Who will save the Great Ocean Road?
Victoria’s top tourism attraction, the Great Ocean Road, is slowly being washed away.
They lowered themselves down the cliff on ropes. Beneath them, Bass Strait’s cold blue waters swirled and surged as they chipped away at the hard rock, cutting footholds so they could build a platform to stand on. From here they were able to hack further into the cliff, until they reached the required width.
The men – about 3000 returned Australian soldiers from the Great War – were building what would become a national treasure: the Great Ocean Road.
But the work was back-breaking, dangerous and slow. “In the early days it [was] all done by hammer and chisel,” says Lorne historian Peter Spring. “Because many of the returned servicemen were suffering from shellshock they didn’t detonate charges due to the effect it had on them.”
Victoria’s top tourism attraction, the Great Ocean Road, is slowly being washed away.
Stretching 243 kilometres from Torquay to Allansford, near Warrnambool, the road officially opened in 1932 but this year marks the 100th anniversary since construction began. Although the diggers didn’t build all of it, the road remains an enduring memorial to them and many people, including Peter, are calling for at least a section to revert to its original name of Anzac Highway.
Generations of people have used it to access some of Victoria’s most beautiful and rugged coastline, including natural attractions such as the Twelve Apostles and London Arch.
Today, the Great Ocean Road is Victoria’s top tourist attraction with 2.7 million visitors – more than Uluru and the Great Barrier Reef combined – responsible for boosting the economy by $1.4 billion in the year to March 2019.
And there has been a spike in international visitor numbers, up 63 per cent over the decade to 2017, according to chairman of Great Ocean Road Tourism, Wayne Kayler-Thomson. By the end of 2027 he expects Chinese visitor day trips alone to grow by 260 per cent to 737,000. “We’re looking at phenomenal growth,” he says.
But until a sorely needed $153 million federal and state cash injection five years ago, 30 years of successive governments had failed to invest in the maintenance and safety of the road. “To put it into context, to maintain the road requires something like $20 million every year,” says Wayne. “So, we’re playing catch-up.”
It’s not just increased traffic that is creating headaches. Heavy rain and flash flooding caused landslides near Wye River in 2016, while a government report showed Apollo Bay beach erosion had increased from nine centimetres per year in 2012 to one metre in 2016. In 2018 a storm surge caused chunks of an Apollo Bay car park and a whole toilet block to collapse onto the beach, leaving only a five-metre sliver of land between sea and the road.
Paul Northey, Regional Roads Victoria’s chief officer, says his team has been busy putting the recent government investment to work by rebuilding damaged surfaces, upgrading bridges and improving intersections. “We’ve also completed extensive geotechnical works – any regular visitor along the road will have seen our team abseiling down the cliff face removing loose rock, soil-nailing and installing kilometres of rock netting and erosion-control matting.”
For locals, rock falls are part of everyday life. “You’re kind of always driving along with your eyes slightly up and to the left, if you’re going north,” says Shaun McKinlay, who manages the Wye River General Store and Cafe and drives the road every day.
In 2011 a car-sized boulder closed the Great Ocean Road for a week; rockslides between Wye River and Separation Creek caused about six weeks of pain in 2016, with traffic diverted from Lorne to Apollo Bay. It forced Shaun to make regular one-hour road trips to pick up basic staples such as milk for the cafe, and it took tourists from Melbourne some time to realise when the road was open for business again.
Meanwhile, tourism bodies say on average up to 30 buses and coaches use the road every day, although the figure can be up to 80 at peak times (state government figures show a 30 per cent increase over the past three years). Almost all of them head straight to the main attraction: the Twelve Apostles. Visitor numbers there balloon on peak days such as New Year’s, Easter and Chinese New Year. According to The Age, on Christmas Day 2018 the Twelve Apostles hosted more than 15,000 selfie-taking tourists, 3000 cars, 170 buses and 11 coaches. It sounds like a nightmare.
This kind of heavy visitor traffic has not only damaged roads but also stretched the limited public facilities, including toilets. Locals complain about rubbish, toilet paper and other unsavoury things being left behind at popular stops along the route. Add to that the threat of sea-level rise caused by climate change and the road is facing a perfect storm.
So, what to do? In 2018 a state government taskforce found the problems stem from having 30 different organisations managing various parcels of land. In October 2018 it announced plans to create a single marine and coastal parks authority to manage and protect the Great Ocean Road’s land, seascapes, visitors and “coordinate associated government investment projects”.
Director of the reform project, Jason Borg, says legislation is well under way to create the new authority, which should be up and running by mid-to-late 2020. Right now his team of seven are collecting feedback from the community and stakeholders on what a 50-year vision for the region might look like.
The submissions will help shape an overarching plan to manage land, tourism and the environment that also takes in hinterland behind the coast. “To me the balance is about great visitor experience, good liveability for communities and protecting the landscapes and environment for the future,” says Jason.
One of the project’s immediate tasks is coming up with a funding model. Could a levy or road toll on visitors be part of that, with the added benefit of influencing visitor numbers? “There’s talk about different ways of doing that and a levy or a fee is one of those. I can’t pre-empt what the government may or may not do but certainly it will be one of the things that needs to be considered. Because we’re hearing that from the community, too.”
Sally Cannon co-owns the Apollo Bay Bakery and is glad to see the road finally “get some loving” in recent years. “Tourism is our number-one industry,” she says, “but the money we get for infrastructure down here is sadly lacking.”
Earlier this year the Andrews government ruled out rerouting sections of the road north of Apollo Bay and between Apollo and Marengo, proposed in a report by engineering company GHD. Environment minister Lily D’Ambrosio flagged that other options, including building groynes and other structures, were more likely.
Meanwhile, VicRoads has used drones to survey lengths of the road affected by the 2016 rockslides. “The data is definitely helping us understand how water flows through the area and how to drain water to the right spots and away from some of these high-risk potential landslide spots,” Mark Koliba, VicRoads’ south-west Victoria regional director, told the ABC.
To put it into context, to maintain the road requires something like $20 million every year.
Seven dedicated weather stations have also been set up at high-risk land-slip sites to monitor soil moisture content and, in late 2018, Regional Roads Victoria (RRV) built a temporary 102-metre wall of 32 shipping containers filled with water above Cumberland River. Designed to protect the road from falling rocks while stabilising works were carried out on the cliff above, the containers have taken a battering from falling boulders. Abseiling workers and traffic jams are regular sights on this section of road.
RRV has also built five rock walls to protect the road from coastal erosion at locations, including Apollo Bay, Skenes Creek and Smythe Creek; 21 lower retaining walls have been built and loose rock removal or netting installation has been carried out at 15 other locations.
Back in Apollo Bay, Mark Kininmonth looks out to sea from the car park that collapsed during storm surges in June 2018. He has been living in Apollo Bay since 2002 and, as the owner of two businesses – Apollo Bay Surf and Kayak and walking tour company Walk 91 – he hopes the new, single authority will have a positive impact on the road and his community.
“There’s a lot of buck-passing, I would suggest, in terms of responsibility and who owns what and who wants to spend money on what – from toilets to car parks to roads,” he observes. The question remains: will a new layer of bureaucracy fix those problems?