor could probably spot more.
Liz watching the lengthening shadows about to merge into evening light.
Long board rider enjoying small but golden waves as the sun disappeared behind the hills. Whether this was the last ride of the day or the first ride of the evening is a moot point.
Where Apollo Bay beach meets the harbour wall. The locals call this protected beach Mothers’ Beach.

Gale force winds ahead of another cold front

This cold front brought very strong winds to Victoria, especially along the coast. Close isobars, steep pressure gradient, stronger winds, wind blowing anticlockwise around a high and slightly angled across the isobars to the outside of the system etc etc

I woke to gale force winds rocking the house. I drove to Hayley Point as soon as it was light, as this is where the interesting stormy seas in the area are usually seen at their best. But as this weather event was a big wind, not a big swell, there wasn’t much to see in Mounts Bay. There was a bit of swell as shown above but it wasn’t getting a chance to stand up at all. The 35-40 knot wind was flattening the waves and blowing the breaking crests back at water level, not in the elegant rising and curving manes of white water seen behind big surf in normal offshore winds.
So I drove to Pt Bunbury (near the golf course in Apollo Bay). This is an easterly point surrounded by sea on three sides. With the wind howling in from the NW, there was a fetch of some kms of ocean between the north of the bay and Pt Bunbury. Of all the local vantage points the wind would be strongest here. This is because the stretch of relatively frictionless ocean over which the wind had blown since it left the land in the north of the bay was long enough to allow the wind to accelerate at sea level in a way it cannot accelerate at ground level over hills, trees, houses and other obstacles which create friction and which hold it back. So I chose an elevated green on the windward side of this point from which to measure the wind speed.

I measured the wind at Pt Bunbury at 41 kts (76kph). This is a Hall wind gauge used by hang glider pilots. It is calibrated in knots and is quite accurate. It can be used as shown to measure wind speed. Alternatively, it can be used (and I used it in this way) as an airspeed indicator when attached to the base bar of the hang glider.

Winds at just 2000 feet above means sea level were calculated by one of my weather apps to be over 50 knots (92kph). Many locations at elevations of this order and above experienced winds of this strength and more on this morning.

The wind was of sufficient strength while I was trying to take a photo of the wind gauge, that on more than one occasion I was blown back and had to take a backward step to stay upright. When the wind speed doubles, its force increases four fold, when it triples, the force increases nine-fold etc. So this 40 knot wind compared to a 10 knot wind had 16 times the force. It felt like it.

35-45 knot winds lashing Apollo Bay harbour and dunes. The sand I got in my eyes taking this video took two days to disappear.
Looking due east over the mouth of the Barham River as the gale force winds tore the tops off the waves, lifting water from the surface and turning whitewater into high speed smoking trails of spray. In small areas where the gusts are noticeably stronger the wind lifts more spray from the water. Spray blown from cresting waves during a gale is known as spindrift.
A marked area of spindrift offshore from Pt Bunbury.
Turbulent gale force winds, spindrift rising from the sea, shorebreak flattened by the wind, wave crests ragged and blown away, stormy seas to the horizon and a great crested tern soaring over it all. An adult great crested tern weighs only 275-370g. Its fine hollow bones and aerodynamically perfect array of feathers not only survive in this wild wind, but allow the bird to positively revel in it. This bird was not struggling at all in these conditions, and flew with its usual precision and purpose. What a delicate and wonderful counterpoint the presence of such a bird is to the mighty forces of the stormy ocean over which it flies.
There is a craypot buoy visible just right of centre and near bottom border of the image. This pot wasn’t checked while I was there. I wonder if crayfish have any idea there is a gale blowing above the surface of the water above them. I suspect they don’t. When swimming in rough water I often remind myself that it’s only rough on the surface. Crayfish could well do the same.
Little Henty Reef. This photo was taken from 2100m away on Pt Bunbury. Only small swell was breaking, but the spray was blowing downwind for hundreds of metres like white smoke streaming downwind from a bushfire. This spray consists of water droplets which have mass, which when blown off the top of a breaking wave would normally fall to the water surface close behind the wave. Streaming spray falls the same vertical distance in stronger winds, but in a 40+kt wind the spray travels much further horizontally while it is falling. Spray as shown here only occurs in very high winds.
Apollo Bay harbour in gale force winds. I suppose I should’ve taken a video to properly convey this fact. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

