The Great Ocean Walk is a 110km walk along the Victorian coastline from Apollo Bay to the iconic Twelve Apostles. Three years ago, I took a week off to walk it.

I watched the crashing waves, interacted with a variety of birds and animals, ate dehydrated meals for the first time, and generally had a great time.

The germ of an idea

When I came back from the UK in 2016 after completing the Pennine Way, I intended to do a thru-hike in Australia sooner or later. The Great Ocean Walk was high on the list: I knew the area, it wasn’t too long or too far away from home, and I’d even walked short sections of it when I first visited the Great Ocean Road. However, it never seemed to get to the top of the list.

Come the start of 2020, 3.5 years later, and I was planning travels in Europe. Maybe my next overnight hike would be in the Swiss Alps? Then obviously came the Covid-19 pandemic: I was stuck within Australia, and for a lot of the year within 5km of my house.

On the Pennine Way Facebook group I saw UK residents who had planned overseas walks returning to the Pennine Way instead. That made me think: Perhaps this was a good time to do that Australian overnight walk? So walking the Great Ocean Walk was one of the things I mentioned in August as something I might want to achieve for 2020. It didn’t have to be top of my list: Just something that was achievable, that I wanted to do, and which would give me some control in a pandemic disrupted life.

Delayed by the pandemic

As it was, by the time Melbourne’s second lockdown lifted it was approaching the end of the year, and summer was on the way. I spent some time in the Australian Alps (which was great!), but put the Great Ocean Walk off until after school holidays.

At the start of February, I booked everything to start in a couple of weeks (February 13th to 19th, to be precise). Two days later, we first heard of a Covid case in the wild.

Numbers didn’t go down to zero, but nor did they climb wildly. Known close contacts were all placed in isolation. There didn’t seem any obvious signs of approaching lockdown, but I still wasn’t sure how best to proceed.

It came to Friday, the day before I was supposed to set out, and my team was in the office. Everything felt fairly “normal” (our new normal, anyway), but we all knew it could change. Then at lunchtime our Premier called one of the later-to-be-trendy snap lockdowns.

It seemed unnecessary to me then (still does, actually), but if it was going to be called at some point, it was better that it happened before I set out (I don’t actually know what I would have done if a snap lockdown had been called while I was on the Great Ocean Walk. Probably kept walking while knowing I couldn’t get a taxi back to my car from the end of the trail…).

By that time I had the gear and I’d done the research. I didn’t want my preparation to go to waste, nor did I want the coming of winter to interfere. I shifted it three weeks, which also allowed me to incorporate a public holiday. On the weekends I went walking in Lysterfield with a full pack.

A second attempt

This time I was starting on a Monday, so I had a weekend to prepare, and headed down to Apollo Bay on the Saturday. I visited a lighthouse I hadn’t been to before, saw glow-worms for the first time since my NZ trip, returned to Lake Elizabeth, and drunk cider at the southernmost pub of the Australian mainland. Yes, theoretically I was preparing mentally, but really - there wasn’t a lot more I could do.

Putting off the start till Monday had been practical: Camp-sites I needed were full over the long weekend. Come Labour Day, and the crowds were preparing to return home from a pleasant long weekend. I could check out of the hostel, register my trip intentions at the nearby police station, walk ten minutes to a bakery for breakfast, then another five minutes to the official start of the walk (which probably explains why I didn’t start till after noon 😛).

Starting off (Apollo Bay)

I arrived at my first campsite not long after 4PM, with plenty of time to figure out how to set up my tent (in all honesty, the first time round I might have struggled to start the walk by 4PM).

Overall, I was probably slightly better with the changed schedule. Shorter days were fine, and later sunrises meant that I actually got up for a few of them. The February slot had had several hot days predicted, whereas in March I only got one really hot day, and one really wet day.

A new experiment

This was actually my third overnight walk, after a disastrous first attempt in Wilson’s Prom, then successfully completing the Pennine Way. However, because it was unsupported, it felt like my first one. Yes, the Pennine Way was far longer and probably harder too, but every night I had a bed and food, and every morning a good breakfast to start me off. This time round, there was no accommodation, and no easily accessible food. Everything I wanted for a week had to be carried on my back.

I knew that had been where I failed the first time round: Everything I carried was both too heavy and too bulky. So I planned to change that. I got a hiking tent. A compact sleeping mat and sleeping bag. A collection of dehydrated meals and protein bars and small tins of tuna. Water purification tablets for the tank water en route.

I used the same backpack as I’d used on the two previous overnight walks, and this time was able to pack them with room to spare. It took a long time to set up the tent the first evening, but within a couple of days I was comfortable enough with it that I could set it up by touch in near dark.

