Originally intended for many Melburnians considering a move to the countryside, the event was an exceptional safari of interesting places and activities. Spending time with each of Victoria's 48 regional councils and 130 exhibitors provided rare insights into the many business, career and lifestyle choices and benefits available in regional and rural Victoria. Like many successful cities, Melbourne has been growing faster than the regions. To ease the population pressure on Melbourne and realise the regional economic benefits, the government is encouraging urban-rural migration which may see Victoria's population increase by 3 million over the next 40 years. Currently Regional Victoria is home to approximately 1.6 million people or 30% of the State's population.
Peter Ryan, Deputy Premier and Minister for Regional and Rural Development who graced the Expo illustrated the overall liveability outside the big city in his address and lunch with many successful Victorians who call regional and rural Victoria home. It was interesting to learn of the many people enjoying country living including the founder of national furniture retailer Jimmy Possum who lives and works in Bendigo, celebrity chef Matt Dempsey with his Inverleigh-based restaurant, Gladioli, and Australian rock sensation Evermore in Macedon.
The most amazing experience was seeing so many beaming faces at their respective Shire booths who were genuinely interested to share their stories of the good life (and bad) in regional Victoria and chat about me and what I was looking for in my own life.
I remember Ms Emily McEachern from Glenelg Shire telling me about the blue whales and leisure fishing off Victoria's birthplace of Portland. She warmly offered to speak with her dad about the possibility of enrolling me when we rambled about my interest in experiencing life on a real working farm. Ms Leanne Williams from the Indigo Shire Council whose dad also owned a farm, extended the same warm welcome for me to give farming life a go in addition to trout fishing, farm gate trails and visiting European-style homes and gardens. I was starting to think that everyone's dad owned a farm.
The most unforgettable was Mr Hugh Koch of the Southern Grampians Shire Council who stood out amongst all of the friendly poppies at the Expo. We had an enjoyable banter about his Shire and the various towns but what totally surprised me was his personal offer of receiving and showing me around Hamilton and the Shire (which I felt was really out of his job scope and he really didn't need to). I agreed to take up his offer when I was next back in Melbourne. So this Queen's Birthday long weekend, I'm off to explore the Southern Grampians with Hugh.
Picturesque landscape of Southern Grampians / Image courtesy of Southern Grampians Shire Council
Spanning the heart of Victoria's renowned 'Western District', the Southern Grampians boast a grandiose canvas that reminisce of Eugene von Guérard's famous 1855 painting of Tower Hill in western Victoria. It is a picturesque landscape shouldered by the rugged Grampians mountain range, ancient volcanoes and waterfalls, with majestic rivers meandering pastoral land dotted with red gums. Serviced by major highways, air and coach services, Southern Grampians and its towns of Hamilton, Dunkeld, Penshurst and Coleraine, are well positioned between Melbourne and Adelaide, with easy reach to the Grampians National Park, Shipwreck Coast and Coonawarra wine region.
180 degree panoramic view from The Pinnacle in the Grampians National Park / Photo by DAVID ILIFF License CC-BY-SA 3.0
Hugh Koch who was born in Coleraine exudes a genuine passion for the Shire. He truly believes the region is a fantastic place to live, work, learn, invest and visit. He moved away for studies and work but a love for rural Victoria and lifestyle of open spaces, quality healthcare and education and a strong sense of community lured him back in 2004 to start a family in Hamilton. His warm personality and welcoming charm are definitely assets to the Southern Grampians Shire where he has been working for 8 years with 5.5 years as Tourism Manager and the balance as Manager for Economic Development and Tourism.
Location map of Southern Grampians and Hamilton / Image courtesy of Southern Grampians Shire Council
Hugh shared with me the many draw cards that attracted people (including him) to live and work in the Shire. The absence of traffic jams and traveling only 5 minutes from home to work wins hands down; A wide range of jobs across industries/sectors provides employment and the education facilities supports training and up-skilling; Easy access to leisure activities including arts, culture and sports; Quality healthcare for the young and old; The great outdoors of the Grampians, South Ocean coast and Limestone Coast in your backyard; The daily air service to Melbourne and Adelaide from Hamilton works in the favour of businesspeople who need access to the big cities; and a closeness of people in the community.
The Dunkeld Race offers a great day out at a real country race meeting / Image courtesy of Southern Grampians Shire Council
If you're into the Melbourne Cup, the Shire is believed to be the only one in Australia with four racetracks – the Hamilton Racing Club and the Harness Racing Club which holds up to nine meets a year; The Coleraine steeplechase is the oldest in Australia; The popular and picturesque Penshurst Racecourse; and the famous annual Dunkeld Race which draws thousands of people from all over regional Victoria and metropolitan Melbourne. Leveraging the area's historical and geographical strengths, the Southern Grampians Shire continues its focus on developing tenets of business, health, education, transport and culture necessary for a vibrant community of 17,000 with 10,450 being in the city of Hamilton.
The wool industry contributes to Hamilton and the Southern Grampians economic prosperity / Image courtesy of Southern Grampians Shire Council
Whereas Melbourne was built on gold, Hamilton was built on the 'golden fleece'. The relative importance of the sheep to the region is evident in the Shire Council's logo. The city's many grand buildings, stately homesteads and landscaped gardens are the result of its prosperous wool industry for over 160 years.
