The West

The Murray River at Dwellingup. Picture: Stephen Scourfield

An hour-and-a-half's drive south of Perth, Dwellingup hunkers down in a pretty valley surrounded by the drip and dapple of jarrah forest.

I still find it hard to believe this picturesque township was almost destroyed in 1961, when lightning started a bushfire. The huge burn raged for five days and damaged 140,000ha of State forest, including many nearby communities.

Rebuilt and regenerated, Dwellingup is now one of very few timber towns remaining in this part of WA.

Walking along Dwellingup's wide, well-kept streets, I'm pleased to see that the old general store still bakes its own bread and stocks an impressive array of river fishing gear.

Just around the corner, the Dwellingup Hotel, extensively renovated in 2013, serves up old-fashioned home-style counter meals and offers not one but two log fires.

If nature's your thing, Dwellingup delivers in spades. It's one of only a handful of town sites which the world-class Bibbulmun Track passes through.

There's also an informative Forest Heritage Centre, where you can walk the 11m platform into the forest canopy.

For more than two decades, weekend kayakers such as me have gathered at the Dwellingup Adventures depot each spring, donning slightly damp wetsuits to brave the rapids of the mighty Murray River. Some are lucky and don't fall in - but not me. Fortunately, there's always hot soup and crusty bread waiting back at the company's HQ.

But this time it's the historic Hotham Valley Tourist Railway which has lured Neil and I away from the big smoke. With us are Joan and Stuart, visitors from Brisbane who want to experience WA's only remaining dinner train, the Etmilyn Forest Diner.

In the early 1900s, Dwellingup played a central role in the transport of timber from outlying communities to the town mill.

The mill railway was opened in 1910 and, by 1918, Dwellingup had become a centre for forest management. In 1920, an area known as Etmilyn was established as a steam locomotive watering point.

The town mill closed in the late 1950s and the railway was all but forgotten until a community employment program funded the restoration of what is today the State's last surviving lightly built developmental railway.

Climb aboard the train to Etmilyn during the day and you'll see the forest from a diesel- powered converted open freight wagon with tram seating.

But on Saturday nights, the dining cars come out, their large picture windows giving eerily beautiful views of the forest lit by the train's strategically placed lights.

Just across the park from the Hotham Valley Railway station lies Apres Huit, our accommodation for the evening. A purple flowering daphne bush takes pride of place in the well-maintained front garden, giving the house a vaguely olde-worlde cottage look.

But don't be deceived by the cutesy exterior. Inside, an extensive makeover has given Apres Huit the glamorous air of a Vogue Entertaining photo spread.

Co-owner Robert Bayliss has invested not just money but creative energy into this little gem of a holiday home. Extensively renovated and painted in muted, contemporary tones, it's a glorious work of art - a dignified, delicious mishmash of art objects and carefully designed areas for rest and relaxation.

Apres Huit has three bedrooms, two with ensuites, along with a gourmet kitchen with a coffee machine, quality glassware and crockery.

The big, airy lounge/dining area has a real log fire, a CD collection that covers everything from Brahms to Billy Bragg and, as with the rest of the house, is air-conditioned.

Walking around the garden, I feel as if I've been transported to an English country estate.

Tall hedges and manicured box divide the large outdoor space into a wonderland of nooks and crannies.

Around every corner lies a surprise. An expansive outdoor dining terrace offering ample shade. A romantic little hideaway complete with double sofa offers a secluded spot for those seeking privacy.

In spring, borders of iris and bluebells give way to citrus trees and carefully pruned rose bushes. Each year, Rob plants about 1000 flower bulbs, often opening his grounds to visitors to raise money for Afford, a charity that operates an orphanage in Kenya.

After pre-dinner drinks, we wander across to where the train awaits us and climb aboard our circa-1884 club car.

There's something very special about riding in an old train. Sitting back as uniformed waiters run back and forth to deliver the first of the evening's many glasses of wine, I can't help but imagine how it must have been all those years ago, before fast cars and the internet taught us to disregard the tyranny of distance.

The five-course meal begins with soup and ends with a generous cheese platter. Gourmet fare it's not, but sipping on a complimentary port as our train cheerily chugs its way back towards Dwellingup, we all agree it's hard not to be impressed by this little enterprise.


Apres Huit costs from $300 per night for four. Dwell Cottage is from $160 per night for two.

The Etmilyn dinner train runs every Saturday night and costs $79 per person. The Hotham Valley Railway's other train services run on weekends and during school holidays.

Dwellingup Adventures runs escorted whitewater-rafting trips from June-October, water levels permitting. They cost $150 per person.

Dwellingup's major musical event, the Nanga Music Festival, runs from October 10-12.

The West Australian

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