The Yackandandah railway line, connecting the towns of Everton and Beechworth in the north-east of Victoria, was one of the earliest ever built in the Australian state. Unfortunately, it still didn’t come soon enough. By the time that the first tracks were operational in 1876, the gold rush that had brought thousands of immigrants to these hills was over. The line’s reincarnation as a cycle route — part of the Murray to Mountains Rail Trail — isn’t so much a second life as a first one.
Strung through the Victorian Alps, the Rail Trail — 100km of former railway repurposed as family-friendly cycle path — is far enough from Melbourne to keep it unburdened by too much tourist traffic. That’s not to say it is unknown: in an area that’s attracted skiers since the 1920s, the town of Bright, at the southern end of the trail, is now a popular destination for snow-seekers.
But it’s the emerging epicurean culture in the “High Country”, as this patch of the Victorian Alps is known, that has brought me here. A region once dominated by tobacco farming has become a horn of plenty. Raspberries, blackberries, quince, figs, hazelnuts, persimmons, corn, apples, pears, grapes — whatever your fancy, the chances are that someone around here is growing it, then turning it into something delicious.
Locals enjoy day trips along parts of the trail, but it’s also possible to do the whole thing, staying in hotels, with bike hire companies happy to provide equipment and porter your bags along the route. A variety of maps available online and from tourism information offices help you find your way around the myriad “gourmet” and “pedal to produce” routes that branch off the trail.
Of course, you can also just rely on your eyes, which is how I end up following an unobtrusive road sign for a gin distillery and riding up to a small corrugated iron barn that looks exactly the place to harbour moonshine. Inside is a counter, a man called Alex Williams and the Hurdle Creek Still: it turns out Alex’s family make gin for some of Melbourne’s smartest bars, using botanicals foraged from their property including lemon myrtle leaves and pink peppercorns.
Unexpected finds like this make the High Country ripe for exploration. The gold may be long gone, but gold probably never tasted as good as a fresh, citrusy G&T at the end of a day in the saddle. Nor could anywhere quite so comprehensively dispatch the traditional image of the Australian interior as a hostile, bleak desertscape as these yellow-napped hills, clustered with dark green gums, where cattle stand knee deep in long grass and giant rolls of oats and rye stand by the roadside, waiting for buyers.
It took me three hours to reach the High Country, driving from Melbourne: first through pastoral land with grass as yellow as Labrador fur, then on traffic-free country roads that dip and wind like a rollercoaster track as they build up to the Great Dividing Range. The suburbs of Melbourne faded quickly. I didn’t see the koalas, kangaroos or wombats I was constantly warned about, but I did have to come to a dead stop on a dual-carriageway for a slow-moving echidna.
I spent my first night in Beechworth, a former gold rush town steeped in the traditions and rhythms of country life. The sweetshop is three vaulted rooms of old-fashioned temptation, the bakery will sell you “snickerdoodles” (custard tarts) and “zoomies” (meringues), and the ice cream parlour has a queue of well-behaved children who re-emerge with milkshakes in cups the length of their forearms. Even the hipster craft-brewery, Bridge Road Brewers, closes its kitchen at a modest 8.30pm, so you have to head out early if you want to get a taste of their much-loved pretzels and pizzas. Markers of the town’s history are dotted around: the banks, post office and Masonic temple that sprang from its good fortune, and the gaol that once housed Ned Kelly, who made his final stand up the road in Glenrowan.
Many locals are sick of Kelly’s infamy; happily, it’s the food earning this region a reputation today. Chef Michael Ryan moved from Adelaide to open his restaurant Provenance, which has won the coveted two hats from the Australian Good Food Guide. A chemist by training, Ryan became a chef after living in Japan and his wine-matched tasting menu is full of ingenious takes on the flavours that inspired him, such as confit of goat with a tomato and miso dressing, or smoked wallaby tartare with umeboshi. A dish of braised beef has the comforting effect of a warm bath — I have to resist the urge to stick my face in it.
I’m feeling heavy next morning as I saddle up for my first day on the Rail Trail. Nigel Walker from The Bike Hire Company promises that he and his van will be waiting at the end of my ride to drive me to my accommodation. “Are you sure you don’t want an electric bike?” he asks. No, I say. If I’m going to be eating all day, I’ll need the exercise.
In fact, the first hour is an easy downhill coast to Everton, which consists of a pub and a bus stop. Just beyond is the first of my gourmet stops — an olive producer, who plies me with samples and mentions a farm shop that’s opened nearby. It’s not even noon and I’m off-map already, following his directions to Cottonwoods and finding there Brett and Shellie Gaskin, farmers from Western Australia who moved to be nearer their grown-up children. “This here is becoming a foodie destination like Margaret River,” says Brett, “but inland, and with a better climate.”
Their roadside shop is a utopia. Crates are stacked with vegetables, nuts and fresh citrus. Walls are lined with Shellie’s homemade preserves, including jam made from loquats, a tiny native fruit that’s fragrant as a lychee. They’re rarely around to sell anything in person, but there’s an honesty box on the counter. “You see lots of young people here now, doing what we call the tree-change,” says Brett. “Moving out of Melbourne, giving up those 80-hour weeks, taking over old orchards and lots and bringing them back to life.”
