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EXPLORING THE BACKROADS TRAIL

Explore these lesser-known roads in the rough triangle formed by Barham, Mathoura and Moama. You’ll find friendly locals and award-winning produce!

WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARG MCALISTER

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It’s always good to find something a bit different from the usual tourist haunts, so when we heard about the Backroads Trail, we thought: “Great! We can base ourselves at Barham, and then go exploring.” We loved the whole idea of locals banding together to promote small businesses, while cleverly blending in history of the area through interpretive sites along the way.

Many of the 22 attractions listed are working businesses, and for most you’ll need to phone ahead to arrange a convenient time to call. Not all businesses will be available all the time: for example, it was the wrong time of year for Mathoura Mandarins, and the honey outlet at Bunnaloo didn’t actually have any honey when we phoned! Luckily, there’s plenty to choose from.

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BUNDARRA BERKSHIRE FREE RANGE PORK

When we arrived at the Bundarra Berkshire property, Lauren Mathers swiftly won us over with her unbridled enthusiasm for all things porcine. She chose Berkshire pigs for several reasons: they’re docile, hardy and the pork has a wonderful flavour. “Real grass-fed pork is rich and sweet,” Lauren told us. “Free range pork also has soft fat and great marbling, so it’s juicy and tender. Very different to that from pigs kept in sheds with concrete floors; you need Hazmat suits to do anything with them – one sneeze and they can all get sick!”

Lauren is justifiably proud of her fastgrowing business, which has won several Fine Food awards. They are now the owners of 80 sows, 120 growers and 3 boars. They all roam free, although the weaners are kept close to hand in a smaller paddock where Lauren can tend to them easily.

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After years of hard work, Lauren and husband Lachy have a thriving Farmstead Butchery. They have already built a drying room and butchery and have plenty more plans. “See that container?” said Lauren, pointing outside the window. “That’s going to be our smoking room.” A shop front is also on the agenda.

We walked out with some smoked bacon and a jar of Fricandeaux (“tasty morsels made from confit minced pork”) and Lauren’s words ringing in our ears: “I want to be Australia’s best charcuterie and small goods!” We have no doubt it will happen.

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HISTORIC SITES AND WALKING TRAILS

As you make your way to various businesses along the Backroads Trail, you’ll find the road dotted with interpretive sites that give you a sense of the rich history of the area. We stopped at several along the trail, such as the two near Restdown Wines that marked a holding area for drovers travelling their stock on the “long paddock” and a popular gathering place for Aboriginal people.

THE REDGUM SCULPTURE TRAIL

The Koondrook Barham River Walk is made especially interesting by the weathered redgum sculptures along the trail. These uniquely-crafted sculptures feature subjects as diverse as a past Prime Minister, John Gorton, and a humble goanna. You look at them and wonder how anyone could possibly carve such delicate sculptures with a chainsaw.

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RESTDOWN WINES

Restdown Wines has been in business for only around two years, but already Jo and Don Hearn have had good reviews in James Halliday’s renowned “wine bible”. This gives them enormous satisfaction – all the more so because they do not come from a winery background.

When Don’s family gave them 20 acres of the family farm, they had long discussions on how best to use it. When they realised that it was on the same latitude as the Barossa, they did some quick research and planted some vines.

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The early experiment was a success, and the wine made from their grapes started winning awards for winemakers. Jo promptly quit teaching and did a course in winemaking through the University of Melbourne, training locally at Tisdale Winery in Echuca. She produced her first barrel of red, and then 200 litres of white. “They were drinkable,” says Jo with a laugh, “And that was my aim!”

Each year after that she produced a bit more, and now has 3 varieties of red, two white and a rose. Everything is grown organically and picked by hand, and the farm also produces organic beef.

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We couldn’t resist buying a bottle of her one-off Jack Frost White after hearing the story behind it. A severe frost took out 80% of the Restdown vines in October 2013, and the owners were faced with a dilemma: what to do with the 20% that remained? “Half were Chardonnay grapes, half Semillon, and we didn’t have quite enough of either,” says Jo. “So we blended the two and came up with ‘Jack Frost White’!”

