We've just spent nine nights camping in wonderful places as we track ancient and not-so-ancient volcanic activity across western Victoria and into South Australia. The days are often long, 400km stretches along back roads, through dead flat landscape and rugged mountains, all formed by geological action and therefore all food for speculation. For once, being stopped for road works is a plus, usually in a cutting which we can attempt to read while we wait. We find ourselves entranced by quarries, which in the past have provoked a diatribe about the rape of the land by demon extractors. Now we delight in the cross-section of the earth they reveal. Churches and civic buildings in country towns also become geological clues, built as they often are out of local stone, and often with immaculate craftsmanship.
Each campsite is wonderful in different ways, and we are no longer bush-camping-only devotees: as the day wears on we're more than happy to seek out a pleasant looking caravan park. One of the delights of camping is sleeping dusk to dawn: although weird dreams intrude, routine 2 am anxieties disappear.
Please join us in our seven campsites.
We pull in beside the Murrumbidgee near a wooden bridge, having failed to locate a campsite we thought we remembered well. As we set up camp a kayak slides ashore near us, dad and daughter out on the water, mum and the dogs ready with the ute to pick them up.
I carry the bedding across to the tent, and notice a bright flash of orange on the ground, a wasp, dragging a round brown spider. It looks as if they might be heading under the floor of the tent, and I get ready to dissuade them. But no, the wasp takes the tent in its stride, hastens up and over, and heads off into the leaf litter beyond it.
This isn't our only company. The small dog who ran by earlier, part Jack Russell, part terrier, returns and decides to adopt us. He's well cared for and disciplined. He spends the night on the tarp under the tent, on guard, barking and growling at any unusual noise. In the morning he's still there, and we face a dilemma. What to do? Does he belong with the pack he was running with? Is he lost? He's so charming no one could possibly have abandoned him. We feel quite evil driving off and leaving him behind.
We arrive at Hall's Gap in the Grampians late, and find it uninviting, touristy and crowded, despite a stunning setting under towering walls of rock. One caravan park is unnavigable: the office at another one already shut at 6. The National Park sites require online booking, sight unseen. So we throw ourselves on the mercy of chance, turn right towards Ararat, and strike it lucky – a shady area shared with only one other tent beside Lake Fyans with a shower a stroll away. In the evening the lake captures sunset: in the morning it disappears under mist.
Tonight's campsite lies between two crater rims, and we pitch under a towering pine, looking down on a road that attracts a serious cyclist who is ignominiously swooped by a patrolling magpie; bikies who enjoy roaring up and down; lads with car radios on boom boom boom; idle walkers and earnest joggers. After dinner and a glass or two of wine, we amble down to survey the Valley Lake and then up to the Devil's Punchbowl (inevitable that the devil should feature in a volcanic landscape.) The peace of the night is disturbed by a very loud row in the cabin behind us, but traffic dwindles to nothing as darkness falls and next morning I take advantage of a proper sink to wash up.
J has an ongoing love affair with rivers and ocean. When we come across the vastness of the Glenelg River and its encounter with the sea, we turn away from volcanos and spend two nights, sole campers in an area that accommodates a thousand on New Year's Eve. The caravan park takes up 25 acres of crown land, and we share our snug space in a cavern of trees with a daring blue wren who perches on J's shoulder perfectly matching the colour of his jumper: a parade of disdainful emus who ignore us; and a wallaby who investigates our campsite, unperturbed by our presence.
Mt Eccles NP
We finally manage to negotiate Parks Victoria mandatory booking system to our deep satisfaction. We find a site, a choice of 20, and actually have reception to go online and book our chosen site on site. And a good choice it is too. As we're unwinding, there is a movement. It's a koala, who whizzes down one tree, bounces across to another one (I had no idea koalas were so lithe and agile) and shinnies up, pausing to scratch its rump, to the very top where the branches don't look strong enough for its solid bulk. It pulls gum leaves towards it, and then curls in a fork and descends into sleep. During the night we hear noises like a 2-stroke motor starting up and in the morning see a second koala who stares down at us briefly, before curving into its chosen fork.
Mt Eccles is in the centre of volcano activity, so we make it our base and spend two nights there, just below the crater rim. On the second night it rains.
Little Forest, Barham
A wet tent is no fun so we head away from the rain north towards the Murray. Twenty years ago J picked oranges in Barham and camped in the Little Forest: we return there for a night and a journey down memory lane. Our campsite is obviously the scene of weekend revels – a pile of spent cartridges and three dead carp – but it is in a peerless spot on a bend of the river looking across to Victoria. In the middle of a still night under a nearly full moon a mopoke repeats its melancholy notes. The tent is pitched underneath a kingfisher's nest: we hear his song as we drink our morning coffee and catch him briefly in swift flight. Sulphur crested cockatoos in hordes screech raucously overhead. A community of choughs forage busily and then lift off in a flurry of white underwing spots. The brown river flows on, between immense trees.
Before we leave, we walk through grassland to the orange orchard flourishing for sixty years on a sandhill, past trees from which bark canoes had once been cut. The giant orange trees have been chopped down, replaced by an irrigation arch and a flock of emus. J evokes his previous self riding his bike back to camp at dusk after a hard day's picking as we swat at flies.
Our final camp is a bit of an anti-climax: a camp of necessity as the day wears on. However, there is thick green grass, delicious on bare feet, and a canal to catch sunset light in water. No escapee from the nearby correctional centre harasses us: no young hoon runs his car off the road through the caravan park fence to mow us down. In the middle of the night a long train passes by not far away, a comforting noise for me since childhood and a reminder of Junee's past as a railway town. The full moon shines down on us, blessing our last night under a flimsy roof.