The Great Ocean Walk

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Having returned to Australia after finishing my time in Brazil I had great plans (and in fact had been preparing them for months) to walk the Australian Alps Walking Track, but the weather this year did not co-operate. Shortly after returning it became evident very quickly that I would have to postpone the six-week walk indefinitely, given that the Main Range was still covered in snow, rivers had swollen and in some cases were flooding, and furious winds were unrooting trees. It did not make for the environment to do a solo walk in and although I was disappointed to pull the pin on it; I knew it was the right thing to put a halt to my plans.

For a consolation walk I looked at various options and the Great Ocean Walk came out as the best option; it being easily accessible and generally described as a stunning walk. It starts in Apollo Bay (reachable by taking the train to Geelong and then switching to a bus) and finishes at the Twelve Apostles (also serviced by public transport: by bus to Warrnambool and then a long train ride back to Melbourne). Although the walk can be compressed in a few long days, I decided to opt for the more leisurely version of eight days, camping at each of the sites that have been created for walkers. It makes for easy walking days and plenty of time to enjoy the surroundings after reaching the next campsite.

Duly stocked up with food for eight days (much of it sourced from the ample provisions I had put together for the 6-week walk), I set out for Apollo Bay and arrived as rain swept through the town. But the sky looked promising, the rain soon dried up and the sun came out as I started the walk. The first bit takes you through town and along the road until you get to the beaches and then it becomes prettier as a walk. The path was pretty muddy from recent rain, so the gaiters came in handy. After the third section the path turned inland and uphill, then downhill to cross the Elliott River after which is turned very steep to climb up to the campsite for the night – Elliott Ridge campsite. A few people were already set up, but there were plenty available sites and a nice shelter to cook in and water available from rainwater tanks.

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The next morning was beautiful and by about 9am I was underway for the next section, which meanders through wet Eucalypt forest. The ground continues wet and muddy and I’m glad I get to do this section on a dry day and not a rainy day. One section is a bit tricky with the mud slowing me down quite a bit. Eventually the turquoise sea starts to shimmer through the trees and the path descends to the beach. The campsite for tonight – Blanket Bay – is tucked in just behind the beach and I’m the first person to arrive, so I have the pick of the sites. After setting up the tent, I have some lunch and need to chase away an inquisitive magpie who is after my ham and cheese. The rest of the afternoon I spend enjoying the beautiful surrounding, going for a walk on the beach and the rock platforms nearby and relaxing in the sun.

The forecast had predicted rain to come in the late evening, but it only arrives in the early hours of the morning and it really buckets down. My plan was to wait out the rain and then get going, but with its late arrival, it is also going to take longer to clear, so I get up before things get too saturated. That is when I discover that something has had a go at my food supply bag. Initially I suspect the magpies, but a ranger later tells me that it would have been possums. The food bag is ripped apart, all my ham, salami and cheese is gone, so are my nuts and cranberry snacks. I have to hunt in the rain, picking up soggy zip lock bags, gathering trash and remaining food and doing an inventory of what I still have. Will it be enough to complete the walk? Lunches are going to be lean – just a cup soup each day and a thin slice of mountain bread. And I’m one breakfast short, but it should work. Just.

After a meagre breakfast, I set out in the rain, coming across three men in yellow ponchos with big backpacks going in the opposite direction. The rain continues unabated, but with all my rain gear on I should be OK. The path goes uphill first and then, after a while, descends to Parker Inlet. It’s described as beautiful, but that beauty is hard to see in the rain. I was keen to get here as early as possible to reach it at low tide to cross the stream and the estuary. It looks fairly shallow, but it has a lot of current and the crossing of it results in soggy socks and shoes for me. I don’t know why I didn’t think about taking my socks and shoes off, but there you go, the damage is done. On the other side the path climbs uphill and continues on to Cape Otway. The rain continues too, making me feel colder and colder, as the wet is starting to seep through my rain gear. I’m holding out for a hot cup of coffee at the cafe at Cape Otway, but am sorely disappointed to discover that I can’t access the cafe, unless I pay A$19.50 entry fee to see the lighthouse. That’s a rip-off in my opinion and so I refuse to pay it, just buying a few snack bars to top up my diminished food supplies and continuing on to the camp site, which is not far off. There in the shelter I start boiling water for hot soup and tea to get myself warm. After about an hour the three poncho men wander in, dripping wet and cold, like me. We all huddle together in the shelter drinking hot beverages until the rain finally becomes lighter and eventually stops altogether. That moment galvanises all of us into action, stringing up lines to dry wet clothes, partially setting up tents to let them dry out and basking in the sun when it comes out eventually. Everything has time to dry, except for my socks and boots. The other four walkers from Blanket Bay camp eventually arrive as well. They had cleverly negotiated down the lighthouse for a A$10 entry fee and had a nice hot lunch in the cafe. Smart people!

