A botched attempt to cram 50 kilometres of hiking into a weekend sheds light on what's most important about being outdoors.
At the top of Kersops Peak, we slipped off our packs and collapsed against a rock. By this point, 19 kilometres into day one, everything was hurting. Most of all, our upper backs and shoulders, which had been bearing 16 kilograms of weight over the undulations of Wilsons Promontory.
From this point, 200 metres above sea level, with the sea less than 50 metres away, the dark blue ocean seemed oddly long, the horizon unusually high. In the distance to the south, the lighthouse – our intended final waypoint, still another 16 kilometres away by foot – stood atop a granite headland, only faintly recognisable through the ocean haze.
From here on out, I would simply stare at it and not put my pack on, ever. I’d let the majesty of the view block out the nagging thought that even after conquering the five kilometres remaining today, we were in for 27 kilometres tomorrow, lactic acid, tightened muscles and all.
AN AMBITIOUS VISION
I’d known, vaguely, that the trip we had planned was ambitious. We’d drive to Foster on Friday night, then to the Telegraph Saddle car park on Saturday morning; hike to Little Waterloo Bay via Sealers Cove on day one; then on day two, head to the lighthouse in the south before working our way back to the car on Sunday night, to make it back for work on Monday. Add to this the fact this was our first overnight hike and you get the idea.
Still, the farfetched scale of our ambition didn’t really dawn on me until I put on my pack in the Telegraph Saddle car park. Instantly, the packs were like a punch in the lungs, a dead weight on our shoulders. That wasn’t going to stop us, of course. With steely resolve, we started out along the path towards Sealers Cove.
As we covered distance, the slope to our left steepened and the valley came into full view. Mist swirled through the tree tops on the opposing ridgeline’s crest. A graveyard of dead trees covered the valley floor, and closer at hand, the stripped hillside testified to flood damage in the process of being restored.
Further onwards, the path entered mossy forest. Low down, ferns and fronds curled in the shady darkness; above, the dense, intricate canopy silhouetted against the indirect sunlight. After rounding a bend, perhaps five kilometres in, we came to a clear stream flowing over a golden, sandy riverbed. Here, we threw down our packs and sat on a rock ledge.
Ideally our water supply would be trickling in this stream, waiting to be purified, not spread across six 1.5L bottles in our packs. Just as, the tent on my back wouldn’t weigh three kilograms; just as our sleeping bags wouldn’t be bulky synthetic; just as our food supply wouldn’t contain canned goods.
As we’d loaded these items in late on Thursday night, we’d known they weren’t ideal. Someone coming the other way, seeing us struggle uphill under the burden of them, would no doubt take us as a prime example of the failure to prepare, perhaps attributing that failure to ignorance, arrogance or laziness. At points in the walk to come, as the weight became insufferable, I would accuse myself of such things as well. But in truth, we were time-poor.
A FRENZIED FURLOUGH
It’s hard not to be time-poor in this era. If you weren’t born into a trust fund, you have to work. Without work, there’s no money, and without money, there’s no living comfortably – let alone funding the things you enjoy. Inevitably, there goes forty hours a week.
And if you live in a big city, like Melbourne or Sydney, there’s the commute to consider as well. Prices drive you to the outer burbs, despite all the work being towards the CBD. So there’s an hour of travel twice a day, chewing up ten more hours across the week. An hour to get ready in the morning and an hour to make and eat dinner at night – ten more. An ambitious eight hours of sleep a night – forty more.
That’s 100 stolen hours between Monday and Friday, leaving twenty to spare. Not even these are pure. There’s the domestic incidentals – dysfunctioning car, rental inspections, social obligations, cleaning duties, food shopping – that eat into it, leaving you barely any time to prepare. And, if you’re not careful, this lack of time can put you in the wrong mind frame for adventure… as I was to find out.
Dragging ourselves away from the stream, we continued onwards, following the zig-zagging path through the thickening rainforest, breathing in the healthy smell of fermenting leaf matter brought to prominence by recent rain. Soon the path turned to a boardwalk underfoot, which gently snaked through a low-lying, semi-flooded plain thriving in thick, swampy plant life. Our track eventually reached a bridge, cutting ten metres over a brown, stagnant river, with hand-like trees reaching horizontally over the surface.
Within moments we had stepped out through an opening in the foliage onto the beach of Sealers Cove, from the dense chaos of the forest to the simplicity of smooth, porcelain sand and mathematically curved granite headlands symmetrical on either side. The only real movement, beyond the gentle plunk of the glassy water, was a Pacific gull tentatively investigating a beached starfish.
We’d experienced the magic of Sealers Cove once before, on a day hike from Telegraph Saddle. We were back again on the strength of that experience. Taking it in a second time was pleasant, for sure, but shortly I was feeling the itch to move on and discover what we hadn’t yet seen. That same urge is why we were here, at all. It was why this trip was so ambitious.
By the end of five busy days, predominantly spent indoors, I find the urge to get outside overwhelming. By Friday, there is some primal, poorly understood craving in me to see and experience the natural world. That prompts me on such journeys as this one, as does my dislike of the idea of being so conquered by my sacrificed hours that I can’t spend the free ones doing what I love. I’m terrified by the prospect of wasting my opportunities. I’m hyper-aware of how precious free time is, and I spend it accordingly – in a sort of desperate attempt to cram in as much as I can. And in truth, too, it’s hard to abandon the fast pace I’ve become accustomed to during the week. My mind is already racing.
