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Lerderderg Gorge

13 May, 2012

Scotland was the last time that we had hiked and camped (August 2010!)  I call these overnight hikes, but when I told a workmate that we were going for an overnight hike at Easter, she asked if we walked with torches. No, we sleep in a tent at night!

Henceforth, to avoid confusion, I will be calling them n-day walks, where:

  • n = the number of days we intend to walk; and
  • n-1 = the number of nights we’ll be sleeping in tents.

Five days off in a row (both Nic and I had Tuesday off, too) meant we racked our brains for where to go, bearing in mind that almost everything we read suggested that campsites and holidays places filled up at Easter time.  Eventually, we decided on doing a three-day walk at Lerderderg Gorge, which is only 70kms or so from Melbourne.  We had recently purchased a map of the area, and identified a number of options for different circuit walks, depending upon how tough going we found it.

We packed the night before, trying all kinds of permutations to fit everything we would need into our two lighter packs (Nic’s smaller Macpac, which holds 40L and my Berghaus 30L pack).   Nic carried all the heavier stuff – tent, food, cooking equipment; while I carried the remainder – sleeping mats, sleeping bag (only 1; Nic carried the other), tarp, first aid kit.  Last time we had carried these packs was on Dartmoor and it was fairly easy to fit everything in because we were wearing our warm gear and rain gear.  These had to come along, but we were hoping they would not see much use. Thankfully, we did not have to carry too much water as the river had reasonable flow.

Day 1

Worried about holiday traffic, we kept our usual weekday alarm and were out the door  around 8am on Good Friday.  There was barely any traffic at all, and the roads – especially the Western Ring Road – were the emptiest I have ever seen them.

Our first aid kit was missing a strapping bandage, but there was nowhere open where we could buy one.  I thought one of the highway-side petrol stations might have some but the extent of their first aid selection were band-aids and hand sanitising gel.  Note to selves: do not get bitten by a snake or sprain an ankle.

We parked our car at O’Brien’s Crossing campsite, which was quite full when we arrived.  When did these people get up in the morning?  Still, the area seemed like it would be a lovely spot to camp when there are fewer people.  As we set off alongside Lerderderg River, we left most of the people behind to continue making their homes for the next few days.

The plan was to make our way alongside the river and camp when we found somewhere pleasant or got tired or both.  Unlike a lot of national and state parks in Aus, in much of Lerderderg, hikers are free to camp wherever they choose (provided they’re sensible!)

Further from the campsite, the path alongside the river was narrow, rocky and overgrown, sometimes obstructed by fallen trees or driftwood.  Much of the walking therefore involved picking our way through eucalypt scrub, with the occasional nasty spiky plant.  These seem most prolific when one is about to lose one’s footing and reaches for the nearest tree to keep one’s balance.

At about 11.30, we came across two men and a young girl resting on the path.  One of the men asked us if we knew where we were.  He looked kinda worn out.  Not entirely sure what the purpose of the question was, Nic replied, “Roughly. Do you know? Or do you want to know?”  The man wanted to know how far away was the next path that branched off from this one was.  Having not done the walk before, we did not know; although Nic could show approximately where we were on the map.  The man was out for a day-walk and trying to decide whether to turn back or keep on to the junction.  He decided to turn back as he was driving back to Melbourne that afternoon.

The other man and young girl asked if they could tag along behind us.  Sure! Why not?  Daniel and Ambrosia joined us; Ambrosia practically skipping along the path.  I could hear her impatiently behind me as I navigated a bit more carefully and slowly.  Eventually, Ambrosia overtook me and walked ahead with Nic, chattering happily away about an earlier trip she’d taken to Ethiopa and enumerating all the food she’d eaten, hotels she’d stayed in and people she’d met.  Daniel and I kept a more sedate pace, and our conversation, too, was less rambunctious.  Daniel told me he was happy that Ambrosia had someone to talk to as she could then keep walking all day, but he commiserated that Nic had to put up with Ambrosia’s yabber.  Well, when I’m not struggling with a heavy pack, I’m equally loquacious.  Nic’s used to the yabbering.

Near the junction of the Cowan Track, we paused for lunch.  Here, Daniel and  Ambrosia left us to return to the campsite.  It was lovely to have companions for a section of the walk, and such interesting ones, too, who have had plenty of adventures.

After the junction, the path petered out and the walk became a Choose Your Own Adventure along the river.  This involved a bit of pushing through scrub and driftwood, some scrambling over rocks and numerous crossings of the river as we criss-crossed back and forth to follow the river downstream.  I was pretty worn out by this stage, and slowing down even more than careful walking accounted for, so it was time to stop.  We began to understand why the recommendation was to walk downstream: all of the vegetation leaned that way (as a result of floodwaters) and pushing against it would have been a decidedly less comfortable affair.

