A different view of one of the world’s great coastlines
Every long-distance hike seems to have its own version of Heartbreak Hill. We arrive at ours shortly after lunch on day two of our four-day, 55-kilometre trek along Victoria’s scenery-dripping southern coastline. Emerging from a cool carpet of ferns beneath a stand of stringybarks, we’re suddenly out in the open for a climb up a long, grassy hill – one so steep that my light daypack feels more like an Italian opera singer on my back. I haven’t paid this much attention to my boots for some time.
The ascent is over before anything ruptures and with it comes a reward: commanding views, east and west, of a spectacular row of rocky headlands thrust into the Southern Ocean like the gnarled paws of an ancient beast. As the gunmetal-grey water throws itself tirelessly against them, sending up a haze of sea spray, I exhale contentedly.
A crackle of black cockatoos flies overhead towards
the west, in the direction of our destination: those iconic limestone stacks known as the 12 Apostles. “Check out the serenity,” I’m about to say to my fellow walkers. But most are still panting up the slope so I let it slide. They’ll see for themselves soon enough.
The Great Ocean Road is a 240-kilometre
long winding strip of cliff-hugging tarmac that
stretches between the Victorian coastal town of Torquay and Allansford, near Warrnambool. But, as I’m discovering, the Great Ocean Walk is another way – a considerably more immersive one – to experience the wild beauty of the same
region. That it requires more physical effort
than depressing an accelerator only enhances the experience.
Beginning at Apollo Bay – where the famous roadway, at its midway point, leaves the coast for an inland meander through the Great Otway National Park – the full length of the Great Ocean Walk (GOW) takes hikers 105 kilometres to the 12 Apostles, through eucalypt forests, wetlands and banks of tea-tree. Better yet, and this was apparent the moment we set out in a light mist from Castle Cove on day one, its path leads up and over wild sandstone headlands and onto and along a number of glorious all-but-deserted beaches. Beyond the snap of twigs and crunch of sand underfoot, the soundtrack to this undertaking isn’t car engines – which are busily engaged far away – but the ever-present roar of the ocean.
Anyone is free to walk, in full or in stages, the GOW (although designated camping sites must be booked and paid for through Parks Victoria at least two weeks before your trip; parkweb.vic.gov. au). But if lugging your own supplies and nylonbased accommodation aren’t your thing there are other, more luxurious ways to experience the trail.
I find this out as a guest of the Twelve Apostles
Lodge Walk (twelveapostleslodgewalk.com.au),
which offers four-day, three-night tours along a 40-kilometre section of the GOW (or 55 kilometres if you take endurance options offered on the first
three days). The company is one of a handful
offering Melbourne transfers, accommodation
and food on top of a guided walk; Hedonistic Hiking (hedonistichiking.com.au) and Park Trek (parktrek.com.au) are others.
Having endured long-distance hikes with a heavy backpack and an evening symphony of tent zippers and snoring koalas, I feel almost sheepish when I see the Twelve Apostles Lodge Walk’s eco lodge near Johanna – a small, stylish and spotless cabin with a comfortable, crisply made bed, a fully equipped bathroom and a bright common room where they serve the kind of meals you only dream about on a walking trail.
The dinners (rolled chicken, crisp-skinned
salmon and eye fillet, as well as canapés and
salads) have us all raving but, for me, it’s the lunches that seem particularly decadent. A few
hours into our easy first day of 9.5 kilometres –
it takes the 10 of us, plus our bushy-bearded guide, Jack, through a lovely grass-tree forest and undulating banks of tea-tree palsied and stunted by the onshore winds – we stop to eat.
From a high point overlooking the mist-dusted
cliffs, I remove from the supplied daypack (my
luggage is in my room, of course) a canister containing a delicious Thai beef noodle salad. To think my usual track snack would be a peanut-butter wrap. “I could get used to this,” someone quips as, in the distance, waves turn their heads to shore, throwing up manes of spray.
Ending that first day’s walk with an invigorating
two-kilometre stroll across Johanna Beach, we’re met by a van that takes us to the lodge, where foot spas, drinks and food await (the van will return us to the same point the next morning).
(Clockwise from opposite) Twelve Apostles Lodge Walk guide Jack; a well-earned break; day one ends at Johanna Beach; the trail passes through tea-tree forest
The writer surveys the rugged Shipwreck Coast from above
The path to Princetown along the Gellibrand River (above); refuelling with a lunch of chorizo salad