Great Ocean Walk (Glenaire to The Twelve Apostles)

Glenaire to Ryan's Den Campsite (22 km)

Start 1: After another very comfortable night's sleep, we picked up and left the cabin under a dense layer of morning cloud, crossing the road to follow a 4WD track through the scrubby messmate forest meet up with the Great Ocean Walk track. It was a part of a walk described in "Walking the Otways" and involved crossing a section of private land. When we arrived at the gate, we met Greg, the owner and descendant of one of the areas pioneers. When I asked if we could proceed he politely told us that no, he didn't want walkers crossing his land, but that he was quite happy to drive us back to Castle Cove so that we could resume the walk wher we had left it detour to the Glenaire cottages. It seemed a fair proposition - Greg was unhappy with the publishers of the walking guide who hadn't consulted him when indicating a path through his property - we also learnt a little about the politics of private land ownership, local councils and national parks - fascinating stuff. The fair Nello clambered into the tray of the ute with our packs (her wish) and I continued my education on the way down to Castle Cove.


Looking eastward across Dinosaur Cove

Grass tree understorey in the coastal scrub

Path through a forest of gnarly gums

Start 2: Thanking Greg for kindly dropping us off, the fair Nello and I set out from Castle Cove, winding our way around the edge of the cliffs as we headed toward Dinosaur Cove, where the fossils of chook-size dinosaurs had been found. We also made a great discovery; amongst the many flowering peas, boronias, lilies etc, the track was lined with a host of purple enamel orchids.

The track undulated steeply to cross knolls and gullies, entering a zone of low scrubby eucalypts - every so often views opened out back to the east or out to sea. We climbed steadily up the ridge line leading out to Rotten Point, an area of sgnarly rough-barked messmates with an understory that featured grass trees in flower. Black wallabies frequent this region and we disaturbed a few, but they left us with nothing but the bush-crashing sound and a fleeting glimpse of their black silhouettes disappearing into the scrub.

At the top of the ridge, we brushed boots and followed a short boardwalk designed to stop walkers picking up spores of phytophtora from this infected area - it is important not to spread this fungal tree and plant killer. By now the morning cloud was burning off quickly and, after another stint through messmate-grasstree forest, the track descended through open heath, speckled with pink, white and yellow flowers (plus a rare donkey orchid), to a magnificent viewpoint over the long sandy stretch of Johanna Beach.

Panorama across the heathlands to Johanna Beach ...

... and the beach close up

We descended quickly to it and headed westward down its soft golden-tan sand, a constant roar of waves crashing as we passed the occasional surf fisherman. The sun was fully out - it was shorts weather again and a chance to wander barefoot, in a zen-like trance, down this calf-burning, toe-spreading soft sand beach.

Back on the beach

The fair Nello in meditational beachwalking mode

Big seas devouring the sand

After a couple of kilometres, we left the beach to pick up a track behind the main dunes that led us up to the GOW campsite, perched on its coastal eyrie amongst the casuarinas with superb views back down the beach. We regretted not staying there for the night, but it was a good place for an early lunch.

Johanna Beach from the GOW campsite

Crossing the mouth of Johanna River

The solitude of the surf fisherman

Cliffline west of Johanna Beach

Pushing on, we picked up the start of the Old Coach Track, as it wound up through pastures that were almost luminescent green to the eyes of folk like us from more drought-stressed regions. A small herd of cattle joined us for a few hundred metres before thinking the better of it and finally moving off the road, which was providing increasingly magnificent views over the pastures and ever-distant ocean as we climbed steadily.

The fair Nello herding a few cattle

Looking back to Johanna Beach

The intense greenness of the Johanna river valley

Bucolic bliss beyond Johanna

We were heading inland, and in the Otways that also means up! Passing through a farm gate, the Old Coach Road became a conventional gravel road which led us on a steady but relentless climb up into the farming lands behind Johanna. Eventually, we turned off onto the Milanesia Track, a similar road which led us relentlessly back toward the sea, a long trudge cheered by our first echidna sighting. We had seen a lot of their diggings for termites and ants, but not the beast itself.

The straw man gives Nello a free cup of water
- a nice gesture thanks!

The Old Coach Road

Echidna hunkering down into a spiky ball

The road finally came to an abrupt end and we joined a track leading steeply down through thick forest to Milanesia Beach, wild, isolated and superbly framed between Bowker Point on its west and Lion Headland on its east. Time for another break to listen to the big Southern Ocean seas rolling in - relentlessly of course!

Back in the coastal forest

Approaching Milanesia Beach from the east

Old settlers hut on Milanesia Creek

Scroggin break in the shade at Milanesia

Looking across Milanesia Beach to Lion Headland

View back toward Milanesia from Bowker Point

The track climbing out of Milanesia

From here we only had 5km to reach Ryan's Den, our campsite for the night, but they seemed to last forever. Between Milanesia and Ryan's Den are several ridges and many creeks, some running steeply and others deeply. Leaving Milenesia, we climbed steadily up a grassy track that foloowed a gully up to the ridge behind the beach only to lose almost all our height to cross a deep gully at its far end.

