Monday, November 30, 2015

Five Days On The Great Ocean Walk

Day 1: Princetown to 12 Apostles and Marengo to Elliot Ridge camp.

In Princetown, the GOW follows the Old Coach Road across the Gellibrand River to a wetland reserve and then track resumes for the walk to the 12 Apostles. It is not very far along this track to the first views of some of the Apostles, and, after about five kilometres, the track meets the Great Ocean Road at Gibsons Steps. These steps go down to a small beach accessible only at low tide, but they are currently closed. Past Gibsons Steps, the track crosses under the Great Ocean Road and is paved for the remaining distance to the enormous 12 Apostles car park and cafe. Helicopter flights, which are continuous during daylight hours, leave from the back of the car park. We arrived in plenty of time to get the V Line bus east to the start of the walk, so we wandered around the tourist loop and admired the 12 Apostles. Although walking the site involves battling a forest of selfie-sticks carried by out of shape tourists, the rock formations and the coastal cliffs are beautiful. 

 Short scramble section

We started the walk at Marengo instead of the official start at Apollo Bay as the first three kilometres between the two towns is alongside the busy Great Ocean Road. Marengo is much quieter than Apollo Bay and the coastline has fantastic rock platforms at low tide. You can walk all the way to Elliot Creek and the track that climbs up to the first walkers campsite at Elliot Ridge on the rock platforms. Elliot Ridge campground is about 100 metres above the ocean and is set in a manna gum forest popular with koalas. As soon as we started hiking up hill to the camp we heard the distinctive grunting and growling of male koalas. If you have never heard this noise, a sort of cross between a chain saw and a dirt bike, you'll be very surprised that such a small animal can make such a large noise. The campsite turned out to be great for koala spotting as around a half dozen were scattered about in the manna gums around camp. 

 Doug on the rock platforms west of Marengo

We arrived at camp fairly early in the afternoon and wandered off to the Geary River along the track thinking that we could have a nice freshwater wash but water levels were really low and the river was all but inaccessible due to dense bush. I spent an hour in the evening puttering around the rock shelf to the southwest and, I could have taken a dunk in the ocean as the tiny bay where the Elliot River runs out is fairly calm, but, it was by then rather chilly.

 Parker Inlet

Day 2: Elliot Ridge camp to Cape Otway camp. 
We deliberated for a long time about trying to follow the coast to Blanket Bay as the track travels a long circuitous route first west then south on old forestry roads (closed to vehicles) and the distance via the coast is about half of that along the roads. In the end, as we could not tell from the map or peering along the coastline whether or not the coast was passable all the way to Blanket Bay so we took the inland route. If I were walking only to the next camp at Blanket Bay (12 km along the track, about 6 km along the coast), I would try the coastal route as time would not be problem. We, however, were walking on to Cape Otway and wanted to catch low tide for the section from Blanket Bay to Crayfish Bay so felt a bit time and distance pressured. 

Beach near Castle Cove

The inland route is not bad as the road bed is old and mossy and the forest quite pretty and we soon arrived at Blanket Bay. This is a lovely little sheltered bay with vehicle accessible camping and the walkers camp situated a short distance away. We had a break on the rocks by the beach trying to find the windiest spot where the flies might not be too bad and then set off to walk to Cape Otway.

It is 11 km from Blanket Bay to Cape Otway on the track but we followed rock platforms and small beaches as far as Crayfish Bay which I suspect is a bit shorter. There is a small sheltered beach at Parker Inlet and at Crayfish Bay a set of steps leads up to the main track. It is not possible to go any further along the coast than Crayfish Bay as the rock platforms disappear and the coast line is lined with tall cliffs. 

 Cape Otway from the west

We had a quick swim at Crayfish Bay to wash the days sweat off even though it was showery, windy and cool, and then ambled the final three kilometres or so to the walkers camp which is about 500 metres past the tourist parking lot at Cape Otway. There are essentially no views and you can only go out to the lighthouse if you take the $20 per person tour. About 300 metres beyond the campsite is the old cemetery which is worth a browse if only to realise how easy life is in modern times.

