The drive into (and out of) the Wonnangatta Valley is one of the iconic drives in the Victorian High Country with panoramic views traveling on many challenging 4WD tracks.
There is plenty of historical sites to explore including cattleman’s huts on the high plains and the Wonnangatta Station
The Station is infamous for the scene of a dramatic and still unsolved murder mystery in the early 1900s, but it is rumored that the perpetrators were actually known to locals and the police.
This trip starts at Licola which is a small town on the banks of the Macalister River approximately 60km north of Heyfield.
Licola has an excellent general store for any of those last minute supplies or fuel for the trip, and lovely shady park beside the river.
The photographs in the store feature some great pictures of previous traveler’s dilemmas as well as photographs of the dramatic weather conditions such as
floods and fires.
The park is a terrific place for a cuppa or lunch before tackling the tracks.
From Licola head along the Wellington River Valley on the Tamboritha Road which passes several picturesque camping areas on the riverbank, then climb up out of the valley to Bennison Lookout which has fabulous views towards Lake Tali Karng, Mount Wellington and the Razorback.
Next is Tamboritha Saddle and some of the fabulous Victorian high plains.
Continuing along the high plains head pass the Lost Plain picnic area eventually arriving at Arbuckle Junction. To the right is Moroka Road which heads to the Pinnacles and the fire tower that offers panoramic views, but for this trip we will head left along the Howitt Road.
Not far from Arbuckle Junction is the gorge car park. From here there is a fantastic walk to Mount Reynard which at 1701m is one of the higher peaks in the area. The next major attraction is the Snowy Plains Airstrip.
The Snowy Plains Airstrip is Victoria’s highest airstrip (1600m) and is manned during the fire season. Just past the turnoff to the airstrip there is a faint track to the left that leads to a clearing and fantastic views across the ranges.
At the right time of the year (Nov/Dec) there are wildflowers of different colors covering the ground, making a fantastic foreground to the mountain ranges.
Further along the Howitt Road is a sign on the right to Dimmick Lookout where there are a series of tables just perfect for a stopover, as the views from this lookout are spectacular. The lookout abuts a sheer cliff that drops down into Bryce’s Gorge, with forested wilderness seemingly stretching on forever and the Wonnangatta Valley also visible in the distance.
Check out this 360 deg view from the lookout.
It is just a fantastic lookout and one of the best in the high country, well worth the short deviation from the main Howitt Road.
Not far from the Dimmick Lookout turnoff is a parking area that is the beginning of a series of walking tracks. A short walk (1km) will bring you to Guys Hut, which is a classic log constructed hut with the distinctive high country chimney.
The longer walk continues past Guys Hut to the edge of Bryce Gorge, and the Conglomerate and Pieman Falls that plunge over 100m from the massive escarpment.
There is also a less defined walking track that joins the Dry River Walking Track which is a popular track for bushwalkers and horse riders into the Wonnangatta Valley.
The Dry River Track was also the route that drovers took their cattle from the Wonnangatta Station to the Howitt High Plains for summer grazing before the station was closed and the area became a National Park.
The next prominent feature along the Howitt Road is the Howitt Plains and hut. The hut was built by the Bryce family of Wonnangatta in the early 1900s.
Not much of the original hut remains, except for the hand-cut shingles underneath the corrugated iron roof. Adjacent the hut are stockyards that are used horses – this is one of the stopovers for horse riding tours which is another great way to see the sights of the high country.
Just past Howitt Hut is the turnoff to the Zeka Spur Track that leads down into the Wonnangatta Valley.
It is a comfortable 1-2hr trip (34km) from here to the valley floor. The track winds downwards through heavily forested ranges with glimpses of the destination at many points.
There are steep sections and tight corners to negotiate, but given the generally good condition of the track it is usually pretty straightforward. As you get closer to the valley floor it is a good idea to pick up some firewood as it can be scarce around the camping areas.
After the seemingly long trek down Zeka Spur you will finally enter the magnificent Wonnangatta Valley.
