Standing on the top of Chatauqua Peak on Friday afternoon, looking out over the small valley town of Halls Gap as it was laid out below me looking almost like a children’s play set, I took a deep breath. Underneath my feet the sandstone mountains were well and truly warming as the sun rose in an arc overhead. I could feel the heat, like a golden light bath, in between the gusts of cold winter air as I looked out over the conquered view. How did I get here again?
Friday afternoon I was standing on Chatauqua Peak, but just one day prior I was sitting at home, trawling for freelance work online with no plans for the weekend at all. Still very recent arrivals to Melbourne, we didn’t really have any idea of the wonders that surrounded this new city. Having travelled down from Darwin with just a bag each, we also had no camping supplies and no outdoors gear of any kind. We were both feeling a bit down. Neither of us had work on at the moment, with Dean having finished one job and on the lookout for another (as is often the case in construction) and myself in the ‘ebb’ of my freelancing tidal money game.
So, I pulled up a window and typed on my computer: Overnight trips from Melbourne.
Grampians National Park
It was the Grampians National Park that caught my eye first. Just three hours from Melbourne, a mere hop and jump comparative to what we were used to driving in the Northern Territory, the Grampians were ripe for a weekend away. It being Thursday, and with nothing on the lookout for Friday, we decided to make it a three-day break, hedging our bets that the trails would be positively empty on the last day before the weekend.
The next challenge was of course the gear. Always the frugal travellers, we were hardly going to spend $90+ per night on a cabin, so we would camp. Dean proclaimed his immense expertise with camping during the winter, and I (oh so foolishly) believed him. We outfitted ourselves with a cheap tent, and ‘borrowed’ a few other items off a willing housemate. Soon the car was packed with everything we needed, and just like that we were ready to go.
Leaving leisurely in the morning, later to avoid the rush of everyone else heading to work, there was the smell of adventure in the air. The further we travelled towards the Grampians, the cooler the air got. Periodically rolling down the windows, we drank in the freshness that only peaks and valleys can provide. In the distance, the land began to rise and we watched the kilometres. We were nearly there.
We rolled into Halls Gap just before 1pm and were able to check into a very empty campground in a space with a fire pit, earmarking some firewood for marshmallow roasting later. The tent went up in a few minutes, but we were more interested in the looming mountain by then. Out of our comfy warm car clothes, we changed into shorts and boots, ready for the hike.
The temperature was frostily sitting in single digits when we headed out from the campsite, to a trailhead where we had been told a number of the trails for the area began. An information board told us that our choices were the steep, hard Pinnacle walk taking several hours, or the medium grade Chatauqua Peak hike at 2-3. With afternoon already underway, Chatauqua Peak was the only option, so we set off down the trail, ready to explore as we wandered along.
When it comes to hiking, the first one in a new location is always a bit of a meander. While we were fairly certain we would attempt Chatauqua Peak on the first day in the Grampians, we were in no rush. We wandered down to Venus Baths, the little riverside splashing point that was (predictably) way too cold to consider a dip. Also along the way was Clematis Falls (quite dry) and little Bullaces Glen that had a real fairy-hideaway vibe.
Of course, all meanderings must come to an end, so we shouldered out bags and started on the stairs, following the arrow up to Chatauqua Peak. The cold air makes walking hard for myself, a life-long chronic asthma sufferer, but luckily nobody has ever let me get off easy. Stairs are always a killer, but on the Chatauqua Peak walk we found them to be quite staggered, certainly enough not to put a dent in our enthusiasm. Up and up we went, gently wandering through the ferny and frigid winter wonderland of the hills and mountains. I love hiking in the bushland. It’s so easy to feel like you’re lost amidst the trees, the sounds of civilisation totally blocked out by the calls of the birds and the bugs among the leaves.
As the walk started to climb even higher there were numerous look out spots where we could see our progress. Below us the town of Halls Gap got smaller and smaller. Neither of us are big on heights, with Dean’s vertigo making any high climb a new adventure. But it’s easy to feel stable with a mountain under your feet, and the kilometres passed almost unheeded beneath our boots as we made our way to the top.
Dean always walks ahead of me. It’s not that I’m slow (well, maybe a little slow), it’s just that he’s a very enthusiastic hiker. I’ve always seen myself as more of a rambler than a serious walker, and I’m happy to take a little longer if I get to stop along the way, marvelling at little things and taking pictures of whatever catches my eye. As we came close to the top, and my energy was starting to sap, Dean powered ahead. Clambering up the final stretch of stairs, I hear the unmistakable sounds of awe and wonder from ahead of me. That was all it took for one final burst of energy, and I emerged on the top.
The View From The Peak
It can be hard to remember amidst the slog of walking up a mountain just why we do this to ourselves as hikers. But it’s never hard to remember when you emerge from the bushland to a mountain vista like the one that greeted us at Chatauqua Peak. Suddenly, all those miles my boots had seen just vanished, and I was filled with more energy and vigour.
The path comes out at the top of Chatauqua Peak, but there’s still quite a bit more you can climb along the ridge, horizontally across to the actual peak. Initially we didn’t realise this, but as we were wandering the ridge for better view points I came across the all-too-familiar yellow arrow encouraging me on. The last part of the hike is a real scramble, over rocks and trying to pick the path that doesn’t take you too close to the edge. As you go along the ridge, the jagged peak of the Grampians comes better into view, along with the blue smudge of Lake Bellfield in the middle distance.
On and on we went, Dean showcasing his skills as a mountain goat while I took things a little slower. Eventually the arrows stopped, as did the ridge. Perched on the edge, at the true Chatauqua Peak, it was nothing short of glorious. Enough to forget that we had a big walk still to go down the mountain, with nothing but few roasted marshmallows and a night in a frigid tent to look forward to. Almost.
Tips For Conquering Chatauqua Peak
- The official Chatauqua Peak walk claims it’s a 5.6km, 2.5hr loop that does take in Clematis Falls and Bullaces Glen, but we didn’t quite take the official route. As a result we ended up covering more like 8km, and so it took an hour or so more.
- The hike is listed as being ‘medium’ grade, but any competent hiker will find it a breeze.
- Bring enough water for the entire walk, as there’s nowhere to fill up bottles from. Also make sure you’re equipped with any snacks and warm clothes you need in winter. For safety, tell someone where you’re going!
- Due to the height and lack of fences, this is not a walk I’d recommend to anyone with small children.