Encompassing a major part of Australia’s Great Dividing Range, the High Country is a diverse landscape of beautiful National Parks, rugged 4WD tracks, mighty rivers, stunning lakes, snow resorts, vineyards, isolated campgrounds and quaint little hamlets and mountain villages.
Once frequented by bushrangers and mountain men, it roughly stretches from Rutherglen in the north to Jamieson in the south… and from Nagambie in the west to Mount Beauty in the east.
Within its realms, it encompasses the beautiful villages of Marysville, Beechworth, Bright, Yackandandah, Mansfield, Barnawartha, Benalla, Alexandra, Eildon, Harrietville, Wangaratta, Merrijig, Wadiligong, Milawa, Glenrowan, Myrtleford, Yea and Chiltern and is also home to some incredible natural attractions that include Mount Buller, Lake Mountain, the King Valley, Mount Stirling, Dinner Plain, Mount Hotham, Mount Buffalo, Falls Creek and Mount Beauty and Victoria’s highest mountain – Mount Bogong!
It is a place where there is always something to do no matter what the season, and it’s no wonder this breathtaking scenery makes it one of Victoria’s most precious gems… and one of my favourite locations in Australia.
In the summer, spring, and autumn months this unspoiled country of picturesque and remote mountains, valleys and rivers attracts outdoor enthusiasts who love to hike, mountain bike, or explore the labyrinth of 4WD tracks… and in winter it’s a homage to all things icy making for a playground of skiing, snowboarding, snowballs, snowmen, warm fires – and delicious hot chocolates!
Situated at the foothills of the alps, the busy tourist town of Mansfield was our first stop after our overnight camp at Edi Campground in the King Valley. Here we stocked up on groceries and filled with fuel.
This spectacular part of Victoria and this beautiful old town dating back to the stock route and cattleman days was the perfect place for us to begin the next part of our adventure but with the main street transformed into a gateway for the annual ‘Targa High Country’ event, we didn’t hang around for very long!
Over three dynamic days of racing, the High-Country roads through the regions of Eildon, King Valley, Mansfield and the scenic alpine villages had been transformed into a racetrack for high octane cars and their daredevil drivers – and today Mansfield was playing host to the adrenaline pumping street stage!
We had driven the Great Alpine Road to Bright, Hotham Heights and Omeo numerous times on our travels… and earlier in the year, although driven out by bushfires, we had managed to explore Mt Buller and its surrounds.
Click here to read about Mt Buller and High Country adventure earlier in the year…https://www.tassiesnowbirds.com/2019/04/07/on-the-road-again-our-next-adventure-begins-as-we-head-to-the-victorian-high-country/
… and on this trip, we were back to finish what we had started!
We were heading for the hills via rugged 4WD tracks that would take us to the Howqua River, up into the Alpine National Park, over the Bluff, across the Howitt Plain, through the Wonnangatta, Talbotville, Grant, on to Dargo before crossing the rugged and challenging Billy Goat Bluff fire trail to Licola.
The Traditional Owners of the Land…
Throughout the ‘high country ‘ villages and ski resorts you will find a great fixaton with the history of cattlemen who for generations have driven their stock into the mountains.
There are buildings, roads, events and sculptures that pay homage to these tough pioneers… but there is also the history of the Indigenous people who have lived in this country for thousands of generations.
The Victorian High Country is generally considered a harsh environment for many of us but this alphine region has long been the home of the Taungurung clan called Yawang-yilam-bulok (Stone Dwelling People) who have trekked the surrounding mountains around Mount Buller, Mount Stirling and the Howqua River for millennia.
It was also the focal point for annual journeys of other tribes to the mountains where all manner of business and ceremony occurred around the annual gathering of the Bogong Moth – a tiny insect that provides a great source of fat and protein for these people.
In the warmer months neighbouring tribes would be summoned by messengers and tribes would migrate from the surrounding valleys and foothills travelling anything up to 160-kilometres to gather and set up temporary summer camps.
This ancient tradition, of gathering together in the High Country saw five to six hundred people in each campsite where they would hold corroborees, sing songs, trade, initiations would take place, and betrothals and arguments would be settled… then on the sixth day they would ascend the high alphine meadows of the High Country to harvest and dine on the resting cori, or Bogong moths (Agrotis infusa) – a tiny noctornal Aussie moth which migrates annually in large numbers (travelling over 1000 kilometres) from their lowland breeding grounds in southern Queensland, western and north-western NSW, and western Victoria to the mountainous landscape of the alps.
