Two tribal clans, the Yorta Yorta and the Dja Dja Wurrung lived along the grassy waterways of this region to hunt, fish and gather food across territory defined by tribal language, and bounded by geographical features such as forests, rivers and creeks.
The Yorta Yorta people occupy a unique stretch of forest-wetlands that are located in what is now known as the central Murray – Goulburn region.
We have chosen three very different areas for our road trip. After the majestic Gariwerd, then the expansive plains south of Bendigo, it is a dramatic change of scenery to arrive at the mighty Murray river, which is also our winding state border. Only 1.5 hours to get here, plus the usual leisurely morning tea break in Rochester.
A text tells us that our cabin by the water is ready early, so we gratefully arrive at Merool on Murray holiday park. What a spot! They seem to own this entire bend in the river, and the little wooden cabins stretch all the way. Our cabin is basic, but we paid for a river view, and the two way vista from the bend is beautiful from the balcony. Coming from an entire Airbnb house with every convenience to a small ‘studio’ with bare cupboards is a little challenging but we arrange our gear with some creativity and feel content. It’s a good base.
Our stay begins with some drama when the maintenance man who came to change a globe over the stove electrocutes himself, is thrown across the room and causes a total power outage! Not feeling too encouraged, we opt to eat dinner at the RSL down the road. The roast of the day with a background of bingo seems safer somehow.
We take an exploratory drive around the twin towns divided by the Murray; our accommodation is actually in NSW. Thank goodness there are no more pandemic border issues! The region centres around the gum-lined river, iconic paddle steamers, growing numbers of wineries and a rich history. We don’t however, have to leave our private balcony just to watch the gentle river traffic go by.
The old paddle steamers chug up to our bend and then return and the regular cruises and houseboats leave in the morning and return at sunset with a low hum – the pleasant sounds of people having a good time on the water. The haunting sound of the steamer whistles is reminiscent of another era. Occasionally a jet-ski or power boat hoon breaks the peace and leaves a rippling wake.
The bird songs are deafening at times and we see lorikeets, galahs and magpies flitting between the gum trunks and exploring the knots in the wood. Best of all, three kookaburras land on our deck, obviously expecting a reward. We feed them a little ham, and watch them ‘kill’ the meat by bashing it, which is what they do to snakes they catch. I have never been so close to the exquisite birds with their duck egg blue spots on the wings and their quizzical looks.
We sleep deeply and Peter gets up to see the sun rise; he shows me a photo because I am too snug to get up with him. It is a perfect, still morning and it seems that everyone has started slowly.
Bendigo and surrounds was known as Jaffa country and owned by the Dja Dja Wurrung and Taungurung clans a long time ago.
We are reluctant to leave behind the majestic mountains of Gariwerd, and this second week takes us to a very different area. Only a couple of hours to the north-east, Bendigo became the world’s richest city as a result of the gold rush in the 1850s. That is part of the defining history of the area, and the number of banking buildings in the centre evidences the boom of the gold era.
We have plenty of time to wander across the country and pass the time in the car reading aloud the daily Lenten reflection. Our stop for morning tea by the road near Stawell looked peaceful but we were beseiged by flies. Lunch is in a park in the historic gold town of Maldon. Sitting under a spreading elm tree pulling apart a roast chicken, I can’t imagine a more pleasant spot. It’s a warm day, but a breeze springs up, and Peter snoozes on the bench while I tackle Wordle and Semantle for stimulation – and solve both. No one knows where we are, we have nothing we have to do, and plenty of time to go where we are headed. Bliss.
It is so booked out in Bendigo that we have had to settle for accommodation out of town in Lockwood South, which is not even a village. Post pandemic, people are on the move and enjoying local travel – like us. I am happy for local businesses making a comeback.
The Airbnb cottage is delightfully named Mulberry Place and we are warmly welcomed by our host. She has thought of everything, even messaging us to ask our milk and bread preferences. There are generous breakfast provisions and Easter eggs hidden everywhere. Next to their home, but separate from it, we look out through the roses and crepe myrtles to a dam. More serenity!
