Victoria’s Great Ocean Road is not only one of the world’s best coastal drives, it’s also the world’s biggest war memorial.

By John Dunn

Just before Anzac Day, a life-size, bronze sculpture depicting two workmen with pick and shovel and sharing a water bottle as they stand on top of a bluestone boulder will be unveiled. This ceremony will take place on April 13 at Eastern View, a tiny seaside settlement on Victoria’s Great Ocean Road, and will mark the 75th anniversary of the opening of what has become one of Australia’s major tourist attractions and what is also billed by some as the world’s biggest war memorial. That’s an unusual combination, but then the road has an unusual history.
The Great Ocean Road extends from the seaside town of Torquay, south-west of Melbourne, to near Warrnambool, 300 kilometres further west. It was built in part to give jobs to those Victorian servicemen returning from World War I and to help in their transition from the battlefields of Gallipoli and France to a peaceful existence once more in their homeland. It was the brainchild of the then chairman of the Country Roads Board (CRB) William Calder, who proposed that funds be allocated by the State War Council for the repatriation and employment of soldiers on roads in rural areas. So, in 1917, he submitted a plan suggesting a road from Barwon Heads around the coast to Warrnambool via Cape Otway.
At that time, this area was poorly served by transport because of the rugged terrain. There were steep cliffs and thick, almost impenetrable forests extending well inland. There was a rail link to Winchelsea and on to Deans Marsh, which had been completed in the 1890s, but beyond that there were only tracks, many of them often impassable, to the small coastal settlements such as Lorne and Apollo Bay.
Lorne, named after the Scottish nobleman the Marquis of Lorne in recognition of the many Scots who migrated to the district, was inhabited initially in 1849 by timber cutters who were faced with great difficulties in moving their logs out of the area. Jack Loney, in his book Shipwrecks Along the Great Ocean Road, says the settlement was “inaccessible from the north so the timber was pushed out through the surf to small craft waiting in the bay”. Later a cattle station was established, but the problems of transport caused it to be abandoned. Eventually, bullock wagons carrying stores blazed a trail and, by the 1880s, the Mountjoys, an early family, were able to run a passenger service to meet demand from those who had heard of the magnificent scenery with beautiful beaches and excellent fishing.
Apollo Bay had the same problem as did Wye River, where the MacRae family of Birregurra hacked a six-foot track for 27km across the ranges to set up a fishing camp and a small farm. Then the Bluegum timber company was founded in 1900 but closed 12 years later, defeated again, as Jack points out, by “the remoteness”.
Against this background, the scheme suggested by Calder quickly gained momentum. It was taken up most enthusiastically by Howard Hitchcock, the mayor of Geelong, who declared it should not only be a means of rehabilitation for the soldiers but also a memorial to those who had not come back. There was strong public support for these reasons and also for the general community benefits that would come from opening up an area with such attractive tourist potential.
Some 500 people attended a meeting in Colac in 1918, where the Great Ocean Road Trust was formed to build the road with a resolution endorsed by senator Edward Millen, minister for Repatriation, and senator lieutenant-colonel Bolton, president of the Returned Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Imperial League of Australia. “What finer memorial could we build to commemorate the magnificent bravery of our Victorian soldiers?” the trust asked. It was then declared that “it was better than erecting a building or statue or
something similar”. The idea struck such a responsive chord that some £7000 was donated on the spot. The trust was headed by Hitchcock, who carried out the presidency with such enthusiasm and dedication that he became known as the ‘father’ of the road. He pointed out that, as well as a memorial, the road would have many practical benefits. The trust document he prepared noted that “at intervals there is good, rich land – notably at Apollo Bay, Hordern Vale and Johanna River – and many new dairy farms capable of carrying 300 to 400 cows would be opened up. It would mean more butter factories and even those lands which are now practically worthless would be worth a few pounds per acre.”
The trust declared that this would be “the finest ocean road in the world”, with scenery better than the roads of the French Riviera, the north coast of Devon, England, north and south of San Francisco, US, and the link between Cape Town and its suburbs in South Africa. And it would be helpful for military purposes, hasten the delivery of mail to the seaside towns, provide easy telephone communications and enable damage to wires to be quickly repaired, and be invaluable in case of shipwrecks.
