Billy Goats Bluff, another famed track of the High Country, this one was ‘straight outta Dargo’.
Other than that, I purposefully neglected to read too much into it. Mostly because I didn’t want to commit to any trails and secondly, because I didn’t want to excite my imagination with the details. So, on a thick, clouded morning we fuelled up on diesel, bacon and egg sandwiches, and coffee from the Dargo Store and backtracked yesterday’s route until the Kingswell Bridge. From there, we followed Wonnongatta Road before pulling off at the junction to let air out of the tyres.
Whilst I looked for a GoPro battery, determined to capture some of the drive. A HiLux arrived. At this point I was sort of nervous excited, giddy but keeping it at bay. Chatting to our new comrades elevated both aspects of the pre-trail adrenaline, the hyped up excitement at what mystery lay around the corner, and the “Uhoh” feelings of anxiety. They told us of a 200 Series rollover at a hairpin on the track. Despite being High Country frequent flyers, they were Bluff virgins like us, so I think we were mutually as nervous and excited about it. To be honest, that rollover anecdote sucked the ignorant cheer right out of me. Don’t get me wrong, I had no illusions that the High Country had its victims. I just wanted to drive my own drive, and take each track as I found them.
Hubs unlocked and tyre pressure lowered, I had run out of excuses. Now in convoy we were as ready as we were ever going to be for this track. The sun hidden away behind heavy clouds, made the powdery track coloured like malted milk. The surrounding hills, a dark matte green.
Almost off the bat, we were climbing. I was volunteered to lead, and so, unluckily for our convoy, they were stuck behind Cecil the pace car. The track is soft and powdery, washed out with random rocks, its colour overexposed in the glare so I found myself staring hard before it would disappear under the bullbar andf out of view.
Ahead, a hairpin loomed. I immediately kicked David out to scout ahead. Swinging up and to our right, it looked impassable. However, it wasn’t, merely tight and off camber, but only a little. As I edged closer, I could see I wasn’t going to make it in one turn. Ploughing nose first into the embankment, I gave myself as much room with as little angle as possible to then reverse. A three point turn off camber, I was able to look back down the trail we had ascended, our fellow explorers waiting patiently in their HiLux. An automatic with a cool headed driver, they were simply enjoying the new track.
Despite my imagination, with the the eLocker unlocked, Cecil slowly made the turn in first gear, low; without argument. We pressed onwards, upwards.
Billy Goats Bluff Track is like Blue Rag Range in the same way someone promised most High Country tracks would be… Just when you think you can’t possibly have any more hills to climb or altitude to gain, at their crest – you glimpse layers, upon layers ahead. Billy Goats however, distracted me a little more than Blue Rag. That, or in my stress, my depth of field was shallow. Its ascent is more dramatic, the surface soft, floury and littered with loose rocks. The erosion mounds fewer, and showing stress. Two tyre track hollows at their crest from struggling vehicles. This track would be ‘interesting’ in or after foul weather.
For me though, despite the ominous clouds, the weather was harmless. No bright sun to hide the crests, but the fluorescent cloudy glare was less than picturesque. After an adrenaline pumping ascent, I booted David out to spot the next. It looked particularly soft and washed. In hindsight, I am not sure what use it was, sending out a recon. The track is quite narrow so there is little choice. But with the live axles, nailing the wheel placement – now with a narrower tyre, and track corrected rear, feels more ‘right’ if I have a second or two to plan, even slightly. This climb was long and soft and I didn’t stop to pick David up, instead, I kept going until the bonnet swung down and I landed on a brief plateau. Not before noticing the Fuel filter light come on. It caught my eye whilst I was roaring in second gear low range, sending a fine dust to plume around David.
After he made it up to my new perch, I told him of the fuel light. I was already running through all the scenarios of fuel quality at Dargo and what our next moves should be. Feeling eleventy million miles from wherever the Billy Goats Bluff would climax and eleventy million miles up from where we had started. All of which overstated, but David decided to swap out the filter all the same. A quick enough job, pumped and the warning light reset. I jumped back in the LandCruiser for more. The track looked a sane degree of descent. Giving my heartrate a chance to drop as well.
