Feet First Australia

exploring Australia on foot


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Take a walk in a (Melbourne) park.

Visit any Melbourne park and it is immediately obvious that patches of public space mean different things to different people. One’s shade tree is another’s hub for playing chasey; and not everyone sees lawn as an invitation to throw a Frisbee or boot a footy. So we’re lucky that Melbourne has parks aplenty suited to diverse wants and needs, a factor, no doubt, in Victoria’s capital being voted the world’s most liveable city by The Economist seven years in a row.

Charles La Trobe, the first superintendent of the Port Phillip District of New South Wales, and subsequently first lieutenant-governor of the colony of Victoria, set aside expanses of land around the young city of Melbourne for open space, parkland and gardens. While formal sportsgrounds, hospitals, rail lines and houses have since reclaimed much of that land, and the city’s continuing sprawl and infrastructure projects threaten more, the capital of the once number-plate boasting “garden state” is still dotted with green. An Aboriginal camping ground before European colonisation and the largest open space in the inner-city, Royal Park is a remnant of La Trobe’s vision.

The Macquarie dictionary defines a park as: “an area of land within a town, often with recreation and other facilities, which is set aside for public use.”  But how do you define “use”?  Melbourne has wonderful parks in which to do all manner of things – or nothing at all.

Birding Bliss

The corner of Warrigal and South roads, Moorabbin, doesn’t scream “bird watching paradise” but Karkarook Park is filled with surprises. A 40-hectare oasis in a desert of industry, it centres on a lake open to kayaks and small single-hulled sailboats and its wetlands filter bay-bound stormwater.

 

The lake was once a sand mine – Karkarook is an aboriginal word meaning “sandy place” – but feathered and human fishers now compete companionably for rainbow trout and red fin.

Intensive revegetation has attracted birdlife and purple swamphens, white-plumed honeyeaters and superb fairy wrens are among the 110-plus species recorded in the park. You can watch them from a waterfront hide, just off the 6km of walking tracks, but birds also paddle around boardwalk uprights and waddle past picnickers on the manicured lawns.

Heal Thyself

In the Wurundjeri dreaming, Bunjil the wedge-tailed eagle created Darebin Creek and its surrounding bush as a place for people to find joy and be at peace, and that’s the ultimate aim of the Spiritual Healing Trail in Darebin Parklands (also known as Rockbeare Park).

 

Gifted by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community as a gesture of reconciliation, the trail takes a 1.4km walk through the park, along the creek and onto Mt Puffalo’s rocky crown. A brochure and signs guide you through the five stages: Gathering, Purifying, Contemplation, Possibilities and Ready to Go.

Take time out to slow down and get in touch with yourself, with others and with the land.

 Let’s Get Physical

It’s exhausting just ticking off the get-fit options in Princes Park, which reaches 1.5km along Royal Parade north of the city.

 

At its heart is the historic home of the Carlton Football Club, now the Blues’ administrative centre and training ground and home ground for Carlton’s AFLW games. Carlton Cricket Club and Princes Park Carlton Bowls Club have also been based here since the late 19th century and Princes Hill Tennis Club since 1919.

Pedestrian and cycling tracks circle and crisscross the park, with distance posts and an assortment of torture equipment (sorry, exercise stations) around the 3.17km circumnavigation. The shared use Capital City Trail runs through Princes Park on its 30km loop around Melbourne.

Then again, you could just kick a ball – round or oval – on a playing field or join the dog walkers.

 Canine Cloud Nine

If you were a dog, your ears would twitch and tail wag on leaping from the car at Burns Reserve, adjoining Altona Coastal Park. Dogs on leads are welcome in the reserve proper, which protects 70 hectares of intertidal and salt marsh between Kororoit Creek and Port Phillip Bay, while the beach fronting the reserve is a leash-free playground for four-legged friends.

 

And friends they are, with big and small canine regulars carousing on the sandy flats and chasing each other into foaming shallows as their humans chat.

The park enjoys uninterrupted views of Port Phillip Bay and the Melbourne CBD and is prettiest at dusk, when the setting sun silhouettes pelicans flying in for the night.

Messing about in Boats

With apologies to Ratty in The Wind in the Willows, there is nowhere – absolutely nowhere – half so much worth going to mess about in boats as Albert Park.

