We need to tread carefully when we're hiking up a giant's jagged spine, lest we wake the snoozing colossus. And while our ascent is rocky and sometimes steep, the view over sandstone spires and endless amber grasslands stretching towards the horizon is stunning.
Before being renamed by colonial explorers, Grampians National Park in western Victoria was known to the Djab Wurrung and Jardwardjali peoples as Gariwerd. When translated literally, it refers to the creationist story where primordial beings embarked on an epic odyssey over the flat Victorian landscape. Wherever their journeys ended, their enormous bodies transformed to create soaring quartzite-riddled escarpments and rocky plateaus that rise abruptly out of the surrounding landscape.
Less entertaining are the Western scientists, who say the mountain range emerged from the ocean around 500 million years ago – folding, faulting, and eroding over time to resemble serrated dragon scales.
Today, the seasonal wildflowers blooming on our path and a storm brewing overhead show this ancient land is still as dynamic as ever. It's a word my guide keeps coming back to during our hike from Gar Trailhead (Mount Difficult). Braeden Hyland is an expert mountaineering guide, with ample experience climbing the likes of Everest and the Annapurnas, but as a person with Indigenous palawa heritage, it's the mountains closest to home that call strongest.
"The landscape is so different, whether it's the east, west, south, or north Grampians," he says, as we ascend through eucalypt forests and emerge into stunted alpine woodlands.
"That's why it attracts so many kinds of people, like twitchers, geologists, and orchid hunters. As a guide, needing to know so much about such a large range keeps me challenged."
It's the sheer scale of the national park, with all its hidden gullies and nooks, that explains why it has taken Parks Victoria almost eight years to build its newest long-distance walking trail, the Grampians Peak Trail.
Uniting previously unconnected pathways and crossing other established trails, this 160 kilometre track provides hikers with a single continuous trail beginning at Mount Zero in the north and finishing at Dunkeld in the south. All told, it takes 13 days to complete. Hikers can choose to join at various trailheads or tackle it all at once, collecting supply drops delivered at each campsite.
Dotted along the way are 11 new campgrounds, a mix of elevated timber tent pads and huts blended so seamlessly into the surrounding landscape that even Braeden has trouble pointing them out as we approach our camp along Gar's vertiginous ridgeline.
A clap of thunder welcomes our arrival and soon torrential rain is drumming the roof of our communal shelter, which is angled to direct the rainwater into a tank beside the building. On the roof are solar panels, which power the lights and a USB dock for charging your phone and other devices.
Looking out from the hut's floor to ceiling windows, glass of shiraz in hand, clouds shroud the hut and then slide into the valley. It feels like I'm in a remote ryokan outside Hokkaido. Considering the effort to get here, it's not quite glamping but neither is it camping, instead it's something in between.
Braeden says this is deliberate and that the trail was designed to make the Grampians appealing to less hardcore hikers by providing more creature comforts. But he warns it's still a proper hike that will chastise hikers who come unprepared.
At dawn, the clouds part long enough for us to attempt the summit. We arrive just in time to savour the view of shimmering Lake Wartook and listen as honeyeaters sing their rousing morning song, while the giant beneath our feet slumbers on.
Campgrounds are open to the public but must be booked in advance. A standard tent pad for two people costs $47 a night, or $524.70 for the full 13-days/12-nights trail. Hikers will need to allow for one additional night in off-trail accommodation at Halls Gap. The four-bed hiker huts can only be accessed when booked on a guided walk through a licensed hiking operator. Grampians Peaks Walking Co. has divided the Grampians Peaks Trail into a series of all-inclusive multi-day guided hiking tours in the northern, central, and southern Grampians, starting at $1450 per person. They can also arrange trail transport, food drops and rental gear for independent hikers.See grampianspeakstrail.com.au
Grampians Getaway's free-standing pyramids start from $229 per night and make for a stylish escape before and after hiking. Guests also have access to all facilities, including the pool, at nearby Halls Gap Lakeside Tourist Park. See grampiansgetaway.com
Justin Meneguzzi was a guest of Visit Victoria.