Australia: The Great Ocean Walk

The Great Ocean Road has long been one of Australia's top attractions. But now there's an even better way to admire the southern coast: a 57-mile trail called the Great Ocean Walk

By Nina Willdorf, Tuesday, Aug 22, 2006, 12:00 AM

The famous Twelve Apostles (only eight are visible from the outlook)

(Glenn Hunt)

Australians joke that Americans tend to spend their trips Down Under ticking off visits to the three R's--the reef, the rock, and the road. To be more specific, that's the Great Barrier Reef, Ayers Rock (or Uluru), and the 171-mile Great Ocean Road, which runs between Torquay and Warrnambool in the southeastern state of Victoria.

The road, which opened in 1932, was Australia's answer to the Pacific Coast Highway in California. The funny thing about it, however, is that for long stretches you can't really see the water at all. You have to use manpower, not horsepower, to access the best views. Indigenous Australians and fishermen have been walking the coast forever, but last December, Parks Victoria made it official--carving out a tidy 57-mile trail, adding clear signs, and giving it an appropriately grand name: the Great Ocean Walk.

I love hiking, but not camping--I can only handle getting dirty if there's a nice hot shower and cozy bed at the end of the day. The Great Ocean Walk was created with people like me in mind. There are several points where day-trippers can drive in and out. And the trail, which can take up to eight days to complete, passes by several bed-and-breakfasts catering to walkers. (There are campsites, too, if that's more your style.)

To make it even easier, a handful of companies have launched guided excursions along the trail, and the best value I could find--a three-night, inn-to-inn affair for $718--was offered by an established Australian company called Ecotrek. I became even more enthusiastic about the trip when I learned that my husband, Michael, and I wouldn't have to carry our bags; Ecotrek's staffers whisk them from one B&B to the next.

The Great Ocean Road deserves comparison to the PCH, at least when it comes to curves. Jade Evans, Ecotrek's marketing director, picks Michael and me up at the Melbourne airport to drive us the three hours south along the road to our starting point at Cape Otway. I thought Australia was supposed to be about as warm as the California coast, but this is one of the least mild parts of the country. Rain lashes at the windshield, and the wipers furiously flick back and forth. Ecotrek rented us rain pants and jackets for $10 apiece, and it looks like we'll get our money's worth. "I reckon this is one of the coldest parts of Australia," Jade says. "The air comes straight off the Antarctic."

Our guide, Simon Young, meets us at our first night's destination, the Cape Otway Centre for Conservation Ecology, where we'll begin our hike the next morning. Simon looks a bit like Colin Farrell--at least to me--but he's far mellower; he's an acupuncturist on the side, and to say that he's quiet would be an understatement. The other couple who signed on to do the walk with us bowed out at the last minute, so Michael and I have Simon all to ourselves. Jade says that the company is accustomed to small groups; the normal minimum is four, but in fact she's currently organizing a walk for just one person.

The Cape Otway Centre is part B&B, part animal hospital, and a labor of love for 20-something engaged couple Lizzie Corke and Shayne Neal. Lizzie, a zoologist, was named Environmentalist of the Year in 2005 by Australian Prime Minister John Howard, and Shayne was trained in natural resource management. They're almost too idealistic to be true. Shayne and Lizzie built the five-bedroom building themselves, with mud bricks and recycled timber from a demolition yard in Geelong. The place is full-on eco, including the use of boiled rainwater in the taps and solar-power electricity.

Lizzie, a cheery blonde, greets us at the door and takes our dinner order, a choice of chicken curry or sweet-potato gnocchi. Two guests at the Centre, a British couple named Jean and Chris, are well into their bottle of cabernet sauvignon, and launch right into stories from their day of birding. As we sit down at the table, Shayne arrives with rosy cheeks after hours of practicing his plowing. Plowing is a competitive sport, we're fascinated to learn, and Shayne is ranked the sixth-best plower in Australia.

After dinner, Lizzie takes a seat by the fire, digs a furry creature out of a basket, and begins bottle-feeding him. "This is Arthur," she says, testing the temperature of the milk on her wrist. "He's a lovely, lovely little swamp wallaby." The animal, which looks like a miniature kangaroo, is one of a handful she's nursing back to health. On the 165-acre property the next day, she introduces us to two other patients in her care: Lillie, a red-shouldered wallaby, and Elmo, a nine-month-old koala.

Jade was right about the weather--it's cold outside--but we fall asleep under the softest wool blanket known to man. There are no shades covering the windows, and a sky full of stars I've never seen in the northern hemisphere serves as our eco-friendly night-light.

