The Official Ned Kelly Touring Route spans over 200 years and half the globe. It’s fascinated people for decades, the exploits of this bushranger and his infamous shoot out deep in the Australian bush. Here in this region of Victoria, from Glenrowan to Beechworth, from Benalla and Mansfield you can immerse yourself in the Ned Kelly story.
As the major town closest to Ned Kelly’s home, Benalla was the epicentre of Kelly’s bushranging days and was police headquarters for the Kelly Gang manhunt. These days this peaceful town and surrounding countryside, just over two hours from Melbourne, offers plenty of adventure and sightseeing.
Benalla was the first destination on our four-day long weekend. It was the June Queen’s birthday weekend, the first after camping restrictions had been lifted in Victoria, in the first lockdown, our first taste of freedom and we were keen to make the most of the opportunity.
We’d left the night before, to avoid the rush. Arriving in Benalla at nightfall we free camped by the lake in a small camping area known as Jaycee Park, just behind the Library. This is a great overnight spot, with close access to the 4.5km walking track which circumnavigates the lake. Waking up to a frosty minus three degrees the following morning, it was an invigorating and beautiful walk around the lake that started our day.
Benalla is a vibrant community that incorporates vibrant art amongst its streets, a thriving performing arts centre, natural parklands and plenty of places to wine and dine. For those who love their history, a walk around town will unearth many Ned Kelly stories such as in the Old Courthouse and Survey Office, where some of Kelly’s family members appeared on various charges. You can also see the cell where Ned was held in its original state. Inside the Benalla Costume and Kelly Museum you can step inside the portable cell once used to hold Ned Kelly and see his famous green sash, work during the Glenrowan siege.
Quench your thirst and enjoy a pub meal at the Commercial Hotel, which was the police headquarters for two years during the manhunt for the Kelly Gang. These days there are five pubs in Benalla as well as the BlackDog Brewery where you can enjoy a boutique beer or a glass of wine at the Taminck’s Cellary winery.
The town is fast becoming recognised as Australia’s leading art destination with street art and murals on many corners of the town. Nearby the wine region of Glenrowan is also well worth a stop, for a coffee, or a meal or for the ultimate photo opportunity with a giant Ned Kelly. It’s impossible to miss the six-metre high Ned Kelly statue in his full metal armour that guards the village.
From Benalla it’s 37kms to James Reserve, located on the banks of the Moonee Moonee Creek, off Lima East Road and where we camped on our second night. The reserve is flat and lush and we snared a great spot near the creek, with a picnic table and a fire pit close by. There were few campers around, however, as we were to find out, this is a popular spot for off-road bikers and four-wheel drivers. With good reason, as there are loads of tracks, trails and adventures close by in an area filled with the heritage of gold and alluvial mining.
Not far away from camp are the Crystal Mines, the Tallongalook Track and the dry creek historic area which comprises of areas such as Hells Hole Creek, where gold was first discovered back in 1851. There are also a couple of lookout points including the Rocky Ned Lookout and Wild Dog Rocks, all places we were keen to explore. After a short drive into the nearby state forest to collect wood for the next few nights, we were ready to hit the tracks, our warmth secured.
Our early afternoon destination was Rocky Ned Walking Track, which is accessed via either Police Track or Goodes Track. We took Goodes track and parked near the signage on the boundary of the pine plantation and the state forest. It’s a relatively easy walk through open woodland, a well-formed track which slowly snakes and climbs its way to reach fantastic views from the sheer rocky summit. A safety barrier has been built at the top of the Rocky Ned Lookout for obvious reason. From here the views reach almost 180 degrees from north to south of the Lima Valley and Mount Strathbogie in the distance.
Much later, back on Goodes Track, we began our drive back to camp, with the intention of getting back early to light the fire, cook a damper and settle in for a relaxing campfire dinner. However, a slight detour down the very steep Rocky Ned Track and a huge tree down the bottom of the track blocked us from getting out. The drama escalated as the wheels of our DMax became stuck in the mud and it quickly became clear that the only way back up the track would be to use the winch.
Hill climbs can be exciting and challenging at the best of times but add to that the fact that we had no service and the sun was rapidly going down made it a tad stressful. It was slippery, steep and, with little traction, there was no alternative but to keep winching. We’ve been stuck a few times and generally haven’t had too much trouble getting ourselves out, but this was the first time we’ve had to use our winch solo. That afternoon the winch became our best friend.
When we arrived back to camp the peaceful ambience of earlier that day had completely disappeared. Dozens of utes had converged, music was blaring, little tackers were tearing round on tiny bikes and campfires were blazing. But I was deliriously happy. There was our van and it had never looked so good.
Hours later we savoured our barbequed steak and plenty of well earnt drinks by the fire. We met our new neighbours and regaled them with our stories, swapping mobile numbers for any future mishaps. Better late than never I suppose.
Lima East has plenty of places to explore nearby. Not too far away from the Rocky Ned lookout, is the Mt Albert Track. Towards the top, sits an old WW2 plane crash site from the early 1940s, an accident that sadly saw no survivors. Bushwalkers can also enjoy the Lima Falls, accessed through the pine plantations where a short steep walking track from the car park leads you to the falls.
Further up into the High Country towards Stringybark Creek is a great drive with a lot of history. From Benalla continue 25kms south east to Tatong where you’ll find the Tatong Tavern, an English style country pub built in the 1880s and renowned for its food and hospitality. Continue south along the Tolmie Road up into the forests of Stringybark Creek Road. It was here back in 1878 that three policemen, Sergeant Michael Kennedy and Constables Thomas Lonigan and Michael Scanlan were ambushed and killed by bushrangers Ned and Dan Kelly.
2018 marked the 140th anniversary of the infamous shootout at Stringybark Creek Reserve, a dark chapter of Australian history, which feels almost tangible in this picturesque reserve. You can take a short walk through the formed path in the bush with signage and plaques along the way telling, not just the grim story but honouring the three fallen Victorian policemen, whose legacy was largely overshadowed by the legend of Ned Kelly. There are picnic facilities and nearby a beautiful spacious campground for those who want to savour this peaceful area.
On our final night we camped at Caseys Weir, a picturesque free camp just nine kilometres from Benalla, off the highway, but right on the banks of the Stockyard Creek. It’s a great spot to throw in a line or just sit back and enjoy the abundant birdlife. Close by, in Goorambat, St James and Devenish, there are stunning examples of silo art, on the grandest scale, depicting colourful scenes and people from rural Australia. The Silo Art is a must see if you’re passing through and a perfect way to end a mini tour in this beautiful part of North Eastern Victoria.