Good food hunt­ing

Ju­dith Elen wan­ders the boun­ti­ful back­roads of Vic­to­ria’s rugged Grampians re­gion

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

Vis­i­tors to Bram­buk, near Halls Gap at the heart of the Grampians Na­tional Park, are in­tro­duced to the re­gion’s rich Abo­rig­i­nal her­itage

Go climb­ing, ab­seil­ing or just en­joy the views HREE days free and we are on the road, a small group full of an­tic­i­pa­tion and the prom­ise of dis­cov­ery. With Mel­bourne be­hind us, we head for Dunkeld at the south­ern tip of Vic­to­ria’s Grampians Na­tional Park, 260km to the west. At Bal­larat, we branch off the high road (the A8, which would lead us north to skirt the up­per reaches of the park) and take the low road, the B160, the Glenelg High­way, which will de­liver us straight to our des­ti­na­tion. We are on a mis­sion to dis­cover hid­den ter­ri­tory, the Grampian Moun­tains, first stop Dunkeld and its A-list restau­rant at the Royal Mail Ho­tel.

We pass scrubby, heath-flow­ered land, a pad­dock of shaggy ponies and un­du­lat­ing sheep pas­tures; plumply flow­er­ing wat­tle trees line the road. Small towns come and go: Smythesdale, a tiny ceme­tery at its ap­proaches, daf­fodils un­der its trees and not a su­per­mar­ket or Star­bucks in sight. Our first view of the moun­tains comes with a chain of blue-hazed points on the hori­zon, about 50km from Dunkeld.

Late sun pierces cloud banks in a pyra­mid of rays and the road be­gins to climb. As we close in on the Grampians, they seem to close in on us. We fork off the high­way headed for the Royal Mail and they sur­round us, craggy, ir­reg­u­lar, slop­ing to­wards the Vic­to­ria Val­ley as if em­brac­ing a great, pre­his­toric ocean bed.

The ruggedly gor­geous Grampians re­gion, smudged across cen­tral west­ern Vic­to­ria, is a hid­den prize. If you are a rock-clim­ber, cliff-face plunger or other artist here, and Frank Jesse, a yoga ex­pert who teaches in Mel­bourne. There is a gar­den yoga stu­dio and a range of re­lax­ation and prac­tice ses­sions and pack­ages.

For me, it’s the gar­den that does it, and the break­fast of home-grown and made pre­serves, just-baked bread, hand-picked herbs and the most or­ange egg yolks, all served in a glass­sided din­ing room sur­rounded by the gar­dens. I wan­der out­side and am lured down paths through cold-cli­mate flow­er­ing trees, past streams and across bridges. I am very re­luc­tant to leave.

Tak­ing the scenic C216, travers­ing Grampians Na­tional Park north of Dunkeld, we drive be­tween sheep pas­tures ringed by moun­tains. The dev­as­tat­ing bush­fires that swept through the Grampians early in 2006 have left ar­eas of charred, black­ened trunks veiled in fresh growth as if wreathed in trop­i­cal vines. This morn­ing we are headed for the town of Halls Gap at the cen­tre of the park on its east­ern edge and home of the Na­tional Park and Cul­tural Cen­tre, Bram­buk.

Un­der the Abo­rig­i­nal name of Gari­w­erd, th­ese moun­tains and se­questered val­leys have been home to the Jard­wad­jali and Djab Wur­rung peo­ple for thou­sands of years. At Bram­buk, I get a small in­sight into what they have learned in that time. Bram­buk chief ex­ec­u­tive Jeremy Clark tells me the park is 120km long and 80km across; it has roads and wind­ing tracks, but it is wild coun­try, he warns.

So ad­vice is im­por­tant, but this is much more than an in­for­ma­tion cen­tre. I learn that 80 per cent of the state’s rock art is in the Grampians. Many sites not usu­ally open to the pub­lic can be vis­ited on guided Bram­buk tours.

Even if you are just pass­ing through, as we are, a short visit is great fun. We taste croc­o­dile skew­ers, emu sausages and kan­ga­roo fil­lets at the bush tucker cafe and, my favourite bit, walk through an ac­tive dis­play of the re­gion’s six sea­sons. I learn that the warmth (spring) is the time of but­ter­flies, when drag­on­flies mate, river red gums flower and tad­poles are in the ponds. The sea­son of eels or kooy­ong (sum­mer) is the hottest and dri­est, when stringy­barks flower, in­sects are ac­tive and the night sky is bright with stars.

Bram­buk has been owned and run by Abo­rig­ines since 1990, in part­ner­ship with Parks Vic­to­ria. It pro­vides jobs and train­ing, and pro­ceeds from arte­facts sold in the shop go to the five par­tic­i­pat­ing com­mu­ni­ties. One of the build­ings, win­ner of an Aus­tralian ar­chi­tec­ture award in 1992, is a fas­ci­nat­ing ex­hi­bi­tion space and back­drop for dances and per­for­mances, a favourite with school groups. Like a great, an­chored tent of bark and wood, it echoes the shape of a cock­a­too in flight.

