3 November 2017 | Day 1:
Apollo Bay-Blanket Bay – 22 kms
Hello again, my friend.
I step onto the welcoming trailhead of the Great Ocean Walk at the visitor centre and am sent on my way by an uplifting timber and stone monument; it is public art which celebrates the trail’s passage across a variety of land- and seascapes. Some say it mimicks the ocean, others the profile of the hills of the hinterland. To me it appears as though it is tilting the hiker to commence moving forward against its slope. And so I do.
The track out of Apollo Bay shares its space with the myriad of visitors to the town, their cars and buses and housing. While people meander seemingly without purpose, my strides develop a rhythm which see these temporary distractions drop away into the background, muffled by the relentless sounds of the ocean.
The sky holds a prospect of rain; as I approach roadworks I feel some drops fall so I promptly offload my pack, throw on my jacket and put on my pack’s raincover. No sooner done, a squall descends on my position and pelts me with horizontal hail. The opportunity to pull on my overpants passes very quickly indeed and I am unceremoniously saturated from the waist down, all in a matter of seconds. “Welcome to Apollo Bay,” shouts a bemused nearby road worker holding a “slow” sign while fully covered for any weather contingency. Relaxed despite my early immersion, I laugh and shoot back, “Yep. I’m not surprised; I’ve been here before!”
Pants soaked by water do eventually dry. The trail passes Mounts Bay parallel to the Great Ocean Road and then diverts through a caravan park; exposed rock platforms appear and before too long the signs of human occupation diminish and a sense of wildness begins to emerge. A brief crossing of one platform takes me to a small beach with an inland route which ascends Bald Hill. Once elevated I marvel at what I can see ahead and realise the breathtaking scenic landscapes that lay in wait. It is good to be back.
A short sand walk along Three Creeks Beach takes me to Elliot River, which is heavily punctuated by scatterings of large boulders, providing a stable surface on which to cross without needing to remove my boots. Making good progress, the track ascends and I arrive at the Elliot Ridge Campground for a lunch break. Others who start their travel later in the day might choose to stay here for the night, but it is still early and I am keen to put more track behind me.
After Elliot, I pass inland through the Great Otway National Park. The landscape is now one of an homogenous eucalypt forest—still appealing in its own way but the sounds of the ocean are absent and, after the rain earlier in the day, clay underfoot becomes water-logged and muddy. I’m aware that I am far from the coast. The challenge now is not to slip over, nor to allow my feet to sink too deeply into deceptively shallow puddles.
This is one of the times when my trekking poles prove their worth—once deployed they become a third and forth leg to aid stability (crucial when carrying an extra 20 kgs!) and a means by which I can test the ground ahead to see if it is firm enough to accept my weight.
Progress slows under these conditions and I find myself yearning again for those coastal views. Signs appear and guide my direction; pretty soon I notice the clay surface changes to a sandy loam and, in apparent sympathy, the sound of the ocean re-emerges into the background.
The descent into the beautiful Blanket Bay is complete and I set my tent up for the night. There is a nearby site for car-based campers at which the shared toilet facilities are located, but the separation is adequate; everyone seems to be taking advantage of the opportunity for relative silence.
‘Thunderclap headache’ is what it’s called and that’s exactly how it feels. One of the hallmark signs of a ‘sub-arachnoid’ (brain) haemorrhage, which one source says has a 43% immediate death rate and a 57% mortality rate for survivors after 6 months. A visit to the local emergency department wins me the door prize: a CT scan of my brain and a lumbar puncture (a needle placed into my spinal cavity to draw off some fluid to test for the presence of blood) to conclusively determine whether the haemorrhage has occurred. After a few days, the news was that it hadn’t–the pain had been associated with some degenerative changes in my neck–but that didn’t stop the realisation of my sudden vulnerability to illness.
It’s 2013 and here I am, 20 kg overweight with my cardiac risk factors ramping up with each subsequent blood test. What would be my next encounter with ill-health and when?
