Hume Highway, driving Sydney to Melbourne: Best things to do and places to stop

It starts, as all great adventures should, in a car park beneath a shopping centre in Mittagong. The clearly marked parking bays and exit ramps are perhaps to be expected; the remains of Australia's first ironworks, perhaps not.

Friends in Sydney and Melbourne had warned me off this old-fashioned, mildly quixotic quest to spend 10 days driving between the two cities rather than spending about $90 on a flight. "It's the most boring drive on earth," they warned. "The Hume Highway is a grimly tedious exercise in masochism," they added.

It's fair to say most Australians with not-so-fond childhood memories of the barrelling monotony prefer to fly than take on the Sydney to Melbourne road trip. For a Pom with too much time on his hands, however, doing things the old-fashioned way offers an opportunity. It's a chance to see unheralded Australia; the non-extreme country that is, at best, a footnote in the travel agent's brochures; the Australia that makes no great promises but springs a series of surprises.

The first of those surprises is an unexpected hometown link. While I'm mooching around the ruins of the Fitzroy Ironworks, a much-neglected part of Australian history, and a significant marker in the transition from utterly dependent colony to self-sufficient country, I discover that Mittagong was once essentially a company town named New Sheffield. The ironworkers came from South Yorkshire, and the name came with them. 

 The greatest colonial bequest of them all, however, comes in the next town along. Bowral is quintessential Southern Highlands – pie shops, gardens and gentility – but, arguably, it has a better claim to being the home of cricket than Lord's or the MCG.

This is The Don's country. And the Bradman Museum is an extremely enjoyable a place to spend a few hours.  It does a nice line in nutting out the basics for those poor, inexplicable souls who aren't besotted with cricket. There are touch screens allowing novice captains to experiment with field settings, and interactive videos that show the differences between leg-cutters, outswingers and chinamen.

But the museum is at its best when it deep-dives into periods that rocked the sport – the Bodyline series and the Packer World Series revolution. Through interviews and contemporary news reports, it's possible for someone who's too young to have lived through either to get a sense of the fury and controversy of both. The video footage of the Bodyline series in particular, with Australian batsmen being cracked on the skull and above the chest as an incensed crowd looks on, sends up the hairs on the back of the neck.

Considerably less exciting is the drive out of Bowral along the Hume Highway. The Hume naysayers are 100 per cent correct in their assessment. It is a phenomenally boring road so venturing off it wherever possible is a wise move. A detour through the Snowy Mountains starts getting interesting once the lakes created by the Snowy Mountains hydro-electric scheme come into view. The Snowy Hydro Discovery Centre in Cooma provides a splendidly geeky overview of Australia's greatest engineering feat, but the waters sloshing over sunken towns provides both the pretty scenery and humbling realisation of what man can unleash when harnessing nature.

Rocking up to Thredbo on a weekday afternoon in summer is an odd experience, as it feels like the place has undergone an emergency evacuation. The ski lodges stand empty, there are no snowboards clunking up the chairlifts and the pub has but a couple of hardy stalwarts inside.


It does, however, adhere to the universal truism that heading to a ski resort in summer is a brilliant idea. Snaffling a map of walking trails and heading out along alpine streams in bright, but not scorching, sunshine is such a simple pleasure. But it's one that's really difficult to top. Idly looking up at the bucolic, flanking ranges  seems to make the frustrations of the real world disappear very quickly.

Among those ranges, of course, is Mount Kosciuszko, the highest peak on the Australian continent and a laughably easy conquest. The trundle from the top of the Kosciuszko Express chairlift to the rudimentary cairn at the summit is one that a tubby, mildly arthritic labrador could tackle with barely panting gusto.

A far greater challenge is posed the next morning, driving the Alpine Way towards Khancoban and the Victorian border. It winds, it twists, it passes through dramatic countryside, and basically does everything the Hume doesn't, while kamikaze roos add a sprinkling of extra excitement.

Victoria announces itself with an unrivalled collection of passive-aggressive road signs asking  if you're feeling sleepy behind the wheel. Slotted into the gaps between signs are easy-going dairy country and silvery gum trees half-sunken in lakes. There's a distinct timewarp feel to the settlements passed through, which is ramped up considerably in Beechworth.

Here, handsome goldrush-era buildings line the main streets. Chunky honeyed stone and prissy grand balconies compete for attention, as do the bakeries and cafes housed within them.

