Australia’s Great South West Walk

Australia’s Great South West Walk (GSWW) has got everything going for it.

The easily accessed 252km (156-mile) loop trail runs between Portland and Nelson in Victoria, the most southeastern state of Australia’s mainland.

It’s logistically simple and it’s pleasant hiking.

The campsites are clean, the wildlife is plentiful, and the landscape is superb. There’s eucalyptus forest with stretches of blowdowns for climbing over and crawling under. Crashing Southern Ocean beaches and giant sand dunes. A broad river gorge, cliffs, sheltered bays, and lakes.

It’s the only trail on which I’ve found whale vertebrae.

And when I hiked it in early December, there weren’t many people.

Many Landscapes, One Circuit

The GSWW is usually hiked anticlockwise from Portland, Victoria’s oldest European settlement. The guy at the Portland Visitor Information Centre, the trail’s start, says this is something to do with tides but I suspect it’s more to do with leaving the harder sections to last.

Mostly it’s relaxing, flat hiking, but I find long beach sections a real slog and going anticlockwise means I hit them later when I am fit rather than sooner when I am less so.

The trail follows the coast out of Portland, then turns inland through Cobboboonee and Lower Glenelg national parks. It follows Glenelg River, loops back to Nelson, and travels along the beach and cliffs of Discovery Bay Coastal Park to Cape Nelson lighthouse before returning to the visitor center.

Stated distances between camps are rubbery and my official map proved prone to disintegration. This is what it looked like within days.

Trail Markings

The trail is marked by red triangles, which are mostly easy to follow, except for a few on the beach, which I found hard to spot in the dunes but you might not.

On Bridgewater Bay I backtracked four kilometers on sand, thinking I had missed the marker because I was tired and had a heat-fried brain, and under these conditions I might not be as patient as I should be.


Dedicated GSWW campsites are spaced ten to 23 kilometers (six to 15 miles) apart and on all but two nights it’s just me and the kangaroos at camp.

Each site has a picnic table, a shelter to sit in, water, and plenty of space to pitch tents. Most camps require payment and this covers the cost of keeping them beautifully maintained.

I stay in the camps apart from my second night, when an old injury returns to stop me from getting to one. Instead I pitch my tent on the trail once I find a spot where no tree limbs will drop on me.

Even when it feels like someone is stabbing me in the leg I sleep fantastically out here.


For lovers of wildlife this trail is incredible. There are red tailed black cockatoos, blue tongue lizards, koalas, kookaburras, crimson rosellas, emus, and a gannet rookery.

Every day I see kangaroos and wallabies. We startle each other on the trail and often I wake to them staring at my tent.

Echidnas are one of only two egg-laying mammals (the other, the platypus) and they’re so damned cute. On the Gorge Walk section I spend ten minutes  watching one push at the soil with its snout and dig with its strange backward feet.

Australia vs New Zealand

The trail runs along the cliffs above two seal colonies outside Cape Bridgewater.  The interpretive signs tell me I am looking at New Zealand fur seals to the right, Australian ones to the left.

Apparently the two colonies never mix despite being neighbors.

Seals are stinky but they’re fun to watch. The morning I am there the Aussies are being noisy and fighting with each other like it’s closing time after six o’clock swill. The Kiwis are proving why everyone loves New Zealand, just sunbathing quietly on their rock shelf or swimming about looking for fish.

Things That Bite

I treat all snakes like they can kill me because here in Victoria they usually can.

Pushing through overgrown trail is a slow affair and there are stretches by Lake Monibeong and Mount Richmond where I hike for kilometers stabbing my poles out in front and stomping my feet in the hope that any snake will bugger off before I get there.

Through the Enchanted Forest, a lovely shaded section cliffside on Nelson Bay, I round a corner and come too close, which to me is anything less than five feet, to stepping on a small tiger snake. I follow it along the trail, at a distance, for a minute or two until it gives me a break and disappears under a bush.

It pays to look down when you’re hiking in Australia and all up I see seven snakes, a ratio of one to every 35 kilometers.

Things That Suck Your Blood

There are ticks here and leeches too in sections of swamp that are not wet but might be in winter.

For whatever reason I don’t get either ticks or leeches on me but I meet Cliff, who does. The leeches love him. Cliff’s legs are a patchwork of different sized Band-Aids and every time he removes one he bleeds like crazy.

Long pants, Cliff. Long pants.


There is plenty of road access to the trail but don’t expect to see many vehicles. Some hikers drive out supplies to hide in the bush along the way but I drop a resupply to the general store in Nelson, at around about the halfway point, instead.

The store does food—fish and chips, sandwiches, and the like—and so does the nearby roadhouse and, on some days, the pub does too.

Around 40km from the trail’s end there’s a cafe at Cape Bridgewater. And Cape Nelson State Park, just before Portland, has a restaurant that is rumored to be open sometimes.

What I Wish I’d Done Differently

I allocated ten nights, 11 days for the hike and this included a zero in Nelson.