This led to a steep climb up to Bowker Point, the bracken-lined track winding around the steep shrub covered slope of the headland before crossing it via a set of stone steps. All along this section the views were breathtaking, an everchanging panorama sweeping back to Cape Otway with its lighthouse clearly visible.

Cape Otway lighthouse, almost 23km away as the crow (or seagull) flies

Mossy creek bed crossing the track

Sadly, crossing Bowker Point, we again lost much of our height, as the well-formed track wound its way around and steeply up and down to cross several dark, ferny creek gullies. This was dense and lush vegetation and ahead, though the ridgeline of Ryan's Den gradually got closer. A long set of wooden steps brought us quickly to the ridge top and just when we though the camp was in sight, the track dropped again to cross one last hidden gully.

Another fern-filled creek to cross

Finally, one last climb brough us to the welcome campsite - the usual very nice setting, this time spread along the narrow neck of the ridge leading out to the headland.
At the knob of the headland was a clearing with a wooden platform with superb views out toward the west and Cape Volney. Just the spot to sit and slowly watch the sun set over the Otways - it made carrying that half litre of red wine for the past 22 km all worth while.

Ryan's Den to Princetown (24 km)

The sound of the surf far below that lulled us to sleep was replaced during the night by the sound of the wind in the trees. A brisk nor-easter had developed - not the usual direction for winds in these parts as indicated by the fact that it blew directly into the opening of the three-sided shelter as we ate our breakfast. Still, it was warm, flattened out the big ocean swells and blew the morning cloud away quickly. After one last visit to the viewpoint to see the silver-sheened ocean reflecting the morning sun to the east, we set out. The track was a continuation of the steep and intersected terrain of late yesterday - in the first hour, we had already made three steep descents and climbs to cross deep shady gullies and pasture topped headlands as we made our way through the thick scrub of the steep headlands toward Cape Volney.

Morning view westward from Ryan's Den

Morning view to the east from Ryan's Den

Cape Volney

On the first unnamed headland, a seat on the edge of a cleared paddock gave superb views over the nearby cliffs and back east over pasture, forest and ocean. Passing through a low forest of scrubby messmates, we picked up a wide earth track to cross Cape Volney, mainly following the contours around the more exposed heath of Point Reginald, but with a couple of short steep pinches for good measure.

Track through the heath of Cape Volney

A curious rock pillar near Moonlight Head

Looking back eastward across the headland of Ryan's Den

View westward toward Moonlight Head

Eventually we reached a spot with panoramic views across to Moonlight Head; across a wide and deep valley that is! We descended into the dense tall heath of the valley, where we encountered our first snake of the walk. The tiger snake had been basking on the path and disappeared quickly into the bush as we approached. Crossing the deeply shaded stream bed at stinging nettle bridge, we commenced a long and winding climb up the western slope of the valley, past an unusual rock pillar, to reach the cliff tops of Moonlight Head.

The dense heath between Moonlight Head and Reginald Point

Back inland amongst the trees

We had now finished the hardest part of the track - hard, yet very rewarding with interesting changes in vegetation and spectacular coastal scenery - and were about to start the most tedious section.

Farm dam in the Otways

Less than 2 km to the west we could see where we were heading - the rocky point of The Gables - yet, frustratingly, the Great Ocean Walk led us inland for a 7km circuit along gravel public roads mainly through farmland and transformed landscapes to reach that point. Thus we found ourselves wandering in a monotonous trance along the Parker Access Road and back along the Moonlight Head Road - it takes something away when a walking track is shared with vehicles (or vice versa).

The 130m tall cliffs of The Gables

Eventually, we reached The Gables, wandering out along a foot track (at last) beneath a grove of casuarinas sighing in the warm northerly wind to take in the impressive views of the 130m cliffs around Moonlight Head (only two gullies away as the crow or a more direct walker would travel). Still, being back on the coast breathing in the negative ions and wandering down the heath from The Gables to Wreck Beach (where enamel, donkey and sun orchids grew with pink and white star lilies, red and yellow pea-flowers and other floral gems) restored our spirits somewhat.

Blue sun orchid

Blue enamel orchid

Donkey orchids

Mauve enamel orchid

Beneath the sheer cliffs of Wreck Beach

At the cliffs of Wreck Beach, we descended the 350 plus wooden steps down to the sand and found a pleasant spot for lunch in the shade of the tall cliffs, watching the Southern Ocean breakers rolling in. We had arrived just after the tide began to recede and the narrow beach was gradually getting a little wider as we wandered along its sand and flat rock platforms, stopping to examine the rusting anchors of the Marie Gabrielle (wrecked in 1869) and, a little later, of the Fiji (wrecked in 1891). Not for nothing is this region called the Shipwreck Coast!