In the Aboriginal language, the word ‘Bugung’ means the brown moth referring to the ‘boo gong fly’ otherwise known as the Bogong Moth (Agrotis infuss).
Legend has it that back in the Dreaming, the Bogong Moth was an ordinary man, dull and grey in colour. In contrast, his wife Myee was incredibly beautiful with wings the colour of the rainbow!!
One day, against her husband’s wishes, the inquisitive Myee set off to travel far up into the mysterious mountains but as she neared her destination, snow fell, trapping her! When spring came and the snow thawed, Myee was released but while taking flight, her bright and vibrant colours soaked into the snow, leaving her a dull brown. It is now said that when the snow melts in the mountain region and the beautiful, colourful wildflowers emerge, they are the colours that once belonged to Myee.
HEADING FOR THE HILLS…
After Mansfield, our next destination was Sheepyard Flat. A beautiful camp set in a secluded valley on the Howqua River. This highland country has some of the best camping in Australia… and what’s more – it’s all free!
Following the signs from Mansfield, we travelled towards Mount Buller and at Merrijig we turned right onto the familiar gravel Howqua Track we had driven earlier in the year.
The hamlet of Merrijig lies on the Delatite River in the Delatite River Valley. Here is where the mountains meet the cool forests at the southern end of the Great Dividing Range.
After winding our way over a 17-kilometre narrow, gravel track into the Howqua Hills, we finally crossed the Howqua River and rocked into the Sheepyard Flat camping area.
We had camped here before and loved this large, open campground set on river flats of the Howqua River and surrounded by the forested foothills of the alps.
Enclosed by woodland of peppermint and manna gum, the level grassed campsites are regularly mown by the cattle, the river is bounded by magnificent blackwood’s and wattles, and it is a haven for magpies, ducks, koalas, wombats, kangaroos, and possums. It is in fact a camper’s paradise, complete with long-drop loos and firepits!
RAIN, RAIN GO AWAY…
One thing I have learned on our many trips around Oz is that Mother Nature works to her own agenda… and no matter whether you’re east, west, north, or south in this country, the weather can never be underestimated. It can change in the blink of an eye and like it or not it will certainly rain on you at some point!
The weather hadn’t been kind to us over the last couple of days and by the time we arrived at Sheepyard Flats it was blowing hard and the rain and fog had set in.
Hardened campers like us who spend many months on the road, accept the fact that the weather can change at any time and so being prepared for all seasons, especially in the southern states, is a given! For us, that means carrying a few added extras – and our spare tarps, raincoats, and winter woollies were a welcome addition to get us through this inclement weather!
The storm carried on for the rest of the night. Lightning flashed across the sky, thunder rolled… and as the rain hammered us, and the gusts battered us we couldn’t help but think our rooftop was going to take flight at any moment.
In the back of our minds, we already had an emergency plan to evacuate to the front seat of the car – a plan we had only ever initiated a couple of times when we camped in a 2-man tent… but thankfully our rooftop never failed us and continued to amaze us with its durability in these adverse conditions.
The rain had eased the next morning and as the day dawned grey and damp, we were woken by the occasional laugh of a kookaburra and the chirping of birds… then the banter of other campers as they slowly crawled from their tents to light their fires and boil their billy’s.
We lay in our warm bed considering our options. We had arrived late the afternoon before and because it was raining heavily, we didn’t even consider lighting a fire.
Nothing beats a good fire when you’re out camping in the bush especially when it’s cold but as we all know, starting a fire in wet conditions can be an absolute nightmare, especially when the wood is sodden.
Then, just as we ventured from our rooftop to begin our search for kindling, Lady Luck shone on us… and we spied a small group of campers packing up and moving on!
Biding our time, we lay in wait!
I have said many times in my blogs to extinguish your campfire before leaving camp but in this instance, we were very thankful of some glowing coals… and with camp chairs in hand and the ladder of our rooftop perched precariously on the tailgate of Harry Hilux we made a quick dash to their still glowing firepit.
Not only did they leave us their glowing coals, but we were also thankful for the extra firewood, and we were soon sitting around a blazing fire fending off the morning chill!
