Western Australia's Avon Valley could be the state's most underrated weekend road tripping destination. When it comes to filling up the itinerary, it ticks the boxes. A string of quaint towns? Check. Unique outdoor adventures and quirky happenings? Check. Naturally picturesque? A stunning patchwork, in fact.
The Avon Valley's scenery boasts green hills, thirsty fields of edible gold (wheat), towering wandoo trees, and all with the mighty Avon River snaking through. Oh, and its character ridden towns – Toodyay, York, Northam, Beverley, to name a few – are just as colourful with heritage buildings, street art murals and cultural riches of the region's traditional custodians, the Nyoongar Ballardong.
There's no doubt that this section of WA's Wheatbelt region is an exciting place. You can even soak it all up on an airborne adventure – we're talking air balloon rides, gliding rides. But if you want to stay grounded, that's fine too; there's plenty to see and do around this historic region. And although often overlooked, its location just over an hour's drive east of Perth makes it an easy escape for day trips or extended breaks to step back in time.
My partner and I kicked off the adventure in York, 98km east of Perth. The town is steeped in history, being the state's first inland European settlement in 1831. In its heyday, it was the last rail stop before reaching the goldfields with colonial architecture along the main street, Avon Terrace, an opulent marker of WA's former gold rush era. These days, York finds its riches as a tourist destination.
We were welcomed by York's annual heritage festival and what a spectacle it was. Some locals dressed up in centuries old garments as shiny vintage cars passed along the main street. A group of black top-hatted, red suspender wearing men soon stopped traffic as they rode penny farthings, seemingly having the time of their lives.
"In a place like York, there's always something to do." A local shop owner told us as we basked in the sights of yesteryear. You could sense it, too, with everyone getting into the spirit of things.
York's countryside ambience was set by an older local strumming on his guitar outside Nymble Nynepence, just one of a few antique stores in York. Other timely things to see all year round include a visit to the York Motor Museum housing vintage, classic and racing cars; the 1840s Courthouse and Gaol; getting a childlike sugar high at Penny Farthing Sweets. But of course, there's nothing like entering a good old country pub, and York has a few of those. Visit the 1886 built Imperial Homestead for upmarket modern Australian cuisine, or head to the Castle Hotel for a more local, laidback affair.
You can expect to find well located RV overnight parking spots along the Avon River throughout the region, including York. But if you are wanting to go more rural, head to White Gum Farm, 25km east of York.
Located in Needling Hills, the 300 acre caravan park truly is one of a kind. It boasts a human made swimming pool, Lake Kimberley, that is a hit with the kids, a 4WD obstacle course for the oldies and attracts aviation enthusiasts to its airfield. White Gum Air Park is the state's largest privately owned airport, just a short stroll from the campground. It offers scenic 3-axis ultralight and gyrocopter flights and training if you're that way inclined.
We joined the crowd at the park's viewing platform to watch countless light aircraft take off and land. Convenient, cheap entertainment right next to the campground. The planes dwarfed the four Boeing 737-200 aircraft parked in the paddock next door, once the pride of defunct airline OzJet. The aircraft now operates as a unique Airbnb accommodation for those who ever dreamt of sleeping in business class.
Adding to the peculiar line-up is the menu at the park’s Lake Kimberley Bar & Grill. The weekend only restaurant serves up homemade buffalo, kangaroo, and crocodile burgers. But if not one with an adventurous palate, there's also the stock standard pub grub on offer.
Small yet vibrant is a good way to describe Beverley, 33km south of York. Home to 1,700 residents, Beverley is big on creativity, with art galleries and workshops bookending the historic town.
There's Beverley Station Gallery, a community arts centre housed in the former train station and The Art Garden Gallery, an Alice in Wonderland inspired greenlit oasis filled with cement sculptures of all shapes and sizes by local artist Mandy Evans. It seems the creative spirit extends to outdoor pursuits, too – tractor pulling and lawnmower racing are both big in Beverley.
"Follow the noise!" Mandy told us as we couldn't help but become distracted by the sounds of roaring engines in the distance.
