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Australian Alps Walking Track: 4 Days

Ben Spencer is our guest blogger.

Day 1: Walhalla to O’Sheas Mill Site (13km)

The Walhalla Pavilion – the starting line.
The Walhalla Pavilion – the starting line.

Much dreaming came to fruition when dad and I tackled the first 45km of the Australian Alps Walking Track (AAWT) over the last Melbourne Cup weekend. We met in the historic town of Walhalla and immediately organised a car shuffle with our two cars. It took us an hour to drive along the Thomson Valley Road to Stronachs Camp – the chosen endpoint of our walk. Luckily, I had pinpointed the camp on the GPS because it was innocuous and would have been easily missed. Leaving my car, we headed back to Walhalla in dad’s car. After just ten minutes our excitement was deflated when a sharp sound heralded the arrival of a flat tyre. The dirt road sloped away towards a gully and although it wasn’t ideal for changing a tyre, dad rolled up his sleeves and got stuck into it whilst I searched for the hub cap that had shot-off in the incident. Back in Walhalla we lunched and made final pack adjustments.

Climbing steeply up from the Walhalla Pavilion (and clutching a copy of John Chapman’s Australian Alps Walking Track guidebook), we followed the walking trail as it snaked away from the township and into the forest. Light cloud covered a warm sun, which provided ideal walking conditions as we slowly built up momentum in our pace. The flat gradient was extremely pleasant and we soon arrived at Poverty Point Bridge spanning the Thomson River.

The historic 1901 Poverty Point Bridge.
The historic 1901 Poverty Point Bridge.

We rested a while on the bridge, snacking and enjoying the view as the river meandered peacefully below. Afterwords we climbed high above the river, soaking up the views. Eventually the gradient increased and our heavy packs contributed to us puffing heavily as we willed ourselves upwards. After what seemed like an age, the trail arrived at a sealed road that we had driven along earlier. The AAWT crossed the road and headed straight back into the bush. We wandered downwards, still recovering from the ascent and shortly arrived at our camp for the night – O’Sheas Mill Site (East Tyers Campground). It was a lovely tranquil spot next to a rushing creek and provided an ideal place to rest for the night. Unfortunately, it was also accessible by car and we were dismayed when a group of ‘bush bogans’ arrived to party noisily into the night. A fellow walker, on his first day of hiking the entire track, had also set-up camp and seemed equally annoyed about their presence. Luckily we found a small camp pad next to a cascade of water, the noise of which helped to drown out the hooligans.

Ferns on the grassy banks of the East Tyers River.
Ferns on the grassy banks of the East Tyers River.

After setting up our tent we cooked a hot meal and discussed the task facing us in the morning. We were to embark upon the longest continual climb to be encountered along the entire 650km AAWT. Sufficiently tired from our days walking, we thankfully crawled into or sleeping bags and fell asleep.

Day 2: O’Sheas Mill Site to Talbot Hut Site (11.7km)

We emerged from our tent before 7am and to our surprise some of the ‘bush bogans’ were already up. They had stoked their campfire to bonfire proportions which led us to believe that they hadn’t gone to bed at all. Our friend attempting the whole track was still abed – a role reversal from what I’d expected. The night had been milder than anticipated, perhaps because we were still at low altitude. We pottered around camp, gradually disassembling our gear and arranging it into our packs like a jig-saw puzzle. To our surprise, the ‘through walker’ said his goodbyes and was underway well before us. No doubt, he’d packed up camp a few times in his walking life and developed an efficiency we clearly lacked. Eventually we got underway and immediately encountered our first major obstacle. The East Tyers River required us to remove our boots and brave the icy waters in bare feet. With thoughts of blood sucking leeches, we struggled over the creek grimacing at the freezing temperature of the water.

Crossing the East Tyers River is a refreshing way to start the day.
Crossing the East Tyers River is a refreshing way to start the day.

The trail now started its long climb towards the mountain tops. After an hour or so, and just as we were getting into an enjoyable walking rhythm, I had a dramatic revelation. I’d left my car keys in dad’s car. This would mean, at the end of the walk, we would arrive at my car and be locked out! Considering our options (or lack of), we decided I would walk back and get the keys whilst dad continued on alone. The plan wasn’t without its flaws – dad would be without a map and I would need to walk over 30km in a day. I hid my pack in the bush, knowing I’d be back for it, and headed back towards Walhalla. With adrenaline pumping and minus my pack, I made quick progress. A black snake languished across the path and thankfully I was alert because its lack of movement gave it a strong resemblance to a stick. Although aware of my presence as I crept close for a photo, the snake made no move to exit the scene. I attributed this to him being in the shade and having not yet gained the solar power required for fast movement. About 5min passed and he eventually stirred into action and casually slid into the undergrowth.

