Croajingolong Wilderness Coast Walk

Getting there

The fair Nello and I sat on the grassy bank, looking out across the waters of Mallacoota Inlet to the north and reminiscing. It is almost 10 years since we walked into this place at the end of our epic Great South Coast Walk from Sydney and the first time we have returned. The opportunity came up to extend this walk even further, when our daughter and her family decided to spend a week camping at Thurra River, 60 km further west along the coast. The east coast of Gippsland in Victoria is a wild and isolated place - the highway runs well inland here and there are few human settlements on the coast. Protected by the Croajingolong National Park, this region of forest and heath, beach and coastal cliff, dunes and lagoons offers a great walking experience.

Mallacoota Inlet

The one difficulty is the logistics of transport, mainly due to the isolation. However, with our daughter and her family camping at Thurra River, we had ready made transport from the end point of our planned walk. Moreover, tide and weather were in our favour. All seemed too perfect and it was. The fair Nello developed a painful inflammation in her metatarsal joint and a long pack-walk was out of the question. However, I was loathe to abandon and, having never done a multi-day solo walk, I decided this was the time. Thus we reverted to plan B, whereby we drove to Mallacoota for the night, after which I set out on foot, while Nello drove on to the family camp at Thurra River. Three days later, I would emerge from the wilds of Croajingolong to hugs, adulation and a cold beer.

That was the plan.

Day 1 - Mallacoota to Benedore River
(22 km - 230m ascent - 230m descent)

Well that didn't start so well! I had planned to begin my walk from Bastion Point where Mallacoota Inlet meets the Tasman Sea, but the road was blocked by a police vehicle - "safety issues due to road repairs" he said "only workmen are allowed past". So the fair Nello drove me back through the golf club to the strangely named Tip Beach, some 500m further on. This became my official start point.

Nello waved goodbye and headed back to Mallacoota to rest her injured foot by pool and beach, while reading her latest book. I stepped down onto the beach and headed south. A few minutes later, a superb sea-eagle soared overhead - it was a good omen, the benediction of these birds, begun 10 years earlier on our Great South Coast epic, was continuing. After a short stroll on Tip Beach, I crossed an orange sandstone rib to continue my seaside promenade along Davis Beach. However, upon spying a set of wooden steps, I headed up them and inland through the tea-trees. The mouth of the Betka River ahead was open to the sea and it made much more sense to cross its swampy estuary on the nearby road bridge.

Setting off from Mallacoota

Mouth of the Betka River

For a brief time, I found myself walking on the edge of the road, but once I reached the mouth of the Betka, I was able to drop back on to the beach for another brief promenade before picking up the Mallacoota Coastal Walk. This well-formed gravel footpath followed the tea-tree covered cliff line south of the Betka River, providing a series of look-outs with panoramic views both up and down this rugged coast-line.

Footpath through the cliff-top tea-trees

View north up the coast towards Mallacoota

Looking through the tea-trees

The Mallacoota Coastal Track

View south down the Croajingalong coastal cliffs

The striated folds of the coastal cliffs

Just before Quarry Beach, I headed back inland to connect with the dirt vehicle road that ran around the back of Mallacoota Airstrip. This brought me to the junction of the Old Coast Road, now restricted to walkers only.

I was now in the Croajingolong National Park and civilisation was officially left behind. I strolled along the leaf- and stick-littered surface of this ex-road, as it meandered beneath the tall bloodwood forest until, eventually, it led out of the trees and into an open heathland. Here I was greeted by a cooling breeze and a spattering of colourful heath flowers.

The Betka Road

The Old Coast Road in the forest

In the forest of Croajingolong National Park

The track pushed south, up and down to cross dry creek beds that channelled out to the sea and in and out of forest and heath. The dryness of the creeks told me I was right to be carrying five litres of water, though my legs were telling me otherwise. The road meandered through the forest and took a more direct line through the sandy heath. A loud fluttering noise came from the shrubbery as a ground parrot broke cover and flew off at my passing - it was a joy to see one of these rare birds. This corner of Australia is one of their last strongholds.

Ocean view across the open heath

Eventually I reached a sign post informing me that I had arrived at the Shipwreck Creek campsite. The tables at the day parking area were a good place for an early lunch, listening to the wind rushing through the eucalypt canopy above. After a break, I topped up my water from the rainwater tank and headed on (bugger - I could have got all 5 litres here! but then this tank is sometimes empty) .

