After Hamilton we took minor roads, then dirt leading us to a campsite on Rocklands Reservoir – this 67 sq km man made lake created when the dam was finally finished in 1950, after being interrupted by the pesky second world war. The water is used to feed the surrounding area, and is a fishing hotspot. Set to become even more so with the recent stocking of over 400,000 native fish, in a drive by the state government to get more people fishing and bring tourism dollars to the area. Being a State Forest, rather than a National Park, Rocklands gives you permit free camping and great views of the mountains over the lake.
Again we stayed two nights. Allowing us to take a day into the nearby Grampians National Park. A surprisingly sketchy bitumen road on the way in, only just wide enough for two cars and many places the edge of the road on our side was the edge, for a couple of hundred metres straight down…
MacKenzie Falls – as with many things round these parts named by Major Mitchell, who did try to name things in the Aboriginal terms, but failing to find out the indigenous name for these falls he named it after his friend.
Whilst spectacular in many ways, even on this Monday the National Park was BUSY. We did a couple of the sights, but after being used to more or less being on our own, we steered down a dirt road that would wind us back to the lake of the dead trees.
This being spring, Victoria was putting on an especially dazzling display of wildflowers. Good job Victoria.
We awoke to fog the next morning, giving the lake a whole new spooky character.
The weather report (we had full 4G here, in fact we had it pretty much everywhere till we got to the high country in NSW. Very different to most of the areas I am used to touring… and a big improvement in just the last three years) said it would burn off by 0830, seemed like no chance at 0800, but they were right.
Driving in yesterday I had noticed a track leading off to the west. Unnamed, so of course we had to down there…
A bit of wheelin’ for a Tuesday morning. I walked this section and decided is was better to try and straddle the rut, rather than take the high ground and risk slipping in holus bolus. This was probably the wrong choice as it turned out that ground was way softer once you parked 3 tonne of Land Cruiser on it. Anyway, a bit of back and forth and then both lockers and we were through. It should be noted we were still at dirt road tyre pressures, around 25psi front and 30 rear. Who wants to air down for a 20m section hey?
This as a nice track that eventually spat us out in some farmland. I fully expected the end gate to be locked and us have to backtrack the whole way. It wasn’t and it spilled us out on some choice country roads. We bundled back through Horsham that we had visited yesterday (not a memorable town, although it had many 4wd outfits, we would discover why later that day…)
We were headed for the town of St Arnaud, but me not watching the road signs closely enough meant we ended up at Stawell.
Pretty enough from a distance this town reminded me of so many South Australian country towns. Their usefulness superseded by the abilities of modern transport. Despite the impressive old buildings, the faded paint, ‘for lease’ signs and the whinging locals tell the real story.
We had lunch at one of the places that looked like it was still alive, back out out the highway, where the rest of the thriving businesses were.. Then pressed on to St Arnaud.
St Arnaud had itself a bit more together. No doubt being closer to the local wine region helped, and a definite music vibe about the place. In my opinion, that’s the only way these country towns have a viable way forward. There are way too many of them for what is now needed in the local area, so you have to give people a reason to come. Not easy I know, but achievable in the right location (see Melrose, southern Flinders, SA).
We headed south, down to the State Forests of the Pyrenees region – originally planted as a wine region way back in the 1800’s, dairy farming took over until the vines were planted again in the 60’s and 70’s, with another resurgence in the 1990’s.
Originally intending to head for the more southern forest where I knew there were some good and challenging 4×4 trails. As is often the case, time and light started to get the better of us.
So I peeled off the main drag and headed into the State Forest, trying to get to a couple of campsites marked on the camping app. A few wrong turns, it was soon apparent that there were way more tracks on the ground than were on any of my maps – not an uncommon occurrence in Australia land.
Following my nose we ended up at the bottom of this hill.
Yeah, ok. That’s properly steep and some big ruts and step ups for good measure (of course, the camera flattens it out/photos don’t show it, blah blah – video is definitely better for showing technical off road driving but anyways…) we’ve done worse in this truck, but this was still worth a walk and a think about. A couple of different lines and I changed my mind a couple of times on which one to take, which doesn’t happen often.
Back down at the truck, tyres down, low range, centre and rear locked in. Despite the full touring load, we burbled up and over this section with no wheelspin. New RidePro suspension doing a great job, didn’t even hit on the rear bar which we probably would have done with the old ARB stuff. Steep enough at times there was nothing but sky to see through the windshield. Over the years I’ve become adept at remembering sections of trail, and my chosen line through them before it disappears out of sight. I’m not saying that having a spotter isn’t worthwhile, but I’m used to going without one, so that’s how it is.
