Years ago, we drove the scenic road up to Mt Hotham and many years before that Peter walked some of the tracks with his school hiking group. But that was the extent of our experience in this vast and even intimidating area.
It was time to get more intimate with this magnificently rugged part of north-east Victoria, once a significant meeting place for Indigenous groups and the traditional Country of the Taungurung and Gunaikurnai Peoples. It’s also steeped in rich gold rush, cattleman and bushranger history and we really want to see it for ourselves. We want to feel like we’re on top of the world and now, finally, we have the right vehicle to get us there.
With our 2017 Troopy, fitted with a Mulgo Pop Top we feel properly equipped to go offroading and overlanding and join in a pastime that so many people seem to love. We’re going to drive it across all sorts of terrains, live out of it and sleep in it. It was also time to get our brand new BFG All Terrains on some real dirt.
To make our first time less intimidating we decide to invite Steve. He knows this area well and he also owns a Troopy with a pop-top, so we think we’ll be a good fit. This is instantly fun for us and gives us more confidence knowing Steve will go ahead and we’ll follow behind. I remember calming myself down at the base of a steep ascent by thinking, ‘If Steve’s Troopy can get up, then ours can get up too!’
We meet in front of the Dargo Hotel, an iconic country pub we’d only ever seen photos of. It’s closed that day, so we plan to go back after our adventure. Steve had just returned somewhat dishevelled from the infamous Billy Goats Bluff Track; he says it’s pretty chopped up and several people ran into trouble. My ears prick up and I feel slightly nervous until he announces: “We’ll skip it this time, it’s not ideal for newbies.”
Soon we’re sitting in his dust, loving every second as we drive to our first campsite, Ollies Jump Up. We push open our pop-tops and make our way down to the river with a refreshing beverage in hand enjoying the “relatively” warm water and listening to the abundance of birdsong around us.
The Victorian Alps are affectionately known as the High Country or High Plains and comprise national parks, state forests, lakes, rivers and impressive mountains with Mt Bogong being the highest, peaking at 1986m.
Approximately three hours’ drive from Melbourne, it’s conveniently situated for year-round activities. Everyone is catered for here; from history buffs to photographers, bushwalkers to horse riders, skiers and snowboarders and of course fisherman. But for us, it’s all about four-wheel driving.
We know that there are many epic tracks in these parts, and it could take a lifetime to drive them all, so it’s time to crack on and get a taste of them, discover the capabilities of our Troopy and to build our confidence.
By the end of our first night we agree on the next day’s plans — we’re going to drive the Blue Rag Range Track. “Sounds great,” I announce, even though I don’t really know what the track looks like.
We wake with excitement the next morning, pack up and hit the road. We go from dirt road to tarmac to dirt road again until we reach the turn off sign-posted ‘Blue Rag Range Track’. It’s time to air down and start the steep ascent.
“Crikey Steve, that looks pretty steep!” I state, feeling a bit uneasy. “Don’t worry Liz, these tracks always look steeper from the bottom.”
It was time. Time to put the Troopy in low range, time to settle in with that deep, low grunt as we start the slow ascent. It’s also time to practice talking over the radio — I laugh a few times because I’m so tempted to answer, “Roger that!” But I don’t. I’m still unsure if it’s common practice or just Hollywood nonsense.
The radio is indispensable though. Steve warns us of oncoming traffic, he points out the wildflowers and announces when the track is about to get even steeper. It's as if he knows we’ll be bamboozled by what we’re witnessing and experiencing and probably won’t be able to take it all in.
I gasp several times as we crawl up and across the rough gravel track tightly hugging the ridgeline. It’s approximately 8km to Trig Point which takes us about an hour, including several stops. It’s a mix of rocky sections and some narrow and very steep climbs. We keep a safe distance from Steve and are in constant communication. We stop a few times when it’s safe to take in the spectacular panorama that surrounds us. It feels very remote and perhaps it’s exactly this that so many of us search for. When we’re made to feel small something magical happens. Standing on top of a ridgeline with a 360-degree view of velvety mountains and deep, rugged valleys, you know you’re experiencing something profound.
We slowly start the descent, waiting occasionally for an oncoming vehicle — they are usually easy to spot in the distance, sparkling under the sun with a cloud dust trailing behind them. Overtaking is a no-no here and areas where you can safely pass other vehicles are infrequent, so it pays to listen in on the radio and to scan ahead.
Suddenly the weather turns, and dark clouds appear. We’re thankful we are heading down before the track gets wet and slippery.
Our descent continues even further that day, all the way down to Talbotville, our next campsite which also happens to be the site of an old gold mining town. Our windscreen wipers are on, the rocky track is glistening, and we can’t see much from the thick mist, but Steve announces over the radio that Talbotville is just down there. Unpredictable weather is a fact of life in the High Country. We hear that it can even snow any time, so it pays to prepare for all types of conditions.
We navigate the tight twists and turns, and we’re pleased that we make it around every corner. We laugh a sigh of relief knowing full well the reputation of Troopies for having a turning circle the size of a postcode!
The campground looks like a never-ending paddock dotted with a few picnic tables, fireplaces and a reasonable smelling drop loo. It’s also bordered by forests and the Crooked River. We huddle under our wraparound awning until the rain stops and eventually talk ourselves into a refreshing dip.
I volunteer to drive out the next morning. I focus hard on the track ahead and don’t even allow myself to indulge in the spectacular view. After all, I’m driving what feels to me like a massive truck and slipping off the edge simply isn’t an option.
With Steve just ahead I’m able to gauge the track well and we make it out without incident. Our last leg together ends right back where we started, outside the Dargo Hotel and the general store. We refuel and chat with the owner, who happily tells us about his own gold rush story. He had recently found a miner’s hidden stash of gold in little glass bottles and banknotes from the early 1900s. He now proudly displays these in the store for everyone to see — except for the four ounces of gold, which made for a nice payday!
The rustic interior of the hotel is welcoming. It’s timber-lined and dotted with historic pictures and objects. We sit down and reminisce over the past two days with massive smiles on our faces while we enjoy a couple of beers and tuck into a sensational T-bone steak and giant parmas.
- Supplies: The Dargo General Store has fuel, takeaway food, coffee, souvenirs and plenty of supplies and treats that you may have left at home.
- Camping: There are numerous camp spots dotted all around. Use Wikicamps, Parks Victoria and Hema Maps for details. The Dargo Hotel, est. 1898, has motel rooms, bunk rooms and log cabins. If you’re after a bigger place, Grandma’s House, just across the road, has five bedrooms.
- Best time to travel: November–May is best for 4WD, many tracks are closed the rest of the time. Avoid all extreme weather conditions. Peak times include long weekends and holidays which can mean heavy traffic and full campsites.
- Track tips: Blue Rag Range Track is rated medium and is best tackled on a dry day.
- If you are a newbie, make sure to tag along with someone experienced. A two-way radio for communications and equipment to deflate and air up your tyres are essential.