Gampians Touring Routes

Touring the Gampians & Mount Arapiles

Words & Images: © Simon Bayliss

The inspiration to travel comes in many different forms. I love to chat to fellow RVers about their journeys and rejoice in hearing stories about why they travel to the places they’ve been. The lessons you receive on the road are priceless, but the key is being able to find the right motivation.

grampians np reeds lookout

While at a market recently, I came across a stall that sold vintage postcards. While many were of the 1970s and ’80s photo kitsch, there were also a small section of the hand-painted gems from the ’20s and ’30s. These beautifully painted gems, reminiscent of the Art Deco era, immediately transported me to my early childhood.

My grandparents often travelled throughout Australia. While away they would send postcards of special places they’d been so that we could stick them to the fridge door. If it made it to the fridge, it was a special place. We always said that if my grandfather had taken the time to send the postcard to us, it was an extra special place! Those postcards always remained there as a constant reminder of those must-see destinations.

While at this country market, there was one postcard that I was immediately drawn to. Not just for its beautiful artwork, but more so for its evocative name. It was the same card that had adorned our fridge door for many years.

Regardless of how tatty it got, it always had a permanent place on the fridge door.

The name of the place is still as evocative today as it was when I was a child – Halls Gap and the Grampians.

I purchased the postcard and stuck it to the dash of the motorhome. I returned to the caravan park at about a quarter to five, just as a group of vanners I had invited over for happy hour began milling. So I shared with them the stories of my childhood and the history of what the Grampians means to me. Some of them had already visited the sites while others dreamt of going and my little anecdote confirmed the connection all travellers have – the joy of shared experiences.

So it was off to Hall's Gap I went, with as much excitement as I had on my first visit as a young teen. Again, I headed to western Victoria with the anticipation of exploring the majestic beauty of the iconic Grampians.

The Grampians:

Also known as the Wonderland, the Grampians are a spectacular mountain range located about 250km north-west of Melbourne. Made from five sandstone ridges, the ranges were formed by a tectonic lift causing the spectacular sheer rock faces on the eastern side of the range. While the western sections gently slope upwards creating some magnificent country, the eastern side is well known for its famous lookouts and spectacular views of the plains.

To the local indigenous groups, the area is known as Gariwerd. It was formally named The Grampians (after The Grampian Mountains in Scotland) by famous Australian explorer Sir Thomas Mitchell.

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There is the feeling by many that the name should revert back to the original title. For a while during the 1990s the name stuck, however Grampians slowly crept back into popular culture. But there is a strong acknowledgment of the indigenous connection of this culturally significant area.

The Grampians National Park (167,000ha) is the third largest National Park in Victoria and is home to around one third of its flora species. It has about two thirds of Victoria's indigenous rock art, including the Billimina Gulgurn Manja, Manja and Ngamadjidj Shelters – highlighting the strong historic and contemporary Aboriginal connection to the region.

It's popular any time of the year, but the park puts on its best show during August to October when the beautiful wild flowers come into bloom. The dramatic floral displays mix with the heady fragrances of the Eucalypts as the days warm – it is truly a wonderful time to visit.

The Grampians National Park offers a range of activities for all visitors. You can bushwalk along the many tracks through-out the park, fish the streams and lakes or even canoe on Lake Bellfield or Wartook. Also on offer are several magical places for free-camping.

Nestled beside the Wonderland Range is the town of Halls Gap, originally named after Charles Hall who discovered the area in search of pastoral lands for his agricultural endeavours. This is a great base for exploring the park and a mecca for all visitors to the area.

2011 Storm Damage:

We all remember with dismay the devastation and tragic loss of life during the Queensland floods in January 2011. However, this perhaps overshadowed the destruction that this area of Victoria suffered around the same time.

The region was hit by some of the biggest floods in living memory and the National Park was affected badly, with a reported 200 landslides closing many roads, in particular, the road south to Dunkeld, and the road up the gap and over the range. This left only one road in to Halls Gap and one road to get to the other side of the park.

It's tragic that the park was hit so hard. But while it is a mere inconvenience to the traveller, it is great to know that one of Australia's national parks has carefully and painstakingly returned to full functionality. Those who know the area are well aware of the challenges faced in trying to open the road. It's a precious road due to its location but it rewards the visitor with some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in the state. Because of this, it's usually a slow process to rebuild the paths and roads if they are damaged.

Brambuk National Park:

So, while my visit looked like it would require a bit more driving to access the park, my excitement of again visiting the Grampians was unnerved. It was suggested by the attendant that I should visit the Brambuk National Park and Cultural Centre. 

As mentioned, the indigenous population hold a strong connection with the land and the Brambuk centre is a testament to that. The centre is described as "bringing life to the history and culture of the Jardwadjali and Djab Wurrung communities of south-western Victoria". It was a moving experience, and to quote the brochure, "Since their dispossession, Aboriginal people have moved through two phases – resistance and persistence – and have now entered a third phase, renewal. Brambuk stands as a  symbol and affirmation of that process of renewal".

