Orlando and I don’t ski so we have never been to the Victorian High Country. A late summer weekend was the perfect opportunity to visit Mount Buller and see some spectacular scenery without having to don skis and point ourselves downhill. Those of you who know my horror of descending even gentle hills on foot will realise why I shall never ski.
Driving out the Hume Highway on an early Saturday afternoon, we had a four-hour drive ahead of us. The journey took us past the edges of some of the worst of the February bushfires, with Kilmore to our immediate west and the two large complex fire grounds to our east. All along the Hume from the Whittlesea turnoff was a sea of black. The road signs ran like a rollcall of the worst days: Wandong, Kilmore, Whittlesea, Kinglake, Clonbinane. We could see the place where the Hume had been closed on that Saturday afternoon. Houses not far from the highway remained inexplicably untouched by fire amongst blackened forest. Others had not been so lucky, and the rubble was clearly visible from the road.
Again I was touched by the terrible beauty of it. The twisted black tree trunks were interspersed with auburn, the trees which did not burn but were scorched by the heat. At times it was like a beautiful autumn scene until you remembered that these changing colours did not herald a change of season.
Stopping at Yea, I was not sure what to expect. Yea hosted one of the main staging areas into the fire ground, but on this holiday Saturday it was just a regular country town. Bikers lined the streets in search of good coffee. Local families pottered around doing a bit of shopping. We stopped in the local greasy spoon for a spot of breakfast before heading out the road again.
From here the scenery got spectacular. Up through the Strathbogie Ranges we went, along a winding road following the Goulbourn river below. Vineyards nestled in the shadow of the hills. At times it reminded me of Wicklow: Glenasmole, Glendalough. I fell asleep and missed Lake Eildon, a reservoir built in the fifties which has been empty now for a number of years. On our way home I would see that the lake bed had well-worn footpaths, large trees and a thriving ecosystem. I wonder when we will see it filled again.
Mansfield seemed a prosperous enough town, with chichi coffee shops and plenty of ski supplies. This is the last stop before the ascent to Mount Bulleritself. On our way out of town the landscape turned golden again but for a different reason. This is the real High Country, with rodeos on Saturday nights and mile after mile of grazing land turned yellow-gold by the sun and the drought. Actually cattle grazing has been banned since around 2002, because it was believed the cattle were damaging the soil and threatening rare alpine flora. As the road stretched straight into the distance and the mountains ahead, I could see why people love this area so much.
The road up Mount Buller is ten miles long and winding. Hairpin bends had names like Hell Corner. Crazy cyclists descended on racers, full lycra gear and a mad look on their faces. Even more crazy were the ones cycling uphill. Their faces had more of a look of excruciating pain. There was not much of a view because of the forest surrounding us but we could tell we were getting pretty high. Mount Buller is by no means the tallest mountain in Australia or even Victoria, but it is still one and a half times higher than Ben Nevis and almost twice as high as Carauntoohill.
The village of Mount Bulleris almost at the summit. Designed as a ski resort, it centres on a small town square with a clock tower and a bronze statue of a mountain cattleman. There are spectacular views of the alpine national park in every direction. Our resort, the Breathtaker, was on the southside of the town with amazing views south-west along craggy peaks and ridges.
Not so breathtaking was the tiny one-bedroom apartment witha view of the back of the building, rendered even more inexplicable by the fact that all the rooms with mountain views remained unoccupied for the whole weekend. Never mind: we had a comfortable if compact base and that’s all we needed.
Out on the dodgy hotel mountain bikes for a recce of the town, I almost lost my life a couple of times due to lack of brakes. At every turn another stunning view welcomed us. Above our heads everywhere were ski lifts, all but one closed for the summer season. The remaining open chair lift was mainly for the use of the downhill mountain bikers, which is what Orlando would turn into the following day.
