Sonia O’Sullivan: A lighthouse at the edge of the world
‘Thinking back now, I wonder why it took me so long to go walkabout in Australia like this’
Wilson’s Promontory: “This is the real beauty of such an adventure, to finally see your destination on the horizon.” Photograph: Fairfax Media via Getty Images
We all have these secret little ambitions we plan to do at some stage, and continually put off, seemingly too busy with normal day-to-day activities.
Just last week, after many years, I was finally able to follow through on one of my own ambitions, and headed off to Wilson’s Promontory, a remote national park in Victoria, at the most southern tip of mainland Australia.
Down through the years, a hike at the “Prom” was often mentioned, friends telling me I had to do it and that I’d love it.
So when a couple from my training group turned up one night, having just returned from the Prom, tired but fully rejuvenated, I was determined to find the time to do it.
After checking the family calendar, I realised the best days happened to fall around my birthday: this seemed perfectly appropriate, something I would definitely treasure and remember in years to come.
After some research, I found that if I wanted to lighten the load and stay at the lighthouse, I needed to book early. I’m not the most experienced hiker or camper, so the lighthouse was my best option. Not carrying a tent would also allow me to cover more ground at a faster pace.
I also decided not to tell many people. Invariably, most would want to know who I was going with. A bit like going to the cinema by yourself, it feels a bit odd at first. But once you make up your mind it seems the most natural thing to do, if you really want to go through with something like this.
Packing was based off a list of essentials, so that I wouldn’t forget anything, while trying to pack as minimally as possible. I also bought myself a walking pole. I find when carrying a pack on your back, your centre of gravity can be a bit off, so a fold-up pole comes in handy. Plus, I’m used to walking around with a hurley when out with Snowy, our dog, so I often feel lost without it.
It also meant I had to carry all my food and gear for three days and two nights: two litres of water before I could top up overnight at the lighthouse. All in, my pack weighed 8kg.
I set off early from Melbourne for the 200km drive to the check-in point at Tidal River, where I would leave my car for three days, then headed off, entirely self-sufficient, through the tracks and trails, across beaches and through forests.
My initial plan was a little ambitious, so I took advice from a park ranger and worked out the best route for my first day, figuring I could then reassess things for the return walk.
Naturally, you’re a little nervous setting off, hoping you have everything you need – and enough fuel to get you through this little adventure.
At first it was like walking in a local park, nicely formed paths and twisted trees, but as you kept going there was definitely a sense of entering unknown territory. Especially in the solitude, along the white sand and blue sea of the empty beaches.
Along the cliff tops overlooking Oberon Bay is an arrow to direct you off the beach and back into the forest tracks towards the main telegraph track. A sign read 13km to the lighthouse.
The telegraph track is a service road, not very interesting. But it led to a windy path that took you to Roaring Meg, a couple of clearings in the forest, where you can camp if you cant to break the hike into shorter segments.
I wasn’t sure if Roaring Meg referred to the sound of crashing waves from the ocean or the wind through the trees, because it seemed all very quiet. As I approached another very welcome green sign indicating 6.1km to the lighthouse, in one direction, or South Point, 3.4km the other way.
It was too tempting not to visit the southernmost point of Australia. I thought about dropping my bag down for the out-and-back trip, but decided I didn’t want to risk losing my carefully measured food to a curious kangaroo or, more likely, a pesky magpie.
It was a narrow, winding track. I found a nice flat rock to sit on and have some lunch in the bright sunshine. Only on the return trek, hitting a bit of a low point, I wondered if it the best decision to have added on the extra 7km.
My energy restored after a drink of water and a wrap with some cheese and salad leaves, I once again passed by the sign to the lighthouse. The final 6km was like a rollercoaster, glad to have my walking pole and apple crumble gel for an added boost.
There was only one path to take after crossing the service road, down the last few kilometres to the lighthouse. Rounding a corner and catching my first glimpse of it at the end of a tiny strip of land, here was no denying the wave of emotion, and deep satisfaction.
This is the real beauty of such an adventure: to finally see your destination on the horizon. It was everything and more I could have hoped for.
After the solitude of hiking 29km, seven hours since I’d left my car at Tidal River, the warm welcome at the lighthouse was much appreciated. I was the last hiker in for the evening, looking forward to a day of relaxation, before planning my return trek back.
Kingfisher for company
The next day I went for an 8km run to Waterloo Bay, then a cooling swim in the sea, a seagull and kingfisher my only company. After drying off like a lizard on a large granite rock, I laced up my shoes and headed back up the hill and over the clifftops towards the lighthouse, for one more restful night.
But not before a couple of very fast backward steps – not to mention high-pitched screams – when I crossed paths with a snake. It quickly retreated back into the bushes, though my heart rate stayed racing.
Thinking back now, I wonder why it took me so long to go walkabout like this, especially as I spend so much time in Australia. Even after all the years running on my own, there was nothing quite like it.
Another thought later crossed my mind: where does the time go? It’s now 13 years since I ran at the European Cross Country in Edinburgh, the only time I ran in this event. I have a silver team medal to remind me of that day, just a fleeting thought of what was once the most important thing in my life.
It can take a long time to finally let go, do something on a whim, and thereby open up a whole new world of exploration.