DESTINATIONS - TRAVEL DESTINATIONS
Victoria’s Mallee National Parks capture arid and river-front landscapes, and flora and fauna that seem quite ‘un-Victorian’ to people accustomed to High Country destinations.
Victoria’s Mallee Country occupies a large area in the north-west of the State and much of it is preserved inside two large national parks in the border zone with South Australia: Wyperfeld National Park to the south and Murray-Sunset National Park to the north.
The name ‘Mallee’ is a term used by botanists to describe the shape of woody plants that grow with multiple stems from underground lignotubers. In the case of the Victorian Mallee Country there are dozens of eucalypt species featuring this distinctive growth pattern.
Our suggested route through these Mallee Parks starts in the Victorian town of Hopetoun, from where a short drive along the C227 to Albacutya leads into Wyperfeld National Park.
There are two-hour and half-day walks around the River Red Gum creeks and swamps near the main entrance to Wyperfeld National Park.
There’s also a three-hour black box woodland walk near Casuarina Campground in the north section of the Park. For ardent bushwalkers there are one and two-day hikes from Wonga Campground and Black Flat.
The Main Entrance Road turns east and morphs into Dattuck Track, before swinging onto the North South Track, the Eagle Track, Moonah Track and Meridian Track. All these tracks are clearly marked on the National Park ‘mud map’.
It’s possible to drive straight through Wyperfeld National Park to Underbool, but not if you’re van or camper trailer based. The southern sections of Wyperfeld National Park and Pioneer Drive are easily accessible by 2WD vehicles, but the North South Track and the very soft, sandy ones further north require high ground clearance and, possibly, low range gearing. Trailers aren’t a good idea.
If you intend heading north from Wyperfeld National Park into Murray Sunset National Park with a van or camper, as we did, it’s best to set up the trailer in a campground at Hopetoun or near Lake Albacutya and do a loop drive through Wyperfeld, then return to your camp via the blacktop through Patchewollock.
It’s important to include an interesting solo-vehicle drive around the Wirrengren Plain and a visit to the remarkable sand blow known as the Snowdrift.
From Wyperfeld our trek heads for the Pink Lakes area in Murray Sunset National Park, via Underbool on the B12. The Pink Lakes area is not to be missed and there is a scenic Pioneer Drive loop around the Pink Lakes and several short walks to lookouts.
Pink Lake wonderland
The extremely salty Pink Lakes get their colour from an alga – Dunaliella salina – that grows in the clear, salty water. The colour of the algae is heightened by water flows into the Lakes that feed algal blooms.
Salt production began following an increased demand for salt during World War I. The need inspired Underbool store keeper Ebenezer Jones to start commercial harvesting at the Pink Lakes.
Initial ‘mining’ was done with picks and shovels, and planks were laid on the salt lake bed so that wheelbarrows could get to the shore. It must have been hell for the workers in summer.
In the 1920s, horse-drawn scarifiers and scrapers were introduced and Afghan camel teams hauled the mined salt to rail sidings at Underbool and Linga.
Although a tram line was built from Lake Becking to Linga the service was plagued by mechanical problems and drifting sand that blocked the line, so the camel trains continued until they were eventually replaced by trucks in the mid-1930s.
Another World War increased the demand for salt once more and Italian internees were put to work digging.
After the War Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) took over mining operations and increased the degree of mechanisation. Mining activity declined during the 1960s and ceased altogether in 1979, when the Pink Lakes area was declared a State Park. In 1991 it was incorporated into Murray-Sunset National Park.
Much of the mining machinery was abandoned when operations ceased, as were some salt stockpiles, so wandering around these relics and reading the informative story boards is great fun for visitors.
The trail walks around the Pink Lakes area are 45-minute to 1.5-hour strolls through this fascinating country, with views over Lake Kenyon, Lake Crosbie and Lake Becking. There’s also a several-day hike along the Sunset Remote Walking Track.
Cycling is comfortable on Pioneer Drive, but not on the sandy tracks to the north.
The other tracks in Murray-Sunset National Park are quite different and a GPS is essential for locating your position in this arid region.
The Sunset Wilderness Zone tracks cut through seemingly endless stands of Mallee trees and scrub, traversing quite steep dunes at times, with very soft, sandy stretches that demand high ground clearance.
Some track sections are muddy after light rain and firmer sections are corrugated.
Trailers are not advisable in the Sunset Wilderness Zone, so it’s wise to set up camp and do day trips in your solo 4WD. You’ll need high ground clearance and low range can be handy as well.
The Border Track section that runs along the Victoria-SA Border is a favourite with trail bikers, so this part of the Sunset Wilderness Zone drive is a sandy mogul field of short, sharp hillocks, formed by bike convoys.
The track is noticeably ‘lumpy’ thanks to its popularity with trail bikers whose progress forms mogul-like mounds that slow 4WD vehicles markedly.
Several commercial operators run guided tag-along tours along the Border Fence, so oncoming bikes over blind crests are an ever-present hazard. If you see an oncoming trail bike, expect up to a dozen running behind him, so pull over until the convoy has passed.
Bikes can manage much higher speeds along the mogul-pattern Border Track than a touring 4WD, so if a bike convoy catches up with you, pull over and let them go.
The Track passes several Border Gates and the dunes level out before the Track abruptly intersects the Sturt Highway about 30km south east of Renmark.
Some visitors drive the entire Border Track from just north of Bordertown to Renmark, but this requires a detour into SA and transit through Ngarkat National Park, followed by re-entry into Victoria north of the Big Desert Wilderness Park. However, this route misses out on some of the sights in Wyperfeld and Murray-Sunset National Parks.
It’s possible to mix this route with excursions into Murray-Sunset
National Park, but keep an eye on your fuel consumption in this soft, sandy country.
The Mopoke Hut Track in Murray-Sunset National Park leads, obviously to the Mopoke Hut. This was originally constructed for use by stockmen and was preserved when the land became a national park.
There’s sheltered accomodation in the hut and there’s also a toilet.