Part 1 – Jump in your car and come travel Victoria’s western country…

This land of ours is an amazing country and there is nothing stopping you from getting out there and exploring it… so jump in your car and come travel with us, we’re heading for the Grampians!

Geared up for our next big driving adventure we were travelling in a Mazda CX7 and taking our mountain bikes, our OZ Trail 2 man tent and our comfy self inflating mattress on the road again. It was second nature to us now, and we couldn’t get enough of the freedom of being on the road.

Being last-minute planners we had a bit of an idea of where we were going but we didn’t really have any set itinerary and decided we would go with the flow.  We had roughly mapped out our track but really all we needed was each other, our comfy abode, our bikes and a change of clothes. Our family and friends thought we were crazy but we didn’t see why exploring needed to be planned out with where we were going on any set day, where we were staying, for how long, and how we would get there. The only  real planning we had made to date was to visit family in Ballarat on the first leg of our journey and a visit to the Grampians!

As with all our road trips from Tassie they would always begin in Melbourne at Station Pier and having disembarked from the Spirit of Tasmania our task was to negotiate the frantic traffic to make our way to the outskirts of the city.

With map in hand and ‘Nev Navman’ set on our first destination we made our way to the Western Ring Road then onto the Western Highway heading west… and we were soon  leaving Melbourne behind.

Beyond the urban sprawl the highway seemed to stretch on with the promise of beautiful countryside ahead and our early morning ride was quite uneventful.  What little we saw of the sun that morning soon disappeared behind rain clouds and we were pushing into a strong nor-westerly as we passed two wind farms working hard in the strong breeze… one aptly named ‘Windy Ridge’.

Our roughly planned track would take us on a scenic route to the Grampians to begin with, then on to Mildura before heading into NSW and Broken Hill. From there we planned to head east to  Dubbo, then up the centre of NSW through Bourke to outback Queensland then on through the towns of Cunnamulla, Charleville, Longreach, Winton, Cloncurry and Mount Isa. We really wanted to visit the Gulf so a detour to Karumba was definitely on our list then we would make our way over the Savannah Way to the Atherton Tablelands, through the Daintree to Cooktown then back down the east coast and home… hopefully a roadtrip coloured with many great diversions from historic towns and landmarks and plenty of history and amazing scenery. Plans change or things go wrong so we decided to just go with the flow… life on the road works out in the end and mishaps are just part of the journey.

The journey from Melbourne to Halls Gap was just over 250 kilometres by car and this highway now bypasses many small towns along the way but we decided to take the scenic route from Melbourne through Bacchus Marsh then onto Ballarat where we planned to camp the night.

Approaching Bacchus Marsh we drove along ‘The Avenue of Honour,’ which was lined with hundreds of elm and oak trees. It was a glorious sight.

The trees were planted to honour those who served during World War I and following the tree-arch into town we found many historic buildings from the original court-house to a blacksmith’s cottage and churches dating back to the 1800s and we were so pleased we didn’t bypass this little town.

This town was named after Captain William Henry Bacchus, who saw the value in this town’s location between two rivers, the Lerderderg and the Werribee. Traditionally this area was a market garden district, producing a large portion of the area’s fruit and vegetables.

Further along the road we pulled into Ballarat. We had visited Ballarat on our first adventure around Australia in 2009 and it is a very special place for me. I had heard so much about it as I was growing up… this was the place where my Dad was born and grew up. My Mum and Dad were married here and lived at Sebastopol for a few years and my eldest sister and brother were born here.

With family visits on the agenda for later in the day, we arrived in Ballarat and booked into the ‘Big4 Ballarat Goldfields Holiday Park’ for the first night of many nights on the road and with this done we filled in the early hours with a cup of coffee and something to eat at the local bakery, a visit to the newsagent to buy a diary to keep track of our travels, and then we ventured out to take in a few sights and a drive around the city, a city surrounded by old buildings from the money days of the gold mining era.

You need at least a few days to explore Victoria’s third largest city. Ballarat’s tale centres on its rich and prosperous history and the Gold Rush, which began in 1851. When news got out that this area was the world’s richest alluvial goldfield, its population exploded overnight with people seeking to make their fortune. Its wealth can be seen in the construction of public and private buildings, funded by the earnings of the diggers. There is so much history to experience here – the city holds much of its Gold Rush heritage in the form of opulent buildings, fountains and tourist attractions.

In 1851 the first great gold strike was made in the area. Thousands of people poured into Melbourne from England and other countries and made their way to the former sheep run and the now Ballarat was soon a hive of activity and no longer the quiet peaceful place that had hardly been heard of.

