One of Victoria’s best long-distance hikes is also one of its least known

It’s a bright blowy day in early December when Yasmin and I don our packs outside the Portland Maritime Discovery and Information Centre in southwest Victoria. The historic seaside town acts as both the start and end of the Great South West Walk (GSWW), a 250km circuit that can be divided into four roughly equal parts: forest, river, beach and cape, with almost the entire walk within national parks or other reserves.

INTO THE FOREST

We walk north out of town around the edge of Portland Bay, before heading into the beautiful Cobboboonee Forest. The track unfurls ahead of us in a metre wide mown strip, red markers clearly showing the route.

We spot a koala – the first of many – sitting in the fork of a manna gum peering down blearily at us. I’m feeling a little bleary myself. Although the route is relatively flat and the walking easy, my pack – with a full of a week’s worth of food – feels filled with lead ingots. I rue the ‘extras’ I’ve bought along. A set of coloured pencils, two novels, four packets of butterscotch lollies, a kilo of milk powder, an entire sweet potato. What the hell was I thinking?

The afternoon sunshine slants through the vertical columns of the trees. Echidnas dig among the purple chocolate lilies and blue pincushions beside the track. Hundreds of grass trees thrust spear-like flower spikes towards the eucalypt canopy.

Our first campsite, Cubby’s Camp, is an open area beneath messmate stringybarks. A neat two-sided hut beside a rainwater tank contains a table and benches. Nearby there’s a fire pit with cooking plate, an outdoor table and a shockingly clean pit toilet. This blueprint is followed at each of the hike’s 13 other campsites, with minor variations such as a few sites having borewater instead of rainwater. With campsites between 9 and 22km apart, most hikers complete the GSWW in 9-14 days.

After walking 20km with packs full of ingots, Yasmin and I eat dinner and are in bed, asleep, before we even need to breakout our headtorches.

For the next three days we continue through the Cobboboonee Forest. The day we’re due to reach the Glenelg River starts out hot – by 8:30am the fierce sun demands sunscreen and a hat. The Cobboboonee’s messmate forest grows taller while somehow seeming to provide less shade. Orange leaves, dry as chips, crunch underfoot. The heat leaves me in a stupor – Yasmin calls out as I walk straight past a red-bellied black snake beside the path.

We eat lunch in the shade of a blackwood tree, then lie back against our packs and doze. A long rumble of thunder awakes us with a start. The sun is gone, replaced by thick dark clouds. A cool wind stirs the branches overhead.

We’re not long back on the track before the temperature plunges 16 degrees and it starts to rain. The wind is bitterly cold, and I’m soon wearing all the warm clothes I have, including a beanie and scarf, but I’m still chilled. I look enviously at the thick fur of the red-necked wallabies grazing beside the track.

TAKE ME TO THE RIVER

We reach the Glenelg River at Moleside Camp. The Glenelg is a surprisingly grand waterway, 40m wide at this point of its journey, its olive coloured water smooth and placid. With a catchment that’s largely protected, it’s hard to argue with explorer Sir Thomas Mitchell who sailed down the Glenelg in 1836 and noted it was ‘the finest body of freshwater I had seen in Australia’.

From Moleside the showery weather continues as we follow the river downstream for three days to the town of Nelson, marking halfway on the GSWW circuit. The walking is easy, with views of the river through the trees, its surface dimpled by raindrops. The rain has refreshed and recoloured the forest – the grasses are more vibrant, leaves glossier and flowers revived. The birdlife in this stretch is incredible, with cormorants, gang gang cockatoos, yellow robins, fairy wrens, mistletoe birds, kingfishers, fairy wrens, wattlebirds, kookaburras and fantails the forest is alive with birdcall from dawn to dusk.

While we find the damp weather a bit dispiriting to walk in, it suits the marsh frogs ‘pucking’ from the river bank and the banjo frogs ‘bonking’ from wetlands inland. And they’re not the only ones enjoying the wet weather. I look down and see a fat black stripe across my ankle, a centimetre wide and about six long. It takes me a moment to realise it’s a leech – a far larger species that I’ve ever seen before. Although it lets go with the lightest of touches, it leaves behind a wound the size of a cigarette burn, which bleeds into the top of my soggy sock. The pleasures of hiking anyone?

With the gentle sound of rain tapping on the blackwood and messmate canopy overhead, we enter a particularly beautiful section of forest smelling sweetly of the flowering bursaria shrubs. The path is a mosaic of moss, weeping grass, leaves, bark and pennywort.

On day 7 the sky finally begins to clear for our walk from Pattersons Camp to Nelson. Hiking atop the huge limestone cliffs that overlook the Glenelg, the river’s surface reflects fluffy white clouds and the cliff’s honey coloured stone. Ahead an emu walking on the track notices us with a comic start before jogging away, grey feather skirt jouncing. Two yellow-tailed cockatoos fly overhead and we hear – faintly – the distant rumble of surf from the coast. Then the sun breaks out and I’m in hiker heaven.