Forest walking

Day 3: Cape Otway to Johanna Beach.

We skipped Aire River camp which is close to the vehicle accessible camping and went on to Johanna Beach camp. From Cape Otway the track is along the coast with occasional good views to near the southeast end of Station Beach. I took the track down to the beach and followed the beach and rocks all the way to Aire River while Doug took the slightly longer inland track. Both require about the same amount of time as I arrived at the Aire River day use area only minutes behind Doug. Station Beach is soft sand so it is a bit hard going. I managed to stay on the beach all the way to the Aire River but this required a bit of gymnastic scrambling among big boulders below Escarpment Lookout before I reached Glenaire Beach and the last section would not be possible at high tide. 

 The view from Johanna Beach walkers camp

It is all very pleasant walking on to Johanna Beach. Lots of views and lookouts with conveniently placed benches and a nice track that winds through forest and coastal scrub. At Castle Cove, the track briefly meets the Great Ocean Road and the amount of discarded toilet paper increases. Just past Castle Cove there is a lovely view point with a bench good for an afternoon break and the vehicle tourists do not make it this far so it is very secluded.

Dramatic light over the ocean

This was our longest day walking and our third day out which I often find is the most tiring day and the 2.5 kilometres along the soft sand of Johanna Beach into a strong head wind felt like a bit of a struggle at the end of the day. You can avoid the short road section by staying on the beach and climbing directly up to the best campsite of the trip just before Slippery Point where the campsites overlook Johanna Beach. At this campsite we met a bevy of other walkers and discovered that we were the only people actually carrying a full pack along the walk. Everyone else was using the pack shuttle service.

Rock pool on Milanesia Beach

Day 4: Johanna Beach to Ryans Den.

For a change, we did not combine two days into one but had an easy day along to Ryans Den campsite. The day starts out well hiking up farm land with lovely views to the east but another section of road walking is ahead. The track becomes old road, the old road becomes gravel road and soon there is another big detour away from the coast and around private land. It's not all bad, however, as the locals are friendly.

Friendly locals

Past the last house, the road deteriorates again and quickly leads down to Milanesia Beach which is wonderfully remote feeling and enclosed between cliffs at east and west. As we had lots of time, I wandered right along the beach to the eastern end before following the beach back to the west and taking a rock platform around to another small beach and an overgrown set of steps that climbs up and meets the main track.

Isolated Milanesia Beach

Pleasant walking through coastal heath and melaluca forest leads to Ryans Den campsite where there is a wonderful lookout with benches and seats above the campsite. I followed an old track down to Ryans Den, a rocky little cove, but had trouble getting right to the water as the track became overgrown with stinging thistle. We hung out at the lookout until evening and were very surprised that most of the other walkers did not manage to stagger up from camp despite the fact that the lookout was only about 10 metres higher than camp! 

 Lookout at Ryans Den walkers camp

Day 5: Ryans Den to Princetown.

It is all good track from Ryans Den to Princetown starting out with a fair bit of climbing and descending into and out of drainages. Nothing too hard, but enough to get you sweaty on a humid day. The forest is quite lovely in the creeks and the coastal heath gives way to scenic views along the way. There is a short side trip to Gables Lookout - close to the road, toilet paper alert - and then a series of steps leads down to Wreck Beach where the remains of two ship wrecks, mostly just large anchors, lie on the rock platforms. The beach passes under a big scooped out cliff and, as you climb up to regain the track at the far western end of Wreck Beach, you can see the Devils Kitchen campsite above the scooped out cliff. 

 Rock platform strolling

The final half dozen kilometres is much flatter as you follow the heath covered dunes down to the Gellibrand River and, we were back at our caravan, which we left at Princetown, in time for a shower and a late lunch. 

 Morning sun above Ryans Den

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Great Ocean Walk or Southwest Walk?

