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

Hence the creation of the Great Ocean Walk, a $2 million state-funded project that officially opened early last year. Like the road, the walk was built almost entirely by hand with basic tools, in this case to protect the fragile ecosystem. In addition to offering an incredible diversity of terrain and wildlife, the trail is friendly to all levels of walkers, from people looking for brief, scenic strolls to hard-core backpackers. Its “step on, step off” design allows visitors to do short hikes between lodges, campsites, or towns, or to hike the whole trail over eight or nine days. Tourism and park officials even pick up hikers by bus at the end of a day and take them to their accommodations, which range from very basic and ultra-greened-out campsites—complete with composting toilets, rainwater catchment tanks, and bathrooms made from reclaimed wood—to modern eco-lodges, which run on alternative energy, offer all-natural personal care products, and serve healthy, organic, and local fare. Moonlight Head Hotel, a seriously luxe four-bedroom eco-villa designed by star green architect Glenn Murcutt, opened last year; an adjacent boutique hotel will open sometime in the next few years.

I arrive for my Great Ocean Walk trip one morning in November—early summer in Australia—planning to hike, camp, and stay in a couple of different ecolodges. But it quickly becomes clear that the weather has other plans. In the Melbourne airport, I am greeted by my guide, David Chadwick, who gets right down to brass tacks. “Did you bring hiking boots and plenty of warm gear?” he asks, drawing out the vowels and dropping the “r” on that last word in the classic Aussie way. “Definitely,” I tell him (though I’d thought it was only as a precautionary measure, it being summertime and all). Chadwick says that the forecast calls for intense wind and unheard-of low temperatures, as well as driving rain, which, I later learn, is somewhat uncommon in this drought-stricken country. Just my luck to arrive in the middle of this weather. That puts the kibosh on camping and daylong hikes. A ranger and firefighter, Chadwick travels all over Australia doing contract work for the park service; he has the sun-creased face and sure-footed gait of someone used to facing down the elements—and being jovial about it, too. If he says it’s that bad, I don’t feel inclined to argue.

Resolving to make the best of things with short day hikes, we head off to the first night’s accommodation, the Cape Otway Centre for Conservation Ecology. Our drive inland takes us through a fertile farm valley, which gives way to row upon row of neatly-planted eucalyptus (“blue gum plantations,” Chadwick explains), and then to a dense forest full of “koala crossing” signs and presumably even more full of unseen koalas. We arrive at the Centre and decide to take advantage of the break between rainstorms to head out on one of the Centre’s own nature trails with co-owner Shayne Neal and the lodge’s three other guests. Five minutes later, we find ourselves less than fifty feet from a mob of wild kangaroos grazing in a parched-looking field; just up the hill we spot several koalas lounging in the trees, some with joeys in their pouches. Two different kinds of wallabies—which I would have mistaken for very young kangaroos without Neal’s guidance—and more species of birds than I can keep straight round out the hour or two of walking, which make venturing out in the wintry chill well worth it.

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Issue 25

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