Some of these advantages might seem quaint today but they were important then, and persuaded the public to contribute to the estimated cost of £150,000. When funding was low, as it was often, Hitchcock himself – a renowned donor to many worthy causes – provided the cash to ensure that construction was not interrupted. Money was raised, too, by all sorts of other means, such as selling building blocks bordering the road.
By today’s standards, it was an extraordinary project in that it was completed almost totally by hand. There were explosives, of course, but little mechanisation was available then. Picks and shovels, wheelbarrows and horse-drawn carts were the tools for the 13 years it took to build about 30km, which extended east and west of Lorne where it linked with CRB roads.
Starting in 1919, after a charge was detonated by the Premier of Victoria Harry Lawson, some 3000 ex-soldiers were paid 10 shillings and sixpence a day as they hacked a winding, steepling path out of the solid rock and through the shifting earth and the tough, scrubby vegetation that formed the precipitous cliff faces jutting defiantly out into Bass Strait. “It was a tough, challenging operation,” says Roger Grant, chairman of Great Ocean Road Marketing, which is organising an events program to celebrate the 75th anniversary. “The work was hard and conditions were difficult. Some diggers reckoned things were easier on the battle front. However, there were compensations. In 1924 the coastal trader Casino ran aground after hitting a reef and had to jettison part of its cargo of beer and spirits, which was eagerly salvaged by the construction gangs.”
By 1932, the entire link from Anglesea to Apollo Bay was complete and at last the Otway coastal towns and settlements had permanent all-weather access. At Lorne, Victoria’s Lieutenant Governor Sir William Irvine used a pair of gold scissors to cut a purple ribbon to open the road for a procession of 40 cars to travel to Apollo Bay for a celebratory sports carnival. One car had just a single occupant: a chauffeur. It belonged to Hitchcock, who had died, aged 66, three months earlier. A toll – two shillings and sixpence for drivers and one shilling and sixpence for passengers – was imposed until supervision of the road was taken over by the state government.
Doug Stirling, then age 10, was among the crowd who watched the ceremony in front of the Grand Pacific Hotel. Now retired from his electrical-contracting business, he has written Lorne – A Living History, in which he describes some of the problems the workmen faced. “Initially, workmen were lowered down the cliffs by ropes attached to tree trunks,” he writes. “This must have been scary for them as they shaved the undergrowth away and dug a foothold to stand on.” Even when complete, the carriageway was no highway. Doug notes that the surface was clay and dirt, and three metres wide with only a post-and-rail fence and a speed limit of 20kph.
Peter Alsop, of Geelong, who was the CRB’s supervising engineer on the road in the 1950s and 1960s, has written A History of The Great Ocean Road in which he tells of The Age of the day describing it as “a tightrope”. The newspaper added, “cars were like nervous insects as they crawled around the cliff sides with a furious ocean hundreds of feet below – a slight error in steering would give the sea a plaything and the monumental mason a job”.
Sculptor Julie Squires says her artwork depicts all the elements that went into the construction. “The cutting out of the road by hand, the authentic tools, the bond of mateship between the workers as they share a water bottle, the military jacket thrown over the rock – I’ve tried to represent everything that happened because it will be well scrutinised,” she says. “The Great Ocean Road is such an icon that everyone wants to travel it at some stage of their life.”
Mike Annett, chief executive officer of the Victorian Returned Serviceman’s League, says the celebrations will “remind the public that the road is a tribute to the fallen” and that the sculpture will “reflect the background of the men who built it”.
Of course, the Great Ocean Road is more than just the section hewn by the soldiers. Officially it embraces not only the spectacular ocean scenery around Lorne and Apollo Bay, but a variety of other attractions. It turns inland as it makes its way across the Otway Ranges before reaching the sea once more along what is known as the Shipwreck Coast because of the number of vessels lost as they made their way to and from England in the early days of settlement. It is here that the superb limestone rock formations known as the Twelve Apostles stand, and where the forbidding and precipitous Loch Ard Gorge carves so dramatically into the shoreline.
The sculpture unveiling is just the beginning of the celebrations for the road’s anniversary. Various events, ranging from the launching of a special album to photographic displays, will take place through the year culminating in a re-enactment of the 1932 opening procession in November. Apollo Bay historian Ted Stuckey hopes all this will prompt new interest in the background of the road and lead to the placement of information boards along the route “to provide all the details of a quite remarkable story”.

This story excerpt is from Issue #52

Outback Magazine: Apr/May 2007