Leaving the bitumen of Victoria’s spectacular Great Ocean Road behind, Paul Connolly takes the path less travelled on a wild coastal walk.

Every long-distance hike seems to have its own version of Heartbreak Hill. We arrive at ours shortly after lunch on day two of our four-day, 55-kilometre trek along Victoria’s scenery-dripping southern coastline. Emerging from a cool carpet of ferns beneath a stand of stringybarks, we’re suddenly out in the open for a climb up a long, grassy hill – one so steep that my light daypack feels more like an Italian opera singer on my back. I haven’t paid this much attention to my boots for some time.

The ascent is over before anything ruptures and with it comes a reward: commanding views, east and west, of a spectacular row of rocky headlands thrust into the Southern Ocean like the gnarled paws of an ancient beast. As the gunmetal-grey water throws itself tirelessly against them, sending up a haze of sea spray, I exhale contentedly. A crackle of black cockatoos flies overhead towards the west, in the direction of our destination: those iconic limestone stacks known as the 12 Apostles. “Check out the serenity,” I’m about to say to my fellow walkers. But most are still panting up the slope so I let it slide. They’ll see for themselves soon enough.

The Great Ocean Road is a 240-kilometre-long winding strip of cliff-hugging tarmac that stretches between the Victorian coastal town of Torquay and Allansford, near Warrnambool. But, as I’m discovering, the Great Ocean Walk is another way – a considerably more immersive one – to experience the wild beauty of the same region. That it requires more physical effort than depressing an accelerator only enhances the experience.

Follow the Path Along Victoria's Great Ocean Walk

Beginning at Apollo Bay – where the famous roadway, at its midway point, leaves the coast for an inland meander through the Great Otway National Park – the full length of the Great Ocean Walk (GOW) takes hikers 105 kilometres to the 12 Apostles, through eucalypt forests, wetlands and banks of tea-tree. Better yet, and this was apparent the moment we set out in a light mist from Castle Cove on day one, its path leads up and over wild sandstone headlands and onto and along a number of glorious all-but-deserted beaches. Beyond the snap of twigs and crunch of sand underfoot, the soundtrack to this undertaking isn’t car engines – which are busily engaged far away – but the ever-present roar of the ocean.

Follow the Path Along Victoria's Great Ocean Walk

Anyone is free to walk, in full or in stages, the GOW (although designated camping sites must be booked and paid for through Parks Victoria at least two weeks before your trip). But if lugging your own supplies and nylon-based accommodation aren’t your thing there are other, more luxurious ways to experience the trail.

I find this out as a guest of the Twelve Apostles Lodge Walk, which offers four-day, three-night tours along a 40-kilometre section of the GOW (or 55 kilometres if you take endurance options offered on the first three days). The company is one of a handful offering Melbourne transfers, accommodation and food on top of a guided walk; Hedonistic Hiking and Park Trek are others.

Having endured long-distance hikes with a heavy backpack and an evening symphony of tent zippers and snoring koalas, I feel almost sheepish when I see the Twelve Apostles Lodge Walk’s eco lodge near Johanna – a small, stylish and spotless cabin with a comfortable, crisply made bed, a fully equipped bathroom and a bright common room where they serve the kind of meals you only dream about on a walking trail.

Follow the Path Along Victoria's Great Ocean Walk

The dinners (rolled chicken, crisp-skinned salmon and eye fillet, as well as canapés and salads) have us all raving but, for me, it’s the lunches that seem particularly decadent. A few hours into our easy first day of 9.5 kilometres – it takes the 10 of us, plus our bushy-bearded guide, Jack, through a lovely grass-tree forest and undulating banks of tea-tree palsied and stunted by the onshore winds – we stop to eat.

Follow the Path Along Victoria's Great Ocean Walk

From a high point overlooking the mist-dusted cliffs, I remove from the supplied daypack (my luggage is in my room, of course) a canister containing a delicious Thai beef noodle salad. To think my usual track snack would be a peanut-butter wrap. “I could get used to this,” someone quips as, in the distance, waves turn their heads to shore, throwing up manes of spray.

Ending that first day’s walk with an invigorating two-kilometre stroll across Johanna Beach, we’re met by a van that takes us to the lodge, where foot spas, drinks and food await (the van will return us to the same point the next morning).

As pampered as we are, we’re not physically carried along the GOW (hmmm, a gap in the market?), although Jack must feel he’s carrying at least one person in his huge pack: “Anyone misbehaves and you get to lug this,” he jokes early on. Hikers need to be fit enough to cover the distances and the terrain. Day two (20.5 kilometres), with its many elevations, is the most challenging but when every climb comes with glorious ocean views, there are tougher ways to spend your time.

Day two also acquaints us with the wildlife; mostly shy wallabies and echidnas who, like little kids, think you can’t see them when they simply cover their eyes (in this case by sticking their head into a bush). By contrast, the mob of kangaroos we encountered earlier that day – a couple of them so big and heavily muscled that they would have looked at home in boxing gloves – were too insouciant to hide. 

Follow the Path Along Victoria's Great Ocean Walk

The highlight of day three (17 kilometres) is descending some 350 steps onto Wreck Beach, a wild strip of sand into which a couple of anchors are still stuck since the boats they were connected to – the Marie Gabrielle and Fiji – ran aground on rock bars in the 1800s. Jack details their history and that of the Shipwreck Coast with the same easy manner he uses to tell us about the flora and fauna on our walk.

Follow the Path Along Victoria's Great Ocean Walk

Late on our third day of hiking, I finally see our destination. Standing in the water, way over west, two limestone stacks are almost camouflaged against the cliffs behind them. The 12 Apostles! Well, two of the remaining eight that haven’t yet succumbed to erosion. “This time tomorrow you’ll be there,” says Jack but I’m not entirely enthused by the prospect. I’m not ready for the journey to be over. 

SEE ALSO: How to Drive and Dine Your Way Along the Great Ocean Road

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