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FORGOTTEN HUTS OF THE HIGH COUNTRY

We explore the often overlooked tracks, campsites and huts of the Victorian High Country… oh yeah, in the snow!

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You know those big trips you always plan on doing with your mates, but something always seems to get in the way? Like driving a Suzuki Sierra up the Cape, or riding a postie bike across the Simpson Desert. The interesting, weird and let’s be honest, slightly ridiculous trips that are born late at night around a campfire. The ones we dream of, but once the reality of the next day’s hangover kicks in, never get off the ground. Well, this trip was one of those dreams that we somehow managed to turn into reality. Exploring forgotten huts of the Victorian High Country in the snow.

 

Now, my normal idea of a good time is relaxing on a warm beach, or fishing in a nice quiet tranquil setting. Snow, winter and cold weather aren’t terms in my adventure vocabulary. What makes a trip a real adventure though, is being thrust out of your comfort zone. So instead of dreaming of doing this trip (and subsequently making excuses to bail), we set a realistic date, bought as many warm items of clothing as we could pack, and devised a plan too good to pass up on. Here is what we discovered on what was one of the most unforgettable four-wheel drive adventures of my life.

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CLICK HERE TO READ THE FULL STORY!

 

THE TRIP

Pretty simple really, meet at the most iconic pub in the area, the Dargo Pub. From there we headed to Dog’s Grave campsite which was only an hour or so away. The following day started with a quick stop in Omeo for pies (what else?) and alpine diesel as we had a few issues with fuel ‘glugging up’ overnight. From Omeo, we were off to Moscow Villa, which would be come base camp for the rest of the trip. Day trips from here were simple and plentiful, so rather than bore you with a recount of the trip, here are some of the highlights and low points of exploring the High Country in the snow.

 

HUTS OF THE HIGH COUNTRY

Y’see, I have an unhealthy obsession with mountain huts, particularly the ones that not many people know about, which were the real catalyst for doing this trip. Perhaps it stems from the fact I have lived in many Sydney rental properties, which were mere seedy shelters disguised as houses and charged for at alarming rates, thus feeling quite at home in a hut? Or perhaps they are just awesome (sorry grouse… refer to breakout on speaking Mexican).

In fact, I actually aspire to build a hut on my own property in the near future, so this was really a research mission to see what construction methods stood the test of time, and what failed. The workmanship and designs incorporated are all so uniquely fascinating, as are the stories behind the huts themselves, ranging from mundane to chillingly disturbing.

Then, when you visualise the awful weather and conditions these huts were built in, combined with the lack of power tools or resources, these iconic bush-structures become even more special.

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Here are the huts that resonated with me. Some were gorgeous creations that will be here for years to come, others were so creepy you couldn’t pay me to stay the night.

 

WOULD SELL MY HOUSE TO LIVE HERE: Moscow Villa

I would! I would honestly live at Moscow Villa and dare say I’m not alone in making that comment. What a spot, what a building and what a fantastic place to have access to. Built in 1943 by Bill AhChow with the help of an experienced timber worker, it was Bill’s summer cottage where he could stay while working as a fire spotter. It was named Moscow Villa as construction had wrapped up on the day the Battle for Moscow was being fought. Local authorities considered this to be offensive, so Bill, thinking on his feet, declared that Moscow Villa was actually an acronym for My Own Summer Cottage Officially Welcomes Visitors Inside Light Luncheon Available. The main feature of the hut is a large fireplace, and loft upstairs and believe me, this is as luxurious and comfortable as camping gets.

 

THE BUSH HILTON: Seriously…

It was actually called that!

Technically, the Bush Hilton is called Bentley Plain Hut… but nobody calls it that. The Bush Hilton is located literally just down the hill from Moscow Villa, so if the main hut is full, you have backup accommodation a few hundred metres away. While the hut is much smaller in size, it is really neat and there is actually plenty of space in the surrounding Bentley Plain Reserve camping area for additional campers outside the hut. You will also find some decent fireplaces and a rather unusual picnic shelter with wood fired BBQ too. Perfect for a quiet and relaxing camp.

 

CREEPIEST HUT: Mad Lucy’s Hut (do you dare enter?)

North of the small town of Swifts Creek, is where you will find the legendary Mad Lucy’s Hut., which is technically called Strobridge Hut. Lucy Strobridge who lived here was quite the local character, preferring to live the quiet life of a recluse. A rather traumatic upbringing had taken its toll on poor Lucy, and as such the people of Swifts Creek were left to look after her. It is said that Lucy had secret tracks darting around the property ready for a quick escape if members of the public were to come too close. She would also make wild dog noises and such to scare off inquisitive travellers. Lucy passed away in 2006, however some locals still believe she is alive and hiding in the hills. It must be said, there was a really, really creepy vibe here, and all the locals on the trip were particularly keen to leave this hut. It seems old Lucy really left her mark on this part of the world.

