What if we told you that you can be an explorer right here in Victoria, and discover World Heritage Sites and unique features that only exist here, and not anywhere else in the world?
We talk with Hamilton’s Stefan Burger, or @the_cactus_explorer as he’s known to his extensive social media following, about the world-class exploration you can undertake from the Greater Hamilton region.
Stefan – hello! Please introduce yourself to our readers:
Hi guys! I’m Stefan, I’m originally from Hamilton, now South-America based, and I’m a cacti-enthusiast and tour guide!
Growing up, my grandparents had an incredible landscape and vegetable garden, including a small cactus garden. I was always outside exploring and helping to maintain it, so when my grandfather became unable to care for his plants, I transferred some to my house and made my first rock garden. Encouraged by family and locals who gave me cuttings and plants, my interest grew. As a teenage member of the Ballarat Cactus and Succulent Society, I visited the large cactus collection and nursery of Rudolf Schultz, a great botanist and author, who told me of his adventures exploring South America and South Africa. I was inspired!
Some years later I began travelling to see exotic plants in habitat, beginning in the US, then Madagascar, Chile, Argentina, Bolivia and Peru. I officially moved to Chile in September 2019, but love coming back home to Hamilton when I can (or when a pandemic prompts it!).
How have your experiences adventuring in South America changed how you feel about your hometown?
Travelling to South America to see plants and animals in habitat has inspired me to explore the Greater Hamilton region more when I return. I am sentimental about this area since I grew up here, but I’ve also realised we have a lot of very special natural history and ecology right at our back door.
Where are you exploring now?
Volcanoes! Well, dormant ones and the curious volcanic features in the landscapes around Byaduk, Penshurst and surrounds. The Byaduk Caves are worth a visit- they’re the result of lava flow tubes created thousands of years ago during Victoria’s active volcano era (only in the last 10,000 years). The Tumuli nearby are also fascinating- they’re a series of rare lava blisters, the only ones of their kind in Australia, they’re actually only found in Iceland, Africa, and here! At Harman’s Valley lookout near Byaduk you can get an incredible view of where lava rivers made their way towards you from Mount Napier, Victoria’s youngest volcano. There are also awesome views of the lava plains from Mt Rouse in Penshurst. These places not only have interesting geology but are also hot spots for kangaroos and native flora taking advantage of the mineral rich lava deposits.
Of course, the Grampians National Park is a world class destination and can’t be missed when visiting the area. Not only is the scenery stunning but the diverse flora and fauna will capture the attention of experienced nature enthusiasts and casual observers alike. I visit the Grampians multiple times when I return to the area and still haven’t experienced it all – there is so much to see and do! A popular, easy walk with a great view is the Piccaninny near Dunkeld, or for something more challenging with a very rewarding view I recommend Mt Abrupt. For a nice place to take a dip in nature on your walk, the Venus Baths are a must, but visit on a hot spring day while the water is still flowing. MacKenzie Falls are also a highlight, being one of the largest in Victoria!
I’m enjoying exploring local nature hot spots like the Nigretta and Wannon Falls too- they’re perfect for a day trip all year round, have BBQ facilities and light bushwalking trails, and I’ve spent a bit of time at Rocklands near Balmoral, which offers fishing opportunities and access for water activities such as kayaking. You can camp near all of the places mentioned to make more of an adventure of it too.
Where will you be discovering next?
Another local place high on my list to re-explore is the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape, including what was formally known as Mt Eccles National Park, which has recently been added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. I have explored this area years ago but I’m looking forward to visiting again and learning more about its ecology and cultural significance to the Gunditjmara Traditional Owners, who had a fascinating aquaculture system in place involving woven eel traps. In the National Park you can walk through the old lava flow canals, caves and around the crater’s rim or simply follow the lake shoreline below. It’s an impressive landscape and great place to botanise and see special endemic fauna such as koalas and echidnas.
Sounds awesome- how can we go exploring around here ourselves?
Hamilton is a really strategic place to stay when visiting any of these areas- people often stay here when connecting the Grampians to the Great Ocean Road. It’s worth spending an extra night in Hamilton to see the Falls, go to the Gallery and explore the Botanic Gardens- it’s actually a prestigious and historically important one in Victoria, designed by master landscaper and botanist, William Guilfoyle. There are many trees in the gardens well over a century old which is a marvelous asset for Hamilton. Did I mention Hamilton has some awesome niche cafes and restaurants too?!
What are your Top Tips for fellow explorers?
- Always do some research about where you are going to explore and only take the essentials – packing light is one of the keys to stress free travel!
- Also aim to always explore with at least one other person or at least tell someone where you are going and when you will be returning.
- If you have access to a local field guide of the flora and fauna, this can help you to identify and learn more about what you see along the way!
- Note- the Visit Greater Hamilton Shop has a range of local field guides available here!
Can you share with us any local secrets of the Greater Hamilton region?
An interesting connection between the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne and the Hamilton Botanic Gardens is that they are both designed by William Guilfoyle. In Melbourne there’s a spectacular cactus and succulent garden surrounding Guilfoyle’s volcano where you can also get a panoramic view of the city. Apparently there is a tiny dormant volcano in the Hamilton Botanic Gardens, which adds yet another interesting link between the two!
Thanks Stefan, how fascinating!
Want to see some of Stefan’s cacti collection? See the video on our Inspired By Locals page!
Keen to explore? The team at the Hamilton & Grampians Visitor Information Centre have all the local insights on how to be an explorer from here in the Greater Hamilton region- call 1800 807 056 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to connect with a local!