The Great Alpine Road
May I be bold? In many ways, the Great Alpine Road is even more spectacular than Victoria’s Great Ocean Road. After all, the Great Ocean Road has a descending number of Apostles as the ocean keeps claiming them.
The Great Alpine Road, on the other hand, starts modestly enough at its northerly Wangaratta end – 60km or so southwest of Albury-Wodonga and the Murray River – and finishes just as discreetly in the wonderful Gippsland region near Bairnsdale. But at its heart the trail builds to a magnificent crescendo in the sections between Bright, Harrietville and Omeo, peaking at some 1750m at the usually frosty Mt Hotham. Diverse scenery, plunging waterfalls and cliff-top panoramas can’t help but inspire; traversing the Australian Alps way beyond the blue gums and zigzagging throughout, this 308km touring gem (without detours, that is, of which there are many – and delightful they are too) provides views covering the very roof of the country.
The last leg of the journey, back again at sea level, promises – and delivers – coastal horizons and glimpses of the Gippsland Lakes, a change indeed from the rocky escarpments and thicket of alpine valleys. And the drive itself is, in a purely engineering sense, a cut above the average. Especially for the long and winding climb from the Ovens Valley floor to the summit just alongside Mt Feathertop, with the mighty Mt Bogong and Mt Buffalo peaks in the distance.
Various spectacular side trips exist, whether via short drives, on horseback or hiking on foot. At the beginning of the Alpine Road itself, a quick diversion will take you through one of the country’s premier gourmet regions: Milawa Cheeses and Milawa Mustards may yet achieve “household name” status, but Brown Brothers wines are certainly already there – and all are here in tiny Milawa.
During the warmer summer months, a walk from Mt Hotham passing the Red Robin Goldmine to Mt McKay and attractive Falls Creek is eminently rewarding. Autumn brings ochre and rusty red tones to Bright, making the always-striking little town that much more tempting. And as winter creeps in, sip on hot chocolate from the veranda of the gracious Mt Buffalo Resort, where steep ridges peak through a blanket of cloud. Alternatively, take a drive to Hotham itself, that winter wonderland famous for skiing of all varieties, with vantage points commanding views of the state’s second highest peak, Mt Feathertop (only imposing Mt Bogong is higher). And as spring slinks in and wildflowers carpet the countryside, what better time to tackle the longer and shorter walks of Alpine National Park, Victoria’s largest?
For the dedicated driver, the Great Alpine Road is sealed throughout and offers a high standard of lodging options. The tranquil – and very different – setting of Dinner Plain is just ten minutes downhill and east of Hotham and takes in pine-clad hills, wildflowers in summer and snowflakes in winter, and is for year-round admiration; a distinctive architectural design sets it apart, with original cattlemen’s huts providing a uniquely Australian alpine experience.
The proliferation of eucalyptus trees has embroidered the land longer than we know – so make the most of the scenery. The trick, and it’s an easy one, is to drive in a southeasterly direction towards Gippsland in the afternoons, away from the sun. Alternatively, tackle the other direction early in the morning. Although the road does wind around a bit, it’s twice as easy to drive with the sun behind you. Given the number of crests and sharp corners en route, this a serious factor to take into account when planning your trip schedule. Bear in mind: alpine conditions can change in an instant, no matter what the time of year.
Not only is this safer, more enjoyable and cooler, but without the sun’s glare you’ll really get a chance to see what this part of the country has to offer. And it offers plenty.
DETAILS: The Great Alpine Road – http://www.greatalpineroad.info/
Where: Begins on the Hume Highway at Wangaratta and stretches some 308km to Bairnsdale, Victoria.
Wangaratta Information Centre phone: 1800 801 065
Bright Visitor’s Centre phone: (03) 5755 2275
Omeo Visitor’s Centre phone: (03) 5159 1552
Bairnsdale Visitor’s Centre phone: (03) 5152 3444
General Victoria website: www.visitvictoria.com