Any port in a storm
Not only have the wheels been falling off V Line trains, but they’ve also not been triggering the boom gates at level crossings, so they’ve given the brave and foolhardy travelers of Victoria free services for a week. Travel at your own risk. I’m not really sure why I chose Echuca, I figured it’s on the river, has a bit of history and it would be near three hours of countryside rolling past the window to get there. And Australia Day jingoistic celebrations are not really my go. I only just made the train with two minutes to spare, it was pretty much full. Everybody loves a bargain!
I had a world champion throat expectorator behind me and a bunch of old dearies in front discussing their health foibles “She’s alright when the sun’s out, otherwise she’s as blind as me”.
The 16 metre gold statue of Heavenly Queen on the banks of the Maribyrnong and its accordant temple never fail to astound. You go past the bold graffitied fence that proclaims “West Side is the Best Side” and think they may have something as you see a flock of white cockatoos pecking about a vacant lot in front of an impressively imposing mosque.
The suburbs give out to dry, rock strewn fields dotted with power lines. Some goats are moseying about a barren field with a long-empty dam wedged between the train line and the highway. A cactus farm is strange neighbourly next to a field of alpacas.
The first buildings in twenty minutes are on the industrial outskirts of Sunbury, where new outpost suburbs are springing up clinging tightly to the base of a hill. Riddell’s Creek has lines of pines and two-toned bulls.
Gisbourne is a place I have heard advertised on low brow sports radio station SEN. The next boom suburb with the advantages of rural life, but still a close enough commute to the city. Raw land is being filled with off the rack houses. There’s two footy fields already, one has a wonky post leaning in as if it’s eavesdropping on a conversation. Bring on the sprawl, sports fans.
The trees get denser as we passed through Macedon, all towering grey gums, pines and even a billabong. Woodend was well named, the foliage gives way to streets lined with old timber houses, most with clapped out cars slowly rusting away out front. Then there’s the open fields of sheep stations (the ones you don’t play for) dotted with rolled up hay bales.
The train doesn’t stop at Elphinstone anymore. The station and its yards have seemingly been reclaimed by a master ‘tinkerer’. There’s a busted up old pick up truck, a corroding caravan and a trailer among the works in progress parked beside the rail line, and a glimpse of a strange sculpture in a shed – some kind of fantasy humanoid crafted from concrete and car parts. A great old pub lay mostly dormant across the road, a sun-bleached VB logo barely visible on the side. The thirsts would be very hard earned around here.
Coming in to Castlemaine the train passes through amazing seams of multi-coloured rock exposed from the rail cutting. A correctional facility loomed ominously on the hill on the outskirts of town, but the first impressions of the town itself are much more inviting. An emerald green footy oval, the striking timber Victorian era station building and old stone buildings cresting the hill.
Kangaroo Flat provides an opportunity to ponder Australia’s national identify. I’m sure the place was once a beautiful haven for our marsupial emblem, and the local Jaara Jaara people. But now the ‘flat’ has been leveled and a massive shopping centre stands there instead, surrounded by a suburb of people in 4 Wheel Drives that want to be close to the shops. What we’ve done and where we are heading is nothing to be proud of.
‘The Spires of Bendigo’ would probably be a pretty good title/subject for a folk song. The numerous pointed spires and steeples that dot the city reflecting a more god-fearing times.
A gang of youths waved and otherwise gestured to the train from the railside BMX track at Epsom. Piles of disassembled sheds and farm buildings lined the paddocks of Elmore with lonely wind mills and occasional clusters of sheep and cattle crowding under the shade of gnarled old trees.
Rochester looked intriguing, grand old hotels and a stately awning lined high street focused towards a noble town hall. The grass here was a bit greener, on account of the river, though it soon gave way to gravel roads and dry grass. As the voice over announced that we would soon be arriving in Echuca a large corrugated fence seemed to mark the border, the paddocks stopped and suburbia started.
The town itself starts off a bit slow around the railway station. You’ve got to go past a big open gravel patch and the Cheap As Chips warehouse (sadly closed) before you get to anything worth looking at. There’s a Woollies and a Coles in close competition and a big ole corner pub that looks like it’s been imported down from North Queensland, XXXX sign and all. High street has a strange mix of shops open for a public holiday, want some durable and inexpensive women’s fashion – you’re in luck! Katie’s is open for business, need a new pair of Asics gels and a sweatband, Riverside Sports has got your back! There was even a sanity open, which I went into for nostalgic reasons, but if there’s any reflection on the current currency of CDs, David Bowie’s chart topping last album Black Star already had a 2 for $20 SALE sticker on it less than two week’s after its release. There were only two small walls of music, the main categories ‘Dance Music Compilations ‘ and ‘Country Music Compilations’ which took up half a wall each, the rest of the store DVD box sets. The vinyl revival has yet to hit the Murray.