Back at the hotel we sat on the terrace with an indulgent hot chocolate watching the changing colours of the mountain and making our plan for the following day. As the sun hung low in the sky, we drove quickly to the summit car park and yomped the last steep 500m to the summit, where we were greeted with 360 degree views of mountains and plains draped in mist and sunshine, turning the land alternately blue and reddish-gold. We sat at the fire hut and drank in the views. My mind briefly turned to the bushfires again, as I wondered what the watchman saw unfolding beneath him on the 7th of February. None of the area around Mount Buller was threatened that day, but he would have seen the smoke and possibly the flames of the worst of the fires south of him. This day, though, all was peaceful and beautiful. We sat for an age taking it all in.
Before we knew it, it was time for dinner at the Black Cockatoo, one of only three restaurants open on the mountain over summer weekends. We presented ourselves at a standard-looking hotel dining room where the antics of the coupleat the next table – a man well into his fifties witha cute little twenty-something on his arm – entertained us for the evening. The food was well-presented and perfectly edible: nothing out of this world but very enjoyable. By none thirty we had extended our evening as much as we could, and headed back to our little hideaway where Orlando very sensibly had brought a laptop of movies to watch. We’ve been caught like this before in small Australian towns on a Saturday night, back in our room at nine in the evening with nothing to do. We make sure we have our own entertainment now.
Next morning after a fresh and tasty breakfast roll in the Cattleman’s Inn, we headed to the day spa for our massages before Orlando hired a mountain bike and tried his hand at the downhill trails. I kept to a gentle stride on the village footpath, stopping every minute to appreciate the view whilst tramping along a quiet and peaceful country pathway. The sun shone and it was warm enough for a mile-high mountain. I savoured the solitude and the scenery.
Once I saw the chairlift stop I waited for Orlando to return at the bike shop, Powerade in hand. He came around the corner like a centaur, full bike helmet on and standing on his pedals. He said the terrain was a bit mad and he had mistakenly gone down the black run instead of the nursery slopes, but despite his horror stories I think he secretly enjoyed the thrill.
Down at the Arlberg we sat and watched the mountains turn red with a drink in hand. Built like a barn, this place is not designed for comfort or fine dining: it is more a basic skiier’s bar with long trestle tables, Channel 9 on the big screen and cheap and cheerful food. Nonetheless we settled into a couple of sofas in the corner and relaxed for a few hours before heading back to our laptop and more movies in bed.
On the way home next day we took a detour to Healesville to meet Lenford for lunch. Down the Melba Highway we skirted the heart of the two big firegrounds. Kinglake National Park stretched to the west and Toolangi National Park to the east. The edges of the road were a beautiful golden and auburn, the colours echoing a more natural autumnal beauty but born from a more chilling place. Further in, the blackness stretched as far as the eye could see.
Again, we saw houses surrounded by trees which had survived, whilst others had nothing but the chimney place remaining. Police still stood manning roadblocks. You still cannot go to Kinglake unless you are a local.
Out of the forest we could see the black skeletons of fire-ravaged forest up on the ridges of the hills, whilst vineyards thrived below. A strange mix of life and death everywhere we looked. Yarra Glen was still a bit of a refugee town. The relief centre I visited a few weeks ago is now renamed a community recovery centre, but the old IGA supermarket is still offering goods for free to fire-affected people.
Healesville on the other hand was buzzing. From the toy railway at the edge of town, you could hardly move for visitors. Many of the tourist attractions in Victoria were donating all their proceeds from the weekend to the Bushfire Appeal, and people had come in their droves. Every cafe tablewas full, every shop overflowed with people. The local economy has nothing to fear if Victorians continue to come in these numbers and spend money.
We did our bit with a leisurely lunch at Innocent Bystander – I bravely took on the cheese platter washed down with a couple of glasses of 2004 Harry’s Monster before we took the last leg of our journey home to Footscray. Another visit to Healesville is planned for winter: a solstice lunch at the lovely Bella Vedere. We shall look forward to our return visit and doing our bit for the local economy whilst enjoying good food and wine with friends.