DSC_0024Spectacularly situated with Melbourne’s CDB as backdrop, the lake is prettiest early morning, when you may see hot air balloons drifting over the office towers, their burners flaming brightly in pastel light.

Paddle boats, kayaks and sailing dinghies can be hired at the northern end of the lake along Aquatic Drive. Here too you can enjoy an introduction to sailing and, should the bug bite, take lessons. And while you are on the water, landlubbers can stroll 5km around the lake, which is one of Melbourne’s prettiest short walks.

In Memorium

You can get almost anything in and around the Oakleigh shops, including an insight into the suburb’s history at the Pioneer Cemetery in Warrawee Park.

 

Surveyed in 1853, the township of Oakleigh was one of the first places in colonial Victoria (with Coburg, Geelong and Ballarat) to establish a public cemetery reserve. Surviving headstones and columns, some encircled with rusty iron lace, rest beneath shady trees between a car park, children’s playground, sports oval and Warrigal Road.

Seven year-old Christina Couper was the first person buried here, in November 1860, and the last burial took place 99 years later. Among those interred between times were German migrant Charles Ferdinand Edward Zorn, whose sauces and pickles won international awards, and James Black Ronald, who was elected to the first Commonwealth Parliament in 1901.

Freesias carpet the cemetery in spring.

Escape to the Country

Mt Waverley is a proudly leafy suburb, its houses and unnaturally tidy gardens thread with ribbons of replanted, revegetated native bush. But Valley Reserve is different.

 

This 15-hectare park, just off Waverley Road, protects some of Melbourne’s last surviving patches of original bushland, mostly dry sclerophyll forest with lusher riparian communities along Scotchmans Creek. It is home to flying foxes, tortoises, yabbies, more than forty bird species and five varieties of frog, which perform a syncopated soundtrack.

And the wildflowers! Vivid blue sun orchids bloom on hot summer days. Pretty white milkmaids and chocolate lilies prefer the spring. Then there are the enamel-red running postman and other flashy pea flowers.

Strolling through Valley Reserve is like stepping through a door into the countryside usually found only well beyond Melbourne’s fringes.

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The Bothersome Business of Buying Boots

“What hiking boots should I buy?”

The answer to this common question is simple: buy the boots that fit your feet!

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“I could list a whole lot of attributes that I think a hiking boot should have,” mountaineer and adventurer Peter Hillary told me when I interviewed him for an article on bushwalking technology and safety some years back, but if you find boots that lack in some areas but are really comfortable, they are the boots for you.  “If you’ve got uncomfortable feet your great adventure has got serious limitations.”

And not everyone is a fan of traditional hiking boots at all. One of my close friends wore elastic-sided boots in all conditions and some people still swear by Dunlop Volleys!

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I recently had to buy new boots, an activity I dread more than scaling a steep scree slope or navigating a slimy log, because while my feet are a standard, off-the-op-shop-shelf width and length, my toes are slightly squared, so many boot lasts – the last is the foot-shaped mechanical form around which the boot is made – don’t fit. I am extremely jealous of friends who have found a boot brand/style perfect for them and buy the same one each time without issue.

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In contrast, my hiking boot history is a who’s who of manufacturers. Over the years I have walked in Zamberlan, Hi-Tec, Scarpa, Footprint (made by Birkenstock) and Oboz boots but I have always been eager at day’s end to slip my feet into something more comfortable! My first hiking boots were too small (incorrectly fitted), which contributed to the near life-long abuse of my big toe nails. Some boots have rubbed, necessitating the taping of toes and heals before every walk. One pair made my feet sweat worse than usual – which is saying something – so I on-sold them soon after purchase.

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This time around I spent four hours trying on eight different pairs of fabric, hybrid and leather boots in Melbourne’s Little Bourke Street. The heftiest and most expensive proved to be the most comfortable so I brought home a pair of leather-and-goretex Asolo 520s. Frustratingly, our on-track relationship is not yet living up to the in-shop promise but a podiatrist thinks it is my feet rather than the boots and, unfortunately, I can’t sell them on ebay!

With a few helpful hints, though, you might have more success.

What do you want the boots for?

