TRULY, MADLY, STEEPLY
WRITTEN BY: CRAIG JAMIESON
PHOTOS BY: CRISTIAN BRUNELLI
EVERYONE HAS A TALENT.
Some are pretty handy with numbers and become bankers. Some have the gift of the gab and become real estate agents. Some are adept at bluffing, self-aggrandising and shiftiness. These people also become real estate agents. As for me, it's always been the bad idea. No one can have a bad idea quite as well as I can—barring Lewis Hamilton's R&B career, of course—so when it came time for me to plan an off-road trip, only the narrowest track up the steepest hill I could find would do. It's the adventuring spirit of Edmund Hillary, combined with the forethought of a 2am tattoo. The hill, and track, in question is the Billy Goat Bluff Track, draped across the corner of no and where, in the middle of the Victorian Highlands. We've read that it's the steepest gazetted road in Australia, too, climbing 1200 metres over the course of seven kilometres. But that doesn't tell the whole story; there are sections where the one-in-seven average gradient becomes much, much steeper, probably worryingly close to one-in-two. It's actually a track that you can find on a happy little website called dangerousroads.org.
And it's obviously something that my cohort has been grappling with. "I'm having serious concerns about this," says Daniel.
"Seriously, how dangerous is it for novices? I've done some training but not much; you've done none."
"But Cristian, the photographer, knows what he's doing."
With that in mind, it's time to put a call in to the off-road oracle. He's my mate, but you know the sort. The kind that's been up the Telegraph Track five times in six years. The kind that can explain portal axles using nothing more than a pair of empty beer cans. The type that'd treat a snake bite by killing the snake and using its carcass as a makeshift tourniquet.
What could he possibly mean by that?
Thing is, I've already decked my D-MAX out like Marty McFly's vehicular prize for fixing the past in Back to the Future, lights included, although I'm still working on time travel. My jet-black D-MAX looks entirely awesome and ready for anything. That said, I probably should have fitted some off-road tyres. Then again, so should Dan; his glistening white MU-X— free from frippery, unlike mine—is also going to make the trek up The Bluff with a set of highway-terrain tyres.
As the writer Kurt Vonnegut was fond of saying, so it goes.
And, at least for the first part of the journey, those highway tyres come in handy. The quickest way to The Bluff means 230 kilometres from Melbourne, along the highway to Stratford in Victoria's southeast.
From Stratford, we make a beeline for the mountains. And by beeline, of course, I mean the most inebriated, indecisive bee you could ever conceive of; Dargo Road takes perhaps the most tortuous path imaginable, following the contours of the mountains that spring up from the Gippsland plains. It is a truly magnificent, 90km stretch of road, favoured by bikers for its fast sweeping corners and sharp switchbacks, framed by glimpses of the creeks and rivers rippling below. My D-MAX's 3.0-litre turbo diesel gets its first workout of the entire trip, but certainly not the last. Happily, it relishes the opportunity to do more than sedate highway cruising. Judging by the way Dan is keeping up, he's had the same idea. I didn't know they were contagious.
From this section of driving Nirvana, we emerge into Dargo's tree-lined main street. There are just three roads in Dargo—one through, and two that skive off into the wilderness—so it's a happy discovery to find that they still managed to build the pub on the corner. It's also where we choose to stay, thanks to four log cabins out the back.
"Please don't use our linens to check your oil," says a sign in the bathroom. "And don't steal them either; we'll notice." They must have interesting guests.
Back in the pub, some more intrepid types want to camp outside, as though the winter cold in Victoria's alpine regions had decided to take the night off. They ask the publican for good places to pitch a tent.
"Well, you can always use our paddock out back, by the river," she says. "No charge. Would you like another beer?"
The next morning, we load up at the general store, just across the main street from the pub. While hardware, espresso and taxidermy make for odd bedfellows, it all seems to gel within the wooden walls of the historic building.
Heading south out of Dargo, we quickly turn our attention to the east, a deadset rally trial-stage road following the snaking Wonnangatta River upstream to the beginning of the bluff. From there, the seemingly neverending bends give way to something else entirely. For all intents and purposes, it's a straight shot up the side of a mountain.
Well, in for a penny and all that. Feeling that an entire battery of hens has come home to roost, we set off, mustering the confidence to keep momentum up the seemingly vertical ascent. It's a thrilling road.
I'm amazed at just how steep it really is, but perhaps more amazed that my bad idea did include one good element: the right tools for the job. I keep waiting for a crunch, hiss or thud, but none come. Nor do any moments when either of our machines feels out of its depth.
The surface changes repeatedly as we ascend, with seemingly instant segues from compacted dirt to loose, fistsized stones and then on to bare rock. Concentration is key here, with random smatterings of large, sharp-edged stones lying in wait to puncture the tyres of unwary travellers.
A flat tyre is an annoyance on city streets, but up a one-in-three—nudging towards two—gradient, it's much more irksome. And yet, we're sailing through.
The higher we climb, the rougher it gets. We've been in low range since the start of our ascent, but now it really comes into its own. My only real job is to pick the path of least resistance and point the nose of the D-MAX at the sky.
There's so much low-down torque at my disposal that it only takes a tiny prod of the gas to scale the most vertiginous parts of the track. Soon enough, a third job comes into play: keeping my foot steady enough on the throttle as the road tyres kick and pick their way through the worst of the trail.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that heading up the bluff on road tyres was just another of my brilliant ideas and, perhaps another time, I would have gotten my just rewards for such folly.
The fact remains, however, that after a final section of bare rock, we make the climb, without getting stuck, without having to adjust anything and without having to attempt even the trickiest bits more than once. It's clearly due to the Isuzus, more than anything else, that my iffy idea didn't turn into a tale of woe. Both the leaf-sprung D-MAX and coilsprung MU-X clamber up the bluff like, well, proverbial billy goats, depositing us at the top of the track unruffled, unscathed, and totally unprepared for the astonishing views that greet us.
As we stand at vertigo-inducing heights, looking down on mountain ranges much like you would from an aeroplane, we toast a bittersweet victory. Because, in reality, we’d only explored the merest of fractions of this staggeringly beautiful and mercilessly rugged part of Australia. And, although we conquered the climb, it only served to whet our appetites for the off-road playground that is Victoria’s High Country.