Feet First Australia

exploring Australia (and sometimes further afield) on foot


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Victoria’s Bloomin’ Walks

A 3-hour bushwalk in the Warby Ranges, north-east Victoria, on a sunny Saturday a week back, reminded me why I love Australian wildflowers, many of which date back to Gondwanaland and link us to other continents created when the supercontinent broke up.

 

Western Australia is the undeniable star of Australia’s annual spring and summer wildflower spectaculars, with floral carpets in high-vis hues unrolling across acres of outback. But Victoria puts on a colourful show too.

 

In peak seasons it’s almost impossible to hike anywhere in Victoria without seeing flowers, but these five favourite walks are ideal for indulging passions for florals.

 

McKenzie Nature Conservation Reserve, Alexandra, Eastern Ranges

An easy 3km amble through a patch of rare, remnant eucalypt forest on the edge of the Goulburn Valley never ceases to delight. A mixed assortment of winter fungi make way for spring and summer wildflowers and if you stop to look at one you’ll discover half a dozen other varieties in a few square metres.

 

Mt Hotham to Falls Creek, Victorian Alps

When the snow melts, paper daisies, snow gentians, pea flowers, buttercups and many more flowers open to the alpine sun and embroider the exposed high plains with colour. If you’re not up for the full walk between ski resorts (20+ kilometres), a shorter walk from either end will soon have you among the blooms.

 

White Box Walking Track, Chiltern-Mt Pilot National Park, north-east Victoria

Don’t let the mostly flat terrain and short distance fool you. When the wildflowers are out, this track through old gold mining country forested with box and ironbark can take much longer than you planned. I set the known record of 5 hours treading the loop with friends equally as enamoured with flowers as me!

 

Lighthouse Hike, Wilsons Promontory, Gippsland

One of my favourite Victorian walks, a long 2- or 3-day loop to the Prom lighthouse via the Waterloo and Oberon bays, gains a whole new level of wow when the coastal heath is blooming. Washes of white, pink, and red augment landscapes worked in granite grey, multiple greens, sand yellow and sky blue.

 

Hollow Mountain, Grampians National Park, Western Plains

Suited to adventurers of all ages, this fun walk-cum-clamber in Victoria’s sawtooth western ranges, begins in a sea of Grampians thryptomene, one of more than 900 native plants found in the mountains. Down at ground level, you might also see cartoonish yellow-and-brown leopard orchids. And once you start looking…

 

These wildflower walks, and many others, are described in detail in my book Top Walks in Victoria, published by Explore Australia

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Escaping the Family on Foot

People bushwalk – hike, tramp, ramble, trek – for different reasons and in different ways. The ten Brisbane mums I met walking the three-day Six Foot Track with Blue Mountains-based company Life’s An Adventure were on their eighth annual escape from their families.

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Members of a thirteen-strong walking group – it’s got a waiting list! – the women live in the suburb surrounding one of Brisbane’s oldest primary schools. Four of them have known each other since childhood; the rest met at the school gate, on tuck shop roster and holding timepieces at swimming carnivals. Aged from 52 to 59, with one 46-year old youngster, they have thirty-seven children between them, all but three of whom attended the historic primary school.

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When the ten women I met on the Six Foot Track first came up with the idea of a walking holiday, over a brie stuffed with cranberries and a glass of NZ sav blanc, it wasn’t really about the hiking. “It was about escaping our humdrum suburban routines and replacing it with adventure,” spokeswoman Nicola explains. “It wasn’t until we had done our first hike – Queen Charlotte Sound in New Zealand [in 2008] – that we understood what a multi-day hike really was.”

 

Since then they have done eight guided and self-guided walks in New Zealand (The Routeburn Track was one of Nicola’s favourites) and Tasmania, and on the Great Ocean Walk in Victoria, with a core group of six doing every one.

 

None were bushwalkers before their first trip but their number includes regular cyclists, boot camp attendees and masters hockey players, so they are not unused to exercise. “We are okay with training before the walk,” Nicola says. “However none of us wants to carry a pack of greater than 7.5kg… We wouldn’t take on Kokoda. We wouldn’t do a walk that didn’t have someone else prepare our dinner; we are all mums who have to cook every night so not cooking is one of the joys.”

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Cut as a bridal trail in 1884 to shorten travel time between Sydney and the Jenolan Caves, the Six Foot Track – it was made wide enough for two loaded drays to pass – was officially reopened as a walking track a century later. It starts and ends with a bang, dropping from a cliff-edge view of the Megalong Valley down rock and timber steps into lush fern forest tucked between undercut sandstone that frames a slice of blue sky, and finishing among Jenolan’s jagged external limestone cliffs and exquisite cave decorations. Yet the Six Foot Track is more about history than scenery, with a long, uninspiring day-two climb up a gravel road, and Nicola doesn’t rate the walk highly against others they have done.

