Interestingly – at least, interestingly when compared to Warrnambool – Tuesday turned out to be a Bad Shoe Day. By accident I left my pair of incredibly smelly and rotting canvas shoes in the car park at Loch Ard Gorge, which was sentimentally tough but a good thing in retrospect, and then that night my thongs snapped1. I prayed that God would look after their little lost soles, and tried to move on.
On Wednesday I headed off to Hall's Gap, 200km away to the north and deep in the heart of the Grampians, an impressive range of mountains at the southern end of the Great Dividing Range, which runs parallel to the east coast of the continent. Wow! You've never seen anything like the approach to the range across the dry, flat land of the southwest of Victoria. Slowly, ever so slowly, these huge forms appear on the hazy horizon, so jagged that they look like black broken glass. One minute, the horizon is totally flat, and then these shapes appear that reach to an apparent elevation of about 30° as you drive straight for them – it is quite a sight.
Close up, the Grampians are even more amazing, and I instantly decided to spend a good two days at the campsite at Hall's Gap. After pitching my tent, I managed to fit in a couple of bushwalks: first I walked to the Balconies – flat bits of rock jutting out of the top of a mountain that you can climb to the end of and look over, if you like a fright like I do – and then to Sundial Peak – a 4km round-trip that produced spectacular views of lakes and wooded peaks, right next to the flat, dry farmland I'd just driven through. I returned to camp with my appetite well and truly whetted, to find the caravan park full of friendly little kangaroos munching on the grass.
It occurs to me that 'bushwalking' isn't something you come across back home, even though I now take it for granted. It's not a case of arriving somewhere, looking at the sun, working out where south is and disappearing into unexplored rainforest – at least, not intentionally. National Parks, which are everywhere, and include places like the Grampians, have Ranger Stations where you can get maps of the marked walks around, which range from five minutes to five hours to five days. There are paths and signposts and protective railings on the nasty bits, so it's relatively easy to go bushwalking safely, and without needing huge amounts of gear (though if you want a real bush experience, you can, of course, go off piste, as it were).
Lost at the Pinnacle
Having said that, a funny thing happened to me in the Grampians when I went on the day-long Wonderland Tour walk the following day. I was making my merry way to the first stop on the walk – Venus Falls it was called, though the summer had reduced it to Venus Dribbles – when I came across a couple having a rest in the shade. Well, we got a-talkin', as you do when walking these tracks, and they invited me to walk with them, so I did, not having so much as talked to anyone for about a week. Up to the Pinnacle we trudged, me, Dave and Karen, eventually getting to the top – the views you wouldn't believe! – and then continuing along the trail, following the white arrows painted on the rocks.
It was then that Karen noticed that we hadn't passed a white arrow for some time... we were lost. We backtracked, and after about half an hour (which seemed like much longer in the burning sun) we found some more arrows, which we followed... and eventually ended up back where we'd started, at the Pinnacle! So we tried again, and this time found the trail, but if I hadn't been with other people I could have been well and truly scuppered. The fact that later on Dave and I climbed a mountain – more incredible views, peering over a sheer cliff face – while Karen stayed at the bottom, and we got totally lost on the way back down, only proves that painted white arrows aren't the best way to mark a trail. When coming down, we nearly walked over a cliff edge; there's nothing like a thrill to clear the head.
Dave and Karen, it turned out, are from just north of Adelaide, and they invited me to visit them, so we could go walking at a place called World's End. It should be interesting; when we got back to camp we got well and truly hammered on Diamond lager, so if I do get to see them in Adelaide, it should prove to be another fun experience.
I also met an old guy called Danny, who had pitched his tent next to me. He was an interesting bloke; he was recovering from a brain tumour, and was taking time off to explore the areas of Australia that he'd driven through while selling computerised tills to shops over the years. We kicked into his bottle of rum he had brought along, and kept drinking after Dave and Karen went back to their cabin (lucky them, they had a spa in their apartment!). As if meeting three great people wasn't enough, while we were coming back from the bottle shop we saw these two guys having a barbie in the campsite, and went over to chat. It turned out these two – Michael and Remko from Holland – had just spent four days in the bush, walking around and camping wherever they fancied: an amazing experience. They were hitching around, and I offered them a lift in the morning to Mt Gambier, down on the south coast of South Australia, about 400km from Adelaide.
1 This is not as rude as it sounds – 'thongs' are what Australians call flip-flops or sandals.