There’s nothing quite like the sound of the crackling wood and dancing flames to draw you in and when our friends arrived, they found us huddled around the fire with books in hand, our drenched socks and shoes drying on the warm rocks, the billy boiling madly, and our camp oven neatly positioned over the hot coals.
Unspoiled country of tall timbers, rushing creeks, steep-sided deep valleys, snow gums, rugged tracks, and mountain ridges!
It promised to be a beautiful clear day as we waved goodbye to Sheepyard Flat the following morning and headed across the fast-flowing Howqua River onto Brocks Road.
Following in Caz and Graham’s tracks the early morning sunlight filtered through the tall snow gums and slowed us to almost walking pace – but it made for beautiful photos as we headed up into the alpine realms.
A few kilometres into our trip we noticed smoke wafting from small camps situated along the secluded, narrow and shaded river-side flat of the fast-flowing Howqua River – the tracks leading into 8- Mile Flat and 7-Mile Flat looking a little worse for wear after the recent rain!
Surrounded by steep forested slopes we rolled on with Brocks Road only teasing in a few places – nothing too troublesome just a couple of rocky outcrops and soft, boggy patches before reaching the first intersection where we pulled in for a photo or two of the stunning snowcapped hills in the distance!
Turning onto a Jamieson State Forest track the track slowly descended towards the Jamieson River and it was here the conditions began to worsen causing us to stop and drop our tyre pressure.
From here on the track narrowed and continued to deteriorate somewhat as it began to climb away from the river and clamber over several rocky sections and around eroded switchbacks to the top of the Great Dividing Range.
As challenging as High-Country tracks can be, if you drop your tyre pressure and drive to the conditions, hopefully you’ll to make it through without any dramas. We usually run ours around 28-30 psi on the rocky tracks, and if the conditions worsen or it rains, we tend to drop them a bit more just to gain more traction!
As we made our way along the very rutted Long Spur Track, we passed a turnoff to the Refrigerator Gap Track, an impressive gap located at the base of the escarpment in hut country.
Then came King Billy Track, a very bumpy trail with plenty of very, very slow sections as it rose and descended in and out of the exposed forest.
This high, rocky route passed through tall stands of snow gums that had sadly succumbed to the recent fires, and when we finally reached the crest of the range we pulled into a small, exposed camping spot on the nearby snow plains where we were rewarded with a magnificent vista stretching far across the inhospitable ranges.
Continuing, we saw firsthand the devastation of the fires of earlier in the year. At the beginning of 2019 and then again in 2020 bushfires burnt across millions of hectares of forest in eastern Victoria, killing millions of animals, threatening the survival of hundreds of species, and pushing many ecosystems to the brink of collapse.
Snow Gums which are the classic alpine tree of this High Country, along with Alpine Ash, were now lifeless sticks. These species can usually survive fire, but science tells us that with climate change and more frequent fires it is almost impossible for these trees to endure the changes!
For a forest that was once so alive – it now saddened me to see hundreds of blackened skeletons that reached up from the forest floor with the only greenery, after the recent drenching, forest grasses and wildflowers that were beginning to show their heads!
We were now at an altitude of nearly 1700 metres and the feeling of remoteness and isolation was real. The long-distance Australian Alps Walking Track covering 655-kilometres passes through this point. Starting at Walhalla in Victoria it weaves its way over many peaks ending its journey at Tharwa, near Canberra.
Parked at the junction at King Billy there were several tracks for us to consider – one headed east over Howitt High Plains Road to Licola: another over the ridge along the rocky Bluff Track to Lovicks Hut then west to Bluff Hut descending to the Howqua River… and lastly the track we were taking – the Zeka Spur Track!
From high up in these ridges of this alpine region to low down in the valleys there stand many huts that were once used by the cattlemen who called this country home! Today these mountain men may be gone but the four walls of their roughly built huts with dirt floors, glassless windows, crudely built fireplaces, and low narrow doors still linger with memories and remnants of the bushmen of the mid-1800s and early 1900s.
One known to many is from Banjo Patterson’s legendary poem ‘The Man from Snowy River’ – the iconic Craig’s Hut.
Sitting high atop Mt Stirling this hut isn’t one of the originals as it was constructed as the set for the 1982 film ‘The Man from Snowy River’ to portray the history of the region but it is probably the most popular and easiest to access as it’s not far off the beaten track. If you’re taking a day trip to Mt Buller detour to the Craig’s Hut day-use area. From there a 1.2-kilometre walking track leads to the hut – and panoramic views overlooking the magnificent High Country!
