Picnicking at Hanging Rock – before it erupts into a tourism hot-spot

by Sunday, May 6, 2018

Did you know that, across the ditch, because of the popularity of the “Lord Of The Rings” trilogy, the New Zealand Customs Service, for a short time, stamped international passports with “Welcome to Middle Earth”?

Well, with the reimagining of Joan Lindsay’s iconic story “Picnic At Hanging Rock” about to put Victoria’s Mount Diogenes on TV screens (and the world map) again, Australian Customs could soon be stamping visitors’ passports with “Enjoy our magma mamelon”.

Enjoy our what? I hear you ask.

A backdrop to the much-anticipated mini-series, the Hanging Rock mamelon (named after the French word for ‘nipple’) was created 6.25 million years ago by magma (stiff lava) erupting through a narrow vent in the bedrock and congealing in place. This lava formed a small hill and, later on, more eruptions’ outflows cooled and contracted, forming more layers on top of the hill.  The layers of cooled lava now stand more than 100 metres above the surrounding land and, thanks to the weathering process, are split into the rough columns, or pinnacles, we see today.

Hanging Rock.

Hot, dry and dusty on the day we visited, it was also stunning yet still eerie. An easy, hour-long drive from Melbourne’s CBD (50-minutes from Melbourne Airport), and I was making a pilgrimage to Hanging Rock to experience it again before its fame re-erupts, thanks to the local, 6 May airing of the first of six episodes of the new ‘enchanted chiller’ miniseries (screening locally on Foxtel Showcase; and on the BBC, Amazon, and other carriers abroad, very soon).

A view from Hanging Rock.

With at least 30 years between my visits, it was exciting to return to the setting of the spooky movie which haunted my childhood, and ‘see it’ through my own children’s eyes.

Would we catch a glimpse of a white petticoat in our peripheral vision?

Would we succumb to whatever being/force/misadventure responsible for disappearing a group of boarding school students and their teacher, on a Valentine’s Day picnic in 1900?

Would I  let my daughters out of my sight on this scenic, volcanic excursion?

None of the above. But did we have fun? One hundred per cent.

If you’re debating whether to take your offspring, nephew, niece, grandchild… to Hanging Rock, try this experiment: Tell them they’re going to walk on an old volcano and watch their reaction. (Just keep a very close eye on them because, as you’d expect, Hanging Rock has steep cliffs and drop-offs, and it would be very easy to lose sight of them up there!)

Aside from the fascination and exhilaration provided by the Rock experience, there were many other highlights from our two-night/3-day stay in the Macedon Ranges. It would be rude not to share the love so, feel free to borrow from our itinerary, below,  if you’d like a blueprint for a stress-free Sunday drive, or long weekend…

Hanging Rock.

Day 1:

Accommodation at the Macedon Ranges Hotel & Spa was perfectly situated and comfortably equipped for our two-night stay. Being able to walk to pre-dinner drinks and then a relaxed dinner at The Wine Collective at Macedon Wine Room Restaurant was an unexpected bonus. We sampled a regional white (chardonnay) and red (shiraz) wine with our steak-frites, linguine di mare, and wood-fired oven pizza (for the kids), and ran out of superlatives to describe the quality of the fare. Call me a cynic, but when a restaurant has a view this good, I’d normally expect the vista to compensate for a much lesser quality meal. With the marvellous La Bonta restaurant having just closed in Kyneton, the word is that Macedon Ranges locals will be making a beeline to dine here. As well they should.

The view from The Wine Collective at Macedon Wine Room Restaurant.

Day 2:

Breakfast was simple and delicious: Coffee & croissants from the friendly folk at the Mount Macedon Trading Post – the hub of the Mt Macedon community.

Mount Macedon Trading Post owners Brad Eshuys & his sister Clare Jeffries.

Back in the car and up the Calder Freeway to Kyneton next and a visit to the Piper Street Food Co to collect our picnic hamper for Hanging Rock. A ‘Miranda’ hamper, with sublime mushroom pate and hearty tortilla, was our choice, which we supplemented with their signature pork pies. A wander up and down Piper Street to take in the Gold Rush history and a window-shop at the galleries and stores nicely filled out the hour. Next time, perhaps on a day trip, we’ll grab another picnic hamper and head to the new, local children’s playground which Bryanna from Piper Street Food Co (a gorgeous, indefatigable woman with five children, and a six-day-a-week business which she runs with her husband, Damian) pushed hard to bring into existence for the community of Kyneton.

A sign outside Piper Street Food Co. in Kyneton.

After a quick reverse trip on the Calder Freeway, we arrived at the Hanging Rock Discovery Centre to devour our picnic, pat an ancient kangaroo lazing beside the cafe, and make the ascent for an incredible 360-degree views. The 5- and 6-year-olds loved the experience so much, they immediately wanted to know when we could do it, or another bush walk or hike, again. Their parents? We were relieved we’d all returned safely to ground level, with ankles intact, no disappearing acts and nothing supernatural to write home about.

