With a digital map in hand, Melanie Ball and friends set out with a new approach to the bush.
Navigating a bushwalk by global positioning system (GPS) gives a whole new meaning to ''guidance from above''. That realisation is so sudden that I stop mid-stride and look up, almost expecting to lock ''eyes'' with the satellites orbiting unseen overhead.
With eucalypt-fringed blue above, damp leaf litter underfoot and creek water and parrots playing background music, I lower my gaze from the hidden observers guiding our micro-progress across the Earth's surface and check the line they are drawing on the gizmo in my hand. So far, my friends and I have followed the preprogrammed route perfectly.
Initially, the idea of using satellite technology to escape the constant connectedness of everyday life seems incongruous to me but a GPS is an extremely accurate means of finding some special places. It also adds an element of treasure-hunt fun.
Our playground is the Wombat State Forest, a multi-use recreation area almost surrounding Daylesford, where Brendan Murray meets guests over drinks (my hot chocolate is the best I have supped) in the Breakfast & Beer cafe to demonstrate the GPS unit and back-up maps used on his Secret Forest Walks.
Having explored the Wombat on foot since he was a youngster, Murray has mapped more than a dozen self-guided walks ranging from family-friendly rambles to more challenging hikes. We roll three into an all-day walk, which no one has done before; however, we are not guinea pigs, Murray counters, we are pioneers.
To ensure we are comfortable with the navigation equipment, Murray walks the first few hundred metres with us on a sunny Saturday morning and our route is a wriggly purple loop on the handset when he abandons us to our own (actually his) devices.
Our walks - Fernleigh, Babbington Hill and Lyonville Spring-Coliban Spring - form a triple-link chain strung roughly north to south through the Wombat State Forest. Vehicular tracks, existing foot trails and careful bush bashes take us up onto the Great Divide for views of the ranges and farmland spread across volcanic plains, through tall eucalypt forest hip-high with bracken and dotted with fungi and down into fern gullies where we cross logs spanning creeks flush with recent rain. (Murray has fixed wire mesh to these natural bridges to provide a better grip.)
We hear many more birds than we see and most we spot are identifiable only as LBBs (little brown birds) but crimson rosellas catch our attention with red-blue flashes. We don't see any wombats, either, but the monster burrow we pass and the profusion of droppings - distinctive cubes deposited on mounds, rocks and even on a downed tree - suggest that Wombat State Forest hosts a healthy population of its namesake.
The spring deluge has felled lots of trees and several times we detour around trunks and branches blocking our path. A fallen blackwood prevents us reaching the recommended rock-wall crossing over the Loddon, one of six rivers fed by the forest. So, we clamber and shuffle, as varying confidence dictates, over another tree handily straddling the clear flow. The sawdust mound on the opposite bank is a relic of several rounds of logging that began with the gold rush in the mid-19th century and ended in 2006. (Firewood thinning and salvaging of wind-blown trees continues.) We walk up-river through tall regrowth eucalypts to Lyonville Mineral Spring, a popular picnic and watering spot since the early 1900s, when visitors arrived by horse and buggy.
Having drunk from Spa Country mineral springs before, I steel myself for a mouthful of sulphur but the carbonated water that gushes from the hand-pump tap - there is also a pit outlet - is delicious and refreshing. We share a packet of jelly snakes, check our route and continue walking.
Using the GPS is simple, even for those unfamiliar with a smartphone, and we share map and handset duties between a Gen X technophile and two baby boomers who barely know their apps from their Achilles. The holder of the GPS is charged with checking the screen. If our progress line hugs the marked route, all is fine; when conversation distracts us and we miss a turn, with our line diverging from the purple path of truth, we backtrack or softly tread a shortcut through the bush, drawing another decorative curlicue.
We are in a deep gully when the route indicator disappears, marooning our ''you are here'' arrow in pixel space. We turn the handset off and on again, press ''where to'', ''tracks'', ''Fernleigh'' and the virtual butterflies in my stomach settle.
About mid-afternoon, we start up a kilometre or so of straight track, which the downpours have turned into a stream. We have to jump the flow several times and, where the water has pooled, reflecting gum trees and wattles and colourful hikers, our boots and walking poles leave unusual patterns on the track's soft verges. After limited rain for so long, the forest looks almost smugly green along this southern leg of the Babbington Hill walk, making it the highlight of my day.
Seven-plus hours after setting off we return to our car, the GPS ''trip computer'' recording that we have walked 18.53 kilometres at an average of 2½km/h. Sixteen hours later, after dinner at Blackwood Hotel - the duck with plum and Cointreau sauce is scrumptious - and exercise-fuelled sleep at our rented Blackwood cottage, we turn our GPS on again, tap our way to ''GDR Peaks'' and ease slightly stiff muscles into a 7½-kilometre loop walk.
Starting under clouds, we climb a rough vehicle track onto a Great Divide ridge, where lichen cloaks fallen branches and last night's rain beads mossy trees. But the sun shines brightly on a ranges view as we descend again through scruffier forest festooned with pink and white common heath and blooming wattle.
This walk is mainly on vehicle tracks and we meet three trail bikes, a four-wheel-drive and two couples scouting routes for a Riding for the Disabled Association weekend. Dogs/dingoes, kangaroos and wombats have left their marks, too, and a wedge-tailed eagle flies overhead; like yesterday, though, we have the forest mostly to ourselves.
We stop for an early lunch under a majestic messmate (stringybark) with three trunks, and again to watch a 10-centimetre long, bright yellow carnivorous flatworm making even slower progress than us. And when we return to the car, we don't need the GPS to tell us our last Secret Forest Walk has been a lazy Sunday stroll.
Melanie Ball was a guest of Secret Forest Walks.
Wombat State Forest is a 90-minute drive north-west of Melbourne via the Western Freeway. See wombatforest.org.
Secret Forest Walks cost $60 solo, plus $10 for each additional adult (children are free). This includes a GPS unit and tuition, plus backpack with supplies, and is a daily rate (morning to afternoon) so a combination of shorter walks or a longer walk can be accommodated. Phone 0418 301 281, see secretforestwalks.com.
Wannawong Cottage in the village of Blackwood (surrounded by forest) provides inexpensive, old-fashioned self-contained accommodation for up to nine people, from $105 a night for two. See stay.trentham.biz/wannawong.htm.