“What’s in Cape Otway?” I asked Suraya. She had particularly wanted this stop. Usually, her travel style is très budget, but she was willing to fork out nearly A$20 for the admission fee at Cape Otway Lightstation. So I was curious.
I can’t remember now, what her reply was. It was probably something to do with the historical importance, because Suraya is the kind of traveller who reads history displays even more than I do. But it was her next remark that convinced me, and it had nothing whatsoever to do with Australian history.
“You’ll like it,” she said. She had already gone on the Great Ocean Road before I arrived, and had seen the approach to the lightstation. “It has this forest before you get there, where the trees are all white and with no leaves. It looks really creepy, like an enchanted forest.”
Well, you don’t get to BFF status without knowing my oddball tastes exactly! I was sold.
2023 Update: The tours mentioned in this article may no longer be available. I was informed by Bushwalk Australia that the lightstation had to close during the pandemic. From the website, it looks like they’re open again, and hopefully they can revive the tours soon. It’s best to check their website for the latest information. This article should be read as a travel story.
Cape Otway Lightstation: Worth it?
The admission fee to Cape Otway Lightstation isn’t cheap. The additional special tours are even more expensive. But, are they worth it?
After going into the grounds on a general admission ticket, I think that Cape Otway is definitely a worthwhile stop (even without the cool petrified forest). At the time of our visit, the general admission ticket included the daily tours. These covered both the site’s history as well as Aboriginal culture. Both are well worth following.
If you’re going to Cape Otway as part of a Great Ocean Road trip, check the tour timings beforehand. We adjusted our road trip so that we could go for the bush talker talk specifically. That turned out to be a good choice. It was not only my favourite tour on this road trip, but possibly among the best tours I’ve taken.
Alternatively, you can also stay in the old lighthouse keeper cottages. This makes more sense during whale season, since more time on site is conducive to spotting passing whales at the whale viewing station.
As for the special tours, I think that will depend on how interested you are in the focus topics. However, for a casual visitor without an existing interest in history, we thought they seemed a bit expensive.
Pro Tip: Even if you’re not interested in the Cape Otway lightstation tours, stop for lunch here. It’s a very pleasant spot for it. The on-site cafe has an al fresco area with a great view of the lighthouse.
Cape Otway Lighthouse, then and now
I personally like lighthouses in general. There’s something romantic about its necessary remoteness, and its purpose as a beacon. Some lighthouses are fascinating due to the difficulty and danger of even constructing them in the first place, in locations of strong waves and lack of land connections.
That’s not to mention the often lonely job of being the lighthouse keeper. The guy who had to keep the light going. And if he had a family with him, what about the isolated life of the family of a lighthouse keeper? The safety of countless ships carrying the fortunes of nations, and the independent travellers of those days, all owe a debt to the sacrifice of lighthouse keepers.
The daily history talk gives the history of the lighthouse itself, and the reason for its construction. I guess it falls under the category of Australian (specifically Victorian) history. Cape Otway also has a bit of WW2 history.
Fortunately, today the sacrifice is no longer necessary. Today, the actually functioning Cape Otway lighthouse lies on a ledge, somewhere below the photogenic older lighthouse. No longer requiring keeping, it’s more like a light signal, since no house is required!
The Bush Tucker talk
We were attracted to the bush tucker talk when we walked past this curious thing by the path.
Nearby was a little hut. Around the hut grew many shrubs, and we wondered if they would be part of the talk. (They were.)
We deduced that it must be the Talking Hut marked on the map. (Don’t you love how straightforward the names are? It reminds me of Oman!) We returned to the hut close to the start of the Bush Tucker Talk, and explored the Aboriginal artifacts kept inside the hut while waiting for the guide to arrive.
The guide for the bush tucker talk
When the guide arrived we were surprised, because he looked Caucasian – albeit one who had gone very native indeed. We looked at each other, wondering if he was of mixed blood, since we had naturally expected a guide giving an Aboriginal talk, to be Aboriginal himself.
But his somewhat disheveled appearance counted in his favour where we were concerned. Suraya has the firm belief that for these kinds of things, it is better to have a guide who looks like he might be homeless. Don’t ask me why. In fact, she intentionally chose to learn diving from a divemaster who looked as though on non-teaching days, he bums around the beach loaded with rum.
And when he began talking, I was not surprised that Suraya’s mad convictions were once again proven correct. He might look Caucasian, but his heart and soul is all Aboriginal.
Why did we like the bush tucker talk?
It was an extremely fun talk! He utilised many of the bushes and shrubs around the talking hut, giving us a crash course on how not to die if left out in the bush all by yourself. I can never forget the hilarious, yet infinitely more sensible method of hunting emu than chasing it down. Suffice to say that it involves daubing yourself with emu poo, and taking advantage of the emu’s poor eyesight to fool it into thinking you’re an emu too!
It was actually fairly difficult for us to follow the talk, due to the guide’s very fast speaking pace and thick Australian accent. It was too fast for us to remember exact details, but slow enough for us to remain enraptured by his eccentric storytelling and energetic instruction in bush foraging. His disparaging dismissal of what he considered to be excessively onerous Western agriculture was very amusing!
There were many such anecdotes, all meant to illustrate the worldview of Aboriginal peoples. That their way was to attain a high degree of knowledge of their own land, which then enables them to obtain food with very little exertion.
