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Mintaro: a step back in time.

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When travelling on a touring holiday, it's a good idea to take note of those brown signposts that point to tourist attractions, and it's exactly what we did when driving through the Clare Valley area of South Australia recently. Having already passed a sign to the historic town of Mintaro before we realised what we'd missed, we were pleased to see another and quickly turned off the main road.

We had no idea what to expect, and so were delighted to arrive in this sweet, almost untouched-by-modern-times village. After parking the car, we wrapped up (it was a bit nippy) and wandered along the main street admiring Mintaro's old buildings, trees and gardens.

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Mintaro, present population 188, dates from about 1849. It was once a staging post on the journey from Burra Mines to Port Wakefield.  At Burra, copper had been discovered, and it was carried by bullock teams to the port for shipment overseas.  Mintaro enjoyed prosperity until it was decided that the copper should be taken to port by a different route.  I wonder if the Ficus tree in the photo above dates from that time: it certainly seems big enough!

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In later years, Mintaro became better known for its slate.  Mintaro Slate Quarry is thought to be the oldest continuously operated quarry in South Australia, possibly in the whole of Australia.  As well, the countryside around this area is famous for wineries and farming.  The rolling hills were luxuriantly green when we were there, the vineyards with their neatly tiered rows looked prosperous and little Mintaro was a charming break on our journey south.

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The photos, by the way, were taken by Mr MG, who's a better photographer than I am. He takes arty shots.

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And closeups.

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We enjoyed a coffee and a chat at Reilley's Restaurant where there was a jolly group of locals who knew we were not from anywhere nearby.  'You're not pronouncing the name correctly,' said one man.  'It's Mint-air-o.'  Who would have thought?

 

Fit for the Climate

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In the very south of South Australia, at the bottom of the Eyre Peninsula, we spent a couple of  days in Port Lincoln. The climate there is a so-called Mediterranean climate, so rain falls in the winter and the summers are very hot and dry.  We were astounded at how green everything was after the severe drought conditions further north in South Australia and in New South Wales.  This doesn't mean drought doesn't occur here; it does, but at the time of our visit, the countryside was looking lush, with huge paddocks- broadacre farming at its broadest -given over to crops.

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On a day trip to Coffin Bay, and anticipating the seafood platter that would await us there, we came to a sudden halt at the sight of this delightful private garden.

Now this garden obviously belongs to people who are completely in tune with their climate.  No frilly unsuitable flowers for them.  Don't misunderstand me, I'm all for frilly and unsuitable and fall into that trap frequently, but these gardeners must have a plan and appear to have followed it unwaveringly.  Not only are the plants carefully chosen, but the garden is beautifully shaped into sinuous curves and garden rooms.

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Judging by some of the plants that can be seen, including what is, perhaps a banana palm towards the back, I'm guessing that frost isn't a serious problem in this area. The red agave makes a wonderful strong statement, as do the grey leafed cotyledons, and santolinas- or are they artemisia? It wasn't easy to tell from a distance.  There is an interesting variety of heights and shapes from ground covers to trees. We stood, hoping we didn't look suspicious,  and admired the beauty of this garden for a short time before resuming our journey.

There's a lot to recommend the idea of planting entirely to suit the climate of your garden.  Is that what you do? Or are you like I am sometimes,  trying to grow something when you know deep down, that you're doomed to failure.

Arid Botanics

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As you might guess, the Australian Arid Lands Botanic Garden in Port Augusta, South Australia,  is devoted entirely to plants that grow in the driest parts of this continent. To the casual observer, the arid areas might seem dull and lifeless, but there's plenty to see: discovery requires careful observation.

The Botanical garden was established in 1993 to encourage a wider appreciation of the flora that grows in the arid zones. The 250 hectare garden is located in a stunning setting with views over the Upper Spencer Gulf to the Flinders Ranges. The visitor can wander along one (or more) of the walks within the park and enjoy the plants, birds and reptiles that make this area their home.

