Tuesday, March 17, 2020

No mountains, just ocean

The original plan had been to walk the next section of The Australian Alps Walking Track, from near Benambra in northern Victoria to Dead Horse Gap, our starting point for the last section we had trekked. As such, I had booked my flights back to Australia from Japan to coincide with a 10 day stretch in early March so my brother's leave could take advantage of the Canberra Day long weekend. This had been our previous strategy, as it's not only convenient for my brother, the only one of our trekking team with a regular job, but it's also a time of relative weather stability in the high country.

Unless you have been under a rock, you may remember that a very large proportion of the east coast of Australia went up in flames over the summer months. Iain, Matt and I had been anxiously following various fire and emergency services websites and by mid January it became obvious that the forests we wanted to walk through would be either burnt to a crisp or too dangerous to traverse due to tree fall risk. Iain contacted the appropriate authorities in Victoria and they informed him that access to those areas wouldn't be open again for several months. We had to come up with an alternative....

We decided to walk The Great Ocean Walk, an eight day jaunt between Apollo Bay and the Twelve Apostles, which are on The Great Ocean Road south of Melbourne. The walk has a few road access points so that it can be walked in smaller sections, or even walked with the help of trekking services which ferry your belongings and food between campsites. Since Matt's back was giving him a lot of grief, we thought this might be a good option, but as it turned out Matt had to pull out of the venture. So then there were two...

I had only four days to purchase, cook and dehydrate meals ready for the walk, but with the kitchen in the now vacant granny flat at my disposal it was an easy job. I had brought all my tramping gear over to Australia last year when I came over to look after mum, and had left it in Matt's garage when I went home to WA and then on to Japan. I seem to have belongings stored in people's garages all over the world!

Iain and I drove down to Victoria, bypassing Melbourne on the ring road, and headed out to Apollo Bay along the coast. It was a perfect day and we took our time enjoying the coastal scenery enroute.

From Apollo Bay the road heads inland, through the Great Otway National Park to Princetown, not far from the end of the walk. We booked in at the community campground for the night.

You can only do the walk from east to west, presumably to make booking of the limited campsites more streamlined. We began our walk from Princetown because we could leave Iain's truck at the campsite for a small fee. Another stunning day, with easy walking along coastal heath and sand, whilst the limestone formations of the famous landmark slowly came into view.  After walking for a couple of hours in solitude the crowds of tourists at The Twelve Apostles were a bit jarring.

We had arranged a taxi to drive us from the Twelve Apostles back to Apollo Bay, where we had booked accommodation at the local pub. A few weeks back we had actually pre-booked to stay at the first campsite south of Apollo Bay, as we still had the entire afternoon available. But the tide was coming in....

There are many sections of the walk that can only be traversed when the seas are low and the tide is out, and since we like to do the extra optional sections, it made sense to start the trek the next morning, because the tide would be on it's way out. So we spent our spare afternoon sampling the local craft brewed beer, the scallop pie and a good old dinner of burger and fries. We were up at the crack of dawn for a coffee at the local pie shop before heading off.

Once out of town we soon gained the beach and made our way, at times somewhat precariously, around the coastline. There were sandy beaches, and rocky ledges, with little signs at the beach heads to mark where the track access points were. The ledges were covered with round concretions that looked like cannon balls. It was fun, and sometimes quite scary, and there is no way I would have tackled the coastal section without Iain for support. At one point called The Blowholes we had to climb down and across a gulch in the rock terrace. I got across just in front of the next ocean surge which would have been somewhat unpleasant if I'd mistimed that!

Unfortunately we didn't realise that we had walked past the final access point, so we ended up walking along the rocky terraces below the cliffs for some distance before deciding we had probably gone too far. The tide was beginning to come in so we backtracked to the last sign we had seen, estimating we had probably added another 3-4km to our day's total mileage. There we stopped for lunch.

Then came the climb up hundreds of steps to the first campsite at Elliot Ridge, which is surrounded by forest, with no views. We were kind of glad we hadn't stayed there after all. On we went, through grand eucalyptus forest of the Great Otway National Park, finally descending to Blanket Bay for our first night on the track. This camping area can be accessed by road, so was fairly full with vehicle campers, but there is a separate section reserved for GOW walkers, although guess who had to walk the furthest to the toilets??

Next morning we headed off along the beach and then up into the forest again, looking down at beautiful coastline with breakers crashing below. The forest was dry eucalypt and extremely pleasant walking. It wasn't hot and neither was it cold or windy.

After a few hours the track dropped down to Parker Inlet, quite a secluded little spot where a small river estuary enters the ocean. We had to cross the river, which was pretty narrow so no big deal, and head up the other side to a drive in camping ground and then further travel stayed high above the cliffs.

There were a few beaches off the track that we could descend to, so we did. The first one we stopped for lunch at, and the second one we explored was Crayfish Bay, an absolute pearler of a spot with a quiet lagoon full of rock pools, and a surging ocean beyond. 

