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Chris Sayer’s Travel Diary

Saturday, 15 Oct 2011

Location: Swan Hill, Australia

MapFrom Renmark to Mildura and on to Swan Hill, still following the Murray. Remember that half-hour that we gained last week? We had to lose those precious minutes as we crossed from South Australia back into Victoria. Damn it. With so much to see, so many places to explore, so many people to meet, there just aren’t enough hours in the day, and time is precious.
The road, as straight and flat as ever, takes us though agricultural land varying from vineyards to orange orchards to olive groves. It seems as though this entire region relies on the top few centimetres of soil and the ability to irrigate from the nearby ubiquitous water source. Always coming into view every kilometre or so, the Murray is constantly on our left as if a comforting travel companion. At Mildura we took a ride on a paddle boat that was used over a hundred years ago as a workhorse on the Murray when it was the only means of transport. The Victorian gold rush in the mid-1800s brought so many people here to seek their fortune, either by hunting for the precious metal or by catering for those who did. The history of the Murray and its pioneers is ever constant as we travel.
This important trade required the river to be navigable all year round, and so locks were built to enable ships, barges and paddle boats to get past the various river levels. We saw the first lock at Blanchetown on the way to Renmark, and at Mildura we saw lock #11. The river is a muddy brown colour, left over from the floods earlier in the year, and fresh marks on the riverside redgum trees at Loxton showed just how high the flood level got to (about two meters off the ground). At Loxton we also chatted to three young girls who were loitering by the river (it was school holidays in S.A.) and they described to us the flooding situation that summer. It sounded like one serious flood. They obviously appreciated living beside the river and loved to spend time there in good weather. Otherwise it was “hanging out at the rotunda” – clearly the meeting place for young teenagers in such a small town.
The southern bank of the Murray is the border between Victoria and New South Wales. So there’s a strange conundrum that if you are fishing from the Victorian bank of the river, your line actually resides in New South Wales, and therefore you need a N.S.W. fishing licence. Our camping site at Swan Hill was right on the banks of the river, which we shared with water birds of many shapes and sizes. We could open our curtains and see the water flowing past, it only had another 1,400 kilometres to go before reaching the mouth of the Murray. Of course, our road journey had not been quite that long.
About 100 kilometres west of Swan Hill, in the middle of seemingly nowhere, is a tiny country town called Berriwillock, population 100. It contains a pub, a general store, a newsagent, a service station and some quite large grain silos - some concrete, some metal fabricated. My mother was born here in 1922, and grew up here with her two sisters and three brothers. We lost her in the year 2000, and the last of the family, my Aunty Rose, died just last year in her nineties. It was a surreal feeling to drive down the main street of Berriwillock on this Sunday morning, to see all the shops closed except for the service station. Strangely, however, there was a hive of activity in the small park in the main street, where maybe 40 people were milling around having a barbeque and drinking. Something told me that I had to take this opportunity, so I boldly (and nervously) walked into the throng, picked out a guy drinking beer from a stubby, and asked if he was a local.
“No, I’m not , but she is”, he said, pointing to a lady sitting on a folding chair. I explained to her that I was travelling , that my Mum was born here, and I asked if there was anybody who may have known my family. She introduced me to an elderly man called Roy Weir, who was keen to hear my story, after which we learned that he was related to me through my grandmother, who was a Weir before she married my grandfather. He remembered some of my aunts and uncles, and did not know that Rose had recently passed away. As the discussion progressed, it provided also an insight into life in such a small town – the reliance on water (piped from the Murray a hundred kilometres away), how much the drought had affected them and then how the summer rains earlier that year had made the town flourish with greenery and a bumper grain harvest.
The gathering in the park was the final act in a weekend-long celebration of marriage. The wedding had taken place the day before in the only church in town, followed by a reception in the only hall in town, and this was a BBQ for wedding guests the morning after. We were even offered a piece of wedding cake. We were told that it was the first wedding in Berriwillock for 15 years, most people choosing to go to Swan Hill or Mildura. Ah, life in a country town. My Mum’s birthplace, a special town indeed.