A winter road trip in New South Wales, travelling from the town of Bungendore to The Snowy Mountains (The Snowies), offers some of the most unique experiences in the Southern Hemisphere.
Photography: Ariff Shah Sopian
Frisbee had been snuffling around for a while when he pawed at the base of a hazel tree. I tried to keep up with Damian Robinson, the owner of the Jack Russell terrier, as he rushed to the spot. Kneeling down beside his dog, Robinson gently dug the soft, wet earth and drew out what seemed to be a lump of dirt. The big smile on Robinson’s face revealed that we’d hit gold – black gold to be precise. With a price tag that can exceed AUD800 (approx. USD600) per kg, Périgord black truffle is one of the world’s most expensive edible fungi.
I was on a truffle hunt at Turalla Truffles (turallatruffles.com.au), a truffière (truffle orchard) near Bungendore, a town 40 minutes from Canberra or three hours from Sydney, run by Robinson and his wife Lindsay. Despite the temperature dipping below 10 degrees Celsius and the whole landscape blanketed in a thick fog, the adrenaline rush from chasing behind the truffle-hunting canine kept me warm. While brushing dirt off the truffle, Damian explained that his adorable pooch had been specially trained to sniff out the gourmet fungi. “Pigs were used in the olden days, but it was hard to keep them from hogging the good stuff!”
The town of Bungendore and its surroundings have a dry climate similar to the truffle-producing regions of France, with extremely hot summers and frosty winters, making it an ideal location for farming the highly-valued subterranean fungi. Robinson gave me a whiff of the truffle; the aroma fell somewhere between earthy and musky. Interestingly, it is this distinctive scent that attracts sows, which mistake the aroma for that of an eligible boar. The sows then consume the fungus and wander off to excrete the spores elsewhere, helping in the dispersion of truffles.
After the successful truffle hunt, we headed back to the Robinson family home, where I was treated to an exquisite truffle feast. I loved how the aromatic shavings complemented the rich and creamy camembert, and the truffle-infused ice cream with hazelnut crumble was simply decadent! It was definitely a great learning experience, and if this was any indication of the events to come, then I was definitely hungry for more!
Eating Your Way through NSW
There are a lot of good eateries to stop at along the 280km journey from Bungendore to The Snowies, the highest mountain range in Australia. From the truffière, I dropped by Lark Hill Winery (larkhill.wine), located 40km northwest of Canberra, for a wine-tasting session. At 860m above sea level, Lark Hill is one of the highest and coldest vineyards in Australia, and produces a range of certified organic and biodynamic wines. Biodynamic farming strives for sustainability and prohibits synthetic pesticides or fertilisers, working in rhythm with the cycles of Earth and the cosmos. For example, farmers consult the phases of the moon before fertilising, to ensure the plants are at their most receptive.
Realising that the cool climate here would not suit varieties like Cabernet or Shiraz, Lark Hill focuses on growing Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Gruner Veltliner. Their Pinot Noir is robust with a delightful strawberry note and spicy peppery finish, attributed to the cool climate vineyard.
From here, I continued 30km to the north to indulge in a scrumptious dinner at Cork Street Café (corkstreetcafe.com), a refurbished restaurant built on the site of the old police station’s horse stable. They are especially famous for their thin crust, wood-fired gourmet pizzas. While the patrons at the next table were busy with their Mediterranean, a seafood feast scattered with parsley, I greedily tucked into my Meat Lovers, topped with pepperoni, sweet onions, smoked chicken, slices of ham, chunky mushrooms and delicious slivers of prosciutto. I especially loved the fact that they did not skimp on toppings!
A visit to Poacher’s Pantry (poacherspantry.com), 31km to the west, was well worth the drive, if only for its setting: a beautifully restored farmhouse with a serene country ambience. As they are famous for their artisanal smoked meats and their passion for fresh local produce, I opted for a charcuterie tasting, which paired meats from local farms, as well as game hunted locally, with dips and wines. I would highly recommend the creamy smoked ricotta and the lean kangaroo prosciutto complemented by their tangy nut and pomegranate dip, which paired fabulously with the light and floral Rosé from their own Wily Trout Vineyard.
Located 26km to the north of Poacher’s Pantry is Clonakilla (clonakilla.com.au), which started off as a small, family business that went on to become one of the best wineries in the country, thanks to their dedication to producing distinctive Canberra-region (a district encompassing vineyards in part of NSW, and the Australian Capital Territory) wines. I was lucky enough to try the winery’s iconic Shiraz Viognier, which has been recognised as ‘Exceptional’ by Langton’s Classification of Australian Wine, the highest category in the listing of fine Australian wines. The deep ruby wine has intense ripe berry flavours and spicy notes, truly an Australian classic.
The journey from Clonakilla to Wildbrumby Schnapps Distillery (wildbrumby.com) was a 234km drive, but time flew by as I took in scenic vistas of pastoral lands with grazing cattle (and the occasional kangaroo) in the distance. In no time at all, I arrived at the distillery, which offered a wide variety of schnapps to warm me up before hitting the snow – from the all-time favourite Limoncello to the spicy Devil’s Tongue, made from pink lady apples and infused with fresh chillies and other herbs for that extra kick.
On Top of the World
From the distillery, it’s a 45-minute drive through rolling hills and farmlands to the town of Cooma, the gateway to The Snowies. If you’re not dressed for a chilly mountain romp, a stop at Rhythm Snow Sports (rhythmsnowsports.com.au) will sort you out. This was where I rented a waterproof winter jacket, thick climbing trousers and hiking boots, and bought a knitted beanie and some hot patches for good measure.
