Desert & dunes without heading into the centre
Why isn’t this on your list?
What if I told you Victoria was more than the snow-covered peaks of the High Country, more than the fantastic southern coastlines and endless beaches? Tucked up in the north-west corner of the state bordering South Australia and New South Wales, Victoria’s largest national park offers a trip back in time through semi-arid, virtually undisturbed desert landscapes. Historically used for pastoralism before reclassification in 1995 to a national park, the environmental variation adds a sense of wilderness, with the dunes giving way to dense Mallee scrub stretching for kilometres, only to be intersected with low-lying plains and picturesque salt lakes.
Get your desert fix closer to Melbourne – Murray Sunset NP Click here to view the HEMA map.
After visiting family property on the southside of the park for many years, the stars aligned and with my best mate following close behind, we picked up last minute fuel and supplies in Mildura and set out to explore Victoria’s very own outback. My plan was to arrive at the Shearers’ Quarters in the northern-western corner just on dusk, but in true touring fashion, sometimes even the best laid plans take a little longer than anticipated. Excitement grew as we turned off the tar at Meringur and headed south through the farms, spacing out as the dust billowed from our rear tyres. The entire park had only seen a few millimetres of rain since Christmas, a fact that was evident as we passed by combines and harvesters trying to make the most of meagre crops.
Late autumn to early spring is touted as the prime time to visit the park, as to avoid the searing heat of summer (45ºC+) and the almost plague-like fly population that emerges during the warmer months.
We were a little early to witness the spectacular wildflower blossom that occurs in the springtime, however with plenty of other things to tick off our list, we quickly set-up camp in the campground adjacent to the quarters, hoping to get a good night’s sleep on the back of the 1300km journey. The stars briefly emerged from behind the clouds and treated us to a taste of what we could expect over the coming nights. Standing since 1960 and forming a part of Victoria’s premier grazing lease, the Sunset Pastoral Co., the quarters and detached (now demolished) shearing shed were an integral part of stock movements through what is now the Murray Sunset National Park. Extending in a loop into the nearby scrubland, the Sunset Nature Walk is an excellent way to get a closer look at some of the abundant wildlife that calls the park home. The walk only took around an hour and is a must if you are awake in the early morning. The bird life is phenomenal, with many being too quick to capture, however several slower varieties were happy to pose for my shutter.
Heading south from the Quarters, we passed the sign we had been waiting for: “Four-wheel drive only”. We planned this trip with great care, keeping a close eye on rain levels and forecasts up to two weeks in advance. It only takes one rain event and you can find yourself spending a week or more really getting to know your campsite. The settlement tracks we followed south crossed several old fence lines that remained from the pastoral days, and the recent lack of rain really emphasized how tough conditions must have been, with our tyres collecting countless three corner jacks and dead tree limbs.
Pheeny’s track split east and traversed many rutted dunes and corners, with the occasional stark reminder to respect the terrain offered by the bog holes that still contained water. Consulting our written notes and GPS, we arrived at Rocket Lake in the early afternoon, only to find the prime camp spot taken by the only other vehicle we had seen thus far. After a lap around exploring the area and with light fading under some ominous rain clouds, the decision was made to dash south to beat the rain (that never eventuated) to Mopoke Hut.
Mopoke Hut was constructed in 1962 by Alan Henschke to shelter overnight while driving and mustering cattle from his property, ‘Yaramba’. His grazing license was only relinquished a mere three decades ago, under the condition that the hut would remain for the benefit of future visitors to the park. Unfortunately, in a scenario that is playing out more and more across historical locations on the touring map, in the past few years the area has been hit with senseless acts of vandalism that nearly cost the typical four-wheel driver the chance to see locations such as these. We as four-wheel drivers have the Mildura 4WD Club to thank for their hard work restoring the hut and looking after various other locations in the park for future generations. If the hut is occupied upon your arrival, the generous campground directly opposite offers space for multiple large groups, with dedicated fire pits and even a toilet. Firewood collection is encouraged within the park, so long as your fires are only for warmth or cooking purposes.
Due to the extremely dry climate combined with the abundance of leaf litter and years of fallen foliage throughout the region, the entire Mallee council area observes half year total fire bans from mid-November to the start of May. It is important to respect the law during your visit, as there is little to no chance of containing an escaped fire in the park.
After retracing our steps from the previous day, we turned onto the ominously named “Last Hope Track”, undoubtedly a reference to the bygone salt mining era that is present in the eastern portion of the park. As the day began to warm up, we were treated to a generous wildlife show as wedge-tailed eagles circled above the vehicles while emus kept pace alongside us, darting in and out of sight. The salt flats were filled with western grey kangaroos and the occasional mob of sheep darted across the corrugations as we made our way towards the old gypsum mine sites.
Gypsum aids the agricultural production in Victoria through its addition to various fertilisers and additives, as well as numerous other uses, from wall and ceiling boards to medical and dental uses. No mining continues at these sites, although some equipment remains, most notably the old gypsum hopper left behind on the Raak Plain North Mine.
Re-joining the Calder Highway, we headed south for a brief stop at Ouyen for fuel and supplies. Following the Mallee Highway west you pass through the small towns of years gone by until the Pink Lakes turnoff. If you had been hoping to avoid running into other people or, heaven forbid, busloads of tourists, this is probably the place that it will happen. The graded roads are 2WD access that could easily fit a few vehicles side-by-side. Every year in the late summer and following rainfall, an algae releases a reddish-pink pigment called beta-carotene. It is the same one that gives carrots and flamingos their vivid colour. Lakes Crosbie and Becking are the larger, more popular salt lakes that served as the main harvesting points for salt in the early 1900s. In the 40°C heat with only picks and shovels, men of all ages completed the backbreaking work right up until the late 1970s.
The area now provides several campsites and walks to discover more about the historical mining practices, with machinery left forgotten in certain spots around the lakes. For our final night we settled into a campground close to Lake Becking and we sat around the fire under one of the clearest skies we had ever seen. We were all struck with a fresh sense of appreciation for the pioneers who opened the area nearly 200 years before us. If you haven’t been to the Murray Sunset National Park, add it to your list and make the trip before the masses do – you won’t be disappointed!