‘A multi nodal journey of discovery through the Wimmera.’ Discuss.

 

 

“Why would you want to go to South Australia?” Chairman Dan asked us a fortnight ago.

 

Well just for starters, the Oakbank Easter races, the Tom Roberts collection in the Adelaide Gallery, Gaucho’s Argentinian steakhouse in Gouger Street and Test cricket at the Adelaide Oval are four reasons that spring to mind without too much thinking.

 

Admittedly, my fellow columnist Mickey Randall would probably want to add the Glenelg oval and the Kapunda tennis club but without having been to either lately I’ll leave them off the list for now.

 

So last week with SA out of the equation and desperately keen to get out and see if intelligent life still existed the other side of the Petrel Hotel in Geelong West, I sentimentally embarked on a multi-nodal journey of discovery through the Wimmera, a place where I lived and worked almost forty years ago.

 

With apologies to Richie Benaud, marvellous place the Wimmera. Endless flat countryside immediately north of the Great Dividing Range with “the great plains where the wheat silos shimmer in the heat haze and red dust leaves grit in your mouth” (Les Carlyon, The Age 4/2/1994). 

 

Yes, it can be very hot. My sister-in law Noela’s birthplace Hopetoun hosted Victoria’s hottest ever recorded day with 48.8 degrees on 6 February 2009, Black Saturday. But thankfully last week was a mild winter week in June.

 

Back in the day in beer drinking terms, it was stubbies north of the Divide but cans to the south. In conservative politics it was Liberals south of the Divide, Nationals (Country Party) to the north – until someone ratted on that “gentlemen’s agreement” one day whereupon it has been a pretty willing free for all ever since.

 

My favourite three corner contest story though is how in 1970 my friend Ezzy Curnow became the youngest elected member of the Victorian Legislative Assembly at that time aged 23. He held the St Arnaud based seat of Kara Kara for Labor in hostile territory for two terms based on what may loosely be described these days as creative preference arrangements. But that’s another story for another day.

 

MNJOD Day 1 sees the free seniors’ rail ticket take me as far as Horsham, the capital of the Wimmera although the good folk of Warracknabeal have been known to argue the toss on this one. Whatever else Horsham has done of note, this writer’s fondest memory is how its footy club bequeathed the Geelong Cats a full forward called Doug Wade.

 

Thanks to Thrifty rent-a-car it’s then north through Warracknabeal (Russell Crow, Fitzroy) to Guido van Helten’s famous silo murals at Brim just 15 minutes up the road. This work depicting the faces of local farmers across four wheat silos became the first of a series of other silo murals in a further seven Wimmera towns. The entire Wimmera Silo Art Trail features local Wimmera people and local Wimmera stories. It is well worth an inspection. www.siloarttrail.com will tell you all you need to know before you head off.

 

Brim

 

 

Other towns worth visiting while you’re there include Dimboola (Tim Watson/Merv Neagle, Essendon), Nhill (Dean Wallis, Essendon; Jason McCartney, North Melbourne), Kaniva (Roger Merrett/Glenn Hawker, Essendon) and Edenhope (birthplace of Phil Carman).

 

At a quiet roadside stop I get out of the car and stand near a barb wired fence looking over the vast paddocks. I wonder how many folk before us have inhabited these plains – both European settlers and indigenous owners. The gum trees closely guard their secrets of human triumphs and tragedies, bumper crops and droughts, hopes and disappointments, love and heartbreak. Human stories all, just like the stories in the artwork on the silos.

 

Wimmera paddocks and gum trees

 

Anyway Horsham itself is still recognisably Horsham with plenty of urban activities (your author usually refers to them as counter lunches and counter teas), picturesque river walks, friendly locals and a bloody racecourse right in the middle of a city that just simply grew all around it. A bit like the old Sydney airport arguments – the airport was there first.

 

A half day trip to Minyip sees me at the 145 year old St John’s Lutheran church where John Harms’s great grandfather was pastor in the early part of the twentieth century. It is now the only church left in Minyip having even outlasted the Catholics.

 

St John’s Lutheran Church Minyip

 

 

A further half day outing takes me to the arresting Mount Arapiles where elite rock climbing enthusiasts test their skills.

 

Rock-climbers on Mt Arapiles

 

Then it’s a fond farewell to Horsham on MNJOD Day 4 but not before I entertain the locals with a few bars of ‘We Are Geelong’ on a community piano in the main street – if you don’t mind umpire!

 

Playing the piano at Horsham

 

 

It’s east through Murtoa (Hugh Delahunty, Essendon) and Rupanyup (John Sudholz, South Melbourne) where there is another silo art mural before stopping at St Arnaud (Jim Jess, Richmond; Shane Hamilton, Geelong) for morning tea.