The valley with large grasslands and the Wonnangatta River snaking around the edge,
flanked by forested mountain ranges makes a truly spectacular sight.
Once arriving in the picturesque Wonnangatta Valley, it is time to select a campsite. There are several options with camping areas stretching along the river as you arrive from the west. Passing the hut and crossing the Conglomerate Creek there are campsites under the trees that are quite shady and cool.
Some of the better sites are the one’s right beside the river, many with concrete
firepits, pit toilet nearby, and plenty of shade available.
After setting up camp it is just magnificent sitting by the campfire with a cool beverage listening to the bubbling river and watching the sun drop down behind the mountain ranges. It doesn’t get much better than this!
While in the valley make sure you take the time to see the sights of the Wonnangatta Station. Start with a walk around the various historical sites which include the site of the old homestead, the cattleman’s hut, remains of the stockyards, and the cemetery.
There are information boards at each of the various historical sites.
Between the cemetery and homestead ruins there is also a plaque for a young couple killed in 1983 when their 4WD rolled as they attempted to drive the “widowmaker” (a steep track to nowhere on the south side of the valley).
A reminder to be careful in the choices we make.
Now to some history about the Station and the famous murders. Oliver Smith was the first man to settle on the river flats. He built a log cabin in the early 1860’s on the Conglomerate Creek about 800m from where it flows into the Wonnangatta River.
He was not alone when he arrived in the valley – he had his three sons with him along with Nancy Hayes and her son Harry. Nancy (realname Ellen) and Oliver never did marry, but Ellen and Harry took the Smith name which was the custom of the times.
Now Oliver Smith soon discovered that he needed help to develop the property and hit on the idea to offer William Bryce a partnership. William Annie Bryce with their seven children arrived at
Wonnangatta Station in 1872 and settled in a five room house which was above the stockyards and Oliver’s log cabin.
In 1873 Ellen Smith tragically died after giving birth to stillborn twin daughters. Heartbroken, Oliver Smith sold his share to Bryce and left the property with his sons never to return.
For the next 40 years William and Annie Bryce and their children worked and played in the valley.
They grew, made and traded everything they needed for their isolated life on this land. The original five roomed house eventually grew into a stately homestead of eleven rooms.
After Annie Bryce died in 1914 at the age of 78, the property was sold and Jim Barclay appointed the manager of the station.
In late 1917 and early 1918, Jim Barclay was shot in the back with his body buried in a shallow grave in the sand of Conglomerate Creek. The cook, John Bamford, was immediately suspected of the murder as he was nowhere to be found. That was until nearly 12 months later the body of John Bamford was found behind Howitt Hut.
Many believe that the investigation was poorly handled by the authorities allowing the perpetrators to escape justice.
The local rumor is that the murderers were cattle duffers (thieves) from the Mansfield area that murdered both men to conceal their identities.
Even though many locals and the police are believed to know the identity of the
murderers, given the passage of time it is likely that the murders will remain unsolved forever.
The magnificent homestead was unfortunately burnt to the ground in 1957, supposedly by a fire lit by bushwalkers.
For more details on the Wonnangatta Valley see the “Friends of Wonnanagatta” website.
After saying goodbye to Wonnangatta Station cross the Conglomerate Creek past the horse yards and continue on the Wonnangatta Track as it continues down the valley.
About 1km further on the track divides into two and you have the choice of taking the high road on the right or the low road on the left – it doesn’t matter which track you take since they join later on but the lower track is a bit more scenic however can be more difficult in the wet.
Eventually, the valley comes to its end and after crossing the Wonnangatta River you are presented with a choice of routes. To the right is Herne Spur track which we will explore later – for now continue on the Wombat Range Track and then down the Humffray RiverTrack.
The Humffray River Track follows the Humffray River and crosses it numerous times as it winds through the heavily forested valley.
There are some fantastic views at times, as well as several excellent campsites right beside the river. Some of the river entry/exit points can be a little tricky especially when wet, but generally the track is quite easy going.
