Tucking in to the Grampians

The Grampians isn’t just about the stunning mountains, native forests and picturesque pastoral scenes. The region, centred around the spectacular national park about three hours west of Melbourne, is also ideal grazing country for visitors, too, as we found out last weekend on a trip organised by Grampians Tourism.

I love the Grampians in the cooler, off-peak months, when the trails aren’t as crowded and you don’t get baked when you’re out and about. Plus, there’s the fireplaces, perfect for a welcome home tipple after a day of touring, hiking or just lounging.

Mt Langi Ghiran winery

Mt Langi Ghiran winery and cellar door


Our first port of call – or shiraz of call, if you like – was picturesque Mt Langi Ghiran winery, a mere 15 minutes through gum tree-lined rural roads off the Western Highway at Bayindeen.

The cellar door is set on the edge of the vineyard with ranges framing the scene, and the wine is exquisite. This is shiraz country, and Langi produces an awesome line-up, with solid body and lots of pepper. There’s also cabernet, riesling, some sparklers and a refreshing pinot gris, but the shiraz really sets the tone for a great weekend getaway.

Grampians Estate cellar door

Grampians Estate cellar door

On previous visits to the region, we’ve turned off at Ararat, but this time we’re ushered further along the Western Highway to the township of Great Western, handily located between Ararat and Stawell. There are three cellar doors to sample – two of Australia’s oldest wineries in Seppelt and family owned and run Best’s, and the boutique Grampians Estate, whose espresso signs and medal-winning reds attract 7,000 visitors a year.

We don’t have time for the veteran wineries with their tempting underground cellars on this visit, but we do get to stop at Grampians Estate’s inviting cellar door – it’s kid-friendly, with a shady veranda for taking in a cheese platter and a drop of the local, and offers a bit of a wine education as well with a short tutorial ($20 a head).

A relative newcomer on the block although its vines date back to 1870, 20-year-old Grampians Estate specialises in shiraz, ranging from the top-of-the-line The Streeton Reserve to the not-too-sweet Rutherford Sparkling that has garnered about half the estate’s awards 30-odd trophies. Find also pinot noir, chardonnay and riesling, amongst others, and a tasty Rutherglen topaque.

steel cutters cottage, great western

Steel Cutters Cottage, Great Western


Great Western itself is otherwise a whistle stop, slated to be bypassed, but there’s a new B&B that hopes to change that – certainly, the Steel Cutters Cottage will be ideally positioned once the truck traffic is moved away from the front door.

This century-old two-bedroom cottage, once the home of the town’s blacksmith, has been renovated in a mix of old and new. Owners Rohan and Marlene Erard aim to provide a gourmet B&B experience, and have installed a catering-quality two-oven modern kitchen to do their produce justice – they plan to expand the operation in future, using the kitchen to cater on-site for dinners.

Rohan had a meal of lamb shanks in the oven when we arrived, the table set, the fire lit; all we had to do was finish off the polenta he’d prepared and dish up the meat and beans, washed down with a local drop, naturally.

The provided DIY brekkie consisted of bacon, eggs, tomato, mushrooms, fresh bread, cereal: noms.

Toscana Olives

Toscana Olives

The approach towards Halls Gap, the hub of the Grampians, offers several scenic routes from Great Western, but there’s no rush: not with Toscana Olives and Deirde’s restaurant next door at Laharum Grove.

Toscana is a family operation, producing extra virgin olive oil sold pure and with infusions such as garlic, herbs and lemon. Also available at the farm store are hand-picked table olives, honey from the farm’s hives, shiraz and balsamic vinegars, and complementary local products such as hand-made soaps and sauces.

Our host, Greg Mathews, tells us we’ve missed the production by a couple of days as they wait for a technician from Italy to install a new centrifuge – all processing is mechanical, ensuring the farm retains its organic status. But the emus have started the picking early, not that the family begrudges the visitors their share.

Deidre's restaurant, Laharum Grove

Deidre’s restaurant, Laharum Grove


Further down a dirt road, January bushfires have blackened a large proportion of Laharum Grove’s olive orchard and it’s a heart-breaking sight, but Deidre Baum is defiantly philosophical as she predicts it will take up to five years for the crop to be back in full swing – they’ve got some serious pruning to do to help the salvageable trees recover. ‘It could’ve been worse,’ she says, ‘and now I’m putting everything into this.’

‘This’ is her eponymous restaurant, barely six months old, built in a former storage shed, the metal walls and concrete floor offering a rustic-industrial backdrop to very fine seasonal fare: a duck breast and beetroot salad for Kirstyn, and lamb with winter vegetables, couscous and tzatziki for me, a shared, divine dessert of semifreddo and rhubarb with vanilla cotton candy, washed down with Langi Ghiran shiraz and a coffee for the road.

We go over the range to get to Halls Gap, passing through devastated areas – ash-covered ground, stark black trunks, road signs bubbled and blackened by heat – that speak to the ferocity of the bushfires, but as we wind through the national park the forest is largely untouched – while Halls Gap was evacuated, the town was unscathed, although tourism was hit hard, and some trails and sites remain closed.