4 November 2017 | Day 2:
Blanket Bay-Aire River – 21 kms
The morning is dry and progress is strong. The next river crossing is Parker Inlet. It isn’t sufficiently shallow to be crossed using stepping stones in conjunction with my poles, so it’s pack off, shoes and socks off, pack on, wade through, pack off, dry feet, socks and shoes on, pack on, and continue. There is a steep ascent thereafter assisted by a well-built stone staircase; once clear of this the next landmark is the Cape Otway Lightstation.
For the Great Ocean Walker the Lighthouse serves as a practical reference point against which one can check progress, as its prominent location can be sighted a couple of days further along the coast. There is a campsite here as well, but I only stop at it for lunch as there are many more daylight hours available.
A ten kilometre clifftop track above Station Beach is a welcome choice; despite the option, I am not enamoured of a beach crossing of that magnitude, especially in soft sand. A full pack most certainly becomes an anchor to any forward progress.
Soon, the Aire River looms large in the distance with it’s outflow and valley visible in one complete panorama. The track leads across a timber bridge and then a dedicated walker campground above a vehicle-based camping area. This looks a very popular site due to the long weekend and public holiday and I wince at the thought of overnight disturbance.
I look to low-impact exercise–walking–as a way to reduce my weight. It doesn’t take long for disappointment to set in as my morning ‘weigh ins’ keep increasing despite the effort I’m putting in.
Then, as with many serendipitous events, I stumble across a lecture by a US endocrinologist discussing factors contributing to an epidemic of obesity and diabetes. It is ninety minutes of hard-hitting information about the ubiquity of sugar in our food and the epidemic of ill-health that accompanies it.
It’s an arrow in flight that strikes a bullseye. I look in everything I’m eating to identify added, hidden sugar and make a conscious decision to avoid it and processed food where possible. The other part of the message that rings true is ‘Just eat real food; as it comes out of the ground, just as nature intended.’ I increase my intake of plant-based food—-to benefit from fibre and micronutrients–and, over time, turn this dial up as far as it will go. My scales respond in sympathy and show a halt to weight gain, followed by a steady decline. Food is indeed medicine.
My regular cardiovascular risk blood tests reverse their trends and begin a trajectory back into healthy ranges. Overall, I’m feeling energised and dust-off an old back pack and start putting weights in it to increase the amount of resistence work I do while walking. Next, I’m walking up hills. I’m walking five kilometres, then ten.
5 November 2017 | Day 3:
Aire River-Johanna Beach – 14 kms
The morning is cool and damp but I awaken refreshed and cheerful having had the best night’s sleep in recent memory. Despite only a couple of brief showers overnight rain my tent is wet, outside and in; I do my best to shake it dry before packing it up, but am resolved to the fact that I won’t be able to dry it until pitching it at the next camp. I don’t know what it is about carrying wet tents; perhaps it’s just discomfort in the knowledge that a necessary task hasn’t been completed. Or perhaps it’s just a meme developed by and passed between hikers that a dry tent is a happy tent.
Mindful of my last visit’s shortcomings, my attention turns to the next destination, Johanna Beach, where I will be staying overnight. With a modest 14 km distance to traverse, the pace is easy and the track proffers no particular difficulties.
The craggy cliffs of Castle Cove are invisible to those who arrive at the visitor lookout that intersects with the Great Ocean Road. But as a walker, I stare up at its revealed limestone layers towering above which tell of an ocean level once much higher and whose erosive power has prevailed over many millennia. It’s a vantage point at which I feel very small and insignificant in a constant theatre of grand sculpting, proceeding at an imperceptibly slow rate.
The track winds inland a short distance and I am reminded of the considerable effort made by Parks Victoria staff to maintain this magnificent environment: a simple boot cleaning station alerts the walker to the presence of cinnamon fungus that threatens the health of the flora of this region. A quick scrub of my footwear and an immersion in solution is all that is required.
