Slack-packing Australia’s Great Ocean Walk
(Or how to hike an iconic long-distance trail down under when you’ve haven’t packed any camping gear.)
I hadn’t planned on hiking the Great Ocean Walk. This trip to Australia was about meeting the new granddaughter and helping my son’s family with cooking and cleaning. Airline tickets had been purchased based upon a mid-April expected due date. But baby Freya arrived early. Now, at a month old, and with feeding and routines established, I was less needed, yet still had two weeks remaining before my return flight back to the United States. What’s an antsy person who likes being outside to do? Answer: The Great Ocean Walk.
About the Great Ocean Walk
The 110k (68.3 miles) Great Ocean Walk begins in Apollo Bay, Victoria, ending at the Twelve Apostles visitor center, several miles shy of the town of Port Campbell. The trail parallels the Southern Ocean along Australia’s southeast coast and is intended to be walked in one direction—from east to west. It typically takes people five to eight days to complete, following remote beaches and lofty cliffs, and meandering inland through gum tree forests. Walking in one direction means you see fewer people. There is a sense of solitude even though other hikers are ahead or behind you.
Two other Trek bloggers have already profiled this trail in greater detail. You can read more about the practicalities of thru-hiking and camping in The Great Ocean Walk here and follow another blogger’s trip account here.
What made the Great Ocean Walk so attractive to me, besides sheer beauty, was the presence of licensed tour operators. These park-sanctioned businesses provide shuttle services and can coordinate meals and accommodations for people who, either through circumstance or preference, show up only to walk.
Everything About The Great Ocean Walk Exceeded My Expectations
My original plan was to drive the Great Ocean Road and just hit segments of the Great Ocean Walk as day hikes. While the most photographed section, the Twelve Apostles, is accessible by car, much of the Walk is only accessible through ten other points, mostly via remote dirt roads. Each outing would have to be an out and back trip, so I’d see less and have to worry about demolishing my daughter-in-law’s little Hyundai on pot holes.
Once I started digging around on the Parks Victoria website, I discovered the link to licensed tour operators. This quickly made me realize that a “catered” hike is the perfect solution. While expensive, for hikers who want to experience a thru-hike on one of the most iconic Australian bush walks but aren’t traveling with gear, this works. From seeing koalas in the wild to the accommodations, everything about this walk exceeded my expectations.
What’s A Catered Walk?
The trail is book-ended by only two towns—Apollo Bay at the start and Princetown near the end. There are no other services available once you start walking. In addition to obtaining permits in order to camp at the designated hike-in only campsites, and carrying food and gear for five to eight days, thru-hikers will need to either arrange for a shuttle to get back to their vehicle, or catch a bus that runs only once, three days-a-week.
By contrast, a catered walk means that I worked with one company who coordinated all the shuttles, accommodations and meals. I slack-packed, traveling only with a light pack and getting picked up at the end of each day. Taken to an off-trail lodge, I could then shower and sleep in a comfy bed. In the morning, I was brought back to where I had left off and continued walking west. When I finished my walk, I was shuttled back to my starting point and car left at Apollo Bay.
Accommodations and meals vary by availability and the individual businesses that the tour operator books. In my case, lodging consisted of a contemporary solar powered cabin situated beneath eucalyptus trees and amidst koalas and kangaroos. Breakfast was a simple affair, but hot and hearty using eggs obtained from resident hens. I made my own daily sandwiches for lunch from a large variety of provided fixings. But the evening meals! “Good on ya!” The first night I joined a larger group for dinner and we were served samosas, naan, two curries and mango ice-cream for dessert. The second night included a charcuterie board and wine-braised lamb shanks. The menu for my final night was beef moussaka, two salads and cardamon cake with strawberries.
