By TAMMY BALLANTYNE
It would most likely be true to say that after summiting Mount Meru and Mount Kilimanjaro a year ago, most other walking trips could be considered tame by comparison. This thought had crossed my mind when I signed up to travel to Victoria, Australia to do the Great Ocean Walk (GOW).
The blurb sells it as an opportunity to take in the spectacular scenery of an unspoiled, largely uninhabited coastline while completing 104 kms in five days. The appeal lies in the fact that after eight hours of solid walking a day one gets to return to a Zen-like lodge where warm showers, mouth-watering food, comfortable beds and foot spas are the order of the day.
Planning for the construction of the GOW trail began in 1994 but its development did not come about until 2001 with an official opening in 2006. The trail, which was constructed by hand using mattocks, shovels and crowbars, traverses the Otways, a fossil-rich area littered with shipwrecks.
Organised by the Sydney-based trek-training outfit, Wild Women On Top, and planned in conjunction with World Expeditions, the GOW 2013 trip was aimed at those women who wished to attempt a multi-day trail without the rougher aspect of carrying a full-pack and bedding down in the evenings in seriously basic camp-sites.
Eight of us rendezvoused in Melbourne on April 6 and were taken on a three-hour drive to Victoria and our home for five days – Bothfeet Walking Lodge – nestling in a tranquil forest a couple of kilometres from Johanna Beach. Bothfeet is a testament to good management, stylish but simple decor and warm hospitality. Marie, hostess and knowledgeable guide, briefed us each day on what to expect on our walk and Ha, our Vietnamese chef, produced wave upon wave of delicious, fragrant dishes made with fresh produce either grown on the property or sourced within 100km of the lodge.
I could ramble on indulgently about the variety and tastes of the appetising meals: salads of rocket, beetroot and goat’s milk cheese with fresh figs; main courses of lentil and corn fritters atop perfect mash potato and seared salmon on polenta; desserts consisting of crème brulée with homemade raspberry sorbet and melt-in-your-mouth tarts. Oh, I have.
At the onset of Day 1, our host Gavin Ronan briefed us extensively before driving us down to the starting point at Apollo Bay. Beginning just after 1pm, our first day was a mere warm-up leg of 8km straight out and across the beach with loads of rock-scrambling and a late lunch of salad and roasted almonds with dried fruit. Ending at Shelley Beach, we had time to ensure all our gear was in order and that our packs were comfortable.
Day 2 was our first 25 kms, stretching from Shelley Beach to the famed Otway Lightstation. We traversed beautiful bays and coves and stopped for lunch at the idyllic Parker’s Inlet, being the most spectacular place to rest. We then climbed back up through forests of mountain ash and manna gums, once magnificent giants of trees that have been somewhat decimated by the over-population of the koalas. We finally arrived at the impressive Lightstation which is built on the point where the Bass Strait and the Southern Ocean collide.
The lighthouse has been standing since 1848 and is 18 metres tall. Cape Otway was, for most immigrants to Australia, their first sight of land after many months at sea. Hundreds of ships were wrecked off this coast prior to the erection of the lighthouse. It’s quite a thrill stepping out on to its balcony suspended way above the crashing surf below. We could see for miles back along the trail we had so recently walked with its never-ending sheer cliff-drops and gorgeous ocean.
The following day (24km) took us inland and away from the lighthouse to the highest point of the walk at the end of a long uphill pull through a forest after which we headed down to the beach and the Aire River before continuing with a long, steady climb to a remote lookout where blistered toes were patched and a rest was savoured.
A steep, winding descent took us down to the marvellous Johanna Beach – a wild and desolate stretch of sand where boots were abandoned in favour of bare feet. The beach was named after the Johanna vessel that ran aground there on its maiden voyage from Tasmania in 1843. Only a single crewman was lost with the fortunate survivors taking an entire week to travel on foot to Geelong.
We wearily climbed into the van, desperate for those mineral salts foot spas and a hot cup of tea. Ha surprised us with fresh scones complete with jam and cream – bliss!
Day 4 (25.5km) was rated the most difficult and it certainly lived up to its reputation, rewarding us with the most superb views. Walking away from Johanna Beach through farmland and pasture, we moved into magnificent coastal forest and jaw-dropping viewpoints above cliff-tops. A series of technical switch-backs took us relentlessly up and knee-jarring down but lunch at one of the highest points gave us a brilliant clear sighting of the lighthouse far in the distance and the coves below. Several snake-encounters later we emerged rather rattled but all in one piece through a glorious dappled forest up to the Gables look-out point.
Our final day of 19.5km began down at Wreck Beach with its massive anchors trapped forever in the rocks, eerie reminders of all the ships and lives lost to the ocean so many years ago. A big climb up to the cliffs took the trail on a winding, fairly flat traverse until, with 10km to go, we could see the first of the Twelve Apostles. Rising out of the sea, these massive pieces of rock have been transformed over the centuries by erosion; the soft limestone eroded away to form caves in the cliffs which later became arches and in turn finally collapsed.
Some of the rock stacks are 45m high and stand like sentinels while the waves roar and crash around them. The entire area is a heritage site and meticulously preserved and maintained. On our arrival at the very busy Visitor’s Centre, which marked the completion of our 104 km journey, we were whisked into helicopters for a glorious spin right over the Apostles and the vast ocean. It was truly incredible to view them from above.
The five-day adventure was one which provided a perfect combination of really hard physical endurance walking together with comfort time to unwind and relax at Bothfeet in good company. I’m still dreaming of the fascinating history of the area and can smell that fresh ocean air while my feet will never forget those foot spas.
I flew direct to Sydney from OR Tambo on Qantas and then caught a connecting flight to Melbourne. World Expeditions (Sydney): (T): (02) 8270 8400. Wild Women On Top: (T): 0434 027 912 or www.wildwomenontop.com. Bothfeet Walking Lodge: www.bothfeet.com.au.