At heart, I’m not exactly a city girl.
I grew up moving around the States every couple of years, bouncing from one version of suburbia to another. With the exception of Atlanta, we tended to live on the outskirts of smaller cities: Cincinnati, Chesapeake, Fort Wayne, Columbus, Richmond. For the most part, they weren’t the most exciting cities (sorry, old homes — I still love you all!), and my family didn’t spend a lot of time exploring them. Instead, the constant my childhood revolved around most was the sweeping farm where my mom grew up in southern Indiana. Today, no matter where I am, I always feel most at home surrounded by green, by endless expanses of trees, big blue skies and open roads. It’s why I’ve made the tiny village of Saxapahaw, North Carolina my current home base, and it’s why when I travel, I always seek out nature first.
For me, it wasn’t the experience of living abroad that made moving to Melbourne a big deal — it was living in a city. Until moving there in January, my only experience with city living was the semester I studied abroad in San José, Costa Rica. As far as international cities go, San José is famously underwhelming. I didn’t hate on it as much as some of my friends there did, but I did escape nearly every weekend to explore the country’s much more enticing beaches, volcanoes and rainforests. Let’s just say that compared to San José, Melbourne is of a different breed entirely.
I loved living in Melbourne.
I know, I know: I’ve been raving about how incredible Melbourne is for months, from the wonders of exploring trendy neighborhoods like Brunswick to its amazing market scene. I’ve practically been beating people over the head with my love for Melbourne, and I promise I’ll give it a rest soon. This time around, though, I’m not talking about Melbourne exactly. Instead, I’m talking about getting out of Melbourne. Some days, even living across from the palm-fringed St. Kilda Beach wasn’t enough green for me. Every now and again, I just needed to escape from the city.
Luckily, I didn’t have to go far.
The Dandenong Ranges are just a short train ride from the city. When I learned that Melbourne’s public transport could get me far enough outside the city to hike in the mountains, I could hardly believe it. Sure, the mountains are small — this isn’t the place to go if you’re after any sort of lengthly or intensive trekking. It is, however, the perfect place to visit if you find yourself itching for some nature on a beautiful day. The trees tower, mist clings to the air and fern glades spill into the walking paths. It feels like a world apart from the city.
I escaped to the Dandenongs twice, once this past summer and again on a particularly glorious winter day during my recent return to Melbourne. Both times, I went for a little hike known as the 1000 Steps or Kokoda Track Memorial Walk. Located in the Ferntree Gully region of the Dandenong Ranges National Park, the steps were first constructed from tree trunks in the early 1900s. They were replaced by concrete steps in 1950, and in 1998, the walking trail was adopted by veterans of the World War II Kokoda campaign as a memorial site. The 1942 Kokoda Track campaign was one of the most significant battles fought by Australians during the war, and plaques along the trail here in the Dandenongs recall the efforts of the Australian and Papuan soldiers who fought Japan in the near-impossible terrain of Papua New Guinea’s jungled mountains.
The 1000 Steps walk is short (only three kilometers) but steep. We attempted to count the stairs the first time we visited, but as it turned out, we took the trail the wrong way and ended up coming down the steps in the dark. The second time, I was too distracted to remember to count. If you’ve ever done the walk and counted, let me know — are there actually a thousand stairs? It sure feels like it!
During our summer visit, we packed a picnic to enjoy at the top of our little hike. The best part? When we reached the picnic area, we met a life-loving Italian man who owned a berry farm nearby. He just radiated joy, I swear. He gave each of us boxes of strawberries for our picnic and joined us in the grass for a bit, expounding on his life philosophies and how love and happiness are really what it all comes down to. Free strawberries and good company on a gorgeous summer day — what more could you ask for?
Just before leaving Melbourne, my friend Anna and I ran into an Indian street food truck after visiting the Federation Square Book Market in the city. We were able to snag some food just as they were closing up, and the woman who served us mentioned that they set up at The Gully Market near the 1000 Steps every weekend.
Indian street food and a hike? Of course I had to go back.
And so, when I was back in the city last month and woke up to weather almost too good to be true for a winter day in Melbourne, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to go back. I was crashing with some friends in Elwood at the same time they happened to be hosting a friend from Perth, and as both our mutual friends had to work, Nick joined me for my return trip to the Dandenongs. We were kind of hungover from celebrating the 4th of July in Melbourne the night before, which meant we got a bit of a late start. We arrived at The Gully Market in time to get a delicious lunch from Babaji’s Kitchen. We realized in hindsight that eating Indian food right before conquering the 1000 Stairs probably wasn’t the best choice, but oh well — you live and you learn, right? Next time, maybe I’ll plan to treat myself to a feast after the hike!
The 1000 Stairs/Kokoda Track Memorial Walk isn’t the only part of the Dandenongs worth exploring, although it’s the only part I’ve seen. The Puffing Billy train is a popular tourist attraction in the area as well, and surrounding towns like Olinda and Belgrave are meant to have a lots of little stores and galleries for shopping. Personally, I’m hoping to check out Sherbrooke Forest next time I visit the Dandenongs. I was psyched to see a kookaburra at the 1000 Stairs, but I’m especially keen to see the lyrebirds Sherbrooke is famous for.
Notes for Visiting
You can easily access the 1000 Steps/Kokoda Track Memorial Walk from the city. Just take the Belgrave line from either Southern Cross or Federation Square and get off at Upper Ferntree Gully. The ride takes about an hour. From the station, head west and walk down the road for about ten minutes until you see the park entrance. If you’re interested in checking out The Gully Market, which has some seriously delicious-looking food trucks and few arts vendors, you’ll want to plan your trip for a weekend, when the trail does tend to get pretty crowded. The market runs 8am-3pm on Saturdays and 9am-3pm on Sundays.