River country – Moama/Echuca – week 3 travel diary

28 March – 4 April 2022

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.

It is time for me to put in a few writing hours while Peter clambers down the bank to explore the river. I struggle to get my head back into my manuscript, which is a sure sign that I am increasingly in a holiday mood. I manage another 500 words before my laptop runs down, which I take as a sign to give up.

The afternoon destination is a drive north to Picnic Point in the Barmah state forest, looking for the largest red gum forests in the world. In the afternoon light, the eucalyptus stands cast lengthening shadows next to the browny green Murray. We are almost alone on the winding road, going deeper into the bush. An unusual rusty iron sculpture at Picnic Point has been made by local female artists.

Planning to find Moria Lake, we trustingly follow Google maps, driving for kilometres along the indicated route on an unmade road that winds and bumps beside the river. Our phones are showing SOS and I feel as though we are a long way from anyone or anywhere, but love the atmosphere of the majestic river gums that grow so well along the waterway.

Finally, we reach Swift’s Creek camping area, and come to a sudden stop at a locked gate which announces that it is a walking path only from here on! Thanks Google – it is way too far to walk and we have to turn around and drive back through all those potholes! Another couple pull up at the camping ground and confirm that we have to go back, but in chatting, tell us about Reed Beds Bird Hide.

As often happens, the things that unfold as you go are the best. The board walk in to the bird hide takes us into a secret world, a reedy swamp without a single sign of human settlement. Black swans with their curved necks are making a complete circle in the still water with their reflections; various water birds fly around, although none very close. The information boards are excellent and we discover that it is a home for the Australian Bittern, after which our own suburb is named. Just us and the birds and the habitat, so peaceful and unspoilt.

Feeling brave enough to tackle the stovetop, tonight Peter produces a delicious pasta and salad meal and we don’t need the RSL!

It is time to take to the river, and we are booked on the morning cruise on the paddle steamer ‘Canberra’. The last time I did this was in 1982, when I came here as a parent helper on Naomi’s Grade 5 camp. Everything is picturesque at the riverfront: sparkling river, blue sky, smoke from the funnel, bush water paddle revolving and the red gum piers. We are welcomed aboard and the gentle journey begins.

The young lady doing the announcing turns out to be also the one steering the boat, and she is hilarious – country style jokes and a bit of a send up on the commentary game (e.g. ‘This is called the iron bridge, because it is a bridge and it’s iron…’). She points out the various boats on the river and their history, makes a few ecological comments and pulls the whistle hard as we go under said iron bridge to send all the cockies screeching.

The ‘Canberra’ was built in 1912 in South Australia as a fishing boat, and was brought to the Murray in 1945. It has had a top deck added and arrived in Echuca in 1966 and has since carried millions of passengers. It floats in just two feet of water and I am reassured to hear that it has never sunk, burnt or crashed in all that time!

The Port of Echuca Discovery Centre is mostly closed, as are many shops and galleries. It is obviously taking time to recover from the ravages of the pandemic. It does seem strange, however, as we know that just about every accommodation in town is booked out. We walk on and find an open fudge shop and after tasting multiple flavours – salted caramel and blackberry and ginger being my faves – purchase a box, which may or may not make it home. Lunch and a great coffee round off the outing and it is time for a nap. These seniors need to pace themselves.

I have enjoyed a few books on the road. One is Alice Pung’s One Hundred Days, which is about a teenage girl who becomes pregnant and has an over-protective Asian mum. Great coming of age, multicultural and gently humorous but raw novel.

Then I read Thomas Fisher’s The Emergency, which is a passionate critique of the American medical system (that’s the emergency) as it affects the poor and multicultural south side of Chicago. Fisher is a doctor in the ER at the University hospital, trying to care for people while the system works against him. It is an insight into what it was like to cope with the pandemic too. Clever writing which incorporates ‘letters’ to various patients and players in the dramas of the ER. I am now reading The Last Girl Ghosted by Lisa Unger, which is engrossing and a salutary reminder of the dangers of internet relationships and the complexities of the dark web.

The next day starts out with an unplanned drive for Peter to show me where he walked the other day. We miss the unmade road turnoff, so wander across the river bridge and follow the meandering bends towards Chinaman’s Bend (who was he?) Every turn of the Murray is a new vista, a variation on the general theme of river red gums, crumbling banks, dead tree roots sprawling down the banks and, always, the river. The Murray water is like hazel eyes – it can be brown, green, grey or blue, depending on the sky and light.

On a whim, the car seems to take itself down the Midland Highway and we decide to check out Shepparton. We are, by the way, enjoying our newish Mazda CX30 with its comfort and nice features; we have been waiting to do this! Shep, as they call it, is surprisingly big, straddling the Goulburn River. Beautifully spacious with very green parks and a sparkling lake, the centre is busy and clearly a multicultural centre.

Lunch seems to be the order of the day and we trawl past Indian, Indonesian, Italian, Greek and a curry house. Salivating by now, we spot Nedal Kebabs, which is Syrian. Great choice and the best meal we have had on this trip. Huge shared platter of spicy lamb with fragrant rice and bread, and a salad with a zingy dressing that looks like an artwork. Amazing. The owner (Peter gets his life story…) is a Syrian refugee who arrived four years ago and is still learning English. He came to Australia via Lebanon with the UN and we are so glad that Shep has been kind to asylum seekers and he has made a new life. He has not seen his mother for six years. I thought we had agreed on no dessert, but somehow a container comes home with Turkish delight and baklava.

The next discovery in Shep town is SAM – Shepparton Art Museum. And what a discovery! It is not just an impressive glass facade next to a lake with sailing boats and trees full of cockies; it is full of treasures. The very first display takes my breath away as I am confronted with an entire wall of Hermannsburg school of art paintings, including some originals by Albert Namatjira himself. They are all wonderful in their own way, but the effect of massing them is powerful. These were the last European style paintings by indigenous people.

All sorts of displays – pottery, Tiwi carvings, colourful collections of everyday Australian items (how come my childhood is now in a museum?) and that’s just the first floor. The main exhibition is Art in Conflict, showing work commissioned in war zones, and reflective pieces on war and conflict. Strong works, again including indigenous pieces. We sit and watch a video of the changing seasons of the battle scarred landscape at the Western Front, where Grandad fought. It draws me in and I once again respect the diversity and power of art. Peter reckons his Papuan paintings would have fitted in well and I agree.

For some reason, the town is dotted with artificial painted cows.

The drive home into the western sun goes quickly as we once again play Semantle together and I read out aloud from recent ABC news items. Just a great day that had no shape when we started out this morning, but was perfect!

It is definitely time for another lay day with some self care. Phone calls with the family and news of yet more Covid back home. Omicron is peaking in Victoria and I think we should stay here on the balcony until the pandemic is over! I discover that none of my blog entry written last night has saved and have to start yesterday again… Today we indulge in a massage each and have found a place in town that advertises Balinese style. It turns out that the owner is Filipino, the boss is Thai, and the very skilled Yasmina is Malaysian. I go for the relaxation massage, and the Balinese music and aromas are evocative – the last real massage I experienced was in Bali in 2016. It is truly a floating experience and I am unaware of the passing of time. Released endorphins are just what my aching body needs. Peter goes to the same place in the afternoon, and in between we read and sleep.

It has actually taken me two of the three weeks to relax enough to just be. I am content to sit on the balcony with a drink and book, watch the kookaburras and yellow parrots in the trees, and listen to the tooting of the paddle steamers as they warn that they are coming around the bend. All the senses relax yet engage at the same time and I feel deeply grateful to God for my life. I also feel particularly disengaged from the federal budget and political machinations, which is a very healthy way to be. I can’t disengage from Ukraine – that is too painful. Just three days to go.

We look at the map and decide that Deniliquin will be the next day trip. A very straight trip up the Cobb Highway in NSW, it is less than an hour. I spot an odd-looking fence as we pass through Mathoura; it turns out to be the ‘Bra fence’, which is a memorial to those who have died from breast cancer. Sad but eye-catchingly creative.

We only need a few essentials to make a worthwhile trip to a small town – coffee, a loo, an art gallery and a park with a bench in the shade are a good start. Country towns generally have great bakeries, so that is our first coffee stop after touring the main centre, which looks very quiet. Around the corner is Cotton Gum, a small private gallery where the owner and her little daughter are washing the windows. It has a pleasing mix of paintings, prints, stunning photos and blown glass pieces. On a hunch, I ask where the glass was produced, and yes, they are from our very own glass blowers in Red Hill, close to home. I am drawn to an impressionistic style painting of a rosella.

The owner asks if we have been to The Depot: we have not heard of it. She says it is a car museum and I am doubtful, but she insists that it is the best thing in town. Nothing to lose, we drift down the wide street and park right at the front door.

What a surprise! It is the most incredible display of not only impeccably restored cars of every make, but memorabilia that had us exploring for a long time. We immediately think of Levi, our five year old grandson with an amazing memory for naming the make of any car he sees, and an obsession with cool cars. We make a little video and photograph many Chevies, his favourite. When he sees the pics later on, Levi immediately identifies the model of the Chevy.

The Depot is the work of a family who arrived in Deni (as they say) in 1951 and built up a bus and car business with 70 buses in their fleet. One of the six Purtill sons sold the business to embark on his vison and proceeded to erect massive, purpose built sheds to house his collection, which was stored all over the town. It has grown, and he is planning stages 2 and 3. Upstairs is the memorabilia, with scenes set up straight from my childhood in the fifties. It’s funny to be represented in a museum! It is a stunning achievement, and we are happy to have stumbled on it. We have fun looking for a Chevrolet model car to take home to Levi.

We have spent such a long time that we almost miss lunch in town, as all the cafes close down. After a quick bite, it is time to find that park bench beside the river. Peter photographs more gum trees and river scenes and I relax and read.

There is one more attraction in town to see on our way out: the water tower art. A nod to the silo art trail which has become so popular, but it not close to where we are staying, this concrete water tower has been transformed with a massive kookaburra and river scenes. Quite an achievement to paint something on such a large scale on a curved surface.

As we point the Mazda south to go home, we decide to have one more try at getting into the red gum forest to the east that Google failed to do. Turning off the Cobb Highway, we risk driving down an unmade road that appears to follow Gulpa Creek, trusting we will get back without retracing our route. It works. We have a magical drive, only seeing one other vehicle, and following the creek and the billabongs, each corner revealing a new facet of the gums, river, reeds and roots. There are signs of regeneration projects, a burial site, a few bridges, but no animals. It feels like our last salute to the river country that has been such a feast for the eyes and our souls this past week.

We emerge, thankfully, at Mathoura, and resume the trip back to Moama with a fresh appreciation for the vastness of our landscape and the unique beauty of God’s creation in this part of the world. The daily Lenten reading is from Psalm 145, which focuses on the governance of God over his creation. It encourages me to meditate on and to speak of his mighty acts and power.

Now for one last day – no big drives today as we have a longish trip ahead to go home tomorrow. Peter goes into Echuca to find a couple of galleries that were closed during the week and I am sitting on the balcony as the ‘Canberra’ toots and turns around at our bend to go back to port. I feel ready to return to port too and so grateful for the privilege of holiday renewal. And it has begun to rain – the first time in three weeks!

I should have known better than to let Peter loose on galleries on his own! He returns with some lovely souvenirs for us to take home along with the memories. We will enjoy them until the next trip.

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