The setting for our ‘treasure hunt’ is spectacular – a rainforest with giant ferns, towering 300-year-old trees, and lush moss-covered undergrowth. As I stroll along the boardwalk, admiring this ancient world, I momentarily forget my task of searching for flowering indigenous plants. The prickly currant bush, the austral mulberry and the musk daisy all have seeds hidden inside flowers or berries – tiny treasures that we’ll collect today for future use in re-generative projects, ultimately helping conserve and protect our environment.
I’m on a Naturewise eco-tour with Conservation Volunteers Australia (CVA), a weekend escape to Victoria’s Great Ocean Road, and our group is already hard at work, if you can call a ‘treasure hunt’ work.
Anna O’Brien, team leader with Southern Otway Landcare Network (SOLN), gives us a crash course in identifying plants and leads us into the rainforest. Soon we’re plucking red berries from trees and scouring undergrowth for the elusive yellow mulberry flower. I’m not much of a ‘green thumb’, and I know very little about native plants, but this is fun.
Seed collection is just one of the tasks SOLN undertakes as part of a much bigger picture and by restoring local vegetation it hopes to create a robust and diverse ecology for the region. Volunteers also help with seed cleaning, propagation of indigenous species, tree planting and weeding.
“SOLN is an umbrella organisation providing support to the four Landcare groups in the Southern Otways,” Anna says. “Our aim is to protect and repair our environment so that we can live, work and enjoy a healthy, productive, balanced landscape.”
Some of the seeds are just out of arm’s reach, so we place a tarpaulin on the ground and gently shake the tree. Tourists wandering the trail pause to watch us work and I hope they realise a permit is required to collect seeds and we’re not just shaking the trees for the fun of it. After three hours we leave Anna to look after the booty and she will clean the seeds before storing them in the SOLN seed bank until they’re required for re-planting.
Naturewise tours typically combine hands-on conservation work with great travel experiences and for this trip CVA has teamed up with bothfeet, who specialise in guided hikes along the Great Ocean Walk. bothfeet also provides four-star accommodation in the rainforest and we enjoy a relaxing foot spa, locally produced gourmet food, and a comfy bed with the only sounds coming from the bush.
Naturewise program manager Joanne Davies says the venture came about because both organisations have a strong commitment to the region’s preservation through responsible travel and conservation. CVA also recognises that many people want to give something back to the places they visit but may not be suited to working eight hours a day and bunking in a dorm room, which is typical of grassroots volunteering.
“Naturewise was born out of a desire to engage more people in conservation activities,” Joanne says. “Our participants get to see and experience unique places, as well as make a difference and feel personally connected with that place.”
It’s actually my connection to the Great Ocean Road that convinced me to participate on this trip – I grew up in the area and family holidays were to the beach. This would be a great opportunity to give something back to one of my favourite places, as well as learn about conservation issues facing these communities.
The following day we help the Otway Coast Committee with weed removal on the Apollo Bay foreshore. It’s physical work, as we uproot plants firmly entrenched in the soil, and it’s also soggy work as a light drizzle turns into a torrential downpour. The rain persists into the afternoon for our 8 km hike from Castle Cove to Johanna Beach, which is a gentle introduction to the Great Ocean Walk.
For hikers the trail – which stretches around 100 km from Apollo Bay to the Twelve Apostles near Port Campbell – is made up of two distinct sections. There’s the ‘mild side’, where the track meanders through pockets of rainforest in the Otway Ranges, and the ‘wild side’ where the Southern Ocean meets the Bass Strait and the trail covers high sea cliffs and windswept beaches.
The area is also known as the ‘Shipwreck Coast’ because more than 80 ships smashed into the rocks from the 1840s to the 1920s, some due to human error but most caught in violent storms. The last two km of our walk are along Johanna Beach, named, albeit incorrectly spelt, for the schooner Joanna that came to grief off this coast in 1843.
The following day our walk on the ‘wild side’ continues and Victoria offers four seasons in one day. As we hike from Princeton to the Twelve Apostles we experience sunshine, light mist and heavy rain. It’s a stroke of luck – or perhaps divine intervention – that the clouds begin to lift as soon as we glimpse the spectacular Twelve Apostles. By the time we reach the end of the trail, the sky is brilliant blue.
I pause to admire the famous view, reflecting on the past few days. I think what makes the Naturewise experience so wonderful is the opportunity to give something back to Australia’s special places, no matter whether it’s a spot that’s close to your heart or somewhere new.
Karen Graham travelled with bothfeet and Conservation Volunteers Australia.
Naturewise and Conservation Volunteers Australia are committed to the protection and enhancement of Australia’s environment. Naturewise tours include the Grampians, Montague Island, Cape York, Kangaroo Island, Broome and Arnhem Land.
Ph 1800 032 501
Email [email protected]
bothfeet is an official Great Ocean Walk partner.
Ph 1300 767 416
Email [email protected]
The Great Ocean Walk is a 91–104 km trail – the route depends on the tides – from Apollo Bay to the Twelve Apostles.