Freedom of the summer road trip

The days start early now; the cool dimness of the first light is refreshing and promising, than the sun sparks up, rises higher and higher above the red roof tops and green tree tops. The Australian sun does not waste any time, and gets to its most intense and ferocious as soon as it passes the tops of Eucalyptus trees. The heat is excruciating by the middle of the day, and in truth, rewarded are those who rise to enjoy the early start to the day, and wind down in the balmy darkness of the evening, to the accompaniment of cycadas.

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Moonee Beach, near Coffs Harbour

Summer is sun. Summer is hot. Summer is beach, water, the wide open road and freedom. That’s summer Down Under. With the East Cost of Australia offering over 4000kms of beautiful, open coast, much of it empty, untouched, just calling to be seen and explored, it would be insanity not to take advantage, jump in the car and with the sun just rising over the city, just go, hit the road.

It was on one of these fine mornings that we did just that – we hit the highway. With 1300kms in front of us, it was a road trip. Split over two days, so that we can take in what comes up along the way. People ask – “Aren’t you flying?” and “Why aren’t you flying?”. And only those understand who appreciate that it is not the destination, but rather the journey in itself which provides the greatest adventure. On a normal weekday morning, as others are going to work, or are fighting their phone alarms, we were driving out of the city. That is a priceless moment, short, difficult to capture, but so liberating.

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Sunset over Hervey Bay, view from Urungan Pier 

Our destination was Hervey Bay, a town of around 54,000 people on the central coast of Queensland. It is one of ‘our’ spots in the world, a place we love to come back to. It is a relaxed seaside locality, stretched along a quiet, flat coast line which is protected from the open ocean by the landmass that is Fraser Island, the world’s largest sand island. This means there are almost no waves hitting the mellow beaches of Hervey Bay, and the water is warm all year around. One of the great things about the place is a walking/riding path which runs along the entire stretch of coast here. That is over 14 kilometres of flat path, with rest areas, piers and constant view of the water and beach along the way. A perfect way to explore and relax.

The drive up from Sydney starts with the Newcastle-bound highway, chisled away laboriously in slabs of ochre sandstone, creating ‘corridors’ with upright stone walls; it flows up and down along the valleys and peaks of the surrounding National Park. With 270 kilometres behind us, we stop for breakfast. The sun is high up now blazing down in an all encompassing, pale brightness. As we cross the Manning River, the turn-offs off the highway get more enticing, these are all places with magnificent beaches and relaxed oceanside aura – Port Macquarie, Hat Head, South West Rocks, Nambucca Heads. Exploring all these wonderful spots would make the 1300km trip into a month-long odyssey  – and how enjoyable that would be!

Coffs Harbour. The highway makes it impossible to bypass it, as it goes right through the city. With 68,000 inhabitants, the city is the largest settlement on this stretch of coast. We are 540kms north of Sydney, and it is a beautiful spot, not untouched by any means, with numerous resorts, hotels and expensive display of formidable residences and summer oasis of the wealthy, but nevertheless a fantastic spot, worth a look. Coffs Harbour enjoys great weather conditions with more sunny days per year than Brisbane, and average temeratures in winter at a very cosy 18 degrees celcius. Surrounded by lush green hills, this is a sub-tropical environment, and seeing the banana plantations all around proves it. Right at the end of the city, around the last bend (coming from the South), on you left-hand side, is the city’s famous landmark – The Big Banana. It’s not so big, but its a nice place for a photo, and perhaps a start to your adventure exploring Australia’s trail of ‘big things’ – keep reading, there is a big one coming up on this trip!

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Big Banana, Coffs Harbour

Past Coffs Harbour the highway drifts away from the ocean, but before it does there are places such as Moonee Beach, Safety Beach and Mullaway, all offering easy access to beaches and great picnic spots to enjoy an afternoon break.

