In the second instalment of this epic tale of derring-do in the Victorian High Country we learnt that the secret-squirrel way to Lake Hovell is a whole lot more exciting than the bitumen and that it doesn’t matter what age of the girls and boys, they all love playing in the mud.
This final third essay recounts a day in search of huts and gold.
Day three’s dawn alarm signalled the start of a busy Friday and the other alarm that had been going off in my head overnight, was the pitter-patter of raindrops on my accommodation’s roof… enough to wake me twice. I’ve already explained my loathing of rain whilst training, so I resigned myself that today would be the day I get wet AND I’ll likely really earn my keep on the trails.
Corey had a mixed bag going for us on the final day, a trip up into the hills in search of waterfalls and huts and then back down in the valley… gold! Because “there’s gold in them thar hills”!
Exiting Mansfield on the Mt Buller Road we made our way in glorious Isuzu convoy up to the Mt Stirling and Mt Buller entry check point. There is a marshalling yard off the bitumen for the fitment of chains in winter, for dealing with that pesky road ice stuff, the chains rented from the adjacent store. In a couple of weeks-time with the arrival of June’s first flush of snow it’ll be hectic.
At the next left-hand turn and onto the dirt Mt Stirling Road we head skywards and wend our way flanking the hills en-route to a place called Telephone Box Junction and the Mt Stirling Café. Once-upon-a-time the café had a rip-roaring business, but Covid put the crunch on that, so now it’s just an empty shell. Beyond the café is Circuit Road which has a heap of trails intersecting it and servicing all the little nooks and crannies in the hills east of Mt Buller.
The low cloud that’s been hanging around the mountains all morning is now enveloping us at around 1,500m and limiting visibility, but thankfully there’s a bit of a breeze to move it around. When we arrive at the Howqua Gap Huts I can officially confirm it is cold, the D-MAX’s thermometer is telling me to expect a frosty nose because it’s barely 6C.
There are a couple of huts installed here, one old and one not so old and designed to provide respite for travellers passing through when the weather ain’t so grand. When a blizzard is raging and all forms of transport cease, the plywood-lined New Howqua would be very inviting with the stove cranked up and tucking into a feed courtesy of the wall mounted larder. We topped it up with some of our own stocks for the benefit of future visitors. Hope they like crackers.
Bindaree Road came up next and the gang motor down a pretty slippery bunch of corners. Luckily the road makers have spread a recent layer of kitty-litter on top, because a serious-sideways moment might have you backing your D-MAX into a corner like Jack Miller at the Jerez MotoGP. We arrive at the car park space for Bindaree Falls excited to stretch the legs and get up close to some nature.
It’s a not-so difficult walk of about ten minutes to the waterfall and thanks to a cavern at the base you can get behind the shimmering curtain and train your camera at the spectacle. It’s a marvel of lichen and tree ferns in its own little micro-climate and worth the effort to see. Thanks Corey, it’s a worthy inclusion in the itinerary.
After all this rubbernecking I don’t know about you, but I’m getting a bit peckish. Luckily just down the road is the Bindaree Hut and Bindaree Flat camping area and adjacent to the Howqua River. With a nice site selected next to the hut and duties tasked to the crew, we split into gold-panners and lunch-makers.
Gold comes in a few different forms, those of the nuggety kind and that found in veins, or, in a stream. Corey stocked up on a six-pack of plastic pans specifically designed for the capturing of gold flakes and that we did… we filtered and we filtered and we filtered, swishing the slurry of alluvial sands, muds and light-gravel we scooped up, until a certain Miss Kim scored!
Despite the fact we really had no-idea what we were doing, we proved that the Howqua River has flecks of gold in its sands and I bet you could repeat that just about anywhere in these parts. Not saying you’re going to make a living out of it, but it’s a nice little diversion to have a crack at if you’re up here.
