Beyond the ranges… come with us as we travel through the charming back roads of Gippsland before heading back into alpine country.

All to soon our drive in the rugged High-Country mountains came to an end.

Waving farewell to our friends the next part of our journey would take us on a day trip through Gippsland territory before heading back into alpine country via the Great Alpine Highway.

Our destination Jokers Flat on the Mitta Mitta River.

Licola…

Back on the black tar the drive to Licola was smooth cruising as we wound our way through the Macalister Valley following the Macalister River as it cut its way around the mountains and under Cheynes Bridge.

Located in the East Gippsland Region this former timber town was once a base for early cattlemen who drove their herds to the nearby high plains and mountains.

Today it is the only privately owned town in Victoria and the only self-sufficient town in the state that generates its own power, pumps and treats its own water, and is responsible for its own waste management.

Owned by the Lions Clubs of Victoria and southern NSW this ‘Wilderness Village’ which was once the site of an old sawmill, has been home to camps for disadvantaged children and special needs groups for the past 35-years.

Following Licola Road we passed Lake Glenmaggie, a popular recreation area and water storage lake that provides water for farmers throughout this district.

After stopping to linger at a pioneer grave by the side of the road near Heyfield we turned east along the Tinamba-Glenmaggie road which meandered into the Central Gippsland region towards Maffra.

Maffra…

Named after Maffra in Portugal, reputedly because many of the early settlers from the Monaro NSW region had fought in Spain and Portugal during the Peninsula War, this attractive town, with its lovely tree-lined nineteenth century main street, is also located on the Macalister River.

Once known for its sugar beet market, it is now an important rural centre at the heart of one of Victoria’s richest dairying districts… and home to a network of great rail trails.

Victoria is jam packed with wide, off-road cycling, walking and horse-riding trails… all following the routes of former railway lines.

Over this side of The Great Dividing Range the ‘Gippsland Plains Rail Trail’ makes up a network of around 63-kilometres of low intensity trails that travel from Stratford to Traralgon via the former historic Gippsland Plains railway line route connecting eight Central Gippsland towns.

‘The Grand Ridge Rail Trail’ winds its way through the Strzelecki Ranges connecting the townships of Mirboo North and Boolarra.

The ‘Moe to Yallourn Trail’ is an easy flat trail following the route of the old rail branch line that once serviced the Yallourn Power Station… and, the ‘TarraTrail’ follows the historic Great Southern Railway route through farmland with views of the Strzelecki Ranges and Wilsons Promontory.

These pathways traverse some of Australia’s most picturesque countryside as they wind their way through tall forests, rich farmland, along the coast, over hills, across old timber bridges, through culverts and tunnels and past former stations.

For us, there’s no better way to see the sights, admire the views and breathe in the fresh country air than to cruise these trails, it really is a magical journey.

Stratford…

A short drive east of Maffra along the Gippsland Plains Scenic Drive we came to Stratford, another lovely little town where its main street is lined with cafes, galleries, stores and shady parks.

Located on the banks of the Avon River, Stratford is famous for its link with Stratford in England and William Shakespeare thus its annual ‘Shakespeare on the River Festival’ celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday each April.  

Further up the road we pulled into the bustling town of Bairnsdale.

Bairnsdale…

Known as ‘the commercial capital of Gippsland’ this was familiar territory for us.

Situated on the Mitchell River which flows into the extensive Gippsland Lakes system at Lake King, Bairnsdale is the gateway to some of Victoria’s most spectacular natural beauties with the Gippsland Lakes to the south; the mountains, streams, caves, snowfields, alpine villages, national parks and the Mighty Murray to the north; the pastoral plains, the Dandenongs, Wilsons Promontory, Phillip Island and the Mornington Peninsula to the west; and Lakes Entrance and a picturesque coastline to the east.

It is also located at the junction of ‘The Great Alpine Road’ and the ‘Princes and South Gippsland Highways’.

Bairnsdale, once home to steam boats and traders who arrived in the area in the 1850s, is now the commercial and administrative hub of the East Gippsland Shire and home to a little collection of notable landmarks worthy of a visit while in this city.

