Dandenong Ranges and Yarra Valley

 

If you go down to the woods today, you won’t find teddy bears. Instead you’ll see clay figures of Indigenous elders, children and winged beings that merge mysteriously with the forest. Artist William Ricketts created these sculptures. He was a man who spent many years living among Aboriginal Australians, and his creations are nestled in the heart of the Dandenong Ranges at the William Ricketts Sanctuary.

 

Formed by a series of volcanic eruptions millions of years ago, this landscape has since eroded to form a dissected plateau, the highest point being Mt Dandenong (622 metres). Despite a logging frenzy in the 19th century, tall mountain ash and eucalyptus trees still dominate these slopes. In cool, deep gullies you may be lucky enough to see a lyrebird – native birds capable of mimicking both natural and human-made sounds such as chainsaws. The Dandenongs and Yarra Valley are perfect picnic places. Or, if you can’t be bothered making your own lunch, stop off for a white chocolate and raspberry muffin in Warburton or tuck into a pie in the quaint town of Sassafras (but don’t eat the leaves off Sassafras trees unless you want to feel mildly sedated). Olinda is the place to practice your slap dancing, cowbell ringing and yodelling at the Cuckoo Restaurant, and the wildlife sanctuary in Healesville allows you to get up close with native Australian animals. You’d be a flamin’ gallah not to check it out!

 

 

Pete’s Primo Pastimes

 

Puffing Billy may sound like a fella who smokes forty a day, but it’s actually an historic steam engine synonymous with the area. Following a narrow gauge track through ferny glades and towering mountain ash forest, the 50km return route is

a good way to explore many of the Dandenong Range’s towns. The train departs from Belgrave station on Old Monbulk Rd and is open every day except for Christmas. Chug along to www.puffingbilly.com.au.

 

William Ricketts created nearly 100 kiln-fired clay animals and Indigenous figures. He lived at the William Rickett’s Sanctuary (Mt Dandenong Tourist Rd) until

his death in 1993. It’s open 10am–4.30pm daily. www.parkweb.vic.gov.au.

 

Healesville Sanctuary is the place to head to get your fix of Australian wildlife encounters. The Sanctuary features a renowned ‘flight arena’ where you can spy parrots and birds of prey in action, an animal medical centre where you can meet the amazing staff caring for sick and endangered animals plus great opportunities to witness native Australian animals at play -  including dingoes and the elusive platypus.

 

The Dandenong Ranges are all about gardens. Check out the National Rhododendron Gardens, a short drive out of Olinda. Another place for fabulous flora is the Alfred Nicholas Gardens known for its water features, ornamental lake and boathouse. Open 10am–5pm every day (except on days when there’s a total fire ban). Call 13 19 63 to check if the park is open or log onto www.parkweb.vic.gov.au

 

This area is great for walking. Check out the steep Kokoda Memorial Track

(5km return), otherwise known as the 1,000 steps track which commemorates

the Australians who fought in Papua New Guinea during WW2.

 

One of my favourite forays in the Yarra Ranges is the hike from Dom Dom Saddle to Mt Donna Buang (21km one way). You can also access this mountain by car from Warburton

Just before the summit is the Rainforest Gallery Walk, a 17-metre-high aerial walkway that allows you to stroll shoulder to shoulder alongside giant mountain ash trees, some of which are up to 300 years old. In winter there’s also a toboggan run at Donna Buang’s summit.

 

Another adrenalin rush can be found at the Melbourne Skydive Centre (MacIntyre Lane, Lilydale Airport, Yering). Situated 44km from Melbourne, this is the closest skydive centre to the city. Test your nerves (and your ability to hold down your breakfast) on a tandem dive; weekday plane tumbles are cheaper. For a list of packages and prices, log onto www.melbourneskydivecentre.com.au, or call 1300 734 471.

 

After hurtling through the air you may feel as though you’ve earned a celebratory glass of wine at Punt Road Wines (10 St Huberts Rd, Coldstream). Picked from a seventy-five hectare vineyard, the grapes are used to produce a variety of wines. They have a cellar door where you can enjoy a BBQ and play a game of Petanque (like boules). They also make cider. www.puntroadwines.com.au; 03 9739 0666.

 

A winery that likes to put on a show is Rochford Wines (corner of Maroondah Hwy and Hill Rd, Coldstream). They host concerts and events throughout the year and produce a range of wines. Their cellar door is open every day. www.rochfordwines.com.au; 03 5962 2119.