Similarities between Aboriginal and Malay outlooks
When we were back on the road, Suraya confided to me how much she liked the bush tucker talk. Despite having been in Melbourne for nearly a year, that was her first introduction to Australian Aboriginal culture. It was very different from mainstream Australian culture, she said. A completely different worldview.
Not a worldview of comparing and competing, of exertion and industriousness for the sake of ‘more’.
Instead, it was a way that sees the sign of the impending arrival of migrating birds, and begins walking to arrive just in time for the hunt. It was a way that forages as you wander, scattering seeds along the way so that future generations would have more shrubs to forage from along the same route. It was a way that doesn’t bother to harvest seafood before it is the right time. Its way to find food is more by cleverness and cunning, rather than superior force.
She said, it was the first time that she felt things made sense, since she came to Australia.
I can’t say that the Malay worldview is quite the same. We were a nation-building people, so there is an element of striving and industry. But at the same time, I understood what she meant. Competition is difficult for us, whose natural inclination is to maintain harmony. And for Suraya personally, I knew that her character is just like that – necessary exertion only, and don’t force anything.
It’s difficult for me to say why this is not the better worldview.
The extent of my bush tucker knowledge
I still remember two things I learned about foraging in the bush. It was because I applied the knowledge straight away, while still on the road trip. I can’t remember the names of the shrubs, but I know what I can eat from them.
I kept foraging at almost every stop throughout our road trip, to Suraya’s great disapproval. Her medical profession naturally inclines her to a cautious disposition, and she would rather I ingest only small amounts just in case I’ve been poisoning myself!
One was a shrub common on the top of the coastal cliffs along the Great Ocean Road which bear white berries (the white berries are ripe). Though you need to eat a lot of it if you’re seriously looking for something to eat, occasional snacking on the little berries is quite fun.
The other one was a green shrub with vaguely diamond-shaped leaves. Just pluck the leaves and eat them directly. I remember the taste was slightly salty. This one could be mistaken for a different shrub, so I had to look at the overall shape of the shrub to be sure. Nevertheless, the other shrub didn’t seem to be poisonous. You know immediately when you’re wrong, because the leaves taste different and are completely yucky.
Aboriginal references: Australia and New Zealand
During my first visit to Australia, I found myself fascinated by a statement that seemed ubiquitous. Some variation of it appeared on physical signs amidst city blocks, by the shoreline, as a footer in emails when you book things online. It goes something like this:
We acknowledge and respect the traditional custodians of all ancestral lands on which we meet and operate. We acknowledge the deep feelings of attachment and relationship of Aboriginal peoples to this country.
The reason why it confounded me was, in person I could hardly find any sign that these words were true, or at least attempting to become true. In none of the instances when I encountered such statements, was there any overlay of Aboriginal context or history on whatever the place/tour is.
By contrast, when I first went to New Zealand with my friends, the airport welcome signs greeted us in English and Maori. Certain places, like Rotorua, are clearly Maori land. The history of a place often includes both Maori and then European events, told as a single and unseparated series. It is one history.
Maori motifs, dance and art are generally embraced not as ‘aboriginal’ curiosities, but as part of what makes New Zealand identity unique. To this day, I remember the Maori name of New Zealand – Aotearoa.
New Zealand does not have signs saying ‘they’ acknowledge Maori precedence, but you could argue that they don’t really have to.
Now, Cape Otway Lightstation is like New Zealand. Their website does not display this standard pledge. But, they actually feature a tour that is more meaningful than just words. The tour gave us some little insight on how the original people had lived with the land, before it was terraformed to resemble Europe.
Carbon offset information to Australia
A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Melbourne produces carbon emissions of approximately 5,074 lbs CO2e. It costs about $25 to offset this.
Do you agree that Cape Otway is a must-stop on a Great Ocean Road trip? Pin for your road trip planning!
This sounds like a fabulous tour and learning experience. I enjoyed the way you described it.
I like that you get to tour in a natural environment and it does look creepy enough to have the wolf of Red Riding Hood. I love seeking tours like this. Thank you for sharing!
It was probably the most fairytale-like place I’ve ever been! Of course, I’ve not been to Germany, the origin of many of the Grimm fairy tales…
Oh I would love to visit!
I think its good to get the knowlage of whats eatable, cuz I really agree with you on the parts thats you say its fun to pick and snack on berries :)
I’m glad that the bushes are still abundant on the coastline! Otherwise the knowledge would be lost to me.
I’m so glad you got to experience an aboriginal tour while you were here! Your guide, despite looking caucasian, would have had aborginal heritage (the colour gene dilutes but not the culture!).
The acknowledgement speech you saw is Australia’s lacklustre acknowledgement of our indigenous people and only came about in recent years, a sorry that was too late and disengenuos – as you noticed, hardly an indigenous person or explanation in sight!
I’ve also heard how the Maori culture is intricately woven into everyday NZ – Oz has a lot to learn from them! One of the reasons I can’t wait to visit!
That’s what I was told later! That the gene is recessive, so his appearance is actually very common.
When I did this road trip, I had only been to two places in Australia, Sydney and Melbourne, plus its vicinity. But I’ve since been to Cairns, and was surprised to see how different it was to the first two. Aboriginal heritage is evident in Cairns and its surrounds, and this visibility seems to be a lot less resented. I look forward to writing about these observations at some point!