Mention the ‘Port of Echuca’ and it sounds like an Australia sea port with an Aboriginal name. It is a ‘port’ with a name of Aboriginal origin, but instead of one on the coastline, it was one of the largest ports on the Murray River; busiest in the late 1800s servicing Australia’s inland empire’s growing agricultural community. Uniquely, it was the drop off point for Murray/Darling River system’s wood-fuelled, paddle steamers which were hauling the products of the sheep stations, primarily bales of wool. They unloaded their freight at Echuca’s red gum wharfs, as that was the closest point for overland travel to continue the shipments toward Melbourne’s markets. Now, instead of wool, the restored paddle steamers are ferrying tourists. During our summer visit, they sat on the water some 7 metres below the top of the wharfs. The Murray flows through the surrounding plains covered with gum trees, but at the bottom of what appears to be a huge ditch. The river’s low level is due in part to the normal summer decrease from the Snowy Mountain’s spring run-off, and to the tremendous volumes of water extracted from the river to irrigate untold hectares of rice, wheat, cotton, grapes, hay and other agricultural products spread along the vast Murray River basin. Returning to the history, by the 1860’s, a railway line connected Echuca to Melbourne, taking over from wagons in providing the on-going transport with the steamers of the increasing freight. To get to Echuca from Melbourne, we took the modern version of this train, along with our bikes (Victoria trains allow bikes anytime; but the buses will not take them). And during our visit, we also had a cruise on the PS Emmylou, one of the surviving boats in the ‘ditch’. Ironically, as the rail service improved, by the early 1900s it had usurped most of the wool freight activities from the steamers. Plan B for the steamers was to begin towing barges of red gum logs to mills located in Echuca. Again, this duty was taken over by trucks. Slowly, with the diminished activity, the old boats succumbed to fires, sinking, or general abandonment. Fortunately, in the 1960s and 70s enthusiasts saw their historical, mechanical and touristic values and began restoring them. As we saw on our cruise, and from a bike rides along the river’s shores, because of the vast height differences between the high-water floods and low summer runs, tree roots, and toppled trees - barren of leaves - are dramatically exposed along the red, sandstone banks. The juxtaposition of the fallen flora against rows of massive, modern house boats lining sections of the river gives the eerie feeling of being in a surreal painting. Echuca is now mostly a tourist destination. Besides the river boat tours and the excellent displays in its cultural centre, Echuca hosts one of Australia’s major water ski championships – the Southern 80. The community is also a stopover for tourists traveling the Murray River valley or criss-crossing from Victoria to New South Wales. The number of holiday parks, each of which can accommodate several thousand people, are indicative of the draw for Echuca’s heritage and leisure activities.
Bendigo – The lure of gold found art
The morning temperature was beanie-cap cool, and the sun was still below the horizon as we cycled to the Echuca train station to catch the 7:16 AM southbound to Bendigo. Arriving in this city by 8:30 AM, we explored its CBD in search of a decent coffee shop for some ‘breakie’. With Bendigo’s roughly 100,000 population, as compared to Echuca’s 20K, there was a lot more traffic; people going to work and school in cars, on foot and on bikes. Our search was not in vain, as we did find the Brewhouse Coffee Roasters. There, sitting with cups of delicious coffee and a substantial breakfast, we perused the tourist brochures to plan our day. First stop was to [The Schaller] Studio hotel. If the name was usual – the brackets were part of title - the hotel was as well. As part of a regional hotel chain (www.artserieshotels.com.au), each site incorporates, like big-time, a local artist’s works into their logos and décor. In Bendigo, Mark Schaller’s work was showcased; with his bold wooden sculptures adorning the lobby, and his bright coloured paintings sparkling up the black-walled hallways and accenting each room. Dropping off our bags, we moved on to the Bendigo Art Gallery. The rich gold finds in the late 1800s allowed Bendigo’s elite to design a beautiful city and construct some substantial buildings. The city has been able to continue its economic prosperity through manufacturing and tourism. The gallery has benefited by expanding the gallery; not with an extravagant Gehry/Guggenheim-type building, but with large, engaging, light-filled spaces. The exhibit we viewed was stunning for its organization and paintings. In ‘Continuing Vision: 130 years’, the gallery had pulled from its archives a number of older acquisitions, placing them side by side with many more modern ones. Each large room had a theme: portraits, animals, landscapes, etc., allowing us several hours of enjoyment from the insightful revelations of how the styles and subject matter changed over the years. With diversity much in today’s news, an important reminder of Bendigo’s heritage was the unheralded contributions of the Asians, particularly the Chinese, starting in the gold rush. Bendigo has one of the largest and best museums devoted to the Chinese immigrants during gold rush era and since.
O’Keefe Rail Trail
Pub meal food usually contains more calories than one needs in a week. However, the Axedale Tavern not only offered the usual burgers and steaks, they had an array of tasty salads, fish and veggie dishes. The tavern was our lunch stop and turn-around point for our one-day jaunt from Bendigo along this track. Continuing on the other 25 kilometres to Heathcote, a wine growing region, would had required an overnight stay, time which we just didn’t have. The trail has an easy grade, climbing out of Bendigo, through its manufacturing district and then through red box and iron wood gum forests surrounding life-style blocks containing some impressive homes. Towards Axedale, it becomes more rural, passing large paddocks for farms and horse ranches. But all was dry, and we could see why the residents take serious precautions with keeping the underbrush clear. Returning to Bendigo, we were coasting down the track into the town to return to the hotel in order to pick up our gear and take an evening train back to Melbourne. Thinking things were going smoothly, all of sudden Karen stopped. Her chain had come off. Initially examining the problem, I thought a nut had come off her derailleur. With some apprehension at the thought of her unable to pedal, I sent her back along the track to see if she could spot it. Only with a closer look did I realize that grit, from the sand-packed track, had been kicked up on to the chain gears causing the chain to flip off. The derailleur was actually intact, merely cleaning off the grit fixed the problem and we were on our way again. Another hiccup came when we arrived at the station. Due to track work closer to Melbourne, passengers were take the train to a drop off point where they would then transfer to buses. OK, except that in Victoria, one normally can’t take bicycles on the buses, as confirmed when I asked the station attendant. How were we to get the 60 kilometres from that drop off point on into Melbourne? We were certainly too tired to cycle. Even if we had the energy, it would have been dark half-way into the trip. Fortunately, it appeared to be a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing. When I asked the same question of the train conductor, he said, ‘no worries, mate, in this situation, the buses will take your bikes’. After the train and bus journey, we arrived at the Southern Cross train station at exactly the time we would have if rode the train the whole way. Cycling back to our apartment, we arrived safely just as the light was fading.