Rolling in the Hilltops
Come along for a four-day scenic escape to regional NSW, filled with pie tastings, country hospitality, adventurous driving and fascinating history along the way.
Our first road trip of 2023 is a random one.
Triggered by restlessness, after a very quiet COVID affected festive period, Mr T decided to take advantage of a favourable weather window to head out for 3 days in the GX. Where to? No ideas, we’ll decide once on the road. Let’s just follow the sun, as we used to in our cruising days.
So, we’re heading south, on the Princes Highway, along with the holiday traffic. It’s not long before we reach Wollongong and being lunch time, we decide to take the turn off to Robertson for pies. Pie tasting while on the road is a bit of a tradition, and we never miss an opportunity.
Especially when you come across a sign advertising “Welcome to the Famous Robertson Pie shop “. Mr T always orders a curry beef pie, while I play around with chunky beef versions, in this instance, Boeuf Bourguignon. While the pastry is a little dry, the filling is yummy, full of tender beef chunks and a lovely red wine sauce.
It’s a popular spot, with lots of families, biking groups and truckies queuing along.
Then it is onto the Hume Highway, for a somewhat boring 4 hour drive to the little town of Jugiong, in the Hilltops region of NSW. This is an easy stopover for travellers between Sydney and Melbourne, and a popular day trip destination for Canberra residents.
It is undoubtedly our favourite camp in regional NSW. Only a short distance from the highway exit, it is located on the town Recreation Grounds provided by the the local council in exchange for a donation ( some campers take it as a free camp, we usually slip $10 in the box ). You can’t beat the position: the Murrumbidgee river on one side, and the “gourmet” precinct across the road.
This is made of the restored historic pub , The Sir George, a country store and cafe, The Long Pantry, a gelato shop, a cellar door, a bakery and a couple of homeware stores. With friends living nearby, we’ve always made a point of catching up overnight, whenever we travel thru the area. We’ve certainly enjoyed a few meals at the pub over the past 5 years!
Today is different though: our friends are out of town, the shops are closed ( it’s a Tuesday ) and the pub is eerily quiet ( maybe recovering from the NYE celebrations ).
We’re not phased though, the GX is parked in a sunny spot overlooking the surrounding hills, and we have enough onboard for a cheese platter and sunset drinks. All is good with the world.
We wake up early the next morning for a hike to the lookout and hoping to nab some fresh bread from the bakery, only to find out that the bread is only available thru the Pub or the cafe, and the first batch won’t be ready until 11.30am. It’s barely past 8am, we consider having breakfast at The Long Pantry, but there is already a queue of people waiting for a table ( are they all campers? ) and Mr T is also wondering if we’ll be served yesterday’s bread. So we skip breakfast and head for the hills.
Next stop is Tumut, in the western foothills of the Snowy Mountains. We’ve decided to explore the Snowy Mountain Highway, a high altitude scenic drive which crosses the northern section of the Koszciusko National park and takes you through NSW High Country.
18 months ago, we travelled along its counterpart drive, the Alpine Way, roaming thru the southern and western reaches of the National Park. It was a stunning trip, following windy narrow roads, past alpine villages and hydro dams.
The weather however had been very cold, and we were caught in a snow storm overnight. This time, we’re hoping the balmy summer weather will make for a more pleasant drive, I am even looking forward to a hike.
We take the backroad from Gundagai, crossing valleys and rivers to arrive in Tumut close to noon. For a second, we contemplate having lunch at the Tumut Brewery Co, but it’s still a long drive ahead and opt for a pie tasting instead ( of course! ). The crowd outside the Pie in the Sky bakery is large, it must be good. So I join in the queue while Mr T secures the last table, and order his usual curry pie and a chunky pepper for me.
Both pies pass the test of flaky pastry and tender beef, let down by a soft and soggy crumb. Strangely, the pepper pie is much hotter than the curry one, so we swap.
