Great Ocean Walk (Apollo Bay to Glenaire)

The Great Ocean Walk was only opened up a few years a go, so we were looking forward to discovering its secrets. After a pleasant rest day in Apollo Bay, during which we prepared our food drops for the next six days, we headed westward by car along the Great Ocean Road and into the forests of the Great Otway National Park (everything here appears to be "great").

30m tall manna gum

Sunlight filtering through the canopy of a beech

Looking up to the 40m crown of a mountain ash

A grove of tree-ferns
Our first stop was Mait's Rest - where you can take a short stroll into the lush forest inhabited by giant mountain ash and Nothofagus - the southern beech - so rare on the Australian mainland. Ever since walking in the beech forests of Patagonia, New Zealand and Tasmania, we had wanted to see the "local" of this iconic gondwana tree.

On the way out to Cape Otway to hide a food stash near the GOW campsite, we had a close encounter with that other icon of the Otways - the koala. One of them, with a sense of dramatic flair, decided to wander casually across the road, stopping traffic, before climbing up a tree and posing for the assembled mass of humans beneath!

... for all the silly humans that I stopped

Hmm , think I'll wander over the road ..

... and find a good tree ...

... that I can climb up ...

... and pose ...

Two more food drops later and we arrived at Port Campbell, our stay for the night. Time for one last lazy afternoon in the sunshine watching the reed warblers and swamp hens in the creek below from the deck of our cabin. Tomorrow, the Great Ocean Walk would start.

Apollo Bay to Elliot Ridge Campsite (10 km)

Having left our car in Port Campbell, we caught the morning bus to Apollo Bay in time to have lunch and a milkshake in the foreshore park before setting out on the Great Ocean Walk. The route left the township to follow a footpath toward neighbouring Marengo. The earlier showers seemed to have cleared and it was easy walking on the flat between the sandy beach of Mount's Bay and the lush green cow-grazed pastures of the Barham River flats. Out to sea, we could see the small black outlines of fur seals basking on the rocks of Marengo Reef. Soon we were passing through the caravan park and beach houses of Marengo and following a track alongside the rocky shoreline to its west.

The verdant green of the Barham River flats and hills

Seals basking on Marengo Reef as the big swells roll on by

We dropped briefly onto the beach near Storm Point before leaving to take the high-tide route over Bald Hill. The climb was short but steep, reminding us that we had an extra 10kg of camping gear between us on our backs, but the reward was a superb view westward along the coast towards Cape Otway. Out to sea, a big container ship plied its way slowly towards Melbourne.

The cold westerly wind was right in our face as we descended the bracken and grass covered hill and traversed Three Creeks Beach, before once again choosing the high tide option of the track. This route contoured a slope covered in flowering shrubs and wattles, the wind was reduced to a sigh in the trees and the sound of small bush birds competed with the faint roar of the nearby surf.


The beach near Storm Point

View westward across bracken covered Bald Hill


Crossing Three Creeks Beach

It was pleasant walking until we reached Shelly Beach (or should it be Smelly Beach - I suspect a seal may have hauled out and died in the rocks nearby). The tide was already surging up to the low cliff line, so abandoning our idea to go around the rocks, we once again headed inland, climbing steeply up into a pretty rainforest gully, before crossing it and descending sharply back to the coast at the mouth of the Elliott River.

Fern-filled temperate rainforest gully


GOW tentsite amongst the gum trees

View westward toward Cape Otway

We were now close to our destination and one last steep and steady climb took us up the ridgeline, away from the coast and into the tall trees of the drier forest vegetation. Finally a flatter area to our left signalled our arrival at the Elliott Ridge Campsite - a chance to investigate the Great Ocean Walk campsite design for the first time.

Mouth of the Elliott River

Basically, there is a group area and further on eight individual tent sites scattered in the bush on nicely levelled clay pads. A wooden platform is shared by every two sites, plus there a composting toilet and well-designed 3-sided shelter with table and benches. We were suitably impressed with the facilities and pitched tent, got out the stove and soon had a nice hot coffee brewing. Tonight we had the site to ourselves. The wind was cool, but with the sun shining through the perspex windows of the shelter, life in the Otways bush was comfortable.

