SEA TO SUMMIT

CAPITAL CITY ESCAPES: MELBOURNE, VICTORIA

WORDS JUSTIN WALKER

CITY ESCAPES: MELBOURNE, VICTORIA

MELBOURNE IS OVERFLOWING WITH ACCESSIBLE OFF-ROAD DESTINATIONS. HERE ARE FIVE FAVOURITES.

GRAMPIANS NATIONAL PARK

GRAMPIANS NP, three hours’ drive northwest of Melbourne, has something for any adventurer, whether you’re a keen four-wheel driver, rock-climber, hiker, cyclist (both road and MTB routes are found inside the park), birdwatcher, or just want to sit back with a coldie at camp and watch the sun set over some of this country’s most dramatic mountain ranges.

Known as Gariwerd to the local indigenous people, the park’s landscape is dominated by sandstone rock formations interspersed with lakes, waterfalls and a number of rockart sites, five of which are open to public viewing. The park has some 80 per cent of Victoria’s aboriginal rock art.

From Melbourne, Grampians NP is best accessed from Halls Gap on the park’s eastern boundary, off Grampians Tourist Road reached via the Western Highway, through Dunkeld to the south. Halls Gap is a great place to check out and/or grab some supplies, and it’s also home to the excellent Brambuk, the National Park and Cultural Centre which contains loads of maps, walk guides and park info; plus, it’s the place to grab any relevant permits. It also houses a ‘Dreaming Theatre’ and interpretive displays, and, most importantly, a café.

To explore the park the best bet is to tackle it in sections, with the southern, central and northern Grampians all offering a unique experience. The park is popular, and Parks Victoria (unlike its neighbouring state directly north) understands the appeal of camping in national parks and offers 10 vehicle-based campgrounds (bookings apply for seven of these, visit: www.parks. vic.gov.au/stay).

We reckon going west is the best way to quickly immerse yourself in the park’s speccy natural attractions. Following the Northern Grampians Road west leads to Boroka Lookout side-trip, which is a cracker; with the peaks of the Mount William and Wonderland ranges, as well as Halls Gap itself, all visible from this lofty viewpoint.

From here you return to what becomes Rocks Road when you turn (and continue) west, passing Reeds Lookout and then – just nearby – a turn-off to Bluff Lookout and a grand sight: MacKenzie Falls. Here, you can check out this wild waterfall’s cascading descent into the river of the same name, or you can head to Broken Falls Lookout (from the same carpark) for similar views.

For a weekend in the Grampians, one of the nights you camp has to be at Buandik Campground. Continuing on from the MacKenzie Falls side-trip you will follow Wallaby Rocks Road farther west before looping south. The final side-trip before camp is the spectacular Billimina Shelter Rock Art Site. You can stop here and walk in to view the art, or continue on to Buandik Campground and then tackle the 45-minute return walk to the site. Just south of the campground, via Harrop Track, you will also find Manja Shelter Rock Art Site.

The park is full of bushwalks such as these, but for the really keen/ experienced walkers, there is the new Grampians Peaks Trail that, when finished, will comprise a 12-day trek from one end of the park to the other. At the moment, only the first stage is open.

From Buandik Campground, loop south on Harrop Track and tackle a steep ascent (on foot) to another natural feature: the Chimney Pots, a collection of eroded rock turrets that are a steep scramble to reach but offer epic views north across the park. Leaving these age-old sentinels you can either keep following what is now Glenelg River Road or take the ‘high way’ along Victoria Range Road, backtracking north until you eventually reach Boreang Campground. This popular campground (bookings are essential all year ’round) offers a dozen tent sites (with vehicle parking) and 11 caravan/camper-trailer sites. All sites are unpowered but there are toilets, fireplaces and picnic tables. If you had to break down a Grampians trip(s) into a couple, then this campground makes a top spot from which to explore the vast central Grampians, or – as with this route we are describing – it provides a nice final night in this park.

