XMAS 2015 was always going to be an exceptional. This was because it would be the first Xmas my immediate family would not be spending a Xmas in hometown Sydney, and it would be my first Xmas ever in the Australian rural countryside. I had been invited to join my brother-in-law and sister, and nephew, at his sister’s and her husbands home in Victoria state town of Wodonga for Xmas. The first time we were to spend a Xmas with my brother-in-law’s family – a well overdue event considering the 42 years strong and still going relationship between my sister and my brother-in-law. We were all looking forward to it very much – and we were not to be disappointed as it turned out to be one to the best Xmas I have ever had – in such a great place, with such wonderful people.
The following is the first of six entries of my Xmas 2015 Travel Journal. We did numerous things over the six day holiday period, from 23-29 December 2015, but I need to put in the following disclaimer – as you will not see everything. I do not put up photos of my my family, unless their faces cannot be recognized. This is in respect for their privacy. as well as their patience for my photography obsessions. So – you will not be seeing many actual Xmas family dinners and lunches etc, of which their were many – and all great fun! What you will see, however, is numerous environmental photos, of landscapes, historical places, working places including a dairy farm, galleries, museums, and old towns that collectively represent and give a small glimpse of a fascinating region of rural Australia, one that is profoundly connected to the Murray River and Valley, and the Gold-Rush the 1850s, and the story of Ned Kelly. I hope you enjoy it and be inspired to explore this region of Australia.
DAY 1: ADELAIDE to WODONGA – Wednesday 23 December, 2015.
We left Adelaide very early in the morning of December 23, beginning the approximately nine hours drive to Albury-Wodonga. We travelled virtually directly east until we came to the Murray River and the old historic Victorian towns of Swan Hill and Echuca.
We headed along to Murray Valley Highway towards Swan Hill, enthralled and amazed at the majestic breadth of the Australian rural countryside. However, before we got to Swan Hill we were compelled by a desire that was to repeat itself a few times on this trip – the need to have a picture of one of the numerous and infamous ‘Giant Statues’ that characterize places all over Australia, primarily on the main highways – our first was the giant statue Giant Murray River Cod.
Swan Hill is a small town at the junction of the Loddon and Murray Rivers. The site was named Swan Hill by the explorer Thomas Mitchell in 1836, due his observation of numerous swans and other water birds that flocked around the junction of the two rivers. There is evidence, however, that the place was inhabited by indigenous Australians 13,000 years ago. It is still the home of the Werri-Werri people, whose name for the site being Matakupaat, meaning ‘place of the platypus’ is for me is also a great name, both ‘Swan Hill’ and Matakupaat being full of romantic imaginings.
The first river punt across the Murray River began in 1846, which effectively established the town, being the only river crossing for miles – and for years.The importance of this river junction site in the agricultural and mercantile development of the town was furthered with the establishment of a Post Office in 1849, and even more so in 1853 when Francis Cadell brought his paddle-steamer, the ‘Lady Augusta’, to Swan Hill, marking the beginning of the highly prosperous, popular, and also highly romantic, paddle-steam business and heritage of Swan Hill in the late nineteenth-century.
In the old section of the current town, along the banks of the Murray River, there are many of the old buildings from the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century that have been either maintained and/or restored, verifying the prosperity of Swan Hill. One street, right on the Murray River, where one can still take a paddle-steamer up and down the river, has been made to replicate the old town with all its late-nineteenth-century charm.
To my delight and surprise this also included an old Penny Arcade.
This Penny Arcade is in the rear of one of the old buildings, the front of which is more like and old warehouse and stables, and now is a conventional tourists shop. The Penny Arcade, however, is far from conventional; it is one of the few remaining such places in the country. It is not like a real old Penny Arcade, yet it has a number of old games and Peepshows dating from the early years of the twentieth-century. I remember from my childhood some of these old machines, the precursors to some of today’s digital games, in old Luna Park and other old ‘amusement’ halls and piers in Sydney.
The Peepshows were extremely important in the development of the motion pictures, marking the beginning of mass and popular viewing of ‘moving pictures’. In this case, however, the viewing was completely solo with one, after putting in the right amount of pennies, watched the moving images through a viewer – the viewer being more in the role of kind of individual voyeur rather than a member of an audience. To add to the enjoyment of this experience, in a glimpse of how another early generation entertained themselves, we discovered in a small park right outside, next to the building that contained the Penny Arcade, another old fashioned game that we certainly played as children – ‘Hop-Scotch’.
