Thursday, March 20, 2014

Walking The Wilderness Coast

How about another trip down memory lane? My memory lane, not yours, of course. It's raining in Cairns today and I have spent most of the day poring over rock climbing guides trying to work out both how to access various climbing areas around Townsville and which routes we are least likely to die on. Tedious business. But not nearly as tedious for you as reading a blog post about my day, which is why I have decided to write about the Nadgee Wilderness Walk that Doug and I did back in January 2013. 

The Nadgee Wilderness walk is only half of a longer Wilderness Coast walk that runs from Sydenham Inlet in Victoria to Wonboyne Lake in NSW. Logistics are always difficult on these one way walks and we were unable to source any transit from Sydenham Inlet to Wonboyne Lake so we had to settle for walking only half the full distance starting in Wonboyne Lake and ending at Mallacoota. Another difficulty with this walk is getting from the eastern side of Mallacoota Inlet where the walk ends to the town of Mallacoota which is on the western side of Mallacoota Inlet. Apparently, the inlet sometimes closes over completely but most years there is a narrow but substantial opening through which the tide floods in and out of the massive Mallacoota Inlet with frightening ferocity. I don't want to give away any of the story line, but, suffice it to say that we had a rather interesting plan to avoid the $200 boat fee that one of the locals charges to ferry walkers across the inlet. 

 Doug on the beach near Nadgee Lake

But, on with the story. According to the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) the walk takes 3.58 days which shows admirable precision that I don't believe I will be able to match in this report. Doug and I walked about 65 km in total as we took a couple of detours and also had to walk to the trail-head at the Merrica River Ranger Station from Wonboyne Lake. There is an expensive shuttle service that will take you from Mallacoota to the trail head at Merrica River Ranger Station (but does not include the boat shuttle across Mallacoota Inlet) that runs at about $200 a person but we figured we could do the shuttle for far less than that using the extremely efficient, reliable and cheap Victorian transit – it cost us about $12 each. 

Accordingly, we drove to Mallacoota, found somewhere to leave the car for a few days, and took a little minibus out to the Princes Highway at Genoa where we connected with the larger Victoria bus-line running north to Sydney. Unfortunately, we didn't have time before the mini-bus left to check out the opening of Mallacoota Inlet, but that may have turned out to be a good thing in hindsight. The best we could do was ask a couple of tourists who were lounging about on the west side of the inlet if you could easily cross the inlet, to which they answered “yeah, no worries, you can walk right across.” At Genoa, we boarded the larger bus and were somewhat shocked to hear that rather than driving us into Wonboyne Lake, the bus would instead dump us unceremoniously at the side of the highway where we could enjoy a 12 km walk on the black top in 30 degree heat into Wonboyne Lake. 

Dramatic storm clouds over the Wilderness Coast

Just as we were ejected, somewhat rudely with our shoes and socks still in our hands, from the bus, a tiny red convertible pulled up to make the turn to Wonboyne Lake and Doug stuck out his finger in the universal sign of the hitchhiker (not giving the finger, you understand). We were amazed but happy when the driver pulled over and somehow we managed to squash in along side the weekly groceries with our overnight packs. We got dropped off at the only store in Wonboyne Lake (also the postal outlet) as we planned to buy dinner before walking out to the trail-head in the evening. This saved us packing an extra meal. Our kind driver warned us that we should go in and tell the proprietor we wanted to buy dinner as, apparently, the shop-keeper usually closes up early even at the height of summer – business isn't exactly bustling in Wonboyne Lake. While I waited outside Doug went in and arranged with the owner/proprietor for us to come back no later than 5.30 pm to order dinner – you could have a burger or a burger. 

We wandered down the hill to Wonboyne Lake where we found a little picnic area and passed the afternoon swimming and reading. Our topographic map showed a road connecting from the little marina where we were hanging out to the main access road to the Merrica River Ranger Station. I remembered reading a report of some other walkers who also had to walk to the start of the track taking a short-cut from Wonboyne Lake and guessed that this was likely the shortcut. Taking this road would save us about 3 km of painful road walking. 