It was much too early to visit Sovereign Hill, the replica village of the goldfields depicting Ballarat as it was in its gold-mining heyday of the 1850s and with entrance fees at forty-seven dollars per adult we resorted to reading the information we had collected from the caravan park and looking around the perimeter.

Being on quite a tight budget this trip, and knowing we had caravan park costs and food and fuel to pay for over the next few months we had already decided to keep the touristy sights that cost money to a minimum. We planned to free camped the majority of the time, so mostly our costs would be fuel and food.

This small replica village of tents and bark huts was a living museum where people worked as shop owners, tour guides or as actors playing the parts of soldiers, miners, town criers and settlers all dressed in period costume.

Our next stop was the Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka or M.A.D.E as it is known where the ‘The Eureka Flag’ proudly flaps in the breeze. A step back in time, the Eureka Centre and the Eureka Stockade Gardens provided a spectacular focus of reflection.images

The Eureka Centre stands at the very site of the Eureka Rebellions, one of the most significant events in Australia’s history, where twenty-eight gold diggers were massacred by government troops in 1854. Many thousands of these young men from all over the world had left their homes in the hope of finding a fortune but most were disappointed. This life was tough and miners had to buy licenses in advance from the Victorian Government before they could dig for this precious rock. Some were successful but most never made any return on their license payments and when the cost of the license doubled the police set about hunting down those who didn’t have them. In addition, the large communities of Chinese miners were made to pay a separate immigrants tax and of course this led to much unrest amongst the miners causing things to turn nasty and culminating in the event, which we know as ‘The Eureka Uprising’. This rebellion is associated with the birth of democracy in Australia and the beginning of what is known world wide as the ‘Australian Spirit’.

The novel the ‘Goldseekers’ which is part of a twelve book series of ‘The Australians’ written by William/Vivienne Stuart Long, portrays an amazing story of this major turning point and the hardships for settlers, sailors, stockman, doctors, shop owners and many others in their wild quest for gold.

It was then on to Lake Wendouree. Lake Wendouree is home to the ‘Ex-Prisoner of War Memorial’ and the beautiful ‘Botanical Gardens’ where gardens and bushland trails are lined with elms, oaks, pines and willows.

It was sad to see this once beautiful lake now hit hard by drought. We could see jetties waiting for the water to return and it was so comical to see signs warning you not to swim when there was no water to swim in! This recreational lake normally used for canoeing, kayaking, sailboarding and yachting was now empty of water and activity. When full of water it is usually two metres deep and full of water birds. It was hard to believe it was also the site of the 1956 Olympic rowing, canoeing and kayaking events.

The lake itself is surrounded by a six kilometre walking and cycling path which we enjoyed a leisurely ride around before venturing to the streets of Ballarat to take in the beautiful city’s history of gold that still lives on today.

Europeans originally knew the lake as Black Swamp because it was dark with dense reeds. It was then named Yuilles Swamp after William Yuille who settled land in the area in 1838. In 1851 the first survey named it Wendouree and legend has it that when Yuille asked an Aboriginal woman what the swamp was called she replied ‘wendaaree’ meaning ‘go away’.

The town’s name itself comes from the indigenous occupants said to be the Wathawurung people who camped by the lake and called the area ‘Balla-arat’ which means ‘a good resting place’.

With most of the day gone we decided to head back to the holiday park and set up camp. Dark clouds loomed and the task of putting up our tent was made quite difficult by the strong winds. This was to be our first night in the tent for this trip and we could sense we were in for a very cold, rough night. It was already quite chilly so it was on with our thermals ready for a hearty dose of nature! The weather had not been kind to us since arriving in Victoria; in-fact it was not unlike the Tassie weather we had been experiencing over the past winter months.

Finally, with the tent up and firmly pegged and tied down we settled for a cup of tea in the camp kitchen before heading off for an evening with family and it was here in the camp kitchen we met our first fellow travellers, a couple from New South Wales heading home after four months on the road in their camper. Needless-to-say they were more than happy to share their experiences about life on the road; of where to camp, where not to camp, where to visit and what to expect along the way. It didn’t take us long on our first road trip to realise the benefits of a camp kitchen… not only do they provide a kitchen just like being at home but you also meet some new faces, share a yarn or two and get some handy tips about the next stop.

Although the night was very wet and wild, camping in the rain was not as daunting as it might seem and after a cosy night we rose to a much calmer but still chilly day. It was time to keep moving and we couldn’t wait to hit the road, we were pretty excited to explore all the Grampians had to offer with walking trails, tall rock formations, wildlife and rich aboriginal history… and it didn’t disappoint!