Past Grafton, we enter the Northern Rivers country. The landscape changes, it becomes flat again, the highway at times goes back to a single lane, and winds its way through towns, crosses the Clarence River a couple of times, and runs accross Harwood Island. Driving through here I think of blues, landscapes surrounding New Orleans and the Mississippi. It must be the sugar cane, the flatness and the abundance of rivers and water. As the sun sinks behind the gumtrees, and the landscape darkens it is time to consider our sleeping options. Could I keep going, and get through the remaining 480kms? Maybe, but why rush it, and miss out on all the discoveries we could be making the following day?

Woke up in Ballina, a town on Cape Byron, which is Australia’a most easterly point. Ballina is set on the shores of the Richmond River, and while it is close to some excellent beaches, the sprawling town seems more a commercial centre with a riverfront as its attraction. If you are in the area for a little longer, near by is the famous town of Byron Bay, a kind of ‘Mecca’ for hippies, surfers, music lovers and those keen on an alternative lifestyle.

The stretch of highway between Ballina/Byron Bay and Hervey Bay is fairly diverse in terms of scenery and attractions. First up, just past the Queensland border is Gold Coast. Australia’s city of sin. Starting at its southernmost suburb of Coolangatta, just past the border, Gold Coast is a 40 kilometre stretch of beaches, resorts and skyscrapers. The highway is set far from all the action, so if you want to engage in all the fun, shopping, surfing, partying, gambling or whatever else you maybe into, you will need to venture off your path. We keep going, past the amusement parks and into the sprawl of Brisbane’s suburbia. Brisbane is the capital of Queensland, and the third largest city in Australia. It is situated on the banks of the Brisbane River, with a large proportion of the city sitting on floodplains with numerous creeks and estuaries exposing the residents to potential rising waters and flooding. Indeed the city had been hit with crippling floods in 1974, and again in 2011.

North of Brisbane the landscape again becomes lush green, tropical, with the Glasshouse Mountains shooting up above the greenery in a random sort of way. This area is an absolute treasure trove in terms of places to see and explore – from beautiful beaches, to lush green bushland, to numerous old settlements steeped in history.  First stop should be Caloundra, with its grand Kings Beach, than the beaches of the Sunshine Coast. Plenty of sand for everyone here, with this popular stretch of coast running for almost 60 kilometres, all the way to Noosa Heads.

While enjoying the beaches and ocean views is all great, you should not miss the turnoff for Nambour, especially if the big banana ignited your taste for the big things in life. Just off the highway awaits a giant suprise in the form of … “The Big Pineapple”. Far better than its banana cousin, the pineapple and the surrounding pineapple plantation and mini-zoo is definitely worth a visit.

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Big Pineapple, Nambour, Queensland

Having sped past Gold Coast and Brisbane, we were starved of attractions, so following a long visit to the big Pineapple, the next stop was only a few kilometres away in a town called Yandina. The town has a fairly long history with European settlement dating back to 1850s. To step back in time, head to the railway station in the centre of town, its wooden structure was erected in 1917. Once the railway station was built, there was a need for a hotel and a fine dining and drinking establishment, so the Yandina Hotel was moved to its current location in the same year. Having felt the nostalgia of standing on the platform waiting for a train to 1917, head over the road and mingle with the locals over a cold glass of the local XXXX beer.

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Yandina Hotel, Yandina

Yandina was a great find, and it seems there are a few more gems of this kind in the area with the town of Imbil first on the list for my next trip up here. Yes, that is typical, I have not yet reached my destination and already am planning the next trip. Imbil, Rainbow Beach, Tin Can Bay – these are the top three places to vist next time the road call me up north. For now we were in Maryborough, with Hervey Bay only 30 kms away.

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Urangan Beach, Hervey Bay

There was so much more to see along the way, so many stories, so much history and so many beautiful sights. Too quick, too little time. And so many reasons to hit the road again!

Exploring for yourself: A trip to the Snowy Mountains

Setting out to explore the unknown, an area you are not familiar with, discover it for your self and on your own terms, one needs to keep in mind the possibility of being dissapointed. A very different concept to a long weekend in Rome or Paris, or a trip to a beach-pinned town on the east coast of Australia. These are obviously enjoyable outings, there is plenty to explore, to eat, to wonder or simply relax in a piazza or at the beach. The exploring I am thinking about is setting out to see an area which is totally unknown or less travelled by, or perhaps outside the usual ‘season’. I for one have plenty such trips in my mind, and in longing for the open road and the excitement of getting out of the city, we set out on such a trip to Australia’s Snowy Mountains.

