Victorian High Country: ‘This is not America’

I have to remind myself this is not America.

But the sight of five men dressed head-to-toe in camouflage gear, cradling powerful rifles in their arms, is an unnerving one. It’s like a scene from a movie, and not a comedy, either.

They stare as we drive past, and it doesn’t feel like a welcoming look. Their dogs, a pack of beagles armed with hi-vis collars loaded with GPS trackers, amble in front of the ute, oblivious to us. I’m fearful of hitting one. Men with guns and injured – or worse – dogs make for a dangerous combination.

The beagles sniff the track ahead as we slow to a crawl, the heat of those menacing stares follows me. I can feel their eyes on me and hope the hot spot on the back of my head is not from a laser-guided sight.

Eventually the dogs move off the track and we continue onwards. And I have to remind myself this is the Victorian High Country, not America.

I’m here as a guest of BFGoodrich testing the American tyre giant’s all-new KM3 off-road rubber, and the hunters and their dogs are just one part of the rich tapestry of this part of the world.

And it’s a beautiful world too, this one, with graceful trees and humbling mountains, forming a palette of greys, greens and blues; hues so muted it’s as if a veil had been cast over the countryside. It’s eerily beautiful and serene, at least until we arrive in our convoy of utes and SUVs bouncing off the rutted tracks, spitting dirt and stones high into the air. Leaves tremble in our wake.

Ahead of our convoy lies two days of tackling some of the most rugged and beautiful terrain in Australia, possibly in the world; a highfalutin claim confirmed by the international contingent on this adventure.

I have to admit to trepidation. Y’see, despite having worked in this field for nigh on 20 years, I have never been off-roading, not at this hardcore level. Sure, like most of you, I’ve done my time travelling dirt roads in the country, the occasional gravel driveway of some rich relative, but this, this rutted, slick, crumbling, rock-infested, tree-lined landscape that swoops and swoons at angles that inspire vertigo, is something else again.

It is serene and eerily quiet, no question, but standing at the bottom of a track that looks to the naked eye, impassable, is daunting. And the quiet will soon be shattered by a convoy of four-wheel drives and tricked-out utes.

The Victorian High Country is nirvana for off-roaders, with countless trails ranging from easy to challenging and outright daunting. Flowing gravel roads very quickly turn into boulder-strewn inclines that more resemble a lunar landscape. It’s wild and untamed, and to my eyes foolhardy. But I’m no 4WD expert, so my eyes have been replaced by an expert instructor riding shotgun in the Ford Ranger Ranger XLT I have been allocated.

Under his tutelage and calming influence, I learn a bit about off-roading, and a whole lot more about myself. Spending two days surrounded by nature and stupendous views does that to a person. There’s plenty of time for reflection, even as you navigate the rocky trails with a pair of soft hands with your thumbs not hooked around the steering wheel, lest a boulder wrenches the wheel suddenly. Thumbs can break this way. Off-roading hack.

Nestled amongst the gums are huts, old refuges lovingly maintained by the Victorian High Country Huts Association. Spartan and simple, they once provided shelter for pioneers, miners, stockmen and loggers. Today, they continue to provide emergency shelter for bushwalkers, skiers, and off-roaders caught out by inclement weather. Matches, kindling and a small amount of firewood are usually stocked, while the better side of human nature will often see canned food left behind for the next visitors. Pay it forward.

They stand silently, these huts made of timber and stone, sometimes tin, as a man-made reminder inside a vast, sweeping and sometimes hostile landscape. Some date back to the pioneering days of the 1860s, yet ironically, perhaps one of the most famous is Craig’s Hut on Mount Stirling, which dates back only 35 years and isn’t a real pioneer hut at all, but rather part of a film set. Created for the 1982 Australian movie, The Man From Snowy River, Craig’s Hut is nevertheless a popular destination accessible only by 4WD. Or you can walk. If you’re a little mad.