The track led quickly down to the sandy beach that blocked the outlet of the creek and then up the other side for the 3km crossing to Seal Creek. I was now in the Sandpatch Wilderness area, on a narrow footpath that led up through the tea-tree scrub, heath and forest to rejoin the broader Old Coast Road that would lead me to Seal Creek.

A grove of trees near Seal Creek

View across the sand bar at Shipwreck Creek

Again, the tea-coloured creek waters were blocked by a broad bar of pale golden sand - a lovely setting that I couldn't resist spending more time at. It also delayed my setting out on the crossing of Little Rame Head, a two-hour trudge through the heathlands of Sandpatch.

The tannin-stained waters of Seal Creek

The Old Coast Road made a bee-line inland, climbing gently through a grassy heath, scattered with banksias. It did, however, seem to have been made by slow bees - the westerly wind was keeping me cool, but it was also a buffeting headwind, which was less pleasant. The highlights of the crossing were another two encounters with ground parrots, in one of which we spent several minutes watching one another from two metres apart. It was certain that I could not see it in the grass and I didn't want to spoil the delusion - their camouflage is perfect for this landscape.

Track across the heath of Little Rame

Ground parrot in camouflage

The heath became thicker as the track crested the broad flattened heights of Little Rame and began its long descent to Benedore River. Ahead, the wind was bringing me the sound and scent of the ocean and it spurred on my flagging feet. A quick final descent through the tall tea-tree thickets and I was there - the large tea-stained lagoon blocked by a broad and pristine sand bar, its surface perfectly rippled by the wind and disturbed only by the occasional print of paw or claw. There was not a human footprint in sight.

The lagoon and sand bar at Benedore River

Campsite at the Benedore River

View towards Sandpatch from Benedore River

Wind etched sand on Benedore beach

I found a spot for one tent on the western edge of the lagoon, a few metres from the water and sheltered from the wind. The first day had been 22km (not the 18 suggested in the Parks Victoria guide) and I was feeling fairly buggered (I'm sure that the fair Nello is glad that she didn't test her foot on this). Tent up, I headed down to the beach to soak my feet in the icy cold waters of Bass Strait - very soothing.

Golden sand and rock ribs at Benedore River

Rain clouds gather over Croajingolong

Out to sea, the rain clouds were gathering, dark and ominous against the blue-green water and pale golden sand. Fortunately, the rain didn't reach the shore, enabling me to spend a pleasant late afternoon watching the cormorants return from the ocean and skim their way up the Benedore River. Large Pacific gulls wheeled by, a flock of swallows hawked for insects above my tent and my totem bird, the sea-eagle flew over as light faded from the landscape. I retired early to the steady hypnotic roar of the surf. I was enjoying the solitude of Benedore River - it was just a shame that I couldn't share it with the fair Nello.

Day 2 - Benedore River to Wingan inlet
(16.5 km - 180m ascent - 180m descent)

When morning broke, the sky was still covered with low cloud, while the wind had changed direction to a gentle north-easterly. This wind was carrying a cloud of winged termites slowly past my tent and out to sea towards Tasmania. I didn't fancy their chances as many had already come to grief in the waters of the lagoon, much to the pleasure of the leaping fish. Nature can be wasteful. There had been one visitor to my campsite overnight - as the fresh tracks of a dingo padded their way erratically across the sand.

I had checked the sea early - the swell had increased overnight and the tide was well in. I could see waves crashing onto the rocks further down the beach in big white plumes of spray. Not good - those rocks were my route ahead! There seemed little point in setting out straight away, so I waited until 8am, when the tide had finally turned, before heading off down the short section of beach from Benedore to the rocks.

Early morning at Benedore

The night lights of Benedore

It was a curious night. I was woken by strange splashing sounds outside the tent, which in my sleepiness I deduced could either have been because the water level had inexplicably risen and was lapping my tent or the bunyip that lived in the lagoon was coming to get me. Fortunately it was neither - when I shone my torch on the water surface, hundreds of feeding fish were leaping about in silvery streaks. It was quite amazing.

However, on glancing seaward, I was even more amazed - long bands of light lit up the sea then faded away. The phosphorescent plankton were glowing in the breaking waves and all this was accompanied by the diffuse rise and fall of light as the beam of the distant Little Rame light station swept its regular path through the night sky. Fantastic.