In Mid-October the skiing season here is finished, and as we later found out the summer hiking and mountain biking season has not yet begun. I was not interested so much in the mountains, as in the area surrounding the mountains. This is Australian country, not the outback, not the beachy coast and not the steamy tropics – but something in between, something which I had to see for myself.

As someone who enjoys the travelling itself, no matter the destination, setting out on the road is probably the greatest pleasure around. The idea is to take your mind off the everydayness, and wonder, reminisce of past travels and adventures, listen to that road trip mix, stare at the open road and count those kilometers clocking up. Australia is the perfect place to indulge in your love of the road. And one should be prepared to take advantage of the open spaces, the emptiness and the nothingness. One must be prepared that perhaps apart from that open road feeling, and the emptiness, there may really be .. nothing else. I mean if you just want to keep going, chase the horizon, follow the sun; you might just have to do that, as there may be very little to stop for. And if you plan to stop, if you give your self a day to ‘explore’ a certain town, or an area you may be just a touch dissapointed. At the same time if you come back home with at least a few highlights, and perhaps a few reasons to go back, then you are bound to reminisce about the trip on your future adventures. So, did I note any highlights, and will I be going back to the Snowies? Of course!

Jindabyne

What high hopes I had for this little town! In my mind I saw a country town, at the foot of the mountains, accustomed to the tourists and thrill seekers, but at the same time full of local charm and character. Like Beechworth, or Yackandandah; towns we visited at the beginning of the year. Jindabyne in reality is just a nice view, perhaps a good place for a stroll along the shores of Lake Jindabyne, and a chance to replanish food supplies at a proper supermarket. The town is geared for the snow season, with shops selling ski gear and some clothing, a few overpriced restaurants and various forms of accomodation. Very little in terms of local character it seems. In October it felt deserted and sad.

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Lake Jindabyne

Thredbo and the Snowies

Thredbo is an alpine village and a ski resort at the foot of  Australia’s highest peaks. It is here that you can hop onto the Kosciuszko Express chairlift, and travel it’s 1860 metre distance, putting your foot down at 1925 metres above sea level at the end of the ride. Here you can start your walk to Australia’s highest point – Mt Kosciuszko.

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The Alpine Way 

Strong winds made any hiking in the mountains very difficult and unpleasant, and if you are not going to walk through the mountains, you may as well drive. The Alpine Way is road which starts in Jindabyne, takes motorists to Thredbo, then winds its way down south, almost touching the Victorian state border, and continues in the north westernly direction onto a town of Khancoban, eventually joining up witht the Murray Valley Highway. The road was originally built in the 1950s, but its surfacing was only finished in the 1990s, and looking at its twists and turns in this rough wilderness it is obvious that building it was a gruelling endeavour. The 78 kilometre stretch to Khancoban takes around an hour and forty minutes. While the does go through the mountains, and possibly pleases the adrenaline seekers with its serpentine path, there is little attractions along the way with dense vegetation covering up any views of the peaks and valleys. The Snowy Mountains HydroElectric Scheme is one point of interest, and just outside Khancoban there is a great view of one of the power stations. Recognised as one of the seven civil engineering wonders of the modern world, the Scheme is a complex system of tunnels, dams and aqueducts which connects to use water in the Snowy Mountains to produce 70% of the renewable energy available on Australia’s east coast. The Scheme took 25 years to build with a huge number of workers invloved, two thirds of whom were migrants originating from 30 different countries. Standing at the side of the road, looking at the huge white pipes barreling down the mountains one can really appreciate the back-breaking, almost tortorous  work that went into the building of this engineering wonder.

