Great Ocean Walk

From cliff-top vis­tas to surf-pounded beaches and eu­ca­lypt wood­lands, this multi-day trek show­cases the best of coastal Victoria.

Australian Geographic - - Contents - Story by John Pickrell

From cliff tops to beaches, this multi-day hike shows the best of coastal Vic­to­ria.

SNAKES. TYP­I­CALLY, I COM­PLAIN that I rarely spot them, de­spite my fre­quent hikes through the Aussie bush. But what awaited us that day cer­tainly made up for the long wait since I’d last spied one rac­ing swiftly away from me on Rot­tnest Island in Western Aus­tralia. As the cool of the morn­ing turned to the heat of mid­day, we en­coun­tered not one, but two, three, four tiger snakes – among Aus­tralia’s dead­li­est rep­tiles – all peace­fully sun­ning them­selves on the track. We were walking from Mi­lane­sia Gate to Moon­light Head, on the sec­ond and most chal­leng­ing day of our four-day guided hike along coastal Vic­to­ria’s Great Ocean Walk (GOW). On each oc­ca­sion we waited for the crea­ture to slowly rouse from its slum­ber and slither off the track.

“This time of year, they love to get out in the sun and warm up,” said our guide Mitchell Wil­son, a laid­back 31-year-old with red dread­locks. “Jan­uary and Fe­bru­ary are the peak tem­per­a­tures, so they just want to come and take as much sun as pos­si­ble be­fore the end of March and April, when they get ready to hi­ber­nate.”

A series of won­der­ful wildlife encounters is what re­ally struck me dur­ing the 56km walk, which I tack­led as part of a small group in late Fe­bru­ary. Ear­lier on that sec­ond day, we were greeted by some 50 east­ern grey kan­ga­roos as we headed from Jo­hanna Beach to Mi­lane­sia Gate. On an­other oc­ca­sion, a wedge-tailed ea­gle swooped down right in front of our trans­fer ve­hi­cle’s wind­screen and glided along, just ahead of us, for a thrilling hand­ful of sec­onds.

We were do­ing the ‘cheat’ ver­sion of the GOW (see Ex­plor­ing the coast in com­fort, page 118): an ex­pe­ri­ence that’s suit­able for any­one who doesn’t have the time or in­cli­na­tion to do all the plan­ning, gear prep and grunt work re­quired to man­age the full 100km on a solo ba­sis. We’d be­gun the day be­fore, at Cas­tle Cove, and were each day do­ing slightly dif­fer­ent stretches to the off icial sec­tions that make up the full eight-day GOW (see map op­po­site).

The en­tire GOW starts at Apollo Bay, 150km south­west of Mel­bourne. The track clings to the coast along

the Ot­way Range, through patches of eu­ca­lypts and rain­for­est, then up over un­du­lat­ing cliff tops and hills, and down to wind- and wave-bat­tered beaches. Ev­ery­one walks in a west­erly di­rec­tion to­wards the walk’s iconic end point at the Twelve Apos­tles. The most spec­tac­u­lar views are found in these western sec­tions, where walk­ers climb to some of Aus­tralia’s high­est sea cliffs at Moon­light Head and spy rem­nants of the many ships sunk along this tract of the Ship­wreck Coast at Wreck Beach.

THE BEAU­TI­FUL AND var­ied walk is no­tion­ally split in two – the ‘mild side’ in the east, from Apollo Bay to the Aire River camp­site; and the more dra­matic scenery of the ‘wild side’ in the west, from Aire River to the Twelve Apos­tles. We be­gan a short way into the wild side at Cas­tle Cove, and on our first af­ter­noon spent four hours walking 6.5km to Jo­hanna Beach. “A lot of peo­ple think the last four days are the best, and con­stantly walking to­wards the Apos­tles is the way that peo­ple want to do it,” Mitchell said.

Cas­tle Cove is the only place along the route where the Great Ocean Road and GOW meet. Although the two fol­low the same stretch of coast, much of the road is in­land, mean­ing the walk of­fers a dis­tinct ad­van­tage.

