4WD trip from Lake Thomson to Sargood

A lot of lessons learnt on this trip into the Victorian high country

I was invited by Leon, a good friend of mine, to join him on a week-long 4WD trip across the Victorian high country to Dargo. Having never been in the alpine or Gippsland region before, it was a great opportunity to finally see it and get out there bush camping for a week.

Unfortunately, after a couple of days camping the car broke down and in the end we were really lucky to get home safely. Still, the trip was a great learning experience for me.

Thomson Dam
Thomson Dam

Day 1

On the first day we left late afternoon and drove from Melbourne to Thomsons Dam, through some heavy rainfalls and thunderstorms. It didn’t look like a promising start to our adventure but on the rain radar we could see it was only passing through and soon the weather improved again.

We crossed Thomsons Dam and shortly after it was time to deflate the tires and begin a steep descent on Pheasant Track all the way down to Aberfeldy River. Leon knew of a small space where he had camped before and so we set up camp in a quiet spot on the river bed.

Aberfeldy River camp
Aberfeldy River camp

When we arrived I saw a few large lizards nearby, but otherwise the area felt rather empty. Most wildlife must have left when a large bushfire swept through the area not long ago.

Day 2

The next morning we had to get all the way back up the hill, and I was surprised how easily the car climbed up even the steepest sections. Probably an easy track, but it was my first 4WD trip so I didn’t know how much the car can handle.

After Donelly Creek Road we took Morning Star Track and Black Range Road in the morning, and then we spent most of the day following Burgoyne Track, with enough steep climbs and scary descents to challenge the car. Given how much the car had to endure it was impressive we didn’t have any mechanical issues, other than a short break in the afternoon to let the engine cool down.

Burgoyne Track
Burgoyne Track

We arrived at Dolodrook river campsite just after 5pm. Beautiful open campsite next to a creek, and very remote. It looked like a popular spot but we were the only campers there.

After setting up camp and cooking dinner we sat by the fire until late at night again. It was an incredibly quiet place to camp at — in fact it was so quiet I could hear birds in the far distance, and wallabies grazing in the darkness around our camp.

Leon spent most of the evening plotting a course for the next day on his iPad. We were concerned we wouldn’t be able to make it all the way to Dargo with the amount of petrol we had left. The alternatives would have been to do a half day backtrack to Licola, a small place with a petrol station, or attempt a short cut on a track that was marked as walking track on the map.

Dolodrook river campsite
Dolodrook river campsite

In the end I convinced Leon to try and risk it driving to Dargo. We had a fully equipped 4WD with plenty of supplies, so I thought the worst that could have happened was running out of petrol a few kilometres before Dargo and then having to walk to the service station and back. How wrong I was in hindsight!

Day 3

We left early in order to be in Dargo before the petrol station closes. After only about 1km on Brandy Pinch Track however, we arrived at a locked gate on the track. It wasn’t marked on our map and we tried to figure out what the reason for the gate might be.

This is something I don’t understand about parks management. Instead of just putting a locked gate in the middle of nowhere which will annoy anyone who took the effort of travelling for long distance on rough tracks to get there, why can’t they at least put up a sign that explains why there is a locked gate? If it’s because of flooding or track erosion or private property everyone will understand it, but if there is a gate for no apparent reason then people will start to question it and drive around it. In this case, people had clearly driven around it before.

However, we did not. Somehow we had a bad feeling about it so we turned around.

On the map there was a walking track from the campground all the way to Licola, but we couldn’t even find it, so the only remaining option was to backtrack on Chromite Mine Track.

Broken rear drive shaft
Broken rear drive shaft

An hour later, the car suddenly broke down and we could tell from the sound that it was a serious problem. The rear drive shaft of the Discovery had broken off, the screws looked completely deformed and obviously had to endure too much torture.

If this had happened to me alone, without any greater knowledge of car mechanics, it would have been the end of the trip. Amazingly, Leon managed to get the car going again within only about an hour, by removing the front part of the rear drive shaft that was still connected to the transfer case, and then removing the uni joint from that part so he could attach the flange back onto the transfer case. Therefore no dirt could get into the transfer case.