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There are sculptures scattered about the garden, including this one, which is near the entrance, and is reflective of the tortured appearance  of some native Australian plants. Or maybe it’s some kind of demented Triffid bent on mischief. Fortunately it’s firmly bolted to its plinth.

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Eremophilas, also known as emu bush, native fuchsia or turkey bush, belong to a large group of around 200 named plants and many of them grow in the Botanical Garden.  As it is Winter, not all were flowering at their best at the time of our visit, but these two were quite lovely. The garden is home to a large selection of these plants.

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There are many species of eucalypts in the garden, some considered rare, perhaps because their habitats have been compromised in some way:  logging, aggressive clearing of land for farming or encroachment by human habitation. This Eucalyptus youngiana or Ooldea Mallee had the most amazing gumnuts.  New buttons for your cardigan, anyone?  Unfortunately it wasn't the right time to see them but its flowers are very large, as you can imagine, and a strawberry jam pink.

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Grass trees, or Xanthorrhoea, are unique native plants and are extremely tough, withstanding fire and drought.  The brown flower spike has gone to seed now, but birds love them when they are fully in flower and they probably love the seeds too.  Just look at the uncompromising position of this grass tree.  You would be forgiven for wondering if any plant would survive in that environment.

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This Wattle is just beginning to bloom.  September 1st is Wattle Day in Australia, but I am sure on any given day; rain, hail, sun, drought, or  fire, a wattle will be flowering somewhere in the country. Those jaunty yellow pom-poms are very attractive to bees.

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We were lucky to see this.  Somewhat out of season, this Swainsona formosa, or Sturt's Desert Pea, the  floral emblem of South Australia, was doing its best to bloom, but only putting out a couple of flowers. But what flowers they were!  They come in several shades of pink and red, some without the black centre or ‘boss’, and more commonly with an even darker boss than the one above. They can even be white! In their natural habitat, Sturt’s Desert Pea plants spread out in a large mat, and I imagine they would be a wonderful sight to see. They are protected: it’s forbidden to even take a seed from a plant. Seeds can be purchased though, and I am going to try growing some this summer.

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Another feature of this botanical garden is the area displaying ideas for the home gardener to try, using native plants instead of more water-hungry exotics.

When we visited, there had been very little rain in this part of South Australia for a long time, and to be truthful,  some plants, even though drought hardy,  were showing signs of stress.  Generally speaking though, it's just amazing how resilient our natives are in this climate.

If you would like to read more about The Australian Arid Lands Botanical Garden, you can find some more information  here.

I like the idea of a Botanical Garden catering for a specific climate.  Do you know of any gardens like this?

Silverton

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Only 26 km from Broken Hill is the historic almost-ghost town of Silverton. Its origins also lie in the silver mining industry and in fact, silver was discovered there first.  In 1885, 3000 people lived there. Now there are 50, mostly artists and people who cater to the tourist trade.

When the mines became established at Broken Hill, Silverton slowly fell into decline, and indeed, some of its houses were moved to the larger town by train or teams of donkeys, camels or bullocks. Those that remained fell into disrepair, so that now there’s a cluster of only the most tenacious left.

It’s an interesting place to wander around, and there are some quirky characters living there. The streets, or what’s left of them are extremely wide, and an occasional vehicle disturbs the dust which billows around in eddies and whorls. A couple of stray donkeys slowly amble along looking for a handout, but they won’t let you pat them, eyeing you suspiciously as they keep just one step ahead. The riverbed is completely dry with powdery red dirt imprinted with the easily recognisable marks of passing kangaroos, and bluebush plains stretch as far as the eye can see. In the winter, the season of our visit,  a keen wind wraps itself around sightseers.

 

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The visitor to Silverton can enter any of several galleries or the local cafe, or simply ramble around the streets.  St Carthage Catholic church is now privately owned by artists and is  in remarkably good condition, and the old Silverton Gaol contains a museum full of memorabilia.

 

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And look, there’s a garden! The café owner tells me how difficult it is to have a garden here, even though they’re on town water (from Broken Hill) and how she carries water from the shower or the washing up to give a small amount to her plants, just enough to keep them going. She has planted only things that are particularly hardy and they look as though they’re doing well. There are a lot of eccentric additions and a barking dog to keep people from getting too close. Manicured lawns won’t survive here, nor frothy flowers or clipped hedges..

