Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Long Beach Walk: Nelson to Portland on The Great Southwest Walk

Every Canadian knows the old axiom that "if you're not the lead dog, the view never changes." Generally, I love beach walking, particularly wild deserted beaches along Australia's Southern Ocean where the waves crash onto the shore and the sky is always damp with sea mist. But, after 50 kilometres pushing into a stiff headwind and sinking into soft sand with every step, I began to feel like the tag end dog, the view just never changed.

The Great Southwest Walk is a 250 km loop walk that starts and ends in Portland. The first section, heading anti-clockwise traverses the eucalpytus Cobboboonee forests and reaches Lower Glenelg National Park at Moleside. The track then follows the Glenelg River to Nelson, and the final 115 km follows the coast through Discovery Bay Coastal Park all the way to Portland. We didn't have much interest in plodding for days through forest, and we had already paddled the Glenelg River from Pines Landing to Nelson, so we chose to walk the section from Nelson to Portland over six days. 

 Storm clouds over the Southern Ocean

Nelson to Lake Monibeong:
There used to be a campsite at White Sands, 12 km from Simpsons Camp on the Glenelg River, but, that camp has unfortunately been removed so the first day from Nelson is now about 22 km (or 25 km if coming from Simpsons Camp). Instead of parking in Nelson and walking three kilometres out to the beach on roads, we left the car parked at the Nelson beach parking area hoping that Nelson was not a hot-bed of car jackers. All the first day, we walked along the beach, pressing into a headwind (the prevailing westerlies switch to easterlies around November). Mostly the beach sand was firm and flat so walking was pretty easy. We found numerous parts of a whale skeleton on the beach, the most interesting was a long piece of backbone. On scattered craggy rocks sea-birds roosted, but otherwise the beach was empty.

About two hours from Nelson, some low-lying rocks (McEarchen's Rocks) push the track up off the beach onto the dunes behind, and the next three kilometres to Nobles Rocks is on wind scoured vegetated dunes. Past Nobles Rocks, there is about another six kilometres along the beach to Suttons Rocks where a 1.6 km detour leads inland to Lake Monibeong campsite. The walkers camp is set off before the car-camping sites and has a shelter, table, and bore water is available. You can wander along to swim in Lake Monibeong where the water is much warmer than the Southern Ocean and a little pontoon is available for swimming. 

 Doug starting out along the long beach walk

Lake Monibeong to Swan Lake:
It is about 16 or 17 km from Lake Monibeong to Swan Lake along the beach, a little more than that for the days total as again you have to detour inland to the camping area at Swan Lake We had even stronger headwinds and softer sand so walking was a bit arduous, and we had to hinge forward at the hips to keep our balance. I first began to comprehend how the view hardly changed, as there are not even scattered outcrops of rock on this section to break up the long, long beach. The 20 knot wind discouraged resting, so we took only a couple of short breaks huddling down behind our backpacks on the damp sand. You could sit face first into the full brunt of the wind if you felt the need of a facial peel. 

At Swan Lake there are big sand dunes and Portland Dune Buggy Club has a big camping area here. We timed our walk to pass through this area on a weekday as a weekend would be like visiting hell with all the infernal combustion engines ripping about. It's an annoying trudge inland over soft sand to the walkers camp which is beyond the Dune Buggy campground (huge) and situated just behind the car-camping area. Swan Lake is a further few hundred metres walk and the water is warm (by Victorian standards) for a post-hike swim. 

 Walking the beach

Swan Lake to The Springs:
In the morning, walking out to the beach we passed an emu on the dunes. This last section of Discovery Bay is a hard walk into the wind on soft sand that slopes down seaward. I must admit this section felt like a bit of a trudge. We both had head colds which left us feeling tired, head-achy, and with continuously running noses. I had got sore feet and blisters from walking on the sand barefoot for a couple of days with a heavy pack and feet not strengthened by beach walking, and Doug had pulled a muscle in his calve. 

Before starting the days walk, I'd decided I would have a short rest every two hours. I never knew two hours could pass so slowly. I'd walk along saying to myself "don't look at your watch, don't look at your watch, don't look at your watch." Finally, after what must be half an hour, maybe even forty minutes I'd look at my watch and see that five minutes had passed. Resting again was a five minute affair huddled behind our packs. 

Inexplicably, about 15 minutes from the end of that long, long beach, the track climbs over the steepest sand dune on the entire 50 kilometres of beach and immediately does a 180 degree turn and leads you back to the north, then to the east, and finally back south. After about an hour, you pass a short spur track that leads down to the end of the beach you just left! Doug and I both stood and gaped here wondering what sort of masochist the track builder actually was. 

 Doug feeling small by the Southern Ocean

From where you leave the beach to The Springs camp is about six kilometres and it is delightful walking up on the cliff top with wonderful views. Amazingly, the first time I looked at my watch, I'd been walking almost two hours since my last rest, and, shortly thereafter we arrived at The Springs campsite. 