“The dif­fer­ence be­tween what you see from a car and when you’re walking is chalk and cheese,” said Julie Henry from Pacif ic Palms, NSW. Julie did the walk with her sis­ters, who ranged in age from 52 to 63, to cel­e­brate her 60th birth­day. “When you drive you come to lit­tle van­tage points. You jump out, have a look, take a cou­ple of pho­tos and get back in the car. You don’t see the coast­line at all, un­til you come to an­other view­point. But when you walk it, you’re ac­tu­ally walking along the coast…it’s mag­i­cal.”

One of the ben­e­fits of the GOW is that it’s a rel­a­tively easy track, which makes it suit­able for hik­ers of dif­fer­ent lev­els, from novices to ex­pe­ri­enced bush­walk­ers. Julie had never at­tempted a multi-day walk be­fore, but, de­spite hav­ing had a hip re­place­ment, she had lit­tle trou­ble car­ry­ing out the walk.

The guided ver­sion of­fers a 40km op­tion, as well as the 56km ver­sion that in­cludes added ‘en­durance’ sec­tions each day. This means walk­ers of dif­fer­ent abil­i­ties can ex­pe­ri­ence the GOW to­gether, while choos­ing op­tions to suit their abil­i­ties.

The walk’s prox­im­ity to the Great Ocean Road of­fers an­other ben­e­fit. You can do things solo – car­ry­ing your own food, wa­ter and gear, and stay­ing at the ba­sic camp­sites along the way – or you can go with one of the guided op­tions and get dropped off at the track and then picked up each day, and driven to lo­cal ac­com­mo­da­tion.

The beauty of this walk “is that it’s ac­ces­si­ble to ev­ery­one, from some­one who wants to carry 30kg and their own tent, right through to some­body who just wants to carry a 4kg day­pack and have a bit of lux­ury”, Mitchell said.

“The dif­fer­ence be­tween what you see from a car and when walking is chalk and cheese.”

Shortly af­ter Cas­tle Cove, we passed Di­nosaur Cove, where im­por­tant fos­sils have been found by Mu­se­ums Vic­to­ria sci­en­tists, paint­ing a pic­ture of life in Aus­tralia 115 mil­lion years ago dur­ing the Early Cre­ta­ceous. We fin­ished our first day at Jo­hanna Beach, where we walked bare­foot along­side the break­ing surf and spot­ted f locks of shore­birds.

This beach is one of the nu­mer­ous spots along this coast linked to tales of dis­as­ter. Here, in 1843, a bar­que called the Joanna was grounded while sail­ing from Launce­s­ton to Port Fairy. No­body was killed and the crew sur­vived the eight-day walk to Gee­long with help from lo­cal Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple. How­ever, a sub­se­quent dis­as­trous sal­vage oper­a­tion to re­claim the Joanna’s cargo of brandy, sugar and f lour did re­sult in two deaths. The beach and river here came to be known as ‘Jo­hanna’ fol­low­ing the er­ror of a sign writer for the now de­funct Jo­hanna Post Of­fice.

Jo­hanna Beach is a high­light of the walk and its fear­some swells make it an ideal spot to hold the fa­mous in­ter­na­tional surf­ing com­pe­ti­tion nor­mally held at Bells Beach, on the rare oc­cur­rence that con­di­tions aren’t suit­able there. Tak­ing the full force of waves that roll in from Bass Strait, it’s easy to see why none of the beaches we pass is suit­able for swim­ming.

THE SEC­OND DAY of our walk brought the snakes and the chal­lenge of cov­er­ing more than 20km, much of it up and down hill through rugged stretches with windswept head­lands. I en­joyed walking through d amp g u l l ies with preh is­tor ic-look ing tree ferns, and tak­ing in spec­tac­u­lar coastal views at Ryans Den as we ate our packed lunches.

But the third day was by far my favourite. Start­ing at Moon­light Head, we walked to The Gables and fin­ished for the day swim­ming, or sim­ply sooth­ing tired feet, in the cold but re­fresh­ing wa­ters of the Gel­li­brand River, near the set­tle­ment of Prince­town.

This sec­tion took in many dif­fer­ent views and veg­e­ta­tion types. In the morn­ing we spent an hour and a half walking through dense gum for­est with rib­bon bark and mess­mate be­fore pop­ping out un­ex­pect­edly on head­lands with great coastal views. Amid these eu­ca­lypts we found lovely pinky-pur­ple rosy hy­acinth or­chids in full bloom. Also along the track were black­woods, myr­tle beeches and Xan­th­or­rhoea grass trees. Sadly, the Xan­th­or­rhoea along this coast­line have been badly hit by root rot fun­gus, ne­ces­si­tat­ing boot-wash­ing sta­tions. Oc­ca­sion­ally we spot­ted kan­ga­roo ap­ples, bush tucker once buried by lo­cal Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple in the sand to stop birds from eat­ing it.

