Mountain High, River Deep
From the highest point in Australia through some of the best four-wheel driving and camping in the country
Words and Images by Todd Hore
ANYONE FOR A WALK?
Our trip begins with a late arrival at Thredbo Diggings on the banks of the Thredbo River in Kosciuszko National Park. A small fire, a few beers, and early bed for everyone. Rest up guys… we’ve got a walk in the morning. Not too early though, there’s trout in that river and I want a sneaky flick before we depart. Up on sunrise, the trout fishing was a good spotting exercise (not so much a good catching exercise). I guess that’s why they call it ‘fishing’; not ‘catching’. Hearty breakfast all around and off we go nice and early to Thredbo Village. It’s here that those game enough commence our walk to the highest point in Australia: Mt Kosciuszko. It’s early November and although the temps are mild the late season snow dumps mean there are large snow drifts across the normally boardwalk-style track. That should keep things interesting.
The walk through the mountains runs by pristine mountain streams, alpine lakes and massive granite boulders. The snowdrifts add an extra dimension and make the going a little tougher than usual. The highest toilet in Australia is also along this walk. I had planned to use it even if I didn’t need to – but sadly that snow dump had blocked the door. Using the highest toilet in the country would have to wait until next time. The reward for the walk is stunning views. We celebrate with a beer and a group photo at the peak.
OF HUTS AND GENTLE STREAMS
Camp for that evening is Geehi Hut down on Swampy Plain River. Geehi Hut was constructed of river stones in 1952 by the Nankervis brothers for use as a stopover on trips to and from the High Country. What a beautiful place to make your stopover! Cross the deceptively deep river from camp and there are additional huts – all of similar construction and all used during the area’s grazing past. There’s a huge array of grassed camping areas here, including many along the river.
Crossing the Murray at Tom Groggin requires a curved drive across the river to an exit you can’t see from the entry. Apart from being the gateway to the Victorian High Country, this crossing is one of my favourites … simply because of the drive. It’s slightly technical yet simple enough for a stock 4WD. Just downstream of the crossing is Dogman’s Hut. A crude tin hut built in 1964 for a dog trapper, it now provides an excellent camp on the banks of the Murray adjacent to grazing country. The afternoon is spent building the fire and swimming in the very cold river.
LOCK IT IN LOW
Straight out of Dogman’s Hut we were grabbing the stubby lever as we commenced the ascent up Mt Pinnibar. At 1,772 metres above sea level it’s one of the highest drivable peaks in the country; but more than that it’s a great drive with simply stunning views. Our plan heading down from the peak was to visit Gibson’s Hut, then Wheeler’s Creek Hut. A massive washaway between the two meant a huge detour was required to get to Wheeler’s Creek… meaning lunch was a little later than planned. After a quick bite we took off again only to get about 500 metres before coming across a road under construction with no way through. Fortunately a friendly dozer operator was on the UHF and the legend came back to clear a track for us. Thanks mate!
THE MOST FAMOUS COUNTRY PUB IN VICTORIA?
We completed an easy drive the next day via Omeo to fuel up and obtain supplies. We wanted everyone to be fresh for the night ahead. Dargo Hotel was the destination and, with a large group on a random Tuesday night, it was sure to be good fun. We had a pretty special team behind the bar too: Joy, who has worked there for 45 years, and her granddaughter Jackie. Random karaoke and a 10.00pm whip challenge between an 11-year-old and Jackie were the highlights. For the record, the young bloke won his free Coke fair and square.
A bit of a doughy start to the next day called for bacon and egg rolls all round from the general store before a slow drive towards Cynthia Range where we would hit some very steep country. At the base of the track there’s a suspension bridge with a sign that warns it could collapse at any time and to take care. Sure beats it being demolished or closed down, as would typically happen in some other States. The drive up Cynthia Range is steep and the scenery is beautiful, but we were about to learn a new definition of ‘steep’. Herne Spur would have to be one of the steepest continual tracks I’ve ever driven. It seemingly just dropped away from beneath us.
Every one of us was making use of the brakes on the way down, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Stopping at the bottom to let the brakes cool, we had a wade in the pristine Wonnangatta River. Frogs were swimming around in the river as we cooled off. With not another vehicle to be seen or heard, we felt a million miles from anywhere. Wonnangatta Valley is a former pastoral station that has been converted into a pristine campground on the banks of the river. The valley has quite the history (that I won’t get into in this article). Look it up; and if you can, go for a visit. They even run night-time ghost tours out there.
THE EPIC DAY OF STEEP TRACKS, BOGS AND BREAKDOWNS
The next day was planned to be an epic drive; but just how epic we had no idea. We were just about to commence 11 hours on the tracks that I’m sure none of us will forget in a hurry. Leaving Wonnangatta Valley we headed towards Zeka Spur just as it started to rain. Zeka is a steep clay-based track so the last thing you want on it is rain… let alone with a large convoy where the track would get more slippery with the passage of each vehicle over it. Only about a quarter of the way through the track we heard a call over the UHF: “Uh, guys, we have a serious problem. Looks like the car in front has just collapsed.”
The car in front was a Pajero and the collapse was the front passenger-side wheel folding in under the car like a Delorean in ‘Back To The Future’. It did not look good. On closer inspection the upper control arm had lost a bolt and sheared the remaining two. That’s when an advantage of a large convoy comes into play. Bolts were scavenged, two high-lift jacks were used in conjunction with a bottle jack to lift the lower control arm. Guys with the know-how managed to get the sheared bolts out and the new bolts in.
All up the ‘breakdown’ had cost us only about 45 minutes. We continued into up Zeka into light drizzle. Another call came over the radio. “Guys, we’ve done a tyre.” A sidewall cut on one of the LandCruisers’ tyres would stop the convoy again. Finally completing what was meant to be the easy part of the day, we had a brief stop at Howitt Hut before continuing on to Butcher Country Track. This track is notorious for its huge bogs and steep climbs. Miraculously our entire convoy except one car managed to get through the bogs unaided. The single bogging only required a simple recovery.
Having completed what was meant to be the most challenging part of the day we carried on towards Black Soil Track – trying to get going in a hurry before more rains hit, with the knowledge that dusk was not far away. We were going well too… until another call over the radio: “Guys, I’ve done a tyre too.” A HiLux in our group had sliced a sidewall on probably the steepest section of Black Soil Track. After securing the vehicle and a tricky wheel change, we were on our way again. But now it was getting dark and we didn’t have a camp yet. The decision was made to send a scout ahead to find camp. Thankfully they found a spot successfully without any further dramas. We managed to set up using headlights and head lamps. Eleven hours; and only about 90 kilometres covered. What a day!
The next day we completed a drama-free run down to O’Tooles Flat to join the 10th Annual Victorian Gathering of 4x4Earth. Considering the incidents along the way, it felt like a triumphant arrival with a huge convoy. We had made it!