Walk on the Wild Side

A new Australian trail offers a vast array of hikes, astounding views, and even koala encounters—as well as an intimate look at how climate change may already be affecting the country.

By Christy Harrison

Having grown up in California’s Bay Area, I know this terrain well: winding two-lane coastal road, ocean far below, steep hills threatening mudslides at every turn. Eucalyptus and pine rustle under partly foggy skies; rain forms sheer curtains dividing one clear expanse from the next. If it weren’t for the left-side placement of the driver’s seat and the absence of fast-food joints along the road, I’d think I was driving up the Pacific Coast Highway, heading home from Los Angeles. But this is the Australian state of Victoria, an alternate-universe version of my home state—and billboards and new construction are restricted on this famous route, the Great Ocean Road. After winding our way inland, through green valleys dotted with farms and a temperate rainforest that swallows the car for several miles, we emerge near Cape Otway, where we’ll rest and refuel before heading out on the road’s pedestrian counterpart, the Great Ocean Walk—a new hiking trail that follows roughly the same path but encompasses the fragile areas of coastline where cars aren’t allowed. The walk opened last year—the culmination of years of planning and investment.  

Australia is famous for its natural beauty, but the states of Queensland, home of the Great Barrier Reef, and Northern Territory, home of Uluru National Park (formerly known as Ayers Rock) get most of the attention. In comparison, Victoria has not been an ecotourism hub. Aside from the striking coastline, the state is made up largely of farmland and has a more understated beauty. Considered Australia’s “food bowl,” the state has historically attracted tourists in search of fine dining and good wine—not necessarily visitors interested in the environment or the great outdoors. But lately, Victoria has become something of an ecotourism hotspot, and the Great Ocean Walk is emerging as its crown jewel. That’s partly because the government has long protected the area’s historic aboriginal settlements, but it’s also because environmental awareness is heating up in Victoria right now. Severe drought has gripped the entire country for the past seven years and the lack of water has forced many farmers in the state to abandon their irrigation-intensive crops. It’s no surprise, then, that Victorians are becoming extremely eco-conscious these days.

The Great Ocean Road was a project dreamed up after World War I by local government officials, businesspeople, and community members. It was meant to improve access and attract revenue to once-isolated coastal communities, and also to provide work for returning war veterans. The entire road had to be dug by hand with pickaxes and shovels from the formerly impassable coastline on the southernmost edge of mainland Australia. The area’s natural beauty has stayed relatively unspoiled even after years of heavy tourism, thanks to government restrictions. Still, driving is not the ideal way to see the environmentally sensitive Victorian coast. In the high season, traffic is bumper-to-bumper from the start of the road outside Melbourne to the endpoint, the majestic Twelve Apostles rock formation, about 250 miles away. The route veers inland in several places, which protects some of the most pristine areas from car traffic but cuts them off from visitors.

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Issue 25

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