I just undertook my first solo multi-day hike, part of my new Do The Thing You Think You Cannot Do project. I spent seven days hiking the Great Ocean Walk in Victoria’s Otways National Park.
The recommended itinerary for this hike is eight days. I stuck one ‘double’ day (skipping a campsite) in the middle to keep the length down to a manageable level between Easter and the new school term starting. I was pretty sure I could handle 20+ kilometre days (having done the 100km Oxfam Trailwalker without sleep 3 times – you can read about two of them here and here) but this was my first ‘thru-hike’ and I thought I should give myself some room to manoeuvre, particularly because some of the sections involved beach walking subject to tides.
The verdict? I loved it! This is the beginner thru-hiker’s ideal trail. The distances are manageable, the campsites are fabulous and the signposting is the best I’ve seen.
Are there hard bits? Of course.
There’s beach walking. For anyone from outside Victoria, let me warn you, Victorian sand is brutal. It is soft, it is deep and it doesn’t care how tired you are.
There are hills. Some call them lung-busting. I call them glute-busting because that is the bit of me that hurt the most at the top.
There are stairs. Soooo many stairs in some cases. Pace yourself.
But because, on the full itinerary, the distances are pretty small (between 10-16 kilometres) you have the option to either push hard all morning and then relax in the camp for the afternoon (usually my MO) or to take your time, take plenty of breaks and still be in camp in time for an afternoon cup of tea or coffee (if you bring enough gas – more on that later). I honestly believe you could do this hike as a family with kids if you took your time. Of course, tide times come into it so you may have a hard push at times but there’s not that many compulsory beach walks that require such effort so don’t stress.
So, here’s a quick run down of my journey. Distances are according to the GOW guide, not necessarily what my Garmin watch told me. Times are what was on my watch but should be taken with a grain of salt because I more often than not forgot to turn it off when I got to camp.
Day 1 Apollo Bay to Elliot Ridge Distance 10km Time 2.5 hours
I was happy for this leg to be short because it started with a 2 hour and 15 minute bus ride from my home town. I also took time for a burger, fries and beer lunch at the Apollo Bay Hotel because you need carbs, right?
The weather on this day was not fab and by the time I arrived in camp things were decidedly damp. Each of the GOW campsites have fabulous shelters with benches and tables. Unfortunately, at Elliot Ridge, a mother and daughter had decided to set up camp in the shelter. Yes, including the tent. I can only be grateful that they were attempting to do the hike in, effectively, four and a half days so I never saw them again and they were gone by the time the rest of us in camp needed to pack up our tents in the rain. It’s useful to be able to store your gear in a shelter while you dismantle your tent.
It was at this camp that I met a couple from Melbourne who would be my company through the remainder of the walk (although we had a couple of different campsites in the next few legs due to bookings).
Day 2 Elliot Ridge to Blanket Bay 12km Time: 3.5 hours
I can’t say this was the most interesting leg, the bulk of it being along fire management trails. With the added rain, the only adrenaline was expended trying to pick my way across the muddy sections without getting my feet wet. (I choose to wear non-waterproof shoes – if you want to know why, there’s an explanation at the end of this post.) I did, at one point, fail in this endeavour and incur one damp foot but otherwise the wet didn’t really dampen the enthusiasm. [laughs at own wittiness with words]
Blanket Bay was one of my favourite campsites. I really like that there are separate GOW campsites in places that also include a ‘normal’ campsite (for car and caravan campers and the like) in the recognition that GOW hikers are unlikely to want to party into the wee hours (well, at least until 10pm when it’s recommended campers consider others) and much more likely to be in bed by 8pm at the absolute latest. I loved it because it was, simply, beautiful. Especially when the moon began to rise over the ocean.
Day 3 Blanket Bay to Cape Otway 11km Time: 3 hours
Had I known (read ‘bothered to research’) that the Cape Otway Lightstation was closed on Wednesdays and Thursdays, I suspect I would have pushed on to Aire River on this day. What do you do with a whole half day when the main attraction is closed? I don’t completely regret it because Cape Otway GOW Camp is rather lovely but it did feel a bit like a wasted day.
Day 4 Cape Otway to Johanna Beach 24km Time: 5.5 hours
This was my long day and I knew that it would end with a long-ish beach walk and a river crossing at Johanna Beach. At this point, I will confess that despite growing up near the Victorian southern coast that coast often scares me to death. So I take high tide times seriously. Unfortunately for me, high tide on Johanna Beach was scheduled for 3pm. With a long hike ahead of me, I felt I had no alternative than to head off at some ungodly hour of the morning to ensure I hit the beach as far away from high tide as possible.
I got up, packed up and was away by 5:40am. I pushed hard. I ate pop tarts for breakfast without stopping. I got to Johanna Beach at 10:25am. Made it to camp at 11.30. The couple I met at Elliot Ridge came many hours later and still managed a calm crossing of Johanna Beach. So maybe the ultra-early start wasn’t totally warranted but on the plus side I got the best camp spot in the best campsite on the walk.