Another easily accessible hut is not far from the Sheepyard Flat campground. Fry’s Hut is situated in a small corner of the High Country in a once busy gold mining area on the Howqua River in the Howqua Hills.
Built by a master bushman, Fred Fry, in the late 1930s, Fred lived a solitary existence for many years in these hills mostly prospecting in the valley – and it was he who Neville Shute based his 1950 novel ‘The Far Country’ on!
Thankfully these huts are now maintained by the Victorian High Country Huts Association (VHCHA) volunteers – a team who have worked tirelessly to retain the history of some of our great Aussie High Country icons… and although many are not in their original condition having been destroyed or damaged by bushfires most have been repaired or rebuilt to preserve the treasured reminders of the cattlemen days when the crack of whips and the clopping of hooves rattled off the steep hillsides of this country!
Turning onto the Zka Spur Track we were only a few metres in when we struck the muddy waters of a long, deep, puddle that lay in wait just anticipating its next capture of a 4WD.
It hit Graham and Caz first and before we realised, we were in there too! Luckily for both of us, it was more the shock of the deep entry that caught us off guard and fortunately we survived to tell the tale exiting with only very dirty vehicles!
Leaving behind the skeletons of dead trees the track wound its way for 34-kilometres downwards twisting its way in and out of the heavily forested ranges, only occasionally affording us a break in the trees of the moody grey skies strewn with fast-moving clouds.
After many steep sections and tight switchbacks to negotiate on a road that seemingly went on forever, we were soon afforded a hazy light hanging around forested mountain ranges, a large valley floor of grasslands and the impressive Wonnangatta River snaking its way around the edge of Wonnangatta Valley.
Wonnangatta Valley is a wide-open plain cradled by mountains and is about as remote a place as you can get and a rare geographical phenomenon. Framed by towering mountain ranges it is a cleared flat plain varying in width from a few 100 metres to over a kilometre through which meanders the Wonnangatta River.
This river has its source on the southern side of the Great Dividing Range before passing through dense but spindly timber until it arrives in the upper reaches of the Wonnangatta Valley. It then winds eastward hugging a steep range on its left bank with flats of the valley on its right banks.
There are several options for camping in this area with probably the most popular ‘Old Wonnangatta Homestead’ where there are some great camping areas offering concrete firepits, pit toilet, and plenty of shade stretching along the river at Homestead Flats… but for us, our camp for the next couple of nights was an isolated grassy clearing surrounded by dogwood, gums, blackberry bushes and ferns with the swiftly flowing Wonnangatta River just down a track.
Being an avid deer shooter Graham had a secret spot all his own which, he also told us was probably the most likely place to stumble across a deer drinking by the river!
The Victorian High Country is home to pretty much all the deer species in Australia: sambar, red deer, fallow, chital (axis), rusa and hog deer, Victoria is a bit of a deer hunting Mecca… and the thought of seeing one near our campsite was exciting!
We’d gathered firewood on our way in and after setting up our tents it wasn’t long before we were sitting back with a cool beverage in hand, listening to the bubbling river, enjoying the bush smells, and watching the dancing campfire flames as the sun dropped behind the mountain ranges… the silence only punctuated by the occasional 4WD, and their occupants – drawn like us to an adventure of reaching such isolation.
That night after a dinner cooked over a bed of hot coals and a cuppa made in a campfire billy, we reminisced under a blanket of stars of our day’s adventure… and shared many a bedtime tale – one in particular of a big ‘Black Panther’ roaming the High Country!
On further investigation Mr Google told me, the story of a black panther roaming the Victorian bushlands is a decades-old Aussie folklore tale and despite being shaded with controversy and steeped in a history of conspiracy theories, this legend is apparently thriving with hundreds of sightings continuing to be made.
Apparently sightings have been reported all throughout Victoria since the 1830s with some people believing the creature/s are the offspring of black panthers brought out as mascots by US soldiers during World War II and released into the bush, others say a Monbulk man who owned a mini zoo released his animals into the bush when the zoo was closed… and many think it is just a big, black feral cat!
That night a chorus of howls from dingoes and wild dogs kept us awake with their jarring notes… and although not seen through the day they were clearly heard throughout the night.
We didn’t rush to creep from our rooftop tent the next morning but when we did the mountain air was clean and crisp and the dew covering the leaves of the trees sparkled in the morning sun creating a magical picture of the valley.