It was short-lived however and we were climbing again. It felt like it wasn’t going to stop, until we landed on another plateau, this one large enough elbow for a few vehicles to rest at. As we did.
My nerves were strung tight on this track, I couldn’t shake it. This day, was actually a sort of anniversary of our first real adventure into the wilds of Australia, one of my happiest days, spent exploring the Sturt National Park. We had taken a rooftop selfie that day, something quite new to us. We attempted to take one on this summit, the helipad as I recall. I was so tightly wound, climbing the height of the roofrack gave me vertigo and I couldn’t stand up! Instead we sat, hunched on the swag and negotiated with the GoPro, its battery almost flat.
Seeing the track descend and stretch out a little, calmed me, a little. But the scaling track we could all see yonder the initial peak ahead told us, we weren’t finished.
Rocking and rolling along the aptly named track, the dust almost outweighed by the stones. Bald and bleached trees, stunted by their alpine affront on either side. I was feeling the rhythm of the track by now, beginning to feel as sure footed as my Toyo Open Country MT tyres actually were. The LandCruiser was eating up the track. I couldn’t feel any traction loss, the wheel track was sublime in the way I could point the front and the rear would follow.
Feeling truly goat-like we were sort of riding the side of a ridge until we rounded and fell into a picturesque elbow between peaks. We stopped to take it in, captivated by the contrasting raw nature of the trail, and the peaceful outlook. Soft, dark blue green mountains. Layered as far as we could see.
The sensation of remote and wild was strong right here. Apart from our new convoy, we hadn’t seen anyone, heard anyone or anything, except ourselves and our vehicles, scrabbling up and down the track. Exploring new territories for our memory cache.
Taking a few photos, taking in the views, David checked our tyre pressure and let a couple of PSI out.
Feeling a little hesitant to leave, given the quiet, sheltered view. We began to roll out as we were blocking the track. Here, it was single vehicle only in this sunken section. Rolling a car length or two, admiring the steep climb ahead, I groaned when the dopey front end of another 76 Series emerged from that same peak. I stopped, slack jaw. But the LandCruiser backed up and out of sight almost immediately. David jumped out and walked up to meet the driver. Back in sight again – he had reversed into a perfectly fitted single carpark, right off the track. The rear of his 76 tucked into the rocky peak. After David waved for me to make the climb, I stopped at the top to say hello.
Professionally parked, were a local couple, enjoying a drive in their backyard. They were toasting the start of their (Grey) Nomadic lifestyle. Having just sold their High Country property, they were chasing the horizon. Collecting a bit of Alpine dust for one last time, when they found us. Enviously giving them our salutations, we pushed on when a solo Ute pulled up behind us.
This was the most people we had seen during our High Country expedition yet! I guess that happens when you linger to chat with fellow explorers, and share the view.
Morale, bravery, or general feeling of alpine bad-assery was boosted for the rest of the track, not that there was much left – and it flew by. My anxiety dissolved.
Before long we were coasting, low range forgotten. Seeing the sign for the Pinnacles, we let our convoy know and headed into the taller, older growth. The track terminates and, busting like I have never been before – I scanned the signage for the toilet I had seen marked on the Hema. Toilet bag in hand, I started jogging up the hill. As it turns out, unlike the sign suggests – the toilet is almost at the end of the track. My alpine business attended, I headed back down to the carpark and we enjoyed a peanut butter sandwich and espresso in the fading light.
We made the walk together back up to the Lookout, camera in hand. The cloud was heavy but at that height we still had a romantic view over the hills. The last leg of the walk is single file. Stunning native flowers and rockery adorn the walking track, dried now at the end of Autumn, their beauty faded but frozen in their wild resilience.
The view from the Fire Tower is ridiculous. Sentinel.
Adrenaline dumped, I am ready for a camp. I’m ready for a warm fire and my pyjamas. Driving back to the main track of sorts we spot both a hut and a campsite on the Hema. Within moments it feels like we transported into a warm, low lying, waterfront area. We wander around the tin Horseyard Hut and meander down the pot holed track until vegetation, weariness and a fence tell us to stop. We were home.
There was an existing fire ring on the ground, clean and inviting. David got a fire going whilst I unrolled and peg out the swag. My ears are ringing, our camp is utterly quite, and there is no wind. There is just the quiet rustle, and occasional chirp of wildlife activity.
