Could we have planned any better? My friends and I took off for a magical mystery tour around Western Victoria on the 17th May in a Maui Camper van. We returned on the 27th, the beginning of Melbourne’s fourth lockdown. Ugh!! What can you say? It is frustrating after Melbourne had been really coming out of hibernation and starting to blossom again, only to be cut off by an unexpected frost, lockdown 4. It made me think of the ice maiden days in France that I experienced in May 2018. We had been enjoying glorious warm spring days until we arrived in Le Puy, May 12 and it began to snow! My French friends told me they never plant anything until after the ice maiden days 11,12,13, May.
Anyway back to the trip. I had taken the risk of having my first vaccination on the Sunday before departure. I was sick of waiting for the local GP who was only getting 50 doses a week; so after Yum Cha in the city on the Sunday I rolled up to the Royal Exhibition Building mass vaccination centre and received my jab. No queues, smiling service and out in the minimum time. I figured if I felt sick I would just sit quietly in the van and take some Panadol. I did not anticipate a bad reaction and fortunately I was fine. Barely a tender arm.
The next morning we collected the van and drove tentatively home to Kew to pack. Getting the hang of the longer wheel base was the first lesson, parking was the second. We had a daunting amount of stuff but it all fitted and we were on our way soon after. Our first destination was Lorne. We stopped at Torquay for lunch and managed to turn the front chairs around and set up the little table. It was tricky and the last time we ever bothered!
We immediately became part of the camper van crowd. Another van parked close by revealed a smaller weekend style of travel and the young couple with their dogs, were eager to share their experiences. Like us they were from Melbourne and just enjoying a break after last year’s lockdown. Finally arriving at Lorne Foreshore Caravan Park after hours, Bill backed the van into place while Irene and I guided him.
The van has a shower and toilet but we are all too nervous to use it and terrified of emptying the toilet cassette. We got set up so quickly that we were all very impressed- so much easier than the tents we normally use. Bill was delighted with the convenience of the rubbish bin at his elbow while he peeled vegetables. We quickly slipped into a little routine with each having a task but not underfoot.
Next stop Apollo Bay and lunch of Scallop Pie and Chai Latte, not in the van. Now it was my turn to drive. With trepidation I took the wheel but soon felt comfortable. It was easy to drive, just needed to remember the long wheel base when going round corners. I got a lot of practice as I drove through the Otways winding roads! Our destination was Port Fairy. I missed the turn-off to our selected Caravan Park and then found the only other access was a road under repair which was closed! We set off for another campsite but it was closed too. We were getting a bit desperate but I had seen a Big 4 as we came into town and though rather characterless, we were glad to stop there. I backed the van successfully into place. When we left this Caravan Park the manager gave us a bottle of wine! Friendly anyway.
The next day Irene and I finally broached the toilet cassette. After reading and re-reading the instructions, we managed to remove, empty and replace without incident. I think our greatest fear was being splashed of course. Task completed, we walked into town and had lunch ( Scallop pie again and a small Vanilla Slice) followed by a look around. That is, Irene and I browsed the shops while Bill connected with a former colleague with whom he had worked on the renovation of the local hospital. On this trip we did many diversions past country hospitals that Bill had worked on. ( He is a retired Architect). When Irene and I returned, Bill and Mick were still sharing coffees. Mick was able to fill us in on Port Fairy, the economy and its development. It was a most enjoyable day.
That evening there was a lot of laughter as I tried to dismantle the table for Bill and Irene’s bed. I just couldn’t dislodge the pole and then I was laughing so much I was completely useless. Bill came to the rescue and showed me how.
Next stop was Budji Bim Cultural Landscape, the only UNESCO World Heritage property listed for its Aboriginal cultural values. It features the earliest living example of aquaculture in the world, with a history of eel farming and agriculture, dating back over 6000 years. This was such an interesting place and we undertook a guided tour. It made me ashamed of how inadequate and biased our Australian history teaching has been.
What we are finding is that we are taking our time to get going in the mornings, so our idea of arriving early at our destination has not eventuated. Plus it is a bit too cold to sit out and have our nibbles and drinks after 4.30 pm. The van is more comfortable. We are also beginning to realise we might have underestimated our distances and time to complete our journey. There is so much to see and we aren’t stopping at every curiosity as we might, if we had unlimited time. We stopped nonetheless to see the Crags as recommended by Mick. We were heading to Dunkeld for lunch the next day at the Royal Mail. It is so lovely being out in the country, feeling free and secure in our little mobile home. It is so very convenient and easy. We are getting in the habit of being tidy, everything in its place and everything close at hand. We often book ahead while travelling but mostly there are plenty of spots to camp.
