It’s dark by the time we arrive in the bush. Our Amarok guiding us calmly along country backroads until we arrive at the entrance of the long bush driveway that will lead us into our Airbnb home for the weekend - a rustic corrugated iron barn on 44 hectares of spectacular Australian bushland. We have arrived in Forrest, a tiny, laid-back rural township of just 170 people located on the edge of Victoria’s Otway Rangers, just 2 hours outside Melbourne. We can’t see much, but at once we can tell that the landscape here is majestic.
A nature wonderland, people come to Forrest - a once declining timber town - to ride their world-class mountain biking trails. Hiking, camping, fishing, horse riding, wildlife watching, nature walks, craft beer, fresh local produce and wine are also big drawcards in these parts. We have come to escape the city and to test out our Amarok on the open road fodder through the National Park.
Winding down the lush bush driveway of the House at Forrest, we pull up in front of a giant barn – more shearers quarters than manor house, the barn’s exterior is made up almost entirely of recycled materials, including timber salvaged from wharves along Victoria’s Murray River. There’s something magical about the way aging corrugated iron and timber reminds you of things you have seen in Australian landscapes your whole life, don’t you think? It’s the kind of barn that in the summertime would click and tick as it cools down.
Being winter though, it is freezing when we fumble our way inside, so we quickly locate the already-chopped firewood waiting for us and light our first fire. Instantly, the barn is warm and we are cosy.
We wake to a majestic pink sky and the sound of birds. We open the doors of our room to look over a beautiful 5 hectare lake, the birds at play in front of us. Before cooking up a storm in the charming rustic kitchen, we run a bath – the claw-footed bath sits under a beautiful big window looking over the lake - and we open it slightly to let the cool winter air rush inside. Well-fed and ready for a day of exploring, we jump in the Amarok and make the short 5km journey into town. There’s not much to it really, the town of Forrest. Home to just a pub, cafe, general store, restaurant-microbrewery, and almost surprisingly, a total gastronomic delight, the restaurant Bespoke Harvest. We need coffee first though, and the Forrest General Store Cafédelivers. A haven for locals and tourists alike, this gorgeous corner store does the best coffee in town and offers that laidback country-style hospitality you would expect to find in a locale such as this. We stock up on sweet treats and hit the road again – our next stop, the Redwoods at Beech Forrest.
The drive through the Otway Ranges is unbelievably spectacular. Dappled sunlight guides us between the trees. After winding our way through the peaceful forest roads, we arrive at an unsealed logging road near Beech Forest. Parking in the small carpark, we follow a well-trodden path deep into the forest and can’t believe what we see. Feeling more like northern California then Victoria, we are surrounded by hundreds of towering Californian redwoods. Reaching high into the sky, these incredible trees block most of the natural light from hitting the forest floor. It is quiet, and incredibly serene. The only sounds coming from the crunch of the damp forest floor underfoot, and the gentle flow of the nearby Aire River. We sit in wonder. And we could sit here all day.
Navigating our way, in some kind of meditative state, back through the trees – the redwoods, the eucalypts, the palms - we jump back in the Amarok bound for home. We have somehow worked up quite the appetite on our roadtrip this morning. Starving by the time we roll back into Forrest, having enjoyed magnificent views along the way, we arrive just in time for our lunch reservation at Bespoke Harvest.The shining star of this little town, Bespoke Harvest’s kitchen is led by local chef, Simon Stewart. Showcasing fresh produce from their very own garden as well as surrounding farms, Stewart’s mission is to capture the taste and flavour of the Otway region. His menu features an intensely local ingredient profile showcasing the best of the Otways produce. Stewart believes that supporting locals creates a strong community and his origins in the local area are what inspired his vision for the restaurant. The menu is seasonal and shared. The idea being to take time over 12 or so courses to get to know more about the local growers and producers who allow the restaurant to bring such fresh, organic, wholesome produce to the table. Stewart grows or forages most of the produce himself. It is without doubt one of the most impressive lunches we have experienced outside the city.
Finally, after lunch, with our tummies full, we mosey just a little further down the road to check out the last of Forrest’s most revered establishments - The Forrest Brewing Company.A sibling owned small scale brewing operation and brew-pub, the Bradshaw family has been brewing beer here since 2010. Housed in the former general store building, it has been beautifully renovated and is intentionally casual. The Bradshaw’s like to employ local people who share their passion for the town and their beers. With great food and great beers (all their beer is brewed on site (nothing is contracted), even hand-bottled and hand-labelled as well), this is another must-do when in Forrest.
It’s hard to believe that one little town can be full of so much magic. Forrest really has it all, but best of all, it still feels like some kind of secret. Our hearts are full as we roll back into Melbourne the very next day, our Amarok covered in a happy mess of dirt and bush residue. We know it won’t be long until we return to this tiny Great Ocean Road hinterland town...