Photography Rallies Travel

Victorian High Country 2015

A challenge because 4W driving in the Victorian High Country is not for the feint hearted. It’s with some trepidation that I consider such a trip, being a bit of a wilting violet when it comes to heights and tracks with sheer drop-offs . But the drama and sheer beauty of the place and the fun we always have with AOR owners was enough incentive to take a deep breath and agree to go.

Though we didn’t have Banjo’s horses we did have plenty of horsepower with a Range Rover Sport, a Disco 4, a 200 Series, a Patrol and, for part of the time, a Prado. And yes, we did make the best of the unusual situation of Land Rovers being over-represented. Our modern day swags included Max the Matrix, once more called into service, and three Quantums with Dennis doing it in the rough with a tent trailer.

Now venturing into the High Country at any time other than mid-summer may seem counter-intuitive. But the trip was inspired and organized by John and Annette Robinson, Quantum owners from Bright who insisted on it being the best time to go for a number of reasons. It was primarily to be there at the peak of the autumn colours, other advantages including the absence of flies, normally such a pest, and the reduced likelihood of bushfires in the cooler weather. The only tradeoff, as we were soon to discover, was the extreme coooooold!!!

We travelled from the sunny coast with Quantum owners Al and Chris Stevenson and met Dennis Butler and John and Annette near Albury. John, a former professional travel agent and current real estate agent, surprised us by producing booklets with detailed itinerary, maps and brochures of both the High Country and local townships. In addition, as would soon become apparent, we had the benefit of John’s intimate knowledge of both High Country tracks and the local area.

Our first night at the inaptly named Pig’s Point was a taste of the stunning autumn colours to come and, like so many lovely camping spots in Victoria, located strategically beside a crystal clear stream. This theme was repeated the following day with a leisurely drive through the picturesque townships and valleys around Omeo and Mitta Mitta. Was John trying to lull us into a false sense of security? The calm before the storm? Firewood was plentiful and we were to discover that John’s already formidable array of skills included that of fire builder/minder extraordinaire.

No day was complete without several stops to collect firewood, so the Matrix and Quantum firewood racks were put to good use.

Fortunately this daily ritual was both fun and a necessity because our second camp at Jokers was a nippy four degrees; cold enough that even the tame resident Kookaburra warmed itself over our fire.

While the Matrix was toasty warm with the benefit of to know new friends and telling tall tales around a campfire. its great insulating properties and the diesel heater, there’s nothing quite like getting to know new friends and telling tall tales around a campfire.

Then into the real stuff; the dramatic Birregun and Jones Roads, Dargo High Plains for a short distance then onto McMillans Road. ‘Road’ is too grand a designation for McMillans, essentially no more than a steep, winding and oh so narrow ‘track’ . Definitely first gear low range territory, especially with fully loaded Quantums and Matrix in tow. Meeting cars coming the other way was interesting. Being the Friday after the Thursday of Anzac Day people were clearly making a long weekend of it so there were relatively more oncoming vehicles. The good bit was that they were on the drop-off side! One tried to persuade Al to let him pass on the inside….. yeah, in ya dreams mate.

In these conditions the width of the Matrix and Quantums was a critical factor. Both are designed at 1950 mm wide, a similar width to the tow vehicles to enable them to track in the same wheel ruts. This also facilitates maneuverability on sharp bends and reduces any possibility of damage to vehicles. It goes without saying that tyre pressures for both cars and trailers were reduced to around 25 PSI cold for safety and travelling comfort.

Note to fellow wilting violets. It does get better! I have less than fond memories of this track, having shared a white knuckle experience there with other female partners on an earlier trip. It appeared newly made at that stage and lacked any trees to disguise the sheer drop over the edge. Since then the trees have grown, a factor that considerably eases the sense of vulnerability. Is it for this reason, or the fact that we now traversed this track so many times that it has became (almost) passé? Or could it be that doing more extreme tracks like Billy Goat Bluff make McMillans feel like a bit of a cakewalk? Anyway girls, be prepared to give it a go because it’s a great experience.

Note to blokes. High Country tracks can be scary for the female of the species unless they are the dare devil gung-ho types, so it’s a good idea to take the initiation into 4W driving in this area easy if you value their company.