We move on to an­other school­room, this time of the weath­er­board va­ri­ety. Trav­el­ling north from Halls Gap, we drive through War­took Val­ley, all kan­ga­roos, moun­tain views and wild flow­ers, to­wards Mt Zero at the far­thest reaches of the park. Or­ganic grower Mount Zero Olives runs a com­pound of build­ings — shop, cafe and ac­com­mo­da­tion — brought here from else­where and res­ur­rected in all their nos­tal­gic glory. The first to be brought in, a coun­try schoolhouse from Strath­downie near the South Aus­tralian bor­der, fur­nishes bed­rooms for WWOOFers — will­ing work­ers on or­ganic farms — who come here from across the world to do just that. They of­ten love a spot of ex­treme sport and Mt Stapyl­ton, which is in view, and Hol­low Moun­tain be­yond it, which are world-renowned for rock-climb­ing and ab­seil­ing, are part of the draw­card.

Mean­while, the Grampians is Aus­tralia’s largest olive pro­ducer and the farm-gate store here (an­other old schoolhouse, this one brought from Great West­ern, down the road a bit) is a beau­ti­ful place to stock up. Sun slants through the win­dows and falls across old wooden ta­bles, cab­i­nets and meat safes filled with the grove’s or­ganic and bio-dy­namic goods (mar­i­nated olives, oils, sun-dried blocks of dark soap, tape­nades). There is all man­ner of lo­cal pro­duce, from herbs, vine­gars and ca­per tape­nades to pulses. (I leave with small hes­sian sacks of Per­sian red and French green lentils.)

Apart from olives, sheep, Black An­gus cat­tle around Hamil­ton and Dunkeld, farmed veni­son, wheat and goat dairies near Bal­larat, the re­gion is known for its wines, notably shi­raz and ries­ling. Best’s Wines is nearby at Great West­ern. Its vine­yards in­clude about 0.4ha of 150-year-old vines, which are still pro­duc­ing. There are 50 Euro­pean grape va­ri­eties from early plant­ings and, of th­ese, seven re­main uniden­ti­fied. Some are not known any­where else in the world.

It is an in­ter­est­ing vine­yard to visit, the old main­tained be­side the new. The Best fam­ily fed prospec­tors here dur­ing the gold rush, plant­ing vines in 1866. Lo­cal vi­gneron Fred­er­ick Thom­son bought the vine­yard in 1920 and the fifth gen­er­a­tion of his de­scen­dants op­er­ates it to­day. Visit the hand-dug, rammed earth cel­lars with their red-

The good oil: There’s a shop, cafe and ac­com­mo­da­tion for or­ganic farm work­ers at Mount Zero Olives gum rafters and up­rights in­no­cent of nails. The orig­i­nal red-gum slab stables are the cel­lar door.

Sep­pelts Great West­ern, just down the road, is an­other his­toric gem, with 3km of un­der­ground tun­nels, can­dlelit night tours and fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ries of the win­ery’s early days (ask about Nel­lie Melba’s cham­pagne bath).

We also visit Mount Langi Ghi­ran es­tate. Set on red loam soil in the shadow of two moun­tains, with an Ital­ian wine­mak­ing her­itage, its top wine is Langi Shi­raz.

There is a list of wine­mak­ers to visit. We have left the car at our lodg­ings and are chauf­feured around by Mike Dil­i­sio, who op­er­ates Grampians Pyre­nees Tours and is a fount of knowl­edge on the re­gion as well as its winer­ies. When we visit, Dil­i­sio is days away from open­ing a cafe restau­rant, Nectar Am­brosia, in Ararat, which is con­ve­niently on our route home.

We visit for lunch, a test au­di­ence. Imag­ine, in a very stylish set­ting, lo­cal olives, Mered­ith Dairy cheeses, warm sal­ads laced with pro­sciutto and poached egg the colour of man­darin skin, omelets threaded with leafy herbs, open lamb burg­ers (this is sheep coun­try), lush desserts and house­baked bread and (of course) lo­cal wines. Ground cof­fee beans from Spain, Brazil and Africa, spe­cially blended in Italy and roasted in Mel­bourne, hiss out of a Nuova Si­monelli espresso ma­chine that comes from Genoa, one of only two or three such mas­ter­pieces in the coun­try.

Do we re­ally have to go home? Ju­dith Elen was a guest of Grampians Mar­ket­ing and Tourism Vic­to­ria. www.vis­it­ www.griffin­ www.bram­ www.mountze­roo­ www.grampianspyre­nees


Learn­ing curve:

Ex­treme grandeur:

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