Nature-based tourism resurrects a town’s fortunes
STORY: MARGARET LINLEY PHOTOGRAPHY: VISIT VICTORIA
Nestled in the northern reaches of the Otways, Forrest’s very reason for existence was as a centre for the harvesting and milling of its ancient forests.
The timber mill closed in 2003, after turbulent protests between those who relied on the industry and environmentalists who wanted to see the forest protected.
Many predicted the town would languish into obscurity with livelihoods lost, but reinvention is Forrest’s hallmark. The little town has transformed itself into the mountain bike capital of Australia.
The tracks that were once used by heavy machinery are now the domain of mountain bike riders who flock to the town to hone their skills on the 60km of signposted single tracks which criss-cross the land. What seemed to be obsolete is a drawcard for riders who come for recreation, competitions and skill-development.
Bushwalkers discovered the dense fern and moss-covered gullies, and tall eucalyptus forests. They come for a glimpse of the elusive platypus at Lake Elizabeth, for the wallabies and ‘roos, and for the prolific birdlife.
Everyone comes for the cool forest air, for a slower pace, for a communion with nature.
In response to this rise from the ashes, timber workers’ cottages got a second wind as accommodation venues. A café, general store with great food, and a brewery added to the allure of Forrest. The hotel and caravan park also do great business. More recently, a chocolatier has sprung up in the town.
Even for those who have never visited, the reputation of the beer produced in this neck of the woods would perhaps be familiar to them.
“Forrest has a strong community feel. Things happen because the community makes it happen. What started as an incongruous idea on how to attract visitors during the colder months, became a flourishing festival.”
Forrest is a vibrant chameleon, offering a range of experiences to suit tourists and residents. Its housing market is tight; properties don’t hang around too long hanging as the interest is high. Housing prices (figures are for nearby Birregurra – there is not stand-alone data available for Forrest) have increased 5.5 percent in the last 12 months with the median sale price at $491,000 currently. This healthy property outlook would not have been foreseen by those who once forecast the town’s doom.
Forrest has a strong community feel. Things happen because the community makes it happen. What started as an incongruous idea on how to attract visitors during the colder months, became a flourishing festival which grows in scope each year. What was incongruous about that idea? Soup. That’s right; Forrest has an annual soup festival. It’s been on the calendar now for a dozen years. To be fair, there is also Run Forrest attached to the festival. Last year, 6000 people either drank soup and/or ran through ancient rainforests.
There is a neighbourhood house which has activities and programs focused on developing connectedness, history and culture and sustainability. There are 40 hours of programs weekly (dance, art, playgroup, etc). The House also holds a weekly community lunch where people can enjoy a two-course vegetarian lunch for $6. Loads of people turn up to this and make it quite an occasion.
There is a Men’s Shed which is very musical. You can just turn up without any instrument or experience and someone will hand you something to shake, drum or strum.
There are a number of notable differences in the demographics of Forrest compared with Victorian averages. Forrest has more Australian-born residents, more non-religious people, less working full-time, a lower weekly income, more childless couples and a higher home ownership than the Victorian average. It also has three times the state average in volunteerism.
There is one government primary school with an enrolment of 30 pupils. For secondary education, children need to look further afield to Colac (30km away) where there is a government secondary school (enrolment 484), a Catholic college (enrolment 750) and a Gordon TAFE campus.
There are also two Catholic primary schools in Colac.
Commuters can catch the train to Melbourne from nearby Birregurra, which 30km from Forrest.
The Traditional Custodians of Gadubanud country, where Forrest sits, are the Gunditjmara people.
WATTLE ROAD 🖤 The remarkable beauty of this Otway Ranges town where people – residents and tourists alike – come to commune with nature.
DISTANCE FROM MELBOURNE: 158 km
WHO LIVES HERE?
According to the 2016 Census:
♦ The median age of people in Forrest was 52 years. Children aged 0 – 14 years made up 12.1% of the population and people aged 65 years and over made up 19.5% of the population.
♦ Of the families in Forrest, 26.8% were couple families with children, 53.6% were couple families without children and 19.6% were one parent families.
♦ 5% of people were born in Australia. The only other responses for country of birth were England 6.4% and Germany 1.8%.
♦ The most common occupations in Forrest were professionals 28.8%, labourers 16.2%, managers 14.4%, technicians and trades workers 11.7%, community and personal service workers 11.7%, machinery operators and drivers 10.8% and clerical and administrative workers 6.3%.
CLIMATE: June average daily temperatures, max 13°C, minimum 3°C. December average temperature, maximum 22°C minimum 9°C.
MAJOR EMPLOYERS: Tourism, agriculture
SCHOOLS: One government primary school in Forrest. Other options in Colac with government and non-government primary, government secondary and a TAFE college campus.
NBN CONNECTION: Fixed Wireless (FW)
PROPERTY PRICES: There is no stand-alone market data available for Forrest, but prices in neighbouring Birregurra have increased 5.5 percent in the last 12 months, with the average median sale price sitting at $491,000.
SPORT AND RECREATION: Cycling, mountain-bike riding, running and cricket. There are also tennis and netball courts and a football oval but no teams. The horse-riding club has membership from far and wide with people bringing their horses to Forrest to trail-ride and afterwards use the club facilities.
ARTS AND CULTURE: The Neighbourhood House is the hub here with art, dance, music, and more on offer. The Men’s Shed has regular jam sessions. In addition to regular groups and activities there are also events, such as Women of the Otways dinners, a garage sale trail, a Halloween event and the annual soup festival.
I was familiar with a lot of regional towns because of my previous job and so I had got a good window into this place with its strong volunteerism and its beauty. There is also a sign as you’re coming into Forrest which says, ‘Senseless acts of love’. I always liked that.
Mike and I felt lucky to find 10 acres with planning approval. We sold our house in Torquay to fund the build and we thought we’d liked to get started in our new Forrest life, so we moved down here straight away and rented in town for 18 months while we were building. By the time we moved into our house, we already felt part of the community.
When you are new, it’s easy to have conversations with people at the shop or the brewery because people here are always interested in new faces.
Once I found out more about the types of groups that were around I put my hand up. I’m on the Neighbourhood House committee, the Soup Fest committee, the Forrest Assets Committee and I’m a member of the local Lions Club. I chose those because I felt like I had some skills that might be useful to those groups. Equally though, these groups had contacts, experiences and activities that were valuable to me. It’s a two-way street, an exchange of social capital.
A number of groups have recently collaborated on a town plan to strategically position the town as the gateway to the Otways and as a climate change research and education facility.
It takes a while to understand the relationship between, and within, formal groups and so I like to sit quietly for a while and notice the strengths and fault lines before I start having input. There is history and ties that bind and you don’t want to disrespect all that. If you want a town to accept you, you have to accept it first.
When the forestry industry closed down, there was a massive gap in the town, but that is being taken up more and more with tourism and nature-based experiences and the regenerative agriculture movement. Lots of new businesses are starting up.
I did miss some things at first. You’re not within arm’s reach of the family and so you have to make opportunities and plan things together. Our home and property is a real drawcard for the family though. They often come and stay and that was part of our planning to have a place to have nature-based family experiences with our grown kids and grandchildren.
You’re 30km away from petrol and grocery shopping, but you just learn to keep the tank full.
We are 30km from the city (Colac) and 30km from the beach (Apollo Bay).
Travel time is approximately 60 minutes.
FIND A PROPERTY
2235 Birregurra-Forrest Road, Forrest
210 Callahans Lane, Barwon Downs
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97-99 Grant Street, Forrest
4 3 2
59 Grant Street, Forrest
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