Victoria's Great Otway Ranges is a different beast at night. Wandering along the wooden boardwalk, guided only by the narrow light of your torch, you'll hear the rainforest come alive. The low growl of possums playing in the growth, the splash of a platypus slipping into water, and nocturnal gliders leaping between trees.
But the real magic begins when you turn off your torch. It takes a moment for your eyes to adjust, then hundreds of tiny green lights merge into view, twinkling in the dark forest like your own private cosmos. This starlight, created by the gossamer threads of native glow worms, is the radiant little secret of south-west Victoria.
As the wettest region in the state, the Otway rainforest is the ideal place to find glow worms, who thrive in moist environments. Barely the width of a paperclip, glow worms can be found hanging out along ledges where they produce a delicate silk rope that looks like a beaded necklace. Using the glow emitted from their translucent abdomens as bait, they attract insects to their sticky fishing line and, once ensnared, reel in their prey to be devoured.
"We call them glow worms because 'carnivorous fungus gnats' doesn't have the same appeal," says Bruce Jackson, owner of Otway Eco Tours, which operates guided small group tours of the rainforest, including afternoon kayaking trips at Lake Elizabeth where guests can spot platypuses and glow worms.
"Normally people walk on the track without noticing them, unless it's pitch black. Then people finally realise they're there and they become fascinated, especially the kids. It's like seeing the stars up close."
Bruce says glow worms can be found scattered right across the region, from Lorne to Lavers Hill, and too often day-trippers pass through without realising there are hidden gems to be discovered after dark. But before visitors start packing their torches and heading into the hills, it's best to ask a local where to find them.
"It's a lot like looking for mushrooms. There are spots where you won't see them, but then just a few metres down the path you'll find lots. You either need to know what you're looking for or go with someone who knows where they are."
The best places to find glow worms, according to Bruce, is beneath recessed ledges besides the Otway's boardwalks, which make ideal places for them to drop their lines. The edges of fallen trees make great habitats, as do their exposed roots. Another surprising place to look is beneath the boardwalks themselves.
Glow worms are very shy and highly sensitive to light and noise disruption. To find them, you'll need to be extra quiet and keep torches pointed down. A common mistake is for visitors to turn their lights off, not wait for their eyes to adjust, and then move on too quickly. Hopeful photographers might come away disappointed as glow worms are easily spooked by flash photography.
Those who prefer the adventure of finding the luminous critters themselves should visit Melba Gully, just 10 minutes from Lavers Hill and 35 minutes from the 12 Apostles, where you can spot glow worms along the short 1.5-kilometre Madsens Track Nature Walk. Be sure to dress warmly and wear suitable boots. It's also recommended to tell someone where you're going as mobile reception can be patchy.
The Great Otway Ranges are a three-hour drive south-west of Melbourne, on the Princes Freeway. Glow worms can be seen year-round but are more widely found during the wetter months.
Otway Eco Tours offers guided small group tours as well as curriculum-based educational glow worm experiences for school groups.
See Parks Victoria's website for most up to date information on walking tracks and national park access.