Included in the fee is a copy of the official Great Ocean Walk map, three laminated flora and fauna field guide pamphlets, an EPIRB (Emergency Positioning Indicating Radio Beacon) and use of a phone, if needed. The itinerary includes pre-determined text check-in points used to monitor walking speed and pickup times. I never had to wait more than five minutes for the shuttle driver to arrive. The company I worked with also provided Black Diamond trekking poles if a hiker wanted to use them.
No Bugs. No Snakes. No Rain.
I hiked 70k (43.5 miles) of the Great Ocean Walk May 10-13 (early fall), which ended up being a great time of year for a number of reasons:
- Less potential encounters with snakes. Australia is home to some of the world’s most venomous and I saw none of them.
- “Mozzies” (mosquitoes) are less active. I never donned repellent—even when traipsing through a muddy track in the Great Otway National Park section. Other hikers informed me to be mindful of leeches. They like the wet, decaying wood found in the riparian forests. I didn’t see any leeches either.
- While I can’t guarantee the same rain-free hike I experienced, cooler fall temperatures make for perfect hiking weather. This part of the world can get very hot in the summer and even during my outing, the humidity reached 94% one day making for a muggy-ish walk.
- Bonus! Less competition for accommodations. I was able to book my mid-week solo trip only a week prior.
For foreigners traveling without camping gear, a catered walk enables you to see an isolated and stunning area of the world. However, convenience and—let’s face it—luxury comes at a cost. I dropped close to $1500 for four days and three nights. I also was forced to stick to an itinerary. Because of the limited number of access points, each day is determined by the shuttle pick up. My second day was short—only 11k (just under 7 miles). I had the energy to go farther, but was restricted by my chosen itinerary. On the other hand, the location of designated campsites also limits—or challenges—the hardier backpacker.
Making It Work
I initially chose a 3-day itinerary beginning from Apollo Bay where I had left the car. I ended up adding a fourth day, skipping ahead to hike the last section that concludes at the Twelve Apostles visitor center.
With the exception of a specialty item like my Dirty Girl Gaiters (which maybe I subconsciously packed thinking that I could go hiking?), all my other gear is ubiquitous to any travel situation and I was ready to roll (or in this case, walk).
What I had packed:
- Purple Rain® hiking skirt, paired with compression shots or 3/4 leggings
- Merino wool t-shirt, long-sleeve shirt, buff headband, bra and undies
- Patagonia long johns (which I wore only half of one day)
- Darn Tough® and Smart Wool® socks
- Altra ®Lone Peak Hiking Shoes
- Marmot rain jacket and Purple Rain® rain kilt
- NorthFace puffy jacket
- A 20-year-old Cordura® Osprey day pack (doubles as my carry-on airline luggage). The day pack held water bottles (borrowed), lunch and snacks, maps, EPIRB, phone, small medical kit (band-aids, ibuprofen, antibiotic ointment, duct tape), rain gear, small towel for drying feet after river crossings and/or walking on the beach, insect repellent, sunscreen, emergency “space” blanket, headlamp, extra shirt and pair of socks. It probably weighed as much as the fully-loaded ULA Circuit backpack I used on my A.T. thru-hike!
- A water filter is necessary only if you are camping or if you forget to refill your bottles at your accommodation. Potable water in not available along the route.
What I should have packed:
- Headlamp. I borrowed one from my son and would have been in big trouble heading back to my off-the-grid solar cabin, about .2 miles away from the dining hall, in the pitch black. Other perks to packing a headlight no matter where you go—it works nicely at night in motels that only have one bedside lamp that happens to be on your husband’s side of the bed.
- Collapsible MSR spoon. Who doesn’t find a need to use a spoon now and then? I got by using disposables, which is not my preferred modus operandi.
- My Garmin InReach Mini would have been nice to track my trip, but not imperative. I could and did live without it.
Would I Walk This Trail Again?
Crikey, yes! Already thinking about picking up the missed section the next time we return to see that granddaughter. And I’ll remember that braised lamb shank for a long time—one of the most satisfying hiking dinners ever.
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