The wind batters our tired faces as we stretch our legs on Stringybark Track, ascending Parker Hill.
“This is already a good little walk, isn’t it Neil?” The Chop asks excitedly.
“Any walk would be good after that drive, hey Chop?” I reply.
It’s around three and a half hours from home in Melbourne’s northern suburbs to the Australian mainland’s second most southern point, Cape Otway. We’ve made an early start for the first day of our Otways adventure, so we’re all relieved to finally be getting amongst it.
As we stroll through fern glades and coastal heath, I warn the kidlets about the leeches I encountered last time I walked this track.
“I couldn’t take a step without another leech attaching itself to my legs,” I explain. Then, noticing the worried look on The Fairy Princess’ face, I add “but you guys will be fine with your long pants on.”
Soon we reach a tall section of forest, closer to the summit of Parker Hill. Tree ferns and bracken fern line the track, and the Wattles and Tea tree tower over us providing shelter from the coastal squall.
The Fairy Princess marvels at the tiny details of the vegetation – the patches of different mossy groundcovers scattered around the forest floor, the Wattle flowers in full bloom, and the lichen that attaches itself to every accepting tree branch. The Chop finds his fun in jumping over the occasional fern that has invaded the middle of the track since it was last cleared.
“Look, guys, there’s a black wallaby,” I whisper. They only get a quick glance at him grazing in the scrub before he notices us and bounds off.
There hasn’t been a single complaint from either of the kids when we pass our half way mark and find ourselves at a track junction, at the clifftops overlooking the picturesque Parker Inlet. We stop for a break and I tell the kids a bit about the place.
“This is where the supplies for the lighthouse used to come in by ship,” I explain. “They’d have to carry everything 6 kilometres back to the lighthouse on foot.”
Expecting the usual groans of “boooring”, I’m surprised when they seem genuinely interested, so I continue.
“One of the supply boats even wrecked down there, and you can still find parts of it on the beaches if you go exploring.”
Both kids want to go down there and have a look but we decide, considering it’s only our first day, that we’ll be doing ourselves a favour if we skip the 300 steps down to the Inlet. Instead, we continue south along a section of the Great Ocean Walk, looping back toward Crayfish Bay.
The Fairy Princess is getting tired and the whinging begins but we distract her with the occasional views of the incredible coastline toward Point Franklin and by bird spotting. Just on this section of track we see crimson rosellas, robins, wrens, and even a black cockatoo.
Before we know it we’re turning back onto Crayfish Bay Track to make our way back to the car. It’s all uphill from here and, though it seems like a gentle climb to me, The Fairy Princess is really struggling. I consider giving her a piggyback but decide that’s counterproductive, so we enlist positive reinforcement for what feels like a very long few hundred metres.
Once we get the kids back in the car and strapped in, we share a high five, excited that we pulled it off without too much trouble.
The kids are happy. We’re happy. It’s a brilliant start to the trip.
NEED TO KNOW – PARKER INLET VIA STRINGYBARK TRACK
Length (km): 4 km
Time (hrs/min): 2 hours
Grade: Easy. Grade 3 (according to the Australian Walking Track Grading System).
Return / Circuit / One-Way / Partial Circuit: Circuit
Park: Great Otway National Park
Closest Town: Apollo Bay (33 km)
Car Access: Turn off the Great Ocean Road onto Lighthouse Road (lookout for the signs to Cape Otway Lightstation). Head south for about 9 km until you see the sign for Blanket Bay, turning left into Blanket Bay Road. After just under a kilometre, turn right into another track signed as Parker Hill and Point Franklin. When you reach a car park (after only 100 metres or so), turn left across the cattle grid and then immediately turn right onto Crayfish Bay Track. Follow this for just under a kilometre and park at another carpark. The trailhead is at the end of this carpark, and Stringybark Track is the first turn-off on your left.
Other Hikes: There are loads of hiking trails nearby, from short hikes to day hikes and the multi-day Great Ocean Walk. Have a chat to staff at the Lighstation about your needs.
THE CAPE OTWAY KOALAS
With 45 minutes to spare before we have to be at the lighthouse, we decide to head back down Lighthouse Road to give the kids their first glimpse of koalas in the wild.
Kennett River, an hour back towards Melbourne on the Great Ocean Road, is probably the best-known place for koala spotting, but Lighthouse Road is even better. We’ve only been driving a few minutes when we see another family pulled over and staring into the trees, so we pull over to join them.
There are koalas everywhere. We spot three within a couple of hundred metres of the car on this stop, and then we drive further and stop twice more, finding a handful of koalas lazing about in the trees at each spot. The kids are clearly fascinated but still not easy to impress.
“They’re all just sleeping there,” The Chop says. “Don’t they do anything else?”
I don’t know how to answer that one, but the koalas answer for me when we’re driving back toward the lighthouse and we have to break for one who’s waddling his way down the middle of the road.
CAPE OTWAY LIGHTSTATION
“It’s best known now for being the oldest surviving lighthouse on mainland Australia,” Alex explains, “but for many years it was known as ‘The Beacon of Hope’.”
Alex is one of Cape Otway Lightstation’s roving guides, and we’re listening to one of his regular talks at the Lightstation café. He’s an incredibly engaging speaker, making the history of this place interesting even to our two tired kidlets.
“For nine out of 10 early immigrants, this light was their first glimpse of Australia. It meant they were maybe two days away from a better life in this new land.”