Leon fixing the car
Leon fixing the car

As a result, the car was driving again, but only with front-wheel drive. This was fine on even or downhill sections, but for any uphill sections we had to use the winch.

In the end the entire rest of the day looked like this: winching the car to the top of a hill, getting back in the car, driving for a few hundred metres to the next uphill sections, winching the car uphill again, etc.

Using the winch uphill
Using the winch uphill

At 11pm the winch stopped working. We had tried to push on for as long as possible, somehow believing we could make it back to the main road. In the end, it probably would have taken us another two days at the speed we were progressing.

Another issue was that because we had to use the winch at least 30 times, petrol consumption was much higher than normal and the reserve light was about to go on.

We called it a day and camped on the track, both totally exhausted. Before going to bed I spend some time sitting outside and taking notes on my iPad. It was an amazing starlit night and you could hear plenty of birds singing in the darkness.

Camping on Mt Margaret Track
Camping on Mt Margaret Track

Day 4

Leon managed to fix the winch after taking half the front of his car apart. It was only an electrical problem — one of the wires somehow got ripped off when the rope winded up unevenly.

With the winch fixed, we were able to get us over the top of the hill and drive on once again. Only on the next hill however, the winch gave up again — this time it sounded like a broken gearbox, so it no longer pulled the rope. We were stuck again.

It also left us in an inconvenient situation with the winch rope tightly attached to a tree halfway up a steep hill. We couldn’t release the winch manually so we had to find a way to take tension off the rope so we could detach it from the tree. For now we only wanted to reverse the car down the hill, park it on even ground and then think about the next step. Leon suspected that by taking off the tension from the rope the winch might start working again.

MacGyver-style, we attached a snatch strap to another tree, a chain to the car, and then use a high lift jack between to pull the car to the side just enough to get the winch rope off.

Winch failed again
Winch failed again

As dangerous as it looked, it worked. We pulled the car to the side, and were able to detach the winch rope. Unfortunately the high lift jack then refused to reverse, and we finally ran out of options and were stranded on Mt Margaret Track.

It was a hot and sunny day and we ran short of water, so I put my tent and some water and food in my backpack and prepared to walk out to the main road, from where I was hoping to hitch a ride to the nearest town and find someone who could come and pull us out.

Just when I was about to head off, Leon sent a mayday call on the radio to see if someone was around. Despite using a handheld UHF device, and despite being stuck in a bit of a valley, he managed to contact two guys who were traveling near the heli pad on Burgoyne Track — more than 10km away. Luckily they knew the area, and they were driving tough Landcruisers, so only about two hours later they found us. It was Grumpy and Robz from 4x4 Earth, a popular online forum.

They pulled us out all the way to the main road, which turned out to be a lot further away than Leon and I had thought. It would have taken us another two days to get out if the winch had not given up. Amazing to watch how easily Grumpy’s Landcruiser climbed all the steep sections even while towing our car. I’ve recorded some of it at the end of the video below:

When we reached the main road they suggested we camp together, and so we all set up camp at nearby Hickeys creek campsite.

During the evening the Land Rover jokes kept on coming, but I think I picked up a lot of useful 4WD advice for when it’s time to purchase my own vehicle. Their cars were perfectly equipped for touring.

Hickeys creek campsite
Hickeys creek campsite

Day 5

After breakfast we all packed up and Grumpy and Robz were kind enough to escort us to the petrol station in Heyfield, in case we would run out of fuel on the way there.

In the end Leon and I felt we had a lot of luck; despite all the things that went wrong on this trip it ended with a happy end. Big thanks to Grumpy and Robz for literally saving us. If they hadn’t come to tow us out, this trip could have ended a lot worse.

I really loved the sense of community spirit among 4WD owners, but it’s also a general thing in Australia. If somebody is in trouble, you go and help them. Next time you might be the one who needs help. In the past Leon has pulled other people’s cars out of mud bogs – now we were on the receiving end. Great community.

More photos are in the album 4WD trip Lake Thomson to Sargood.