Australia’s second-smallest state, Victoria is also the most densely populated and industrialized. Although you’re never too far from civilization, there are plenty of opportunities to sample the state’s wilder days when it was a centre for gold prospectors and bushrangers. All routes radiate from Melbourne, and no destination is much more than seven hours’ drive away. Sadly, many visitors see little of Victoria apart from its cultured capital and the Great Ocean Road, a winding 285km drive of spectacular coastal scenery. Others may venture to the idyllic Wilsons Promontory National Park (the “Prom”), a couple of hours away on the coast of the mainly dairy region of Gippsland, or to the Goldfields, where the nineteenth-century goldrush left its mark in the grandiose architecture of old mining towns such as Ballarat and Bendigo.
There is, however, a great deal more to the state. Marking the end of the Great Dividing Range, the massive sandstone ranges of the Grampians, with their Aboriginal rock paintings and dazzling array of springtime flora, rise from the monotonous wheatfields of the Wimmera region and the wool country of the western district. To the north of the Grampians is the wide, flat region of the Mallee – scrub, sand dunes and dry lakes heading to the Murray River, where Mildura is an irrigated oasis supporting orchards and vineyards. In complete contrast, the Victorian Alps in the northeast of the state have several winter ski slopes, high country that provides perfect bushwalking and horseriding territory in summer. In the foothills and plains below, where bushranger Ned Kelly once roamed, are some of Victoria’s finest wineries (wine buffs should pick up a copy of Wine Regions of Victoria, available from the visitor centre in Melbourne and other towns). Beach culture is alive and well on this coastline, with some of the best surfing in Australia.
Seminomadic Koories have lived in this region for at least forty thousand years, establishing semipermanent settlements such as those of circular stone houses and fish traps found at Lake Condah in western Victoria. For the colonists, however, Victoria did not get off to an auspicious start: there was an unsuccessful attempt at settlement in the Port Phillip Bay area in 1803, but Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) across Bass Strait was deemed more suitable. It was in fact from Launceston that Port Phillip Bay was eventually settled, in 1834; other Tasmanians soon followed and Melbourne was established.
This occupation was in defiance of a British government edict forbidding settlement in the territory, then part of New South Wales, but squatting had already begun the previous year when Edward Henty arrived with his stock to establish the first white settlement at Portland on the southwest coast. A pattern was created of land-hungry settlers – generally already men of means – responding to Britain’s demand for wool, so that during the 1840s and 1850s what was to become Victoria evolved into a prosperous pastoral community with squatters extending huge grazing runs.
From the beginning, the Koories fought against the invasion of their land: 1836 saw the start of the Black War, as it has been called, a bloody guerrilla struggle against the settlers. By 1850, however, the Aboriginal people had been decimated – by disease as well as war – and felt defeated, too, by the apparently endless flood of invaders; their population is believed to have declined from around 15,500 to just 2300.
By 1851 the white population of the area was large and confident enough to demand separation from New South Wales, achieved, by a stroke of luck, just nine days before gold was discovered in the new colony. The rich goldfields of Ballarat, Bendigo and Castlemaine brought an influx of hopeful migrants from around the world. More gold came from Victoria over the next thirty years than was extracted during the celebrated California goldrush, transforming Victoria from a pastoral backwater into Australia’s financial capital. Following federation in 1901, Melbourne was even the political capital – a title it retained until Canberra became fully operational in 1927.
Central Victoria: the Goldfields
Central Victoria is classic Victoria: a rich pastoral district, chilly in winter and hot in summer. Two grand provincial cities, Ballarat and Bendigo, whose fine buildings were funded by gold, draw large numbers of visitors, while, by contrast, the area’s other charming centres such as Maryborough, Castlemaine and Maldon, once prosperous gold-towns in their own right, now seem too small for their extravagant architecture but attract history buffs, art aficionados and “foodies”.
BALLARAT is a grand provincial city that makes a memorable first impression, especially if approaching from the west, via the Western Freeway, along the Avenue of Honour. Lined on either side with more than 22km of trees and dedicated to the Ballarat soldiers who enlisted in World War I, it is Australia’s longest such avenue. It ends at the massive Arch of Victory, through which you drive to enter Sturt Street and the city. More than a quarter of all gold found in Victoria came from Ballarat’s fantastically rich reef mines before they were exhausted in 1918. Nowadays, in addition to the more obvious tourist attractions and fine architecture, the town is interesting in its own right, with a large student population that gives the city a somewhat vibrant character and reasonably active nightlife.