As our energies flagged, we began to keep eyes open for a pleasant campsite, eventually settling on a flattish space, large enough for our tent, and somewhat above, but still near, the river.  It was still surprisingly warm, despite being late afternoon, so we had a splash in the river to wash away the day’s sweat and muck.  Nic got a lovely fire going on the water’s edge and I tossed in gum leaves to scent our campsite.  After dinner of pasta with TVP-mince bolognese, it began to rain lightly and sporadically.  Nic attempted to put the tarp up but a lack of useful trees, coupled by the fact that we’d forgotten to bring guy-lines, thwarted that plan.  The rain gathered momentum and we curled up inside the tent just in time to enjoy lying cosy and warm whilst lightning, thunder and rain crashed down around us.

Day 2

We woke to a dry day, though it was a little difficult getting out of our tent (the little Coleman one that we took on the Overland Track) without getting everything else wet.  There wasn’t anywhere that we had to be, so we took our time packing up and having breakfast before setting off alongside the river again.

Today’s walking was more difficult than yesterday’s.  Clearly, even fewer people get down the river much beyond the Cowan Track, which is where the most sensible day-walk circuit takes one back to O’Brien’s Crossing.  So, more shoving through scrub, scrambling over rocks and gingerly (me, only; Nic more confidently) crossing the river.  It was plenty of fun, however.

We passed a lovely campsite, with a levelled gravel patch and premade stone fire pit near one of the junctions but, being only 11am, couldn’t really justify stopping for the day.

There’s not much else to say about today – we continued picking our way along the river and it continued to be fun.  We had a number of choices of how to get back out again and decided to take the Hogan Track back out to O’Briens Road.  This track was described as merely “Steep”, rather than “Very Steep” (as all the others were) and it looked like we’d have a pretty straightforward trek back to the car for tomorrow.

We camped therefore at Ah Kow Mine and here encountered our only other person for the day. A fellow hiker came up to the campsite and we had a brief chat. He was walking the length of the gorge from O’Brien’s Crossing to Mackenzie’s Flat. We’d contemplated this but, being a linear walk it required a car shuffle or some kind of organisation that was beyond our organisational capacity. He wanted to get further that day, so he continued on. We did finish a bit early – only about 3pm today – but heading any further down the gorge would have meant backtracking the following day.

Ah Kow Mine was the site of a group of early Chinese-Australian settlers, who sought their fortunes in this area.  The campsite was where their hut and vegetable garden had been.  How on earth they managed to grow vegetable in the tough earth, I know not.  There were plenty of deep holes in the ground as evidence of their diggings.  I hope they got something for their trouble;  I can only imagine the difficulties and loneliness of a place like this to make a living.  The solitude and untamed beauty is what we seek, but we seek it as leisure, not to make our living from it.

Nic got another wonderful blazing fire going and I cooked up a way too salty quinoa stew of sorts. My hiking dinner cooking abilities seem to have deserted me (last night’s pasta was rather bland)! The evening was spent poking and prodding the fire. I think I know how people used to keep themselves entertained before the advent of television.

Day 3

Today, we left the river.  It was a steep climb, straight up the side of the gorge, to connect to a forest management track – Hogan’s Track.  This climb was probably the most interesting part of today’s walk.  We paused near the top to enjoy our last views of the gorge and eat some muesli bars before heading on Hogan Track, which was easy, if a bit boring, walking.  There was nevertheless still a fair amount of climbing, and descending, and climbing again, but without any benefit of views at the top or rivers at the bottom.  It just seemed like they made that management track as direct as the could, cutting straight across all those pesky hills.  Guess it’s fine if you’re in a 4WD.

The track connected to a road and it was, again, fairly boring walking for a rather long time.  Only a very few cars passed us, and all of them courteously, slowing down sufficiently so as not to kick up too much dust. As we neared the end, a short cut track allowed us to skip a portion of the road as it took some hair pin turns up a hill and then back down into the gorge, and was a much more pleasant way to end the walk.  Back at our car, we discovered a nearly empty campsite, two-thirds of the people having unaccountably cleared out despite it only being Easter Sunday.

I’d thrown our flip flops into the car, so off came our hiking shoes, giving our feet a bit of blessed respite from hiking shoes, and into the car we hopped for the short drive back to Melbourne.  We’re rather pleased to discover somewhere this wild so close to Melbourne (shhh!)  The rest of the Easter long weekend we spent eating, and reading on the sofa!

We’re looking forward to heading back in to explore the southern half of the gorge someday — an advantage of not walking it all it once!

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