Grampians Chalets. Pic: Kirstyn McDermott

Grampians Chalets. Pic: Kirstyn McDermott

At the well-appointed Grampians Chalets, a short walk from the heart of the township, new owners Kay and Peter Rankin are enjoying the change of pace from their previous life in Sydney hospitality. The site has eight self-catering chalets: five two-bedders andee deluxe for couples. Prviously e’d had of the family cabins and found it quiet and comfortable, but this time we are in a deluxe: one large timber room with a spa and gas heater. The porch overlooks a pond populated with ducks and a heron, and in the paddocks yonder, a large mob of kangaroos graze. The roos come into the town’s yards at night, a perfect reason not to go driving after dark. How fortunate it’s just a toddle down for dinner – if only the footpath was better lit. Luckily, there’s not a lot of traffic, and we go roadside, delighting in the sight of a kangaroo and joey nibbling on an unfenced garden.

beer taps at Kookaburra Hotel, Halls Gap

Kookaburra Hotel

At the Kookaburra Hotel, owners Rick and Vonne Heinrich are staging yet another makeover – they’ve been at the bar and bistro for nigh on 35 years, and have made it renowned for its quality food. The renovation – the business was formerly the Kookaburra Bar and Bistro – is a week from being finished when we visit. The couple are introducing a lounge area for a more casual dining experience, but there’ll be no compromise with the menu: we enjoy a three-course meal of duckling risotto, a lamb rack with steamed veg and potato bake with an amazing herb and honey sauce, and mango, lime and coconut sorbet, all washed down with local pinot and a coffee for the stroll home. Rick’s not just a dab hand in the kitchen – he’s made the table tops and bar from reused hard wood, and they look spectacular.

Jason at Basecamp Eatery, Halls Gap

Jason at Basecamp Eatery. Pic: KMcD


Down the street, Jason Ralph has returned to his home country after working most recently in hospitality in Melbourne, to open the Basecamp Eatery. It’s a funky space, delightfully visually busy with chalkboards and coffee bags, and has a range of quality café tucker on the menu: pizzas, burgers, fish and chips, handmade gourmet pies, kebabs, and a breakfast including toast with jam, pancakes, and the brekky burger — it’s filling, with beef pattie, egg, bacon, hash brown and more. Mine is accompanied by a freshly squeezed juice and excellent coffee.

Jason has plans to expand the business and slowly turn the focus to, as the name suggests, outdoor health and exercise, and there’s an area out the back just waiting to introduce a range of fitness activities to go with the splendid food and natural environment of the park.

Sparrows Cafe, Beaufort

Sparrows Cafe, Beaufort

On the way home, we stop over in Beaufort, a charming highway town on the eastern edge of the Grampians tourism regions and also in line to be bypassed as the two-lane extension creeps ever westward.

At Sparrows, on the main road, self-trained cook Cameron dishes up a range of tasty treats, from homemade sausage rolls to a delightful duck dish, meatballs with tomato sauce and a yummy hint of thyme, and cauliflower and ricotta fritters. Good coffee and chai, too.

The day we’re there, a bevy of young waitstaff are kept busy throughout the café’s three rooms – Sparrows started as a veritable hole in the wall about three-and-a-half years ago but has expanded to take in all the space of a former car garage, and the décor is a wonderful mix of old signs, mismatched chairs and pastel-coloured timber doors.

We don’t need dinner when we get home, and I’m kind of missing those wood and gas fires. Luckily, now we’ve moved to Ballarat, the Grampians is even closer!

More Grampians pictures

Farm land near Mt Langi Ghiran

Farm land near Mt Langi Ghiran

  • Another, shorter version of this article appeared in the Herald Sun on 28 June 2014.

  • Bearing up to a weekend in Melbourne

    At the weekend we went to Melbourne.

    Feathered polar bear installation You started it ... I finish it, by Paola Pivi, at NGV

    You started it … I finish it, by Paola Pivi, at NGV


    We saw, at the National Gallery of Victoria, a stunning collection of artwork by William Blake. He made his own process for printing words and pictures together. He had to write backwards — maybe that was why, as my wife pointed out, he had i before e after c. We went to Dante’s hell with Blake and it was a free ride. Next door was a video installation, part of which involved jiggled bellies, swaying branches, a tilting table, body parts being covered in dye and washed off. In the foyer, THERE WERE BEARS. Polar bears covered in feathers. No touching. Kirstyn was jumping out of her skin, wanting to hug these life-size, brightly coloured sculptures. The sheer delight these statues brought, not just to children but adults too …

    Untitled, 2003, by Lee Bul

    Untitled, 2003, by Lee Bul

    Also for free at NGV was a whole floor of funky furniture and glassware, a Warhol or two, and an alien hanging in disassembled (or reassembling) pieces. Here and there amongst the art were little placards, part of the self-guided Art As Therapy tour, that directed the viewer to consider the work, perhaps in a different way to what it, at first sight, suggested; at the very least, the placards pointed out symbolism and meaning for the viewer to ponder and appreciate.

    We went to the Willy Lit Fest. It’s a literary festival held annually in Williamstown, on the bay. Kirstyn was on a panel with Lucy Sussex and moderator Dmetri Kakmi talking about the Gothic and horror, and then we had lunch with friends. Or rather, we ordered lunch with friends, who ate theirs and went to the next panel, while we waited for ours, and ate it, and took the ferry back to the city. I love seeing a city from the water. I especially like the cranes, not to be confused with the cormorants, and the low bridges the ferry slips under, vaguely reminiscent of Venice’s waterways, and the high bridges it goes under, which I usually see from the other side.

    Westgate Bridge seen from Williamstown Ferry

    Westgate Bridge

    Cranes seen from Williamstown Ferry

    Cranes

    Bolte Bridge seen from Williamstown Ferry

    Bolte Bridge

    Williamstown Ferry approaching Melbourne

    Williamstown Ferry


    We saw Gary Numan perform his Splinter concert, rocking the Hi-Fi bar for 90 minutes and never a non-lyric word said, but an awesome grin at the encore that said it all really. The Red Paintings were the support, two kimono ladies doing wonderful things to violin and bass while a man called Trash with a sloth on his back sang about a failed revolution, and painters painted, one on canvas, one on a dancer not quite game to go-go in her underwear and carnival bobble head. The sound was far more crisp for them than for Numan, where volume won out, but everyone played their hearts out.

