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Reclaiming the 12 Apostles after the plague

The road trip took all day and part of the night. The fear and discomfort stayed with my mother for life, but she remembered, too, the beauty of the empty countryside beyond the Otway Ranges where the 12 Apostles reared among the ocean waves.

And so that sometimes desolate road wedged itself into our family’s list of special places.

On a cold dawn 45 years ago, I came to a cemetery by the road, the sea sucking at the shore below, and very nearly died of fright as a wailing rose from the dark scrub.

It was a piper, altogether unexpected, putting his lungs into the old funeral march, Flowers of the Forest.

I had come to the Loch Ard Gorge figuring I might write a story about the anniversary of the 1878 wreck of the clipper that gives the place its name.

A few of the bodies of the 52 passengers and crew who died rest in the cemetery, and I was hoping to capture the loneliness of it.

In the dawn came the whine of bagpipes and the tread of a small group of locals. They had come to remember and respect their history, without the need of a crowd of outsiders.

In the decades since, the road and its savage cliffs have become among the most congested tourist destinations in Australia.

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Last summer, I rode the road on my motorcycle and wrote a series of stories which began with the reflection that the old track was in danger of being loved to death by the 2.5 million visitors who travelled it in a year.

The Twelve Apostles, a group of sea stacks just up the coast from the Loch Ard Gorge and reduced these days by the relentless sea to eight limestone outcrops, were being overrun.

Up to 15,000 tourists had caused impossible traffic jams on the most popular holidays.

Before COVID-19, the region of the Apostles was in danger of being overrun by tourists.

Before COVID-19, the region of the Apostles was in danger of being overrun by tourists.Credit:Justin McManus

You might imagine such numbers would be welcomed by those who make their living from the tourist trade. And so they are — in part.

But as the road emptied and attractions like the Apostles closed during the long months of COVID-19 lockdown, the people of the coast and its hinterland took a deep breath and decided the time had come to admit the tourist bonanza wasn’t an unqualified bonanza at all.

Many visitors, particularly vast numbers of international travellers, largely from Asia, were little but ghosts flitting hastily by.

They barrelled down from Melbourne in minibuses or rented cars, hurried to the Apostles lookout for selfies and were gone, having ticked off another stop on the bucket list.

COVID-19 has closed the 12 Apostles to the public - and given locals time to rethink their approach to tourism.

COVID-19 has closed the 12 Apostles to the public – and given locals time to rethink their approach to tourism.Credit:Mark Witte

For those who lived in this landscape, it seemed a metaphor for a modern Instagram emptiness that chooses spectacle over experience. Those who had built accommodation and restaurants and what is known as a “gourmet trail” — a loop centred on the hinterland town of Timboon where travellers can find locally produced cheeses, ice-cream, whisky, beer, chocolate, strawberries and olives — were too often overlooked.

Worse, some of the travellers had no understanding of the danger of undermined clifftops and, ignoring warning signs, climbed safety railings to capture more dramatic selfies.

Almost unbearably for the residents of the nearest town, Port Campbell, the thoughtless ventured to wild beaches, ignoring the treachery of the ocean.

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On a dreadful April day last year, a Port Campbell father and son, Ross and Andrew Powell, died trying to save just such a tourist; fellow lifesaver Phil Younis suffered dreadful injuries. The tourist was saved.

Early this year, after a summer of bushfires at the other end of Victoria, creative East Gippslanders invited travellers to help rebuild their communities by bringing an Esky and filling it with local produce.

With time to think and plan during the long lockdown, the community around the Apostles and hinterland came up with their own message about rebuilding.

But this one advises would-be visitors they should behave thoughtfully and with dignity when they come to the area west of the Otways.

Community members chose to turn on its head the free-for-all come-hither theme of most such campaigns; in welcoming those who would respect the landscape and the community that lives there, they also defined the style of visitors the locals no longer wanted to see coming down the road.

“In a time of great uncertainty … one thing the 12 Apostles Tourism and Business Group are certain they don’t want is the type of visitors that disrespect the environment, don’t stay long and don’t support local businesses,” declares the statement announcing the new approach.

“Treasure the Land We Love,” they call it.

You’d hope, as we begin travelling again, that such a sentiment spreads across the nation.

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