Driving the Great Alpine Road between Bright and Bruthen has to be one of the most spectacular touring experiences that Australian motorcar drivers and motorbike riders can have. It is picturesque, spectacular and fun. It is also the gateway to Mt Hotham and driving in the Winter can pose some interesting and potentially dangerous challenges.

It is a road that requires an incredible amount of respect; and if you choose to drive it, you’re best to familiarise yourself with the pros and cons before you set out from home.

Heading up Mt. Hotham from the Bright/Harrietville side is beautiful, exciting and spectacular. The road winds its way steeply up the mountain side, with wonderful views over cliffs and into the valley. The major obstacles you face are heavy fog and black ice on the road; firstly at the creek between Bright and Harrietville (where you see the flashing lights), then entering Harrietville, and also a number of sections of road on the steep mountain ascent. These are generally the sections that remain in shadow, and therefore tend toward an icy surface. Many of these problematic sections occur at corners before and near the ticket box on the road up, though few of these have specific names. One such spot is on the ascent and corner immediately above the ticket box. There’s another section near the snow clearing workshop that is particularly dodgy, then going downhill into Dungy’s Hollow, and all the way up the back of CRB Hill, across the Ridge and down into Baldy Hollow. All the way up to Razorback and anything in the shade up to the top of the hill may also pose problems.

Car sickness is rampant on this drive, so consider taking car-sickness medication if you suffer.

Animals are rarely seen on this road, though I have encountered the occasional kangaroo, fox, rabbit, wombat and possum. The greatest problem is probably other drivers – firstly the dangerous and impatient ones who insist on tailgating and passing on blind corners, and then the second and very frustrating group of drivers at the opposite extreme – the slow road hogs who seem oblivious to the queue of cars that forms behind them.

Please exercise appropriate driver etiquette on the road – if you are cautious and prone to driving slowly, that’s fine, but pull over at an appropriate spot to let the faster cars past. This doesn’t mean on a blind, tight corner, rather on a long straight or into a bay at the side of the road (many corners have these). And likewise DO NOT tailgate – it is only likely to distract, pressure and upset the more timid driver in front of you, and may cause them to make a driver error which would be unfortunate for everyone.

On a dry, clear road you can make it up the mountain from Bright in an hour, or from Harrietville in just over half an hour. Traffic, fog, ice and snow on the road will increase this; perhaps even by hours – most certainly if you are required to join an organised convoy (with a lead vehicle). Also consider the time it takes you to fit chains to your tyres – for some this may be 1.5 minutes, while for other a delay of as much as 20! If you are driving a 2WD car chances are you will need to fit chains; for 4×4 it is less frequent, though early in the season this occurs more consistently.

The trip from the Melbourne city centre is approximately 3.75 hours to Bright, though from the outer-east, where I live, this can be closer to 5 hours on a Friday night during peak hour.

Cobungra Station in snow

The section of road from Omeo to Hotham, while gorgeous, is also one to take with great care. The most problematic stretches of road include the ascent into the hills immediately above Omeo, then the climb above Victoria Falls near Cobungra Station, and ultimately the appropriately named ‘Slippery Pinch’. These are notorious for ice cover, especially in the early morning and late evening. The greatest risk for this side of the mountain is that much of the road is very easy to drive as it’s so open, and speeds reach 100km an hour frequently. This means that when you enter a section prone to ice you need to have reduced your speed enormously in advance to avoid problems.

For anyone living in the outer east of Melbourne it is far easier to take the Omeo route to Mt. Hotham. The Monash Freeway–Packenham By-Pass saves considerable time, so it’s just a 4.25 hour trip from the outer south-east to Omeo (5 hours from the city during peak hour), then a 40-50 minute drive up to Hotham (50 if there is heavy snow).

From Omeo to Hotham it’s a picturesque drive, with a gradual incline, as you’re making the ascent from approximately 700 meters already. You travel through some fabulous and famous cattle stations (such as Cobungra).