He goes on to explain the conditions on the ships these immigrants had spent anywhere up to a couple of months enduring on the ships that brought them here, and then he goes into the conditions that the lighthouse staff and their families lived under. By the end of his talk, we know all there is to know about the workings of the lighthouse and the people who kept it going.
We’re excited to see it for ourselves, so we stroll down the short path to where the lighthouse is perched on the towering sea cliffs above Bass Strait. We make our way up the steep, narrow spiral staircase to the top, and out onto the balcony. The views are incredible in every direction but the wind feels like it could lift either of the kids up and over the rails, so we don’t spend too long there before we trudge back down.
It’s time to see another side of this place. The side of things I never stop thinking about whenever I visit a significant European historical site.
INDIGENOUS HISTORY & BUSH TUCKER TALK
Most of the once heavily forested area that now makes up the lightstation precinct is cleared, but we’re told we need to head into the bush and find the “Meeting Hut” for our indigenous experience. We don’t see any signs along the way but the hut is hard to miss. We enter and find Dale talking to some other visitors. He soon finishes with them and as he notices us and the kids, he seems happy to see us.
“Ngatanwarr,” he says. “Welcome to Gadubanud country.”
I ask if he’s the one doing the 4 o’clock bush tucker talk and he explains that he’s there all day but they make scheduled times mainly for the tour buses.
“You’re here now, though,” he says. “So let’s do this.”
He starts by pointing to Cape Otway on a map of Victoria that’s divided into the various indigenous groups.
“So Cape Otway is the home of the Gadubanud or the King Parrot people. This was their paradise, and I’ll show you why.”
We take a couple of steps out the door of the hut and Dale picks some leaves off a nearby groundcover.
“Nearly all the plants you can see around you are either good for eating, seasoning food, or good medicine. The Gadubanud were good hunters and they ate all kinds of seafood, birds and other animals, but look at this place. It’s like a supermarket. They used all this, too,”
Then he passes a leaf each and asks us to give them a try. We all do, except for The Fairy Princess, who’s having none of this business. It’s delicious, like a rich peppery rocket.
“This one’s known as New Zealand spinach,” he says. “How good is it? They would have eaten this by itself or even used it to stuff their fish and add some flavour.”
We take a few more steps but then Dale pauses and points back at the Meeting Hut.
“So this is building is an artistic interpretation of the huts that the ancestors would have lived in. A lot of people think they were nomads or that if they did live in one place they slept rough, but we know that this isn’t the case. It’s bloody cold here. If you just went to sleep under a tree you wouldn’t be waking up in the morning.”
We continue walking around the hut and tasting different plants, as Dale explains how they’d have been used by the Gadubanud. None of us had any idea that Australia’s indigenous people built structures to live in, never mind all this bush food. We’re hanging off his every word. The kids are constantly surprising us with their enthusiasm for indigenous history. They ask interesting questions and Dale is excellent at keeping them engaged and involved.
“You guys seem really connected,” he remarks to Lori. “Are you aboriginal?”
We’re both too shocked to offer anything more than a shake of our heads. I’m kind of flattered, and I can tell Lori is too.
Before we know it, we’ve been with Dale for nearly an hour. Our bush foods talk has well and truly finished but we’ve been just having a casual chat about indigenous history, life, parenting, and a million other things. We see some other visitors make their way into the hut and Dale says he needs to go and start another talk. He departs with some compliments and words of encouragement for the kids.
“I could’ve hung out with Dale for another few hours,” I say as we head back down the track toward the café. “What a legend.”
Lori and the kidlets agree.
ACCOMMODATION: HEAD LIGHTHOUSE KEEPER’S BED AND BREAKFAST
It’s finally time to check out our accommodation for the night at the Head Lighthouse Keeper’s Bed and Breakfast, only a short stroll from the “Meeting Hut”. As locations go, it doesn’t get much better than this. Standing on the front porch we can see Bass Strait, the lighthouse, and the heathy coastal vegetation surrounding it.
I open the door of the stone crafted heritage building (built in 1857) to find one of the nicest rooms I’ve ever had the chance to lay my head down in. It’s well equipped with a king sized bed, TV and DVD player, microwave, and all the usual hotel room amenities.
Though the cottage can sleep up to 16 people, it’s been sectioned off to suit our needs. A door on the other side of the main bedroom leads to a small hallway with a beautifully renovated bathroom (including a huge claw foot bath) off to the side, and at the other end is a bedroom that can sleep four. It’s a rare and wonderful thing to go away and not share one room with the kids. Better yet, the kids seem just as excited as us about this.
Paul, the lovely chef from the café, has set us up with food that suits all our needs, and it’s all delicious and wholesome. He’s managed to provide a curry for me and a separate meal for each of the other three fussy eaters (as well as breakfasts for the morning). We sit at our table by the window and look out at the lighthouse while we eat.
I guess you could say we’re getting a bit of a glimpse of the harsh, isolated life that the lighthouse keepers and their families lived back in the 1800’s – there’s no wifi, no TV or mobile reception, and we’re almost alone on this remote cape – but this is luxury to me.
After dinner, we have a stroll around the grounds to check out all the bits we haven’t had time to see yet. It’s after 5pm now, so we’ve got the grounds almost entirely to ourselves. Most of the buildings are closed up now, but that only adds to the feeling of isolation. There’s the telegraph station, the radar lookout, the old workshop, and even a “dinosaur hut” with fossils found nearby at a place known as Dinosaur Cove.
Once we get the kids to bed, we enjoy a gorgeous sunset and then have a couple of beers while we wait for the stars to come out. With so little light pollution around, they don’t disappoint.