Louise Southerden takes in spectacular southern scenery while improving her carbon footprint.
A weekend that includes weeding might not, at least to non-gardeners like me, seem an ideal way to spend leisure time. But add wild and windswept beaches, one of Australia's most rugged coastal walking tracks, fine food and foot spas at a newly opened eco-lodge - and some scenic driving - and it starts to look more appealing.
It's a glorious Friday morning when we leave Melbourne by minivan, bound for the Great Ocean Road. The sun is shining, the waves are breaking, the road is twisting. At Kennett River, just past Lorne, we slow down to spot koalas in the forks of trees beside the road. A little further on we press our noses to the windows to see gang-gang cockatoos and sea eagles overhead.
Apollo Bay, where we stop for lunch, seems perfect for a lazy afternoon of book shopping and cafe hopping. But these temptations will have to wait for another weekend because my companions and I are on the inaugural Great Ocean Conservation Walk.
This three-day experience is run jointly by the Victorian walking tour company, bothfeet, and Conservation Volunteers Australia. Not only are you stepping out on the Great Ocean Walk - the 91-kilometre trail between Apollo Bay and the Twelve Apostles - you're reducing your carbon footprint by doing conservation work along the way, such as weeding, tree-planting and seed collecting.
"As an eco-certified organisation, we have a responsibility to give back to the local area and we wanted to do something hands-on, so teaming up with CVA seemed the perfect way to do that," says Dana Ronan, who set up bothfeet with her husband, Gavin, in 2005.
Our trip starts with a seed-collecting mission. "It's like a treasure hunt," says Anna O'Brien, the Landcare co-ordinator at Southern Otway Landcare Network, when we meet her at Apollo Bay. "You never know what you're going to find." Landcare's seed bank holds seeds of more than 60 native plant species - from blackwoods and gums to dogwoods and acacias - but they always need more. That's where we come in. Following O'Brien's ute, we drive to Maits Rest, where she shares the secrets of sustainable seed collecting: don't take more than 10 per cent of seeds from one plant, collect from as many different plants of one species as possible (for maximum genetic diversity) and collect only ripe seeds. At first, as we carry plastic buckets and a tarp into the shady forest, none of us has much of a clue what we're looking for. With O'Brien's help, however, we soon start recognising our targeted plants and their seeds: prickly currant bush (seeds like small red beads), musk daisy (fluffy brown seed heads), austral mulberry (yellow, mulberry-like seeds) and the mock-olive (seeds like dusty pink pebbles). And it does feel like a treasure hunt as we scour the ground for dots of colour, pick seeds off branches and gently shake small trees to release out-of-reach ones, which we collect in the tarp.
At the end of our three-hour session, we emerge from the bush with four buckets, each containing hundreds of seeds, which will be grown into seedlings and eventually planted at a nearby bush regeneration site. Last year Landcare and its volunteers planted 70,000 trees grown from seeds like the ones we've collected.
Our day's conservation work done, we head to bothfeet's purpose-built walking lodge, situated at the end of an unsignposted gravel road lined with spooky-looking radiata pines, enhancing the sense of seclusion. Out here, no one can hear you scream ... in delight, at the warm, Radox-infused footbaths and mango-cranberry-orange frappes we're treated to as soon as we arrive.
The four-star lodge, which opened in December 2008, is two kilometres from Johanna Beach, about halfway along the Great Ocean Walk and in the middle of a cool-climate rainforest of tall blackwoods, mountain ash, stringybarks and sugar gums. It's also a model of environmentally friendly design.
Created by the Sydney eco-architect, Stephen Sainsbury, and Dana and Gavin Ronan, it was built without clearing the land (on a footprint left by previous dwellings) using the most durable and sustainable materials available. The lodge's skeleton, for instance, is made of marine-grade aluminium alloy, which is lighter than steel (so the lodge could be built by hand without heavy machinery or cranes) and corrosion resistant (important when you're so close to the sea). The decking is made from spotted-gum offcuts, the walls clad in celery-top pine sourced sustainably from Tasmania and sheep's wool is used for insulation. Even the furnishings are sustainable, such as the cotton and hemp cushions, lampshades and artwork - all printed using organic, plant-based dyes by Sydney artist Julie Paterson. Solar hot water, organic soaps and shampoos, greywater recycling and rainwater tanks complete the eco-picture. It's also a supremely comfortable home-away-from-home. There are cashmere and wool blankets in each of the 10 bedrooms; sliding glass doors that frame the surrounding forest; black leather sofas in the lounge room; hydronic underfloor heating; two massage rooms and delicious meals made by Ha, the lodge's friendly Vietnamese chef and manager.
The absence of televisions, radios and iPod docking stations is deliberate; without man-made sounds, you can tune in to natural ones - the calls of New Holland honeyeaters, fairy wrens, kookaburras and red-browed finches, for instance, or the rain drumming on the curved, corrugated iron roofing.
"Our aim," Dana says, "is to showcase the idea that you don't have to forgo comfort and a sense of normality [in terms of, say, hot showers and comfortable beds] to go 'eco'."