Tent and sleeping mat (Elliot Ridge)
Tent and backpack (Ryan's Den)
Tent (Devil's Kitchen)

No-one’s judging you

I was at this point a fairly experienced hiker, and even as far as overnight hiking went, on the Pennine Way I’d covered more kilometres per day for more days. But I worried everyone else was looking down on me for doing it wrong. There was so much that was new to me, and I continued to compare myself unfavourably with my idea of a Real Hiker.

I guess this mythical Real Hiker would be unphased by anything the weather threw at them. They were probably veterans of a hundred camping adventures, and had seen far worse than this and survived. Their bag packing was down to a science, and they knew exactly what they needed and where it could be found in the pack. Their tent was an old friend that they could set up and pack away quickly and efficiently, and they’d used dehydrated food so often they knew exactly what they liked and disliked. They would get up early without difficulty, and walk at least 5 km/h with minimal breaks. They certainly wouldn’t struggle to fit the tent in its bag, or even just to get out of bed after a somewhat uncomfortable night.

So when I was the last to leave a campsite, or when I was having too much difficulty with my tent, I felt like I was failing, and like everyone knew it. Even if I managed (somehow!) to make it to the Twelve Apostles, I’d have failed, because I hadn’t done it properly.

My tent was designed to be packed away with tent poles, tent pegs, and tent body all in the same bag. That was how it had come from the manufacturer, and it certainly made it compact. But it wasn’t easy, and after a few days I decided just to put the tent poles and the tent pegs loose in my bag.

This is where my Pennine Way experience should have helped me, but actually hurt me. Since it’s one of the toughest long distance walks in the UK, it attracts people much more like my mythical “Real Hiker”, and I’d met some of them. But I should have known that I’d also met people more like me, some perhaps even less prepared for the Pennine Way than I was. The important thing was that I’d walked from Edale to Kirk Yetholm along the Pennine Way. I completed the Pennine Way, and no-one was going to take away the completion certificate because I’d taken an injury break half-way, or because I hadn’t wild-camped once.

So, this time round I had to tell myself multiple times “No-one’s going to take your Great Ocean Walk completion certificate away because you didn’t pack up your tent properly on day 4” (OK, there isn’t an official certificate, but you get the idea). If I wanted to get up late, or to pack my bag badly, or to walk slowly while taking lots of photos, that was completely fine. If I struggled that was OK too - just so long as I still made it to each planned campsite and, finally, to the Twelve Apostles.

I found later there’s a term for this: Hike Your Own Hike. Don’t worry about how those around you are doing, or whether you measure up to them (after all, perhaps they also have their own insecurities?). Just worry about whether you’re doing what you need to do to complete the hike, and preferably to enjoy it.

Other first timers

On a walk with fixed stages like this, you can see the same people night after night, and you can get to talking. From that, I found that at least one group on the same schedule as me were first-timers. Not just first-timers at unsupported hiking, like me, but first-timers on any overnight walk.

It made me wonder what percentage on such a walk actually have less experience than me. After all, it doesn’t matter how many overnight hikes you ultimately complete, you have to start with one. And I imagine some will then decide it’s not for them, while others might think it a great thing to try once, but not an experience they need to repeat.

Perhaps there are treks like the Australian Alps walking track that are left to Real Hikers to complete. But the Great Ocean Walk is both accessible enough and well enough known that it’s not one of those.

Growing confidence

Looking back it seems somewhat obvious: Of course I was going to finish it. But looking at my diaries, I was much less certain at the time (which was also true of the Pennine Way). I’d done everything I could to prepare, but I couldn’t know whether that was enough.

When I survived rain and a couple of falls on the first day, when I completed the longest day, when I passed the halfway point: each of those things increased my confidence. Confidence that I didn’t need to be perfect - just enough. And by the final day it was like “Something would have to go badly wrong not to complete this”.

The roller-coaster

Hands up - who expects an ocean walk to be fairly flat?

I probably did before preparing for this walk. Then I read that it had 3.3 km elevation change, which works out to nearly 500m per day. Fun…

There was one day which started off climbing several hundred metres. That actually wasn’t too bad. Other than that, though, the vast majority of the walk was less than 100m above sea level. It’s just a lot of ups and downs.

And that reminded me of what I already knew from Hadrian’s Wall: It’s unexpectedly will-sapping to go up and down and up and down. They’re not huge distances up and down, but each down is a chance to slip, while each up is just hard work. And, as it turned out, the stage most notorious for up and down also happened to be the one day that was over 30C. I particularly remember struggling up from a beach, feeling like I’d been climbing forever, then checking the elevation to find I was only 37m above sea level.

Since then, I’ve found similar things in other ocean walks I’ve done. If you want to follow the ocean for an extended period, expect beauty and grandeur - but also expect a workout.

A curious form of destressing

Walking is a normal part of my daily routine, and can often be a good stress relief. But it’s not the obvious destressing measure after a full day walking.

