Driving Australia's Snowy Mountains
Published: June 2009
By Emma Sloley
Undeterred by plagues of locusts and the infernal heat, <em>Emma Sloley</em> escapes a scorching summer on a drive through the Snowy Mountains in southeastern Australia
The trip turned biblical not long after we set out. It started innocently enough: the plan was to trace a path along Australia's two great high-country routes—the state of Victoria's Great Alpine Road, which stretches almost 200 miles from Bairnsdale in the southeast to Wangaratta; and the Alpine Way, a much shorter but no less stunning trail through the New South Wales snowfields. My husband, Adam, and I were visiting family in Melbourne and had fond (if slightly what-were-we-thinking?) memories of having done part of the drive. On that occasion, we drove our 1963 Triumph up the hair-raising unpaved road between the former gold-mining town of Omeo and the ski community of Falls Creek—in torrential rain. The poor car skidded and slipped as the day's light faded, until it finally slid to a rest in Falls Creek (where, if I recall correctly, we couldn't find a room). Good times. Several years later, the three of us—Adam, me, and the Triumph—were in the mood to do the journey again. This time, though, we had planned a more comfortable itinerary, visiting several new and promising resorts and restaurants.
Day 1 Melbourne to Falls Creek, 234 Miles
As with all grand journeys, we failed to take nature into account. The day we left Melbourne, the mercury was near 110°F. The air was hazing in that way peculiar to Australian summers, and the trees looked likely to burst spontaneously into flame. We stopped near Wangaratta for fuel and to spend quality time in the air-conditioned splendor of the gas station. On returning to the car, I noticed with interest—and a modicum of alarm—that the plastic housing of a television in the backseat (we'd picked it up at my in-laws') had melted. I don't mean it was simply hot to the touch; it had actually melted, like something from a Dalí painting. Things were looking grim.
We forged on, dreaming of the mountains. The Victoria countryside was parched from a punishing year of drought, one of the hottest on record. From Wangaratta to outside Myrtleford in the Ovens Valley, the landscape—desiccated, treeless, studded with despondent-looking sheep—was a harsh reminder that Australia is the driest inhabited continent. By the time we reached Myrtleford, though, the terrain started to change. This is where the alpine road starts to show hints of greatness, with vineyards and pine trees providing shocks of dark green.
We pushed on through a series of pretty, leafy little towns that characterize this part of the world. Our destination was Falls Creek, the scene of our muddy misadventure years earlier. We were hoping for better luck this time, although the signs weren't good. From Bright, we turned off to Mount Beauty, as bush fires (a common phenomenon of Australian summers) burned just out of sight over the nearby ranges. A service-station attendant squinted at the ominous clouds of smoke gathering on the horizon as we pulled in. "Watch out for that fire," he advised cheerfully, pulling his John Deere cap down over his eyes.
Thankfully, we never did cross the fire's path, and the smoke gradually dispersed. The air became cooler as we climbed the mountains, and the precipitous secondary road that leads to Mount Beauty, Falls Creek, and on to Omeo (a worthwhile detour) winds through forests of eucalyptus and carpets of wildflowers.
We had no more adventures that afternoon—apart from a creeping temperature gauge. We eventually made it to our first rest stop—the Huski resort in Falls Creek. The town, which plays second fiddle to the larger ski community of Mount Hotham, is charming and urbane. Hip establishments are slowly edging out older staid and uninspiring ones, and nowhere is this gentrification more evident than at Huski, an architectural wonder of timber and glass. The hotel's ground floor, the Produce Store, serves as both a café and reception area, which can be chaotic. Still, the rooms are impressive, with balcony hot tubs, sleek modern furnishings, and huge, pixilated photographs by Melbourne artist Peter Bennetts.
Day 2 Falls Creek to Bright, 36 Miles
The next day we aimed to drive to Omeo, where we would join up again with the Great Alpine Road, and go on to Bright. The High Alpine Road, from Falls Creek to Omeo, isn't paved and has its harrowing moments. At first it maintains an air of bleak mystery as it skirts the Rocky Valley Dam. The landscape is all bleached-granite rocks, alpine grasses, and ghostly dead trees. Soon, though, the terrain blends into lush scenery—beautiful walking trails, camping spots in virgin scrub, and forests of snow gums (a cousin of the eucalyptus).