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Berridale Boulders and Adaminaby

On the road between Cooma and Jindabyne is a town of Berridale. The town itself is unremarkable, and passing through it on a Sunday we were dissapointed to find that even the local bakery was shut and our plan to get a morning coffee went unfulfilled. Coffee or no coffee, the Berridale Boulders were in their righful place, studding the paddocks and hills of the surrounding area. These granite formations are especially visible when driving along the road from Cooma to Berridale.

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Berridale Boulders

The boulders offer the only respite from the empty spaces of the Australian country. There is nothing here apart from open spaces, and arriving in Adaminaby early in the afternoon, we are hopefull that this will be a high point of our trip. Adaminaby is a town of 230 inhabitants, it’s claim to fame is the ‘world’s largest trout’, a ‘monument’ adorning the town square. The trout is obviously a celebration of the favourite pastime of the local area – trout fishing, and it has stood tall in this spot since Hungarian-born artist Andy Lomnici completed this 10-metre structure in 1973. Adaminaby is a nice little town, a good place to stop for a coffee and a wander around the few streets, or perhaps if you are here at lunch or dinner time, stop at the Snowy Goose Hotel and order the trout at it’s bistro. Having trout for dinner in Adaminaby was definitely a highlight of the trip for me!

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The Big Trout, Adaminaby, NSW

Adaminaby to Tumut

If you want to take a drive through the Snowy Mountains, the drive between Adaminaby and Tumut is the more interesting option. The road is perhaps less winding, no jaw-dropping serpentines along this stretch, but it seemed like there is more to look at, with less vegetation blocking the view from the road, and more points of interest along the way. One of the highlights along the way is the abandond goldmining town of Kiandra. It is just a couple of old buildings, but it’s one of those places that evokes images of a different time; place of discovery, high-hopes and drama. In November 1859 gold was discovered here by local cattlemen, and by early 1860, a settlement of some 10,000 souls grew here on the windy ridges of the Snowies. Kiandra is also said to be the birthplace of Australian skiing. The last resident left Kiandra in 1974, and much of the towns remaining bulidings were demolished, with the last four building being later renovated and preserved for historic value.

Kiandra is the first place worth coming back for, but there is more along this route. The BIG attraction are the Yarrangobilly Caves. This limestone cave system is one of the best in Australia, and definitely worth a look. There are also numerous walking tracks, and the scenery, even seen from the road, promises a very rewarding experience.

Approaching the end of the drive through the ridges and valleys of the Snowies, we descend steeply into the town of Thalbingo. Attractively located on the banks of the Tumut River and the Thalbingo Lake, the town is inhabited by around 240 residents, and it is the birthplace of Australian writer and feminist Miles Franklin.

Our trip ends in Tumut. We are instantly convinced that this town could be the base for a our next venture into the Snowy Mountains. It is beautifully located on rolling, lush green hills of the Tumut valley. The area is a rich agricultural hub and a triving commercial community. Leaving Tumut after a Australian road trip pie lunch at the local bakery, I already have the route for the next trip in mind. And that is the wonderful thing about such trips, you discover your own spots to which, if you are lucky, you come back over and over again.

Spring in Sydney

 

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Sydney Harbour 

Spring is here! This no doubt means more of that wonderful blue Sydney sky, more sun and a warmer breeze. There will be fewer early-mornings chills. The day is getting longer. These are all reasons to leave home right in the morning, as the city comes to life, and come home late in the afternoon as the sun takes its deserved break in its happy red gaze beyond the horizon.

It’s the time to get a spring in your step and start anew. And the first day of spring did not dissapoint! Starting the day with a morning coffee, I was than very excited to pursue a potential new opportunity in the world of fine food. Perhaps a good sign that this opportunity came to coincide with the beggining of spring? Not sure, however it will be a chance to talk to people who pursued their passion and are now in business of selling artisan, finest quality products like bold butter, succulent salami, cheeky cheeses, healing honey and saucy spices, and many, many more. No doubt there’ll be a few occassions to taste those products of love and devotion. It’s really amazing to see so many products out there made with such love and care, and so many brave and talented people making a business out of their passion for quality food. For me this will be an exciting new opportunity with infinite, unexplored possibilities! I will no doubt write more about it in the next few weeks.

