An overnight adventure to discover camp sites in the Yarra Ranges.
The morning started as most of our previous camping trips have; with an early morning walk with the dogs before loading our packs into the Hilux. We headed down the highways and through the stunning Black Spur toward Marysville, reluctantly agreeing that bacon and egg sandwiches from our favourite roadhouse – Roadrunners Roadhouse in Coldstream – wasn’t the healthy breakfast option we had discussed the night before. We opted instead to visit the Marysville Foodworks for some blueberries, bananas and tangelos before continuing on our journey to the first site – Married Mens Camping Ground.
The drive along Marysville – Woods Point Road was somewhat eerie, with the thick morning fog blanketing the mountain as we ascended. The temperature dropped to 1°C as we arrived at the intersection with Lake Mountain Road and had barely risen to 3°C by the time we had descended and turned on to Big River Road. While not quite as stunning as the Black Spur, the views along Marysville – Woods Point Road were still incredible and well worth a photo or two.
The drive along Big River Road was very different to Marysville – Woods Point Road, as the fog created an almost smokey haze you would expect from a nearby bush fire. The wide, bare road dominated the landscape as we twisted and turned through the forest; only softening as the fog disappeared near the camp site to reveal the dense forest that had been hidden for most of our journey. After two hours of nearly continuous driving in a warm and cosy Hilux, we were excited to brave the winter weather as we explored the first site on our list.
The Married Mens Camping Ground was a very simple, open camp site that had good, clear access to Arnold Creek. The camp site is essentially a large turning circle, with plenty of space to set up a tent, caravan or trailer. There were no toilets on site, it was very close to the road and offered little privacy, so we filled up our LifeStraw Go drink bottles and headed a hundred metres down the road to the Big River Camp.
We had read online about the Big River Camp and we found what we were expecting to see – a substantial bush camp site extending from grassed clearings on both sides of the Big River Road into the surrounding forest; especially on the south side away from the creek. The site has toilets and is perfect for large, social groups travelling with dirt bikes, multiple caravans or trailers.
The next site on our list was the Big River Pines Camping Area. We couldn’t find a description of the site or its location online; only a marker on Google Maps suggesting it was a short drive from the Big River Camp. What we found was a unique and picturesque site that was completely unlike the previous two sites we had just visited. We were surrounded by a cluster of tall, thin pine trees that were covered with ivy and surrounded by small ferns. The pines shielded us from the nearby road and provided us with glimpses of the sun; creating a beautiful, semi-secluded camp site that highlighted the amazing elements and aspects of winter camping. This was a place we were keen to stay.
Despite the impression that the Big River Pines made on us, we decided to continue on to visit as many camp sites as we could along the road; stopping at eleven more by 12:30pm. As we walked around and took photos of each site, we realised halfway through our journey that we needed to devise a system for taking notes that would allow us to compare sites, plan future trips and to provide useful information to other campers. The criteria that we decided to assess each camp site on included:
- Privacy – are we able to camp in a private area hidden from other campers or are we always exposed to all campers at the site?
- Vegetation – is the camp site surrounded by lush greenery or blackberries, creepers or other weeds?
- Facilities – are there toilets and are fires allowed?
- Accessibility – is this camp site suitable for caravans or is this a tent-based camp site?
- Exposure – does the forest provide a protective canopy or is the camp site open to the elements?
- Waterways – does the camp site have good access to the river for water, bathing or swimming or is there no river access?
- Traffic – is the camp site secluded or is it located next to or near a road?
- Notes – are there any specific features or notes that we should consider in the future?
With our new system in place, we found it much easier to summarise each site using a simple table. To download a copy of our camp site assessment table, please click here.
Standing among the trees at our final camp site – Peppermint Ridge – and with the sound of the Big River in the background, we discussed our options and narrowed our choices down to three; Big River Pines, Frenchmans Creek and Peppermint Ridge. We ranked them in order of preference – based on the features that we liked most, the time we had left and the weather – and decided that while Peppermint Ridge was our favourite, we would spend the night at the Big River Pines. We felt that the close proximity of the site to the road, made it less likely that we would have a chance in the future to camp without cars and dirt bikes disturbing us. The overcast, foggy weather was another factor as it added to the atmosphere at the Big River Pines that we were unlikely to experience in the warmer months. With our decision made, we hopped back into the Hilux and headed back down Big River Road to get settled in.
Our adventure to visit the camp sites had taken a lot longer than we had expected, so it wasn’t until almost 1:30pm that we had the tent set up and headed back to Marysville for lunch. We would have taken lunch with us had we expected to spend so much of the day driving, but the promise of a chicken parma from the Duck Inn made the 40 minute drive a little easier.
As we made the final turn into Darwin Street, the Hilux came to a complete stop. With the Duck Inn only a few feet away, we were stuck in the middle of the road with no idea why we weren’t moving despite the engine still running. Despite our best efforts – and with the car feeling like the brakes were stuck on – we put the hazard lights on, stood on the side of the road and called RACV for help. For twenty five more minutes we sat, thankful that the car had stopped in the centre of town where we had reception, but genuinely annoyed that we could see other people enjoying their parmas.
When the RACV mechanic arrived, we explained the issue we were experiencing. We were immediately asked to put the Hilux back into H2 mode and reverse gently; after which we heard a loud ‘thunk’ and the car returned to normal. As we were completely clueless as to what had just happened, the mechanic spent the next twenty minutes explaining how four-wheel drive systems work; drawing diagrams of differentials, axles, wheels and transfer cases on our muddy rear-windshield while explaining transmission wind up. While some of the detail did sink in, we quickly realised that some of the things we were doing – driving in H4 on a hard surface with grip – was not what we should have been doing and that booking into a four-wheel drive course was probably a good idea if we didn’t want to destroy the car!
With the Hilux now working and safely parked, we headed in to the Duck Inn, only to find that lunch service finished at 2:30pm and the kitchen was now closed. Needless to say we were disappointed, but decided on a quick lunch at the local bakery. The pies were nice, but not in the same league as the parma we were hoping for. After lunch we made a quick stop at the Foodworks for some firewood and headed back to the camp site.
With the Hilux parked – and very much still in H2 mode – next to our tent, we settled in to an afternoon of relaxing in the tent and by the camp fire. We didn’t hear a car and we didn’t see any campers; only the birds and creek kept us company until dinner, where we had a roast chicken and baby spinach salad that we had brought with us. We were glad with our decision to bring at least one meal with us, as neither of us were in the mood to leave the camp to venture back to town. As night fell, the camp was quickly plunged into a darkness that surrounded us in much the same way as the early morning fog had. The camp fire and Makita torch provided all the light we needed, with only two sets of headlights briefly appearing in the distance before disappearing quickly as the cars continued along the road. After extinguishing the fire, we settled in to our sleeping bags to read until we could barely keep our eyes open. Ignoring the fact that it was barely 7:45pm, we turned off the torch and fell asleep to the sound of canopy branches swaying in the gentle night breeze.
We woke at 5:30am the next morning, agreeing that while we had had more than enough sleep, we weren’t in any rush to leave our sleeping bags to brave the cold. After a lengthy chat and an attempt to get dressed inside our sleeping bags, we set off on a morning walk to the Married Mens Camping Ground to refill our drink bottles; passing the Big River Camp and two cars unloading their dirt bikes along the way. The remainder of the morning was spent wandering about the camp site, sitting by the fire and just enjoying our surroundings.
As the distant sounds of cars and dirt bikes became more frequent, we knew we had been extremely fortunate with the timing of our trip and were unlikely to have the same tranquil, secluded experience at this camp site until next winter. Given the right conditions, this is definitely a camp site worth visiting.