The new Kangaroo Island Wilderness Trail

The ranger is keen to ensure I have everything I need for a successful hike. First there’s a five-minute induction video, then I am given a waterproof/tearproof topo map and a quality 135 page guide book. She drops the weighty tome into my hands and I smile, trying to quieten the little voice inside that protests, “but that’s got to be at least another 250 grams!” It’s just one of the many little touches that the developers of the new Kangaroo Island Wilderness Trail in South Australia have devised to ensure a first class experience for hikers.

Rocky River Cascades

Rocky River Cascades

The trail has only been open a month when I step foot on it, a 61km route beginning at Flinders Chase at the western end of the island and finishing at Kelly Caves further east. I begin on well-maintained trails close to the Visitor Centre through Black Swamp, a site famous for revealing the bones of the megafauna that roamed here between 45,000 and 100,000 years ago. Giant seven foot tall kangaroos and wombat-like creatures the size of rhinos once made this area home and while the real deal have long gone, life size cast iron cut-outs of these ancient beasts still manage to startle me, suddenly appearing from around bends or behind bushes.

I soon venture beyond the day trails and onto the KIWT proper. The Platypus Waterholes are quiet of action in the midday warmth so I carry on through dense eucalypt woodland to the Rocky River Cascades. Cool tannin-stained water rushes over a ramp of gently sloping rock. I lay down feeling the sun warmed rock beneath me, one hand trailing in the water, and start to feel that delicious peace and happiness that nature always brings.

dsc06653Twelve kilometres in, a discreet steel and wood sign welcomes me to Cup Gum Campground. This is cool camping – thoughtfully laid out with everything a hiker needs and constructed in materials that blend in with the environment. Individual campsites are tucked away up short paths offering a touch of privacy, some with timber decks complete with inbuilt seats. Near the communal cooking shelter I find a wooden sun lounge facing a grassy plain dotted with grazing kangaroos. It’s the perfect place to relax.

Cliff top panoramas

dsc06688On day two the bush trail meets the Southern Ocean, and a rough and rocky track climbs to the cliff tops where a stiff wind buffets my entire body. The forecast estimates 35-48kph winds for the middle three days of my walk. It’s not ideal for a trail of which nearly half is coastal – next stop Antarctica – but nothing can take away the beauty of the vast blue water whipped with white caps. Perhaps if it was less windy I’d have lingered at the divine cliff top views but I push on, reaching the next camp at Cape du Couedic by noon.

Listed trail times are generous and there is plenty of time to do a 9km side trip to the cape’s lighthouse as well as Admiral’s Arch, a partially collapsed limestone cave hung with stalactites. I shelter from the wind in the lee of the rock and watch the seals and sealions who live and play on the basalt platforms below.

Critters and Creatures

Wildlife is all part of the appeal of this trail – birds, frogs, echidnas, koalas, plentiful goannas sunning themselves on the trail, and even the island’s very own unique breed of kangaroo. At night I stretch out in my tent, dig out my new guidebook and discover the many interesting factoids about the flora and fauna contained within it. (Who knew a microbat could eat 600 mosquitos in an hour?) By the time I finish the trail I’ve read it cover to cover.

Remarkable Rocks

Remarkable Rocks

Remarkable Rocks

Day three brings another trail highlight, the Remarkable Rocks. I last visited these rocks ten years ago but I’d forgotten how remarkable they were. Five hundred million years worth of wind, rain and raging waves have carved out these giant granite boulders, creating sculpted works of art. There are great gaping overhangs and areas of smoothed rock pocked with holes like a giant Swiss Cheese. In places bright orange lichen sweeps across the rock making a striking contrast against the blue ocean. I spend half an hour staggering around the boulders in the near gale force winds, fearing I might be blown off out to sea, before retreating to shelter.

Inland Discoveries

The trail weaves inland more on the last few days, with a few short detours to sumptuous bays filled with soft white sand and water of a colour that belongs in the South Pacific. Alas the guidebook warns against swimming – apparently the prevalence of marine mammals in the area attracts large predators “such as sharks” – so I content myself with just watching.

My fourth and final night on the trail is at Grassdale Camp, a lovely spot straddling two sides of a river and complete with fire pit surrounded by bench seats. It’s yet another thoughtful design feature by the makers of the trail, offering a great hub for walkers to celebrate the end of a fantastic hike. Across the water I catch sight of a koala leaping from one branch to another and on dusk well over a hundred kangaroos feed and box with each other on the open grassland nearby. It’s a special place.

Hanson Bay

Hanson Bay

It takes only a few hours to walk the final kilometres to Kelly Caves. On the way I pass two huge lagoons, home to tonnes of birds, and follow trails lined with sugar gums, beautifully gnarled and flaking with bark. I’m just starting to fall into that glorious space when you feel like it’s just you and nature, but the trail is almost done.

