Sometimes the best travel experiences are right under our nose.
This week we spent a few glorious days camping in the Grampians, a trip that entailed towing our caravan just an hour and a half up the road.
I’ve been to the Grampians lots of times; on school trips, sporting break ups and the odd wild camping trip to Jimmy’s Creek in my youth but we’ve never really explored the area before.
We stayed at the Hall’s Gap Lakeside Tourist Park. This park has earned itself a number 1 rating on Trip Advisor and deservedly so. The park butts up against the Lake Bellfield dam on one side, the national park at the back and a huge, cleared area on the other side. The camping area is quite compact, giving it a very convivial, almost carnival atmosphere. There’s a variety of cabins, huts and ‘glamping’ tents around the perimeter and powered sites in the middle. Our site was down the back in Kangaroo Lane and it was huge. We easily fitted the van, annexe , gazebo, car and Taine’s tent and still had room for a huge fire pit that we rented for $10 for the duration of our visit. The firepits are a great drawcard and certainly add to the cheery feel of the park. In the morning and the evening the cool mountain air is easily counteracted by the many camp fires. Along with the firepits, the park has a fire heated swimming pool. It’s pretty small but very popular and the fact that someone has to get up at 4.30 every morning to heat the water is testament to the management’s focus on family amenities. There are also dozens of trampolines, a basketball court and a fully equipped camp kitchen (complete with its own open fire). Add to this the individual webers at each cabin and a delightful ice cream seller who circles the camp on her bicycle each night and you have a resort experience for a caravan park price. As an added bonus, the place is brimming with wildlife – to the extent that you must remember to close the annexe door or be confronted with a very large kangaroo sharing your accommodation in the night!
We were blessed with magnificent Autumn weather , perfect for walking. Given our location, it was easy to take a stroll along the Bellfield Dam wall on the first evening. Lake Bellfield is a man made water way and the 800 metre wall provides great views of the lake itself and the mountains. It also provides a great swimming spot to cool off in this late Summer warmth.
On Monday we tackled The Pinnacle, a rocky spur on one of the mountains overlooking Hall’s Gap. Unfortunately, I hadn’t done my homework well enough. There are a couple of different starting points for tackling the Pinnacle and we chose the Wonderland carpark base rather than the easier Sundial base. Nevertheless, we all made it to the top, despite the screaming of my calves. The view from the top was definitely worth the exertion of the climb and I will save the Sundial path for my next visit.
One of the best things about walking is that once you’ve finished you feel justified in treating yourself to something yummy to eat so we went to the little shopping hub in town for a pie from the bakery and an ice cream. The pie was OK, the ice cream was excellent. Shopping in Hall’s Gap, or should I say, the lack of shopping opportunities, confuses me. With so many tourists passing through, it feels like an opportunity waiting to happen. As it is, apart from the ice cream, there’s just a lot of REALLY bad souvenirs. In one shop they even sell Golliwogs, a whole shelf of them. I find this particularly strange in an ancient place that is also home to Brambuck, the aboriginal cultural centre. Having stayed in Hall’s Gap before, we packed plenty of provisions from home, so we didn’t have to fork out too much for essentials at the food store.
On Tuesday we took a little road trip, through Pomonal to Stawell, the home of Australia’s richest footrace, the Stawell Gift. In Pomonal we’d hoped to check out the Red River olive shop, but they were closed. Instead we turned off to Lake Fyans. I remember this as a much sought after holiday spot when I was a kid, home to fishing and water skiing. Hordes of very angry looking ants swarming all over the path discouraged us from getting too close to the water on the north side but we took a short walk from the boat ramp on the south side to the caravan park. With the water level very low, the lake presents a pretty barren vista at the moment but it was certainly a peaceful spot and the few families camping there looked to be having fun.
At Central Park in Stawell, the lovely info lady let the kids run the Stawell Gift track, pretty cool considering the race is only a week away. Geoff had a bit of a look in the Gift Hall of Fame room. The rest of us read the sign that said it was $5 each for admittance and we had no cash on us. Neither did he, which was awkward!
