New Year's Eve in the Grampians - one of Victoria's best loved national parks
It was New Year's Eve and there wasn't a firework in sight. Well, not unless you counted the sparks leaping from the flames of the barbeque that was cooking my last dinner of the year. I turned the slowly blackening food and batted away mozzies that circled my face, glancing up at my kitsch mock wood cabin which looked cosy and welcoming in the evening light. The sun, that final sunset, began to sink behind the distant western mountains turning the sky orange hued and lovely. I took another sip of the cheap red wine I'd picked up at the gas station and breathed it all in.
I had been in Melbourne the past few days, hectic with Christmas crowds and experiencing one of its summer heat waves - the mercury hitting 40 degrees every day for a week from a weather system blowing in from the desert. So I had decided to leave, on the eve of the big eve, in search of somewhere a little greener to start the year. A short drive later I was in the lush surroundings of the Grampians National Park - I had literally run for the hills. This vast area 260km west of Melbourne is home to endless deep valleys and soaring peaks blanketed in cool green forest, hiding waterfalls and excellent hiking trails. I was staying in Hall's Gap, ground zero for most visitors to the park. I'd arrived in mid summer and the town was teeming with serious hikers decked out in pricey survival gear, spreading maps on car bonnets plotting their next adventure, alongside rowdy families setting up tents and then queuing for ice-creams with car weary kids. Summer holiday fever was at its peak.
I'd spent the day exploring the high look outs and beautiful trails the park is famous for. My first stop had been the Balconies, a series of cliff ridge look outs with spectacular views across the Victoria Valley and the ranges beyond. They call it a hike to get there, but its more like a 10 minute amble along a rocky path through the forest. Kookaburras were everywhere, their tell tale laughing call sounded from the trees as I walked, drowning out everything else. These birds are little Aussie icons, a kind of large kingfisher with pale brown colouring and blue tinged wings that live in and around woodland areas. I watched as they flitted through the trees and out into the big blue.
Camera full of grand vistas I drove on along high roads with views of forest and mountains all around. Fresh, bone dry air blasted through the open window and it felt great to be out of the city. Every turn revealed another breathtaking view of a valley or more epic peaks reaching out into the distance, shimmering in the summer heat. Australia is blessed with vast areas like this, wildernesses safe from development as there is just so much space here. The cities spread out like everywhere else but even with that urban sprawl, there is still so much land beyond it doesn't even make a dent. Look at a map and the middle of the country is mostly empty of people, just desert and mountains. I was nowhere near the heart of Australia but I began to get a sense of its inner vastness.
MacKenzie Falls was my next stop and I made the hot, sweaty climb down to its base in the late afternoon. One of the park's biggest waterfalls, the water crashes into a huge gorge over black slick cliffs. Fine rainbows of colour hung in the spray and I let it dampen my hair and face washing away the dust of the climb. The water flowed down into a river, past wildflowers and trees on into the distance. It felt like a hidden oasis in a sea of aridity and I followed the river for a while, clambering over rocks and through tangled bush, stopping every so often to dangle my feet in the clear fresh water. Glancing up I saw an eagle gliding effortlessly overhead on an unseen current of warm air.
And so that was how I spent the last day of 2018. No crowds, no "got to get a ticket before they sell out"madness or jostling for the best firework watching spot. Just give me a bbq, a few mountains, a plastic mock wood cabin and the odd eagle. Perfect.