 

BIGGEST SHAME: Delusions Hut

This place had it all! A large dam out the front for water, an underground bunker designed to shelter people in the event of bushfires, and the tracks to get here were the most technically challenging of the entire journey. So what was the problem? The hut, which was originally built as a forestry hut from timber, weatherboard and iron, was in a poor state of repair. So poor in fact, it had been fenced off. It turns out an all too common problem with these huts – the fireplace collapses rendering the hut unserviceable. The future of huts like this remains uncertain, as funds and resources to restore them needs to come from somewhere. And it is cheaper to knock down a hut than fix it sadly. Here’s hoping this once mighty hut is restored to its past former glory.

 

IT’LL HAVE TO DO: McDonalds Hut

McDonalds Hut was a bit of a let down for me. I was expecting something pretty special but in reality it was run down and kind of spooky. And fair enough really, considering it was built all the way back in 1952 by William McDonald, who was commissioned to cut tracks in the area for logging purposes. It has everything you need for an overnight stay, but I wouldn’t really want to do any more than that unless I had to. Sorry to be that guy, but there are better options in the area if huts are what you are looking for. Having said that, with a warm fire roaring on a cold night, it would be much more inviting.

 

NEWEST HUT: Dogs Grave

What a pleasure and awesome (sorry, grouse) start to the trip this was. Dogs Grave Hut has just been rebuilt when we arrived. The original hut was built in the early 1950s so it was a treat to stay in a freshly recreated shelter. And boy, did we appreciate the warm fire inside! The real treat when exploring Dogs Grave is finding the massive and amazingly intricate grave and granite headstone down from the hut towards the creek. This is in memory of (legendary cattleman) Peter Meehan’s dog, and all working cattle dogs of the area. A traveller was so moved by the story of these hardworking animals, he took the time to engrave a poem written by stockman Jack Treasure into a huge slab of granite and build a commemorative grave. If you didn’t look for it, you wouldn’t believe it existed.

 

THE BEST TRACK

Where do you start… literally? There are so many tracks to drive you could spend a month in the area and not even scratch the surface. The best piece of advice I could offer is to grab a Roof Top Adventure Map, and plan your own special adventure, there is so much to see and do down here. We also recorded trip details inside our vehicle on a Hema Navigator, which proved to be a worthwhile exercise.

The highlight from our trip (if you were looking for a challenge) was the South Escarpment Track, just a few minutes down the hill from Moscow Villa. In the dry, it wouldn’t present an issue, even though it is steep and quite rutted. When we drove (or should that be attempted?) the track, there was the combination of fresh snow, mud and a large rock that presented itself near the top of the track. Most vehicles made it to this rock with some perseverance, however not one of us made it over the now notorious rock without resorting to the trusty winch. Definitely worth a look of you are feeling confident.

We found the most snow whilst driving out of Dogs Grave near Dargo, on Mt Phipps Track. This darts towards Omeo before reaching Zig Zag Track and back onto Birregun, which is a main artery through this area.

The climbs around Mount Delusion and McDonalds Hut also rate highly, as they are slipperier than a tub of grease left in the sun. Don’t rush around here, as what may look like a sedate track one minute, could see you slipping-and-sliding uncontrollably at a rate of knots the next. Ask me how I know…

 

SNOW DRIVING TIPS FOR BEGINNERS (like me)

 I’ve spent my entire life four-wheel driving and am confident on just about any terrain, however this was my first time driving in snow, so there were many things to learn. Avoid the mistakes I made, by using these handy tips picked up over a week of trial and error.

Throttle control is very important when driving on snow. While it is similar to driving on sand, you need to use your right boot to steer the vehicle rather than using sharp steering movements. Back off the throttle before a corner, gently steer into it, and then reapply throttle to straighten the vehicle up. Sounds weird, but it works a treat.

Tyre pressures were critical, and something we had to play with throughout the entire trip. Snow driving in the Ironman 4X4 Isuzus fitted with Mickey Thompson P3 A/T tyres seemed to love 20psi. Once the tracks turned to clay, I went as low as 16psi to gain as much grip as possible. The moral of the story? Don’t be afraid to experiment with tyre pressures on a trip such as this with varying terrain. You will be amazed at the difference in traction available, and best of all adjusting tyre pressure doesn’t cost you a cent!

 

Engage Four-Wheel Drive!

Sounds simple, but if you forget to engage four-wheel drive, you could find yourself losing control on a bend in the track, or even sliding backwards down a steep climb as your vehicle fails to gain traction. Patches of slushy mud and deep snow presented themselves at random, so having the vehicle in high-range at most times while on the tracks definitely saved our bacon on a few occasions.

Smooth steering inputs will give you control on the snow. If you get a little grumpy with your steering action, you could find the vehicle understeering through corners. Not ideal! Learn to use your throttle (as previously mentioned) and steering wheel in tandem. A technique that requires some skill to master, but as they say… practice makes perfect.

Buy alpine diesel! I can’t stress this enough. I hail from the Blue Mountains in NSW, and while it gets cold here it certainly doesn’t snow at my house. Alpine diesel slipped my mind. This is a mistake you only want to make once, as your vehicle will be particularly unhappy with you come morning when you attempt to kick it over.