The region has been home to the Djab Wurrung and Jardwardjali people for 20,000 years and contains the densest concentration of rock art paintings and the largest assemblage of Aboriginal art motifs in Victoria.
The region was named The Grampians in connection with another mountain range in Scotland.
There was a niggling feeling of uncertainty right until departure, and we could hardly believe that we were travelling at last. I packed a couple of boxes of RATs, but we didn’t need to use them, even with Covid in our wider family. We pulled out most of the end of season veggies, watered deeply, put the tender plants in the bathroom, cooked up lots of pasta sauce and left the garden to survive. Free to go!
In the last week before this trip I received an invitation to promote and celebrate my book, Living for Shalom: the Story of Ross Langmead. So we waited a couple of days and stayed in Carlton so that I could attend the Whitley College Publication Celebration, which was a heart-warming event. I met people for the first time who had contributed to the book or featured in it, and was surprised at the emotional response from the audience.
Zagame’s House in Lygon Street is a wonderful city stay, with ultra modern decor, helpful staff and everything digitally controlled. When we tried to go sleep, however, there were stand-by lights, LED readouts and switches all round the room, so we had to hang undies and socks over the coloured glows to make it dark. Lygon Street is a dazzling array of eating places and for people like us from out of town, the choice was overwhelming. Looking out the window, we saw ILoveIstanbul restaurant just across the intersection and that settled it. In a very short time, we had the most appetising kebab platter, with lamb, rice, salad, dips and bread. It was so generous that it did us for two meals.
It is such a delight to head off over the Westgate Bridge in our new car that we have had for months but gone nowhere. Enjoying the smooth ride, the vista opened up and we see the wide horizon and expansive paddocks, I breathe more deeply and want to let the wind blow through. It is fun to open the roof in our Mazda for the first time; now we really feel in a holiday mood.
We have driven to Adelaide many times, but this time we turn off to the south of the Western Highway at Ararat and immediately Gariwerd looms up as we drive. End of summer dry grass and paddocks, iconic scrubby bush and cerulean blue skies stretch out before us and the bush does its magic, reminiscent of The Dry, which we watched a few days before.
I haven’t been to Hall’s Gap since 1968 when I was a young teacher in the Western District and visited the annual wildflower show. Although the little town has changed a lot in 50 years (where did that time go?) the dramatic, ridged mountain range has not. It is a first visit for Peter. The town sits in the valley between the ridges, down from the dammed Bellfield reservoir above it. The Grampians Chalets is our destination, and the rustic but tidy cabins are nestled around a dam and under the shadow of eucalypts.
Our lodge, called Boronia, has all we need and it is a relief to spread out and empty our cases. We turn around at a thumping sound and see kangaroos bouncing past the front door. They seem to live at the nearby oval and come through the grounds as a short cut.
Unlike for our European travel adventures, we haven’t researched much and follow our mood each day. It is perfect autumn weather, conducive to drives and walks and leisurely picnic stops. I know from experience to take some photos on the first day while impressions are fresh, so we meander up through the surrounding range, pulling in often to the frequent safe spots at the side of the road to gaze and breathe and recover perspective. There is nothing like looking down from a massive mountain range to give you a different view of the world; I enjoy the sensation of shrinking into the scenery and feeling overawed. My sense of God as creator is strong.
Magnificent views from Reed Lookout (or Reid, or Reid’s, depending on which map or signpost you believe), and Boroka Lookout, with its classic rock ledge that people are tempted to climb onto. I am not tempted!
Mackenzie Falls are famous and one of the largest in Victoria. I take the gentle path to Broken Falls and Peter does a further walk. My knee is restricting me but I do better than I expected. There is a wonderful anticipation as the sound of falling water becomes louder and finally you catch the first glimpse, and the sound, sight and fresh smell become one in a dramatic view. The fly in the ointment is the literal March fly and I feel a few stings before Peter goes back for the repellent.
Another outing is to Bellfield Reservoir – still and sparkling behind the dam that doesn’t look big enough to hold back all that water just above the town. Drowned trees are evidence of how it was filled, and we smile wryly and say, ‘Oh the serenity’, referencing The Castle, as we often do. Nearby is Silverband Falls, where Peter walks while I relax, but see none of the promised wildlife.
