The open road beckons

Exploring the scenery, cellar doors and surprises of the NSW Central West.

There are riches to be found in every corner of Australia and the NSW Central West boasts more than its fair share and reason a plenty to explore.

31 July, 2020


Once upon a time, the land beyond the Blue Mountains was almost mythical. For decades, explorers struggled to find a way across these rugged escarpments. Then of course, travel restrictions were implemented and those in NSW found themselves in much the same boat as those early explorers. Off limits.

Now though, as the restrictions are removed you can once again drive west from Sydney, and towns like Lawson and Wentworth flash by on the highway, and the only challenge is the slow pace if you get stuck behind a campervan.

Over the ridge lies the NSW Central West, the promised land that settlers dreamed about for so long. Few places better capture the heart of rural Australia, with gum-dotted hillsides, rolling wheat fields, rust-roofed farmhouses and pegged vineyards. You’ll find colonial history, but also country towns that have escaped rural decline and buzz with a new found optimism. 

Driving here is a joy. The Central West is criss-crossed by the Great Western, Mid-Western, Newell, Castlereagh and Mitchell highways, offering easy access and plentiful options. Roads are beautiful, winding through sheep-studded fields and blue-ridged hills under big skies. Better yet, this region is crammed with unexpected pleasures. You can explore the frontiers of the universe, the geological past, French pastry shops and Japanese gardens.

A lazy driving loop takes you around the Central West’s chief sights. Budget a week if you don’t want to be constantly on the move. If you’re coming over the Blue Mountains, Mudgee could be your first base. The town nestles in vineyards and is filled with good eateries – French-inspired fare at Market Street Café, gourmet tapas at Roth’s Wine Bar, mod Oz cuisine at Wineglass Restaurant. 

Driving here is a joy. The Central West is criss-crossed by the Great Western, Mid-Western, Newell, Castlereagh and Mitchell highways, offering easy access and plentiful options

Mudgee wine magic.
Historic shopfronts along Mayne Street in Gulgong.
Picturesque vineyards near Mudgee.

Gulgong prospered in the 1870s gold-rush era and has a magnificent collection of 150-odd colonial-era buildings, including a grand courthouse and theatre, workers’ cottages, pubs and shopfronts

You’ll want to explore some of the surrounding cellar doors, too. The first chardonnay grapes in Australia were planted here, but these days you’ll find interesting varieties such as Spanish Tempanrillo at Vinifera cellar door, and Zinfandel at Lowes Wines. 

Afternoons can pass in a pleasant blur. Pop in for some cheese-tasting at High Valley, admire the art at Fairview Artspace. Then head to the Small Winemaker Centre, where you might find yourself unexpectedly joining convivial owner Johnnie Furlong in a burst of song. Johnny cultivates a larrikin personality, and unites some of the region’s smaller winemakers in an old 1906 woolshed turned one-stop cellar door.

A 25-minute drive north, Gulgong prospered spectacularly during the 1870s gold-rush era. It has a magnificent collection of 150-odd colonial-era buildings, including a grand courthouse and theatre, workers’ cottages, pubs and shopfronts. The Henry Lawson Centre outlines the story of one of our favourite poets, and the Pioneer Museum’s mad jumble is fantastic. It has Cobb & Co carriages, old tractors and recreations of a schoolroom, bakery and terrifying colonial hospital surgery.

From here, an anti-clockwise Central West circuit brings you through Dunedoo to Dubbo, where the Western Plains Zoo will have you driving among blue-tongue giraffes, endangered rhinos and gibbons on a six-kilometre, self-visit circuit. Down the road at Parkes, the famous CSIRO Radio Telescope is another must-see.

The CSIRO Parkes Radio Telescope.
An aerial view of the historic heart of Forbes.
Accommodation at Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo.

Meander south from here to Forbes, a rather grand country town that grew rich on gold, and is best known for its associations with 1860s bushranger Ben Hall. The highlight of a Ben Hall exhibit in the tourist office is an hilarious video of his exploits complete with ham acting. Many locals admire the lawbreaker and his grave, behind a white picket fence in the town’s cemetery, is often decorated with posies.

From Forbes, the back roads to Canowindra are a fine example of the Central West’s beautiful, undulating drives. Canowindra makes regular appearances in movies thanks to well-preserved historical buildings along dog-legged Gaskill Street, but the highlight is its fish-fossil museum, Age of Fishes. Fish mightn’t seem the most glamorous of creatures but the museum tells a fascinating story of ancient times, and you’re welcome to poke and prod the exhibits. Kids can do fossil rubbings, feel the scales of prehistoric fish, and dig in sandboxes for fossils.

It’s another lovely drive to Cowra in the Lachlan Valley, a fertile farming region where misty hills are interspersed with vineyards, wheat fields and pastures. The Japanese Garden is reason enough for the journey. Streams gurgle between granite boulders, cherry trees bloom and pathways meander between camellias to an elegant teahouse. In a courtyard, a few well-placed rocks sit on white pebbles, an ode to Zen tranquillity in rural New South Wales. 

From Forbes, the back roads to Canowindra are a fine example of the Central West’s beautiful, undulating drives

The stunning Japanese Gardens in Cowra.
Ben Hall’s grave in the Forbes cemetery.
The rolling country around Cowra.

Bathurst is of course known for motorsport and is the home of the Bathurst 12 Hour which Audi has won a record three times

Make a final overnight or two in Bathurst or Orange, which almost completes your circuit and each deserve a closer inspection and can be a trip in themselves. Bathurst is of course known for motorsport and is the home of the Bathurst 12 Hour which Audi has won a record three times. But the country town’s burgeoning food scene is a relaxed pleasure well worth your time and taste buds. Orange is a sedate town with a stately main street, and is surrounded by vineyards and orchards. 

Beyond town, Lake Canobolas is popular with local families for swimming, fishing and kayaking. Adjacent Mt Canobolas has subalpine landscapes and vegetation, not something you see often on the Australian mainland. It’s a cool place to escape the summer heat but nippy in winter, when you might see early-morning wombat footprints meandering across the frost.

If you’re interested in gold rush history, drive into the hills between Orange and Bathurst. Millthorpe’s elegant bank buildings and veranda-shaded hotels were built on gold, and the Golden Memories Museum tells the story. It’s a beautiful drive from here to Ophir. John Lister discovered gold at Lewis Ponds Creek here in 1851 and started the NSW rush. The surrounds are scattered with abandoned mines and the remnants of broken dreams. 

At the junction of Lewis Ponds and Summer Hill creeks, stop for lunch and a spot of panning in the river, which yields little flecks of alluvial gold. It won’t make you rich in the literal sense, but as with every drive in the Central West, you’ll be richer for the experience. 

Australia's most famous race track
Machattie Park and the courthouse in downtown Bathurst.