East of the Snowy Range, violent twisting and tilting of the Earth’s crust and millions of years of erosion has created a rugged and spectacular landscape; while most of the high country is characterised by rolling hills, this is a land or rocky peaks, sheer cliffs, knife-edge ridges and steep gorges.
The slopes drained by the Wonnangatta and Moroka rivers provide some of the best walking country in the Alps – or, indeed, anywhere in Australia. If you’re really keen, and have a few weeks to fill, you can pick up the Australian Alps Walking Track at Mount Howitt and walk all the way to Canberra. But the area is also ideal for overnight walks. And despite the short distances involved, this really is wilderness; in most places you can look to the horizon without any evidence of human impact on the landscape.
The closest town is 80km away, and that is using the word “town” generously. Licola, the only settlement in Victoria not connected to the mains electricity grid, consists of a general store and a caravan park and its population is often listed as “nominal” (in the 2006 census the town and surrounding area has a population of 21). It is one of Victoria’s more remote locations, but at 256km from Melbourne, it’s close enough to make an overnight hike in the mountains attainable on a weekend.
You can be sitting in your office one day, then relaxing beside your tent with a mug of Trangia-brewed hot chocolate as the sun sets over the rocky ridges, wild mountains and deep forested valleys you walked through to get there the next. It doesn’t get much better than that.
MOUNT SPECULATION: 2 DAYS, 30km
Day 1: Howitt Plains car park to Mount Speculation (15km, 6 hours)
Fill out the trip intentions book at the car park and follow the signposted walking track north through snowgum woodland. An old fire track, the route is easy to follow and makes for comfortable walking to Clover Plain, where there is a track junction. Ignore the Zeka Track to the right and continue north. The track swings west and climbs over a rise to drop to Vallejo Gantner Hut in a small clearing among the trees.
The A-frame hut was built in 1971 as a memorial to Melbourne Grammar School student Vallejo Gantner and has a fireplace, a large table and a loft with room for several sleeping mats. It makes an ideal base for exploring the area and a good plan is to make the long drive from Melbourne and the short walk to here in one day, making for an interesting night out and a handy head-start when heading deeper into the mountains.
There is a composting toilet (with outstanding views!) about 50m from the hut and Macalister Springs is a short distance downhill beside the track; this is a great spot to fill your water bottles – check with the rangers in late summer to make sure the spring is running.
The track continues west along a ridge at the top of Devils Staircase; occasional views are obtained between the trees of the rocky steps and Terrible Hollow below before the track emerges in more open country and reaches a junction marked by Australian Alps Walking Track (AAWT) markers. To the left is Mt Howitt, a worthwhile detour (about 30 minutes return) if you have time, but remember there is a tough day’s walking ahead.
The track climbs above the treeline, revealing outstanding views of Terrible Hollow and the peaks beyond, especially the jagged inclines of the Razor and the Viking. Mt Howitt looms to the south and behind you are the rugged cliffs of the Devils Staircase. Ahead is the Crosscut Saw, one of the highlights of Australian bushwalking, a narrow ridge that in profile resembles a saw blade with 13 “teeth” or high points that must be negotiated via a series of steep climbs and descents. In good weather the views along the ridge are simply magnificent.
The Crosscut Saw is 3km long and ends at the top of Mt Buggery, a 1608m peak. Views are obscured by trees, but the clearing at the summit makes a good rest point before a very steep descent into Horrible Gap (a drop of 200m in about half a kilometre) and the climb up the other side to Mt Speculation. Several clifflines are negotiated before attaining the open summit ridge. Tents can be pitched right on top of the mountain if the weather is good and the sunrise views are magical especially when the Terrible Hollow is filled with cloud.
If the weather is poor good campsites can be found in a small saddle about 500m past the summit, near the headwaters of Catherine Creek, where water can be found.
Day 2: Mount Speculation to Howitt Plains car park (15km, 6 hours)
Retrace your steps into Horrible Gap (the reason for the name is even clearer in this direction) and up to Mount Buggery, along the Crosscut Saw to Macalister Springs and back to Howitt Plains car park.
