25 July 2021

Giddy Up Gippsland


Like Rumplestiltskin waking from a Covid Coma, Victorians are ready to rock and roll. And what better place to restart our road riding repertoire than Gippsland in autumn.

Words: Roderick Eime Photos: Roderick Eime, Ces deSouza, Peter Washington

Poor Victoria. It may be the home of AFL and the birthplace of Australia’s coffee culture, but 2020 saw the southern state endure the harshest lockdown restrictions with the crippling 112-day isolation pushing folks to the brink. 

To say our long-awaited lap of Gippsland has been almost two years in the planning is no exaggeration. So it was with some gleeful satisfaction that we set out from old mate Peter’s ‘ranch’ in leafy Montrose into the ‘wilds’ of Victoria’s huge eastern region.

Why Gippsland when so many of Victoria’s other regions also present such rewarding riding opportunities? Well, the plan was hatched way back with old mate, Peter, whose resume includes organising the Australian Tarmac Championship as well as several significant road events such as the Mt Baw Baw and Lake Mountain Sprints. If anyone knew Victoria’s best roads, it was Peter.

The Gippsland region stretches from Melbourne's eastern outskirts all the way to the state border with New South Wales in Victoria's far east. This extensive and diverse geographical area is renowned for its natural beauty with hundreds of kilometres of spectacular coastline, picturesque rivers and lakes, forests and even snowfields. And as if especially catering to riders, there is the Great Alpine Road. Gippsland is quite the package.

I had also made a rash promise to return to the Star Hotel in the glorious former mining village of Walhalla after first visiting there ten years ago. Owner and manager, Michael Leaney with his partner Russell, rebuilt the old hotel to faithfully recreate the pub that once stood on the spot back in the day, creating a gorgeous, boutique establishment that has become the central feature of the historic township. 

Off into the West Gippsland Hinterland

So, astride a brand new Suzuki VStrom 1050 and a Triumph Tiger 850 Sport. our minor odyssey began from the verdant ‘burbs of the Yarra Ranges. Kicked off with an exhilarating overture via Noojee and Peter’s playground, Mt Baw Baw, it lapsed into a wet and windy affair with a trepidatious, low-light leg along the rocky South Face Road. 

The twisty, serpentine roads on the C426 between Icy Creek and Baw Baw Village will test even the most ardent road riders. Narrow, tight and often damp, these gnarly roads should be approached with caution at any time of the day in all conditions. No wonder Peter stages his Targa-style competitions here.

“The road is a real thrill to ride or drive, in both directions. Anyone who uses it on a regular basis knows how challenging it is, especially when there is traffic going both ways,” Peter reminds me.

Wet and weary, we arrived and installed ourselves in the warmth of the Star’s convivial sitting room, supplemented by some Tennessee whiskey. We slept well that night. www.starhotel.com.au

I encourage those with time for further exploration of Walhalla to take a tour of the old haunted Long Tunnel mines or a ride along the restored railway to Thompson’s Corner. Even a simple stroll along the town’s heritage main street is a most pleasant affair. 

Set course for Central Gippsland

We awoke to a suitably misty morning with a cloak of wispy fog adorning the valley. Heading south toward Erica on the C481, we rode a mix of secondary tarmac and unsealed roads toward our lunch stop at the Maffra Community Sports Club, an ideal stop for hungry riders looking for hearty replenishment. 

The unsealed Cowwarr-Walhalla Road is the early highlight. Well graded on a hard base, it’s easiest enough if you ride within your comfort zone. But there is always the ever-present danger of uninvited wildlife, so stay alert. 

Our objective is the outpost of Dargo taking us north along the scenic C601 which runs out of Bairnsdale, making an exciting loop that we will complete on the following day. Traffic is typically light but don’t get complacent because logging trucks are busy all through this region and can be a bit, er … impatient. 

We take the C494 out of Stratford, but you might find the Stockdale Road offers a bit more adventure. Either way, you meet the C601 (Bairnsdale-Dargo Rd) after a blast along Beverley’s Rd about ten clicks south of the Mitchell River National Park.

Dargo is a delightful hamlet blissfully remote from pretty much everywhere. We check in to comfy cabins at the Dargo River Inn, ideal for a travelling group of road riders. There are also rustic log cabins behind the pub where we find a bunch of Bavarian brumbies also enjoying the high country revelry. 

“Oh, that High Country Road is deadly,” one of the lads tells us as he packs gear into his monstrous GS, making me wonder what tribulations await us.

After a yummy but simple breakfast at the Dargo Store (thanks Jodie and Bridget), we set out on this ‘deadly’ track. Okay, it’s hard and rocky and requires a bit of care, but neither the middleweight VStrom nor welterweight Tiger complains. Perhaps the fact that most of our heavy kit is following with Les and Ces in our lowkey AWD support vehicle - a Porsche Panamerica - makes it easier than the big BMers packed as high as Marco Polo’s camel.