With bank balances restored and tummies filled, the big High Country hut drawcard was on our minds for three reasons. One, everyone knows Craig’s Hut, that one built for the cinema screen in The Man from Snowy River, a fiction that’s been burnt to the ground by bushfire and remade anew for the visitors and had to be seen. Two, to get there you can access the Monument Track, an honest 4WD trail with a couple of steep pinches that’ll have you on your game and three, that cloud is still hovering up on top from this morning and won’t take the hint.
From the Bindaree Road to Circuit Road again and you’ll find the base to the Monument Track. It’s LOW range time and before you can say fog, we’re in a pea-souper. We’d noted at the base of the hill that the wind had dropped out completely so the fog wasn’t going away anytime soon and if anything, the fog-density meter on the D-MAX’s dash was showing extreme and caution needed to be taken!
Now, the Monument Track is a good one when things are a little damp because its base is peppered with plenty of rock.
Rather than being entirely clay-based there are good prospects of finding some grip here, so, by using our lower 20PSI/135kPa pressure regime, our tyres could gain the foothold of stretch they needed to haul us to the top. That’s good because we couldn’t see jack shit!
Some sections needed a closer eyeball because from the driver’s seat picking the right line was pure guesswork and I got the job of calling it with the hand-held. Watching the following vehicles snake their way up and past me was surreal, headlights creating laser beams of searchlight, in a world of grey.
You’ll arrive at a T-junction at Clear Hills Track with a turn to the right and the worst of the trail’s bumps will be over and a few minutes later you’ll find the car park spaces at Craig’s.
The walk from the car parks to the hut is ordinarily a moment to take in a spectacular panorama from the roof of the world, a broad expanse of grass usually sees folk on rugs and eating a packed lunch they’ve brought with them and catching some sunshine. Today we’ll be having none of that, because it’s 100% solid cloud and the hut is invisible. Follow the footpath and eventually Craig’s Hut appears out of the mist like the Mary Celeste, albeit at arm’s length.
Bit hard to take a qualitative pic in conditions like this but we did our best and I got a couple of Kodak moments from today that are wildly different to the ones I took in 2018 in clear skies.
After a trip like this there are no losers. Everyone who attended were enriched in panoramas, in skills, in fine-ish dining and in great camaraderie. Our end-of-event dinner at the Anvil Brewing Co in Mansfield celebrated all of that with a huge amount of hilarity as we gave out our not-so-serious awards.
Best Driving Skills: Di for bringing that manual single-cab D-MAX down off that rocky shelf no fuss!
Best Gold Digger: Kim for panning out that single fleck of golden hope (but was it pyrites)!
Best Good Sport: John for accepting the inaugural “Yellow Gum” award for best vehicle presentation on the first day!
If you own a D-MAX or an MU-X there is no better way to get yourself a very keen understanding of how your car works than by attending an Isuzu I-Venture Club day of learning or on one of the long-form trips away and then you’ll be able to “Go your own way”!
About the Author: David Wilson’s day job for the last thirty years has been as a professional 4WD driver trainer at his SA-based business Adventure 4WD. He has had a strong Isuzu connection for most of his working career, responsible for the delivery of the Isuzu Specialists Weekends (Holden/Isuzu partnership 1996-2003) and of late, as lead trainer and brand ambassador for Isuzu Ute Australia’s customer retention program called I-Venture Club (2014-present).
He’s also been keen to promote 4WDing to the masses and was the first to produce and present a dedicated 4WD TV series called “Beyond The Bitumen” seen on TEN and Foxtel between 1998-2000. He’s been a freelance 4WD writer for News Corporation for a decade, had stories posted in every mainstream 4WD magazine in Australia and a few overseas in the past, and today manages to squeeze out articles as the “Tech-Head” in Isuzu Ute Australia’s MAX’d Magazine and also subs as Western 4WDriver Magazine’s roving reporter. He’s a partner in the Loaded 4X4.Media and Loaded 4X4.Store businesses and committed to providing fact, not fiction, when it comes to vehicle and travel advice and the development and supply of quality bespoke equipment.