MOUNT MAGDALA: 2 DAYS, 20km
Day 1: Howitt Plains car park to Mount Magdala (10km, 3.5 hours)
Follow the notes above to walk the 4.5km from the car park to Vallejo Gantner Hut. Fill your water bottles at Macalister Springs – there is no guaranteed water until you return here tomorrow.
Continue along the ridge to the junction with the AAWT, then instead of heading north along the Crosscut Saw turn left to climb steadily to the broad summit of Mount Howitt, at 1742m the highest peak in this part of the Alps. The summit is 7.5km from the car park and the views are excellent, especially to the north.
The track continues west, heading down from the summit through open snowgrass country before turning south – ignore the Howqua Feeder Track which joins from the west in two places just below West Peak. The route drops to a saddle then climbs again before skirting around Big Hill on a ridge that offers occasional views to the valley of the Macalister River to the south, then drops again to another saddle.
This snowgrass meadow is particularly attractive when wildflowers are in bloom and it is recommended you find a suitable spot to pitch a tent. Small creeks lead off the northern and southern sides of the ridge and can be a source of water, but it is best not to rely on this source.
After setting up camp pack a day pack with some water and snacks, grab your camera and continue along the track to the west. Ignore a junction to the right (you will return along this route) and climb up the eastern slopes of Mount Magdala to reach the summit about 1.5km from the campsite. The views from the top are magnificent.
After admiring the view continue west, dropping steeply to where a small side track joins the main path to the right. Take this small track to return to the campsite under the dramatic cliffs of Mount Magdala and the crack in the cliffs known as Hells Window. The side track rejoins the main path about 700m east of Mount Magdala, and it is about the same distance back to camp.
If you have the energy the climb up to the summit of Mount Magdala is recommended at sunset when the late evening light paints the western profile of the Crosscut Saw a deep crimson. Remember to take a torch!
Day 2: Mount Magdala to Howitt Plains car park (10km, 3.5 hours)
Retrace the track back to Mt Howitt and the car park via Macalister Springs.
BRYCE’S GORGE: 2 DAYS, 12km
Day 1: Dimmick Lookout to Conglomerate Creek
A car shuttle is required to complete the route as described; leave a vehicle at the finish point on Howitt Road, where a four-wheel drive track joins the main road 9km north of the turnoff to Dimmick Lookout. The walk starts at the lookout car park. The lookout itself is just 20m from the car park and is worth a visit before setting off.
Head north-west initially into a river valley. There is no marked track but the walking is fairly easy through open forest, passing in and out of two small valleys. Keep clear of the steep incline to the east. After about an hour of walking descend to cross Piemans Creek and intercept the east-west track to Piemans Falls. Turn right and follow the marked trail to two lookouts that provide excellent views of the falls, which tumble as a thin stream over a rock face for about 25m before disappearing into the valley below.
Continue along the signposted track north to Conglomerate Falls. The track passes through forest along the cliff edge and after 1.5km the first view is obtained of Conglomerate Falls at the head of Bryce’s Gorge, which is really an indentation in the cliffs. As the track closes on the falls the views become more impressive before the track reaches a clearing perched at the top of the cliffs large enough for two or three tents. This site is not recommended for sleepwalkers! If the campsite is occupied, or if you have a fear of heights, there are suitable sites a short distance up the track beside Conglomerate Creek.
After setting up camp, continue north and take the junction to the right which crosses the top of the falls and descends steeply to their base. It is a hard slog back up the slope to return to camp.
Day 2: Conglomerate Creek to Howitt Road
From the top of the falls the track heads west, leaving the cliffline and following the valley of Conglomerate Creek. After 1km the track reaches a faint junction, take the minor track to the right. The track disappears and reappears regularly; head north-west to reach the broad treeless valley of Conglomerate Creek.
The track follows the snowplain upstream along the creek. (Do not follow the track marked on the SV Buller-Howitt map which continues north and eventually descends into the Wonnongatta Valley.) Stick to the creek bank, picking up another rough track as it heads west and leaves the creek after about 3km, heading uphill to the crest of a ridge to intersect a vehicle track. Turn left to follow this track west to Howitt Rd, where your vehicle awaits.
