Viewed from above, even on a map, The Grampians is immediately outstanding. A crescent moon-shaped geological landmass striking out abruptly from Victoria’s flat western plains, 100 kilometres in length when measured, as the crow flies, along its craggy sickle-shaped ridgeline.
The trip had taken a bit of planning. Emails, counter-emails and a host of other digital introductions. In a roundabout sort of way, the ‘digital’ component reminded me of a prostate appointment I’d just had with a doctor. He'd delighted in telling me he was a ruckman for the Carlton Football Club in the 60s. Never has the over-used literary device “he smiled wanly” been more appropriate in response to something said.
The Grampians region is known for many things, so many things in fact — I know from experience — it’s hard to cram everything into three days and two nights. But more than anything else, Outdoor was keen as mustard to sample its remote extremities, to cop an eyeful of central Victoria from up there along its curved ridgeline, 1000 metres above the plains.
A CLIMBER'S PARADISE
The Gramps is renowned throughout the climbing world for its bouldering. To the north, Mount Arapiles, one of the world’s most significant and important rock climbing destinations, looms in the distance, its urgent rocky upwelling perfect for all manner of climbing styles. Everyone from free solo pioneers and vanguard push-the-envelope practitioners like Alex Honnold and Peter Croft, to more traditional exponents, like our very own Tim Macartney-Snape, John Muir, Monique Forestier and Andrea Hah, have climbed significant routes there.
Layered onto this rock climbing and bouldering destination hip is world-class multi-hatted temples of gastronomy, like The Royal Mail Hotel, located at the southern edge of The Gramps, in Dunkeld. You could, conceivably, climb all day and later that evening, with arms recovering from burning pump-induced lactic acid, go on to enjoy one of the finest haute cuisine experiences in Australia. No wonder those with an interest in promoting The Grampians have it tough. Imagine trying to round the public relations corners of a region that offers serious world-class rockclimbing, 20-course degustation menus, walks and treks suitable for all standards, and top-of-the-tree luxe day-spa experiences involving yoghurt baths and chakra meridian realignment?
EXPLORING THE GRAMPS ON FOOT
The central segment trek can be attacked in a number of ways. Mine was organised by Grampians Tourism, Parks Victoria and The Grampians Peaks Walking Co. (GPWCo). As well as helping you lose yourself in the ancient majesty of the Grampians, GPWCo can provide sustenance befitting the region’s fame as a gastronomic hotspot.
Consign the usual zip-lock bags of trail mix and sachets of lightweight freeze-dried meals you reconstitute with boiling water to memory. No, during this trek a chef — that’s right, a dude in whites and one of those peaked hats, like a bush-dwelling Auguste Escoffier — is waiting for you at your campsite making sauces and flambéing whatever it is that takes your fancy. Okay, I’m not sure he or she are in their whites, but you know what I mean.
During our trek, sadly, the chef was absent so we had tiffins of delicious Indian food brought to our campsite instead. I can’t explain the luxury of dining on spicy Indian food after a hard day on the trail. Added to this, a few ice-cold beers were also thrown-in for good measure.
“What strange nirvana is this?” I thought to myself as I levered off the top of a second ice-cold stubby, aching feet and funny pain in my knee rapidly disappearing into memory. Added to the beer and delicious Indian food, each night a guy arrived in a van to set up our tents, complete with sleeping bag and portable air mattress. Thanks GPWCo!
Of course, for me at least, thankful as I was for the food, beers and not having to manhandle a tent and sleeping bag into position after six hours of up and down walking, I was champing at the bit to sample the delights of the actual trail. The trail-makers at The Grampians are world renowned. This is especially evident during day two along the ridge on the way up to the Mount Rosea lookout, a walk that must surely count as one of the most sublime anywhere on the planet.
Up there on the edge of the crescent’s spine, the flatness of the surrounding lands are ocean-like. You feel like an ancient mariner atop a crow’s nest, the surrounding plains’ yellow-green grassy sea stretching out all around, horizon to horizon. The work done at foot level by the trail-makers is nearly on par as that done by the Jaadwa Great Ancestor Spirit, Bunjil, the creator of The Grampians, or as it’s known to indigenous Australians: Gariwerd.
