Down Under with the Overland Jeep Gladiator
Putting the Jeep Through its Paces in the Victorian High Country
Having just completed the build of my house-on-wheels Australian Jeep Gladiator, it was time for a shakedown run to find any shortcomings and iron out any bugs. Ready for possible vehicle mishaps, I did not expect to encounter a man wanted for murder.
While confident in the systems I designed and built into my new Jeep, there really is no better test than the real thing, and living out of the vehicle in the wilderness is the only way. Over the next 12 months I plan to tackle the Simpson Desert, Cape York, remote Western Australia and everything in between. Starting out by exploring Victoria also means I’m not far away from parts and tools, should the need arise.
With my partner Katie, we fill the new water tank, spend a small fortune filling the main and aux gas tanks and pack the fridge, kitchen, and storage drawers with enough food for at least a week. I load my camera equipment into the storage box and strap the sleeping swag and two camp chairs in the back. As we leave, I can’t help but be excited for the adventures to come, as this is finally the first step of an Australian expedition I have dreamed about for decades.
Shakedown on Mt. Sterling
The narrow summit track climbs steeply over dirt, gravel and loose rock, and it doesn’t take long to experience first-hand the much talked about Achilles heel of the Jeep Gladiator, the break-over angle. At 5,732 feet, Mount Sterling isn’t setting any world records for tallest mountain, though we’ve been told repeatedly the views from the top are stunning and it seems like the perfect first challenge to cut our teeth in the high country.
While climbing an endless series of short and steep water bars which have been built into the track to prevent erosion, the belly of the Jeep Gladiator smashes into the humps and scrapes across numerous times. The extra-long wheelbase is great for storing a huge amount of gear, but of course that ability comes with a downside. The front and rear wheels are so far apart that each short and tall hump scrapes across the underside while the tires helplessly ground out on either side.
Stunning Scenery and the Jeep Gladiator
Ground clearance aside, exploring the Victoria High Country is every bit as stunning as I dreamed it would be. We have lunch at the iconic Craig’s Hut of “The Man from Snowy River” fame, before moving onto King Basin Road, which is basically a series of small riving crossings. This track provides the perfect opportunity to train Katie as stunt driver. She’s never driven a big 4×4 like this before, so I have her carefully pick her way across each stream, while I run back and forth with cameras to document the trip. Katie does an excellent job putting the Jeep Gladiator through its paces, slowly wading into each crossing before climbing up and out slippery mud and rock banks.
Meeting the Button Man
Late in the afternoon we crawl along the rocky Bluff Track, climbing a narrow ridge with commanding views of distant peaks. I’m just starting to look for a suitable place to make camp when I hear a rattling diesel engine coming our way. It’s the first vehicle we’ve seen since breakfast, and it just happens to be at a wider spot in the trail where I pull to the side to wait.
In due course an extremely beat up 60 Series Land Cruiser rumbles around the corner, trailing a plume of black smoke. I can’t help but notice the rusty cruiser is virtually riding on the bump stops, which is probably explained by the severely overloaded roof rack with the back seat and cargo area crammed to the brim.
A Close Encounter
You never know who you’re going to meet while having adventures in the wilderness, and while I often look forward to meeting the strangest of people, I should be careful what I wish for. The vehicle rumbles to a stop, and I’m struck by the driver’s appearance. Tall and thin with long wispy grey hair, his eyes beam with mischief. He must be in his late 60s, though he looks ready to climb a mountain at a moment’s notice. We chat back and forward for five minutes, and it quickly becomes clear this man has been in the bush for a long time by himself. He explains that due to unforeseen circumstances he was held up and forced to stay in the area longer than planned. He doesn’t seem upset about that in the least, and we each bid a cheery farewell before moving off in opposite directions.
“While climbing an endless series of short and steep water bars which have been built into the track to prevent erosion, the belly of the Gladiator smashes into the humps and scrapes across numerous times.”
Obviously he was a bit quirky, and likely hadn’t spent much time around other people lately, but that’s no crime. To be honest I’m a bit jealous he can just spend four or five months alone in the mountains. I didn’t know it at the time, but I met the infamous Button Man, who just two days prior was the prime suspect in a double murder committed just a stone’s throw away.
The police had recently discovered two bodies nearby, and short on leads, they immediately investigate the “crazy guy” living wild in the mountains. A SWAT team paid him a visit by helicopter to detain and question him, although they came up with nothing and turned him loose only a day or two before we met.
