Wednesday, 26 July 2006

The Odyssey (to Mildura)

Forgive me if I have sinned, it has been eight days since my last bloggy confession, and there are a number of very good reasons for that, most of which I shall expound, at great and perhaps excessive length, right now.

The short version is that Dorian and I went to Mildura on Saturday to go to some parts of the Writers Festival there, and to have a holiday. So at last after a full year of just flying there and straight back again and never seeing anything more of the place than the parts which are visible from the taxi between the airport and the campus I got to find out something of what Mildura is actually like. It's really extremely nice and I had a very good time - not that I was expecting to hate it but I didn't imagine I'd like it quite so much. (Not moving there, though.) We stayed on until Tuesday so I could teach my classes and we drove home last night. I didn't post anything earlier last week because I was quite frantically trying to get myself organised and ready for that first day of classes - this semester I am tutoring two subjects and coordinating a third - although we also managed to go and see Jindabyne before leaving Melbourne and I do have quite a lot to say about that, if I can find the time before the moment passes entirely.

Anyway, Mildura. As I mentioned, we went up by car.

It is about 600km on the Calder highway. We left before 7am on Saturday morning and Basil stayed at home by himself. (Because it is quite cold in Melbourne this time of the year we set his little desktop sunlamp on a timer so he'd get four or five hours of slobbing around in the warmth each night.) We stopped in Bendigo for breakfast (judging by the condition of the footpaths, Bendigo is quite the party town of Friday nights) and then we drove until Wycheproof where we bought petrol. Wycheproof's big thing is that the train track runs down the middle of the main road. What a great boon that must be for local panelbeaters and undertakers. The toilet in the Wycheproof BP is the dirtiest public toilet I've seen outside of Vietnam. In the car we listened to Band on the Run and looked at all the scary remote isolated farmhouses. If you are not afraid of such places you need to read more Barbara Baynton. After Dorian went to sleep I whiled away the last hour before Ouyen waving at drivers in approaching vehicles, and would you believe it, not a single person waved back. I wondered whether my waving technique was at fault so switched to a more laconic but equally assertive style where I just raised the fingers of the hand on top of the steering wheel, but it didn't make any difference. It was a bit frightening really. Anyway I was bored out of my skull by this stage of the trip so I began to think about Ouyen and decided we had better stop there to eat one of the "famous" vanilla slices of Ouyen. I may have mentioned here before that on one of my teaching in Mildura trips last year I found myself seated next to the former Premier of Victoria sometimes known as Boofhead, and on that occasion he was headed to Ouyen to judge the vanilla slice contest which just won't die. So anyway, we pulled into the main street outside the bakery which seemed to be the source of it all:

Not surprisingly neither of us much wanted to go inside such a place though so we walked down the street to the Fairy Dell Cafe, which is spectacularly misnamed, on every possible scale (the "plain" pizzas listed on the menu are topped with cheese and ham - you know, PLAIN) and bought some hideously offensive coffees. Okay, we did buy a vanilla slice and ate it even though the icing was pink and flavoured with cough medicine. Later when I solicited Dorian's views about the Ouyen experience he said it was like visiting a steaming pile of shit with Jeff Kennett's face printed on top and you're not allowed to leave until you've eaten a piece.

Fortunately Mildura is only about another hour further on from Ouyen. Before you get to Mildura you get to Red Cliffs, and Red Cliffs is world famous for being the home of Big Lizzie!

Big Lizzie is a sort of enormous tractor that was built in the late nineteenth century for the purpose of hauling bales of wool about the Wimmera. It weighs 40 tons, for those of you who understand the significances attached to the weights of things. This is the man who built it.

After the great War when the place now called Red Cliffs was subdivided and parcelled out amongst returned soldiers, Big Lizzie was used to grub up tree stumps throughout the settlement. I think they tied the trees to it with chains. There were pictures of Big Lizze breaking down trees, crushing bridges etc. In the 1970s Big Lizzie was brought back to Red Cliffs and restored to its present condition. Here is a picture of the chaps who restored it.

I forgot to mention that Big Lizzie is named after a gun used in Flanders.


