A pint of Ned's finest, please

Tim Richards raises a toast at the Kelly Gang's local and drinks in the history on a hotel hunt with a twist.

From where I'm sitting, I can easily see the sombrero, taunting me with its lurid shade of purple.

The brightly coloured hat is the means by which the Country Pub Tour guide, Wade McPherson, gets his passengers quickly back on the bus. Whoever is last aboard the vehicle has to wear the sombrero into the next pub visited. "It used to be a cowboy hat," McPherson says, "but this one gets them on faster."

Luckily, since I'm the only person on today's seven-hour tour, Wade and his driver, Ged Vennix, have decided to let me off the sombrero rule, otherwise I'd be wearing it all day.

From Yarrawonga, 90 kilometres west of Albury-Wodonga on the Murray River, there are regular wine tours to such locations as Rutherglen. In 2010, however, McPherson sensed a gap in the market.

"Both of us were unemployed at the time," he says, "and I thought, 'Not everyone drinks wine - we'll do pub tours.' The pubs love it. It's a good day out, a bit of fun."

Beyond having a drink in the sort of towns you'd never spot from the Hume Freeway, tour members learn about the historic and social nature of these watering holes. "No poker machines, no TAB and most of them are over 100 years old," McPherson says. "In these little places they're the centre of town — if you want to know something, you go to the pub."

The first one we lob into on this sunny Tuesday is the Boorhaman Hotel, a long, low building whose interior is decorated with novelty items, including shields bearing the heads of big, ugly fish.

It brews its own beer in the in-house Buffalo Brewery. The lager tastes pretty good and the barmaid also gives me a sample of the popular ginger ale, which is just as alcoholic. It's not too sweet and has a distinct gingery edge.

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Then it's back on the bus. When they have their usual complement of 20 or so passengers, McPherson and Vennix use the travel time to quiz them on their knowledge of the last pub visited. Anyone getting a question wrong must tell a joke or wear a party hat into the next pub.

There's also a good dose of local history in McPherson's commentary. Almost inevitably, it involves Ned Kelly. The Vine Hotel in North Wangaratta, our next stop, has a secret tunnel allegedly used by the Kelly Gang to slip in for a pint.

The tunnel entrance is within its remarkable cellar, a sprawling, brick-lined space that contains a museum display. Interesting old photos line the walls, next to vintage items such as pianos and typewriters covered in a fine coat of dust. It's an intriguing effect, as if you've stumbled on a lost treasure trove.

Our third stop, Thoona, was once an important stock-route stop. Now it's a sleepy hamlet near the Warby Range State Park but the Thoona Hotel still draws locals for its food, including the "hook and chook" ($23), a chicken breast topped with prawns in a creamy garlic sauce.

I also try the pub's own Bushfire Special (rum, tequila, chartreuse and a generous dose of tabasco sauce, $10), which requires a beer to extinguish the resultant heat.

After this we visit the splendid St James Hotel, founded in the 1940s by two returning servicemen. It has been beautifully maintained and retains its patterned bricks, dark timber doors and long, horseshoe-shaped bar.

Upstairs are old-fashioned but attractively decorated rooms, a steal at $40 a night, while out back is a beer garden with neatly trimmed lawns and statuary.

Our final halt is the Tungamah Hotel, owned by former premiership-winning North Melbourne footballer Peter Chisnall. He is the picture of a country publican, ribbing McPherson and Vennix with deadpan dry humour from behind the taps.

After this, there's a brief photo stop at Stinking Goat Corner, so named for the animal once discovered in the well of a long-vanished pub. The building is gone but the legend remains - a fitting tall story to end an entertaining journey to the pubs that time forgot.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of V/Line and Tourism Victoria.

The Country Pub Tour operates from 11am to 6pm each Tuesday and occasional Saturdays, picking up tour members from their accommodation.

It costs $25, not including drinks and lunch. Phone 0419 988 117, email countrypubtours@bigpond.com.

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