Want to commune with Mother Earth – without the camping? Susan Horsburgh heads deep into Victoria’s spa country on a hiking tour that combines uphill climbs with creature comforts.
For years I’ve had a hankering to go hiking – ever since I read Wild, the Cheryl-Strayed-memoir-turned-Reese-Witherspoon-movie. It’s the inspiring tale of a woman who spends three months trekking 1800 kilometres of America’s Pacific Crest Trail on her own, lugging a monster 32-kilogram backpack, camping in eerie solitude and drinking from the odd muddy puddle to stave off deadly dehydration. I, too, wanted to muster that gritty self-reliance, immersed in the soul-renewing surrounds of nature. There was just one issue: my complete intolerance of discomfort.
The track leads through pastoral country and classic bush scapes.
But a four-day, 50-kilometre bushwalk with a comfy mattress to sleep on each night and a side trip to a chocolate factory? Now that is more my speed. Which is how I come to be on a Park Trek walking tour, following Victoria’s Goldfields Track from Daylesford to Castlemaine. The group repairs each night to a cushy guesthouse in Daylesford, 115 kilometres north-west of Melbourne in the heart of historic spa country, before continuing with the next leg of the trail. With up to 10 walkers in tow, the two guides lead us through rugged bushland dotted with remains of the 1850s gold rush, detouring each day for dabbles in local food and culture.
Created by the Great Dividing Trail Association, the Goldfields Track stretches 210 kilometres in its entirety, linking Ballarat to Bendigo. It was launched by the community group seven years ago and while it may not enjoy the profile of Parks Victoria routes like the Great Ocean Walk, it covers some beautiful country. Following the winding paths and gullies amid the soaring eucalypts feels like wandering through a Frederick McCubbin painting. With its abandoned mine sites and stone ruins, the track is an open-air museum – and a great way to dip a toe into the world of bushwalking.
Trekking about 12 kilometres each day, the walk is tough-going at times but it’s not a big ask of a reasonably fit first-timer. Regular rest stops make it easy to keep going on the uphill climbs, as does the promise of a hearty two-course dinner in boutique accommodation at day’s end. This is, after all, exercise sweetened with a liberal dose of self-indulgence.
The tone is set on day one, when our guides, Richard Perry and Allistair Gehan, pick us up at Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria and bus us to Daylesford. On the way, we stop in the charming town of Trentham for coffee and cake by the warmth of the 1891 Scotch oven at RedBeard Bakery. Famous for its sourdough, RedBeard turns out up to 400 loaves a day.
Hikers take on the Goldfields Track not far from Hepburn Springs
Suitably carbo-loaded, we start the walk at picturesque Lake Daylesford, passing dry-stone walls and hugging the contours of the creek valleys. An hour in, though, the right sole of my rarely used 15-year-old hiking boots starts disintegrating, leaving a trail of rubber behind me. The left sole crumbles soon after. A repair job with Richard’s first-aid tape (over a lunch of chicken and salad wraps) proves pointless and by 2 pm my right knee is throbbing – I even resort to using a walking pole (which I’d silently pooh-poohed just hours earlier). Gingerly, I inch my way up the steep, rocky trail above Sailors Creek, past blackberry bushes and over cubes of wombat poo, while the sixty-somethings speed ahead.
Admittedly, it’s not a ripping start so it’s a relief when we reach The Manor House. The impressive guesthouse has a huge common area and galley kitchen, plus eight spacious bedrooms and ensuites, all furnished with antiques. There’s no time for icing an injury, though, because we’re booked in for a spot of pre-dinner communal bathing.
Victoria’s Central Highlands has Australia’s highest concentration of natural mineral springs and most of them are found around Daylesford and Hepburn Springs. At Hepburn Bathhouse & Spa, a “social bathing” hotspot since 1895, my seven fellow walkers and I sample the supposedly health-giving waters once prescribed for everything from scrofula to dyspepsia. We soak in the pool and spa – heated to 36°C and 39°C respectively – while gazing at views of the surrounding bushland. It’s such a welcome tonic that some in our group make an unscheduled return trip the next night.