In no time we slip comfortably into holiday routine: slow breakfast with the news, head out late morning with our ham and cheese sandwiches and a thermos, back mid afternoon for a snooze and a decision about dinner. Peter cooks a wonderful stir-fry, but as the cottage has no oven we can’t heat up the frozen pizza or pie we brought for convenience, so will just have to eat out! TV reception is dodgy too, so more reading and puzzles. Holiday mode forces itself on us and we unwind on the inside too. We are both enjoying the Lenten reflections from Biola University that we receive by email. Beautiful meditations with art, poetry, music and Scripture reflections.
It takes Peter a few days to work up to a solid walk, but he eventually heads for the Pinnacles, an optimistic Grade 3 rating. It is supposed to take 2.5 hours but I reckon it will be longer, especially if talks to everyone on the track and gets their life stories! Occasional text messages reach me with stunning photos – thousands of steps and scrambling up rock stairs. He is struggling but I tell him he can make it hoping he isn’t pushing too hard. Finally he is heading down, with screaming calves and knees! The greater the pain, the greater the sense of achievement; he is glowing with satisfaction and a bit of sun.
The local food offerings are varied, so we opt for Vietnamese, and I salivate thinking about the wonton soup. When we phone to order, however, we are told that the wait is so long it won’t be worth it! Apparently Hall’s Gap is full on this Saturday night, and the hospitality sector is struggling for staff, so we won’t be getting anything tonight. Devastated, we raid the store box of canned food and manage a cup of soup. There is a can of herrings, but it turns out to be ‘mango curry and pineapple’ flavoured – something only Peter would eat. Cheese on toast and some gourmet ice cream has to do us for now. I think of people in Ukraine and I have no complaints.
Our next goal is some exploration of indigenous history. The local information centre has a little, but the rundown cultural centre is being renovated – don’t expect it any time soon, according to the enterprising cafe owner, who also owns the gelato joint, the fish and chip shop and a cafe in town. There is already $5 million set aside in funding, but it seems that the local tribes can’t yet agree on what to do with it.
We come away armed with maps that show where the rock art is to be found. Gariwerd has the most and some of the best in SE Australia so we fuel ourselves up with a strawberry milkshake in a mason jar that tastes like the flavour of children’s medicine.
All up, we cover over 100km to get to the two most accessible sites. The first is Bunjil Shelter in the Black Mountains. Bunjil is the creator and leading figure in indigenous stories, and this is the only drawing still extant. Extraordinary. I stand there trying to connect with people who sat there probably 22,000 years ago and mixed ochre to paint.
The only other person we see is a lady on her own. We chat and when I ask where she is from, she tells me that she has no home and lives in her car. I was struck speechless, not wanting to pry. She is well dressed and quietly spoken, and leaves me to find some shade to meditate. I think about her for a while, and when Peter and I talk about her later, wish we had put some cash under her windscreen wiper. Meanwhile Peter has disappeared through a gap in the rocks, waving like Miranda in Picnic at Hanging Rock, who was never seen again…
Ngamadjidj is a challenging drive on unmade roads to the Wartook Valley. It is a 750m circuit to walk to the cave, beautifully signed and cared for, complete with brand new eco toilet block. In contrast to our European trip experiences, we are always amazed at how well kept our tourist sites are.
We are completely alone and it is not hard to imagine what it was like so long ago. These drawings are faint, but are the only ones depicting white men, set underneath a magnificent overhanging rock. Just awesome. We wonder whether anything we create will be seen by anyone in 20,000 years’ time. The terrain is scrubby with extraordinary rock formations and colours and we keep saying, ‘Wow!’ Peter starts to talk about painting and I know it is inspiring him. Dramatic black, charred tree stumps tell of serious fires, and we read about how since 2018, fire management techniques have included indigenous wisdom. About time!
The drive home takes us through the spectacular scenery we saw on the first expedition, and we relax and enjoy it again in the perfect autumn weather. Tonight, our last night, we are ordering Vietnamese food as soon as they open!