About 4km along the Humffray River track is the Humffray River Shelter hut, which is basically an open shelter, built for the cattle drovers but now used particularly by Deer Hunters.
Another 4km further is a turn-off to the right which is Water Spur track that leads steeply out of the Humffray River Valley and onto Tea Tree Range Road. The views at the top are spectacular with views to the north of the Blue Rag Range and further to Hotham.
Heading south on the Tea Tree Range Road it’s not far to Mt Sarah, and a short distance down the Sarah Spur Track is another of the many huts built by the Guy Family – the Guys-Mt Sarah Hut.
There is a small partly sheltered campsite adjacent the hut. Retracing your route take the track across the top of Mt Sarah for more fantastic views before re-
joining the Tea Tree Range Road and continuing southwards. The Tea Tree Range Road turns into the Racecourse Track and tracks past the old Pioneer Racecourse and eventually in the popular camping area at Talbotville.
There are numerous track options in this area, and many days can be spent exploring the tracks and historical sites. This trip we’ll leave Talbotville for another time, and
head left off Tea Tree Range Road onto Mt Hart Track and then head to the summit of Mt Hart.
The track to Mt Hart traverses through lush forest and with a little luck you may even spot one the rare lyrebirds that frequent this area. The track opens up into a cleared area at Mt Hart with a fantastic 270 degree view to the surrounding mountain ranges. Unfortunately, the track ends here so backtracking is necessary back to the Hart Spur
Track and then left down the steep Hart Spur Track to the Humffray River Track and the Wonnangatta River.
At the end of the valley there are two tracks heading up the range – Wombat Range Track and Herne Spur Track. The more difficult the Herne Spur Track is the recommended route and definitely a challenge.
This track crosses the Wonnangatta River five times before rising steeply out of the valley. Low range is the order of the day, the track consisting of a series of steep rocky steps and loose rocks with virtually no letup until popping up onto the top of the Cynthia Range.
Continue along the Cynthia Range track which affords fantastic views across the forested mountain ranges, then take the Eaglevale Track that drops steeply back down to the Wonnangatta River at Eaglevale. The Cynthia Range Track continues on to Talbotville which is another terrific place to camp and explore.
Pass the private house and suspension bridge (for access for the property owners when the river is too high), and then cross the Wonnangatta River. Recent rains can cause the river height to rise rapidly so be sure to evaluate the crossing carefully before proceeding.
From Eaglevale head back along the Wonnangatta Road. Continue along the Wonnangatta Road through bush and farmland before eventually joining the Dargo Road and perhaps head into Dargo.
An excellent option is to have a meal at the legendary Dargo Pub.
The Dargo Pub has a great ambience and is a terrific place to enjoy a cool beverage and grab a meal, while taking in the various photographs and information on offer inside. Camping is available out the back if wishing to make a night of it!
Some basic supplies can be purchased from the general store at Licola, but it would be prudent to stock up at one of the major centres on the way such as Traralgon.
Take sufficient food for the planned duration of your trip, and drinking water if worried about drinking from the usually pure mountain streams adjacent to the campsites.
Basic equipment spares and recovery equipment should also be carried. A chainsaw is also a good item to carry, for firewood and clearing any fallen trees from the tracks.
Mobile phone coverage is generally available on the higher sections of the track/s, but alternative communication such as a satellite phone is a good option.
Many tracks in the Alpine National Park are subject to seasonal closure (after June long weekend until Melbourne Cup weekend), including the majority of the tracks traveled and described in this blog so plan your trip between November and June. Even if the tracks are open, river heights and recent rainfall may make many of the tracks impassable so check conditions before departing.
The Wonnangatta Station and Valley is an iconic destination that every 4WDriver should visit, with scenery typical of the Victorian High Country. The mountains and valleys are just spectacular with plenty of fantastic views around, and incredible camping.
The area changes with every season and the weather is simply unpredictable which somehow adds to the mystic of the place. It is a place that you can always find new challenges and experiences no matter how many times you visit, and
if you haven’t been before well just drop everything and get on out here!
Written by Trayon Owner Geoff Martin