The fourth day is another easy walk and I’m not walking until just shortly before 10am. The track meanders over the cliff tops, at first still in a bit of returning rain, but then it dries out with the sun coming out, but definitely windy conditions. The sea below is hammering the coast in big swells. Eventually I get to Aire River, where I meet the family of four again, who very kindly offer to take my trash from the first four days. The walk-in campsite is above the car camping site and again I have the pick of the sites. I have time to do some laundry and get that dry in the windy conditions. Later in the afternoon I am joined by Catherine and Sidney, from Virginia in the USA. As we share the shelter we chat and I learn that they are here for a conference, but planned in the hike for a bit of sightseeing. They are doing double days all the way, having started that day at Cape Otway and continuing tomorrow to Ryan’s Den, before walking out on their third day. They are obviously used to long kilometres and are fit and fast walkers.

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The next day is beautiful and sunny and we catch up with each other regularly along the way. Today’s track is fantastic, with lots of cliff top walking, revealing expansive views before dropping down into a more forested area. I see several swamp wallabies on this section. After about three hours of walking, we get to Johanna Beach, a wide and beautiful sandy beach, which makes for tougher walking with our packs. We are getting there in time for low tide to cross the river. This was definitely a socks and shoes off crossing and we wade barefoot through the strong and freezing current, which reaches up to our calves. Afterwards we sit on some rocks to put our socks and shoes back on and that is when we fail to spot the track leading up from the beach. So we walk to the end of the beach and then have to backtrack again to the rocky patch before finding our exit. From there it goes up the hill again to the Johanna Beach walk in camp site, which has to be the best one of the whole walk. Catherine and Sidney walk with me to there before continuing their hike to Ryan’s Den. They still have quite a bit of walking to do, while I get to pick the best site with stunning views of Johanna Beach. I discover a bladder of wine, left by a previous hiker with a note attached to enjoy, which I most certainly do while reading my book and promptly falling asleep in the sun.

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The next morning I’m up early again and set out at 8am, which is earlier than I had planned. The walk uphill towards Milanesia is easier than anticipated and I come across various kangaroos. Somewhere along this section I lose my spork, as I discover much later, posing yet another challenge to my nourishment. After getting to Milanesia beach and crossing the stream (being much wiser now in beach crossings I manage to keep my shoes on and dry), the track heads uphill, and downhill, uphill and downhill and so on for the next few kilometres, until I’m cursing the track. Ryan’s Den camp is another nice one, but the sites are more hidden and you have to walk up to the grassy knoll to get to a seat from where you have the great views. As I’m eating my lunch some young kids come through asking the way to Milanesia Beach. I try to tell them that it’s a long way and that they still have a long way back to Wreck Beach carpark, but they don’t listen and blunder off straightaway into the bush. Due to the loss of my spork, dinner this night is eating the rice curry with fingers, which works remarkably well.

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I wake up to light rain on and off and a strong wind blowing. Packed up I try to boil water in the shelter, but the wind blows straight into it and the water takes ages to reach a boil and then doesn’t really. So I don’t linger long there and set out on my walk. It’s more up and downhill with some beautiful views popping up in between, making it well worth the effort. After the up and downhill the track veers off into a forested valley, which makes for pleasant and easy walking, eventually coming out at The Gables carpark. From there I continue on to Wreck Beach, but choose to walk over the tops, rather than descend the endless steps to the beach. The final camp site, Devil’s Kitchen, is reached soon and with tent up and the final lunch consumed, I can relax and read my book.