An ocean swim after the wind eased

An hour or so after I measured the wind at Pt Bunbury at 41 knots, this was the scene at Tuxion beach looking north. I went for a solo swim to the north and back again (1000m). The wind was still strong, but because it was offshore at this end of the bay, such swell as was there was completely flattened. Whitecaps are not visible because the wind must travel some distance before whitecaps are formed. The stronger the wind, the shorter the distance it takes to create wind waves and whitecaps.

Storm Surf

Whenever a solid swell is forecast for this coast, some locals in Apollo Bay quietly start to pay just a little more attention to the weather maps, to their tried and tested omens and to the feeling in their bones. They gaze out to the horizon for signs of swell, they judge the frequency and size of the small swell breaking in the bay hoping to be able to describe it as ‘building’, and they keep checking for any visible action on the bombies a few kms offshore. Surfers, fishing boat skippers, swimmers and photographers are among those who will be variously delighted, thwarted or simply awestruck if the Southern Ocean delivers big swell from storms gathering in the cold and desolate southern latitudes well to the south of the Great Australian Bight. The trajectory of the low pressure systems and the associated cold fronts and troughs will be closely followed to learn whether, or where and with what force the weather will hit the Victorian west coast.

The forecast

The following information and forecasts (screenshots from my iPhone) are the first omens I consulted when there was talk of solid swell on the way. They were auspicious enough to warrant me charging up the camera batteries, preparing the wet weather gear and getting just a bit excited about the reasonable prospect of big swell on May 1 and 2 at Apollo Bay and along the Victorian west coast generally.

Waiting

The swell was forecast for Friday and Saturday on the first two days of May. So on the last day of April I visited the local reefs and a point where any early signs of swell would be apparent. I have seen forecasts of sizeable swell which failed to deliver. I have also seen substantial swell when none was forecast.

But last Thursday, on the eve of its forecast day of arrival there was no swell.

But the permanent Australian fur seal colony on the Marengo reefs was present, and the late afternoon light was beautifully clear. They were crowded up a little as it was high tide, and above-water real estate on which to loll was at a premium. But no sign of any swell.
Late afternoon showers were passing through the area. The seal colony is directly under the end of the rainbow.
The telephoto lens was almost up to this task. Most seals have adopted the traditional resting posture with head held proudly high, like so many lifelike bronze statues. The one on the far right has chosen comfort and sloth over style.

The swell arrives

The wind backed around on Thursday night and increased to gale force. The swell arrived on schedule. Winds gusting over 40kts, heavy showers and stormy seas delivered more than I, and probably others, expected. This shot was taken looking south from Hayley Point at Marengo on the Saturday morning. The Australasian gannet above was effortlessly and (so it seemed to me) exuberantly soaring the storm.
This was also taken looking due south from Hayley Point, as one of the early waves in a big set closed out in this spectacular fashion on the reef. I was on a rocky headland, and while I didn’t feel the ground shake, I felt as though I should have. It was an awesome sight. So much power.

A-row for Southern Ocean watchers

Bottom to top: Barham River, Mounts Bay and Marengo. This swell had arrived from the south west and rounded Hayley Point to cross the bay directly into the westerly wind as a substantially smaller but still powerful wave.
Squall lines were coming through in a constant succession. Heavy rain obscured the hills to the north of Apollo Bay. The grey clear strip under the power poles in centre frame is part of the Great Ocean Road.
Wider shot of the same view as in the previous shot, but between squalls. The telephoto lens set to a focal length of 600mm significantly foreshortened the scene, making the Wild Dog Creek valley and hills beyond look closer than they would to the naked eye.

