Standing on the top of Porcupine Ridge, the forest falls away to the river below. On the other side of the valley, Mount Franklin, an ancient volcano, looms with a sullen presence.
The stillness is broken as a pair of crimson rosellas swoop just above our heads, chattering noisily as they go. We’re heading towards our night’s accommodation on the Dry Diggings Track, a 58 kilometre trail winding north through the forest between Daylesford and Castlemaine. The track is part of the Goldfields Track, 210km of trails linking Ballarat with Bendigo.
The Dry Diggings Track was originally planned as a walking trail when it was first mapped out in the early 1990s. Since then, it has become increasingly popular with mountain bike riders. Bike riders can tackle the track and finish it in a day, while fit walkers should allow three days. The track starts in the heart of Daylesford at the Visitor Information Centre, stocked with maps and other important information, and finishes at the Castlemaine V/Line station. A private shuttle service travels daily between the two towns and villages in between, and there are accommodation and riverside camping sites along the way. The track traverses some truly beautiful bush, dotted with crumbling historic buildings and home to a myriad of birdlife and wildlife.
After passing through the busy towns of Daylesford and Hepburn Springs, the track suddenly dips into a steep gully cut by Spring Creek. It winds through Mineral Springs Reserve, a good chance to pump some cool, effervescent mineral water from Locarno Spring. From here, the track makes its way around the back of Hepburn Springs and into the box gum forest. Here the earth is still marked by scars of the gold rush. The soil is thin, the trees gnarled and stunted. At Beehive Gully, once home to a mining operation that produced 8 tons of gold, the earth has eroded into dramatic columns.
With the warmer weather comes more animal activity. It’s not uncommon to come across blue-tongued lizards and the rather amusing Jacky Dragon, a small lizard with a spiky beard that runs on its hind legs when disturbed. Near where the track crosses Mannings Road, we were lucky enough to see a train of male echidnas following a female, a beguiling part of their reproductive cycle. Many walkers finish their first day 15km into the walk at The Chocolate Mill near Mount Franklin. Inside this mudbrick building in the bush are handmade quality chocolates using Fairtrade European chocolate. Come for the banana and caramel gâteau served with chilli-spiked hot chocolate. Next door is Stone and Straw, a charming B&B built from Castlemaine sandstone. Here, walkers and bike riders are welcome. There’s a cedar hot tub, and the owner is a certified remedial masseuse offering post-walk/ride massage.
A row of rustic letterboxes, perched on wooden posts, greet walkers and riders on the next stage of the track. It follows Sawpit Gully Road, which meanders past farms and market gardens along a natural avenue perched on the edge of a ridge. From here, the track enters the Dry Diggings Bushland Reserve. Amongst the stringybark and box gum forest is a line of river red gums marking a waterway. Here, the sound of water trickling over sandstone is punctuated by low resonating bobble of two frogs hidden somewhere in the reeds, deep in conversation. The wildflower season this year has been spectacular, and on this stretch of the walk alone, we counted 35 different flowering plants. This included tiny creeping kennedias with burnt orange flowers, grevilleas with rosemary shaped leaves, three different ground orchids, and vast swathes of chocolate lilies, its fringed purple flowers redolent with the aroma of dark chocolate. From Porcupine Ridge Road, the track drops into the Loddon Valley at Vaughan Springs. Here, past an old wooden bridge and shin-deep ford, the Loddon River has been dammed to form a swimming spot. On a hot day, it’s the perfect place to strip down to your cozzie and take a refreshing dip under the gum trees. Within the reserve, there is a campground offering unpowered campsites. Near the entrance to the reserve are a handful of Chinese graves, the small stones carved with Chinese characters sit silently amongst the native bush.
The final stage of the track continues through the Castlemaine Diggings National Heritage Park, a beautiful and moody landscape of abandoned mines and old stone buildings being gradually reclaimed by the bush. There are red cliffs where the earth has been blasted away and giant grey mullock heaps where the earth turned inside and out. Ancient bay and mulberry trees mark where homesteads once stood. We round a corner and there, in the middle of the track, is a massive eastern grey kangaroo, as big as an AFL ruckman. He scratches his belly nonchalantly then hops away, disappearing into the bush. It is a short walk into Castlemaine Station. We have a decent wait for the train back to Melbourne, so cross the tracks to the historic Railway Hotel and order a well-earned pot of ice-cold Shedshaker, small batch handcrafted beer. Outside the last sun rays of the day dance on the canopy of the old elm outside.
Tread Harcourt specialise in servicing riders and walkers on the Dry Diggings Track and offer not only accommodation and meals but a bus transfer service. Using a minibus and bike trailer, they shuttle walkers and riders between Castlemaine train station, Vaughan Springs, Hepburn Springs and Daylesford. treadharcourt.com.au
Daylesford Regional Visitor Information Centre visithepburnshire.com.au
Chocolate Mill, Mount Franklin chocmill.com.au
Stone & Straw, Mount Franklin stoneandstraw.com.au
Vaughan Springs parkweb.vic.gov.au
Railway Hotel, Castlemaine railwayhotelcastlemaine.com.au
Goldfields Track goldfieldstrack.com.au