I have no idea what makes one long distance walk very popular while another falls into obscurity, particularly when they seem strikingly similar. Perhaps some "'grammer/influencer" is posting dozens of bikini clad selfies along the former, while the latter features only the more traditional, and arguably more real, smelly walkers in dirty shorts. Or, maybe, as in the case of the Great Ocean Walk versus the Southwest Walk it is simply a matter of easy one way transport, a pack shuttling service, a shorter distance overall, and proximity to a large population centre.

Now that I have done both the Great Ocean Walk and the Southwest Walk (in the interests of truth in advertising I should note that the section of the Southwest Walk that follows the Glenelg River we did in a kayak, while we walked the 115 km coastal section from Nelson to Portland, and skipped entirely the less interesting section from Portland to the Glenelg River), I can say that the Southwest Walk is better for beach walking, remoteness, and coastal scenery, while the Great Ocean Walk has far better campsites, is logistically easier and features altogether too much toilet paper strewn along its length. 

 The sign says it all

Right at the start of this report I may as well address the differences between each walk. The Great Ocean Walk (herein after referred to as the GOW to save typing) is one of Victoria's new "icon" walks. I'm not really sure what an icon walk is but it does seem to allow you to charge more for a campsite than you can in other instances. Campsites (maximum of three people per site) are $30 per night on the GOW, which is more than we frequently pay for a caravan site with power, water, and amenities. However, I am a big proponent of walking and the track is well maintained, the campsites are thoughtfully laid out, and the shelters, benches, and toilets at each campsite make camping a much more comfortable (and cleaner) experience so I believe it to be money well spent. 

 A few less than 12 Apostles

The GOW is one of the few longer walks you can do on mainland Australia where you are not treated as a second class citizen and have a good campsite provided. Each site has individual camping bays so you get some space and privacy. There are two rain water tanks (it would be good if the backpackers didn't use them for showering!), some scattered benches, and a shelter with seats and tables in case of rain at each campsite. All of the sites are walk in only, and even the two or three that are close to vehicle accessible camping are somewhat removed from the drive in campground. There really is nothing worse than walking all day to arrive at a campground filled with bogans crushing beer cans on their heads, burning tires and blasting those old songs from the '80's. Certainly, the campsites are far better than the marginal, cramped and sloping sites found along the Southwest Walk (which frequently require you to walk a fair distance out of your way to camp right by the vehicle accessible camping). 

Marine life along the rock platforms

The track is well maintained and easy to follow, but, almost all the beach walking sections are heavily discouraged due, one can only presume by the signage, to fears of litigation should someone get their toes wet in a rock pool. Most of the time it is easy to work out where you can beach walk (tide dependent) and where you can't, but, we were able to beach walk quite a few sections that are not advertised on the official map or the signage along the track that other walkers may miss. In contrast, the Southwest Walk is almost all beach walking and, where there is an inland option, it is not encouraged over the coastal option.

Logistically, it is very easy to walk one way along the GOW as V Line has a thrice weekly bus service to the western end and a daily bus service to the eastern end (both very cheap). Conversely, if you only walk the coastal section of the Southwest Walk you'll have to find some other method (we rented a car) of retrieving your vehicle at the end of the walk. Most people, we discovered later, actually get their overnight gear carried along the GOW (at least some sections of it) by a local operator who transports overnight gear from one road access point to another allowing walkers to carry only a day pack. 

 Gellibrand River wetland

There are three problems with the GOW, however, one is that a couple of sections take long inland detours on old or current roads where there is no track along the coast. Apparently, these sections are gradually being re-routed and, in the future, one might be able to walk these sections on coastal track. The second is the amount of garbage, in particular toilet paper, that festoons the walk. While this is worse at areas close to the road, leading me to hypothesise that too much sitting in a car causes incontinence, not all the detritus can be blamed on vehicle based tourists as some tent sites have toilet paper around the margins, which really is inexplicable given it is, at most, a 50 metre walk to the outhouse. The third and final problem is that many of the walkers are not really walkers, just people doing this one walk, one time. That shouldn't be a problem except they really do not seem to know how to behave in the outdoors. They leave food behind in the shelters, they light fires (not allowed at all) right in the middle of the tent platforms so the next walker along has to put their tent into a pile of dirty ash, they shower with the drinking water when there is, literally, an ocean of water nearby, they stuff their garbage into little crevices (you carried a full package in you can carry a full package out) and they contribute to the toilet paper problem. 