LAKE TARLI KARNG: 2 DAYS, 37.5km
Day 1: McFarlane Saddle to Lake Tarli Karng
A car shuttle is also required for this walk. Leave one car at the Tarli Karng car park on Tamboritha Road 22km north of Licola and continue north to Arbuckle Junction. Turn right and follow Moroka Road for 14km to the walk start at McFarlane Saddle. If a shuttle is not available, it is possible to visit the lake in a return trip from either end.
Carry plenty of water as there is no opportunity to replenish supplies for 13.5km. Follow the walking track south from saddle for 500m, then turn right onto a vehicle track to reach a junction with Spion Kopje Track about 1km further on. Ignore this, taking the left fork to continue south.
Pass Dunsmuir huts and cross Wellington Plain, which provides easy and pleasant walking for about 3km until the Spion Kopje Track joins again from the right 5km from McFarlane Saddle. Stay on the main track and after 800 metres take the Moroka Gap Walking Track, which heads east to Moroka Gap then ascends the summit ridge of Mount Wellington. Drop packs to make the short side trip to the 1634-metre peak for great views.
Pick up your packs and continue south along a ridge before the track descends to Taylor Lookout then swings west and drops steeply to Millers Hut, a good lunch spot. From here the track heads north to cross the upper reaches of Nigothoruk Creek, providing the first chance to refill drink bottles since the walk start.
It is a short climb to a sequence of track junctions; ignore the McFarlane Saddle Walking Track and Spion Kopje Track (again) on your right. A little further Gillios Track joins to the south – turn right here for the descent to Lake Tarli Karng. The track initially drops steadily through forest then drops steeply in a series of zig-zags to meet the northern shore of the lake.
This is the only natural lake in the Victorian Alps and was formed by a landslide 1500 years ago, when a chunk of the Sentinel crashed into the valley, damming the Wellington River. It is 51 metres deep and 850 metres above sea level. Walking around the lake is not difficult and there is space for numerous tents at the western end. The area is also well worth exploring; a series of cascades can be found a short walk upstream from where Nigothouk Creek joins the lake. Note that this is a fuel-stove only area and remember to boil any water taken from the lake before drinking.
Day two: Lake Tarli Karng to Tarli Karng car park
From the lake climb up the Echo Point Track to its junction with the Riggals Spur Track, then follow the latter west and downhill to its junction with the Wellington River Track – a former route over the old landslide and through the picturesquely named Valley of Destruction has been closed due to flood and fire damage. The Wellington River track contours above the river before descending to its banks and crossing it at a large bend, the first of 16 fords that you will be required to undertake between here and the end of the track. Take care if the river level is high, and bringing a spare pair of shoes can be a good idea.
The track criss-crosses the river as it heads west, with a break from the river crossings on the short climb over Shaws Gap before another 4km of river walking, and several more crossings that take you to Tarli Karng Car Park.
THE BLUFF AND THE KING BILLIES: 2 DAYS, 34km
Day 1: Bluff car park to the King Billies
The walk begins by heading south from the car park towards the Bluff. The track soon begins to climb, ascending steeply towards the base of the huge cliffs that rim the northern face of the mountain. You might expect it to veer east or west at this point, but instead it continues relentlessly upwards, finding a way through what appears from below to be an impenetrable escarpment. At the top of the cliffs the track abruptly levels out, and it is a 400-metre walk to the summit cairn, which offers grandstand views.
From the summit continue along the track as it sidles downhill along the lee slope of the Bluff, passing through a small saddle known as the Blowhole on the way to Mount Eadley Stoney – drop your packs about a kilometre past the saddle for a quick scramble to the summit. After this point the track soon re-enters attractive sub-alpine forest and descends to Bluff Hut, about three hours from the walk start. The hut is beautifully atmospheric and makes a great lunch spot, and you can also camp here if you are starting the walk late in the day and want to make this a four-day circuit.
