What to do in Dunkeld, Victoria

Travelling Well | Words: Peter Hanlon | Photos: Anne Morley | Posted on 12 February 2019

A local gem at the tip of the Grampians. 

A quarter of a million tourists and rising visit Dunkeld each year. They come for festivals and markets, for runs, racing and a rodeo, to eat, drink, hike or simply to contemplate. What stays with them is the thing locals love about their gem at the southern tip of the Grampians – a very Australian beauty which, like the three mountain peaks that frame the town, reveals a little more of itself with each and every glance.


Image slideshow: Dunkeld Arboretum and Mount Sturgeon, Wickens at Royal Mail Hotel, Dunkeld Arboretum at sunrise.


“I work across Australia, and my favourite part of work is coming home,” says Darren ‘Cat’ Gordon, an agricultural consultant old enough to remember Dunkeld as a shearer’s town where Friday was fight night at the pub. “If you didn’t have enough of a go Friday night you’d be back Saturday. It was a tough town, and I’m very glad it’s not any more.”

Chef Dan Hunter brought his knives to the table in 2007 and made the Royal Mail Hotel a rural gastronomic trailblazer. Under current chef Robin Wickens the pub remains a key pillar in drawing visitors with hearty appetites, and budgets to match. Undoubtedly the revamped pub changed Dunkeld, but the community has taken the ball and run with it. 

Three years ago, Alison Prentice and husband Derek started the Peaks & Trails Run, which in August draws up to 450 fit folk to tackle a range of tracks into the Grampians, including a 50-kilometre ultra marathon that sends runners up Mount Sturgeon, The Picaninny and Mount Abrupt. “We have 50 volunteers on course during the runs, out there all day,” Alison says. “They’re all locals.”  

It’s home, that’s my heart. The Grampians alone are like 10 encyclopedias of stories.

After last year’s event, a French runner told organisers he’d done trail runs all over Europe, and this was as beautiful as any. 

The mountain range towers over the pub, the primary school, the cricket club that shares the school oval, and the famed racetrack that each November is swamped by 15,000 revellers for the Dunkeld Cup.  

Schooling the locals in the riches of the Grampians begins early; once a fortnight pre-schoolers are bussed to The Picaninny (a spectacular slope wedged between the mountains) for ‘Bush Kinder’, to climb trees, play with sticks and spot animals. 

For some, like Indigenous artist Nerissa Major, the mountains are alive with the stories of her people, the Jardwadjali, and her cousins’ country, the Djab Wurrung. “My centre point of caring for country is the Three Peaks. It’s home, that’s my heart. The Grampians alone are like 10 encyclopedias of stories.” 

Tourists have long been awake to this, travelling the Great Ocean Road before heading back to Melbourne via Dunkeld. Visitor numbers to this town of fewer than 700 permanent residents are tipped to grow by more than 200 a day from 2020, when 144 kilometres of walking track will finally connect Mount Zero, at the tip, to Dunkeld at the toe.  

“There might be a run in that,” Alison Prentice smiles. “Zero to Hero, how’s that sound?” 

Dunkeld Arboretum lake on a clear day with wooden pier in foreground

Dunkeld Arboretum.


royal mail hotel cake with berries and powdered sugar

Sweet treats at the Old Bakery.


Dunkeld Arboretum at sunrise

Mount Sturgeon from the Dunkeld Arboretum.


The locals happily share their simple delights. At the Grampians Golf Club, when the members have finished lopping bracken, tending the sand scrapes or giving the yakka grass trees room to shoot up their stunning flowers beneath the stringy barks and manna gums, they repair to the clubhouse deck. The Field Guide to the Birds of Australia comes out, and the search for the dusky woodswallow and the olive-backed oriole resumes. 

“We’ve ticked off about 70 species,” says ‘Cat’ Gordon. “It’s amazing what you see around here.” 

WHILE YOU’RE THERE...

Arboretum

Reclaimed from the site of a wetlands and the old saw mill, the 18-hectare Dunkeld Arboretum is an easy stroll from the main street and a great stretch of the legs for those happy to admire the Grampians from a distance. “It’s my hidden gem,” says Alison Prentice, who runs the childcare centre and takes the kids to the arboretum most days. “You go down there and think, ‘This is just bliss.’ ” 

Heritage trail

While Dunkeld’s Parker Street – free of power lines to offer unimpeded views of the Grampians – boasts the Royal Mail Hotel, General Store, cafes and a lovely park with a quintessentially Aussie swimming pool, the heritage trail takes you into the town’s back streets and its history. The museum, housed in a church, and art gallery in the old railway station building, are well worth the wander. 

Old-school camping 

There’s no shortage of high-end accommodation in and around town. At the no-frills end, Erin and Geoff Hinchliffe’s Dunkeld Caravan Park offers an old-school camping experience. “Our motto is ‘clean, comfy and cosy’,” Erin says. “We’ve got the cricket set, the totem tennis, and this little bouncy game that Geoff made. We’re pet friendly, and parents like the fact that their kids make their own fun here.” 

Dunkeld: The facts

Where is it? 

270 kilometres west of Melbourne, 30 kilometres east of Hamilton. 

Don’t miss 

Coffee lovers drive from Hamilton to get their fix from the General Store. 

Take home 

A sourdough loaf from the Old Bakery, baked in the original ovens, in a heritage building that also offers accommodation. 

Trivia 

Renowned Queen’s Counsel and philanthropist Allan Myers is a native whose father was the local butcher. The Royal Mail and its kitchen garden – which can be explored via daily tours – feature among his portfolio of local assets, and his contribution to Dunkeld runs deep.  

Best time to visit 

Any time, but put the Peaks & Trails Run on August 3 and 4, 2019, or the 3 Peaks Festival, with music, markets and all manner of activities for the kids, each October, in your diary.