    On the Saturday night, walking up the street, we saw a water feature, a wall with water running down it, and people were making patterns and words from autumn leaves, stuck to the surface. Seasonal art, flowing naturally.

    We ate Japanese one night, at our favourite city Japanese restaurant, Edoya, and it did not disappoint. The next night we picked a Vietnamese restaurant, Pho & Co, at random and ordered up a storm of share dishes. The service was slick and the food was quick to arrive and sensational. We also scored a breakfast table at hole-in-the-wall Aix creperie: awesome way to start the day.

    We watched a movie we hadn’t heard of but the poster looked so very cool: The Babadook. It’s Australian. It’s incredibly good. Someone — I suspect the writer/director, Jennifer Kent — had a good, hard think about horror movies and mental illness, and the resulting metaphors were brilliantly drawn. All the way through to the end. At the panel at the Willy Lit Fest both Kirstyn and Lucy said how horror can be used to approach difficult subjects, how symbolism can help us be touched by something we’d otherwise shy from: this was, Kirstyn said, the perfect example. I agree.

    We stayed at the Citiclub Hotel on Queen St. The website we booked through mentioned the competitive price and the comfy room and the convenient location, but skipped the fact the hotel contains a nightclub. I intend never to stay there again.

    Melbourne: so much to do, but be careful where you lay your head.

    Cruising the Newell Highway

    The Newell Highway, No.39 on your road map, is a dandy way to get from Victoria to Queensland – with some help from its inland highway friends, it connects Melbourne to Rockhampton.

    It’s a route of sheep and cattle country, cotton and grain farms, bushrangers, road trains. Just the ticket for a drive with my old farmer dad, from his home in southeast Queensland to our cold country in Ballarat. Guided by a brochure put out by the Newell Highway Promotions Committee, this is what we got up to:

    Newell Highway, Boggabillia

    First day

    Danish Flower Art complex, Highfields

    Danish Flower Art complex, Highfields

    We doglegged around Brisbane and set a steady pace, with a lunch stop at the stupidly busy Danish Flower Art complex just north of Toowoomba where I was heard to say, ‘oh my gourd!’. Sadly, there was no hallelujah, just a puzzled Dad watching me take pictures of oodles of gourds – there was a whole paddock of the things growing out the back, and at the cafe, brightly coloured ones were mounted like Vlad Tepes enemies on stakes, piled up in crates, hanging from trees. A gourd massacre, but one feels, conducted with love.

    We carved south through Toowoomba and pulled up for another coffee stop at a nursery at Inglewood, chosen mostly because it was the first place we got to and it had heaps of parking. It’s a charming town – in fact, the thing that constantly strikes me on drives through the interior is the pride these country towns show. It’s a rare one that isn’t tidy and welcoming.

    Dingo fence, Yelarbon

    Dingo fence, Yelarbon

    Then we turned westerly and, a little further down the track, we stretched our legs at Yelarbon to check out the dingo fence monument, recording that this protective measure was once the longest fence in the world. I guess we can now call it post modern history.

    And finally we connected with the Newell at Goondiwindi. This is roo and emu country; combined with straying stock, they make night-time driving a bit of a worry, so we were happy to pull in before dark. Dinner was Chinese at a nearby restaurant, recommended by the friendly staff at our motel, the comfortable and tidy Comfort Inn.

    The pleasure of the Newell, other than that slowly changing rural landscape, is that the road is fairly empty, especially compared to Highway 1 that tracks the coast. Surprisingly, the petrol wasn’t priced sky high (up to about $1.56 a litre), either, and the most we paid for a night’s accommodation was about $135 in Moama (not on the Newell), and $130 in Dubbo.

    Second day

    We don’t do early. We figure there’s a reason for a 10am check-out and we might as well see what it is – I suspect just to allow the other travellers to clear out early. This morning, due to my general shopping laziness, we had a hot motel brekkie and it was damn yummy, better than the cereal I inflicted on us for the rest of the trip. (I always pack my own coffee and sugar, just in case of some truly godawful instant; a box of cereal and a bowl saves a bunch and gives us the option of a quick getaway.)

    We pootled down to Dubbo, through familiar-sounding towns Narrabri and Coonabarabran and Gilgandra. Gunnedah, off the highway, was a detour too far.

    Australian Telescope Compact Array

    Australian Telescope Compact Array

    At Narrabri, we pulled in to check out the CSIRO’s Australia Telescope Compact Array. Six dishes, on a railway track, that combine to be greater than the sum of their parts. We were lucky: there was an astronomer on deck to give information, and the centre made for an intriguing stop thanks to excellent info boards. It’s free, too.

    It was in this stretch that we passed the enticing shape of the Warrumbungles National Park, rearing from the flat earthen sea of farmland, browned stubble and dusty gum trees. But Dad’s not into bushwalking so much these days, and those peaks had to be left for another day.

    We did, however, hit Dubbo’s Hog’s Breath restaurant, which Dad is most definitely into. It did not disappoint – and yay for the ramp that made it easier to steer ourselves out.

    Third day

    We left the highway go west to Narromine, timing our arrival for what we thought would be a polite half hour after opening time for the aviation museum there. Wrong. No one was home, and the answering service merely confirmed that they should’ve been open. We and another car of travellers were left to whistle dixie.

    Alpacas at Andonbel alpaca farm and cafe, Narromine

    Alpacas at Narromine

    No matter: we followed some intriguing signs to the edge of town to Andonbel Alpaca Farm and Coffee Shop, where they served coffee and light meals from a barely renovated train carriage sporting alpaca products and a couple of tables. Brilliant! We sat outside, and I eyed off the nachos being served to another table on the lawn under the shady trees, but it was too soon for a mid-morning snack. I was a little surprised the owners have had to shunt the stock – they have 250 of the cuties, and are about to start slaughtering for meat as well as selling stock and wool – away from the cafe because customers complained about the smell. But they’re so cute!