OLD SCHOOL WINERY AND MEADERY

The Old School Winery and Meadery at Womboota, a family business, has been established for nearly 15 years, and you don’t need to phone ahead – it’s open weekdays from 9-5. A meadery offers a different experience, as there are only one or two in each state, and the Massee meadery was one of the first to develop varietal meads.

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You are welcome to enjoy a picnic here at the tables outside, protected by a leafy canopy, but we headed straight inside, curious to find out more about mead. We were greeted by Freya Massee who smilingly stood behind the gleaming bottles of mead (honey wine), ready to tell us all about it. “Mead is actually one of the world’s oldest wines,” she told us, “Possibly even THE oldest.” We sampled a sip or two of several varieties – red river gum, yellow box and orange blossom – and were surprised at the distinct taste of each, according to the honey used. Banksia, we learned, produces the more traditional mead.

When we visited, Christmas was less than a month away, so we couldn’t resist a bottle of The Bard’s Reward, a sweet mead especially designed to be mulled (gently warmed with added spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cloves). The chief mead maker, Frits, showed us how it was done, finishing with a plea: “Please don’t boil it!” I promised I wouldn’t, and we headed back to Barham for the river cruise.

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CRUISING DOWN THE RIVER

Our skipper for the river cruise was Ash Williams, and we arrived to find afternoon tea waiting, with scones, jam and cream temptingly laid out. As always, it’s interesting to get a local’s perspective on the immediate surrounds of such a long river. We find there’s always a new snippet of history or something to add to our knowledge of the Murray.

For an hour and a half in the afternoon sunshine, we puttered along past the river red gum forests and the local sawmill at Koondrook, watching birds and anglers hoping to hook a famous Murray cod. It was a really pleasant way to round out the day – and you can’t beat being able to wander down to the boat ramp right at the caravan park!

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BARHAM AVOCADOS

Barham Avocados, run by Tim and Katrina Myers, evolved from Katrina’s family farm, which originally was devoted to beef and lucerne. The avocado business grew in fits and starts, from 150 trees planted by Katrina’s parents in 1980 to the thriving farm of today. When Katrina’s mother started talking about selling the farm three years ago, Tim – who is a vet – talked it over with wife Katrina and they decided that an avocado farm offered a better lifestyle for a young family than a veterinary practice. They planted another 1200 trees and built the packing shed, and are now actively building a brand, always thinking of where they might take the business.

It’s clear, when Tim walks around his farm, that he is proud of his growing business and thrilled that the family took the step of expanding the business when they did. Currently, most of their fruit goes to Footscray wholesale markets or to local buyers, but they do well selling fruit online and are looking at diversifying even more in the future, perhaps into cosmetics.

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With four varieties on the farm, all ready for picking at different times, the avocado business means hard work all year round, but Tim and Katrina wouldn’t have it any other way.

PACDON PARK

Follow the trail down to Moama, and out on the Perricoota Road, you’ll find Pacdon Park – a small but thriving business that creates British smallgoods, housed in an old dairy. “We missed the taste of our old favourites back in England, like pork pies and black pudding, so we decided to provide them,” says Peter Tongue, one of the three energetic young people behind the Pacdon Park brand. The other two are James Arrowsmith and his wife Jane, and the business has now been in operation for six years. Jane says: “The Backroads Trail has been invaluable to us – we have had increased exposure and get regular coach trips coming out to us as well as a constant stream of visitors to our little factory door shop.”

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The word is spreading, not only amongst the RV community but also in far distant areas of Australia. “We sell our stuff as far as Cairns,” says Peter cheerfully, “and Darwin. We do well on Burns Night – a popular festival to celebrate the poet Robert Burns. All the clans come together for festivals everywhere at the end of January, and we do a special 5-kilo Chieftain Haggis. It’s all very dramatic: it’s chopped open with a sword while a Robert Burns poem is recited!”

You may not get to see a haggis attacked with a sword, but do call in to try a cold pork pie made the traditional way with water pastry, or buy some of their delicious pork sausages.

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We sampled just a small part of what was on offer along the Backroads Trail: we could have visited Perricoota Station or enjoyed a farm visit to Graythorn Poll Dorsets, called in to the Border Flywheelers Heritage Museum or timed our stay to coincide with the Farmers Market. We found Barham to be an excellent base for our explorations, and the impressive Club Barham next door to the caravan park was a real bonus!

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