Battle of the bush

By Ross Taylor 8 June 2016
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Savaged by floods and fires, Northern Wilsons Promontory circuit was left to go wild. Now, two friends take on the park to see what’s left after Mother Nature’s held the reins for a while.

This article originally appeared in the Sep-Oct 2012 edition of Australian Geographic Adventure.

THICK SCRUB SWAMPED the track between Lighthouse Point and Chinaman Long Beach on the Wilsons Promontory northern circuit. Punching through it, my shins were on fire and I was beginning to think I’d discovered a new form of torture. The ranger had warned me the walk was going to be tough, and he was right. But my worst mistake wasn’t underestimating the terrain, it was forgetting to bring long pants.

The adventure begins

It was a balmy Australia Day evening when Mark and I left Melbourne in convoy for Wilsons Promontory National Park in southern Gippsland. As we wound our way through the green and mysterious hills of the Strzelecki Ranges to the soundtrack of Triple J’s Hottest 100 countdown, I wondered what the next three days would hold. In March last year a massive rainstorm hit the Prom, with flood damage forcing the closure of large swathes of the park. But this year it reopened, and we were the first party to be issued a permit for the Northern Prom circuit, a three-day walk from Five Mile Road around the northern section of the national park. It was hard to know what state the track would be in: not only had it been through the flood, but three years earlier 25,000ha of the Northern Prom had been burnt in a bushfire. For many months, the regrowth had been left to flourish without foot traffic. This meant the track could be in a very poor state – we would soon find out.

That night I slept badly – my mind refused to switch off and our badly pitched tent flapped in a mischievous sea breeze. We woke early, brewed a cup of tea and shared a billy of porridge, then loaded packs and strode out along Five Mile Road. We were away before 8am, eager to get the 16km road-bash to Five Mile Beach over before it became too hot.

Wilsons Promontory

Rock-hopping around to Tin Mine Cove from Chinaman Long Beach after missing the track turn-off. (Image: Ross Taylor)

The track climbed steadily from the car park through magnificent stands of saw banksia, traversing the foot of the Vereker Range. Soon we broke out of the forest and were greeted by expansive views north to Corner Inlet and the northern arm of the Prom, stretching all the way to our planned last night’s camp at Tin Mine Cove. We also had a good view of the road we had to walk. The long ribbon of white gravel shimmered into the distance – always a slightly dispiriting sight for a bushwalker.

Predictably, we were slightly dispirited and sick of Five Mile Road by the time we reached its end. After a quick lunch we were off again, passing the Five Mile Beach Campsite, then climbing steeply. Off the beach it was humid and we sweated up a vague, overgrown track marked with pink tape. My shorts-clad legs got their first taste of that regrowth scrub. Towards the top of the hill we could see down into Miranda Bay and across to Rabbit Island. Shortly after, the squarish shape of Johnny Souey Cove came into sight.

It wasn’t long before we were descending to the cove through the twisted arms of dead hakeas, their grey limbs contrasting vividly with the rich greens of the heath below. The last section down onto the beach was particularly scrubby.

We decided to camp here (only later did I learn we should have stayed at the official campsite at Five Mile Beach). Taking a seat, we indulged in that most ancient of bushwalking rites: the removal of boots (accompanied by requisite moaning). Then I realised I had let myself get badly sunburned. My neck was coated scarlet, as were the backs of my hands and legs.

Wilsons Promontory

The spot where you can collect water at Johnny Souey Cove has been extensively rearranged by last year’s flood. (Image: Ross Taylor)

After a cup of tea we went to get water from the nearby creek. Its banks were a tangle of scrub and flood debris. With difficulty, we found the source, where water bubbled down into the brackish lagoon. Here we could see that the flood had completely altered the creek, shifting immense boulders and sweeping away a bend to expose white rock face.

After dinner we wandered along the beach. You were clearly only allowed in Johnny Souey Cove if you were part of a pair: we saw two Pacific gulls fossicking, two little hooded plovers scurrying along and two pied oyster catchers poking things with their brutal-looking orange beaks. Soon the cold wind drove us to bed.

Torture of 1000 lashes

The next morning dawned brightly. We broke camp and walked to the end of Johnny Souey Cove, where we had to climb over Three Mile Point to get to Three Mile Beach. The map showed the track sidling around the point on the rocks, but I share an office with guidebook author Glenn Tempest, who has covered many of Victoria’s bushwalks, and he had told me, “You can follow a sand blow over the point and short-cut the rocks – it only takes 10 minutes.”

I believed him, foolishly.

We thrashed up the hill, the track disappearing entirely after a few minutes. My sunburnt legs enjoyed the next 30 minutes as we beat our way through thick fire regrowth. On the crest of the ridge we headed uphill, hoping to hit some kind of track. Nothing. We headed across the hill, parallel to the shore, but kept getting blocked by thick stands of dead tea-tree. We decided to walk straight down to the rocks and traverse them, as per the map – but that wasn’t easy, either. We ended up squeezing through tea-tree that had been blown sideways, crawling on our hands and knees at times, before finally making it down to the ocean. There we easily rock-hopped north until we hit Three Mile Beach.