A black snake, not to be mistaken for a stick!
A black snake, not to be mistaken for a stick!

The day was heating up and having covered over 12km already, I slowed to a brisk walk as the initial excitement passed. About 2.5 hours after I turned back, I arrived back in Walhalla to find it filled with tourists. To my relief, my car keys were in dad’s car and my efforts hadn’t been in vain. Rather than walking the entire way back to my pack, I drove dad’s car 20 minutes back to O’Sheas Mill Site (East Tyers Campground) – one benefit of road access to the site. A couple of fellow walkers were lunching at the picnic table; I assumed they had come from the direction I was heading in. After recrossing the East Tyers River for a third time I arrived back at my pack. Here I took a much needed lunch break, rudely marred by mosquitoes and other stinging insects. I sighed at the injustice, lathered on the sunscreen and mentally prepared myself for the massive climb ahead of me. The trail gradient now quickly steepened and the foliage tightened around the track creating a suffocating feeling.

The trail continued always upwards.
The trail continued always upwards.

The humidity was high and sweat streamed off me. The climb was unrelenting, becoming an exercise in mental and physical endurance. I passed a family heading downhill who offered information on the walk ahead – I didn’t want to know. Eventually the trail spat me onto a dirt road and although the steepness lessened it was still all up. The occasional car zoomed past, lessening the wilderness feel. Finally I arrived at a small carpark, from where the the popular Mushroom Rocks Walking Track begun. I encountered some other hikers and asked whether they had seen dad. It was a relief that they had. The trail-head signs indicated that I had another 2.5 hours of walking, disheartening news as my energy levels had dwindled. The AAWT continued on towards Mushroom Rocks, winding ever upwards. Climbing over and under fallen trees sapped my strength even further. The trail eventually wove through Mushroom Rocks, large boulders scattered amongst trees like giant marbles.

Moss-covered granite marbles at Mushroom Rocks.
Moss-covered granite marbles at Mushroom Rocks.

I didn’t linger at the rocks as I wanted to tackle the steep climb up and over Mt Erica before it grew too late. The air temperature now grew noticeably cooler as the constant ascent continued. After what felt like an eternity I lifted my head to find the trail had finally flattened and a wooden sign beckoned me closer. My spirits soared. Surely this must be the top. No such luck, however. The sign tantalisingly pointed out that Mt Erica was still some way ahead of me.

The sign that mocked me.
The sign that mocked me.

I was now mentally and physically exhausted but I put my head down and kept trudging upwards through the snow-gums. Finally another sign came into view. It was Mt Erica. I had made it. The trail gently rolled into Talbot Hut Campsite where I found dad relaxing and enjoying a cup of tea. We recounted the day’s events. Dad had talked to walkers he had met during the day who helped keep him on the right trail. He’d found the ascent as tough as I did and we were both glad it was behind us. The campsite was situated next to a lovely trickling mountain stream and was protected from the wind by the snow-gums. We spent the rest of the night enjoying a well-earned meal and were in bed shortly after dark.

Day 3: Talbot Hut Site to Mt Whitelaw Hut Site (12.5km)
Despite our weariness, we both slept restlessly, still unaccustomed to sleeping on the ground. We made good time getting up and away, having become more efficient at packing our gear. The day’s walk began with slight rises and falls as we crossed the Baw Baw National Park. Our progress slowed considerably as we were forced to walk through ever larger pools of water. Thick scrub often prevented us from going around and soon our feet were drenched. Eventually the trail reached large patches of snow, a surprise as this was November. The increasing amount of snow did, however, explain why there was so much water on the lower trail. Luckily the yellow markers on the trees ensured that we didn’t lose our way.

Maybe we should have brought the skis!
Maybe we should have brought the skis!

Just past the Mt St Gwinear junction we encountered some other walkers making their way from Baw Baw Village to Mt St Gwinear. A gradual climb followed, which soon brought us to the highest point within the Baw Baw National Park – Mt St Phillack at 1556m. Unfortunately any views of the surrounding mountains were obscured by the snow-gums.

Not much of a view from Mt St Phillack.
Not much of a view from Mt St Phillack.

