Wednesday 11th March 2020
Driving distance approximately 210 klm / 130 miles
After the day before’s slow start we had a stern word with ourselves, so that by 8.30 in the morning we were already 10klm (6 mi) out of town for our first stop of the day, the Pink Salt Lake.
This is a small, circular, shallow, salty lake which gives off a salmon-pink hue determined by the amount of recent rainfall. It was distinctly pinky-white on the morning of our visit. The autumn sun was rising slowly, as you can see by the long shadows, and this has affected the vibrancy of our photos. You can walk across the lake, and someone had been here having fun scooping up layers of salt.
We’d come across the salt a few days before, as a nearby family-owned business, Mount Zero Olives, has formed a partnership with the Wimmera’s traditional land owners, through the Barenji Gadjin Land Council, to hand-harvest and market the salt commercially. One of the selling points is that it retains “lots of marvellous minerals – phosphorous, calcium, magnesium, potassium”, rather than the simple sodium chloride of most salts. And it has a lovely label, Bush Tukka, painted by Wotjobaluk Elder Aunty Nancy Harrison.
Bill was then keen to see Nhill, another half an hour drive west, because of the low-budget Australian 1997 film Road to Nhill. As you can read from the synopsis: “Four women bowlers on their way home to Pyramid Hill (population 550) from a tournament roll their car on a deserted road in rural Victoria. They are coping fairly well until the local men and emergency services start trying to help,” the film was actually shot some long distance away, but Nhill was directly in our path, so it was no hardship to call in there.
Nhill is home to the Aviation Heritage Centre which “commemorates the existence of the RAAF Base and WWII air school” established in 1941 as No2ANS (air navigation school). It went through several other name changes before closing in 1946. Approximately 12,000 young men and women trained here before being sent on to assist in the war effort.
The Battle of Britain in 1940 left Britain with a serious shortage of trained and experienced pilots. As a result, the British Commonwealth Air Training Programme, or Empire Air Training Scheme as it was often called in Australia, was established. Its aim was to provide 55,000 pilots, aircrew and staff each year, drawn from many countries of the Commonwealth Empire.
In Nhill, the main training aircraft were Avro Anson, Wirraway (I think it is called a Texan in the US), Tiger Moths, and Links. All of these are now on display at the Heritage Centre, open on weekends, and other days by appointment. Even though the facility was closed on our visit, we were able to peer through the hangar entrance and get some reasonable photos. The Wirraway is easily identified by its round coping on the fuselage and its single propeller, whereas the Avro was twin-engined. The Tiger Moth, being a biplane, is also instantly recognised. Look closely and you can just see it peeking through in the background of the shot of all three together.
One of my favourite Australian authors, Justin Sheedy, who sadly died suddenly and young a couple of years ago, wrote a trilogy of novels based on a character who had gone through the training scheme. Nor the Years Condemn, No Greater Love, and Ghosts of the Empire. Thoroughly researched and well written, I recommend those books to anyone who has an interest in this time in history.
Also on Bill’s must-see list was the Nhill Golf Course, because it is bore-watered, and therefore stayed green all through the drought. He was even hoping to buy a golf shirt in honour of our visit, but no one was about when we called in.
What caught my eye was the magnificent colour on the trunks of the eucalyptus lining the entrance driveway. They were a mixture of vibrant golden and red ochre where the outer bark had peeled away. There are nearly 1000 varieties of eucalyptus in Australia, so I have no idea which this is. Perhaps some botanist will read my post and fill in the missing detail; although I’ve had to reduce a couple of the photos to thumbnails as the file size was huge, so that may present an image quality challenge.
The main street of Nhill has a wide, grassed median strip running down the centre. The traditional war memorial dominates the top end of the street. Like many, it depicts a digger (soldier) holding his rifle in the attention/at arms position.
For this post, I’ve chosen to zoom in on the defence badge. This is the Rising Sun Badge which carries a scroll inscribed with the words ‘Australian Commonwealth Military Forces‘. This was actually the third pattern, introduced in May 1904, and worn throughout both World Wars by the First and Second AIF (Australian Infantry Forces).