The Kangaroo Island Wilderness Trail has done it’s magic on me!

**Want to do this hike yourself?  Check out my KIWT planning advice.

A Different Perspective – the Great South West Walk

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.

Koala on top of Mt Richmond

Koala on top of Mt Richmond

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.

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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.

Overlooking the Glenelg River

Overlooking the Glenelg River

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.

DSC09893After 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.

A good few days of cliff top hiking

A good few days of cliff top hiking

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.


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Changing Tack

DSC08027I thought it might be vaguely interesting to try and quantify how seasick I felt.  Sitting in the cockpit and watching the waves roll out behind us I pondered perhaps a three out of ten? – Unpleasant but perfectly manageable.  Half an hour later it was more like five or six.  I looked around at my crew mates, peacefully sipping cups of tea, engrossed in books while the twin hulls of our catamaran careened sideways down the blue water face of a two and a half metre swell like an out of control shopping trolley.  Was I missing something here?  Within another half an hour my seasickness had risen up the ranks of my unofficial grading system to an alarming eight out of ten, gusting at nine and a half.

Hurling over the side of the boat is a no-no – too many people have fallen overboard in the process.  I needed a bucket urgently but just the thought of saying the word bucket out loud triggered forboding sensations to flush through my mouth.  Instead I crouched and crawled my way over to the back of the boat, all the while staring at the horizon with an intensity that could bend spoons.  Suddenly a mug of steaming ginger infused water appeared in front of me and after sipping some down the urge to vomit slowly began to subside.  I was spared another day.

The Good Times

View from the summit of Fitzroy Island near Cairns, Queensland

View from the summit of Fitzroy Island near Cairns, Queensland

I’ve been on this sailing journey for nearly six weeks now and while there have been moments of bliss, unfortunately, for me, most of them have occurred off the boat.  Walking barefoot through the powdery soft and blinding white silica sand of Whitehaven Beach, hiking the many deserted jungle trails of the Whitsunday Islands, snorkelling over vast beds of coral and sea kayaking have all been glorious highlights.

I’ve always been a big fan of kayaking.  The opportunity to slink quietly into the domain of other creatures without unduly disturbing them provides a secret insight into their world.  The best time is low tide when you can glide with minimal effort over swathes of colourful coral just a foot or two beneath the boat.  Sand flats are filled with dozens of turtles, stingrays and baby black tip reef sharks whose dorsal fins lazily pierce the surface of the water.  A turtle and I surprised each other one afternoon.  A massive body of water lifted and thrashed right on the back of my kayak, drenching me.  I thought it was a crocodile (I may have screamed) until the oval shape of a huge shell appeared in the settling water.   These times immersed in the world of other creatures are magical.

Getting Skills
Mastering the art of sailing takes a lifetime and while I’m unlikely to persevere at the sport long enough to be remotely competent I have slowly but surely accumulated new skills.  I can tie a bowline and a clove hitch knot, launch and drive the dinghy, and steer the catamaran on engines or wind.
On the complex art of sail management though I’m like a trained monkey, performing small sequences of actions that form part of a larger manoeuvre I do not yet fully understand.  Wrap the rope around the winch three times, once around the tailer, release the cam and press the button to ease the rope until I am instructed to stop. My contribution to our forward progression feels like a token.

The Reality of Cruising
Sailing across the world sounded such an exotic and adventurous thing to do.  I imagined myself sitting on the bow, perhaps in a white bikini, dazzling sun reflecting off the endless blue ocean ahead of me like a carpet of diamonds while dolphins frolicked in the bow waves.  I would leap around the deck to hoist sails and wind winches, providing ample opportunity to flex my muscles and tire myself out.
From what I can gather though, sailing, at least of the cruising variety, appears to involve hoisting the sails with electric winches (on this boat), setting a course and then settling in for a solid day of reading books.  And perhaps those frolicking dolphins are up front but unfortunately I don’t see them because I’m too busy sheltering from the wind and waves in the rear cockpit, bundled up in a windproof jacket and beanie.

There may be a jibe or two sprinkled throughout the day for a brief moment of excitement but other than that the day is largely spent seated or horizontal. The lack of movement is a challenge for a hiker.

Changing Tack
Last week a friend prepared lunch for me while I was busy staring at the horizon.  Noodles simmered on the stove and a can of tuna sat on the galley bench with its top peeled back, waiting to join them.  It was the smell of hiking.

I confess to daydreaming about it.  I’ve tried to steer my mind away from my churning stomach by imagining all the trails I would do if I weren’t now on a boat, and there are plenty out there calling me like a siren song.  I’ve sailed over 700km (435 miles) of Australia’s Queensland coast but the thought of multiple weeks at a time sailing across oceans for the next ten months, reading books in a bucking and rolling vessel is not appealing.  I need to move.  I fear I’m not being me on board this boat and that, as I’ve learned, is not a healthy way to live.

