When you leave your transport behind and hit the track in earnest, with the reassuring weight of a hiking pack on your shoulders and the crunch of rocks under your tread, the first wave of euphoria really hits.
Until then, it’s just been anticipation. You’ve known you’re getting away from it all — the stresses of home, whatever form they may take — but until you’re actually immersed in the fullness of the place you’ve been dreaming of and planning for, your attention is still somewhat divided.
It’s in this moment, as you step out, that you become fully present. Now it’s just you and some mates or your partner, heading out into pure nature. That’s how I felt, recently, as I strolled out of the Angusvale campgrounds and towards Den of Nargun, 18km distant, along the Mitchell River Walking Track.
Credits for Images: Sam Richards, Andrew Barnes, Garry Moore/Visit Victoria, Robert Blackburn, Destination Gippsland/Visit Victoria.
The track set out along the Mitchell River. The mighty stream flowed towards us, its banks lined with wombat burrows, the grass on the sloping inclines bright green, still beaded with morning dew. Shadows of trees fell over the banks and onto the water, where they were caught and carried, for brief moments, by the current.
That feeling of euphoria — you’d assume it was an initial burst — was sustained over the enitre distance.
This trail is ideal for a two day hike, one day there and one back. You can also shorten the distance by camping at Billy Goat Bend about 13km in, or organise a car shuttle.
On it, you follow the river most of the way. Sometimes you hug it closely, such as when you traverse an ethereal mossy archway of previously flooded branches, to the steady gurgling of the rapids nearby; other times you stalk it from afar, as when from the heights of the gorge you look down, towards the Mitchell glinting white in the midday sun, its curves and eddies oddly silent and majestic.
DEN OF NARGUN
The track ends, 18km later, at Den of Nargun. There’s something about this place that seems so remote, so untouched by the urbanisation sweeping out of Melbourne in radioactive waves. But its only 275km away, or 3 hours and 25 minutes, from the Big Smoke. How good it is to cheat the system, and gain a massive sense of distance, at a place that isn’t, by any means, inconveniently far away.
The Den of Nargun is a wide-mouthed cave you get a view of by taking stone steps down into a rainforest gully. When you reach the gully, the eerie vibe hits, suddenly; perhaps it’s due to the abrupt cooling off of temperature. Green moss coats rocks and green shines in the flora of draping, drooping branches.
You make your way down the pathway towards the den, and soon it comes into view; from here, you can look into the cave, watching the faint streams of water trickle over its edge. You might feel unease, you might feel a great sense of peace; you’ll certainly feel something. According to the traditional owners, the Gunaikurnai people, the site is home to the Nargun, a fierce being which is half human, half stone.
PADDLING THE MITCHELL
With a kayak along for the trip, the adventurous possibilities expand. The waterways that spread throughout East Gippsland — the Mitchell, the Gippsland Lakes (Australia’s largest inland waterway), the Snowy River, the Nicholson, and Mallacoota Inlet, to name but a few — offer you access to endless water conditions through innumerous varities of terrain. The Mitchell would have to be the crown jewel.
Adrenaline junkies, get ready for whitewater; you can take on Grade III and IV rapids in the Mitchell, ideally between July and December.
Of course, if you’d rather a more serene trip — maybe one with all your goods stowed in the hold, including a tent for overnight stops on the bank — then there’s gentler stretches too, long deep pools surrounded by dramatic scenery. Licensed tour operators can help if needed.
As always, it pays to check water levels with BOM before you head out, but there’s bound to be a stream somewhere, patiently awaiting your oars.
THE BUCHAN CAVES
One of the many lovely towns in East Gippsland is Buchan. Near the town, which has a population of about 400, runs the Buchan River. The town acts as a perfect base to explore the Buchan Caves — a massive honeycomb of limestone caves and rock formations.
The name 'Buchan' comes from 'Bukan-Mungie', the name given by traditional owners, meaning 'the places of rocks with holes in them'. These caves were originally formed by underground rivers which carved the water-sensitive limestone rock, dissolving it and, in the process, creating stalactites and stalagmites. The most famous caves, which can both be experienced with daily tours, include Fairy Cave and Royal Cave, both of which are 500 metres long.
Within the cave system, you can still see indigenous artefacts, dating back almost 20,000 years. Along with the Den of Nargun, and other similar sites, the region of East Gippsland remains a place of comparatively preserved indigenous heritage, where the modern day traveller can experience traditional culture and appreciate it anew.
ON TWO TYRES
East Gippsland has some speccy tracks for MTB addicts. One of the highlights is Mt Taylor Mountain Bike Park, north of Bairnsdale.
Here, you can test out your technique pumping uphill, let the good times flow cruising downhill, or challenge your dexterity taking on jumps, gaps and bermed corners.
The park boasts 30km of track. One of the tracks, 'Flow Track', was actually built by Tassie trail-making contractors, Dirt Art.
Alternatively you can challenge yourself at Colquhoun State Forest. Think narrow singletrack, snaking its way through eucalypt trunks, and a bloom of dust pluming up behind you and dispersing in the air to catch strands of sunlight.
Again we find Dirt Art’s footprint on this track network, but it’s the community of riders, who laid the foundations of the tracks with genuine MTB instinct years ago, that are equally to thank.
For something a bit more leisurely but equally fulfilling, riders can take on the Rail Trail, between Bairnsdale and Orbost — a piece of infrastructure for which Gippsland is rightly famous. The trail follows along a disused rail line, in operation until 1987, for just under 100km. It’s been resurfaced with gravel, there’s no cars, and the scenery is epic — farmland, forest and stunning railway bridges. The trail takes you through some lovely quaint towns on the way, too.
COMPLETING THE PICTURE
The towns throughout East Gippsland round the destination out as a must-visit. You need a place to stay and these towns certainly have the facilities to make your time easy and comfortable, but their value extends beyond that.
Bairnsdale, at the start of the Rail Trail, is the region’s largest city and is home to a bustling commercial centre, a gardened boulevard and landmarks such as a church, water tower and old post office. The history runs as deep at Bruthen, with its buildings dating from the 1860s, plus numerous trails and culinary experiences. Then there’s Lindenow in the Mitchell River floodplain, home to some of the region’s most productive land, turning up fine wool and nutrient-dense veggies, which you can try out at the local hotel, built in 1908.
So, however you adventure — by foot, bike, kayak or culturally — East Gippsland has something for you, within its 11 national, coastal and marine parks and reserves, or without.
AFTER YOUR OUTING
There’s nothing quite like a good feed or a refreshing drink after an adventure that’s got the blood pumping and the sweat running. When you’re in East Gippsland, you’re well looked after; there’s plenty of places where you can hunt down local produce and reward yourself properly. Here are a couple of the highlights:
- Long Paddock, a cafe at an old bakery site in Lindenow that has garnered international recognition.
- Lightfoot Winery, specialising in white, red and sparkling at Myrtle Point Vineyard.
- Nicholson River Winery, an award-winning winery channelling European styles blended with unique local flavours.
- Bullant Brewery, located in Bruthen, which aspires to perfectly pair onsite brewed beer with the best local tucker.
- Northern Ground, a modern cafe and bistro in Bairnsdale championing fresh seasonal produce from the area.