COVID hasn’t given the world any joy just heartache. Australia has generally dodged the death tolls of other countries. Victoria was hardest hit with 820 deaths whilst the remainder of the country managed a total of 73 deaths. As such Melburnians looked on as the rest of the country was maskless and enjoying forgotten freedom. For us the months of prolonged confinement has drained any enthusiasm, plans or dreams from its citizens.
All that changed as Christmas loomed, thoughts turned to holidays, infection case numbers dropped. Suddenly you could once again strut the streets mask free. Oh to be able to see and feel a smile on passersbys. We scrambled to make last minute holiday bookings, local destinations. Less grandiose than previous years. Nearby grass roots destinations of our childhood. Faded memories of hot hours in the backseat with your bickering siblings, the windows wound down, a crackling dry dragon’s breathe rushing in.
Kylie and I pared back our Christmas gifts a few years ago. An experience to share has become the highly anticipated present. Kylie’s experience gift to me this year was a couple of nights in a forgotten country town in the dry wheat towns of the Wimmera Mallee area. A region of sometimes lucrative crops but also heartbreaking earth cracking droughts.
With my Mother in-law, Patricia along for the ride and a 14 week old puppy, Hugo we looked and were an odd gang. Our road trip started before the Christmas ham had a chance to dry out. We wrapped that ham like a baby, it was the hero of all our lunches. By the time we turned for home it was only a flabby, greasy husk. The ham was supported by homemade mince pies and a Tupperware container brimming with ginger date slices. Slices that sucked all moisture from the roof of your mouth. I felt like an early explorer pleading for water as another two were passed to the driver.
The car purrs along pointed North- West, we squint into the unforgiving sun. The scenery melts to a hazy monotony. Its a shimmering dry land going on it seems forever. Its rolling barren land thinly sprinkled with scrubby trees. Flinty ground which once offered up life changing gold nuggets it slowly flattened off to cropping country. Morning tea at Bridgewater on Loddon produced its own golden Eureka moment.
There was a healthy queue outside the local bakery. A heart-starting coffee to nullify a coma producing vanilla slice. My mind was open when I entered the bakery but the array of cakes was heavily in favour of their famous vanilla slice. Tray after tray sagged under their creamy filling. I bought three they are impossible to share. Our gang fell silent as we inhaled the pastries staring straight ahead into the sluggish Loddon river. We could all relate.
Next stop Wedderburn, Kylie’s childhood town. Full of memories of country freedom and being swooped by pesky magpies on the way to school. We did the official Kylie tour which included the names of long ago neighbours, her horse’s nearby paddock and the route to school. A detour to the sports ground where she sold ice creams, a drive past the pub where she scrubbed pots and a nod to a house where she babysat children barely older than her twelve year old self. But the real highlight was a drive up Hard Hill where at a tender age she got her first kiss. Yes we had to reenact the whole scene complete with pounding hearts and tightly scrunched up eyes. Thoughtfully, no thankfully, Patricia turned the other way.
Our accomodation was at Sea Lake a town reinvented through the silo art and the nearby salt lake. The pre Covid Chinese tourists discovered it flocking here to pose out on the shallow salt lake. They used sunsets, silhouettes and shimmering reflections for envious selfies to those on Instagram.
The Sea Lake pub has been bought by a group of locals who have reinvigorated the place. Fresh paint, new beds, crisp linen and air conditioning. A sweeping veranda complete with wrought iron lacework and an afternoon breeze to wash away the heat. A menu of traditional pub food prepared with care and attention mixed with the comfort of a room where everyone knows each other. It’s a winner.
Over the next two days we roamed the Mallee region to photograph the old concrete wheat silos. The towering landmarks alongside the network of railway lines have been the collection point for grain for over one hundred years. No longer used for storage they now catch our eye as vast canvases depicting farm and country life over the years. Local and International artists are chosen after spending time immersing themselves in this unique rural life. Their finished work ranges from hard weathered faces to celebrations of the purple tinged skies. They are tucked into forgotten towns with names like Rupanyup, Patchewollock and Sheep Hills ( no sheep and dead flat for as far as the eye can see ? ) Tourists are now pulling up in a cloud of dust to appreciate both the art and this remote environment the farmers toil away year after year.
My highlight was a fifteen minute conversation with an eighty year old farmer from Patchewollock who has ridden the wild ride of bumper and failed crops. Of times where farming techniques caused massive erosion and dust storms visible in Melbourne to today’s minimal disturbance method. Gone too is the rotation cropping and sheep to feed on the wheat stubble. We stared out onto a never ending straw coloured stubble all that is left after the harvesting machines shave the fields. When we met the elderly farmer he was telling friends a story of “Noodle” Holland the figure on one of the silos. A tall lanky local footballer, he fitted perfectly on the narrow tall silo in his faded flannelette shirt.
New Year’s Eve and what better way to spend the night than out on a desolate salt lake shimmering silver all the way to the horizon. Angry rolling clouds threatened to spoil the party as the sun set. We waited, lightening flashes filling the sky and the swirling wind licking the salty surface. On the horizon a super moon peeked above the clouds lighting the lake and signalling the start of another year. A better year for all we wished.