A road trip to the Grampians National Park in Victoria uncovers rugged, scenic terrain and locally sourced gourmet produce.
I’m standing at the base of MacKenzie Falls in Victoria’s Grampians National Park. A soft mist of fine water lightly sprays my face. In the gorge, green ferns protrude from black rocks that have been smoothed by the year-round flow of running water. The powerful sound of the falls fills my ears as I step across the stream over enormous boulders acting as a pathway, acknowledging my small place in the world amongst nature’s grandeur.
On a three-day road trip to the Grampians in Victoria’s west, about a three-hour drive from Melbourne, I discover quiet forest walks, jaw-dropping scenery and lookouts, kangaroos lulling on a cricket oval, gourmet regional produce and restorative accommodation designed to reconnect us with Australia’s great outdoors.
On our visit we meet with the affable Mike Stevens, acting area chief ranger with Parks Victoria. The area has, according to Mike, an “infectious landscape” that “got its hooks” into him, and he’s now worked there for the past 16 years.
“With 44 vegetation types we are the most floristically diverse region in Victoria — and I say that with pride because I think we beat the Alps by about six or eight plant species,” he says laughing.
“We have about 80 per cent of Victoria’s rock art sites, and balancing that with about 2.2 million visits per year, we are a well-loved park.”
And with major works costing $30.2 million underway during a staged rollout to upgrade the popular Grampians Peak Trail, “Gramps”, as Mike calls it, is about to get a whole lot more love.
Stage one of a three-day, two-night walk out of Halls Gap, camping at Bugiga Hiker Camp, was completed in May 2015. Mike’s hot tip for the pick of the 12 campsites is to book online either site 11 “with a nice little view of the escarpment and shelter just behind you” or three, “which has a cracking view of Mt William.” And he isn’t wrong.
Stage two was unveiled in September and saw upgrades to 58.3km of existing walking track linking the new sections.
“The exciting thing about the new Grampians Peaks Trail is that you’re going to have options,” explains Mike.
“If you’re a hardcore, multiple-day adventure guru, knock your socks off – give it a crack, recharge and make it down to Dunkeld. If you want the nice accommodation surrounding the Grampians, you’ll be able to jump on, do a day section, hop off and go back to your accommodation, and then head back and do the next day’s section,” says Mike.
Two of the main entry points are the townships of Dunkeld in the south and Halls Gap in the north.
Our journey begins in Dunkeld at the Royal Mail Hotel, nestled in quiet streets shadowed by the impressive Mount Sturgeon. Views from our room overlook the sprawling landscaped grounds teeming with native plants and wildflowers. The hotel has a sound reputation as one of the country’s finest regional dining options — even more so since the main restaurant was relocated to overlook the mountain and gardens last year. The fine dining restaurant Wickens is headed by British chef Robin Wickens, who diners can watch – from their tables made of local sandstone – meticulously plating his meals through the floor-to-ceiling glassed kitchen, serving like a stage in the dining room. The staff source 80 per cent of their produce from their own 1.2 hectare kitchen garden managed with organic practices — the largest restaurant kitchen garden in Australia. For a more casual meal at the hotel visit the Parker Street Project, where you simply can’t go past the Dunkeld Old Bakery sourdough cob loaf with delicately whipped Vegemite butter. It gives new meaning to “Vege on toast”.
For breakfast we stroll through town to the nearby Dunkeld Old Bakery, opened in 1887. If the sourdough was anything to go by with our whipped Vegemite butter, we simply had to try the pastries. Owners Belinda and Geoff Walsh are hard at work on a Saturday morning, presumably up many hours earlier to prepare the fresh baked breads, muffins, croissants and sausage rolls locals are queuing for. We sit by the warmth of the heater and try the smashed avocado with poached eggs, house dukkah, fetta and pumpkin on sourdough. We leave grasping a wickedly moreish chocolate croissant, with Belinda humbly claiming the pastries are her only contribution to the business.
Halls Gap in the north, signposted the “heart of the Grampians,” is a small town with a population of 450. During peak season it has enough beds for about 4,500 people. From cafés, ice cream parlours and also the local pub, there are views of the Grampians’ mountains and peaks. We join locals at the pumping and clearly popular Harvest Halls Gap café and provedore, where owners Carly and Richard Flecknoe aim to source as many of their ingredients from the Grampians as possible. Dinner takes us to the much-loved Halls Gap Hotel at the foothills of Mount William, where you can enjoy classic pub meals as well as kangaroo loin and saltbush-crusted lamb backstrap, next to an open log fire. For breakfast you can’t go wrong at the Livefast Lifestyle Café in town. An artistic vibe attracts local musicians and creatives, as well as hikers passing through.
In town the Brambuk National Park and Cultural Centre provides an excellent overview of the history and culture of the Jardwadjali and Djab Wurrung Aboriginal communities of south-western Victoria. The Brambuk building represents the cockatoo, the totem for this area, with its wings outstretched in flight. Enhance your understanding about the six seasons of the Gariwerd-Grampians in an outdoor interpretive display, showing what you can expect to see and experience in the national park at any time of year. At the Bushfoods Café, you can dine on kangaroo, emu or crocodile.
In Halls Gap we bunker down at the DULC cabins. Owners Ruth and Shane Allen have thought of everything for their cosy eco-style cabins, where you feel completely at one with nature thanks to the architect-designed large windows, open timber decks, bathroom ceiling skylight and polished concrete floors. One afternoon I immerse myself into a bubbly spa bath, gazing up at swaying branches through the glass ceiling and sipping on tea, while a crimson rosella is the only creature to encroach on my privacy.
Feasting and fireplaces aside, we spend time discovering the many paths in the Grampians National Park. We ascend the Chataqua Peak lookout trail via the path that was improved in stage one of the Grampians Peak Trail upgrades. Along the way we divert on to a track lined with vivid pink Grampians heath to a lookout over Clematis Falls, flowing well after recent rains. Reaching the tip of the peak we are rewarded with a grand vista over Halls Gap. The silence is magical. We sit for a few moments to savour our surroundings, watching as a flock of cockatoos swoops and glides majestically over the valley, where kangaroos have called stumps on Halls Gap cricket oval, leisurely basking in the sun and the attention of a few tourists, while locals continue with a game of pétanque. It’s a true blue Aussie moment in one of our most treasured national heritage landmarks.