There was something about this walk. It changed my view of my place in the world, if only for a short time. Maybe it was the pair of emus that I came across. One ran off while the other came closer, tentatively peeking out from behind a tree for a better look before turning tail and zigzagging his escape through the forest. Immediately afterwards a dark and fluffy wallaby bounded across my path just metres ahead – there one moment, gone the next.
Maybe it was the three koalas I came across, in the midst of an argument. Two males growled and bellowed loudly while a smaller female tried to get out of the way. I watched with my heart in my mouth as the larger male took a swipe at her, knocking her off the branch. She swung from one claw, dangling in thin air while the other two continued to scream at each other
Half an hour later the rustle of grass next to me on the path alerted me to a large furry body crawling along the ground. It was so big I thought it was a wombat. It turned out to be another koala.
Maybe it was the five snakes I saw, each one slithering out of my path… all except for one. I backed off after nearly standing on it and we both sat there watching each other in the longest snake stand-off I’ve ever experienced. His head was raised, tongue flicking the air and large dark eyes appraising me. The trail was overgrown, there was no alternative route around. I waited. He watched. Eventually he conceded to being the one to move and I tiptoed past.
Maybe it was the big grey owl that landed on the ground just a few metres from my tent at dusk. He turned his face to mine, blinked his big round eyes twice in the torchlight and then flapped his mighty wings, lifting off into the darkening sky. Or perhaps it was the spiky echidna that crashed through the undergrowth emerging next to my tent, sniffing around my pack before realising I was there and then scuttling off again into the bushes. I saw a dozen other emus, more echidnas, countless wallabies, kangaroos, lizards and birds. It could have been any or all of these encounters that made me feel different.
It’s rare these days to find yourself in a world not dominated by humans. When I spent eleven days hiking the Great South West Walk in Victoria I experienced a rare insight. I was no longer the all-powerful and important human, top of the game, I was merely one animal amongst many. Part of a rich and complex interconnection, reminding me that there is a whole other world of animals on this earth apart from us and I was now amongst them. Without the distraction of other humans and our human-made world I could see the natural world beyond – one that has always been there though often not easily visible. It was nature in an undisturbed state, rich with life, and being in it took me to another place in my mind.
There are many amazing things about the Great South West Walk but for me it was these encounters with wildlife that were most special. The 250km loop trail out of Portland in Victoria’s west is full of surprises. The scenery changes significantly along the way, winding through four very distinct landscapes. I started in the forest. It’s an easy way to begin. The trail is largely flat and well graded, moving through swathes of Blackwoods, Swamp gums and Stringy Barks. In places the trees have been blackened by bushfire, and green ferns and flowering tea tree fill the undergrowth along with wildflowers in shades of purple, white, pink and yellow.
After eighty kilometres the trail merges with the mighty Glenelg River and the scenery changes dramatically. The trail becomes rocky underfoot, the earth red, a striking contrast against the greenery. The track climbs and then undulates over cliff top paths overlooking the white limestone gorge walls that line the river’s edge. Birds are drawn to the water, amongst them black cockatoos, kingfishers, blue wrens and gang gang cockatoos whose call sounds like a squeaky door overhead.
After another 54km the river delivered me to the sea and I followed the ocean beach back east again. For hours I walked in the sand with not another soul in sight. Flocks of birds rose from the sand and landed further ahead as I moved forward. I liked not seeing anything but ocean and sand as far as the eye can see in both directions. It reminded me that I’m out there alone. Well, just me and my furry and feathered friends. The trail markers pointed me into the dunes and I followed the three pronged footprints of emus pressed into the sand. The wrinkles in their fat feet were clearly visible in the impressions, tipped by claw points. Aboriginal middens sat aside of the path, mounds of seashells abandoned from feasts several thousand years ago.
I wandered further inland over Mt Richmond, a low and lush forested peak, the remains of a volcanic tuff cone about two million years old. The soil is sandy here and the forest jam packed with animals. I couldn’t sleep for the noises outside my tent – koalas growling in the trees, unidentified crashing about in the undergrowth and other animals screeching in the night air. The land was alive.
I headed back out to the beach for another few hours of sand slogging before the beach abruptly ended, blocked by a rocky bluff. I climbed it and followed a path for several days that sat sometimes precipitously right on the edge of an unprotected cliff. One wrong move here and I would tumble into the blue ocean crashing up against the cliffs far below. The water frothed and foamed over the dark basalt platforms that spill out into the sea formed by an ancient volcanic eruption. The trail skirts around Cape Bridgewater and over some of the highest coastal cliffs in Victoria. In the clear water below it’s easy to spot seals and dolphins rising and falling with the swell. Just 20km from the finish the white lighthouse of Cape Nelson stands strong in the gusting wind on the last of the unprotected cliffs before returning to Portland.
I hadn’t heard a lot about this hike before I did it, nor is it heavily visited compared to some other trails, however this is a hike that deserves to be appreciated. The scenery is hugely rewarding and the distance is far enough to give you time to let go of everything that distracts us in everyday life. And like me, you might just find it makes you see things just a little differently.