Ragged red ribs of rock
- a tricky crossing


The welcome freshwater pool near the steps

A small cairn had been placed at the start of the rocks, which was good, but the strategy seemed to be to stay close to the cliff. These rocks were somewhat intimidating, as a series of jagged ribs and deep surge channels led to small surges in adrenalin as well. It was not a place to fall, especially when on your own. I picked my way slowly across and, in the process, learned how a cold salt douche can accelerate the mind. I was in a surge channel, hanging on to the side of a sharp-edged 2-metre high rock rib and trying to work out how to haul myself and my pack up it, when the incoming wave exploded beneath to send a cold shower vertically up my shorts. By the time the surge retreated from the channel, I was on top of the rock not quite sure how I got there.

The rocky road to Sandpatch

The steps up to the Sandpatch Wilderness

Apart from that, the crossing was uneventful and it brought me to a tiny beach where a set of wooden steps led up into the Sandpatch Wilderness heathlands. This was my route, but not before stopping to visit the lovely freshwater pool a few metres up a creek bed, fed by water filtered through a mossy rock overhang. This was the only source of fresh water between Shipwreck Creek and Wingan Inlet, so I topped up my bottles and waterbag with the tea-coloured but tasty water, lingered a bit to enjoy the cool setting and headed on.

The old management trail through the Sandpatch banksias

The pack was heavy again as I trudged up the steps and set out on the Sandpatch Track deep into the heathland wilderness. From reports I had read, I was expecting it to be overgrown and difficult to follow in places, but that wasn't the case. Yes, it was more overgrown than the Old Coast Road as it cut through the dense and scrubby heath, but the route was obvious. Climbing gently, it took me up into a lovely grove of old-growth coastal forest, then more heath and a second stand of tall trees.

A grove of tall trees in Sandpatch

Grass tree flats in the Sandpatch Wilderness

Here a well-marked signpost pointed me to the Sandpatch Link Track. I turned west and followed this wider, clearer track as it meandered along through fern and wattle in the shade of the tall eucalypts and out into a more open grass-tree/banksia heathland. A cat-like mewing made me look up, where a young wedge-tailed eagle was soaring by only 10 metres above my head and giving me a very clear once-over. The bird hung around a while before drifting off in search of smaller (and tastier) creatures.

Back into the taller coastal scrub

Being watched by a wedge-tailed eagle

Track through the coastal mallee

Open heath gave way to taller coastal mallee, then to tea-tree scrub as the track approached Red River. At a junction, the route changed to a single-file track, narrow enough for fat spiders to build their webs across it (another sign that no-one had passed in recent days). Undulating my way past the shady Red River camp site, a short sharp climb brought me to the top of a scrub-covered dune, with great views through the shrubbery of the Red River lagoon.

Looking down on to Red River lagoon

The lagoon and sand bar at Red River

One more descent and climb and I was out of the dune system and on to the sunny beach. Somewhere while crossing the Sandpatch heath, the clouds had all dissipated. The cool easterly breeze was a literal breath of fresh air after the still humidity of heath and forest - my shirt was saturated.

The route ahead from Red River

I crossed the broad sandy bar separating river and ocean and stopped in the shade to enjoy the cool air and ambience. Then it was a on again - a three kilometre stroll down the long sandy beach to the next set of rock-hopping. With the tide out, I could walk on firm wet sand and the going was easy, particularly with the breeze at my back.

View across the waves to the rock platform ahead

View back up the beach toward the Sandpatch heathland

A big beach boulder

A rare pool of calm water

Luckily this next rock section, though somewhat longer, was very different to the sharp-edged ribs of this morning. Big rounded boulders, smooth but grippy, made for a relatively easy crossing. It was also a spectacular one, as the sun illuminated orange-lichen splashed boulders set against a luminous blue-green white-capped sea. I loved this area.

The colours of Croajingolong

Smooth flat rock slabs between Sandpatch and Wingan

Round orange boulders and a blue green sea

Three kilometres of broad flat beach

By the time I reached the next beach, I was ready for lunch under the shade of a dune-edge banksia. Then another couple of kilometres of meditational beach walking brought me to the Easby Creek sandbar. Here I saw the first human footprints in two days.

Entrance of the Easby River
View across the rocks to The Skerries offshore

They led me to the faint track at the back of the next set of water-rounded boulder slabs. Keeping close to the inland side of this rock platform, I reached a pretty little cove where the route headed back inland to cross Wingan Point. A large pole marked "Easby Track" made this point very clear.