 Track views between Princetown and 12 Apostles

Somehow I have managed to write almost 1,000 words without even coming close to reporting the start, let alone the finish of this walk, so, in the interests of not boring my few regular readers too long at any one stretch, move on to part two for the walk report.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Beeripmo Walk

This was one of those walks that you don't have really high hopes for but which turns out to be really quite wonderful. The walk is a 20 km long loop (if you include the side trip to Mount Buangor) that starts and ends in Mount Cole State Forest but also meanders through adjoining Mount Buangor State Park and is well marked, well built, well maintained and just generally well conceived. That is a whole lot of wells, but, really this is a good walk. Half way along there is a secluded little campsite in a lovely gum forest with outhouses, tables, and water tanks. We did the walk as a day trip, but there are certainly worse places to spend a night than under the fragrant gum trees among kangaroos and echidnas listening to the panoply of bird song characteristic of the Australian bush. 

 View from Cave Hill

We were camped nearby at Smiths Bridge (a nice free campsite on a quiet road in Mount Cole State Forest) and had found a good track that runs west on the south side of Cave Hill Creek that allowed us to walk to the start of the walk at Richards Campground (another nice small free campsite) which added a further four kilometres to the walk. 

 Fragrant and beautiful eucalpyt forest

From Richards Campground, the track climbs up beside Cave Hill Creek to the diminutive Raglan Falls, a thin stream of water pouring over tall granite boulders. There is a very sturdy metal railing at the top of Raglan Falls and a bit of a view over the rest of the state forest. A bit more gradual climbing and the track gains a large plateau which stretches about 10 kilometres in a roughly north south direction before dropping down steeply on all sides to the surrounding plains. There are quite a few ups and downs, but generally, the track stays on this plateau for most of the remainder of the walk.

 These tiny flowers were everywhere

The forest is gorgeous open eucalpyt with an under-storey of ferns and, in spring, myriad wildflowers. Traversing over Cave Hill, there are good views from a big rock platform just off the track to the north which the track later contours below allowing more expansive views to nearby Mount Langi Ghiran and beyond to the Grampians. The track then follows the plateau north to Sugarloaf, another good viewpoint, then ambles along for a couple of kilometres to a track junction where you can take a side trip to another view point, probably the best, the lookout on Mount Buangor. 

 Doug among the tall trees

We detoured to Mugwamp Campground for lunch, and then I strolled up to the lookout on Mount Buangor (sadly my camera battery died before I could take any photos), while Doug continued along the track. This added an extra 40 minutes walking and is well worthwhile.  The final six kilometres is all downhill on a good track following an unnamed creek back to Richards Campground through stands of gums, ferns, and tree ferns.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

A Mix Of Arapiles Climbs

If you follow this blog, you've probably worked out we are back camping at Natimuk Lake and climbing at Mount Arapiles. Last year, I somehow managed to have time to walk an hour in the morning, an hour at night, and keep up a blog (of sorts) about our climbing experiences. This year, I am barely managing an hour at night walking and virtually no blogging. Something, apart from me being a year older, has obviously changed. 

I do have other priorities. When I got back into the gym in Tasmania, I discovered two things, one good, one not so good. While I had lost less strength than I might have imagined, I had also lost more mobility than I anticipated. So right now, my big focus, outside of staying alive while trad climbing, is mobility and this consumes more than an hour a day. On the plus side, my mobility is improving, on the negative side, I have noticed my strength is waning. 

Such is life on the road. You can't train strength when you are trying to perform, yet, especially when trad climbing, you tend to climb at a lower grade than you would when sport climbing so you get less training effect even if you put in the same number of hours on the rock. Trad climbing is more about fiddling in gear and assessing your relative safety than it is about pushing the limits of your climbing. 