The resultant abundance is evident at Milawa, whose population of 600 somehow sustains a miniature gourmet paradise. Walnuts, blueberries, honey, mustard, smoked meats and organic beef are all for sale between here and neighbouring Oxley. You can try most of them if you stop for lunch at the Milawa Cheese Factory. David and Anne Brown began making their famous Milawa Blue here almost three decades ago, in an old butter factory, and a platter of their soft and washed rind cheeses — including a delicious ashed chèvre — comes with a supporting cast of other local produce.
The other accompaniment that this region is known for comes in bottles. In Oxley, the wines of Sam Miranda, who creates small vintages of rare Italian varietals, are typical of the region and sought after well beyond the state of Victoria. A 20-minute cycle away is Brown Brothers, one of the largest wine companies in Australia, whose cellar door restaurant, Patricia’s Table, has won numerous awards. The weekend I visit, its well-groomed gardens are preparing to host 1,500 people at one of their regular food-and-wine festivals.
On my lunchtime tour I learn how it was started in 1889 by John Francis Brown, who recognised the gold miners might need some alcoholic refreshment. “The name was rather hopeful — he thought that his brothers would one day join him,” says his great-granddaughter Katherine, who is now one of the winemakers. “But they never did.”
It has become a family affair nevertheless: Katherine and her cousins are the fourth generation of Browns to work in the business. As we round a corner, we’re confronted by six enormous steel tanks, tall as three-storey buildings. “That’s where the juice is fermented,” she says. “Ever since the prosecco boom took off, we’ve been racing to keep up with demand.”
While Brown Brothers produced their first vintage exactly 130 years ago, they have been making the prosecco style for fewer than 20. It was a different family who pioneered the grape in this region. Former tobacco grower Otto Dal Zotto — who joined the wave of Italian immigration to Victoria in the aftermath of the second world war — was growing grapes for Brown Brothers when his sons suggested he try to cultivate prosecco. They were the first prosecco vines ever attempted in Australia, and their success quickly inspired other tobacco-farmers-turned-winemakers in the King Valley.
Today, a dozen different wineries line what has come to be called the “Prosecco Road”, running 50km due south from Milawa — a tasting trail that is home to Australia’s fastest growing wine style. It’s not a route I’m confident to cycle — the ascents are challenging enough to have attracted their own National Series road race — but I don’t plan to miss out. Instead I allot myself a “rest afternoon” and take a tour with one of the many operators happy to chauffeur you between tastings and see you safely home once you’re fizzing with joy. Mine includes lunch at the Chrismont winery, where owners Arnie Pizzini and his wife Jo bring us cured kingfish with coconut cream and braised goat meat ravioli with fried sage, dishes inspired by Jo’s Sicilian background that make it hard to contemplate leaving the table. It would be easy to lose several days in the King Valley — the Pizzini winery, owned by Arnie’s cousins, runs its own cookery workshops, and at Dal Zotto, patriarch Otto turns out to be a genial chap who’s happy to give you a game of boules.
But I need to get back on the bike. And my next section of trail, taking me through Gapsted to Myrtleford, isn’t exactly a strain. In fact, the 30km proves rather too little to work off any of the rich and creamy Sicilian dishes. It doesn’t help that there are yet more wineries to pause at along the way, or that some of them offer to make you up a picnic hamper, or that Myrtleford boasts a wood-fired pizzeria — Bastoni — to challenge anything in Rome.
At least my last day includes a hill climb, even if it’s only an elevation gain of 150 metres. It also affords views of the real mountains, tall tree-covered Alps that gently mock my efforts. Here’s Mount Buffalo, home to the world championships of hang gliding. There’s Mount Hotham, which attracts the most expert skiers in Australia. And that one’s Mount Bogong, Victoria’s highest peak. If I started now I could hike to the summit and back in, ooh, 10 hours.
I decide to pursue health in my own way. I stop for an ice cream sundae at a berry farm (for the vitamins). I put down my bike and splash about in the Ovens river (for the exercise). I follow a sign for the Red Stag Deer and Emu farm and end up buying a jar of moisturising emu oil (for the antioxidants). And at Pepo Farms, Australia’s only pumpkin seed growers, I take an extra large handful of their chocolate-covered variety. The young woman on the counter promises me that pumpkin seeds are high in fibre, zinc and magnesium and would also be incredibly good for my prostate if I had one.
It feels good to end my journey at Bright. Its buzzy, youthful feel is a gentle reintroduction to the world of humans after the tranquility of my bike rides, plus the bartender at Tomahawks café is a genius who can fashion a cocktail out of gin and whiskey and still have it go down smooth. There’s even a six-course degustation menu at Elm Dining so I don’t have to go hungry.
It’s on my walk back that I notice an unusual roadside warning: DANGER, FALLING PINE CONES. It seems this place is so fertile that even the trees are overdoing it. The gold rush may be a distant memory, but there’s still a wealth of surprises in these hills.
Emma John was a guest of Tourism Australia and Cathay Pacific. For details of the Rail Trail, see ridehighcountry.com.au. The Bike Hire Company can tailor-make tours, including bike hire, luggage transfers and a return shuttle at the end of the trip, from $60 per person per day, not including accommodation. Flights with Cathay Pacific from the UK to Melbourne via Hong Kong start from £883
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