I was outside Boost Juice on Flinders Street in the early hours of a Sunday morning. In winter.
I was not circling for a liver-cleansing nutrient fix – no, my presence was of the smug, health-kick variety. I paced the littered pavement in my most athletic sneakers, nimble in my Lycra leggings. Backpack, beanie, water bottle. Check. I was going hiking.
Around 7.20am, a beautifully restored 1970s Kombi van rolled up outside the juice joint for the small group of rugged-up walkers gathered out front. The van’s name was “Olivia” and she was driven by our cheerful tour guide, James McCleery.
McCleery is one of the founders of Hike and Seek, a boutique Melbourne-based tour company that hosts up to seven climbers of all levels on walks around Victoria, including the Otways, Great Ocean Road, Wilsons Promontory, Mornington Peninsula, Phillip Island, and Mount Buller in the winter.
On this day, we were heading to Grampians National Park, about 250 kilometres north-west of Melbourne, where we would begin our Lord of the Rings-style quest up to The Pinnacle. We had five hours to complete an 11-kilometre hike through stunning wild-brush scenery and tight, rocky enclaves to a high plateau with panoramic vistas.
McCleery and his partner Mette Kortelainen conceived Hike and Seek while on a bushwalk to Sealers Cove in south-east Victoria. Both passionate vegans, they wanted to create an experience that celebrates wellbeing in all its forms.
“We came up with the idea as a way of combining our love of nature, nutrition, travel and good times with fellow travellers and locals alike,” McCleery says. Hike and Seek launched in September 2016, with each laid-back tour including a plant-based meal and refreshments.
My group consisted of mainly solo, adventure-seeking Melburnians – mostly new to the city and yet to find a social network – plus one couple visiting from Canberra. As a relatively new import, I found the whole concept appealing and accessible.
Before starting our three-plus-hour trip to the Grampians, McCleery handed out steaming cups of Coffee Supreme and fresh fruit to snack on during the drive. There were also blankets and pillows for a pre-hike snooze, which many used straight away. I stared out of Olivia’s glass eyes for most of the trip, watching green-and-gold landscapes fade into a blur behind us.
The air was crisp and cool when we arrived. I got a little drunk on the scent of eucalypts and campfire embers. Our steady ascent was lush and easy to navigate. The vibe, relaxed and cheery. We stopped intermittently to appreciate frosty streams and pose atop rocks for #latergram snaps. It didn’t take long for puffer jackets to be stripped off, as the winter sun shone.
We stopped for morning tea at Splitters Falls, under the shelter of a small cave, beside a rock pool and cascading waterfall. A cyclone of teenagers appeared from the ether and we pacified them with raw treats. Their energy was infectious. They hurtled ahead like gazelles on safari as we repacked our gear and joined the stampede. We eventually caught up again a few kilometres along – this time three of them dangled from the side of a gorge, trying to outdo each other’s feats of “courage”. We watched through tense fingers as they pulled themselves up and did a victory dance.
The Pinnacle was surprisingly full when our thumping quadriceps reached the top. So was the car park, but I’d recommend doing the walk, if you can. There’s so much to see along the way and it gives a real sense of achievement.
We’d thoroughly earned our lunch, a delicious quinoa-and-pomegranate salad, which we ate overlooking the cavernous valley of Halls Gap. This was followed by Pana Chocolate treats and cups of tea, which kept us going for the long descent. We stopped in Ballarat on the way home for celebratory burgers and beer.
By the time we arrived back in Melbourne around 8pm the seven of us were essentially best mates – for the day anyway, as travel goes. We disembarked, and Olivia and McCleery headed off into the night.
Tours start from $99 and are available throughout the year. Leading into summer 2018, Hike & Seek will be launching overnight hiking experiences at Wilsons Prom, Bright and the Grampians. Weekend hiking trips in Tasmania are planned for the near future.