Skirting the southern Victorian coast, by foot.
I gradually came to, the sleep still heavy on my eyelids; a noise outside the tent had disturbed me, a faint rustling. What could it be? As I considered the possibilities, the night was ripped apart by a loud and brutal grunting, as if a rutting hippopotamus was riding an outboard motor around our campsite. I nearly jumped clean out of my sleeping bag. What the hell was that?
OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
But first, some background: running for approximately 100km along the southern coast of Victoria, between Apollo Bay and the Twelve Apostles Visitor Centre, the Great Ocean Walk (GOW) has been Victoria's highest-profile multi-day walk since its 2006 inauguration, attracting up to 10,000 end-to-end and day hikers per year. Roughly paralleling the tourist-heavy Great Ocean Road, the GOW traverses a beautiful stretch of coastline encompassing rugged cliffs, wild beaches and tall eucalypt forests, and myself and a mixed group of friends had set aside a week to walk it.
Summer on the Shipwreck Coast can bring sweltering days and searing bushfires, but it was bringing only wind and rain as the five of us set off from the seaside town of Apollo Bay one afternoon in October. We’d driven the two-and-a-half hours from Melbourne that morning, leaving ourselves with only a ten kilometre stroll to the first campsite, except that it’s hard to stroll across slippery seaweed layered over wet rocks. ‘Skate’ would be a more accurate description of our forward (and sometimes downward) progress along the first section of beach. We transferred onto the high route as soon as the opportunity arose.
One of the clever design features of the GOW is that there is always an alternative route to each section of beach walk. This isn’t to save your calves, although it certainly will do, especially after two kilometres of soft sand with a 20kg load — but for safety purposes. Many of the beaches become inundated at high tide, and so the use of tide tables must be mastered to ensure one doesn’t arrive at a spectacular beach section just as it disappears beneath the raging ocean. To help further, there are a number of intimidating ‘Decision Point’ signposts at route junctions, reminding walkers to check the tides and weather.
‘Only attempt to walk along the coast during low tide and calm sea conditions. The beach and rock platforms ... consist of deep gutters, poor sightlines, rock scrambling and limited escape routes and can be regularly covered by rising tides and waves’!
It’s a wonder they haven’t etched a skull and crossbones into the rock
We felt ourselves fortunate to reach the first campsite alive, nestled in the trees atop a ridge. There are seven dedicated GOW campsites, each a well-designed unit boasting a compostable toilet, three-sided communal shelter and water tanks. Cooking, eating and socialising in the shelter made for an enjoyable evening, and although the mosquitoes were voracious around dusk we settled into our cosy sleeping bags for a well-earned sleep. That’s when I heard it.
Officially listed as 'vulnerable' by the Australian government, the numbers of koalas remaining in the wild are estimated by the Australian Koala Foundation to be as low as 43,000, and by the government, as many as ten times that. Their story is a sad one, from being hunted relentlessly for their fur in the 19th century to the contemporary threats of habitat destruction, Chlamydia, cars and dogs — their destiny on this overcrowded planet seems bleakly inevitable. Happily though, the forests of Cape Otway support one of the largest remaining populations of koala and are probably one of the best places for wildlife enthusiasts to spot them. Having never encountered a wild one before, we were surprised to discover that this docile and perpetually-sleepy marsupial made a horrific noise after dark, grunting like a crazed tennis player pursued by all the hounds of hell. And that was just one of them! A flashlight shone outside the tent flap showed a furry grey backside scuttling up a nearby tree. Earplugs were essential for the remainder of the night.
Google 'images of the Great Ocean Walk' and you’ll see predominantly coastal cliffs and long sandy beaches, but there is a decent proportion of inland walking, especially on the second day when the path plunges through a eucalypt forest on wide vehicle management trails. Recent rain had muddied the track and the conversation ebbed and flowed in concert with the steepness of the hills, but this allowed us to appreciate the colourful palette through which we moved; the earthy browns of the eucalypt trunks, mottled with their silver green leaves, were splashed with the yellow sprays of wattle blossoms backed by a warm white sky.
The forest didn’t last forever though and we soon hit the sea once more, at Blanket Bay, just in time for lunch. Although there is a GOW campsite , and a spectacular one at that, we continued on to Parker Hill, a Parks Victoria campsite, to extend the day. Some of the official sections are decidedly short (e.g. Day 4 — 9.6km) so compressing three days into two gave us a decent amount of walking time. Any ideas we may have had of whiling away summer afternoons with languorous swims in Bass Strait or the Great Australian Bight (depending on which side of Cape Otway we were on) were drowned by the pounding waves and deadly currents of the Southern Ocean. Some of these waves travel all the way from Commonwealth Bay on mainland Antarctica!
In places, boardwalk has been installed to protect the dunes or help boots gain traction in the shifting sands. The coastal heathlands are a charming maze of stunted, twisted, wind-blasted shrubs which sometimes entwine overhead to form an atmospheric tunnel of foliage. While most of the time our group enjoyed our own company, only occasionally encountering other small knots of hikers, there were two notable and unwelcome intrusions by reality: one at Cape Otway Light-station, where a branch road brings day-trippers to visit the oldest surviving lighthouse on mainland Australia (built 1848), and the single time the GOW kisses the Great Ocean Road, at Castle Cove. On both occasions we rounded a bush to be confronted by coachloads of chattering tourists, whom we quickly hurried past.
