18-20 November: A trip over Australia’s highest road and into the water wonderland of East Gippsland

Author: Mr A

Location: Mount Hotham, Metung, Lakes Entrance, Bairnsdale, Victoria, Australia

Monday: There are only two ways to get from where we had camped in Beechworth and over to the east coast of Victoria, head south west nearly all the way into Melbourne, or head up over the Australian Alps and down into East Gippsland. We chose the latter, and set off with our friends also towing the same caravan as us, and using the same tow vehicle, a 200 Series Toyota LandCruiser, which was the same colour!

Diane and Mark in their carbon copy rig head up the mountain

Our very well matched, colour co-ordinated mini convoy set off, with me a little nervous about dragging over 3 tons of van over the highest bitumen road in Australia. Our friends who had grown up in the area, were faintly amused at me, and the “nervous Nellie” phrase was bandied around at one stage over the radio link we were were using. Australian humour at its best, it‘s almost British, and our friends Mark and Diane were super helpful with advice on how to drive to get safely over the mountain.

It’s a road to be treated with respect, climbing to a pass at 1862 metres (just over 6,000 feet), even on a day with such perfect road conditions as we had. Blue skies stretched on forever over the forests of eucalyptus trees, which later changed to hardy snow gums as we toiled our way up the mountain.

Fabulous views across the range from Mount Hotham
Is this the first cat to pay her respects to this mountain legend?
Look closely and you will see there is snow up here…

By global standards these aren’t high mountains, but in the largely flat landscape of Australia, they stand proud. We eventually reached the highest point at the ski resort of Mount Hotham, now, like so many alpine resorts in the summer, focused on offering wild mountain biking trails down the slopes, and a helping hand up in the form of a chair lift.

Our fur child seemed to be as engaged in admiring the unfolding scenery as us!

Miss Tassie enjoys the views as we climb up the mountain
Just when you think you are at the top, the road winds up even further – spot our fellow Zoners ahead of us

We started the somewhat gentler drive down the eastern side of the mountains, and thanks to local knowledge from our friends, stopped at a perfect lunch spot for a break and a calming cuppa.

Mark, Diane and Catherine at our lunch spot

It was a glorious run down into East Gippsland, which covers over 31,000 square kilometres. Belgium for comparison is only 30,000 square kilometres, with a population though of over 11.4 million, compared to East Gippsland’s 80,000. That‘s right, it’s not a busy part of the world. This immediately made itself apparent as we went for mile after mile with hardly another car on the road.

We were nearing our friends house, perched a few hundred metres from the extensive interconnected lake system, which has made this area the haunt of those who love messing about in boats, fishing or bird watching, With over 350 square kilometres of generally calm water protected by one of the longest stretches of sand in the world, Ninety Mile Beach (over 100km). For comparison (yes you’re at the statistical part of this blog) the Gippsland Lakes are over eight times larger than Sydney Harbour. Now thats a lot of quiet boating, and we wasted no time the next morning in getting out amongst it in our sea kayak.

Tuesday: Our first foray on water, thanks to a lively wind forecast, was on the protected waters of one of the three rivers that flows into the lakes, the Tambo River. It just sounds so quintessentially Australian doesn’t it? …And yet I wonder how many fellow Aussies have heard of it? Our friends came with us in their single kayaks, and we set off down river into a fairly stiff head wind. When they had paddled enough and decided to turn around, they kindly offered to drive our car down to another pull out point so we could do a one way trip.

The peaceful Tambo River
Diane and Mark in their singles
A tree hangs on at the top of a sandstone cliff

We had done very little paddling, or any other arm or core related exercise over the last few years, so certainly noticed the effort needed to propel even our sleek beast through the water. We spotted a nankeen kestrel cruising the water for lunch, and a kingfisher lurking along the river bank, given away by his azure wings and peach tummy feathers.

Curious calves watch in amazement as we pass by
Black and white to hide a sore red nose!

After some whining from me about my kayak seat, which seems to have shrunk whilst in storage for 7 months (but I love French croissants), we finally reached the boat launch where we were met by our friends.

A rather gentler afternoon followed, with Miss T loving exploring their house and garden. This is such an idyllic spot, with whip birds calling to one another in the surrounding peppermint gums, and the tiny hornbills that were flitting around their oasis of a courtyard.

Feeling safe in the courtyard
Hunting lizards in the garden beds
A crimson rosella flies in to have a drink of water

I did though get some welcome advice from Mark (yes not only do we have the same caravan and car, but share a name!) Which involved peering under the Zone as stuff that has always mystified me. Mark has a lovely way of simplifying things so even the likes of me can comprehend.

Mr A and Mr B underneath the Zone

Wednesday: The next day the wind forecast was kinder for more open water kayaking, so we set out across the lake to circle around one of the islands in it. Paddling through this stunning waterscape was made the more poignant by its contrast to the European seascape we had equally admired. There were no soaring castles perched on the edge of the lake, or flotillas of yachts (we saw 4 boats in 4 hours). This was nature unadorned by human. Apparently 1% of the world‘s black swan population call this area home, and they made a majestic vista as we gazed across these pristine waters. A pair of sea eagles then decided to glide over and check us out. This is Australia at its unspoilt best.

A beautiful calm morning for a paddle
Nungurner Jetty
Mark B tries his hand at catching us some fish for lunch
McAuliff’s Island, home to a private holiday retreat and covered in Glaucous Pigface (the pink flowers!)

We then had a good reminder how forecasts are not always accurate, and gradually the wind built until we were experiencing gusts that made paddling even in our long stable kayak interesting. Our friends in their shorter boats were getting an increasingly wet and bumpy ride.

The wind was behind us, so up came the sail and we cruised on back along the coast
Passing a picturesque bay with a private jetty
Mr & Mrs A…including sore nose…

Luckily the wind built to a crescendo just as we bobbed back into the jetty. A salutary reminder that even sheltered waters need to be treated with respect.

We all felt like we had earned a decent dinner, “tea” as its still called in these parts, and off we went to the nearest big (relatively) town of Bairnsdale. Well what a superb dining experience we were given at The Loft.

Tasteful design and lighting are key to enhancing the atmosphere at The Loft, located in some old converted stables dating back to the 1800s

Gerry, the chef and owner, and his team of two, provided us with food and wine that was absolutely up there with any big city dining experience. A superb selection of mostly locally sourced produce, with beef, lamb and pork dishes coming cooked to perfection and accompanied by fresh local veggies. My bouillabaisse was a match for any I had in France, with the seafood having travelled a lot fewer kilometres before it hit my plate, and a nice edge of spice that I so missed in much French cuisine. If you’re in the area please support this top quality spot.

Dinner accompanied by a delicious Shiraz from Lightfoot & Sons, local winemakers
Chef Gerard DeBoer – Gerry – is clearly passionate about producing excellent quality meals

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