Pilgrimage to the Apostles
Bass Strait roils and froths below us as we sit down to lunch – a salad of wild rice, rocket, feta, celery and pepperdews. Ben asks if he can top up our water and we murmur appreciatively, making a mental note of the salad's ingredients so we can recreate it later.
It's a fine-dining experience, but this is no seaside restaurant. Instead of table and chairs, we are sitting cross-legged on a dusty cliff top eating salad from our lunchboxes.
We are taking a breather after our morning's exertions, a twisting six-odd kilometre walk along the Great Ocean Walk with Ben our guide from Bothfeet, a walking lodge situated at the mid point of the track.
Tramping, we tell ourselves smugly, should be harder than this.
The Great Ocean Walk, part of the Great Otway National Park, begins about 200km southwest of Melbourne at Apollo Bay and ends 104 kilometres later at the main attraction – the famed Twelve Apostles.
The whole walk takes at least six days, but we are here for only the weekend and so we sample just two segments of the track: the 14km walk from Aire River to Johanna Beach the first day and Princetown to the Apostles – about 6km – the next.
The walk is graded as easy or moderate in all but one of the six sections. That section has steep uphill climbs and stairs. It seems a fair assessment – the views are more likely to leave you breathless.
This is rugged coastline and it's easy to imagine how the Apostles have been formed and subsequently felled by the smashing surf eroding the limestone. Composed of layers of silt and calcium carbonate, made up of skeleton and shell fragments, the number of Apostles fluctuates as the sea and wind wear away at the coast. Their current count is eight.
The scenery is varied as the walk winds through and past rainforest, grass tree forests, coastal heath, wetlands and along the beach, all pristine and untouched. It's in good condition, but the track is undergoing a A$6 million (NZ$8m) upgrade, which will, among other things, make it more weather-proof.
There is a great sense of history and adventure in the area. The walk opened only in 2006, but the road that runs parallel to it was built by returned soldiers with explosives after World War I.
Ben points out Dinosaur Cove, where dinosaur bones were discovered in a cave in the late 1980s, and Wreck Beach, home to two rusted anchors – remnants of the 300-odd ships that perished in the surf before the lighthouse was built.
The coast has its historical quirks too. The most famous shipwreck, the Loch Ard, gets its renown from a love story that wasn't, and the majestic Apostles themselves were originally called the Sow and Piglets.
Bothfeet pays more than lip service to the walk's scenery and Ben stops regularly to point out particular plants, seeds and areas of interest, and explain the role the elements have played in shaping the environment.
Native fauna often make cameo appearances along the track, including echidnas, wallabies, koalas and kangaroos – and yes sometimes snakes – and we're told that walkers can sometimes see whales a few hundred metres offshore from Johanna Beach between August and October, when they come to warmer waters to calve.
Food is a real feature of the experience and Bothfeet employs a charming (Wellington-trained) gourmet chef, Ha Nguyen.
Forget baked beans boiled in a billy, dinner the first night is lamb with braised parsnip, fennel, beans and cherry tomatoes and we feast on salmon with mashed potato and a white wine jus the next evening.
For morning and afternoon tea, which include tea and coffee from a vacuum flask, we come to expect a variation on a scrummy macadamia slice.
The treats at Bothfeet do not end at the palate.
Built in 2008, the lodge is simple luxury. The units – each of which can serve as a king room or be split into two singles with a shared bathroom – are comfortable and uncluttered (no TV or computers, although it does have wi-fi), and perfect for recharging the batteries after a day on the track.
The lodge is down a gum-lined road and has 2km of private nature trails that feature creeks and glow worms. At night we slip to sleep to a chorus of frogs. A kookaburra struts outside the lounge window as we breakfast the next morning.
Bothfeet offers a do-it-yourself foot spa using locally supplied products and we were delighted to find ourselves with feet in terracotta tubs, scrubs and lotions in one hand and bubbly in the other, soon after hanging up our boots for the day. Hardship indeed.
By request you can also enjoy an on-site massage, complete with chakra reading – and so we did.
Bothfeet's eco-credentials mean you can ease your conscience as you rest your body. Its use of aluminium frames has a low impact on the lodge's surroundings – requiring only concrete pads for foundations – and the units were prefabricated, so owner-operators Dana and Gavin Ronan were able to build them without machinery. The timber used – Tasmanian celery-top pine and Victorian Ash – was sourced from sustainable plantations and the Ronans have installed a hydronic heating system, which uses warm air to heat the lodge's water.
We first spot the Apostles about 20 minutes into day two of the walk, but it's not until the end, when we reach the viewing platform at the visitor centre and take a swooping helicopter ride to view them from above, that we start to fully appreciate their size and beauty.
We finish the Great Ocean Walk with a picnic lunch on the beach at Gibson Steps just metres from Gog – one of the Apostles. A small film crew from public broadcaster ABC is filming for a documentary on Australia's geology and trying, unsuccessfully, to keep their feet dry. Tourists wander down to join us on the rocks and soak up the view.
Gavin used to travel the world as an IT consultant, but says he reckons he's got it pretty good now. We agree.
The writer travelled courtesy of Tourism Victoria. For more information on Melbourne or Victoria, see visitmelbourne.com/nz
Stay: Bothfeet offers two, four and six-day guided tours, but can customise tracks and timetables to suit you. Walkers can also opt to go on self-guided trips, with gear supplied by Bothfeet. The lodge has five king bedrooms and is open from September till May. Room rates, with breakfast included, start at A$260 per person per night. A two-day, two-night stay, which includes guided walks and all meals, costs A$995 per adult. Bothfeet can also arrange Melbourne city and airport transfers. bothfeet.com.au.
Go: Spring and autumn, with their slightly milder temperatures, are the best times to do the Great Ocean Walk. Spring strollers will see wildflowers in bloom, while autumn is typically warmer and more settled.
Splurge: If the holiday budget allows, take a helicopter trip for a stunning, swooping bird's eye view of the Apostles and surrounding coast line. 12 Apostles Helicopters offers 10, 15, 25 and 50-minute flights with running commentaries from the pilot. Flights start at A$95 per person.
The Dominion Post