The day had started with us dragging our two tired bodies, one old, one young, into the car for the trip to Bells Beach from Melbourne. We had both been looking forward to the hike, but ironically, we were both drained from hearing a Tibetan Buddhist teacher talk late into the previous night. The drive was full of jokes about attachment and illusion.
Being an inexperienced walker, and having been given elaborate instructions about tide times, offshore winds, and our proposed route only being passable in optimal conditions (low tide, calm seas), I had anxiously calculated times for each leg of our journey. Surprisingly, we arrived at our departure point, Bells Beach car park within minutes of the optimal time for getting our beach crossing safely.
Taking this as a good omen, we set off happily down the steps from the car park at the top of the cliff to the world famous surfing beach. It was blowy down there, and we added layers until we wore all the extra clothes we had brought: thermals, beanies and jackets. The beach was a little otherworldly. Orange sand from the crumbling cliffs above was heaped at a precarious angle, and streaked with lines of black sand. Where had the black sand come from? I wondered. And would we be walking on a 20 degree incline in loose sand the whole way? As we trudged our way across the loose sand I thought about the size and force of the waves it must take to dump such an amount of sand into one small bay/alcove. I was secretly glad that there weren’t any of these mammoth waves today, the angry sounding choppy surf was intimidating enough.
We looked out toward where the first rock shelf we would be walking over should have been. All I could see was the little headland with waves crashing against its base. I thought of the tide times I had memorised and told myself the waves would recede by the time we got there. I liked Juanita, I didn’t want her washing into sea, and besides, I was taking a friend’s mum out for the day, I didn’t want to explain to him that I’d killed her.
Pushing these thoughts aside, I made happy conversation over the roar of the wind. The surroundings were dramatic, the air was deliciously salty, and apart from my dark thoughts about the rock shelf, we were having a good time. The beach became firmer and flatter, and sure enough, as we got close to the rock shelf, the waves receded just enough for there to be a narrow path below the cliffs. About this section, Glenn wrote in Daywalks Around Melbourne: ‘the tide will determine the path.’ This was no joke.
On the other side of the rock shelf we found a wide, long beach with calmer seas and bigger cliffs above it. The walking was easy and we got our pace up. The extra layers came off and we got into a rhythm. It was a humid kind of day, overcast, and from the comfort of the new beach we were able to admire the blues and greys of the ocean and the sky, which were almost the same colour. The dramatic blacks, browns and ochres of the various cliffs made the colours of the ocean ‘pop’ (as they say in the make up business), made them really stand out. Juanita had wanted to explore this part of Victoria on her short visit from the United States, and each time she commented, again and again, on the striking colours we saw along the way, I felt happy we made the trip. I had wanted to see these beaches for some time too, but it was a pleasure doubled to be in the company of someone who was so relishing of the experience.
Things took a slight turn for the worse when, as we made a short rest stop, I lay on my back on an inviting expanse of sand. It was warm, and a welcome relief for my unfit body, but after a few minutes the parts of me that were touching the sand were wet through. I stood up, confused, until I noticed that there was a fine layer of dry sand over waterlogged sand lower down. It had been too long since I went to the beach and I had forgotten.
As we set off again, my hopes for drying out were dashed when a stormy squall set in. A headwind blew up and a driving rain came toward us. The jackets were put back on, and my front got as soaked as my back. This is when Juanita found out her borrowed jacket was a windbreaker, not a rain coat.
We made our way across a couple more rock platforms at headlands, less exciting now the tide had receded a little, and across a couple more beaches. The crumbly, tumble-down cliffs grew in size and got more precarious looking the further along the coast we went. They looked as though the were made of sand, and the waves were eating at their bases. The highest ones about 40 metres, and slightly overhanging. Walking along a strip of sand with particularly unstable cliffs towering above you is not a secure feeling. We walked quickly.
A kelpie, happily trotting along the beach from the other direction, caught our attention and turned the conversation toward pets. The rain eased off and the sun came out. As we approached some wooden stairs near the headland of Point Addis, we saw some baby grommits having surfing lessons way out in the choppy water. Juanita got out her binoculars and as we rested at the top of the stairs, we used them to watch the instructor make surfing look easy, and will almost no surf to propel him along. Refreshed with gluten-free snacks, we continued walking up into the ironbark forests on top of the cliff.
The trail turned into a koori nature trail, complete with educational signs about traditional indigenous ways of life along the coast. The gum trees grew low, maybe four metres high, and thick, forming an archway above our heads for much of the route. Grass trees peeped into view here and there, until further along the track there was more of them than anything else. To Juanita’s disappointment, we didn’t see or hear a single animal for most of the walk. Perhaps the bad weather had scared them indoors. She was hoping to see a wombat, but it was not to be.
Further along, the trail broke into three, and we chose the path that lead back to the cliffs. Walking along the tops of them this time, we had a completely different view of the same scenery we had just passed. The colours were different, as Juanita noted, and from our high vantage point we could see lots of details we didn’t notice from below. Juanita looked excited and I felt blessed.
After a while we stopped for lunch and the talk turned to our families, our hopes and trials. Rather than feeling heavy or serious as you might expect, it felt celebratory, somehow lightening the view for both of us.
After some time resting, we got up to reluctantly face the one big hill that was left between us and the end of our hike. The trail up the hill was badly eroded from rain, making the going slow. As we looked out from the crest of the hill, away from the ocean, we could see low lying scrub and low bush all the way to the horizon, dotted with the tall, narrow flowers of the grass trees standing out above the scrub on their long stalks.
The walk down the other side was pleasant and uneventful. Tired out, our chatter eased up and I have to admit, I felt a little relieved when we hit the road, the marker of the last leg of our hike. Another short stretch of hiking by the road side, with me vigilant about Juanita’s lack of awareness of which side the cars would come from, led us back to the car. We drove back to Melbourne happy and tired, but somehow more energised than when we left Melbourne that morning.
All in all the walk took about four and a half hours, walking at an easy pace with plenty of long rests. It is the perfect walk for anyone with half a day to kill, especially if you want to get outdoors but are not particularly fit.