For all seasons
The Dandenongs are a wonderful year-round destination.
Many people make for the hills for a specific purpose – to indulge in Devonshire tea or look for lyrebirds in the mountain ash forest – but you can just drive, following side roads to wherever. This month’s drive is a Dandenong Ranges sampler designed to inspire return visits, and it doesn’t matter what season, the area is beautiful.
Starting in Upper Ferntree Gully, we turn left onto Mt Dandenong Tourist Rd and then immediately left into Ferntree Gully Picnic Ground, quickly finding a park because we have sensibly come to this popular patch of Dandenong Ranges National Park on a schoolday.
In 1998, Kokoda Track veterans adopted the area as their memorial site, with the 1000 Steps walk representing the hellish ‘Golden Staircase’ in what is now Papua New Guinea. Leaving the (considerably fewer than 1000 steps) climb up a lush fern gully for another time, we pay our respects to those who fought in the Kokoda jungle campaign at the two memorials, the larger featuring four columns labelled Courage, Endurance, Mateship and Sacrifice.
Cafes and restaurants are plentiful in the Dandenongs, but take a turn down Sherbrooke Rd and you’ll come to one of the newest and certainly one of the tastiest, the Piggery Cafe. Don’t be put off by being so far from the sea, the lobster roll is exquisite.
Lovely villages are dotted throughout the Dandenong Ranges. One of our first stops is Olinda, which should have a warning sign, because of its gorgeous gift shops, galleries, antique shops and cafes.
Escaping relatively unscathed, we drive to the National Rhododendron Garden. This is a delightful place to stroll all year but most spectacular around Melbourne Cup weekend when the rhododendrons bloom.
From the gardens we head towards Olinda Falls, where a short but steepening walking track descends through mountain ash and tall tree ferns to a pretty cascade.
From there, we make for Mt Dandenong. Melburnians of a certain vintage will remember this ranges highpoint as an after-dark lovers’ lane-with-a-view. The modern summit precinct, called SkyHigh, has viewing platforms, licensed bistro and restaurant, picnic lawns, English garden, maze and forest walks.
Back on the main road, it’s about 1km south to William Ricketts Sanctuary. This forest is inhabited by evocative lichen-kissed clay figures that seem to grow from the forest floor.
From the Sanctuary we drive north again to Kalorama for a sweeping view of Silvan Reservoir over the rim of a teacup, and a pile of scones or slice of scrumptious cake, at View Point café.
Then it’s down narrow, unsealed Barbers Rd, opposite the café, which runs into occasionally potholed Olinda Creek Rd, which snakes through national park and skirts Silvan Reservoir, emerging from the forest on Monbulk Rd.
Nurseries, including Tesselaar tulip farm, home of the spring Tulip Festival, are strung along the three-plus kilometres to Monbulk.
From Monbulk we wind on to leafy Kallista, leaving the main road again to follow serpentine Grantulla Rd through national park and hilly farms. Belgrave-Gembrook Rd carries us west to the Puffing Billy trestle bridge.
We are standing among its timber legs when the steam engine belches overhead, pulling carriage loads of passengers riding in traditional fashion: legs dangling and arms waving.
Putting the tallest timbers and ferniest gullies behind us now, we end our drive in Upwey at Burrinja Cultural Centre, meeting artists in their studios and looking at exhibited works, many inspired by the beautiful Dandenong Ranges.
This journey is suitable for motorcycles as well as cars.
CYCLE: Road cycling on the narrow and winding roads is not for the inexperienced. Instead, grab your mountain bike/hybrid and go bush on the network of management tracks in Dandenong Ranges National Park.
WALK: Climb the 1000 Steps, part of the Kokoda Track Memorial Walk, then continue north to One Tree Hill, linking crisscrossing national park foot trails and management tracks into a loop walk through tall timbers and back to the car park.