Around the World With a Vagabond

The Great Ocean Hiking Trip That Almost Was October 15, 2010


If anyone has ever read any of my travel stories before, then they know that each story begins the same: with great enthusiasm and high ambition, and not much else.


This story is no different.


The Planning


Even though I am a seasoned traveler and wandering adventurer, I still can never get the planning and preparing part quite right.


In the past, I have forgotten basic things that most people would never forget. Things like water and first aid or a phone and map. Forgetting to pack these items on an overnight hiking trip is like forgetting your shoes. Although, Chris actually has forgotten his shoes before, so between the two of us, we didn’t stand much of a chance.


Still, when Chris and I decided to spend 3 days hiking the Great Ocean Walk, the first things I put on the “To Pack” list was water, first aid, a map, and a phone.


The Great Ocean Road trims the bottom of Australia, rolling through about a 100km stretch of rugged coastline and lush rainforest. The track is dotted every 10 km or so with fishing villages, lighthouses, koala bears, and not much in the way of services.  There are no toilets or showers at any of the hike-in campsites, and only rainwater is available. Between the paved Great Ocean Road and the pounding ocean waves, the rainforest trees grow tall and canopy the wet ground.


We hadn’t had a good weekend away in ages, and so I wanted to pack as much adventure and relaxation and sightseeing as I possibly could into our three days.


To appreciate this story, it is import to understand how high my expectations were.


I was very excited. As in, small-child-on-Christmas-Eve excited. The plan was to rise early Saturday morning, travel south by bus and train for a four-hour journey to the coast.


We would arrive at Apollo Bay, and start walking west! Everything we needed was in a pack on our backs! We would hike along the ocean and through forest all afternoon until we reached our campsite by sunset!


After a peaceful sleep, we would pack up, and hike 22km over scenic terrain to our next campsite. We would admire the beauty of untouched nature, and talk about how nice it was to finally get away.  Perhaps we would see a koala.


On the third day we would wake up bright and chirpy at about 5am, and hike another 15km over rocky beach cliffs and steep hilly forests.  Here, we would wander off the Great Ocean Walk onto the Great Ocean Road, flag down a bus or hitchhike, or something, and find our way back to Apollo Bay so we could catch the bus back to the city. It would be three awesome days of hiking in the Australian bush, covering 45km!


But that’s not what happened.


The Problems


Problem 1: Instead of arriving in Apollo Bay happy and exuberant, we were exhausted and carsick.  This was a last-minute trip, and so the grocery shopping had been done at 10pm the night before. We mad-rushed through the grocery store and bought only canned food, 8 bananas, and wine. We then started packing our bags at midnight, and went to bed by 2am.   Five hours later, we began our train and bus journeys down twisty-turny roads and by the time we arrived it was all I could do not to throw up.


But off we went, each with a pack on our back. Chris also carried the tent. I carried a plastic bag full of our bananas.


Problem 2: Chris’s bag. In our haste, Chris had grabbed a bag that he had forgotten he hated. A kilometer into our hike, the straps broke and had to be tied.  We were only hiking for three days, but had somewhat bulky supplies.  But all of this weight jumbled into two crappy bags takes a toll on a person’s shoulders and back and general hiking spirit. Chris was no exception.


After fumbling with the straps, I discovered that the first aid kit came with safety pins.  I safety-pinned the straps together and this way Chris could hike with less hindrance, the weight of the bag now secure.


Problem 3: About 2 hours in, it began to rain. I had my handy-dandy waterproof jacket and stayed mostly dry. Chris had no such thing, and he and his safety pins were rained on for about 20 minutes as we hiked through what was now mud.


Which brings me to Problem 4: There was SO much mud. The thick gloopy kind of mud that suctions your shoes off as you walk through it.  Clinging to broken branches and scratchy foliage along the edge of the mud pits, we did our best to maneuver our way around them.  Chris made it okay, but I slipped twice.


Problem 5: After about 4 hours of trekking, we realized it was taking us longer than expected to find our camping site. Chris’s bag constantly needed readjusting, our clothes were wet and muddy, and the bags were very heavy. I pulled out the map I had picked up way back in Apollo Bay.  It turned out to be the wrong map. It was a map of the right area, but different places of interest were marked on it.


Our campsite was not one of these places of interest.


It was a moment of defeat. Tired, hungry, muddy, rained on, and lost in the approaching darkness with our broken bags and bananas, I decided to call the Great Ocean Hiking Rangers and ask them how long until I found my campsite.


Problem 5.  I discovered that my cell phone did not have reception way out there in the outback.




We trudged on in tense silence for about ten minutes. And then, rounding a bend in the thick clustered eucalyptus trees, we walked smack into our site. Hurray.


Problem 6. I don’t really know if this next problem really is one, but it is bizarre and so worth mentioning.


As we were setting up our tent, out from the deep, dark, damp forest came this strange sound. It wasn’t very far off.  It lasted for several seconds, and stopped us mid-conversation and mid- unpacking. It sounded part snarl, part motorcycle engine, part growl, and it sounded like it came from something big. The sound was something of a cross between a lion and a velociraptor.


I went through a checklist in my mind of dangerous Australian wildlife:

  • Spiders
  • Snakes
  • .  .  .  .  .
  • Spiders


I had no idea what could have made that noise.  Then we heard it again. We didn’t know what to do. We were alone.  I had forgotten to pack my knife, but, really. Me with a knife? I would have only lost it in the forest as I fled screaming.