 

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The hub of the town is the Silverton Hotel which was used in the making of the movie ‘Mad Max’. In fact, quite a lot of movies have been made in Silverton: ‘Wake in Fright’, ‘A Town Like Alice’ and ‘Razorback’, to name a few. We had a beer there, just to say we had.

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National Tree Day.

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It's National Tree Day in Australia today, a day when folk are encouraged to plant a tree. We have planted 19 trees on our suburban block to add to the five we inherited, so although we won't be planting a tree today, I think we've managed to add something to Australia's tree count.

The special day for trees causes me to reflect on trees I've known in my life and one stands out above the others, pun intended. The tree I have in mind is an Angophora floribunda or Rough Barked Apple Gum. As trees go, it isn't particularly special nor sought-after and in fact, is somewhat decried as being as poor firewood material and a 'widow-maker' owing to its propensity to drop branches without warning.

On our previous property, our little olive farm, we had a number of these trees, but the one near the house was huge and served as a bird hotel, harbouring a varied collection of our beautiful birds at different times: rosellas, galahs, butcher birds, honeyeaters, magpies, cuckoo-shrikes and bower birds, to name just a few. It was something of a bystander in the garden, that tree: when I looked through old photos, I found very few where it wasn't tucked to the side or the background of the photo, and yet it was the only tree near the house when we first built on our old sheep paddock.

A friend estimated that it was about 150 years old. I loved its sinuous branches and its massive fissured trunk. I delighted in its thousands of flowers in December and the thrumming of bees who loved it too. It was wonderful to sit under on the hottest summer day, when the temperature was degrees cooler in its shade. It was a magnificent tree, a tree to be treasured and remembered.

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Into the Outback

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Following our March road journey to Melbourne and back, and encouraged by the enjoyment we experienced on that occasion, we set out  just over two weeks ago to South Australia, a trip that covered 4500km, and provided us with many wonderful experiences,  from strikingly diverse scenery to dining on delicious seafood and much else in between.

I’ve long wanted to visit Broken Hill, the outback city almost on the border between New South Wales and South Australia. Approximately 900km away from where we live, this city is, for us, a two day car trip through semi-arid country on a long grey ribbon of road.

Broken Hill is Australia’s only heritage listed city. In addition to its long mining history, there are many old buildings of significant interest (including twenty pubs), houses built of corrugated iron or local stone and mining apparatus all set in a vast landscape. Visible from anywhere in the centre of the city is a hulking hill of tailings called the Line of Lode, from the top of which the visitor can see the city,  the mines and the surrounding semi-arid countryside.

View from the Line of Lode, Broken Hill
View from the Line of Lode, Broken Hill

Silver, lead and zinc are mined here, and have been for more than 130 years but the supply is running out and the population dwindling. There were 35 000 people living in Broken Hill in the 1950s: now there are 17 800. Once there were 70 pubs: probably most of them are still there, but many of them are empty, idle buildings. They still have their charm though, with their wide verandahs stretching out over the footpaths and their intricate lace balconies. Below is the Palace Hotel (still very much patronised) which featured prominently in the movie  'Priscilla, Queen of the Desert'.

 

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This the old convent, where we stayed.
This the old convent, where we stayed.
View of the city from the Line of Lode
View of the city from the Line of Lode

One of the most amazing things about Broken Hill is that after driving just a few minutes in the car in any direction, it’s possible to be out in the sere countryside,  and from the top of the Line of Lode mullock (or tailings) mound the view is boundless: red earth and  harsh scrubby country with an overarching blue sky in every direction. Dramatically crowning the mound is the Miners’ Memorial. Constructed from steel, its rusty colour echoes that of the surrounding landscape and commemorates every miner who lost his life working here: just over 800 of them.

The Miners' Memorial. Broken Hill
The Miners' Memorial. Broken Hill
A rose for every miner.
A rose for every miner.
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The photo above illustrates just how close the city is to the bush.  This emu has dropped into the suburbs to see if it can find something to eat!

