Taking the High Road in Vic High Country

Picture this.

It’s about 2:30pm. Having just towed our camper trailer up a 6,000-foot mountain on a windy off-road track in Victoria’s High Country, we’re slowly stepping our way down a rocky descent. I’ve got Cave Lion, our 100 Series Land Cruiser, in low range, trying to keep the momentum of our Cub off-road Supamatic camper trailer under control as we gingerly poke our way down the mountain. That extra day of training I got in Braidwood focused on off-road towing is looking like time well spent.

Cave Lion started our trip into Vic High Country freshly washed white, but now it is happily caked in mud and dirt. All is good. Siberian Tiger has streaks of red dirt from our trips to Cape York and the Queensland outback. The red dirt, I’m told, can never be cleansed, and we kind of consider its presence a merit badge in this family.

The trail is rough, a path pocked with holes, rocks of all sizes, dirt and dust. In the back of my mind I’m glad our tires – Coopers S/T Maxx, ironically made by an American brand testing its mettle in Australia, just like us – are relatively new. Despite all the abuse we’ve put them through, they have only about 20,000 kilometers of wear and feel up to the task. I’m focused on driving, but I take a quick look around. The view is majestic as we “walk” down the mountain range. It’s a horizon full of greens, browns, yellows, and oranges as we move among the peaks and trees, all set under the kind of deep blue sky I’ve rarely seen outside of Australia. Of course, a byproduct of off-road trails leading down majestic mountain ridges is the perilous cliff’s edge, a hazard not far enough off to the right. It’s a feature of the drive that keeps me alert, to say the least. The story about the crazy Americans who left Brooklyn to go camping and off-roading in Australia is much better if we don’t drive off a cliff.

There’s a lot of crunching noises as we navigate the rocky downward trail. The angle is steep and the rocks are chewing at our tires. By steep I mean the kind of steep where you can feel the firm grip of the webbing in the shoulder strap of your seatbelt holding you in place as you descend.

I take a moment to glance around our fully loaded interior. Next to me in the passenger seat is the intrepid Jessica Lipnack (her post about this journey here), a loving mother to my wife, grandmother to my boys, and mother-in-law to me. She is visiting for this portion of our journey. This is her second day ever 4WDing, and the first time she’s been on this kind of off-road track, towing a camper trailer down mountains, for sure. We positioned her in the front seat to be polite and also to reduce the chance of car sickness (it can be tough riding on a bumpy, winding road squeezed between two car seats). Her sense of adventure is impressive. Her hands are gripping something, hard, but she’s handling what must be a ridiculously scary descent with complete coolness, not raising the level of anxiety in the carriage one iota. Jessica is in fact emitting such a calm energy for this circumstance that I wonder whether she is employing some newfangled kind of zen master trick like invisible knitting.

This is particularly impressive to me. Most of our driving together has involved navigating the city, during which I’ve not done much to impress her. In Brooklyn you have to drive with a kind of psychotic edge to survive as your road companions follow such rules of the road as “accelerate into intersections; people will move” and “turn first, signal never,” among others. Outside of New York, my poor sense of direction is usually the culprit. Wrong turn here, wrong turn there, a stubborn unwillingness to learn my way around the streets of her hometown in MA. Finally my still-developing parallel parking skills may not have made a good impression. But luckily there is no parallel parking out here…. Certainly there won’t be with a camper trailer in tow!

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Assuming you know what your car is capable of doing, it’s much easier on your stomach to drive these off-road tracks than to ride shotgun. When you’re driving you feel in control – even if you find you’re not – and have the steering wheel steadying your body, a luxury not afforded to the passenger. You also know before every brake, bump, and turn. As a passenger, all you can do is sit there, choose whether you want your eyes open or closed, and pray the driver has had enough coffee.

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In the back seat sits my lovely wife Miranda and our two boys. Lake and Finn are seasoned veterans of this kind of thing. They are unfazed. Lake is reading a book about Han Solo. Amazingly, Finn is taking a snooze.

“Wake me up if we cross a river,” he said casually before nodding off.

Miranda is suspending Finn’s head carefully to prevent it from flopping into awkward positions as we trundle downward. She’s a loving mother; I’d be napping like Finn, letting his head flop in the wind. Don’t be fooled by who’s penning this: Miranda is an accomplished off-road driver and has far better wheel placement skills than I do. She drove the previous day, when in fact we did have more than twenty water crossings as we explored the Crooked River. Finn was pleased!

One of many crooked river crossings with Finn at attention and Miranda behind the wheel!

One of many crooked river crossings with Finn at attention and Miranda behind the wheel!

Don’t worry; we’re not so terribly irresponsible parents as it seems. We haven’t explored High Country off-road before, and didn’t want to be taking the boys down potentially treacherous mountain trails on our own. So we have joined up with a “tag along” off-road 4WD tour run by our friend Vic Widman’s company Great Divide Tours. Through pure coincidence – a post he noticed on Instagram – we found out we were camping right by their tour, that they had an open slot, and we were able to join up with a great group of Australians on Day 2 of their 7-day journey through the High Country. We were planning some off road adventures outside of Bright, Victoria, but this would let us really explore the area in a way we probably wouldn’t have been able to do safely otherwise.

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The expedition was led by a fearless father son duo, Greg and Jason. In addition to being friendly and expert guides, they were well-equipped with safety and recovery gear and know-how. Perhaps more importantly, they came prepared with plenty of supplies for making long lasting campfires. Also, both Greg and Jason had cool Australia outback hats, an attribute which speaks for itself. Thinking back on this, if I end up leading 4WD tours with Lake, Finn, and Miranda one day, I’ll be one happy man.

Well done, fearless leaders!

Well done, fearless leaders!

We met up with the Great Divide team at their campsite in Talbotville. From there we visited Grant and had a mouth-watering burger at the iconic Dargo Pub, before making our way to Wonnangarra valley and Conglomerate Creek. We also saw several famous bushman’s huts in the mountains, but the refurbished one featured in The Man From Snowy River film – Craig’s Hut – was the most awe-inspiring for me.

We had an unbelievable time on this tour. It was a great way to explore the High Country and make new friends. The group of tag-a-longers was inviting and fun, embracing our addition to their team with smiles, the occasional story about their trip to Vegas, and some kindly American jokes… I know, it’s hard to imagine those exist. Naturally, the best response to all this was to respond to every radio roll call with the most classic American response I could muster- and this was exactly how I felt at the time: “Yippee ki yay!”

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