Walks and cycling around Victor Harbor

Encounter Bay lies at the south-east end of the Fleurieu Peninsula and is a favorite holiday spot for South Australians. The main town here is Victor Harbor, a place that I used to visit as a child on family outings. After so much travelling, the fair Nello and I needed a spot to settle down for a week or so and Victor Harbor seemed perfect for this. We found a place right on the water's edge - nothing but a road and a cycle path / walkway between us and the sea.

The cycle path was part of the Encounter Bikeway, a recreational cycle route that runs the length of the bay from The Bluff, just to our west, to Goolwa in the east - a distance of 30 kilometres. Riding it seemed the perfect way to get to know the bay, so we walked the 3 km along the shared path - joining the local joggers, cyclists and dog-walkers - from our place into Victor Harbor, where we could get our bikes from an automated rental terminal.

The bikes themselves left a bit to be desired - heavy, only 3 gears, back pedal brake - oh well! The day was perfect, cool and sunny and, with the breeze at our backs, we set of towards Goolwa.

On the Encounter Bay Cycle Path

Surf rolling in at Boomer Beach

We swept quickly around the pale sand of Victor Harbour Beach to head a little inland, join the train line and cross the Hindmarsh River. For much of the next part of the trip we would parallel this railway - built in 1854 and the oldest steel rail line in Australia. The bikeway led us on a gentle climb up the low coastal cliffs to the eastern suburbs of Victor Harbor. The views back to the west over the beach, town and offshore Granite Island were superb. It was easy to see why the seaside streets were full of coast houses.

At times the bikeway used the quiet streets, at other times a dedicated path. Looking out over the rail line, which ran along the edge of the low cliffs, the coast was becoming more exposed and long lines of breakers rolled in from the Southern Ocean - Boomer Beach seemed an appropriate name.

Watson Creek

The Cockle Train Railway

Railway viaduct

Crossing Watson Creek, with distant green hills to the north and the sea to the south, we pushed on towards Port Elliot, the next town along. On reaching it, we detoured slightly from the bikeway to do a mini-circuit around the headland, with its lovely views out to the rocks of Pullen Island and back to sheltered Horseshoe Bay, in our opinion, the prettiest beach on this coast. We also had a look-out for whales - the Southern Right Whales breed here in winter - but no luck.

Looking down onto Horseshoe Bay

Leaving Port Elliot, we headed more inland to leave vestiges of suburbia behind. We found ourselves cycling through the Ratalang Basham Beach Conservation Area - pleasant green grassy fields, speckled with the yellow flowers of soursobs and scatterings of tall coastal heathland - it was almost European. A loud toot startled us, as the Cockle Train chugged by - it runs between Victor Harbor and Goolwa as a tourist train on this historic railway.

Cycle path across Ratalang

Open pastures of an old dairy property

Restored 19th century dairy

Passing the restored buildings of an old dairy farm, we left the park and cruised down to Middleton Beach. Here, at a rocky headland, the surfers were out catching the big waves rolling in from the Southern Ocean. It brought back memories - I occasionally came here with my mates to surf as a teenager (though I doubt I ever had the skills that this bunch have - maybe a 2.5m board doesn't have the same zip as today's short boards).

Heading towards Middleton Beach

Surfer at Middleton

Looking east from Middleton, the long line of beach and breakers faded into the salt-hazed distance. In fact, apart from the Murray River mouth, this beach continues unbroken for another 200 km. The bikeway took us inland briefly to cross Middleton Creek, then back to follow the windswept coast along, past another long line of holiday homes.

Pigface in the foredunes

The wild surf of the Southern Ocean

After a while, we turned inland to cross a tea-tree wetland, on track and boardwalk, that crossed from Middleton to Goolwa. We were now well behind the tall dunes that backed the beach and heading back into suburbia. Crossing through the suburban streets, we reached the water again. This time however, it was calm, reed-lined water with swans floating on it. We had reached the protected shore of the Lower Murray River, between Lake Alexandrina and the ocean.