BLESSED ARE THE TRAIL-MAKERS
Certainly, respect for the delicate, often elusive nature of the ancient, untouched power of a place like the ridgeline up to Mount Rosea is present in every metre of hand-built trail. The skill in its making is that it hardly seems there at all, almost invisible, and yet, upon close inspection, it most definitely is there, put in place with such sensitivity to the surrounding area that it’s barely perceptible. Each section of trail is a carefully positioned boulder repositioned from a place oftentimes less than a metre away. Each stone or other piece of material has been individually assessed for suitability and carefully hand-positioned, over and again for tens of kilometres. When the whole 160 kilometre trail is in place, this exacting technique will have been replicated in a similar fashion, four times over. It brings a smile to the face knowing there’s people on Earth who do this kind of thing.
The people from Tourism Victoria and Grampians Tourism, during the pre-trek briefing, were almost apologetic about what lay in store during day three. “It’s a little bit dull,” they explained. But I have to disagree. Granted, it’s not sublimely spectacular like the ethereal visual bliss that day two unleashes, but I liked it a lot. It presents a challenging whoop-dee-doo series of moguls pretty much start to finish over the full 16 kilometre length. If you don’t mind a bit of a heavy breathing and some leg burn, then it’s not bad at all. Alongside for the whole way, through gaps in the left-side treeline, there’s glorious views up to the ridge where you were during day two. Personally, I like this sort of full-circle effect. But more than that, it bestows the ‘central segment’ three-day trek with a depth of character.
Day one up to The Pinnacle, you join a throng of tourists and sightseers on one of the state’s most popular single-day return walks. And it’s rightly popular. Although you’re sharing the trail with many others, to me, it was the perfect introductory day. It brought back memories of doing the walk decades previously and engendered a democratic ‘adventure for everyone’ esprit de corps. It’s great that people who visit Victoria put The Pinnacle on their itinerary. That’s what I thought amid the masses of faces and accents.
Day two is sublime. After a restful night on a lilypad-like campsite, with tents set-up on raised circular timber platforms connected by a similarly raised timber walkway, we made our way to the day’s trailhead and quickly began the climb to the ridgeline. Once up there, a lingering love-affair with the Grampians quickly commences.
Then there’s day three, the mistakenly maligned bête-noire of the trek.
Each day is different. Not every day can be day two, up along the ridgeline. I mean, imagine being up on the ridgeline forever, never going down. Without the shouldering days, one and three, there’d be no day two. To get somewhere good, you must first get there and then, get out.
A SUBLIME EXPERIENCE
Cass, our contact at GPWCo, is a keen trail runner. She dreams of one day running the full 160 kilometres through The Gramps during a race. Wouldn’t that be something? She revealed to us she often runs the day three route, 32 kilometres there and back, as a training run. It can’t be all that bad. I tell you, if I was training for a 160 kilometre run, doing day three as a training run would be an absolute gem. I’m glad I don’t have to, of course, because it would be a gut-churning nightmare, but at least the location would be pleasant. Yes, it’s relentlessly hilly and undulating but, so what? It’s no walk in the park.
The final kilometre or so is also worth mentioning. After a flat section amid a gorgeous swathe of verdant green ferns, the trail ended abruptly at a sealed road somewhere in the middle of suburban Halls Gap. It caused us to suddenly burst out of trekker, master bushman mode and back into the townies we sadly are, the charade ended. I love this sort of instant transformation. Bushman to urbanite, once again. After stopping at a nearby pub for a celebratory ale, we made our way to the local outdoor pool. It had been hot during the trek and we were pretty cantankerous after day three’s sweaty undulations. We dove into the cool water; the pool’s surface was covered with kamikazee ladybugs, the orange with black spots variety. It was magnificent. As we floated on our backs looking up towards the Grampians peaks, rescuing ladybugs from a drowning death, the skies suddenly filled with black clouds and rain started to fall, heavily. Perfect.