    Lunch was slated for the cafe at the Parkes Radio Telescope. It’s a mighty dish, free to wander through the visitors centre, and the tucker at the cafe was pretty darn good – the birds certainly gave it the beak up.

    Elvis Presley car at Henry Parkes Centre museum

    The King’s wheels, Parkes

    We popped in to the tourist info centre, the Henry Parkes Centre, at Parkes (named after him) – I’d left my aforementioned brochure, containing our map and my pen marks on cool stuff – at the motel, and lo, there was Elvis, or at least, a load of his gear. And a bunch of old cars. And even more old stuff – sheds and yards of machinery! The info centre is home to four museums, including the former Yellow Wiggle Greg Page’s Elvis memorabilia collection superbly set up as a day in the life of the King, including a car, clothing, a bit of concert. I’m not a big Elvis fan, not since primary school when I bought my first and last Elvis tape, but even I could appreciate this was darn cool, thank you very much.

    After we’d stumbled around the old engines and tractors in the yard for a bit, we got in our own buggy and headed further south.

    McFeeters Motor Museum

    McFeeters Motor Museum

    We got to Forbes – I know the name from ‘The Streets of Forbes’, a folk tune about bushranger Ben Hall’s body being paraded through its streets, and indeed Hall is buried here. But not for us an encounter with that long dead scallywag, but rather McFeeters Motor Museum – yes, more old cars! And what an impressive set up this private collection turned out to be – again, we were lucky, with the owner himself on hand to show a handful of we visitors around. The history of Australian motoring was on display here, from the Model T Ford onwards. A Japanese funeral car was a highlight – apparently, funerals were often held at noon, because it was bad luck to be touched by the shadow of a funeral car. What a splendid hearse, with a little temple on the back of the vehicle, with a decorative ceiling – too bad the deceased had no chance of seeing it, what with the coffin (presumably) being closed and all.

    Kudos to the McFeeters: the power lift chair that let my dad get up and down the stairs to the mezzanine was much appreciated.

    Sadly, the neighbouring honey shop was shut when our tour had ended. Happily, the cellar was open, and we departed with a tasty bottle of port from Banderra Estate and Sandhills Vineyard.

    That left us just enough time to make West Wyalong, to find a bed for the night. How fortunate that the Colonial Motor Inn had a superb steakhouse attached!

    Fourth day

    Sabre and Spitfire, Temora Aviation Museum

    Sabre and Spitfire, Temora Aviation Museum

    It was time to leave the Newell for a bit, striking east to Temora and the superb aviation museum there, tracing the history of Australian military aviation. Sadly, it wasn’t a flying weekend – that’s the first and third Saturday of the month, mostly, and they can attract hundreds to the former military training ground. This private collection has put back into service a Spitfire (two!), Tiger Moth, Wirraway, Sabre, Vampire and more, and has them laid out in hangars with lots of information. You can also see the workshop where restoration and maintenance is undertaken.

    From Temora, we kept going bush, passing through Coolamon before rejoining the Newell at Grong Grong to continue our southern journey.

    It was as Jerilderie that we finally parted ways with the erstwhile highway, striking west to overnight at Moama, just the other side of the Murray from Echucha, and indulged in a respectable takeaway box of fish and chips for dinner.

    Fifth day

    Hubcap, National Holden Museum, Echucha

    National Holden Museum, Echucha

    In Echucha, we had coffee at the bakery – always dependable – and I got another gargoyle garden ornament from my supplier, er, the garden ornament shop The Hard Yardz, and we indulged Dad’s love of Holdens with a visit to the National Holden Motor Museum, where all things Holden are on display. Goodness, I learnt to drive in one of those column-shift EHs … way to feel one’s age, although in fairness, the cars do extend to the modern era. I guess with Holden ceasing manufacturing, the range will be easier to keep up with in future.

    Railway station, Maryborough, Vic

    Railway station, Maryborough, Vic

    Our family farm was outside Maryborough, Qld, so it was only fitting that we should journey through Maryborough, Vic, on the way home. It was my dad’s second visit to the namesake town, and he was once again struck by how similar the town’s main street is to its northern counterpart: I think it’s the shop fronts and signs hanging from the awnings. There’s a lot more bustle in the Vic ’borough, and it’s train station is truly magnificent. Why yes, this is gold country, how can you tell? Victorian towns wear their heritage in stone and the width of their streets, and we passed signs bearing ‘leads’ and ‘reefs’ and ‘rests’ as we made our way to Ballaratia, our highway journey done.

    But I still have the brochure: there’s a bunch of towns we whistled through, and a lot of natural attractions we bypassed. I’m looking forward to renewing my acquaintance with the Newell.

    See more pictures

     

    Weekend escape: Cranford Cottage at Heathcote

    cranford cottage, heathcote

    The view from the front porch of Cranford Cottage


    There’s a paddock of calf-high brown grass bent with breeze stretching past gum trees to the horizon. Houses there are lost in haze, too distant to be a concern; Mt Ida pokes a leafy head over the top. Sheep work their way across the paddock, and Eddy the emu may be seen prowling the fence, waiting for Stephen to open the gate and let him back into the facing paddock where black angus graze, so he can scribe his circular route around the property once more.

    Among the other birds spied here are lorikeets and galahs, magpies, willy wagtails, sparrows; hawks, Stephen says, and occasionally even wedge-tailed eagles. But we don’t see the raptors. The farm has chooks, too: can’t miss that cock crowing, far enough away at the house to be rustic charm rather than a trigger for a throttling.

