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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Gypsy Point

Last week I went away with friends to a beautiful spot called Gypsy Point near Mallacoota. For once no tents were involved, but rather the luxury of a bungalow with beds and a great  barbecue area where we cooked our dinners. We drove down on the Friday morning, indulging in a steak and mushroom pie at the bakery in Nimmitabel and arrived at around mid-afternoon in Gypsy Point. We unpacked the car, including many bottles of wine, and settled in on the terrace to enjoy the surrounding and wait for our other friend to arrive from  Melbourne. Life was good, particularly when we uncorked/unscrewed a bottle of wine and  pondered the bird life around us. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me, but there really were seven sea eagles circling above the trees on the other side of the river. They were too far away to photograph, but I was mesmerised by seeing that number of birds together. Dinner was lamb chops and steaks and sausages, generously lubricated by many bottles of wine and consumed outside in front of a woodfire in the company of good friends. Bliss.

The next day the weather was not brilliant and a bit cool, but after a cooked breakfast we decided to set out for a short bushwalk. Well, it was supposed to be a short one, as in 6 kilometres. The reality was that it was close to 11 kilometres and it took us about 2 hours. Still, it was a good outing and we felt we had deserved our (late) lunch and yet another bottle of wine. The plan had been all day that we would do some canoeing and by 4pm we realised that if we did not get ourselves moving away from the dining table, there would be no time for paddling the next day. So off we went, at first a bit wobbly, irregular in our paddling and prone to veering across the river like a drunken sailor, but eventually we worked it out and held a nice constant course. It was beautiful and peaceful, particularly with the deepening light of the late afternoon. The river meanders through the bush, in places very shallow, and harbours much bird and fish life. On our return some of us were able to see stingrays feasting on schools of fish. Suitably our dinner also consisted of fish and seafood, although in our case barbecued, and indeed consumed with yet another bottle or two of vino.

Cruelly, the next morning dawned bright blue and sunny, without even the hint of a breeze, and that was the day we had to leave again. I was sorely tempted to stay another night, but alas, no chance. So after a nice breakfast, we all set off to our respective homes again. Our Canberra posse decided to take a different route back, along the coast and eventually it was decided that it would be good to drive up to Cobargo and drive through Wadbilliga National Park back to Cooma. Great idea in theory, the practice was a little different. We had noticed that the unsealed road at one point would turn into a ‘track’ for a couple of kilometres, but before we even got there the road was pretty bad already and at one point we had to stop the car and sure enough one of the tyres was flat. But it wasn’t just flat; it was gone, blown to bits. I’ve never quite seen a tyre like it. In any case, we had to unload the car, pull out the spare and change the tyres. All that done we continued on our way, all three of us with some inner nervousness, not verbalised to one another until we had made it out of the National Park. If another one would blow, we had no spare tyres left and would face a long walk to civilisation.

After a picnic near the Wadbilliga River we continued on the bit that was marked as ‘track’ on the map and it certainly wasn’t good. You really needed a 4WD for this bit, which fortunately we had, and we drove carefully, quietly hoping nothing else would go wrong. Eventually we came through it, but not before the final obstacle, which was crossing the Tuross River. Not deep, but hard to assess sometimes whether there are any deep holes in the crossing or big rocks, but we went through without a hitch and soon found ourselves on sealed roads again, quite a wonderful experience after all that bumping around. The trip was certainly worth it though, to have a look at the National Park. It looked really beautiful, but clearly not easy to get to. From Cooma it was just another hour and a bit before we made it back to the ‘berra and back to another working week.

In the Wild Dog Mountains

It has been a long winter here for Australian standards, but at long last Inner Game laced up her hiking boots again and went out on an overnight walk, which was well overdue. My old bushwalking buddy D and I had planned this weekend for a while and explored different options in the Blue Mountains, close to where he lives. After much email to and fro we settled on a walk to Mt Dingo and Splendour Rock starting in the Megalong Valley near Blackheath. A map was bought, GPS maps were downloaded, local experts consulted (read: D’s mad geocaching friends) and water requirements meticulously calculated, water being unreliable in the area. Given we had to carry in all our water, our equipment and food was pared down to the bare minimum.