Boardwalk through the paperbark wetland

Reed beds on Lake Alexandrina

It was a peaceful place for lunch, looking out towards nearby Hindmarsh Island, before pedalling along the shore-line, past old paddlesteamers and the 1854 train station, to reach Goolwa town, with its classic South Australian colonial buildings - a good place for a coffee and some people-watching.

Too much sitting in the sun can only make you sleepy, so we started the ride back, taking a few short-cuts where possible and, this time, pushing a bit harder into the wind. The coastal views were just as impressive in this direction.

On reaching Victor Harbor, we rode the final 3 km back to our seaside apartment. We had rented the bikes for 24 hours, so could keep them overnight. It had been a great ride, but now it was time for a soak in a hot bath - luxury.

View across the coastal heath to Encounter Bay

The next morning, I took the bike for a quick spin westwards out to The Bluff - just to complete the bikeway - before we rode back to Victor Harbour and returned them to their lock-station. The Bluff ia place that I never visited as a child, but tomorrow we can rectify that with a walk out to its green-domed peninsula.

Short Walks around Victor Harbor

While the main aim of our stay at Victor Harbor was rest and relaxation after a couple of months on the road, there are a number of interesting short walks in the area and we opted to do a few of them to get to better know the region - after all the two are not incompatible.

The Bluff - a lovely short walk at Victor Harbor

Kaiki Trail (6 km)

The first short walk we did was the Kaiki Trail, a 3km circuit of Granite Island, Victor Harbor's iconic tourist attraction. One of several offshore granite outcrops, it is joined to the mainland by a 600m long wooden causeway. Tourists have been coming here since the 19th century and you can still travel across to it by horse-drawn tram - that is when they are not constructing a new concrete causeway alongside the old one.

It was one of the things we, as a family, used to do when I came here as a child, and, with my sister and her husband visiting us for a couple of days, we decided to relive that and do the Kaiki Circuit. The one thing that has changed in all that time is the use of the original indigenous names - and Granite Island was known as Kaiki to the Ramindjeri people.

Granite Island from the mainland

Looking back towards The Bluff

We lengthened the walk with a stroll along the shared path that ran along the shore from the Inman River to the Causeway, before heading out to the island. It was a cold, cloudy and blustery day, with the surf pounding up against the rocks, but that perfectly suited a stroll around the jumbled granite outcrops that line the shore of Kaiki. After all, to the south, there is no other land before Antarctica.

Grey clouds over Encounter Bay

Orange lichen cover boulders and the blue of the sea

Moreover, the views to west of the green dome of The Bluff jutting out into the ocean, or across to the more sheltered waters and Norfolk Island pines of Victor Harbor, are superb. The photos here say more than words.

Granite sculptures on the island

View across Granite Island towards the causeway

And yes, it did evoke memories from my child-hood, looking down into the penguin burrows to see the beady eyes of the fluffy chicks peering back. You probably can't do that now, but at least the small colony of fairy penguins is still here.

Inman River Trail (4 km)

Our second foray was more inland. We started at the same spot, at the mouth of the Inman River, to follow a 4km long trail along its winding course. More a creek than a river, at first it is estuarine and lined with thickets of paperbark.

However, after briefly passing through a busy section of town, it enters patches of more natural bushland, full of sweet-scented wattles in bloom, tall red gums and the sound of birds. Here the Inman runs fresh and the rich bird-life was a bonus.

Mouth of the Inman River and Granite Island

Estuarine zone of the Inman River

At one stage we passed a paddock, where a small herd of Clydesdale horses grazed contentedly. It was a connection with the Kaiki Trail, as these are the horses that tow the trams across the causeway to Granite Island.

Freshwater zone of the Inman River

The Inman River flats

A pair of tram-pulling Clydesdales

After lunch in a bird-hide, looking out over the floodplain of the river and its stately eucalypts, we cut across a neighbouring golf course to the industrial part of town - part of the purpose of this walk was to pick up our car, which had needed a service. Still, the Inman River Trail was a delightful walk and a way to see a bit of the hinterland of this coastal region.