Hiking at Hanging Rock.

Next stop: The summit of Mount Macedon – another extinct volcano, in the middle of the Macedon Regional Park. You can’t visit Mount Macedon without strolling over to the Memorial Cross and, along the way, reading up on the rich and eventful history of this important monument.

The Memorial Cross at the top of Mt. Macedon.

 

At the risk of starting to sound like a complete glutton, we called in for tea and scones served with an incredible view at the Top of the Range Tea Rooms and Café. The local peacock dropped by; the lovely maître d’ gifted the girls a couple of peacock feathers; and we all left wondering why it was that, until now, we’d never given much proper thought, let alone time to this extremely hospitable, ridiculously close and thoroughly worthy-of-a-visit region of Victoria.

A view from Mt Macedon.

A simple, pub dinner at the Mount Macedon Hotel, a history-filled pub with an Olde English feel, capped off the day superbly. By this point, we were starting to feel like locals. Everything we visited was within just a short drive of the other attractions, making this itinerary a very easy one to knock over without getting any “Are we there yet?” pleadings from the back seat. Getting your bearings and knowing where the towns sit roughly in relation to each other is very useful in these parts as phone coverage will drop out now and again, leaving your so-called smart phone proving to be anything but.

Day 3: 

Simon, a co-owner of Mr. Cafe, in Macedon.

We thoroughly enjoyed sitting down at Mr Café (‘Mr’ is an acronym for ‘Macedon Ranges’) in Macedon for breakfast on our final day. By now, possibly because we were high on fresh air, the locals’ friendliness, and our full bellies, we eagerly inspected real-estate windows for what was available for immediate move-in. How often in the big smoke these days do you venture out to a café, get seated straight away, dine without feeling rushed, then depart, raving about by the food quality, service AND very reasonable pricing? Not too often, I suspect. That’s surely another tick in the right box for this café, and the whole region. I’d be keen to pop back up for Mr Café’s special, no-meat, vegan and vegetarian dinner on 18 May, 2018. Perhaps on the way home from that picnic in Kyneton…

Judith and her gardener, from Tieve Tara gardens in Macedon.

A short drive up the road to the lush Gardens of Tieve Tara, nestled into the eucalypt-clad slopes of Mt Macedon, was a breath of fresh air of the totally literal kind. We truly could have spent two full days here, bathing in the silence, peace and pure oxygen under turning leaves, and occasionally being honked at by bossy geese on the lake. Props to our host Judith for the stroke of genius in planting a few cubby houses and swing sets here and there. This meant everyone’s kids were in their element, buying parents a rare moment to be present and bear witness to the magnificence of Mother Nature in Autumn. (Or check our smart phones for some bars, so we can figure out where to head to next…!)

Natasha Holgate, a co-owner of Holgate Brewery, in Woodend.

And, last but not least, to top off this mini-holiday, we called in to Holgate Brewhouse on Woodend’s main street, for lunch with view of Mount Macedon. (In the first episode of the TV series, a horse-drawn dray transports Miranda and her mates along Woodend’s main drag to Hanging Rock for that picnic.) The Holgates are such passionate craft-beer connoisseurs and producers, they regularly travel the world for inspiration for their next brew before bottling it so we can take our tastebuds on the same amazing journeys. We sampled a paddle of their finest, microbrewed on the premises, and found the eight glasses, each with their own distinct colour and flavour, pushed the envelope in terms of what’s normally considered ‘beer’. The pub food was also top notch and we promptly vowed to come back up the Calder one Friday night for another serve. The thought of bending the elbow trying a few frothies, listening to live music, and retiring upstairs to a room overlooking the main street of Woodend, opened the door to another journey to come in the Macedon Ranges.

Hanging Rock.

So, as is already very apparent, there’s an incredible breadth and depth of quality holiday offerings in the Macedon Ranges (much, much more than our majestic magma mamelon, though it is picnic-worthy, for sure). The Ranges epitomise the diversity of stunning locations found across Victoria – which is the reason the miniseries was filmed in the state, after all.

Over the next six weeks, thousands of viewers around Australia will, by the power of TV, be transported to Hanging Rock. Local and international eyes will enjoy sticky-beaking around some of Victoria’s grand, 19th Century homes, like Werribee Mansion and Como House, and the town of Clunes, where scenes in the mini-series were set.

“Lord of The Rings” attracted attention and ultimately tourists to NZ; “Fargo” did the same for its namesake, North Dakota town; and “Game Of Thrones” still pulls in tourists to Northern Ireland. Take stock because “Picnic at Hanging Rock” is about to force this landmark’s popularity to erupt again, for the second time in 40-odd years, which is really just a blip in the 6.25 million years Mount Diogenes has stood sentinel. Nevertheless, seize the chance to make your way there ahead of the crowds, and enjoy your magma mamelon.

Editor, Danielle Johnston, was a guest of Macedon Ranges Hotel & Spa.