Just four hours drive east of the Melbourne CBD, the challenging terrain of the Victorian High Country has cemented it as one of the most iconic 4WD destinations in the country. As a result, the area is at the top of the bucket list for avid off-roaders.
Many Australians travel far and wide to find their own little oasis in the region. Thankfully, the Victorian Parks organisation recognise this; each year it maintains a series of tracks that criss-cross this vast tract of land.
The tracks wind their way up, around and down looming mountain sides. They drop to the valley floor and several stream crossings await intrepid off-roaders before climbing up again and running along open ridge lines, with vertical drops either side.
The appeal lies in the challenging terrain and isolation, with off-roaders and hunters using the area extensively. There are some incredibly steep climbs and drops, that make your head spin, with scattered rock providing the ultimate challenge. The river crossings, while mostly manageable, can become deep and fast flowing, requiring a little skill.
With all this in mind, it’s perhaps not the place you would consider bringing a stock standard off-roader. But we decided to do just that and test the courage of the new Suzuki Jimny and the family-focussed Holden Trailblazer Z71.
The Suzuki Jimny needs little introduction. It already has a solid reputation as an accomplished off-roader, tackling deserts, beaches and rocky tracks with aplomb. You can spot thousands of them up and down the east coast too, as they make the perfect beach cruiser. It is perhaps the only small off-roader on the market and with a price in the low- to mid-$20k region and is a perfect choice for any up-and-coming adventurer.
On the other hand, The Holden Trailblazer is more likely to be seen on the tarmac than in the bush. The Z71 is the top of the line model and weighs a portly 2194 kilograms. It’s twice as big as the Jimny. It’s a seven-seater aimed at families, and is, unsurprisingly, much better equipped than the Suzuki.
Our journey started at Dargo, a popular jumping off point for the Victorian High Country. The general store here has fuel and supplies, plus does a mean burger to keep you going after the drive from Melbourne.
We filled a few jerry cans and got the last of the things we needed which were dutifully placed in the support vehicle, our own Nissan Navara. It is handy travelling in a group, both for convenience and from a safety point of view. Plus, it allows you to spread out your gear among friends, particularly relevant if you’re in a Jimny with a useless 85-litre boot with all the seats in place.
Dargo was a popular township for a stopover for Victorian Gold Rush miners on their way to the gold fields at in the mid-1800s. At last census in 2006, the heady rush of people had long gone, and the town population stands at around 150.
Our arrival into Dargo was later than expected, so we headed straight to Talbotville. This is an old gold mining area on the banks of the Crooked River. When they say 'river', it is more of a stream. I hoped to find a trout here but we were horribly out of season and the river flow and levels were low. It is, however, the perfect place to lay out your swag. There are plenty of flat, grassy camping spots along the river. A quick tour of the area and you will discover old rock walls, still standing, long after the gold was gone.
The road in is cut into the mountain side, offering broken views through the trees before it drops into the valley. The drop is steep, but the track itself was well graded and didn’t pose any threats to the vehicles.
It is important to note that some tracks in the Victorian High Country are closed at times. These seasonal road closures generally operate from the long weekend in June to the end of October but can be extended due to seasonal conditions. We were lucky in February, with hardly any rain but a large downpour can make many of the tracks muddy, slippery and dangerous. The closures are generally in place during the wetter months and snow season. It's best to check with Vic Parks before you travel.
Leading out of the Talbotville camping area is the Crooked River Track. You will experience relatively graded dirt road, but this track joins with the South Basalt Knob Track which is at the opposite end of the spectrum and the first true test for our fleet.
The track offers amazing views over the area, but to capture those snaps, be prepared for the colossal climb up a very steep section. The track floor is littered with dirt, dust, loose stones and in several sections, jagged rock protruding from the ground.
We walked the climb first to ensure we knew where to place the cars and sent the much better equipped Navara up first. With higher ground clearance, upgraded suspension and tyres, plus a rear diff-lock, it clambered up the more difficult sections with relative ease.
The Jimny comes with 210mm of clearance as standard, so could do with a suspension package and new tyres if regular off-roading is on your radar. As a result, we decided to go around the section tackled by the Navara. While still very steep, with loose and jagged rocks, the ground clearance required on the alternate track was more in keeping with the Jimny’s standard setup.
On standard shoes and with 4WD low engaged, the Jimny crawled up in first gear effortlessly. The All Grip Pro traction control is effective in minimising wheel spin and putting the power where it is needed most, maintaining forward momentum in even the most difficult of climbs.
The Holden Trailblazer has even less clearance, and you really notice it through the centre underbody of the car. Holden quotes a ground clearance of 219mm, although I’m sure it’s less than that. As a result, careful positioning of the vehicle on any track is paramount.
The Holden is equipped with 4High and 4Low and runs a limited slip-diff in the rear. As we climbed up the hill, a right-hand bend became almost too much for the turning circle of the Trailblazer, but we just scraped around.
