The sprawling country between Australia’s two largest cities is always dry and the weather hot, with a midday glare that somehow lasts for hours. Sheep, cattle, hills, grass, dirt, rocks, drought. Roadside toilets and rubbish bins.
It’s a drive my family has been doing regularly for 20 years with the primary goal of completing the trip in less than 10 hours without a speeding fine and family unity intact.
In the past we often used to stop in Holbrook, which bizarrely features a 90 metre long submarine, HMAS Otway, plonked in a local park, that kids of all ages love clambering over.
However, apart from that it was always pedal to the metal and a wary eye for the police.
But this year, with kids grown up and some time on our hands, my wife and I decided to take the road less travelled and spend a couple of nights enjoying regional Australia.
Leaving from Sydney at midday on Wednesday, the plan was to stay on the Hume until just after Gundagai about four hours drive south, before taking a left for a hopefully scenic drive through the foothills of the Snowy Mountains, stopping in the small town of Tumbarumba that night.
The decision was immediately vindicated. Leaving the roar of the freeway behind, the road rocked and rolled through some beautiful hilly countryside. There was plenty of water in the creeks, which flowed freely and healthily, bringing joyful movement to a classic rural still life.
We passed through the village of Adelong – old, well-maintained, alluring – and headed higher along the road to the apple growing mecca of Batlow at 775 metres.
Recent bushfire scars were evident on near and far horizons – blackened trees and scorched earth dramatically speaking of a time when it seemed the entire east coast of Australia was alight, shrouded in smoke, flame and death.
Some trees are rebounding faster than you’d think possible, but many others – probably the majority – are gone for good.
All the dead trees near the road have been felled for driver safety and huge piles of blackened logs lie silent.
Most of the orchards seem to have been spared though and the trees were vibrant with growth.
We’d chosen Tumbarumba because a rail trail had recently opened there and we’d heard it was good fun. Rail trails are redundant rail lines that have been converted into bike tracks.
There’s numerous rail trails in Victoria, where they’re very popular, but only a few in NSW, a situation many local groups are trying to change for the simple reason they attract visitors and bring tourism dollars to sleepy rural economies.
That’s certainly what’s happened at Tumbarumba.
Since it opened in April, more than 10,000 riders have experienced the 21km rail trail, which we rode the following day after hiring two e-bikes ($49 half day) from Tumba Bikes and Blooms.
It was great fun, especially on an e-bike, which makes the hills a breeze, and is a really good way to connect with the Australian countryside.
There were only three or four other people the day we did it – a mixed bunch – but the trail gets busier on the weekends.
After a quick swim in the local pool (free) and a visit to the chemist for some hay fever medication (first time ever, all that fresh air) we hit the road to Beechworth, about two or three hours south-west on the edge of the Victorian high country.
On the map it doesn’t look that far but mountains get in the way and so there’s no logical route. This became clear after stopping in the local store at Jingellic for directions.
No-one could name the fastest (and most scenic) route with any certainty. Just cross the bridge and follow the river, which we did and were richly with a beautiful journey beside the upper Murray River all the way to west to Wodonga before a short straight south to Beechworth.