Australia’s Great Ocean Walk Across Victoria
By Max Hartshorne
I flew to Australia in February to take a walk–a very long walk. My hike was on a trail that could easily be called the finest stretch of track in the southern hemisphere.
It’s called the Great Ocean Walk, and it winds its way along the very bottom edge of the state of Victoria, 91 kilometers in all. The trail looks out on the Southern Ocean, somewhere far beyond Tazzy (Tasmania) lies the lonely, frozen continent of Antarctica.
The trail, concieved in 1974, was begun in stages beginning in 2002. The last phase of construction was completed in 2006. On our summer walking journey, we saw areas that are still under construction along the walk: places where bush is being cut and walkways are being built over swampy areas.
The Great Ocean Walk parallels another stellar Victria tourist attraction, the Great Ocean Road. For those who aren’t up for such a long walk, driving along this road gives you some of the same incredible vistas and ends in the same dramatic place, the Twelve Apostles, in Glenample Homestead.
Along this beautiful stretch of road, you see glimpses of the ocean, and it’s almost as nice as walking it up close. The Great Ocean Road begins just beyond the town of Apollo Bay, a little ring of commerce by a sandy swimming beach.
There is a big wooden marker and a bronze statue depicting the former soldiers of the second world war who were put to work blasting this road along the sea. Before the 1940s, there was no road connecting these farming towns.
Long haul and day hikers welcome
The trail is set up for both long-haul hikers and those who want do just dip in for a day or two. Most people complete the entire trail’s length is between five and seven nights. My guide, Greg Denney, of Auswalks, told me how he remembered his father cutting the trail with a borrowed bulldozer.
Greg had fond memories of the time his mum brought them all lunch, walking way, way down this path from their farm about 2 kilometers above where they were working.
That’s a devoted Aussie wife for ya! To get to the walk starting point, we drove from the Melbourne Airport about 2 1/2 hours to Geelong, an industrial city famous for being the home of Ford Motor Company.
It has a working-class feel. We made a stop at a particularly cozy little cafe called Go! where there was a cute courtyard filled with locals enjoying an eclectic array of lunchtime goodies.
Geelong is famous for being the home of one of Victoria’s best Footie (Australian rules football) teams.
Sated with a flat white and fortified with pastries, we continued our journey to Lorne a tiny beach town and drove inland up into the hills to meet an artist who runs a cafe with cabins he rents. Graeme Wilkie is the artist and proprietor of the qdos cafe, and his medium is Japanese pottery, which he fires in a giant white kiln heated by wood.
All around him were examples of his giant sculptures. We enjoyed a fine repast including something we’d see often in the following weeks: lots of Victorian wines to sample. We sat outside amidst soaring gum trees, enjoying a lunch cooked in their kitchen’s wood-fired oven.
Chris’s Beacon Point
The next day we’d begin the hike, and the night’s accommodations were at Chris’s Beacon Point, owned by a Greek family and famous for burning to the ground once and emerging like the phoenix even more spectacular.
Like many of the restaurants we dined at during the trip, this gourmet fare isn’t cheap, but then again, look at this amazing view!
Chris’ has a long history, first opening up here in 1979 and is all pinewood, with floor to ceiling glass walls that let diners soak in the view. When it was first built it seated just 30 diners and eventually was expanded into two levels to accommodate 120. In 2003 it was destroyed by a massive fire, and later that same year it was rebuilt to the way it looks today.
Greek Heritage Baked In
Dinner had Chris Talihmanidis’ Greek heritage baked right in. An eggplant dish called Imam Bayaldi was slow-cooked stuffed halved eggplant with onion, feta, herbs, and pine nuts, subtle and redolent of that wonderful meaty vegetable’s delicious taste.
Then a fillet of a New Zealand fish called harpuka, flaky and simply grilled. Marvelous! After this repast, I slept well, ready to take on this incredible walk. My first day would be the most rigorous, 22 kilometers over varied terrain but including rain coming down that made the trail muddy and dampened our spirits.
My guide Greg and I set out at about 9 am from Apollo Bay, and in the first ten minutes, we spotted a swamp wallaby in the bush. It’s not the woods, he told me, it’s the bush, and it’s not lumber they cut, it’s timber. Gotta get the Aussie vernacular right!
Logging Roads and Mud
The walk took us over a muddy former logging road and later back into the woods. Towering eucalyptus trees with bark hanging down were the mainstay of the forest, and in places, there was the deep cover of waist-high ferns. Then we saw some ferns the size of a human, it looked like they were out of Jurassic Park.
Koalas Are Common
It wasn’t long before we spotted another common animal here, a koala, who sat sleeping up in the low branches of trees or occasionally munching on leaves. These creatures were so docile that we reached up to pet it, and he posed happily for photos as we got as close as two feet.
As we walked on the trail wound its way over to the top of towering cliffs, and far down below the ocean waves crashed on a deserted shore. Shipwrecks were very common here and on one beach we came upon several pieces of wood that were part of a ship that came over from the US to carry materials that were to be exhibited at the Great Exposition of 1880 in Melbourne. But the crowds never got to see them since the ship splintered apart on the rocks.