Mid afternoon we got to Cape Otway Lighthouse, so we stowed the packs and went inside to have a look around. If staying at the campsite as a walker, you get discounted entry, which was a bonus as we were going to go have a look anyway. The Lighthouse was one of the very first settlements south of Melbourne, and was extremely important for ensuring safe entry into Bass Strait and the Port of Melbourne. It isn't called the Shipwreck Coast for nothing! I can't even imagine the hardship those lighthouse keepers and their families had to endure over 150 years ago living in such a remote and unforgiving landscape. Lucky for us we had magnificent weather, not often the case down this end of Victoria.

After a coffee and citrus tart in the tearooms we shouldered the packs and walked the final km or so uphill to the campsite. It's well sheltered from ocean squalls but has no views and is just a little too far to wander back to the lighthouse in the evening to see it all lit up. Once I've had my dinner I'm pretty well ready for bed!

The next day we continued west, having rounded the Cape and now officially looking down at the Southern Ocean. We stopped in to have a look at the Cape Otway Cemetery, then continued on through coastal heathland, with views back to the lighthouse behind us.

At Station Beach we descended to the sand, left our packs on some rocks, and headed back towards Rainbow Falls. Water streaming and dripping down the cliff has created veils of limestone, similar to what you see in a cave. They were covered in algae and mosses, and quite beautiful. 

Rather than return to the cliff walk, we were determined to do as much beach walking as we could, and the tides were low, the sea was calmer than it had been a few days ago, and the sun was out. On went the packs and we headed along the beach. The sand was a bit soft so wasn't super easy walking, but there's nothing quite like having the surf crashing alongside you, salt smell in the air and a slight breeze on your face.

We rejoined the cliff track at the end of the beach and continued along until finding a nice spot to stop for lunch. Then the track left the cliff tops to go inland a little, skirting farmland before descending to the Eire River Estuary and our campsite for the night. We had lots of time on our hands so lazed in the sun, went for a swim in the estuary, and Iain went for a walk and encountered a number of rather friendly Koalas. I was too lazy to go Koala hunting, and just read my book instead.

It rained overnight and was misty in the morning, which meant packing up wet tents and walking in an ethereal landscape for most of the day. It was perfect walking weather and the cliff top walk was nothing short of spectacular, all the way to Castle Cove. Of course we went for another detour down to a nearby beach for an explore. 

Walking times on the GOW are pretty cruisy, being usually only 4-5 hours between campsites. This gave us lots of time to explore various beaches along the way, and allow for tide times, and to sit down and read a book over a cup of tea at the end of the day.

After Castle Cove Lookout the track left the cliff tops and headed inland just a little, through a varied landscape. There was verdant forest with tea trees, ferns and even huge eucalypts and sandy heath with lots of grass trees, somewhat reminiscent of southern WA, even the cleaning station!

Then suddenly we reached the steps down to Johanna Beach. The steps were long, and steep, but when you've been skiing for the last few weeks your quads don't find this too much trouble. However the walk along the 3km beach was another story. Soft sand and a backpack makes for a bit of a slog. Never mind, all part of the adventure...

Johanna Beach, like Aire River Inlet, has a drive in campsite as well as a walker's campsite. The walker's campsite is not accessible by vehicle, and at Johanna Beach is actually further along the track on a bluff high above the beach looking back the way we had come. We checked out the car camping area then began the ascent to our campsite. Walking along the road we were stopped by a cruising police car. The female police officer wanted to ask me a few questions: How did I like my Aarn Pack? Being a true convert by now, I gave a glowing recommendation!!

We pitched our tents in casuarina trees a little back from the exposed bluff but we could still enjoy the views from the well situated campers shelter that adorns each GOW campsite. Along with water tanks and composting toilets, the facilities provided were well worth the price, and since there are limited campsites which have to be prebooked, they are never crowded. Since Iain and I each had our own tents, we had booked two separate sites, and often there would be small bench tops between campsites that we could cook and sit on at the end of each day. Since we had had such good weather, we hadn't needed to use the cooking shelters that much, but at Johanna it was quite exposed to the wind, and we were the only campers. Until we noticed a walker coming along the beach...

Derek was trialling his new ultralight setup before embarking on walking from Landsend to John o'Groats in the UK. Only his new jetboil wasn't working and he had no backup lighter to ignite the gas as the piezo starter was bent. Iain had it sorted in about 5 minutes and berated him for not carrying a lighter or matches, what both of us would consider to be absolutely essential when trekking. Over the next few days we discovered a few more essential items that Derek hadn't thought necessary to bring, like a head torch for instance! We also suggested a PLB, but Derek had the opinion that he could rely on helpful strangers should something happen to him, at which we just shook our heads in disbelief!...