Dunkeld however was full when we arrived. Consternation! Where to stay? Just as we were driving out the manager rushed out to stop us. There had been a last minute cancellation. How fortunate, because this camp ground was a total delight. There were bath mats in the showers!! Flowers and toiletries and a hairdryer in the facilities made us feel like friends. The other aspects, camp kitchen and bbq’s were all excellent and charming. The manager told us they had been so busy that they were desperate for a break. Victorian’s had been making the most of their freedom and the Royal Mail was doing a roaring trade. Once again Irene and I browsed some delightful shops. I bought a lovely possum/merino poncho that looked so elegant. Not in the budget, but too enticing to resist and I justify the purchase by the fact that I am helping the economy!
Our next stop was Halls Gap in the Grampians. We had intended to do a hike but in the end we decided to explore the local wineries instead! We have hiked in the Grampians before so this was a new aspect not previously explored. Halls Gap was full of people because there was the Gap run on Sunday. It was freezing overnight but delightfully sunny during the day.
We were surprised that there was no cooked rotisserie chicken to be had in Halls Gap. It seems such a basic take away food ( for us city slickers anyway) which would be so saleable to the huge camping population of Halls Gap. (At least three camping grounds.) A business opportunity for some enterprising person surely. But not our concern because we were departing for our true destination, the Art Silo trail and the Little Desert-The Wimmera-Mallee country.
Our first stop was Murtoa for the ‘Stick Shed’. Is it an Australian thing to name such an imposing building with an underwhelming name? I was quite frankly in awe of this former grain store. The ‘sticks’ were unmilled mountain ash from East Gippsland. The building was constructed in 1941 to store the glut of grain caused by the collapse of markets during WW2.https://www.thestickshed.com.au/
The inside is so impressive and evoked a sense of grandeur I have experienced in some Cathedrals. Whether it was the rough supports or the flexible purlines that tighten to support the building when it is windy, or just the sheer size (270metres long x 60 metres wide and about 19 metres high at the ridge) the building seems to have a soul. I could imagine a concert in there, though acoustics are probably terrible.
From here we visited Rapunyip, then Sheep Hills before heading west to Geroke, Karniva and Dimboola for the night. Dimboola has always had a sort of exotic attraction for me. There was a play and a film set in Dimboola but also its name personified life deep in the Wimmera. I don’t know what I expected but it did not disappoint. I was surprised that there was a Wimmera River, which flows through Dimboola. It was blessed with lots of bird life as a result and a rustic charm. Sydney Nolan was stationed here during the Second World War as guard to rations for the Army and painted in the front office of the store.
Dimboola has a grand hotel which was being renovated and an old National Bank now converted to The Imaginarium, an eclectic gift shop. We found everyone to be wonderfully friendly and welcoming. The little Desert was another mystery to me and we enjoyed a nature walk through a small part of it before stopping at the pink lake, Lake Lochiel. The Caravan Park Manager had showed us photos of the lake looking fluorescent pink last year. He smiled ruefully as he told us, ‘No one got to see it because of CoVid!’ Since restrictions have lifted though the town has been doing well. At this Caravan Park we had an ensuite!
Our next silo was at Brim, then Rosebery, Patchewollock, Lascelles and finally Sea Lake.
Seeing all these amazing painted Silos and the stories about their making was so very interesting and inspiring. They tell the stories of the people of the Wimmera-Mallee and the artists. We wondered if their was any preservation process for the art or will they eventually fade or be worn away by the elements. Bill suggested perhaps they got a coat of Teflon! Another surprise was the other salt lake, Lake Tyrell, just out of Sealake. The reflections here were impressive despite the bitter cold and grey sky. I thought it would be worth returning in summer to see the sunrise or set and to use the Sky Lounge. The sky lounge were seats for observing the stars at night and had illustrations of the constellations seen by and used by the local indigenous people for understanding the seasons etc.
We opted to stay at Green Lake out of town because the Sealake Caravan Park looked too bleak. Green Lake is a freshwater lake filled by rainwater but surrounded by trees and sandy shores and delightful. That is, until we collected the branch of a tree with the airconditioner on the roof of the van! It was just a crack but that is what you have an excess for in the insurance. Still it dampened our spirits somewhat as we were just two nights from returning the van unscathed.
Our last day saw us visit Nullawil Silo, the MaryQuant exhibition in Bendigo-a stressful but successful parking exercise for me and the van- overnight at Heathcote and home to Melbourne and the beginning of lockdown! What a wonderful trip. We had so much fun together. I finally saw the western part of Victoria and learned how to manage a mobile home. Parking issues aside it was a real impetus to plan a trip around Australia next year. I will do a towing course first though!