We sauntered downwards until dad called a halt for lunch on an outcrop of rocks. Whilst we enjoyed a food and rest break, an ultra-marathon runner appeared out of nowhere, geared up and running in the opposite direction. Dad yelled out to ask where he’d come from. ‘Red Jacket’, he shouted, as he was swallowed up by snow-gums. A quick look at the map confirmed that he’d already covered 37km and that he probably had many more to go. After lunch I became impatient and scouted ahead, sure that we couldn’t be far from our overnight stop – Mt Whitelaw Hut Site. Sure enough I came upon a crumbling chimney with flat campsites scattered around. Waiting for dad to arrive, I explored the water options and discovered it to be more swamp than stream. Definitely not the robust flows we’d been blessed with previously. I squelched through a soggy marsh to find a trickle of fresh, icy water – it was worth the effort. Dad soon arrived and we set up the tent. Being mid-afternoon we took our time savouring the serenity and reflecting on the journey thus far. Again we were in our sleeping bags just after nightfall, serenaded by the croaking of frogs calling to each other in the swamp below.

Our piece of paradise at the Mt Whitelaw Hut Site.
Our piece of paradise at the Mt Whitelaw Hut Site.

Day 4: Mt Whitelaw Hut Site to Stronachs Camp at Thomson Valley Road (9km)
We were up at sunrise, wanting an early start on the last day’s walking. The trail was now mainly downhill and soon we left the snow-gums behind. As we crossed a small hill we were treated to our first long-distance views since day one. Overlapping mountain ranges vanished into the horizon.

Views, Glorious Views.
Views, glorious views.

We continued steadily downwards, reaching a grassy gully surrounded by dense scrubby undergrowth. Inevitably the trail climbed again out of the trough and widened before climbing past a junction to the Upper Yarra trail, which I have to say looked overgrown and uninviting. Cresting the hill, we promptly rolled downwards again as the surrounding trees slowly transformed into tall mountain ash. We were making good time now as we descended rapidly. We came to a sign and a campsite just before Thomson Valley Road and knew the end was nigh. Reaching the road, we craned our necks to check the car was there and thankfully it was. Back-slappings and celebrations ensued – we had made it. Despite the hardship of the second day, the walk was a memorable experience that I will always treasure. It made me realise the act of walking and camping in remote wilderness is a pleasure in itself and spectacular scenery is an added luxury, not a necessity.

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Three Days Along the Great Ocean Walk

Ben Spencer is our guest blogger. Images by Grant Hawkins.

Day 1 – Milanesia Beach to Ryans Den

With much anticipation we were finally bound for the Great Ocean Walk – a 90km snaking trail along the Victorian coastline from Apollo Bay to The Twelve Apostles. Our crew comprised of my dad and three mates and we intended to tackle the last 40km stretch of this famous trail, linking Milanesia Beach to the Twelve Apostles. After about 3 hours driving from Melbourne, we turned off the Great Ocean Road onto a steep dirt track more suited to four wheel drive vehicles. Our two-wheeler managed okay, but I wouldn’t recommend trying it in the wet! The rough track abruptly ended with breathtaking views over imposing sea cliffs that dropped into an expansive blue ocean.

Eager to crack onwards, we shouldered our heavy packs and hit the trail, which almost immediately got really steep as it descended to secluded Milanesia beach. It was quickly obvious that the only way onwards was up and, once again it was very steep! A pattern was quickly forming and the lads pondered aloud what they’d got themselves into. The hot sun was beating down, the climb was arduous on untrained limbs, our packs were heavy and we’d only just started! After an extended and challenging ascent, we struggled to the crest of a hill and found the perfect vantage point for lunch. The outlook was spectacular and was everything I had envisaged when dreaming of the walk. Most definitely a ‘lunch with a view’. Note to self – stow food in an accessible place to avoid unpacking the whole rig whenever I got hungry.

With lunch done and plenty of sunscreen applied, we headed off again knowing it was only a short day of walking. The remainder of our hike through to camp was as steep as it had started and we were very pleased to drop our packs on arrival. We’d been told the camp was booked out but contrary to this we found it empty except for one other party. We chose a great campsite screened by shrubs and within a few steps of stunning outlooks over cliffs and ocean.

Having set-up camp without too much issue (I feared my tent looked a bit small for two lads) we went about the next order of business; dinner. Pizzas were on the menu and in no time at all we were enjoying our feast and soaking up the amazing vistas surrounding us. The remainder of the evening was spent boiling water from the tank to kill potential bacteria, waiting for it to cool and filling our drink bottles. This process took a considerable time because we needed a fair bit of water.

