Photographic essay on a secret world
The Otways are a low coastal mountain range in southwestern Victoria.
This bald statement belies the unique interest and charm of the landscape. The Otways tumble into Bass Strait – where the famous Great Ocean Road clings to the jagged edge of the Australian continent.
The road, built by returned servicemen after the Great War, winds its way around numerous coves and bays with long, lonely sandy beaches. It cuts inland only to avoid Cape Otway, a broad arrowhead promontory which thrusts southward into Bass Strait.
Beyond the Otways to the west, the land becomes a fertile plateau, falling abruptly into the churning surf. Vertiginous cliffs and sea stacks line the road as it runs on toward the coastal city of Warrnambool.
Catching the moist southwesterly winds, the Otways are damp, well-forested slopes; not high but steep, dropping into V-shaped valleys. There are many remnant pockets of temperate rainforest: damp eucalypt woodlands dominated by myrtle beech, blackwood and the mighty mountain ash, our planet’s tallest flowering plant.
Below the lofty canopy, native mulberry and giant tree ferns filter the dappled light to create a dusky, dank forest floor.
The Otways have neither the picturesque jagged peaks of the Grampians, further to the northwest, nor the snowfields of the Victorian Alps far to the east. What they do have is water in abundance. The Barwon, Gellibrand and Aire rivers — and many lesser waterways — rise in the Otways.
They are not big rivers but steady flowing, vitally important in this land of seasonal creeks, ephemeral wetlands and waterholes. There are numerous secluded waterfalls and pools to delight the visitor.
This is a quiet, secretive land of hidden valleys, dank groves and tangled thickets. Rumours persist of escaped panthers and a remnant population of thylacines (‘Tasmanian tiger’). Sober judgement may dismiss these as the wishful fantasies of romantics — but then, this is a romantic, magical landscape.
Few sealed roads cross the Otways and human settlements are tiny and scattered. Farming keeps to the undulating uplands, easier to clear, and consists mostly of pasture and orchards.
The Otways are far being from a pristine wilderness, however. The region’s native forests have been logged for their massive, straight-growing timber since the 1880s; great tracts are now covered in featureless conifer plantations. Elsewhere, invasive weeds such as blackberry run rampant, choking out natives. Wildfires now burn more fiercely and frequently.
Some of the exotics have become tourist attractions in their own right, such as the Californian redwood plantations, a forestry experiment from the 1930s. At isolated but popular Stevensons Falls campground, where my wife and I stayed a few nights, shade is provided by an odd assortment of North American and Eurasian trees: sequoia alongside horse chestnut, elm and a mighty, spreading oak which must surely be at least 100 years old.
All this amidst stately mountain ash and manna gum forest, where koalas browse, pink-and-grey gang-gang cockatoos wheel in the canopy and the great wedge-tailed eagle soars high above.
Under the shade of prehistoric-looking tree ferns, satin bowerbirds hop and skulk. The glossy blue-black males scour the campers’ inevitable litter for blue objects to decorate their bowers with, for the delectation of the tawny-green females. Their call is loud and bizarre: somewhere between a car alarm and a small child jumping up and down on a whoopee cushion.
Add that to the maniacal cackle of kookaburras, the grunting roar of male koalas, the creaking and craaking of the gang-gangs and the fluting of the shrike-thrush, and you have a wonderfully Australian cacophony.
Susan and I have visited the Otways many times over the years. Ninety minutes’ drive from home and we are in the heart of these forested hills. The lack of accommodation has meant that we have mostly confined ourselves to day trips hitherto, but with the acquisition of our little camper van we’re looking forward to longer stays and more thorough exploration of this magical part of Victoria, so close to home yet so other.
Thanks for reading!
Text and images © 2021 Steve Fendt. All rights reserved.