WHEN I saw the huge tree strewn across the track, my heart plummeted. I only hoped our vehicle wouldn’t do the same, as it was precariously close to the massive bog hole of mud in front of us.
The main track was tantalisingly close, visible barely fifty metres away, but the huge tree that had been placed there effectively blocked us from going any farther.
BEST 4X4 TRACKS: Close to Melbourne
Turning around was our only option, but even that would be tricky. The terrain was slippery, it had been a slow crawl down the muddy track and the thought of going back up the embankment did not thrill me.
We were alone, we had no phone service and the winter sun was quickly disappearing into the cold shadows of the afternoon.
We’re in the hills of the Strathbogie Ranges, near Lima South, just over a couple of hours from Melbourne. It was the June Queen’s Birthday long weekend, the first weekend after camping restrictions had been lifted. It was also the last weekend before many of the seasonal tracks would be closed for the winter months. Perhaps that should have been an early warning sign.
Our trip had started sedately, leaving the night before to avoid the rush. At Benalla we free-camped by the lake, a great place for an overnighter, and woke the following morning to a frosty -3⁰C. Rugging up for the 4.5km circuit walk around the lake was invigorating. Little did we know it would be a walk in the park compared to the challenge we’d find ourselves in later that day.
From Benalla it’s only 37kms to James Reserve, which is located on the banks of the Moonee Moonee Creek, off Lima East Road. The reserve is flat and lush and we snared a great spot near the creek, with a picnic table and a fire pit close by. There were few campers around, however, as we were to find out, this is a popular spot for off-road bikers and four-wheel drivers. With good reason, as there are loads of tracks, trails and adventures close by in an area filled with the heritage of gold and alluvial mining.
NOT far away from camp are the Crystal Mines, the Tallongalook Track and the dry creek historic area which comprises of areas such as Hells Hole Creek, where gold was first discovered back in 1851.
There are also a couple of lookout points including the Rocky Ned Lookout and Wild Dog Rocks, all places we were keen to explore. After a short drive into the nearby state forest to collect wood for the next few nights, we were ready to hit the tracks, our warmth secured.
Our early afternoon destination was Rocky Ned Walking Track, which is accessed via either Police Track or Goodes Track. We took Goodes track and parked near the signage on the boundary of the pine plantation and the state forest. It’s a relatively easy walk through open woodland, a well-formed track which slowly snakes and climbs its way to reach fantastic views from the sheer, rocky summit. A safety barrier has been built at the top of the Rocky Ned Lookout for obvious reason. From here the views reach almost 180 degrees from north to south of the Lima Valley and Mount Strathbogie in the distance.
Much later, on Goodes Track, we began our drive back to camp, with the intention of returning early to light the fire, cook a damper and settle in for a relaxing campfire dinner.
We reached the intersection of Rocky Ned Track and had the option to go straight or take the turn left, which looked to be a shortcut back to camp. From our maps Rocky Ned Track appeared to join the main track at the bottom, so down we went. Slow and steady we crawled down in low range, with the track getting steeper and deteriorating as we went. Three quarters of the way down we encountered a tree across the track but managed to get around it by navigating a particularly tricky turn over a large stone ridge which crunched the front of the car as we went over. I remember thinking that I wouldn’t want to go back up the same way.
Then we reached the bottom of the track and saw the next tree, and that’s when my heart sank. Our chainsaw was no use on this one. The tree was massive and, right in front of it was a deep pool of mud. It was like an obstacle course, an early closure perhaps but, if that was the case, a ‘road closed’ sign at the other end would have been prudent too.
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There was no option to drive around so our only way was to go back. At this point, in the slushy terrain even a U-turn was a challenge. The wheels spun and filled with mud and it became clear that we would need the winch to get us out. Being stuck out in the bush with no one around, and with no service, requires calm but inside me I could feel the stress mounting. To my relief Doug was cool and calculated, at least on the surface, and took his time assessing the situation.