Sturt and Victoria streets terminate on either side of the Bridge Mall, the central shopping area at the base of quaint Bakery Hill with its old shopfronts. Southeast of the city centre, Eureka Street runs off Main Road towards the site of the Eureka Stockade, with several museums and antique shops along the way. Main Road is crossed by Bradshaw Street, where you’ll find Sovereign Hill, the re-created gold-rush town. Northwest of the centre, approached via Sturt Street, are the Ballarat Botanical Gardens and Lake Wendouree.
Ballarat’s mining hotels
There are still over forty old hotels in Ballarat – survivors of the hundreds that once watered the thirsty miners. Some of the finest date from the mid-1850s and are on Lydiard Street: Craigs Royal Hotel, located opposite Her Majesty’s Theatre, and the George Hotel at no. 27 are an integral part of Ballarat’s architectural heritage. Sadly, during the 1970s, the council forced many old pubs to pull down verandas deemed unsafe, so very few survive in their original form. One that does is attached to the Golden City Hotel at 427 Sturt St, which took the council to the Supreme Court to save its magnificent wide veranda with original cast-iron decoration.
The Eureka Stockade
The Eureka Stockade is one of the most celebrated and controversial events of Australian history and generally regarded as the only major act of white armed rebellion against a government that the country has seen – however, some historians argue that Aboriginal people were involved in it as well. It was provoked by conditions in the goldfields, where diggers had to pay exorbitantly for their right to prospect for gold (as much as thirty shillings a month), without receiving in return any right to vote or to have any chance of a permanent right to the land they worked. The administration at Ballarat was particularly repressive, and in November 1854 local diggers formed the Ballarat Reform League, demanding full civic rights and the abolition of the licence fee, proclaiming that “the people are the only legitimate source of power”. At the end of the month a group of two hundred diggers gathered inside a stockade of logs, hastily flung together, and determined to resist further arrests for non-possession of a licence. They were attacked at dawn on December 3 by police and troops; 22 died inside, and five members of the government forces also lost their lives.
The movement was not a failure, however: the diggers had aroused widespread sympathy, and in 1855 licences were abolished, to be replaced by an annual Miner’s Right, which carried the right to vote and to enclose land. The leader of the rebellion, Irishman Peter Lalor, eventually became a member of parliament.
With its white cross and five white stars on a blue background, representing the constellation of the Southern Cross, the Eureka Flag has become a symbol of empowerment – and indeed of many Australian protest movements: shearers raised it in strikes during the 1890s; wharfies used it before World War II in their bid to stop pig iron being sent to Japan; and today the flag is flown by a growing number of Australians who support the country’s transformation to a republic. On a deeper level, all sorts of claims are made for the Eureka Rebellion’s pivotal role in forming the Australian nation and psyche. The diggers are held up as a classic example of the Australian (male) ethos of mateship, as well as independence and anti-authoritarianism, while the gold rush in general is credited with overthrowing the hierarchical colonial order, as servants rushed to make their fortunes, leaving their masters and mistresses to fend for themselves. The flag is on display at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka.
Rich alluvial gold was first discovered in BENDIGO in 1851, and, once the initial fields were exhausted, shafts were sunk into a gold-bearing quartz reef. Bendigo became the greatest goldfield of the time, and had the world’s deepest mine. Mining continued here until 1954, long after the rest of central Victoria’s goldfields were exhausted, so it’s a city that has developed over a prosperous century: the nationwide department store Myer began here, as did Australia’s first building society in 1858. Larger and more magnificent than Ballarat (this is one of Victoria’s largest regional cities with a population of just over 100,000, including a large number of university and other students), Bendigo offers a thriving arts, culture, and food and wine scene. Its most visited sights are legacies of the mining days – the Bendigo Joss House, Dai Gum San Chinese Precinct and the Central Deborah Gold Mine – as well as the acclaimed Bendigo Art Gallery.
At the heart of Bendigo is the vast, leafy Rosalind Park, and three important religious buildings constructed with money from gold-mining – All Saints Church (now View Hill Fellowship), St Paul’s Cathedral and Sacred Heart Cathedral. The lively View Street Arts Precinct, climbing the hill beside Rosalind Park, features elaborate goldrush buildings now housing charming antique and vintage stores, art galleries, an arts centre, The Capital theatre, and stylish wine bars, cafés and restaurants. Further up View Street is the Queen Elizabeth Oval, with its historic redbrick grandstand, where you can watch Aussie Rules football on winter weekends and cricket in summer.