Beaches always look shorter than they are; we could see where we needed to be, the ridge of Lighthouse Point made hazy by sea spray. We weren’t alone –countless soldier crabs kept us company on the walk.

At the end of the beach we climbed a steep, sandy gully to the lighthouse. The map showed a track, but we didn’t find it. Instead, we forced our way west across the densely vegetated hillside, my legs receiving their second beating of the day, while our hands grew black from climbing over burnt trees. After half an hour Mark had had enough and stopped to pull out his long pants. I hadn’t brought pants, but had packed a set of thermals – or so I thought. They were nowhere to be found. I was going to have to grin and bear it.

Shortly after we found the track, taking us towards the saddle between Mt Margaret and Mt Hunter. It was very overgrown in places – bushes lashed my shins while I tried to take my mind off death by a thousand cuts. As we ate lunch on the saddle, we fended off the savage bites of March flies and small black ants. Not encouraged to linger, we soon started the gentle descent to Chinaman Long Beach. While the descent may have been gentle, the bush was anything but. In parts the track was so overgrown we kept losing it and had to backtrack.

My battered shins were relieved when we finally dropped down onto Chinaman Long Beach. Just offshore was a flock of black swans. They took off – long, graceful necks extended in flight, white feathers under their wings flashing in unison.

Our next stopover, Tin Mine Cove, already had a few visitors, some fishermen who had set up a large tent and looked set for a boozy evening. We greeted them warily. We ended up camping on the beach because the track to the campsite was blocked by fallen trees. It was a beautiful spot; not far away a clear brook ran into the sea. The heat and azure water made it impossible to resist a swim.

Dinner was accompanied by the most incredible sunset over Corner Inlet, the sky passing through many phases of brilliant blue. With darkness, the March flies fled, but the mosquitoes took over for the evening shift and we went to bed early.

Disaster strikes

Mark and I woke to a high tide, grey skies and the gentle throb of fishing boats. After a quick brekky we shouldered packs for the 23km walk back to the car. The track was in a bad state, although Parks had recently chopped back the vegetation, much of it was lying across the track. It was this that brought Mark unstuck, just 20 minutes after breaking camp. Trailing behind him, I heard a sudden cry. Catching up, I was greeted by Mark clutching his leg and spitting profanities. He’d badly sprained his ankle in a hidden hole.

Straightaway we knew there was no way Mark was going to make it to the car. After a quick discussion, we decided I would dash back to the beach with Mark’s pack to see if he could hitch a ride with the fishermen. Otherwise, it might mean a lift in a helicopter.

I hurried back to the beach – Mark hobbled along behind, using sticks as makeshift crutches. From the top of the hill I could see the fishermen were readying to leave, and my anxiety levels rose. But when I plunged down onto the sand, they were just offshore and I managed to hail them. The fishermen were happy to give Mark a lift back to Port Welshpool; I gave him $50 and we made plans for me to pick him up once I got back to the car.

Then I was on my own.

I made my way back up over the headland and onto Chinaman Long Beach, accompanied briefly by a pair of swooping swallows. I strode along reciting poetry to myself. It wasn’t long before the track disappeared into the heath-covered swamp that lies between the beach and Five Mile Road.

Five minutes off the beach a brown snake and I scared the bejesus out of each other. This encounter inspired me to find the ‘Lucky Snake Warding Off Stick’, which I used to beat the path ahead. Soon I entered a unique and beautiful landscape, unlike any other I have seen in Australia: a vast plain of low vegetation, with myriad grass trees broken only by the occasional stand of saw banksia or small, damp gully choked with thick scrub. The track was non-existent except for pink tape and the occasional white wand. Once again, my legs felt the sting of a thousand shin-high bushes.

I hurried across the plain, strangely anxious to get back to the car now I was on my own. In one gully the track disappeared and the scrub bore down so thickly I felt claustrophobic. I ran out of water, so it was with relief that I finally arrived at Lower Barry Creek Campsite and refilled. I forced myself to stop and eat lunch even though I wanted to keep going, draping my legs with the map to protect them from the March flies.

Slowly I started to climb towards the Vereker Range. As the ground got drier, the vegetation got bigger and I started to pass low granite domes. It wasn’t too much longer before I hit Five Mile Road. By now the sun was high in the sky and I sweated as I walked the last 6km to the car as fast as I could. At the car park I had a little surprise: Mark was lounging in the shade of a tree like a Roman emperor. He had managed to catch a bus from Port Welshpool to another town, then at the information centre he met some German tourists who were heading to the Prom and offered him a lift – apparently the bush crutches helped!

The next day I had a tour planned with the ranger in charge of the reconstruction, so Mark and I said our goodbyes and I headed off to Tidal River, the park’s main camping ground. Here my legs had one last painful encounter – only this time with hot water.