St Mary’s Catholic Church is deserving of a visit for the stunning murals on the walls and ceilings done by an Italian artist, as is ‘The Court House’ in Nicholson Street that opened in 1894. ‘The Historical Museum and Regional Resource Centre’ in Macarthur Street was built in1892 and once housed the first Bairnsdale College… and not to be missed is the South African (Boer) War Memorial that commemorates the fallen lads of the first war Australia as a nation fought in.

Also worth mentioning is ‘The Krowathunkooloong Keeping Place’ which is also the centre for the cultural heritage of the Gunai (Kurnai) people and the focal point for the Bataluk Cultural Trails.

For cycling enthusiasts, the 65-kilometre ‘Gippsland Lakes Discovery Trail’ starts here and retraces the route of the historic light railway that winds its way through the Colquhoun State Forest linking the East Gippsland Rail Trail to 90-mile beach at Lakes Entrance.

The East Gippsland Rail Trail completes nearly a 100-kilometre trail as it leaves Bairnsdale and passes through beautiful farmland to Nicholson with its spectacular bridge over the river before heading on to Bruthen then across the Tambo River and up into the Colquhoun forest en route to Nowa Nowa, Lake Tyers and Orbost on the iconic Snowy River.

With our Navman set for Omeo we left Bairnsdale and made tracks over The Great Alpine Road.

We knew from previous trips what to expect along this road – breathtaking views and lots of history.

Aside from ‘The Great Ocean Road’, ‘The Great Alpine Road’ is perhaps one of the most impressive circuits we have travelled in Victoria. It is a journey we never tire of as it twists and turns through lush rainforests and past green pastures, through quaint little hamlets and into the very heart of Victoria’s lofty mountain ranges, before finishing in Wangaratta near the NSW border.

Bruthen…

Just 27-kilometres on and set at a fork in the road between Victoria’s High Country, the hinterland region and the Gippsland Lakes, Bruthen was our next stop.  

Perched above the Tambo River where the mountains level out across the Mossiface River Flats this picturesque little town sits in the foothills of the rugged Great Dividing Range.

It has a rich history with the area originally occupied by the Brabiraloong tribe of the indigenous Gunaikumai people. Its name is believed to be derived from the local aboriginal dialect ‘Brewdthan’ or ‘Brewathan’ meaning ‘bracken or place of evil spirit’.

In the 1840s pastoralists used the Tambo Valley as a route from the Monaro and the Gippsland plains and by 1858 a hotel, a store and a blacksmith were established to cater for drovers and miners using the stock routes or travelling north to the gold-mining settlements around Omeo.

In the 1860s steamers plied the Tambo River and from 1916 the railway serviced the area until it ceased operation in 1935. Today this line forms part of the very popular ‘East Gippsland Rail Trail’.

Bruthen the kind of town you can’t just drive through. It invites you to stop and wander down its main street and enjoy its heritage buildings and shady parks. There are number of speciality shops, trinket shops, bazaars, a general store (built in 1860) and the historic post office (built in 1890)… and in the centre a village green with s gazebo, roses and trees where we sat to take in the retro and enjoy a cuppa before moving on.

Pushing on we reluctantly decided to forgo the side trip to the Buchan Caves (having visited on a previous trip) but we did pull at the monument at Tambo Crossing to relive the high-country history of the area.

This site once served as an important rest area for travellers in the 1800s.

Buchan Caves…

These stunning limestone caves are almost 400 million years old and highly significant to the Gunaikurnai Traditional Owners.

There are two caves open for daily tours – Royal Cave and Fairy Cave – both offering an amazing mini underground landscape of fragile stalactites clinging precariously to the roof of the caves – each stalactite averaging a growth of 1 cm per 100 years.

Both caves have gorgeous delicate formations with both offering great viewing areas however, in the Fairy Cave there are lots of low, narrow walkways and quite a few more steps than the Royal Cave requiring the visitor to be a little more agile.

Ensay…

Hugging the Tambo River through forests and pasturelands the Great Alpine Road continued along a windy road as it ascended another 52-kilometres to the charming town of Ensay. It’s Aboriginal name in Numblamunjie meaning ‘black fish’.