Talbotville is the reward for negotiating McMillans – a lovely grassy campsite on the Crooked River. Here we were delighted to be joined by Peter and Anne Davis from Inverlock who made the best of having just a few days to spare. With a four night stay here again the remote capability of Matrix and Quantums came to the fore. Solar power was used exclusively to power the trailers without the need to resort to generators, even to the extent of being able to back-charge second batteries for car fridges, and the generous water capacity meant we weren’t deprived of nice hot showers. This trip was our first experience with use of the new Nomad toilet system, an exclusive AOR innovation, and it was absolutely brilliant. It is an extremely robust system. The sophisticated pipework makes it very clean and easy to empty, and it features black tank storage for up to a week. Like the older vacuum system it requires no chemicals, making for a much lighter environmental footprint than chemical toilets which cannot ethically be disposed of in National Park and other types of bush toilets. (image)

An interesting aspect of a get-together like this appears to be the male bonding that takes place. There’s the hourly comparison of solar input, the inevitable meeting of minds ??? under the hood of each vehicle, lengthy discussion about tyres, fuel consumption etc. and last but not least playing with fire – the campfire that is. While the women may spend some time stereotypically sharing meal preparation ideas with camp ovens, Cobbs and the like, for the most part it’s all about relaxation – just having a chat or curling up with a good book.

After a lay day for even more relaxation it’s time to face the inevitable and tackle Billy Goat Bluff. Getting there was necessarily the long way round through Dargo because of a prescribed burn that had got away. Fire is an ever present danger in the High Country and this harked back to a 2008 trip when we were camped at Talbotville and had to make a hasty departure in the middle of the night when lightning started fires that burned for months, with catastrophic results. This time differed in that conditions were cool and much less conducive to serious fires.

Billy Goat Bluff is to the High Country what Gunshot Creek is to Cape York, with a degree of difficulty arguably times ten. It rises 1200 metres in just 7 kms with only one hairpin bend making for a sheer vertical ascent. Then there are rock ledges and severely eroded track conditions to contend with that make for really scary stuff; certainly not for the feint hearted or inexperienced. It was a case of further reducing tyre pressures, taking great care with wheel placement at every stage and hoping like hell it all worked.

It seems unbelievable now that in 2006 we towed five of our Odyssey campers up this monstrosity of a track. Being first-timers to the High Country at that stage we had no idea what we were in for so our success was a case of beginners’ luck. Our achievement may have become the stuff of folklore but it’s certainly not one we’re in a hurry to repeat.

Finally, the summit! But instead of being rewarded by the magnificent views that we knew were there somewhere the descending cloud cover made for a dark and eerie Lord of the Rings type atmosphere.

This theme continued. Any hope we had for some relief after Billy Goat was totally in vain. Although not steep, Castle Hill Track was badly overgrown and in the near darkness closed in like a tunnel. The scratchy branches painted our vehicles with a whole new pin stripe design and there was lots of negotiation around fallen trees. Junction Spur Track wasn’t much better. Our main concern was the potential for large trees across the track which would have meant either big chainsaw jobs or spending the night on the track. Certainly not an inviting prospect for we who are used to ‘glamping’ in the Matrix and Quantum.

After the drama of the day the idea of dinner at the Dargo Pub was just too good to pass up and we rolled in to some great food and a cozy atmosphere. But this meant going back down McMillans in the dark to get back to camp??? No worries now for these seasoned warriors!!!

Though a lay day was planned for following day at Talbotville the charm of the Crooked River was irrestible and we spent most of the day exploring its 24 crossings and old Bulltown. It was also a chance to put the Matrix through its paces and have some photo opportunities.

Then it was time to tow the trailers back up McMillans Road. Fortunately we met just one vehicle coming the other way and we soon discovered why it happened to be a flatbed rescue truck. We were intrigued to find gear strewn along the road – first car mats, then boots, a compressor, a duffel bag, a padlocked case – even a box of bullets! Dennis in the lead vehicle began picking each piece up.

In an attempt to find some indication of the owner we stopped at the summit, searched through the bag and came up with a name that sounded eastern European. We were considering leaving the gear at the Dargo store but when Dennis approached a person meeting the criteria waiting for a lift in front of the store it just happened to be the owner of the gear.