Chris said maybe it was a boar. Or maybe it was a rabid kangaroo or koala.  Or maybe it was a rabid hybrid of the two.  The Great Rabid Koalaroo scaring the shit out of hikers in the forest.


We decided to eat our canned food and just go to bed.


Problem 7: That first night will go down as one of the most uncomfortable nights we have ever tried to sleep through.  As we set up the tent, the skies opened and the rain came down. We didn’t pack sleeping pads because we didn’t want to carry them, and we only packed one sleeping bag for the same reason – minimizing weight.


This was a case of bad judgment. Because we were only bringing one, Chris picked the warmest feather-down bag he had.  Unfortunately, this also made it the heaviest sleeping bag, weighing down his backpack and breaking his backpack straps.


Our clever plan was to unzip the entire thing and use it as a blanket for us both. But doing this meant we slept on the hard, cold ground, tug-of-warring for the cover all night, and because it was unzipped, most of the warmth escaped anyway.


So in our attempt to be efficient, we only made our experience heavier and colder.


That night, I tucked in with a feeling of hope.


Hope that the next day our bags would hold.


Hope that it wouldn’t rain anymore.


Hope that I would fall asleep soon because I was so cold and the ground was so hard.


Hope that the Great Rabid Koalaroo was not growling at us and would not eat us in the night.


Hope that the night would just end.


The Beach


It only took half a day and 10km of the Australian wildlife to beat us down. Instead of doing all the awesome hiking things I had planned, we decided to retrace our steps to a pretty little beach we had passed through before, and just chill out for the day.  Then, we could flag down a ride to the nearest hostel for the night. No more safety pins. No more mud. No more lost.


That didn’t happen either.


If torn and muddy jeans and safety-pinned bags weren’t enough to make us look like a couple of homeless people, the bag of trash we now carried with us certainly did.


There were no trashcans anywhere along the trail. Hikers are meant to take all of their rubbish with them when they leave, so, being good people, we kept the empty cans and wine bottles and carried them the entire trip.


An hour into Day 2, walking back the way we came, we found ourselves on one of the prettiest beaches I have ever seen.  The sand was soft and crumbly. The lush forest rose around the hills hugging the beach.  Craggy black rocks decorated the shoreline, and turquoise waves crashed and tumbled, and shot up foamy spray over and over against the rocks. The sun was warm. We were happy.


We dropped our bags and trash on the sand and ate our breakfast, lunch, and snack for the day all in one go. Lying on our backs, we soon fell asleep to the sound of waves and birds and the occasional Chinese tourist that wandered down from the trail.


A little later Chris suggested that we just set the tent up on this beach for the night instead of bothering with a hostel.


At first I was like, “No! The rules! There’s no campsite here and there’s a ‘Danger High Tide” sign! We can’t break the rules.”


Then I remembered that most of the time I think this, I end up breaking the rules anyway, and nothing bad happens.  Nothing really bad, anyway.


So we did! We set the tent up just next to a protective rocky cliff face, and just safely up from where highest point of tide would reach. We could tell where the high tide came in because of the ribbon of broken shells and seaweed pieces that arched across the sand.


The ground slanted a little, so we arranged the tent in a way that would hopefully prevent our bodies from sliding sideways, and slumping our heads into the same small corner while we slept.


Sometime in the night, I awoke to strange splashing noises. I nudged Chris, who poked his head out of the tent to investigate.  I waited in the dark tent.  And waited.




He was looking for what seemed like a long time.


Carefully, he came back in and zipped up the tent. “I think it’s fine” he said.


I would like to add “with confidence” to that last sentence. “I think it’s fine” he said, with confidence.


But I think it was more like “tiredly”, as in “I think it’s fine” he said, tiredly.


A bit later I woke again to louder splashing, gurgling, and water-rushing noises that sounded alarmingly close to my head.  I don’t know why I didn’t check myself, but I didn’t.


I think it was one of those moments where I just closed my eyes to the problem.  The day before had been so hard, and today had been so good! I just didn’t want the good day part to change, so I went back to sleep.  Later, I found out Chris had also woken up the second time, but for similar reasons, ignored the rushing water at our tent.


In the morning, as we blinked into the morning sun shining on our illegal campsite, we saw that the nighttime tide has rushed well past our tent, and well past the ribbon of seaweed that I thought had been a good indicator.


Luckily, the tide rushes in as an arc, and not a full slate of tide wiping out and pulling away everything in its path.  Our little tent was 2 feet away from where the tidal arc sloped back towards the shore and, except for quite a bit of splashing, we stayed dry and were not swept out to sea in the night.


The End


In the end, we hiked 10km in one direction, and then back again to where we had started.  The 45km hike sighting koalas and lighthouses was not to be.


However, we headed back in good spirits. I had 3-day-old mud stains up to the ripped knees of my jeans. We had not slept well or showered. Chris’s bag was barely holding on with 5 safety pins and 4 threads. We had eaten through the cans and every last banana and drunk all the water.


We were tired, sweaty, carrying a massive see-through bag of trash, and getting sunburned.


But we had not starved, drowned, been lost, injured, or attacked by the Great Koalaroo.


It might not have been the Great Ocean Hiking trip I had imagined, but by the last day, we had adapted. It was a beautiful day.