And so, regrettably, our time in the Victorian High Country has come to an end. We're currently in Mansfield, it's Australia Day, high thirties, and we're about to head to a pub to catch a crucial one dayer against the Saffers and enjoy some cold beer.
I've been getting some radio reception over the last week and there seems to have been more debate about the timing of Australia Day this year than in the past, given its pom invasion day connection. Perhaps when we've ditched the Queen and elected Punter as President we could move it to my birthday. Only a couple of weeks later on and it would then be almost half way between Christmas and Easter. Just a thought.
Today we have phone coverage for the first time in a while (other than when we've been on the tops of mountains) so I've managed to catch up with a few hours work (un Australian of me I know on our special day) in the welcome shade of a small shrub. People back in the office have been complaining that their air conditioning isn't working. Ness and I don't even have proper shade most of the time and I'm probably breaking all sorts of OH&S rules just by turning on my laptop.
Anyhow, the High Country has been a huge adventure and one long adrenalin rush. We’ve seen some beautiful and remote country and have camped at picture perfect spots pretty much the whole way through.
It’s also been tough going and pretty stressful at times for both of us. It’s been extremely hot, dry and dusty, with shocking bushfire conditions. We’ve spent most of our time edging along rough tracks that have been well beyond our 4WD experience. Most of this has been top fun and given us both a great deal of confidence for taking on any of the conditions we’re likely to encounter on the rest of the trip. But I’m not afraid to admit that some of it has been quite terrifying and I’m looking forward to a week or so of bitumen as we make our way over to the Great Ocean Road, the Grampians and then into South Australia.
Other than the battery issue, the Troopie has done us proud. We’ve collected a decent dent in the bull bar, although thankfully we didn’t kill anything. The tree was stationery when I hit it. I was trying to take a bend as wide as I could to avoid grounding the car on 'The Staircase', which I’d done when we were coming in the other direction. But I’m getting ahead of myself so will come back to that.
* Me hoping the engine compression doesn't fail us as we lurch our way down the impossibly steep "Stock Track".
* We missed out on the Station Track ascent due to needing some charge after a tow start, but not to be disappointed we soon had to make our way up the longer Eaglevale Track after a dicey river crossing to rejoin our route. Sometimes I think it's best not to know what's in store, but for many of the uphills you can survey the track from a safe distance well in advance and start the adrenalin pumping in advance.
We made it safely up with no dramas whatsoever, only to join the horrorific Cynthia Range track and then the Wombat Spur track down into the Wonnangatta Valley.
Spur tracks are generally so steep that you can't walk up them in thongs. I really have no idea how the Troopie does it.
Our campsite in the Wonnangatta Valley beside the river.
If I'd had the good sense to camp at the top of the slope I wouldn't have needed to involve others when the car wouldn't start (again).
Despite a severe weather warning for the Alpine region we decided to push on after our two night stop in Myrtleford and side trip to Wangaratta to get Kmart to replace the dud battery.
I’d picked out Lake Cobbler as a good place to aim for as it had a hut for shelter if things got out of hand, and would also position us nicely to move deeper into the mountains to Craig’s Hut (site of a “Man from Snowy River” replica hut) and then on to the Howqua Valley once the weather had cleared.
The sky continued to darken as we climbed Mount Cobbler and by about 1,000m we were up amongst the clouds and it had started to rain, making the track quite slippy. Visibility was down to about 20m.
We were tuned into the local ABC station that was giving extensive coverage to the storm front that was making it’s way rapidly across Victoria, leaving destruction and bushfires from lightning strikes in its wake.
The lake and hut were at about 1,300m and we just managed to get our gear inside as the storm proper came through at around 2.30pm.
It went pretty murky for a while and the lightning was all around us. I’d never been inside an active thundercloud before but as you might expect it’s pretty noisy.
Although that was nothing compared to the noise of the hail that started about half an hour later. The hut had a tin roof that amazingly survived the icy onslaught. And luckily so did our windscreen, but there are some new dents on the bonnet. The lake was boiling as bro.
Normal Aussie Summer was restored overnight and we've hardly seen a cloud since.
The new day provided quite a different vista of Cobbler Lake. Cracking spot for a fish, but Ness won't let me throw the line until I get the license sorted out.
If the Thursday had been an adventure, Friday turned out to be a very challenging day indeed.
We decided to walk to the top of Mount Cobbler but in a brief moment of sensibleness abandoned half way up from the hut as we'd lost track of the track. The storm had brought some trees down and there was debris everywhere and it would have been pretty easy to get hopelessly lost.
So, instead, we pushed on to Craig's Hut via the Mount Speculation Track which included a point of interest on our map known as "The Staircase".
I'll cut to the chase, but after about an hour we'd made it the approximately 4km down The Staircase and were leveling off to meet a better road to Craig's Hut. During that hour we got grounded on a massive rock under the rear diff and suspension which took both of us pushing with both legs to budge before we could move on. I'd tried to take the switchback too tightly and paid the ultimate penalty.
As the road started to level off we came across a fallen tree, which with some grunt work and possibly a tow we could have probably cleared on our own. Luckily or unluckily however we spotted two further fallen trees another 10m or so ahead that would require a chainsaw and one or more bulldozers to shift so reluctantly we made a sixty point turn on the narrow track and headed back to The Staircase.
I have sympathy for Jeff Kennett and many others who have had to deal with depression in their lives over a long period but I had a brief moment of utter despair.
I went wide on the bend we'd come unstuck on on the way down and hit a tree. Bang, crash, stall, nervous laugh. The old battery was buggered because of a cracked cell, and what did I do two days after getting a (free) replacement. Smash the battery side of the front of the car into a tree. Idiot!
And we still had to make our way up the real steps part of the Staircase. After another hour of headscratching, diff scratching, rock moving and blashpheming we were back exactly where we'd started two hours before and had no option but to make our way to the Howqua Valley the long way around - 160km instead of 20kms. Bugger.
It was worth it though and after passing through a number of chocker campsites on the Howqua River we hit National Park again and secured a top little spot right next to the river for a couple of nights of real R&R. The only downside to our camp at Seven Mile Flat was the March Flies. As big as your head and they needed a camping hammer to crush them. At least they did in my dreams each night, probably brought on from the poison they were injecting me with. The March Flies down this way are vile nasty bastards and best avoided.
We had some more fun driving on our way out of the Park without any serious incidents. So we ended our time in the high country on a high note safe in the knowledge that it's now safe to return to the coast because, praise be, the SCHOOL HOLIDAYS ARE FINALLY OVER!
For anyone from overseas who is thinking they might get a bait to our wedding, I am pleased to announce we've set the date and locked in Philip the celebrant who will be officiating at our secular ceremony. Philip's specialty is a pirate wedding but we'll be going for something a bit more relaxed. The BIG DAY will be on 12 December 2009, so book your flights now before the price of oil goes back up to $100.