 

 

Rosebery

 

But then I see the old St Arnaud courthouse still standing and doing business. This is when I wryly recall that probably the only useful thing I have ever done in over forty years of political party membership is to save this building from closure when I was a candidate in a State election.

 

Roger’s court house at St Arnaud

 

A quick recap. During the 1985 re-election of the Cain Government, a bean counter deep inside the Attorney General’s Department drew up a budget options hit list of rural courthouses for potential closure. To that metropolitan public servant it probably seemed like a routine accounting exercise. To the voters of St Arnaud it rang alarm bells big time – especially after I leaked the story to the local newspaper.

 

Not that the courthouse itself was a huge stand alone issue. It was its lightning rod potential as a rural domino that scared the pants off everyone. Country people back then had seen far too much of this sort of thing in nearby communities which had died a slow death. Incremental rural decay.

 

This month it’s the courthouse gone; next month it’s the local sub-regional Department of Agriculture office; next month it’s the maternal health care centre; next month it’s the last of the big four bank branches; and then the death sentence, the local school closes, parents with littlies move out, the pub closes and the town dies. The frog dies in the boiling water before it twigs. QED.

 

Thankfully an election was afoot and, as it all hit the fan, the then Attorney General Jim Kennan came to St Arnaud to be photographed with me in front of the courthouse assuring the locals “a vote for Roger Lowrey is a vote to guarantee this courthouse stays open” – or something like that.

 

Mind you I still lost the election but that too is a story for another day. As Andy Warhol once said, everyone is famous for fifteen minutes. That was mine apparently. For a quaint old rural building, it still has a very dear soft spot in my heart. Sigh!

 

The day finishes in the picturesque old gold mining town of Stawell, home to Australia’s greatest time honoured athletics sprint the Stawell Gift.

 

It’s a kindly town which also bequeathed 1963 Geelong premiership full back Roy West – who could drop kick the ball half way into next Wednesday – and wingman premiership team mate John Brown. Another handy local boy Liam Pickering later followed in their footsteps to Kardinia Park in the 1990s.

 

There is a mouth-watering thought as purists wonder what a Wimmera Footy League match would have looked like in 1961 with Stawell’s young full back, the close checking Roy West, against Horsham’s young full forward goal kicking machine Doug Wade. Ah to be a fly on the wall of the grandstand at Central Park that day.

 

While I’m there I practise my old athletics skills on the famous Stawell track although I feel my fellow columnist and 1984 Stawell Gift third place getter Dips O’Donnell could give me some useful coaching advice. If nothing else, at least in the attached photo my fingers are in a straight line across from my front foot so I can’t be done for funudging (sic) as we used to call it in marbles.

 

 

On the blocks at Central Park, Stawell

 

MNJOD Day 5 and after a sound red wine assisted sleep your weary correspondent takes one more look at Central Park Stawell with a restorative coffee before accepting the generosity of Victoria’s taxpayers with a free return train ticket home.

 

Now then, where is that next generation of young Wimmera Cats recruits bound for Kardinia Park?

 

 

Mt Arapiles east face

 

 

 

 

About Roger Lowrey

Roger Lowrey is a Geelong based writer who lists his special interests as reading, writing, horse racing, Roman history and AEC electoral boundaries. Some of his friends think he is a little eccentric.

Comments

  1. Colin Ritchie says

    Fab story RL, we certainly have so much to offer in our backyard tourism wise so well reflected by you. Great photos!

  2. Magnificent, RDL! I saw a fair bit of the Wimmera in the 70s and 80s and grew to appreciate its sprawling vistas. The Horsham golf course was one of the best I played. I remember my mate Steve taking 15 just to get out of a green-side bunker on the long Par 5 on the back nine one day – and he was sober! Warracknabeal also had a pretty little course. Pink Lake was always a roadside milestone when driving through. Alas, too many of the lovely towns now bypassed by ‘progress’.

    I’m shocked to hear that you resorted to a scare campaign to win a few votes back in the day! Roger, how could you?

    Looking at your style on the blocks at Central Park, you might be better off limiting yourself to leaning up against the bar at The Petrel – more chance of getting off to a flyer there, I’d say.

  3. Roger Lowrey says

    Thanks Col. I am sure all those Essendon footballers’ names would have warmed the cockles of your heart. “Cochleae cordis” for the purists.

    Yes Ian, your mate’s form around bunkers sounds a bit like mine. Horsham Golf Club once hosted the Victorian Open about the same time I was working there. It is a marvellous course.