And I’m not sorry I took the safe route. To be honest, Johanna Beach scared me. The power of the waves was both awesome and fearsome and I was left with no questions as to why this section of the coast is known as the Shipwreck Coast. Would I have loved a dip in the sea to feel clean? You bet. Did I take a dip in the sea? Not on your life (or, more accurately, mine).
A sound of the sea
(Not at Johanna Beach but just to give you an idea. Johanna Beach was much wilder.)
BUT. This was, by far, my favourite leg of the walk. If I had a friend who said to me “I just want to walk one leg, which one should I do?” this is the one I would recommend. It was the one that best showcased the Otways. There were sand dunes, there were cliff tops, there was rainforest, there was beach walking. If you only have time for one section of the Great Ocean Walk, choose this one. Plus, it ends with the most scenic of the GOW-dedicated campsites. So for all you ‘I’m on a limited time budget’ folks, this, THIS, is the leg you should do. IMHO, of course.
Day 5 Johanna Beach to Ryans Den 14km Time: 3.5 hours
If the previous leg was my best, this is my worst. The first 7.5km are basically along road.
I guess, if you’re foreign and kangaroos excite you (rather than being a rather tasty choice in the meat section of the supermarket) you may find it a tad more interesting but seriously, what hiker enjoys walking along a road for many kilometres?
The remainder was basically horrible hills and stairs. Thankfully, the campsite was lovely.
A note about GOW campsites: Some of the sites have ‘Group’ sites as you first walk in. These are designed, obviously, for groups. Beyond this, you will find individual numbered sites. There’s a helpful map at the entry to each camp so you can suss out in advance which is the best one to aim for if you’re early enough to have first pick. As an introvert, I loved the little tucked away campsites. If you are of the more sociable type, you could, at least in low season, set up your tent in the group section to join the gang. However, not all campsites cater to groups so at some point you will have to enjoy your own company. Although, in my experience, the bonding that goes on among GOW hikers means you’ll never really ever be on your own.
Having arrived early, as always, it was an enjoyable excursion to follow the Ryans Den Track to visit Ryans Den with a couple of my fellow hikers.
Bush Tucker – I was lucky enough to have connected with a hiker who knew a bit about indigenous food (bush tucker). As a consequence, I will never be able to hike anywhere without identifying Warrigal Greens, Australia’s indigenous answer to spinach. And a welcome addition of fresh greens to my evening meal. Pig Face is also edible, I believe, but I didn’t get the chance to try that.
Day 6 Ryans Den to Devils Kitchen 13km 3.5 hours
Once again, tides played into my plans. I was super keen to see Wreck Beach and the anchor of the ‘Fiji’ and the wreckage of the ‘Marie Gabrielle’. So my plan was to leave Ryans Den early, get to Devils Kitchen camp, dump my backpack in the shelter and then access Wreck Beach from the camp end, walk to the other end, and follow the usual trail back again to camp.
When I am motivated, I can move. I left Ryans Den at 6am and reached Devils Kitchen at 9:30am. Low tide being at around 8am, this was good. I took the path from camp to the beach – all downhill on a grassy slope so of course I ran it. And startled a couple of dropped-off day hikers in the process.
The shortened sleep, minimal breakfast (being half a protein cookie) and pushing hard were worth it as I got to experience the deep emotional input that is there for the taking on Wreck Beach.
My headmaster at primary school was Jack Loney. He had a fascination for the shipwreck history of the Victorian coast (and many other parts of Australia) and published many books, one of which I am proud to own. It has given me something of an emotional connection to the maritime history of my region and I am not embarrassed to admit that the wreckage of the Marie Gabrielle caused me a moment of great emotional anguish as I thought of all the lives lost along this treacherous coast.
At the other end of the beach, I took a moment. To think. To feel. And, to be honest, to enjoy a small snack in the rare sunshine.
My day ended with a climb up the many steps from Wreck Beach, a wander along to the Gables Lookout and then a leisurely stroll back to camp. The other couple were there, having chosen the option of leaving their packs at the top of the steps of Wreck Beach, walking the beach to the camp and now to walk back to pick up their packs. I let them pick their camp spot despite them insisting I got there first. As I had tried to explain to them on an earlier leg, I did not get to camp first to claim the best spot but because, as a runner, when I hit a hard section, rather than my brain saying “take a rest”, it always says “push through the pain and get to the end”. I had the best spots at the last two campsites. I am always happy to share.
