Western Victoria’s Grampians National Park is a mountainous bush escape just three hours’ from Melbourne.
As we rounded yet another bend in the undulating road, the dense trees bordering roadside farms parted, just for a moment, and my jaw dropped at the sight of the rocky monolith that is Mt Abrupt rising proudly out of the forest in front of us.
“You know the Grampians are the end of the Great Dividing Range, don’t you?” my helpful travel companion proffered.
Well, no. I didn’t, actually. And as a native of this country’s largest, flattest state, any natural feature higher than a gently-sloping hill still amazes me.
As a relative newcomer to the garden state, I’d created a veritable bucket list of destinations since arriving here, with the Grampians National Park in western Victoria firmly at the top of that list.
Halls Gap – the gateway to the Grampians – is an easy three-hour drive, 250km north-west of Melbourne, and is on the north-eastern edge of the national park.
Stopping by the sensational Brambuk National Park and Cultural Centre is essential before you begin your Grampians experience – especially if you plan to bush camp, as you need to buy a permit and find out which campsites are open.
Staff will also provide detailed maps of the area and point out the local highlights.
With only a couple of hours before the sun slipped below the spectacular horizon and plunged us into that absolute darkness you can only get in the bush, we headed for The Pinnacle lookout which affords glorious views over the hills and valleys.
The Pinnacle can only be reached by a decent trek from either the Wonderland or Sundial car parks. We opted for the Sundial route – a moderately strenuous 4.2km-return (1.5-2 hours) walk.
While the parks are clearly defined and/or marked, it is quite hilly and you will clamber up and over rocks throughout the journey, so it requires a decent level of fitness and is not suitable for people with limited mobility.
The trek from Wonderland, while a similar distance, is even more testing and takes about 2.5 hours.
Once you reach The Pinnacle, though, your efforts are rewarded with uninterrupted views across the remarkable landscape. Perched above Lake Bellfield, it’s easy to feel on top of the world out here. And the good news is; it’s nearly all downhill on the way back!
The following morning, we headed south on the Grampians Tourist Road to Dunkeld, on the southern tip of the park. As we rolled south, the towering green hills which enclosed us around Halls Gap gave way to open farmland as the ranges began to peter out.
The storybook farms had lush green paddocks, thanks to the early winter rains, and were sprinkled with fluffy sheep, a few early lambs and even some emus.
Sixty-five kilometres from Halls Gap, we reached Dunkeld, which seemed to have just as many services but a much smaller crowd.
As we wandered through the historic town, several inviting cafes beckoned and we stood for more than a few minutes outside the famous Royal Mail Hotel trying to decide whether staying one extra night in order to dine there and racing back to the city, pre-dawn the next day, for work was feasible. It wasn’t, we reluctantly decided, but it does give us a good reason to return!
With much of the northern Grampians still to explore, we headed north again – this time on the Victoria Valley Road through the centre of the national park.
Just out of Dunkeld, on that road, is the infamous Grampians Golf Club. Set on the western slopes of Mt Abrupt in pristine bushland, this has got to be one of the most picturesque courses in the country.
The 18-hole course is open to the public, no bookings required, and operates an honour payment system. The fairways are emerald green and scattered with trees, while the greens are…slightly less green. A major interest factor of this golf course is its reddish-brown sand greens which must be raked to a smooth finish to ensure any chance of sinking that ball.
Wildlife is so prolific across the course that organisers have had to implement special rules to outline what to do if your ball is taken by a rogue crow.
Next, we headed for Mackenzie Falls – one of the most popular destinations in the Grampians and for good reason.
The falls are the tallest in Victoria and are one of the rare few Australian waterfalls which flow all year round. Pouring out of the mighty Mackenzie River, the falls cascade over a rocky ledge into the deep pool below.
There are a number of options for getting up close to the thundering tower of water, depending on whether you want to see it from the top, bottom, or across the gorge.
We opted for the lookout across the Mackenzie River Gorge, which was an easy (and flat!) 1.75km-return stroll through eucalypt forest with towering trees and some wonderful big, and therefore, very old, spiny grass trees.
This walk is suitable for wheelchairs and those with mobility issues.
While you might be too far away to hear the thunderous clap of the falling water, you get an uninterrupted view of the falls, from top to bottom, from the lookout – it’s the perfect place to appreciate them in all their glory.
But, if you’d rather stand below the tremendous sheet of water or paddle in the pool at its base, you’ll need to descend the steep and tricky path to the bottom of the falls. The 1.16km walk is labelled ‘strenuous but rewarding’ and is recommended only for people with a good level of fitness.
But, whichever walk you choose, you’re bound to be enthralled by the raw power and beauty of these falls.