Walking around, I explore the Moroka River, its deep banks and sprawling flood plain show why this was a terrific stock yard, once upon a time. The area is lush and sheltered. Its shade, partly given by what I later read to be, large Black Sallees.
I dug out my fishing rod, finding my third wind of energy. Although, I caught nothing but a new level of relaxation. Casting and reeling into the black water below me. Legs dangling off the river banks edge.
Now that the light was sinking beyond the surrounding hills, the fire light was dancing off the trees. I gave up on the river and gathered my camping pantry, pots and spoon for a cook-up. Squatting beside the fire, the pot resting in the coals, I chopped and chucked just about all my spices and condiments in, measured by emotion and colour, rather than recipe. Freeze dried vegetables soaking in a separate pot; I had in mind a hearty curry. Stirring in mince and some some pre-cooked rice, the campfire curry was ready in no time, and devoured even quicker. Just long enough for the steel bucket to be perfect bathing temperature. We washed off the alpine dust under the Milky Way.
Dishes also washed, there was naught to do bar enjoy the campfire. I set up the camera to take some star shots, the skies clear and moon free, albeit framed in eucalypts.
After the warmest night of sleep, we woke late. Our camp only dappled in morning light. A breeze had stirred through the night but our towels were not lost, despite me not pegging them. I lazily waited for breakfast and coffee in bed. Listening to the forest around us whisper into life.
Even after we were rolling out from our camp, the sun hadn’t touched it yet, but as we crawled along the track, its warmth charged us with a new energy. I saw Huts on the horizon for us today, and on the Hema. Winding our way down a starkly dry, gum tree littered track, their roots dictating the camber, we found a traditionally fenced parking area. Camping was fairly limited here but there was evidence of those who had tried. Camera in hand, we headed out on foot through a divine paddock, old and fallen growth throwing shadows on the lush green. We were able to pick out the faintly worn path in the grass, but it was beautifully indistinct.
Moroka Hut would be our first ‘real’ hut. Heavy lumber, laced together with wire and expertise. Patched and warmed with corrugated iron. Inside was beautifully dark, and warm. It smelt like wood smoke and earth. There were a couple of fire rings on the lawn outside but given the walk to get here, I could see why it didn’t appear abused by campers.
Back in the LandCruiser we had to backtrack to return to the main track as we couldn’t locate the through-way as depicted on the map. Driving rather aimlessly, poking our noses down a few trails, we were turned back by closure signs. Kelly’s Lane materialised and we followed it down. It kept close quarters until we were thrust into a wide open moor. The wind was blowing a little now.
The sprawling grandeur of Kelly’s Hut suited its wild open locale. We had stumbled upon a rare alpine peat bog, high on the Howitt Plains. The Hut was fitted out with a large low table, or rather bench for a bedroll in foul weather. The fire was still hot, coals glowing in the dark. It seemed we had followed a resident from the night before perhaps. We extinguished the fire, signed the visitor’s book and ventured as far as we could out to the bog’s edge, appreciating the wild, foreign ambience of the tall grassed plain, a high altitude paddock of its own unique lifeforce.
The sky was whipping about cloud and the temperature was changing. We pulled into Mount Lookout, 1580m above sea level but comparative to the track views of the last couple of days, we felt stunted on the thick wild grassy plain looking out through the trees around us. The road here was very well maintained and I pulled into the Bryce Gorge camping area as I had spied a Hut symbol on the map. A few kilometres to walk would warm our bones and earn some lunch. So off we went. The windy corridor location of Guy’s Hut proved how well constructed it was, tightly stacked with a roaring chimney. Inside was warm and quiet. A bumbling, clear stream just outside and log carved camp furniture in its ‘front yard’. Guy’s Hut was straight out of a storybook.
Given its distance from the road, its use by mostly hikers was evident. It was clean and there was no sign of abuse. Back at the LandCruiser, I sat on the ground and prepared sandwiches while David brewed an espresso. We were sick of the Howitt Road Highway, as beautiful as it was to be so idly touring the tallest areas of the island. However, we had Zeka Spur or King Billy dialled in for our next turn.