Having grown up in California’s Bay Area, I know this terrain well: winding two-lane coastal road, ocean far below, steep hills threatening mudslides at every turn. Eucalyptus and pine rustle under partly foggy skies; rain forms sheer curtains dividing one clear expanse from the next. If it weren’t for the left-side placement of the driver’s seat and the absence of fast-food joints along the road, I’d think I was driving up the Pacific Coast Highway, heading home from Los Angeles. But this is the Australian state of Victoria, an alternate-universe version of my home state—and billboards and new construction are restricted on this famous route, the Great Ocean Road. After winding our way inland, through green valleys dotted with farms and a temperate rainforest that swallows the car for several miles, we emerge near Cape Otway, where we’ll rest and refuel before heading out on the road’s pedestrian counterpart, the Great Ocean Walk—a new hiking trail that follows roughly the same path but encompasses the fragile areas of coastline where cars aren’t allowed. The walk opened two years ago—the culmination of years of planning and investment. 

The Great Ocean Road was a project dreamed up after World War I by local government officials, businesspeople, and community members. It was meant to improve access and attract revenue to once-isolated coastal communities, and also to provide work for returning war veterans. The entire road had to be dug by hand with pickaxes and shovels from the formerly impassable coastline on the southernmost edge of mainland Australia. The area’s natural beauty has stayed relatively unspoiled even after years of heavy tourism, thanks to government restrictions. Still, driving is not the ideal way to see the environmentally sensitive Victorian coast. In the high season, traffic is bumper-to-bumper from the start of the road outside Melbourne to the endpoint, the majestic Twelve Apostles rock formation, about 250 miles away. The route veers inland in several places, which protects some of the most pristine areas from car traffic but cuts them off from visitors.

Hence the creation of the Great Ocean Walk, a $2 million state-funded project that officially opened early last year. Like the road, the walk was built almost entirely by hand with basic tools, in this case to protect the fragile ecosystem. In addition to offering an incredible diversity of terrain and wildlife, the trail is friendly to all levels of walkers, from people looking for brief, scenic strolls to hard-core backpackers. Its “step on, step off” design allows visitors to do short hikes between lodges, campsites, or towns, or to hike the whole trail over eight or nine days. Tourism and park officials even pick up hikers by bus at the end of a day and take them to their accommodations, which range from very basic and ultra-greened-out campsites—complete with composting toilets, rainwater catchment tanks, and bathrooms made from reclaimed wood—to modern eco-lodges, which run on alternative energy, offer all-natural personal care products, and serve healthy, organic, and local fare. Moonlight Head Hotel, a seriously luxe four-bedroom eco-villa designed by star green architect Glenn Murcutt, opened last year; an adjacent boutique hotel will open sometime in the next few years.

I arrive for my Great Ocean Walk trip one morning in November—early summer in Australia—planning to hike, camp, and stay in a couple of different ecolodges. But it quickly becomes clear that the weather has other plans. In the Melbourne airport, I am greeted by my guide, David Chadwick, who gets right down to brass tacks. “Did you bring hiking boots and plenty of warm gear?” he asks, drawing out the vowels and dropping the “r” on that last word in the classic Aussie way. “Definitely,” I tell him (though I’d thought it was only as a precautionary measure, it being summertime and all). Chadwick says that the forecast calls for intense wind and unheard-of low temperatures, as well as driving rain, which, I later learn, is somewhat uncommon in this drought-stricken country. Just my luck to arrive in the middle of this weather. That puts the kibosh on camping and daylong hikes. A ranger and firefighter, Chadwick travels all over Australia doing contract work for the park service; he has the sun-creased face and sure-footed gait of someone used to facing down the elements—and being jovial about it, too. If he says it’s that bad, I don’t feel inclined to argue.

