Towering blue gum trees, mobster Koala Bears and spectacular coastal views are all on offer along Victoria's Great Ocean Walk
Frank was a koala. I don’t know how I knew he was called Frank – after all, we didn’t speak – but I’d be surprised if I’m wrong. There was something about his posture and body language – the swaggering, slow-but-sure way he moved – that made me think of a New York mobster.
I was walking under the towering blue gums that dominate the first section of Australia’s Great Ocean Walk at the time of our meeting. Crossing a clearing, I’d noticed I wasn’t alone. Frank was sitting in the middle of the open ground, staring at me nonchalantly.
Being a conscientious type, I kept my distance so as not to scare the wee fella. He stared back with the greatest insouciance, sauntered up to me, brushed past my leg and carried on as though he didn’t give a damn about nosy tourists. He sat down for a bit of a rest then, after a minute, carried on to some long grass next to a sign saying ‘Welcome to Great Otway National Park’. Like a park mascot he settled there, tucked his head down into his voluminous belly and promptly fell asleep.
This close encounter simply wouldn’t have happened on Victoria’s more famed Great Ocean Road, the stretch of coast-hugging tarmac linking the towns of Torquay and Warrnambool. Well, coast-hugging except for a large detour around Cape Otway, where the road heads inland. The coast does a big V. The road does a big W.
But why? Because even for the skilled First World War vets who built the road, the coastline around Cape Otway was simply too rugged, too wild, too cliffy. Rather than take it on, they ducked inland and left the coast as it was.
And that is where the Great Ocean Walk (GOW) comes in. Opened in late 2005, this new trail traces the shore for the 91km the road couldn’t handle, linking the town of Apollo Bay with the wave-bashed sea-stacks known as the Twelve Apostles (though there are only seven still standing). Along the way it cuts through soaring eucalyptus forests, teeters along the edge of huge sea-cliffs, wends through murky rainforest and traverses empty beaches. It teems with flowers, birds and Australia’s very weird mammals... Like Frank.
Koalas are common round here, I later found out from my guide, Gavin. He told me that Frank must have been male to be strolling around on the ground all day – despite being the dopiest mammals on the planet, male koala are still very territorial. Frank was slowly doing his rounds.
In fact, that was the busiest the GOW got that day. Australia is huge, with the third-lowest population density on the planet (just behind Namibia and Mongolia), so it wasn’t surprising that I hadn’t seen any other hikers since leaving the car park. But Aussies still don’t consider this to be true wilderness.
Although there are no roads along this stretch of coast, there is a series of access points spaced (would you believe it ?) about an easy day’s walk apart. It is this that makes the GOW so attractive – you don’t have to be a hardcore hiker to do the whole 91km. With a bit of car shuttling or the use of some walker transport, you can drive in, do a day stage, then tootle off to one of the area’s characterful B&Bs or hostels for the night. That way you just have to carry a daypack rather than a full backpack with tent and food.
Instead of being committed to doing the walk in a certain way, you can choose your own pace and your own level of comfort. For me, this meant letting Gavin Ronan do all the organising for the first few days, then going it alone for the final section.
Gavin takes all the hard work out of doing the GOW. His company, bothfeet, runs B&B-based trips along the length of the trail. The advantage for me as a walker – apart from the well-chosen accommodation, replete with home-cooked food, local wine and even a massage at the end of the day – was to find out more about the area. A good guide allows you to appreciate your surroundings much more than if you were stumbling around on your own.
For example, Gavin showed me that the most reliable way to spot koala was to look at the ground, not the trees. Bright green poo on the trail was a sure sign that one was having a snooze somewhere above you. Or if you suddenly caught a strong whiff of eucalyptus, it meant that a male koala had been marking his territory somewhere nearby – they have the most fragrant pee in the animal kingdom.
But it wasn’t just the mammals I was interested in – this was, after all, Australia. I asked Gavin about snakes.
With the eager pride Aussies always exhibit when talking about their deadly fauna, Gavin cheerfully informed me that we might see one of three kinds: the copperhead (world’s 12th deadliest), the Eastern tiger (fourth deadliest) and the particularly nasty-sounding white-lipped (relatively harmless).