It’s hard to imagine how busy Stawell might become over Easter when the athletic carnival is on but it was eerily quiet this week. At 1pm on Tuesday you could fire a gun up the (aptly named) Main street and no one would notice. We walked the length and breadth of the town and hardly saw a soul. There are very impressive public toilets and lots of shops that sell pretty much everything and anything you might need if you were to become suddenly stranded in Stawell but Waack’s bakery, at the far end of town, did not, unfortunately, live up to the hype of its own advertising. The girl who served us was chewing gum, quite violently, with her mouth open. Given that my husband suffers from misophonia (rage filled hatred of the sound of chewing!), this was not a good start. Even though it was only 1.30 pm, most of the pie selection was missing from the warmer and so our order was filled, bit by bit, as the pies were individually heated, creating that awkward dining experience where some of your group are starving, some eating and some bored while they wait for everyone else. And, you had to pay extra for sauce, even though we were eating in. I hate that almost as much as I hate the inevitable sauce stain caused by the rupture of the silly sauce container. I’m pleased to say though,that my pastie, when it eventually arrived, was excellent, with tiny cubes of vegies rather than mush. The award winning vanilla slice was ‘meh’.
After our not so satisfying lunch, we drove to the top of (also aptly named) Big Hill Rd to a rotunda observation point that provides a 360 view of the surrounding countryside. It was very pretty. We also drove down to the observation area of the Stawell Gold Mine. Unfortunately there was nothing to observe except a sign about how the mine is being transformed into an amazing underground physics lab. Maybe we’ll go back and observe when that’s completed.
Before dinner we drove out to Reed’s Lookout to catch the sun setting over the Wimmera. It was further than we anticipated and we only just made it in time. Luckily the lookout is only metres from the car park and a few more metres up a slight rise takes you to the fire lookout and helipad, where you really feel as if you are on top of the world, with amazing views out and down. Smoke from lots of burn offs helped add colour to the sunset so it was just stunning.
Watching the sunset always deserves a reciprocal sunrise so we dragged ourselves out of bed at 6am the next morning to repeat the drive up the mountain, this time turning off to the right to take us to the other side to Boroka Lookout. Once again, Mother Nature obliged with a picturesque light show and the view out across Lake Bellfield, Lake Lonsdale and Lake Fyans was amazing.
With my calves still screaming after their work out up and down the Pinnacle, the thought of climbing anything else was a bit daunting but I love waterfalls and you can’t really see much of the McKenzie Falls from the top, so down, down, down I went. This is a very popular walk and there were lots of people on the same track but that didn’t detract from the beauty of the falls from the bottom. And after the Pinnacle, McKenzie Falls is a cakewalk, very accessible to walkers of all fitness levels because, despite the 560 steps down and up, there is a very sturdy railing all the way to help you.
After another lunch stop at the bakery ( pastie not as good as Waack’s, vanilla slice better), we were revived enough for a trip to the Hall’s Gap Zoo. I’m not a great fan of captive animals at anytime and I was a bit tired from the early start and the Fall’s walk so my attention probably didn’t do the place justice but honestly, when you are constantly surrounded by ‘wild’ wildlife as you are in the Grampians, then caged cockatoos and kangaroos don’t really hold much appeal and the non native animals like the cheetahs and giraffes seem sadly out of place. We had an amusing interaction with a cassowary and an ostrich, both of whom identified Geoff as a threatening fellow bird brain and the meerkats were entertaining as always but I was glad when the others had had enough and we could get back into town before the ice cream shop closed. I think the zoo would be a great place with small children or overseas visitors but at $70 for three of us it wasn’t great value for money.
At the eastern end of the caravan park, right in front of our camp site, is a rocky cliff face rising up from the creek bed below. As we were settling in for pre dinner drinks Taine and Jackson decided to go for a stroll on the other side of the creek. Next minute they were coo-eeing from the very top! Not to be outdone, their fathers jumped up and scaled the mountain as well. Although the walk didn’t feature on our tourist map, it’s clearly a manageable one and an entertaining way to finish off our break.
As with all great holidays, our four days wasn’t quite enough and I would have been happy to stay at the Lakeside for a week but I’m looking forward to going back again, maybe in the Spring when there’s a bit more grass on the ground, water in the lakes and the wild flowers are out.
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