The weather has, overall, been pretty good. We've had a few hot days and it is noticeably drier around the area than last year (Natimuk Lake is dry and overgrown with vegetation). Most days, with a little thought, starting early, climbing in the shade, it is possible to climb pretty comfortably, but, the flies are numerous, viscous and make being outdoors thoroughly unpleasant.
Today, however, is one of those days when you just don't climb - it's 35 Celsius, the Antipodean sun is beating down, and the hot north wind offers little relief. In other words, it's a rest day and a good day to catch up with the blog.

A chronicle of all the routes we have climbed would be tedious, and this blog post is likely tedious enough, so I am simply going to record some thoughts about some of the new routes (new to us) we have done this year. 

 Oops, cross loaded biner

First off, climbs I really did not like as much as I thought I would. Syrinx is a seven pitch route up Tiger Wall and, while it gets three stars, I liked it less than Siren. While, the first three pitches offer some good climbing, and the cruxy moves right off the ground on pitch one will wake you up, the last four pitches are not nearly as good. Pitch four rambles up juggy terrain, which I liked but Doug did not, and the remaining three pitches are kind of average. Pitch six traverses a huge terrace before climbing two metres up a steep little crack, and the final pitch is another traverse - although there is a certain novelty factor in this pitch as it is quite airy. Overall, Siren (a grade easier) offers better climbing in my opinion. 

Dunes is one of those unsatisfying climbs that combine easy terrain with a few brutish moves out of character with the rest of the route. The steep little crack on pitch one is really hard at the grade (I pulled on a cam) so five metres of hard, pumpy climbing follows 30 metres of rambling. Pitch two is a bit similar with some slick steep moves to start then much easier climbing above. Pitch three follows a similar format except in reverse. After pulling onto a wall, there is some easy rambling followed by a short steep crack. Pitch four seems more consistent at the grade but it is ledgey at the crux so you don't want to blow those moves and fall onto a ledge. 

Now onto more enjoyable routes. Keyboard and Conifer Crack at the Organ Pipes are all great fun and well protected. If you want to do Keyboard without continuing up pitch two of Conifer Crack you can walk over and rappel off the Horn Piece anchors. Pedro is pretty challenging at the grade and requires some technique and some strength, definitely daunting for a leader at the grade. Gecko and Chameleon Connection are on the smooth slabby wall to the right of Arachnus (must be Mount Arapiles most climbed route) and are balancey, technical and run-out in equal measures.

Kestrel is a full body experience up a giant crack/chimney which requires no chimneying but a lot of gymnastics. The climbing is never really hard but you have to work it out. It's a real corker. There is a rappel anchor, a rare treat at Arapiles which saves lugging up shoes for the walk off. 

The chimney on Harlequin Cracks defeated us again. Doug went up and tried for ages to climb it but found it slick, hard, and impossible to protect safely (that is not hitting ledges if you fall) so he climbed a - challenging for a few moves - variation out on the right wall then regained the chimney higher. The remainder of the pitches are fun, easy, well protected. If I did it again, I would just climb BA Mosquito to start. In the same area, Harlequin Cracks has a great first pitch up a corner crack with easier climbing above. 

Agamemnon is a fantastic chimney, which does require a bit of chimneying, has dizzying exposure and is just great fun with great positions. Doug led this and did manage to get adequate gear, although it isn't what you would call plentiful. In the same area, Tantalus is surprisingly steep, particularly the start of pitch two, and Clytemneastra Buttress is also very steep at the start of pitch two and a bit confronting at first. 

Eagle Cleft and The Eighth are just enjoyable climbs at the grade and it is fun to climb Trapeze - the traverse is exciting and exposed - on Castle Crag and we top-roped swinging which, at grade 17 is way easier than the crux moves of Dunes. Go figure. At Charity Buttress, all the climbs are good, difficulty wise, it is hard to see the difference between Loyalty/Faith and Charity/Hope. The buttress is certainly a nice place to spend a morning climbing all the routes on the buttress.
Bygone, despite the guidebook write up, does not seem particularly hard at the grade, and the protection is adequate and, in the same area, Debut is shady for much of the day so a good choice on a hot day, although, I had to break the first pitch into two as, even with only two pieces of gear in the first 20 metres and long runners on both pieces, I simply could not drag the rope up the crux moves. The second pitch has some loose blocks but is fun and easy to protect. Rope drag gets pretty burly at the end of that pitch as well. 