    At day, glowing in the sun; at night, gilded by moonlight: the grass is mesmerising. That space, that quiet … what an ideal getaway this place is.

    cranford cottage, heathcote

    Back deck

    Farmers Stephen and his wife Cally run Cranford Cottage at Heathcote, barely 90 minutes’ drive from Melbourne, a B&B where they’ve done everything right. Set at the back of the homestead’s house paddock, the cabin has two bedrooms with en suites flanking the central kitchen, dining and lounge area, with a porch looking towards the sheep and a full-length deck facing the creek and cattle.

    Corrugated iron and undressed timber feature outside; the living area has timber floor, wood heater and air conditioning, while the bedroom has a ceiling fan and carpet so new you can smell it. TV, DVD, an iPad of music, Scrabble, wifi, battery-operated tea-light candles are provided; there’s a dishwasher, microwave and gas stove.

    The cottage has one of the best provisioned kitchens I’ve encountered at a B&B — even flour and raw sugar, cling wrap, cooking oil, a generous jar of instant Moccona coffee to supplement the espresso. The only absence come brekkie time is egg rings … meh. The provided breakfast is (scrambled) eggs, bacon, tomatoes, mushrooms, bread from the local bakery, avocado, juice. There are bananas, microwave popcorn, muesli, numerous teas, hot chocolate … excellent stuff.

    cranford cottage, heathcote

    Welcome gift of wine, with sage advice

    As the custom wine label on our complimentary bottle of red tells us, there’s plenty of wine in Heathcote, a shiraz heartland, and the cottage is mere minutes from town, which has four cellar doors in the main street and around 40 wineries in the region. As it turns out, we don’t get past the main street’s offerings. Heathcote Winery is very good, but it’s Heathcote Estate (they also run Mornington Peninsula’s Yabby Lake) that takes my fancy with their Barossa-style, attention-grabbing shiraz, and Peregrine Ridge at the farmers’ market is a pleasant find. Owner-operator Graeme steers us to a purveyor of pork that is sensational.

    More pictures of the cottage, with sheep — and Eddy!

    Stephen and Cally booked us in for Friday night dinner at the Willow Room in town, a superb, intimate restaurant and B&B run by a couple Stephen tells us have not long ago moved from Melbourne. A fortunate tree change, if my taste buds are any judge: the food is sensational. You know you’re in a wine region when you ask the origin of the house red — a most excellent drop — and you’re told the names of the people who made it, not their winery.

    cranford cottage, heathcote

    Chook kettle

    Gentle Saturday morning rain makes the grass glisten, washes the bushfire smoke haze from the air.

    ‘It’ll keep us going,’ Stephen says of the drizzle as we return from the market just after lunch time (dim sum, pork sausage on a slice of bread, coffee), but the rain was barely enough to wet our hair. We take short showers (there is no bath tub): the water is solely drawn from rainwater tanks. And my god, it tastes so good out of the tap.

    We while away the remainder of the weekend, playing cards, picking at nibbles from the local IGA washed down by local red. The mountain bikes go unused, the four-hole just-for-fun golf course in the back yard remains untested.

    When we reluctantly leave on the Sunday, the boot filled with bottles of vinegar and oil, preserves and — ahem — wine, Stephen waves from a small set of vines planted down at the lagoon, where a platform juts out over the parched rim. He’s got guests so we don’t pull up, just wave: we left a note to say we’d be back.

    cranford cottage, heathcote

    Mt Ida cloaked in rain, Cranford Cottage

    Holiday highlights: around the UK in 30 days, or, the secret to a great Devonshire tea

    October. Months ago now. My wife and I spent most of it driving around England, from London, to Bodmin in Cornwall, to Aberfoyle in Scotland, to York, to Brighton, and back to London to fly home. We based ourselves in each locale — sharing with fellow Aussie travellers in Cornwall and Scotland in self-catering cottages — and did day trips to the surrounding sights, except for Brighton, where we were ensconced for the World Fantasy Convention. Much has been said elsewhere about the convention (start here, if you like): I enjoyed it, but programming let the side down, and the numbers were huge, so it didn’t really feel like a World Fantasy, more like a Worldcon. Anyway, it will be the last one for me for awhile. Got this holiday to pay off, yeah?

    Speaking of which:

    London:

    egyptian goddess sekhmet

    Sekhmet at British Museum

    The British Museum: Perfect for a rainy day — and you do need all day — and how wonderful to reconnect with the wonderful Sekhmet statues in the Egyptian section. It’s free, though a donation is requested. I gave at the gift shop.
    The Thames: we made the most of the sunshine and hopped a boat to Greenwich, where we roamed the market, checked out GMT and enjoyed the skyline from the river.
    Borough Market: my friend Tina tipped us off to this one, where all manner of tempting goodies were to be had. We bought cheese, not as rank as the Stinking Bishop we’d had previously with my friend Maria down the pub.
    Highgate Cemetery: I love this cemetery. Douglas Adams is buried there, amongst many other luminaries, and much undergrowth.
    Galleries: London’s got oodles. We hit the National Portrait Gallery — Brontes! Shelleys! Helena Bonham Carter! — and the Tate Modern — Picasso and stuff, a bit more challenging, but a wonderful space and plenty to consider; there must be something for everyone in here.
    A show! What, with the West End right there, you’d be mad not to take in a show, right? The Leicester Square TKTS booth is first port of call to see what’s going hot and cheap. We snaffled two in the slightly downbeat, quite intimate and absolutely wonderful Fortune Theatre for The Woman in Black — some very creepy staging, a few too many cheap loud noises, and an uncompromising ghost story. Just as enjoyable as when I first saw it, all those years ago, but I don’t recall those sound effects. A room full of schoolkids matching the cast scream for scream certainly helped the atmosphere!