Our day started around the blazing campfire cooking up a delicious damper over the hot coals, a yummy veggie soup for lunch and a camp roast for our evening meal.
We spent most of the day relaxing with our books, fetching buckets of water from the river… and at one time fending off a yellow belly black snake too quick for a photo!
Wildlife and bird life are abound on these valley flats… lizards, galahs, gang gangs, king parrots, black cockatoos and many of the more common variety – plovers, magpies, kookaburras, whipbirds, jays and little wrens. Sakardas sand a high pitching sound in the surrounds and the elusive deer, although not seen, had visited through the night as prints could be seen by logs at the waters edge.
High Country camping is boundless offering some of the best free camping in the state but as I have said many times – where there are no facilities there are a handful of simple guidelines you must adhere to!
Firstly, the unspoken rule of what to do for a ‘bush loo’ is simple! Dig a deep hole well away from other campers and at least 100-metres away from waterways.
With rubbish! What you bring in – take out! And finally – contain your campfire in an established pit and make sure you put it out before leaving your campsite!
All too quickly it was time to move on.
It had rained heavily again overnight this time prompting Graham to change our plans to head to Dargo. He was concerned the Wonnangatta and other river crossings might be too swollen to cross so with our backup plan to head to Myrtleford we smothered our hot coals then hit the track. Our next stop was just up the road at Wonnangatta Station!
Surrounded by forbidding mountains, Wonnangatta Station was established in the 1860s as a cattle property. Situated near the junction of Conglomerate Creek and Wonnangatta River it was the home of the pioneer Bryce family for many years… but in 1957 the homestead burnt down and only a few ruins are left – scattered stones, the cemetery, the cattleman’s hut and the remains of the stockyards.
At the nearby cemetery, we found the graves of early settlers and their children. One headstone read of the sad death of a mother from childbirth and her twin girls just 12 days later. Her husband was so upset, he up and left the homestead.
This homestead and the surrounding valley hold its ghosts close to its chest being haunted by many heartbreaking stories, disappearances and tragedies.
In 1917 the station manager and cook disappeared and were later found murdered. Nearly a century later these crimes remain unsolved.
A plaque tells of a young couple killed in 1983 when their 4WD rolled as they attempted to drive the very steep ‘Widowmaker Track’ – a track that leads to nowhere and a grim reminder that you certainly need to be cautious in the choices you make out here in these unforgiving valleys.
In the last 12-months alone (between June 2019 and March 2020) four people have disappeared within a 60-kilometre radius, leaving police and locals baffled.
A few days back at Sheepyard Flat we read of an experienced bushwalker missing for many weeks in these forbidding mountains; another bloke left his car on the side of the road halfway up Mt Buller and has never been seen again, another vanished at Dom Dom Saddle still to be found – and only a few months after we completed this trip an older couple were reported missing right here at Wonnangatta. Their camp was found burnt out with only their car remaining. It is only recently their murders have been solved!
Fortunately, our plan to head to Myrtleford soon transformed after we met up with a convoy of 4WDers heading to Dargo. With a plan in place to follow in their dust we set off speculating if there were any issues on the track, they would encounter them first! Unfortunately though, our plan didn’t go as we planned, and after hanging back for a bit to give them a head start, we passed them at the second water crossing where they had pulled over.
With Wonnagatta and the water crossings behind us our first hurdle was just up the track – the rugged and hair-raising Wombat Range Track where we were immediately presented with challenging low range ascents and descents.
There was no turning back on this track, and it was most definitely diff lock country. We climbed over some serious inclines along the side of Cynthia Range to the summit where the track petered out lulling us into a false sense of security before confronting us with a very steep descent back down into a valley. It was at this point we were pleased we weren’t following in the wake of the convoy we’d passed earlier on the track!
Next up the Cynthia Range Track was an easy ride in comparison as it traversed a ridgeline providing magnificent views from every direction… but it was the view from the windscreen that was the most spectacular with the distant Billy Goat Bluff Track (just a white line) winding its way to the top of yet another steep ridgeline!
Continuing along the Cynthia Range Track the landscape soon began to change presenting an explosion of rumbled boulder fields against a backdrop of stunted trees and low alpine heath.