But such an industrious approach seems to clash with this place. To our left, the piles of a former jetty jutted out of the sand – relics of the timber industry which once, many years prior, existed here. It’s one of the few signs of the human activities – hunting, fishing, mining, sealing, cattle driving – that stopped over here, for a time. To think that the land was once subdivided, the earth scarred with work routes, the seafloor cut by merchant ships. None of this lasted, of course. Whatever the cause of its ultimate failure – the establishment of the national parks concept, bush fires, tightening mining regulations – the bottom line was that this place was simply incompatible with industry. It was too calm, too slow, too steady. Anything frenetic was sure to fizzle out here.
THE HURRIED ADVENTURER
After lunch, we started right, along the beach. Down this side, the beach abandons some of its smooth perfection; with the tide coming in, as it was, we splashed over wet, filling corrugations and through a wide, shallow inlet carved in the sand, before beginning up the side of the headland. This brought us to the technical Sealers Cove campground, which would have to be the most special of the lot, with its beach view and access.
Around the side of the headland, towards the far reaches of the bay, the tree cover cleared to allow a comprehensive view back towards the beach. Further on, the hike turned inland, paralleling the coast through narrow, towering trees with dark, gritty bark, surrounded on ground level by detailed greenery and boulders.
By this point, the undulations had become increasingly extreme; but gradually, from on high, we found our way onto a steady decline. At its end, the path spat us out onto one of the beaches of Refuge Cove, a segment of coast made up of multiple coves sharing an oddly unified designation.
We collapsed into the sand, looking out into the bay at a kayaker gradually approaching a yacht. After a moment’s rest, I was up and off down the beach to the left, picking up the strangely large grains of sand in my hands and seeing what else there was to discover. Without the weight of the pack, I felt hilariously light, almost as if gravity had relented or I was walking on springs.
Living in this go-go-go way can’t be good for me, or anyone else who does it. To be constantly doing, all throughout the week and then over the weekend, has to take its toll. In some ways, I feel like I’m maintaining a level of intensity that’s not sustainable. When do I give myself the chance to rest, to recuperate? Outdoor adventures, although immensely fulfilling, are physically and mentally demanding. But in this time-poor world, if you have the passion, is there any other way to spend your weekends?
In my subsequent research, I’ve barely been able to find anything about the Refuge Cove boat visitors’ wall we discovered a little further along at the dedicated boaters’ camp. This wooden fence of horizontal planks is inscribed upon and decorated by all the boat visitors who have been here over the years. A cursory glance revealed entries from at least 30 years ago.
There were at least five or six boaties in the water near the camp, their vessels anchored further out in the calm bay. One waded out slowly to waist depth and kept float in the deeper water. That they were sharing a secluded beach and had, over time, collaborated to enhance the wall suggested a sense of community, obvious from the outside. A community who had the right idea, no less: that at least some of your time in the great outdoors should be spent doing nothing. You miss out on its full benefits if you take it on in a hurry. Exactly as I was finding myself doing.
Already, we were at a point of physical exhaustion that, when aggravated by further exertion, sapped some of the enjoyment out of the experience. It was becoming a grind, particularly as the undulations increased in their severity, most notably during the uphill climb as we approached Kersops Peak. Perhaps in a state of semi-deliriousness, I was repeating the phrase ‘Cursed Kersops Peak’ in a thick Scottish accent as I walked along, distracting myself from the aching bones in my feet, the blisters on my little toes, and the tension in my shoulders.
Soon, we reached the turn-off to the peak, walked the 300 or so metres uphill, and collapsed at the top to stare out at the lighthouse in the distance. There I was, staring at the view, trying to forget about the kilometres that lay ahead. But as time passed, my mind calmed down and the forgetting came naturally. It was just Emma and I, in the deep privacy of a national park, far from the city, staring out at a view so giant in scale as to make all our worries feel irrelevant.
There was no way we were making it to the lighthouse tomorrow; even though we hadn’t said it aloud, that much was certain. We would have to cut back inland, saving ourselves 15 kilometres. Sitting there, looking out at the destination we would never reach, could have easily felt like defeat. We had been conquered by this landscape. But there was no sense of submission, no failure’s shame.
We were experiencing the stillness I had been missing – that crucial life-restoring element that a hectic schedule and my desperate attempts at making the most of my free time had placed out of reach. So attainable, yet so infrequently attained. All it requires is that you just stop. I’d found it now, ironically by setting out in the opposite direction and overburdening myself.
Enforced by exhaustion or not, what a relief it was to not be preoccupied with doing; to be luxuriating in simply being instead, taking in all the things I usually passed by in my hectic rush. The howl of the wind, the way it cooled my perspiring skin, the way it unleashed the smell of the trees; the ocean’s startling panorama, its swells – so giant from up close – reduced to calming white flickers.
I’d have to take things a little more slowly in the future, focusing on the quality of my experiences and not merely on accumulating them. If I could break my habit of rushing and adopt this approach, two days would prove more than enough. It’s about how you spend them, after all. Stop moving and you lose track of time.
HOW TO ORGANISE A WILSONS PROM TREK
Campsites within Wilsons Prom NP that aren’t on hikes, such as Tidal River and Stockyard Camp, are around $50 or $60 a night, but given the convenient morning they make for, they are more than worth it.
However, they’re popular and were booked out when we went, so we stayed at Prom Central Caravan Park in Foster, for around $30. You could also stay in other towns north and west of the Prom such as Walkerville, Waratah Bay and Sandy Point.
On the hike itself, there are multiple camping options. We passed through sites at Sealers Cove, Refuge Cove and Little Waterloo Bay, all of which had drop toilets and water available from a pump.
In summer at least, the water was slightly discoloured and required purification. Sites are $13.60 a night per person, with a maximum stay of two nights. To book and for terms and conditions, head to www.parkstay.vic.gov.au/wilsons-promontory-national-park.
Note that there are plenty of other campsites enabling you to experience the rest of the Prom, beyond the east.
DISCOVER MORE OF THE GIPPSLAND REGION