Perhaps it really started on my first evening, when I went walking briefly to prepare for an early sleep and saw a koala with joey. But I didn’t notice the benefits till my second evening.

That day I’d combined two official stages, so had walked around 23km, and by the end was finding it difficult. I set up my tent, prepared a meal, and then settled down to relax. After dark came the stars, and they were beautiful, so I set off walking to find a better place to view them from.

After a while, I realised it wasn’t just about the stars. Walking without a pack was helping me wind down and to soothe my sore shoulders. I walked at least 2km, got caught out in the rain, and still enjoyed myself.

And so I continued doing it. I saw stars reflected in the Aire River, and the lights of ships and lighthouses out to sea. Sometimes I was out for an hour or two, and didn’t get to sleep till after midnight. No wonder I wasn’t the first up in the morning! (though I did end up getting up for sunrises as well…).

Getting into a routine

After a few days, I settled into a routine. Getting up, maybe seeing a sunrise, packing up my tent, walking through the day (with lots of photos…). Scoping out a new campsite in the evening, choosing my spot, starting the water purification process, dehydrating food, setting up my tent. Going for a stroll in the evening - perhaps before dark, perhaps after. Charging devices from my Powerbank. Then preparing for sleep, maybe reading from my Kindle or listening to an audiobook.

In time I was better able to pack and unpack and set up my tent. I was able to use the limited space in my tent better, and as a result I slept better.

Often when on holiday I’m busy trying to fit in as much as I can. Part of what I like about overnight hiking is that the goals are much simpler. I didn’t need to worry what day of the week it was, or anything like that. For each day, all you have to do is complete that day’s walking. It doesn’t matter how fast or how slow you are, so long as you can make it.

Lying in my tent the final morning, I realised I was going to miss it. Not just the walking and the beautiful views, but also the routine.

The mighty pack - Friend? Enemy? Both?

On a walk like this, the pack can be very heavy. It digs into your shoulders, it affects your balance, and I find you just have to keep adjusting it. I also find it makes me less enthusiastic about stops for food or water, because it’s just too much trouble taking the pack off. That makes it feel like an enemy.

On the other hand, it has literally everything you need. There were a few times when I went for a walk without it, and found it surprisingly anxiety inducing: I have no food, no water - how can I survive?

Discovering a cutlery-free life

I brought a portable combined knife, fork and spoon. Halfway through the walk I lost it. I remember using it for lunch that day, so I presume that when I packed after lunch I accidentally left it behind.

As a result, I spent a few days eating rehydrated meals and cans of tuna with only my fingers for utensils. It worked. Maybe it even made me feel a little hard-core: Not sure. But I really wouldn’t recommend it.

Why thru-hiking? And why this walk in particular?

I think there are a few reasons for me walking walks like this. Obviously part of it’s just that it’s an achievement. Walking a known path from start to end, setting a clear goal and then seeing clear progress each day towards that goal: That can be very satisfying. It also gives a purpose to each day - even when there are fewer highlights, it’s still contributing to completing the walk.

But to me, the main thing about overnight hiking is that it allows me to see things that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to see (often because they’re less easily accessible). In the case of the Great Ocean Walk, I could probably do a large percentage of it as a collection of day walks, but then I’d have to worry about trying to make each walk into a circuit. Doing it as an overnight walk allowed me to work towards a goal, but it also meant that I was always seeing something new and I didn’t have to worry about parking.

As to why this particular walk: I knew and liked the area, and had walked small sections of the walk. But there was more than that. For me, the beauty of the ocean has always been cliff-top walks with views and exploring rock platforms, not swimming (even though I was snorkeling just today…). I had enjoyed many different cliff-top walks before I did the Great Ocean Walk, and I’ve enjoyed many since. It was my kind of walk, and I figured that if I liked it for one day, why not for seven?


Where would a walk like this be without a final photo point to prove you’ve made it? Given the Twelve Apostles are already a busy tourist precinct, it makes sense putting the final photo point a bit before that:

Time for a photo! (Great Ocean Walk)

It’s actually a couple of kilometres short, but by that point you just know you’re going to make it. So, here’s me:

I made it! (Great Ocean Walk)

I made it!

Return to Apollo Bay

After visiting the Twelve Apostles, I returned to Apollo Bay (shout out to Timboon Taxi Service - I couldn’t have done it without them).

As expected, there was a bit of culture shock:

  1. Being around people, not to mention cars and other noise.

  2. Finding far fewer people than I expected (I’d left on the final day of a long weekend, and come back Sunday evening when even weekend visitors had probably left).

  3. Returning to a start point that hadn’t changed while I had. My car contained things I’d bought the previous weekend, and I could hardly remember them. The Great Ocean Walk start point looked exactly the same. When I’d been there before, the route was an unknown. Now it was a familiar friend.