That first section was probably the toughest in term of technicality and line, but it didn’t really let up after that. I probably walked another ten sections, I certainly felt it in my legs the next day. All very steep, loose, and with some champion drop-offs to the sides at times. At one point there was a junction with a choice of tracks, I was glad for the easier option as the harder side would have had me looking for somewhere to turn around and drive back to the bottom. The holes where just too big with the steepness.
In the end we made it to the top. Maybe a 2 or 3km hill looking at it on the map afterwards. Also over 700m in elevation, pretty high by Australian standards. I could tell it had stressed N out, she knows to keep quiet for the tough concentration bits, but she doesn’t enjoy it. I explained that this is why so did the mods I did to the truck beforehand, so we can do this stuff in (relative) safety.
In the end, by the time we spent maybe an hour doing that hill, we weren’t going to make the camps in the light. So we just bailed down a little clearing amongst the trees. Probably enough adventure for today.
Next day we meandered down the main trail out of the forest, still steep but not quite as concentrating as the trail we took getting in. Although we could see some properly gnarly trails, like ‘Comp Truck’ level.
Back out to the small town of Avoca. Which houses a magnificent pub, with an equally magnificent menu. We might have to wander back this way for dinner at some point.
Stepping out of the bakery, having left N to put the tyres back to highway pressure. I caught a snippet of conversation from the two old boys watching her and armchair-ing it from their morning coffee “she’s still left the bloody lights on…!” no doubt the tail end of a conversation that probably had ‘sheila’ woven into it several times. I restrained from saying “the lights are on because the engine is running, because she is using the compressor you dingbats” and just sauntered back over. About five minutes later old mate wandered over, obviously to let us ‘young’ folk know our lights were on. Until he got into earshot and could see the engine was running. Anyway he was harmless and managed to get his head around we had changed our tyre pressures for the off road we did yesterday “any good up there? I’ve been here three months but haven’t got up there. I’ve got a 4×4 and a quad” at this point I suggested it was good if you had some experience of that sort of terrain. If the old bugger didn’t know about tyres pressures, he probably didn’t want to go exploring in those hills.
I showed him the tyre pressure monitoring system, and talked about what pressures I run in different terrain. Depending on the weight if the truck.
Turns out he had done the Simpson (“yeah, I remember we had to let our tyres down for that”) and the Canning Stock Route. Which probably tells you all you need to know about the technical difficulty of those tracks.
Anyway, we pressed on to Bendigo. A rural city that I had passed through many years ago, after buying my BMW 635CSi in Sydney and driving it back to Adelaide with two mates (the 6er is surprisingly capacious, for a GT). Then we arrived at night and were impressed by the substantial historic buildings that greet you in the city centre. Back in the present, this would be our first paid camping of the trip. We had a few things to do here, laundry being first priority.
I was starting to realise I was probably a bit short in terms of the amount of clothing I had brought. The shower had meant we were able to comfortably stay away from civilisation for longer. I might need another ‘outfit’ to stop looking so much like a grub after a week or so. It didn’t help that the temperature had been wildly changeable, from borderline freezing nights to hot and humid days in the 35deg C region. First world problems, hey?
We stayed in ‘The Golden Nugget’ for a couple of nights (this was a big area for gold back in the day). N got her fill at Bendigo Woollen Mill, twice! We checked out the pottery – worth it, and had some mediocre Japanese food. What did we expect really in country Australia..?
Our camp spot was right next to the pool, which was basically deserted, so we cut some laps in there to escape the heat, and generally lazed around. The morning we were due to leave I headed out for a run, to see the black storm clouds rolling in. Hoping I could make it back in time to strike camp before the rain hit, the first big drops started to fall as I pulled out the first peg. Luckily I had the fly sheet up on the Oztent, so the main body of the tent stayed mostly dry. A bit rushed and damp, we headed out.
This would be the start of a few days mostly pounding the bitumen, we hit the odd bit of dirt but we had to do some kays to get up somewhere around Coffs Harbour, for the final round of the WRC in about 10 days time.
Onto the tourist town of Echuca, a town with an interesting history – once Australia’s largest inland port. Now its main business is tourism. Plus from our point of view some excellent English style pork pies.
Just as we were leaving Moama, the twin town over the river that was in NSW, as the river is the border, my phone rang. It was our conveyancer (specialist property solicitor) saying there was a form that we needed to sign and return that afternoon (Friday) so the sale could go through on Tuesday. We did a u-turn and then went through the palaver of trying to find accomodation (as this was a long weekend) and then emailing, printing, signing, scanning, etc. Anyway, we got it all done, thanks to lovely owners at Murray River Holiday Park for their help and kindness. Then spent our first night camping on AstroTurf, surprisingly comfortable!
N had found a flyer while we were hanging around in the park office yesterday, about somewhere showcasing one of here favourite things, so onto Cactus Country!
A quirky and enjoyable stop, with really good Mexican and cactus themed food. Great to see, so often the thing that lets these places down.
Now it was time to get some miles under our belt.