The great thing with the Grampians is that it’s close to Melbourne and you can always return to tackle more tracks or other sections. There’s no need to rush the experience this natural spectacle provides.

ALPINE NATIONAL PARK

THIS immense 6474km² national park sprawls across central and north-east Victoria, with the three ‘sections’ linked by narrower areas. True to its size, Alpine NP is jam-packed with off-road touring opportunities, tracks ranging from easy to challenging and myriad historical huts dotted throughout. Plus, there’s a ton of campgrounds, plenty of sightseeing, mountain biking, bushwalking, and mountain streams filled with trout to entice the angler. There are numerous entry points from the east and south (including Mansfield and Bright), and there’s the potential to spend a few weeks in the park.

For a shorter adventure, we suggest kicking off in Dargo, around four hours’ drive from Melbourne and located just outside the NP’s southwest section.

One of the most popular destinations for off-road tourers is the Wonnangatta Valley and the historic station (and campground) of the same name. From Dargo, drive south to Short Cut Road, then on to Crooked River Road that, initially, follows the course of the Wonnangatta River. There is a campsite at Black Snake Creek if you want a short drive on the first day, but we recommend continuing on Crooked River Road and then making your first big decision of the trip at the junction of this road with the (in)famous Billy Goat Bluff Track – one of the park’s steepest. For the ‘long way around’ to Wonnangatta Station campground, turn onto Billy Goat Bluff Track and start the ascent westward. Atop this lengthy climb you find the Pinnacles lookout (the views across to Gippsland Lakes and Mt Hotham from the fire tower lookout are fantastic) and then Horseyard Hut (an excellent riverside campground) before reaching Moroka Hut not long after you finish the climb and have joined the track/road of the same name.

Following Moroka Road northwest brings you to Arbuckle Junction, where a left turn heads up onto Lost Plain and towards McMichaels Hut and Kellys Hut via, firstly, Tamboritha Road, then on to a track to the right that becomes Kellys Lane. The views are magical, so take your time and get out and stretch the legs. This diversion loops back on to what was Moroka Road but is now Howitt Road. A highlight along the 30km stretch between this junction and Howitt Hut is the Bryce Gorge Circuit walk carpark; a wander here is rewarded with gobsmacking views of Bryce’s Gorge and Pieman Falls. Another walking track here takes you to historic Guys Hut. Hop back

in the 4x4 for the rest of the days’ drive to Howitt Hut – a top spot for a night’s camp.

The next day is a big one, as you descend the steep Zeka Spur Track into the Wonnangatta Valley. The valley makes for a great camp, but for more seclusion head southeast along Wonnangatta Track and the steep Herne Spur Track before joining Cynthia Range Track that traverses Wombat Spur. You can take a diversion to the mining ghost town of Talbotville via the McMillans Station Track, or continue on the main track and find a remote bush campsite next to the Wonnangatta River for the final night.

The nearby Grant Historic Mining Area is worth a look the following morning before returning to the city lights. The good thing is you can, on the way home, console yourself with the fact that Alpine NP is so big, there are plenty of reasons to return for more adventures.

TRUE TO ITS SIZE, ALPINE NP IS JAMPACK ED WITH TOURING OPPOR TUNITIES

THE OTWAYS

NOT MUCH more than an hour from Melbourne, via one of the world’s best coastal drives (the Great Ocean Road), you’ll find the Otways, comprising Great Otway National Park, Anglesea Heath and Otway Forest Park. This area borders Bass Strait and the Southern Ocean to the south, and pushes north from the rugged coastline and its many beaches into mountainous forested terrain that contains lush rainforest, a number of waterfalls, lakes, plenty of tracks, great campsites (both coastal and forest; camper trailer access at most) and brilliant viewpoints.