I popped in to the visitors centre where the lady was almost disappointed that I only had the afternoon there. She suggested a quick paddlesteamer trip and then the Holden museum right across the road from the wharf would see me through; and gave me a rather thoroughly highlighted, but short trail to follow on my map.
The Murray River is super impressive when you get your first glimpse of it. It’s impressive brown girth framed with drooping ghost gums. I wandered over the bridge towards Moama sticking a foot in New South Wales – it still looked pretty much the same, so headed back into Victoria. There was a most alluring parkland, a time-old billabong formed by the changing water courses, shrill galahs squawked about overhead, swans and ducks got about a bit more gracefully on the water’s surface.
The old port is striking indeed, all timber frame and bobbing boats, looking in it’s original gold rush era condition. You can imagine it being a flurry of activity and churned water back then, but it’s all rather still today. The whole town’s a bit sleepy really. I do the High Street block, there’s some great musty bookshops filled with overflowing shelves of old knowledge getting more obsolete by the day, whole great swathes of Mills & Boon and the biography of seemingly any semi-literate footballer/cricketer that ever played.
You’d better believe there were some great bakeries though. Medal-winning pie boasting ones. By the end of the day I’d managed a Bronze medal winner, a Silver worthy salad roll and also a Beesting from the always excellent Beechworth Bakery (three down, three to go to get the VIP Membership by visiting all six!).
I baulked at going in to the Holden Museum, old cars are better seen on the road or in the suburbs, not in an old community centre, but I did a lap of the gift shop and perused the souvenirs that has every hard-drinkin, hard-driving, hard-rockin man’s needs covered.
I did some of the river walk, past the footy oval and holiday park, which gave me some fond bygone summer memories of times spent with Nana & Pa sleeping in the annex of their old caravan after staying up watching day night cricket back when 240 was a competitive score. Dean Jones would always get stumped charging the wicket and it was always seemingly left for a hero of villain last over featuring Michael Bevan. The big wire fence surrounding the perimeter seemed at odds with the usual free wandering packs of kids and the thong-worn routes between the nearest swimming spots and ablution blocks.
The ‘Houseboat District’ boasted tenants such as ‘Cheers’, ‘Overdraft’ and ‘Froth and Bubbles’ on the party side of the river (VIC), and the more esteemed ‘Indulgence’ and ‘Decadence’ on the apparently more luxurious NSW’s banks of the Murray. A fair few were tenanted, the barbies were still smouldering with the odd blackened snag, groups lazing about on the decking under Oz flag bunting a fair few drinks in. A family on jet skis bust open the serenity. A mostly empty paddlesteamer chugged past a handful of people mostly ignoring the Captain’s narration. Echuca was almost Australia’s capital at one point. The weather would be much nicer than Canberra’s anyway.
The ‘Port of Echuca’ as it’s officially known is a tourist district designed to extract money from travelers by plying old-timey wares and attractions in mostly-unscathed era-authentic buildings. There’s a stoic old wood turner, a sawmill, steam display, an old fudge shop and penny arcade, a ‘Discovery Centre’, a kid-scaring magician, the Steampacket Inn historic pub and lots of garish giftware and art.
I stopped in at the Shamrock for a well deserved beer. They boasted wading pools, the hottest 100 countdown, a beer garden BBQ and backyard cricket. Most people just sat in the shade or under the mist fans, one err, ‘big boned’ chap plopped down unceremoniously in one of the wading pools, his mate, who was obviously quite the salad dodger himself yelled out “Somebody call Greenpeace!”. Cheap laughs are good laughs.
I didn’t like any of the songs I heard on the part of the countdown I heard. The over-excited announced proclaimed the average BPM of songs for this year was 20% up on previous years, maybe that’s why?
I had time to squeeze in the aforementioned Beesting at the river-side Beechworth bakery before strolling through town and awaiting the coach in the shadows of the station.
The bus ride home was a great golden-hour illuminated sojourn back through the dry, dusty fields and nowhere towns to the bright lights and big city of Melbourne. It can be best summed up with a Gillian Welch quote: “I’ve never been bored in a car. In every street sign there is poetry and history and all these beautiful images.”