GOW campsite shelter

Local resident taking an afternoon nap

With the tall manna gums surrounding us, this had a definite "koala country" feel - not long after we spotted one fast asleep 30m above the ground. Koalas are definitely becoming the animal icon of this trip. Gradually the sun set and the the cold began to seep in as the full moon rose up behind the tall eucalypts - it was time to retreat to our sleeping bags, where we were lulled to sleep by the muted roar of the distant surf and the occasional low growl of a lovesick male koala.

Elliott Ridge to Cape Otway campsite (22 km)

Dawn in the forest always seems a damp occasion, but we were soon up and eating our breakfast to the accompaniment of the many species of forest birds above; tree-creepers, fantails, wrens, thornbills, whistlers, parrots and others providing an ongoing serenade to the new day. Packed, we set out for a long day - we were double-staging! The track led north-west along the ridge to meet up with the Elliott Road heading west.

We followed its grassy and frequently muddy path across Geary Creek to gradually climb inland beneath the tall elegant tree trunks of this superb forest. At one hill, a stream had decided to use the track as it course, creating a muddy path that would almost make a kiwi tramper happy. The muddy track also seem a pleasant place for giant earthworms, about 40-50cm long from the size of their burrows and castings. A brief shower drove us under the shelter of a wattle thicket. Setting out again, we breathed deeply - there is something invigorating about the scent of wet eucalyptus forest.


In the cool green shade of the Otways forest

A stroll down the Parker Spur road

Amongst the tall manna gums

Eventually, this track met the Parker Spur Road and we started a gradual descent, turning off onto the narrower and less used Johnson Track and then on to the even less used Blanket Bay Track, all beneath the canopy of the tall Otways forest. Soon we found ourselves passing through an area of tea-tree thickets and into a zone of lower, more gnarly eucalypts with an understorey of flowering wattle. These areas provided rich displays of the diverse flora.

Another junction found us following the Telegraph Track, a single foot track that sloped gently towards the coast through open eucalypt forest - more koala country, with green pellets of koala scat on the path indicating where they had spent the night. One was still grumbling high in a tree above. Finally, we started to hear the sound of the surf and zig-zagged our way steeply down to Blanket Bay, a good spot for some lunch and a rest after almost four hours of walking.

After a quick stop at the boot-brushing station to clean any phytophthora spores from our boots (this tree-killing fungus is the bane of the bush), we headed on. The well-formed earth path led us around the headland to the west of Blanket Bay, through thick coastal heath, before starting a steady climb that took us on a meandering course around the back of a series of small creeks originating in these coastal hills. It was an area of gnarly coastal eucalypts, growing in a carpet of bracken, lomandra and, later, low grass-trees.

The beach at Blanket Bay

Phytophthora prevention in progress

The gnarly coastal forest

A small lookout gave us views over the Parker Inlet and soon we were descending steeply towards it to cross the tannin-stained waters of Parker River. It was another pleasant place to take a break, and a necessary one before tackling the 300-odd stone steps that took us up out the inlet on the far side.

Coastline near Parker Inlet


First view of Cape Otway lighthouse

Parker Inlet

There was a low-tide route around the rocks, but the seas were up and the ocean swells were large; our tidal free pass to the rock platforms had expired. On reaching the top of the steps, we gradually lost most of the height gained as the track dropped slowly through dense heath to reach Point Franklin.

On reaching the top of the steps, we gradually lost most of the height gained as the track dropped slowly through dense heath to reach Point Franklin. Here we had our first glimpse of Cape Otway Lighthouse in the distance. Out to sea, the giant container ships droned slowly by on the horizon passing the cape - how different to the passage of the 19th century wooden- or iron-hulled clipper ships, flying full-sailed with the winds of the roaring forties at their back. Still, many of those boats ended up wrecked on the rocky shoals of this unforgiving coastline - we live in safer but duller times.

Taking a break at the Parker River


Shipping - 21st century style

From Point Frankin, we followed a gravel track northward away from the coast. We were on the edge of the National Park and need to skirt private land before resuming a westward course again. At least there was an explanation for the sudden appearance of hordes of bushflies - cattle contentedly grazing in the green pastures! A now sandy track led us back out onto the Cape Otway road. We crossed the road soon after and then parallelled it along a foot track through tea-trees and low wind-squat manna gums, a favourite of the local koala population. On our way, we spotted four more of these iconic, if somewhat dozy, animals sitting in the trees only a few metres above us.

The path up from Point Franklin

Yet another koala!

