Elisabeth Knowles takes the long and winding road from Drouin and back via Walhalla, Mount Baw Baw, Noojee and Neerim. The word “hinterland” is an evocative one. It makes me think of rolling green hills along the lines of the kind you’d find in the Byron Bay Hinterland or the Gold Coast Hinterland. It promises a region bounded by waterways – be they rivers or the sea (hence the green).

The West Gippsland Hinterland certainly delivers on the green front, but it also offers white, by way of the snow at Mount Baw Baw in winter. It’s so much more than rolling green hills, though it has them: its diverse landscape also includes sub-alpine forests thick with tree-height ferns, and mountainsides wild with snow gums. It’s the Australian bush, but not as you may think of it. In fact it offers so much scenic variation that it makes the perfect long weekend drive.

Here’s my West Gippsland Hinterland Drive Diary:

DAY ONE: Melbourne to Walhalla

(Total driving time approx. 2hrs30mins)

I flew into Melbourne’s Avalon airport, picked up a very small, very yellow Diahatsu something-or-other rental car from Europcar. I guess what it lacked by way of a crumple zone was made up for by its hard-hat-style colour scheme. I soon got over it, though, and headed off along the Princes Freeway to Warragul. After an excellent steak Diane lunch ($17.50 lunch deal included coffee) at the Courthouse Cafe, I got back on the road and followed the signs to Walhalla.

The little car struggled with hill climbs, but I didn’t mind because soon enough the bush gave way to dewy sub-alpine forest, the mountains because that little bit more spectacular and soon enough I was in the gorgeous ex-mining town of Walhalla. Glory be, what a beautiful town – I don’t want to give too much away because we have a story coming up in the Feb/March issue of Australian Traveller. Suffice to say, you don’t expect the barmaid in a town pop.10 to be wearing the same top as you. She was, but I didn’t mind.

The Wally Pub’s Chicken Parma with Bacon was delicious mountain food and the perfect thing to do before taking a stroll round the local cemetery and heading off to bed at the superbly recreated Star Hotel, boutique accommodation based on the town’s hotel that was well-loved gold-rush-era but burned to the ground in 1951.

For more information on Walhalla, go to www.visitwalhalla.com
The Star Hotel //
(03) 5165 6262;
www.starhotel.com.au

DAY TWO: Walhalla to Noojee, via Mt Baw Baw

(Total driving time approx. 1hr50mins)

It was hard to tear myself away from Walhalla, but after a hearty Star Hotel brekky I went for a roam around town before hopping in my little yellow car and heading off to Mount Baw Baw. Never have I felt more like Mr Bean as when that tiny vehicle struggled to cope not only with a greater ascent but an unsealed road, only recently opened to the public, which was previously only the domain of logging trucks. How those little wheels coped with the grading lines and pot holes I’ll never know. But I got there, grabbed a bag of jelly snakes and headed off on a walk through beautiful crisp snow gum forests to shake out my tensed up limbs and reassure myself that I had in fact made it and that I was, in fact, alive. Hooray!

Mount Baw Baw is a sweet little alpine village that bills itself as Victoria’s most affordable ski resort in winter. It’s great for families and beginner skiers and its many alpine trails make great cross-country ski routes. These same trails make great bushwalking trails in summer. I took a leisurely stroll up the summit track to take in the fresh air and views, but by the time I got back to the village the weather had closed in, with low cloud and pummelling rain that obliterated any trace of summer and made me fear my trip back down the winding roads.

Happily, the route from Mt Baw Baw to Noojee is sealed. The only thing you have to worry about is sharing those thin, winding roads with logging trucks. It’s also a popular motorcycle touring route and there are plenty of black spots so please be mindful of our two-wheeled friends if you make the journey yourself.

My main attraction to Noojee was the Outpost Restaurant, whose chef John Snelling was rewarded for his fine-dining with one chef’s hat. Three weeks prior to my arrival, John had given back his hat and changed the menu to the same as that of the Toolshed pub next door. At first I was disappointed but the Outpost’s lovely log cabin restaurant is now affordable enough for everyone to enjoy. I ate out on the balcony, facing a forest of ferns and soft foliage, ordered a mouth-watering lamb shank main, and followed it with a lemon torte with bite for under 50 bucks. The property has a for-sale sign on it, and I’m dying to know where John ends up next because I if that’s what he does with “pub food” I can’t wait to experience his fine-dining menu.

Tummy fit to burst (I can’t stop eating when I like something), I retreated to the Toorongo River Sanctuary and kipped in an old tin shed. Well, it’s not just any old tin shed – this one looks like a two-storey rusty barn but inside it’s kitted out like a contemporary family home. There are two self-catering apartments (they call them chalets) and both have views out over fields of long grass to a winding river, full kitchens, plump sofas and big TVs. A perfect cocoon for winter snuggling, even in the middle of summer – not that it felt like it that night.

For more information on Mount Baw Baw and Noojee, go to www.westgippsland.com.au

The Outpost //
(03) 5628 9669;
www.theoutpostretreat.com

The Toorongo River Sanctuary //
(03) 9001 0833;
riversanctuary.com.au

DAY THREE: Noojee to Melbourne via Neerim South

There was mild panic this morning as I realised my little yellow car was sitting on empty, but I risked a trip out to the glorious Toorongo Falls anyway. It was a risky move because the only petrol pump in Noojee was out of order and I wasn’t sure how far away the next one was. Luckily, the kindly folks in the Red Parrot café sorted me out. First with a king-sized breakfast – “You haven’t lived till you’ve tried my mushrooms,” boasted the owner, and they were pretty good – then with directions to Neerim Junction. The Neerim Junction General Store is cute as a button, with a real-life person manning the petrol pump, which sits like a fire hydrant at the side of the road. There’s a great antiques store next door too.

Having filled up, I retraced my route to the Noojee Trestle Bridge, where I went for a tranquil walk through the rainforest before having a stressful confrontation with a tourist bus that was trying its luck on the one-lane road that led to the carpark. Perhaps not having a 4WD was a good thing, as my car was small enough to scrape past.

I’d had every intention of making the journey back to Melbourne a slow one, punctuated with many stops in cute towns such as Yarragon, whose bakery has a great reputation, but the rain hit hard again and I thought I’d best just head back to the airport. After a brief stop at Swaffield Country Deli in Neerim South for a very sweet, very energising iced chocolate, I gripped the wheel of that little yellow car very tightly, pointed it at Melbourne and hoped for the best.

For more information on the West Gippsland Hinterland Drive route, go to www.inspiredbygippsland.com
Red Parrot Café //
1 Bennett St, Noojee.
(03) 5628 9602

Swaffield Country Deli //
203 Main Neerim Rd, Neerim South.
(03) 5628 1667