We made our way to the Beverley Racecourse to join locals watching dirt drags and tractors being towed for entertainment's sake. Beverley hosts the wacky racing event throughout the year with a food truck, licenced bar, and a coffee cart onsite to make the most of the day out in the country.
Sitting in the grandstand was like watching real life Mario Kart seeing these farm rides zipping through the outback circuit. Finally, one motorsport I'm on board with.
Expect to encounter English countryside charm in the historic farming town Toodyay, 64km north of York. Its rolling green hills and well preserved colonial architecture – a red phone booth included – make up its spectacular scenery.
But there's also a rebellious side to one of WA's oldest towns. It's here that Australia's other infamous bushranger, Joseph Bolitho Johns, best known as 'Moondyne Joe', started his jailbreaking career. His escapades are best captured (pun intended) at the convict built Newcastle Gaol Museum. But even more bizarre, the notorious legend is celebrated in Toodyay each year with the annual Moondyne Festival in May.
The colonial festival encourages people to dress in pioneer period regalia, even mimic Joe and get involved in mock arrests and trials. And if you're one to grow a killer mo, there's even a moustache competition.
We decided to best channel our bushranger ways by hiking Pelham Reserve. Besides offering stunning panoramic views of Toodyay and beyond, the lookout spot is the starting point for many walking tracks varying in length. The trails are peppered with historical sites such as remnants of a rifle range, World War II bunker sites and a revetment reservoir.
Pelham Reserve Lookout
But like the other towns, Toodyay also has its own quirks to appeal to both young and old. The Toodyay Fairytale Farm boasts large nursery tale inspired art displays, outdoor mazes, games and farm animals. But if there is one animal you had to encounter, let it be an emu at the world's oldest emu farm, Free Range Emu Farm.
You'll be able to view Australia's big bird in a safe, natural setting and see the hatching process when the time calls. Just imagine seeing a baby emu! There's also a shop that sells emu products such as therapeutic oils, meats and more - catering to a very niche market.
Located 100km east of Perth, Northam is the starting point of the larger-than-life Public Silo Trail, traversing across the Wheatbelt region. The town's most iconic artworks are splashed across 38m high silos, presenting abstract depictions of the town's landscape.
You can also see the town excel from another angle by visiting Bilya Koort Boodja. Located within the CBD, the world-class indigenous culture centre showcases the rich history of the Nyoongar Ballardong region through interactive displays.
But to really see the town in technicolour, take to the skies in a hot air balloon, one of the region's major tourist drawcards. Locally owned Windward Balloon Adventures offers dawn departures from Northam Airfield, 36km north of York or 92km east of Perth. The season takes off in April until late November, with rides lasting roughly an hour or so.
It might not be everyone's idea of fun waking up at an ungodly hour, bearing the brunt of freezing temperatures and slowly turning into a human popsicle, but worth enduring for a memorable flight – even if it's a borderline prerequisite to dress for the Arctic.
My mood shifted from dazed to full blown excitement as I heard Canadian crooner Michael Bublé's 'Come fly with me' play on the bus enroute to our departure point. A very apt song choice of what was to come. Nice one.
Soon, we would arrive at an airfield lit up by the full moon's glare and watch our novel mode of transport coming into its big, bright yellow existence. But as the sky started to change colour into pastel pinks and blues, I began to get nervous. Sure, it was a magical setting but were we about to miss seeing the sunrise from 2,500ft?
A dozen of us made our way into the eight sections of the balloon's wicker basket, gleefully hanging on for lift off and wow, what an ascent. With the sun finally making its peek-a-boo over the horizon, the valley slowly appeared like the famed colourful patchwork it's known for. Roads looked like long strips of liquorice bordering rolling red, gold, and green fields. The rural landscape was dotted with broccoli-sized trees, dollhouse buildings, snaking rivers, miniature farm animals, and schoolyard scribble tractor trails.
I was mesmerised by the world below my toes and now felt invigorated with the fresh, crisp air floating to Northam. I felt present; I felt at peace. But like all good things, it had to come to an end, but not without a post high celebration involving champagne and a full English breakfast.
With bellies and hearts full, I'd say that Avon Valley really does deserve the hype.