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Mount Macedon offers ancient rock formations,
beautiful gardens, cosy cafes and great wines.
Story: Peter Barrett. Photos: Emma Byrnes.
Stephen Ryan says it took five days before the full extent of the fires sank in.
“I stood behind a tree at a friend’s place and had a good howl,” says the former host of ABC Television’s Gardening Australia and owner of Mount Macedon’s famous Dicksonia Rare Plant Nursery. It was February 1983, and the business Stephen had been nurturing for three years had just been wiped out.
The disaster, which became known as the Ash Wednesday bushfires, took the lives of seven people in the Macedon area and destroyed more than 600 buildings. Across tinder-dry Victoria and South Australia the flames accounted for 75 dead and thousands of homes burned.
Stephen could easily have walked away. But he didn’t. “I thought, well, there’s nothing I can do about it and there’s nothing else I want to do, so I told myself, ‘get off your arse and get going.’ And that’s what I did.”
‘The best way to entertain yourself in the deep soils and cool climate was to garden. And, of course, they hadn’t invented telly.’
Thirty-five years later, Stephen, 63, has built his business back up, on its original site on a south-facing slope of Mount Macedon. And, surrounded by rare shrubs, trees and plants that attract obsessed green thumbs from as far away as Perth, business is looking good.
So is tourism in the area. Mount Macedon is a popular weekend destination and less than an hour’s drive from Melbourne. Its elevation – up to 1001 metres – has made it popular with Melburnians since the 1870s, when the horse and cart drive would have been considerably longer.
Breathtaking scenery and excellent dining choices attract regular weekend visitors.
“The enclave of Mount Macedon is made up of a lot of heritage gardens, which we call hill station gardens,” says Stephen. The name derives from British Raj days when expats in India would retreat to cooler climes in the summer.
“Mount Macedon was exactly the same. The wealthy from Melbourne would retreat [here] for the summer, to get away from the heat and smell of Melbourne and they’d come up here to entertain themselves. And the best way to entertain yourself in the deep soils and cool climate was to garden. And, of course, they hadn’t invented telly.”
And because of their wealth, they gardened on a grand scale. In fact, says Stephen, the National Trust classified a square mile of the Mount Macedon area as more important than the individual gardens. “It’s one of the most highly concentrated sections of Australia, as far as gardens are concerned, and it’s probably one of the oldest,” he says. The area predates the Dandenongs, the Blue Mountains and the Adelaide Hills.
Macedon’s picturesque, tree-lined Avenue of Honour.
Indeed, driving up Mount Macedon Road, it’s hard to miss the European trees and plants, particularly in autumn when everything is all vivid reds, oranges and yellows.
I’m struck by the fact that there are no visible traces of Ash Wednesday here. The grand weekenders are abundant again (rock music promoter Michael Gudinski is one of the more well-known locals in these parts) but only a handful open their doors to nosy visitors as part of weekend open garden schemes.
‘Winter is my favourite time because this can be all under snow.’
While the beautiful garden of Tieve Tara accepts visitors in autumn and spring, the only private garden open all year round is the region’s largest – a quirky six-hectare site known as Forest Glade Gardens. Its owner, veteran property developer Cyril Stokes, has populated the rolling hills of his garden with numerous statues and water features in keeping with his unique taste, making it a favourite destination for romantic picnics.
“Winter is my favourite time because this can be all under snow,” says Graham Cumming, 70, one of four trustees appointed by Stokes to look after the place. To date, says Graham, the garden boasts three National Trust heritage-listed trees and another five have been nominated for the list.
As beautiful as these picturesque European-style gardens are, no visit to the area would be complete without paying homage to the eerie grandeur of Hanging Rock. As a kid I remember being spooked by the 1975 Peter Weir film Picnic At Hanging Rock, and the recent series by Foxtel has once again revived the Joan Lindsay ‘true story’ tale of schoolgirls who mysteriously went missing on St Valentines Day in 1900.
‘There is a palpable spiritual feeling about the place.’
These days, rock concerts are staged in front of the rock formation, known as a mamelon (French for ‘nipple’), which is formed when a volcano oozes lava rather than erupts freely.
In geological terms Hanging Rock is rare. Nearby Camels Hump and Brock’s Monument, which together form a triangle of geological intrigue, are only other formations like it in Australia. To find more examples you’d have to travel as far as Scandinavia.
Forest Glade Gardens and family-owned Mount Towrong Vineyard are popular attractions.
On our early-morning visit, we meet a mob of eastern grey kangaroos. The roos cause trouble from time to time by getting on the racetrack (horse racing happens here on New Year’s Day and Australia Day) but are a drawcard for overseas visitors.
‘You often get those lovely misty days when you wander around and see the mist swirling between the treetops.’
Walking up the trail is still breathtakingly beautiful. We encounter no weird Victorian-era schoolchildren (“Miranda!”) but do manage to disturb a couple of dark-coloured rock wallabies, glimpsing their panther-like tail as they leap away into the bush (which may explain at least a few of the large black cat sightings in the area over the years).
The moonscape-like, rocky summit of Hanging Rock is just as captivating as I remember but, now that I have small children of my own, I make a mental note to ensure an adult is close at hand to prevent loss or misadventure. There is a palpable spiritual feeling about the place.
After all that walking refreshments beckon. The Wine Collective, next to Macedon Ranges Hotel and Spa, has two roaring fires in winter and a rotating tasting selection from more than 30 regional wineries.
The War Memorial Cross at Macedon Regional Park and Mount Macedon Trading Post, a favourite foodie pitstop.
Meanwhile, on neighbouring Mount Towrong, George and Deirdre Cremasco run an excellent family winery that offers a weekly-changing Italian menu of shared plates and some Italian varietals including Barbera and Nebbiolo. Be sure to book – weekends here are busy.
Other great food offerings in the area include the Trading Post, right in the centre of Mount Macedon, for great coffee, homemade pies and pastries. Next door you can hunker down by the cosy fireplace at the Mount Macedon Hotel and try the weekly rotating list of more than 10 tap beers.
Or drop in to Ida Red in Macedon, where pizzas are topped with ingredients grown or foraged locally and cooked perfectly at 420 degrees in a roaring bluestone pizza oven.
After all that food it’s time to walk off a few calories. Luckily, the area is criss-crossed with gorgeous trails that wind around reservoirs, through pine forests and across picturesque bushland, such as Macedon Regional Park. The park boasts the War Memorial Cross, the second most significant war memorial in Victoria after the Shrine of Remembrance.
Back at the rare plant nursery Stephen Ryan is looking forward to winter. “I actually like the fact that the trees are bare, the gardens are somewhat minimalist; you often get those lovely misty days when you wander around and see the mist swirling between the treetops and all that sort of thing. Winter can be really gorgeous up here.”
Need to know
Getting there from Melbourne:
Fast: take the Calder Highway and expect to arrive in just over 50 minutes
Slow: take the Westgate past Melton, at Bacchus Marsh the pretty C704 road to Gisborne, cut through the Lerderderg State Park to Blackwood and on through Trentham and Woodend.
Braeside Mount Macedon offers three cottages and rooms in the main residence on 11 hectares of English-style gardens, from $190.