Why would you camp at Winton Wetlands was the most common response. I heard it so often I was beginning to doubt our choice of location to have a frugal holiday.
It was so frugal that I even left my purse at home, having no intention of spending any money for the next four days.
So we packed up our old campervan and bicycles and headed off into the bush a mere 30 minutes from home, proving that you don’t have to travel far to have a holiday.
Despite all the expressions of disdain at our destination, our family had a great time.
The 8,750 hectare reserve contains a diverse history. It holds thousands of years of Indigenous heritage, then farming, a man made lake, and is now the largest wetlands restoration project in the Southern Hemisphere.
The Indigenous Yorta Yorta people called the area Mokoan. Recorded history tells us hundreds of Indigenous people would meet here.
Evidence of Indigenous habitation can be seen from the multiple scar trees, in which the bark was removed from a tree to make a canoe, and from the many tool scatters.
It always strikes me as odd that people travel overseas to view history, whilst ignoring the fact that Australia has the oldest cultural history in the world, as confirmed by DNA evidence.
At Winton Wetlands this history is enhanced by various art installations such as the enormous long neck turtle created from rocks.
We especially enjoyed riding our bikes on the new pathway heading to the Water Gallery at Ashmead’s Swamp.
The Water Gallery was designed by an Indigenous artist in collaboration with a bush artist. When the wetlands are full, the paintings on the trees reflect in the water creating beautiful images.
We were at the wetlands after a long dry hot summer which broke local weather records for heat. As a result of this most of the reserve was dry.
We would love to return when water once again fills the wetlands and go kayaking at Ashmead’s Swamp.
Even the extra touches of information on the camp toilet block provided cultural history. I know my children were fascinated by the Aboriginal symbols for man and woman.
Farming at Winton
After the forced removal of the Indigenous people in the mid-19th century, the Mokoan Squatters Run was established.
Later on, Mokoan was divided into 16 smaller farms which provided a productive farming area for many families. The area was then known as Winton.
One of these successful farming families were the Green’s. A walking/riding track from the campground takes you to the site of the old homestead which is now a pile of a brick rubble.
In recognition of their farming, a large green cow waits eternally in a yard.
The colourful cow theme can also be seen near the main entrance to the reserve. These cows are on an old barge that a farming family made to transport their cattle across swamp water to pasture.
As with the Indigenous art at Winton Wetlands, there are also strategically placed art works depicting the European settlement.
On our first day at the campground we rode our bikes with the shadow riders attached for the kids and explored over 20km of this enormous reserve.
There was much to see including kangaroos and wallabies, galahs and cockatoos, birds of prey, turtle shells, thousands of dead trees and art.
Winton North State School
The old school site at Winton North in the wetlands gave the kids a laugh. Poor Les Bain had a dog who followed him to school each day and waited on the front step for school to finish.
One day, Les Bain was receiving the strap ‘for some reason or another’ and the dog raced into the classroom and bit the teacher!
Further along our bike ride we discovered a second campground ‘The Cresent’ and like where we were staying it was empty. I’m presuming most people are unaware that camping is available at Winton Wetlands.
We then rode our bikes on a track through a sheep paddock to get to the Lunette Walk, which was weird. I was hoping there were no fierce alpacas ready to attack strangers in their territory and was somewhat hesitant about riding bikes through here. I did ride a bit faster and was rewarded with a fly up my nostril and in my mouth! (Not quite the frugal memories I was after.)
The Lunette Walk began at the other end of the sheep paddock. The walk description is a ‘spectacle of land, water and star-studded sky together with our innovative digital approach is an unforgettable experience’.
However, due to theft, there was no innovative digital approach to enjoy.
There was, though, a portrait of Hilda Bain (perhaps poor Les’ mother).
In 1971, despite protests from the farming community, families were removed from the area to create an artificial lake for irrigation.
“Sixteen farming families had all of their land compulsorily acquired, with a further 52 families having to give up more than 5,000 hectares of land to make way for the lake.”
A 7.7 km dam wall was built to contain the water. It was the longest dam wall in the Southern Hemisphere at that time.
The area was now known as Lake Mokoan.
Whilst the lake was successful in the beginning, it soon became plagued with toxic algal blooms due to the shallowness of the body of water.
Lake Mokoan reached the final stage of decommission in 2010 and returned to its former wetland habitat. It’s now a public reserve known as Winton Wetlands.
Today, starting at The Hub cafe you can ride or walk the 12 km (one way) Benalla-Mokoan Discovery Trail which includes part of the 7.7 km dam wall.
My only advice is not to ride the 10 metre high wall in strong winds with a storm approaching as it can feel like you’re about to be blown away!
Pros & Cons of Camping at Winton Wetlands
- Wildlife encounters: kangaroos, wallabies, a large variety of birds
- Art as part of the landscape: fish trees, long neck turtle, water gallery, water tank portraits
- Kayaking when the wetlands are full
- Photography (brilliant sunrises)
- History, with some great information boards
- Secluded camping (with toilets)
- Free flying fox for the kids
- Ability to have frugal fun
- No signs at wetlands entry to show camping is available
- No signage at entry to campgrounds to show you can camp there
- One campground area did not allow camp fires, despite the installation of a large hanging fire pit.
- Nothing to show if dogs are allowed or not
- Inconsistent kilometre distances marked on bushwalks
- Lunette Walk wasn’t an interactive night experience, due to theft of the equipment
- The new cycling paths aren’t on the maps yet
- Some internal tracks are unmarked
- Information boards focus more on wildlife and farming, not Indigenous history.
If you are well stocked with food and water, you’ll be able to camp in seclusion and tranquility paying only the campsite fee of $20 per night, and not spend a cent more.
Our camping trip to Winton Wetlands was definitely frugal fun for the entire family. We made fantastic memories together, discovered the history of the area, saw plenty of wildlife and art, and were greeted with the most amazing sunrises.
You could always make your memories more romantic by using some of the suggestions in this Valentine’s Day blog post. Everyday is Valentine’s Day, right?
For the less frugal, glamping is available near the main road, meals at the cafe and bike hire – but I doubt it would create the same experiences compared to if you were DIY bush camping.
Edit: Feedback from Winton Wetlands
We’re really happy that you visited the Wetlands and had the opportunity to tour the reserve so thoroughly.
The review and your perspective encompassed in your blog provides fantastic feedback which we have taken on board and will apply to projects that we are currently working on. I’m sure future visitors will also find your writing really useful in planning their adventures.
Our new bike trail is very new (just finished) and we are currently in the midst of producing new site maps to show that trail and others as required. We are also installing new and improved signage (including corrections to distances) over the next few months that will better indicate all facets of the reserve. Camping will be better promoted as we believe that everyone deserves to experience the great outdoors and enjoy and connect with the natural environment as you’ve done.
Please comment below with your frugal holiday ideas.