At around 5.00 pm we wandered up and ordered – you guessed it – a burger for dinner. It took a little bit of work to convince the owner that neither of us wanted the bun, but, once he had realized that we would pay the same amount for a burger with or without the bun, we became firm friends. Doug asked him about the short-cut and we got some rambling reply about tourists falling off cliffs and dangerous tracks above steep drop-offs and how he would be responsible if the local SES (State Emergency Service) volunteers had to come out to recover our bodies. It all sounded very strange. Either, despite living in Wonboyne Lake (not a big place) all his life he knew nothing about the track or he was hiding a grow-op in the woods. The latter would make a better story but I actually think it was the former as he finally admitted he had never been into the Nadgee Nature Reserve, which, was literally, a hamburger bun's throw away from his front door. 

We ate our bunless burger as some very brightly colored birds flew about the verandah on which we were sitting and then we took up our packs and walked back down to the little marina. We had decided to try our luck on the short-cut route. I won't say any more about it, as it does cross private land (we saw no-one and no sign of habitation). If you can read a map, you'll work it out. If you can't you deserve to walk the extra distance. 

 Nadgee Lake and Impressa Moore

The Merrica River Ranger Station is, coincidentally enough, right by the Merrica River and there is a big open field with toilets and tank water nearby that makes a good place to camp before you start the walk. We have had some experiences before with overgrown/obscured/non-existent NSW NPWS hiking tracks and were wondering just how overgrown this walk would be when we read the log book and noted that only one or two parties walk the trail in any given year, and the last entry consisted of a long and harrowing account of a party that had taken 6 days to walk the track and firmly believed they were going to die on the attempt. We went to sleep wondering if we were in for another Budawang adventure.

Most of the first day of the walk is on fire-roads and, while pleasant, does not have the scenic attraction of later parts of the walk. The old road follows a blunt ridge top south through shady eucalpyt forest for about 5 km to a track junction. Tumbledown Mountain lies a kilometre or so to the south and I decided to take the track to the top in hopes of a view of Newtons Beach. Doug declined so we parted here and arranged to meet later down at Newtons Beach. It took me longer to get up Tumbledown Mountain than either Doug or I had anticipated as the track wraps right around the mountain. On top, by squinting here and there through timber, I was just able to catch a glimpse of Newtons Beach, but not enough for even a blurry photograph. 

By the time I had come down the fire road to the junction with the track that leads north to Newtons Beach by Wirra Birra Creek Doug was wondering if we had missed each other. We backtracked about a kilometre on a narrow track through melaleuca forest to come out on the northern end of Newtons Beach. These beaches are what makes the Nadgee Wilderness Walk so stunning. The water is clear aquamarine and crashes forcefully onto the white sand of the beach, and, with no road access, the landscape is wildly deserted. We plunged naked into the water and, almost equally quickly leapt back out again as the water was cold and the surf aggressive 

We should have walked the 1.5 km south on the beach but we were afraid of not finding the track at the south end so we walked back through the melaleuca thicket to the main track and followed this narrow track south as it snaked in and out of dry creek beds through thick forest to finally emerge at a tiny pocket beach between two headlands where there is a small saltwater lagoon and a rustic camping area. We had a swim in the lagoon and some hot tea, and then I walked back up the track to an overgrown path that leads up Little Creek for about a kilometre until the water is finally fresh, black with tannin, but fresh. Round trip, including filtering four litres of water, took me an hour. 

Next morning it was Doug's turn to collect the water and it was raining lightly when he returned and we started walking. We had heard that the next section of the track can be overgrown so I had long pants on while Doug had fashioned himself a very utilitarian pair of gaitors from reusable shopping bags as he had forgotten to bring any long pants on this trip. 