Crossing the jumble of rusty colored rocks that marked the divide between Wreck Beach and Hell's Kitchen, we emerged into an impressive cirque of cliffs surrounding a sloping basin of dense heath. As we crossed the soft golden sand, we were about to find out why they call this Hell's Kitchen. The day was our warmest yet and the cirque cut any wind as the bright afternoon sun beat down on the rocky basin.


The anchors of the "Marie Gabrielle"

Anchor of the "Fiji" - memorial to the shipwrecks of this coastline

As the tide comes in Wreck Beach disappears

Jumble of rocks between Wreck Beach and Hell's Kitchen

The long steep climb up through the still and steamy heath was one of the hardest on the track and, by the time we reached the top, we were in a lather of perspiration. Climb over, we wandered along the ridge to the GOW campsite, again set in a superb sheltered spot near the edge of the cliffs overlooking the beach and the ocean. We declared a one hour rest break, and lay down in the shade.

View from the GOW campsite at Hell's Kitchen

Crossing Hell's Kitchen beach

The steamy cirque of Hell's Kitchen

Sandy route of the Old Coach Road

Boardwalk across the Princetown wetlands

The late afternoon brought a little bit of relief, so we set out once again, backtracking along the ridge to head northward and join up with the Old Coach Road. From here it was a westward journey along the sandy surface of the historic road across heath covered dunes, dotted with star lilies, pea-flowers, sundews and the odd enamel orchid. To the north lay the pasture covered slopes of the Gellibrand River Valley.

The green of the Gellibrand River valley

View of the wetlands from our cabin

It was a long trudge through the, at times, deep wheel-rutted soft sand on a hot afternoon, but the thought of a hot shower and a cold beer at the end of the day kept us going. The sandy track was criss-crossed with the tracks of various lizards and the odd snake, while several black wallabies watched us pass from their scrubby hides.

At last, we saw the cliffs announcing the river mouth ahead and followed one last long deep sand section of road down to the flats below Princetown. A walk alongside the dense reed beds and across the bridge brought us to a wooden boardwalk that led across the fascinating wetlands, a sanctuary for many bird species. At the end of the boardwalk, a short climb brought us to Princetown and our cabin for the night. It had been a long and hard day, but the shower was hot, the beer was cold and bed was comfortable. In the end, it was a good decision to make the extra push from Hell's Kitchen. As we settled in, serenaded this time by the muted calls of frogs in the wetlands below, I realised that I enjoy a walk that makes you work for its rewards.

Princetown to The Twelve Apostles (7 km)

A warm north wind usually precedes a cold front. Such was the case this time and the front reached us in the early hours of the morning with cold winds and rain - on getting up we were greeted with a misty drizzle veiling the reedy wetlands below Princetown. Still, there was no reason for an early start - the official end of the Great Ocean Walk was only 6 km away at Glenample Homestead, though for reasons I will mention later we planned to walk an extra kilometre to end our trek.

When we finally set off at 10am, the weather was already lifting, though the south-westerly wind was suitably bracing. We descended quickly to recross the wetlands boardwalk, join up with the Old Coach Road and continue westward, climbing into the sandy heath-covered dunes on the far side of the Gellibrand. Not long after, we turned off on to a foot track that headed closer to the coast. In an air charged with negative ions, it was very pleasant walking; a classic dune walk, as the track wound its way up, down and around the knobs and hollows of the old cliff-top dune system that parallelled the coast line.


Track winding through the dunes

First glimpse of the Twelve Apostles

Multi-layered and multi-coloured cliffs

Glenample - where the walk once ended

At each point the Apostles were closer

The heath varied from over head high to shin high depending on aspect and opened up at regular intervals to give glimpses of the dramatic coastline and increasingly closer views of the rock towers of Twelve Apostles. The end of the walk was in sight.

The sun returns to brighten up the heath

Almost there

After one particularly fine viewpoint over the eastern Apostles, the track dropped sharply back on to the Great Ocean Road. At every campsite, there was a poster warning that Glenample Homestead was no longer open to the public and, consequently, the Great Ocean Walk simply faded away when it met the Great Ocean Road. This was not the symbolism that a great walk deserved, so the fair Nello and I pushed on along the verge of the asphalt, stopping briefly to take in the superb views of the beach and sheer orange-walled limestone cliffs near the Gibson Steps.

Looking down onto the beach at Gibson Steps

A lone Apostle

In homage of Meteora

The impressively layered pillars of the eastern Apostles

One last glimpse along the coastline of the Shipwreck Coast

Walk's end - at the Twelve Apostles

We continued on a short distance, turning off onto an emergency access track and popping out of the bush onto the walkway of the Twelve Apostles to the mild amusement of several passing tourists. A short hop down the walkway and we reached the viewing platform to be greeted by the pastel-layered pillars of limestone emerging out of a wavelashed sea and framed by the sheer coastal cliffs. Here we declared the Great Ocean Walk and our 235 km trek from Torquay completed, at a place befitting an epic walk, in front of the best known icon of the entire Great Ocean Road - The Twelve Apostles.