We got to Mildura about 3pm and checked into The Grand which is quite near the Murray and at the top end of the main street. We had some kind of package deal which included assorted meals at various restaurants attached to the Grand and/or under the patronage of Stefano di Pieri who is like the food king of Mildura. Don't worry, you'll hear all about each meal when the time comes. Although I will just mention now that we had dinner at a pizza place under Stefano's auspices and the food was excellent. Also our table was waited upon by one of my students, which was a little unsettling for me, as I don't think I noticed until she'd already done quite a few things for us, which is not really excusable. Anyway, the hotel was nice, although I thought the breakfast room had rather bad feng shui.


We went to two bits of the festival in total, though it felt like many more, because all the festival writers were staying in our hotel too and I kept seeing them in the foyer. We also crept out to eavesdrop on the Gala Dinner which was much too expensive to attend in reality. To be honest I was quite sick of looking at them all after 24 hours or so and was happy to see them getting into taxis on Monday, not least because it meant there would be no more plotting over who got the last piece of olive bread in the breakfast room in the mornings. On Saturday afternoon we went to a panel with Helen Garner, Raimond Gaita, Barry Hill and Ivor Indyk about memoir and truthfulness, and on Sunday we went to a session where Les Murray was given an honorary doctorate and talked about Australian poetry. If that is not enough detail for you please consider paying a visit to Sarsaparilla during the next few days since that where I shall spill such few beans as yet remain unspilt.


Sunday morning I awoke with the resolve to keep count of how many times during that day I either read Stefano di Pieri's name or heard somebody say it. Tally: 38, plus a personal sighting. When you consider that the morning was spent listening to Les Murray talk, and the afternoon was whiled away dawdling around in a wilderness sort of place, that is quite a remarkable figure and I believe provides a valuable insight into one aspect of living in Mildura all year round which might be quite annoying for some people.

On the outskirts of the town there is a nature reserve called Kings Billabong - due to the rubbish maps we had it took us ages to find but I think it's only about ten minutes drive from the city centre. It actually is a billabong tucked away inside a loop of the river and it is quite spectacularly, astonishingly beautiful and full of birds - huge pelicans, cormorants, kingfishers - we heard a slither and a plop inthe water that was undoubtedly a tortoise - and when I was just about to change the flat batteries in my camera, five kangaroos came thumping out of the trees and bounced past me down a sort of causeway between the billabong and the river, it was incredible, like something out of a movie. The littlest one panicked a bit when it saw Dorian and jumped into the billabong (it got out again of course, kangaroos can swim) which unfortunately meant I had Waltzing Matilda firmly lodged in my head for the rest of the day. It's back again now, actually. Is it in your head? Sorry.

Dorian called me over to look at a rather unremarkable pigface sort of plant at one point and without noticing it I stood in the centre of a patch of bullant holes so a few seconds later there were bullants scurrying up my legs, which was incredibly terrifying, but we swatted them all off and continued our walk through this beautiful place.

We were standing in a bird hide on the edge of the billabong when I realised we hadn't got rid of every last bullant, indeed there was one inside my trousers creeping around on the back of my thigh. I took off my pants and flicked it off before it had a chance to do more than nip me, and while Dorian vigorously shook my trousers I did a very thorough examination to make sure there were no more ants in my pants. If only the wholesome Ned Flanders-type of family we met on the path a few moments later, three girls and a mother all wearing pigtails, dowdy skirts, yellow fluoro safety vests, spectacles and riding bicycles, had come along while I was standing there in my knickers giving myself a good feel in the afternoon sunshine.

Any Jainist readers of this blog will be pleased to hear that I allowed the ant to live.

After that we went back to a less wild part of the riverbank to eat our late picnic lunch prepared by one of the cafes of Stefano. I made a little fun of him earlier but the food was absolutely terrific and plentiful enough to share with the magpie, the mynah, and the three baby kingfishers who came to see what we were doing. I haven't relaxed so much for ages. The delicious local wine (Zilzie) certainly helped.

And after that we just mucked about till it was time for the next meal, which was partaken of in a local Greek restaurant not attached to anything Stefano and thus not worth blogging about. As we walked there we paused and looked in the window of a pub but decided not to go inside, and three young lads sitting round a table on the footpath said to us, "It sucks arse here doesn't it? He he he he!"


Monday we had set aside to do some touring: it was either the Mildura Op-shop Trail, as detailed in an incredibly tempting brochure from the tourist information centre - I mean, wouldn't you have been just a tiny bit suckered in by this -- ?

