Just like a rugged, ageing prize fighter on the comeback trail, Victoria's Grampians National Park is enjoying a renaissance after a period of being against the ropes. Ravaged by bushfires in 2006, then again in 2014, and hit by floods and landslides in 2011, the Grampians (named Gariwerd by the Djab Wurrung and Jardwadjali people) have once again risen from the ashes. But with millions of years of experience weathering storms, fires and floods, was there ever a doubt the Grampians would flourish once again?
I'm learning about the Grampians National Park's ability to bounce back while walking the first section of the new Grampians Peaks Trail over four days with Park Trek. By 2019, the Grampians Peaks Trail will take about 13 days to complete in its entirety, but for now Park Trek are giving walkers a taste of the trail that the people from Parks Victoria are nurturing into a world-class, multi-day walk.
Arriving in the mountain-fringed tourist town of Halls Gap in the afternoon, we start with an easy walk to Boronia Peak. Offering sweeping views of the Wonderland Range, the walk is a popular one, not only for the views offered at the top, but also for the flora and fauna sightings along the way.
Thanks to a variety of microclimates and varying topography, there's a wealth of biodiversity in the Grampians, with the area being home to more than 900 native plant species, some of which are found nowhere else in the world. While the highly photogenic wildflowers draw in tourists during spring, there's also fern gullies, heath woodland, mountain forest and sub-alpine terrain, all supporting a variety of mammal, reptile, amphibian and insect species.
While on the trail, a hiker from Amsterdam reminds our group of how strange Australian wildlife sounds. Kookaburras cackle, flocks of cockatoos screech, and frogs cluster around waterfalls, talking to each other in an alien language straight from outer space. There is so much life present in the Grampians that it's hard to believe that large tracts of the park were ravaged by fires and floods not long ago.
Yet, while these events may have initially been devastating, they have also reshaped the area, creating optimal conditions for plants to flourish and small mammal populations to explode, with only blackened tree stumps serving as a reminder of the fiery tempests that raged in recent years.
By night, we return to our cabins in Halls Gap where we descend upon the fireplace to collectively crack open our spoils bought from the local bottle shop on the way back from our hike. Finishing a day of hiking by feasting on red wine, olives, cheese, steak, potatoes and pavlova might not pass muster with the clean living brigade, but makes for a bunch of happy walkers who surrender to sleep easily, knowing an early morning awaits.
The next day's hike to The Pinnacle via the Grand Canyon and then onto Sundial Peak brings us to our knees. There are thrills, spills, slides and tumbles as we scramble over deceptively dewy boulders and negotiate crossing small streams via mossy rocks.
A stellar job has been done on making this trail as sustainable and natural as possible, with handrails, bridges and boardwalks only put down in essential places, in favour of using nature to create a path that appears to have been made with minimal human intervention.
While this approach makes for a lesser impact on the environment, it also allows for a more immersive experience as woe betide any hiker who isn't careful where they place their feet. While I'd love to say that we were walking mindfully for meditative reasons, staying engaged with our surroundings and where our feet were landing was more about self-preservation than creating a feeling of Zen.
The views from the top of The Pinnacle are – as expected – well worth the climb. With many paths of varying difficulty leading to The Pinnacle, the lookout is populated by tourists from far and wide even on an overcast day. Some scramble to the edges to take extreme selfies, others hold onto the railing with a strong death grip.
Millions of years old, the wise, rock formations of the Grampians have seen it all and don't discriminate, calmly welcoming everyone from super fit rock climbers to interstate day trippers.
Each day, our cheerful guides from Park Trek run a smooth operation, patiently keeping us safe, informed and engaged. They feed us at night and lay out a spread of snacks for the day each morning after breakfast. Fresh fruit, muesli bars, nuts and lollies ensure we have enough energy to sustain us until lunch, while Thermoses are available for anyone unwilling to hit the trail without the promise of a mid-morning coffee (I'm guilty as charged).
Having all the logistics taken care of gives us the freedom to focus purely on the journey. With our minds and souls free to roam in nature, we have time to reflect while we walk.
While it's easy to muse on the quietly profound beauty of nature, it's more challenging to accept the uncomfortable moments that come with stepping into the natural world. Yes, nature is beautiful, but it can also brutal.
A cluster of newborn chicks fall from their nest, blindly squawking for their mother, flapping and flailing in the cold soil below. A bright yellow worm lies exposed on the path just waiting to be picked off by a passing bird, and a skinny, ageing wallaby looks like he's nearing the end.
The Instagram version of nature will have us believe that the natural world is full of nothing more than impossibly perfect sunsets and mountains flawlessly reflected into calm, blue lakes. Yet unlike driving or being bussed up to a lookout, walking in nature slowly reveals the raw, circle-of-life truth of the Australian bush.
By the third day, stiff hips and burning calves are the norm as the group starts the ascent to Mt Rosea. Climbing over rocks and squeezing through boulders is made easier by the presence of cairns and yellow trail markers. Offering 360-degree views, the summit of Mt Rosea is devoid of human life, except our own, so we are free to admire the weathered cliffs in silence.
By the end of the day we've covered 13 kilometres with ease. We've grown accustomed to the rhythm of walking, yet we haven't quite gotten used to how immensely beautiful the Grampians are – some of us quietly ashamed at ourselves for having neglected spending quality time here in western Victoria in favour of experiencing overseas walking trails.
If the first four days are anything to go by, the Grampians Peaks Trail is shaping up to be a blockbuster of a walk once the entire trail of 144 kilometres is completed.
On the final day, we swap hopping over streams and boulders for pushing up the steep incline of the bitumen road leading to the summit of Mt Duwil (Mt William), the tallest peak in the Grampians. While not a technically challenging walk, it's a strenuous one that offers many rewards.
We're not alone in enjoying the views of yellow fields of canola in the distance – a blue-eyed raven perches nearby in the sunshine, intently watching a group of people with a selfie stick trying to capture themselves amid the majesty of the Grampians.
Park Trek run guided walks in some of Australia's most beautiful places. The four-day Grampians Peaks Trail walk costs from $1450 and includes accommodation, experienced guides, most meals and transfers from Melbourne's CBD.
The Grampians National Park is a three-hour drive from Melbourne. Park Trek provides private minibus transfers from Melbourne's CBD as a part of the Grampians Peaks Trail trip. See parkweb.vic.gov.au
The writer's visit was part of a four-day Park Trek "Grampians Peaks Trail" walking trip, which has departures each year in April, September and October. The trip costs from $1,450 per person (land only) and includes return transfers from Melbourne to the Grampians National Park, twin-share accommodation in a comfortable cabin or lodge in the Halls Gap area, expert guides, most meals and non-alcoholic drinks.
Jo Stewart travelled as a guest of Park Trek.