Missing the Point, Listening to What the Stones Have to Say

Ross and I spent four days walking on the Great Ocean Walk last week, starting from just south of Apollo Bay and making our way past Cape Otway Lighthouse to Johanna Beach.

The walk has been billed as one of the world’s great walks so we were keen to see it, and, indeed, it does pass through beautiful country; there’s a particularly pleasant stretch along the water near Shelley Beach on the first day, then another, the next morning, which traverses some big eucalypt country on fire trails and old forestry roads. The day we did that section there was sunshine after rain and big gusts of wind making the trees throw their tops around in joy.

The problem with the walk was what we found at the end of that stretch: namely, people. The walk comes out, after 10 or so kilometres, at Blanket Bay, which, you quickly discover, people can, and do, drive to. The walk-in camp is adjacent to a drive-in camp, the beach is crowded with people, family groups, tourists, school parties out practicing snorkelling. There’s litter and no privacy.

The next 5kms takes you over the bluff and round to the stunning Parker Inlet, but that’s not where the camp is, the camp, which is only a drive-in camp, and thus has no water for walkers, is back up on the top of the bluff again.

Not wanting to stay there we set off around the headland across the rocks, past Point Franklin, a route not recommended on the map but particularly delightful, providing us with a bit of isolation, a little sense of being alone with the world. The coast there is characterised by low cliffs and a wide stretch of exposed rocks, little sandy bays, great masses of thick ribboned kelp rising and falling with the swell. Wind and water have carved the rock into networks of lattice, exposing ancient grain, releasing subtle colours.

Ross and I were carrying more than 20kgs each, which isn’t much in the scheme of things but is a lot to have on your back nevertheless – tent, sleeping bag, mat, cooking gear, food, etc., and the reason we’re prepared to lug that sort of weight around is that it means we can get to places you can’t otherwise reach. That’s the only reason I’m prepared to do it. Time and again the GOW disappointed by dropping us, at the exact location we were supposed to camp, right where hundreds of others had just driven to. Busloads of them. As if the people who had designed the trail had simply missed the point, had failed to understand the very rationale for walking with a backpack.

It’s a beautiful trail, through wonderful country, along some excellent coastline, but if you want my advice, if you want to walk it don’t carry your gear. Stay in one of the lodges. Or get your camping gear dropped off for you each day by car. Do a separate section each day with only a day-pack and your lunch. Don’t, whatever you do, expect to be alone. Don’t, like we foolishly did, expect to have a wilderness experience.

One of the great questions about going off for a walk like that is what book to take. By definition it has to be slim, and therefore somewhat intense. Good intention doesn’t work as a guide. I’ve taken classics, Andre Gide, Dostoievski, even George Louis Borges, and found no desire to read them in wild places. This time, after almost an hour of indecision, I had a moment of wonderful inspiration and packed Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk.

I’ve read a lot of Dillard and this book was my introduction to her, but I hadn’t looked at it for fifteen or twenty years. The perfect choice for the journey; lucid, sharp, funny, meaningful, observant; calling, always, the reader  to attention. My good friend Ross was kind enough to let me read aloud to him (something that so rarely happens now) and so, with by the light of my little head torch we heard Living Like Weasels and Total Eclipse. In the privacy of my tent I read the title piece, about a man who kept a pebble on a shelf, protected by a square of untanned leather, only removing it for the rituals he performed several times a day: teaching it to talk.

Dillard has fun with the notion, telling us the jokes people tell about him, before bringing us back to earth, reminding us that once upon a time everything spoke to us. But now ‘we have doused the burning bush and cannot rekindle it; we are lighting matches in vain under every green tree. Did the wind use to cry, and the hills shout forth praise? Now speech has vanished from among the lifeless things of earth, and living things say very little to very few.’

It’s only a short essay, five pages, but it runs across cosmology, Martin Buber, lichen and the Galapagos islands. It speaks of silence. The sort of thing you want to carry in a heavy bag down amongst trees that sweep the sky with joy and waves that let rise and fall the heavy kelp.

Looking towards the lighthouse from Point Franklin

Rockpool

Ross and I

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One Comment on “Missing the Point, Listening to What the Stones Have to Say”

  1. Jane Says:

    Gorgeous photos!
    X Jane
    PS – Ross and me (fussy, fussy!)


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