Omeo - history in the high country
If you're looking for a small but scenic country town in a gorgeous area that misses most of the tourist traffic, then Omeo may be worth a look. Especially if you enjoy scenic drives. I used it as a base when exploring Victoria's high country at the end of winter, and it is now on my 'must do again' list.
I first became aware of Omeo when visiting the mountains of north east Victoria - the Ovens and Kiewa valleys, and towns like Myrtleford, Bright, and Mt Beauty. Road signs which show the distance to the ski areas of Mt Hotham and Falls Creek usually include distances to Omeo. It is that place over the mountains which the main roads lead to ... but which isn't visited much by those touring the more populated and busier north west side.
After years of wondering what it was like "on the other side", I made the effort to explore south east of Victoria's main alpine areas. Omeo was an obvious place to use as a base - it isn't big, but is the main town in that large and lightly populated region of high country.
Whatever direction you approach Omeo from, the journey is scenic. Crossing the mountains from Mt Hotham, on the Great Alpine Road, is a wonderful route not to be missed ... and is open year round (fresh snowfalls excepted). Omeo can also be reached on another mountain crossing through Falls Creek - a sealed road, but closed in winter. A minor road from the north through Benambra gives access from New South Wales, but I left that one for another time and better weather.
My first approach was from the south - the low road - up the Tambo Valley through Swifts Creek. The road following the Tambo River is picturesque, as is the farm country higher up, surrounded on all sides by big hills.
From Swifts Creek I took a detour through the abandoned gold mining settlement of Cassilis. There isn't much left, but the little that was left offered an introduction to what first attracted people to the Omeo region - the gold rush of the 1850s.
Further gold rush evidence is passed on the west edge of Omeo, in the Oriental Diggings. Walking trails take you past excavations and tailings of what was once a very productive alluvial gold mining area, and the reason for the town which sprung up next to it.
Omeo has a few older buildings left, giving it a sense of history and a dash of character. The historic park in the middle of town is worth a look - it features a museum, courthouse, rock crusher, and the log jailhouse of what was the most lawless of Australia’s goldfields.
For the traveller, there is a small selection of accommodation places, including a large caravan park, which was where I parked my campervan. It is a long sprawling patch of flat ground following Livingstone Creek, with some cabins and onsite vans, and plenty of space for your own van or tent. The northern ablution block (new in 2014) is one of the better facilities I've seen in caravan parks. That, and the location next to a gurgling creek, make it a place I would recommend.
Omeo has shops I would describe as adequate, but not great. The bakery is reasonable, and the one supermarket has all the essentials but is limited in its range. There is also a take-away shop. If your tastes or needs are specialised, bringing as much as you can with you is a good idea. It's a long drive to the nearest better shops.
One of Omeo's strengths is as a base for exploring the surrounding areas. It sits at around 700 metres above sea level in what qualifies as high country - something readily felt if visiting in winter. Omeo can feel rather cold by Australian standards, although snow falls there only occasionally.
Activities around Omeo include horse riding, fishing in mountain streams, rafting, and exploring historic gold rush sites. In the winter snow season, there is skiing at nearby Mt Hotham, plus other snow activities there and at Dinner Plain such as dog sledding when snow permits. Omeo provides a comfortable base for commuting the 40km to Mt Hotham, on a road much easier to drive than the climb up from Harrietville on the other side.
On the other hand, very little activity is needed to enjoy the slower pace of a small country town, flavoured with the ambience of the high country. If you just want to "hang out" beside gurgling streams or soak in mountain views, Omeo is handy to many suitable spots; some within walking distance of town.
If you're like me and enjoy scenic drives, Omeo is surrounded by them. I enjoyed a day exploring the area to the north around the town of Benambra. This small farming outpost in a broad valley enclosed by mountains felt very isolated for this corner of Australia - in a rugged high-country cattlemen sort of way.
Just driving into or out of Omeo in any direction involves a scenic drive. My favourite route is one I didn't mention before. It's the Omeo Hwy, which heads north from Omeo, over the mountains near Mt Wills and down to Mitta Mitta and the Murray Valley east of Albury. I spent nearly three hours on this stunning but narrow and winding route (fully sealed as of 2014), and loved the scenery and the sense of remoteness. I saw only a handful of other vehicles, although it was the quiet season; I'm told it's more popular in summer.
Whatever direction you approach from, I would recommend Omeo. Both for its appeal as a small town, and as a base for exploring some of Victoria's beautiful high country.
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