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Footwear is a vital piece of hiking kit but the variety can bamboozle.  While walking sandals suit many situations, including hikes with water crossings, because they grip while allowing your feet to breathe, ankle support is important on rougher tracks and when carrying a pack. You need a sturdier boot for heavy pack walks than you do on lighter weighted day walks, because the added burden on your back changes your posture and bodily stresses.

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Boots should have a thick enough and firm enough sole to protect your feet from rocky ground and side protection from rocks and sticks.

Talk to the salespeople. Many know what they are talking about and will point you towards the right style of boot for the job.

Size and fit?

Even if you have worn the same shoe size for years, get your boots professionally fitted.

Boots should fit snuggly, so your feet don’t move around, but not tightly, and allow your toes wriggle room. Try them on at day’s end (when your feet are swollen) and with the socks you plan to wear.

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With the boot fully unlaced, move your foot as far forward in the boot as possible. In a correctly sized boot you should be able to slip your index finger down inside the boot at the back of your ankle. This determines there’s space when your foot slides forward on descents under load.

Also walk up and down the ramp (good shops have them). And put your foot behind you and tap the toe on the ground; you should not be able to feel the front of the boot with your toes (vitally important on long descents).

Try on several different boots and compare, even one of each make on different feet. And don’t buy the first one that feels good; you can always come back to them.

Do try makes recommended by friends but remember that their shape might not suit your feet.

Falls Creek to Mt Hotham Walk, Victorian Alps, Australia

Put a sock on it?

Socks affect comfort and safety. Ask shop staff what they recommend but only trial and error will reveal what your feet prefer. Having worn thicker, wool-and-nylon blend Explorer-type socks for years, and tried the double layer system that many hikers swear by, I now wear thinner, left-and-right socks for a perfect fit.

Wear them in?

GOW blister

ALWAYS wear-in your new boots/shoes at home and on short walks before tackling anything major. And treat hot spots as soon as they develop, because blister pain can turn bushwalking bliss into hiking hell.

 

Feet booted and comfortable? Get walking!

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Why bushwalk? Why not?

I’ve embarrassed myself on downhill and cross country skis. I’ve pedalled kilometres of rail trails and mountain biked down Mt Buller (which resulted in several physiotherapy sessions).

I’ve ridden horses in Victoria’s high country (sore knees), a donkey in Egypt (shaken and stirred), camels in the Sahara Desert, around the pyramids of Giza and in the James Range, south of Alice Springs, and motorbike taxied through Bangkok’s gridlock.

I’ve abseiled, skydived and scaled indoor rock climbing walls.

And all these adventures confirmed that I’m happiest under my own power with only shoe leather – or, more often these days, some man-made polymer – between me and terra firma.

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So why do I love bushwalking? Other than not having to don Lycra and work out in an air-conditioned gym?

What’s not to love about breathing air perfumed with ozone, wildflowers and rainforest humus? Tasting salt spray and hugging shaggy giant red tingle trees and smooth, pink-barked angophoras? Feeling the sun’s kiss and the sting of icy blasts? Hearing the music of wind, water and bird song?

One of the many highlights of my walking life was sitting trackside on the Cathedral Range, near Marysville, central east Victoria, watching a male lyrebird in full display performing a remarkable repertoire of bird calls to an apparently unimpressed entourage of hens.

What’s not to love about standing atop a mountain taking in views of multiple ridges in darkening shades of blue; and crouching in leaf litter studying a rain-beaded orchid?

Or gazing across country so flat you can see the curvature of our planet; and exploring crevices in Earth’s crust, with millions of years of geological craftsmanship at your fingertips?

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Or walking where the first Australians left their marks in ochre over thousands of years; and where chained convicts inspired by the lash fashioned Colonial era engineering feats?

Or pitching a tent among snow gums or in the shadow of a soaring cliff and dozing off under a canopy of stars or a moon so bright it casts shadows?

And then there’s the chocolate and jelly snakes, the trail mix (scroggin to some) that gets you through a walk; and the guilt-free pleasure of tucking into high-calorific food, such as Aunty Betty’s indulgent individual Belgian chocolate steamed puddings, after working your body hard up hills and down. OFF_pudding_belgain

A friend of mine, Coral Eden to give her deserved acknowledgement, has gone down in hiking history for her selfless act of carrying the makings of golden syrup dumplings up Mt Bogong, Victoria’s highest peak (1986m), and cooking dessert for eight in Cleve Cole Hut.

