Jo Hegerty finds waterfalls, walking trails and locally produced food in the Otways.
My destination is Beech Forest, the emerald at the heart of the Otways region. This tiny town sits on a ridge overlooking the Great Otway National Park and the Aire Valley. It is surrounded by natural wonders and fertile soils fed by a network of creeks and rivers and further nurtured by higher-than-average rainfall.
Just 40 kilometres from Apollo Bay, Beech Forest is often overlooked by those tooling along the Great Ocean Road but it's a detour well worth the effort.
Water, water everywhere
Water comes from all directions in Beech Forest - it falls from the sky, flows in via creeks and rivers and seeps from the ground.
Follow a winding rainforest path to a viewing platform and come eye to eye with Triplet Falls. Here, three tracts of water slide down smooth rock faces surrounded by tree ferns. Continuing the loop, which takes about an hour and has some steep sections, you'll pass remnants of the sawmill.
Nearby, it's a sharp climb down to where Hopetoun Falls thunders into the Aire River - the sound is unforgettable. The viewing platform in the car park also has a good view.
Barely acknowledged on tourist maps, a small plantation of grand Californian redwoods is found on Binns Road, just past Hopetoun Falls. Straight as Corinthian columns, the redwoods skirt the ground with their lower branches, hiding the secrets within. Step into the cool, dark atmosphere and be enveloped in the hush. Choose a spot by the Aire River to watch for platypuses.
Another magical experience is the nightly glow-worm display at Melba Gully, just past Lavers Hill. These little critters, which aren't actually worms, store up the sunlight during the day then illuminate the banks of the Johanna River when darkness falls. Take a torch and follow the path into the rainforest, switch it off, then wait for the show to start.
Those who do venture into the Otways often come to visit the Otway Fly Tree Top Walk and for good reason. This engineering feat is suspended 25 metres above temperate rainforest, while the 45-metre-high tower gets you into the treetops alongside the myrtle beech, mountain ash and blackwoods.
Costs $22 for adults, $9.50 for children over six. Daredevils can abseil off the Fly, see otwayfly.com.
Recently sealed, Turtons Track is the road the locals love to hate. As it sashays through stunning rainforest and skirts ridges with superb views, it's not uncommon to see visitors' cars stopped, windows down, breathing it all in. Make it a round trip, heading east from Beech Forest along Turtons Track, through Skenes Creek to Apollo Bay for a paddle and ice-cream, then back via Binns Road, stopping for the falls and redwood trees.
The Old Beechy Rail Trail is a 45-kilometre cycling and walking interpretive track stretching from Beech Forest to Colac. There are sections to suit keen mountain bikers, ramblers or families and many places to stop along the way. Where once a narrow-gauge railway hauled timber, the track passes through farmland and forest, hills, flatlands and small towns. Call in to the Gellibrand River Store for a slice of hummingbird cake.
Gellibrand River Store, 16 Main Road, Gellibrand.
Eat and drink
Timber and dairy are the main industries around Beech Forest - along with potatoes. The Beech Forest Information Centre displays pictures of early settlers digging up spuds with forks and timber-getters balanced on planks as they chip away at enormous trees.
The land here is incredibly fertile and when I visit Peveril Vineyard, Margaret Rossiter points out the sizeable gums that have sprung up in the short time they've been here. She and her husband Bruce grow blueberries in summer but for the rest of the year they produce riesling, sauvignon blanc, rose and pinot noir, which are perfectly suited to the valley's cool climate. Call in for a tasting; the cellar door is on the Colac-Lavers Hill Road at Ferguson (phone 5235 9201).
When you get hungry, the Ridge Cafe (20 Gardner St, Beech Forrest) is the place to refuel with home-made cakes, layered pies, pastries, salads, meals, coffee or milkshakes. The view from the snow-gum deck stretches hazy and blue across what must be a million trees - you can see to Ballarat from here. The Ridge Cafe can prepare a hamper to be delivered to your accommodation or picked up from the eatery. About $65 will give you a full-day's grub, which could include bacon and eggs, brioche, muesli, frittata or a baguette, lamb shanks or saltimbocca and bread-and-butter or sticky-date pudding. Food is locally sourced and organic where possible (phone 5235 9273, see www.ridgecafe.com).
For evening meals, the Beech Forest Hotel has standard pub fare (35 Main Rd, phone 5235 9220).
Two festivals in one
Dust off your gumboots and pearls for the annual Opera in the Otways festival on October 15 at Cape Otway's Lightstation.
This year's musical fiesta coincides with the inaugural Paddock to Plate event, where local producers team up with chefs to showcase the region's offerings. Those attending the opera can order hampers full of locally produced delicacies, with guaranteed low food miles.
See otwaysopera.com.au, otwayspaddocktoplate.com.au.
Beech Forest is yet to develop accommodation to the standard of its attractions but nearby options include the Harrowglen guest house (phone 5237 3140) or Hyde Park Cottage, a three-bedroom house on a working dairy farm (phone 5235 9211). More accommodation can be found in Apollo Bay and Johanna.
The Colac and Apollo Bay visitor centres are good sources of maps and advice, while the Beech Forest Information Centre describes the history of the area with an interesting display of old photos.
The Otway Historic Museum and Lounge, next to Nourished country store at Ferguson, has a curious display of old furniture and farm equipment, plus photos depicting the town when it had a bustling population of about 2000. Visit it at the corner of the Colac and Lavers Hill roads (phone 5235 9226).
Beech Forest is 195 kilometres or about 2½ hours south-west of Melbourne. Take the Princes Highway, then Colac-Lavers Hill Road.
Jo Hegerty travelled courtesy of Tourism Victoria and the Ridge Cafe.