Trail Notes – Great South West Walk, Vic
The Great South West Walk (GSWW) makes its way through a variety of landscapes across the Glenelg and Bridgewater bioregions. In completing this hike, you’ll traverse along sweeping, powerful beaches, atop some of the tallest coastal cliffs in the state, through forests alive with birdlife and the colour of seasonal wildflowers, and besides/down a winding river carving its way through limestone.
Length: ~260km, taking 12-14 days on average to complete.
Camping: The hike is divided into 14 parts, each consisting of a suggested days walk. There are serviced campsites awaiting you at the end of each day, each with shelter, toilets, tank/bore water, and picnic table. These campsites are listed below.
Map: The Great South West Walk and Lower Glenelg map, by Carto Graphics (Scale 1:50,000). You can purchase online or at RACV Portland (as of October 2019).
Distance to capital city: 360 km west of Melbourne, 4-5 hours drive.
Areas of interest: Mt. Richmond National Park, Lower Glenelg National Park, Cobboboonee National Park, Discovery Bay Marine National Park.
Socials: Follow Jimmy on Instagram, or Making Tracks here. Likewise, you can view our full collection of images from the Great South West Walk, here
From Nelson to Cape Bridgewater you’re on the beach, behind the dunes, or (if you take the inland detour) a stones throw away from the beach at Mt. Richmond National Park. The four campsites along this portion of the GSWW are: Lake Monibeong, Swan Lake, Taragal and The Springs.
Reaching the brink of the final sand dune the oceans sound greats you raw and unmuffled. Your eyes shift from near-white sand to crisp blue waves forever pulsing off the Southern Ocean. A stunning colour, the translucent ocean owes its gorgeous and inviting colour to the limestone coastline you’re traversing – the one that stretches from SW Victoria to SW Western Australia.
Heading east, rocky protrusions escape the dunes and divide the lengthy stretches of coast – these are your targets along an otherwise ‘featureless’ pathway. Beach hiking is a mental game – one foot then the other, and don’t look towards your target too often or it’ll appear to be moving steadily away from you! That or you’ll think you’re sinking slowly into the sand as your sense of distance warps!
Behind the beach in the dunes, you pass over exposed dense layers of seashells, pockets of ancient forests turned to brittle stone, and truely gnarly, battered, tough vegetation struggling under the oceans relentless squall. In the warming weather, scurrying reptiles disturb dry fallen debris as your footsteps approach. Whether they have legs or not, you don’t linger to investigate further. And calmly sitting behind the dunes with nowhere to run or drain, crystal clear sand-filtered lakes that are home to an array of life after a drop of fresh water to drink.
Highlight: Since colonisation so much of the land has been cleared and altered forever. Yet places remain where solid chunks of the natural environment have been given sanctuary and they are able to thrive. The Mt Richmond / Benwerrin ‘long hill’ rises modestly to meet you, an ancient volcano long ago covered by drifting sand pushed from the south-west. It is the home of an excellent array of bush and, in the right season, wildflowers. Over 450 species of plant have been recorded here, around 15% of the species found in Victoria. High quality vegetation – the kind you’d write home about! Life shifts from shiny-leaved peppermints to stands of smooth manna gums and brown stringybarks, all the while a lush-green landscape of grass trees grows under the canopy, shimmering in the breeze.
Here at Benwerrin, spare a moment for the foresight people had in the past to campaign for its protection that we benefit from today. Then continue back to the coastline, and on to some cliff top hiking!
From Cape Bridgewater to Portland you’re mostly hiking high above the ocean on clifftops, making your way from cape to cape to point. The two campsites on this stretch are Trewalla, Mallee, and of course there’s Portland.
The first point the vast and ever powerful Southern Ocean smashes into the Victorian coastline is at Discovery Bay and Cape Bridgewater. Year round the undisturbed swell drives itself into the layered cliffs and pounds away at the black volcanic granite and softer creamy sand and lime stones, ending in a hysterical white wash known (at times) to soak those taking in the spectacle from high above. On a calm day from the rock platforms below, you can view the special blend of geological layering unique to Cape Bridgewater.
There are many ace vantage points along the cliffs – including the tallest cliffs in the state looking out over Bridgewater Bay. Come this leg of the walk, you’re likely adjusting to the lack of reception or drained phone battery, now shifting to visually interpreting what weather the south-west special is going to offer you and the cape region. When storms are coming in, you’re well placed to keep track of its movement from the horizon, watching where the haze meets the seas surface and observing its direction – and knowing how long you have to seek cover!