Once recognised as one of the richest goldfields in Victoria, Ensay is situated at the base of the Nunniong High Plains and sits alongside the Tambo and Little Rivers. In later years World War 1 soldier settlers settled in this area farming mainly sheep and cattle but today this hideaway town is well known for producing prime beef cattle and wines.

4WD tracks…

As with the rail trails in this region there is also a network of interconnecting and looping 4WD tracks around ‘The Great Divide’, many being the legacy of gold-mining, cattle use and logging in the area.

From Ensay you can follow one track through the sub-alpine grasslands, heathlands and snow and mountain gum forests of the Ensay Valley to the Moscow Villa Hut on Bentley Plain. It’s a beautiful drive through magnificent country and if you’re lucky you might even catch a glimpse of wild brumby on the Nunniong High Plains.

This loop track eventually brings you back out on the highway, but you will bypass Swifts Creek and Doctor’s Flat, both good spots for free camping along the Tambo River.

Swifts Creek…

Continuing along The Great Alpine Road, Connors Lookout was our next stop to admire the view before continuing our trek to the once busy timber town of Swifts Creek, just a short 20-kilometre drive from Ensay.

Situated on the banks of the Tambo River and Swifts Creek (both named after a gold prospector who worked the creek seeking his fortune in the 1850s) this lovely little hamlet is mainly home to a few reclusive artists, a gallery, a bakery, a general store, a hotel, a Mosaic Chair, a couple of walks and Mt Markey Winery!  

The Aboriginal name for Swifts Creek is Bun Jirrah Gingee Munjie meaning ‘big kangaroos go that place’… and believe me – there were some pretty big grey kangaroos out this way who had made this town their home!

Below the gap…

On the outskirts of Swifts Creek, we came to an intersection where another road veered off the Great Alpine Road and followed Cassilis Road through a valley called ‘Long Gully’. This road and the three towns in this valley – Swifts Creek, Tongio West and Cassillis (which along with Ensay are affectionately known by the locals as ‘below the gap’ – with Omeo known as ‘above the gap’), all played an important role in the area’s rich gold history of the 1850s. Tongio however was settled many years prior in 1839 and its hotel was the earliest licence granted in Victoria.

Cassilis…

Today the isolated area of Cassilis is home to around 65 residents, again mostly artists with the rest of the population made up of – yes, you guessed it – the tow and four-legged variety… namely kangaroos and wombats.

Whether you take the tour route or the highway all roads from here lead to Omeo. The touring route is a 30-minute drive and the Great Alpine Road a 15-minute drive.

Above the gap… Omeo

Situated on the edge of the Snowy Mountains and set high in the Great Dividing Range we soon rocked into the charming little town of Omeo. Omeo meaning ‘mountains’ in the Aboriginal language.

Here I could easily lose myself in the history of the High Country, the promise of adventure, and the magic of nature. I love this once rugged, unruly frontier town of the gold mining boom days.  

Omeo has been the setting for several books over the year, many involving scandal, murder and intrigue, and it was also the location for the Australian feature film ‘Red Hill’ in 2009.

Immigrants settled and stations were set up in the area in the mid-1800s and in the 1840s squatters moving south into Gippsland used the area as a transit camp.

In 1851 gold was discovered at Livingstone Creek and within two years a few dozen prospectors had moved in and set up a tent city. The isolation and the mountainous terrain ensuring that progress and population growth was slow and low.  

Built on alluvial gold Omeo was declared a municipality in 1872 but in the late 1800s when the gold began to disappear so did many of the miners thus opening the way for Chinese miners to move in to work the tailings and establish market gardens.

The town suffered earthquakes in 1885 and 1892 and considerable damage was caused by the infamous ‘Black Friday’ bushfires of 1939.

Today it’s a quiet, sleepy township of around 300 people with a variety of shops, an intriguing German Cuckoo Clock Shop and Art Gallery, a Visitor Information Centre, a Parks Victoria office, and a lovely park to picnic in… and if you’re interested its the history of Omeo one commanding building is the court house built in 1893.

This ‘justice precinct’ houses the local history collection for the region as well as other heritage listed buildings including two court houses, a police residence, stables and log lockup. The log gaol was built in 1858 and housed its last prisoner in 1981.

