LAND of GIANTS
Mike Yardley checks out Australia’s food bowl and finds truffles, but also the ancient giants of the forest
POINTING THE CAR SOUTH from Perth, I jaunted my way on a journey of discovery in the Southern Forests sub-region, an exceptionally verdant, scenic, fertile and prodigious food bowl.
Amid nature’s vast skyscrapers of karri, marri, jarrah and tingle forests, the abundance of fresh produce and artisanal verve is a sensory adventure. Winding country roads crisscross through green hills, iridescent lime pastures, ancient forests and the majestic watery ribbon that ties it all together — the mighty Blackwood River.
My first stop was in Manjimup, formerly a timber town, but now fostering a red-hot reputation for its fresh produce, intermingling with wondrous karri forests.
Home to some of the most productive soils in Australia, the surrounding farmlands spawn a thriving fruit and vegetable industry, where seemingly everything grows here, from avocado farming to green tea and finger limes.
But Manjimup has become a byword for truffles — it is Australia’s truffle heartland. These parts produce 90 per cent of the Southern Hemisphere Perigord Black truffles, highly sought after by Michelin-starred restaurants around the world. Prices fetch up to $3000 a kilo!
Unearthing the pungent, earthy black gold in winter, this lucrative delight was ever-present on restaurant menus during my visit, generally as shavings or slivers, to complement a dish. Another great sampling option is to head to Tall Timbers in Manjimup, which serves up a ravishing array of tasting experiences in truffle products, gourmet nuts (magnificent macadamias), alongside sampling local beer and wines. It’s like the tasting centre of your dreams!
Next stop, Ampersand Estates, which has breathed new life into what was the area’s oldest winery, Donnelly River Wines. It’s a knockout picnic setting with undulating vineyards, backed by oldgrowth karri giants and gin-clear ponds, where ethereal fingers of mist coil their way across the landscape like morning magic. You can taste a variety of beautiful wines, including pinot noir and sauvignon blanc.
But it’s the on-site distillery, Rainfall, that seduced me. Rainfall creates distinctly unique artisanal vodkas and gins that pay homage to the centuriesold art of distillation, while partnering with local producers to showcase contemporary, fresh seasonal ingredients. Every vodka and gin is vintaged following the seasons from year-to-year, with the infusion of Southern Forests’ rainfall as the constant in every bottle.
The vivacious Vikki Brown led me through a fabulous distillery tasting, which lustily reinforced how so much local produce is heroed into their spirits. There’s a vodka infused with honey and roasted macadamias, but my absolute favourite drop was the Rainfall Gin infused with Southern Forest cherries. Seasonal releases include a gin infused with Ampersand Pinot Noir.
Then it was on to the storied timber town of Pemberton, which is refashioning itself as a riveting base for eco-adventure. Layover at Jaspers, where a clutch of luxury cabins tick all the boxes as indulgent holiday havens. The architectdesigned studio spaces feature kindsized beds, ensuite bathrooms with rainfall shower, gorgeous bathroom amenities and free wifi. The cabins are conveniently located behind the wildly popular contemporary whisky bar and restaurant.
After a great night’s sleep, I had a hot date with the evocatively named Valley of the Giants, home to the highly acclaimed Tree Top Walk. Strolling above the canopy of the magnificent tingle forest, on the 600m-long elevated boardwalk, I felt like I was floating on air, wrapped in the whisper quiet finery of the tingle forest. Tingle trees are a type of eucalypt, dating back to Gondwanaland, unique to the Southern Forests. Reaching 40m above the forest floor, the boardwalk has been sensitively designed, with some ingenious touches. The spans are deliberately designed to gently sway as you walk across them, accentuating the sensation of being high up in the canopy.
Down on ground floor, strike out on the Ancient Empire Walk, where jarrah decking and bitumen paths wind you through the giant tingles forest, aflutter with birdlife. With a base circumference of up to 20m and expansive buttressing, their gnarly trunks groan with character.
The most photographed specimen has been nicknamed Grandma Tingle. This 450-year-old matriarch is straight out of a fairytale with a wrinkly and wizened old face. She’s the grand dame of the forest. Mountain bike trails are currently being constructed to broaden the palette of outdoorsy delights in this revered slice of the Southern Forests.