A long descent heralds my arrival at Johanna Beach; a near two kilometre walk along its sands at a leisurely pace arrives at the inevitable crossing of the outflow of the Johanna River. There is no workaround on this one; boots and socks come off and a wade across knee-deep, cool running water is a surprisingly pleasant interlude.
The trail intersects with an area established for vehicle-based visitors; I pass by SUVs, caravans and gleeful holiday-makers until I find the track which ascends the adjacent cliff which takes me to the hiker’s campsite. It’s now midday and the location and altitude provide a stunning vista to enjoy a look back at the distance traversed. This is what I missed out on last time.
Once pitched, my tent dries quickly in the caress of onshore wind and warm sun which sporadically breaks cloud cover. I sit on a nearby packing bench and take in as much of this as I can for as long as possible.
The afternoon is long and languid and evening falls with an increase in the onshore wind. I peg out an extra guy line for stability and make a mental note: no sleepwalking tonight; it’s a quick, long drop to the beach in darkness.
It’s early 2014 and I’m fossicking around for a promotional DVD that was distributed in one of the Saturday newspapers some weeks earlier. I had put it aside for a rainy day as the scenery in it looked nice. I find ‘The Art of Walking’ and sit down to watch a 45 minute documentary on the Great Ocean Walk and the experience of three people who undertake various legs of it. “Right, then,” I muse. “I’ll do that.”
April arrives and I am as prepared as I can be–both in physical condition and appropriate equipment–for my first multi-day, solo walk. One hundred kilometres in total, I am ready to walk away from the self-imposed ‘comfort zone’ in which I exist and submit to the vagaries of the wild. It is a liberating moment.
6 November 2017 | Day 4:
Johanna Beach-Ryans Den – 14 kms
The sun rises over Cape Otway in the distance and I am invigorated by the freshness of the morning breeze. On the ascent path out of camp, I note two timber, contemporary design chairs which would have been ideal had I been carrying a novel and seeking some quiet solitude. I will remember them for next visit.
The path clears and, as I follow the Old Coach Road, I am afforded a sweeping view over the Johanna River and adjacent farmland. The ascent continues for some time before joining an unsealed road which passes by a number of secluded properties.
The descent to Milanesia Beach is interrupted by a mannikin with the appearance of a jolly mariner, standing within a shelter constructed in the likeness of a boat: no, I haven’t administered any hallucinagenics in the last few hours. This wonderfully eccentric display is a free water station, established by a nearby resident to support hikers on the Great Ocean Walk. Drink up and be hydrated, land-lubbers.
I am soon back on a short stretch of sand and am able to cross the outflow of the Milanesia Creek by scrambling across large boulders which oppose its intention of meeting the sea in an apparent act of futility.
A glance behind reveals the spectacular Lion Headland before I commence ascending a grassy track which takes an erratic path across contours before reaching Ryans Den.
A first arrival at this campsite, I manage to claim an elevated site close to a lookout which captures the fading light of the day and the overnight pulsations of the Cape Otway Lightstation in the far distance.
My plan has revealed one major mistake: I have joined the two legs from Aire River through to Ryans Den–28 kilometres in total across a number of strenuous climbs–in one day. My energy is pushed to my limit of collapse. I sit down on the rising track from Milanesia Beach and think that I won’t be able to continue. The sun is low in the sky at this time of year and I am losing daylight rapidly. I take in water, an energy bar and flog my leg muscles and joints, now screaming for respite, for a further 45 minutes before reaching camp at last light.
Lesson learned; I won’t do that again.
7 November 2017 | Day 5:
Ryans Den-Devils Kitchen – 13 kms
After another night of dry conditions, I depart and cross Moonlight Head, clambering over a fence crossing and venture straight back into forest. In an area that is flanked on both sides by low vegetation, the track narrows.
I hear on my left side the sound of a large animal scampering away in the undergrowth, presumably startled by the noise of my passage.
