Tourists ride the Puffing Billy as it puffs merrily through the Dandenong hills
The delightful thing about travel is that when the landscape changes, so do you.
Travelling in Victoria I felt myself morph, shift shape, coalesce and reorganise on the inside. Changing from philosopher to adventurer to child, as I moved from city to forests, to fields.
Alone in my room on the 23rd storey of the elegant Crowne Promenade, Melbourne spreads itself before me. Cars cruise wide streets lit by neon, while cranes and forklifts rest from their frenetic construction.
Neither a sound, nor the chilly Arctic winds penetrate the sealed silence of the private floor. Just me — and a bottle of Chardonnay Reserve sweating in a bucket of ice. The scurrying world below with its doomed and puffed-up self-importance, seems inconsequential and absurd. Amazing what elevation, air-conditioning and matured wine does to correct human perspective.
The next day Rebecca arrives to drive me up into the upper Yarra Valley — Victorias wine-growing, cheese-making region, a couple of hours out of Melbourne. Part of the journey is aboard Puffing Billy, the Valleys much-loved steam engine, a relic from the early 19th century when the Aboriginal upper reaches were opened up to white settlers.
| A sweeping view of the Yarra Valley
Puffing Billy looks like something out of a Noddy book as does the silver-haired, twinkle-eyed engine-driver. In fact, the drive through the Dandenong hills passes through a world thats part Agatha Christie, part Hallmark, and mostly Enid Blyton.
Little timber-houses with picket fencing, picturesque tea-shops with cuckoo-clocks and log-fires, and faux antique shops, with names like Nannas Place, Snooty Fox, Tessie Bear…. Its a world straight out of your childhood books and though contrived, its quite blithely unselfconscious. After the first touch of cynicism, you feel yourself warm to this little bubble of old-fashioned Englishness. I wished Id brought my children — this place is made for believers.
Puffing Billy puffs its way merrily at 20km/hr along the narrow metre-gauge rail through the misty green Dandenong hills. These forests are fern, wattle and red gum — a variety of eucalyptus. And every now and then I would spot to my complete delight, a dark motionless ball of fur wrapped around the gum — a koala! Koalas for all their cuddly looks are nasty-tempered creatures with long claws and sharp teeth that they use to lethal effect.
Whats more, the biggest threat to their existence is not us humans, but sexually transmitted disease. They feed only on the leaves of the red gum which gives their faeces a minty smell — an enlightening piece of information proffered by Rebecca who to my consternation actually picked up a pellet of koala poo, broke it open and stuck it under my horrified nose.
|Miss Marple’s Tea Room is a cosy café in Sassafras village;
(Above) children pose for a snap at the Healesville Sanctuary
The drive through the Dandenongs takes you past tall trees, washed and glistening after a fine wind-blown spray of rain. We stop at a village called Sassafras where a waitress in a black French-maid costume with frilly white bibbed apron serves us Darjeeling tea and scones at a café called Miss Marples Tea-Room. Lacy curtains, timber rafters, a cosy fire and Yuletide décor (in July!) — the theme thing is clearly taken very seriously in the Dandenongs.
In the picture-book village are little curio shops selling tea-towels, china animals, wind-chimes, Victorian dolls and all manner of period English kitsch. Lunch is at an even more droll place called The Cuckoo further up in Olinda. It has a Bavarian theme and waitresses wear pretty dirndls — the Alpine peasant frocks with embroidered bodices. With a crackling log fire, yodeling, accordion-laying musicians and cow-bells tinkling, its an instant ticket to high mountain passes, lonely goatherds and edelweiss in bloom.
Here I ate a meal that will stay with me for years to come — in my memories and on my bathroom scales. A delicious barley broth that warmed my soul, followed by bratwurst with sauerkraut (thats a traditional German sausage with pickled cabbage), roast potatoes, schnitzel (something like a meat pakora) and smoked Gouda — all this eased along by a mug of wheat beer, light as a cloud. And then a table caving with desserts… but let me not even start on that. Sufficeth to say, that no meditation, no church music will leave you as filled with goodwill to all mankind, as the pure happiness of a perfect meal.