 Melaleuca tunnel

We started the day crossing the short beach and then dived into melaleuca forest where the trail is a tunnel under overlapping branches. Past the melaleuca forest the trail lies through beautiful coastal heathland, battered over by the wind, but full of small brightly coloured flowers and green parrots. There is a small beach where the Nadgee River runs out to sea and then the track continues over Impressa Moore to Nadgee Lake. The brackish waters of the lake are surrounded by dense stands of reeds and the water is dark with tannin. A small spit of land separates the lake from the sea where the waves crash onto the shoreline. After another few kilometres of heath and moore, the trail passes Bunyip Hole where a trickle of water flows down hill to a hollow, and the trail emerges onto the windswept rocky shore. 

 Shopping bag gaitors

Boulder and talus walking along the beach leads to big sand dunes at Cape Howe and the Victoria-NSW border. From this point on the walk is simply stunning. Twenty kilometres of storm battered deserted beach leads west to Mallacoota. A couple of kilometres beyond Cape Howe the wreck of the Iron Prince lies rusting in shallow water off a small rocky promontory, a reminder of the ferocity of the ocean in this part of the world There was a southerly gale blowing as we walked the beach and the sea mist in the air combined with the crashing of the surf on shore, the tearing wind and the screaming of sea birds all blended together to make this a wonderful wild walk. 

About half way to Telegraph Point, Lake Wau Wauku runs out to sea. Sea birds were taking refuge on the eastern shore as we followed a track past small dunes to a campsite by a reedy stretch of inlet where the water was fresh enough to drink. We had a wonderful campsite sheltered from the southerly gale but after some hot tea, I wandered around past the sea birds onto the eastern shore and enjoyed watching the wind tossed seas.

Next morning, with the gale still tearing at our clothes we continued walking west along the lonely beach. We passed Telegraph Point and Gabo Island where a yacht was trying to shelter from the storm but looked to be bouncing about on a huge swell. Near Tullaberg Island we detoured up a steep sandy track through dunes to Lake Barracoota. The lake is fringed by reeds and full of birds. After exploring the lake we walked back to our packs and rested for an hour to allow the tide to drop to make the remainder of the beach walk a bit easier. When the tide is high and the seas pushed up by wind, there is virtually no beach left to walk on. As we are leaving Lake Barracoota we meet a solo hiker who had walked in from Lakeview on Mallacoota Inlet where he had been dropped off by the local who does the boat transfers. We are glad we haven't booked a boat transfer back as if we had to take the track to Lakeview we would miss half the beach walk. We finish up the walk in bare feet pushing into the wind all the way to the narrow spit of land where we get our first glimpse of the channel that feeds Mallacoota Inlet. 

We are shocked by how fast the water is running out and how cold it is. There is a substantial swell running through the channel as well. Our plan, which is now seeming rather silly, had been to wait until ebb tide (5.00 pm) and swim across while the inlet is flooding. We would stash our packs in the bush, and come back later with our sea kayaks to retrieve them. However, the current is so strong, the distance so large and the water so cold that I am not sure I will make it. Despite growing up in Australia, I am not a strong swimmer. 

There is a family also on shore fishing and they have a motor boat so Doug goes over, explains our situation and asks if they can help us. They are, of course, amazed that anyone would walk as far as we have (which really isn't that far) and are happy to help us out. We lounge about for a while, every so often checking out the current and shuddering, until finally the family gets tired of standing about catching no fish in a howling wind and we all squeeze onto the boat for the ride home. They had launched the boat from Bucklands boat ramp which is about three km from where our car is, but, they are staying in the caravan park at Mallacoota so even give us a ride back to town. We offer to pay but they refuse. Thanking the family profusely, we walk through town, retrieve our car, and drive to Genoa to camp for the night. The next day, we launch our kayaks and spend the day paddling around the islands and bays of lower Mallacoota Inlet, but that is another story.


  1. Great story, having done this walk from Coota to Merica recently you've re-kindled a lot of fine memories. We did the walk in three days just prior to Christmas, lack of water being our biggest issue and I can assure you we aren't too fussy.We saw no one and had the fantastic beaches to ourselves. Thanks for the post Sandy.

  2. I love the Nadgee coast and have been back in a sea kayak as well. It is really hard to beat.