Beyond the cliffs humpbacks and endangered southern right whales visit seasonally, likewise from above you can see the separate seal colonies of both the New Zealand and Australian fur seals. Although similar animals, they don’t socially interact and each occupies its own slab of exposed rock territory. Under the waves lays another world, protected here in parts by the Discovery Bay Marine National Park. In Victoria’s waters, you’ll find more endemic species than anywhere else, including the Great Barrier Reef. The continents southern facing coastline has sat geographically isolated for many millions of years, allowing a fascinating and diverse array of marine life to evolve like nowhere else on earth!
Highlight: Rounding the final point of the clifftop portion of the GSWW, you’re at Point Danger. From a distance the point will be a moving white mass during spring and summer, with the activity of the only mainland colony of Australasian Gannets. There’s an obviously marked road down to the area from the GSWW, which is fenced off to keep unwanteds out of the nesting area. If you’re lucky a gannet volunteer will be on hand and eager to share their knowledge and show you close-up what there birds are up to. They’re a spectacular animal – with a 1.5 meter wingspan and concord-shaped head designed for feeding at sea, with each bird diving into the water at speeds in excess of 100kmh!
From Portland to Moleside you’re hiking through tall eucalypt forests and stunted open heathlands that thrive in the sandier soils. The campsites on this portion include Cubby’s Camp, Cut-Out, Cobboboonee, and Fitzroy.
Here the sound of rolling and never ending waves is replaced by the conversations of the treetops of gums and stringybarks caught in the breeze, and birdsong hiding in the forest. Wrens, treecreepers, whistlers and robins seemingly follow you up the trail and populate each campsite around its edge. As the path pushes west into sandier countryside, the various undergrowths shift too, from bracken, to goodenia, to tea tree – even to tree ferns!
Celebrating its tenth anniversary of national park protection in November 2019, the Cobboboonee National Park includes excellent lengthy stands of Messmate. We won’t see the giant Messmate trees return to their pre-colonisation sizes in our lifetime, but the foresight of local folk protecting this patch will ensure that future generations will!
Highlight: Similar to big stretches of coast, the lengthy expanses of trail under the canopy offer minimal vistas given the flat lay of the land, but it brings a different hiking experience. Most hiking is based around a destination or view point, and these are usually expected to be reached within the days hiking. Whereas here your view for four days is restricted to those trees surrounding you. In the Cobboboonee stretch of the GSWW, the changes in scenery are a lot subtler. But they’re there!
As the ground undulates and changes its composition and elevation – albeit slightly – the species and densities of the plants that call these soils home alter. And so the animals you’ll encounter are different too. Maybe the understory is flowering white tea tree, or the ground is open enough for the lengthy stride of an emu. In parts the stringybarks give way to smooth gums, the tree of choice for local koalas. Then in depressions and creek lines, stands of Blackwoods grow and make shelter for powerful and southern booboos owls that you may be lucky to spot. In other areas, the soil is super sandy and can’t support large tall trees, so the heathland dominates and bursts into colour come spring. Whatever these changes, and however subtle they might be, each gradual shift makes the Cobboboonee section a special delight in grand contrast to the coast.
From Moleside to Nelson you’re winding beside the grand Glenelg River / Bochara as it heads towards the ocean. The campsites on this portion include Moleside, Battersby’s, Pattersons, and Simpsons. Note: for this portion of the GSWW, I travelled by canoe (thanks to Chris at Nelson Canoe Hire). If you can rest your feet in exchange for a paddle, I highly recommend it! Canoe/Kayak only campsites along the river include (but are not limited to) Skipworth Springs, Bowds, and Lasletts.
Again, in wonderful contrast to the other portions of the GSWW, the ‘north-western’ leg of the trail follows the river through the spectacular Lower Glenelg National Park. The river begins 350km upstream on the western range of the Grampians/Gariwerd National Park, and as the water twists and turns close to the coast its banks gradually gain some height.
Stunning, tangled gums dangle over the brackish water on the lower banks and brilliant azure kingfishers dart in-and-out of view, their short piercing call giving their location away. Whilst higher up on the banks stands of sheoak and stringybarks mix with black wattles and big mobs of native cherry. The river eventually eroded enough into the limestone to expose brilliant cliffs of creamy layered rock, with your third and forth days canoeing (third day hiking) coinciding with the most impressive faces of stone.
Highlight: The cliffs. Each as impressive as the last. The river route is fantastic, and with campsites dedicated to quiet water vessels, it makes for a truely special way to make your journey into the hamlet of Nelson.
The Friends of the GSWW website is a top resource to get you started, here.
The Great South West Walk, and the National, State and Coastal Parks from where these photos were taken, is the traditional lands of the Gunditjmara people. I respectfully acknowledge the Traditional Owners of these lands and waters on which I was able to traverse, learn, and appreciate – and pay respect to the First Nations Peoples and their elders, past, present and future.