Experience one of the world's best drives on foot, writes Josie Stanford.
The striking blue feathers of a superb blue wren are a bright contrast to the moody grey silhouettes of eucalypts in Great Otway National Park on Victoria's coastline - he's dashingly handsome and almost as friendly as our fantail.
Birdlife is not something you generally associate with Australia's Great Ocean Road, better known as one of the world's most scenic drives. But I've left the highway, and its tourists, far behind and disappeared on foot towards the cliffs, through coastal heath and forests of mountain ash, to really experience the natural beauty of the area.
Looking down from a sheer cliff top across a sapphire Southern Ocean, my senses are engulfed by the sights and sounds of nature. Welcome to the Great Ocean Walk, a 104km track that hugs Victoria's coastline starting at Apollo Bay, 200km southwest of Melbourne.
Opened in 2007 by Parks Victoria to the tune of $2.4 million, it's the first of four wilderness walks planned for the state - the Grampians, East Gippsland and the Australian Alps will all feature multi-day hikes.
I'm sampling a 46km, three-day hike from Castle Cove to the Twelve Apostles with Bothfeet Walking Tours, one of the operators that have sprung up to service the route. Bothfeet offer the perfect combination of adventure and indulgence with a guided walk and a luxurious fully catered stay in their eco-lodge at Johanna, a stone's throw from the track.
On our first day the track begins in scrubby cliff-top eucalypts before descending to the pristine white sand of Johanna beach, famous for its surf breaks.
The dramatic eroded cliffs of this coastline are borne of a wild climate and the wind has got up for our 2km beach walk, scattering frothy sea foam across the beach and cleansing our senses. In the afternoon we find shelter in coastal pastures that reveal eastern grey kangaroos among the scrub.
Wildlife spotting is a key feature of the walk. With a keen eye in the height of summer you may spot an echidna basking in a sunny sandy spot or a rare tiger snake. Our guide, Marie Killeen, offers tidbits about the flora and fauna but doesn't interfere with the peaceful walking.
Day two brings dramatic changes in elevation as we navigate goat trails that lead off secluded Milenesia beach and follow the cliff edges to remote Ryan's Den, with far-reaching vistas back to our day's starting point.
Day three begins at Wreck Beach, where if not for the high tide we would be able to see the anchors of the shipwrecked Marie Gabrielle (1880) and Fiji (1891) embedded in the sand. Sewn into the fabric of the coast, they are reminders that the sheer beauty of what is now a marine park hides a dark past. More than 200 ships met their end here last century when they hugged the coast in search of the Cape Otway Light on their approach to the Bass Strait, which was then the main entrance to eastern Australia.
Our walk is punctuated with morning tea and salad lunches - not your usual tramping fare - and Bothfeet provides gear including waterproof jackets and daypacks. Evenings are spent in the luxury of our private eco-suites at Johanna, just 2km from the coast and enveloped in rainforest. Chef Ha Nguyen presents an ever-changing menu - standout dishes include a pear, walnut and blue cheese salsa and duck with an orange reduction and kumara mash.
The Twelve Apostles, giant lime stacks separated from the mainland and rising up to 45m out of the pounding ocean, finally come into view at the end of day three.
They are part of a stunning coastline that I now know far more intimately than those standing on the viewing platforms taking the same pictures as each other.
* Walks: A guide from Bothfeet will meet you at the airport for your transfer to the lodge. See bothfeet.com.au for details on walks and lodge stays.
* Further information: Go to visitmelbourne.com/nz for more information about Victoria and Melbourne and ideas to extend your trip.
Josie Stanford was a guest of Tourism Victoria and Bothfeet Walking Tours.
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