This is undoubtedly the best campsite of the trip as it does not require a long detour and isn't simply slashed out of the surrounding scrub. It is a short walk out to the cliffs of the coast, and you can wander down an old cattle ramp to the springs which seep out of the limestone into big pools on the basalt rock platforms at the high tide range. We both wandered around down on the rock platforms. Doug saw some seals, and I had a refreshing wash in one of the big pools of spring fed water. The ocean is incredibly clear and there are fantastic tidal pools to explore.

 Point Danger and Lawrence Rocks

The Springs to Trewalla:
This day has a bit of everything. Some wonderful walking along the cliffs around Cape Bridgewater with many viewing platforms, interesting rock formations, seals, and birds. The track descends to the beach at Bridgewater Bay and we went into the Surf Life Saving Club and had a cold shower and dumped our garbage in a bin. This was the only spot where we saw any people in the full six days. 

There is another three or four kilometres along Bridgewater Beach before the track climbs up into dense coastal scrub and then undulates along to Trewalla Camp. This is not a particularly nice camp, as it is about half a kilometre or more from the beach, but, it has the usual serviceable shelter and table and some scattered, although very inclined tent sites. 

 Morning on Bridgewater Bay

Trewalla to Mallee:
After days of southeast winds, we had hot northerlies to walk this section. The day starts with five or six kilometres along the beach, mostly fairly soft sand, and it was feeling blindingly hot first thing in the morning. I had a swim in the ocean at the end of the beach, but the track immediately climbs up to the top of the dunes so I was sweaty again almost immediately. There is a kilometre or two of undulating sandy walking through thick coastal scrub before the track breaks out onto open cliff top and very scenic walking all the way to Cape Nelson Lighthouse. 

We had lunch perched out above the ocean near the lighthouse, and, even though it was Saturday, there was no-one about. Some more cliff top walking past lots of view points leads to Mallee Camp which has been newly hewn out of the mallee. This is another somewhat disappointing camp. Parks Victoria has made a series of tent pads all in a row, and, while they are at least flat, they are all in the baking sun, are side by side, and have no privacy or shade. Luckily, the usual shelter provided some relief from the heat. Unfortunately, there is no easy way down to the ocean to swim as this whole section of the coast is cliff-lined. 

 Out on the Bridgewater Peninsular

Mallee to Portland:
The final day is long, about 22 km if you take the long route around the coast into Portland, but much shorter if you jump off at Sheoke Drive. We took the long route as we wanted to walk past Point Danger and the Gannet colony. It's all good walking and very scenic along the cliff top until you are about three kilometres past Sheoke Drive where the track becomes choppy and somewhat difficult to follow. Some sections are good, some are a bit overgrown, and some walking on sealed roads is required. 

We stopped at Point Danger for lunch and I detoured down to look at the Gannet colony but without binoculars they just look like fuzzy white birds out on the rocks. My feet were really sore and blistered and I was getting slower and slower walking while Doug's sprained calf was actually feeling better. About three kilometres past Point Danger, the track runs out and you have to walk the last five kilometres into the centre of Portland on roads. I made it just past the fertilizer factory and Pivot Beach before deciding my feet could take no more, so I waited by the side of the road with the packs while Doug walked the last bit into Portland. We rented a car, drove back to Nelson and found our vehicle unmolested at the Nelson beach carpark.

 Looking along Bridgewater Bay to Cape Nelson

Some Sundry Notes:
The Nelson to Portland section of the Great Southwest Walk is well worth doing but the days might feel longer and harder than you expect. We found the headwinds tiring, and tiresome, and you'll undoubtedly have some soft sand to walk on. The coastal sections are all pretty easy walking and the views are diverting. The campsites are, for the most part, disappointing. Parks Victoria just can't seem to get it right. Although all the camps have a nice shelter with a picnic table and bench seating, most have very few flat spots for tents. At some of the camps, we had our tent up on the only really flat site available. There are spots hacked out of the bush here and there, but most of them were so angled that you'd almost be better sleeping on the picnic table. Two of the camps - Lake Monibeong and Swan Lake - require long diversions off the track, and Trewalla and Mallee are just plain ugly with no views and no easy access to the beach. All of the camps would feel crowded with a group.

It is way cheaper to rent a car in Portland and shuttle yourself back to your vehicle at Nelson than it is to get a shuttle with the local commercial provider - about half the price. If you could get someone to pick you up at Point Danger, you'd save the tedious walk into town on roads, and a shuttle out to the beach at Nelson would also save three kilometres on the road.

I don't know if this walk ever gets crowded. We did it in mid-December and besides all the beach goers at Bridgewater Bay, I didn't see anyone until we got to Portland. We had all the camps to ourselves. If possible, avoid the infernal combustion engines at Swan Lake by passing through mid-week, and, not at all in the Christmas holiday period. The water at all the campsites is marked unfit for drinking but we drank it all without treating it and suffered no ill effects.

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