Hitting mid-morning, the weather was … almost spectacular, with just a couple clouds, and there was simply no time to waste! Let’s hit the pavement ASAP was the war cry! And with destinations abundant, it was a luxury of simply walking right ahead towards the train and seeing where the track takes us.

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Opera House roof gleaming in the sun 

The track was one previously travelled-by, a somewhat obvious choice in this city, not a trip of great discovery but one of spectacular views. As soon as you arrive at Circular Quay and look out the window, you are in for a treat. The Circular Quay ferry terminal, with the blue of the harbour behind it and the Harbour Bridge as the background make up a spectacular view to admire while you get off the train. Downstairs, facing the terminal you have three choices. First one is to find a good ferry destination, hop on a Sydney ferry and admire the city shores form the water. Second is to head to the left, towards the Harbour Bridge, wonder around underneath its gigantic construction and head for a history-infused wander around The Rocks. Finally, the third option is to head right, towards the Opera House, the Botanic Garden, the spectacular location that is Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, and perhaps further towards The art Gallery of NSW and Woolloomooloo. All three options are fantastic! We headed for the Opera House and a walk along the edge of the harbour. It was a great walk – here are a few photos. With spring on our doorstep, and summer taking giant leaps, there are many Sydney adventures to be had.

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Sydney Ferry
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Walk between the Opera House, Botanic Gardens and Art Gallery of NSW

 

 

Past Travels and Life’s Tales

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Big cup of steamnig, strong black coffee on the table, blinds still drawn, a cold and wet day outside. It’s still early in the morning. Quiet.I always look forward to these quiet early starts on my days off. This is the moment I sometimes try to write. Lately I have been trying my hand at some fiction. The idea was to try writing some dialogue, and also, importantly, get out of my head a little. Mulling over and milling around ideas and concepts, over and over in your head can be tiresome. Fiction gets me writing, just putting words on the page and running with the story. This is important in developing a habit of writing. I have done this with running and fitness in the past, so I know this is a good approach. Find time and space, and force your self to write, even when you doubt yourself, your skills and … well, generally everything. Just write. After a while it becomes a habit. You no longer have to force yourself, as it is something you need, crave and can not live without – like coffee. So thats habit and routine.

As I have written on this blog a few posts back, routine is good but it does not necessarily help creativity and it can sometimes be a little of a ‘kill joy’. There is little point writing if it does not bring out your creative side, and if it is not enjoyable. So every so often we need to ‘refresh’. Just stop and look at the big picture – what are we trying to do? Where are we going with this? This is vital to stay focused and enjoy what we are doing.

So … Stop. What is the big picture? What is the idea of OnTheBarge? A little while ago I wrote this passage on the About page:

Imagine yourself living on a weathered, worn and humbled barge posing as a hotel, in the backstreets of a restless, hot and dusty city, with an eclectic and colourful group of guests from all walks. Where conversations center around life’s tales, those of glory and defeat, where politics and revolutions are discussed in real and lively words and where the world seems truly a small place and it’s people a large tribe.

Writing the blog would be so much easier if I was constantly travelling. Or if I did actually live on an old barge somewhere with an exotic address, somewhere where it is hot and humid. Well, I have been living in Sydney for the past 9 months, of which the last 3 have been coldish, little wet and dark, if we consider the short days. With the start of spring waiting in the wings, it is time to plan some travels and get exploring. This is something to look forward to, but Onthebarge is also about imagination and reliving something – life’s tales. With that said let’s use the imagination and tell those tales of endless adventure and ‘on the road’ experiences. From the tavernas of Crete and hotels of Istambul, to the road-side motels of Australia.

