Whale trail: the magnificent remoteness of the Light to Light walk

Encounters with wildlife, dramatic red rocks and remnants of a bleak history are a given on this multi-day hike – but pitching your own tent is not

There’s a feeling of complete independence that comes with carrying everything you need. At the end of a solid walk it’s incredibly satisfying – even if your evening meal consists of two-minute noodles and a cup of tea.

On the other hand, there’s also something to be said for arriving in camp to find that your extremely roomy tent has already been pitched, and a table is ready with local oysters, a cheese platter and a glass of verdelho.

I decided you don’t need to be too fundamentalist about these things after walking the 31km Light to Light track in Ben Boyd national park, on the far south coast of New South Wales, with Light 2 Light Coastal Walks. The walk is exceptionally beautiful but logistically complex. With no public transport nearby, you need at least two cars to complete the three-day hike independently.

A track winding through coastal heath
A track winding through coastal heath. Photograph: Destination NSW

Perhaps because of this, several guided walking tours operate along the Light to Light track, including Light to Light Camps, which offers a challenging two-day version of the hike, and Life’s an Adventure, which does “pack-free” walks that bus you back to hotel accommodation after a day of trekking.

Light 2 Light’s three-day walk is only moderately challenging for a reasonably fit person, allowing scope to enjoy a constantly changing kaleidoscope of wild sea cliffs, old-growth forest and coastal heath, and to think about what European settlement meant for the land and the people.

Benjamin Boyd was pretty typical of the early colonists whose names remain attached to so many Australian landmarks. In less than 10 years in the 1840s he acquired vast pastoral holdings, pioneered grandiose schemes that ended in fraud and bankruptcy, pursued his commercial interests by moving into politics, devastated wildlife by helping to establish whaling on an industrial scale, and was investigated for bringing forced labour to the colony from Pacific islands.

Red rocks and ocean views along the Light to Light walk
Red rocks and ocean views along the Light to Light walk. Photograph: Destination NSW

Traditional owners have discussed moves to rename the national park, but for now the northern end of the walk is still marked by Boyd Tower, conceived as a lighthouse but used only to spot whales for the fleets that operated out of Twofold Bay for decades after Boyd’s departure in disgrace.

From here the walk winds gently south, alternating between forest and the shoreline, marked by the extraordinary ancient red rocks that characterise the entire walk. They form dazzling contrasts with the aquamarine sea and the green of the woodland. The walk ends at the Green Cape lighthouse, where the whales round the northern point of Disaster Bay, and where so many ships failed to.

Our guide, Cam, and his partner, Tess, are between them a deep well of knowledge on the abundant wildlife, flora and the remnants of colonial buildings and shipwrecks. Discussions are also under way with the local Thaua people to incorporate more comprehensive information for visitors on Indigenous history and culture.

A wild kangaroo spotted along the track
A wild kangaroo spotted along the track. Photograph: Destination NSW

For those who simply love to walk, the greatest appeal of this hike is the ever-changing variety of environments the track passes through, such as a lovely enclosed woodland at the start of day three, which suddenly gives way to coastal heath, leading down to dramatic cliff views. This may not remain exactly the same for much longer, as plans are afoot to realign some sections of the track (largely to bring it closer to the sea) and to install huts for walkers as part of a $7.9m development to improve facilities and attract more visitors.

Take it alone, and the walk offers a magnificently remote experience, with a side of two minute noodles. Go on a guided tour, and you can walk unencumbered, finishing the day with outstanding food, all cooked using local produce.

Flora and fauna you’ll meet: It’s hard not to bump into wildlife along the track. Whale-watching is one of the huge attractions of the park. Boat trips leave from Eden for close encounters, but even from the cliffs we regularly caught sight of humpbacks and southern rights heading south for the summer. Eastern grey kangaroos crossed our path and hung around the campground, while swamp and redneck wallabies patrolled the beach in the early morning, and at least one echidna wandered on to the track. White-bellied sea eagles soared over the cliffs, lyrebirds showed off in the forest and pied oystercatchers watched over their chicks at Saltwater beach, where the breeding ground for hooded plovers is also protected. The vulnerable eastern ground parrot is more likely to be heard than seen. Native wildflowers are abundant in the coastal heath sections of the track.

The logistics: Unless you’re travelling with multiple vehicles, the best way to complete the walk independently is to arrange a pick-up by a local tour group. Light to Light Camps offer transport from one end of the walk back to your car, for $200, and Light 2 Light also offers transfer services. Bittangabee and Saltwater camping grounds are the only two midpoints on the track accessible by car.

If you carry your own tent and food, the whole 31km length can be walked in two or three days, camping at Saltwater Creek and Bittangabee – which have carparks, barbecues and toilets – or two other designated free camping sites with no facilities.

With Light 2 Light you can choose a self-guided walk (you walk alone, they set up the campsite and cook) or a fully guided walk over three days, camping at Saltwater Creek or staying at Green Cape lighthouse.

Saltwater Creek camping site
Saltwater Creek camping site. Photograph: Destination NSW

Where to sleep: Of the two campsites along the track, the smaller Saltwater Creek, roughly at the midpoint, has the more attractive setting, between two creeks and behind a glorious surf beach (though swimming is hazardous).

Bookings are required for this or Bittangabee (nearer the south end) through National Parks and Wildlife if you are not on a guided tour, with costs starting at $24 a night. Green Cape Lighthouse, offering three beautifully restored cottages and one smaller cabin, is the only non-camping option on the track; prices start at $120 a night.

When to go: Spring and autumn are ideal both for weather and whale-watching, especially September-November, when the whales are heading south. Overnight temperatures can get down well into single figures even at these times, so pack for warmth if you are camping.

Guardian Australia was a guest of Destination NSW. Three-day guided hikes with Light 2 Light tours start at $895 a person, including transfers from and to Merimbula airport. Ben Boyd national park is roughly six hours’ drive from Melbourne, and seven hours’ drive from Sydney. Merimbula airport has daily direct flights from Sydney, Melbourne and Moruya operated by Regional Express


Mike Ticher

The GuardianTramp

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