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

On the farmhouse’s heavy, rough-hewn dining table, Wilkinson, Chadwick, and I dig into our lunch: charcuterie and bread from nearby Apollo Bay; artisan cheeses from a local dairy farm; organic peaches from a little ways North, where it actually feels like summer. Later, after a meandering drive up the Great Ocean Road to the breathtaking Twelve Apostles—a formation of massive rocks jutting out of the water close to shore—with a few “step on, step off” hikes snuck in between rain showers, Wilkinson prepares an incredible first course of fresh, local crayfish, followed by tender, grass-fed beef steaks alongside spears of just-picked asparagus. Completely satisfied and warmed by the meal and accompanying local Shiraz, I still manage to find room for a slice of Wilkinson’s lovely semolina cake while we sit around the fire. While I didn’t see as much of the Walk that day as I would have liked, the experience of taking shelter from the seemingly apocalyptic weather in an old farmhouse with two fellow ecophiles, sharing the local fare and our thoughts on the environment, feels just as emblematic of life in this part of the world. It is a fitting way to spend my last evening on the Walk.

Sometimes the best trips end up like this, in ways you’d never imagined. I went to the Great Ocean Walk anticipating an ecotourism experience more typical of the ones I often have as a green-minded traveler and an environmental reporter. I expected to meet knowledgeable guides with an impressive understanding of the local ecosystem and boundless enthusiasm for their organizations’ efforts to protect it. My previous ecotourism trips were planned around relaxing, not-too-emotionally challenging encounters with nature—physically taxing, yes, but also a lovely escape from my hyperactive home city. But a summer idyll this trip was not. My guides on the Walk certainly had vast knowledge of their region, but because of the weather, we probably spent more time indoors than out, and I barely worked up enough of a sweat on the trails to make up for all the decadent desserts I was eating.

But as we donned winter coats in the supposed summer weather and waited in vain for the torrential rains to let up, I indulged in a pleasure I hadn’t anticipated: conversation. I talked with local people about their families, their childhoods, and their feelings for the land. And wherever I went, I heard anxious murmurings about climate change. There was some hope that the rain would help ease the effects of the drought, yet nobody seemed completely relaxed about the situation, or about what they and their fellow Australians were doing to address it. What I’ll remember when I look back on this trip are the individuals I met—people who are in love with their ruggedly beautiful home and deeply concerned about its future. I came to the Walk expecting a vacation, and what I got instead was something far more lasting: a sobering but valuable glimpse of how the natural world can affect a cultural landscape.

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Issue 25

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