Within two seconds an adult wallaby bounds down the track ahead, travelling at speed toward me. Seeing me, it brakes but momentum causes it to slide for a meter or so along the dirt before coming to a halt.
It then turns and starts to retreat. But it stops again within a few hops, turning back toward me and advances a few steps, before stopping again. It retreats again and turns back to face me again.
Then it dawns on me: this is mum, and I had startled her joey in the undergrowth.
Like any panicked parent separated from their child in a department store, this mother’s goal is to rescue her young. But I am in the way and blocking her path.
It seems that she is having an internal conflict between her maternal instincts and her survival instincts.
There is only one thing I can do to resolve this. I move off the track to the left, and lean back into the bushes trying not to lose my pack-weighted balance. This is the only cue she needs from me; she immediately bounds past me to find her youngster. Kind deed to animals for the day: tick.
I am soon at the curiously named Devils Kitchen campsite, half expecting to be hounded and abused by a potty-mouthed English TV chef over my culinary ineptitude with dehydrated meals. Fortunately though, he is not to be found.
As the camp is not yet occupied I again stake my claim on a tent site right next to a scenic view across the cliff of a bay with a toilet room perched above it, boasting panoramic views across Bass Strait. Certainly not devilish, nor hellish, but eccentricity is alive and well for those who visit the throne-room.
Despite being clouded over, our nearest star still manages to cast its golden rays onto the ocean in a most dramatic scene through a small aperture; a harbinger that all is good in this part of the world.
8 November 2017 | Day 6:
Devils Kitchen-Twelve Apostles Visitors Centre – 16 kms
It is the final day of the Walk which I estimate to complete just after lunchtime. The path is undulating but not strenous, and weaves through low heath alongside the Twelve Apostles Marine National Park as it approaches the small settlement of Princetown.
The outflow of the Gellibrand River is visible from a distance and the track intersects with an area used for car-based camping, complete with picnic tables alongside the river.
Here I meet a couple of my co-walkers and we stop for a coffee, available from the nearby general store. A young family on their way out of the area stops and conversations commence. One is a marine archaeologist; my attention is focussed on a subject in which I have been fascinated for some years.
We collectively note the appearance of a late model Mercedes station wagon which becomes lodged on a swale after attempting a U-turn on an entrance road. Three of us walk over to help the two occupants push the car off the swale but it doesn’t budge. Then, as luck would have it, some staff from the Shire of Corangamite arrive and add four extra pairs of hands to the three and the car lurches forward.
No longer fretting over their predicament, the grateful visitors shake our seven pairs of hands, take a team photo, and drive away. The Earth continues to spin at 1674 kilometers per hour.
A slumbering red-bellied black snake isn’t disturbed in the least by my footfall as I walk past it; docile and recumbent, its priority is to soak up as much of the morning warmth as possible.
The Twelve Apostles–although reduced in number due to erosion–slip into view and before long I am walking through a car park and under a roadway toward the Visitor Centre where I will meet my transport back to Apollo Bay.
I smile as I step off the trail and sense that my friend is smiling back. She has been marvellous company over the past six days and we now understand each other so much better. With 100 kilometres behind me, I am bestowed with a feeling of invigoration, health, happiness and strength.
Until we next spend some time together, farewell my friend.
As I approach the end of the Great Ocean Walk, I pass car- and bus-based visitors swarming to capture a photo of themselves in this well-known coastal landscape, marking their brief moment in time amidst the grandeur of these ancient limestone cliffs.
I suddenly find myself strangely overcome with emotion; tears are released during a few moments of self-reflection. I have actually emerged from the end of this totally new experience, unscathed and strengthened by the knowledge that I can push myself to new limits.
What have I learned? That comfort is not properly appreciated until one confronts discomfort and uncertainty. And that life seems so much better–and happier—when it is simple.
What could be more simple than to walk through Nature? It’s only taken me until 2014 to realise this.
At some time in the future, I will need to return to this very special place.