Start of the Easby Track

Orange rocks near Easby Creek

A peaceful cove

Bracken overgrowth on the Easby Track

The climb up into the eucalypt forest was steep but short. At times the forest track was overgrown by bracken, but once I reached the tea-tree scrub, it became a wide path beneath the grey archway of tea-tree trunks. The track then wound its way down to finally emerge at the eastern shore of Wingan Inlet.

Track through the tea-tree thickets

Crossing point at Wingan Inlet - wide but not too deep

Floating my backpack and gear across

Soldier crabs on the move

I was both relieved and disappointed with what I saw. True, I had timed my walk to reach here at low tide and make the crossing easier, but this was very low and it did not look nearly as challenging as I had read about or imagined. Still, I inflated my thermarest, stowed boots, shirt, electronics etc in dry bags and put these and my pack into a large plastic bag. My RCD (river crossing device) was ready and it worked.

The first channel was only waist deep but fast flowing as the tide was still pouring out of the inlet (which meant being in warm inlet water rather than cold sea water), followed by a walk across an exposed sand-bar, scattering armies of soldier crabs as I passed, and finally, a narrower but deeper channel. At least here I had to swim the RCD across - I would have been peeved if it had proved to be unnecessary for the crossing.

Once on the sand spit on the far side of Wingan Inlet, I reorganised the pack, got dressed and set off. The rest of the walk to the Wingan campground was a bit anticlimactic once the inlet had been crossed. A trudge down the beach, inland into the dunes, along the calm inlet's edge where waterbirds drifted by, a couple of sections of boardwalk across the tea-tree swamp and finally I reached the campground.

Boardwalk across the tea-tree swamp

The shore if Wingan Inlet

Campsite at Wingan Inlet

Yellow robin with boot

Evening falls on Wingan Inlet

I had arrived a bit after 4pm, so there was plenty of time to enjoy the ambience of Wingan. It was very different from Benedore, being far from the ocean and well in the forest. I set up the tent and relaxed, watching the forest birds, robins, wrens and flycatchers, as they hawked insects on the grassy campsite. There were certainly plenty of mosquitos and March flies to keep them well-fed.

As I returned from a coffee on the jetty while watching the tide roll in and the sun go down, I discovered that I had neighbours for the night. A large 4WD ute, its back filled with chairs, tables and other gear, and towing a large camper-trailer, complete with boat on top and pull-out kitchen had pulled up. I looked at my little tent and the backpack that held all of my possessions and briefly felt some kind of moral superiority. Briefly because I quickly realised ..... they were the ones drinking a cold beer!

Day 3 - Wingan Inlet to Thurra River
(21.5 km - 120m ascent - 120m descent)

The dawn chorus of forest birds woke me early, which was good as I had a long day ahead of me. I had a quick breakfast and wandered down to the jetty in time to see the rays of the rising sun glimmer in waters of the inlet, now filled by the tide. Wingan Inlet is a soothing place. I had thought that I would resent retracing my steps from the campground to the coast, but found myself enjoying the forest as I skirted the water's edge.

Wingan Inlet shimmers golden as the sun rises .....

.... before taking on a silvery light
Beware the sea-mist

While heading down to the beach from Wingan campground, I crossed paths with a couple of young Englishmen - they had been down on the beach and were returning in a hurry. "There is a huge plume of smoke coming from the headland to the east" they said "we are going back to warn the other campers about the fire and report it to the authorities". I was heading west, but it was still disconcerting as this was the country I had just walked through. They headed off to camp and I hurried on to the beach to check out the bushfire.

Ooops! the plume of smoke was in fact a band of low cloud and sea-mist rolling from in from the south-east. Backlit by the sun, I could see the illusion that it may be originating from the headland, but ....! I couldn't take the grin of my face for ages thinking of the campers being woken and told to evacuate in the face of the ferocious sea-mist.

Smoke plume from the distant headland?
No, just a dense mist rolling in from the sea

Reaching the beach at Fly Cove, I was greeted by the sight of a dense band of sea-mist and low cloud rolling in from the south-east - the sun would soon disappear behind it. I headed eastward along the curving shore keeping my eyes open for the pole that marked the start of the track across Rame Head. The pole was there, but the wooden steps leading from beach to track were another 100m further on, where a quasi-islet joined the beach (curious placement, as you could have wasted a lot of time looking for a track near the pole).

Sea mist above The Skerries

The sheltered western end of Fly Cove

Once up the steps, the track meandered its way through the forest as it climbed steadily up the old inland dunes of Rame Head. As the cloud settled above, the air become still and humid and it was a relief to reach the top of a long east-west ridge. Although the ridge was covered with thickets of tea-trees, they allowed the cooling breeze through.

