In the heart of Toolangi

Story and photography by STEVE ROBERSTON

Victoria’s tall timber forests are closer to civilisation than many might think. Here is wilderness and waterfalls an easy 90-minute drive from Melbourne.

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Hands up, everyone who’s heard of Victoria’s Murrindindi Scenic Reserve.

Amazingly, for such an accessible, yet natural place, the reserve and its surrounding attractions barely rate a mention in most tourism guides. Good thing, really. Those of us in the know can delight in Murrindindi’s 70-metre-high mountain ash forests and abundant waterfalls without a lot of other folks getting in our way.

smlArrowright.gif (507 bytes) The Spectacular Trees of Murrindi Reserve

Murrindindi sounds like the name of some wild and distant outback locale. In fact it’s less than 90 minutes drive north-east from the Melbourne GPO. And while this scenic reserve in the heart of Toolangi State Forest is the natural jewel in the region’s crown, there are plenty of other close by attractions to keep a couple or a family busy for a week.

If you’re camping, Murrindindi Scenic Reserve is your ideal base of operations. Choose from among eight camp sites in the reserve — one of them is so developed it even boasts flushing toilets. The others are comfortable and scenic, sited as most in tall forest along the rushing Murrindindi River.

Once you’ve picked your perfect spot and put up the tent, here’s the A-List of things to do and see.

Waterfalls

Take a 30-minute walk through the bush to Wilhelmina Falls. It’s an easy stroll to the falls, then you can press on and make it a two-hour loop walk through the reserve. Don’t miss the short walk to Murrindindi Cascades, a track with three footbridges allowing the whole family to enjoy great river views. There’s also a walk that takes you alongside the rushing Murrindindi River for up to six kilometres, but it’s not a return track.

Timber treats

About 25 minutes drive south of the reserve is Toolangi Forest Discovery Centre, a strikingly-designed wood structure with displays about Victoria’s different forest types. There’s historic film footage showing the men and women who worked in the many isolated sawmilling villages early in this fast-closing century. Maps for sale here will help you plan where to explore, and there’s a nice gift shop full of locally-made wood carvings and other souvenirs.

Jurassic Park

Dry eucalypt forest dominates much of the landscape here, but now and then you come across a pocket of wet rainforest that looks like something straight out of Jurassic Park. Such a place is Wirra Willa Nature Walk just 10 minutes’ drive from Toolangi Forest Discovery Centre. A short track alongside both banks of tiny Sylvia Creek leads through a steep gully filled with rainforest myrtle trees and lush green ferns. Save this walk for a cloudy or misty day to get the full dinosaur-era effect.

Fur and feathers

An award-winner for many years, Healesville Sanctuary is justifiably rated as the nation’s number one place to see more than 200 species of Australian birds, mammals and reptiles close-up in a natural setting. The sanctuary is 20 minutes’ drive south from Murrindindi and has to be rated as a don’t-dare-miss-it attraction. Be sure you’re there for the exciting and informative daily raptor show, not to mention the koala talk. Call (03) 5962 9314 for show times and further information.

Trails galore

Just west across Melba Highway is Kinglake National Park, a sprawling world of tall trees, mighty waterfalls and attractive picnic areas. To experience it properly you’ll need to devote at least a day to the park. There are an amazing 24 bushwalks to try, but be sure you don’t miss the 43-metre-high Mason’s Falls one kilometre from the picnic ground, and the sheltered cool walk through the soaring mountain ash of Jehosaphat Gully (well-developed with modern toilets, electric barbecues and a picnic area).

For camping, check out The Gums camping area, a site in the park’s northern sector with facilities suitable for disabled people. It has the park’s only camp sites.

Not at all disappointing!

There’s an outstanding forest drive which starts at Kinglake West and takes you through the ominously-named Mt Disappointment State Forest. Just follow the blue road signs or map markings and you’ll soon be deep in dense bush. Besides driving, you can ride horses, do a bush motorcycle tour, or fossick for evidence of the gold mining boom of the 1870s, when rip-roaring towns like Clonblaine or Strath Creek were alive with the whoops of joyous prospectors. The highlight is the summit of Mt Disappointment and some great views of Melbourne’s skyline in the distance. By the way, the explorers Hume and Hovell gave the reserve its gloomy name. They wanted to climb to the summit but were defeated by the thick undergrowth.

Bush poetry

Check out the heritage of C.J. Dennis, creator of The Sentimental Bloke, and one of our country’s most beloved poets. There are sites associated with him all throughout the district. Dennis lived in the Toolangi/Murrindindi area between 1918 and 1924, managing a sawmill and still finding time to write about the old-timers he met, hardy veterans like 83-year-old "Dad" McGee and a colorful woodcutter with whom he got into a spot of trouble:

We were cartin’ laths and palin’s from the slopes of Mt St Leonard

With our axles near the road bed and the mud as stiff as glue

And our bullocks weren’t precisely what you’d call conditioned nicely

And meself and Messmate Mitchell had our doubts about gettin’ through.

Hanging about

Just up the road from the scenic reserve is the attractive town of Yea. Here you can organise a trip out to some steep rock faces northwest along the Goulburn Valley Highway. This is the perfect locale for learning to abseil.

Relax

But if you prefer your holiday adrenaline-free, a relaxing stay in the campgrounds of Murrindindi Scenic Reserve is just the ticket.

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As soon as the tent is up and the lilo's inflated the relaxation starts

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Our two favorites were Bull Creek (about half-way up the nine kilometre-long snake-shaped reserve), and Pine Tree, at the northern end. Incredibly, even on a sunny holiday weekend there were still plenty of tent or campervan sites at both locations; other campgrounds like The Ferns and Blackwood were even less full.

Campsite booking is only necessary if you are coming here as part of a large group.

A special place

The mountain ash (or swamp gum, as it’s called in some states) is the world’s tallest flowering plant, reaching skyward up to 90 metres and beyond. As a tree species, its height is second in the world only to California’s cathedral-like redwoods.

There are only a few places left in Australia where we can enjoy such tall forests in all their soaring majesty. Murrindindi Scenic Reserve, Kinglake National Park, and the forests around them are collectively just such a place. It’s a joyous privilege just for a while to be part of it.