Patricia Maunder discovers wild coastline and waterfalls while tackling three of the state's hiking trails.
Victoria's best easy, moderate and difficult bushwalks? There are almost as many opinions on that as there are walks in the state, so I ask an expert. Outdoorsman Glenn Tempest is the head of Open Spaces, an adventure photographic library and publisher, and is the author of several books, including the forthcoming Daywalks Around Victoria. He nominates three of Victoria's best and I lace my hiking boots.
George Bass coastal walk (easy)
My companion and I step out of the car into thick fog carpark at the end of Punch Bowl Road near San Remo. It's not an auspicious start but the walking track from the car park is well marked and we soon warm up as we get into a steady rhythm.
Within half an hour, the sun begins to burn through the mist and we start to glimpse the lush farmland directly to the left of the well-defined, grassy track. Bass Strait unfolds eventually to our right, with views to the horizon from the cliff top.
As the track descends, we are delighted to discover the beach forms part of the route, so we slacken our pace and stroll along the sand as low, wide waves break on to the shore.
Ascending again, we continue along the grassy cliff top, admiring the sunny view until, about five kilometres into the walk, we begin to notice houses, then traffic noise and wind turbines. Time to backtrack into nature for a packed lunch. We sit on the grass and watch the cormorants diving into the sea for fish.
We head back to our starting point, this time enjoying the scenery from a different angle and in afternoon light. How did we miss that amazing rock arch? There's plenty of time before sunset - let's take that detour down to Half Moon Bay. And near the end of the walk, an alarming sight we were fortunate to miss in the fog earlier in the day: a large, striking house, painted pink.
George Bass coastal walk is 10 kilometres, or four hours return. Starts at the car park at the end of Punch Bowl Road (a Phillip Island Road turnoff, between Anderson and San Remo). A seven-kilometre, 2½-hour, one-way walk that finishes in Kilcunda is an option if a car shuffle can be arranged. An easy, well-marked walk with occasional, modest inclines.
Canyon walk (moderate)
Moments after leaving Sheoak Picnic Area, near Lorne having chosen the track marked ''canyon'' from the small menu of signposted walks, we are breathing in lungfuls of beautiful, eucalypt-laden air. Our eyes feast on the three tiers of vivid-green ferns - maidenhair, bracken and tree - and soaring grey gums and mountain ash.
Following the ''canyon'' walk signs, we are soon enticed by the sound of splashing water on to the short side trail to the Wonwondah Falls lookout. Soon after, we take the slightly longer detour to Henderson Falls. This gorgeous, ferny grotto, with a delicate waterfall fanning over dark rock and bright-green mosses, could be picture-book perfect if it were not for the noxious weeds massed at the top. The weeds, blackberry most noticeably, mar the entire walk but rarely overwhelm the native vegetation.
As we retrace our steps on to the main track, the next natural wonder is the small canyon that gives the walk its name. As we descend into it, the temperature drops noticeably and repeatedly. The space becomes narrower, until we finally squeeze through some rocks and return to the sunlight. Onward to Phantom Falls, the most substantial of this trio of walks. There is a fine bushland view from the top, a flat area of rock mostly clear of water because the St George River is dammed upstream. At the amphitheatre-like foot of the falls, sitting on some large rocks in the river, we eat lunch while enjoying the splash and sparkle of water tumbling about 50 metres.
Diverging from the signposts we head back to the top of the falls, rather than following the ''canyon'' signs. Retracing our steps, we head left, or south, along a track overlooking the river many metres below. The path descends to the river flat and farmland suddenly hems us in.
Crossing a quaint footbridge, we are soon back in the Great Otway National Park, admiring a bowerbird's unusual nest. Unfortunately, the rest of the walk back to Sheoak along the gravel Allendale Road is a bit of a let-down after the secluded delights of ferns and waterfalls.
The Canyon walk is an 8½-kilometre, three-hour circuit. Starts at Sheoak Picnic Area, Allenvale Road, just outside Lorne in the Great Otway National Park. A reasonably easy walk with modestly challenging sections. Well signposted until Phantom Falls, where the circuit described above follows a different route to the official ''canyon'' walk. See Daywalks Around Melbourne by Glenn Tempest (Open Spaces, 2005).
Mount Buller west ridge (difficult)
Leaving the car on Doughtys Road and trudging a couple of hundred metres up the track (accessible only by four-wheel-drive) to the start of the walk, it's already clear a trekking pole would have been handy - I am about to climb a mountain, after all. I find a sturdy stick and the start of the track is before us, marked only by some rocks, sticks and emergency water supplies.
Up along the roughly defined track through snow gums, bracken ferns and a smattering of wildflowers, the bush exudes a delicious citrusy scent for the first kilometre or so. Misty, low clouds drift through the grey trees.
The higher we go, the thinner the vegetation and the thicker the cloud.
The ridge becomes narrower and rockier as we clear the treeline but no grand vista rewards our effort because visibility is only about 30 metres through the cloud.
Eventually, a sure sign of progress: a pile of rocks left by fellow walkers on top of a knoll - and another a little further at a second knoll. Then it's the final stretch, a challenging scramble up the steep, rocky mountain top, with several false dawns in the low visibility until we are definitely at the summit of Mount Buller - with no view whatsoever.
But we make it, so it's time to enjoy lunch. Just as we tuck in, it starts to rain - heavily. Getting back down the now-slippery rocks quickly but carefully is imperative in case the weather really closes in. Sliding down on our backsides at times and briefly encouraged by a the bird-call mimicry of a hidden lyrebird, we reach firmer footing again below the treeline.
Retracing our steps for the next couple of hours in the rain is not nearly as pleasant as the journey to the summit; however, while we are no longer spurred on by the goal of conquering Mount Buller, we do feel proud of our achievement, as well as fortunate to have experienced its western ridge in a hushed, misty mood.
The Mount Buller west ridge walk is nine kilometres, six hours return. Starts at Forest Creek headwater on a side track about five kilometres along Doughtys Road (a Mount Buller Road turnoff 29 kilometres from Mansfield). A seven-kilometre, four-hour, one-way walk ending in Mount Buller Village is an option there is a car shuffle. This walk is unsuitable for beginners: it has no signs, the path can be indistinct and much of the ground is steep. A compass and Bushwalks in the Victorian Alps by Glenn van der Knijff (Open Spaces, 2004), if not a contour map, are essential.More information, see www.parkweb.vic.gov.au; www.vicwalk.org.au; www.osp.com.au.