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Last year my friends 9 year old told me that it wasn’t a real holiday unless you got on a plane.

At the time I was quick to dismiss this as ridiculous, but in 2020 among many far worse challenges, we have all had to reassess what constitutes a holiday. Truthfully I think more than a few of us adults deep down have been privileged enough travellers to secretly think the same thing, possibly shuddering at the thought of spending hard earned leave without getting on a plane to somewhere more exotic or at least interstate.

As an Australian Travel writer who dedicates their spare time to exploring Australia, I was far more open to the idea but will admit I felt it was more of a ‘real’ holiday when I crossed the state boundaries.

So when a friend decided to take their brand new campervan away in Victoria I jumped at the chance for 9 days travelling imy home state to answer the question – can I still get the same thrill from slow travel much closer to home?

Early on it was evident my friends van was a thirsty beast, so with sustainability and petrol costs front of mind we decided to head North but then limit our days to far shorter drives, and somewhat ‘slow travel’ a section of the north of our home state.

The first stop was a free camp in Yakandanda near the Mountain bike trail heads in Stanley State Forest. We pulled into camp in the rain on Saturday night of the cup long weekend expecting regional victoria to be out in force pre-Melbourne lockdown end. Instead, we found a park full of predominantly empty campsites and set up at ‘Trail Head Campsite 2, surrounded by towering trees and steps away from a bubbling mountain creek with native ferns (but also far to many weeds) meandering past the campsite.

In the morning we opened the back of the van to the crisp air and took in the sounds of the birds waking and the creek gurgling.

It was a slow start to the trip, with morning coffees in deck chairs dragged over to the creek. From here we headed into town, getting the gas bottle filled, having a picnic in the park and walking the km or so along the creek to town. The lure of craft brews was too strong, with shady umbrella-covered covid spaced tables along the footpath outside two pot brewing co inviting us over with their dog-friendly outdoor tables.  Their tasting paddle boasts 7 beers and 1 cider from refreshing and light to full flavoured dark beers and it disappeared fast. That night we enjoyed clear skys, camp cooked food and bright stars from the comfort of our same creekside site.

Next, it was just up the road to bright, where we through on the hiking boots and headed to the top of Apex Mountain to enjoy the views. A streamside lunch before nabbing the last leafy riverside site found on wikicamps. It was far to fast-flowing on this trip for us or the dog to swim here but the site is free and just a couple of km’s from town.

Bright is a mecca for mountain bike riders and a great destination for mixed interest groups, with a brewery, cafes , leafy creek lined bike baths and cool river swimming holes abundant as well as being kid-friendly with its huge playground and dogs welcome on a lead many places. It’s also a short drive to Mt Buffulo, skipped on this trip because its not dog friendly but well worth the visit for its stunning views, waterfalls and walks for all fitness levels.

My friend spent the next day shuttling while I wrote, took the dog paddling at a hidden little spot and relaxed with a book by the water. When the river is arunning slower its a great place for a swim for both canine and human.

Today we backtracked to Yakandana for more MTB while I walked the quiet green run as a bushwalk. MTB tracks are well signed and often great walks where its allowed, just make sure to leave headphones out so you can be well off the path to give bikes right of way to pass. Despite lots of gold era gullies, the woodland was surprisingly healthy with a sea of native flowers and several species of native orchids in patches through the bush.

Up the road is a Beechworth, the name familiar to even those who haven’t visited for its honey and well known bakery. Splashing out on an unpowered site at the Lake Samble Caravan park which has leafy grounds and lake views to do washing and clean the van, rain gave us the excuse we needed for a couple of quiet beers at the dog friendly outdoor tables at the pub in town. Heading home to our site with a paper wrapped package from a few doors down we discovered that the fat chips, hand-battered potato and pumpkin cake and vegan dim sim option (plus the fish getting a nod from my friend) that Aging Frog Fish Bar was a contender for my best fish and chips ever.

Beechworth has a popular MTB track which is great for all abilities and it was evident many families head there after school to make the most of the facility.

From Beechworth the pull of the mighty Murray was to strong and we headed towards Yarrawonga, keen to see what the river campsites might bring.

After checking 5 of many sites on wikicamps that were all to full of people for my liking we came upon a huge wide river beach with just a small group of vans parked 300 metres away. We set up our chairs with sweeping views of the Murray river, cockatoos calling on the far banks and rainbow bee eaters swooping from nearby trees to flash bright coloured wings and snatch flys out of the sky.

If you have never stayed on the Murray be prepared for a symphony of raucous bird calls and regular stunning sunsets to signal the end of the day. Here we sat up way into the night, drinking red wine and staring up at the clearest of skies, using the google app to pick out constellations and planets and watching shooting stars streak across the sky.

We planned to head to Echuca, a town dear to my heart, but instead ended up on another river beach, where we had a chill day kicking back on the river bank throwing the dog 300 sticks to retrieve.

Our final affair was a night in the Barmah State Forest. While not intending to spend so many nights on the Murray it’s just sometimes hard to leave. We spent the extra Murray day wandering the park and watching the resident eagle across the river search for food before another evening with a wine enjoying the views.

One thing I definitely realised while on this trip is to find fun in Victoria, you need to see beyond the dusty and treeless roadside paddocks lining most of our major regional roads. Once you head into the historic towns, state and national parks you will find local foodie havens, tracks and rivers to ride, walk or paddle and the tranquil escape that battered brain needs after surviving the year that was 2020 (edit and 2021 and now 2022 lol). In most states, the natural beauty is a bit more apparent than this, even from major highways, while in Victoria you sometimes need to dig a bit deeper to find the hidden gems.

While it’s hard to top the feeling of getting on a plane to a faraway destination, I loved this holiday. In fact, I have never come home from a trip so relaxed and content in life, having spent 9 days in nature. A huge part of this was that beyond ‘visiting the Murray’ we really didn’t plan where we were going or have a list of things to ‘tick off’.

And ultimately that is the whole point of a holiday, to escape your real life, and come home feeling like you have seen beautiful places that made it worth the leave time and money spent.