It’s this rugged country where BFGoodrich’s KM3 rubber is best showcased. I’ll be honest, my knowledge of off-road rubber is limited. So here are some facts and figures. BFGoodrich claims its new Mud Terrain T/A KM3 offers five per cent better mud traction, a nine per cent improvement in rock traction and with a sidewall 27 per cent tougher than its predecessor.

Can you feel those incremental improvements at work? Not on your life, but what you can feel is an unwavering confidence as you climb terrain and surfaces your city-bred brain refuses to believe can be traversed. Maybe it’s the capabilities of the Ford Ranger. Or maybe it’s the growing newfound confidence thanks to excellent – and patient – tutelage from my instructor. Maybe it’s a combination of all three, but I did things in a ute I didn’t think possible – climbed mountains, literally and metaphorically.

It’s easy to see the appeal of the off-road lifestyle. The big draw is, of course, being able to reach places your average car cannot. But it’s more than that. There’s the challenge of the trail ahead, each one different and requiring a bespoke approach.

Without even realising it, your mind uses geometry and physics to calculate the safest and easiest path through any terrain. It requires a level of concentration that leaves you exhausted at day’s end. I’ve driven race cars on tracks at 250km/h that required less concentration than crawling through the Victorian High Country on perilous trails at often less than 10km/h. It’s a satisfying exhaustion too, leaving you with a feeling of having achieved something.

And then there’s the nature. Yes, it’s an oxymoron to admit to enjoying the peaceful natural landscape while simultaneously breaking that very peace with loud SUVs and utes.

A spell outside the vehicle affords the chance to watch some drivers with far more off-road chops than me at work. It’s remarkable to watch, a ballet in slow motion, as 4WDs and utes climb up seemingly unclimbable slopes. Wheels lift off the ground as utes lean at angles usually reserved for car crashes. The movements are slow, like a snake uncoiling lazily from a winter’s sleep.

Tyres flex and twist and shape-shift to envelop rocks and boulders, obstacles that stand in the way of movement. There’s science and technology at play here, according to BFGoodrich, with massive tread blocks and stronger sidewalls combining to provide better traction on all manner of surfaces.

Like so many marketing departments in so many industries, BFGoodrich has names for these feats of rubber technology. Krawl TEK Compound, Linear Flex Zone, Terrain-Attack Tread, CoreGard Max, and my personal favourite, Mud-Phobic Bars, which according to the brochure repel and release compacted mud built-up in the tyres’ treads for better and continued traction.

No wonder then, BFG’s engineers were praying for rain to muddy up the trails ahead of our adventure. After all, what better way to showcase mud tech than with a good old dose of mud? But, this being April, mud was rarer than any deer sought by the camo-clad hunters from the beginning of this story.

I did encounter those hunters again, stripped down this time to jeans and T-shirts. And unarmed. The beagles, still with GPS-embedded hi-vis collars, sniff around my feet. Maybe I’m the prey, I think to myself fleetingly.

They hunt deer in these parts apparently, and the beagles are trained to sniff out the deer and then herd them towards the river, where a battalion of armed men wait with high-powered rifles. It’s at once frightening and comical, not for the deer though.

They do, at least, eat their kill, one of the hunters, a personable young chap driving a fully tricked-out Toyota HiLux SR5 stocked with an arsenal informs me. I try not to judge, but it’s difficult. Bambi doesn’t stand a chance in this neck of the woods.

He seems impressed, though, with the KM3 rubber, as BFGoodrich execs take him through the marketing speak and extol the capabilities of Mud-Phobic Bars. They probably assured a future sale today.

Still, it’s with some relief we move on from this campsite frequented by men with guns, our convoy making the slow trek back to civilisation. By now emboldened, and with my thumbs firmly unhooked from the steering wheel, I climb mountains in my Ranger, and clamber back down the other side, and feel like a conqueror.

Previous fears have been banished, and even as the ghostly gums cast long shadows over me, over the track in front, I know I will be back to do this again.

Click on the Photos tab for more spectacular photos of the Victorian High Country and the BFGoodrich KM3 Terrain Takeover

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