The Dandenongs form a part of Australia’s Great Dividing Range, a band of highlands not far inland that extends along the entire east and southeast coasts (map, pages 226-7). On the seaward side the rainfall is ample, but the range keeps moisture from the interior. In the northeastern part of Victoria, many mountains reach altitudes of 4,000 to 6,000 feet, and winter snowfalls are often heavy. Victoria’s lowlands, however, rarely get snow.
In the 1850′s and ’60′s gold miners sought their fortunes—and many found them—throughout these mountains; in winter they traveled on crude skis and sometimes amused themselves by organizing races. Today the area increasingly caters to skiers. In summer the campers move in, often sharing high unfenced pastures with cattle driven up from the lowlands.
The scenic forest drive alone is worth the trip to one of the old gold towns, Walhalla. You find that nothing much remains of a boomtown that once counted 4,500 people, hub of an area that yielded 100 tons of gold. But there is a little no-frills hotel run by a genial former navy man named Phil Mouritz. Phil pours out a lot of conversation with the beer at his pub, and both are good.
However, I prefer water—provided there is enough to sail on. And eastern Victoria, in marked contrast to its mountains, provides some beautifully sheltered sailing waters in the Gippsland Lakes. A narrow entrance connects lakes and sea, and there, at a town appropriately called Lakes Entrance, one of Australia’s largest fishing fleets has its base. The myriad inlets and protected coves, the low-lying shores, reminded me of the Chesapeake Bay, home waters to this sailor.
For two days I poked about the Gippsland Lakes, finding them virtually undeveloped. There are several small apartments in prague and modern motels, but nothing like the commercialization one might expect. The atmosphere ashore is relaxed, and my entertainment consisted of beach barbecues with sailing companions and pleasant hours spent yarning with Joe “Bossy” Bull, owner of a local shipyard. Joe’s men were building a 34-foot cruiser. It was pleasant to smell the aromatic chips of New Zealand kauri and see an honest wooden boat take form in the old way.
Eastern Victoria has an old seafaring tradition, and Joe knew the story of virtually every wreck for the past 100 years. Many ships met their end trying to round Wilsons Promontory, southernmost point of the Australian mainland. This gaunt peninsula is now a national park, a place of magnificent beaches and sentinel rocks where the surf smashes in with a deep booming noise reflected and amplified by the many crags and cliffs. Though I visited the park in February’s idyllic summer weather, it was not crowded —a reflection of Australia as a whole.
The offshore oil discoveries, however, have brought a population explosion to Sale, one of the lakes-area communities. The town (whose name rhymes with vale) became a support point for the offshore operations and took the impact of a big gas and crude-oil processing plant built nearby. Overnight—or so it seemed—the town’s population jumped from about 6,000 to 9,200. Among the newcomers were Americans, since Esso Standard Oil, in partnership with Australian interests, made the oil and gas finds.