But perhaps bushwalking’s main attraction for me is that, unlike nonsensical sports – apologies to joggers; I’ll never fathom your motivation! –  I can, and intend to, climb mountains, explore deserts, follow ancient river beds, and go on fungi hunts on foot well into wrinklehood – albeit with the increasing assistance of trusty walking poles, to ease the stress on my knees.

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An online search unearthed a quote that sums up my rest-of-life philosophy:

“We don’t stop hiking because we grow old –

We grow old because we stop hiking.”  

Finis Mitchel

 


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Wildflower Wanderings

Recent rains have left much of Australia’s famously “wide, brown land” sodden and very green but whatever the conditions – drought, flood or idyllic in-between – Australia’s ancient mountains, volcanic plains and deserts – unrolled flat to the horizon or gathered into dunes – pack a visceral punch.

These landscapes can leave you literally breathless, and make it almost impossible to lower and narrow your focus. Do so, though, and your rewards are floral gems in every rainbow colour; flowers that burst from fertile soils or struggle through unforgiving rocky ground; flamboyant look-at-me blooms and shy performers that open in sheltered nooks where only the inquisitive will find them.

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With cold, wet wintry weather finally starting to loosen its grip, the native blooms dotting my Victorian country garden remind me of the gobsmacking wildflower displays through which my husband and I drove and walked last year while researching my recently released second book, Top Walks in Australia (published by Explore Australia).

Home to half of Australia’s 24,000 native plant species, many of which date back to before it broke away from the Gondwana supercontinent, Western Australia is the headline act in our annual floral extravaganzas. But every state and territory has places where you can tiptoe through the tulips, so to speak.

Here are some of my favourites:

TOP W.A. WILDFLOWER WALKS

  1. The Loop walk (9.5km), Kalbarri National Park – grade: moderate

kalbarri-loop-1Renowned for its much-photographed Murchison River gorge scenery and the natural window that frames the view, this rocky walk is softened with wildflowers of every shape and size, including the stalky, sky-reaching pink pokers (Grevillea petrophiloides).

2.  Cape to Cape, ½ a day to a week – grade: moderate

cape-to-capeWalking along WA’s southwest coast, from surf beaches to precipitous cliff edges between capes Leeuwin and Naturaliste, is spectacular year round. But in spring, the flowers that unfurl across the heathland capping the sea cliffs are the icing on the cake.

3.  Sullivan Rock to Monadnocks campsite (15km loop) – grade: moderate

sullivan-rock-bibbulmunArguably the best day walk on the 1000km Bibbulmun Track, and only 80 minutes’ drive from Freemantle, this loop reveals an assortment of flowers, from delicte orchids growing from cracks in the exposed granite slabs to grevilleas and other stunners on the plains.

4.  Mundaring to Mundaring Weir (10km) – grade: easy-moderate

weir-wildflowersTo follow the first/last section of the 560km pipeline constructed in the early 20th century to transport Perth Hills water to the Kalgoorlie goldfields is to walk through engineering history. Add ridiculous numbers of wildflowers, including showy red, pink and yellow peas, and you’ve got a cracking short walk.

5.  Bluff Knoll (6,5km return) – grade: moderate-hard

bluff-knollStirling Ranges National Park, in the state’s south, is a wildflower wonderland and Bluff Knoll (1095m) commands views reaching to the sea. The short but strenuous climb takes you from rocky slopes decorated with gravel bottlebrush to hardy, wind- and snow-tolerant stubby montane that erupts in spring colours.

OTHER TOP WILDFLOWER WALKS

  1. The 24km (hard) summer-season day hike from Hotham to Falls Creek in Victoria’s Alpine National Park traverses high plains festooned with floral beauties like paper daisies, Billy buttons and delicate purple-on-white alpine gentians.
  2. There are so many different wildflowers along the two-day Coast Track, in Royal National Park, south of Sydney, that appreciating and photographing them can severely slow your progress!
  3. As well as showcasing the remarkable geological features for which South Australia’s favourite island is famous, the new Kangaroo Island Wilderness Trail reveals the island’s abundant floral wealth. Indulge!
  4. Whether you venture to the edge of Cape Hauy to look down plunging cliffs to inky sea or climb Tatnells Hill between Waterfall Bay and Fortescue Bay, you’ll discover that Tasmania’s Tasman Peninsula bounds with gorgeous native blooms.