Leaving Ballarat we drove along Ballarat’s own ‘Avenue of Honour’ which represents the first of its kind, built between 1917 and 1919. A total of 3771 trees were planted – one for each soldier, sailor and nurse from the district who served in World War I. It remains the longest Avenue of Honour in the Southern Hemisphere at 22 kilometres. This Avenue was constructed with a very caring approach to the commemoration of service personnel where service rank was not a consideration.

About 40 minutes along the Western Freeway, which becomes the Western Highway we stopped at Beaufort village, a rich pastoral area known for its merino wool production and a quaint town with cafes and craft shops. This little town was a mass of colour with spring bulbs flowering in most gardens and beautiful trees lining the streets forming shady canopies and creating an amazing picture.

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Next on the map was Ararat also a former gold-mining town sitting on rich pastoral, fruit and wine growing land then came Stawell, home of the famous Easter footrace, the Stawell Gift. Stawell enjoyed a rich gold mining boom during the Victorian Gold Rush days too.

Our final charge for the day was into Halls Gap. Heading along Halls Gap Road we came to a T-junction where we turned left onto Grampians Road and several minutes later we came upon the town centre of Halls Gap. We had arrived at the Grampians National Park.

Taking their name from the Grampian Mountains in Scotland, Victoria’s Grampians provide some beautiful mountain scenery.  The Grampians are a series of five spectacular sandstone ridges running north to south with steep and craggy slopes on the eastern side and gentler slopes to the west. They are the result of earth movements lifting and tilting the hard sandstones to create an impressive landscape of peaks and valleys.

The lookouts provided stunning panoramic views and there were a number of impressive waterfalls and we could have spent weeks exploring this beautiful region: bushwalking and rock climbing, fishing and kayaking. However, we did not have that much time so we opted for a two and a half hour walk to the Pinnacle and back and a couple of other short walks.

The Pinnacle at first appeared unnervingly high and quite a difficult to walk but the good news is, it wasn’t… and the views from the lookout made every bit of effort, rock hopping and manoeuvring through rock formations and boulders worthwhile. It was one of the very best vantage points in the Grampians National Park with amazing views over a vast expanse of western Victoria. We could have sat there all day, it was an incredible place where everything seemed to be speaking to each other… from the trees swaying to the birds calling... but still there was so much to see and do!

Boroka Lookout provided spectacular views of the Wonderland Range, Mt William Range, Fyans Valley, Lake Bellfield and the plains to the east of the Grampians with an easy stroll through open stringy bark forest along a sealed track to two viewing platforms.

We had great views overlooking the Victoria Valley from Reeds Lookout. This was only a 100 metre return walk with breathtaking views over Victoria Valley, Victoria Range, Serra Range, Lake Wartook and the Mt Difficult Range.

It was a bit longer to the Balconies but an easy walk. The track climbed gently through rocky outcrops and a stringybark forest to the Balconies lookout where we were rewarded with panoramic views over the Victoria Valley.

There are two walks at MacKenzie Falls, the lookout which is almost 2 kilometres return as is the MacKenzie Falls walk.

Weary from our day of traipsing the many trails we were looking forward to setting up camp, so finishing our ‘to-see list’ for the day we left the Grampians and headed for Horsham where we planned to stay the night.

Through vast wheat fields, pastoral land, and colourful fields of wildflowers with the Grampians still painting a beautiful picture in the background it was a lovely drive and arriving at Horsham we headed straight to the Visitor Information centre then after this obligatory visit a welcome find was Horsham Riverside Caravan Park, central to the city on the banks of the Wimmera River, this rustic caravan park was sandwiched between the river and the Botanical Garden.

Prior to European settlement, Horsham and its surrounds were occupied by the Jardwa and Wotjobaluk Aboriginal people, who referred to the region as ‘Wopetbungundilar’. This term is thought to have meant ‘place of flowers’, a reference to the flowers that grow along the banks of the Wimmera River… and flowers still continue to play an important role in this town.  It is considered to be one of the prettiest regional towns in Victoria, a town that prides itself on its clean streets and picturesque gardens and is clearly proud of the number of times it has been named ‘Australia’s Tidiest Town’.

Like most regional cities, Horsham was a mix of boutique shops and art galleries. It is the regional city for the Wimmera district and although the Wimmera is a renowned wheat-growing region, Horsham is also a centre for fine wool production.

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