In the low light of the thick canopy, we were inspecting the map, the time, and our sooty faces. We made a snap decision to check out Mansfield. Following the main road, we travelled fairly easy. This region was old, but seemed less wild. Finding a funny pagoda hut we realised we were in a proper Ski area. The road, wide and graded was well formed but after the rain and snow had turned into a muddy slurry. The corners now slippery and we were likely to drift with too much right foot. A worked Nissan Patrol showed us how, wide open throttle. Soot and mud spraying all over the bark of the bordering trees.
All of a sudden we emerged from the dark woods, and into yellow elm. We used the ARB twin compressor to air up the tyres for the bitumen that had found us. A pleasant, easy drive watching the golden hour sink behind the paddocks. Woolly cattle and sheep, heads down in relentless grazing. Finally using top gear, we rolled into a cold Mansfield, the street lamps just coming on.
A high pressured, steaming hot shower and a pub dinner – our clear and present priority. We unrolled the swag at the High Country Holiday Park. That wasn’t before we almost ran over our intrepid explorer friends, just returned from their own shower and feed. Great, soot-covered minds, think alike.
After the aforementioned shower, the water running dark from the ash in my hair, we survived a crowded but hot dinner in the pub. After a couple of their even hotter espressos, and studying the Hema App on my Ipad Mini 2, we walked back to the Holiday Park. Catching up on some internet in the camper’s retreat. Neither of us felt like lighting the fireplace and after a while we were crawling into the swag.
Another hot shower in the morning, just because, and we hit the main street for a lazy breakfast. Rolling up the frozen stiff, ice covered swag to sound of suburbia was message enough, it was time to head back the Mountains. But not before a feed. We gorged ourselves on local eggs, bacon, toast and lava-hot cooked tomato.
Fuelling up with diesel before heading back the way we had came. Running away from town again, it felt good. Even if it was nearing the end of our adventure.
Finally, away from town, our pace slowed and we were aired down and meandering along Black Landing Track. Followed by a windy and indirect King Basin Road. I took it slow as the scenery was beautiful, and whilst the sun was shining, everything was slick and soggy from rain, sleet and ice. We were able to test the Jmacx rear track and the Toyo MT tyres on the clay wheel ruts.
Several water crossings, whilst not deep – most had a raw, stoney base rocked and rolled us around. Slow enough so we could admire the moss and ferns that decorated the watercourse.
In the deepest depression of the hills, just under 800m above sea-level, we found Kings Hut. Neighboured with a large camping group of at least a dozen vehicles, they were the party of explorers we had met at Lovick’s Hut. Their famed communal tarp centrally erected like a Viking Hall of tall stories, hot food and oilskin coats.
We checked out the Hut, an elevated single storey building, complete with floorboards and a glass pane window. The nature of the landscape suggested the King River could and was oft larger, wider and deeper. After raiding our pantry for a snack, we soaked up some sunshine before abandoning the camping area.
I couldnt get a reliable read on the The Staircase, so, given our pending home-time-bell, I opted for the longer, scenic route of Little Cobbler Track. After a few more riverlet crossings, we found it. Climbing and winding, winding and climbing.
We broke out of the damp basin of thick and green flora and stood amongst the tall giant eucalypts. Rounding each dusty bend in lower gear out of caution as well as sneaky gazes out my window. We didn’t see anyone along the track. The views ever changing. Sierra like peaks, rotten bridges.
After twisting and turning amongst the hills, we found a wooden sign directing us onto Cobbler Lake Road. Wider but no less dusty.
Looking out into the expanse more often than I probably should have, I caught glimpse of a waterfall. Without any signage on the road, its magical sighting felt ever more trailblazing. The road didn’t feel safe to stop so we kept on going, perhaps we would meet again, closer.
A disheveled turn off and broken sign told us to veer and drop off the road at a Y junction. Confirming HEMA. The track grew damp but glimpsing the water, we knew were close. Riding the shoreline, we negotiated a rocky platform water crossing, short but the large yellow stone dictated which would be the sensible line. A dark, small hut occupied the clearing where we parked. There was a single vehicle there already, but no sign of its driver.
I found the toilet up the hill, noting the enticement of the walking track signage on my way. We explored the Hut. Eating thick wedges of pistachio spice cake we had purchased in Mansfield. David operated the Handpresso for us to enjoy an espresso, lakeside.
The stillness of the lake was remarkable. Seemingly foreign in this locale, surrounded with first marsh, and then tall eucalupts. I would read later that it was indeed foreign. Man made in the 1960s by damming the swamp off of the Dangdondale River. Picturesque and ample camping around its bank for those seeking some high altitude, waterfront solitude.
In between taking photos I used the Hema to identify the waterfalls as Dandongdale Falls, the tallest in Victoria. Whilst the hike could take us out there, we were now time poor. I dropped a waypoint to tackle it next time. Whilst backtracking, I did stop to capture the Falls. My equivalent 120mm lens only just, but gratefully, absorbing some of its glory in the golden light.
We thought to climb the Lake Cobbler Road, and turn onto the Lake Cobbler Track, eventually dropping into Abbeyard. However there was a lack of traction on the steepish track, its overgrown, clay push through the trees was also littered in branches and debris. We weren’t making much progress and the light was dropping, quickly. After a failed attempt at a climb, I slipped and slid in reverse gear, back down the steep slope and performed at least twelve points of turn, to then backtrack. We were out of time.
Instead, we put the windows down and enjoyed the last of our alpine adventure along the Upper Rose River. Spotting an almost black wombat that went careering off the ledge to avoid my slow photography. National Geographic’s freelance offer might be revoked.
The hills gradually retreated to the rearview mirror as the country opened up. Mount Buffalo casting his invitingly wild stature across the windscreen. Lake Buffalo showing off her colours.
The disappearing light picked a campsite for us. After adding air to the tyres for the last time, we were on the black top for a short drive to Nug Nug Reserve. A hyper-saturated camping area of green grass and bright golden elm trees. The Nug Nug Creek noisly burbling at our cold corner of the world.
After charring steaks and the rest of our produce on the Snow Peak firepit we busied ourselves with keeping the fire blazing for warmth. Using all our wood supply, we were up later than usual, eating snacks and trading favourites of the trip.
It seemed we had survived our first trip up and into the Victorian High Country. But we had barely scratched the surface. For every puffed up charge down a new track, we had skipped two, three or more before it. Neither of us felt any regret at this, but rather anticipation. When could we return? The vast playground of beauty and wickedness alike.
There was a new metric we had learned too, High Country kilometres were not like Outback kilometres, they engaged a different energy. One I had honestly thought I had grown out of, or something. Turns out, I was wrong. Wrong about how much I would love the adrenaline pumping, technical and awe inspiring country. But also wrong to doubt the LandCruiser, despite our penchant for remote endurance with tanks and weight bearing suspension, Cecil is still the Mountain Goat of Stubbornness and Adventure we bought him for.
Our setup worked super well, the weakest factor of our kit being the battery health of my old camera and older GoPros. But nothing to stop us enjoying the heck out of those hills.
Our last day was a simple one, woken up to an incredible smokey, cloudy day, we paid our fee into the Honesty Box. Rolled a damp swag for the last time. The laundry bag full.
We breakfasted in Myrtleford before hurtling up the highway, feeling pleasantly satisfied with our adventure. The homeward bound depression offset with plots and plans for more hillclimbs, more huts. A day’s drive from home, see you in October?