Day 7 Devils Kitchen to The 12 Apostles
With an agreed meeting time of 12 noon (at the 12 Apostles – get it?) with the Husband who was kindly driving down to pick me up, I had intended to leave by 8am. Unfortunately I slept through the alarm on my watch and awoke at 7am. I have never dressed and packed up my sleep system so fast (14 minutes). I still allowed myself breackfast, using the last of my gas to half heat my last cup of water and then submitting to failure and receiving some extra gas from a couple in camp to have my last cup of coffee.*
*I honestly had researched the minimum gas I thought I could get away with (weight always being a consideration) and that had resulted in me bringing one 100g canister. I was wrong. I could feel, by the night of Day 4, that my gas was dangerously low. Fellow hikers gave me boiling water for my meal on that night. But here’s the thing. Taking up solo hiking as a challenge means, to me at least, managing my choices. It was my choice to bring so little gas therefore it was my choice to have to deal with that. So, despite being offered boiling water from one hiking couple and gas for my stove from another, on my last night I chose a cold soaked couscous dinner (my emergency meal) rather than my scheduled freeze-dried meal. I skipped breakfast that morning and ate a protein cookie instead. Then I had only some granola to add cold water to on the last morning. But I was weak and desperate for a cup of coffee so I thought I would see if I could boil one last cup from what gas I had left. It half heated it, then ran out. It seemed such a waste to just let it go cold, so I dashed down to the gas canister couple expecting just to use their stove to finish heating my water. They had, however, already packed up, but were happy to donate the last of their second gas canister (being more savvy than I) to me. It was a win-win, really. I got a cup of coffee and they didn’t have to pack out an almost empty can of gas.
Soon I was on my way, and once walking, I can turn on the speed. I overtook the gas canister couple within about half an hour. The boiling water couple, who had left much earlier, I met at Princetown. They let me go ahead, accurately assuming I would be faster. I can be something of a homing pigeon and a scent of the finish line has me picking up speed. I made it to the Gibson Steps (where one can descend to sea level to view two of the remarkable stone stacks) at 11.30am. So, rather than risk a too late arrival tide-wise to visit the beach, I decided to walk down the eleventy-hundred steps to the beach with my pack for some memorable photos.
Then back up the steps (with numerous breaks, refer to previous reference to carrying my pack) and on to the 12 Apostles Visitor Centre, my meeting point for the family. I made it at 12 noon on the dot. They did not make it until 12.15.
The Husband and Eldest Son arrived to welcome the conquering hero and get a gander at the 12 Apostles that they had either never seen or had not seen for decades. (The Youngest Son declined to come stating, apparently “Why would I sit in a car for 4 hours to see a pile of rocks I’ve seen before?” Children…. who’d have them?)
We actually made it onto the beach again at the Gibson Steps but better safe than sorry, right?
And then we headed home and my adventure was over, just like that.
Of course, no one likes to tell you about the two and a half hours you spend after you get home unpacking and cleaning your gear.
Pack It In, Pack It Out, Leave No Trace
That’s the hiker’s mantra and promise to the environment through which we journey and marvel. There are no bins on the Great Ocean Walk because one, as a hiker of this amazing trail, is expected to care for that environment and take out whatever one brings in. I was quite pleased to keep my garbage to a minimum and pack out a not-yet-full ziplock bag of rubbish.
A Story of Stupidity and A Lesson Learned
With time to kill at Cape Otway, I went off for a walk, wandering back along the trail I had taken into Cape Otway camp in search of a decent view of the lightstation (inconveniently closed). Spotting a path leading off the main trail as many had before with a middling view within a metre or two of the trail, I followed it in hopes of a spectacular viewpoint. With each turn, I expected this will be it. Until, with sudden horror, I realised I was within about 5 metres of the edge of a very high cliff. I turned to go back, only to realise that the slope down that had seemed manageable, going up was almost impossible. I was on loose, slippery sand. There were tree branches but which were safe to hold without breaking? There was no option but to dig in my knees and carefully choose each branch or tree trunk that seemed least likely to give way and plunge me to my death. I had been carrying the GOW guide map book. I had to toss it ahead of me to a spot I was sure it would not slide away so I had two hands to pull myself away from certain death. I made it safely back to the main trail but I now have a healthy scepticism for any path that leads away from the main one with promises of a better view. I chastised myself for being so stupid but gave thanks that it ended not in tragedy.
So Why Not Waterproof Shoes?
I’ve done a ton of research on this topic, going back 10 years to my first attempt to complete the Oxfam Trailwalker 100km Challenge. The beauty of non-waterproof shoes is that should you get water in your shoes (and let’s face it, it’s pretty much inevitable on a hike particularly on the coast), it just leaks away and eventually the heat of your foot will dry both your sock and the shoe. If, however, your shoes are waterproof (usually by being treated with Gore-Tex), ain’t no water gonna leak out of that shoe once it gets in and you’ll be sloshing your way all the way to camp. If you have high boots, then I guess you can risk waterproofing because you’re less likely to get water in them in the first place but for someone who prefers trail shoes to boots, non-waterproof is definitely the go.
Should You Attempt The Great Ocean Walk?
Of course you should! I do believe that taken in its full 8 day itinerary this is a very manageable hike for moderately fit walkers. Of course, you don’t have to carry a full pack and camp out. There are many travel companies that offer full service or self-catered options who will drop you off at the start of a section and pick you up at the end to sleep in comfort. Personally, I think you miss a little something of the GOW community not staying in camp but take any method you can to experience this magical coastline.