So far this year, Broken Hill has had 18.4 ml of rain.  Less than one inch, in seven months.  The reliable eucalypts go on doing their thing, but a  majority of houses lack any kind of  garden and definitely have no lawn, merely bare dirt in front of the house.  However,  it is possible to garden in this climate- more about that in another post.

A typical Broken Hill cottage
A typical Broken Hill cottage

Broken Hill is a fascinating city: for its rawness, the tenacity of its people (and many of them are doing it hard) its architecture, its industry and its remote position in the almost-desert countryside.  Although there is a lot more to see there and I could easily have stayed longer,  I'd satisfied my curiosity up to a point,  and it was worth the long drive.  But we had to move on.  We had more ahead of us!

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Singing Saul

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This week I’m departing from the topic of gardening because I’ve just had a wonderful weekend during which I had the privilege of singing, along with 599 other people, in the Sydney Opera House.

Each year, for the last thirteen years, Chorus Oz has provided enthusiastic choristers with the opportunity to take part in a massed choral performance of an oratorio. This year, Handel’s ‘Saul’ was performed.

In case readers get the wrong idea, no particular expertise is necessary, apart from being able to sing in tune, and being prepared to pay a fee. There is no audition.  Prospective choristers are sent a score and a CD with the the voice part (in my case soprano) on it. The rest is up to the participant: practise the part at home until you know it well, and then present yourself in Sydney on the long weekend in June, prepared to take part in a workshop, a rehearsal and a performance in the Sydney Opera House! It’s not a small undertaking really if like me, your music reading skills are fairly rudimentary. There’s certainly a challenge and also a great sense of achievement when you realise you’ve mastered those trills and high notes and learnt the eighteen choruses.

On Saturday, expectant choristers met together at the rehearsal venue for a full day workshop with our musical director, Brett Weymark. In he bounded, leaping up on to the rostrum, flinging his arms in the air and carolling, ‘Hello-o-o!”, his fingers fluttering like five-winged dragonflies. A one man song, dance and comedy band who soon had us all in his palm like ants to a sugar cube. We found ourselves doing faintly ridiculous warm-ups like pretending to chew steak while singing scales. Try it! The day flew by as we sang our hearts out, laughed and were entertained by this multi-talented person. Oh yes, and we worked very hard too.

The whole of Sunday was spent at the Opera House: just the choir in the morning, polishing and re-polishing, getting the correct intonation, diction and volume, and practising our sits and stands. No one wants the choir leaping up to sing at the wrong moment! In the afternoon the orchestra and the soloists arrived, and we rehearsed with them. It was an amazing achievement: none of these groups had rehearsed together before this day, and it all came together almost without a hitch.

Finally, assembled before an audience in the huge, vaulted Concert Hall, there we all were: a 600 strong choir, soloists and an orchestra complete with harpsichord and carillon. It was an electrifying performance and thrilling to be part of a huge musical enterprise as we swayed and sang, and even marched on the spot and sang. Swaying and marching don't usually happen in an oratorio, and I'm sure our actions added spectacle to music that is already full of drama.

I didn’t have much of a voice left at the end of it all, but I was uplifted and inspired by the experience and am already looking forward to next year's performance of Beethoven.

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Taking photos during a performance is quite rightly, not allowed at the Opera House, and most of the photos I took with my phone during rehearsal were blurry. I must have been too excited to hold my phone still. The photo above was taken during our rehearsal with the orchestra.   The photo below, however, was taken just before the start, by my daughter who, with my son, attended the performance.

 

 

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Did I manage to fit in a trip to a nursery on my trip to and from Sydney I hear you ask?  Of course!  Two, in fact.

Tropical Glasshouse

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Recently, whilst enjoying the Royal Botanical Gardens Melbourne, we visited the Tropical Glasshouse. I've thought long and hard about writing a post about the glasshouse, because what I know about tropical plants would fit on - I was going to say a tropical plant leaf, but they seem to have quite large leaves, so it would have to be another kind of leaf: a salvia leaf, perhaps. However, the visit was absorbing and the plants unusual to me, and  I thought I would share it.

