Australia had a raft of gold rushes in 1851 and then throughout the rest of the early 1850s. As I understand it, gold had been discovered earlier in the colony’s history, but kept hush-hush. When that policy changed, we got gold rushes. Crazy, mad, wonderful, awful gold rushes. In a lot of ways, my romantic sense of Outback Australia is shaped just as surely by the greed, desperation, poverty, thirst, ingenuity and humanity of the gold rushes* as it is by the rhythms of Banjo Paterson.**
The road between Melbourne and Bendigo (old gold town) is chockers with exceptionally distracting wine regions. With it still being the shoulder of peak holiday season, I was expecting every winery to be open – but that was not in fact the case. I tried 3 and only one of them was open. And that one was buying Western Australian grapes
At about this point, I realised it was an anti-museum Monday and a quick check of the phone brought home that a lot of the things I had wanted to see in Bendigo were not going to be open. I hate anti-Museum Mondays. So instead I doglegged over to Echuca to check out the old port, etc on the Murray River.
The Murray River is the third-longest navigable river in the world, and they have classic paddle steamers. I mean, I like fast cars more (oh baby!), but paddle steamers are pretty great. An hour long cruise out and back takes you precisely nowhere, but the narration gives you a good sense of what used to be there and various flood dates to explain why those things are no longer there. The crew were un-self-consciously ocker, which I loved, but also felt a little alienated by.***
I was outside in Echuca for about 2 hours. It was 43 degrees. I got about half-an-hour down the road and had to pull over due to not cooling down at all. Drank another 2litres of water and eventually felt well enough to investigate the cherry farm.
It was pumping out Billy Joel’s 52nd Street album and I was feeling OK-enough to eat cherry icecream so I did. One of the great and not-so-great travelling alone things is that you don’t have to worry about anyone else’s embarrassment if you feel like miming your heart out to classic Billy Joel. On the other hand, you look really crazy when you do it by yourself. Either way, the ice-cream was pretty good.
Cruising further along I eventually reached a point where I hit my driving hours for the day and had to stop. This is not a set number of hours, it varies on the day, and usually I hit my fear of ‘a wild kangaroo suddenly appears’ light-conditions before I find that I can’t see the road anymore because my eyelids have gotten in the way. A quick google confirmed the nearby presence of state forest, so straight through the middle of Benalla I went (very tidy and attractive little town) and into Reef Hills State Park to find a campsite.
Found a nice spot to the side of a little pullover and set up camp. A couple of people stopped to check that I was OK and that I had water and food and felt safe – thanks Daniel and Andrew. Coming up on dark, a small and very determined Jack Russell-cross dog trotted down the road, saw the car and went “Thank god! My human!” and was then very disappointed that it was only me. But he definitely still thought the car was his car, so I put a bowl of water down for him and left him to lie under the rear bumper until he’d cooled down a little.
He had no tags, but he was registered in Benalla, so I figured I’d hold onto him for the night and take him into the town vet in the morning. Just when I’d given him some bribery salami and started making serious friends with him, a car crawled up the hill toward me, clearly looking into the trees for a lost dog. I flagged them down and they were super-happy to have found him. It turns out the reason my spot was so nice for camping is that they’ve been casually grooming it over the course of a couple of years. The last time the forest had a controlled burn, they lost their tepee and a heap of wild-play cubbies.
I tried to follow their casual stroll instructions the next morning, but my own damn curiosity got in the way and I ended up having a poke around in the low areas, watching foxes and getting a bit sunburnt. It was my first Box-Ironbark forest and it’s clearly in a regrowth phase. The oldest trees are not very old and there is lots of coppice regrowth. The whole region is pretty bare and lacking in forested areas, so I don’t know what the ecological linkages are like. It’s a pretty isolated stand.
Wednesday was another stupidly hot and muggy day, so I once again spent most of the day in the car. I stopped for a long break at Glenrowan, because Ned Kelly. That town is 100% Ned Kelly 100% of the time. I’ve never really been sure what to make of the Ned Kelly. What I can say, is that my absolute favourite part of the legend is that after they take the town hostage (yes, the whole town) EVERYBODY gets crazy drunk and they have a huge party.
From Albury Wodonga onwards it became clear that my sunglasses were broken, because there was a definitely tinge of green in the hillsides. Green on the hillsides? In summer? What sorcery is this?
My next stop was at the Dog on the Tuckerbox. It makes me so happy that one of Australia’s well-loved monuments commemorates a folk-song/ballad that commemorates an utterly terrible day that culminated with the dog ‘sitting’ in the food.
It was still stinking hot, but I was nearing my ‘done for the day’ feeling and consulted google for suitable camping spots. Google said ‘drive through Canberra’ on your way to a $9/night campground. Hmm. I contacted the lovely K and asked if she minded if I showed up one day early. All fine on her end, so I strolled in via “just one more” winery and promptly went out for dinner with a collection of very bright, funny, well-travelled and engaging Federal Government grads. Everyone I’ve met who has been through a Federal Public Service graduate program is utterly delightful.
So lovely to see my former colleagues doing so well in the leafy parts of Canberra and doing interesting and challenging work. I wanna grow up to be a grad too!
*And, tbh, The Late Show’s “The Olden Days”. Whippersnappers please note that it was Champagne Comedy.
**When I first met Banjo Patterson not long after we moved to Australia, I didn’t know what ANY of the Australian vegetation was. My mental image of ‘stringybark’ was really a long way out.
***Any attempt I make at ocker-ness and mateship turns into satire, and my ‘friendly ribbing’ has some pretty sharp edges.
Random extra – Reef Hills management plan