    Bodmin Moor, from the Cheesewring

    Bodmin Moor, from the Cheesewring


    Cornwall:

    Twas Cornwall where we had our first Devonshire, or cream, tea, and somewhere between there and Devon we worked out the best possible combination: CLOTTED cream, lashings of strawberry jam, warm scone. And yes, for those pagans among us, coffee ‘if we must’.
    Tintagel: a most scenic ruin spread across mainland and island, fantastic, and that’s without bringing King Arthur’s conception into it. A nearby Norman church is worth the walk.
    Bodmin Moor: Winding roads cross this undulating landscape, windswept and all camouflage-coloured in heath and blackberry vines, dotted with standing stones and the remnants of tin-mining glory. What a contrast, the stones and the ventilation shafts that dot the countryside, and now with added wind farms.
    Dartmoor: not Corwnwall, but Devon, but an easy enough drive and thoroughly rewarding — oak forests, Iron Age settlements, standing stones, wild ponies, scrumpy. And everywhere — everywhere — sheep, and some cattle, including some big-horned shaggy ones.
    Pretty villages, but horrid streets: Street? Ha. Lane. Alley. Oversized footpath! Clinging to sea cliffs, places such as St Ives, Port Isaac and Fowey are delights for the pedestrian, and boast some of the best fish and chips I’ve ever had (highly recommended: the King’s Arms in Marazion, near St Michael’s Mount, and what a cool place that is, with the tide coming in over the causeway so you get a boat trip back to the mainland).
    A note on Land’s End: it might be the southernmost tip of the country, and the coffee might be half decent, but it’s really not worth paying the price of admission to this capitalising theme park. More pleasing was an ice cream from the van near Godrevy Island lighthouse and watching the sun set.


    Loch Ness, at Fort Augustus

    Loch Ness, at Fort Augustus


    Scotland:

    We took a night in Bowness-on-Windermere on the way north from Bodmin to Aberfoyle, and wow, the Lakes District sure is pretty. Mountains, rivers … lakes, naturally. Well worth a return for some serious tramping.
    The Three Sisters (Glencoe): We drove from Aberfoyle up the western side of Loch Lomond to Loch Ness. What a brilliant drive. Lochs, mountains, moors … lochs, did I mention lochs? Gorgeous with their borders of autumn forests.
    Trossachs: Aberfoyle, on Loch Ard, is a gateway to the Trossachs park, and we spent a day tramping two routes to get a good look at the mossy forests and reflective lochs. More lochs. Oh yes! Awesome lunchtime destination, loch-side: Venachar Lochside cafe near Callander.

    More holiday pictures at my Flickr site

    Glasgow Necropolis: Sprawling, hilly, treed, this epic graveyard is a time sink with its many memento moris and statues.
    Old Calton Cemetery, Edinburgh: Last time I visited, I bumped into the grumpy Scots in Edinburgh and came away unimpressed. This time, I’m prepared to give the old place a second chance, even if driving in felt a little like being caught in a computer game with vanishing lanes, narrow lanes, parked cars, one-way streets, invincible pedestrians and trams. The small Old Calton Cemetery, across from high-point Calton Hill with its faux-Parthenon National Monument, is well worth a browse, with many tombs set against the walls and fine carvings. But it’s the haggis — brilliantly spiced and lightly deep fried, at the so very friendly Royal McGregor on the Royal Mile, that really wins me over to the place.
    Stirling: I love this town, especially the old area around the cemetery and castle. Such a picturesque resting place with some lovely decorative stones, under the eye of the castle.


    walls at York

    Walking York’s walls


    York:

    York is one of my favourite English cities, mainly because of the Shambles and the layers of history to be found there. We could easily have stayed longer in our charming Gillygate B&B (Kirstyn loved her morning kippers!), just outside Bootham Bar and within chiming distance of the Minster. York Castle Museum was worth the price of admission just for its recreation of a Victorian street that cycles through a full day with light and sound, and the haunted house on Stonegate Street was interesting just for its architecture. Great food (try the Hole in the Wall pub for Yorkshire pudding, the Evil Eye Lounge for spicier Malaysian fare), bar one pub who will remain nameless; a walking tour guided by cat statues; a clever, well-acted play (Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down) at the York Theatre Royal; and Roman ruins and walls EVERYWHERE (even in the theatre!)!

    St Hilda's Abbey, Whitby

    Whitby Abbey


    Whitby:

    veiled vestal virgin, or bride, copy

    ‘Veiled Bride’

    We took a day trip across the moors to Whitby, such a charming fishing village that I first encountered in the pages of Dracula. Given its Whitby Gothic Weekend tradition, I’d expected more goth stuff, but no, not really, and we missed the kitschy Dracula Experience (so bad we had to see it, we were told by friends, but we got distracted by the abbey). On the West Cliff, Captain Cook — there’s more to him than we get taught in school — and our prize acquisition from this holiday, a gorgeous ‘Veiled Bride’ sculpture reproduction bust of a veiled vestal virgin. On the eastern side of the river, a little shambles, the 199 Steps to the top where St Mary’s church and the ruins of St Hild’s, or simply Whitby, Abbey await. The abbey is stunning, and we watched the sun set there. Awesome fish and chips for lunch? Try Royal Fisheries.
    The great thing about the English weather forecasts — while their news, and TV in general, is fairly crap, the weather forecast you can rely on, so when they say clearing in the arvo, you can safely leave York with the wipers on and watch the sun go down at Whitby.
    brighton beach and burnt pier

    Brighton, and the remains of a burnt pier


    Brighton:

    Didn’t get much of a look at Brighton, other than its pebble beach — what a funky racket when the waves are crashing in! — and its famed pier and a bunch of lunches and dinners. Probably the best night out was at Little Bay, set up as a kind of theatre with one booth sporting a cameo of Edgar Allan Poe, jazzy operatic singer Sam Chara, and a 10-quid three-course meal that was worth a whole lot more.