The weather was perfect with a forecast for 15C on the Saturday and 18C on Sunday and, most importantly, no rain. We drove into the Blue Mountains on Saturday morning and made it to Dunphys Camp Ground just on 11am, which was a bit behind our planned schedule. My pack held about 5 litres of water, while D carried a bit more: 8 litres. And the first thing we had to do after leaving the car was work our way up a very steep fire trail. It certainly got the circulation going.

After two hours we left the fire trail behind and started to see our objective, Mt Dingo. We started following a much smaller track, which had quite a bit of undergrowth and fallen trees to negotiate. At the junction where we were hoping to descend from Mt Warrigal the next day, we left some water hidden in a hollow tree to help us cover the distance back to the car on Sunday. I thought our progress was taking longer than anticipated, but D had expected us to take that long. We couldn’t find the turn off to Mt Merrimerrigal near Hobbs Swamp and so continued on to where D’s GPS indicated where the track went straight up Mt Dingo. Sure enough we found the cairn indicating the turn off just before 5pm and headed up the steep incline. Eventually the track got to some cliffs and after some exploration we realised there was only one way and that was clambering up the cliffs with our packs. Not being the most nimble on rocks, I was a bit nervous at first, but I was doing OK and before too long we hauled ourselves out of the rocks and picked up the track again.

If only we had known that the prettiest campsites were on the right! But we took the left turn, walked up Mt Dingo and found ourselves a spot there. It was also right on sunset, so we knew we didn’t have the luxury to scope the place out and quickly set up the tent and built ourselves a small fire to keep us warm while cooking dinner. Never did freeze dried food taste so good and we didn’t even have wine to wash it down with. The 14K walk had taken us 6.5 hours and so it was an early mark for two weary walkers.

The next morning dawned bright and clear, but it was cold and the crackers with Nutella, albeit tasty, were not as warming as good old porridge would have been, but anything that would have required us to carry more water had been ruled out in our planning. After breakfast we packed up camp and left our backpacks leaning against some trees while we went to explore Splendour Rock, the real objective of the walk. It was only five minutes from where we had camped and we soon came across some very nice campsites. I enjoyed the view from the rock, while D went in search of the cache hidden there. He looked mighty pleased with himself when he found it.

Just after eight we were on the move again, this time following the track across Mt Dingo before scrambling over rocks downhill to Dingo Gap, the saddle with Mt Merrimerrigal. Then the track moved uphill again and we crossed an open rocky expanse filled with scrub, which is known as Playground of the Dingoes, a delightful spot. Then came some very interesting scrambling over rocks and through a sort of tunnel to descend to the Warrigal Gap with Mt Warrigal, before taking a track that skirts it, known as the Wombat Parade. It was a bit of a tricky walk at times, it being sloping and a bit slippery due to she oak needles, so you had to keep your wits about you. I was certainly grateful for my trekking poles. From Blackhorse Gap, the descent down to the track junction wasn’t too bad and we found our water waiting for us in the hollow tree, nice and cool.

By this stage we were making pretty good time and we got back onto the fire trail about 40 minutes later. After a short drink stop we practically motored our way back along the fire trail (what a difference it makes to not carry all that water!) and got back to the car at 1pm, which meant we had taken only 4.5 hours for the return walk. At least for the last two hours of our walk we had been thinking about the massive burger we would soon have in Blackheath, but nothing could prepare us for the disappointment when we discovered the shop was closed up. However, a meat and mushroom pie and squashy rhubarb cake from the local baker soon soothed our hungry stomachs.

So how exact were our water calculations? Pretty good, I’m pleased to report! We had sufficient water to drink on our way in and in our campsite on Mt Dingo. We each had about a litre and a bit for getting down the mountain to our water drop on the second day, and after we picked that up had another 1.5 litres between us. I finished my water in the last 15 minutes, safe in the knowledge that we had another 2 litres in the car to quench any thirst once we got there. It was a bit heavy to carry it all in, but it was nice to be comfortable knowing that you have enough water with you, noting of course that we were lucky with the weather in that it wasn’t hot.

A final note on safety: the National Parks Service in the Blue Mountains offers a free service in loaning you an EPIRB (also known as Personal Locator Beacon). We picked one up on our way in, just in case one of us would become incapacitated, and dropped it back (obviously unused) on our way out.  A great service and I wouldn’t want to walk any other way.