The next morning features a very fine and misty rain and eager to be on my way for the final stretch, I am packed up by 7:30am. An hour later the rain has increased to persistent, soaking rain, which eases up by the time I get to the Gellibrand River. At this stage I’m already soaked through, including shoes and even through my rain jacket. After consuming my last snack bar, I keep walking until I reach catch first sight of the Twelve Apostles ahead. From there I continue in a steady pace until reaching the Visitors Centre. I’m delighted to discover they sell good coffee and indulge in one with a sausage roll to soothe my rumbling tummy. Then the weather finally clears fully and I go out for a look at the Twelve Apostles. Apparently only seven are left nowadays, but it’s still a beautiful sight. Waiting for the bus I manage to dry my tent in the sun, as well as my clothes, but my boots and socks stay wet until I’m back in Melbourne, much later that night. But a hot shower takes care of those cold feet in no time and I’m back in civilisation.

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Escape to Ilha Grande

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The skies have finally opened properly and rain is thundering down on São Paulo, flooding its streets, soaking its inhabitants, who are all trying to get away from it, travelling to spend Christmas with family. It takes a good 50 minutes to travel the 8kms that lie between my home and the bus station. Once there, I have enough time to collect my ticket and make my way to the bay from which the bus will depart. It leaves right on time, heading out in the continuing torrential rain and joining the slow exodus on the highway. It takes a long time to get to the first stop at São Jose dos Campos, but after that the travel eases and the bus runs through the night, occasionally stopping for the driver to have a break and letting out an increasingly sleepy looking group of passengers.
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I wake just before we arrive at Angra dos Reis and after collecting my bag I find a taxi to take me to the cais from where the boats depart. There is still time for a coffee at the paderia suggested by the taxi driver and while the coffee is awful, the brioche is fantastic. Soon I’m on the first boat, a speedy vessel that deposits me on Ilha Grande in 30 minutes. The island is hidden in cloud, only slightly lighter in texture than on the mainland. Looks like the first day will be a rainy day. I arrive ridiculous early, but the room is ready about an hour after my arrival and I enjoy a bit of a rest in a hammock first before going for a stroll through the village of Abraão, towards the Black beach and back via the aqueduct. It rains steadily, but not too heavy and it is warm enough that I don’t really need the umbrella, except that my camera isn’t too fond of water. Most of the day I spend reading, sleeping and resting; I have underestimated how tiring the trip here has been and how tired I was to begin with.
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The next day it is still overcast, so perfect weather for a walk to Dois Rios, a small village on the other side of the island where previously the prison was located. The prison saw many serious criminals incarcerated, as well as political prisoners during the time that the armed forces were in power in Brazil. Although the prison itself has been demolished, parts of it still exist and have been turned into a small museum. The track meanders up the hill gradually and in the warm and humid conditions I am soon dripping with sweat. Near the top I get a great view over Abraão before heading over the hump and start descending on the other side. There is no one around, except for the howler monkeys who screech far off in the forest. It is an eerie sound, and while slightly threatening, it’s too far off and howler monkeys are not the aggressive kind of monkey anyway. Along the track I see many different birds, big lizards, the black and white tegus, but they are always too fast for my camera, diving back into the brush when they see me coming. Big bright blue butterflies dance around the path.
Once I get to Dois Rios I have a look at the remains of the prison and its little museum, before heading to the beach for a refreshing dip in the waves. After that I have a bit of lunch at the Barzinho (the little bar) before heading up the hill again. On the way up I stop at the Soldier’s Pool, a shaded waterhole and have another dip, this one substantially more refreshing than the beach, the water being nice and cool. From there a shortcut trail leads up the hill, which I follow, through thickets of bamboo, until it rejoins the main path again. The wind has picked up and increases as I ascend to the ridge. Just over the ridge as I start to go down again I notice that a large tree has crashed down and is now blocking the path. A little scramble later I’ve negotiated the obstacle, but more trees are creaking around me and partially collapsing in the wind, so I put the engine into fifth gear to get through this area as fast as possible. A little less than an hour later I am back in the village, where I first report the fallen tree to the police, as no one is able to get through to the other side now. After a good shower and a rest in the hammock, it is time for an early dinner and bed.
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The next day is Xmas morning, which dawns sunny and bright,  and with sore calf muscles I join the festivities at breakfast. Rennie, the manager/owner of Aratinga Inn, has created a fantastic atmosphere over breakfast, rushing about with champagne for her guests and soon the Christmas gifts are being handed out and opened by everyone. After the leisurely breakfast it is time to get my beach things together and make my way down to the quays to get on a boat that will take me and many, many other people to Pouso beach, from where a 20 minutes bush track leads to Lopes Mendes beach, which is truly one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen, which is saying something. Soft white sand, a pounding blue surf and an endless expanse of beach. Most people stick to the area where the track leads onto the beach, but I walk on to about mid-way on the beach and spread out my sarong there in the shade of a tree and go for a dip in the waves. Despite being in the shade and with sunscreen lathered on, I still manage to get a bit burned. Why is it that there is always some part of the body that gets missed with the sunscreen, never mind how much attention you pay to the application of it?! After a few hours I retrace my steps to the other beach and wait for the 17h30 boat back to Abraão.
Friday morning dawns sunny again and I decide to walk up to the Cachoeira da Feiticeira (the Witch’s Waterfall), which is bewitchingly refreshing when I finally get there after a long slog uphill in increasingly hot and humid conditions. After visiting the waterfall, I head down to Feiticeira beach, miss the turn off to a quieter beach next to it and end up spending a few hours on a small beach, enjoying cold coconut water and açai for lunch, before catching a taxi boat back to Abraão. Dinner is at Dom Mario’s where I eat a fabulous steak and make a new canine friend, who is patiently sitting by my side in the hope that some part of the steak or of the bacon in the rosti makes its way to him. Unfortunately for him, no such luck!
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Saturday is my last day on Ilha Grande and this morning the heat is so oppressive that the merest movement results in sweat running down. Together with other guests Alex and Adam the decision is made to take a taxi boat to a small beach near Abraão, called Abraãozinho, where we find a good spot in the shade to stay cool. We have a great day, chatting away over a variety of beer, mojitos and caipiroskas while eating fish and chips and doing as little as possible. Eventually it is time to make our way back to the pousada, so I can get ready to get on the boat and depart the island. Initially scheduled to take the night bus again, the large and very international family who have been staying at Aratinga for these days as well will not hear of me waiting so long for the bus and invite me to join them in their transport back to São Paulo, particularly as we discover that we live only a few blocks apart. It is wonderfully generous of them and I’m thrilled to accept the offer. On the way back we stop at Paraty for a great dinner and arrive at 3am in the morning back in a quiet big city, where I even get dropped off in front of my door.

