Maggie and I spent five days and four nights in the north east of Victoria last week, driving there on the Tuesday and returning home on Saturday.
We had a diverse and enjoyable experience of this region, which I will describe in four separate posts. I will begin with the region’s high country, as it is known here; subsequent posts will cover the countryside, regional towns and some of the food and wine we sampled.
The high country of north-east Victoria forms part of Australia’s Great Dividing Range and features most of our state’s highest peaks, winter snowfields and ski resorts and, in the warmer months, some exceptional bushwalking trails. In fact, the last time I was up on the mountains was in December 1969, as part of a 10-day hike organised by my high school; we carried – and cooked – our own food, gas bottles, pans, tents, sleeping bags, clothes, etc.
On the morning of our third day, Maggie and I left the King Valley, where we had spent two agreeable nights, and entered the wide valley floor of the Ovens River, which rises further to the east. We passed through a series of picturesque towns and then drove up to Mt Hotham, a mountain-top ski resort that was established long after my visit as a bushwalker.
Getting to the top of Mt Hotham takes time – 30km on a steep and windy road, probably averaging about 25kmh, even on a bitumen surface (frequent stops for photo opportunities were also a factor!) For most of the climb, we were confronted by scenes similar to the one in this photo – grey and black trunks of dead Alpine Ash trees, like so many skeletons, as far as the eye could see, with just the early stages of new growth dotted across the scorched earth.
Clearly, there had been a catastrophic fire in the area some years ago but neither of us could recall such an event. Since we came home, I have learnt that the fire occurred in the summer of 2002/03. At that time, I was tucked away in the relative obscurity of the south coast of Western Australia, one month into my 29th year out of Victoria. That’s probably why I missed the news or gave it scant attention; even so, that’s also a tad peculiar, given the scale of this disaster.
Some facts for you to digest. On 8 January 2003, 87 separate fires were ignited by lightning strikes. Eight of these fires could not be contained and eventually joined to form one large conflagration, the biggest in Victoria since 1939. By the time the fire was doused, 59 days after it began, 13,000 square kilometres had been destroyed. Nearly 16,000 persons were involved in the battle, including crews flown in from New Zealand and the United States. No person died but thousands of livestock and native fauna perished.
So, small wonder that the vista has a greyish tinge to it and will do so for a few more years yet, as wind, snow and rain bring down the dead trunks and new trees flourish.
On a lighter note, here are photos of the last pockets of snow, at the back of the ski resort and, in the distance, on the southern face of Mt Feathertop.
We had a quick bite to eat at the ski resort’s tavern – surviving out of season on a customer base of modest vehicular traffic from each side, warm-weather day-trippers, bushwalkers and over-achieving cyclists – before making our descent. We then made our way through Tawonga Gap, from which we enjoyed spectacular views to the east, including this vista of Mt Bogong, Victoria’s highest point at 1,968 metres, with the valley of the Kiewa River at its base.
Next morning, we drove up from the town of Mount Beauty to the village of Falls Creek, one of the largest ski resorts in Australia. The road to Falls Creek climbs to a point well below Mt Hotham and it was originally built to carry large vehicles associated with a hydro-electric scheme. So the drive was easier but the scenery was similar to what we had seen the previous day. Some of the dead trees in the left-hand photo were less than 100 metres from the resort.
As we made the return trip down to the Kiewa Valley, I felt a mixture of my renewed fondness for the sights and scents of Victoria’s native bushlands and not a little awe at the degree of destruction that had been wrought by fire.