The tall trees and fern gullies of the Dandenongs open onto the rolling hills of the Yarra Valley, Victorias wine-producing countryside. There are vineyards everywhere, some 500 of them, from small family holdings to large estates like the 320-acre Domaine Chandon vineyard. The regions cool climate makes it just right for producing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and even sparkling wines.
Young Rebecca, she thats spun from rain and new grass, drags me off to taste wines across the Yarra. The air is alcoholic in these parts and after a couple of guided tours and many tastings, I think I may know how to tell a Cabernet Sauvignon from a Shiraz; and if not, I can blather breezily about Reserve Vintage, Cellar Door Release and even Museum Release.
What I cannot bring myself to do is the sniff, swirl, sip, roll-tongue routine. Not after I learned that all that business about a round, woody aftertaste or a supple, spicy bouquet or a lively, honeyed bite, have nothing to do with spice or honey or anything at all. Its just imaginative guff, and the Aussies dont take it too seriously. They quaff the stuff like beer — by the quart, and for the sensible purpose of getting high.
Now cheese, thats a different matter entirely. Yarras fresh cheese is reason enough for a gourmet pilgrimage. Happy cows make good cheese and the plump Jersey cows that graze this sunlit valley are a blissed-out lot.
At the Yarra Valley Dairy, I chat with large goats in the pen outside the window, while I scarf down a platter of cheese served with antipasto —creamy goat-cheese blended with olive oil, clotted cream cheese, cow-curd with fresh paprika and garlic, and most delicious of all — a tangy fetta with olive oil and herbs.
Its here in places like this, making idle conversation with livestock, sated with good food and fresh air, that you get a sense of this great continent, its warm, easy and unhurried fullness of life.
That night we drive through pitch darkness, our headlights skimming the wet, rolling road to a pub at the Yarra Glen Hotel. And I am smitten anew. First, there are these two men with their acoustic guitars who sing the blues to an audience of five with as much feeling as they would to a packed hall. Two old men, pony-tailed and well-weathered, singing, Im your hoochie-koochie man with more inflections, more shifting subtleties, more deep-plumbed feeling than a classical raga (check out www.mikeruddbillputt.com).
For two straight hours I am hypnotised. The food is full-blooded Aussie fare — every hooved creature and then some charred lamb-rump, slow-roasted pork-belly and grain-fed Porterhouse (thats beef steak). I settle for fried kangaroo loin washed down with lime and bitters. I had no idea they ate kangaroos but it was delicious.
The next morning I actually met kangaroos — and wallabies, wombats, koalas and Tassie-devils…all manner of exotic Australian wildlife with cute names and scary teeth.
This was at the Healesville Sanctuary — a misty green world where animals lounged and snoozed in an almost wild environment. At the café shop here I bought a didgeridoo — an Aboriginal wind instrument and a music CD to play as background score to the stories I would tell my children of kookaburras, possums and platypus.
Theres art in these hills as well. The Tarrawarra Museum, quite apart from its collection of modern Australian art, and its gifted curator Jenna Blyth, is an inspired piece of architecture.
Atop a green hill and overlooking a lake, every window is ceiling high, framing the landscape like it were a living oil-on-canvas. As I gaze into Gods work of art, artist John Neeson whos currently exhibiting here, steps back and looks at me consideringly. Suddenly, I imagine I feel brush-strokes on my skin, and know, in that illumined moment, that I am part of a Masterpiece.
Getting there: Yarra Valley is only an hours drive from Melbourne and is surrounded by The Great Dividing Range and the Dandenongs.
Where to stay: There is plenty of accommodation available for tourists at various budgets. Renting private apartments is also a popular option amongst tourists to Yarra.
Best time to visit: November to April is the best time to visit Australia. Visiting Yarra Valley during the annual Grape Grazing Festival in February makes for a beautiful experience though. Guests are encouraged to graze — visit several wineries and sample the wine and food at each winery. For more information visit www.grapegrazing.com.au.
Currency: The Australian dollar or A$ is the currency used. 1A$ = 37.74 INR approximately.
Web watch: For more information log onto www.visitvictoria.com.