WHY: From Geelong, not all roads lead to the ocean. For this driving tour, some backroads lead us through gently rolling farmlands to pretty, historic hamlets.
DISTANCE FROM MELBOURNE: 135km to Birregurra; reccommended alternative return route through lakes and volcanoes country will add about 80km.
TIME: about two hours to Birregurra, but allow a day for leisurely sightseeing especially if choosing the longer return route.
ROUTE: Take Princes Hwy through Geelong, then pass through Waurn Ponds and turn left onto Cape Otway Road and continue past Lake Modewarre. This old logging road from the cape follows the Barwon River valley for 15km until you get to the Birregurra Road, where there’s a right turn into town.
Alternative return route via Princes Hwy a few klicks north of town. A better route home if you have time, is driving west 15km towards Colac then due north through Irrewarra and Beeac (volcanoes and lakes country) to Cressy and back to Geelong on the Hamilton Hwy; this route adds 90mins driving time.
ON THE WAY: Geelong Road still rates as one of the State’s most boring drives so hit the cruise control, some good music and relax. Just get to Cape Otway Road, and I promise things will improve for the next few hours.
WHAT TO DO: surprisingly, the region around Birregurra is one of the first European-visited areas in Victoria. Buntingdale Mission Station, the State’s first Aboriginal mission, was set up in 1839 although Birregurra-on-the-Barwon didn’t develop as a white settlement until the 1860s.
Located close to the foothills of the Otway Ranges with plentiful water from the Barwon, Birregurra soon became a waypoint for the logging industry as tree-fellers carved their way deep into the tall-timbered ranges. When the railway was extended from Geelong the town prospered further - but never to the extent of the wealthy goldfields a hundred kilometres north.
What’s left today is a peaceful rural hamlet the looks as if the café latte set have passed it by – which indeed they have when compared with nearby coastal resorts. This probably suits the 500 or so locals and no doubt has helped to preserve a pretty heritage streetscape. Main Street shops, public buildings and cottages evoke a wonderful sense of history - largely intact and little changed despite the years. If you have the energy and enthusiasm for old stuff then grab a Heritage Walk brochure from the general store.
If five kilometres sounds too much simply stroll the main street and then drive up the hill to check out the beautiful old churches: from here the panorama is far-ranging, but for bell-ringers it must be incredible. Two churches date to early 1900s, but the outstanding Anglican Church was built from local bluestone and freestone in 1871, and the ex-Methodist Church which embraced an 1863 Wesleyan timber chapel (now a private house) using material from the Buntingdale Aboriginal Mission. Note the contrasts between solid church architecture and simple timber workers cottages below.
At the top of the hill, named Bowden’s Point, is the town golf course and alongside is Mt Gellibrand, site of a squatting run set up in 1841; on a clear day you can see as far as Mt Buninyong (Ballarat). On the other edge of town is the railway station and water tower, reminders of days when steam power hauled freight and passengers between Geelong and Warrnambool.
Birregurra hosts a very popular weekend festival each October.
If taking the alternative lakes and volcanoes route home, head to hamlets Irrewarra and Beeac and give yourself time to climb Red Rock, the youngest volcano in Victoria at a mere 8,000 years old. It has views over Lake Corangamite, Australia’s largest permanent inland salt lake and an important wetland for 75 bird species. Lake Beeac is hyper-saline yet brine shrimps live in its waters, providing a food source for the banded stilt and red-necked avocet.
EATING AND DRINKING: On your travels around town you’ll spy some good picnic places, especially by the Barwon River, so if the weather’s fine grab some take-aways from Birregurra general store (ph:5236 2013). Otherwise there’s the Birregurra Tea Rooms (mob 0427 362 515) and the hotel (5236 2290) which does good country lunches at weekends - with desserts featuring deliciously creamy Birregurra ice-cream. On the longer route home, try Irrewarra’s locally famous ice-cream, berries and sourdough breads.
STAY THE WEEKEND AT: ELLIMINOOK, Birregurra. B&B with ensuite rooms in historic home, lovely gardens and top hosts. P 03 5236 2080
©PETER ROBINSON 2011 all rights reserved