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