Storm waves on Marengo reefs and south of Hayley Point

Hayley Point, with my regular eyrie for taking photos of the ocean right on the tip near that notch in the scrub line. This photo shows some different stages of a sizeable wave breaking on the reef. On the far right the massive lip has thrown out and is cascading as a giant curtain with white water along the lip and solid curves of green and aqua water flowing down as the tonnes of water in the wave are thrown forward and down. The wave on the left shows the white water having crashed down into the reef ricocheting back into the air in great clouds of white water. Such water often reaches a height as great or greater than the height of the original wave before it broke. The centre section of breaking waves shows the wave finally dissipating and coming ashore, almost completely spent, as merely a two metre wall of white water with spray blowing back off it.
This was taken looking south west from Hayley Point as a massive set pounded its way to shore. There are three waves of this set visible in the photo, and all consist entirely of white water. Top left, through the curtain of spray, the crest of another wave just starting to break can be seen. The show put on by this set did not end at the three waves shown above.
I spent about 90 minutes taking these photos, standing on my usual windswept grassy vantage point beside the reefs. Very heavy rain squalls were coming through, without much respite between them. I have an ingenious waterproof covering for my camera and telephoto lens which keeps them totally dry. I have full access to all camera adjustments and controls when using the cover in driving rain. I wear a snow coat with a hood, my motorbike waterproof pants, and a pair of waterproof boots. I am pleased to report that this allows me and the camera to stay completely dry in the heaviest of rain. The waterproof gear is useful not so much for taking photos in the rain, but for allowing me to stay on a given location during the rain so I can take photos in the periods when it is not raining.

Hooded plover and a sooty oyster catcher

The reef on the shoreline was being successfully foraged on by this little hooded plover and his mate. They seemed to find plenty to feed on. When white water approached from behind, as I have observed on this day and many other days their first reaction was to run rather than to fly, choosing the latter only when absolutely necessary. This bird might have had to counteract a a bit of an uncommanded turn to the left in flight due to the orange plastic tag and the metal band on his leg. Difficult to see why two tags were needed.
Sooty oyster catcher with no oysters in sight. His diet apparently extends well beyond oysters (and in this part of the world his diet may not even include oysters), but the more accurate alternative name of ‘crustacean, worm, bivalve mollusc, starfish and sea urchin catcher, not to mention small fish catcher’, was probably considered too unwieldy. I’m sure the sight of that over-engineered beak strikes fear into the heart of bivalve molluscs.
The swim record was my daily 1000+m swim, in a location sheltered from the big swell.

The majesty and power of the Southern Ocean in a storm

I have never seen (in person) a more intimidating storm wave than this one. It was overcast when this was taken and there were heavy showers in the area. If you peer through the spray blowing over the back of this wave you can see the horizon and whitecaps on breaking waves out to sea.

Postscript

I saw a fin

Ocean swimming is a favourite activity of mine. I have been doing it for many years. One way or another, I have been playing in the ocean for over 50 years. During that period the only sharks I have ever seen in the water are (harmless) reef sharks while snorkelling in the Solomon Islands, a bronze whaler (which seemed to ignore us) while swimming in the shore break at Fishery Bay near Pt Lincoln in South Australia, and a number of large great whites off Neptune Island while on a cage dive organised for that purpose. I have thought about the topic a bit, and my carefully considered view is that seeing a shark in the water, much less being attacked by one, is a very low risk at the places I choose to swim. I remain of that view.

Today was my 48th consecutive day of swimming 1000m or more in the ocean at Apollo Bay (a continuing little project of mine during the pandemic lockdown). I swam a short distance in the bay, then topped up for my 1000m in the harbour. Those 48 swims included one night swim.