Still fondly referred to as the 'Wool Capital of the World', Hamilton supports this pastoral reputation by yielding more sheep per hectare within a 50 kilometre radius of the city than anywhere else on the planet. Its Wool Heritage Week and trade show called Hamilton Sheep-vention around end July or early August, draws crowds of over 25,000 to its exhibition of sheep and wool products. The city is also home to the Hamilton Regional Livestock Exchange, which boasts Victoria's third largest turnover, trading around 1 million sheep and up to 60,000 cattle each year. Wealth from wool has diversified the district's economic focus to include other produce like beef, dairy products and lamb, and manufacturing, engineering, sawmilling and services.
Hugh McDonald is all about helping local businesses / Image courtesy of Hugh McDonald
I was introduced to Hugh McDonald, a local boy and the current President of the Hamilton Regional Business Association (HBRA) who has been in the role for 2 years. HBRA supports the economic development of Hamilton and the Southern Grampians Shire as the voice of business in the city and district, and hand-holding new business relocating to the Shire. It brings the businesses together regularly to network, discuss problems, provide feedback and solve issues.
He spent 6 years studying and working in finance in Melbourne before returning to Hamilton to run the family farm. He shares with me that Hamilton is a great place to live and raise his family because of the best range of schooling available in regional Victoria if not Australia. They can buy anything they need, healthcare is excellent and the town is safe. So safe that residents grow vegetables in street roundabouts with no fear of theft. It is also centrally located to the coast, mountains and an easy drive to Melbourne. Today he lives on his farm and boasts about driving only 8 minutes to work. He goes on to belabour how the city has a traffic jam of 5 to 10 minutes but mainly on Fridays. Melbourne would be extremely congested by Hugh's standards.
Street scene in Hamilton / Image courtesy of Southern Grampians Shire Council
Today, this geographical and business hub of the Shire is a thriving regional city, characterised by attractive tree-lined streets of contemporary shops, restaurants, cafes and one of Australia's finest regional Art galleries against a backdrop of colonial homes, gothic-style churches, landscaped botanic garden of English grandeur and a lake. Surrounding the town is a tranquil landscape of rolling green hills, extinct volcanoes, cascading waterfalls and ancient red gums.
Nigretta Falls / Photo by Mikeybear of Wikimedia Commons
Hugh McDonald loves the people, historic buildings, red gum trees and undulating countryside. His favourite spot is the Nigretta falls. He describes the scenery at the falls and driving past the farmlands as magnificent., and the falls are spectacular in full flight though sometimes only a trickle.
Hugh Koch tells me that besides his veggie garden, the Hamilton Botanical Gardens are a great space for kid friendly activities and picnics. The Black Ranges State Park and Grampians National Park are also special spots where he enjoys the smell of eucalyptus on a warm day.
Black Range State Park Off Henty Highway / Image courtesy of Southern Grampians Shire Council
So come this Queen's Birthday long weekend I'm off to explore Hamilton and the Southern Grampians with country music duo, Hugh and Hugh. It would be an excellent opportunity for me to test the mobile and internet connectivity in Hamilton with my global offices as well as Vodafone.
If you are thinking of making the trip, searching for accommodations in Hamilton is easy with choices ranging from hotels, motels, inns, bed and breakfasts to self-contained units at affordable prices.
I came across the Roll family (Anne, Jeff and Jess) at Comfort Inn Botanical. Located near the main street of Hamilton and the bus station at 75 French Street, it was an easy base for me to explore the town and surrounds over the three days. An onsite restaurant for dine in and room service means I won't go hungry. With rooms priced at approximately AUD125 per night and equipped with air-conditioning, internet access, television and tea and coffee making facilities, I reserved a standard queen room for two nights. Keep fingers crossed for an upgrade to an executive room with a spa bath. So come this Queen's Birthday long weekend, I'm off to explore Hamilton and the Southern Grampians with Hugh, Hugh and the Rolls. My country music band just got bigger.
The Southern Grampian Shire is aware that many Melburnians are thinking of a lifestyle change. Together with the Hamilton Regional Business Association, they are hosting a complimentary 2-day event on 9 and 10 June in Hamilton to help people make their regional Victoria dreams a reality. The event includes a function at the Visitor Information Centre on Saturday, 9 June where registered visitors can chat with local ambassadors about lifestyle and employment in the Shire over some food and drinks between 5pm to 7pm. A one-and-a-half hour bus tour of Hamilton and its surrounds departing from the Visitor Information Centre at 10am will orientate registered visitors on the facilities and amenities available.
Individuals and families considering rural living and would like to assess the suitability of Hamilton and the Southern Grampians Shire can register their interest directly with Mr Peter Johnson of the Southern Grampians Shire Council at [email protected] or call (03) 55730240 for further information. To get help with planning your visit, you can contact the Hamilton Visitor Information Centre at (03) 5572 3746 or (1800) 807 056.
I welcome you to join me on a special tour of Hamilton and the Southern Grampians as I add new pages to Lionel's Melbourne over the coming long weekend. Look forwarding to seeing you on the V-Line train or in Hamilton.