WALKING ON WATER
The Great Ocean Road twists through 250 kilometres of restless grandeur on Australia’s southern seaboard. In a country that is outrageously blessed with spectacular coastline, this route is among the most awe-inspiring of the lot, stacked with towering crags, honeycombed cliffs, tiny bays and foaming blowholes. There are dense forests teeming with wildlife, and once lonely whaling stations that are now cute resorts. Just over an hour west of Melbourne, it’s also popular – the winding, up-down road bristles with signs reminding foreign tourists to drive on the left.
What a lot of people don’t realise, though, is that the route can also be walked. The recently opened 100-kilometre Great Ocean Walk leaps from beach to beach, hugging the most rugged part of the coast when the highway has no choice but to head inland. Walk the walk and you’ll have full bragging rights over your friends who did it by car – and missed all the best bits. The track is beautifully maintained, with gorgeous campsites and rainwater tanks spaced every 15 kilometres or so, and can be done comfortably in six days. For the less adventurous, the walk can be done in smaller sections, and there are plenty of accommodation options not far off the trail.
The route begins at Apollo Bay, a town surrounded by farms where cows laze in lush meadows beneath forested ridges. The track soon starts to climb, the first of many sharp ascents and descents between bays isolated by high cliffs and rocky shores. The payoff is that most of it is through pristine bushland, leading to untouched beaches where waves thunder in from the Southern Ocean. The first stop is at Blanket Bay, right beside the beach, and the next day takes you through eucalyptus forest where you might, if you’re lucky, spot a koala or two. There is plenty of wildlife to be seen on the walk, with kangaroos, wallabies, echidnas, parrots, eagles and – yikes! – snakes. This being Australia our legless friends are, of course, all venomous, so long pants or gaiters are a good idea. In the sea you’re liable to spot dolphins and, at the right time of year, whales.
Day two takes you to the Cape Otway lighthouse and museum, where you can learn about the colourful history of the area. For almost 200 years until the 1960s this was the main route to Australia, with ships harnessing the fearsome westerlies that circle the world at this latitude. For many, Cape Otway was the first sight of land weeks or months after leaving Britain. But with wild weather blowing up from Antarctica, not a few of them marked the occasion by bumping into the cliffs of what is now known as the Shipwreck Coast. There are some extraordinary stories, such as the Schomberg. One of the finest clippers of its day, it ran aground on its maiden voyage in 1855 because its captain was busy entertaining ladies in his cabin. Everyone was rescued, but the ship was lost. Cape Otway also has an indigenous interpretation centre where local Aboriginal people share their culture with visitors.
A highlight of the walk is Wreck Beach, a glorious but remote stretch of sand that can only be crossed at low tide. Wreckage from an 1869 disaster – a couple of anchors and some machinery – still lies amid the rockpools and the roiling surf. From here it’s just a day’s walk to the end of the trail and the Twelve Apostles, the Great Ocean Road’s most popular landmark. Looking out over the famous crags amid swarming tourists and buzzing helicopters, it’s hard not to feel just a little bit smug.