By August, the lodge will be advanced eco-accredited and in winter next year there'll be some additions, including five more double rooms, a spring-fed rock pool and more solar panels - enough to power the entire site. A wind generator is on the cards, too.
Even weeding starts to look fun after a good night's rest and a cooked breakfast in a place like this. On the second morning, we head back to Apollo Bay for another conservation session, which involves removing chest-high bushes of coastal tea-tree. "We get rid of exotics such as pittosporum and agapanthus, which are often escapees from private gardens across the road from the coastal zone and also those indigenous species [like coastal tea-tree] that are exotic here," says Gary Pike, our foreman and chief executive officer of the Otway Coast Committee. While weekend surfers chase stormy waves on the other side of the dunes, we hunt down our targeted weed until heavy rain sends us scurrying under an enormous Monterey cypress tree - another weed, of course, being a California native planted here 100 years ago, but we're grateful for its shelter. By the time we finish at noon, we've created a small mountain of cuttings that has become a trailer-load of mulch. We're also ready to hand back the gardening gloves and give our hiking boots a workout.
After a picnic lunch of prawns and couscous, we drive to Castle Cove, the start of an eight-kilometre section of the Great Ocean Walk that leads to Johanna Beach. It feels good to stride out along the coast, looking down on Dinosaur Cove, where fossils of footprints, fern fronds and feathers have been unearthed - souvenirs of a time when Australia was still part of the Gondwana supercontinent.
As we walk, we can just make out the Cape Otway lighthouse through the sea mist behind us. "That's the 'mild coast' back there [east of the cape]," our bothfeet guide, Marie, says, "but we're walking on the 'wild coast'." Right on cue, the rain arrives, tap-dancing on our hats and the hoods of our jackets.
Then the sun shines through a gap in the speeding clouds. Then it rains some more. But the fickle weather suits this walk along the edge of the Southern Ocean. As if to reward our seed collecting and weeding efforts, nature puts on a wildflower show: purple hyacinth orchids, the hot-pink blooms of common heath (the state flower of Victoria), bower spinach, coastal beard-heath, 100-year-old grass trees and forests of swamp gums and she-oaks, with raindrops clinging to the ends of their needle-like leaves like jewels.
For the last two kilometres we walk along Johanna Beach, where we're blown like tumbleweeds past wind-tossed waves, kelp baubles and pipi shells, high cliffs rising out of the sand on our right. It was named after the schooner, Joanna, that ran aground here on its maiden voyage from Tasmania in 1843; one crewman was lost and it took the survivors a week to walk to Geelong, aided by local Aborigines.
It's not hard to imagine how remote this part of Australia was in those days. The only other people we see all afternoon are two pairs of hikers doing week-long walks of their own to the Twelve Apostles, our destination the following day.
Starting at Princetown on the morning of day three, we follow boardwalks across a wetland beside the Gellibrand River, before rejoining the Great Ocean Walk for an undulating cliff-top ramble. The track is so coastal here, it feels as if you could dive from it straight down to the water.
Halfway through this six-kilometre hike, we see them: the most easterly of the Twelve Apostles. There's something about approaching one of Australia's most iconic places on foot, especially when you have it all to yourselves, not counting a mob of kangaroos. The Great Ocean Walk finishes about a kilometre short of the Twelve Apostles viewing platforms and car park, but that's due to be remedied by April when a $1.3 million track upgrade will take it all the way. Until then, it's a two-minute drive to the tourist spot from the end of the track.
"Prepare yourself for an onslaught of people," Marie says on the way, and she's right. We see more people in the five minutes it takes us to walk from the van to the view than we have in almost three days. The sun shines on us all and the famed formations have never looked better.
The Great Ocean Walk has everything you could want in a coastal track: national parks, dozens of remote beaches, a marine sanctuary, wild weather, even the chance to see whales from June to September. Though it is one of the most recognisable places in Australia, it's easy to find yourself in splendid isolation. Best of all, it now has a conservation element, too, an opportunity to give back to the coast that gives so much.
Louise Southerden travelled courtesy of Conservation Volunteers Australia, bothfeet and Tourism Victoria.
Walking there The next three-day Great Ocean Conservation Walk is on August 27, followed by near-monthly departures from Melbourne. It costs $900 a person, which includes two days of conservation activities (three hours a day), two guided outings along the Great Ocean Walk (a total of 14 kilometres), two nights' twin-share accommodation at bothfeet's eco-lodge and chef-prepared meals. BYO hiking boots. Day packs, rain gear, gaiters, trekking poles and water bottles are provided.
Eco credentials Conservation Volunteers Australia and bothfeet have Advanced Ecotourism certification; the Great Ocean Conservation Walk and the walking lodge will be eco-certified later this year. Profits from these trips contribute to local conservation projects and CVA plants native trees in a Victorian Action for Climate Change Habitat Forest (see actionforclimatechange .org.au) to offset participants' on-ground carbon emissions. Return flights from Sydney can be offset with Climate Friendly (for $13). See climatefriendly.com; conservationvolunteers.com.au; both feet.com.au.