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It's the ultimate pop-up bar. For five hours I've been hiking through scorching heat atop the bare sandstone flanks of the Grampians. As I shuffle into Bugiga campsite, my drinking water is running low and my internal thermostat is running high.
I drop my backpack atop one of Bugiga's circular tent platforms and prise open a manhole cover built into the platform. Beneath, inside a wire storage cage, is 15 litres of water, a cooler bag of snacks and, most anticipated this evening, a cold bottle of craft beer.
It's my first night on the Grampians Peaks Trail, one of Australia's newest long-distance bushwalks. When completed in 2019, the trail will traverse the length of Victoria's Grampians, stretching north-south for 144 kilometres.
The first stage of the trail opened in May 2015, making a 36-kilometre, three-day loop out from Halls Gap over the Wonderland Range and the summit of Mount Rosea. Day one ends at Bugiga, a campsite purpose-built for the Grampians Peaks Trail and a prototype for another 11 camps to come.
The campsite consists of a ring of wooden tent platforms, each with a subtly different view, surrounding an open, hangar-like communal shelter. Best of all, at least on this 38-degree day, is that Bugiga – and each campsite to follow – is close to roads and tracks, making it possible for operator Grampians Peaks Walking Company to shuttle in food, water and alcohol to civilise and soften the end of a hiking day.
It's just one way that the Grampians Peaks Trail is setting itself apart from standard bushwalks.
"We've provided the canvas for someone to come in and make things of it," says Grampians National Park ranger in charge David Roberts. It's envisaged that many hikers will stay in B&Bs and get transported to the trail each day, and that restaurants or caterers might get involved, bringing in meals and hiking hampers of local produce to the campsites.
Already the Royal Mail Hotel in Dunkeld has created a mid-week walking package framed around the Grampians Peaks Trail, including accommodation and a day of guided walking on the trail with food prepared by the hotel's executive chef Robin Wickens.
The trail begins in the heart of Halls Gap, where the Wonderland Range, the archetypal piece of the Grampians, rises like a barrier ahead of me. The valley echoes with the screech of sulphur-crested cockatoos, and the day already burns with heat.
For the first couple of hours I follow the well-known, well-loved path to Venus Baths and the Pinnacle. The trail's guiding line at this point is Stony Creek as it winds down from the mountains, though it's more a set of wet potholes than a stream. As the trail and the temperature climb, the pools get ever more inviting, until I can resist no more.
Near the trail I spy a hidden waterhole – a locals' secret, I'm later told. I squeeze through a crack between boulders and wade into the pool, cooling down among a few sunning skinks and the distant sound of vehicles, which might as well be a continent away.
It's another squeeze into the Grand Canyon and finally Silent Street, two narrow slots enclosed by mounds of sandstone textured like elephant skin. At the end of Silent Street the slot becomes so narrow that briefly my backpack gets wedged between the walls. It takes the skills of a gymnast to release myself.
I stop for a while among the crowds at the Pinnacle, a thumb of rock protruding from the rim of the Wonderland Range above Halls Gap. Until now, along this popular day-walk stretch, my backpack has been attracting the sort of attention normally reserved for wildlife, but just a few steps from the Pinnacle I'm suddenly alone. I won't see another bushwalker until I reach the summit of Mount Rosea, about 24 hours from now.
For the next couple of kilometres, the Grampians Peaks Trail runs along the rim of the Wonderland Range, rounding rocky gullies and weaving through a circus act of sandstone.
There are mushrooms of rock, beehives of rock and vertebra-like knobs of rock. There are rocks lying on their side and rocks seemingly standing on their heads. It really is a wonderland.
I come to the cliff edge again at Lakeview Lookout, which is poised like a diving board above Lake Bellfield. Tomorrow night I will camp near this lake, so near to where I now stand and yet in reality still so far away.
From the lookout, the trail turns its back on the lake, heading in the opposite direction towards Mount Rosea, doing what it will eventually do for its entire 144-kilometre journey – seek out the peaks of the trail's title.