As well as touring and camping, there are a number of bushwalks in the area (including the beautiful Great Ocean Walk), beach fishing (make sure you have a recreational fishing permit, see vfa.vic. gov.au/recreational-fishing/fishing-licence), cycle touring (the 45km Old Beechy Rail Trail, from Colac to Beech Forest Ridge, is a family-friendly ride that can be broken into shorter sections) and loads of mountain biking opportunities at the township of Forrest, which has a 60km MTB trail network. A number of vehicle tracks in the park are closed seasonally (most tracks close at the start of June and reopen November 1 each year; check www. parkweb.vic.gov.au), with most tracks being relatively straightforward (barring Denham Track). For those looking for a spring-through-autumn destination that is super close to the city, the Otways is up there as one of the best weekend getaways in Australia.

The Great Ocean Road town of Anglesea is the most popular access point and also allows you to stock up on any last-minute or forgotten supplies before heading to the hills. You can do this virtually straight from town, heading slightly northwest to join Coalmine Road, or you can access the popular Denham Track via Mt Ingoldsby Road. Denham Track is the more challenging route into the park and we’d recommend a vehicle with low range, owing to this track’s sandy ascent early on.

This track winds its way up and northwest for around 12km from the gate, eventually joining the No.2 Track. If you are heading for Hammonds Campground, turn right here and continue along No.2 Track before coming to a junction. Hammonds Campground is further northwest from here, along Bambra-Aireys Inlet Road (with a short turn onto Hammonds Road just before the campground), or turn left (south) if you want to have lunch or just check out Distillery Creek Picnic Area.

Some of the park’s bushwalks leave from here, too.

The Hammonds Campground is first-in, best dressed in terms of grabbing a site, but it is a large cleared area (Parks Vic estimates room for 20 ‘sites’) that has toilets, fireplaces (bring your own wood) and picnic tables.

However, there’s no available water, so remember to bring your own.

If you’re keen on making a full weekend of this park but want to explore as much as you can, there’s the option to loop onto Hammond Road northwest to Deans Marsh-Lorne Road to visit Big Hill Campground. This campground can also be reached from the Great Ocean Road via Big Hill Track, another dirt-road climb that also closes over winter. Big Hill Campground offers 12 to 20 sites (depending on how many camper trailers vs tents), is free, and is another first-in, best dressed scenario. Both Big Hill and Hammonds are very popular in-season.

For those looking for a touch more remoteness and fewer campers, your best bet is to head south from Big Hill campground to Jamieson Track Campground via Deans Marsh-Lorne Road and the Great Ocean Road. This small bush camping area has minimal facilities and is 4x4-access only. It is in between Lorne and Wye River, inside Great Otway NP, and just north of the Great Ocean Road and beside pretty Jamieson Creek. The track of the same name also offers access into the middle section of park, so if you’re keen for a ‘quieter’ first night, aim for this pristine campsite on the first day from Melbourne.

For those with an extra couple of days, it’s worth continuing from the middle section of the park to its western borders.

There are spectacular waterfalls (Triplet, Hopetoun and Beauchamp Falls) in the north and great camping at Aire River in the south, just inland from the coast and along both sides (east and west; close to 100 sites all-up) of the river. Canoeists and kayakers can explore this waterway, and the fishing is great. Aire River Beach is a short drive (or long walk) from the campsite, too, so beach fishing (or boat; there’s a ramp at the east campground) and swimming are also popular activities.

To do the Otways justice it’s best to divide the east and west sections into two different weekends away. The bonus is you are guaranteed a mix of landscapes (forest, beach, waterfalls and rivers), campsites and driving conditions on both occasions, and you’ll see something new each time.

Not bad at all.

TO DO THE OTWAYS JUSTICE IT’S BEST TO DIVIDE THE EAST AND WEST SECTIONS

LERDERDERG STATE PARK

NOT MUCH more than an hour north of Melbourne, via Bacchus Marsh, this 201.8km² state park is popular with off-road tourers, campers, anglers, rockclimbers and bushwalkers. The Lerderderg River cuts a path through the main section River cuts a path through the main section of the park, with the gorge it has created up to 300m deep in places, showcasing just how powerful flowing water is over many years. The terrain is rugged in parts, with heavily forested areas that contain a mix of ironbark, dry stringybark and peppermintgum trees and, as well as the Lerderderg River, there are many other smaller waterways throughout the park. As the park is close to the city it can get crowded on weekends, but it is still worth checking out. Of course, if you can visit mid-week, it’s quieter.

