Defying the odds on the Great Ocean Walk
I meet my first deadly thing less than two hours in. The father and son have backtracked down the trail and are hastily pulling on gaiters and talking fast the way freaked out people do. It’s a brown snake, they tell me, the country’s deadliest. I thank them for the warning but when I reach the snake it’s coiled by the trail minding its own business.
I’m on the Great Ocean Walk, heading west from Apollo Bay in southeast Australia. Sixty-two miles (100km) of big sky, wild coastline and quiet forest will get me to Twelve Apostles. To my right it’s almost 2500 miles to the country’s northern tip and to my left the humbling expanse of ocean separates me from Antarctica.
Everything in Australia kills you
The snake has me chuckling. Everything in Australia kills you, I think of my American friends telling me this. We’ve hiked in their country, through deserts and over mountains where there are bears, mountain lions and rattle snakes. But when I suggest they hike with me here they recoil like I’m trying to kill them.
I’ve booked Blanket Bay campsite, 14 miles in, for my first night. The seven campsites on this and other popular trails in Victoria, my home state, have to be booked in advance. For $32 (about $US25) I get a pretty tent site, water tank, sheltered picnic table and composting toilet complete with loo roll. But this pre-booking system certainly puts a dampener on my preferred hike-until-I-stop style.
At Blanket Bay the temperature is almost a hundred and the beach is thankfully calm enough to swim. Beaches can kill you in Australia and along this coast there are dangerous rips that will drag you out to sea before you can say what the f**k?. Perhaps my friends have a point. After all, just 100 miles east of here Prime Minister Harold Holt went in for a dip and never came out. In true Australian style, we named a swimming pool after him.
Bloody hell, will you look at that
The Great Ocean Walk is touted as an 8-day hike but with the campsites only six to nine miles apart I opt for five nights. For its distance, the hike covers an impressive range of landscapes. Forests and beaches, creeks and rivers, rock shelves to hop along at low tide. There are farms with staring cows and a backroad with houses I might buy when I win the lottery but mostly I am on the cliffs with bloody hell, will you look at that views.
The trail is well-graded and the climbs at Elliot Ridge, Parker Hill and Ryans Den are steep but not steep enough to get me swearing. Who doesn’t love an elevation chart that’s highest measure is 300 metres, about a thousand feet? What does get me swearing is the mile or more trudge along Johanna Beach. In the blinding midday sun, the soft sand has my calf muscles burning. I eye off the crashing waves, too dangerous for swimming. So cruel.
Sometimes the trail weaves beneath the shady eucalypts of the Great Otway National Park. There is plenty of firewood in the forest but I don’t bother collecting any. This is flammable country and campfires are forbidden. Like the signs say: There is no safe place in this park to shelter and survive a bushfire.
OK, so forest fires, beaches and wildlife can kill you here but there are plenty of old people in Australia who, like me, aren’t dead yet.
And there’s an upside to the campfire ban. No fire reduces the odds of someone breaking out a guitar to sing Kumbaya and instead I get to hear the laughter of kookaburras and the shrill song of cicadas. At Ryans Den campsite I drift off to sleep to the horrifying part-pig-part-Linda-Blair-in-The-Exorcist sound of a koala looking for love. Koalas get great PR for their cuddly properties but they sound like the devil and if you stand under their tree they’ll likely piss on you.
Kangaroos, wallabies, echidnas and frogs
Over five days I see kangaroos, wallabies, echidnas, frogs, spiders, ants big and small, little wrens and parrots. Unfortunately, I also see feral cats. Cats don’t belong in the Australian landscape and these ones look glossy and well-nourished from chowing down on native wildlife.
The trail is busy enough with overnighters but despite good access from the walk’s asphalt cousin, the Great Ocean Road, I meet only a handful of day hikers. A woman at Parker Inlet gives me a peach and tells me when her kid grows up she’ll be out here too with a pack on her back. Near Castle Cove a man tells me I should slow down and enjoy the views. He doesn’t understand. I am part of the view and when he is taking the trash out or mowing his lawn at home I’ll still be here.
Access is good but don’t expect to buy your Vegemite along the way. There is no resupply so you’ll need to carry your food from Apollo Bay. Cape Otway lighthouse has a café but it’s nearly $20 just to get through the gate so I opt for a soda from the small souvenir store instead.
Finish line food
The day before I’m due to finish I reach Devils Kitchen campsite at noon. I need to be at Twelve Apostles, ten miles away, by 10.30 the next morning or I will miss the public bus back to Apollo Bay. I have booked a campsite at Devils Kitchen but decide to forfeit the fee and hike on to Princetown recreation reserve just a few miles from the walk’s end. There, I kick aside a lot of dog poo to pitch my tent but it’s only $15, there’s a clean shower and it’s a short boardwalk stroll to food.
Princetown’s store advertises coffee and vegetarian food. Across the road the tavern advertises pizza, fish and chips and beer. The choice is obvious. I eat fish and chips, drink a beer and feel great knowing that although everything kills you in Australia I have so far defied the odds.
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