On the summit, we pulled over to take some photos of this barren, isolated land with its dramatic distant ranges forming a formidable backdrop. Low clouds scuttled across the sky and the wind was so cold we were soon back in our vehicles and heading on!
Ignoring Eagle Vale Track we swung the vehicles down the side of Mt Cynthia and headed towards Talbotville.
Again, we experienced severe track damage only this time we were closer to the unprotected edges of the track causing the occasional and slightly unnerving wheel lift.
This next section of track was very steep resulting in a low range descent to save the brakes and tackle the many switchbacks which, are a common feature of the steep tracks in this high country.
Finally, at the bottom, we turned onto Racecourse Track – pleased to have the very long, very steep descent behind us. We had only travelled around 40-kilometres today which just goes to show, how slow going it is to travel up and down these mountains.
Following the crystal-clear waters of Crooked River to Talbotville, we crossed several more solid river-rock bottom water crossings and passed a few remote homesteads.
Being only 35-kilometres from Dargo in a steep valley on the southern edge of the Alpine National Park, the old, abandoned gold mining town of Talbotville is probably one of the most favoured areas for camping especially amongst 4WDers and trail bikers.
This town is just another link into the High Country’s colourful past being one of the first settlements that sprung up on a bend on the Crooked River in the 1860s to cater for the Crooked River goldfield. Others include the once-bustling goldfield towns of Grant, Bulltown, Stonewall, Howitteville.
All that is left of this town today is a large grassy flat campground with pit toilets and fire rings, a few old ruins, mine workings and an old cemetery.
Leaving Talbotville we climbed up over McMillan’s Track which, in the main is a good dirt road albeit it is very steep, narrow, and twisting for the first 9-kilometres. Just before the helipad we were afforded spectacular views looking over Mount Hotham and Blue Rag but apart from the sheer drop the road didn’t pose any real problems – I just wouldn’t like to be towing!
11-kilometres from Talbotville we rolled down to the Grant Road intersection where we couldn’t resist a sneak peek at another little township born from the chaotic rush for gold!
Apparently, at one stage Grant was like a small city with a population of around 3000 but now, like all these abandoned Goldfields all that remains are the rubble of old buildings, gold mines, rusting mining relics, town cemeteries… and the ghosts of yesteryear! Some more recent!
It’s forgotten streets that once supported several stores and hotels, a police station, churches, banks and dwellings have now given way to a walking track and information boards that offer an insight into the town’s former glory and one can only imagine the backbreaking and often fruitless toil and physical hardship the miners and their families endured in this remote highland country!
From Grant, it was only a 6-kilometre trip to the Dargo High Plains Road but before heading into Dargo we turned left at the intersection and headed a bit up the road to visit a much-loved icon in this region – the ‘Dog’s Grave’ monument!
Rediscovered in the 1960s, this magnificent stone memorial is in memory of the pioneers, drovers, and dogs of the Omeo-Dargo track… and as the name suggests marks the site where an old cattleman by the name of Peter Meehan buried his furry buddy ‘Boney’ in 1863.
On granite headstones, there are two photos – one of an Australian cattle dog – and on the other of a drover stoking a billy on a fire.
It is a very special place that portrays the loneliness and life of the strong characters who endured the harshness of this inhospitable High Country and most importantly pays tribute to their loyal companions!
There’s a campground, a couple of picnic tables, a fire pit, a long drop toilet, a freshwater creek and one of the many huts of the High Country.
To continue north from ‘The Dogs Grave’ the road continues up, over and further into the High Country towards Hotham and Omeo which, is another awesome drive in itself – but for us, our road headed south to the old timber mill town of Dargo nestled in the foothills of the Dargo High Plains.
Leaving the High Plains behind and following the Dargo River we descended into a picturesque valley of farmland and charming homesteads with their exquisite lawns bordered with walnut trees!
Dargo is Victoria’s most remote community and is well known for its groves of century-old walnut trees that line the valley floor supplying Victoria with around 10-per-cent of its walnuts.
We passed some great free camping areas along this river – Collins Flat, Italian Flat, Dusty Flat, Black Flat, Ollies Jump Up, Jimmy Iversons and Two Mile Flat, just to name a few. All with pit toilets and large flat grassy areas to set up a tent.
Just 17-kilometres from McMillan’s Track we rocked into Dargo passing the oval, town hall, playground, tennis court, bbq facilities and the Bush Nursing Centre on the way in. Then came the iconic Dargo Hotel that I’d heard so much about.
