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.
  • 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.

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