In addition, a washout left us with a couple of wheels well clear of the ground. We hung there and time stood still, as we waited for the traction control to engage and put the power where we needed it, until we were underway again. It got there in the end and while not as easily as the lighter and more nimble Jimny, or the better-equipped Navara, it was impressive to see a family-based car making such a climb.
The South Basalt Knob Track is fairly manageable after the climb, as it winds its way through the bush. Most of it is dirt with the odd rocky section. There can be several puddles along the way after rain. The track is over 25 kilometres long, so keep that in mind if you plan to do the entire run and then return to camp. If not, at the end of the track is a left turn onto perhaps the best known climb in the area, the Blue Rag Trig. This is the highest point of the range, hence the trig station, and affords the most spectacular views.
The Blue Rag Trig Track runs along a ridge line of the Blue Rag range. It offers 360-degree views of the area, and to Mount Hotham, and is over 1600 metres high. The trig point sits at 1718 metres. It is special country and worth the one way trip in and back. Close to the track, the surrounding stretch is saturated with long deceased gums, reaching skyward, with their ghostly outstretched hands, shimmering against the setting sun.
You aren’t able to camp at the trig, but a little further along the track are some clearings that have been, and can, be used for camping. We decided to stop here after a long day on the tracks and set up camp with the setting sun.
It is exposed, so if the wind is up or a cold snap is on its way, I would suggest you find another location further down the range in a more protected area. As it turns out, halfway through the night, the wind howled, huffed and puffed, but was no match for the fancy ARB swags we were tucked into. It was mightily cold though, for February!
Both the Holden and Suzuki are fitted with hill descent control and it is a handy tool when running the Blue Rag Trig Track as it goes up and down along the ridge line. While both were adequate, the Suzuki Jimny version was a little better than the Holden Trailblazer’s. Once engaged, there was not much between them, both controlling the speed of the car admirably, but the Suzuki Jimny had much less of a lag when engaged and didn’t let the car run off too much before kicking in.
You can spot Mount Hotham from the trig point and it’s only a short drive away. Here you can enjoy a little blacktop driving and grab some supplies as you pass through. There are cafes here but do not expect too much out of season.
We elected to go through Mount Hotham and carry on another 13 kilometres to Dinner Plain. There is another small town here and the entrance to the Dinner Plain Track runs alongside the buildings before opening up into expansive bushland. It’s not a difficult track to follow; there are some muddy puddles, but nothing too troubling.
We had hoped to head down into the valley via the Mayford Track, but it was closed. The track had been off limits for some time, due to the extreme terrain and the risk to vehicles and life, we learned later. Luckily, we were able to continue on along the Dinner Plain Track. It’s important when planning any trip like this to have a back-up plan and a back-up for the back-up.
Both cars handled this track superbly and were comfortable for the most part. The Suzuki’s diminutive size enabled it to choose its line seemingly at will, while the larger Holden Trailblazer required a more cautious and steady hand, guiding it through the rockiest and most difficult stages.
Upon reaching the King Spur Track, we turned right and headed down to the Dargo River, where we planned to camp, and I hoped to snag a trout. Sadly, there wasn’t even a sighting. I am assured that they are indeed here, but your best chance is the winter months through to September.
The track here drops down to the valley below quite steeply and both cars handled the drop with ease. With the correct tyre pressures on each car, grip was maximised and maintained over some rubbly and loose ground.
Tyre pressures can really make a difference and no matter whether you’re in a modified 4WD or a standard one, they are an important contributor to your success on the tracks. Here, we got our only rain for the trip. Not much, just a few light showers, but on the dirt roads, you could see how bad they could get, especially the climb back out on the last day.
Along the river are several designated camping spots, some with drop toilets and other with deep water holes in which to swim. At the right time of the year, you will find trout and the general store at Dargo can give you some local guidance.
The Victorian High Country is one of the most majestic 4WD locations in the country, covering some of the most varied terrain available. The tracks can be tough, but with some experience can be tackled in a standard vehicle. Some of the tougher, higher ground clearance areas can be avoided altogether, which is recommended, unless you have other vehicles travelling in convoy. In times of heavy rain or snow, appropriate tyres will be necessary to deal with the, at times, clingy mud.
Throughout our trip, the Suzuki Jimny was impressive and an absolute hoot to drive. It is quick, agile and nimble over all terrain and felt like it would clear many more obstacles than the Holden due to its short wheelbase. On the other hand, you can’t fit much in the back, let alone a family.
The Holden really surprised with its ability, even in standard guise, to scramble up steep ascents and across some fairly bumpy terrain. Ground clearance aside, it performed much better than I expected. I think we put it through much more than your average weekend warrior would ever dream of.
If you get the chance, come to the Victorian High Country. Between the scenery, serenity and quaint towns, it truly offers some of the best off-roading you will ever dream of.