Phantom Falls, Great Otway National Park

Before starting this saga, I must mention I’ve had some trouble coming up with a title for this post. Phantom Falls, Great Otway National Park near Lorne was my objective for the walk, but I also passed two more waterfalls along the way. Deep within a fern gully, Henderson Falls was so impressive it also could go into the title. How long can a title be though? Is there an SEO internet law? Does anyone care? Is the cricket on soon?

I found this day walk in my trusty ‘Daywalks Around Melbourne’ book written by Glenn ‘Guru of Good Times’ Tempest. I’d give you a link to it, but it’s not listed in his Open Spaces Booksย any more. Oh well, in the book it’s, ‘walk 4, the Canyon’. You can also find a handy map of the walks in the area within a link on this page from the Surf Coast Shire.

Reliving the Overland Track in my previous posts was okay, but it’s a little disappointing I wasn’t lugging a better camera around at the time. Since then I’ve graduated into a certified camera wanker. At the rate I’m going, I’ll soon be purchasing one of those camera vests with the hundred pockets and a huge ‘Canon’ written across the back. I guess I could get one made up? Instead of ‘Canon’ I could have ‘Hiking Fiasco’ on the back? Even better, maybe a ‘feel good’ motto embroidered? Something like, ‘walk or drop dead ya’ bastard’. Yeah okay, it needs a little work, but it’s the first thing which came to my head.

So, after a few entries of photographic adequateness, I decided to up my game for this particular walk. The thing is though, it potentially involved fern gullies with a thick green canopy. I could feel problematic exposure problems in my shutter finger, so I pondered a solution beforehand.

I wanted minimal noise in my photos, which meant 100 ISO was needed at all times. The trouble is, I knew I wouldn’t be able to handhold a camera in dim light at 100 ISO. A few nights before, I was tossing and turning in my sleep, whilst mumbling, “…shutter speed too slow… there’s movement…. image is blurry… the photos are rubbish… where’s a noose…? Oh that’s right… I can’t tie knots…” and woke up sweating, whilst repeating the phrase, “100 ISO or death”.

The answer to this conundrum came whilst I was watching ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ over my breakfast porridge. A tripod was needed, but not any old tripod for a DSLR. I needed the stability of a hundred run opening partnership and the height of the world’s tallest carrotย (so I don’t have to bend over as much).

There was only one thing to do. Wheel out the heavy artillery. The Manfrotto 190XPRO with a 804EC2 head. This beauty has the height, which keeps my back in order and the stability to withstand an 8.9 on the Richter scale. Here’s Derek the ultralight hiker with it in all its glory. Derek has been living with me for a while now and he’s a cheap housemate, as he doesn’t eat much.


Wedding photographer available for hire if anyone is interested.

Counting the head (tripod head. Not Derek’s) at 3 kg the tripod is kind of heavy though. Not to mention the camera perched on top. How was I going to carry it? Mm… I decided to work it out when I actually started walking.

Armed with all my gear, I had a quick drive to Lorne. Actually, it wasn’t real quick, as I fell for the ‘take-the-inland-route-rather-than-Great-Ocean-Road-which-should-be-faster-but-wasn’t-due-to-roadworks-and-getting-pulled-over-for-a-preliminary-breath-test-as-well’ (TTIRRTGORWSBFBWDTRAGPOFAPAW) trick. An oldie, but a goodie.

I reached the Sheoak Picnic Area and kitted up. Had I worked out how to carry the camera and tripod yet? Yes I did. I mounted the camera on the head, locked it into place, extended the tripod legs and then carried it across one shoulder as if I was lugging a mortar (or slab of beer). It felt slightly dodgy, as I expected the lock to give way and send the camera tumbling down the track at any moment. I stuck to this system though and soon crossed the bridge over Henderson Creek to begin…


…and immediately I was amongst enormous trees and millions of ferns. A common sight was the strips of bark lying draped across ferns.


I powered on and had one of the scariest moments of the day. I have dubious balance at the best of times, but it was even worse with one arm out of action holding the tripod. Bounding down the path, one heel of my right boot slipped in mud and for a moment I thought both legs were about to fly out from under me and as a consequence the tripod and camera would have been hurled into low orbit. I’m not sure how, but my left foot caught the slide and I survived, although the experience gave my pacemaker a power surge.


Catastrophe averted. Just.

I was definitely awake after that and thankfully reached the lookout for Won Wondah Falls, which was a perfect time to stop and lower the blood pressure. This quite a nice waterfall, but it’s obscured a fair bit by trees. It was also a good time give my arm a rest by setting up the tripod and try out a few photos.


Won Wondah Falls through the trees.

In the bright daylight I screwed on a Neutral Density filter (ND8), so I could go for long exposures, as I wanted the water to be smooth and creamy. Below the waterfall, a large log lay across the rocks and this was in a clearer position to photograph.


Mm… Right, one waterfall done. Packing up I then headed to the Henderson Falls, which was only a short distance away. Mind you, it sits in a fantastic, damp fern covered gully where the Henderson Creek flows past the track. Light was dim, but as I had the tripod, I decided to use it as often as I could. No flowing water was safe if I had a clear view of it.


There’s only one way to go along here and that’s towards the sound of roaring water. I’m not sure what these waterfalls are like in the drier months, but the current rain must be helping to crank them up, as Henderson Falls made an impressive deafening noise. Not to mention a sight as well. It looked fantastic and I was able to get up and close to it, although keeping the camera dry was a little tricky. At least I had the spot to myself, so I could walk around to different vantage points.