Daylesford and around
The attractive, hilly country around DAYLESFORD and neighbouring Hepburn Springs, just 90 minutes from Melbourne, is a popular weekend retreat for Melburnians and is known as the “spa capital of Australia”, with around seventy mineral springs within a 50km radius, plus more than thirty spas, wellness retreats and healing centres (see spacountrycom.au). Daylesford grew from the Jim Crow gold diggings of 1851, but the large Swiss–Italian population here quickly realized the value of the water from the mineral springs, which has been bottled since 1850.
Daylesford’s well-preserved Victorian and Edwardian streets rise up the side of Wombat Hill, where you’ll find the Botanical Gardens, between Hill Street and Central Springs Road, whose lookout tower has panoramic views. Not far away, on the corner of Daly and Hill streets, is The Convent (theconvent.com.au), a rambling former convent with three levels of galleries selling high-quality arts, crafts and antiques, and a café and a bar. There’s a great Sunday market just nearby, on the main road to Castlemaine. The town also has “healing centres” aplenty, the spectrum of services ranges from natural therapies to tarot readings – enquire at the visitor centre.
Daylesford – once labelled “the world’s funkiest town” by the British Airways inflight magazine – has a New Age, alternative atmosphere, with a large gay community. The town has several gay-friendly guesthouses, and on the second weekend in March it is the venue for ChillOut, Australia’s largest rural gay and lesbian festival, featuring a street parade, music and cabaret, dance parties and a carnival at Victoria Park (chilloutfestival.com.au).
The California goldrushes of the 1840s captured the popular imagination around the world with tales of the huge fortunes to be made gold-prospecting, and it wasn’t long before Australia’s first goldrush took place – near Bathurst in New South Wales in 1851. Victoria had been a separate colony for only nine days when gold was found at Clunes on July 10, 1851; the goldrush began in earnest when rich deposits were found in Ballarat nine months later. The richest goldfields ever known soon opened at Bendigo, and thousands poured into Victoria from around the world.
The golden decade
In the golden decade of the 1850s, Victoria’s population increased from eighty thousand to half a million, half of whom remained permanently in the state. The British and Irish made up a large proportion of the new population, but more than forty thousand Chinese came to make their fortune too, along with experienced American gold-seekers and Russians, Finns and Filipinos. Ex-convicts and native-born Australians also poured in, leaving other colonies short of workers; even respectable policemen deserted their posts to become “diggers”, and doctors, lawyers and prostitutes crowded into the haphazard new towns in their wake.
In the beginning, the fortune-seekers panned the creeks and rivers searching for alluvial gold, constantly moving on at the news of another find. But gold was also deep within the earth, where ancient river beds had been buried by volcanoes. In Ballarat in 1852 the first shafts were dug, and because the work was unsafe and arduous, the men joined in bands of eight or ten, usually grouped by nationality, working a common claim. For deep mining, diggers stayed in one place for months or years, and the major workings rapidly became stable communities with banks, shops, hotels, churches and theatres, evolving more gradually, on the back of income from gold, into grandiose towns.
Maldon Folk Festival
During the long weekend before the Melbourne Cup (first weekend of Nov), things get a bit busier than usual as people head to Maldon for the four-day Maldon Folk Festival (maldonfolkfestival.com). Since its inception in 1974 the event has steadily grown, and apart from folk, it features blues, bluegrass and world music as well as theatre and dance. The main performance space is at the Tarrangower Reserve at the base of Mount Tarrangower, just out of town, but there are also free events in town.
GIPPSLAND stretches southeast of Melbourne from Western Port Bay to the New South Wales border, between the Great Dividing Range and Bass Strait. Green and well watered, it’s been the centre of Victoria’s dairy industry since the 1880s, although the Latrobe Valley (particularly around Morwell) is home to industrial areas, coal mines and power stations. South Gippsland has Victoria’s most popular national park, Wilsons Promontory, or “The Prom”, a hook-shaped landmass jutting out into the strait, with some superb scenery and fascinating bushwalks. In the east, around the Gippsland Lakes and Ninety Mile Beach, the region is beautifully untouched, and just beyond Orbost–Marlo the unspoilt coastline of the Croajingolong National Park – with its rocky capes, high sand dunes and endless sandy beaches – stretches to the New South Wales border. Mount Baw Baw, an alpine resort off the freeway from Moe (80km west of Sale), presents a very different aspect of the Gippsland region, offering skiing and snowboarding in winter and bushwalking in summer.
