IF YOU miss the turnoff to the pub you’ll end up on a four-wheel drive track. This is serious four-wheel drive territory around here, with tracks converging in all areas. Plus, there’s another big drawcard: tucked in among the rollicking tracks is a gem of an establishment, a barn-like bistro with a rustic interior that looks straight out of a ‘wild west’ movie.
Add to that good country hospitality, honest, hearty pub grub and friendly bar banter and you know you’re in for a fun weekend. Whether you come with your family or a four-wheel drive club, or with your horse, motorbike or fourby, this is a place that epitomises adventure.
We’re in Rawson, about 2.5 hours’ drive east of Melbourne (taking the turnoff from the M1 towards Moe) in the heart of the Gippsland Mountain Rivers region. Originally built for the construction workers of the Thomson Reservoir, Rawson is nestled close to the timber town of Erica and the gold-mining town of Walhalla and offers something in every season.
In winter, it’s an excellent base for snow activities, with the South Face road offering easy access to Mt Baw Baw Ski Resort and Thomson Valley Road (TV Road) heading to Mount St Gwinear’s toboggan runs. It’s also a great base for brilliant four-wheel drive adventures, with loads of challenging tracks at its doorstep.
Today, on a cool day in late May, the town is quiet and there’s hardly anyone around. We’ve just checked in to the Rawson Caravan Park, which is more like a reserve in the bush. We’re surrounded by towering grey box gums, the sites are spacious, and campfires and dogs are allowed. Every site has an ensuite, which is impressive for bush camping, and it’s just a hop, skip and jump to Rawson Stockyard … and a bit of a stagger back.
At the office we’re handed a mud map of the area – which is to come in handy – and given some tips on nearby tracks. After setting up and meeting our neighbours we’re ready to hit the tracks, with the start of our four-wheel driving adventures literally 50 metres from camp.
There are plenty of tracks in and around Rawson and the surrounding Baw Baw National Park and, as we discover in this hilly and rocky landscape, they range from easy to ridiculously challenging and offer something for every skill level. For those who prefer remote camping there’s some great bush camping to be found in the state forests on the banks of Coopers Creek, Aberfeldy River and Bruntons Bridge.
There’s a sealed road for conventional vehicles from Rawson to the Thomson River and Walhalla, but we’re keen to explore the back way there. Our plan is to make our way to this iconic goldmining town, nestled in a mountainous valley that still feels unchanged from the golden days of the past.
Leaving the campground we drive down Depot Road, a rough but easy track which leads to Happy Jack Track and then Thomson River Track. There’s one steep part and a hairpin turn that makes things particularly interesting, but otherwise it’s an easy route that passes through scenic fern gullies.
Gold was first found in the valleys of Walhalla in the 1860s and, at its peak, it was home to 4000 people. Today, about 20 people call this township home. It’s an impressive entrance coming in from the tracks through dense alpine forest and across the tranquil Thomson River, before arriving in this wonderfully atmospheric town. Once in town the best way to explore the heritage buildings that line the main street is on foot.
During autumn and spring it’s a profusion of colour and there’s a certain magical quality about this place. On the day we visited a piper was playing his bagpipes on the edge of the timber tramway walk, and the music filtering through town felt like something from another time.
The Wally Pub is a great place to stop for a meal and a hit of nostalgia, with loads of historical photos on the walls. Further along, both the Greyhorse Café and Walhalla Coffee and Kitchen serve great coffee.
The fire station built over Stringers Creek is one of the most interesting buildings in the town, and you can climb the picturesque rotunda and amble up the Tramway Walkway for magnificent views over the town.
You can go underground on a guided tour through one of Victoria’s greatest gold mines that produced 13.69 tonnes of gold up until 1914; visit the hillside cemetery for the ultimate cardio workout; or walk up to the Walhalla Cricket pitch, which is more than 210 metres above road level. The walk is a hard slog and, believe it or not, the pitch is still used occasionally for social matches.
Much easier is a ride on the Walhalla Goldfields Railway, where you can sit back and soak up the valley views aboard the open-air carriages. Despite being abandoned for many years, the rebuilt narrow-gauge railway between the Thomson Bridge and Walhalla is now one of the most spectacular rail journeys in Australia.