Sometimes the “gotta make miles” mentality of thru-hiking is hard to shake, especially when you’re hiking solo. I missed staying at some very pretty camps, like Pattersons.

This is the sort of hike I’d like to take time over and will do it again but allow 14 days.

The Essentials

The Great South West Walk begins and ends in Portland, Victoria. The official website has details of campsites and distances and an excellent video that will make you want to hike.

Portland is accessible from Melbourne by public bus. I drove there and stayed with these wonderful AirBnb hosts, who let me leave my car for the duration of the hike. True trail angels, these folk.

Campsites can be booked with Parks Victoria. Check tide times for the beach sections here.

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Comments 13

  • Sam I Am : Dec 18th

    Drop Bear you don’t have to hike them all! But as long as you do, I will cheer from afar. You just HAD to include snakes, huh?

    • Siobhan Sheridan : Dec 19th

      If you ever want a “face your fear” experience Sam, I have the hike for you. Until then, I will gratefully accept the sideline cheers. Thanks.

  • Sandy (Palomino) : Dec 20th

    Dropbear, I am loving following your posts & putting the ones with wildlife on my wish list. You are my hero. Can’t wait to catch up with you.

    • Siobhan Sheridan : Dec 20th

      Thanks Palomino. Hope we get to hike together again in the spooky woods soon.

  • Alessia Sacchi : Oct 28th

    Hello Droppy! 😉
    Hope you don’t mind me using this nickname instead of Drop Bear.
    To begin with, terrific blog. So descriptive yet concise, ironic too. Pleasure to read your words, well done.
    I would like to get some advice from you in regards to the walk. Unfortunately due to lack of time I can only do a section of this supreme walk and because I am an ocean lover I chose (haven’t booked anything yet) to walk from from Lake Monibeong to Cape Nelson. My partner has offered to drop me off and pick me up. I am planning to walk along Discovery Bay between Swan Lake Camp and The Spring Camp instead of going through the inland via Tarragal Camp. As you said walking on sand is bloody hard, so I am concerned this might not be a good idea as that section is 21km long.
    What do you think about it and what part of the walk did you like most? Any suggestions, advice are highly appreciated. Thanks heaps Alessia

    • Siobhan Sheridan : Oct 28th

      Think I pressed a wrong button…see below! ?

  • Siobhan Sheridan : Oct 28th

    Hi Alessia.

    I can’t comment on that particular beach section as I went inland but I imagine it is not unlike the stretch between Nelson and there. To me, hiking in soft sand sucks!

    You’re spoilt for choice on this hike and for an ocean lover like yourself the stretch from Bridgewater Lakes, just below the caves, to Cape Nelson lighthouse includes cliffs, dunes, a shorter and more sheltered bay beach section, a bit of shipwreck history, and a couple of stinky seal colonies.

    I brought an American hiker friend on a couple of sections earlier this year and this was his favourite bit. (This and the Lower Glenelg gorge are my favorite sections, although come to think of it I love the forest section too.) We started at the top of Mt Richmond though and doing so added in a bit of bush hiking (we saw snakes…always good to frighten foreign hikers with our wildlife) and some farmland from which you get some beautiful views.

    The Springs campsite is set back in the dunes but it is a short stroll out to the cliffs if you want to see sunset from there. We also stayed at the fabulous Seaview Lodge in Cape Bridgewater, if you are not planning to camp. Trewalla camp is fine, nothing particularly remarkable about it. The cliffs can be windy (like, knock you off your feet type windy) and the hiking is very exposed so I highly recommend sunscreen and a hat!

    I would love to hear how your hike went. Think I need to go hike this again…. Cheers Siobhan/ Drop Bear / Droppy

  • Sean : Dec 21st

    I can’t believe I’ve lived in Australian (Melbourne) for 12 years and am only now hearing about this hike!

    I’m looking to do it soon, do you need to book the campsites before you start, or is it possible to book when you arrive (in case you want to walk longer/shorter than planned)?

    • Siobhan Sheridan : Dec 21st

      That’s how I felt too, Sean! I book online along the way although sometimes phone service was sketchy, particularly along the river gorge section. I don’t like locking in to campsites either as I tend to hike until I feel like stopping instead of having a destination. Book through Parks Victoria. Enjoy. It’s a very beautiful part of the state.

  • Sharlene : Jul 16th

    Thanks so much for sharing. This is very informative. I’m interested in your itinerary… are you willing to share it?

    • Siobhan Sheridan : Mar 31st

      Hi Sharlene. Apologies, I have just seen your message. I don’t have details to hand unfortunately but you have probably hiked already by now. Hope it was fabulous.

  • Eddy De Wilde : Mar 31st

    Hi Drop Bear I read you left a food drop at Nelson who will hold it for you (me)?

    • Siobhan Sheridan : Mar 31st

      Hi Eddy. The general store held mine but it was a few years ago so you would want to check with them. The caravan park near the store was very hiker friendly too but again, it was a few years back so please check. Have a fabulous hike.


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