Parque das Neblinas

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With a healed knee, it was time to set out for another foray into the Brazilian forest, or mata as they call it here. I opted for another organised walk with Ultreya Viagens, which doesn’t allow for much animal sightings with a group 18-strong, but does make for a very convivial day out.

We left Sao Paulo at 7am and headed out towards Mogi das Cruzes and from there in direction to Bertioga until we arrived at EcoFutures Parquet das Neblinas, which is perched on the escarpment and was reached after a long windy drive. After a quick coffee and an explanation of the walk, we headed out with guides Andrea and Gabriel, who explained about all the vegetation we saw on the way, including the bromeliad leaf featured above. The vegetation was full of exotic flowers and the inevitable mosquitoes, which despite liberal application of RID made a beeline for me.

The walk meandered along good paths towards the remnants of a river bed through which we gradually descended to a dam, which controlled the flow of water to the area below us. It culminated in a fantastic viewpoint from where we could see Bertioga and the beaches from afar. We had a quick snack there and then turned around to return the same way we came. The walk itself was easy, but posed some challenges for some of the newer recruits to walking, but everyone made it out and back and kept encouraging those who were struggling on the uphill on return.

Before we got back to our lunch at the visitors centre though, we detoured to a nice spot by the river and returned via the suspended catwalk to walk straight into the buffet that was laid out for us, and which was quite a feast. By 8pm I was back home and reflecting happily on a day spent outside of the concrete jungle and into the real one for a day.