At Bluff Hut the walking track joins Bluff Track, a four-wheel drive track, so for the next few kilometers you will need to keep an eye out for the occasional vehicle. The four-wheel drive track meanders along an undulating ridge past the nondescript summit of Mount Lovick, with the walking punctuated by views of the surrounding peaks and valleys, before reaching Lovicks Hut, a reconstruction of the original cattleman’s hut which burnt down in 2003. Continue west on the four-wheel drive track, past an attractive viewpoint known as Picture Point, to a saddle and a junction with the Australian Alps Walking Track. At this point ignore both of these main tracks and instead follow the faint walking track up the ridge, emerging above the snowgums onto the peaks of the King Billies. The views from these twin peaks are spectacular, encompassing most of the major features of the Wonnangatta-Moroka area including Mount Howitt, Mount Clear and the Crosscut Saw. The small saddle between the peaks is big enough for one or two tents; alternatively you can return to the saddle which makes for a pleasant campsite.
Day 2: King Billies to Bluff Hut
Return the way you came to Bluff Hut. If you feel like a change of scenery or time is short continue on Bluff Road back to the car park – the distance is the same but it’s downhill most of the way which will save you an hour or so of walking time.
NEED TO KNOW
The walks described above – with the exception of the Bluff and King Billies – are all accessed via Licola. To reach the town follow the Princes Highway east from Melbourne for 165km to Traralgon, then turn left, following the signs to Heyfield, which is 42km from the turnoff. If you need any supplies, this is the last place to stock up; it is a good idea to make sure the car is full of petrol for the long, windy road ahead. It is a further 54km to Licola. Just before the bridge into town, turn right on to Tamboritha Rd which initially follows the Wellington River, then turns to gravel as it winds up into the mountains past access points for the Crinoline and Lake Tali Karng. After 49km you reach Arbuckle Junction – head left and drive for another 22km to the reach Bryce’s Gorge and 37km to Howitt Plains car park, the starting point for walks to Mt Speculation and Mt Magdala. To reach the starting point for the Tali Karng walk, turn right at Arbuckle Junction and drive for 14km to McFarlane Saddle.
The Bluff is accessed from Mansfield, 200km northeast of Melbourne. Take the road towards Mount Buller, which passes through the small town of Merrijig. Two kilometres past the town turn right onto the unsealed Howqua Track, driving for a further 16km to Sheepyard Flat campsite beside the picturesque Howqua River; if you have time this is a great spot for a short break. The track gets rougher from here but is still usable by four-wheel drives if you take care. 20 kilometres past Sheepyard Flat, at 8 Mile Gap, turn left onto Bluff Link Road. It is 7km from here to Bluff Car Park, about 800 metres past the clearing at Refrigerator Gap.
The Buller-Howitt Alpine Area SV map (1:50,000) covers the three northern walks (Mount Speculation, Mount Magdala and Bryce’s Gorge). Vicmap’s 1:50,000 Howitt-Selwyn map covers the same territory while Tarli Karng is on Vicmap’s Wellington sheet.
ACCOMMODATION AND SUPPLIES
Finding a good campsite is not a problem in this part of the world. There are plenty of flat patches of snowgrass that make ideal campsites, many with outstanding views. Just beware of overhanging tree limbs. Camping is permitted anywhere in the national park provided you are 20m from streams and lakes. There are creeks throughout the area but finding water can take some work and it may need to be carried to the highest peaks. Licola has a small store but don’t rely on it for any hiking supplies. Make sure you are stocked up before leaving Heyfield – and the car is full of petrol for the long, winding road ahead.
The tracks in the described walks are mostly well defined. Sturdy boots are recommended as the terrain is rocky in many places and there are some hair-raising scrambles, but nothing too dangerous provided due care is taken. Boiling drinking water is recommended. This is an alpine area and weather conditions can change quickly and at any time of year, and some of the ridges and peaks are extremely exposed. Take wet weather gear and be prepared to make alternative plans if conditions turn ugly. The rivers can often rise rapidly and dangerously after rain (which may fall upstream even if the area where you’re walking stays dry) so keep an eye on the weather reports and be prepared to change your plans if necessary. The proximity of Mount Buller means mobile phone reception can be obtained around Mount Howitt.
Book online at www.parkstay.vic.gov.au or with Parks Vic on 13 1963. On the way drop into the Parks Victoria office in Licola Road, Heyfield.