He assured me that snakes really weren’t a big problem but Aussies always say that. “If you see a snake, just stop, keep still and wait for it to go away,” he told me. Hmm. Easier said than done when two metres of slithering reptile are hissing in your vicinity.
It’s not that there’s wildlife everywhere in Australia, it’s just that everything you see is exotic and easily identifiable. As we walked along, Gavin pointed out huge wedge-tailed eagles soaring above. A squawk and a flash of colour meant we had disturbed some crimson rosella or blue-winged parrots.
That evening, a pair of black wallabies watched us from the forest. We even caught a glimpse of a shuffling echidna – a sort of egg-laying Aussie porcupine. Even the little birds that I’d normally just class as LBJs (Little Brown Jobbies) were spectacular, with names like superb fairy-wren or Eastern yellow robin.
But our constant companion was the Southern Ocean, crashing against the cliffs or racing up the deserted sand. Walking along, we’d round a corner and BOOOOM! The mighty surf would roar like a jet plane or a clap of thunder.
Then we’d get used to the noise and forget all about it... until we rounded another corner and suddenly its absence was just as deafening – birds tweeted, leaves rustled and all the ambient noise of the bush returned.
This area is known as the Shipwreck Coast – and justifiably so. More than 700 vessels have been smashed to pieces by the incessant breakers. When the surf at famed Bells Beach just down the coast isn’t big enough for the world championships, this is where they come.
Along the GOW are 11 so-called Decision Points – places where the hiker can choose between walking along the beach or taking the safer inland path. The beaches are all glorious, untrodden strands of white sand, but the choice isn’t always straightforward. While a couple of the beaches can be walked along at any state of the tide, most have protruding cliffs that barge their way down to meet the rising breakers, meaning an unwary hiker can get stranded – or worse. The day after I left Gavin, I found myself hiking alone down to Wreck Beach.
I was keen to see the two old anchors that were washed up here more than a century ago, remnants from the gold rush era when up to 100 boats a day arrived in Melbourne from Europe. The anchors make an incredible sight, rusting in front of huge walls of pounding surf, but getting to them is one of the trickiest bits of the whole GOW. For a start, the Decision Point where the beach path splits from the inland path is several kilometres back from the coast. And I had forgotten to check the tide times.
When I got down to the shore the tide wasn’t exactly out, but I’d come too far to give up so I dumped my pack at the end of the trail and set out along the beach. Sand hissed in the wind. I was breathing air that hadn’t touched land since Antarctica. If there had been anyone else here in the past few days, all traces had been obliterated. It was just me, the surf and miles of sand.
Before long I came to a cliff jutting out towards the water; beyond it I could see the first anchor. I waited until the sea sucked back, then dashed around the outcrop onto wider sand. Five minutes later I was splashing around in shallow water taking photos of the anchor with the breakers towering behind it. I hadn’t seen anyone on the trail for two days and it felt like the beach was my very own secret.
Predictably, I got cut off from the second anchor. And when I turned back, I saw that there was water lapping up against the cliff where minutes before there had been sand. For a terrible moment I became very aware of just how empty and wild a country Australia still is.
But I was lucky – I quickly waded through the freezing surf before it got too deep. Sheepishly I squelched back up the 366 steps, arriving at camp just as it was getting dark.
I camped alone that night, on a headland sticking out into the ocean. The wind turned hot, and I knew from the forecast that the weather was due to change. This was a northerly, blowing down from the red centre of Australia.
I lay on my back and looked up at unfamiliar stars. There was a half-moon above my head – around it floated a perfect round halo, ghostly and bright.
I remembered reading somewhere that this meant rain was on its way.
Sure enough, within an hour heavy clouds further darkened the sky. The first drops spattered on my flysheet.
A single ship crawled past out at sea, my only proof that the rest of the world still existed. Before I retreated into my tent, I looked along the dark line of the coast.
I couldn’t help thinking of a comment President Nixon made when he visited China in 1972. Looking at the country’s most famous landmark, he was heard to remark, “It sure is a great wall”.
With the sound of the surf below, the whoosh of the wind in the eucalyptus and the warm rain pitter-pattering on my tent, I couldn’t think of a better way to put it: this really was a great ocean walk.