Folding slowly into waves that break with a flourish of foam, the Southern Ocean rolls ashore, tirelessly working on Victoria’s Shipwreck Coast. Watching sea meet famous shore I am taken by a surprising sense of privilege that grows as I stroll through cliff-top grass trees, leave boot prints on kilometres of sand gilded by breakthrough sunlight, and drink the welcome cocktail of fresh raspberry and orange juice over lemon sorbet on reaching the lookout in the dunes.
Day one of the Twelve Apostles Lodge Walk and company director and occasional guide Gavin Ronan has just led five women along the 7.5 kilometre Castle Cove-to-Johanna Beach leg of the Great Ocean Walk. Ahead are three more days on foot with only wildlife and wildflowers for company and three nights of deserved comfort. We could end today’s minor exertions here, overlooking Johanna Beach, and have cocktail-maker and chef Ha Nguyen chauffeur us back to the lodge (our arrival there from Melbourne in the company minibus already seems longer ago than this morning). Instead, we warm down with an easy three-kilometre road walk back.
Founded by Gavin and Dana Ronan in 2005 as Bothfeet, the recently rebranded Twelve Apostles Lodge Walk showcases the western half of the 104-kilometre Great Ocean Walk. The walk base is a low-impact lodge nestled between a ferny creek where glow worms gleam nightly and the dairy pastures of the Otway Ranges (no-one accepts Gavin’s offer of a morning call to go milking).
The lodge comprises five low-profile, passive solar modular pavilions. Two lodges house the dining room, commercial kitchen, drying room – the Otways are the wettest place in Victoria – and library/massage rooms (massages can be pre-booked at an additional cost). The other three lodges accommodate five suites. Metal artworks and recycled outdoor furniture give it a slightly rustic and relaxing, almost meditative, air.
But the lodge is a haven not just for hikers. An eastern spinebill bird sips nectar from forest flowers outside my rear window. Gang-gang cockatoos squawk overhead as we soak sweaty feet in individual ceramic tubs of hot mineral-salted water. A glossy blue-black bower bird and his less ostentatious green mate hop about the garden as we progress from canapés of grilled asparagus spears on halloumi and beetroot with yoghurt and orange to dinner of duck confit on polenta. A southern boobook’s call lulls me to sleep between fine cotton sheets. A red-necked wallaby with a pouch full of leggy joey grazes the lawn while we breakfast on porridge with raspberries.
Day two is the hardest – a 12.5-kilometre rollercoaster west from Milanesia Gate along wild coast dissected by deep gullies. We make numerous knee-testing descents and climbs that leave us puffing but we are energised by the childishly squiggly stringybark forest, views sweeping from Cape Volney to Cape Otway lighthouse and the macadamia and white chocolate slice Gavin unearths from his pack for morning tea up where wedge-tailed eagles cruise. The walk ends on Moonlight Head, where we do a stretch routine against a backdrop better than any gym mirror. Then it’s into the minibus for a half-hour drive back to restorative blueberry smoothies and chocolate macaroons.
A longer (17.5 kilometre) but easier walk from sandstone to limestone country, day three begins with a drive to one of mainland Australia’s highest cliff-top lookouts. It ends with the youngest in our group, twenty-something Alice, swimming in the toffee-coloured Gellibrand River. On this day, we occasionally glimpsed the Twelve Apostles but the landmark limestone stacks showed themselves more and more on day four on the final leg of the Great Ocean Walk. Hair whipping across my face in the sea breeze, I gazed along the sun-kissed coast from the last lookout on the hiking trail. “And so we face the final frontier,” Gavin said, “going where so many have gone before.”
We had till then luxuriated in having the coast virtually to ourselves so it was a shock to encounter so many people at Gibson Steps visiting the Gog and Magog formations and at the Twelve Apostles Visitor Centre, a few hundred metres beyond.
The Twelve Apostles Lodge Walk includes a 10-minute helicopter flight over its namesake and neighbouring Loch Ard Gorge. An aerial loop reveals how outrageously the sea has cut into this coast and why early mariners feared it so. But it’s a fleeting thrill that left me wanting to start walking again and I envied the guided group who set out in our footsteps that morning.