Henderson Falls

It was difficult keeping the lens dry with a constant fine mist in the air, as the photo above shows, so I decided to concentrate on something else. There were plenty of other things here for me to take snaps off. The branch under the falls itself was interesting…


…not to mention some other logs out to the side.


Don’t think for a minute I was finished here. I like wet objects in rivers whether they’re branches or rocks, so I wasn’t going to stop until I’d catalogued everything around me. Some smaller pieces of wood…


…or the swirl of water around a log.


Normally in a place like this I’d be struggling with exposures where I’d have to up the ISO in order to get a crisp photo. The tripod was making life pretty easy here, as this wet, flattened leaf on a timber walkway caught my eye.


Wandering off, I followed the fern gully…


…stopping now and again when the water had creamy potential.


With the tripod across one shoulder and high in the air like a periscope, I had to be careful not to snag the attached camera in overhanging trees, as I left the gully behind.


Walking out into the open, there was an enormous mountain ash tree next to the track. This thing was insanely tall. I took this photo and there’s a reason it’s on an angle. In order to look up high enough to the see the top of the tree, I had to place the rear of my head between my shoulder blades. It was quite a painful experience, but at least I sort of captured the height…


I needed to recover and get some blood flow back to my eyeballs, so I stopped at a small bridge over Henderson Creek. There was quite a lot of water flowing freely…

henderson-creek-long exposure

…and from small gullies feeding into the creek.


Are you getting sick of the water shots yet? Don’t worry, there’s more to come. As a change of pace though, I noticed this small feather on the ground. White feathers on a dark surface are always worth a photo or hundred…


…and no sooner had I walked a few more metres and there was another one clinging to moss on a tree.


The ferns kept coming…


…before I decided to take a photo of something different. This leaf sitting on top of a fern seemed easy enough. Do you realise I spent about 15 minutes trying to capture it? I’ve no idea why, but the bright background and operator error meant it took a while to get the details of the brown leaf exposed properly, not to mention a nice, crisp image.


The track is damp and I can imagine it would be a humidity-fest in summer.


Wandering on there was the odd fallen tree, but nothing caused me to struggle as much as this one. My agility is not the greatest and lugging the tripod over the multiple branches without destroying the camera required a fair bit of concentration.


Doesn’t look too bad, does it? Somehow it took me ages to get through here.

Finally clear of the branch hurdles I entered the ‘Canyon’. Essentially the track narrows around a wall of damp, moss covered rocks. This section was one of the highlights and other than the sound of my heart beating, the only noise was from water dripping from the tops of the rocks.


At points the track narrows…


…with interesting spider webs nearby.


I loved this section, but it was a slippery affair, where I had to concentrate to stay upright. The whole area is wet and muddy, so I was wearing my leather boots and although they’ve got a Vibram sole, it appears mine were issued with the ‘banana peel’ version, as they don’t grip to a thing. I had a lot of close calls until reaching the end of the canyon. A small exit climbs between a gap in the boulders. It was unexpected, but entertaining at the same time.


Suddenly I was in the normal world again, following a wide track towards Phantom Falls. Again, one just has to follow the sound of roaring water, as I reached the falls a short time later. There’s a viewing platform, but the sight is restricted, so I headed down some stairs, stopping along the way for a photo where the falls are quite close.


Reaching the bottom, I had a choice of wet, moss covered, slippery rocks to stand on. I picked one, which seemed stable enough and captured the following photos. The falls were a little obscured, but the only way I could get a head-on shot of the falls would be to stand in the water. I did consider this, but instead I’ve decided to return whilst toting some gumboots. Sounds nuts, but I reckon it would work to get a proper photo.


Phantom Falls

Feeling a little defeated by not being able to get the right angle, I thought I’d focus on the St George River instead. Somehow I’d have to stand amongst these rocks to get a straight up shot of the waterfall.


I continued with my traditional river debris interest…


…with a detail shot of bark strips washed into a clump.


You know what? All of this photo taking was eating into the day. By now it was almost 5 pm and with last light just after six, I decided to get moving, Following a nice wide track made for easy walking, but I couldn’t go past this tree with enormous pieces of bark peeling from it.


Oh yeah, I couldn’t pass clear views of the river either. These rocks rippled, which was perfect for a long exposure.


I now had to really move to beat the rapidly approaching darkness. The walk does go into a bit of a ‘bizarro world’ when it ventures through some blokes apple orchard.


It felt like I was walking through his front yard before the track links up with the river again. All this did though was cause me to stop when I saw this large tree trunk with water flowing around it. There’s no way I could walk past without setting up the tripod again.


I bet you’re all smooth watered out by now? Well, you can relax, as that’s the last river picture. The track exited the river and I now had a two kilometre stroll on the road to get back to my car. Pity it’s all uphill and I took this last photo, not because I really wanted to, but because I stopped to get my breath back and thought while I was at it, I might as well get a picture.


I huffed and puffed my way up the hill and then descended back to my car at Sheoak Picnic Ground, just as the last light had passed. It was almost headlamp time, but I timed it perfectly. So, that’s it. Another walk done and it was easily one of my favourites. Easy to follow and something to look at every few minutes. Yeah okay, the road bit at the end sucked, but one can’t have it all.

I know you’re all wondering, “How did the tripod carrying go?” Well, all I can say it was a bit painful, but thoroughly worth it. There’s another walk up to Erskine Falls nearby, which has been on my radar for some time. Yes, you’ve guessed it. I’m not going anywhere near the joint unless my Manfrotto is with me…