Great Walks takes on the entire 13-day Grampians Peaks Trail in Victoria.
It’s a big mistake to ever start out on a hike thinking, “this’ll be easy.” It never is. In retrospect, I should have surmised something from the name, Grampians Peaks Trail, but the modest quoted daily distances and estimated walk times had me looking forward to a leisurely stroll combined with plenty of lazy afternoons with a book.
This long awaited 13 day/164km trail through one of Victoria’s most treasured national parks, dominated by tilted sandstone mountains and striking rock formations, opened on 13 November and I was there at the starting line, a willing guinea pig eager to launch myself on the new product. But as with any fresh and untested route, there were a few surprises ahead.
The GPT is a one-way hike starting from Mt Zero at the northern end of Gariwerd Grampians and winding its way over the Mt Difficult, Mt William and Serra Ranges to finish in the tiny town of Dunkeld in the south. It’s graded mostly Level 4 and 5 (another red flag I managed to gloss over) and has 11 relatively fancy campsites en route, eight of which have weather sealed communal shelters, with two having dinky yet cool private huts for guided walks.
Flush with energy and oblivious to the challenges ahead, my friend and I haven’t even set foot on the GPT when we’re adding another hour’s walk to our first day with a side trip up Mt Zero, right at the northern trailhead. Summitting it is not an official part of the trail but if you want to tick off all of Gariwerd’s highest peaks then it’s got to be done. The 364m peak gives us our first look at what’s to come.
Gariwerd’s origins began around 400 million years ago as layers of river sediment, later compacting and uplifting to form impressive serrated ranges. Once on the walk proper, the wow moments start almost immediately as we climb steep sloping rock slabs (terrain that will become very familiar by trail’s end) before sinking into Mt Stapylton Amphitheatre, overlooked by the Taipan Wall, a sheer slab of orange streaked in black and white from algae and bird poo.
Rock hopping is the way of the day and by the time our seven-hour hike draws to a close, the late afternoon light casts a golden glow over the dramatic landscape, making it even more beautiful.
We arrive at Barigar Camp weary yet exhilarated. Campsites on the GPT are pretty slick, offering a mix of timber and sand tent pads, solar powered USB charging points, water tanks, drop toilets and often, fully enclosed and architecturally designed yet simple communal shelters.
Anyone expecting a heavily groomed trail to pair with the fancy campsites however will be either sorely disappointed or deeply relieved, depending on your view point. This is slow walking. Our second day is an exhausting mix of formed trail, rock hopping and steep slabs made slippery by rain and hail but the scenery is spectacular. We’re treated to mountains, vast open valleys, waterfalls and wildflowers, and gradually climb through the mountains’ stepped serrations as gusty winds blow the clouds away for reprieves of blue sky.
Camp at Gar (Mt Difficult) is possibly the most spectacular of the entire trail, perched just metres from a cliff edge with panoramic views over the treed valley below. A smattering of timber sun lounges bolted into the rock and the communal shelter’s glass frontage make the most of the outlook.
With the official trail notes indicating a 4.5 hour walk to the next hut we indulge in a sleep-in only to hit the trail and immediately discover a sign revising the estimate to seven hours for the 14km distance. It’s a pattern that repeats itself throughout the walk (no doubt Parks Vic are rectifying) and blows all my plans of leisurely afternoons. Two kilometres an hour is about the standard pace for much of the trail, but at least the spectacular adventure playground distracts our minds from the effort.
The route undulates pretty consistently (there’s over 8,000m of elevation to deal with) and involves plenty of off-camber rock slabs, and on such terrain, with no packed ground trail to follow, care is required to hunt out the sporadic yellow triangles.
We peer over sheer cliffs, hike across rocks drizzled in moss beds and walk a forest full of bracken ferns and orchids. The diversity continues the next day as we descend off the mountains to Halls Gap, transitioning from exposed sub-alpine terrain through moss-covered rock gardens to eucalyptus forests dotted with wildflowers and creaking gang-gang cockatoos.
Halls Gap is the only town passed on the trail and makes a handy food resupply point. Most people would overnight here but I foolishly booked to combine two sections into one day – not officially permitted by Parks Victoria but you can fiddle the system by booking one section to start the same day you finish another (note, I wouldn’t recommend it.)
In a café, I order a sizeable serve of corn fritters and salad with a side of bacon, eggs and toast (okay, I order two meals) and then say goodbye to my buddy. From here I walk alone. The central section begins with a solid climb back into the mountains via some of Gariwerd’s most famous features. Wonderland is well named, a maze of surreal rock formations, narrow passageways and jutting cliff edges that look out over Halls Gap and Lake Bellfield.
By the time I get to camp I’ve been hiking nine challenging hours with a brief pause to soak my feet in the icy waters of Venus Baths... Read part two next week.
Words and photos_Laura Waters