So I’m disembarking in Cairns, in far north Queensland and will bid farewell to Chat Eau Bleu and her crew as they continue on their journey across the Indian Ocean, and I will dive into planning my next hike.  I’m excited at the thought of it and that feeling is my compass, guiding me to where I should be.

Next week I fly home to swap diving gear for hiking gear and set off on the Larapinta Trail, a 223km (138 miles) hiking track in Australia’s Red Centre.  It promises to be a walk unlike any other I’ve done before, with spectacular red desert, dry rocky ridges and cool damp chasms hiding pools of water and creeks.

I can’t wait.

Until then…

Great Ocean Wanderings

DSC04321 copyWhat the hell was that? An alarming sound that was part pig grunt, lion growl and elephant wheeze pierced the air. I lay alone in my tent considering the options. I was either in a whole lot of trouble with some crazy marauding ‘pig-lion-elephant’ or… (I unzipped my tent and poked my head out to breathe a sigh of relief)… it was a koala. For such a gorgeous cuddly looking creature they do make the most awful sound. Wrapped around a limb high on the tree next to me was the offending grey ball of fur. It was the second koala I’d seen on the trail and I was only three hours into it!

The Great Ocean Walk is just over 100km of incredibly diverse and stunning trail sandwiched between the famed Great Ocean Road and the great ocean itself. Over five and a half days I hiked from Apollo Bay west to the Twelve Apostles, every day on the trail bringing some new scenic wonder to dazzle and delight.

DSC04384From my first camp at Elliot Ridge I walked along wide forest trails through tall gums accompanied by the occasional growl from a koala, eventually leading me to a camp nestled amongst the tea tree at Cape Otway.  As I downed my pack the sky began to darken, and during a post-hike micro-snooze I awoke to a huge gust of wind that felt like someone had grabbed the two corners on the long edge of my tent and given them one almighty loft that literally rolled me over in my bed. Shocked out of my slumber I awoke dazed and confused in the fading light. Too scared to head for the cooking shelter lest my tent blow away, I then cursed and fumbled my way through a challenging session of noodle prep in my tiny vestibule. And so began a long and sleepless night, pushed and shoved in my bed every five minutes by the crazy wind, and blasted by pelting rain, thunder and lightning. I was very impressed (and happy) that my little tent survived the testing conditions.

DSC04363 copyFrom the next morning onward though the weather steadily improved and the full glory of the ocean walk was revealed. The sea, now bathed in sun, sparkled a brilliant blue contrasting with red sand cliff top paths dotted with green and silver shrubs. After heading inland to cross the Aire River I hiked back out to the ocean, walking a low path sandwiched between towering red brown cliffs and the sea. Eagles circled above the escarpment on the updraft and I had to keep reminding myself where I was. The scenery was so world class yet completely unfamiliar to me as a stretch of coastline I’d visited a dozen times before just a few hours down the road from home.

Overlooking the Aire River

Overlooking the Aire River

The following days brought steep rolling green hills dotted with kangaroos, beach walking on golden sand covered in tiny mauve shells, and a wealth of wildlife including blue wrens, rosellas, black cockatoos, echidnas, and a handful of snakes which slithered peacefully off the path as I passed.

I spent my fourth night at Ryan’s Den, possibly my favourite campsite on the trail, high on a point overlooking the sea.  Its lookout above the trees was the perfect place to observe the evening’s red lunar eclipse.

Wreck BeachWaiting for low tide the next day, I tackled the beautiful Wreck Beach where the rusted remains of two shipwrecks protrude from rock pools fringed with almost fluorescent green algae. Their iron anchors have now bonded solid with the rock that was their downfall nearly 150 years earlier. Perfectly circular and oval rock pools cut holes in the flat rock ledge like a slab of Swiss cheese, revealing clear and deep water below.

The Devil’s Kitchen, my final camp, was yet another primo location and since I was largely alone on the trail I was free to snaffle the best site yet again. Suite 8 – the last numbered camp with a private picnic seat and sea view.

The Gibson StepsAfter hiking past the imposing Point Ronald, the final kilometres of the trail wound their way along the cliff tops with stunning views of the iconic Twelve Apostles, a series of ocean bound sandstone pillars. It all ends at the Gibson Steps, a steep flight of stone steps cut into a smooth and vertical golden sandstone cliff sweeping around in a huge arc that towers over the beach – just one more highlight in an absolutely stunning walk.

I thought I knew this stretch of coastline reasonably well but this hike has shown me a side of the Great Ocean Road that I never knew existed. I feel like I’ve had a backstage pass allowing me a greater understanding and appreciation of this very impressive and diverse region rather than the usual brief glimpses of its attractions from the designated lookout points.

The Great Ocean Walk – Do it!

Sunset at Ryans Den camp

Sunset at Ryans Den camp