Journey down memory lane

Paul Daffey buckles up for a grand road tour of his home state.

I've caught buses through the US and trains through Thailand. I've hitch-hiked through northern Australia and Ireland. Yet all these years later one of my favourite travel experiences remains driving through Victoria.

I grew up in Melbourne, the son of parents from country Victoria. Almost every holidays we had a trip to see relatives in a distant part of the state. As a journalist, I've written a lot about country sport. For most of my life I've been tootling through the back blocks of Victoria and still I'm not sick of it.

I love drifting through towns with a pub, a shop and a war memorial. Here's a selection of my favourite Victorian drives.

Calder Highway

This road through the state's north-west would not be on many lists of favourite routes but I've done it so many times it's in my soul. In these times of a freeway between Melbourne and Bendigo, the Calder only really starts when you turn off at the Black Stump, just south of Bendigo. I still love driving past Happy Jack's milk bar in Lockwood (with its single petrol bowser), where in my memory the hills are always green.

It's just past Happy Jack's that the land opens up and the first tinge of red appears. I love the goldfields buildings in Inglewood, which is one of my favourite towns. Every time I go through Charlton I promise myself I'll get to the old cinema. I've never driven through Wycheproof at the same time as the train that chugs through the centre of town and it's one of my biggest regrets.

The road to Manangatang

Mum grew up in the Mallee town of Ultima, which is near Swan Hill. Once or twice I've driven from Ultima to another town that features in family stories, Manangatang. The road is dusty and there's nothing to see but spindly trees and broken fences.

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But I enjoy it because the family soundtrack, depicting the Mallee as a grand stage of honour and struggle, goes through my head.

I also like the names of the towns along this route: Ultima, Waitchie, Chillingollah, Chinkapook and Manangatang. I doubt there's a more musical sequence of outposts in Australia.

Through the Grampians

Once, many years ago, I took the long route from Melbourne to the Mallee - via the Great Ocean Road and up through the west of the state. It was on this excursion that I first drove north into Dunkeld and experienced the sight of Mount Abrupt looming large over the town. I later went to the Dunkeld Cup because I wanted to see the horses round the bend in the shadow of that magnificent rock face. Unfortunately a freak storm hit and the meeting was cancelled. On the original excursion, I veered left at the base of Mount Abrupt and drove in the western shadow of the Grampians. To the left, fat sheep nibbled on verdant grass. To the right, craggy rocks rose into the sky. I then understood why people got all misty about the Western District.

Out of Benalla

My uncle and auntie live in Greta, which is a farming region near Wangaratta, famous as the home of Ned Kelly in the 1870s. (Kelly antecedents still live around about.) To get to Greta, I turn off the Hume Highway and go through Benalla, which has a footy ground with the rare attraction of a wooden grandstand.

I turn right in Benalla and proceed through gorgeous, rolling farm country towards Lurg. In this closely settled region, the properties are small enough for farmhouses to be close to the road. I still love careering around the bend that sweeps past the old Greta West Primary School and over the Fifteen Mile Creek, where on occasions I've stopped for a dip. I especially love driving past the Greta footy ground, which is surrounded by paddocks, and the superb little Catholic church, which from a distance looks like a doll's house amid the trees. They stopped saying Mass there only recently.

South Gippsland hills

I'm the type to never take a main road when there's a back road to explore. Often my curiosity has paid off but rarely to the extent that it did on a road between the South Gippsland towns of Inverloch and Korumburra. At one stage, a curve and a dip arrived at such an awkward confluence that I thought I was about roll the car into a ravine. The experience seemed to confuse me.

On a subsequent hill, where a farmer carried a stick and shuffled his sheep along the shoulder of the road, I could have sworn I was in County Kerry, Ireland.

Peninsula stream

Since childhood I've associated the Mornington Peninsula with ti-trees. So it was with some delight that I recently discovered the forest country around Red Hill. My brother and I had left the low canopy of Blairgowrie and were looking for surf on Westernport Bay. To get there, we headed along Main Creek Road and stumbled across the poky charms of the cricket ground in Main Ridge. Then we headed along Shands Road, a dirt track that ducks in and out of centuries-old gums. The effect of driving through the line of big old gums was like being splashed with water from a mountain stream. We never did find waves but we enjoyed the attempt.

Eerie delights of Mother's Day

One of the important lessons after having your first child is to do your research before heading out to celebrate your partner's first Mother's Day. In my inexperience, I failed to realise that every pub and restaurant in the Macedon Ranges region would be booked out.

After failing to find an empty table in Woodend, we struck out east - and felt rewarded for doing so. The volcanic country on the road to Romsey has an eerie appeal, and I wondered how long the rock formations must have been around (far longer than Mother's Day).

We missed out on lunch but we had coffee and cake in Lancefield, and we left for home with a good taste in our mouths.

Redesdale redux

While living in Bendigo for a few years, I had five routes between there and Melbourne. My favourite was via Redesdale. From Bendigo you head towards Lake Eppalock and veer south. The highlight is winding down the narrow road before crossing the Mia Mia bridge. The bridge has been there since 1868. The Redesdale Hotel was built around the same time.

It's one of life's pleasures to have a dip in the Campaspe River just below the bridge and then head up to the bluestone pub (which has recently been renovated) for a snifter. From Redesdale, you head south-east through wine country before turning on to the Calder Highway just before Kyneton.

Omeo Highway

The road that links Bairnsdale and Omeo is a monty for anyone's list of the most scenic roads in the state. The section through the Tambo Valley is so breathtaking that there is no choice but to drop into Ensay's Little River Inn and reflect on the country you've just seen.

In my youth I thought Omeo existed because television weathermen needed a town on which to pin the lowest maximum temperature. Now I think of Omeo as the hub of one of the most glorious regions in Australia. One of these days I'm going to proceed through Omeo and take the Great Alpine Road through the mountains.

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