Bataluk Cultural Trail
Encompassing eleven sites, scattered between Yarram near Wilsons Promontory and Cape Conran in the east, the Bataluk Cultural Trail (batalukculturaltrail.com.au) links places of cultural and spiritual significance to the Gunaikurnai people, the original inhabitants of the Gippsland coast who have lived here for more than 30,000 years. The sites include shell middens and scarred trees; a cave, the Den of Nargun in the Mitchell River National Park, 25km northwest of Bairnsdale; and the fascinating Krowathunkoolong Keeping Place in Bairnsdale.
Black Saturday bushfires
February 7, 2009 will be forever etched on most Victorians’ minds as the start of Australia’s worst ever bushfires. “Black Saturday”, as it is known, killed more than 170 people and thousands of animals, destroyed more than a million acres of bushland, wiped out townships and left 7500 homeless. Residents in Victoria’s southeast were told to prepare for extreme conditions the day before; temperatures exceeding 47ºC and winds of up to 120km/hr were predicted, combined with tinder-dry land due to the previous week’s heatwave and long-term drought. In the Gippsland region a fire was started deliberately in Churchill and quickly spread to surrounding areas. Fires also destroyed thousands of acres of bushland in Wilsons Promontory.
Always check with Parks Victoria (parks.vic.gov.au) before setting out during the summer months and familiarize yourself with bushfire safety tips.
WILSONS PROMONTORY, or “the Prom”, the most southerly part of the Australian mainland, was once joined by a land bridge to Tasmania. Its barbed hook juts out into Bass Strait, with a rocky coastline interspersed with sheltered sandy bays and coves; the coastal scenery is made even more stunning by the backdrop of granite ranges. It’s understandably Victoria’s most popular national park, and though the main campsite gets totally packed in summer, there are plenty of walking tracks and opportunities for bushcamping, and the park is big enough to allow you to escape the crowds. You can swim at several of the beaches and even surf.
The nearest town is the dairying settlement of Foster on the South Gippsland Highway, a 30-minute drive away and the best place to buy groceries, fuel and other supplies. Situated by a small river on Norman Bay, Tidal River is the national park’s main camping and accommodation centre, with a general store (daily 9am–4pm) including a pricey supermarket and takeaway food.
Many short walks begin from Tidal River, including a track accessible to wheelchairs. During summer holidays and on weekends between November and the end of April, the tracks become extremely busy so show up early, and book well in advance if you intend to camp. Although the remote north of the park offers some short well-signposted walks, the longer (overnight) hikes are suitable only for experienced, properly equipped bushwalkers, as there are no facilities and limited fresh water.
One of the best walks is the Squeaky Beach Track (1hr 30min return), which crosses Tidal River, heads uphill and through a tea-tree canopy, finally ending on a beach of pure quartz sand that is indeed squeaky underfoot. The Lilly Pilly Gully Nature Walk (2hr return) is also very rewarding, as it affords an excellent overview of the diverse vegetation of “the Prom”, from low-growing shrubs to heathland to open eucalypt forest, as well as scenic views. The walk starts at the Lilly Pilly Gully car park near Tidal River.
The tracks in the southern section of the park are well defined and not too difficult; the campsites here have pit toilets and there is fresh water, although this is creek water and it needs to be treated. The most popular walk is the one- to two-day (35.5km) Sealers Cove–Refuge Cove–Waterloo Bay route, beginning and ending at the Telegraph Saddle car park.
The Great Ocean Road
The Great Ocean Road (visitgreatoceanroad.org.au), Victoria’s famous southwestern coastal route, starts at Torquay, just over 20km south of Geelong, and extends 285km west to Warrnambool. It was built between 1919 and 1932 with the idea of constructing a scenic road of world repute, equalling California’s Pacific Coast Highway – and it certainly lives up to its reputation. The road was to be both a memorial to the soldiers who had died in World War I and an employment scheme for those who returned. More than three thousand ex-servicemen laboured with picks and shovels, carving the road along Australia’s most rugged and densely forested coastline; the task was speeded up with the help of the jobless during the Great Depression.
