Vanishing point

With her brood close, Allison Cox explores the volcanic formations and the fables that surround them.

'What happened to the girls?'' ''Did they ever find them?'' ''Is it a true story?''

We are driving to Hanging Rock. I have given the three children in the back seat an overview of Joan Lindsay's Picnic at Hanging Rock. Suddenly, they are more interested in our destination. We finally arrive about 11am on a bleak Saturday.

In the discovery centre, the display about the schoolgirls who disappeared during a picnic at the rock on Valentine's Day in 1900 provokes the most interest from our group. Information about how volcanic activity formed the rock about 6 million years ago also captures our imagination.

We are keen to explore. A short distance from the discovery centre, the walk to the summit begins. Two other walks start in the same place, the Base Walk and Creek Walk.

The Summit Walk''Let's get lost'' are the words I hear as the children start eagerly up the hill.

There are two routes for the first part of this walk: the ramp or the stairs. For the ascent we decide on the ramp, a wide, asphalt track between the tall gum trees, thick green scrub and large boulders. Moss grows on parts of the rock. The track is steep in places, particularly before the saddle, which is about halfway up.

At the saddle, you start to get among the formations. Views of the land below are framed by the rock. As we enjoy the scenery, a wallaby bounces past and quickly disappears.

From the saddle to the summit there is no ramp option and much less vegetation. The path is narrower, rockier and exposed. We take time to explore between the rocks and imagine how it might feel to be lost.


Looking down, we spot the brown wallaby again, enjoying a sheltered spot in the weak sunlight. From above comes the distinctive sound of a lone kookaburra. We press on to the top and savour the view.

On the descent, we take the stairs from the saddle. This is a more challenging path between the rocks. We find the ''hanging rock'' suspended over the track and take pictures ''holding it up''.

Back at the bottom, we unpack our picnic on one of the tables next to the racecourse. Crimson rosellas make noisy lunch companions. They seem to be used to participating in picnics.

The Base WalkWe do the Base Walk after lunch to warm up. This is an easy, flat circuit around the perimeter of the rock. Starting near the discovery centre, we follow a wide dirt track between the gum trees. The bush is not thick and we stop to admire how steeply the rock rises from the ground.

Three-quarters of the way around, we spot the red markers of the Creek Walk.

The Creek WalkThe red arrows take us away from the rock, across the grass and around the back of the racecourse. The back straight affords the best view of Hanging Rock as it rises 105 metres from the ground, out of the bush.

A large number of kangaroos relax on the racecourse. They watch us carefully as we approach and move away as we get too close.

As we round the bend out of the straight, we come to a wooden bridge over Five Mile Creek. The path now takes us away from the racetrack and through more bush. It is not long before we emerge near the entrance gate to the reserve and walk on the road back to the car park.

After coffees and hot chocolates at the cafe, we set off for home. More questions about the mystery at Hanging Rock spill forth. ''Perhaps you might just have to read the book,'' I say.


Getting there

Hanging Rock Reserve, South Rock Road, Woodend, is about 80 kilometres from Melbourne, about an hour's drive via the Calder Freeway.

Open 9am-5pm, every day except Christmas Day. Opening extended in summer due to daylight savings.

While you're there

Summit Walk, 1800 metres, 50 minutes return; Base Walk, 1800 metres, 30 minutes return; Creek Walk, 2300 metres, 40 minutes return.

More information

See; Woodend Visitor Information Centre, 1800 244 711.

Cost: Cars $10, minibuses $20, coaches $40 and motorbikes $8.

Different fees apply for special events such as New Year's Day and Australia Day horse races, The Age Harvest Picnic at Hanging Rock and the Picnic at Hanging Rock film night.

Picnic facilities: There are seven coin-operated gas barbecues, picnic tables, a shelter, playground, two ovals and plenty of grass on which to sit or have a game.

Hire one of four tennis courts for $15 an hour. Bookings are made through the cafe on 5427 0295 or the Hanging Rock Tennis Club.