Driving the Central Coast Plateau Harvest Trail
Brent Davison | October 2019
It was a moment in time when there is no time, the point of knowing but not comprehending, the brain working hard to process everything.
The dark, tousled hair on the pillow beside me was familiar but the odd décor and the bedroom’s modest proportions were different. And it was s-o-o-o quiet.
Then it hit me: we had spent the night in one of Australia’s most comfortable and unusual railway carriages in the lush surrounds of Little Valley alpaca farm near Laguna, in the Wollombi Valley, little more than 35 kilometres from Cessnock and the thriving Hunter wine region.
The carriage, once a part of Sydney’s ‘Red Rattler’ fleet that plied the suburban rail network between 1926 and 1960, was transformed by Daniela Riccio and her family to successfully blend B&B, glamping and farm stay.
A country-style kitchen, combined dining area and lounge, big bathroom and cosy bedroom inside, a broad, covered deck replete with barbecue and bathtub outside, overlooking lush pastures in which baby alpacas frolic while the adult animals graze contentedly, sharing the lush, green grass with the local kangaroos.
On this nippy morning the odd-looking beasts standing beneath autumnal trees in a rising mist made for picture postcard photographs. Life doesn’t get any better.
Laguna is one of those ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ places, a sleepy village nestled in a peaceful basin on the Hunter Valley’s southern border, a place where kids are safe to wander and the hottest topics in town are the lack of mobile phone reception and the petition to change that situation.
The village hub is undoubtedly the Great North Trading Post (or GNTP for short) a true country-style watering hole that has grown organically since it was established in 1879.
Free of poker machines and canned music, the country atmosphere is genuine, the coffee hot, the wine local, the beer cold and the food great.
Its gathering point is Rosa’s Kitchen, a convivial country kitchen with a genuine bush feel in which Rosanna Marsh – the ‘Rosa’ of Rosa’s Kitchen - cooks the meals (120 or more on any Saturday night), her menu rife with seasonal local ingredients.
A roaring fire keeps the chills at bay on colder nights and sociable diners talk animatedly, mostly because they want to and partly because that lack of mobile phone reception ensures the Apples and Androids stay holstered.
Next door to the pub, GNTP Providore is a greengrocery with a difference. Operated by Raza Hasanovic, it is a fruit and veg with a fascinating array of seasonal fruit, vegetables, smallgoods and honey, almost all of it regionally-sourced.
While obviously supplying the local population, the providore is also popular with tourists and day trippers wanting some of the valley’s produce.
Laguna is a lovely component of what is known as The Central Coast Plateau Harvest Trail, a drive blending Tourist Route 33 with the historic Great North Road which, also known as The Convict Trail, has solid evidence of its penal past, with convict roadworks easily seen along the way.
The M1 Pacific Freeway, with its countless roadworks, myriad of trucks and traffic snarls, is never enjoyable but following the signs to Peats Ridge and Tourist Drive 33 to access the Central Coast plateau is a great way to go exploring, made even better with the Tiguan Allspace Highline.
Bye-bye frantic traffic, hello beautiful, quiet countryside dotted with orchards and littered with farms on the kind of road that smothers road rage and promotes conversations, mostly about the kinds of food to be found on the Central Coast Plateau Harvest Trail.
It might not be a realistic time alternative for going north but it balances the ledger by giving an involving drive, threading between mountains, crossing lush valleys and wandering through villages and towns.
This endearing stretch of road gets its ‘Harvest Trail’ moniker from the farmers, restaurateurs and other local businesses populating it, all of whom specialise in locally grown produce.
Wilhelmina Hunt’s Peat’s Ridge pecan nut orchard, effectively the start of the trail, is just off TD33.
Bye-bye frantic traffic, hello beautiful, quiet countryside
Pecan nuts are harvested by being mechanically shaken from the trees then swept into neat rows for easy collection so Wilhelmina, also known as ‘The Pecan Lady’, lets travellers choose between picking their own or buying them shelled and prepacked straight from the farm gate.
When driving and pecan gathering become too much, getting back on the tourist trail and heading for Peats Ridge and The Springs is a worthwhile diversion.
Stylish and comfortably eclectic, the restaurant overlooks a spectacular golf course set into tranquil bushland surrounds, making it a haven for wildlife. Kangaroos on the green? Not a problem. Wombats waddling across the fairways? Easy. Choosing something from the menu? Now that’s hard!
Naturally, executive chef Dan Capper sources his produce locally, creating sensationally beautiful seasonal dishes and with the Pacific coast just a few kilometres away, seafood is an obvious menu feature.
The cellar is well-stocked too, which means the word ‘lunch’ can be preceded by the word ‘long’, especially on weekends.
Next stop? Kulnura’s Wyuna Farms where Valencia and navel oranges are thick on the trees and owner Lorraine Wilson is happy to show visitors around the farm and, of course, sell some oranges and, just across the road, East Coast Beverages uses Wyuna Farms oranges to make orange juice.
Not too far north TD33 blends into the Great North Road, where proof of our penal past can be seen along the drive. The remains of the Murray’s Run Culvert on the convict road are easily found on the drive.
Laguna comes up at the end of the day and, after a wonderful overnight stop and a late start courtesy of a country breakfast (and a visit to the alpacas) it is an easy drive through to historic Wollombi, effectively the end of the Harvest Trail.
And what an end! Wollombi, in the local indigenous dialect, means ‘meeting place’, the area home to the Darkinjung, Awabakal and Wonnarua nations, whose influences can still be felt in the historic sites in the surrounding countryside.
Some 30 minutes from town, along the Finchley Track, rock carvings dating back some 12,000 years can easily be found, almost in the shadow of Mount Yango - a flat-topped mountain place of great significance for eastern Australia’s first nations.
The flat-topped mountain was used, it is said, by the ancestral being Biamie, to step into the sky when he finished creating the earth. The mountain holds the same spiritual significance to the Aboriginal people of New South Wales as Uluru does for the people of central Australia.
The region’s rich aboriginal heritage can be better understood at the Wollombi Cultural Centre where local expert Stuart Gibson, explains it all beautifully.
In contemporary terms Wollombi, which is located on the site of a former corroboree ground, is still a meeting place and the number of cars, mini-buses and motorcycles attests to that.
Culturally, it boasts 19th-century sandstone buildings, timber slab cottages and sheds. Gastronomically it offers a great selection of cafe, restaurant and pub food, a number of local wineries and the curiously named Incy Wincy Cider brewery should a sweet, dry cider take your fancy.
Whatever name you give it - Tourist Drive 33, The Great North Road, the Convict Road or simply ‘the other way’ – this is a driving experience that just keeps opening-up before you.
The odd thing about TD33 is that while it can be driven in a couple of hours, the reality is that a couple of days is preferable and three or four would be great.
The best advice? Just forget the freeway argy-bargy and take the road less travelled for the wonderful experience on offer.