The road hugs the coastline between Torquay and Apollo Bay and passes through the popular holiday towns of Anglesea and Lorne, set below the Otway Ranges. From Apollo Bay the road heads inland, through the towering forests of the Great Otway National Park, before rejoining the coast at Princetown to wind along the shore for the entire length of the Port Campbell National Park. This stretch from Moonlight Head to Port Fairy, sometimes referred to as the “Shipwreck Coast”, is the most spectacular – there are two hundred known shipwrecks here, victims of the imprecise navigation tools of the mid-nineteenth century, the rough Southern Ocean and dramatic rock formations such as the Twelve Apostles.
From Warrnambool, the small regional centre where the Great Ocean Road ends, the Princes Highway continues along the coast, through quaint seaside Port Fairy and industrial Portland, before turning inland for the final stretch to the South Australian border.
Hiking the Great Ocean Road
Walking and hiking enthusiasts can choose between two magnificent walking tracks along the coast: the Great Ocean Walk (greatoceanwalk.com.au), a 104km track from Apollo Bay to Gibson Steps 1km east of the Twelve Apostles, and the long-established Great South West Walk (greatsouthwestwalk.com), a superb 250km circuit starting from just outside Portland. Further sources of information include Parks Victoria (parks.vic.gov.au) and the Department of Sustainability and Environment Information Centre at 8 Nicholson St, East Melbourne (dse.vic.gov.au).
PORTLAND likes to describe itself as the “Birthplace of Victoria”. Indeed, there are quite a few historic buildings, but unlike Port Fairy they don’t add up to form a coherent, captivating townscape. It’s the last stop on the Victoria coast going west on the Princes Highway, but Nelson, a friendly fishing village further west, or Port Fairy make for more atmospheric overnight stops between Melbourne and Adelaide. The rugged coastal scenery to the southwest around Cape Nelson and Cape Bridgewater, however, is not to be missed.
The Portland Cable tram
A restored and modified vintage cable tram (portlandcabletrams.com.au) transports sightseers along the foreshore on a round trip of 7.5km, from the depot at Henty Park past the Powerhouse Motor and Car Museum to Fawthrop Lagoon (home to pelicans), then back through the Botanic Gardens.
The Murray region
From its source close to Mount Kosciuszko high in the Australian Alps, the Murray River runs for around 2700km and forms the border between Victoria and New South Wales until it crosses into South Australia (someone got a ruler out for the rest of the border to the coast), and although the actual watercourse is in New South Wales, the Victoria bank is far more interesting and more populous. After the entire length was navigated in 1836, the river became the route along which cattle were driven from New South Wales to the newly established town of Adelaide, and later in the century there was a thriving paddle-steamer trade on the lower reaches of the river, from Wentworth on the New South Wales side and Mildura through to Echuca.
In 1864, Echuca was linked by railway to Melbourne, stimulating the river trade in the upper reaches, and thus became a major inland port, the furthest extent of the navigable river. At the height of the paddle-steamer era, Mildura was still a run-down, rabbit-infested cattle station, but in 1887 the Chaffey brothers, brought over from Canada, instituted irrigation projects that now support dairy farms, vineyards, vegetable farms and citrus orchards throughout northwestern Victoria. Between Mildura and Echuca, Swan Hill marks the transition to sheep, cattle and wheat country; the Pioneer Settlement here explores the extraordinarily hard lives of the early settlers. Above Echuca the Murray flows through more settled regions, but also the Barmah wetlands, an ecosystem of international significance.
Nowadays paddle steamers cruise for leisure, and are the best way to enjoy the river and admire magnificent river red gums lining its banks, as well as the huge array of birds and other wildlife that the Murray sustains. Renting a houseboat is also a relaxing (if expensive) way to travel.
The Hume Freeway, the direct route between Melbourne and Sydney, cuts straight through Victoria’s northeast, known as the “High Country”, passing towns such as Benalla, Glenrowan and Wangaratta, a sizeable place known for its jazz festival. Rutherglen, right up against the state border, is a long-established wine-producing region. Heading east, picturesque Beechworth is rich in history, with beautiful streetscapes, haunting attractions and a famous bakery. The northeast is also home to the Victorian Alps – ideal for skiing in winter and bushwalking and mountain biking at other times of the year.