I swam out from the harbour wall this morning heading for the wooden lookout for a 1000m round trip. The crew I usually swim with were all leaving the water as I headed off. I had the bay entirely to myself. About 300m from where I entered the water, and about 180m offshore, I was swimming in a leisurely rhythm against a slight head current just enjoying the space and peace. I was not in a rush, and I didn’t care that my Garmin watch indicated I was closer to 3:00/100 pace than 2:00/100m. Each time I breathed to the left I could see the passing scenery on shore and knew the ramp and walkway up to the SLSC were about to come into my direct line of sight. There was nothing and no one to disturb my relaxing reverie. But then there was something.

About 20m to my left I saw a shiny dark dorsal fin emerge while moving south (the opposite direction to me). I saw it surface, stay level for a short time and then subside not to be seen by me again. It did not appear to change speed or direction as we passed each other. I immediately turned left 90° and headed to shore by the most direct route. It was more a case of observing that I did this, rather than recalling any conscious decision to head to shore. I am pleased that I turned before I had a chance to think about it. No point wasting time making decisions. I sensed no adrenaline rush or racing pulse or altered breathing rate. But I did increase my pace and take a few looks over each shoulder to see if the fin or its owner had reappeared. I also hoped to see a few dolphins swimming nearby as had occurred recently when swimming not far from here with four of my swimming friends. But there was no fin and there was no pod of dolphins. There was nothing but glassy ocean.

At one point on the return to shore, without losing forward speed I rolled through 360° changing from freestyle to a couple of strokes of backstroke then back to freestyle, to allow a quick look at the ocean behind me. No fin. Nothing to see to offer a chance at identifying what had swum past me. Just glassy water. My normal roll and breathe routine sees me looking out to each side at about 90 degrees to my direction of travel. The swim to shore for much of the journey saw me looking back over each shoulder as I breathed. I was conscious that I was swimming harder and faster than usual, and I do remember deciding it was probably best to keep doing that. I do remember thinking I should splash as little as possible. I kept swimming until my fingertips were brushing the sand. I was definitely pleased to stand up in shin deep water. I stood on the shore for a while looking out to sea for something, anything that would inform me as to how to file this experience. But there was nothing.

Upon reflection, I would certainly leave the water immediately if this happened again. An ocean swimmer responds to a solitary dorsal fin nearby (with an unidentified owner) the way a chicken responds to the silhouette of a hawk in the sky above it, whether it’s a cardboard cutout or a raptor with intent. But was it a shark or a dolphin? There is no way to answer this with complete certainty. But such evidence as there is tends to favour the conclusion that it was a shark rather than a dolphin. The fin did not have that inward curve on the trailing edge typical of a dolphin fin. Also, the movement I saw was not the familiar top of the parabola appearance and disappearance of the fin and part of the body – there was no hint of ‘porpoising’. Further, it only surfaced once while I was looking, which is not typical of dolphin behaviour I have witnessed. I know from experience that dolphins do sometimes swim alone, but most that I have ever seen around here are in pairs or larger groups. The fin owner appeared to be swimming alone. It was definitely not a seal. Yet it showed no interest in me. The most recent swim I had with dolphins (with four friends) saw them acknowledge our presence and swim towards us from a distance of greater than 20m. The fin was of a size which gave the impression of something bigger than me, but not something huge.

My opinion based on the above is that it was not a dolphin, and that it was a shark of some sort – perhaps a Mako shark.

I intend to continue to leave the water when solitary dark dorsal fins on unidentified creatures appear in my vicinity. Today’s prematurely concluded swim must be filed as merely an interesting experience. I will of course continue to swim in the bay.

The unimpressive track of my brief swim. Note the initial relaxed pace of 2:32/100m at 60 strokes per minute (the watch records only the left arm, hence 30spm = 60spm).

This initial relaxed pace contrasts with my pace after the 90° turn. My initial pace improved from 2:32/100m to 1:56/100m, and my stroke rate went up from 60 to 68. The second window shows that I then settled down to a steady 2:00/100m pace, but at 70 strokes per minute which I sustained!

Not worried, just interval training.