The sign once read: “Free power, free shower, turn left at the road, go down to the pub, buy a beer or just say gidday.” These days the sign has mysteriously disappeared, but the deal hasn’t. Ring ahead and you’ll find a free campsite literally on the doorstep of one of the best pubs and locations in Victoria’s East Gippsland.
We’re in Lake Tyers, a small coastal hamlet barely ten minutes from the recreational mecca of Lakes Entrance. It’s a quiet, secluded spot, yet on the Australia Day long weekend just gone the Water Wheel Beach Tavern is the local hub and is buzzing with life.
At a time when many of the local businesses in East Gippsland and beyond are doing it tough – losing seasonal income during their typically busiest holiday period, due to the 2019-20 bushfire crisis – it feels good to be injecting some money into the area, knowing that every little bit makes a difference.
Over the course of the weekend it becomes clear that the Water Wheel Tavern is both an oasis for travellers and a local haunt for many. They come in their droves, many of them utilising the services of the tavern’s courtesy bus. For campers, the best bit is the area out the back. With free power and even a free shower, this has got to be one of the best finds in East Gippsland.
Part owner of the tavern is Kevin Campbell, who’s a chef by trade. Growing up in nearby Bairnsdale with a love of the sea, it’s perhaps understandable he’d end up in a tavern at Lake Tyers. Seven years ago, Kevin bought the tavern, which included the tiny caravan park out the back, and in 2019 he decided to remove the small cabins and convert the space to a free camp area. Now you’ll find marked-out sites with free power and water on each one, and access to a shower and toilet plus a small barbecue area.
It’s a clever and generous idea that’s proving very popular with campers passing through. The biggest attraction is undeniably the tavern just up the laneway where most campers end up, and there are no strings attached. It’s hard to deny the appeal and ambience of sitting on the decking, the structure of which is incredibly impressive. Kevin tells me that part of the material was sourced from the Sydney Opera House. The tavern has seen a lot of change over the years.
We do our part, enjoying drinks on the first afternoon, but then we’re back again at dinner time for the best pork belly I’ve ever eaten in my life. We return the following night to do it all again and to enjoy the lively music of a visiting Irish band.
It’s little wonder people come from miles away. Aside from the live music and the amazing food, the deck overlooks the expansive lakes system. Barely 500 metres away, the spectacular Ninety Mile Beach also beckons fishermen and sun lovers.
On the doorstep of the Tavern is the lake and, though the water was low on our visit, seasonal changes see amazing cycles. The lakes range from calm, sandy mudflats and wetlands to the raging torrent of the estuary breakout. Lake Tyers beach is undeniably unique. Located at the mouth of the Lake Tyers estuary, it’s a fisherman’s paradise.
In town, there’s a distinctly common theme in the street names: Flounder, Eel, Marlin, Mullet, Brim and Barracuda. The town surveyors must have all been fishos. That afternoon we watched from the decking of the tavern as a fisherman drove off with a four-metre shark on the roof rack, clearly the catch of the day.
Another way to explore the area is by kayak. The tavern has free kayaks available for those who want to get out there and explore the inlets and shallows of the lake, as well as the peaceful waters where the motorboats can’t go.
Close by are the spectacular stretches of the Ninety Mile Beach, and beyond the lakes are walking tracks above the town that lead to cliff-top views of the glistening shoreline. Down below, it’s not hard to wile away the days here; fishing, swimming and lazing along sandy shores that stretch as far as the eye can see.
4x4 explore: Victoria
There’s another side to Lake Tyers, but to get there you’ll need to leave the beach. Here, farther out from the Lake Tyers State Park, you’ll find four-wheel drive tracks and scenic forest drives into nearby hills. Less than 20km up the road is the small town of Nowa Nowa, located at the northern end of the lakes region where Boggy Creek enters and feeds the system.
The town and General Store came perilously close to being wiped out by the recent bushfires. Stopping for supplies and to get directions at the General Store, I spoke to the owner who told me the fires were coming straight for them before the wind changed direction.
We made our way up to Mount Nowa Nowa via Two Mile Road, which had only recently reopened after the fires whipped through. It felt surreal to drive through scorched forests, where one side of the road was burnt and trees survived on the other. At the summit, under a blue but hazy sky, we could just make out the lines of the fires through the charred forests below. Sadly, there wasn’t much left of what would have once been a scenic picnic ground. However, the tower was still standing.
We drove back down along the powerlines, a steep track which had us locking the D-MAX into low range before backtracking onto Gorge Road and on to Nowa Nowa. The driving, though not overly challenging, was scenic, and we could see several difficult tracks branching off in many directions.
Within the state park is the Nowa Nowa Mountain Bike Path, with 20km of mountain bike trails for those who love action on two wheels. As we drove through, it was heartening to see some wildlife in the scrub including a few kangaroos, lizards and even a monitor that narrowly missed becoming flattened as it scampered across the road.
Not far away in the Colquhoun State Forest is the Stony Creek Trestle Bridge, built to service the 97km Bairnsdale to Orbost rail line extension in 1914 – the last train crossing the bridge in 1988. You can’t walk on the trestle bridge anymore, but there’s a rail trail alongside the bridge allowing walkers and cyclists to marvel at the engineering feats of a forgotten era. It’s an impressive structure constructed mainly from red ironbark and grey box. At 247m long and 20m high, it’s one of the largest of its kind in Victoria, standing there almost like the embodiment of survival.
Back in Lakes Entrance at the Fisherman’s Co-op on Bullock Island, we stocked up on fresh seafood for our Australia Day dinner that night. With our table overlooking the boat ramp of Lake Tyers, we watched the pelicans feast before laying out our own banquet of oysters, prawns and local wine.
Australia might be doing it tough during this current crisis, but, as travellers, and in true Aussie spirit, we can all do our bit to help the fire-affected regions by getting out there, spending a bit of money and helping these small communities get back on their feet.
Here in Lake Tyers, with free camping, beer on tap and four-wheel driving on your doorstep, what more could you possibly want?
Water Wheel Beach Tavern location
Address: 577 Lake Tyers Road, Lake Tyers, Victoria