Herefords on the Great Alpine Road

Be aware, cattle may be on the road-side. You may even encounter a cattle muster as cows are brought down the road from the high country for grazing. The muster generally occurs in the June/July school holidays at the start of the ski season. Over the years I have seen up to 20 cows left behind on the roadside after the muster, and these wander kilometres per day up and down the road. It appears the police are enforcing greater care in rounding up the cattle, so this is becoming less of a problem … but I feel you can never be too careful!

Stock and Wildlife sign on the GAR

You may also see kangaroos, wombats, deer, possums, rabbits and foxes on the road. Roos tend to be a predominantly dawn and dusk issue, while wombats are a particular problem after dark and very early morning.

There is usually no need for snow chains to 4×4 on the Omeo side, though 2WD cars sometimes required them. Chain bays clearly display instructions for chain fitting to vehicles, typically a 2WD may require chains just prior to the Hotham Airport. After a particularly low snowfall, which can reach Omeo, cars may be required to fit chains for much of the journey up to Hotham, however this is very rare. As Omeo is in the rain shadow (the leeward side) of Hotham, you may not require chains while the Harrietville side does, as that is the windward (west) side and receives the greatest amount of snowfall.

From Melbourne to Omeo the road between Bruthen and Swifts Creek has some sections of winding road, along the Tambo River, though there is very little ascent to worry about. The roads have been widened recently, and even include overtaking lanes. Just keep your eye out for wombats, deer, cattle, kangaroos, sheep, foxes and rabbits in this section – they’re a serious obstacle! During the daytime be aware that logging trucks use this roadway. Some corners are blind and very sharp, and require slow speeds … watch for oncoming traffic! The speed recommendations on this stretch of road are very accurate. Of particular note are the landmarks along the road: the red and white striped pole that marks the beginning of the winding road section from the Bruthen side. When returning from Omeo to Bruthen, the final corner has a yellow road curve sign with “LAST ONE” written on it which always brings a sigh of relief! Also look for the statue carved from a tree stump which is periodically painted and dressed up – anything from Homer Simpson to a bride – and the kangaroo sign which so aptly wears skis.

The Omeo to Hotham route is relatively car-sickness free, though the Bruthen-Swifts Creek section may prove difficult for some.

From either direction driving to Mt Hotham – Harrietville or Omeo – you MUST carry chains in Winter months on the Great Alpine Road! Indeed it’s not a bad idea to have them in the car at other times of the year when there may be fresh snowfalls.

Fuel, including alpine diesel, can be purchased on both sides of Mt Hotham – at Bright, Bairnsdale and Omeo.

It’s easy for me to say: “Drive slowly, don’t brake into or through corners, use your gears and engine to brake”, but without a thorough understanding of what that means, and how your own car handles, my words are pointless. Consider doing an advanced driver training course – even if it doesn’t cover alpine road safety, it certainly will assist you to learn techniques for coping in a slide or skid, which is what you will face if you hit ice and lose control. Be aware, ice may be covered by fresh snow which gives a false impression of safety and can take you by surprise.

Rolled 4x4 on the GAR

Don’t think that being in a 4×4 makes it any safer to take risks or travel at high speed on your journey through these problem sections of road. Having a higher centre of gravity means there’s a greater chance of a 4×4 rolling than a sedan – when you hit ice and skid, then the ice stops and you grip the road surface, you have an increased risk of tipping. The majority of accidents I have witnessed on the Great Alpine Road have been 4 wheel drives! Also, consider the value of dedicated snow or mud and snow tyres (M+S) as these can assist you greatly with drivability and safety, and provide added peace of mind for the precious human cargo that you may be carrying!

Also pay attention to seasoned driver’s advice – find out in advance what areas you need to be extra careful about. This really could save your life! Watch that road and be safe out there! Have fun and enjoy the gorgeous views along the road on your way to your fabulous Mt Hotham holiday!