Those are the highlights. We'll probably be here for another week as a southerly change is forecast for this evening - I cannot wait - and the temperatures through the next week look good. We did manage, by luck not diligence, to be in town for the Natimuk Frinj Festival. The locals, all 500 of them, do go to a lot of trouble for the bi-yearly event and we saw a couple of funny films and I went to a yoga class. The next one won't be until 2017, so you have two years to prepare for the event.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

No Feeling Like It: Traditional Climbing

Slowly, steadily, I'm moving up a deep crack on the Organ Pipes at Mount Arapiles, the rack, weighed down with useless "big gear" that I can't place because the crack is too deep, keeps catching on my thighs, the rope, tiny horns of rock and I have to keep slinging the big cams out of the way before each move. Behind me, on a neighbouring route, a novice climber is whimpering with fear, even though she is seconding the route and so, effectively, on top rope. The sounds of fright and terror make it hard to concentrate on the climbing; the fear is contagious and I plug in yet another cam despite being only two metres above my last piece. 

Technique and training authors often espouse the "naturalness" of rock climbing, claiming that all we need to be excellent climbers is to return to an earlier, childlike state where we clambered up 30 metres cliffs hanging by our toe nails fearlessly. After more than a quarter century of climbing, I consider this idealistic fantasy just that, a fantasy. Humans did not thrive to become the most populous and dominant species on the planet by partaking with abandon in activities that are frankly dangerous and even deadly. We simply did not evolve to be as skilled and strong climbers as other primates. 

Looking down the Organ Pipes

Instead of long ape indexes, opposable toes, and prehensile tails we have big brains. Brains that can remember the past and conceive of the future. Brains that allow us to create ingenious solutions to novel problems and to pass accumulated knowledge through following generations. We also have brains that can imagine and, all too frequently, my brain imagines falling. Hands slipping off holds, feet sliding down slabs, balance points missed. Below me there always seems to be an endless series of ledges, bulges, and roofs. My gear is always too far away, or off to the side, slightly manky. If I fall, will I stay off the ground or bounce on a ledge? Will I break my back or merely a limb or two? 

Traditional rock climbing (i.e. placing wires and cams for protection) for me, is all about quietening my chattering brain that endlessly loops through a series of events and consequences which, left unchecked, will play out to the end where I sit drooling and incontinent in a wheelchair the victim of some cataclysmic brain injury after my foot slipped, my hand gave way, the gear pulled, and I plummeted earthward. 

 Doug looking over the edge of Tiger Wall

But, the moves are there, in my imagination - the same one that has me slip and fall - I can see myself moving up, jamming a hand deep into the crack, bridging my feet on either side, reaching a stance, plugging in some gear, moving up and doing it all again. And so I do. One foot out to the left, the right bridged across and glued to the wall with opposition. I have a killer right hand jam, and a solid left crimp. A metre or two up is a parallel crack that will take a solid red cam. I grin happily as I plug it in, tug on the rope, clip in a long draw. I'm safe now for a while, I can move up, beating down that evolutionary voice that drones on in a monotone - "get off this wall, get off this wall." 

Doug getting three dimensional on Kestrel

Below me, my belayer is chatting with the frightened novice climber, now on the ground, feeling safe, nattering happily. I'm near the end of the route. My rack is considerably lighter, the small gear all used up, the big gear still weighing me down. I stop at a stance, I have one runner left. I fiddle in one last wire, clip it to the rope with that final runner, eye up the moves ahead, and smoothly pull the final sequence over the lip and up onto the belay ledge. 

All the fear, the dark imaginings, the jittery feel of adrenaline is all gone. "That's a fun route," I call down. The dark images gone replaced with that wonderful feeling of accomplishment that floods through all climbers everywhere when, despite being fearful, they pushed ahead anyway. There is no feeling like it in the world.