Walking in the Same Direction
One nice thing about how the Great Ocean Walk was set up is that everyone walks from east to west…so it’s rare to run into anyone while you’re hiking. That adds to the mystery and keeps the attention focused on the wildlife, the spectacular scenery, and the trail ahead.
The only people we saw at all on our first day were when we stopped into a hut at Blanket Bay. There, a group of eight university women were on the second day of their seven-day trek down the trail.
They were studying tourism and travel, a popular major and attended Latrobe University in Victoria. They were well prepared, with a box of wine, about to settle into their campsites for the night even though it was still early in the day. They had paced themselves well, I guess.
These hikers had planned ahead, as do many others, by stashing a cache of food halfway down the track that they would retrieve later in the week. There are services such as Auswalk which arrange all of the transfer of luggage and pick up their guests to take them to their accommodations.
But as we discovered, many Aussies prefer to do the walk using their own planning and clever use of a few vehicles one at the end and one at the beginning. About half of the travelers on the walk use the services of a guide, others do it all by themselves.
One twenty-something Canadian hiker told us that he was trying to beat his own record for how long it would take to do the whole 91 km. He said he did it in five last time and now he was trying to best his record.
He had no camping permits and said that despite the prevalence of park rangers, most of the time they don’t hassle hikers without the paid permits.
The college women, however, had everything in order: campsite reservations cost $29 per night, and there are three dedicated group camping areas, at Elliot Ridge, Blanket Bay and Cape Otway.
There are raised platforms, convenient for eating meals on, and large open structures with a table inside (too small to sleep in) which are perfect for having your meals and relaxing with fellow hikers.
Giant tanks next to each structure hold rainwater and despite the signs that say it’s not potable water, my guide Greg told me that it’s fine to drink since it’s simply collected rainwater. But it’s not a bad idea to bring a filter either!
Skinny Dippers Beware of the Tides
The girls told a funny story about how they went skinny dipping here and their clothes began to get washed away by the waves. They gingerly made their way back to camp, much to the delight of a few male hikers who happened to be passing by at such an opportune hour.
We hiked on, and on, and past more dramatic scenes where a river met the shore and followed the blue markers that clearly point the hikers in the right direction.
After passing more koalas, and beginning to feel the heat on my feet, I was relieved when Greg told me that we only had a half kilometer left in the day’s walk. A spot of tea, dry socks and a chance to reflect on the journey made the whole hard hike totally worth it.
The accommodations for our first night on the trail was the luxurious and curiously-named Great Ocean Ecolodge.
Sure, they do have solar panels and try and make as light a footprint as they can by recycling, using local foods and other initiatives, but the place food is far and away better than what you’d expect from a mere ecolodge!
Over Victoria-grown Chardonnay and paella, I met a couple from England who were at the lodge as part of a five-week vacation down under.
They were planning on driving the Great Ocean Walk and we talked about their plans for the next day. They would make a stop at the historic Cape Otway Lightstation, take the tour of the light and find out (as I did) about the history and use of signal flags and the days when the lamp was tended by a real light keeper.
Later in the week, they’d drive the Great Ocean Road down to the dramatic limestone sea stacks known as the Twelve Apostles.
My guide, Greg told me he worked her for a few months guiding the tourists and telling the story of the Cape Otway Light, and the background of the WWII radar bunker and the signal flags that are still flown from the big flagpoles that look out on this ferocious sea. “If you traveled far, far in that direction, you’d hit Antarctica,” Greg said.
One of the highlights of the trail is how common it is to see wildlife. Wallabies, which resemble small kangaroos, are very frequently seen hopping around in the bush, and the koalas are a very common sight in the first half of the trail, when the trees that they like to eat are more common.
Since they sleep up to 18 hours a day, they often don’t mind if you pet them, sitting up there in the trees. We saw one mama koala clutching a tiny baby.
Another animal that’s seen here is the echidna, a small anteater. It has the spikes of a porcupine and a snout that’s perfect for vacuuming up its favorite dish, ants. Like many of these marsupials who are unique to this faraway continent/country the echidna doesn’t fear man, and in fact, barely runs away when approached by people.
Same with the koalas, wallabies, and kangaroos. Just don’t that the skittishness we find commonly in animals in other parts of the world.
While the beginning of the trail had taken us over former logging roads and sometimes far away from the main attraction–the ocean–in the next few days we got closer to the shore, and caught many amazing vistas of the remote beaches that lie below this fantastic trail.
The Twelve Apostles
And at the very end, after a 91-kilometer trek, our great prize awaited: the magnificent Twelve Apostles, 300-foot tall limestone edifices that are constantly being eroded by the sea and undergo changes every day. (In 2020, there are now actually 11 apostles, having lost one through erosion).
At the end of the trail, there is a large visitor’s center and promontories that take you along the cliffs with high walls to keep people from falling over. My guide Greg told me that when he was a kid there were no such fences and people used to walk way, way out, tempting fate here at this precarious perch.
While you can no longer dangle your feet over the dangerous cliffs, this trail has never looked better….so if you’re looking for an unparalleled walking experience with plenty of wildlife and very friendly local people, the Great Ocean Walk is a perfect answer.
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