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
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.