Before we reach Nelson there’s the little matter of South Australia to tackle. The track – following the Glenelg – curls out of Victoria into South Australia for about 4km, enabling us to eat lunch in the festival state.

LORD, NELSON

Day 7 Nelson Kiosk

Nelson is a small fishing and tourist town on the edge of the Glenelg River, just inland from the coast. It takes about 10 minutes to explore the town: a kiosk, caravan park, service station, motel, pub and information centre. We’re ‘glamping’ for two nights in a safari tent at the caravan park. The caravan park also has our food drop for the final six days on the track. We eat dinner at the pub, a sticky carpeted fishing-themed establishment dating from 1855.

On our rest day we write postcards, use the free wi-fi at the information centre (open 10am-5pm) and hang out at the bustling kiosk (open 7am – 5pm). While the kiosk only offers a limited and expensive range of hiking supplies, it does have great coffee, egg and bacon rolls and homemade pies. With the kiosk also the town’s post office, I take the opportunity to mail home my pencils, novels and excess food.

A SEA CHANGE

Leaving Nelson, the Glenelg River sprawls into an impressive estuary. Entering the Discovery Bay Coastal Park – which we’ll remain in all the way to Portland – we cross the dunes and emerge at the ocean. A sea breeze rushes at us, zesty and fresh. White lines of breakers groom the turquoise waters before trundling up the fine, sandy beach. The route ahead is simple: follow the beach southeast far into the gauzy sea haze. There’s no one else around, not even any footsteps. The big exhilarating landscape makes my pack feels lighter and legs stronger.

We walk up the beach. Pied oyster catchers stand in a group facing the breeze. A tiny pair of hooded plovers pace nervously at the high tide mark. After a few hours the track takes us along the dunes parallel to shore through pigface, coast wattle and beard heath. Blowouts expose massive shell middens dotted with stone flakes. An echidna trundles along the path, oblivious to us, thrusting its snout into the sand.

The first night of the walk’s three day beach section is spent at Lake Monibeong, where brolgas can sometimes be seen. The lake’s glassy green freshwater is irresistible for a swim.

Day 8M Lake Monibeong from jetty

Over the next two days we continue along the immense sweep of Discovery Bay, the view largely unchanging: beach, sea, sky and dune. While it could be monotonous, it’s somehow Zen. For stretches of an hour or more, neither of us says a word.

CAPES AND COVES

Discovery Bay ends at the blunt finger of Cape Bridgewater, the first of the many capes that characterise our last three days back to Portland. Only green-grey cushion bushes persist on the eroded orange cliff tops high above the ocean.

We pass Whites Beach, a beautiful sandy cove with tragic history. In 1851 the German ship Marie was wrecked just south of here, drowning all 25 passengers and crew.

Continuing to cross Cape Bridgewater, the exposed dune limestone rock has been weathered into the shapes of ghosts, tubes, wax, honeycomb and fantastical cities. Far below us waves pound against the cliff’s blue-black basalt base, a reminder of the area’s volcanic past.

We smell the seals before we see them. Cape Bridgewater is unique in having two seal colonies side-by-side: one of Australian fur seals and a second – a couple of hundred metres away – of New Zealand fur seals. From our viewpoint on the cliffs we can initially only see a few seals lying at the base of the cliff like sunbathers on holiday. But we soon notice other seals in the rough waters, spearing through the waves in pods, arching out of the water in a show of pure exuberance.

The next day we climb steeply off the Bridgewater Bay Beach onto Cape Nelson, the wind turbines on the cape’s spine turning lethargically in the light breeze. The track drifts through avenues and tunnels of wind-pruned shrubs before the vegetation again becomes a barren orange moonscape of dune limestone fragments and shards.

Cape Nelson Lighthouse comes into view, a tapered white pillar with a jaunty red cap. Built with local bluestone the lighthouse was constructed in 1884 as part of the effort to prevent shipwrecks such as the Marie.

Day 13 Cape Nelson Lighthouse

On the last day of our hike the weather and coast combine to put on a stunning farewell show. The morning sun scintillates off Nelson Bay, small coves and mysterious caves nestling at the base of the bay’s soaring orange cliffs. The vegetation contributes to the show too, with shady arcades of soap mallee, sea box, correa and grass trees culminating in the deep shade of the Enchanted Forest, an area where moonah groves are draped in luxuriant curtains of bower spinach.

A few kilometres from Portland we break for lunch at the back of a massive aluminium smelter. Despite the proximity to the factory, nearby Point Danger is the only place on the mainland where Australasian gannets nest. A stream of gannets fly overhead – all black wingtips and clumsily applied yellow eye-shadow – wings fixed like gliders.

We reflect that during our two weeks on the GSWW we’ve seen more echidnas than other hikers on the track. It’s rare that a walk with such spectacular landscapes, abundant wildlife and good facilities is so quiet. And that’s what makes this Victoria’s secret.


Update: Yasmin and I worked with the Friends of the Great South West Walk to write a comprehensive guidebook to the hike. A dream job! More info here.