Anyhoo … the effort is rewarded with corner after corner of fabulous, heroic vistas - just don’t take your eyes off the road or you’ll find it’s a LONG way down. 

We rejoin the tarmac (B500) south of the Mt Hotham summit and meet the stream of traffic arriving from Bright. Bikes of all descriptions, SUVs, sports cars and even caravans are all on some sort of alpine pilgrimage. The smooth, sweeping, undulating bitumen provides a giddy, rollercoaster of a ride that can’t help but elicit a wide grin under the helmet.

We stop and chat with some fellow riders at Danny’s lookout (1700m), one of whom tells me his name is Danny and he comes up every year on a ride with mates. I declare him a winner and present him with a back issue of this revered publication. 

Easing into East Gippsland

Onward to Omeo via Dinner Plain, where lunch at the sublime, art deco Golden Age Hotel is a must. We grab alfresco seats in the balmy sunshine and wave pompously to the many bikes ambling past in search of replenishment of one sort or another. 

Suitably satisfied, we begin our descent to sea level on the famous Great Alpine Road (GAR), stopping occasionally to investigate local wineries and breweries. But alas, most are yet to get the memo “Covid restrictions lifted” and remain closed. I signal the team to pull over at Ensay to do a door knock at the winery. Fortunately, owner David Coy is receptive to my entreaties and sells me a bottle of excellent estate-grown red as he unpacks the shopping.  

The GAR deserves its reputation as one of the country’s foremost riding roads. In either redirection, it beckons to challenged. Sweeping, rolling curves, well signposted and a predictable surface make it a joy to ride. The Tiger’s lusty triple fairly purrs with delight as I accelerate between corners, Peter easily pacing me in the bigger VStrom and looking relaxed and confident in the wingman position. 

By the time we feel the salt air in our nostrils, we’ve dropped more than 1600 metres, but not in some fairground, thrill ride plummet. It’s a gentle approach, like a glider lining up a runway from 100 km out. We arrive exhilarated at the seaside holiday town of Lakes Entrance and check in to the Central Hotel. Even for midweek, the place in fairly thronging. Power couple, Alison and Tyson Murphy run the place and have been flat out since Christmas. 

“I’d love to chat guys, but we’re fully booked tonight,” says Alison as she hurries off, loaded with entrees. It’s great to see hospitality back in the swing and the Central has been firing on all cylinders since Christmas. Our rooms are delightful ‘old school’ motel around a central pool and come at very affordable rates. 

On the Home Run

The bulk of our road trip complete, we set aside some time to visit two significant motoring museums on the otherwise unremarkable leg back to Melbourne. We revisit Maffra to stop by the Gippsland Vehicle Collection, housed in the old vegetable de-hydrating factory built during WWII. Inside it’s packed with Australian motoring history with rotating displays that reflect the evolution of Australian built vehicles, an era now sadly passed. A small but noteworthy display of motorcycles includes such gems as a 1929 Douglas and a 1923 Velocette. Plus, there is an entire gallery devoted to model cars. I forget how many times I blurted out “I had one of those!” www.gippslandvehiclecollection.org.au/

The second was the most impressive Holden museum at Trafalgar, housed in the former butter factory and with enough of the Aussie icons to challenge the National Motor Museum’s claim of the biggest collection of Holdens in the world. No bikes, unfortunately, but no self-respecting petrolhead can pass this shrine without paying homage to our domestic manufacturing history. Well done Neil Joiner and his dedicated team of volunteers.  

Our final leg takes us through the towering redgums around Fumina (C465), a route clearly popular with local bikers and we graft ourselves onto the tail of a phalanx of swift runners as they weave a path through these carbon-based skyscrapers. A fitting send-off indeed.

Highlights and Photo Opps

No.21 Dredger

Australia has a fixation for big things and this jigger takes the cake. This big digger dug coal out of Morwell for nearly 70 years. 

Noojee Trestle Bridge

This magnificent timber rail bridge hasn’t seen a train for more than 60 years, but stands as a reminder of the importance of rail in the early days - and the awesome shit you can build with wood.

Danny’s Lookout

At 1700m on the GAR, you have to stop and tip your hat to Danny, named after Danny Cavedon, the friendly local RACV agent in the 1970s.

Gippsland Vehicle Collection

Cars, bikes, gift shop and the kettle is always on. Not a big collection of bikes, but one worthy of your attention nonetheless. Be sure to check our Archie’s Garage and the huge model car collection.

More Information

Throughout the region, you’ll find many local information offices full of ideas and intel on what to do and where to go in Gippsland. 

For an overview of visitor attractions and activities in all of Gippsland, visit the official website at  www.visitgippsland.com.au

This article appeared in Issue 160 (June/July 2021) of Australian Road Rider Magazine

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