    And back to London …

    A bus trip from Brighton to London for 5 quid! Score! And then, a last dinner at an Italian place called Bizzaro, near Paddington Station, with tiramisu to die for.

    So all up, a very splendid month, 2500 miles notched up in the hire car, and good times. The convenient thing about spacing out the trip to just key points was being able to unpack at each and settle in a bit, roll with the weather, take things a bit leisurely. Especially in a place like York, where just walking around is so pleasurable. All those alleys, closes, vennels, ghauts …
    Now, about this next holiday…

    cream or devonshire tea

    Cream Tea

    More holiday pictures at my Flickr site

    Cradle Mountain: it reigns

    Cradle Mountain Lodge, Tasmania

    Cradle Mountain Lodge, Tasmania


    It rained. A lot. And it was perfect. The weekend was designed as a laid-back getaway, and that’s what we got at Cradle Mountain Lodge.

    The Lodge sits just outside Tasmania’s Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park, an area of such awesome natural beauty and value it’s World Heritage listed.

    Sun shone on the English fields of sheep and cattle on the two-and-a-bit-hours drive from Launceston, but as the altitude climbed, the clouds came over, until we were winding through misty-rainy moor and edging sheer gullies choked with eucalyptus forest.

    The clouds never left for the duration of the weekend, even threatening to snow at one point. But the rain showed mercy, breaking long enough for us to not only appreciate the bounty around us, but work up an appetite: there was the half-hour Enchanted Walk, with its duckboards running beside a fast-flowing stream and taking us from open grass paddocks to moss-covered forest; and there was a wee taste of the Dove Lake track, with a side trip to “the boatshed”, down to Lake Lilla. There was even a brief rainbow on the return trek!

    More pictures of rainy Cradle Mountain

    Our accommodation, a sprawling estate run by Peppers, was ideal for the stay: next door to our friends, spacious with an airlock to keep the dripping wet out and the warmth in, no television, a gas fire. The staff were uniformly friendly, too.

    A short stroll to the lodge — it’s made out of a lot of timber — yielded close encounters with wombats and pademelons. In the no-fuss bistro, there was wood-fired pizza and other pub grub; in the restaurant, more elegant fare, including a walk-in wine cellar.

    A buffet breakfast was included, and it offered a pleasing range of hot and cold tucker, and all fresh.
    A lower bar, for guests only, had one of the best wood fires to dry out beside.

    Our excursions included a joint win at the bistro’s short and sweet trivia night, and a little more romantic, and included in the accommodation price, a tour of the nearby Tassie Devil sanctuary, where the besieged critters are, along with two kinds of very cute quoll, available for viewing.

    We dodged rain to see the cute little dudes fed pieces of wallaby, and didn’t they get stuck in. Devil screeches are something to be heard, especially in the dark and rain.

    It’s great that there’s hope for the species, at least once the population suffering from lethal tumours has died out.

    Boat Shed, Dove Lake, Cradle Mountain

    Boat Shed, Dove Lake, Cradle Mountain

    There was sun on the way home, of course. On the way in, we stopped at Sheffield for honey and fudge — the fudge did not make it home — but on the way out, it was a straight run back to Launceston for lunch at Blue Cafe — noms the sweet corn fritters — before flying out.

    What really impressed, other than the landscape and sheer comfort of the resort, was the ease of access. A short flight from Melbourne, a short and very pleasant drive, a wilderness-embedded resort with its own walks, and the whole national park at the doorstep.

    A fly, a drive, a walk, a feed, wombats (!), even an afternoon nap. Just lovely, rain or shine.

    Headstones and lake reflections in Ballaratia

    Ballaarat Old Cemetery, Ballarat

    Ballaarat Old Cemetery

    Friday was sunshine and fluffy clouds, little breeze, the typical Ballaratian winter’s day, we are told, but the first we’ve been able to enjoy. So Kirstyn and I took the day off and went to the Ballaarat Old Cemetery.

    The city fathers were indeed wise to commission a second, with the city being a boom gold town and all, and the cemetery quite compact — population, about 25,000 (according to a sign board at the graveyard).

    Here a lawn of unmarked pioneer era graves, here the Jews, here the Irish, the Germans … here the Chinese with the only oven I’ve seen outside of Mt Morgan.

    Diggers' Eureka memorial, Ballaarat Old Cemetery, Ballarat

    Diggers’ Eureka memorial, Ballaarat Old Cemetery

    Probably the boneyard’s greatest claim to fame is the Eureka rebellion, with separate monuments for soldiers and rebels who died in the uprising, the insurgents so popular a jury would not convict them for treason. Interesting wording on the monuments, too. Fascinating insight.

    We were struck by the number of children and infants mentioned on the stones, a sign of the harsh conditions in the late 19th century, no doubt. Those simple engravings conveyed so much sorrow.

    Others blustered with Christian piety or simple resignation and hope; some struck more affecting messages: my beloved has gone down into the garden to gather lilies in the garden.

    More cemetery pictures

    The cemetery is well tended, sparkling with wafting strands of cobweb glistening like fishing line. An information building offers some insights. There are few grand monuments, defying expectation of a wealthy town’s significant departures; maybe the toffs have got their pillars out at the ‘new’ cemetery … We will investigate!

    Eclectic Tastes Cafe, Ballarat

    Eclectic Tastes Cafe, Ballarat

    Next to the cemetery is the Eclectic Tastes Cafe. This converted home is one of those cafes that is welcoming as soon as you walk through the door — eclectic in decoration through its various rooms, a proudly parma-free zone, and a darn tasty menu with good coffee. I knocked back a sensational skillet of kidney beans and cheese and stuff, gently spiced, served with sourdough for sopping up the sauce. Kirstyn had a vegetarian pizza that even tempted me, thanks to nuts and blue cheese sauce. It’s the favourite eatery we’ve come across here so far.