I chose to bunk up at Lake Crackenback, which offered easy access to both Thredbo and Perisher, two major ski resorts to hit in NSW. At Perisher (perisher.com.au), I was greeted by an expansive alpine landscape, dotted with beautifully mottled snow gums. Alas, despite being afforded the convenience of gear rentals, I lacked the skills to ski or snowboard. But all was not lost as I was able to rent a toboggan. Climbing up a small hill not far away, I set myself upon my toboggan and hurtled down the slope with glee. There were times when I tumbled and fell on my face, and there was this one time when I knocked over a dumpster! But after each ride, I happily climbed up again.
The next morning, I took a trip southwest from Lake Crackenback to Thredbo (thredbo.com.au), 17km away, where I attempted snowshoeing with K7 Adventure (k7adventures.com). Unlike skiing or snowboarding, snowshoeing requires no previous experience and is a great way to enjoy the snow. My excitement mounted as I hopped on the Kosciuszko Express Chairlift, an elevated passenger ropeway that took me to the top station at a height of 1,937m. There, I put my snowshoes on and began the trek to Kosciuszko Lookout, which offers panoramic views of the mountains.
Despite the simplicity of snowshoeing, it can be quite taxing if you’re not used to it, and a couple of people, who were first-time snowshoers like me, gave up halfway. I have a weak constitution but I’m also stubborn, so I pressed on. Fuelling my resolve was the beautiful and desolate landscape. Mike Edmondson, my guide, who’s also a fantastic photographer, pointed out gullies and rocky peaks jutting out of the snow, and then stopped his tale to tell me that beneath me was one of Snowy River’s headwaters. Realising I was at risk of falling through the ice, I walked over to safety, where shrubs were poking out, but it was too late for the lady in front of me. She fell through the snow and plunged right into the stream! Thankfully, the fall was nothing major and she laughed off the incident in good spirits as she crawled out of the hole.
It soon started to snow heavily and the biting wind turned my face red. The going was progressively slow, making it feel as though I’d been walking forever, but apparently, the trek to Kosciuszko Lookout is a mere 2.5km. My legs were killing me, but it was worth it when I looked out across the Australian Alps that seemed to stretch forever. Behind the swirling snow, I could see glacial rivers meandering between barren trees and granite boulders. I took in the majestic skyline formed by the rugged ridges of Main Range and told myself that someday I’d conquer Australia’s highest peak.
Cold Hands, Warm Heart
With the wind picking up, I headed to Eagles Nest – Australia’s highest café at 1,937m above sea level – at the top station to have a well-deserved hot chocolate. On a clear day, you can take in Thredbo Valley from here, but the wind was howling outside and sleet was flying everywhere. Nevertheless, I found the scene to be absolutely mesmerising. This adventure in NSW during winter had proven to be magical. I made myself a promise to return some day; next time, I’ll be on the ski slopes!
With its stunning landscape, historic towns and fantastic F&B options, Snowy Mountains is always worth the trip, with or without the snow.
1. Thredbo Thredbo is a ski resort that opens 365 days a year and is a delight for nature lovers in any season.
2. Charlotte Pass Village At an elevation of 1,760m, Charlotte Pass Village is Australia’s highest ski resort.
3. Perisher Ski Resort Spanning 12 sq km, Perisher is the largest alpine resort in the Southern Hemisphere.
4. Wildbrumby Schnapps Distillery The distillery serves up award-winning schnapps, gin and Austrian-inspired dishes like kassler (cured pork) and gugglhupf (yeast-based cake).
5. Gaden Trout Hatchery The hatchery is one of Australia’s main centres for breeding and rearing premier cold water sport trout. Guided tours are conducted thrice a day, and visitors can sometimes join the fish feeding sessions.
6. Lake Jindabyne This water sports haven has everything from canoeing to power boating.
7. Dalgety Dalgety is surrounded by granite outcrops, and known for its historic ruins dating back to the 12th century. One of the most famous landmarks is the 169m-long Dalgety bridge over the Snowy River.
8. Nanny Goat Hill Lookout Panoramic views of Cooma and the surrounding grazing country may be enjoyed from this vantage point.
9. Snowy Hydro Discovery Centre Visitors can learn about Snowy Mountains Scheme, an integrated water and hydroelectric power utility, through state-of-the-art exhibits and displays.
The Man from Snowy River
The Man from Snowy River is a poem by Banjo Paterson, first published in 1890. It tells the story of a group of hard riding bushmen in pursuit of an escaped colt, and how they are outdone by a man from Snowy River whose horse is at first deemed too slight for the rough ride. Accustomed to the terrain of Snowy River, which is described as having hills ‘twice as steep and twice as rough’, the man from Snowy River shows them how it’s done. A visit to The Snowies wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Man from Snowy River Museum (manfromsnowyrivermuseum.com) in Corryong, which offers fascinating insights into the lives of the horse-riding pioneers of old. If you’re visiting in April, be sure to drop by the Man from Snowy River Festival (bushfestival.com.au) for a celebration of bush culture and traditional high country living. It’s a rare opportunity to see horsemen and women in action, just like in the poem.
Snowy through the Seasons
Winter stretches from June to August, but even after the snow has melted, The Snowies offers a wide selection of activities both ‘in town’ and on the mountain. The most popular activity is the guided walk to Australia’s highest peak, the summit of Mt Kosciuszko (2,228m). The trail showcases rocky granite outcrops and even alpine wildflowers in spring (Sept to Nov) or summer (Dec to Feb). For visitors who enjoy watersports, Lake Jindabyne, situated in the heart of The Snowies, offers swimming, sailing and rafting, while Snowy River is famous for trout fishing. For the less adventurous, there are also wineries and distilleries to explore. Horseback riding is a must experience to appreciate Australia’s outback heritage.
GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to Sydney from Kuala Lumpur. airasia.com