Talking to Derek made me realise how far I had come as a tramper/trekker/bushwalker. Although I started as a teenager I hadn't really done any decent tramping from my late 20s until I walked the Bibbulmum Track in 2016. Not ones where I was fully responsible for my own self preservation. It was interesting to listen to Derek's naivety, and his absolute insistence that he couldn't possibly come to harm, and if so, some friendly person would help him out. The GOW wasn't quite as remote as many of the tracks Iain and I have walked, but there wasn't that much traffic on it and a fall off the cliff path was a possibility. Both Iain and I always trek with our Inreach PLBs, even for day walks, and Iain uses his whenever he goes on motorbike trips as well.

I had certainly dabbled in the ultralight community, reading various websites and blogs on the subject, but had concluded that going super lightweight in one's gear should not be the priority. I totally get the advantage of carrying less on your back, but not if that compromises your safety. I've spent a small fortune reducing the weight of the gear I carry, since there's no such thing as lightweight, sturdy AND cheap, but have found that this approach gives me more options to add in comforts and luxuries, and still keep the weight manageable. Since walking fast and making big daily distances seems to be the major reason why people go ultralight, I'm again not sold. I like walking slow and taking my time, and now that I'm an Aarn pack convert, I don't even notice I'm carrying weight on my back until I have to climb a hill.

Enough about Derek! The next day was advertised as the toughest, and it was. But it was also glorious. The track left the campsite and headed across farmland, with big mobs of kangaroos taking advantage of the green pastures. Soon we joined a small rural road, passing numerous lifestyle blocks including a funky straw bale house with a little way station out front offering cold water and free treasure!

I got a little miffed at the roadside signs warning motorists of walkers sharing the road. I looked around to see where the retirement home with assisted crossing was, but no, apparently female hikers in skirts need a helping hand....

At the end of the road we jumped over a gate and continued a long descent to Melanesia Beach where there is a cute private cottage on a grassy terrace sheltered from the wind. We stopped for lunch and a wander amongst the rock pools before heading further up the beach and the climb back up. There were lots of steep climbs and descents, with quite a few stairs and bridges across chasms. There were also lots of blackberries to sample along the track, and I even saw a tiger snake. 

We took a steep footpad down to a small rocky beach with a bit of a waterfall. According to the map this was the site of the original hut called Ryan's Den, but we couldn't find any sign of a structure amongst the weedy overgrowth, so we continued to climb up to the ridge on which Ryans Glen campsite is perched. What a spectacular spot it was. We were first there so took our pick of the sites before Derek and a random other walker walking in the opposite direction turned up.

We left slightly earlier than our usual leisurely 8:45am start and encountered lots more ups and downs as we approached Cape Volney. Just after there we watched from above as a group on a beach far below tried, unsuccessfully, to rockhop around to the next beach. We stayed high, although there were still some big descents and ascents to get to Parker Access Road where the trail headed inland skirting private property and in through more coastal heathland.

We encountered yet another spectacular lookout, but there was no seating, and it was too windy to stop for lunch, so we continued on and down the 366 steps to Wreck Beach. There were lots of people on this beach, more people than we had seen since Cape Otway, which wasn't surprising as it was now a long weekend and the beach has a couple of anchors on it from old shipwrecks. We stopped for lunch and then continued walking west along the beach as there is access to the trail from both ends.

We dropped the packs at the track access point and walked further along the beach and around another headland towards the next bay. We spied some snorkellers doing a spot of spearfishing amongst the kelp forests, and explored a few more rock pools, then climbed back up to the main trail. We saw another snake, that totalled three for the trip. At the trail junction we had to backtrack 650m to the campsite, another beauty perched high above the beach. We were beaten to the best campsite by a couple of Melbourne girls but managed to snag the next best sites on a spur off the main trail for a little bit of privacy. Slowly the campsite filled up, it was a long weekend after all, so we enjoyed the sunset with some of the others.

Our final day was a very leisurely stroll along coastal heath to Princetown, where we had left the car. Unfortunately they were cleaning the ablutions block as we arrived so we were unable to sneak in a cheeky hot shower so we each had a bird bath in the outside sink and changed into clean clothes. Then off  to visit Loch Ard with it's beautiful lagoon and limestone cliffs.

We stopped in Port Campbell for lunch and then headed back to Canberra, camping overnight in a free rest area just south of Bendigo, enjoying a delicious cooked breakfast in Bendigo, and then back on the Hume for the final stretch. 

It was a great little trek. We could have done it in less days, as the walking wasn't particularly arduous, but when we had booked the campsites we had been taking into consideration that Matt, with his sore back, would be joining us, and we didn't want to make it too taxing. In the end, taking it slow gave us time to do the detours, of which there were many, knowing we had all the time in the world to get to a campsite before dark. We were blessed with awesome weather, with comfortable temperatures, and very little rain.

Highly recommended!

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