 

If you’re not too smashed by this point, then head down to Giant Steps/Innocent Bystander (336 Maroondah Hwy, Healesville) for some more wine. Set in a spacious barn, this winery specialises in chardonnay and pinot noir and offers tastings and tours. They also have a bakery, a cheese room and a restaurant with themed dinner nights. Call 03 5962 6111 or visit www.innocentbystander.com.au for more details.

 

For those of you who prefer beer, then there are two primo microbreweries in the area. Coldstream Brewery (694 Maroondah Brewery, Coldstream) brews pilsner, cider, ale and a seasonal beer. They’re closed on Mondays and Tuesdays and have live music every Thursday and Sunday. www.coldstreambrewery.com.au; 03 9739 1794.

Also check out Hargreaves Hill Brewing Company (25 Bell St, Yarra Glen) which brews six beers including stouts, ales and lagers. You can get a sample of all six for just $7. They also have a restaurant which is open Mon-Sat from noon-11pm, and Sunday from 8.30am-5pm. Head there on Monday for foodies night – a showcase of the food and wine industry of the Yarra Valley. www.hargreaveshill.com.au; 03 9730 1905.

 

Spotting wildlife in the Aussie bush can be hard work (especially after a few beers), that’s one of the reasons why places like the Healesville Sanctuary (Badger Creek Rd, Healesville) exist. Get close-up with over 200 species of Australian wildlife. Set on thirty hectares of bushland and nestled at the foothills of the Yarra Valley, you’ll see koalas, kangaroos, wombats, emus, dingoes, birds of prey and platypuses, to name but a few. www.zoo.org.au/HealesvilleSanctuary; 03 5957 2800.

 

Once you’ve watched koalas hanging out in the trees, it’s time to get in the trees yourself. Trees Adventure (Old Monbulk Rd, Belgrave) has various obstacle courses to tackle, all of which are suspended on platforms between two and twelve metres high. Beat your chest and pretend you’re Tarzan, whiz through the air on a flying fox, jump on an aerial skateboard and wobble on monkey bridges. There are intermediate and advanced courses. Once you’ve regained your breath, then you can stroll through a nursery featuring some of the rarest and most exotic trees in Australia. Check out 150-year-old Algerian Oaks, sixty-metre sequoias and century-old Japanese oaks. www.treesadventure.com.au; 03 9752 5354.

 

If you’ve got your own car, there’s no way you can leave this area without venturing along the Black Spur Rd, a winding stretch of highway starting just east of Healesville and carrying on to Marysville. The size of the trees will make your car look like a Tonka toy and when the mist sneaks between the tall trunks it’s like a scene from Spooky Hollow. Carrying on from Marysville, you can drive up to Lake Mountain and to the Lake Mountain Resort. This is the closest ski resort to Melbourne and has over 30km of ski trails, a ski school, toboggan slopes and snow mobile rides. In summer months you can hike and bike. www.lakemountainresort.com.au; 03 5957 7222.

 

There aren’t many better ways to watch the sunrise than from a hot air balloon, and the undulating hills of the Yarra Valley will give you a bird’s-eye view of vineyards and the Yarra River which coils into the distance like a gigantic water snake. Midweek flights are often cheaper. You can combine a glass of wine with a balloon ride at Rochford Wines, the home of Global Ballooning www.globalballooning.com.au; Ph 1800 627 661).

 

The other main operators are Balloon Sunrise (hotairballooning.com.au;

Ph 03 9005 2212) and Go Wild Ballooning  (www.gowildballooning.com.au; Ph (03) 9739 0772).

Leadbeater tours are the ones to call for a great day out exploring the Yarra Valley and the Dandenong’s www.leady.com.au or call 1300 903305

 

Well slap my thigh, dress me in leather trousers and prepare me a feast. Probably the only place in Victoria where you can hear live yodelling and watch the wood chopping slap dance, the Cuckoo Restaurant (Mt Dandenong Tourist Rd, Olinda) is located in a Bavarian chalet style building. With live entertainment most days, wandering minstrels and plenty of clapping, tuck into a smorgasbord of traditional Bavarian dishes and a large dessert buffet.  www.cuckoorestaurant.com.au;

03 9751 1003.