Leviathan on the loose
The joys of a family motorhome adventure in NSW’s central west
IT’S not the biggest holiday apartment I’ve stayed in, but it’s a nice one. Daisy and Leo have already colonised their bed with the explosive efficiency young children specialise in. Clothes are hung in wardrobes, a towel hung jauntily over the shower rail.
As my wife Bel switches off the stove, I pull down the blinds by our double bed. Outside, stars are sparkling in the central NSW sky. Then, with noisy merriment, the kids are herded to a table adorned with lamb pie, pasta, olives, antipasto and, this being Orange, a bottle of local shiraz for the grown-ups. As we toast the start of our holiday, I peer into the dark alcove up the end to remind myself this ‘‘apartment’’ also has a steering wheel.
My first experience of a campervan was a Kombi my parents bought in a fit of wishful thinking. This beast, however, is not so much campervan as motor-mansion. Courtesy of Apollo Motorhome Holidays, it’s a Star RV Pegasus — a Fiat crossed with a bungalow — and it’s so far and away the biggest thing I’ve ever driven, I name it Leviathan. My initial nerves at driving it are dissipated by the kids’ excitement.
In the morning, having springboarded off a pair of flat whites at a Slice of Orange (a shop where the produce, including last night’s dinner, is from within 160km), we head to the Agrestic Grocer. This is a cafe and grocery with a focus on the local — from heirloom carrots and lemoninfused popcorn to bacon and beer. The building is also home to the Badlands Brewery and the Second Mouse Cheese Company.
As we make a start on the muddled beetroot and mint lemonade, the paean-worthy Badlands porter and the Second Mouse haloumi that squeaks like fresh snow, we find everything here has a story. The beef in my beltie burger, for instance, which co-owner Lucas Martin explains in excited detail comes from belted galloways — a slow- growing, cool-climate breed — is farmed holistically down the road.
Martin speaks with such a sense of mission (‘‘I’m not quite sure what that mission is, but we’re working on it’’) it’s exciting to think what the Agrestic Grocer will develop into. They’ve only been open three weeks when we visit, but they’ve hit the ground running. And it’s been frenetic; when Martin speaks of a full night’s sleep, it is in a wistfully hypothetical tone.
Sleep is more straightforward for us —(a) not having a new business to run and (b) travelling with a bedroom. On a whim, we nap at nearby Lake Canobolas, dozing off to a mixed choir of frogs and ducks. Thus refreshed, we repair
PICTURES: JAMES JEFFREY that evening to Orange’s Union Bank Wine Bar which, like the Agrestic Grocer, is energetically new. The flavours tonight include gewurtztraminer, tempranillo and rack of lamb, devoured next to a wall decorated with wine bottles individually lit in snug alcoves. Daisy and Leo assess the day before conking out in their chairs.
As we head south, the countryside unfurls before us, a Smurf-blue sky arcing over vineyards, fields, and trees blushing with galahs. But I keep boomeranging back to the thought: I’m driving a van with a bathroom. And a dining room that extends at the press of button. ‘‘I’m starting to get used to this,’’ I lie.
We’re brought back to (prehistoric) earth at the Age of Fishes, a museum in Canowindra that takes as its starting point a slab of local rock festooned with the 370 millionyear-old fossils of armoured fish. That David Attenborough recently arranged a private four-hour visit — and drove a long way for it — tells you everything you need to know.
We re-enter the present day at Taste Canowindra, sampling local wines as owners Margaret and Bob Craven tell us how their restaurant was kept aloft during the recent global economic cock-up by the surprise influx of a platoon of Mongolian geophysicists brought out to hunt gold. Leo watches Bel and me as we fuss over our tapas tasting plate and eye fillet (agreeably accompanied by a Gardners Ground mellow shiraz). ‘‘We’re being very patient,’’ he says. Then the milkshakes arrive and he pursues this line no further.
In Cowra, we visit the Japanese Garden, close to the site of the World War II prisoner-of-war camp, and wander among singing streams and boulder-shaped shrubs. Fish pellets scattered on the pond trigger a feeding frenzy, dachshund-sized koi attacking from below and ducklings from above.
Night finds us down the road at Darby Falls Observatory, where owner Mark Monk shows us distant galaxies and nearby star clusters, but my favourite moment is when Daisy, who recently got glasses, sees Saturn (and faithful Titan) for the first time and gasps at those vast, tallow yellow rings.
Wepark Leviathan at a friend’s farm above the Lachlan River and dream of stars, then wake to a morning chorus of baas.
At Lowe Wines in Mudgee, the chorus is provided by bees busy in the wisteria. Equipped with a whimsical map, we pass a sign reminding us ‘‘unattended children will be fermented’’ and wander the vineyard among trellis-free grapes (lower yields, higher quality), donkeys and a bunch of fancy chooks in a straw-bale palace.
While Daisy and Leo investigate farther, Bel and I taste low-preservative wines from the three Lowe properties, each at a different altitude. Among these is a chardonnay that pleases even me— an ardent red in wine’s civil war — and a shiraz so lovely that Bel and I are cellaring it for longer than our traditional few hours.
Red wine leads naturally to pizza and chocolate. The pizza element is taken care of in sublime style at nearby Di Lusso Estate, while High Valley Wine & Cheese is the venue for a chocolate-themed morning tea with chocolatier Luke Spencer. Spencer spent years in Vanuatu running a cocoa plantation; now he uses its crop to make his single origin Spencer Cocoa chocolate in Mudgee. It’s a fascinating and delicious presentation.
By the time we’re done, only Leviathan feels big enough to take us home. visitnsw.com starrv.com/holiday
Clockwise from above: looking down the Lachlan River valley just outside Cowra; our travellers pose in front of Leviathan; the Japanese Garden at Cowra; Lowe Wines at Mudgee