All these walks are written up in detail in Top Walks in Australia, available from me or online.


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A Flinders Ranges double bill

by Melanie Ball

Melanie Ball with her book Top Walks in Victoria

Simon and I last visited the Flinders Ranges about three years ago, to do the 3-night private, guided Arkaba Walk – think canapés on arrival in camp, hot water bottle to warm your swag, wine and gourmet meals, and final night in the historic homestead.

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During the course of that wonderful journey across Wilpena Pound (on the Heysen Trail) and in the lee of the magnificently striped Elder Range on private Arkaba Station, we made friends with the couple who run the walk and station stays, Brendan and Cat, who generously allowed us to camp behind the station’s historic stone woolshed on our return. So this time around we began each morning looking out of our tent at first light on the Elder Range.

We came back to Flinders Ranges National Park to walk independently. But which walks? (Do you have any favourites? Would love to hear.)

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Wilpena Pound is a geological artwork, a great rock bowl at the heart of the park and Adnyamathanha creation stories (the highest point, St Mary’s Peak, is the head of one of two serpents who surrounded an important corroboree and ate the participants, after which their bodies turned to stone). The best vantage points for appreciating the shapes and the textures of the pound and the park are deep down in its folded gorges and up in the air.

Having limited time and neither the money for a scenic flight over the pound nor the aerial skills of the wedge-tailed eagles that cruise over it, Simon and I chose the Bunyeroo Gorge Geology Walk and Mt Ohlssen Bagge.

Bunyeroo Gorge (8km return, easy grade) follows the Bunyeroo Creek through the Heysen Range, a product of hundreds of millions of years of geological sedimentation, compaction, buckling and erosion. We spent about 3 hours on this walk, treading a fairly easy trail along and across an often dry creek bed littered with every colour of stone – pink, red, grey, blue – chipped and smoothed by time and water. Informative posts name and describe the different rock work along the way, the calcareous shale, sandstone, quartzite, siltstone and limestone, the seafloor flute casts and stromatolites, sedimentary layers upended to vertical and buckled to serpentine curves.

Our companions on the walk were majestic river red gums that have experienced hundreds of scorching summers and probably as many flash floods.

In the 19th century, bullock teams and wagons loaded with copper, mail and produce took this route through the range to the western plains, and the walking trail ends at a gate beside a huge river gum where the creek broadens and straightens to run across the flat.

The Bunyeroo Gorge trail is unformed and rough in places but there are no hills and this stunning walk is suitable for big kids and small.

Our second walk, next day, beneath a chalky blue sky, was up Mt Ohlssen Bragge, on the pound rim. And unlike the previous day’s leg stretch this hike (6.4km return, grade moderate-hard) is steep, exposed, rocky and worth every energetic step uphill and knee-testing one down again. We passed several family groups having fun – climbing up rocks seems to have endless appeal for many children – but questioned the sensibility of one couple with a toddler in a backpack because some of the rocky slopes would be a challenge, if not a risk, for the bub-carrier.

Having followed Wilpena Creek from the Visitor Information Centre and cafe (good hot chocolate) through the gap that leads into the pound, we crossed the creek and climbed from leafy, riparian eucalypt forest up through native pines, she-oaks, grevilleas with pretty, curlicue red-and-green flowers, and acacias with wattle blossoms 1.5cm in diameter (the biggest I’ve ever seen). Climbed and climbed to a rocky aerie on the pound’s rim (and then down again).

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It’s a gobsmacking view from up there, taking in Wilpena’s battlement-like walls and flat floor, the distinctively striped battlement-like Elder Range and the plains to the east.

You could spend days exploring the wonderful nooks and crannies, the big-sky views and the many cultural sites in and around Wilpena Pound but if you have the time – or energy – for only a couple of outings on foot then I reckon that Bunyeroo Gorge Geological Walk and Mt Ohlssen Bagge are the perfect double bill.