Resolving to make the best of things with short day hikes, we head off to the first night’s accommodation, the Cape Otway Centre for Conservation Ecology. Our drive inland takes us through a fertile farm valley, which gives way to row upon row of neatly-planted eucalyptus (“blue gum plantations,” Chadwick explains), and then to a dense forest full of “koala crossing” signs and presumably even more full of unseen koalas. We arrive at the Centre and decide to take advantage of the break between rainstorms to head out on one of the Centre’s own nature trails with co-owner Shayne Neal and the lodge’s three other guests. Five minutes later, we find ourselves less than fifty feet from a mob of wild kangaroos grazing in a parched-looking field; just up the hill we spot several koalas lounging in the trees, some with joeys in their pouches. Two different kinds of wallabies—which I would have mistaken for very young kangaroos without Neal’s guidance—and more species of birds than I can keep straight round out the hour or two of walking, which make venturing out in the wintry chill well worth it.

Neal conveys an infectious enthusiasm about the wildlife and the region as he eagerly points out the various life forms along the way and describes the work that he and his wife, Lizzie Corke, did to restore the native vegetation to the once-denuded land. They built the spacious mud-brick lodge themselves and helped design the solar array that powers it, and Corke, a well-known zoologist, runs the wildlife-rehabilitation program at the Centre—one of a handful of such programs in the state.

That evening, as freezing rain begins to pummel the building and the wind tears at the trees out front, our hosts crank up the solar-powered heating system in the guest rooms and stoke the massive old wood-burning stove in the living room area. Those, plus a couple of sweaters, help me thaw out after the walk. Still, neither a hearty, three-course dinner of local seasonal fare nor a heap of homemade muesli with yogurt at breakfast insulate me from the chill to come on the trail the next morning. Two short jaunts in the 40-degree rain and wind, which normally would take 45 minutes or so, last double that, since Chadwick and I are weighed down by all our waterproof gear. But the slow going gives us extra time to contemplate the incredible landscape, and I’m mesmerized in spite of the meteorological challenges. As we make our way along the shore, we traverse tidepools and tiny rock beaches. Waves surge erratically and threaten to submerge these narrow chunks of land. The remarkable jaggedness of some of the rock formations hanging over the shoreline seems a little less incomprehensible after this display of oceanic force.

For my entire stay in Victoria, it seems like everyone I meet—from store clerks, to fellow hikers, to the wind-chapped old lighthouse caretaker who looks like he’s seen nearly a century’s worth of storms—comments on the freakish weather. And they almost always mention climate change in the next sentence. Water-starved southern Australia needs rain, but the freezing temperatures and snow flurries along stretches of the Great Ocean Road are completely anomalous this time of year, and they have people worried.

Newspapers are packed with coverage of the drought each day: According to one article I find in The Age, some environmentalists and politicians (including South Australian Premier Mike Rann) are blaming rice farming for the water woes; other articles quote scientists who link climate change and the hole in the ozone layer to the strange rainfall patterns throughout the country. Tight restrictions on residential water use are being enforced throughout the state, devastating many gardens and green spaces. Far worse, nothing can grow in the parched soil without irrigation, which is now costly thanks to increased water-use charges. Thus, many farms are being forced out of business—with food prices spiking as a result. In an effort to give priority to municipal water works, the federal government has already imposed irrigation water restrictions on many farmers in Victoria and the neighboring state of New South Wales. There is some worry that the government will shut off the irrigation water entirely; if that happens, farmers say, nationwide prices for fresh produce could triple within weeks.

But the drought is also having some unexpectedly positive consequences in farmland-rich Victoria. The record-low rainfall is drawing attention to the fact that some of the area’s big commodity crops—such as rice and cotton—are extremely water-intensive, and some farmers who once grew those crops are leaving the business. In recent years, a growing number of agroforestry companies have been buying these farms and converting them into highly profitable tree plantations: With their deep root systems, trees require less irrigation water, since the trees can tap into lowered water tables that other crops don’t reach. The federal government advocates these plantations as a sustainable solution to the country’s demand for timber and paper pulp (provided they’re managed in an eco-friendly way). But some environmentalists—and the influential eco-organizations Bush Heritage and Trust For Nature—aren’t so hot on these tree farms, preferring to buy farmland and convert it back into its native “bush” state to help restore the area’s shrinking biodiversity. That’s exactly what Neal and Corke did to create their 100-odd-acre preserve; Chadwick wants to do the same and is looking for his own farm to convert. “That’s a much better use of the land than farming,” Chadwick says.