As we descended, the road followed the Cobun-gra River, with countless hairpin turns. On one such bend is the rustic Blue Duck Inn. This yellow weatherboard cottage has been a rest stop since the early 1900's. The kitchen serves local trout, homemade vegetable pasties, soup with crusty bread, and hearty cuts of steak. It's the place you dream of finding on a long country drive but rarely do.
We ventured on to Omeo, a quintessential former gold-mining town, with all the faded grandeur that implies. The wide main street was lined with Art Deco buildings, the most impressive of which was the poignantly named Golden Age hotel. The streets were dusty, the temperatures soaring, and we should have heeded the sign, propped against a bucket of water, that said: "Please use if you want to wash the locusts off your car."
Within minutes of our leaving town, the hell-raisers descended, covering our windshield and swarming the windows. The creatures commonly emerge after summer rainstorms (I learned later), and this cloud followed us like some kind of ungodly cheering squad. Eventually we outran them, and we were back on our way to Bright—scanning the sky for Old Testament-style hail.
The road from Omeo to Mount Hotham is mostly straight and flanked by vivid green fields, which give way to grazing land. As we climbed the mountains, bright-yellow alpine flowers and leafy snow gums lined the way. We whizzed through Harrietville, a small town that exists mainly to serve the ski resorts, then went on to Bright and the Buckland Studio Retreat.
The stone-and-corrugated iron studios stand among swaying native grasses, and inside is everything a well-heeled traveler could hope for—plush lounge furniture, a fully equipped kitchen, a bathroom with a lovely view of the native forest through full-length louvered windows, and a bedroom with a raised king-size bed. There are also two decks with views of vineyards, olive groves, and distant mountains.
That night we had a reservation at Simone's of Bright. Patrizia and George Simone's award-winning restaurant has a towering reputation to live up to, and it did. (People reportedly make the three-hour trip from Melbourne all the time.) Put it this way: when your neighbor's simple tasting plate of specialties like risotto-stuffed zucchini blossoms and preserved baby pears with duck prosciutto is giving you food envy even before you've looked at the wine list, there's something good going on.
Day 3 Bright to Lake Jindabyne, 204 Miles
After our night of wondrous gluttony, we retraced our journey west toward Wangaratta, turning off to the former mining town of Beechworth, north to Wodonga, then east again toward the New South Wales snowfields. The drive took us along the melancholy banks of man-made Lake Hume, dotted with drowned trees, through the Murray Valley Highway, and on to the tiny town of Khancoban, the start of the Alpine Way. The ascent up the Snowy Mountains is a breathtaking one, in the best sense. At the Scammell's Spur turnoff, we took in superb views of the Snowies, and as we climbed to Thredbo, past Dead Horse Gap, we breathed in the scent of the forest, heavy with eucalyptus.
Our last stop was the Crackenback Farm and Cottage, a rustic resting place in the Thredbo Valley that moonlights as a guesthouse, restaurant, grocery store, and chapel. The restaurant has vaulted ceilings, a cavernous double fireplace, and linen-covered tables, and it serves up country staples such as hearty bowls of soup, robust sandwiches, and fresh, perfectly tart lemonade.
Reluctantly, we descended to Lake Jin-dabyne—the end of the Alpine Way and our trek. We headed back to Sydney on the Monaro Highway, but with an extra day we could have dropped by the nation's capital, Canberra, or taken the wonderfully unsung Princes Highway to Sydney. That, of course, is a whole other story.
When to Go
September to June is ideal to drive through this part of Australia, as some roads close in winter. For more information, visit www.visitnsw.com.au/highcountry.
The Great Alpine Road begins in Bairnsdale, approximately three hours from Melbourne. The Alpine Way begins at Jindabyne, approximately five hours from Sydney.
Where to Stay
The Buckland Studio Retreat
McCormack's Lane, Buckland Valley; 61-3/5755-2280; www.thebuckland.com.au; studios from $175.
Stizmark St., Falls Creek; 61-1300/652-260; www.huski.com.au; studios from $478 for two nights (minimum stay).
Where to Eat
Blue Duck Inn
Omeo Hwy., Anglers Rest; 61-3/5159-7220; lunch for two $37.
Crackenback Farm and Cottage
Alpine Way, Thredbo Valley; 61-2/6456-2198; www.crackenback.com; lunch for two $40.
Simone's of Bright
98 Gavan St., Bright; 61-3/5755-2266; www.simonesrestaurant.com.au; dinner for two $100.