For athletes, it's the second gold medal. For musicians, it's the difficult second album. For hikers, it's the second day that is the biggest challenge. The faint sense of smugness that envelops you after the ease-yourself-into it first day evaporates on the second morning, when you realise you have to do it all over again and this time, it's going to be much harder.
The second day of the 12 Apostles Lodge Walk is the most difficult of the entire four-day itinerary. It is not just that you are covering the longest stretch of the route, 12.5-kilometres long for those on the standard option. (Eager beavers can rise super-early and add on an extra 8km.) There are also plenty of steep slopes involved: a total of 700 metres uphill, and another 700 metres downhill. Those knees are going to get a workout.
Our route, which follows the same stretch of picturesque coastline as the famous Great Ocean Drive, offers one great consolation for the weary walker: those wonderfully distracting views. From paths that zig-zag their way up and down limestone headlands to sand-in-your-toes stretches over rugged beaches, you are never far from the next magnificent panorama.
If we are honest, the route taken by the 12 Apostles Lodge Walk, starting at Castle Cove and finishing at the Twelve Apostles, is not that gruelling. Covering 40km in four days, the most challenging part of the walk is the alternately ascending and descending slopes that predominate during the two middle days. A decent pair of walking shoes is the only essential piece of equipment; however, the lodge thoughtfully provides some added extras including gaiters, day packs and walking poles, which are a huge help on the aforementioned slopes.
The most hardcore thing about the 12 Apostles Lodge Walk, in fact, is our guide Mitch. With his wiry physique, his red dreadlocks and his laidback attitude, Mitch's air of quiet competence is exactly what you want from a wilderness guide. Beyond retaining an impressive store of knowledge – he can offer a nugget of interesting information about anything that catches his eye, from ribbon bark gums to yellow-tailed black cockatoos – Mitch is also impressively strong. While we cart our light day packs, containing little more than our lunch and our water bottles, his oversized pack contains everything from picnic blankets to first aid supplies, as well as several extra litres of water, along with the occasional treats. One afternoon, as we approach yet another uphill stretch with visibly flagging enthusiasm, he pulls out a packet of jelly beans, which we seize on with the excitement of four-year-olds.
Long distance walking can be a surprisingly social activity. There are 10 of us on our walk, the maximum group size, and I frequently find myself walking companionably with one or two others, our conversation ranging from the extinction of the dinosaurs to emerging trends in social media. Perhaps my favourite moments, however, are those when I walk a stretch by myself, an experience that feels almost meditative.
Part of the joy is revelling in being out in nature. In contrast to most of my working days, which are spent surrounded by asphalt, I am amazed by the varied landscapes we are passing through. From windswept coastal heath to deep, fern-filled gullies, from grass forests to meadows strewn with cheery dandelions, there is always something new to look at. I become aware of how my feet move differently on different surfaces: landing softly when the path is carpeted with needle-like she-oak leaves, planting firmly when the way becomes rocky. Perhaps the greatest surprise is how quiet our surroundings are. Apart from the breeze playing through the trees and the steady wash of the waves, little disturbs the tranquillity – apart from the gasps when someone rounds a corner and spots a large snake snoozing in the path. Each time we stand patiently until the snake disappears sinuously into the grass. Not every unexpected encounter is so unwelcome; one day, we graze happily on the juicy blackberries growing wild on bushes alongside the path.
As much as we enjoy hiking the trail, coming home to the lodge in the evening is always a highlight. Firstly, there is the promise of a glass of wine and the chance to soak your feet in the half-a-dozen hot tubs that are lined up for the footsore. Then there is the food.
Hiking builds up an appetite, which is just as well, as you won't want to hold back on chef Lizzy's fabulous food. It's tempting to go hard on the hors d'oeuvres platter that comes out in the early evening – the sesame eggplant is my particular weakness, although the local cheeses are also superb – but the three-course dinner is definitely the main event.
Lizzy's menus may sound simple, but don't be fooled. An entree of carrot salad, for instance, is not a heap of shredded carrot; instead, it's an exquisitely arranged selection of roast carrot puree, pickled ribbons of carrot, carrot top pesto and pan roasted Dutch carrots. That may be followed by braised beef short ribs; for those with a sweet tooth, however, the desserts are definitely the highlight. Most impressive of all, however, is Lizzy's ability to work with dietary restrictions. The zucchini and potato rosti that she sends out for the gluten-free crowd one morning are so tasty that I end up ordering a serve myself, despite being a happy omnivore.
The food is just one of the little luxuries on offer at 12 Apostles Lodge. Another is the simple joy of waking up each morning in a comfortable bed. The lodge is your base for the duration of the walk; each morning we drive to the point where we ended our walk the day before, and resume our trek, often disturbing kangaroos along the way.
Each of the lodge's five cabins can be configured either as a single king size room or as two single rooms. One tip: it is better to bring a close companion with you than to share with a stranger. The partition that divides the room into two single rooms is very thin, and a sleeping situation where you can hear the person next door roll over in bed will not appeal to everyone.
The last day of the hike is the easiest, and also the most spectacular. As we get ever closer to the remarkable limestone stacks known as the 12 Apostles, the views just keep getting better. The walk ends with a big finish: a spectacular helicopter flight over the shoreline. As we swoop over the ocean, we spot dolphins arcing exuberantly through the water. They look about as happy as we feel.
Qantas, Virgin and Jetstar all fly into Melbourne multiple times a day. See qantas.com.au, virginaustralia.com and jetstar.com. 12 Apostles Lodge is located about three hours from Melbourne, and offers complimentary road transfers from Tullamarine Airport and Southbank.
The 12 Apostles Lodge Walk is a four-day, 40km coastal walk from Johanna to the 12 Apostles, taking in some of Victoria's most memorable scenery. Return each night to a comfortable eco-lodge to enjoy foot baths and gourmet meals. From $2040 per person, see twelveapostleslodgewalk.com.au
Ute Junker travelled as a guest of 12 Apostles Lodge Walk and Visit Victoria.