This is the epicentre of Ned Kelly country, however, and any link to the iron-headed outlaw is played up with glee. Semi-theatrical walking tours departing from the tourist information office give a potted history of the tale and take in the shiver-inducing cells that Kelly sympathisers were locked up in and the old newspaper office that's now a wine bar. 

These are the streets in which  Kelly bareknuckle-brawled; the courthouse  in which he was tried; the houses in which his gang members lived. Our guide doesn't provide a black-and-white picture – he has family ties to both the Kelly family and that of the police sergeant killed by Ned at Stringybark Creek. Those who start the tour thinking Ned was a folk hero are likely to come out finding him a callous killer. Those who think he's a mass-murdering ne'er-do-well unjustly elevated to legend will probably come out with some sympathy for his predicament – and antipathy towards the corrupt police force of the time.

That theme of not entirely angelic types rising up against the unscrupulous, heavy-handed colonial authorities continues at the final stop before Melbourne. Ballarat is a dogleg off course, but an unquestionably worthwhile one. 

There's nowhere in Australia quite like Sovereign Hill, which is part reconstruction and part re-imagination of an 1850s goldfields settlement. Its attractions include gold panning, underground mine tours. watching gold bars being poured, and horses and carts clattering up the dirt streets. The real skill, however, is the blending of past and present, where the wheelwrights, candle-makers and tinsmiths may be doing demonstrations in period costume, but they're also legit modern-day businesses, selling their goods at Sovereign Hill and further afield.

Sovereign Hill also has one of those most alarming propositions for visitors – an evening "sound and light show". Somehow, Blood on the Southern Cross manages to break the cast-iron global rule of these things by being genuinely excellent. It really doesn't do things on the cheap, as the introductory set-up around the gold-panning area suddenly morphs into a bus trip to a hitherto hidden section of Sovereign Hill, where the hotels, churches, camps and flagpoles of the Eureka Rebellion have been recreated in full. 

Those who had Eureka drummed in at school don't necessarily need the story  hammered home again,  but it is enlightening for entirely ignorant foreigners. The quality of the telling is what counts – the Eureka Hotel properly bursts into flame, the tension is ratcheted up, and the final flurry of gunshots brings lump-in-the-throat chills. 

It's the classic Australian story to end the classic Australian road trip. Both may be seen as old hat and eminently avoidable, but the rewards of leaping in are immense.

If you have more time ...

Fitzroy Falls, Southern Highlands

As a healthy break from touring the fine pie shops of the Southern Highlands, go for a hike in the Morton National Park. Easy to medium trails near the dramatic Fitzroy Falls come with good, explanatory signs about flora and fauna. See

King Valley, Victoria High Country

The King Valley, on the way between Beechworth and Stringybark Creek, is Victoria's little Italy. Wineries such as Pizzini specialise in Italian drops such as sangiovese and prosecco. And, nearby, Milawa is a glutton's treasure trove of mustard shops, olive-growers and bakeries. See

Central Deborah Gold Mine, Bendigo

Bendigo produced more gold than anywhere else in Australia, and going underground at the Central Deborah mine gives an idea of what life was like for the miners. Clue: not much fun. Tours from $30. See

David Whitley travelled as a guest of Visit Victoria and Thredbo YHA.




Rooms at the high-quality Best Western Grand Country Lodge in Mittagong start at $156. See

Private rooms at the hilltop Thredbo YHA start at $92.50. See

Lindenwarrah is an impeccable foodie retreat in Milawa, in Victoria's high country, and has a handy pool. Rooms from $197. See

The Sovereign Hill Hotel offers four-star accommodation from $180 in the historic buildings at the top of the hill. See


The remains of the Fitzroy Ironworks are under the Highlands Marketplace shopping centre in Mittagong. Free entry. See

Entry to the Snowy Hydro Discovery Centre is free. See

A one-day Kosciuszko Express lift pass costs $35. See

Seventy-five-minute Ned Kelly walking tours in Beechworth cost $10 and leave from the tourist information office at 1.15pm daily. See

A combined ticket for daytime entry to Sovereign Hill, plus the evening Blood on the Southern Cross show, costs $113.50. See

See also: Australia's 10 most underrated road trips

See also: Sixteen weird road signs you could only see in Australia