The majority of 4x4-only tracks are in the park’s main northern section (where the park boundary abuts Wombat State Forest, another great off-roading destination) and the eastern side (note: some tracks in the park are closed from some tracks in the park are closed from mid-June to October, including Ambler Lane Track, XL Track, Lloyd Track and West No. 5 Track. For all track closures, see www.parks.vic.gov.au). When open, these tracks make for great off-roading – steep, muddy when wet, with plenty of water crossings – and you can use them to link the park’s major roads and scenic highlights; O’Briens Road offers some brilliant views of the gorge itself. For this adventure, we’d recommend accessing the park via its southern entry point of Lerderderg Gorge Road, not far out of Bacchus Marsh. This also means you can stop for lunch/morning tea at Mackenzies tea at Mackenzies Flat Picnic Area, which has excellent facilities (toilets, picnic tables and electric barbecues). The picnic area is next to the Lerderderg River, so bring your swimmers for a dip in warmer weather. Be warned, however, this location is (understandably) hugely popular with day-visitors and can get crowded.

Look at a map and you will also see a separate part of the park – dubbed Pyrete Range Lerderderg State Park – with it and the main part divided by the Bacchus Marsh-Gisborne Road. This area is strictly no-vehicle access, but if you’re

a bushwalker or mountain biker you can walk/ride the access trails here; however, camping is not allowed.

In the western part of the park, vehiclebased camping can be found at O’Briens Crossing (it’s a small site next to the river with barbecue pits and a toilet nearby).

You’ll need to either bring your own water or treat what you draw from the river.

From this campground there are a number of bushwalks easily accessed, ranging in length from a one-hour stroll down to Grahams Dam (a top swimming spot); the six-hour medium-grade East Walk that follows the river before a climb up Cowans Track and then back again via the road itself; and then Short Cut Track. For the super-keen, there’s an overnight trek that follows the gorge and river from O’Briens down to Mackenzies Flat. Camping at O’Briens Crossing you will also (hopefully) spot some of the native fauna that reside in the park: swamp wallabies, echidna, powerful owls and greater gliders are some examples. For anglers, it is worth an amble along the riverbanks to try your hand at catching the brown trout found in the river.

A more remote, 4x4-access-only campsite can be found at Amblers Crossing, accessed via Amblers Lane Track in the park’s northern section. This is a small campsite that offers an escape from the relative hustle and bustle of Mackenzies Flat and O’Briens Crossing, plus it is right next to a water crossing so ideal if you’re camping in summer and need to cool off.

The walk to The Tunnel, a natural rock formation, can be accessed from camp.

Amblers Lane Track also goes into Wombat State Forest if you’re keen for cross-border exploration; the state forest’s tracks offer everything from a laidback cruise to seriously challenging terrain. There is one other remote campsite near the northern state park/state forest boundary meeting point on the Upper Chadwick Track.

A night at Amblers Crossing is our tip, followed by a leisurely morning exploring this area before jumping in the rig and turning northwest toward the park boundary near the town of Blackwood (making sure you stop at Shaws Lake for another dip) and back to the bitumen.

Alternatively, you could head east and wind in and out of the state park and Wombat State Forest, before finishing off your visit by tackling the steep, rutted Ratcliffe Track (check conditions first – don’t attempt this track after heavy rain) and then rejoining the bitumen at Bacchus Marsh-Gisborne Road. It may be small, but Lerderderg State Park promises a couple of days of big fun.

LITTLE DESERT NATIONAL PARK

LITTLE DESERT NP is Victoria’s own ‘outback’; located around four hours’ drive west of Melbourne, not far from the township of Dimboola. The 1326km² park is bordered by the Wimmera River (great for fishing) and the SA/Vic border on the western side, near Naracoorte, and has a fantastic mix of sandy desert terrain and huge river red gums beside the Wimmera.