Day 2 – Ryans Den to Devils Kitchen

Sleep had been hard to come by, probably due to a few factors – the hard ground, the warmth of the night and the unfamiliarity of sleeping in a tent. Rain had swept through at 4am and we had to rescue some items that had been left outside, including my bag – another lesson learned. We were up at 6am and away by 8am. We needed to get away early so as to arrive at the beach section of the walk at low tide. The day’s walk started much the same as yesterday with lots of ups and downs but with amazing views as the reward for having gained the top of each climb. The notes listed this section as the hardest of the walk so we knew a big day was in store. Dad got his pack sitting better so that his hips were taking the weight, which he said felt much more comfortable than the previous day. Everyone was in good spirits and we made good time as the landscape varied from cliffs to paddocks to bush and back to cliffs again.

The trail was well worn and there was no chance of getting lost but it resulted in a lack of wildlife – animals seemingly knew to stay well away. Eventually we arrived at a set of stairs that lead to the beach segment of the walk – we had timed things perfectly as low tide was reported to be at 11:47am and we had arrived at 11:45am. The map listed the staircase as 364 steps but I didn’t let the lads know because a few were fading with at least 12km of territory already covered for the day. Arriving at the beach, we could see why it was necessary to traverse it at low tide – there was very little sand between the cliff and the water’s edge and high tide would leave no sand uncovered. Waves crashed over exposed reefs and we explored the rock pools as we ambled along the beach – losing our haste and enjoying the moment. Remains of two old ship wrecks, including an anchor, were a reminder of how devastating and unforgiving this wild coast could be.

We continued along the beach until spotting the trail heading back up the slopes. At this juncture, we stopped for lunch on the beach, satisfied that we’d broken the back of the days walking and had only a short section until camp. A liberal coating of repellant warded off the march flies and allowed us to soak up the serenity of this isolated beach. It was also an ideal place to tuck into a big lunch. The last tiring climb was a steep one and we were relieved to finally reach our campsite, a place we all agreed equaled the previous nights ‘wow’ factor.

We took our time setting up camp as we had arrived mid-afternoon and there was little else to do except relax, take pictures and get cricket updates – Clarke made over 300 runs against India. Dinner time came around and I happily cooked the grub I’d been carrying for two days. The meal was well received by the boys and all the food was polished off (next time I’ll bring more noodles!). With dinner done, we set about boiling more water for the following day, which fortunately didn’t take as long as the previous night. As the sun sank low in the sky we ventured down to the beach for a quick dip, though the ever-present reef stopped us from venturing too far out.

Day 3 – Devils Kitchen to The Twelve Apostles

We were up at 6am again and away by 7:30am. Faster this time and keen to walk in the coolest part of the day. The route was much flatter and the troops enjoyed this style of walking a lot more. We left the cliff-tops behind for a period as we moved into the typical Aussie bush that I’m more accustomed to. This change in vegetation necessitated the cleaning of our boots in a washing station to stop the passing of cinnamon fungus (phytophthora cinnamomi), a nasty pathogen that attacks tree roots. Soon afterwards we reached the exposed cliff-top again and encountered a person at one of the view points, which was the first sign we were nearing the end of the walk. At this point, foliage was growing over the track, making things difficult – for some reason the rangers had neglected to maintain this section. Long pants would have been beneficial but it was too hot to wear them so we endured. Eventually we pushed through into a clearing to be greeted by superb views of the Gellibrand River snaking past Princetown Recreation Reserve – our finishing point.

Before long we were back at the car with plenty of back-slapping and congratulations. It was a further 6km to the Twelve Apostles and we decided to complete it on foot – leaving the packs in the car of course! The views walking towards the Twelve apostles were memorable and provided a totally different perspective when compared to the usual driving approach.

Arriving at the first apostle we ventured down to the beach to look up at the massive rock tower. Strangely the track petered out at this point, despite the map saying it went for another kilometre to the Twelve Apostles Information Centre. Not to be deterred, we finished the last little bit along the road and made it to the end! It was an amazing trip where jaw-dropping views became the norm – I certainly recommend this walk to anyone considering it.

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Escape to the Beeripmo Walk

Ben Spencer is our guest blogger for this week.

The First Day, Up, Up and Up!

The luxury of a long weekend presented the ideal opportunity to undertake the Beeripmo Walk – a 21km, two-day hike. Located about an hour’s drive west of Ballarat in the Mt Buangor State Park and Mt Cole State Forest, the walk promised to be a great introduction to what is one of Victoria’s lesser known bushwalking destinations. A major enticement was the walk-in campsite which could only be accessed by foot and which we hoped would provide us with a tranquil overnight setting.