Beneath the tea-tree arbor

Cape Otway lighthouse

Campsite at Cape Otway

On reaching the lighthouse, we stopped for a drink, comtemplated the entry fee to the precinct and the dull ache in our feet, and opted to head off the final 600m through the dunes to our campsite in a protected hollow. A close inspection of the historic light house could wait another day.

Unlike at Elliott Ridge, we had company tonight, a young German couple visiting Australia, Philipp and Veronika, with whom we passed a pleasant evening chatting. So much so that we were late to bed - there was barely enough time to wander back up the track and look down over the floodlit lighthouse in the distance before the the clouds obscured the moon and the drizzle started.

The lighthouse by night

Cape Otway to Glenaire (17 km)

It had drizzled on and off early in the night, but we were lucky to be able to pack up a dry tent. The sky was grey as we set off, stopping briefly to visit the old lighthouse cemetery, testimony to the hard life of the early keepers and their families. We hadn't walked too far westward into the heath-covered Otway sand dunes before the first light shower passed over, followed by a brief sunny break; the weather pattern for the day was setting in.

The loneliness of a lighthouse cemetery

Rain shower approaching from the sea

The heath was a mass of tiny white flowers

Wandering along the sandy track, it was fascinating to see which creatures had been out during the night; the pawprints of a small marsupial, paired prints of a wallaby and several tracks of reptiles crossing the path. The heath was a mass of white flowers, over head-height in the interior and thigh-high closer to the windswept shore, opening up the glorious views westward along the length of Station Beach.

We pushed on a little further through the rolling dunes, before descending a wooden boardwalk to the steeply sloping soft sand of Station Beach. We headed westward, passing a small rocky outcrop, to trudge along the soft sand, the wild seas thundering in to our left, the air charged with negative ions, passing the flotsam and jetsam of passing boats; barnacle-covered fishing floats and rope and the sadly inevitable bits of plastic. There is something magic about such isolated stretches of beach, even when you are hunkered down behind a boulder as another squall blows through.

View across the heath to Station Beach

The obligatory "tracks on the sand" photo

Track across the dunes

Mouth of the Aire River

Boardwalk down through the dunes ...

... leading out onto Station Beach

The debris of the ocean on Station Beach

Rain squall approaching from the west

The sun shone brightly but briefly as we left the beach to climb steeply back up to the dune tops and wind our way around the dune heath to eventually reach a point overlooking the mouth of the Aire River, its tannin-stained waters held back by a wide sandbar. To the north, lay Lake Craven and the distant wetlands of the Aire system.

The sandy track now led us northward, through a dense arbor of overhanging shrubs, which provided some shelter from the next squall, before slowly winding down the dunes to the old wooden bridge over the Aire River. On the far side, the track was now a wetland home to a family of croaking frogs - we detoured around and climbed the short steep hill to the GOW campsite, where the shelter provided a good spot for lunch on a day of passing rain squalls.

Overlooking Lake Craven and the Aire wetlands

Crossing the Aire

Reedy bank of the Aire River

View eastward back toward Cape Otway

For 4 km, we wandered up and down the sandy and obscured dune track till finally it dropped down toward the beach to pass under an impressively jagged cliffline.

View westward along the Otway coast

The long walk in the heath suddenly became worthwhile as a coastal panorama opened up in both directions; eastward back along the rugged shoreline to Cape Otway and westward toward the salt-misted cliffs of Castle Cove, Dinasaur Cove and beyond. The last 2 km of this section were spectacular; the southern coastline never seen in a vehicle.

The spectacular ...

... cliff-lined coastline ....

.... east of Castle Cove

Big seas at Castle Cove

Eventually, we slowly climbed back up as we wound our way round the steep slope east of Castle Cove to Glenaire. The track now headed westward, but we turned north for another kilometre along the grassy verge of the Great Ocean Road as it climbed steeply into the hills.

Our destination was the Glenaire Cottages and the long tiring climb was worth it when we arrived; a large soft bed, fireplace, food and wine that we had left and a spa on the verandah overlooking the ocean and the lakes of the Aire River wetlands - very, very nice.

Panorama from the deck at Glenaire

After 3 days walking it was nice to relax in the spa ....

... with rosellas for company ...

... and black wallabies grazing on the slopes below

Best of all, tomorrow would be a day off in the comfort of this setting!!

go to part 2....