Long weekend at Howqua River

While we are getting better at finding nature and wildlife in and around Melbourne, as rewarding as day trips can be, nothing beats actually camping out in the bush for a few days. So when a friend suggested that we go camp out for three nights on the Howqua River, I couldn’t say yes fast enough.

Almost 6,500 square kilometres in area, the Alpine National Park meanders from the middle of the Gippsland area in Victoria, all the way to the New South Wales border. Obviously mountainous in nature, it also boasts high plains and escarpments. This park is a popular site for camping, hiking, horse riding and mountain biking during the warmer periods, while skiing is common in winter. 

Designated camping areas and huts are dotted throughout the park, but vary widely in provided facilities. Some spots, like Sheepyard Flat, are accessible by two-wheel-drive dirt roads and have picnic tables, fireplaces and drop-dunnies (pit toilets). Historical huts are open to the public, but check if they require bookings, and also range in facilities; some merely providing a roof and protection from the weather. The more adventurous and experienced campers can hike further into the park and set up camp as long as they bring in everything they require and take it out again when they leave. While the Alpine National Park may not be suitable for ‘glampers’ (I don’t believe there are hot showers or flushing toilets anywhere on site) it still provides a huge range of camping options for most levels of the camping experience.

Where we were camping was a spot our friends have been going to for over thirty years. As it is a closely guarded secret, I cannot disclose the location, but it was a perfect site with a grassy flat in a curve of the Howqua River itself. Perhaps it is the hike from the road down a very narrow and steep walking track that is enough to put most people off, but I was given the impression that few people, other than the family and close friends, know of and use the site. And, to be honest, the multiple trips up and down that track to bring in the swag, esky and other equipment was not the fun part of the trip. But once you’re all set up, a refreshing dip in the crystal clear water of the Howqua make you forget all about being hot, sweaty and dusty. 

The wildlife made itself known the moment we stepped out of the car. Thornbills and Fairy-wrens were clearly abundant and a small Highland Copperhead (Austrelaps ramsayi) greeted us on the flat as we arrived. But there was also clear evidence of human presence. Some of the largest trees on the flat were oaks and pines and there was an enormous patch of domestic mint growing along the pebbled beach of the river. In contrast, enormous eucalypts grew on the steep banks on the other side of the river. All three types of tree were frequented each day by parrots. Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos (Calyptorhynchus funereus) showed a clear preference for the pine trees, tearing apart the tight cones as though they were made of paper. Large flocks of Australian King Parrots (Alisterus scapularis) grazed sporadically throughout the day on the oak trees, showering the unsuspecting campers in half-eaten and discarded acorns. A small family of Gang-gang Cockatoos (Callocephalon fimbriatum) made scheduled morning and afternoon visits to the same hollow in a giant eucalyptus across the water, clearly preparing or prospecting for a nest. The Crimson and Eastern Rosellas (Platycercus elegans and P. eximius respectively) were far less discerning of their perches and often much harder to spot than their larger cousins. 

It is always interesting to see how well some species adapt to changes in their environment and parrots seem to be a group of birds that are very capable of learning and modifying their behaviours. It doesn’t take a very observant person to notice the increase in lorikeet populations across Melbourne. I remember seeing Rainbow Lorikeets (Trichoglossus haematodus) for the first time at Currumbin Sanctuary in Queensland as a very small child. Now they seem to infest every flowering tree in Melbourne and are considered by some to be an invasive species in Perth. 

But despite the non-native trees, our camping spot was clearly a healthy ecosystem. Although introduced, Brown Trout (Salmo trutta), Redfin Perch (Perca fluviatilis) and Carp (Cyprinus carpio) casually cruised ‘our’ section of river, a native Blotched Blue-tongue Lizard (Tiliqua nigrolutea) warmed itself on the smooth river rocks in the morning sun and at least one species of frog hopped about in great numbers at night. 

Having heard rumours of frogs in the area, I was keen to go out spotlighting one night on the trip. But I found my first Lesueur’s Frog (Litoria lesueurii) on the way back from the ‘bathroom’ on the very first night. A distinct rustle at my feet was cause enough to examine the area with my head torch. The little ground-dwelling tree frog was right next to the path and had probably leapt out of the way of clumsy human feet. As I was later informed by the Twitter community, frogs can vary in pattern and colour greatly. The first Lesueur’s Frog I found was a grey-brown colour, others were almost pinkish-brown and another (possibly a breeding male) was almost fluorescent lime. They all had a distinct line through their eye, from the tip of their nose to past their ear, but that in itself was not enough to identify them. Chris Watson, fount of zoological knowledge, told me that frogs are often identified by the patterns on their inner thighs. Most of the frogs we found that night had black inner legs with very pale blue spots, the defining characteristic of L. lesueurii. Sadly, I didn’t get clear shots of the inner thighs of some of the frogs, so it was difficult to determine whether or not they were all the one species.

Spotlighting further from our campsite revealed a Swamp Wallaby (Wallabia bicolor), numerous Brushtail Possums (Trichosurus vulpecula) and a sneaky Sugar-glider (Petaurus breviceps) that disappeared from its perch in the nanosecond when the spotlight slipped from its position. A few different owl species were heard, but we only managed to get eyes on a Southern Boobook (Ninox boobook) as we were returning to camp.

As always, it was just so rejuvenating to get out into the bush for an extended period of time. While clearly too far from Melbourne for a decent day trip, it is well within the realms of a weekend destination and definitely worth the drive. Check out the Parks Victoria site for more specific information.