I got back to Apollo Bay after 5PM, but wasn’t in a hurry to get back to Melbourne. I wandered along the beach, admired a final sunset, and probably tried to wind down and re-acclimatise.

A final sunset (Apollo Bay)

It seems I didn’t leave till after 8PM. Perhaps I got back home by midnight, and the following morning I was hard at work. Maybe I was in the office, or maybe I was working from home. At that stage of “CovidZero between lockdowns” I’m really not sure which days we were in the office, or even how many days we were in the office.

It had been a great experience. A week well spent.

Learning #1: Overnight walks make a good holiday

The weekend before doing the Great Ocean Walk I was busy trying to fit in as much as I could so I didn’t miss out. And it was a great weekend, and I did some things that really needed a car to achieve. But looking back it seems silly: I was doing this walk because I thought I was going to enjoy it. Why was I worrying about what I might be missing out on?

When I got the equipment, I thought that would make it more likely that I go on other long-distance walks in Victoria. But I don’t know I expected to enjoy it as much as I did. And yet I should have: It was a chance to do more of what I clearly enjoyed in day walks.

At the time, it had been nearly five years since I walked the Pennine Way. It was a good memory, but a somewhat distant one, and just one of many memories from three months spent on the other side of the world.

In the years since, I’ve done overnight walks in both 2022 and 2023. The first one was four days near Portland as part of a week’s road trip. Last year, I returned to the site of my first overnight walk for a pleasant (and much better prepared…) long weekend.

It’s meant that I don’t need to plan too far in advance. My approach isn’t perfect, but the Great Ocean Walk proved it was enough, and subsequent walks have confirmed that.

I’ve now spent as many days on overnight hikes in Victoria as I did on the Pennine Way (though not nearly as many kilometres). The Great Ocean Walk was billed as “The walk of a lifetime”, but I could see myself going back and doing part or all of it again.

There are probably many other overnight walks within 3 - 5 hours of me. Perhaps in future years I’ll do more of them, or perhaps I’ll try overnight walks in NSW or Tasmania. But for this year I’ve set my sights on a more ambitious goal: The Larapinta Track in Australia’s Red Centre.

Learning #2: Sunrises can be awesome

I wasn’t a morning person back then, and I’m still not a morning person. You’re still much more likely to find me awake at 2AM than at 7AM.

But that experience started me on a journey that continues today. The fundamental truth I’ve discovered is that I might not like the process of getting up early, which is why I hadn’t done it before, but I do like being up early. Sunrises can be beautiful, sure, but it’s more than that. It feels like the world is just waking up. The light is different, the sounds are different, and there are often fewer people about.

I get the feeling from my final day audio recordings that I was still somewhat in awe of being able to see sunrises. Now it has become much more normal (though still special!) - so much so that it’s a bit of a surprise to remember it was only three years ago that I started that, and that it was somewhat accidental doing so.

In the three years before I walked the Great Ocean Walk, I’m pretty sure I saw zero sunrises. In the three years since, I’ve seen more than 40 sunrises, across three countries, and usually at times when I’m on holiday and former-me would have comfortably slept in. And many of those sunrises come with vivid memories of where I was and what I was doing.

Perhaps without that arbitrary decision on the Great Ocean Walk to see a sunrise, I’d have come to that realisation some other way. Perhaps not. But it marks the biggest way in which walking the Great Ocean Walk unexpectedly changed me.

Learning #3: Yes, I can do it

My inner critic said I didn’t always know what I was doing. I didn’t pack my bag properly. I was frequently the last one to leave the campsite.

That doesn’t make me inferior, and it certainly doesn’t make me an impostor. Actually, it makes me someone who not only completed an unsupported overnight hike, but enjoyed it enough to come back for more.

By the rigorous standard I mentioned above, I will probably never be a Real Hiker, I’m comfortable enough with that. I’ve found a way that I can succeed and enjoy myself doing it, and that’s way more important.

Could you do it?

So, dear reader, could you complete the Great Ocean Walk? Only you can answer that.

But if you’re thinking about it (or about any overnight walk) what I would say is this: I didn’t feel fully prepared for the Pennine Way, and I didn’t feel fully prepared for this walk. But with better equipment and better planning than I’d had for my first overnight walk, I found them both achievable and rewarding.

The final verdict

I had high expectations of this walk, and I found it exceed expectations. There was a lot of the kind of scenery I’d wanted, but there was also more variety than I was expecting. And yes, I was expecting some spectacular views, but in the end there were more views than I was expecting, and some that were more spectacular than I was expecting.

The walk also paved the way for future overnight walks, and introduced me to the wonder of sunrises. Far better than giving in to Covid inevitability and staying at home.