Croajingolong National Park in far eastern Victoria protects a 100 km coastline of pristine inlets, rivers, woodlands, wetlands, lakes, dunes, heath and rainforest. With over a 1000 native plant species and 384 animal species (mostly birds) it is no wonder the 87,500 hectare park has been recognised as a world biosphere reserve. The area’s abundance is reflected in the number of middens along the coast, signs of the local Aboriginal people, the Kruaetungalung, from whom the park derives its name.
The park has two main campsites, Thurra River and Wingan Inlet, both of which offer a range of hikes, from short nature trails to the multi-day challenge of the Wilderness Coast Walk.
The walk described here is a four day, 58 kilometre section of the Wilderness Coast Walk from Thurra River to the region’s largest town, Mallacoota, crossing beautiful deserted beaches, rocky headlands, vibrant heathland and lush forest.
Starting at Thurra River head east along the beach, where you might be lucky enough to see one of the many white-bellied sea eagles in the area soaring over the massive sand dunes. Day one is all easy walking along broad fine, sandy beaches, with plenty of time to admire the shells, shark eggs, jellyfish and driftwood washed up along the shore. The Gale Hill campsite, ten kilometres from Thurra, is well sheltered behind the dunes, with a small soak where a little water might be collected.
As we ate dinner on the beach, there was already the feeling of remoteness as the full moon lit the wild, deserted coast and silvered off the waves.
On day two continue east towards Petrel Point, keeping an eye out for sea life – we were treated to the sight of a giant stingray cruising in the shallows, and between June and October migrating southern right and humpback whales can be seen.
Petrel Point is a two kilometre-long headland of spectacular granite boulders and slabs, smoothed by the elements and decorated with orange and grey lichens. With favourable weather this makes a great area to spend some time exploring, especially at low tide when the abundant life in the rock pools can be observed.
Once across the point continue along the beach towards the next rocky headland, Rame Head, about three kilometres away. Just before the start of the headland an orange-capped post indicates the first inland section of trail. Climb steeply up the dunes to follow an undulating sandy track through shady groves of tea-tree and Banksia. The track then descends into grand old mahogany gums before finally emerging on the other side of the headland at Fly Cove.
Another broad crescent of sand leads towards Wingan Inlet with a trail leading to the campsite beneath tall trees on the west side of the river.
As it was approaching low tide, the only time to attempt to ford the river, we elected to continue along the beach and cross the inlet near the sea.
Wingan Inlet is a popular campsite during the holidays with families paddling in the warm waters of the river and children peering at the sea lions just visible on the islands offshore.
Testing the water-depth we found the river chest deep along the beach but only waist deep where it fanned out to sea. Crossing is fairly easy although care has to be taken not to stumble on the pits and ridges carved into the sand by the strong river current (conditions will vary with the amount of recent rain).
East of Wingan is the Sandpatch Wilderness Area, a 15 600 hectare zone protecting some of the wildest and least disturbed catchments in the state.
Although these catchments lead to idyllic creeks and rivers, such as the Easby, Red and Benedore, it is critical that hikers carry their own supplies of water as most potential water points are either dry or brackish.
Rock-hop Wingan Point and then continue five kilometres along the beach to Red River. Follow the trail over the dunes to a good campsite under a dense canopy of tea-tree at the edge of the beautiful brackish river.
While we still had plenty of water for drinking, we didn’t have enough to squander on cooking and we were reluctant to use the salty river-water in case it induced a thirst we couldn’t quench., so dinner ended up being a delicious bolognoise – hold the pasta.
Healthland and the sand-patch
Day three and the track turns inland again. Although the name ‘Wilderness Coast’ naturally conjures images of a coastal hike, nearly half the trail is inland, providing a welcome contrast (as well as shade and shelter) from the vast seascapes of the coast.
This six-kilometre section of trail enters open heathland with an abundance of pink star-shaped flowering swamp-heath, the cheerful bells of common heath and grass tree spikes rising like spears. The wildflower show must be truly spectacular in spring. Approaching a group of grass trees, a white-lipped snake slithered across the path and under the protection of one of the grass tree’s skirts. After about four kilometres lies an intersection marked ‘Sand Patch Track’ where the route takes a right back towards the sound of the surf.
Emerging onto the beach beside a gully containing a trickle of water we wasted no time in replenishing our bottles from a fern-line pool.
Cross some slippery rocks and walk another kilometre along the beach and arrive at Benedore River, another serene inlet dyed tea-colour by tannins. There are good campsites on both sides of the brackish lagoon. A broad trail continues north from the eastern campsite tucked among the melaleucas. Soon the melaleuca thickets open up to more heathy plains with easy, level walking among yellow-flowering goodenia and spiky sedges strewn with orb spiders.
The tick of approval
It wasn’t until we stopped for lunch that we discovered our first tick, embedded in a scalp near the forehead. The paralysis tick was fingernail shaped, the size of a couple of match-heads. It was easily removed with tweezers (just make sure you get hold of them by the head, as near to the skin as possible, so they are removed cleanly).
The inland track slowly descends to the beach at Seal Creek, a lovely spot for a break and with good campsites among the forested foreshore. The abundance of smooth flat rocks along the shoreline has encouraged the construction of dozens of intricate cairns, each seemingly ready to topple with the slightest wind.
The trail broadens as it returns inland, passing through stunning forest where a rain shower bought out the vibrant green in the matt-rush and goodenia, the leaves of silver-top ash shining turquoise blue-green like the sea.
After two kilometres the trail again returns to the coast, this time at Shipwreck Cove, a small cove that earned its name from the 1837 wreck of the schooner Schah which sunk here killing seven people. Thirteen survivors made it to shore and walked for five days until they found help near Eden.
The trail rises steeply to the Shipwreck creek camping area where we set up our tents under steady rain.
Day four is a brisk ten kilometre hike along Centre Track through tall forest to Mallacoota aerodrome where a shuttle is waiting to drop us back at our car at Thurra River.
Bumping along in the back of the old Landcruiser, our heads turned to the retreating coast. We all agreed: the Wilderness Coast had lived up to its name.
Mallacoota is 542 km from Melbourne and 570 km from Sydney. Cann River, the closest town to Thurra River, is about 70 kilometres from Mallacoota. From Cann River take the Tamboon Road south for 15 km then turn left onto the Point Hicks road for another 25 km.
This story was originally published by Great Walks magazine.