The Hume Freeway and Kelly Country
Part of this northeast region is known as Kelly Country, after the legendary bushranger Ned Kelly. Benalla and Glenrowan (where he was finally seized after a bloody shoot-out) still bear traces of the masked bushranger’s activities, with Glenrowan wholeheartedly cashing in on his fame.
Fruit-picking in the Goulburn Valley
The rich plains of the Goulburn Valley, running through Seymour, Nagambie and Shepparton, are a popular area for backpackers looking for seasonal work. The small city of Shepparton is the operations centre for canned-fruit companies, with peaches, pears, apples and plums exported worldwide. Ask at the Greater Shepparton Visitor Centre (visitshepparton.com.au).
High Country Gourmet Regions
The High Country area of Victoria – including the small town of Milawa, 15km southeast of Wangaratta on the Snow Road – is renowned among foodies for the excellent quality of its locally produced food and wine, so much so that it has been dubbed the Milawa Gourmet Region (milawagourmet.com).
Another major wine and gourmet area is the nearby King Valley, around 30km south of Milawa and centred around the small town of Whitfield. There are many cellar doors here, as well as fine Italian-inspired produce and dining – see kingvalleytourism.org.au and winesofthekingvalley.com.au for more information.
Brown Brothers Winery brown-brothers.com.au. If it’s a tipple of something special you’re after, try a tour of the Brown Brothers Winery, situated just outside Milawa and clearly signposted; there are also a casual café and a great restaurant, Patricia’s Table, which specializes in complementing Brown Brothers’ wines with seasonal local foods. Mains, such as a wagyu beef dish.
King River Café kingrivercafe.com.au. A popular spot, specializing in local wines and good food (such as pizzas) – the cakes and coffee are excellent, too.
Milawa Cheese Factory milawacheese.com.au. In Milawa itself, there’s the Milawa Cheese Factory, where you can taste and purchase award-winning cheeses and enjoy breakfast or lunch at an excellent restaurant and bakery.
Milawa Mustards milawamustards.com.au. Milawa Mustards offers eighteen home-made seed varieties, plus other condiments.
The Olive Shop theoliveshop.com.au. Locally grown olives and extra virgin olive oil, plus tapenades and condiments.
The Victorian Alps
The VICTORIAN ALPS, the southern section of the Great Dividing Range, bear little resemblance to their European counterparts; they’re too gentle, too rounded, and above all too low to offer really great skiing, although they remain a popular winter sports destination. In July and August there is usually plenty of snow and the resorts are packed out. Most people come for the downhill skiing, though cross-country skiing is also popular, particularly at Falls Creek, Dinner Plain, Mount Buffalo and Lake Mountain (lakemountainresort.com.au), 21km from Marysville (south of the main Alpine region). Snowboarding was first encouraged at Mount Hotham and is now firmly established everywhere. Falls Creek, Mount Hotham and Mount Buller are the largest and most commercial skiing areas, particularly the last, which is within easy reach of Melbourne; smaller resorts such as Mount Baw Baw in Gippsland are more suited to beginners.
The towns of Mansfield, Bright and Mount Beauty are good bases for exploration of the Alps, and are great places to unwind. In summer there are activities such as hiking, horseriding and cycling; fewer facilities are open, but there are often great bargains to be had on rooms. If you’re driving, you’ll need snow chains in winter (they’re compulsory in many parts), and you should heed local advice before venturing off the main roads.
Bushwalking in the Alpine National Park
In summer, when the wild flowers are in bloom, the Alps are ideal bushwalking territory with most of the high mountains (and the ski resorts) contained within the vast Alpine National Park. The most famous of the walks is the 650km Australian Alps Walking Track (australianalps.environment.gov.au) that begins at Walhalla, near Baw Baw National Park in Gippsland, and follows the ridges all the way to Mount Kosciuszko in the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales, then on to Namadgi National Park in the Australian Capital Territory. If you are doing any serious bushwalking, you’ll need to be properly equipped. Water can be hard to find, and the weather can change suddenly and unexpectedly: even in summer it can get freezing cold up here, especially at night. After prolonged dry spells, bushfires can also pose a very real threat, as was the case in 2009, when bushland and resorts were burnt.
Skiing in the Victorian Alps
The official start of the ski season is the Queen’s Birthday long weekend in June, though there is often not enough snow cover until August, lasting through to early October. During the snow season, an entry fee of $37–43.50 per car applies, depending on the resort. As a rough guide to costs, lift tickets range from $50–115/day, while group lessons cost around $60–70. Full equipment rental is about $85/day. For weather and snow conditions go to ski.com.au or snowaustraliareport.com. For accommodation, phone the central reservation hotlines of each mountain resort.