These are extremely poignant and emotive words. I get goose bumps whenever I read it. The centre should be at the top of anyone's list when visiting the area. I opted to spend a night at Halls Gap Caravan Park before heading into the Grampians for some free-camping.

These enormous mountains loomed over the town as the day drew to a close. I was keen to get up to see the view from the top and do some hiking, but after a full day I needed to recharge the batteries with a night of free-camping.

Zumstiens:

The next morning I had to circumnavigate the park to approach it from the west. As I always say, the journey is what it's about. So I headed north to Roses Gap, then west to Wartook and south-east through Zumstiens, the east range and the two spectacular Reids and Boroka Lookouts.

The drive up to the top was mostly through cloud and as I pulled into Reids Lookout it was a complete whiteout. Motivated by the postcard at the market, I was going to wait it out, as I had a feeling it would clear. I consulted with the iPad (a travellers' must) and the weather report indicated clearing showers with a high chance of a cuppa coffee and some biscuits.

I was rewarded for my faith in the weather gods as the clouds began to clear from the east. I decided to make a move to the other and more spectacular Boroka Lookout. Heading over there, it was thick with cloud and fog but within 500m of the top it cleared and the beautiful morning cast its first rays of light on the valley and Halls Gap some 1000m below.

Smith Mill Campground:

After a long day hiking I looked for a free-camp and decided on Smith Mill campground. Just near Lake Wartook, this site is beautifully set in amongst scattered pine trees within the native forest. There is something about the freedom it affords, so it was time to start a fire and set up for the night.

As it has been raining for three days, I knew it would be a challenge to get the fire going, but then again, that's the fun part. It would have been easier at times to carry firelighters, but as an avid Bear Grylls enthusiast, I reckon there is more than one way to skin a cat. The one thing I had in my favour at Smith Mill is that it's in the middle of a pine forests. So, while it was hard to find dry tinder or kindling, I saw on a recent show how Bear Grylls used pine resin that hangs from the tree bark – it's flammable and waterproof. So I grabbed a handful and placed them under some damp pine needles and fired it up. It did take a bit of patience, but the process of slowly adding more tinder worked a treat and before long (relative term) I had a roaring fire and the billy was on. There's nothing like a cuppa at the end of a long day.

Wartook Valley:

On the way back, I dropped in for a warming coffee and scones at the Wander Inn in the Wartook Valley. I was greeted by Jim and Kate, a couple who were staying with the owners. These two are a couple of colourful characters. As I ask for a photo, they suggested they show me a photo of their own. They directed me to another room and showed me their wedding photo (50 years old) that adorns the wall of the café, resplendently displayed with a unique frame: an antique loo seat. They mention they are RVers from the Great Ocean Road, but this trip they didn't bring their trusty Jayco as they had accommodation with their friends. They wanted to have a photo done for the mag, and the solution was out the back – a classic '70s Franklin similar to one they owned many years ago.

The BIG Koala:

We have many big things in Australia – pineapple, lobster, lawnmower, prawn. In fact, there are nearly 150 big 'somethings' in Australia. Near the Grampians on the Stawell-Horsham road there is the Big Koala. While chatting to the owner, Rob McPherson, I discovered he had a little surprise in his shed out the back.

Many of us dream of doing a lap at Bathurst and you may have seen the video games that let you drive a hot lap, but the experience is removed from the real thing. Well, Rob has created a live simulator complete with wrap-around visual display and full surround sound – it's the closest thing to the real thing.

I decided to overnight it at Horsham, as I wanted to go and see another spectacular landform in the area early in the morning, Mount Arapiles.

The next morning, I was greeted with an almost perfect day with blue skies – one of the best days since I'd started this trip, and maybe a sign that the weather that was swamping most of Victoria was finally easing.

Mount Arapiles:

While driving the 50km or so west from Horsham, I saw Mount Arapiles looming on the horizon. The mountain ranges, which peak at 370m, are made up of quartzite, which is formed when sandstone is exposed to very high temperatures and pressures due to tectonic movement in one of the earth's crusts. The range's red appearance is due to a high content of iron oxide.

Mount Arapiles view from the top, Victoria

While Mount Arapiles is famous for rock climbing, it's also a place full of excellent bushwalking and nature trails. For those who wish to stay overnight, there is freecamping available at the Centenary Park.

Like all great journeys, there comes a time to head home. While driving back to Melbourne, I reflected on the journey of the last week. My trusty postcard was my talisman on this trip.

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With it taped to my dash, I knew straight away where I'd place it when I returned home with a story to match. That postcard now adorns my fridge door as a reminder that the motivation to travel comes in many forms. I hope that anyone who sees the beautiful postcard from the Grampians will also be motivated to explore this wonderland of Victoria's Wimmera.