Walking the walk: alone and loving it on the Great Ocean Walk
Imagine escaping for a few hours by yourself to wander the coastline of the Great Ocean Road. Margaret O’Connor walked 15 kilometres and didn’t lay eyes on another human being…
The Victorian Great Ocean Road was built by returned soldiers after the First World War and traverses a spectacular, no-nonsense don’t-muck-with-me limestone coastline, punctuated along the way by more than 160 shipwrecks. Jumping onto a ship and making your way to a new land in the 19th century was clearly a risky business. Still is.
The beaches along the coastline are wind-swept, atmospheric and mock your feeble attempts to style your hair. Some resemble a backdrop for stories of Cornish wreckers and smugglers, or a production of The Tempest. This coastline is intensely loved by Victorians, which is mildly perplexing for those whose idea of a beach is synonymous with concepts of sunny warm vacuous feel-good and pleasant niceness.
In 2006 the Great Ocean Walk, traversing 104 kilometres from Apollo Bay to near Port Campbell, was opened. I grew up in the area, and since it opened, the Walk had been on my “to do” list. Choices range from the sublime (paying someone else to arrange accommodation, food and walking guides, and a nice glass of pinot noir at the end of the day) to the ridiculous (carrying your own camping gear and food, and at 8.00pm, when you are dead tired after having walked your arse off, voluntarily, and of your own free will, setting up your tent yourself and cooking your own food).
Neither option was my preference; one was too expensive and the other too insane (meaning no disrespect to hard core campers and walkers who are clearly tougher and possessed of way more fortitude, and bigger balls, metaphorically speaking, than I).
A day walk, I decided, was the go. When I parked my car at the Cape Otway Lighthouse at sparrow fart in the morning and set off for my destination 15 km away, Castle Cove, the trail was completely deserted — except for me. It was December 21, just before peak season commenced. I ignored nagging feelings of unease (you’re a lone female. Are you mad? You can’t just head off by yourself. There’s no mobile phone coverage around here, blah blah blah) and plodded on.
I was, in fact, quite safe despite the fact that I didn’t lay eyes on another human being for for three and a half hours — or more likely because of it. (“Did you start having hallucinations?”, I was asked by a relative at Christmas). The wind in the bushes, the spectacular scenery, the ocean views, startled swamp wallabies and black cockatoos… no sign of civilisation at all. Peace. Quiet. Remember those words?Glimpses of the ocean through the bushes. An iPad? What the hell’s that? And who gives a shit anyway? I plodded on.
Extreme isolation started messing with my head. Soon I found myself pretending to be William Buckley the Wild White Man who, in 1803, escaped from a convict settlement and walked around Port Phillip Bay for months before having any contact with anyone else. Approaching the Aire River camping ground I saw a shimmering hallucinatory figure of a bloke cutting grass by the side of the track, who assumed the form of a real Otway Ranges National Park ranger. Armed with his advice about where I could fill up my water bottle, I strode on.
Dunno if I could ever be a William Buckley. But the walk afforded a wonderful glimpse of what the Victorian coast must have looked like through his eyes and those of the indigenous inhabitants of the Otway Coast, before the babble and speed and cyber-chaos of the 21st century, before the 1970s and the coming of the tourists, before the creation of the Great Otway and Port Campbell National Parks and the backbreaking work of the returned soldiers who built the road, back through time before even the 20th and 19th centuries and the gradual creeping encroachment of European settlement on this land.
When I arrived at Castle Cove, tired, happy, footsore, and slightly smug that I had managed a 15 km walk, I was almost hallucinating about a cold ginger beer being served up to me on a silver platter by a very good looking waiter.
Kudos, national park people, for creating a marvellous iconic Australian bushwalk. Walk the Walk, O Queenslanders, and you’ll share the love which Victorians have for this wind-whipped and history-filled part of Australia. News flash— it doesn’t kill you to walk 15 km by yourself, pretending that you’re William Buckley the Wild White Man, totally alone with the wind and the ocean and the scenery. Nor does it kill you to not see another human being for a few hours, along with their noise, trappings, accoutrements, and too-clever inventions. The Great Ocean Walk can give you that experience.
You see enough of the bloody things as it is.