In addition to the resorts detailed here, there is also skiing at Mount Baw Baw in Gippsland.
Packages and tours
Day-trip or weekend packages are the best way to go, and are far cheaper than trying to do it yourself. The best-value trips are organized by the Alzburg Resort at Mansfield (1300 885 448, alzburg.com.au). The day-tours leave Melbourne early in the morning and arrive at Mount Buller about 2.5 hours later, giving the opportunity for a full day’s skiing (from $90, including entrance fees; a one-day lift/lesson ticket is $115 extra). There’s also a “return another day” coach service, costing $185 and including entrance fees but not accommodation.
It’s also worth checking out the area around Hardware Lane in Melbourne, where such companies as Auski at no. 9 (t 03 9670 1412, w auski.com.au) and Mountain Designs at 373 Little Bourke St (03 9670 3354, mountaindesigns.com) can advise on skiing conditions at the resorts, and sell or rent equipment.
Several roads run west from the Goldfields to the South Australia border through the seemingly endless wheatfields of the Wimmera region. To the west of the farming centre of Ararat is the major attraction of the area, the Grampians National Park, the southwestern tail-end of the Great Dividing Range. Stawell and Horsham – the latter regarded as the capital of the Wimmera – are good places to base yourself, but Halls Gap, in a valley and surrounded by national park, is even better. North of Horsham is the wide, flat Mallee with its twisted mallee (a type of eucalyptus) scrub, sand dunes and dry lakes. This region, Victoria’s small “Outback” and with several state and national parks, extends from Wyperfeld National Park in the south, right up to Mildura’s irrigated oasis on the Murray River. South of the Grampians is sheep country; following the Hamilton Highway from Geelong you’ll end up at Hamilton, the major town and wool capital of the western district, also accessible via Dunkeld on the southern edge of the Grampians.
Rising from the flat plains of western Victoria’s wheat and grazing districts, the sandstone ranges of the GRAMPIANS, with their weirdly formed rocky outcrops and stark ridges, seem doubly spectacular. In addition to their scenic splendour, in the Grampians National Park (Gariwerd) you’ll find a dazzling array of flora, with a spring and early summer bonanza of wild flowers; a wealth of Aboriginal rock art; an impressive Aboriginal Cultural Centre; waterfalls and lakes; and more than fifty bushwalks along nearly 200km of tracks. There are also several hundred kilometres of road, from sealed highway to unsealed and 4WD tracks, on which you can take scenic drives and 4WD tours.
The best times to come are in autumn, spring and early summer when the waterfalls are in full flow and the wild flowers are blooming (although there’ll always be something in flower no matter when you come). Between June and August it can be cold and wet, while summers can be very hot, with the potential of bushfires in extreme weather conditions. If you’re undertaking extended walks in summer, carry a portable radio to get the latest information on the fire risk: on total fire ban days no exposed flames – not even that from a portable gas stove – are allowed. Tracks and campsites may be off limits due to events such as fire, storms or maintenance – and the park can be closed on a day of extreme weather conditions – so always check at the Brambuk Centre in Halls Gap.
Rock art in the Grampians
It’s estimated that the indigenous Koori people lived in the area known to them as Gariwerd up to twenty thousand years ago. The area offered such rich food sources that the Kooris didn’t have to spend all their time hunting and food-gathering, and could therefore devote themselves to religious and cultural activities. Evidence of this survives in rock paintings, which are executed in a linear style, usually in a single colour (either red or white), but sometimes done by handprints or stencils. You can visit some of the rock shelters where Aboriginal people camped and painted on the sandstone walls, although many more are off limits for cultural reasons. In the northern Grampians one of the best is Gulgurn Manja, 5km south of the Western Highway. Starting at the Hollow Mountain car park, the signposted fifteen-minute walk will take you to this important site. The name means “hands of young people”, as many of the handprints here were done by children. In the southern Grampians is Billimina, a fifteen-minute walk above the Buandik campsite; it’s an impressive rock overhang with clearly discernible, quite animated, red stick figures.
The Wimmera, flat, dry and hot in summer, relies heavily on irrigation water from the Grampians for its vast wheat and barley fields; before irrigation and the invention of the stump jump plough, the area was little more than mallee scrub.