“GIRLS. Girls! That’s quite enough. Georgia, that’s enough. Back off.’’
It’s difficult to focus on Susan Reynolds’ fascinating tit-bits about alpacas when woolly heads push their way with surprising force and focus towards the food containers we’re holding. A dozen of them hum, snort and spit, jostling for attention and tucker.
“Girls! Now settle. There’s no need to push – there’s plenty for all of you. Flopsy, you stay away because you’re a troublemaker.’’
Reynolds’ alpaca farm (Alpaca Products Australia) is a few minutes from Crookwell, the main town in the Upper Lachlan Shire of NSW, 250km south of Sydney, and one of many glimpses into country life available to city slickers and urban sloths.
Along the back roads between Canberra, Goulburn and Bathurst, you can slosh through mud (and manure), step into the past and take in fresh air without having to share your personal space with another soul.
Basing ourselves in Crookwell, we begin at Lindner Sock Factory in the main street where the “whump thump’’ soundtrack of mechanical monsters chomping strings of local wool and alpaca fleece is trance-inducing.
There are more handmade wares from micro-retailers up the street at Arcadia Crookwell, an arcade-style building showcasing an eclectic range of antiques, chocolates, clothing, books and more.
Fifteen minutes down the road at Laggan, the soothing aroma of lavender floats on the air at Crystal Brook Lavender Farm as Judith Basile gives the medicinal and culinary lowdown on the plant while we feast on homemade scones, jam (lavender of course) and cream.
Nearby at Rachael Mayne and Anna Pye’s Willowtree Sculpture Garden, meandering paths lead to a series of garden spaces and sculptures. Regular art exhibitions and workshops, music events and wellness retreats are held here.
The Upper Lachlan Shire calendar is full year-round with village market days, swap meets, open gardens, plays and music, the Mary Gilmore cultural weekend in August, the Gunning Fireworks Festival in September, the Taralga Vintage Farm Field Days in November and the Collector Village Pumpkin Festival and Crookwell Potato Festival in May.
A major highlight is the Binda Picnic Races each March on a tufty half-track on a beef cattle property called Funny Hill 20km north of Crookwell. Picnic races have been held here at the second oldest registered race course outside Sydney and the oldest country race course in Australia almost without a break since 1848.
These days around Binda and nearby Tuena (population 45), there are plenty of dark tales of bushranger-infested mountains, escaped convicts and their delinquent, sociopathic descendants wreaking bloody colonial pillage and murder.
Keith Brown of Gunning Historical Society relishes salacious tales as he points out town landmarks built on the spot from which Hamilton Hume and William Hovell set out to Melbourne.
“Do you know what this is?’’ he asks mischievously at Pye Cottage Museum. “It’s a sheep castrator so you don’t have to use your teeth.’’ He then explains in detail how it was done in colonial times “when this was frontiersville’’.
As expected of country areas, there’s no shortage of hearty meal stops around the Upper Lachlan shire. Traditional bistro favourites like bangers and mash and chicken schnitzel (with a house twist of course) is served at the revamped Criterion Hotel in Crookwell, while Greek fare is on the menu at the refurbished Crown Theatre Cafe.
There’s more Mediterranean fare like the excellent shakshuka at Grandma’s At The Farm overlooking Fedra Olive Grove between Canberra and Goulburn, and a visit to the cellar door of boutique Kingsdale Winery overlooking Lake Sooley on the Crookwell Road is a most civilised end to any day.
Nestled in the gardens of a circa 1837 police barracks, Laggan Pantry had been given quite a rap by locals, so we aren’t expecting the stylish newcomer to live up to the hype. It does.
Right on trend with seasonal fresh regional produce, including from the on-site kitchen garden, chef Evan Marler, who owns the restaurant with partner Sally Emerton, says “every single dish has been designed, sourced, prepared, cooked and plated by us and only us, every single time”.
The only drawback is that Laggan Pantry is open just Friday to Sunday for lunch and dinner.
A simple picnic at Wombeyan Caves on a glorious sunny day primes us for the thigh-screaming cave tour. Take your time and it’s worth the steps and ladders. There’s plenty of stops along the way to take photos and catch your breath.
Later, rendered silent by fatigue, we wend our way out of the valley along the dirt road, with gorgeous nooks around every turn: shaded glades of autumnal trees; solemn grey symmetrical groves; expanses of undulating paddocks, all fuzzy with grasses and splayed over the landscape like alpaca fleeces.
The Upper Lachlan Shire has plenty of accommodation, from camping and caravan areas, budget motels and cheap and cheerful self-contained premises to farmstays and upmarket B&Bs in heritage homes.
Then there’s Spud Murphy’s B&B in the main street of Crookwell. Granted, being woken at 4am by the landlord playing the trumpet is not everyone’s cup of tea. The rambling inn is in desperate need of a makeover for sure. But the enormous cooked country breakfast, complete with bush poetry recital and smear of emu oil on an arthritic wrist, sweeps aside any crankiness.
If you go...
CROOKWELL is about three hours’ drive from Sydney along the Hume Highway, 90 minutes from Canberra and two hours from Bathurst, with surrounding villages fanning out from there.
Grandma’s At The Farm, 5796 Federal Hwy, Collector, open 8.30am-4pm seven days.
Laggan Pantry, 1 Peelwood Rd, Laggan, open Friday and Saturday for dinner and Friday to Sunday for lunch. Bookings essential: firstname.lastname@example.org or (02) 4837-3039.
Merino Cafe, 62 Yass St, Gunning. Walk up an appetite on a town tour with Gunning Historical Society. Cost $5pp. Bookings: (02) 4832-1988, then refuel with a good coffee and fluffy scones over a game of noughts and crosses on the table.
Crystal Brook Lavender Farm, 257 Tyrl Tyrl Rd, Laggan. Cost $5 and $4 seniors/garden club members. Guided tour bookings: email@example.com or 0426-296-263.
Alpaca Products Australia, 24 Reservoir Rd, Crookwell. Cost $5 each ($10 a family) www.alpacaproductsaustralia.com.au
Wombeyan Caves, Wombeyan Caves Rd. Guided and self-guided tours of spectacular limestone caves featuring vast caverns adorned with delicate formations. www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/visit-a-park
Willowtree Sculpture Garden, 2 Redground Heights Rd, Laggan: Open third Saturday of the month or by appointment. Cost $5 adults, school age children free, www.willowtreesculpturegarden.com
- More information www.visitupperlachlan.com.au
* Ellen and David Hill were guests of Visit Upper Lachlan.