Reached by de­scend­ing 350 steps, Wreck Beach is yet an­other re­minder of the more than 600 ships that have come to grief along the Ship­wreck Coast. If the tide is low enough you can see, wedged in the rock, the an­chors of both the Fiji and the Marie Gabrielle, wrecked in 1891 and 1869, re­spec­tively. The Marie Gabrielle was a French ves­sel car­ry­ing tea from China, while the wreck of the Fiji is in­fa­mous for the deaths of a group of sailors who were swept away by the roil­ing wa­ters.

Stop­ping for lunch at Devils Kitchen, we spied bril­liantly blue male fairy wrens bounc­ing about in the

fo­liage. At other points we heard the dis­tinc­tive squawk of yel­low-tailed black cock­a­toos f ly­ing high over­head.

ON OUR FOURTH and fi­nal day we were on the home stretch with a pleas­ant and none-tootax­ing 8km stroll from the Old Coach Road, near Prince­town, to the Twelve Apos­tles. Along the way we passed through windswept scrub, with tea-trees and coastal wat­tle; and also sec­tions with ground-hug­ging cush­ion plants and na­tive rose­mary.

Early on we spied the fa­mous sea stacks, some as tall as 20-storey build­ings and etched into my mind from a thou­sand pho­to­graphs. They passed in and out of view with the un­du­la­tions of the track. There was a view­ing plat­form be­fore we reached Gib­son Steps that pro­vided a good op­por­tu­nity to get self ies with the Apos­tles as a back­drop.

These steps were per­haps cre­ated by Kir­rae Whur­rong Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple, but they were carved into the cliff in their mod­ern form in 1869 by set­tler Hugh Gib­son, who built nearby Gle­nam­ple Homestead. The 86 steps brought us to a beach where we mar­velled at the 70m cliffs and two lime­stone stacks – dubbed Gog and Ma­gog – that are not off icially part of the Twelve Apos­tles.

For the first time in our four days on the GOW we were shar­ing the trail with large num­bers of other walk­ers, who had headed out on the 1km track from the Twelve Apos­tles Vis­i­tors Cen­tre. For the mem­bers of my walking party, the rel­a­tive soli­tude we’d ex­pe­ri­enced on the track un­til this point was a real high­light. “There aren’t hun­dreds of peo­ple out there in your way, you might just see a cou­ple of peo­ple to say hello to, but you felt as if you owned the track,” said Karen Mor­ris, 66, from Mel­bourne. “The views are just spec­tac­u­lar, and it was peace­ful and quiet.”

But now, less than a kilo­me­tre out from the sea stacks – only seven of which re­main above the waves – the time for ref lec­tion was over. We had one fi­nal high­light left to en­joy, how­ever: a scenic he­li­copter f light over the Apos­tles and the neigh­bour­ing coast. Danc­ing through the waves be­neath us was a pod of dol­phins – sleek, beau­ti­ful crea­tures, of­fer­ing us one f inal, de­light­ful wildlife en­counter to savour on this mem­o­rable few days spent ex­plor­ing the Vic­to­rian coast­line.

THANKS: John Pickrell and AUS­TRALIAN GEO­GRAPHIC thank the Twelve Apos­tles Lodge Walk and Visit Vic­to­ria.

The an­chor from the Marie Gabrielle wreck, on Wreck Beach at Moon­light Head, hints at the tur­bu­lent sea­far­ing past of this stretch of coast­line.

Walk­ers tackle the Mi­lane­sia Gate to Moon­light Head part of the track. This sec­tion is graded hard but of­fers spec­tac­u­lar views to the Cape Ot­way Light­sta­tion.

Walk­ers along the broad yel­low sands of Jo­hanna Beach of­ten have the place to them­selves, although the wa­ters here are pop­u­lar with surfers.

Sweep­ing coastal vis­tas de­fine the The Great Ocean Walk, which al­ter­nates be­tween beach sec­tions and walks along the cliff tops.

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