Given that the last time we were in the High Country was Mar this year (unbelievable how time flies), we were really hanging out to go somewhere, anywhere. But finding a suitable date was one major issue, especially since we couldn’t go out on the Melbourne Cup Weekend nor any time in November, so we decided on the weekend prior. We were hoping for three travellers, but circumstances arose that left the Cruise to just two hardy souls. My fellow traveller was especially keen to go out, as he had finally sorted his new Jeep Rubicon into High Country order and was busting his chops to try it out in some less than mundane terrain. So we decided to do a loop, more or less, from Licola to Dargo, poking around in-between where possible. However, the weather forecasts for the weekend indicated heavy rain at the start, so we reversed our plans and went from Dargo to Licola instead.
When we reached the Wonnangatta Road turnoff, just before Dargo, we stopped to air down, as even the commonly used dirt roads can be very unpleasant if your tyres are at normal road pressures. The weather was looking magnificent, which made our change of plans seem even better. Despite the heavy rains that had been experienced in the area, the only real evidence was the swollen Wonnangatta River. It was at the highest level that I can remember ever seeing and I doubt that anyone would be crossing it come the following long-weekend (or we’d certainly hear about it in the news). We were pretty chuffed as we kept getting closer to Billy Goat Bluff Track, as the sun was out and, despite there being a slight chill in the air, everything felt good as we finally started our climb.
However, that euphoria was short lived, for as we climbed higher up the track, the weather took a 180 degree turn from sunshine to blizzard. Visibility at times was down to maybe 50%, as momentary gusts of heavy snow blew across the track. Getting out and taking a few photographs meant being blasted by wind and snow as the gusts waxed and waned (so some photographs were taken from within). Initially we had planned to have a look at the fire tower on The Pinnacles, but by the time we’d reached the turnoff, it was clear that we wouldn’t see much, like zero visibility, given the change in weather. So we headed onwards to Horseyard Flat, thinking that if the hut was free, we’d prop up there for the night. We don’t normally stop for the day so early, especially during daylight savings time but, given the Winter weather, it seemed a far more sensible move.
When we arrived at Horseyard Flat, the hut was unoccupied and though the skies had cleared, there were ominous dark clouds looming on the horizon. We gave it some thought and decided that you should never look a gift horse in the mouth and, being at Horseyard Flat with Horseyard Hut available, this really was something that we should just take as a gift. And while the weather was still good, we went in search of firewood and had another look around the area. I’d never actually walked all the way to the end of Horseyard Flat and was surprised to find a really nice looking campground at the far end overlooking the river. On a good Summer’s day the campground would be a no-brainer. Unfortunately, Horseyard Flat is still a mess, with bog holes everywhere, but at least the rubbish was not as bad as the last time that we were there.
The hut itself has had some major changes, especially with the removal of the bunks. I’m not sure why this has been done, as it’s actually reduced the number of people that the hut can accommodate (unless this is the intent). By removing the bunks, a part of the hut’s heritage has also been removed and it’s now more of a small cave than the homely hut it once was, though removal of the old fridge was a good move, as all the fridge did was invite lazy travellers to leave rubbish behind. And while the manky old underlay and whatever didn’t look great, it provided a much better surface than the dusty floor that now prevails. And the chimney has more leaks than a rusty bucket, which made it a real chore to get a fire going. But at least the dirt floor sort of absorbed the water flowing out of the chimney.
And we really did need a fire this night, as the weather once again changed dramatically. While we’d been experiencing some intermittent flurries of snow since we arrived, we were suddenly inundated by a snow storm and everything was rapidly being covered in a white blanket. This kept up all evening, as well as most of the night, and it only settled down the next morning; though even then the skies were dark and foreboding. At least we were able to pack up in clear weather and not have to battle the snow and sleet of the previous day. My Patrol was still covered in snow the next morning, but for some reason the Jeep didn’t have anywhere near as much snow attached (maybe it needs US snow to feel at home).
Once packed, we continued along Moroka Rd towards Licola, where we wanted to make a diversion before Arbuckle Junction to an area which we’ve never visited. It wasn’t that far down Moroka Rd that the previous day’s snow started to make itself known and, before long, we were driving in pristine snow that was topping up what had fallen the day, or days, before. This was a Winter wonderland in late October, a week before the opening of the tracks in the High Country. I’ve been driving the Victorian High Country for over 40 years and cannot remember these sorts of conditions at this time of year, or even in Winter for maybe the last 15-20 years. Global warming clearly works in mysterious ways. Mind you, neither of us were in the least bit disappointed, as this was a truly marvellous experience, something that we haven’t done for a long time.
Our plans for a diversion were unceremoniously foiled by a large fallen tree across the path that we wanted to travel and, even though we could have cleared the track with a lot of work, there was no saying that there wouldn’t be another, and yet another, similar tree further down the track. We’ve experienced much the same in the past and, after a while, you get very weary of clearing trees off the track. These things are better left to the warm Summer months, rather than freezing October Winters. So we kept on going and eventually arrived at Arbuckle Junction where the Moroka Rd meets the Howitt and Tamboritha Roads. It was so scenic that we decided to stop for a ‘group’ photograph, given that it was something that we would never have expected on a Cruise at this time of year.