Lift your windscreen wipers off the vehicle’s windscreen before stopping for the night. This is something all the locals we brought on the trip did religiously; otherwise your wipers will be stuck to the windscreen come morning, (insert voice of that famous online video) “ain’t nobody got time for that!”

 

HOW TO SPEAK LIKE A MEXICAN: SIX THINGS ONLY VICTORIANS SAY

  1. GROUSE: Meaning something is awesome (if you are from NSW like me). Example: “That chicken pie was grouse”.
  1. SH!THOT: See grouse.
  1. MINT: See sh!thot.
  1. PISSER: Meaning a comical scene or event has taken place (not in reference to a toilet). Example: “What a pisser, you got your car bogged and is now filling with stanky mud”.
  1. LOW-BOX: Meaning low-range transfer gears selected. Example: “Chuck it in low-box mate”.
  1. ROOFTOPPER: Meaning Rooftop Adventure Maps, which can be purchased from information centres and stores in most towns of the High Country. Example: “Bugger the GPS, I’ve got a Rooftopper”.

 

TEN THINGS YOU NEED TO BRING TO THE HIGH COUNTRY IN WINTER:

Winch (we recovered vehicles on a daily basis)

Good Tool Kit (we also broke vehicles on a daily basis)

Chainsaw (fallen trees are everywhere)

Recovery Gear (no point having a winch and nothing to hook it to)

Traction Aids (saves having to run the winch cable)

Winter Fuel Additive (if alpine diesel isn’t available)

Warm Clothing (well… duh!)

Even Warmer Socks and Shoes (my kingdom for a pair of wool socks)

Gas Cooker or Fire Plate (butane cookers tends to freeze up; thus useless here)

Fire Lighters (you WILL need a fire)

 

THINGS DO GO WRONG

We had several incidents throughout the week-long duration of this trip, all of which were fuel related. Well, one tyre popped off a rim due to a combination of low pressures and a large immovable object that decided to jump in the way. But other than that, fuel systems were what kicked our butt!

  1. Fuel tank: One kind of fell off: Yep, the big GQ Patrol on the trip dropped it’s tank. It was on the first day of the journey, just after leaving Dargo Pub and hitting the tracks towards Dogs Grave Campground. We noticed something hanging from under the truck -lucky we had a few spare bolts found in the other vehicles, and we were able to carry out an effective bush repair that lasted the trip duration.
  1. Injector Pump: How’s this for a story? That same day Darren in the tough 75 Series LandCruiser was experiencing power loss and poor running. After a detailed inspection, metal shavings were found in the 1HZ injector pump. Normally, this would be game over and a tow truck would be called, but when you are with a group of diesel mechanics, all it took was a phone call and we had one dropped off at Dargo that afternoon. Daz swapped it out over night, and was running again the next morning. Top effort!
  1. Fuel Filter: It kinda got smashed. The clear-bowl fuel filter on Jacob’s neat-as 47 Troopy sits quite low(check out the custom feature on this thing earlier in the mag). So low in fact, he built a guard for it. The same guard he decided to take off and leave at home, only to have the fuel filter knocked off by a stray rock… ouch! The solution here was to seal it up with silicon, and keep a close eye on it. Hey, it worked and survived the trip. However, we are fairly sure Jacob will be installing that guard again once he’s home.
  1. Wrong Fuel: On day two of our adventure, the mighty Ironman 4X4 Isuzu MU-X started and idled fine, but there was a fuel light glowing on the dash. Things went pear-shaped after attempting the first hill climb of the day as the truck lost power and surged like a leg-humping dog. Bugger, we forgot to run alpine diesel, and the fuel had ‘glugged up’. A few minutes in the sun, and running the truck in low-range had the problem sorted, but we were sure to fill up with alpine diesel at the next fuel stop.
  1. Fuel Pump: The big GQ again had a bit of a nap, as the fuel pump appeared to not be supplying enough fuel to the engine. We filled it up with as much petrol (the only gas-guzzler on the trip) as we had to put a bit of pressure on the pump, and we managed to limp it home… even if the truck was bunny-hopping as if it were being driven by an L-plater with short legs.

 

THE VEHICLES

So you might have noticed the Ironman 4X4 Isuzu four-wheel drives in this article. Well, the people at Ironman 4X4 were kind (should that be crazy?) enough to loan these vehicles to us for the duration of the trip. They wanted real world feedback of the modifications they have performed, and what better testing ground is there?

The only catch, was these vehicles needed to be on display at the Melbourne 4X4 show the following week, so any scratches or dents would be a no-no. So here you had a motoring journo, driving unfamiliar vehicles, on unfamiliar terrain.

And the results?

It must be said, both the D-MAX and MU-X performed flawlessly on this trip, with the only issue being my stupidity at not running alpine diesel on the first night.

How did I go? Well, lets just say I’d kiss the inventor of traction control.

The vehicles went everywhere we pointed them, yet were returned unharmed, albeit covered in mud, snow and clay. Sorry Ironman 4X4 team, I owe your detailer a beer! Stay tuned for a full feature on these vehicles, as we take a closer look at the accessories installed and what we loved or loathed about the Ironman 4X4 Isuzu projects.

Words By Evan Spence, Photography By Brett Hemmings

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