At 7 A.M., we wake up to muesli and fresh farm-raised eggs. All this pampering and we haven't even worked up a sweat yet, so I'm eager to get started. Our first day is by far the hardest. We begin at what must be one of the steepest parts of the trail, about 19 miles in. After a quick, sharp ascent, we see the ocean stretching out in front of us, one long mass of crashing waves and coves underneath high, green cliffs. We're hundreds of feet up, and yet the waves are so loud we have to raise our voices to be heard.

Over six hours of hiking, we see waves, hills, and coves; waves, hills, and coves. We become blasé about even the most dramatic view. We grill Simon about all the local plants, and his answer tends to be, "That's a good question...." The Great Ocean Walk is still new, so we cut him some slack about not being the world's greatest expert on the flora. Instead we ask him about other things, such as the huge first-aid kit he's hauling--he has an arsenal of stories about the harrowing rescues he's made--as well as how likely it is we'll see a snake (very) and how likely it is we'll be bitten by a snake (not at all).

At a certain point on any vacation, a person can grow a little weary of talking only to her spouse--and Simon's quiet demeanor isn't much of a distraction. I'm hopeful we'll run into some grizzled Australian walkers, but we don't come across a single person the entire day. The view does remind me of the California coast, but there's no chance you could pass a day there without seeing another person, car, or even a building. It's a remarkable thing to have a place like this all to yourself.

"Welcome to our center of well-being," says Marianne Rieve, handing us cups of organic berry tea. She and her husband, Bryan O'Neill, opened the three-room Castle Cove B&B last December. Practitioners of reflexology, Reiki, and massage, they do treatments in the living room for $45 an hour. They also have plenty of interesting things to talk about. In her former life, Marianne worked at Sotheby's in London, where she investigated suspected reproductions of famous pieces.

Marianne and Bryan's 1960s farmhouse blends influences from their past and present careers. It's decorated with restored antiques, Egyptian watercolors, and dreamcatchers, and the rooms all have the most comfortable orthopedic mattresses and pillows. We're scheduled to stay here two nights, hiking in from one direction one day, the other the next (Marianne and Bryan drop off their guests at the trailheads).

On our way to Johanna Beach, a sometime site for the World Championship Tour of surfing, a thuggish-looking alpha-male kangaroo blocks our path and stares us down. We stop and look around. There must be at least 20 of them--a 'roo colony on the ridge. Lizzie told us that a group of kangaroos is called a "mob," and now I understand why. Simon takes the lead, assuring us that the mob boss isn't looking for trouble: "If harassed, a kangaroo will give you a bit of a box, but otherwise, they'll leave you alone." Sure enough, we come away unpummeled, with plenty of photographs. There's nothing like seeing a kangaroo to remind you just how far away from home you are.

Australia is fun because it's familiar enough to be easily navigated, but different enough to keep things interesting. Take the plants, for instance: The strangest is the grass tree (the "bastard bush," as Simon calls some other plant, doesn't live up to its nickname). The top of a grass tree looks like sea grass, and the bottom resembles the prickly outside of a pineapple. The plant thrives in the Otways region, and at one point along the trail, we're up to our necks in the soft bristles. It feels as if we're walking through a car wash.

A lot of people treat the Great Ocean Road like it's simply a highway to the Twelve Apostles, limestone formations off the coast. In fact, Marianne and Bryan get a lot of late-night, last-minute guests who pull over when they realize exactly how far the Apostles are from Melbourne (the 169-mile drive takes about five hours, because the road is very twisty).

The Apostles--there are actually 13, but not all are visible from the outlook--are the result of the erosion of the cliffs. The erosion continues: The "ninth Apostle" crumbled last year. On our last morning, following a short loop hike, we drive 30 minutes past the end of the Great Ocean Walk to see the formations.

The Apostles are stunning, like statuesque jigsaw-puzzle pieces that have drifted away from the puzzle. And they're definitely worth a visit. But to be honest, I'm a little bit underwhelmed. The viewpoint parking lot is full, and for the first time in days, Michael and I are surrounded by a mob of another kind: tourists.

How to walk the Walk

The ideal time to do this walk is late October to mid-May, spring through fall in Australia. The rest of the year, it's too cold and wet. Ecotrek customizes trips in terms of length, difficulty, and sites (011-61/8-8346-4155, ecotrek.com.au). Booking with Ecotrek makes the planning infinitely easier, but it's also possible to drive yourself and stay at the inns we visited. The Cape Otway Centre for Conservation Ecology starts at $183, and includes guided day and night walks and breakfast (011-61/3-5237-9297, capeotwaycentre.com.au). Castle Cove B&B, in Glenaire, starts at $84 (011-61/3-5237-9100).