Discovering the Otways
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"If this place was in California, man, you'd be getting ten million visitors a year, no problems!"
That was the typically exuberant reaction of an American couple after their first (but certainly not last) camping trip through Victoria's lush and scenic Otway mountain range, where thundering waterfalls and groves of giant trees are there to be discovered just a short drive from some of the world's most attractive and pristine beaches. The closest American comparison would be the lovely Olympic National Park in the state of Washington, except the weather is a lot milder and drizzle is mercifully rare except in winter (June to August in the Southern Hemisphere).
Thanks in good part to its proximity to Melbourne, less than a two-hour drive to the east, parks in the Otways district draw around 285,000 visitors every year and numbers are rising as more people find out how much there is to enjoy here. From Melbourne, Australia's second largest city, you can arrive by way of the Great Ocean Road or come through Colac and Gellibrand. The latter route brings you straight to the heart of this wild and wet expanseit's also the ideal way to come if you want to camp at quite possibly the region's best-kept secret, the delightful campground at Aire Crossing.
"It needs a bit of upgrading, which we hope to do this summer," promises Dave Roark, a forester from the Department of Natural Resources and Environment who lives in nearby Gellibrand. But even in its unfinished state, Aire Crossing is one of those dream locations for pitching your tent. The 12 very basic sites are surrounded by tall trees and further shaded by looming ferns. Just a few yards away, the Aire River thunders through a gap lined by cool temperate rainforest trees. No wonder the locals have such special feelings about it. Yet the site seldom fills up. On a perfect 70 degree Sunday not long ago, we shared the entire ground with just one other camping family.
Camp at Aire Crossing and you are in the heart of the Otways. From here it's just a ten-minute drive to one of the region's most delectable spots, the newly-upgraded viewing platform and forest walk at Triplet Falls. This is where the Forest Service has provided a short and easy walking track to one of the region's most impressive waterfalls, given its name because the cascade is split into three parts. After you've enjoyed the might and fury of the falls, continue the longer way on the walking track past pretty Youngs Creek and its stand of stately myrtles. Soon you arrive at the historical interpretation signs near Knotts Number One Mill, then the site itself, with some of its vintage equipment gradually being overwhelmed by the forest.
Return on the same track to the car park, where you'll find an excellent new picnic area and toilet. The entire loop track takes most people about 40 minutes to complete at a leisurely pace. From Triplet Falls, join up with the world-famous Great Ocean Road at Lavers Hill and continue southwest to Melba Gully State Park. There's no big waterfall here, just a walk through very wet myrtle and blackwood forest. A short but steep climb gets you from the gully up to the Big Tree, which certainly lives up to its name. From Melba Gully it's a 15-minute drive to the dramatic ocean lookout at Moonlight Head, or you can go back to Lavers Hill and turn off due south to Johanna Beach. With its long uninterrupted expanse of sand framed by steep hillsides, Johanna Beach is among the seaside gems of the Otways.
A million or so years ago, Cape Otway was the start of a land bridge that went through what is now King Island and connected the Australian mainland with the northwestern corner of Tasmania. Maybe that's why the Otways seem to have so many of the birds and animals that are rare elsewhere but still easily found in Tasmania—creatures like the tiger quoll and peregrine falcon. Discover this southerly protrusion by taking a right turn off the Great Ocean Road south to the Cape Otway Lighthouse. The eight-mile road passes through the imposing forest of Otway National Park before ending next to the lighthouse. For a small fee you can join one of the frequent tours of this historic structure, which saved the lives of many a sailor following its completion in 1848.
The best coastal camping spot around here is at nearby Blanket Bay, where 21 sites are provided. Call the rangers at 352 37 6889 for information and a booking. Other very nice coastal campsites can be found at Johanna Beach (a bit more exposed to the westerly winds than Blanket Bay), Aire River and Marengo Caravan Park just west of Apollo Bay.
While you're exploring Otways National Park, be sure to call in at Maits Rest with its rainforest grove and easy duck-boarded walking track. Maits Rest is also a perfect spot for a picnic.
For those wanting a bit more of an adventure experience, there's also a superb long walk around Lake Elizabeth, created by a massive landslide and known for its platypus. Greg at OtWild (352 89 1740) can organize a canoe nature tour of the lake. Highly recommended.
On your way east along the Great Ocean Road just past Apollo Bay, Dave, the forester, suggests you turn north up Skenes Creek Road and enjoy one of Victoria's most idyllic forest drives through to Haines Junction. Here you turn west along Turtons Track to enjoy the Otways forests in all their wet and majestic glory. Now and then stop to appreciate a little creek with water splashing past filmy ferns over moss-covered rocks. You'll know then why this is a world of magic and why visitors are so lucky to be able to experience places like this in such relative privacy.
As those Americans so aptly put it, if the Otways had ended up in the USA instead of Victoria, the solitude you'll come to take for granted here would be just a dream.
All Original Material Copyright © Steve Robertson.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication