Bendigo region – travel diary week 2

21 – 28 March 2022

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 bed is made up with crisp, quality linen and piles of pillows. We are thankful to unpack everything and spread out. The dog is called Rusty and is deaf and blind…we should get on well.

As we drive into Bendigo, there are crowds at the cafes on the footpaths and parking full. Our goal is the Regional Art Gallery, which is a favourite, but it seems like half the country is there. That is when we realise that the much advertised Elvis Presley exhibition is in town. No wonder we couldn’t book accommodation! Slightly uneasy at being amongst crowds of people after so long in lockdown, we decide to go with Elvis. Why not? We are on holidays and can do what we like. The real art can be another visit.

My expectations are not high, but the large exhibition turns out to be well curated, full of interest and very nostalgic. With people bopping to his music and and amazing range of memorabilia, we are fully absorbed, peering at the jewels on his capes and watching videos of his concerts.As someone who grew up prohibited from listening to pop music or the entertainment world (way too worldly and a dangerous influence!) I am learning retrospectively, and am surprised to read that Elvis was quite private and introverted unless he was performing. The last, poignant exhibit is his custom-built red Harley Davidson on which he only rode 364km before he died.

it is time to recover from such a random activity, best done by finding authentic Chinese food. With Bendigo’s Chinese immigration history it shouldn’t disappoint, and doesn’t. Intrigued, we order ‘drunken prawns’ , which are delicious. Fortunately, we stay sober.

We stay at home the next morning; I need to spend a few hours now and then on a commissioned writing job while we are on the road. Peter decides to explore the property and the grey box eucalypts up the back and ends up walking nearly 5km. His calves have nearly recovered from the Pinnacles climb! I manage to write 1500 words in a few hours, which is satisfying, although there is a long way to go.

Our destination after lunch is Castlemaine, another historic gold rush town. Only twenty minutes’ drive from our bush retreat, it has a reputation as an eclectic arts town. There are so many old homes with verandahs, wrought iron work and magnificent roses, all looking like post cards.

We are visiting Buda, a preserved villa house that was home to the Leviny family for 118 years. It houses a huge collection of the furniture, art works and belongings, surrounded by an expansive garden. For us, it conjures up memories of our grandparents’ homes, with ice chests and a laundry copper, elegant decor and reminders of a simpler and slower life.

Many of the shops in the main street of country towns are not to be found in the city or suburbs now. There is always the big hardware/camping/random goods store and a quality clothes boutique, and lots of op shops and craft stores as post-pandemic business returns. Definitely wander and browse country. While buying a drink in the local cafe, we spot ‘hot cross vanilla slice buns’, which apparently are a thing in Castlemaine. I don’t find them appealing at all and wonder what would happen to the gooey filling if the buns were toasted!

So it is back to town today, to check out the art gallery offerings that we missed when seduced by Elvis. It’s another clear autumn day, just the right temperature, after a surprisingly chilly night that tells us that summer is gone. The modern Australian exhibit does not draw me in, but we gaze at Olsen, David Boyd and a Nolan. My favourite is a classic landscape by Namatjira’s son, Enos. Other rooms feature collections of paintings with themes, like ‘light’. I love the Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts and try to take in the incredible details in the paintings.

Coffee and lemon tart fuels us up (I always find galleries exhausting and am grateful every time I find a seat) to explore further in the arts precinct. A walk through Rosalind Park, fortunately downhill so that I can be assisted by gravity, takes us to the historic Post Office building. The park has a huge bunya pine amongst its leafy shade, and a classic bandstand.

The former PO building is a glorious mix of Renaissance style windows and gargoyles with Greek columns. With a clock tower on top that chimes every fifteen minutes, the building stands proudly, drawing attention to itself from all angles. Today it houses a tourist information hub where we browse local crafts and providore goods, giving into local Harcourt cider, fig jam, olives and gifts. The Australian gold jewellery is beyond my budget or taste!

The best kept secret is through a dark doorway into a stunning wood-lined room: the winners of the Bendigo Art Prize in the sixties and seventies are on display, and it is a wonderful collection. I am very taken with a self portrait by William Dargie, who won the Archibald prize a record-making eight times. Another favourite is an abstract of the Lilydale quarries by Geoff Paynter.

it is definitely time to eat, so we head for another highly-rated Chinese restaurant. Their lunch deal is half the price of our last one, and hot, fresh and appetising. I feel as if I won’t need to eat again today. The young owner has less Chinese background than my family! His grandfather came from China and married a local girl.

We are on a roll now, and decide to go to the renowned Bendigo Pottery while we are in town. With art spaces with artists at work in the grounds, there is so much to enjoy, including the stunning roses still flourishing in autumn. I am intrigued with the sculptor (Yvonne George) at work making a foil animal as a commission. Her powder coated steel works are lovely and we would like one in our garden!

The pottery is steeped in history, established in 1858. Its classic, rustic pieces in earthy colours are very recognisable. We browse the dinner sets, tea sets, mugs, vases, gravy boats and platters, but don’t feel the need to purchase anything. At this stage of our lives, we are shedding what we can and trying not to add to our possessions, so we just look and appreciate the historic craft displayed around ancient brick kilns. The top section of brickwork in the photo below was rebuilt by a German man who was subsequently interned for the rest of the war!

A potter is working on his wheel so we sit to watch. He has a pre-weighed lump of clay because he is making thirty urns to order and they have to all be the same. Watching the clay move in his hands is mesmerising and the pleasing shape rises up and curves out and in until he is satisfied. He will let it dry and then shape it further. It is only when it is finished that we ask why someone needs thirty of these urns, and the reply was the last thing I expected: the urns are for the ashes of animals! He told us that he makes larger size ones too, and my imagination ran riot wondering which animals fit into which hand-crafted pottery urns.

It is time to drive home to our country retreat to watch the sun set again. Each evening panorama draws on a different palette.

Such enthusiastic touristing demands a another lay day. I do some more writing, we read and relax. Peter browses his image gallery to enter some paintings digitally in an upcoming art show – the wonders of technology mean this can be done remotely. Having laundry facilities in this house makes it easier to keep up with mundane necessities than having to rinse underwear in the shower of a hotel room when travelling in Europe (although we would be off to Provence in a heartbeat if we could!)

We read, rest and wander around the bushy eight acre property, enjoying the grey box gums, watching out for snakes. Peter has already seen a small brown one on the road when he went for a run earlier in the day. I manage to push out another 500 or so words and Peter heads out in the evening glow to capture the view in a painting from the other side of the dam – he can feel another sunset coming and will have to work fast. With an occasional Lindor dark choccy ball as indulgent punctuation, it really does feel like a holiday.

Both Maldon and Castlemaine have more treasures to be discovered, so we head out again. We want to take a different route, so go via Bradford, which turns out to be nothing but an intersection of three roads! Perhaps back in the day more happened in Bradford.

Maldon, on the other hand, is where it is all happening. Promoted as the ‘most Instagrammable town in Victoria’, it is like going back in time. By agreement, all the shop fronts in the main street maintain their goldrush era look, although some look as though they will not hold together much longer. There is a lot of distressed wood!

An old fellow sitting on a step (after warning us about being fined where we have parked) tells us that most of the glass panes are original, but many of the wooden frames have crumbled. Signs over the buildings like ‘Est 1860’ speak of old family businesses and a town that mushroomed when the gold started to appear.

Serendipitously, we have chosen a Saturday called ‘Garage sale day’, when more than 60 houses advertise their sales in a list of addresses one can pick up at the newsagent. This event draws bargain hunters from everywhere, and local businesses are cashing in on the event. The place is gently bustling, with, it appears, nearly as many dogs as people.

We mosey down one side of the main drag, pausing at shops with collectables: think Peter would have bought that lovely welded fire pit if we had any way of fitting it in the car and I loved the Dutch oak display box that would be perfect for Naomi’s tea cups. We admire the art and craft and assess the myriad cafes for a coffee stop. I find a little ceramic bowl to add to my growing collection and I am entranced with a range of miniature pots and vases about 1.5cm high that have been handcrafted on a tiny potter’s wheel. For some reason, I buy a little blue one.

Waiting for Peter to bring the car down, and find myself in mortal danger outside the Maldon Lolly Shop. Before you could blink I was inside the shop of delights gazing at an array of old fashioned treats and watching two little children with their nan slowly decide which sour lollies they will settle on. Even though I am not hungry after poppy seed lemon cake for morning tea, I succumb and choose a small bag of rock candy that is passion fruit flavoured and has a purple flower in the middle of each piece. I think of it as local craft rather than a consumable and have yet to taste it.

The tourist books say that Castlemaine is experiencing a ‘second gold rush’, with a new generation of artists, musicians, foodies, business owners and enterpreneurs. I guess many of them are trying to recover from the ravages of Covid, but there is plenty happening. We do find, however, when we follow some Tripadvisor suggestions for a good lunch, that the top-rated restaurants are all closed – perhaps the hospitality sector is still struggling. Fortunately the historic Railway Hotel is open, complete with a stunning menu. Established in the early days near the station, it has been renovated but keeps its ambience, complete with annoying bush flies. Our meals are excellent, which fuels us up for one more art gallery.

The Castlemaine Art Gallery has a strange facade in an art deco style which belies the wonderful space inside. We gasp as we enter the first room and see Tom Roberts’ ‘The Reconciliation’, Streeton and McCubbin on the next wall and a wonderful painting of Frankston Pier in 1920. Several of the works are related to the Len Fox Art prize, and there is a mix of traditional and modern, with some indigenous items as well. The NGV has an art book fair happening in the centre and at one end there is a group of people engrossed in an author/publishing talk. Quite a vibrant feel, all bathed in mellow natural light that is satisfying at every level.

A drive around town taking in the cottages with bull nosed verandahs, lacy iron work and masses of roses and we are ready to take our rich experiences and tired bodies home. If we time it, we can fit in a late afternoon snooze before another sensational sunset over the dam. This Airbnb is top class, if all we do is watch the sun and views over our private dam.

Our last day is gentle. Slow breakfast and a 4km run for Peter before we head for Bendigo for the last time. Bakery lunch by Lake Weeroona gives us pleasant water views (missing the sea back home) but all the benches are in the sun and I start to glow with the heat.

Today we are heading for the Golden Dragon Chinese Museum for a taste of multicultural history and interest. The story of Chinese migration in response to the news of gold finds is fascinating. Many of those who came in the 1850s left families suffering starvation and deprivation, and hoped to earn money to help them. I read that some Chinese people walked the 260 miles from Robe in SA to Bendigo to save the ten pound import tax if they came through the docks in Melbourne. Over 400km by foot!

The exhibition is dazzlingly colourful and dominated by the Chinese fondness for celebratory red. Pride of place is given to the longest dragon in the world which gets an outing at the annual Bendigo fair. Dragon heads, embroidered clothing, carved carriages and gigantic urns are all amazing and I feel drawn back into those early, hard working days of the mines. Now, the Chinese families who stayed and assimilated hold high positions in all sectors and are an important part of the cultural identity of the town.

I also feel a personal resonance with the items displayed, thinking of my grandparents who lived in China for 25 years, and my mum for 18, and my own childhood in Hong Kong. The smell of incense is evocative and the sight of a wooden rickshaw takes me back. In the Chinese garden and pond, Peter offers to take a family shot for a group there and we chat; the young man studies in Melbourne and his parents in law are visiting from China. A real time intersection of cultures outside the museum and all it stands for.

This week has been wonderfully relaxing and has given us space to unwind. Time to pack up again and head further north. Murray river, here we come!

Related Posts