We had now reached the crossroads in one of Victoria’s most remote towns where a well maintained gravel road led to Colac Colac and Corryong, the Omeo Highway headed north through Mitta Mitta and Tallangatta to Wodonga, and The Great Alpine Road provided access over The Great Divide via Dinner Plain and Mt Hotham -Australia’s highest alpine village.

‘Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting,

So… get on your way!’ – Dr.Seuss

Having driven the next section of ‘The Great Alpine Road’ several times I highly recommend it. Read our blog here at… https://www.tassiesnowbirds.com/2019/04/11/from-snow-gums-to-river-gums/.

The alpine scenery of this drive over Mt Hotham is spectacular as it follows dramatic, steep, narrow, rolling mountains… but today we were heading along the Omeo Highway to where ‘The Bogong High Plains Road’ veers from the Omeo Highway and winds its way through Falls Creek and the Bogong High Plains to Bright.

Omeo Highway…

Following Livingstone Creek north out of town the road wound up through hilly grazing country and it wasn’t long before it started to wind its way through bushland and incredible rock formations perched precariously beside the roadside.

We hadn’t been on this highway before and I was surprised to find it wasn’t as scenic as the country we had become accustomed to of late… but nevertheless it was quite striking.

Blue Duck Inn and Anglers Rest…

At Anglers Rest we noticed several campgrounds on the river side of the highway while the historic Blue Duck Inn stood proudly in splendid isolation on the other overlooking the confluence of the Cobungra, Bundara and Mitta Mitta Rivers.

Dating back to 1900, history tells us this inn acquired its name from a gold mining term described as a ‘white elephant’ which in prospector terms means a gold lease that yielded no gold otherwise called a ‘BLUE DUCK’.

This pub has languished beside the river next to an historic timber bridge on a forgotten bend of the seldom-used Omeo Highway for almost a century and at the time it seemed like the perfect name for the new hotel that miner Billy O’Connell established on what was going to be, but wasn’t, the new main road from the gold-rush town of Omeo to the goldfields.

The only people who called in for a beer or meal in this old slab hut (which was a butcher’s shop before it was moved from Omeo on the back of a horse dray) – were fishermen keen to catch a trout in the three rivers that joined just beyond the garden fence – hence the name, Anglers Rest.

Today however, thanks to the sealing of the Bogong High Plains Road linking Omeo with Falls Creek in the Victorian Alps, the Blue Duck has become one of the most popular stops on what has become one of Australia’s most spectacular driving routes… and it is the perfect spot to stop for a drink and a hearty meal.

From here the road skirted Big River as it meandered north through more country of hidden campsites and huts… and just 40-kilometres out of Omeo we came to a turnoff, and a windy track that led down into Jokers Flat and our friends from Newcastle.

Jokers Flat…

Only minutes off the main highway, Jokers Flat is a beautiful free camping spot right on the banks of the fast-flowing crystal-clear waters of the Mitta Mitta River. This large open campground surrounded by steep, rocky forested slopes lays claim to two long drop loos, plenty of shaded areas. We counted around 7 sites in total – most dispersed along the extended river flat and some shaded by tall Snow Gums over tall grasses, scrub and rocks. It was the ideal spot to set up camp with our friends!  

This stretch of river is a beautiful stretch where the river flows reasonably well. Travelling over small gravel rapids before opening out to some wider, slow-moving sections it has been known to offer up the odd trout or two and as well as being a great swimming spot and a great camp spot for nomads and kayaking groups it is often home to fly fishing championships.

Many of the campsites at Anglers near the Blue Duck Inn were quite busy as we came through, so we were surprised when we arrived to find only our friends and a couple of other campers. There was plenty of room for us to slip in and set up camp – and before long the kettle was boiling, and we were tucking into dinner!

Sitting under a blanket of stars with campfire stories, a dinner cooked over a bed of hot coals, a cuppa made in a campfire billy, and good company… it doesn’t get much better than that – but after a few days of making ourselves at home, enjoying our riverside location, treating ourselves to a meal at the Blue Duck Inn and being entertained by a friendly group of Grammar students kayaking down the river, it was soon time to move on. 

Our next destination Everton where we planned hit some more rail trails.

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