Rame Head forest

Ridge track through the tea-trees

It was a wise person who laid this track, open to the movement of air as it turned westward to follow the undulating ridge, rather than using the hollows on either side. Eventually though, it had to descend towards the sea, heading down into a gully of knobby-trunked banksias and gnarly-branched tea-trees, before spilling out onto the edge of an open coastal dune on the western side of Rame Head.

Gnarly tea-trees and knobby banksias

Petrel Point through the mist

My last bit of forest / heath walking was completed and ahead lay a long 15 km stretch of beach, punctuated by rocky outcrops. A light and cool south-westerly made for pleasant walking and, with the tide now well on the way out, I was able to walk on the firm wet sand of the intertidal zone.
Emerging back onto the beach from the Rame Head track

I quickly reached the first small outcrop of rocks, rounded by wind and wave and a collecting place for the flotsam and jetsam of the ocean, including some large rusting pieces of wrecked boats. Rounding a steep-sided dune that abutted the rocks, I reached the next stretch of beach and pushed on. Ahead I could see Petrel Point, the most extensive rock platform on this route.

Sand and the art of beachwalking

The rusting remnants of a shipwreck

On reaching the edge of the Petrel Point rocks, it was good to see that they were of the rounded, grippy-surfaced genre - large sloping slabs with deep cracks, pools of sea-water left from the big seas, jumbles of smaller boulders and small sandy coves. The walking was relatively easy, so long as you looked far enough ahead to anticipate the best path between the rock forms.

The rock platform at Petrel Point

Flotsam and jetsam

All along there were reminders of the wildness of the seas in this part of the world, salt-bleached timbers, bits of broken fibreglass moulding, the odd rusting metal relic, floats and plastic fish boxes trapped in rocky hollows where the waves had dumped them. A flock of cormorants roosting on an off-shore rock watched me pass by, picking my way from slab to slab.

A curiously water-carved rock

Rock pool on the Petrel Point platform

The grassy verge of Petrel Point

Coastal tussock grasses

Eventually, near the far end, I found a faint track through the grass at the back of the rocks and this quickly brought me back on to the beach near Gale Hill. Once more the long pale sandy strip of beach faded into the distance. I continued my westward march on the firm wet sand to reach a small rocky point. The route here was a small sand blow in the dune behind the rocks, but it was also an excellent place for lunch as it provided a sandy perch from which to enjoy the views back toward Petrel Point and onwards following the sweeping curve of sand to Point Hicks and its lighthouse.

Looking back towards Rame Head ....

.... and ahead to another 8 km of beach walking

Of more interest to me though were the large dunes rising above the forest this side of Point Hicks. These dunes lay behind Thurra River - the end of my walk was in sight. Thus began the longest stretch of beach-walking, shared only with the occasional gull, oystercatcher or sand plover. It was a time for letting the mind be absorbed by the isolation and wildness of this coastline. How long do you think you can keep walking with your eyes closed? - I can tell you that after 60 seconds the urge to open them is irresistible and your gait slows down. Failing that you walk into the ocean and your boots get wet.

The last long stretch of beach

After a long line of wind-etched dune fronts, I reached the wide bar of Mueller River, holding back its tannin-stained estuary, perhaps the least aesthetic of all the river "outlets". It was but a short walk from here to the mouth of the Thurra River, blocked now at low tide, but open to the sea at high tide.

Wind-etched sand cliffs

Hooded plover with juveniles - good news for a rare bird

Nello and Aisha in the Thurra River

There, smiling up from the clear tannin-stained water of the river were some familiar faces - the fair Nello, my son-in-law and my 4-year old grand-daughter. The walk was over. After sitting on the water's edge and watching my grand-daughter demonstrate her swimming skills, we all wandered back to their campsite in the forest behind the dunes.

The campground goanna

Point Hicks from Thurra Beach (the next morning)

After three days of solid walking, my body was feeling somewhat weary, but after a quick soak in the refreshing water of the Thurra River, a change into clean clothes and an ice-cold beer that the fair Nello had magically conjured up, I felt normal again. The stretch of coast between Mallacoota and Thurra really is a wilderness and walking it alone made it all the more so. It was a great experience, but so was sitting here in a bush camp surrounded by the happy banter of family and grand kids - I realised just how fortunate I am.