How to hike the Great Ocean Road
Australia’s most scenic drive is also a stunning walk.
Words by Ute Junker
Photo Ken Spence
First published in Traveller
For athletes, it’s the second gold medal. For musicians, it’s the difficult second album. For hikers, it’s the second day that is the biggest challenge. The faint sense of smugness that envelops you after the the ease-yourself-into it first day evaporates on the second morning, when you realise you have to do it all over again and this time, it’s going to be much harder.
The second day of the 12 Apostles Lodge Walk is the most difficult of the entire four-day itinerary. It is not just that you covering the longest stretch of the route, 12.5km long for those on the standard option. (Eager beavers can rise super-early and add on an extra 8km.) There are also plenty of steep slopes involved: a total of 700 metres uphill, and another 700 metres downhill. Those knees are going to get a workout.
Our route, which follows same stretch of picturesque coastline as the famous Great Ocean Drive, offers one great consolation for the weary walker: those wonderfully distracting views. From paths that zig zag their way up and down limestone headlands to sand-in-your-toes stretches over rugged beaches, you are never far from the next magnificent panorama.
If we are honest, the route taken by the 12 Apostles Lodge Walk, starting at Castle Cove and finishing at the Twelve Apostles, is not that gruelling. Covering 40km in four days, the most challenging part of the walk is the alternately ascending and descending slopes that predominate during the two middle days. A decent pair of walking shoes is the only essential piece equipment; however, the lodge thoughtfully provides some added extras including gaiters, day packs and walking poles, which are a huge help on the aforementioned slopes.
The most hardcore thing about the 12 Apostles Lodge Walk, in fact, is our guide Mitch. With his wiry physique, his red dreadlocks and his laidback attitude, Mitch’s air of quiet competence is exactly what you want from a wilderness guide. Beyond retaining an impressive store of knowledge – he can offer a nugget of interesting information about anything that catches his eye, from ribbon bark gums to yellow-tailed black cockatoos – Mitch is also impressively strong. While we cart our light day packs, containing little more than our lunch and our water bottles, his oversized pack contains everything from picnic blankets to first aid supplies, as well as several extra litres of water, along with the occasional treats. One afternoon, as we approach yet another uphill stretch with visibly flagging enthusiasm, he pulls out a packet of jelly beans, which we seize on with the excitement of four year olds.
Long distance walking can be a surprisingly social activity. There are 10 of us on our walk, the maximum group size, and I frequently find myself walking companionably with one or two others, our conversation ranging from the extinction of the dinosaurs to emerging trends in social media. Perhaps my favourite moments, however, are those when I walk a stretch by myself, an experience which feels almost meditative.
Part of the joy is revelling in being out in nature. In contrast to most of my working days, which are spent surrounded by asphalt, I am amazed by the varied landscapes we are passing through. From windswept coastal heath to deep, fern-filled gullies, from grass forests to meadows strewn with cheery dandelions, there is always something new to look at. I become aware of how my feet move differently on different surfaces: landing softly when the path is carpeted with needle-like she-oak leaves, planting firmly when the way becomes rocky.
Perhaps the greatest surprise is how quiet our surroundings are. Apart from the breeze playing through the trees and the steady wash of the waves, little disturbs the tranquillity – apart from the gasps when someone rounds a corner and spots a large snake snoozing in the path. Each time we stand patiently until the snake disappears sinuously into the grass. Not every unexpected encounter is so unwelcome; one day, we graze happily on the juicy blackberries growing wild on bushes alongside the path.
As much as we enjoy hiking the trail, coming home to the lodge in the evening is always a highlight. Firstly, there is the promise of a glass of wine and the chance to soak your feet in the half-a-dozen hot tubs that are lined up for the footsore. Then there is the food.