First surveyed in 1864, Dargo was primarily a stopping off point for supplies to the nearby goldfields we had just passed through. Today it’s a walnut, timber, and cattle town… and the gateway to the famous (or infamous) 4WD tracks of the High Country, the Alpine Country, the Mitchell River National Park, and the Avon Wilderness Park,
It was a busy hub of activity when we first arrived and obviously a place where enthusiastic 4WDers, fishermen, and trail bike riders pull in for an overnight camp, to grab last-minute supplies and fill up with fuel (for both vehicle and body), with the famous Dargo Hotel the towns biggest drawcard!
Built from timbers salvaged from houses in Grant it was licensed in 1888, and although this pub might not be on my list of true ‘Outback pubs’ – this town centrepiece has long been on my list of pubs to visit for a very long time!
Like many rustic country pubs, it boasts lots of character and oozes history. The bar is adorned with stubby holders and beer signs, a trail bike sits perched above the beer fridges and the walls are adorned from floor to ceiling with memorabilia built up over years of unforgettable High-Country adventures – and gold rush stories!
It also provides delicious meals, cold beers, great camping, and log cabin accommodation.
The Drago campground is situated behind the pub on the banks of the beautiful Dargo River. It’s a large open area with big shady trees but to access it you need to unlock a gate. Ask the bar staff for the key! There are no amenities at this campground, but the toilets and showers can be accessed at the rear of the hotel – you just need to organise for it to be left unlocked for the night with the hotel staff!
The Dargo General store is the only store in town and was once the site of the Court House and lock up until it closed after World War 1 thus becoming the local trading post so has quite a bit of history of its own!
The town consists of pretty much only the pub and the general store so spending money locally is a big plus for this little community and the store sells pretty much everything – fuel for those running low, takeaway foods, a small selection of groceries, maps, and souvenirs.
THE ROAD TO THE TOP OF THE WORLD – THE BILLY GOAT BLUFF TRACK…
The next morning, we waved Dargo goodbye and set off to climb one of Victoria’s steepest, toughest and most challenging 4WD fire trails – The Billy Goat Bluff Track!
We didn’t really know what we had let ourselves in for when we agreed to do this track with Graham and Caz – but believe me… you need more than a keen sense of adventure to tackle this track – it’s certainly not a track for the inexperienced, faint-hearted – or for towing!
It wasn’t until we embarked on it that we were told it was considered one of the most dangerous trails to drive – not only in Victoria but in all of Australia. It’s extremely narrow, rugged, rocky, has sheer cliff faces on either side… and passing other vehicles is a real challenge.
Following Graham and Caz out along Dargo Road, we turned west then headed down into the Wonnangatta River Valley trailing the Crooked River Road through scenic, lush farmland, forested zones, and picturesque river valleys.
At Kingswell Bridge we turned north onto the Wonnangatta Road, and it wasn’t long before the Victorian High Country lived up to its reputation with one more surprise just around the corner!
From the car park, the notorious Billy Goat Bluff Track loomed into sight – snaking and climbing its way steeply up and along the mountain spur line and into the distance.
Before leaving the car park we aired down and checked the radios in preparation for our next and thankfully last 4WDriving challenge in the High-Country.
It was here a lone mountain biker pulled in beside us. He had just tackled an extremely steep ride from the summit down the 10-kilometre track that descends 1200-metres in only 7-kilometres – and seemed really pleased with himself that he had lived to tell the tale!
It was now time for our risky venture to begin…. and it didn’t take long before the going got tough!
Our progress was slow and steady as the track quickly became steep – then steeper, and still steeper and it wasn’t far into the trip before we encountered the first of many rough, rocky sections where we found ourselves slipping constantly in the loose gravel – at times very close to the sheer drop offs on either side!
According to Graham a bulldozer usually graded this track for the forestry before the fire season, and although it was obvious crews and contractors had been working hard to clear, stabilise, and repair damage to other tracks they were yet to reach this track as it was still very much in disrepair from last summer’s bushfires which were then followed by the snows!
We passed the broken remains from previous motorists strewn across the rocky outcrops – moulded plastic, a number plate, broken glass, the odd bolt or two and frayed straps. No doubt the remnants from other successful or maybe unsuccessful 4WD trips.