It’s on to the Snowy Highway proper, an exciting journey along the Blowering Reservoir first, famous as the site of the world water-speed record in 1978. It is one of the biggest dams in NSW, at three times the size of Sydney Harbour.
There are several camping grounds along the lake foreshore, very popular in the holidays with water sports enthusiasts.
We continue on thru the Yarrangobilly area of Kosciuszko National Park, running through stunning alpine landscapes, though the drive comprises plenty of sharp curves, blind corners and hairpin turns! Venturing further into the High Plains towards the Old Snowy Campground where we’ve booked a spot for the night, we reach 1510m altitude.
By now, the weather is no longer summery, quite the contrary: black threatening clouds lay ahead as we start on the dirt road leading thru the grasslands. The idea of getting stuck in a rugged and remote camp at the mercy of a thunderstorm doesn’t really appeal to us, and as if on cue, we’re stopped by a sign advising of the access road closure further ahead. We know when to throw the towel, so we turn around and rejoin the highway looking for an alternate route to the camp. That’s when the heavens decided to open!
Forgetting about the idea of hiking to a mountain hut or finding a picturesque campsite by a creek, we drive down the mountain range in torrential hail and rain, traversing the historic township of Adaminaby and catching a glimpse of the Big Trout, finally reaching the Princes Highway in Cooma.
Time to regroup, while the wild camp idea is canned, neither of us feel like staying in a commercial caravan park on the outskirt of Cooma. We decide to continue 35klm further north to Bredbo and stop at the Bredbo Inn. With free camping available in their large grassed area at the back, a friendly barmaid and a cozy dining room, we’re so glad to be here.
It turns out the inn closed for New Year and only reopened yesterday. All the Christmas decorations are still around, feeling festive, while the menu is understandably limited to basic options such as chicken parmi, schnitzels, burgers and seafood basket.
I order the only non-fried option, the homemade beef lasagna while Mr T picks the seafood basket. We are pleasantly surprised with the generous size of the side salad, and I personally wolf down the lasagna. Mr T struggles to finish his seafood basket, as it could easily serve two people. The dining room is full of travellers and fellow campers who, like us, take advantage of the free camp ( I count a dozen vehicle that night ). Sleep comes easy and not even the sound of rumbling trucks disturbs us tonight.
The next day starts slowly: I go on my morning walk along the highway, checking out the rest of Bredbo. Not much there, beside a Christmas shop which opens from August to December, a school, a large park, a cafe/restaurant for sale and a pie shop! It’s too early for pie tasting, but that doesn’t stop me from buying 2 packs from the freezer for later…
In the meantime, Mr T has studied the weather for the day. Being our last day away, we were hoping to reach the Sapphire coast and drive home along the oyster trail. However, with the whole east coast being battered with southerly storms, we take the option to stay out west where it is at least dry and sunny.
I have always wanted to visit Cowra, famous in Australian history for being the site of a break-out by Japanese POWs in 1944. Nowadays it is home to award wining the Japanese Gardens and Cultural Centre as well as the preserved Japanese and Australian War cemeteries. Mr T notes that it is 275km due north and at least a 3 hour drive, so we’d better get going.
As the road skirt around Canberra on the way, we stop for a quick visit to the Arboretum. What’s an arboretum? It’s like a botanical garden “ devoted to growing trees for conservation, scientific research or educational purposes. Arboreta (plural) play an important role in the preservation and management of trees, and provide a place where endangered species can be protected”.
The site of the Canberra National Arboretum once was covered in pine plantations which were destroyed in 2003 following extensive bush fires around the A.C.T
Opened to the public in 2013 and spanning 250 hectares, it now features 94 forests, home to 44,00 trees of over 100 different species. The Arboretum is said to be one of the world’s largest living collection of rare, endangered and significant trees. These include Australian eucalypts and wollemi pines, Mediterranean Aleppo pines, Chinese Yunnan Cypress and even American giant sequoia.