Either that, or else go to one of the numerous national parks fairly close to Mildura. It had rained a bit on Sunday afternoon and so it was a bit doubtful as to whether the place I really wanted to go, Mungo, would be accessible as it's 100km off the highway over dirt roads across sheep and wheat stations. But at the tourist place they said the roads were open, so we decided to go and to take our chances that the road would be okay for our car, which is a Suzuki Swift.

We stopped on the way to get supplies from the Australian Dried Fruits Defence Forces Association Academy. (Formed in 1912 from a merger of the Sunraysia Dried Apricot Board with the Renmark Raisin Trust.)

And then off we went. We almost got there - we drove for about an hour and a half through places like this

but about 30km from the park we came to a very big puddle and mud pit across the road which I was not prepared to try to drive through as if we got bogged it could mean I'd miss my classes the next day. So after a small argument (which was so absorbing I neglected to take any pictures of the puddle so you could see for yourself what forces of nature we were up against) we turned around the car and went back. At least we got to see some sheep and some very cool clouds. Because it's so flat up there you tend to see vast numbers of clouds stacked up in formation and receding perspective-wise as they get further away. Never mind, I will go back soon and this time maybe rent a 4wd (evil as those things are, at least there's a point to them on usealed roads) and camp in the park for a few days.

So we went to Trentham Estate winery and bought some wine (a whole two bottles.)

Then we went back to Mildura and hung about again until dinnertime approached. Dinner was in Stefano's restaurant which is a sort of cellar underneath the hotel. It is a degustation dinner which sounds unfortunately like regurgitation but I'm told it means something like a sampler or a showcase and that is more or less what it was - five set courses, none of which you're allowed to know beforehand what it is. that made it hard to choose wine so we just got the cheapest, at $40 a bottle it wasn't cheap, but then it wasn't too nice either. The food however was fabulous:

Ciabatta bread with olive oil, goats curd and wild olives

Butternut pumpkin and gorgonzola tart

Squid stuffed with fennel served with polenta and gremolata of lemon and orange zest

quail ravioli in a sage and butter sauce

seared fillet of Mallee lamb with something or other potatoes, chargrilled capsicum and wilted spinach and black cabbage

chocolate pudding with custard

I don't know what happens if you're veg*n, I suppose they probably suggest you might like to dine elsewhere.


So the next morning I went to the university to educate the youth of Mildura about Greek Tragedy, Narrative, and Literature to Film - not all at once, although the first book in both the 2/3 level subjects is the same one - The Odyssey - which is quite lucky in a way, since the bookshop only seems to have ordered enough books in for two students in one of those courses. That kept me busy until 4 o'clock and meanwhile Dorian amused himself hunting emus around some park or other -

Then he came back to pick me up and we began to drive home, foolishly without making sure the petrol tank was completely filled. After about three hours it began to seriously look as though we might run out of petrol on some dark and utterly deserted stretch of highway where the one house within five hours walk was occupied by five brothers who only have one set of false teeth to share amongst them. I was relieved to get to Wycheproof again with only about 10km worth of fuel left and to pull into the servo fifteen minutes before they closed. Still think it's the most pointless town in Victoria, though.

We stopped in Bendigo again for food (I better not say where lest it undo all the pretentiousness accumulated by the rest of the food blogged about in this post) and arrived home thoroughly sick of driving at 10.45pm. Coming up the street towards our house I was horrified to see light peeping through the curtains and immediately thought somebody had gotten in and stolen Basil but all was well. I'd forgotten about the sun lamp.

That is the true story of our holiday in the sunny Mediterranean climes of Mildura.

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R.H. said...

Hell but it's shocking to realise you'd pay forty dollars for a bottle of plonk!

Well I'll just say this, I've always suspected you're way above my station in life, and this damn well proves it.


(Miss Brownie might never speak to you again)

Ampersand Duck said...

Wow - just skimmed through and will return for a beter reading when I'm not running out the door - but I'd love to hear more about that Helen Garner et al panel. Sounds like a fantastic holiday. Salivating Army! That'll keep me giggling all day.

Anonymous said...

Ahm, pedantically I am interested in the Sudden Appearance of Orange Dirt. It starts somewhere after Dubbo in the back blocks of western NSW there any in Victoria or are we looking at a south-western part of NSW in the photos on "monday"?

Zoe said...

