ONCE upon a time, the only way to take on Victoria’s 100km Great Ocean Walk was to carry the world on your back – food, water, a tent and sleeping bag, and clothing for all weather and eventualities.
Plenty of people still do it that way, taking eight days to walk from Apollo Bay to the legendary limestone rock stacks known as the Twelve Apostles, about 11km from Port Campbell.
While some may see a guided accommodated walk as the easy way, it is really more about accessibility than compromise.
Without companies like Twelve Apostles Walk Lodge, the Great Ocean Walk could only be attempted by those fit enough and strong enough, and dare I say, young enough to carry heavy packs over long distances.
Today the wilderness has been opened up to people who need, or prefer, a level of support and comfort. You still have to do the hard yards – the walking – but only with a day pack, and at the end of the day there’s a hot shower, a warm bed and a delicious three-course dinner waiting for you.
The four-day Twelve Apostles Lodge Walk takes in the last half of the entire Great Ocean Walk – and the most beautiful scenery according to those who know it best.
Our group of eight (there is a maximum of 10 walkers) begin the first day’s walk from Castle Cove to Joanna Beach after being completely kitted out at the company’s stylish eco lodge at Johanna Beach. Darlene is our guide, and once on the track, she encourages us to “get in the zone” and walk at our own pace.
Over the next few hours we settle into a pattern that continues over the following days. The younger ones, in their forties, happily forge ahead, while those of us in our sixties settle into a more leisurely pace. As we move through coastal heathland overlooking rocky shorelines and across wind-swept clifftops, eucalypt woodland and grass trees, the air is surprisingly still.
Sometimes we talk; sometimes we are lost in our own thoughts. The only constant sound is the roar of the ocean to our left and the click of our walking poles on the dirt track.
The Great Ocean Road, the usual route people take to where we are going, is far above us. We can neither see it nor hear it. In fact, we will not see another soul this day and only a handful of people in the days ahead. But we will see hundreds of kangaroos as well as wallabies and echidnas.
Every half hour or so we come together at a scenic spot to see how everyone is travelling and catch our breath.
Darlene uses these breaks to impart stories – not just about the scenery we are witnessing but about the history of the area, the early settlers and the plants we encounter beside the track, such as the bower spinach and the kangaroo apple.
Our first night at the Twelve Apostles Lodge is a revelation, as it will prove to be each and every night. Lodge manager Daisy Lamont has large clay pots of hot water and mineral salts ready for our feet the minute they are eased out of our hiking boots. We sit on the deck, drink in hand, feet soaking, reliving the day’s adventures. Then there will be just time for a shower before canapes and a wonderful shared dinner.
The next morning everyone is a little quiet over their porridge and eggs. Unlike days one, three and four, day two, a 12.5km walk from Milanesia Gate to Moonlight Head, is rated as “challenging” and more than one of us at the breakfast table is feeling a little apprehensive.
Daisy and her partner Zane, who is also the chef, have everything ready for our departure. The van is idling with the heater on, our daypacks and packed lunches are ready. We exchange rueful glances – if only life at home could be as organised as this.
Once on the track we adjust our stride to accommodate steep descents with corresponding long sections of steady climbs and steps. There has been rain of late and the thick mud sticks to the bottom of our boots, which throw up clods the size of cow pats. The rewards for our toil are magnificent vistas in every direction as we heed Darlene’s advice to not just look forward but to look back at where we’ve been.
At Ryans Den at the hike-in campground we come across the first of two “loos with a view” on the track – long drop toilets on stilts with a window overlooking the sea. Every walk should have a surprise such as this. We stop often to wipe our boots and pole tips at the hygiene cleaning stations built to stop the spread of cinnamon fungus. We also pass a number of Fluker posts – a citizen science system designed to encourage walkers to take photographs from the fixed photo-points and therefore contribute to the monitoring and ongoing care of the track.
As we trudge on and up, we come across smiley faces on the path. Michael, who is walking a couple of hundred metres ahead, has drawn them in the dirt to keep our spirits up. However, if we think we’re doing it tough, it’s nothing compared to Darlene who is carrying a 19kg pack on her slight shoulders without complaint.
We are constantly amazed at the things that appear like magic out of her pack as, and when, we need them – band-aids for blisters and other injuries (Elizabeth’s tangle with a leech was as serious as it got), a picnic rug, extra water, hydrolyte sachets and the all-important late afternoon pick-me-up, jelly snakes. And if this wasn’t enough, one day she picks up rubbish left by thoughtless walkers and other debris washed up on the beach and carries it all back to the lodge to be disposed of.
Darlene doesn’t sugar-coat any aspect of our four-day walk to one of the most iconic landscapes in Australia. She reminds us after we’d completed one steady hill climb that there was still “a sting in the tail” to come – a succession of testing stone steps.
As always, she is quietly encouraging, particularly to Adelaide farmer Helen, 69, who suffered life-threatening internal injuries and severe leg injuries several years ago when she was trampled by a cow. Helen keeps up a slow but determined pace and completes the walk just a few minutes after the rest of us. Standing at the lookout, at the very spot the Apostles reveal themselves, she exclaims “I feel like superwoman”.
* Sue Preston was a guest of the Twelve Apostles Lodge Walk.
IF YOU GO
A good level of fitness is required for this four-day walk of 40km (or 56km with optional extensions) so begin your preparation several weeks in advance, with a daily walk if possible. Include some steep hills.
Days one, three and four are rated moderate while day two is challenging.
Everything is provided – from day packs, gaiters, rain jackets and walking poles right down to water bottles. You just need to bring your own (well worn in) hiking boots and a good appetite, for chef Zane Denmen’s food is almost as good as the walk itself.
Zane, who grew up in a remote lighthouse station on the east coast of Tasmania, has combined his love of Australian coastal walks with his passion for food – and it shows. Not only does it taste great, it gets you through the day.
“I have a good understanding of walkers’ needs in terms of how meals can deliver the slow release of energy they need,” Zane said. Forget sandwiches for lunch. You are more likely to get a Thai beef salad of rice noodles, fresh vegetables and herbs, tasty marinated beef and crispy nuts and shallots. For dinner it might be a classic chicken roulade filled with pesto, caramelised vegetables, served with fresh bean salad and roasted pumpkin puree.
Accommodation is in the secluded Twelve Apostles Lodge at Johanna Beach with stylish king size rooms that can be converted to singles.
The Twelve Apostles Lodge Walk is part of the Australian Walking Company, joining other long established Great Walks of Australia including Bay of Fires Lodge Walk and Cradle Mountain Huts Walk, and the new Wineglass Bay Sail Walk.
The new 2016-17 season begins on September 1 with prices ranging from $2095 per person to $2295 per person, depending on dates chosen.
The price includes a helicopter ride over the Twelve Apostles (there are really only eight) at the end of the walk.