It turned out he had rolled his vehicle near Talbotville the previous evening and called the SES who came down to collect him. They threw his gear into a trailer but in the rough drive up McMillans the tailgate opened and the gear ended up on the road. The flatbed we had passed was on a rescue mission to retrieve his car!

No visit to the High Country is complete without tackling the Blue Rag Range track. This track was one of the highlights of the trip. It runs along a sheer ridgeline with magnificent views on either side – the eerie contorted shapes of the fire whitened snow gums adding to the drama. Because of the anticipated condition of the track the trailers were unhooked and left at a picnic area at the base of the range although we realized we’d had a reprieve when John complained bitterly about the track having being graded.

John’s meticulous planning had scheduled our trip to coincide with the autumn festival in Bright and it was there we headed for some R & R. Freeburg Caravan Park just 8km from Bright is spacious and laid back. It is complete with its very own colourful autumn trees and our sites by the river made for a great few days of relaxation. The autumn colours in this area are simply stunning and it was a complete change of scene to enjoy civilized things like the market, the festivities and the lovely areas around this delightful town. Of course it’s frost that triggers the trees to turn and when we woke up each morning to layers of ice on windscreens and white stuff everywhere we better understood the tradeoff. There was a close huddle around the fire in the evenings and we will be eternally grateful for our diesel heaters which we had running all night in the freezing conditions. Al and Chris had air-con instead of a heater so they saved their sanity by hooking up to power to use their reverse cycle.

As if to further enrich our experience of the cold we set off on a day trip through Mt Beauty up to Hotham, and the Bogong High Plains. We also visited the much loved and photographed Wallace’s Hut that has cost so much effort to save from the fires. Four degrees with a breath-taking wind chill factor followed by sleet challenged even the hardiest of our crew, so the experience was quite different this time from a previous trip when the High Plains were covered with delicate alpine flowers.

It was time to once more depart civilization for the wilds, this time to Fry’s Flat. The super responsive independent suspension on the Matrix and Quantums make driving on these tight and twisty gravel roads pure pleasure. Handling is superb and there’s never the slightest concern about them getting out of shape with sudden stops to dodge animals or oncoming vehicles or on sharp corners.

Fry’s is a lovely camping area on the Howqua River complete with Fry’s Hut and some extraordinary bird life. There were seven Kookaburras tame enough to be hand fed and even patted. We named these for the days of the week until the issue was confused by the appearance of No. 8. Even the king parrots were happy to be hand fed. The bower birds were more skittish but when Al put a couple of blue pegs on the ground all the male’s Christmases came at once.

The frosty conditions continued and minus two on one morning and maximums of around seven……whoa… what’s winter like here??? The diesel heaters got even more of a workout here. We found setting them on 15 degrees kept the chill off without conditions inside getting too hot. Al and Chris improvised rather disastrously with a small gas heater set on low but after the fourth night became quite ill from the effects of having it in an enclosed environment.

John had been keen for us to visit the Mt Stirling area the location of the best remaining stands of non-burnt snow gums but was disappointed to find that the road had closed on 1st May. Still there was a surfeit of interesting 4WD tracks to explore with King Basin Road and Little Cobbler and Speculation Tracks. Our long term dream of being able to see the famous Craig’s Hut finally came to fruition. Built originally as the set for the Man From Snowy River film the location is spectacular. In fact it has its very own stories to tell having been burnt a number of times by raging bush fires and rebuilt by the efforts of 4WD Clubs.

Imagine the moody atmosphere of a cold and cloudy day with mist rolling in around the hut. We were standing outside doing our photographic best when our multi-talented tour guide burst into a recitation of the Man From Snowy River in his best booming auctioneer’s baritone ……… enough to send shivers up one’s spine and create visions of Lovick and his horses galloping like an apparition out of the mist.

All too soon it’s all over and time to say goodbye – John and Annette for their short journey back to Bright and Al and Chris and Steve and I for the long haul back to the sunny coast. How much richer the trip has been, organized by someone with in intimate and long term knowledge of this magnificent area. Our heartfelt thanks go to John and Annette for making it such a great experience. We wish you joy of the tracks until we meet again.

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