The building of the glasshouse began in the early 1900s but it has been added to twice since then.  It is heated by natural gas.  The minimum temperature is 16 degrees C (obviously this climbs higher during the day),  and humidity is about 70% or more.  We certainly noticed the difference when we entered it on a grey Melbourne day.

All the plants are in pots, so repotting is an ongoing business.

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There were many different Bromeliads, so fascinating with their varied leaf designs: zig-zaggy stripes, green splotchy dots on purple, greyish-green with shocking pink tips and white pinstripes.  Bromeliads always have a little water tank in their centre which needs to be flushed out periodically.  Mosquitoes can breed in them which also makes it a good idea to do the flushing. These plants are epiphytes and don't need to be in a lot of  soil. I've learnt that they do just as well in orchid mix or sphagnum moss.  Unfortunately there were no flowers on the bromeliads when we visited.

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This pitcher plant  (Nepenthes truncata: it had a label) has a leathery feel.  Those rolled rims around the top of the pitcher are slippery and insects, or sometimes even a mouse or a frog, slide down only to become trapped and digested in the enzymes at the bottom of the pitcher, providing food for the plant. The pitchers themselves look like quivers for Hobbits' arrows! If Hobbits had arrows.

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Anthuriums are also strange looking plants.  The brightly coloured waxy looking part is a spathe or modified leaf, and not ( as I had thought) a flower. The tiny flowers can be found on the fleshy spike or spadix.

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In the centre of the glasshouse is a trickling streamlet surrounded by many plants and rocks covered with  small ferns, mosses and other damp-loving growths.  I  thoroughly enjoyed examining these microcosms with their different organisms. They're like a rainforest in miniature.

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Finally, a view of the interior of the glasshouse.  I have discovered, too late, that there are two Titan Arums in there and can't believe we didn't see them. Obviously they weren't in flower, because I'm sure their putrid smell would have been noticeable.

Botanical gardens usually have a glasshouse for visitors to wander through.  Have you been to one you enjoyed?

Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne

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It was a dull day in April when we visited the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne, but our enthusiasm was not dampened by the louring clouds as we wandered around the 38 hectare site with its Autumn leaf-covered lawns, its lofty trees and waterways.

The RBG was founded in 1846 and is an idyllic oasis in the middle of Melbourne only a short walk from the skyscrapers which can occasionally be seen above the trees. Like most botanical gardens,  it's divided into areas such as the Australian Forest Walk, the Tropical Glasshouse, the Southern African collection and the Perennial Border to name only a few.

Because it's a big site, it isn't possible to see everything in one visit, but although we missed quite a lot, we were well satisfied with our morning's meanderings.

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Banksias and chubby-trunked Boabs greeted us near the entrance to the gardens. I think these Boabs are youngish because I read that there's one in Western Australia that has a girth of 14.7 metres! It's thought to be 1 500 years old.

 

 

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We first wandered along the Australian Forest Walk, photos above.  Here native trees majestically imposed themselves on the landscape: Corkwood, Hard Corkwood (which is apparently  different  from not-so-hard corkwood), Cabbage Tree Palms and Queensland Kauri jostled for space amongst the Eucalypts,  Corymbia, and Angophoras (which look like 'gum' trees with typical gum-type leaves), and they in turn sheltered the ferns, Dracaenas and Queensland Firewheel Trees.

Firewheel trees-'Stenocarpus sinatus'- have spectacular flowers that really are in the shape of a wheel, unfortunately not depicted very well in my photo on the right.

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In another part of the gardens, known as the Oak Lawn people were occupied with enjoying the day even though the sky was grey and threatening. Schoolchildren played organised games or completed projects set by their teachers.

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In the ‘Camellia Collection’  blooms in many shades of pink could be seen.  Autumn is the best time to see Camellia Sasanquas flowering in Australia.