    Oh yes, back in the day I was a devotee of the Graham Richardson line of “whatever it takes”. Sadly it wasn’t enough although, in my defence, it was a Liberal held seat I was trying to take off them. The only one of ours who had held it to that point in time was the very same Ezzy Curnow referred to in the above narrative.

    And yes, sadly, my even time 100s (or thereabouts) are a thing of the distant past. Nothing wrong with the bar at The Petrel just the same.

    BTW, it’s the closest I’ve been to a Lutheran church for a while too just quietly but it’s a beautiful looking little outfit. The locals do themselves proud.

    RDL

  4. I love the Wimmera Roger. It stirs my soul. And one day, when I can get a free train trip due to the generosity of the old VTP, I’d like to see more of it. The road that winds around the back of Ararat (not the Western Highway) and comes out at Great Western is a superb little drive. Some magnificent scenery. This country is quintessentially Australian. I can imagine Frederick McCubbin and his mates setting up their easels out there.

    Sorry to tell you but where you’ve taken your blocks on the Stawell footy ground is probably in the middle of the 400m track. The Gift track is about 20m – 30m to your left. So go back and do it again!

    Enjoyed the tour.

  5. Roger, the good news is that Lutheranism is not a virus, so proximity is not an issue. After all, you’ve survived the likes of JTH and IJH over an extended period of time! Horsham and Dimboola are home to two of the more substantial Lutheran edifices (and long-established schools of the denomination). Both the Wimmera and the adjoining Western Districts are traditional Australian Lutheran heartland.

  6. Kevin Densley says

    Very enjoyable piece, Roger – wonderful “sweep” (as in breadth)! Fine photos, too – my favourite is the last one, which looks like something Von Guerard might have painted.

  7. Thanks RDL. My envy has multiple fronts. Primarily, that you can take a train about your fair state. This is something we in SA can no longer enjoy and I love train travel as much as I despise buses. It’s a pang I also experience at FA lunches when chaps like Luke and JB tell me they’ve caught the train into Melbourne.

    Great photos too. And I reckon there’s a few additional yarns lurking in your piece too.

  8. I’m with you, Mickey. I’d suggest that there are at least three or four follow-up pieces hidden here. Over to you, Roger – your audience awaits!

  9. Grand observations and memories Roger. We drove Adelaide to Melbourne and back in late January with friends journeying from Tour Down Under cycling to Australia Open tennis. You forgot the greatest killer of small towns – the highway bypass. Kaniva and Nhill are thriving but Dimboola has been bypassed and has seen better days. We were desperate to see the last hour of the final leg of the bike race and weren’t going to get to Horsham in time. We detoured off and found a large colonial 2 storey pub that had seen better days (to put it politely). It was the sort of place where you don’t want to sit or touch anything (except the beer glass). The only other patrons were a sad couple well marinated at lunchtime with kids at their feet. We passed on the counter lunch. Still there was no competition for the TV so we got to see our bike race when a busier pub would have had too much competition from cricket, tennis and the gallops.

  10. What a fabulous yarn. The most enjoyable piece I have read for ages.
    Thanks for bringing us along for the ride, Roger.

  11. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    I’m with Smokie, Roger. You’ve also prompted me to make sure I’m the full bottle on the lurks and perks of ticking over another decade.

    We took the Dimboola turnoff once. No sign of Bruce Spence, so we kept going.

    Local travel might be all we can do for a while. And that ain’t necessarily bad.

    Thanks sport.

  12. Luke Reynolds says

    Magnificent Roger, you get my vote. Like others, I love the Wimmera and the nearby Mallee, had family links in the Mallee in Rainbow and Jeparit, while through work have made plenty of trips to Horsham and Stawell the past few years.
    Brilliant photos, you look slightly reminiscent of the late, great Andrew ‘Greedy’ Smith of Mental As Anything fame sitting at the piano!

  13. Marcus Holt says

    I’m a drive-in drive-out teacher working at Natimuk PS at present so I’m getting to know the Wimmera. I live in Horsham and come home to Ocean Grove every few weeks. Natimuk is a little place populated by farmers, arty types and rock climbers, about midway between Horsham and Mt Arapiles. There are some lovely drives and walks around the McKenzie River and up into the Grampians. I’d been hoping to get into umpiring some local footy around the district but the virus has put the kybosh on that plan. I’m trying to steer the kids at school in the Cats direction but they’re mostly Bombers and Tigers fans. The Watson/Dimboola factor is to blame.

  14. Love the piece Roger.

    I can imagine you on street corners singing The Internationale.

    I love how Australian rural areas have established such strong and distinctive identities. The Wimmera. The definite article is a key part of the name. The Mallee. The Lockyer Valley. The Burdekin.