It was after the Lighthouse that the beaches really started to come into their own. Station Beach and Johanna Beach are long and spectacular stretches of wind-swept, wave-crashed sand, with no trace of civilised humanity in sight. One could imagine oneself shipwrecked in the 17th century, hundreds of miles from the nearest settlement and forced to embark on a lengthy journey, subsisting on river water and baked koalas. Actually walking over the sand was a bit of a slog, sometimes punctuated by wades of narrow river inlets, but it was always nice to wiggle one's toes in the sand for a while and gaze at hooded plovers — a tiny bird threatened with extinction in Victoria — cavorting at the water’s edge.
I gradually came to, the sleep still heavy on my eyelids; a noise outside the tent had disturbed me, a faint rustling. What could it be? Another koala ready to tear the night in two with its guttural cries? Not this time. Johanna Beach campsite is just over halfway along the walk and the location of our pre-planned resupply. We had roped-in a selfless collaborator to drive down from Bendigo with the second half of our food supplies, so needless to say the previous evening had been one of much merriment, with non-dehydrated food and weight-prohibitive booze flowing freely. Slumber had come easily.
As I brushed away the cobwebs, I became aware of a repetitive tugging which gently shook the tent. I hoped it might be an echidna, another nocturnal creature I had so far not been lucky enough to spot in the wild. Quietly excited, I opened the inner tent, at which the tugging became more urgent. I swiftly unzipped the flysheet and poked out my head, only to come face to face with not an echidna but a small fox struggling gainfully to drag my not inconsiderable backpack out of the porch.
To say I was surprised would be an understatement – I let out a yelp and grasped my pack tightly, initiating a comical tug o’ war with my canine opponent. The fox was strong for its size and unintimidated by homo sapiens, but eventually I got the better of the beast and rescued my pack, albeit with a couple of toothy holes in the lid. Unlike koalas, introduced foxes are a major problem, one that is being combated with poisoned bait and traps. A reduction in fox numbers will benefit not only koalas but also smaller marsupials such as potoroos, bandicoots and the endangered tiger quoll, not to mention hikers’ luggage!
The most sustained climb of the week came on another inland loop later that day. Having become used to beautiful sandy paths along the cliff line, and treated with amazing views of breakers and evolving rock formations, the new sights of cows, tree plantations and boot cleaning stations (installed to prevent the spread of cinnamon fungus (phytophthora cinnamomi) which causes dieback) were slightly less rewarding. It didn’t help that the drizzle had returned and that my own fragrance, six days beyond its last shower, was becoming intrusive. Resuming the coast, the hills continued, turning out to be far greater in number and gradient than indicated by the map or elevation profile. The day culminated in a bizarre six-storey timber staircase that ascended a sheer cliff, feeling more like a fire escape than a wilderness hike, and we were glad to collapse at the end of it.
On the penultimate day, we began to make out in the far distance, the shapes of the sea stacks known as the Twelve Apostles — our final destination. The end was in sight! There was one last highlight awaiting us though — Wreck Beach. This short but spectacular stretch of shore is home to the anchors of a couple of unfortunate ships that foundered and sunk here in the late 19th century — the Marie Gabrielle and the Fiji. The tide was withdrawing from the top of its range when we arrived and most wisely chose the safety of the cliffs, but two of us (in the name of research, naturally) rolled up our sleeves and struck out across the flat rocks.
The cliff line was unforgiving, there would be no escape from rising waves here, but the water was low enough to expose the rusty remnants of the two ships, the second cemented upside down in a three-dimensional parody of an old navy tattoo. As fascinating as these pieces of history were, it was the subsequent scramble across Moonlight Beach that remains imprinted on our memory. The height of the tide and verticality of the cliffs were such that only a narrow ribbon of rock remained, slanted and precarious, to aid our passage. It was with gritted teeth and clenched buttocks that we scrambled across to safety. Trust me: go with the tide tables on this one.
The final morning brought a hint of melancholy along with the cloudless blue sky. By lunchtime our walk would be over, and with it the endless freedom and wild abandon of Victoria’s south coast. We took our time over the relatively flat terrain, the hazy outlines of the lofty Apostles becoming more solid with every step. The unwelcome proximity of the Great Ocean Road brought with it the signs and sounds of mass tourism long before we reached the Gibson Steps viewing platform — the domain of a thousand clicking shutters of multifarious digital cameras.
I gradually came to, but this time it was not sleep that weighed me down, it was reality. My week-long reverie was over and I was once again in the world of cars, people, money and (on a positive note) ice cream. The day job beckoned. Nevertheless I felt fortunate to have had the time to explore this region at such a leisurely pace, just one benefit of being a citizen of this diverse and beautiful country. Plans are afoot within Parks Victoria to extend the GOW another 12km along the Shipwreck Coast as far as Port Campbell, a section which will grant walkers extended views of the rugged sea stacks and coves along that stretch. Doubtless I will return to this dream state then, to complete the journey.