The site is also home to 24 gardens, a function pavilion, a Village Centre with a restaurant, cafe and gift shop, a playground, picnic and bbq areas, a few walking trails and one of the best views over Canberra! As a matter of fact, the views are all we enjoy, since it is blowing a gale and far too cold for a hike let alone a picnic. Still, I wouldn’t mind coming back with better weather and in a few years when the trees have grown taller.
Back on the road, passing thru the Canberra District wine region and the townships of Murrumbateman and Yass. We spot a dozen signs to cellar doors and country restaurants, some names I recognise from IG fame others are new. I wish I was hungry and in the mood for wine tasting but we’re on a mission to find the sun.
By the time we reach Cowra in the early afternoon, the weather has finally cleared: it is bright sunshine and 28C, yes!!!
Cowra used to house one of 28 Prisoner of Wars camps in Australia from 1941 to 1947. Initially holding Italians POW, by 1944, there were a mix of Italians, Indonesians, and Japanese held in custody. For the Japanese soldiers, being held captive was a violation of their military and ethical code, a source of much distress. On Aug 5th 1944, 1100 Japanese POW staged a massive breakout, which resulted in 234 Japanese soldiers and 5 Australian soldiers deaths. The remains of these soldiers are contained in the Japanese War Cemetery and the Australian War Cemetery respectively. Today a walking trail goes through the camp ruins and a path leads from there to the Japanese Gardens and Cultural Centre in what is known as the Peace precinct. The Japanese gardens were created as a recognition of the relationship between the people of Cowra and the people of Japan. The appreciation by the Japanese of the treatment of their dead soldiers by the local people following the 1944 breakout is said to have been the catalyst to the friendship between Cowra and Japan.
After our long drive from Bredbo, I can only describe our visit of the Japanese gardens as restful.
They were designed by world renowned architect Ken Nakajima in the late 1970’s, a copy of the first Japanese landscape garden built in the 16th century in what is now called Tokyo. This is a haven of sunlit shades of green creating an overwhelming sense of peace and serenity. The manicured hedges, water features, use of rocks and the inclusion of the EDO cottage are all designed to replicate the Japanese landscape. As a lover of all things Japanese, it makes me want to visit Japan even more.
There is a cafe overlooking the beautiful setting, but we’ve arrived too late and I can only hear about their signature Devonshire Tea from the lady in the gift shop.
Mr T is undeterred and suggests we head for the local butcher before IT closes, to buy lamb for dinner. You see, another thing Cowra is famous for is lamb. Lamb produced in the region have the reputation of being the best in Australia. That’s incentive enough to buy 6 juicy looking cutlets from local Skinners Quality Meats, and drive thru town looking for tonight’s camp.
A few minutes later, we park at a rest area we spotted earlier, near the bridge and on the banks of the Lachlan River. It is a small car park, with enough room for a dozen caravans/campers and a couple of large trucks to stay overnight.
But what a spot: on one side, we are overlooking massive recreational parks beside the river, so handy for picnics and walks. Cowra Bridge Pylons are situated beneath the nearby Lachlan River Bridge and feature aboriginal murals on the pylons.
On the other side, is conveniently located the Visitor Information Centre as well as the local Mc Donald’s. We normally would not give it a thought, but Mr T has mentioned that the lamb cutlets would go nicely with potato chips, and everyone knows that Mc Donald’s chips are the best right? So, while I put a quick salad together, he sneaks off across the road and comes back with his loot which includes some hot chips and a cheeky hashbrown.
He is keeping the cost of camping low , he says, but I remind him that each lamb cutlet costs $5, so he’d better savour every bite! Just as well tonight’s camp is free.
And friendly. We are surrounded by another 4 campers, and meet with one couple, Keith and Sharon, from Windsor. They are curious about our GX setup and after a look inside, we’re soon exchanging tips and recommendations on where to go and stay. They are on their way south for 3 weeks while we are heading east, due home. That’s how, the next morning, our quick g’day turns into an equally quick goodbye. Sounds just like cruising.