It’s amazing to explore and ponder how – before 1910, when the railway was constructed – this isolated town was only accessible by coach or pack horse. The buildings were crowded along the narrow floor of the valley and perched precariously on the hillsides. These pioneers lived a hard life.
It’s tranquil these days as there’s no mobile phone, internet or television reception, which sort of forces you to tune out. For keen bushwalkers, Walhalla is the start of the epic 650km Australian Alps Walking Trail, which snakes through the beautiful alpine areas of Victoria, NSW and the ACT, ending near Canberra.
Back on the road and the tracks begin to skirt around some of Baw Baw National Park’s mighty impressive countryside. In the distance, mountains beckon snow skiers in winter. Leaving Walhalla we head towards Thomson Reservoir via the Thomson River Track, where the drive along the dam wall provides one of the best views in the area and a chance to observe a pretty impressive feat of engineering.
The dam is the largest of Melbourne’s reservoirs and equals about 60 per cent of the city’s storage capacity, and at 165 metres high it’s the biggest earth- and rock-fill dam in the southern hemisphere. The nearby Silvertop Picnic Area is a great spot for a lunch break, with barbecue and picnic facilities. We leave the area and, turning right, take a left-hand turn down an unnamed track. This eventually turns onto Lower Saddle Track which leads in the direction of Aberfeldy. This track becomes rougher each minute and has us quickly engaging low range.
As we make our way down to the Thomson River, where we spot a group set up on a nice, flat area for some solitary riverside camping, the track gets a tad rougher. We get out and check the river depth before crossing over to the other side. Driving out of the river onto Lower Saddle Track, the fun escalates as the rough and rocky track climbs sharply.
4x4 explore: Alpine National Park, Vic
With the Colorado in low range we crawl up steep ruts, through potholes and at one point spin the wheels. Lower Saddle Track is a challenging roller roaster of a track with washouts, ruts, climbs and steep descents. It’s the most fun we’ve had on a track in a long time; although, in the passenger seat, I admit to a few white-knuckle moments.
Standing outside Rawson Stockyard later that night, after our adventurous day on the tracks, we’re looking forward to a night off from cooking. It turns out to be a brilliant decision, as the skies darken and the heavens open. Inside the bistro, barely a hundred metres from our camper, we’re dry and warm, enjoying the company of fellow campers, Sue and Roger, who we met earlier that day.
Curiosity gets the better of me and I order the Stocky Schnitzel topped with vegemite, cheese and avocado, from a unique menu. It’s an odd combination for a chicken schnitzel, but it’s absolutely delicious.
My other half orders the rib-eye steak, which he says is cooked to perfection. The meals are huge and the atmosphere lively. Chris Lee, who runs the Stockyard, told me the Stocky Schnitzel is his own creation. It’s a friendly atmosphere inside, where everyone’s your mate. It epitomises the way this park and bistro is run by the Lee Family.
An evening at the Stockyard is the perfect way to end the day, in this rustic setting that oozes warmth and hospitality. In a region of steep, rugged mountains and rivers, and a heap of slippery trails through fascinating historic sites, this is a haven and a great place to swap tales at the end of the day. Whether you’re into four-wheel driving, dirt-bike riding or a bit of history, it’s a place that’ll have you coming back time and time again, especially given its proximity to Melbourne.
BRUNTONS Bridge was the original road access to Walhalla. The bridge was made in England in 1866 and was intended for use as the Victoria Street Bridge across the Yarra River in Richmond.
Unfortunately, it was the wrong size so it was sent to Bruntons to replace a timber bridge. These days it’s only for pedestrians. Crossing the river is by 4WD only, with a reward being a very nice campground on the other side.
It's not a small world on 4x4 Explore
- Rawson is 170km east of Melbourne, via the Princes Highway and north via C466. The 12km drive from Rawson to Walhalla on the main Walhalla Road is winding, so take care.
- Rawson Caravan Park is located on Depot Road, Rawson. Tel: (03) 5165 3439 or visit www.rawsoncaravanpark.com.au
- Rawson Stockyard is located on Depot Road, Rawson, Tel: (03) 5165 3111 or visit https://rawsonstockyard.com.au/
- Free camping at Cooper’s Creek, Aberfeldy River or Bruntons Bridge.
BEST TIME TO VISIT
Spring to Autumn. Many of the tracks in the Rawson/Thomson River/Mt Baw Baw areas close from June for the winter months.