What a fantastic post, you had me laughing out loud lots of times.

lucy tartan said...

Monday's road is indeed in NSW, but Mildura dirt is much the same colour - just not so fresh. It goes red shortly after Ouyen. The picture with the emus was taken by Dorian in a park called Hattah-Kulkyne which is about 50km south of the border.

It's weird to find out there is country like that in Victoria when you've spent your whole life thinking orange dirt means outback and outback is incompatible with Vic.

lucy tartan said...

It's all relative, RH - that was the cheapest bottle on the list - the dearest was $1500.

If our annual expenditure on booze was tallied up it would be modest amount indeed.

TimT said...

This took me back - I grew up in Balranald, about 200 ks from Mildura, and we visited Mildura many times as kids. I'm pretty sure we crawled all over Big Lizzie on family trips. I love that detail about the clouds in flat landscapes - it's very true.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

If I'd knowed you wuz goin' I'd have told you about Woodsie's Gem Store, where I once bought a watch made almost entirely of tiger-eye: three big rooms (last time I was there) devoted to the (watchable) cutting, polishing, making and display of jewellery made of precious and semi-precious stones.

My memory of that drive is of being flagged down, while driving alone, by a man and a child exactly halfway between Hattah and whatever the town before it is, ie a very lonely and deserted 40 km stretch of Barbara Baynton bush. I had to stop because of the kid, even though I knew the kid might be bait, so with many a ghastly Falconio type vision dancing in my head I pulled over and took a completely harmless message to the Hattah General Store (I think): 'Reg and Shane are stranded and could someone please come out there with a new radiator hose.'

Tim said...

I am half Ouyenese, and I have to say that your slurs against that town are pretty damn accurate. Silly old ant-infested dump.

Those interested in finding out more about the place are directed to this post. Apologies for the link-whoring, but it's a cautionary post that needs wider exposure for the good of the nation.

FXH said...

Having done Mildura every second week for a few years I can tell you the middle road Ouyen, Wychie etc is interesting the first time, curious the next and boring as after that. Sea Lake is worth a visit, mainly to make sure you never stop there again. The best drive is up through Kerang and then around the river through Swan Hill. Lots of nice easy stops looking over the river. And green, and fruit and vegies etc.

I always love driving past the road sign near Robinvale that says Damascus. The road to damascus - I smirk every time - you'd think I might get over it after about 20 years of seeing it.

R.H. said...

(If I may)

Victoria's pubs closed at six pm but in NSW it was 10 pm and there was a little tin shed pub just over the Murray in a NSW town called Gol Gol. At around six every night there was a devout procession across the bridge from Mildura to Gol Gol.

What's relative to some is absurd to others.


Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

RH's post has reminded me that after I'd finished high school I went on a working 'holiday' (hah) apricot-cutting in Renmark with my late lamented friend Jayne while we were waiting for our Matric results. On New Year's Eve we drove across the border at five to midnight, drank some illegal champagne and wished each other Happy New Year, and then drove back across the border and did it again half an hour later.

This was so long ago that there were no blood alcohol limits at all. I don't think the technology had been invented yet. But if we'd been caught for underage drinking we might have been in strife in two states.

Val said...

I was planning a solo road trip up in northwest Victoria in the autumn, but your comprehensive and entertaining post has cancelled the need to do that. Think of all the petrol $$ you've saved me! I guess if I still go ahead with the trip, I'd better not read any Barbara Baynton.

Re vanilla slices: in the April 2006 issue of Ozwords, published by the Australian National Dictionary Centre, there was mention of a slang phrase for vanilla slice = snot block. I don't think I will ever be able to eat a slice again...

Fab post. Thanks!

Suse said...

V. relieved the ant lived.

Mel said...

I have become fixated on forming a band called Salivation Army.

This was a very funny post.

Helen said...

Salivation Army? Foamin'.

I come from SA originally, so the sight of that straight, monotonous, red, corrugated dirt road fair brought the tears to my eyes (or the foam to my mouth).

David Nichols said...

If I'd knowed you wuz goin' I'd have suggested you read my various journal articles about the De Garises. Lucky.

Pear tree cottage! said...

Hello from down in Vic.........the op-shop tour now that is my style what a great idear.

your holiday trip was great and your photos stunning well done and thanks for sharing with all of us out here.

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Wroger Wroger said...
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