Justine Costigan hikes her way to the Italian flavours of the high country.
As we drive through the King Valley, the view from the road is all green-blue mountains in the distance and rolling vineyards across the valley in the foreground. On a warm autumn day, with only a few wispy clouds in the sky, the thought of spending a few hours walking through this lovely part of Victoria fills me with excitement.
And it's not because I'm a sporty type who loves the challenge of endurance activities. Far from it - sore legs, blisters, mosquito bites and sunburn aren't my cup of tea but a walk through a gorgeous landscape with beautiful food and wine at the end of it certainly is.
Given that the King Valley hike I've signed up for is run by a company called Hedonistic Hiking, I'm pretty sure what I'm in for is more of the latter than the former. Jackie and Mick Parsons specialise in walking tours that include local food and wine as part of the experience. In the King Valley that means acclaimed local wine, smallgoods, cheese and fresh produce will be on the menu.
After spending years working in tourism in Italy, many of which were as walking guides, the Parsons decided to start their own business and began offering their own walking tours in Italy in the mid 2000s. When they came to Victoria's high country they both decided it was somewhere they could live and work.
The King Valley's Italian connection was another reason why the Parsons were attracted to the area and working with locals to source wine and food came naturally to the Italian-speaking food lovers. Being able to celebrate Italian culture both here and in Italy made sense.
With a little piece of Italy in Australia, the Parsons now happily divide their work between both countries, avoiding winters by spending the summer months in each.
In Italy, a hike often involves stopping at small village trattoria for lunch or dinner but in Australia the Parsons either prepare a picnic using produce from their own garden or organise a lunch at a local winery.
The walk we're doing today will end with lunch at Dal Zotto vineyard. While most visitors to the region will stop in at the cellar door a few kilometres down the road in Whitfield, we'll be eating and drinking among the wine vats at the Dal Zotto family property.
It's a 10am start and after a short drive through Whitfield and Cheshunt we arrive at a bushy track off a dirt road. We're heading straight into the forest and after this year's mild summer it is lush, cool and green. Hedonistic Hiking organises walks of all sizes but today we're quite a large group. Mick leads at the front while Michael and Christian Dal Zotto keep the slower walkers company. It's not difficult walking but there are a few challenges - we scramble over a couple of fallen logs and sometimes have to push branches and leaves out of our faces. It's wild and beautiful and smells heavenly - there are aromas of lemon, mint and eucalpyt as I brush against the trees.
Mick is a genial guide and gives us as much or as little local information as we want. At one point we stop at an old mine revealed by the 2006 bushfires - we get a quick history of goldmining in the region and Mick points out that a wombat has now made the mine its home.
Mick says that after the fires, indeed even before all of the embers were out, many of the local historians came through the bush hoping to find treasures. Old mining tools, implements and crockery left by Chinese miners are just some of the historical objects a fire might expose.
Imagining this peaceful forest as a place where miners' hopes were realised or dashed gives the trip a unique perspective - it's not just the history of the landscape we're discovering but a part of the social history of the region, too.
Unlike walking tracks in national parks, this is a walk that needs a guide. Part road, part local walking track, it would be very easy to get lost if we didn't have Mick to show the way. After an hour through the forest, we eventually emerge onto a ridge where the King Valley is spread out before us.
We come to a steep hill, the only part of the walk that has required any real effort, but at the top we look down on the Dal Zotto vineyards - we've walked more than six kilometres and lunch and a rest is only a short walk away.
As we walk down the hill and through the vines, eating grapes as we go, Michael Dal Zotto tells us the story of his family's history in the area. From tobacco farmers to wine growers and then an eventual transformation into winemakers, in the past decade the family's focus has shifted to making prosecco.
Michael and Christian's father, Otto Dal Zotto, grew up in Italy's major prosecco-growing region and it was his dream to successfully make prosecco in Australia.
While we've been walking, Jackie has been preparing lunch. Starting with a glass of prosecco (of course) we eat our way through home-made caprese salad, Milawa and Boosey Creek cheeses, wild rabbit terrine (made by Mick, a trained chef), prosciutto-wrapped figs, wild venison and blueberry pies, more salads, focaccia and schiacciata and local peaches and berries. The Dal Zotto family, including the grandchildren, join us for lunch. It feels like the perfect way to end our gentle and enjoyable hike.
Justine Costigan was a guest of North East Valleys.
Hedonistic Hiking has walking trips through the high country as well as the Great Ocean Road. Day walks including lunch cost from $120 a person with discounts available for groups of five or more. Winery walks include a shorter walk followed by a private tasting with the winemaker. Victorian hikes are scheduled between November and April. See hedonistichiking.com.au.