From Arbuckle Junction we followed Tamboritha Rd down towards Licola. The snow was still fairly solid until we started to descend and was pretty much gone by Bennison Lookout, which wasn’t worth stopping at given the cloud cover. We had thought about going down B1 Track and then back up but before I’d realised, we’d well and truly passed the track. That may have been for the best, as B1 Track can be somewhat soft in parts and it’s a long return trip at the best of times. So we continued on and at Mt Margaret Track turned off to see what it was like. From what I remembered from our last visit, there were three fairly rough patches on this track; however, as it turned out, only the first rough section was of any note, requiring me to have a second go, with slightly more speed. I had to take a second shot at this part, as I’d gone too slow and hit some soft dirt between the rock ledges, but with a bit more right foot, I got up quite easily. The Jeep with double difflocks just walked up all prim and proper.
From Mt Margaret we took the main road to Licola for a short stop and were amazed at the number of people there on this weekend. The caravan park looked full and it appeared that a lot of people had come here for the weekend and were just preparing to go home. You can never predict how many people will be out and about on any weekend these days. Anyway, we left Licola behind and turned up the Jamieson-Licola Rd until we reached South Rd, which we followed until we arrived at S16 Track, where we once again came upon Jacksons Hut. It had only recently been vacated, given the coals still burning in the fireplace. The area was quite the quagmire, but the hut was far more inviting than was Horseyard Hut (the timber floor alone makes a vast difference).
We were almost expecting Jacksons Hut to have been demolished, given the notice that was nailed to the door on our last visit. But it was still standing and we were very thankful. Had the hut been demolished, we would have continued on down and hunted out one of the huts along Donnellys Creek, in the hope that one would be vacant by that time. Anyway, that wasn’t necessary and Jacksons Hut suited us down to the ground (well, the timber floor). There was also plenty of firewood about, so we had a far better fire going in no time, compared to the somewhat sad effort experienced at Horseyard Hut. Despite it’s ramshackle construction, Jacksons Hut is no worse than many of the well known huts and, in many ways, is far better than some of the former.
The problem with Jacksons Hut is the garbage. There’s simply far too much of it. From the number of trips that we’ve done to Jacksons Hut, we’ve all come to the conclusion that one of the major factors causing so much rubbish, is that there are so many 44 gallon drums left at the site that simply invite those who come here to just fill them with whatever crap they bring along. And what doesn’t fit, gets left on the ground like at a McDonalds. I’m not entirely sure but perhaps if these and other rubbish could be removed, then maybe, just maybe, future visitors might have a little more respect for the area. It’s actually a very nice area overall, but clearly there’s an element that comes here that occupies the lower percentile of the intelligence curve.
Anyway, we enjoyed the hut and as the sun went down, it was nice and warm inside. But clearly it was going to be a very cold night as the sky was clearing and, by nightfall, the sky was full of stars. While on the topic of huts, they are a good thing when the weather is foul, but we always prefer to camp out and sit around a campfire than cram ourselves inside a hut. But in the conditions this weekend, had we not been able to secure a hut, we would most likely have been in bed before the sun set and tried to make the best of a sorry situation.
The next morning it was obvious that the night had been very cold indeed. All the snow had become ice, crunching underfoot, and it took several attempts before my Patrol would start, leading me to think that our local servo was no longer providing Winter mix, given that we were now nearing Summer. Once on the road, it looked like it was going to be a very nice day indeed (as it often is on the last day of a Cruise) and, as it was all mostly downhill along Springs Rd, the return journey wouldn’t take all that long. That is, until I stalled for some unknown reason. We’d been travelling for some distance when the engine in my Patrol just died on a slight incline. After some inspection, it was clear that fuel wasn’t flowing to the engine and, to cut a long story short, I ended up removing the lift pump and filter and everything was fine again and I had no issues thereafter. This unfortunate incident prevented us from checking out the fire tower visible in the distance (see if you can spot it).
We eventually arrived at Seaton and stopped to air up our tyres, and the row of letter boxes on the roadside was a clear indication that we were back on the road to civilisation. This Cruise had turned into something quite unexpected and both of us simply marvelled at the fact that we’d had one of the best opportunities for snow driving for a very long time. We used to go quite often to Mt Skene in Winter until the Victorian Association of 4WD Clubs managed to get Mt Skene banned for all but association members (freedom from association anyone?), so we haven’t ventured there since. After more than 40 years of 4WDriving, we don’t need a 4WD club or association to judge our capabilities.
Footnote: A few days after getting back home, I inspected the filter and it was as clean as a whistle. So all that I can assume is that the lift pump itself is blocked or the impeller not working, even though the pump is supposed to have a bypass and sounded quite normal when running. I think I’ll leave the lift pump off and just re-install the filter, as I don’t really want to go through a similar situation again.