As we headed north from Warrnambool towards the Grampians National Park, for the first time I started to get a sense of inland Australia. We followed minor roads through small towns and agricultural land, crossing the flat plains with the mountains rising up ahead of us. It felt like we were moving to a different part of the country, although at just two hours inland in a country where you’d need weeks to drive from coast to coast, it was hardly the outback.
Named by the British after the mountain range in Scotland, the Grampians National Park feels quite British in some ways, and decidedly not in others. Our campsite, a well-appointed holiday park on the edge of Hall’s Gap, was frequented by a mob of kangaroos (yes, that is the collective noun), who grazed around our camping plots during the night. On our first night I walked from the amenities block to the van without a torch, and would have walked right into a big mean-looking one if it hadn’t been chewing so loudly. There were also plenty of white and yellow cockatoos, which we’d seen quite a lot of, and kookaburras, which we hadn’t. Like quite a lot of Australian animals, kookaburras look like an amalgamation of various animals that don’t quite go together; a huge squat head with a pretty intimidating beak stuck on to a weedy little body, making them look like they could topple over any second. Over dinner we watched a group of middle aged Australian campers feeding them strips of cooked meat, which the birds took in their beaks and beating them on the ground with all their might until they were convinced the bits of cooked meat were in fact dead, before swallowing them whole.
The mountains here aren’t the biggest – the highest point is only 1,168m (3832 ft) – but like the mountains in UK, what they lack in sea level metres they make up for in drama and variety. On our first day we walked from Hall’s Gap to the Pinnacle, a popular viewpoint over Hall’s Gap and its surrounding lakes and forests. It was a varied walk, taking us first along a shady creek, then up through steep, narrow canyons and bouldery rock formations, and finally up to the rocky summit.
It was lovely to be walking in the mountains again, and the following afternoon when our plans of going rock climbing fell through, we drove up to the northern end of the Grampians to do the short, scrambly hike up Hollow Mountain. A favourite spot for climbers and boulderers, this walk took us through the brush, still scarred from the forest fires in 2014, before climbing steeply up through the limestone boulders of the mountain. There were plenty of caves, ledges and gullies to explore, with lovely views over the plains to the north of the National Park.
For the slightly lazier nature enthusiast, the Grampians had plenty to offer besides walking. As well as a spot for walking and climbing, Hollow Mountain is also an important spot for the local Aboriginal group, the Jardwadjali. Not far from the start of the walking trail is the Gulgurn Manja, or ‘Hands of Young People’ cave painting, a collection of hand prints, emu tracks and parallel lines painted in vivid orange and white inside a shallow cave. In its sheltered spot with a wide, open view overlooking the vast plains, it’s easy to understand why this spot is of great cultural significance to the Jardwadjali people. Likewise the Bunjil Shelter, on the eastern edge of the National Park, was a perfectly chosen spot. We stopped by as we left the Grampians on our way back to Ballarat, to see the cave painting there of Bunjil the creator, and his two dingo helpers.
Other spots we visited included the Balconies, a dramatic rocky shelf jutting out into the valley, Bellfield Lake, a pleasant lake with dead trees sticking up out of the water and emus running around on the shore, and MacKenzie Falls. At this point in the trip, we had tried and largely failed to see some impressive waterfalls. Sheoak Falls near Lorne was completely dry; Splitters Falls on our walk to the Pinnacle was barely a trickle; even Erskine Falls, also near Lorne, although very pretty was not exactly the dramatic gush we had expected. So as we followed the path down to the bottom of MacKenzie Falls, our expectations were pretty low; as long as there was some water in it, we’d be happy. What we found was a wide cascade, complete with rainbow, in a cool, pleasant valley. Expectations certainly exceeded.