Coastal meander

A chic beach house, a group of friends, a daily walk and a great time. Jill Hocking reports.

Our group of bushwalking friends makes plans by email: we'll base ourselves for a few days in a holiday cottage at Cape Bridgewater in south-west Victoria and each day hike a leg of the 250-kilometre Great South West Walk.

With seven people, three cars and a daily car shuttle, we need never retrace our steps. Each afternoon we will return home, uncork a bottle of sauvignon blanc by the open fire and tuck into lasagne, fish pie, chicken curry or whatever the nominated cook has prepared.

It's sorted: an old-fashioned house-party holiday with a bracing hike each day. We won't go close to covering the entire trail (this takes about two weeks) but we are guaranteed a taste of the walk's pleasures: generous dollops of salty ozone, sequestered beaches and wind-whipped headlands, a mighty river and bushy glades alive with bird call.

A simple internet search finds our digs – Cape Bridgewater Bay House, a chic beach house outside the hamlet of Cape Bridgewater. It's a low, dune-hugging stone building with room for eight in two bedrooms and a futon in the living room. There's a fully appointed kitchen, two bathrooms and the beach is a five-minute walk down a grassy track. The long timber dining table is positioned for mesmerising ocean views east to Cape Nelson's winking lighthouse and west to Cape Bridgewater.

About 30 years ago, a band of Portland locals blazed a bushwalking trail taking in the finest landscapes in south-west Victoria. The Great South West Walk begins and ends in Portland. It loops north-west through the Cobboboonee Forest and above the banks of the Glenelg River to Nelson, close to the South Australian border. On the return journey, the path skirts the sandy shores of Discovery Bay, moseys through the Mount Richmond National Park and marches around three rocky capes.

On the Great South West Walk it's possible to be self-sufficient and sleep under canvas in the 16 camping areas spaced a day's walk apart. Sounds like a lot of hard work to me. We are cherry-picking day hikes and our holiday cottage and car shuttle works well.

Day one, on a golden morning, we drive four kilometres along a dead-end track to Whites Beach. We head south. Springy cushion bush lines the path, a kestrel hovers in the thermals and swallows pirouette around the cliffs. Near the Blowholes we cross a lunar landscape. Below us the tide crashes over a rock platform stacked with honeycomb slabs that have tumbled from the cliff face.

We find a smooth rock, eat lunch and gaze west to the sloping dunes of Discovery Bay. We press on past the astonishing Petrified Forest, an area of hollow limestone tubes resembling crude Roman columns of sand that have been eroded by rainfall over the millenniums.

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Beneath the volcanic cliffs at Cape Bridgewater, sleek seals flop about on the rocks. Bridgewater beach is a four-kilometre crescent of sand, waves breaking at one end and rolling in a perfect arc to the other. We unlace our boots and cool our heels in the shallows.

That night we learn there's nothing sweeter at the end of a physically challenging day than osso buco and apple and rhubarb crumble, especially if someone else cooks it. Rejuvenating sleep comes easily to pleasantly weary bodies.

I first saw Cape Bridgewater in the 1970s and there have been many return visits. Today there are newer bed-and-breakfasts and beach houses in the dunes but little else has changed. Bridgewater Kiosk has cold drinks and icy poles but for supermarkets, pubs and restaurants it's Portland, 19 kilometres east. In the late afternoon a rank of utes lines the beachfront car park; offshore, wet-suited figures surf perfect beach breaks.

One thing that has changed since I was here last year is the forest of wind turbines on Cape Bridgewater and Cape Nelson. Cape Bridgewater is home to Victoria's largest wind farm and the turbines issue has generated considerable heat in the local community.

Everyone has an opinion, including hikers using the walk-in campsites. At Mallee Camp near the Cape Nelson turbines we read the visitors' book. A happy hiker writes: "It was blowing a gale last night and we didn't hear the turbines." From a less-contented camper: "The turbines are disturbing the peace. Move the campsite."

The next day we take in the two capes at the eastern end of Bridgewater Bay. We set off from the car park near Cape Grant, within sight of the Portland aluminium smelter. The path is hemmed with prostrate banksias, pigface and fragile purple brachycome. In the Enchanted Forest, sunlight leaks on to the track through a stand of Moonah trees braided with bower spinach vines.

We're too late for a tour of the 19th-century Cape Nelson light station or a coffee in the cafe. Waves thud against sheer cliffs and a stiff breeze propels us (good place for a wind farm, I decide).

Early the next morning, we drive west and hike along the grassy path above the Glenelg River. Delicate correas, splashed in tangerine and deep watermelon, are dotted in the bush. There's a babel of song from tree creepers, wattlebirds and gang-gang cockatoos.

At Pritchards Campsite we meet a middle-aged couple who've kayaked upstream from Nelson. They tell us we're walking the wrong bit of the Glenelg: the most spectacular stretch is the deep limestone gorge downstream, where the river meanders across into South Australia.

Another day, we hike through groves of golden wattle and blackwood in the volcanic Mount Richmond National Park.

We hike between 10 kilometres and 15 kilometres each day. Mostly it's easy walking with a few short steep sections. We aren't in a hurry and pause frequently to exclaim at the seal pup surfing alongside its mother, the echidna heaving itself off the track or the wind turbines strung along the faraway cape.

The Great South West Walk is about nature and wildlife and we see plenty of it: 10 echidnas, a copperhead snake, a tiger snake, robins and honey-eaters, emus and so many kangaroos, seals, cockatoos and mewling seabirds that we don't bother counting.

Other walkers are too few to mention.

On the final morning we eat breakfast and pack up. We've barely scratched the surface of this walk. We haven't set foot in the Cobboboonee Forest or slogged 40 kilometres around Discovery Bay. We haven't even hiked far enough to get blisters. Our day walks, however, have been a delight. Our bodies feel in better shape and our friendships are flourishing. What more can we ask from a house-party hiking holiday?

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Portland is 362 kilometres south-west of Melbourne and a five-hour drive. Cape Bridgewater is 18 kilometres west of Portland.

Walking there

GSWW maps and guidebooks are available from the Portland and Nelson visitor information centres and Information Victoria, 365 Collins Street, Melbourne. See greatsouthwestwalk.com.

Staying there

Cape Bridgewater Bay House costs from $170 a night (minimum of three nights) for four people, $30 for each extra person. See capebridgewater.com.au.

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