When Ken Helm moved to Murrumbateman more than 40 years ago there were plenty of sheep, but far fewer people. Back then it wasn’t easy to convince locals that the former gold country was ripe for winemaking, but Helm had a vision.
“They found it very amusing actually; that someone would try to grow grapes in what they only regarded as wool country,” he says.
The fourth generation of German winemakers who immigrated to Australia in the 1850s, Helm began his career as a CSIRO entomologist in Canberra, but eventually caught the wine bug and set up Helm Wines alongside his wife Judith. More than just a local businessman known for his award-winning Riesling and Bordeaux-inspired cabernets, Helm also served on the Yass Valley Council for 12 years, including two terms as mayor, and was imperative in helping the modern Murrumbateman flourish.
“In 1973 we couldn’t even get a builder to come from Canberra because it was too far. At the time it had a population of 100 people and the petrol station and the store had closed due to a lack of custom. Even the school had shut 18 months beforehand because they said the area had no potential for growth,” he says of his humble village half an hour outside of Canberra.
Fast forward four decades and Murrumbateman is a booming town that is home to more than 3000 people and now located in the heart of the Canberra District wine region. A comfortable two-and-a-half-hour drive south west of Sydney, the historic mining town has been reborn as a tourist hub with several cellar doors and a host of world-class artists and restaurants thrown into the mix.
“Winemaking just doesn’t happen to produce wine for the area, it also attracts other industries like accommodation. Abode wouldn’t be building here if it wasn’t for the wine industry. All those add-on industries come because of the wine,” Helm says, noting that the addition of Abode Group’s latest venture, due to open in February 2018, has locals buzzing.
“We’re ecstatic that it’s coming in because it’s going to add a dimension to Murrumbateman that’s been sadly lacking for years,” he says.
Fellow local, Michael Devey, has also seen his fair share of tourists make a beeline for the region in recent years. The American-born apiarist moved from California to Canberra and finally to Murrumbateman by 2000.
“We moved out here because it’s such a peaceful environment. We wanted to have a property where we could enjoy gardening and raise animals. In the end it was the bees that won us over,” he says.
Devey and his wife Maryanne run Wins Creek Meadery and Bindaree Bee Supplies, where visitors can pop in for lunch at the cafe and sample the local mead, hand-crushed cider or even try a honey beer. While there they can learn about beekeeping and honey production from the insects themselves.
“In the restaurant we’ve got an indoor beehive set up so visitors can look through the window at a real working cathedral hive,” he says.
Devey hopes a visit to the Meadery, which has been set up in the historic Traveller’s Rest Inn along the Barton Highway, will allow visitors the chance to sample the world of bees firsthand.
“The more you learn about bees, the more interesting you realise they are. They’re inspiring because they work so hard, there isn’t another creature on the planet that would work as hard as they do,” he says.
But the hardworking horses out at Burnelee and their farming family are also keen to show off their patch of paradise to those who are keen to saddle up.
For six generations Rachel Butt’s family has worked the land at Burnelee, a 3500- acre grazing property on the outskirts of Murrumbateman, and every Saturday visitors can get a taste of the local scenery on horseback.
With two-hour runs twice on Saturdays, the Burnelee Excursions on Horseback tour is a boutique offering for riders of all experience levels.
“What makes us unique is really where we ride. We ride through 11,000 acres of natural bushland on the property, as well as significant grazing area, so it’s not like we follow the same path all the time. It’s quite varied in terms of where we go and what we do,” Butt says.
And although Burnelee is a working property with its fair share of sheep and cattle to muster, Butt says there is a world of flora and fauna to discover.
“There’s plenty of birdlife, with the standard kangaroos and wallabies, which are pretty well guaranteed. And when the echidnas are coming out of hibernation we often see them as well as lots of lizards or goannas. In terms of experiencing the Australian bush it’s a brilliant thing for international visitors,” she says.
Abode Murrumbateman will welcome its first guests in early February 2018. Bookings are now open here or via 1800 1 ABODE (22633).