If there’s one town in New South Wales that proclaims peace, it’s Cowra.
When we visit, it’s tranquil, the Lachlan Valley stretching out before our view, the town surrounded by vineyards, farmland and waterways.
But this land holds a more troubled history. On a gentle slope overlooking the town, a prisoner of war camp was set up during World War II to hold Japanese, Italian, Korean, Chinese and Indonesian prisoners of war. It was an extensive camp holding more prisoners than the number of Cowra residents at the time.
At around 2am on the morning of 5 August 1944, over 1,000 Japanese war prisoners attempted to escape, the largest prisoner of war breakout in modern military history. During the escape and ensuing manhunt, 4 Australian soldiers and 231 Japanese soldiers were killed. The remaining escapees were re-captured and imprisoned.
It’s chilling to stand on the site today, picturing the scenes of chaos in the darkness of night, as a replay of the events unfolds, broadcast by loudspeaker from the guard tower beside us. It’s a tale of desperate men striving to maintain their honour and the few brave soldiers who tried to withstand the attack.
Not far away, the only Japanese war cemetery in Australia houses the graves of those prisoners who perished, now lying in peace beside the graves of Australian soldiers. It’s a place of tranquillity, a light breeze blowing as we wander beneath the Japanese maples. The site, tended by the RSL, is often visited by Japanese dignitaries on their visits to Australia.
The area’s significance to Japanese-Australian relations was further reinforced when the Cowra Japanese Garden and Cultural Centre was later built on Bellevue Hill to commemorate these events. Initially viewed as a tourist attraction, the gardens have become a symbol of reconciliation between Japan and Australia.
Funded largely by the Japanese Government as a sign of thanks for the respectful treatment of their war dead, with further funding from the Australian Government and private entities, the garden was designed by world-renowned designer, Ken Nakajima, and opened in two stages in 1979 and 1986.
The ‘strolling’ gardens were designed in the style of the Edo period when Japan was united under one shogun. We have just missed the annual Sakura Matsuri (cherry blossom festival held each September), a major event in Cowra’s tourism calendar, but the springtime gardens are resplendent with foliage, their rocky hillsides, manicured hedges, waterfalls, lakes and streams representing the Japanese landscape. Mr Nakajima said it was the best garden he had ever made, and upon his death his ashes were placed at the top of the garden overlooking his masterpiece.
Today, visitors to Cowra seek not only to learn about its war history and gardens, they also come to taste food and wine from the area.
The Quarry Restaurant is the only Cowra restaurant situated among the vines. Rustic, with French-influenced cuisine, it’s a place to settle in and enjoy a glass of local wine with good food. A cellar door off the restaurant offers tastings during the day from Thursday to Sunday, when lunch is also available.
The first vines had been planted in Cowra when the first settlers arrived, however many early settlers moved to Mudgee as it was a more prosperous town.
Cowra had to wait until the 1970s for vineyards to be planted once more, Brian Croser being instrumental in establishing the industry in its early days. In fact, his first Petaluma Chardonnay was made from Cowra grapes.
With warm days, cool nights and good rainfall, Cowra and nearby Canowindra produce excellent wines, 75% of it organic. Windowrie’s award-winning winemaker, Anthony D’Onise, describes how today’s winemakers have embraced natural winemaking trends, looking back to their ancestors to see practices relevant to making wine today. A champion of vegan and preservative-free wine, the results can be seen in his Windowrie The Mill Shiraz which won a string of trophies, including the 2016 NSW Wine of the Year. Other wineries in the region include Gardners Ground, Rosnay, Wallington, Kalari and Pinnaroo.
Although you can visit cellar doors by yourself, we took the Cowra Wine & Forage Tour to enjoy a care-free taste of the region’s wines. Without the hassle of driving and finding wineries on country roads, this group tour ensured that we met producers at the farm gate. Our experience and enjoyment were maximised and shared with others, giving us an unforgettable experience.
Whether you visit Cowra to enrich your knowledge of history or to further your enjoyment of food and wine, Cowra is only a four-hour drive from Sydney, perfect for a long weekend ‘escape’ or a stop on a longer road trip.
NOTE: Good Food Gold Coast was a guest of Central NSW Tourism, Cowra Tourism, Cowra Japanese Garden, Aalana Motor Inn and The Quarry Restaurant.