"The hint is in the name," Roberts says. "There's going to be a hill or two."
Soon, Bugiga campsite emerges from the bush, huddled at the foot of Mount Rosea. Taking its name from the Indigenous title for Mount Rosea, Bugiga consists of 12 disc-like tent platforms connected by a boardwalk.
The architect-designed campsite is modular, built off-site and transported into the Grampians. The open communal shelter, which is lined with a pair of benches, and the toilet block are constructed of rusted metal that reflects the orange colours of the Grampians sandstone. Water is scarce and unreliable, making a water drop in camp almost unavoidable.
The campsite is exclusive to Grampians Peaks Trail hikers, and my tent platform looks out through tall gums to the summit of distant Mount William, which will be the next peak after Mount Rosea in the hiking chain when the full trail is complete. I eat my dehydrated dinner, drink my rehydrating beer and watch sunset paint the sky in glow-stick colours.
Through the night, a thunder and lightning show hoses down the Grampians. The birdlife is out in force in celebration by morning, and the sandy track onto the shoulder of Mount Rosea has been compacted by rain, wiping away all evidence of previous footprints. The oppressive heat has blown away in the storm.
The rocks continue to defy logic as I ascend the slopes of Mount Rosea, my body contorting as much as the sandstone as I squeeze between the cracks. Below me now I look across to Tower Hill, with its summit looking like the funnels of a cruise ship, and a ribbon of orange escarpment on the Bundaleer before the absolute flatness of the Wimmera plains.
By the time I reach the summit of Mount Rosea I've been predominantly climbing for a day and a half. I now stand 300 metres above the Pinnacle and 700 metres above Halls Gap, and it feels as though I can see almost all of the Grampians. And from here it's pretty much downhill for the rest of the day.
Until now I've been walking mostly on existing trails, often upgraded as part of the Grampians Peaks project, but from Mount Rosea the way ahead is on entirely new tracks.
It's the beginning of $30 million of expenditure invested in the construction of the Grampians Peak Trail, a project that was first mooted in 1987, soon after the national park was established.
Although stage one was funded in 2009, the proposal really took life again after floods in 2011 destroyed about one-third of the national park's walking tracks, forcing a creative rethink. An idea now almost 30 years in the making took literal legs.
The new section of trail from Mount Rosea is wide and smooth – a tarmac road in comparison to the boulder-strewn lands behind me. Stone stairways coil down from the summit, blending into the natural rockscape, before flattening into a gentle trail through tall eucalypt forest.
Suddenly I'm off the range, with barely a boulder in sight. The pleasure now is in striding out, heading for tonight's home in the public camp ground at Borough Huts and the beer that's waiting for me once again.
Halls Gap is about a three-hour drive from Melbourne along the Western Highway.
The Grampians Peaks Trail begins and ends in the centre of Halls Gap, making for easy access. The Grampians Peaks Walking Company can shuttle walkers to and from trail sections, make food and water drops and lead guided hikes. It also hires out hiking and camping equipment. absoluteoutdoors.com.au/activities/grampians-peaks-trail
FIVE OTHER GRAMPIANS ACTIVITIES
The Grampians has some world-class climbing sites, such as Taipan Wall and the Bundaleer. Introductory climbs are available through Absolute Outdoors Australia in Halls Gap. absoluteoutdoors.com.au
Don't just climb a mountain, hike inside one on the short walk into the scoured guts of the well-named Hollow Mountain for views across the Wimmera.
HANG WITH THE ROOS
Head to Halls Gap's oval near sunset and you can stroll among the dozens of kangaroos that will almost certainly be grazing the lawn.
PADDLE LAKE BELLFIELD
Hire a canoe and make a splash on Lake Bellfield, pooled along the foot of the Wonderland Range. absoluteoutdoors.com.au
FOOD AND WINE TRAIL
Not all activities need involve sweat. Pick up the Food and Wine Trail sheet from Harvest Halls Gap Cafe and Provedore, and take a tour of local producers.
Andrew Bain travelled courtesy of Grampians Tourism.