    Boathouse Restaurant, Lake Wendouree, Ballarat

    Boathouse Restaurant, Lake Wendouree

    Later in the afternoon, we headed for Ballarat’s defining geographical feature: Lake Wendouree. It’s been a site for rowers since 1864; now it’s dotted with boatsheds and cafes and parkland. We’ve yet to do a proper tour of the lake, and on Friday were content to just hover around one part where the Lake View Hotel enticed with its second-storey balcony … but we opted for cake and coffee on the deck at the tad pricey Boathouse Restaurant, right on the water, with a wonderful willow tree for extra scenery. There we could take in the water birds and joggers, rowers and paddlers and anglers as the sun sank and chill came down. One couple in a canoe pulled up at the cafe for coffee.

    We snapped off a bunch of photos and retreated to home in the gloaming, appetites whetted for further exploration of Ballaratia.

    More sunset pictures

    Lake Wendouree sunset, Ballarat

    Sunset, Lake Wendouree

    Canberra to Clunes: books,books,books

    booktown in clunes 2013Clunes, a mere 20 minutes outside of Ballarat, has turned on its Booktown charm this weekend. Book shops and stalls are replete with all manner of reading material, from $2 paperbacks to rather more expensive collectibles. Newspapers of yore, magazines, a couple of volumes listing Irish coppers by name and year … all manner of quirk and taste was on offer.

    It was elbow room only in some book shops when we visited yesterday. There were comments such as, ‘this one’s cheaper here’, or, ‘it’s rare, but it doesn’t have the slipcase’.

    We didn’t catch any of the talks, but were content to browse and sup coffee and score tucker from the food vans.

    What a cute town; what a lot of books!

    Indeed, it has been a week of books, for only last weekend we were in Canberra for Conflux (various reports on the con are here), the national spec fic convention.

    It was a hoot, with much catching up and some doozy panels too.

    Angry Robot honcho Marc Gascoigne was a guest, and it was a little sad to hear him, and others, say that stories could be *too* Australian for the international market. Look forward to further US hegemony or more universal voices? Let’s hope not. Marc also painted a picture of Angry Robot that had many of us lining up with our CVs — their building has CAVES!

    And how good was it to see the marvellous Nalo Hopkinson back in Australia? Very bloody good!

    Great to see Russell B Farr land the A Bertram Chandler award for his career in publishing to date, awarded at one of the best Ditmar award presentations ever, overseen by Deborah Biancotti and ably supported by Lego and a cock-block clock (of which I am now the proud recipient due to lottery, and hope becomes an institution for future awards). Kirstyn won an award for her Writer and the Critic podcast with Ian Mond, which was a lovely nod, and as expected, Margo Lanagan’s wonderful Sea Hearts took out the best novel award. The full list of winners can be found here.

    the bride price by cat sparksAnd there were book launches … so many book launches! One standout — and an alliterative one, too! — was that for Cat Sparks, rolling out her collection The Bride Price with Ticonderoga — it sold out! Before I got a copy! But there are many more, and you should check them out, too.

    In between Canberra and Clunes, there was mileage: about 2500km worth, which included selling off a portion of my comic collection in Maitland, my first visit to Echuca and picking up some Campbells wines (home of Empire Port) in Rutherglen. Ah, road trips … gotta love’em. Especially when you get home with wine and books!

    Newcastle Writers Festival truly ex-cell-ent

    newcastle jail courtyard

    Newcastle Gaol courtyard, scene of the crime

    Every writers’ festival should have a jail.

    Especially for a panel on horror.

    The inaugural Newcastle Writers Festival  was a hoot, and pretty darn smooth, too, despite being held over a number of venues and being run by staff who hadn’t really done much like this before.

    They had 60 writers and a whole lot of sell-out panels, with a grand get-together at the art gallery and an opening night speech par excellence from Miriam Margolyes  in a gorgeous theatre, panels in council chambers and the wonderfully scenic Noah’s hotel and a pub and — awesomeness of awesomeness — an old jail!

    Kirstyn and I had a grand ol’ chat with Jenny Blackford about writing and horror and Kirstyn’s necklace and the barbarous destruction of some very old fig trees in a city park, all in the surrounds of a barred courtyard with an old loo in the far corner. Newcastle is Kirstyn’s old stomping ground, and it was interesting to see the evolution of the city through her remembrances.

    Also flying the flag for spec fic was Margo Lanagan — we caught her YA panel. Jack Dann and Janeen Webb and Russell Blackford were also guests, but family commitments meant we got only to see Jack read an amazing homage to Gene Wolfe in a packed pub outing dedicated to Sin. Amidst gay-hating religion and people smuggling and ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ — the poem, not Iron Maiden — Jack and wonderfully, pointedly funny Anita Heiss brought the prose on home.

    Miriam Margolyes’ opening night talk — highly recommended

    Anyway, we loved the atmosphere at the festival — they drove those of us at Noah’s in an adapted tram to the Friday night soiree! — and Newcastle itself is a pretty amazing place, so much going on in not a lot of square mileage given the coal and the coast and river and history and attempts to breathe life into the inner city. Some wonderful artwork on display, for instance, at the Emporium, and some serious cafe action. There’s even a writers’ walk, which we didn’t get to do, but the fact they have one is pretty cool. I felt there was a real hunger there for some spec fic action, too. If even felt like a spec fic convention in one way: the hotel’s bar shut far too early!

    The festival was such a blast the organisers have already announced dates for next year — April 4–6 — and we’re putting it on the calendar now. Even if the festival isn’t using the jail as a venue next year, there are tours. Ex-cell-ent!