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Chasing autumn colours along Australia’s Great Alpine Road

In the Australian state of Victoria, autumn comes in April and brings with it a turn of colour that encourages road trips

The Gippsland Lakes in Victoria, Australia.
The Gippsland Lakes in Victoria, Australia. (Istockphoto)

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My childhood friend Yazad, who often accompanied me on road trips in India, now lives in Melbourne. He has a lovely apartment in the suburb of St Kilda and whenever I visit Australia I try to spend a few days with him, his wife and child in Melbourne. The balcony of the guest room in which I was staying looks north. A few moments before sunrise, slanting rays of the sun from below the horizon light up low hanging translucent clouds in various shades of gold and red.

I woke up early one morning, thanks to Ivy, Yazad’s cat, snuggling into my bed, and was treated to a spectacular canvas of colour. So I threw off the blankets—inadvertently launching Ivy across the room—and rushed up to the roof with my camera. Once there, I saw that another tenant had arrived before me with the same idea. He told me that if it was colours that I was after (this was in the month of April) then it is to the Great Alpine Road in the North East of Victoria that I should go.

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Two days later I found myself in Milawa, 240km to the northeast of Melbourne. A small farming community, this area was settled in the 1840s. Today it is a lively centre for wine and gourmet food. I can now vouch for this, because in the two days I stayed there, I had a most delicious smoky rack of ribs at the Gamaze Smokehouse, nibbled on aged cheddar at the Milawa Cheese Company, and relished the superbly prepared venison at the Lindenwarrah Hotel, my base there. Fall had just turned the corner on the highway of seasons, and was now treating all and sundry to a spectacular array of colours. And me as well, all the way along the 40-minute drive to Rutherglen.

Europeans initially arrived in Australia to repent and rehabilitate, but later switched to the pursuit of a good life. And, I must say that wine makes life rather good. So wherever they found climate conducive to growing grapes, vineyards were established. Enterprising winemakers have been taking advantage of the conditions in and around Rutherglen since the early 1800s, making this one of the oldest wine-growing regions in Australia. Rutherglen was once a major mining town and this history is reflected in its charming main street, which is lined with lovely old verandah-fronted establishments and historic buildings very reminiscent of the American Wild West.

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Unlike the giants of the Yarra Valley or Hunter Valley, the winemakers of Rutherglen are driven more by passion than balance sheets. Most of them are family-run establishments with the grandma or grandpa as the head honcho winemaker. Further down the genealogical line, you’d typically find the millennial grandchild handling the winery’s digital and social media presence. This was the case at the lovely Jones Winery and Vineyard headed by Mandy Jones. She is a fifth-generation winemaker who cut her teeth—or should I say fermented her mash?—in Bordeaux in France in the in the late 1990s.

The picturesque village of Mt Hotham.
The picturesque village of Mt Hotham. (Istockphoto)

Autumn went into over-saturation mode when I set off on my drive to Bright. The B500 highway, commonly known as the Great Alpine Road, runs from Wangaratta through Bright to Mt Hotham. Following this, the highway descends down to the A1—the coastal road connecting Melbourne to Sydney.

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As I drove the B500 I saw many cyclists riding on flats where a railway track used to run during the region’s mining heydays. I breezed past the pretty rural towns of Myrtleford and Porepunkah, set on the banks of the Ovens River. At Myrtleford, I witnessed a service at the centre of town in honour of ANZAC Day, which honours the Australians who laid down their lives in conflicts around the world—the most significant being Gallipoli in Turkey during WWI. It was very special for me because exactly a year before, I had witnessed the same commemorative service in Turkey.

I am sure that the town of Bright was named after the bright colours that burst forth in autumn . It was simply too stunning for words—here was a real world high colour saturation filter. The avenue into town is lined with trees and it was that time of year when they had all turned colour. There was hardly a car that could drive through without the driver pulling to the side, and getting out to take a picture, it was that stunning.

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As I left Bright behind and climbed high to Mt Hotham, the scenery became more sparse. Long poles marked in red are positioned on the side of the road to act as markers in winter, when drivers need to be guided through the snow drifts. Mt Hotham is a prime skiing area and the slopes and lifts open for the skiing season soon after autumn.

Before I headed back to Melbourne, I spent some time at Metung, a charming maritime village set in the heart of the Gippsland Lakes. It was far too choppy for me to take a boat out, but the low hanging clouds resulted in a dramatic and vibrant sunset, my photograph of that scene is probably one of my favourites from the trip.

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I had lunch, dinner and breakfast at the little Bancroft Bites Café on Metung’s main street. The dinner, especially, turned out to be my best meal on that trip to Australia. The medley of spices and flavours was sublime and I couldn’t help but ask to talk to the chef. In the course of our conversation, I was delighted to know that the chef he had trained under, the one who had taught him the art of culinary harmony, hailed from India. It was a heart warming feeling to sit there in a little corner of Victoria, well off the tourist trail, and come across a culinary connection to my homeland.

Rishad Saam Mehta is a travel writer and photographer.

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