The Bluff (6 km)

From our seaside apartment here, we can look to the west and see the green dome of The Bluff jutting out into the Southern Ocean. It is another granite extrusion, though one that remains connected to the mainland. If the view towards it is nice, the views from it must be spectacular. Moreover, the weather had greatly improved, with bright sunshine and a pleasantly cool breeze.

So, we headed west along the shared coastal path, past the off-shore reefs and sea-weed of this more protected part of Encounter Bay, as it curved gently around towards The Bluff. In fact, it also brought back memories - more recent ones of when the fair Nello and I set off along this same path to join the Heysen Trail and do a five-day walk to its southern trailhead at Cape Jarvis. That was a magnificent stretch of coastal landscape.

Looking toward The Bluff from our accommodation

Wattle on the slopes of The Bluff

Reaching a steep path at the neck of the peninsula, we climbed up to the saddle. Already the views to the west and back to the east were improving and, as we continued our climb past thickets of casuarina to do an anti-clockwise circuit to the peak and back, they only got better. As we neared the top, casuarinas gave way to prostrate wattle, covered in golden blooms.

Granite boulders on the summit of The Bluff

The long line of the Waitpinga Cliffs

To the east, the views took in Encounter Bay and Granite Island, and to the west stretched out across the blue of the ocean, past West Island to the imposing Waitpinga Cliffs - we could picture ourselves walking along the top of these on the Heysen Trail.

Contemplating Victor Harbor

As she sat next to the enormous weathered boulders on the summit and looked out over the water to the green hills beyond and the houses perched on the coastal slope, the fair Nello remarked "I think I could live here". We were starting to like this part of the Fleurieu Peninsula.

Ratalang Coast Walk (3 km)

Our last foray was to the Ratalang Basham Regional Park, a small conservation area to the east of Port Elliot. We had ridden through it on our Encounter Bay cycle trip, but that was more inland. The coastal part looked particularly nice from a distance and we wanted to see it up close .... and, who knows, maybe even spot a whale this time.

Thus, on the warmest day of our stay, we drove to beautiful Horseshoe Bay and headed off. This bay was a trading port in the mid-18th century and, notoriously, 7 ships were wrecked here, all because of errors made in mooring or anchoring during a storm.

Commodore Point, a granite headland at the east of the bay was the main culprit for wrecking ships. We headed out onto it via a well-formed path to get a panoramic view of the bay, guarded by the headland of Port Elliot, the rocky outcrops of Pullen Island and this headland, protecting it from the big swells. You could see why some captains may have got a false sense of security here.

Horseshoe Bay

Continuing eastward, we crossed Crockery Beach, a small pocket of sand surrounded by boulders. Perhaps it was named for some remnants of a wreckage. Further east, the pink granite boulders formed a small cliff - all around a beautiful jumble of pink, tan and lichen-orange coloured rocks backed by the deep blue of the sea - superb.

Pink granite shoreline

Looking across Crockery Bay

This area is known as Seal Rocks and, true to its name, the fair Nello spotted a fur seal swimming and diving beyond the edge. A little later, we spotted its pup, lounging in the sun on a bed of pink granite. We continued the walk around to the next inlet, Fishermans Bay, where the long line of sand of Basham Beach began. There are not too many places here that you can look across the sea to the green hills beyond.

Fur seal pup

The green hills of the southern Fleurieu Peninsula

As we were returning on a slightly higher path, we notice a couple of people peering intently out into the bay. Our eyes followed and saw what they were watching. Several hundred metres off-shore, the shape of a Southern Right Whale and her calf appeared, vanished and re-appeared several times with an occasional spray from its blowhole. They have apparently been hanging around here for several days, gathering strength for the calf's big trip to oversummer in Antarctic waters.

Southern right whale at Bashams Beach

Post-sunset glow over Encounter Bay

Silvery backlighting in the early morning

It was a great way to finish our series of short walks around Encounter Bay. As a bonus, the light over the sea at the beginning and end of each day was superb.