The landscape offers an incredible mix of vegetation, too – mallee country vegetation, such as heath, is dominant in the eastern section due it receiving less rainfall than the western section. The west plays host to casuarina woodlands and some sections of swamp (after rain), with the ubiquitous river red gums bordering some of the park’s waterways.

The park includes several campgrounds, ranging from the easily accessed (via bitumen roads) to the more remote desert sites. There are numerous sandy 4x4 tracks to drive as you explore the park, plus two sealed ‘main’ roads that you can hop on and off as you link these tracks. The tracks here are sandy and very soft – a dual-range rig is essential – but they offer the chance to escape the crowds and really immerse yourself in this park.

For us, a great adventure is to tackle an east-west traverse of the park’s three ‘sections’ via the McDonald Highway, which starts at the eastern end of the ‘centre’ section of Little Desert NP, via Nhill Road to the east. Don’t let the moniker fool you, as this ‘highway’ is actually a sandy track. However, if you link it with the Eastern section tracks and then, once you’re through the centre, drop south along Kaniya-Edenhope Road (just outside the centre section’s park boundary) to re-enter the park via the East-West Track, then you’ve got at least a rough plan for a weekend.

If you start in the east you can spend the first day exploring the eastern section of the park and its numerous tracks, before camping that first night at Kiata Campground, or Ackle Bend and Horseshoe Bend campgrounds (these three campgrounds are also ideal for caravan/camper trailers). The park’s six campgrounds (including a couple of walk-in ones such as Mallee Walkers Camp and Yellow Gum Walkers Camp) offer excellent camping; plus, you can also bush camp in the central and western sections of the park, allowing you to find that perfect desert solitude along one of the side-tracks. Camp fees apply at Ackle Bend and Horseshoe Bend, so you need to book ahead. It’s also worth noting that you will need to bring your own water, as potable water (or any water) is a scarcity in the park and not always guaranteed.

It’s also worth packing a powerful torch for some night-time wildlife viewing at the campgrounds; possums and nocturnal birds are aplenty in this national park and spotting them makes for a memorable experience for young’uns (okay, okay – all of us, really) in your company.

With roughly 600km of tracks in the park, there are some crackers including Dahlenburgs Mill, Jungkum, Salt Lake, Mallee and McCabes Hut (in the eastern section), as well as Broughtons-Sambells (this takes you to Broughtons Waterhole campground), Lawloit (for views of and from Sister Hills), Jacobs and Mt Moffat, this one found in the far western section of the park and leading to its namesake peak (worth a visit). The tracks in the park’s western section are generally rated as more difficult, but experienced drivers should have little trouble negotiating them. Just keep an eye on the weather forecast when planning your trip out here as the tracks can become seriously boggy after precipitation. Be aware that the tracks in the western and central sections are subject to seasonal closure (June 1 to October 31) and weather conditions.

As well as plenty of off-roading, Little Desert NP is a great destination for bushwalkers; numerous short walks averaging a couple of hours include the Pomponderoo Hill Nature Walk in the park’s north near Dimboola, a pretty stroll beside the Wimmera River between Ackle Bend and Horseshoe campgrounds, and the 74km Little Desert Walk, which can be broken into shorter sections if you wish. This walk also brings you in closer contact with the park’s 220 bird species (including emus, wedge-tailed eagles and the rare malleefowl), plus you’ll spot plenty of kangaroos, reptiles (look out for snakes) and, if you’re there in spring, a landscape dotted with wildflowers. If you decide to make your Little Desert Walk an overnighter (or longer) you’ll gain access to walk-in-only campgrounds and true remoteness – just don’t forget to register online with Parks Victoria.

For those after that outback adventure but don’t have the time to travel into SA or the NT, Little Desert National Park offers a brilliant desert driving experience, combined with prolific wildlife to view and sublime campgrounds to enjoy.