Why you should drive Victoria’s Great Alpine Road

Reflections on the water in Bright

Clare Barry

Posted October 15, 2019

Victoria’s Great Alpine Road is much more than a path to the skifields.

Try saying Milawa-Bobinawarrah Road three times in a row and fast. Sat-nav Lady just has and it’s tempting to take another detour around Milawa’s Cabernet Court and Chardonnay Drive just to hear her tackle nine syllables again with such aplomb.

We’ve taken a wrong turn after tasting 16 cheeses, from delicate goats’ curd to aged blue, at the Milawa Cheese Company, making a beeline to the tasting bench just before a busload of retirees swamp the cheese room.

It’s a sunny Tuesday afternoon in mid-May, and this is stop one on a drive tracing the Great Alpine Road, 366 kilometres from Wangaratta to Bairnsdale in a leisurely two-and-a-half days, with News and Lifestyle art director Lisa Luscombe behind the wheel and camera.

Milawa-Bobinawarrah Road is home to Brown Brothers’ impressive cellar door and, once we find it, we add a tempranillo and Patricia Noble Riesling to the three-cheese stash that’s already gently perfuming the cavernous BMW X5 we’ve borrowed for our trip.

Milawa is a short detour from the B500 but we’re back on track in time to take in the stately corrugated-iron tobacco kilns that define the Myrtleford area. Local growers produced four million kilograms of tobacco a year until the industry folded in 2006. Much of that land now produces wine, and the kilns are being repurposed, too – some into accommodation or, in the case of Lupo’s on the edge of Myrtleford, a kiln-themed cafe. To our right, the hop trellises set in front of Mount Buffalo’s foothills round out a trio of locally grown pleasures, or vices, depending on your point of view.

Small trees blaze in shades of red in the paddocks and poplars stud the roadside until we reach peak autumn at Bright, where we’re booked to stay the night. It’s cycling central here, with the gentle Murray to Mountains Rail Trail running through town, quiet roads leading to a choice of summits for the climb-inclined, and a calendar bursting with two-wheeled races and events.

Tobacco Kilns in Bright. Photo: Lisa Luscombe
Bright. Photo: Lisa Luscombe
Dinner Plain. Photo: Lisa Luscombe

I get into gear the next (freezing) morning on a two-wheeler from Bright Electric Bikes, heading first into Wandiligong just out of town, acorns under my wheels and mist in corners, then back through Bright on the sealed rail trail to Porepunkah where I stop for a Punkah Pantry sausage roll and relish in the sunshine, with a mountain just over the way. A tall bloke from Melbourne tells me I’m “cheating” on my electric bike and cyclist Robert from Beechworth is curious, too. He’s noticed a lot of “older” riders getting around on them. I explain that you still have to pedal, fellas – it’s like someone giving you a push, and the confidence to go further or higher than you otherwise might.

We’re back in the car on our way to Harrietville before noon, dropping in for a cuppa beside the Ovens River, before hitting the high road proper. The way to Mount Hotham takes us straight away up on a seriously twisted road that demands all Lisa’s attention – bushy ridges and gullies to our left and ‘Curve tightens’ signs ahead. The white branches and blackened trunks of alpine ash appear at the roadside after a few kilometres, bleak but beautiful remnants of fire.

These 30 kilometres from Harrietville to Mount Hotham, which sits at the 1800-metre high point of the Great Alpine Road, are easily its most spectacular. Gorgeous layers of deepening blue give way to gully after gully of fire-bared trunks, bristling like an old man’s chin. It’s an eyeful best enjoyed at leisure, so try to stop at Danny’s or Rene’s Lookout to take it all in. In contrast the snow-less Mount Hotham ski resort that straddles the road is a desolate sight. Snow-making machines point at scrubby slopes, empty chairlifts sway like abandoned carnival rides, higgledy chalets tumble empty down the hill – and we can’t find a thing to eat.

View over the trees at Mt Hotham

Mt Hotham. Photo: Lisa Luscombe


Dinner Plain is 15 minutes’ drive and 300 metres closer to sea level, but it’s a sight more welcoming. The kitchen at the Dinner Plain Hotel rustles up a mid-afternoon snack while we warm ourselves by an enormous stone fireplace. Then it’s across the road to the trailhead of a walk named Room With a View, a three-kilometre loop through snowgums to an open slope with a wooden bench facing Mount Feathertop. Hotham’s mad machinery sits in silhouette on the ridge to our left, and in front is a tumble of soft green folds under an afternoon moon.

The day is fading as we return to the car and make our descent via East Gippsland’s paddocks. There’s a lookout where you can see Mount Kosciuszko, more than 100 kilometres away. We can’t make it out in the gloom but Omeo is a soft glow below us, boding well for a warm bed for the night. An hour later we’re sitting next to the Golden Age’s wood fire, meals on the way and country-pub hubbub all around.

With the mountains behind us we’re not sure what to expect on the last half-day of our trip, but the drive south from Omeo shows that the ride ain’t over yet. Open sweeping roads make for a joyous drive through almost fluorescent green farmland that belies the drought.

We stop for a cuppa at Swifts Creek where Lilli at the Great Alpine Gallery sets us straight. “The farmers say the green’s ‘painted on’,” she tells us. With little moisture in the soil they’re still putting out feed for the sheep. More alarmingly, she says the Tambo River that skirts the town dried up “in parts” last summer. We wander beside the town’s namesake creek on a Poets Walk which has verses of late local artist John Butler’s poem A River’s Mark set on stone cairns. It tells of a river’s shaping effect on land and lives, but now it’s the river that’s fragile.

The Tambo criss-crosses our path to Bruthen, snaking alongside the road for much of it. We turn off past Tambo Crossing and over a little bridge to a clearing flanked by poplars. A breath of peace and air before the run to Bairnsdale. Until a gang of dirt bikers lunching upriver roar over the bridge and away for a Great Alpine off-road adventure.

Reflections on Tambo River

Tambo River. Photo: Lisa Luscombe

The playlist

  • Running Up That Hill, Kate Bush
  • Dreams, Fleetwood Mac
  • When the Day is Short, Martha Wainwright
  • When the River Runs Dry, Hunters & Collectors

The car

  • BMW X5 Md50

The distance

  • 366 kilometres

The fuel

  • Feathertop lamb backstrap with pearl barley, charred cherry tomatoes, caponata. Elm Dining, Bright.
  • Mixed berry muffin with whole blackberries and roasted almonds. Morrie’s Cafe and Ice-creamery, Harrietville.
  • Egg and bacon sanger in Turkish bread. Homestead House and Cafe, Omeo.

Don’t forget

  • Drivers must carry chains between Harrietville and Omeo in the snow season (from Queen’s Birthday weekend to the first weekend in October), snow or no snow. Hefty penalties apply. Fit chains at chain bays marked by a ‘Fit Chains Here’ sign.

Retail therapy

  • Visit Myrtleford’s Red Ramia Trading for exotic wares from Japanese boat-racing flags to chapatti rollers and hand-made Moroccan tiles. There’s a cafe too.

End of the road

  • The Great Alpine Road officially ends at Bairnsdale, but you can turn off past Bruthen and head south to meet the ocean at Metung instead.