Stretching 105km from Apollo Bay to the famed Twelve Apostles through Victoria’s Great Otway National Park, the Great Ocean Walk is one of Australia’s most spectacular multi-day hikes, allowing for a slow-paced and more in-depth exploration of the Great Ocean Road coastal region long-beloved by roadtrippers.
Unsurprisingly, the Great Ocean Walk has been on my list since the very first time I moved down to Melbourne in 2015. Only 6 months later, though, I was back in Sydney, no closer to having completed the GOW and wondering where the time had gone— no matter how badly I wanted to do the walk, I never seemed to have a spare 8 days (or at least not a spare 8 days I was willing to spend that close to home).
Fast forward nearly 5 years and COVID19 has finally granted me the perfect window of time: my work is remote and very flexible, both the state and national borders are closed, and winter means I can book campsites just the night before I intend to depart. My plans come together quickly and, before I know it, I’m setting off solo to complete the Great Ocean Walk in a whirlwind 5-day adventure.
Trail stats: Apollo Bay to Elliot Ridge
Trail hours: 2h50m
Highlights: Beautiful stretches of beach walking along quiet Marengo, Three Creeks & Shelly Beaches; incredible ferns and towering trees in the Great Otway National Park; friendly koala at Elliot Ridge
Leaving my house in Southbank around 8.30am (burdened by a 16.5kg backpack that weighed in a lot heavier than anticipated), the morning starts off with a brisk walk to Southern Cross Station, where I catch the V/Line train down to Geelong. The ride takes pretty much bang-on 1hr and it passes quickly as I munch at a few snacks from my bag and imagine all the beautiful coastal views I’m going to be enjoying over the next few days.
In Geelong, I transfer onto a V/Line bus for a somewhat less smooth 3hr drive down the winding Victorian coast past Torquay, Anglesea, and Lorne before finally arriving in Apollo Bay. The weather could not be any nicer— blue skies, no clouds in sight, and a surprisingly warm winter sun only increase my excitement to get on the trail.
By 1.30pm, I’ve hopped off the bus, eaten a quick tuna lunch (eager to rid myself of one of the heavy cans while I still have access to bins), organised my pack, and taken my first steps along the Great Ocean Walk.
From the Apollo Bay Information Centre, little yellow arrows lead through a grassy park (between the town and the beach) and then up along a footpath, carrying me out of Apollo Bay and towards the little coastal town of Marengo along the road. It’s certainly not the most exciting part of the hike, but it passes quickly, and soon I’m descending through the Marengo Caravan Park onto the first beach of the walk.
The next few hours pass incredibly quickly, parading past a long string of secluded beaches, each more beautiful than the last. The trail is a dirt path adjacent to the water, gently undulating up and down with the coastline, but little yellow arrows often point me directly onto the sand, taking me right up against the gentle waves or over rock platforms.
This is common along the Great Ocean Walk, the choice to walk on a more forested trail up and over the beach or to descend to the sand and walk directly across. It’s not entirely possible to walk along the coast at all of these decision points, just depending on what the tides and weather are doing, but I relish the opportunity this afternoon to spend a few sunny hours trudging through loose sand to the backing track of waves lapping the shore and seabirds searching for their lunch.
I see only one other couple all afternoon, lounging on the sand and pointing me up to a nearly-missed trail marker leading off of the beach and towards the cool, shaded forests of Great Otway National Park.
The final stretch of today’s walk climbs gently up to Elliot Ridge through thick ferns and a dense eucalypt forest, bathed in an almost ethereal golden light as the afternoon sun descends low over the horizon (thanks to that 5pm winter sunset).
I figure I’ve still got another hour left to camp at this stage, but am delighted to pass a sign indicating Elliot Ridge just 2km away. However short today’s hike has been (the shortest of all my days on the trail), the journey from Melbourne has zapped me slightly and I’m eager to pitch my tent, dig into a big tasty dehydrated dinner, and fall asleep under the stars.
Within 20min, I’ve arrived at the Elliot Ridge GOW Hiker Camp, a lovely spot beneath towering gum trees— but I am completely shocked to find myself entirely alone at the campsite, not one other hiker pitched up nearby. That surprise quickly gives way to delight as I choose the best campsite for myself, spread my belongings all over a communal table, and whack on my Hall & Oates playlist through tinny iPhone speakers.
I’m almost giddy at the novelty of having the entire site to myself, but the excitement increases 50-fold when I hear a nearby scratching noise and look up to see a koala climbing one of the trees directly in front of my tent.
Despite being among Australia’s most beloved wildlife, it’s still not super common to spot wild koalas out in the bush, so this is a HUGE treat. For starters, the koala population on mainland Australia has been dangerously low for years, with the catastrophic summer bushfires in early 2020 further jeopardising the faltering population and destroying much of their limited habitat. Koala are also very slow-moving, still creatures by nature, meaning it takes a great deal of patience to spot one high in a gumtree or a lot of luck to see one on the move closer to the ground.
The Great Ocean Road is well-known for being one of the best places in all of Australia to spot koalas— I’ve seen a few sleepy koalas high in the trees over Kennet River on previous road trips. But the Great Ocean Walk provides an even better chance to see koalas in the wild, getting away from the tourist crowds along the Great Ocean Road, properly into the bush, and slowing down enough to really listen for wildlife.
I am practically crying with excitement as I watch my little friend climb high into the trees and finally settle on a branch some 50m in the air. Even though there’s a good chance of seeing koalas in the area, it still feels incredibly special to have enjoyed this sighting completely to myself. And with that, I wrap up a spectacular first day along the Great Ocean Walk.