The Victorian High Country – approximately 23,000 square kilometres of rugged mountain ranges, deep river valleys and almost impenetrable bush – stretches from the Great Dividing Range, north of Melbourne to the Murray River in Victoria’s far north-east corner.
This feature was originally published in 4x4 Australia’s December 2012 issue
Subject to climate extremes, from snow on the higher peaks during winter to raging bushfires in summer, the High Country doesn’t exactly encourage permanent occupation. Apart from the ski resorts and several small villages there are few facilities. Those planning to visit the area need to be self-sufficient.
The jewel in the High Country’s crown is the extreme north-east corner, which forms part of Alpine National Park. This area is largely the domain of four-wheel drivers due to its limited access and mountainous terrain. The only direct access from NSW requires fording the Murray River at Tom Groggin – not something to be taken lightly (or at all) when the river is flowing strongly.
This area also has some of the highest tracks in Victoria; parts of Davies Plain Track are more than 1700m high. Mt Pinnibar (1727m) and Mt Gibbo (1716m) have the best 360-degree views you’ll experience anywhere – and you can park your 4X4 right on the summit.
4x4 Adventure Series: High Country episode 2
To the east of Mt Pinnibar, across the Murray Valley, is the impressive Kosciuszko Range, while to the south, endless blue ranges recede into the distance above the ghostly branches of snow gums. After a bushfire, snow gums regenerate from their stump, not from their trunk and branches like other eucalypts, which leaves their bleached branches reaching into the sky like gnarled fingers.
In the middle of all this beauty is Davies Plain Track, which runs from Tom Groggin on the Murray to the southern end of Alpine National Park. This track is only open from December to April in order to protect the delicate alpine environment.
While it is a relatively easy drive from the Murray up to Davies Plain, there is a 1000m difference in altitude. This, along with the various red clay sections, makes it easy to see why the track becomes exceptionally difficult in the wet. In fact, it doesn’t take much rain at all to render red clay dangerous to drive on.
From Melbourne, the most popular access to Davies Plain is via Benambra to the south, where you leave the bitumen and head 40km east into Alpine National Park via Limestone Road. Here, you will find the dry-weather-only 4X4 Limestone Track, which winds into The Poplars – the highest vehicular access to the Murray River near its source.
Limestone Track has a bit of everything – steep climbs and descents, water-crossings and beautiful scenery. Though it’s an easy drive when dry, the last section, as you near The Poplars, is not a place to be in the wet.
Early in the season or with heavy rain, this section becomes a quagmire, with large quartz rocks hidden underneath. Just to add extra interest, if you’re heading towards The Poplars, the boggy bit is uphill. In summer, the deep-wheel ruts set like cement and you need to be careful not to fall into them.
The Poplars has a toilet and several campsites separated from each other by sections of bush. It’s a popular place for an overnight stop but when we were there, we still managed to find a grassy spot right next to the river to set up camp.
In some places, the water is only a few metres across and it’s hard to envisage that this is the mighty Murray River that winds its way 2600km to the sea through three states. There was plenty of firewood lying around. What could be better? A warm summer’s evening, the sound of the river bubbling away, a steak on the barbie, and a cold beer next to the fire.
The next morning, we climbed away from the Murray via McCarthys Track, which has some steep, rutted red clay sections that would also be challenging after heavy rain. Passing over Davies Plain Track we drove down Buckwong Track and past the delightful Buckwong Hut camping area. Set beside a stream, this grassy site and shady trees would make a perfect bush camp.
We continued on via Mt Hope Road and Buenba Road– both good quality gravel roads– to pick up the southern end of Mt Gibbo Track and climb towards the summit of Mt Gibbo in a series of steps. This is a steep climb, followed by an easy run along the ridge for a few hundred metres before another slightly rough and rocky climb to the next ridge.
Near the summit of Mt Gibbo there are a couple of rock ledges to look out for, but once at the top you are greeted with sublime views. Despite being the middle of summer, wildflowers were everywhere.
The descent off Mt Gibbo has a few rough and rocky patches but once onto nearby Mt Anderson Track driving conditions improve and it is only a short distance to Mt Pinnibar. While the views here can be magnificent, if there is any rain or low cloud around, you can almost guarantee that’s all you’ll see. We know people who have been to Mt Pinnibar more than once and have seen nothing but cloud.
After winding our way down to Tom Groggin we forded the Murray River, and even though the water was very low, driving this river crossing was still an experience. The NSW side is usually a tent city given it has 2WD bitumen access but Dogmans Hut on the Victorian side is much less frequented.
Another great tree-filled and grassy bush campsite can be found 6km south of the Tom Groggin ford, where Davies Plain Track crosses Buckwong Creek. The creek carries a surprising amount of water as it rushes towards the Murray. If it’s been raining don’t be surprised to find water over your bonnet.
It’s not uncommon to see brumbies on Davies Plain Track but the day we were there the weather closed in and they would have had to be standing on the track to be visible. However, in swirling mist silhouetted snow gums took on a ghostly appearance and made great photographic subjects.
Midway along the track is Davies Plain Hut which, like many High Country Huts, was built by cattlemen. Constructed in 1939 by the Gibson family, who originally took up a lease of the area in 1892, it was grazed until 1956. Largely rebuilt in 1995 and surrounded by a grassy camping area with toilet facilities, it has become a popular overnight spot for off-road tourers.
A little further south is another delightful camping area, Charlies Creek, from where it is only a short distance to the junction with McCarthys Track, which is your exit from the high plains back to civilisation.
In dry conditions this trip could be undertaken by any 4X4 with reasonable clearance. While we have taken a heavy-duty off-road trailer on this route, including over Mt Gibbo, it is not recommended.
In terms of driving time, from Melbourne to The Poplars was seven and a half hours. Tom Groggin via Mt Gibbo and Mt Pinnibar was another seven hours and the return via Davies Plain to Melbourne was 12 hours. It’s a long time behind the wheel, but worth every second of it.
Get away from it all with 4x4 Explore
From Melbourne take the Princes Highway to Bairnsdale to meet the Great Alpine Road. Follow for 120km to Orbost. From Orbost it is 20km to Benambra, turn east into Limestone Road. About 40km east of Benambra is Limestone Track. Davies Plain can also be reached from Sydney via Tom Groggin on The Alpine Way south of Thredbo or Khancoban.
PLACES TO STAY
Free bush camping is available throughout the Victorian High Country with few restrictions, however, camping at Tom Groggin on the NSW side of the Murray requires a permit.
Campsites with toilet facilities and fire places are available at many designated campsites, including The Poplars, Dogmans Hut, Tom Groggin, Charlies Creek and Davies Plain Hut. Drinking water is not provided and it’s recommended to boil water taken from mountain streams.
FUEL & SUPPLIES
Melbourne, Benambra or neighbouring Omeo are the last chance to buy supplies and top up with fuel. On the NSW side, Khancoban or Thredbo are the last major centres you pass.
Take food and water for the duration of your trip. Plan to be self-sufficient and include clothing for all types of weather as snow is possible even in summer. Ideally, travel in the company of others and if possible carry a chainsaw and recovery gear. A HF radio or satellite phone is recommended in case of an emergency.
Hema and Rooftop maps (paper and GPS) are recommended, as is a quality 4X4 GPS.
THINGS TO DO
Bushwalking, photography, bird-watching.
Parks Victoria, Omeo - 03 5159 0600.
NSW Parks & Wildlife, Khancoban - 02 6076 9373.