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Live-on barge, Mekong, Laos

 

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Old Town Square, Wroclaw, Poland
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Road house and Motel, Pimba, South Australia 

Long and short of travelling in Australia

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Bobbin Head, Sydney

When you consider travelling in Australia, you are faced with the problem of distance, which for most also translates into a time problem. Covering distances of 3000kms, 1000km or perhaps a broken up itinerary requiring a regular 300kms daily dose of nursing that hot steering wheel, is demanding, and it can be a little off putting when planning your travels. Let’s face it, it is not common to have months at your disposal for that ultimate Aussie adventure. Well, I think I have good news for all those planning travels Down Under – there is lots to see and do in each little piece of this fantastic country! So instead of skipping all across this vast land, just plan to concentrate on one specific area. This way you will be able to see all the local attractions, discover a few amazing spots of your own, spend some time marvelling at the various masterpieces provided by nature, and listen and read all the stories of the local populations, the Indigenous myths and stories of Dreamtime, the tales of explorers, settlers, adventurers and Aussie larrikins.

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Ford Street – main street in Beechworth
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Sunset over the endless beach at Nambucca Heads (480kms north of Sydney)

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Narrabeen Beach, Sydney

Follow this blog for some great travels ideas and stories about the people and places of Australia.

Wanderings in the Australian countryside

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When you visit a place with a plan to stay two days, and extend your stay 3 times, it is fair to say that you like it. This was the case with Beechworth and it’s very enjoyable countryside surroundings.

Beechworth is a 3 hour drive away from Melbourne. Once you come off the dull, straight and hot highway, you know you are somewhere special. The first thing you see are the farm buildings, fences and other related landscape features. Of course this is sparsley spread out, as you would expect in this vast land. There is perhaps a certain stereotype image of Australian country or outback settlements, with key features like a big metal letterbox made in various shapes and colours, the very recognizable wind mill and a shed or two made out of corrugated iron. And you get some of that here too. Of course this is not the outback, and we are not in the desert so the scenery is not quiet so homogeneous, especially when we hit the area east of Beechworth, but I will come to that.

About 3000 lucky people live in Beechworth, with the number swelling considerably during the town’s music festival, writers weekend and other events. Ford Street, which is the towns main strip, is very wide with both sides lined by buildings from an era those touch the big cities are doing well to extinguish, giving the place a certain Western-like feel. Walking under the the verandahs and awnings you discover that the place is definitely not about cowboys, with gourmet cafes, restaurants, a well-regarded local brewery, great bookshop, some clothes and homewares offerings as well as establishments offering the local wine and food produce. Oh, and there are four pubs, all seemingly atmospheric with wooden bars which have heard a few yarns in their time, and all keen to welcome a stray visitor for cold beverage and a tale.

We were not so lucky, but gold was found here in February 1852. It is said that over a 14 year period about 115 tonnes of gold were found in the Beechworth area. I guess there were many success stories, but most prospectors did not find their stay in Beechworth pleasant with terrible sanitary conditions, harsh climate and some degree of lawlessness. The Ford Street Historic Precinct is worth a visit if you are into history. Here you will find an old telegraph office and a grand courthouse. The courthouse is probably where many of the area’s bush rangers were tried, with the most famous one, Ned Kelly, probably serving a six month sentence in the Beechworth gaol.

While the town is very enjoyable, it’s surroundings could keep you here for weeks if not longer. Enjoying the countryside was made possible by the ambient cottage in which we stayed (check out thewoolshedcabins.com). Set in the bush, with a proper front-of-the-house verandah, a must in these conditions, it was comfort with a great ambience and a ‘design’ edge. It really allows you to take in the sights, the sounds and the smells of the bush. We loved it!

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Woolshed Falls

The Woolshed Falls are a great point to start your exploring of the town’s surroundings, and the Scenic Gorge Drive is also worth a look. There are also a few great villages to visit within a 30 km radius. The town of Yackandandah is definitely a favourite for me. The area around Yackandandah and generally east of Beechworth, is a fantastic foodie destination with local apples, apple cider vinegar , berries and walnuts all available along your drive. And while the area around the Woolshed is your sterotypical Australian country landscape, the area to the east, around the tiny village of Stanley is more like a European farming destination with lush green dominating the scenery from the grass to the tips of the trees. From the information we got the area is also fantastic in Autumn with chestnuts, walnuts and fantasticly coloured trees making up a feast for the senses.

We stayed for much longer than we planned. Wandering the Australian countryside is very relaxing and addictive. Once you start you can wander for ever.