TO THE WINCH
ONE of our problems was there were few trees to hook onto. The pine plantation in front of us offered little help with the trees too young and not strong enough to be an anchor. Our third attempt to winch ourselves out came from the stump of what was once a huge old pine tree. Even though it’s best to use a big and solid tree, we had little choice. Sure enough, the rotted pine trunk held its own and the winch finally got us up and over the rocky ledge.
Now it was a matter of getting back up the track. Hill climbs can be exciting and challenging at the best of times and Rocky Ned Track was no exception. It was slippery, steep and, with little traction, there was no alternative but to keep winching.
We’ve been stuck a few times and generally haven’t had too much trouble getting ourselves out, but this was the first time we’ve had to use our winch solo. Getting stuck in the bush by yourself or with no recovery gear can be a serious problem and we all know there are loads of ways that can happen. If you’re not with company the most powerful piece of equipment you can have with you is a winch and a solid tree as an anchor. That afternoon the winch became our best friend.
HOW-TO: Winch redirection
After I got over the initial stress and threw myself into the role of securing the winch onto the tree, and learning how it operated, my mind was focused on following Doug’s bellowing instructions. He did a great job driving the D-MAX back up the track and I got my exercise for the week by scrambling and slipping up hills, and securing the tree trunk protector and winch onto the forest anchor points. Nearly two hours after turning down Rocky Ned Track, we were safely back up the top again.
WHEN we arrived back to camp the peaceful ambience of earlier that day had completely disappeared. Dozens of utes had converged, music was blaring, little tackers were tearing round on tiny bikes and campfires were blazing. But I was deliriously happy. There was our van and it had never looked so good.
That night we savoured our steak dinner and plenty of well-earnt drinks by the fire. We met our new neighbours and regaled them with our stories, swapping numbers for any future mishaps. Better late than never, I suppose.
Lima East has plenty of places to explore nearby. Not too far away from where we had been, at the Rocky Ned Lookout, is the Mt Albert Track. Towards the top, sits an old WW2 plane crash site from the early 1940s, an accident that sadly saw no survivors. Although we didn’t visit the crash site, the area is signposted. Bushwalkers can also enjoy the Lima Falls, accessed through the pine plantations where a short steep walking track from the car park leads you to the falls.
Farther up into the High Country towards Stringybark Creek is a great drive with a lot of history. From Benalla continue 25km southeast to Tatong where you’ll find the Tatong Tavern, an English-style country pub built in the 1880s and renowned for its food and hospitality. Continue south along the Tolmie Road up into the forests of the Toombullup plateau where you’ll turn right into Stringybark Creek Road. It was in this tranquil area back in 1878 that three policemen, Sergeant Michael Kennedy and Constables Thomas Lonigan and Michael Scanlan were ambushed and killed by bushrangers Ned and Dan Kelly.
Twenty eighteen marked the 140th anniversary of the infamous shootout at Stringybark Creek Reserve, a dark chapter of Australian history, which feels almost tangible in this picturesque reserve. You can take a short walk through the formed path in the bush with signage and plaques along the way telling, not just the grim story but honouring the three fallen Victorian policemen, whose legacy was largely overshadowed by the legend of Ned Kelly. There are picnic facilities and nearby a beautiful, spacious campground for those who want to savour this peaceful area.
Back at camp on our last night, we joined our new friends around the fire and reflected on our time here. Everyone talks about the lessons they’ve learnt from lockdown but our few days back camping in this rugged part of Victoria taught us some valuable lessons. First and foremost is to keep your cool when you’re stuck in a tight situation and secondly, a winch can be a real life saver.
James Reserve is located off the Midland Highway, from Benalla past Reef Hills Park towards Swanpool. Go through the shops at Swanpool and turn right past the recreation reserve following the sign to Lima East. Turn left 1.4km on down the Lima East Road. After 7.4km this turns into gravel road. James’ campsite is a further 5km on. There is a bush dunny, fire pits, tables and creek water.