We drove along the Great Ocean Road, Australia’s “California Highway One” on the southern edge of Victoria. As we turned up the driveway into our Air BnB in Yuulong, we were met by our gracious and cheery host. She greeted us warmly, giving us instructions for where to park and how to access the cottage we had booked for the night.
“There is a lantern up there if you want to go see the glow worms.”
Glow worms? We had not heard about any glow worms! Truth be told, we had done a pitiful job researching what there was to see in the area as our trip was painfully short. We skidded onto the Great Ocean Road (GOR) via Port Campbell earlier in the afternoon. On a map, the Great Ocean Road seems very accessible and “just over there.” In fact, as others have already noted in a great many texts written about Australia, the country is immense and everywhere is far from everywhere else. However, the middle of nowhere is actually frighteningly easy to get to.
Our host explained that for 9 months of the year, the larvae of the fungus gnat actually glow in the dark. We were immediately sold. After having a filling dinner and a reckless attempt to photograph anchors on Wreck Beach (a story for another time), in the dark, we zipped back up the GOR toward Melba Gully, home of the glow worm. Melba Gully is inside the Great Otway National Park. The 65-hectare parcel was donated to the people of Victoria by the Madsen family in 1975.
We dutifully followed our GPS to the parking location. As we pulled in, we noticed a couple of tour buses and both groaned. Other than the large white tour buses and one other small car, the parking lot was empty and unlit. We got out of the car, grabbed our lantern, and looked around. I am being painfully honest when I say there was no light. No light anywhere. No signs either. Nothing saying, “This way to glow worms.” And it has started to drizzle.
I noted a wooden railing to our left, and we walked closer. The railing turned out to be part of a set of stairs. We figured this was likely the direction we were meant to be going. Our lantern was a classic camp style lantern, meant for sitting still around a campfire not guiding wayward tourists down a totally unlit forest path well after sunset.
As we started down the dirt path, we saw vague outlines of buildings in front of us. Having no map, no directions, no signs, and no light we believed this was likely our best shot. As we approached the first building, another structure appeared from behind some trees. This turned out to be the one and only map and information billboard. It showed a very fetching map of the gully complete with a history of the area and an explanation of what we might see on our hike. This was clearly meant for people to use during the day. Our target, the glow worms, were mentioned, but no indication was given as to where the worms could be seen. We turned around, looking down the path into the inky black forest. We decided to just go for it. What’s the worst that could happen? Getting lost in an Australian forest where throughout the day we had seen countless signs warning us of the resident snakes, which by the way are the most venomous on the planet? Yeah no worries, mate.
We strolled a little further down the path and came to an intersection. Great. Options. Just then we saw flashlights through the trees and heard voices. Perfect! People must be returning from seeing the glow worms and could give us some directions. With our trusty camp lantern providing scarcely enough light to see more than a few steps ahead, we made our way down one arm of the path, hopefully in the direction of those tourists. After a few turns in the path, we came upon a couple heading up the trail. They had their cellphone flashlights out in front of them spotlighting the path. We asked if the glow worms were this way. The man who probably spoke no English grunted and pointed behind him. We looked at each other and decided that was likely as close as we were going to get to a set of directions.
The Melba Gully path, what we could see of it, was mostly dirt and only a few feet wide. As the path wound its way through what I’m sure were immense and beautiful trees, it occasionally transitioned into a bridge that spanned a modest sized creek. The path continued downhill, deeper and deeper into the wild Australian forest of the Otways.
After about half a mile, we reached the bottom of the gully and the trail began to go uphill again. Now we heard the voices of many people. We had hoped that by going at near 10 PM at night, we might avoid the hordes of tourists we had seen crawling over the other GOR attractions during the afternoon. Our sighting of the tour buses proved we were mistaken, but we still had hope it might be a smallish group. We were disappointed to find a large clutch of cackling, photo snapping, flashlight-wielding tourists clustered at the end of the trail on a large wooden platform. The platform overlooked a waterfall which we deduced was there by the crashing sound that could faintly be heard over the roar of the group now huddled near the barrier. As we approached, we could just barely see the tiny pin pricks of light they were looking at. Our Air BnB host had told us the glow worms will stop glowing when lights are shined on them. We were repelled by the now very bright landing around the glow worms, certain the little buggers would turn off their light show because of the flood of flashlights now being trained upon their tiny home. We shouldered our way to the back edge of the platform, attempting to get a glimpse of these little pin pricks of blue.
It was a depressing thought that our experience of this unique and wondrous place was going to be marred by a loud gang of flashlight toting tourists who had either not been told that light disturbed the glow worms or did not care. We sank back against the barrier, resigned to our fate. Just then a few of the tourists broke off and headed back down the path. Then another. Then another. In very quick succession, the mob had trodden off back to the safety of their tour bus, leaving us by ourselves.
We waited for our eyes to adjust to the darkness. We approached the barrier and leaned out to get a better look. All along the overhang that rimmed the right side of the wooden platform were little stars of blue light. They looked for all the world like a like starry night sky, each light barely the size of a pin head.
The brilliance of the moment could not adequately be captured by any camera. The forest canopy blotted out any light from stars or moon had there been any to see. All that was visible were the minuscule glow worms and all that could be heard was the crashing of the waterfall. In the inky black of the night, we were a world away from any troubles, any cares, any civilization.
After several minutes, we turned on our lantern and began to make the trip back up the gully. As we walked down the trail, we noticed there were still glow worms along the side of the trail. We turned our lantern off. To our amazement, we saw glow worms everywhere. They were along both sides of the trail and went well up the hillside. We had been in such a hurry to get to where we thought they were going to be, we did not notice they were in fact along at least a 1/3 of the trail down the gully.
We kept the lantern off and keeping our hands on the wooden railing that bordered the trail, we felt our way up the path. The path was surrounded by a galaxy of little points of light. As we stumbled our way back, we were like kids in a planetarium, calling out “There are more up there,” and “Look, more down that way!” Everywhere we looked, these little bugs were putting on a light show, it seemed, just for us.
About halfway up the trail, the lights ceased, and we were again enveloped by the total blackness of the forest. We turned our lantern back on and with thoughts of stepping on an ungrateful Tiger Snake, we briskly scampered up the trail to the safety of our car, now the lone vehicle in the parking lot.
When traveling to exotic and attractive destinations, it’s hard to truly experience a place when you have to compete for the privilege with dozens or hundreds of other tourists. But sometimes, the crowds subside and you can have a moment in a place worlds away from your daily experience.