We travelled down the Murray Valley Highway to the next major town, Echuca, which also enjoyed the paddle-steamer trade, and was also one of the major financial, agricultural and mercantile town in the region (and still is). Like Swan Hill, Echuca is situated near the junction of rivers, in this case – the Murray, the Goulburn and Campaspe Rivers. The site was originally called Hopwood’s Crossing, due to a rather flamboyant and colourful ex-convict, Harry Hopwood who in 1850 began operating a punt across the rivers. It steadily rose to prosperity due to the position of the Echuca Wharf, which being only 200kms (131 miles) away was the closest inland port to Melbourne. The name of the small town was changed to the aboriginal word Echuca in 1855; the indigenous meaning of Echuca is ‘the meeting of the waters’, highly appropriate as the junction of the three rivers.
To be honest, however, we really didn’t spend too much time in Echuca, being more concerned in finding a cafe that was opened for some lunch and coffee. We did find a wonderful cafe near the centre of the now rather large town – and it was a delight. The chatty Italian owner noticed I was quite taken with the sign about drinking coffee on the wall. He told us the reclining female figure, a waitress, was his wife – and when we saw her – well – we all laughed and agreed re the striking and amusing likeness.
We continued on our way, still awed by the brutal majesty of the Australian countryside. Suddenly, the rear right window of our old black Holden Astra snapped down and couldn’t be raised again – effectively ending the use of the much needed air-conditioning – it was now the middle of the day and was extremely hot – and bright. The decision was made to make it to Shepparton and there seek a Holden dealer/repairer in the hope that they would be able to fix it. We did find one and a patch-up job was quickly done by the friendly staff with the window was raised and fixed with duck-tape. It would do for the time being – the main thing was that we once again could have air-conditioning in the car. Before the car was fixed, however, I noticed something as we pulled into the Holden lot that was directly across the road. It was a giant figure of a man, face, torso and arms, waving a flag. I was intrigued. It was certainly within the realms of the other ‘giant’ objects scattered around the country, but didn’t have a name – so a gave it one – the rather unimaginative and lengthy ‘Giant Man Waving a Car Racing Flag with a rather Anxious Face’. I’m sure he was intended to advertise whatever the company it was that he fronted – tractors and other agricultural machines – but he was definitely more associated with car racing; you be the judge.
From Shepparton we drove continually and without incident to the state border towns of Albury-Wodonga. Also situated on the Murray River, Albury sits on the New South Wales side and Wodonga on the Victoria side. It had been many many years since I had been to this part of the world; childhood memories of holiday excursions of this and other places in this region, my mother having a particular fascination with ‘Historical Sights’ and both our parents having a passion for Australian History and determined to show us the actual places no matter how significant or insignificant, and no matter how far – we covered quite a lot of places and ‘Historical Sites’ on these family holidays for which I am eternally grateful. Part of this Xmas holiday involved re-visiting some of these place and ‘Historical Sites’ -as will be illustrated and discussed in later entries to this travel journey. In the meantime, it was now early evening as we drove to our host and hostess’ home, a wonderful single story three bedroom house about twenty minutes outside the town, snuggling and nestling in the hills that overlook Wodonga.
I already knew due the number of guest that I would be sleeping in our host’s caravan. which was also something I had never done. It was fantastic – quiet spacious, fully equipped with all the mod-cons, with one of the most comfortable beds I have ever slept in!!! I am now completely won over and hooked by the notion of touring Australia with either a caravan or Winnebago, just as our wonderful and generous hosts have done numerous times – with stories ranging from the amazing to the not-so-amazing. Hilarious! More will be revealed in later entries – but for the time being this city-boy learnt two extraordinary things from the genuine, unpretentious, wonderful and sometimes downright delightfully shocking and direct country people I met on this trip. Both these things involved death and murder; the first being associated with a horse, and the second with Rhubarb juice. Here’s a challenge for you -what is the best way of murdering someone using a horse? Or – which part of the human body do you inject with Rhubarb juice to procure a blameless death? Thee answer to these mysteries will be revealed later.
Upon arrival and after settling in, and before for a terrific family dinner with our hosts, I grabbed my Sony camera and went snapping of the local immediate environment. The following pictures are from then, and mark the end of this first entry to Tony’s Tours: Xmas 2015.