    My great grandfather was the pastor at Minyip from 1903-21. At that time the church was actually at the little village of Kirchheim just outside the town. The congregation was started in 1875.
    In 1935 the parishioners decided the church should be in Minyip itself. So they lifted the building onto a couple of drays which transported it into Minyip – the same building. Our family went to the 140th celebrations in 2015. It was a brilliant weekend. Wonderful friendly, welcoming people.

    I have also formed friendships with the good folk of Murtoa (just up the road) – through writing about Murtoa in Memoirs of a Mug Punter. (That’s another story)

    Some years ago rival clubs Minyip and Murtoa combined. The Burras, as they are called, won both the footy and netball premierships last year. No mean feat in the strong Wimmera comp. More on that soon – as they are bringing a book out.

    Importantly, how good is the countryside looking! They’ve had a brilliant start to the season with plenty of late-autumn and early-winter rain. Hope they get all the way through to harvest.

    Thanks again RDL.

  15. Chairman Dan ????????????????????

    Interesting story Roger. I’d not spent much time in the Wimmera until this century. I remember going to a pub in Dimboola in 1992, when all the locals got off their seats to give us the evil eye. Not welcome. We then drove to Ouyen, where we had a marvellous Chinese meal @ the pub.

    In the 21st century i spent a bit more time travelling around there. The cheese’n’kisses and i have enjoyed the silo art trail. In Donald there’s a vacant shack outside of Kooka’s Country Cookies, where a few of us have been allowed to spend a weekend, or ten. I’ve been to the races/ stayed in Murtoa a few years back, and oh yes St Arnaud.

    Ex-defacto brother in law ended up in St Arnaud for a while, this after a spell in Stuart Mill. Another mate of mine spent time working disability in St Arnaud. You’ve got me thinking about this MLC Ezzy Curnow. My mate who worked in St Arnaud should have been the same age,and may have known him from that world of politics. Ezzy Curnow would be a contemporary of fellows like Bob Scates, Kevin Healy, Tony Dalton

    It’s a good read Roger, such a good advertisement for area the missus and i are planning another journey along the Silo Art Trail.

    Glen!

  16. Thanks Roger. That’s a rich report. You certainly put in the miles!

    There was lovely radio doco on RN recently, acknowledging the passing of Minyip’s most illustrious resident philosopher. It’s well worth a listen: https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/earshot/homer-of-the-wimmera/9910428

    I made a film a few years ago at Rupanyup, working with a family that’s been making films of their own since the 1930s. It’s a story about memories embedded in place. Perhaps you and other readers might appreciate: http://www.the-farmers-cinematheque.com

    All the best

    Malcolm

  17. Hayden Kelly says

    Roger
    Great story as a Mallee boy we always thought the Wimmera was a much closer to the big smoke and hence the inhabitants were a bit softer than Mallee Boys [lol] You left out Barry Young and even further back Ian Aston from St Arnaud as good VFL/AFL players .
    St Arnaud was the biggest town with the most pubs in the North Central League and 40 miles from Wycheproof which I reckon made it our longest trip . Saints played at Lord Nelson Park on a huge ground with a beautiful surface surrounded by the trotting track .
    Fond memories
    Hayden Kelly The Muse

  18. Juliette says

    Wonderful, vivid writing. I can’t wait to read your memoirs, Roger!

  19. Roger Lowrey says

    A very big thank you to all of you for your kind remarks and additional commentary.

    Far too many specific points to go to individually so take this as generic vote of thanks to all contributors above. I’m glad the piece sparked as much interest as it seems to have done.

    If you are a good boy Ian I may even tell you the unexpurgated Ezzy Curnow story next time you are down at Percy’s pub.

    Anyway, as you can all probably tell, I had a very enjoyable time. It was great to get back there.

    Thanks again.

    RDL

  20. Keith E Richards OAM says

    Thank you Roger for the opportunity for me to reminisce, but also to note your omission of VFL products from Minyip (Bill McGrath, South Melbourne), from Horsham (Des Bethke, South Melbourne) and from Rupanyup (Bob Dunlop, Essendon).

    I lived in Minyip from 1957 – 1960, when it had a population of about 1,000, 2 pubs, 3 banks, a hospital, a doctor, 2 car dealerships, 3 churches and a formidable footy team boasting the star, Bill McGrath, 3 Drum brothers and 3 Evans brothers.

    Advent of supermarkets in Horsham and Warracknabeal led to the town’s demise, becoming little more than a film set for the TV series ‘The Flying Doctors’.

    At least the two pubs have survived!

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