Down the gently sloping pathway which curled through the pinnacles of old rock weathered by millions of summers, and from among the ferns and eucalyptus trees they came.

Their leader, a grinning Aussie bloke whose nodding grew more animated as he approached, was the first to speak. "Yeah, very good," he said with a laugh.

His mate then added the obvious - a word I daresay is spoken atop the creepy slab of ancient Australian rock more than any other. "Miranda."

It was my turn to smile. For there we were, me, the missus and the kid, atop a high rock plateau on which we had spread a checked tablecloth and on it some muesli bars, three plastic cups, beer and mineral water.

We were having a picnic at Hanging Rock, albeit one where the sound of wind rustling through the tall trees and the excited chatter of Japanese tourists in battalion strength replaced the haunting lilt of Gheorghe Zamfir's spine-tingling panpipes which accompanied Peter Weir's 1975 classic film Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Six weeks earlier, as we made plans to visit a daughter in Melbourne, I got the Hanging Rock bug.

There it was on the map, up the Calder Highway and on the road to Bendigo, where I heard there were gold mines and possums who stalked humans at night.

So Bendigo went on the itinerary because, along the way, was Hanging Rock. I took out the film video out for another viewing, and as Miranda the Botticelli angel went gliding off into a mysterious chasm while her chubby classmate howled, "Come back, come back", I became even more curious.

I determined that Hanging Rock was, in a word, eerie. And I like eerie. I wasn't expecting to stumble on dainty bones or a crumbling shred of lace frock, I just wanted to walk the paths, explore the crevices and dark caves and maybe find myself confronted by the pinnacle to which Miranda and her chums found themselves drawn.

And maybe see the mysterious red cloud described by author Joan Lindsay in the 1967 book.

In her preface to the tale of the mysterious disappearance of the girls from Appleyard College on St Valentine's Day, 1900, she wrote: "Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year 1900, and all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important."

So there we were on the Rock. And yes, it is eerie.

After driving through the woodlands of Macedon, and having turned off the Calder Highway about an hour north of Melbourne, you round a corner and see the great volcanic brute - looming, ominous, eerie and dominating. Great jagged pinnacles and craggy slab sides.

Scraggy bush and trees clinging where they can to its sides and plateaus. Lichens smeared across faces where water had cascaded after storms. Scarred by the thousands of seasons it has endured.

As we made the meandering climb - on a tarmac path which is subtle in the way it blends with the rock - we came upon places strange and spectacular.

"Down here," my son shouted after wandering off past a jutting pinnacle on a rocky plateau 80m up. The kid had come across a deep crack, a metre wide, the sides worn smooth by age, which plunged 20m. It was steep, but steps had been etched down into the dangerous darkness.

"No," was my instinctive fatherly response to his request of, "Can I go down there?"

We walked on to where we were to have our picnic. (After arriving back home we watched the video again and, yep, we saw our little picnic plateau. It was where Miranda, Irma, Marion and pudgy Edith had rested.)

From the book: "They found themselves on an almost circular platform enclosed by rocks and boulders and a few straight saplings. Irma at once found a sort of porthole in one of the rocks and was gazing down fascinated at the picnic grounds below."

Far below we could see lawns, picnic tables, and tour buses.

There is a popular theory about the disappearance of the girls, which locals believe has some basis, although not quite as Joan Lindsay chronicled. It is that the Rock harbours the spirit of an Aborigine who protects it from unwelcome visitors. One bloke said Aborigines won't go near the place.

That alone made the kid suck in a sharp breath as I tipped the last tepid drops of beer on the ground.

"You probably shouldn't have done that," he said.

"Ahh, she'll be right," I said in my best ocker accent. "She'll dry up, mate."

Within 10 minutes the camera case had disappeared. Sheepishly, I returned a couple of souvenir rocks to the ground.

We moved up, around a wall of small pinnacles, to come upon several smooth boulders which clung to the edge of the rock. They afforded a spectacular view over the far valleys, fields, ponds and Macedon Ranges.

We sat there for some time, breathless from the climb and the vista.

Then we saw the cloud.

Not quite like the strange red cloud Edith had seen while running terrified down the Rock after her chums disappeared, but a strange cloud all the same - for we were there on a day as bright and clear as was possible. Never was a sky so blue. The only other clouds were distant and stringy.

Yet, as we neared the peaks as far as the path could take us, one small cloud in an otherwise vacant sky appeared overhead before drifting away to the north.

"Oh yes," I hear you sigh, "he obviously had more than a couple of glasses of beer".

Cynics. I have proof. I took a picture.

We lingered long, at a place so strange it sort of held us there ... and almost missed the booked goldmine tour up in Bendigo later in the day.

We left after calling at the cafe-shop at the beginning of the pathway, and after having a squiz at the imaginative Hanging Rock education centre, where kids enjoy the tunnel and adults get the chills when they look into the faces of real children, on real picnics, in real photos taken about 1900 at Hanging Rock.

In honour of Mrs Appleyard, the daunting and refined English headmistress of Appleyard's College for Young Ladies, we partook of scones with jam and cream, and a pot of tea.

The quietly spoken and very polite owner looked the part - black dress, prim and spectacled.

It added wonderfully to the atmosphere of a remarkable spot amid the spectacular Australian landscape - although the spell diminished a bit when we offered our thank-you and goodbyes and, with a smile, she replied: "No worries."

Getting there
Hanging Rock is 75km northwest of Melbourne. Take the M79, the Calder Highway, out of Melbourne and follow the signposts to Macedon. It takes a little over an hour.

Entry to the rock area is A$8 a car.

* Roger Moroney paid his own way across the Tasman but was assisted in visiting Hanging Rock by Hertz Rentals for the car and Tourism Victoria.