Tracks like these are hard on any vehicle and halfway up the adrenaline kicked in when a message on the dash of Harry prompted us to pull over and consult our manual! The transmission was overheating, and we could do nothing about it!
This track traverses a knife’s edge of a mountain ridge where the threat of falling on either side is ever-present. We knew it was too dangerous to stop and there was definitely no turning back… so all we could do was to push on to the summit, stay in constant radio contact with our friends- and keep a close eye on the hurdles the track threw at us!
I had every faith in my driver and Harry Hilux – and luckily we had our friends in front to warn us of any hazards coming our way but my one fear was another vehicle, or worse a convoy coming toward us!
Passing would be hazardous, to say the least on this track – and to make matters worse we couldn’t help but recount the story from the guys at Dargo who told us many vehicles had been rescued on the Billy Goat this year – and one couple hadn’t so lucky when their brakes failed!
Infrequently we would come to a flatter section of track which offered a little relief with the occasional passing bays and intermittent humps built into the track to slow vehicles but none were all that reassuring on this narrow two-way fire-trail.
The odd clearing presented some great photo opportunities through the blackened trees, but it was a challenge driving for both the driver and the passenger and I was too busy driving from the passenger’s seat to pay much attention to the vista! To say the least, this was one stimulating ride that tested Guy’s driving ability and the car’s capability as it climbed over steep rocky steps, loose gravel and severe track deterioration all requiring plenty of clearance.
Finally, we reached the summit where a working fire tower is manned during the summer months. We pulled into the Pinnacles Lookout carpark and after giving Harry Hilux a quick once-over and deciding all he needed was a rest to cool down, we pulled on our walking boots and made our way along on a steep, rocky but short track!
‘The Top of the World’!
Perched high on a rocky escarpment a lookout rewarded us with breathtaking panoramic 360-degree panorama. Information boards highlighted the breathtaking scene that reached before us taking in the far south and the distant Gippsland Lakes, Mount Hotham to the north, the Wonnangatta Valley far below – and way back down the track we had just driven!
From the Pinnacles, we continued to the Horse yard campground along Pinnacles Road, then to McFarlane Saddle and eventually Arbuckle Junction. From Arbuckle Junction, it was an easy descent down to Licola on the good gravel all-weather Tamboritha Road and a relief that it wasn’t an no eye-watering, heart-pounding rugged descent down the other side.
Set in a beautiful grassy clearing among Snow Gums beside the Moroka River, Horseyard Flat Campground is only a short distance from the Pinnacles Lookout.
This is another of the High Country’s popular camping areas and named because it was once a horse yard where remains of the old morticed posts and split rails can still be seen. There are pit toilets, a dilapidated tin hut… and the starting point for the walking track down to Moroka Gorge and waterfall.
At Arbuckle Junction, we stopped at Bennison Lookout to take in more spectacular views over the Morkok Range…
… and finally we reached the end of the Alpine National Park and the start of Carey State Forest otherwise known as Charlies Country.
Bordered by the picturesque Wellington River on one side and open farming country on the other we descended toward Licola detouring from the main road just a few kilometres from the township.
On the outskirts of Licola, there are an array of isolated camping areas along the river – 14 in fact! All are uniquely named, all with several open sites, most with a toilet, some multiple picnic tables and one with its own horse yards. Most are set under shady trees with easy access to the river and the geology of the surrounding area is spectacular making for a memorable last night camping experience with our friends.
The next day we parted company, each taking a different track to our next destination. Caz and Graham were making their way home to Werribee. We were heading back into Alpine Country where we had arranged to meet up with our friends from Newcastle to conquer some rail-trails!
As we bid them farewell, they left us where the road split in two at the old wooden bridge on the edge of town. They headed along the Jamieson Licola Road that would take them north to Jamieson at the foot of Mount Buller… and we crossed the bridge and headed into Licola. From here our plan was to make our way into Southern Gippsland territory and Bairnsdale then on to Omeo.
We’d had a great trip with these guys and the Victorian High Country did not disappoint!
Most of the 4WD tracks were not the hardest 4WDing we had come across in our travels around Australia… however, some were the steepest terrain we had driven, testing our driving ability and the car’s capability – but luckily, we had an experienced leader, and without his guidance we would never have experienced ‘The Billy Goat Bluff Track’!
We absolutely loved this 4WDing trip and it was even better because we could share it with others. The memories, experiences, and accomplishments we made in the Victorian High Country will stay with us forever!