The inspiring Great South West Walk ensures visitors leave with a song in their hearts, writes Mark Ellis.
Apart from the road to Gundagai, Victoria's Great South West Walk may be the only other bush track to have a song written about it - and not just any old song, a choral symphony in four movements called Discovery. And after walking its 250 kilometres in early autumn, it's not hard to see why someone would score a complex piece of music in honour of these epic stretches of wild and woolly country.
Given the walk's relative remoteness, it has a low profile, unlike the better known Victorian walks at Wilsons Promontory or the glamorous Great Ocean Walk from Apollo Bay. But the dearth of visitors means you can get away without getting too far away.
The walk is a loop, beginning and ending in Portland, a 4½-hour drive west of Melbourne, that traverses four distinct landscapes (one symphonic movement per environment) - forest, river country, beaches and cliffs. Once on the track, Portland is never more than an hour's drive away.
I did the full loop in 14 days on an assisted walk with 17 others. Organised by the Friends of the Great South West Walk, we averaged 20 kilometres a day, with about five or six hours of walking daily. Walking every day meant covering each of the landscapes in roughly three to four days, but there are other options (see breakout) that are ideal for shorter or day walks. The track is relatively flat and the few hills moderate. Autumn is an ideal time to go as the days are often sunny without being scorching and the nights cool enough for a campfire but without a polar chill.
Starting from the visitor information centre on the Portland waterfront, the track briefly heads north along coastal cliff tops and past houses before veering north-west into the Cobboboonee State Forest, where, after the first day, there isn't another house for almost a week. It's classic towering eucalypt forest - manna gums mostly, punctuated with an occasional scrubby banksia and the odd footbridge across a fern-lined gully. The koala may be on the at-risk list but there are daily sightings. Wallabies occasionally bound out of the bush and emus run in the distance along the infrequent fire tracks and dirt roads. The last of the warm sun encourages many snakes to bask on the open track and we see half a dozen each day - copperheads, tigers, browns and red-bellied blacks - that slither away in quiet resignation at our footfall. After several days, the track eventually heads due west near Mount Deception, where most of the day is spent walking through an eerie, alien-like landscape of grass trees.
The trees become runtier and rattier as the track nears the Glenelg River. Here the river is tidal, and the water can be a little brackish, but its meandering ways make it a favourite with canoeists.
After the almost claustrophobic confines of the towering forest, the gorge is a spacious respite and the cool water a welcome chance to wash off the dust and salty sweat. The track follows the low-lying banks and then climbs to the edge of the gorge and its glorious limestone cliffs, which soar to seven storeys in height, or more. Platypuses are frequently seen around here and some campsites are overrun with amiable possums, who are expert at snaffling unguarded food. The river walk is mostly west before looping south to Nelson, a small fishing town at the river mouth on Discovery Bay, near the South Australian border.
The pounding of the Great Southern Ocean is ceaseless and deafening, making for loud, often inaudible, conversations. Fifty-five kilometres of empty white sand, gigantic surf and monster dunes follow the gentle south-easterly curve of Discovery Bay. The only other company is wading flocks of sandpipers scurrying after the receding backwash.
The track occasionally enters the dunes, passing through enormous middens of pipi shells sprinkled with flaked flint tools, a reminder of the Gunditjmara people, who would have twisted their feet in the shallows to do what the locals call the "pipi pipi shake". Some of us did and collected enough for a sweet seafood entree for dinner.
More panicked emus emerge from the dense dune scrub, while an echidna snuffles unperturbed in the sandy dirt.
At the southernmost part of the bay, the track climbs the headland of Mount Richmond.
The track hugs the cliff edge and passes fresh springs bubbling out of the rock. These springs inspired farmers to build a dry stone retaining wall so cattle could drink from the constant source of freshly filtered water. It's clear and sweet and a welcome change from the camp tank water. Past the blowholes is a petrified forest - a pipe organ of stone tree trunks in a large escarpment morphing into a jagged lunar landscape on the plane above.
The track loops around Cape Bridgewater, past a colony of seals lazing below (there are local boat trips for a closer look), and descends into Bridgewater Bay and along another beach walk westward before heading up onto the cliffs of Cape Nelson. These two capes have some of the highest coastal cliffs in Victoria - and some of the most constant winds from the Arctic.
It's prime wind-farm country and dozens of wind turbine blades slice the air. It is rugged coast and blustery, and the precipitous drop comes heart-stoppingly close at times as the wind buffets your gait into that of a weaving, drunken sailor.
After the lighthouse, the track loops around Nelson Bay and through the Enchanted Forest - a stand of moonah trees draped in vines - before passing around Grant Bay and turning north into Portland around Portland Bay.
By road via Princes Highway (about 355 kilometres, 4.5 hours).
By road via Great Ocean Road (about 443 kilometres, 6.5 hours).
By train — Daily V/Line service to Warrnambool (3.5 hours), then connecting bus to Portland (one hour).
Quest Apartments, 66 Julia Street, Portland. Central and spacious 4.5-star apartments with washing machine and dryer, perfect for smelly clothes after a long hike. From $135. questapartments.com.au.
Comfort Inn, 101 Bentinck Street, Portland. Waterfront 3.5-star motel. Clean and comfortable. $88 (standard) to $165 (water views). choicehotels.com.au.
Canton Palace Chinese Restaurant, 7 Julia Street. Good Chinese fare, reasonably priced, big helpings and friendly service.
Edward's Waterfront Cafe Restaurant, 101 Bentinck Street. Sensational coffee, excellent breakfasts. Part of the Comfort Inn.
Mac's Hotel, 41 Bentinck Street. Local institution with grand interiors and good-quality pub meals.
On the walk
Nelson Hotel, Kellett Street, Nelson. Massive pub meals. Amazingly fresh fish, probably caught that day.
Cape Bridgewater Kiosk, Bridgewater Road, Cape Bridgewater. Licensed beachfront cafe, serving good-quality breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Isabella's Cafe, Cape Nelson Lighthouse, Cape Nelson. 10am-4pm daily except Tuesdays in winter.
Prepare for the long path
Established in 1981, the walk is administered, maintained and promoted by Friends of the Great South West Walk, a volunteer group that works closely with Parks Victoria. Fees or bookings are not needed. There are 15 campsites in total, located every 10-20 kilometres. Most have a fireplace with a grate and all have a table, pit toilet and a tank for fresh water. Signs warn of the variable quality of the water.
The Friends group organises an annual full-circuit assisted walk for $300 over 14 days. Walkers provide their own food and gear, which is transported each day from camp to camp. Bookings are open for the 2013 walk. Contact Gordon Page, (03) 5523 4248, firstname.lastname@example.org, or Gwen Bennett, (03) 5523 5262, email@example.com. The group also organises transport for walkers wanting to do part of the track. See greatsouthwestwalk.com.
Other supported options
Auswalk offers several options, such as a seven-day guided group trip, or self-guided trips, with eight- or 13-day itineraries, staying at B&Bs and hotels, with large luggage transported. See auswalk.com.au.
Mark Ellis stayed in Portland courtesy of Quest Apartments.