The writer takes in work by Barbara Hauser at the Convent Gallery.
Back at The Manor House, we enjoy a generous spread of cheese and nibbles around the double-sided fireplace, followed by salmon fillets with couscous salad and for dessert, apple crumble – all whipped up by our multi-tasking tour guides. We dine on a long table fashioned from old wooden doors, while trading stories and discussing the day ahead.
The next morning, shoeless and with no hiking shops nearby, I make a mercy dash to Vinnies. Emerging with a pair of 12-buck, preloved runners, I’m back on the trail – the combo of jeans and gigantic white sneakers making me look like a strangely outdoorsy Jerry Seinfeld.
Over the next three days, we walk through narrow, high-walled gullies, scrubby fire trails and sun-bleached sheep pastures. We spot echidnas and kangaroos and stomp over kilometres of gold-bearing quartz. But what stays with me most are the ghostly artefacts of the gold-rush era: long-forgotten mineshafts, handmade bridges and the ruins of huts where fossickers and their families eked out a living. It’s a unique taste of history and a stark reminder of just how inhospitable the Australian bush must have been.
All this exercise and education is hungry work but thankfully food is a big part of the tour – so big that despite four days of walking, I actually manage to put on weight. Apparently three Assorted Creams around the minibus at morning-tea time are not cancelled out by the five kilometres of hiking that preceded them. Then there’s the DIY lunch wraps and trail mix (with lolly snakes!) that we bag ourselves after each breakfast. Our day-two detour to Chocolate Mill in Mount Franklin probably doesn’t help either. There, I down the best hot chocolate of my life – a miniature bathtub of liquid heaven with a pool of molten chocolate at the bottom. That’s followed by a tipple in the courtyard at Daylesford Cider and, on the last night, a mouth-watering filet mignon at The Farmers Arms Daylesford, a 156-year-old gastropub.
So perhaps this tour isn’t the low-cal option but there is some culture, too. The second day ends with a stop at The Convent Gallery, a historic mansion and former convent overlooking Daylesford that now houses three levels of modern art. There are reminders everywhere of its previous incarnation, including a nun’s tiny bedroom and a chapel where boarding-school students once recited the rosary and brides and grooms now exchange their vows. Visitors can even pick up a bottle of Good Catholic Girl riesling in the gift shop on the way out.
For Melburnians, Daylesford is a girls’ getaway go-to – you see packs of women buying linen cushions and beige ceramics every weekend along Vincent Street – so it’s only fitting the tour factors in some free time for shopping. For lovers of retro kitsch, though, the highlight is day four’s stop at Castlemaine Vintage Bazaar, a nirvana of knick-knackery and quirky curios, including a 1970s carousel and a council pool diving board. At 1850 square metres, it’s huge and, for those of us prone to options paralysis, more exhausting than the morning’s walk.
On day four, we tackle the final eight-kilometre stretch, starting in Fryerstown. Once home to 15,000 people and 25 hotels, it’s now a quiet spot with a collection of fine old buildings, notably a red-brick courthouse that, during the gold rush, used to have prisoners chained to the box tree out the front. Before long, we’re winding among the mullock heaps of the Spring Gully mines that operated until the late 1930s. Remnants include a high stone-faced loading ramp from which quartz was fed into a stamping battery for crushing. Afterwards, a short, steep walk to the summit of The Monk is rewarded with great views and, in spring and summer, a riot of wildflowers and orchids.
By now I’m a convert to the walking pole and I’m feeling no pain in my knees. In fact, I’m positively jaunty in my oversized sneakers, enjoying the fresh air and the crows cawing above as I alternate between chatting with my fellow trekkers and hiking in silence.
When we return to Melbourne, I head for Flinders Street Railway Station where I leave my runners for a homeless person. Freed from the suburban rat wheel for four days, I feel revitalised and ready to return to my family. I don’t know whether to credit the conversation, the meditative rhythm of my footfall or the singular beauty of the Australian bush but it seems my soul might indeed be renewed – no tent required.
Photo credits: Charlie Kinross