Exploring the Dandenong Ranges: The real and the reflected
I find joy and relaxation in unstructured day trips. Camera in hand, and with a basic knowledge of interesting attractions, I set off to locations within Melbourne and wider Victoria to immerse myself in the nuances of an area in ways I had not considered before. At times this can be in Melbourne, with past days taking me wandering south of the city and through the Botanical Gardens, and others down the Yarra bike path in search of views the river could bring. There is a unique satisfaction in stumbling upon a hidden away lake, or a long road sheltered by lush foliage. While many have been there before, the experience of finding somewhere new, and trying to capture that vision is always enticing.
Located a mere 40 kilometres from the Melbourne CBD, the Dandenong Ranges seems like a location that should be much further away from a bustling city hub. The ranges essentially begin past the border of fringe Eastern suburbs Ferntree Gully and Bayswater, where wide 80km/h roads become thin, windy and exciting driving roads as the elevation rapidly changes. My journey here, while a short one due to simply how close the Ranges are to inner Melbourne, presented an interesting day.
Small towns are the norm from this point, with Sassafras and Emerald being popular destinations for day-trippers. The distance between town centres such as these is a testament to how different the ranges are from suburbs closer to the city. From this point, there are no major freeways or high capacity roads, only small winding ones that demand more attention than most. This is where the driving becomes most enjoyable, especially during the weekday business hours where residents are usually working, leaving the roads more sparse and open for enjoyment.
Driving in a more open, flowing space is a vastly different experience from the regular point A to B driving done on a daily basis, and it feels special. I am by no means a hugely talented driver, and my car does show its lack of power when climbing steep hills, but driving at a slightly speedy pace through interesting tight roads, admiring the scenery but staying aware that a little mistake could be quite dangerous presents an element of excitement.
Sky High Mount Dandenong
Reaching the first destination, Sky High Mount Dandenong, it’s clear that this is the peak of the mountain. For the entire climb there had been glimpses through gaps in the trees of the impending city views I was to see later on, and it had definitely built itself up in my mind. Reaching the Sky High area, the view is brilliant. The city seems so minute that it is almost comical, and while it feels so far away, it is odd to have this perspective of the city from up so high.
Despite many attempts to capture a stunning photo of the city in the distance, it became apparent that the day’s conditions were not ideal, nor was how far away the city was. I turned my attention to the rest of the Sky High area, which is an enclosed space featuring a restaurant, large garden areas and walking tracks.
There were numerous paths leading around the area, which threw up interesting photographic opportunities, which I felt more connected to than the city view, the complete opposite of what I thought would happen.
The area was fascinating, with interesting garden areas, paths and statues. However, considering how busy it was with masses of tourists visiting on that day, the experience felt a bit artificial. There were roads throughout the entire Sky High area, and it never felt like I was venturing out somewhere interesting and new, more so that I was taking a quick stroll just to get out of the car.
The town of Emerald served as a relaxing stopover to consider my next location.
A lack of mapping out my journey beforehand left me scanning for an interesting location on my phone’s map. A large body of water on the map was not only close by, but seemed significant in size and surely worth a visit.
The overcast nature of the day showed the most here. With an expansive body of water, the reflection of the dull sky doubled.
Alfred Nicholas Memorial Gardens
As the afternoon continued and the sun setting became a genuine factor, I backtracked to one final location that could possibly give me the shots I was after. The Alfred Nicholas Memorial Gardens, although appearing very small from the outside, revealed itself to be an astonishing surprise.
A number of intertwining paths through dense and sparsely grown areas all led to one location, which the gardens signs continually directed me and any other visitors to, the lake.
At this lake, the overcast and muggy weather did not matter at all. The entire area was covered by massive Mountain Ash Trees. Underneath them, the almost picturesque area was doubly gorgeous due to the reflections the water brought. From the right angle, trees and the quaint boathouse presented themselves twice, while the rock formation around the lake drew a perfect horizon line to segment the real, and the reflected.
Lying half a kilometre into this garden, down steep paths and enclosed by nature was the perfect destination, the area that you need to sit back and appreciate and assess before raising the camera to capture it.
Throughout the journey, and now in reflection, I’ve assessed that my feelings towards these trips are perhaps negative or cynical in a certain way. My enjoyment of those areas is deeply linked to my ability to capture what I am seeing through a camera, and then view and edit it afterwards. Even this, the act of reflecting upon the trip, it’s all part of the journey. For me, the day I actually visit an area isn’t exclusively the journey, it’s everything around it. But while I have these images and text, there isn’t a way I can replicate the feeling of driving through the ranges, or first discovering the lake at the bottom of the gardens without actually being there, or better yet, seeking out somewhere new again.