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But Life’s An Adventure, the company with whom they’ve also walked on Maria Island, impresses. (It offers 17 walking holidays across Australia, including a fabulous two-day guided walk into the Wolgan Valley, west of the Blue Mountains.) “The girls in the office are always super helpful… and they get some mad requests from us,” Nicola says. “We pay in dribs and drabs and bother them with queries about pillows and sleeping bags and taking bottles of wine and then we harass them to chill it for us in the evening!”

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There are no better walking companions than those who have their priorities worked out and when the Brisbane Mums headed down to Coxs River for pre-dinner drinks and a dip at the end of day one, glasses and champagne bottle in hand, I willingly followed them slightly astray.

 

 


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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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Walking and Wine as Therapy

I love the self-satisfied physical weariness from bushwalking remote from the sights, sounds, smells and hard edges of civilisation. Because I’m too fond of my knees to jog, and dislike figure-hugging Lycra and controlled atmospheres too much to work out in a gym, it’s my near-perfect exercise, and a great partner to my other aerobic passion, dancing.

As well as justifying high-calorie refuels, expending energy on a dance floor or mountain slope gives me a high that not only soothes sore feet and aching muscles; it also exhilarates me, empowering me to do it all again the following day.

In contrast, however, the stress of two ongoing family health crises over recent weeks has left me bordering on punch-drunk, emotional exhaustion draining me of energy. A common experience, according to the internet!

Several studies conclude that while physical activity has little or no impact on mental performance, and sometimes even a positive effect, mental stress can markedly affect us physically. At its worst it can impair judgement, reaction time, situational awareness, motivation, alertness and memory, leading to sub-optimal performance.

So last week, when the depressing grey sky cleared – yes, I know we need the rain! – to a gorgeous sunny blue, I drew on my remaining judgement, reaction time, situational awareness, motivation and alertness and took myself off for a therapeutic stroll at a historic Goulburn Valley winery.

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Founded in 1860, Tahbilk has been owned and operated since the 1920s by five generations of the Purbrick family. It’s a charming place to visit, if only to wander around the heritage buildings – an episode of Phryne Fisher was filmed here. There are, of course, delicious wines, including the estate’s signature Marsanne and Shiraz from pre-phylloxera vines dating back to the mid 19th century; and a café which overlooks the extensive network of billabongs, backwaters and creeks. There are also walking tracks to tread between wine tasting and tucking into seasonal regional fare.

Tahbilk’s Eco Trails network opened in 2005, after ten years of understory plantings to bring wildlife back to the wetlands, and the construction of paths, boardwalks and two bird hides. (Groups can also book a 30-minute Eco Trail Cruise.)

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Having registered at the café – management ask walkers to sign in, so they know where to start searching if you don’t return – and paid my gold-coin donation, I followed the well-formed track down to historic Long Bridge. Built from estate-hewn timber to replace a ford on the site, shortly after completion of Goulburn Weir in 1889, and extensively repaired after the destructive 1954 floods, the bridge was completely rebuilt in 1996, again with timber cut and milled on site.

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Long Bridge, c.1996

Across the bridge, I soaked up vitamin D as I strolled a 5.6km curlicue of flat compacted gravel track and boarding. Through floodplains thick with mixed wattles erupting in late winter yellows; past majestic river gums that have stood here for centuries; along waterways dotted with black swans, pelicans and moor hens and rows of grape vines reaching into the distance.

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I skirted massed fluffy reed and pools of rain and photographed bark, wattle blossoms, bird boxes and afternoon sun reflected off the water.

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I didn’t raise a sweat. Barely upped my resting heart rate. But boy did I feel better afterwards.

And to increase the restorative effect of my day out, I bought some Tahbilk wine to take home.

 

Melanie Ball’s website

Melanie’s photography as art and clothing

Wearable Art from Appliquez Moi

 

 


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Stepping Out!

G’day bushwalkers of every level of fitness and experience and welcome to Feet First Australia, a blog about the simple pleasure of getting out and about on foot.

Let me introduce myself. My name is Melanie Ball. I am a long-time travel writer and photographer and author of Top Walks in Victoria and Top Walks in Australia, guidebooks published by Explore Australia; Top Walks in Tasmania is due out October 2018.

My motivation for this blog is the thousands of kilometres I’ve walked over the past few years and a 2015 spent travelling and hiking around the extraordinary country I call home.

And Australia is extraordinary. Where else on Earth can you traverse an outback mountain range worn from Himalayan heights to a gnarly rock spine? Stand at the altar of a moss-cloaked Antarctic beech tree which sprouted when Ancient Rome held sway across Europe? Or venture solo into big-sky country so flat you can see the curvature of the planet?

I hope to entertain you by describing and recommending bushwalks, swapping favourite hikes, answering questions, discussing and reviewing hiking food and equipment and just following wherever the blog takes me. I hope to inspire you to get out and about on foot.

A huge thank you to Simon Box, my husband and mostly-patient photographic model (that’s him in the stripy shirt above and those are his feet on the header photo), another Australian born in England. He wrote the Food For Thought post.

Thanks to all the other friends who join me on walks and everyone who hikes with me through this blog. I hope you have a great time.