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The Grampian Mountains, Australia

An Irishwoman on a stroll in the mountains outside Melbourne Australia...

After or so two weeks we'd had enough of Melbourne city and decided to hit the Great Ocean Road and the Grampian mountains for two relaxing days of sandy beaches and easy strolls in the forests... or so we thought!

Grampian Mountains AustraliaAlong with friend and fellow Irishwoman Sarah I joined an organised "nature-oriented" tour group. This saw us leaving Melbourne at 6.45 am one rainy Saturday morning to take the road southwest along what is reputedly the most beautiful stretch of coastline in Australia. First stop, Bells Beach to watch the surfers (black dots in the distance) ride the waves that apparently inspired that Keanu Reeves / Patrick Swayze "classic" film Point Break (so much so they actually filmed it in Oregon). Further along to Airey's Inlet, Lorne, Appollo Bay - one stunning beach after another with just the Bass Strait between us and Tasmania.

Onwards to Cape Otway and the Otway National Park for a stroll in the rainforest - I'm starting to recognise the local trees and birds now which is positively scary! The next stretch of coast is known locally as Shipwreck Coast, with lots of good reason; hundreds of ships survived arduous three month journeys only to perish on the rocks just a few hundred km from Melbourne. The beaches are stunning; soft golden sand, limestone cliffs turning gold in the afternoon sun and green-blue waves crashing along the shore. Strange rocks and islands jut out from the sea - the Twelve Apostles (must be some Irish Catholic influence over that name), the Grotto, London Bridge and Loch Ard Gorge - one spectacular view after another.

We overnight at the farm run by the tour co. owners and get a chance to relax and get to know the others on the group, including our guide, Rick the ex-Army Sergeant Major (and I'm not kidding!) There's ten of us altogether - Japanese Mother & Daughter who speak little English and giggle a lot, two Israeli girls whose primary interest seems to be the next cigarette break and seem generally underwhelmed by everything we see, Stanley the Chinese receptionist at the YHA hostel, Jason the shy English bloke, and American students Kathleen and her silent boyfriend who keep pretty much to themselves. Group dynamic more revealing on day two but for the moment we just enjoy the "snags on the barbie" for dinner, count the stars and and guzzle the wine and beer bought in the local "bottle-shop" on the way there.

Sunday starts bright and extremely early at 6am with our two minute shower allocation (water rationing) and brekkie. Then we're off with a gentle 6km hike to Mackensie Falls. Gorgeous scenery but one hell of a "walk". Lots of climbing, clambering over rocks and general heavy breathing later, the Falls appear. Spectacular! On the way there the "group" starts to take shape. The Israelis take up an early lead as if trying to prove their super-fitness (in spite of all the cigs along the way). 30 minutes in and the Japanese team overtake during a quick break and are next seen again two hours later in the mini-bus eating ice-cream. Keeping up a steady pace in the middle of the the pack, there's the Paddies and the Brit, with Stanley the Chinaman alternating between keeping up with us and trying to encourage the Yanks who are ambling along at their own pace. So much for sticking together as a team! The nature reserve is beautiful, when we get a chance to take it all in. The Falls are stunning but we eventually realise that we have to get to the top in order to reach our mini-bus.... that involves climbing hundreds of "steps from hell" after which my heart was pounding loud enough to scare any remaining wildlife into the safety of the distant mountains.

After a very short break, we are lulled into a false sense of security on our next walk which was a gentle 2km stroll to view the Grampian Ranges from a lookout point called the Balconies (or Jaws of Death). After a quick lunch in Halls Gap, we are joined by "Swiss Phil" for the final hike before heading back to Melbourne.

Described as "challenging and energetic" by the official park notice board (but a "walk in the park" by Rick, ex-Army) off we headed, 2.5km up to the top to view the amazing "Wonderland ranges". Up and up we went, with a lot of huffing and puffing along the way from all but Phil, the Swiss "Mountain Goat" who effortlessly bounded his way to the top "ve haf mountains in Switzerland too you know, jah?". The 2km journey down was even more "memorable" as we squeezed through narrow canyons and clambered down boulders and sharp, slippery inclines. The Japanese yet again took up the feverish lead pace while the rest of us just took our time, determined to make it back in one-piece. I have never been so relieved to see a mini-bus in my life! Smelly, sweaty, aching knees; we collapsed onto the bus for a sleepy 4 hour return trip to Melbourne.

Mission complete, we made it back to Melbourne safely. Objective? Get fit for future "bushwalks" and read the brochure more carefully before booking the next trip! But for now there's the less enjoyable task of job and house hunting - one cannot be a tourist forever I suppose.

Adrienne O'Keefe

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