Of course, Australians still have to get their food from somewhere, and imports to this far-flung continent are costly. So other green-minded folks are keeping the farming tradition alive, opting to use their land to grow fruits and vegetables using sustainable methods that demand less water than export commodities like rice and cotton. This shift is helping to create a thriving local food economy in Victoria—and it’s one that draws ecotourists and foodies alike.

After our stay at Cape Otway, Chadwick and I link up with Jennifer Wilkinson, the owner of Epicurious Travel, who has spent the past four years organizing food- and wine-oriented treks all over Australia. She loves Victoria in particular because of the ever-growing number of food artisans, small dairies, and local fruit farmers. We meet her at one of the handful of parking lots along the Walk—and quickly pop back into our cars to escape the freezing rain, whisking the bountiful picnic she has prepared over to the farmhouse at Johanna Seaside Cottages. The quaint old home, with its ample, welcoming kitchen, was once at the center of a dairy farm. The owner, Joy Evans, raised her five children here and has lived in this green valley for all of her 63 years. Her late husband grew up on this farm, and she was the girl next door. When he died, she turned the property into a B&B with a set of cottages, but also kept aside a few choice bits of land for a vegetable garden and chicken coop. Despite the name of the property, none of the cottages actually offer ocean views, and I ask Evans why. “I didn’t want to build right on the cliffs above the shore and ruin it for people down below, making them feel like they’re being watched,” she explains in a lilting accent that seems particular to this one tiny valley.

On the farmhouse’s heavy, rough-hewn dining table, Wilkinson, Chadwick, and I dig into our lunch: charcuterie and bread from nearby Apollo Bay; artisan cheeses from a local dairy farm; organic peaches from a little ways North, where it actually feels like summer. Later, after a meandering drive up the Great Ocean Road to the breathtaking Twelve Apostles—a formation of massive rocks jutting out of the water close to shore—with a few “step on, step off” hikes snuck in between rain showers, Wilkinson prepares an incredible first course of fresh, local crayfish, followed by tender, grass-fed beef steaks alongside spears of just-picked asparagus. Completely satisfied and warmed by the meal and accompanying local Shiraz, I still manage to find room for a slice of Wilkinson’s lovely semolina cake while we sit around the fire. While I didn’t see as much of the Walk that day as I would have liked, the experience of taking shelter from the seemingly apocalyptic weather in an old farmhouse with two fellow ecophiles, sharing the local fare and our thoughts on the environment, feels just as emblematic of life in this part of the world. It is a fitting way to spend my last evening on the Walk.

Sometimes the best trips end up like this, in ways you’d never imagined. I went to the Great Ocean Walk anticipating an ecotourism experience more typical of the ones I often have as a green-minded traveler and an environmental reporter. I expected to meet knowledgeable guides with an impressive understanding of the local ecosystem and boundless enthusiasm for their organizations’ efforts to protect it. My previous ecotourism trips were planned around relaxing, not-too-emotionally challenging encounters with nature—physically taxing, yes, but also a lovely escape from my hyperactive home city. But a summer idyll this trip was not. My guides on the Walk certainly had vast knowledge of their region, but because of the weather, we probably spent more time indoors than out, and I barely worked up enough of a sweat on the trails to make up for all the decadent desserts I was eating.

But as we donned winter coats in the supposed summer weather and waited in vain for the torrential rains to let up, I indulged in a pleasure I hadn’t anticipated: conversation. I talked with local people about their families, their childhoods, and their feelings for the land. And wherever I went, I heard anxious murmurings about climate change. There was some hope that the rain would help ease the effects of the drought, yet nobody seemed completely relaxed about the situation, or about what they and their fellow Australians were doing to address it. What I’ll remember when I look back on this trip are the individuals I met—people who are in love with their ruggedly beautiful home and deeply concerned about its future. I came to the Walk expecting a vacation, and what I got instead was something far more lasting: a sobering but valuable glimpse of how the natural world can affect a cultural landscape.

Story by Christy Harrinson. This article originally appeared in Plenty in July 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008