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A Wattlebird sipped nectar from a Floss Silk tree, Black Swans, native to Australia, swam in the lake, and an Eastern Spinebill (so difficult to photograph) found his lunch in the Echeverias.  Can you just see him there on the right?  He has a very long slender beak.  I'm happy to say I have Spinebills in my own garden, although I haven't been able to photograph one yet.

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A wander through the rainforest provided us with an idea of what it would be like to be in a real rainforest.  This area is kept damp with frequent waterings and there are tall sprayers placed frequently but unobtrusively throughout.  It's full of huge ficus trees with buttressed roots, epiphytes, ferns, and a wide variety of palms. A delightful stream runs through, wending its way down the slope, finding its way under roots and finally into one of the lakes on the lower level of the gardens.

 

Finally, with our feet aching and the sky threatening rain, we headed off back to the city, anticipating a delicious lunch at the highly recommended 'Chin Chin' restaurant.  I had to take one last photo which wasn't strictly in the gardens, but I couldn't resist this unusual combination of colours.

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Do you have a favourite public garden that you like to visit?

Traversing the Flat Land

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Our recent touring holiday, a journey of about 3 500 km, took us on a round trip to Melbourne and back, stopping at eight different towns and seeing a lot of Australian countryside in the process. From arid marginal land to rolling countryside of glorious green on the coast, we covered a lot of ground, and yet, looking at a map, it was only a small part of the south-eastern corner. We all know and understand that Australia is a huge country, but its immensity really becomes apparent when you start driving around in it.

Our first two days (from Mudgee to Griffith and then Griffith to Mildura), were fascinating in their own right, although many folk would only see the journey as something to be over and done with as soon as possible. Each day was a long drive: about five hours not including a short stop for lunch.

Much of that part of New South Wales is unrelentingly flat. If you could make a 360 degree turn, the land would be almost completely flat in every direction. And yet there is so much to see!

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The road surface is good, which is surprising considering the number of trucks, called road trains, that use it on a daily basis.  They are huge and rumble along at a steady 110 km/ph -as fast as they're allowed to go.  In the distance ahead of us, they reminded me of  sailing ships becalmed in the doldrums, seeming to be suspended above the heat haze, until they approached  and passed, on three occasions flinging up gravel. The gravel, which had been laid recently, flew through the air in an alarming fashion, like small meteorites, peppering our windscreen with chips and cracks.

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On each side of the road, it's possible to see that farming goes on: wheat, mostly, except around Griffith and Mildura which are irrigated areas, where citrus fruits, rice and grapes are grown. Occasionally there’s a copse on the horizon. Now and then an emu can be spotted, or a bird of prey. Sometimes remnant scrub can be seen. Or a lone farmer ploughs a paddock big enough to contain a small town.

The very enormity and emptiness of it is, in itself, fascinating. I found myself wondering about the tenacity of the people who cleared this land and the terrible wholesale removal of trees to create arable land. Towns along the way are far apart, and small: usually a few houses, a servo and a pub, and in one case a wonderful mural painted on the side of an old silo.

In recent times, silos have been replaced with more modern methods of storing grain, but the old silos have found a new life.  Artists are painting murals on them, and in fact, there's a Silo Art Trail in western Victoria. Visitors to this area can see enormous murals honouring local people,  painted by well-known artists.

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Both Griffith and Mildura are on rivers: Griffith on the Murrumbidgee and Mildura on the Murray.  The effect of entering them after the journey on the open road is as I imagine entering an oasis to be. Suddenly there are trees and lawns. There's an air of busyness.  People are out shopping or sitting at footpath cafés in the  sun, the shadows of street trees casting patterns on the footpaths.

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We met some great people along the way, from the woman at the service station at Weethalle who said she prefers to shop in Griffith (round trip 200 km),  to the friendly man in Hay who helped us decide whether we should replace the windscreen or not -we didn't.

While it wasn't a trip I'd want to make on a daily basis, as truck drivers might do, I wouldn't mind making it again one day, perhaps in a good season when rain has fallen, when the countryside would look completely different.

Have you been on a long road trip or do you prefer to stop in one place for a longer stay?