My partner Aislin and I arrived at Richards Campground, the beginning of the walk, at about midday after a 2.5 hour drive from Melbourne. Surprisingly there were only two other cars in the carpark. We began our hike in the heat of the day – the sun beat down mercilessly as the track climbed steadily up through the forest. The going would have been challenging enough on a normal day but the heat combined with the weight of our backpacks meant that it turned into a slog. After about 30 minutes walking we managed to make it to the first point of interest, Raglan Falls. At the top of the falls we took the opportunity to throw off our packs and rest. There was little more than a trickle of water but the sound was soothing.

We couldn’t put it off any longer and eventually we shouldered our packs and continued the climb. The trail notes had listed this walk as for a moderate fitness level, which perhaps it would be without our heavy packs. As we approached Cave Hill the steepness of the trail abated for a time but still continued gradually upwards. Glimpses through the trees allowed us to gauge our altitude and a short time later Grevillea Lookout provided us with uninterrupted views of Mt Cole in the south and of the Western plains below. A higher mountain rose to the right of us which could only be the Sugarloaf, which was to form the next goal on our walk.

The rationale behind the naming of the Sugarloaf quickly became apparent as the track rose sharply – it was akin to a sugar cube bobbing in a cup of tea. After our earlier exertions, the climb was now even more challenging and our pace slowed considerably. The track wound back and forth up the cube – no doubt because heading straight up it would have required climbing gear! The path had definitely not been used that day because webs guarded by large spiders continuously blocked our path. A baby brown snake sunning itself on a tree stump was surprised by our appearance and hastily slithered back into the undergrowth. Eventually we struggled to the top of the Sugarloaf and rested for a while as we took in the vista.

It had been a very tiring day, the heat of the sun had thankfully diminished and we were looking forward to making camp. A little while later we reached the secluded Beeripmo Campground. It was everything we had hoped for. The site featured 10 quaint camp pads nestled between the tightly packed gums. There was not a soul to be seen, although a startled kangaroo noisily bounded away upon our arrival. We selected the best spot for our tent and set about establishing our home away from home. After a satisfying meal and with darkness now upon us, we took a short walk to a clearing and craned our necks skywards – millions of awe inspiring twinkles filled the black expanse above.

The Second Day, Mt Buangor, Then Down, Down and Down!

The alarm clock went off at 5:50am – the kookaburras were laughing to each other because the sun had started to rise. The trail notes suggested a similar walking duration as the previous day so we were keen to make tracks before the sun got too hot. We breakfasted and left within the hour, careful to adhere to the ‘leave no trace’ principle. There was still more climbing to do, this time to the top of Mt Buangor. The increasing warmth of the day was only slightly offset by a lovely cool breeze. After a short walk, the trail arrived at an intersection with one way heading to Mt Buangor and the other continuing along the Beeripmo walk.

As the top of Mt Buangor was a side-trip we concealed our packs in the scrub and began the climb, buoyed by the freedom of not having to carry a heavy load. The ascent was no where near as strenuous as that of the previous day, so were pleased when we soon found ourselves at the top. A lonely campervan greeted us on the peak, which was the first time we had seen other people since the start of the walk. The occupants were seemingly still asleep so we tip-toed past them to the lookout and were greeted by the most spectacular view of the walk. The outlook across the Western Plains was vast and we could see all the way to the Grampians National Park, towering in the distance. We soaked up the view then made our way back to the intersection, missing a turnoff on the way but thankfully adding only 10 minutes to the journey.

Pleased with our progress and with renewed energy and high spirits, we continued on. At Mugwamp camp we stopped briefly to apply sunscreen. There were no other campers. Back on the trail we continued gradually downhill, which was the only way left to go after having just ascended to highest mountain in the park. Every now and then the trail crossed quiet vehicle tracks but always plowed straight back into the bush again. As we descended the mountain the terrain began to change. At one point we headed through a dense patch of ferns that were trying to reclaim the trail as their own.

Eventually the trail cut into the side of a steep hill providing a route across what would have otherwise been impassable. With the sun still rising, we arrived at a sign indicating that Richards camp was only 700m away. Our descent from Beeripmo Campground had been much quicker than expected, no doubt due to the downhill gradient and much cooler conditions. Definitely a welcome change to the physical and mental challenges of the previous day. The walk had been an overwhelming success and I strongly recommend it to those looking for an easily accessible two-day walk.