Billy Goat’s Bluff
No visit to the high country would be complete without tackling the infamous Billy Goat’s Bluff trail, famous for having extremely steep cliff edges on both sides of the track. Descending from the mountain top to valley bottom, the trail drops 3,120 feet in just seven miles. It quickly becomes clear that whoever built this track didn’t care for standard road grades or regulations. As far as I can tell, they just rolled a dozer directly down the rocky ridge line, come what may.
After a very brief stint in the trees we quickly find ourselves descending down the knife-edge of a steep and rocky ridge, using Low range to hold back the Jeep Gladiator’s sizeable bulk. It becomes extremely apparent this track is not for those who suffer from vertigo, or who don’t trust their brakes.
We tackle Billy Goat’s going down, which is clearly the easier and straightforward option. Driving down also has the advantage of spectacular views out to the surrounding mountains.
Aside from a couple of ground clearance issues the Gladiator doesn’t break a sweat, and I’m confident it would easily climb the trail too, though maybe with a little wheel slip here and there in the loose rock. I’m happy we don’t encounter any vehicles climbing the narrow trail, opportunities to pass are few and far between, and I don’t like the prospect of reversing for hundreds of meters.
Dinner at the Dargo Pub
A longstanding tradition when exploring the Vic High Country is a visit to the Dargo Pub for dinner and cold drinks. This iconic watering hole is a must-visit for any 4×4 fan, and I couldn’t help but notice the shocked looks as I parked the shiny Gladiator in a long lineup of classic Aussie Utes. Virtually all the heavily used Hiluxes, Patrols, and Land Cruisers had multiple CB antennas, massive oversized mudflaps and a couple were even sporting honest to goodness bull horns on the bonnet. The modern Jeep Gladiator has never looked more out of place.
Inside the pub the sheer number of trinkets plastered on the walls and even the roof boggles the mind, and the 4×4 wall of shame soon catches my attention. Photos snapped over the years show all manner of destroyed and abandoned vehicles, including roll overs and those lost to the numerous river crossings. It’s a sober reminder of the consequences of poor decision making, and I’m happy to have a visual guide of what not to do in these mountains.
For dinner I can’t go past the classic Chicken Parmigiana, an Aussie classic. It’s a chicken schnitzel topped with ham, salsa and a good heaping of mozzarella cheese all baked in the oven. As you might expect for a remote Aussie pub, the beer is cold and plentiful and doesn’t stop flowing until the wee hours of the morning. Camping in the grass field out the back means it’s only a short stroll until we fall into the swag to sleep. Another Aussie tradition, a swag is like a heavy duty canvas sleeping bag with a built-in mattress. You simply roll it out on the ground and you’re good for the night.
Strange Visitor in the Night
For our final track we move north on the Great Alpine Road to take on another iconic alpine track, Blue Rag. This track also climbs a narrow and rocky Ridgeline well up into the alpine, and from the top we can easily see nearby Mt. Hotham ski resort and Mt. Sterling far in the distance. Once again the views are spectacular, and we find it difficult to tear ourselves away until late in the afternoon.
“Over the next 12 months I plan to tackle the Simpson Desert, Cape York, remote Western Australia and everything in between.”
The sun has well and truly set by the time we near the end of the trail. We decide to call it a night. After dinner we’ve just crawled into the swag when we hear the strangest animal noise I have ever heard in the wilderness. At first I think it’s an injured cow, but after hearing it over and over I think maybe it’s a dog, or at least some kind of wild dog howling at the now full moon. The sound is eerie and makes sleep difficult to find, though thankfully it stops after a couple of hours.
In the morning we wind down into the picturesque mountain town of Bright to research our nocturnal camp visitor. I’m shocked to learn of the endangered alpine dingo, and a quick Google confirms the sound we heard was in fact a dingo howling at the moon, something I wasn’t expecting to cross paths with before we venture much further north.
The Jeep Gladiator’s Shakedown Success
Starting from scratch on a new overland vehicle has been an exciting and challenging process. I built so many little features and creature comforts into my old Wrangler, I had actually forgotten I would need to make those same improvements on a new vehicle.
All the major systems performed flawlessly. I’m very happy with how the individual pieces have come together to create a functional and capable house on wheels. The solar panel, charge controller and battery power everything with ease. Cooking meals on the spacious kitchen is a pleasure. Sleeping under the stars in the swag puts a smile on my face for the sheer simplicity.
With a much-need suspension upgrade on the horizon, I’m confident the Jeep Gladiator will be ready to take on the challenges that lay ahead as we explore far and wide around Australia.
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Victorian High Country Quick Facts
Land Area: 2,000 square miles (size of Delaware)
Tallest Mountain: Mount Bogong (6,516 feet)
Highest Average Rainfall: 483 inches
Average Winter Snow Depth: 40 inches