Escape to the High Country
Exploring Victoria’s captivating high country. Part 1.
Just an hour’s drive from the country’s southern capital, the pressures and bustling pulse of the city drop away to be replaced by a wealth of natural delights in Victoria’s High Country.
5 July, 2019
You can drive in pretty much any direction from here and be assured of bumping into one of the region’s 300-plus vineyards
Often ranked as one of the world’s most liveable cities, Melbourne, Australia’s southern capital has plenty to recommend it. It’s metropolitan vibe delivers on all fronts, from cafes to fine dining, culture to couture, but drive an hour in any direction from the latte-lapping CBD and you can immerse yourself in equally undeniable natural delights.
Perched on Melbourne’s north-eastern doorstep lies a vast swathe of forested hills that spread like a giant green ink stain from the city’s north-eastern fringe, all the way to the Snowy Mountains and the border with New South Wales.
This sprawling green wilderness is a haven for all manner of outdoor pursuits, from fishing and hunting, to water and snow sports, camping, cycling, bushwalking, four-wheel driving and more and is the perfect balance to the fast pace of city life.
The new Audi Q8 55 TFSI is the perfect vehicle for tackling the cut and thrust of the city or the wilds of the highlands and we’re soon cruising quietly in the luxuriously-appointed cabin, the heated leather seats keeping the morning chill at bay as we head out through Christmas Hills, before dropping down into the Yarra Valley at Yarra Glen.
You can drive in pretty much any direction from here and be assured of bumping into one of the region’s 300-plus vineyards, producing world-class Chardonnay, Pinot noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and other varietals. But we’ve no time to tipple today, though, as our sights are set on the area around Mansfield, a charming country town 90 minutes north-east, renowned as a gateway to the High Country and the Mt Buller ski resort.
The direct route is via the Melba Highway, but today we opt for a path less traveled via Healesville, Taggerty and the town of Eildon, on the southern shore of the eponymously named lake, before heading onto Jamieson, where we hope to catch the town’s annual autumn festival in full swing.
Passing quietly through the still-sleepy streets of Healesville we’re soon plunged into the cool, semi-darkness of the Black Spur, with its thick stands of towering Mountain Ash thrusting heavenwards.
The Q8’s turbocharged 3.0-litre petrol V6 is sewing-machine smooth and barely audible as we cruise on a light throttle through the cathedral-like arch formed by the awe-inspiring forest giants. The poplars and maples are turning rustic shares of flaming red and golden yellow as we pass through the hamlet of Taggerty and from there onto Thornton, where six bucks buys a bottle of jammy delight from a roadside stall on Back Eildon Road.
Eildon itself clings like a limpet to the edge of the vast, silvery body of water that bears its name, the lake stretching for hundreds of kilometres into every crease, crevasse and fold of the surrounding highlands.
You can try your hand at catching the notoriously shy brown or rainbow trout in the lake or any of the crystal-clear streams that feed it, but one of the more popular spots is the tiny township of Jamieson, some 60km away.
The lake stretching for hundreds of kilometres into every crease, crevasse and fold of the surrounding highlands
Even the locals prefer to take the longer, alternative route rather than tackle this road, but for the enthusiast driver this is about as good as it gets
Getting to Jamieson, however, entails 90 minutes of tortuous twists on a road which snakes through the densely forested hills and valleys of the Lake Eildon National Park and Big River State Forest. Even the locals prefer to take the longer, alternative route rather than tackle this road, but for the enthusiast driver this is about as good as it gets, which explains why it’s now a favoured stage of the region’s annual Targa High Country tarmac rally.
Switching the seven-setting drive mode system to ‘Dynamic’ transforms the Q8 from comfortable cruiser to something far sharper, as sophisticated electronics instantly firm-up the dampers, sharpening throttle and gearbox responses markedly.
Once a bustling gold town Jamieson today is home to an eclectic community of old timers, adventurers, holidaymakers and lifestyle property owners, who come for the tranquillity of a little town that time seems to have forgotten.
Today, however, the main street is alive with the colour, movement, sights, sounds and smells of the Jamieson Autumn Festival.
With the sun already dipping below the heavily forested hills, we point the Q8’s nose towards Merrijig, 23km east of Mansfield and the next stop on our High Country road trip.
A handy stop-over en-route to Mt Buller, 30km to the east, Merrijig is also the site of one of Australia’s major rodeo events each March, it’s near here, too, that the George Miller’s landmark 1982 film The Man From Snowy River was filmed. Visitors to the town’s Hunt Club Hotel will find film memorabilia and photographs dotted around the dining room.
To the east the craggy ramparts of Mt Buller thrust from the surrounding hills, its 1805m summit catching and reflecting the day’s last golden rays and it’s to a wonderful little restaurant at the foot of the mountain that we now head to recharge after a long day on the road.
Owner and chef Marcus van Clute and partner Vanessa took over the reins of the Mill Inn four seasons ago, after Marcus spent a decade as executive chef at the Mt Buller Chalet.
Describing himself as “an Englishman with a Dutch name cooking Italian food”, Marcus’s CV features stints at Sydney dining institutions Long Grain and Tetsuya’s, and as head chef at Byron Bay’s renowned Rae’s on Wategos.
Despite its out-of-the-way location, the restaurant is buzzing with diners working their way through a menu featuring regional produce selected to create “the subtle nuances of provincial, traditional Italian cuisine.”
There is no shortage of fine food in the area for those who know where to look
As if on cue, a big grey bursts from the forest, bounding across the road in front in a single leap
With bellies full we waddle out into the fresh night air, the Southern Cross hanging low over darkened hills, beneath a sky studded with a billion glittering stars. We cruise warily, alert to the possibility of wandering deer, wombats and other wildlife, the LED headlights probing the dark road ahead. As if on cue, a big grey bursts from the forest, bounding across the road in front in a single leap, disappearing as quickly as it emerged.
Soft pillows and warm beds beckon at Accor’s Pinnacle Valley Resort, a peaceful and private four-star resort, surrounded by forest and tucked discretely into the folds of a timber-lined valley.
By day Pinnacle Valley promises spectacular views to nearby Mt Buller and the surrounding mountains, but tonight the panorama lies overhead, in that black sky studded with a billion stars.
Tomorrow’s High Country adventure promises bushrangers, a beef baron, an artisan brewer, a coffee roaster, a vigneron and an organic pig farmer. Sound tiring, we’d better get some sleep!
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