A short distance away, another unique statue memorialises the draught horse. The first two arrived in Nhill in 1844 and subsequent horses went on to play a major role in the development of the region. Adjacent to the statue is a pillar with a button; push it and you’ll be rewarded with a fifteen minute dialogue of how draught horses shaped Australia, including a poem capturing the working day of a horse.
Pre-dating Coronavirus, floods, and bush fire, the Eastern part of Australia has been battling severe drought for two or three years. The Wimmera is a very fertile area, and for some time as we drove along we had been seeing hay piled near entrance gates to rural properties. We speculated it was either for sale or donation, as it was baled in rectangles and stacked in quantities suitable for semi-trailer loads. I guess this sign we saw displayed on many of the shops in Nhill answered that question.
Our early start was paying off, as it wasn’t even lunchtime when we pulled up at Kaniva, another half hour west from Nhill.
‘Came to a screaming halt‘, might be a better way to describe how we pulled up, as I startled Bill by yelling out – ‘Stop! The Puppet Shop!‘ We were a couple of blocks away by the time he realised I truly meant Stop! He turned around and parked a distance from the shop, and as we walked down the street, we became aware that here was another country town celebrating their history with street art.
Apparently there are around 40 fibreglass sheep dotted along the main street, celebrating this district’s long association with wool growing. Each sheep has a name, tells a story and links to a place or community group, as denoted by the ear tag (although my photos and tags are not a match – they simply illustrate the idea). If you are driving along the A8 Western / Dukes Highway on the eight-hour trip directly from Melbourne to Adelaide, or vice-versa, Kaniva is about the half-way mark, so this is a great opportunity to distract the kids, and maybe they’ll be so exhausted after finding all of them, they’ll drop off to sleep for the rest of the journey 🙂
The Kaniva Puppet Shop lives up to its slogan – the shop that makes you smile!
It is jammed packed with hand and finger puppets, marionettes, toys, jigsaws and Christmas decorations. There is an onsite puppet theatre, and children are welcome to devise their own shows.
We had such a good time in the shop, and we didn’t come away empty handed. As a child, did you have a paper doll you could dress up? As soon as I saw the box, I was transported to a lost memory of my young self. I’m hoping the young person I have in mind will enjoy the gift as much as I did at her age.
The owner, Julie, is a delightful woman who exudes enthusiasm and passion. If you are as tempted as I was, she has an online store which you can find at https://www.australianpuppetshop.com.au
Kaniva (population 800) is the last town of any size before the South Australian border. Before entering the state, you must dispose of any fruit, vegetables or plant matter – which is a doubly good reason we didn’t buy any begonia cuttings at the Ballarat festival.
Some distance after crossing the border from Victoria to South Australia, we came to the ironically named Bordertown, famous as the birthplace of Bob Hawke, the country’s longest serving Labor Prime Minister (1983-1991). Among his many claims to fame, while exuberantly celebrating Australia winning the America’s Cup Yacht Race in 1983, he said:
I tell you what – Any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up today is a BUM
South Australia is half an hour behind Victoria, so as we crossed the border, we gained that time. Which was just as well, as we hadn’t eaten lunch yet. We were recommended to travel out of town about 10klm (6 mi) to the Old Mundulla Hotel, a country pub dating back to 1884, where we were welcomed enthusiastically and given a decent feed.
Close by the pub is the Moot Yang Gunya Swamp, an eco area of Red River Gum forest and other native flora and fauna. We toyed with having a small walk, but were easily talked out of it when the publican commented on what a lovely weather day it was for snakes.
Instead, we got back in the car for a long loop drive to rejoin the highway and head into Keith.
Previously this area was known as the ninety mile desert. At Keith, we learned that during the 1940s, the CSIRO found a way to make the land productive by adding trace elements, and the AMP Society (Australian Mutual Provident) funded the clearing of bushland to set up farms. That pioneering farming heritage is remembered with a Land Rover on a pole, and a Wiles hut that was the typical home for families who joined the scheme. It is one of about 50 that existed. Built by the Wiles Industrial Company of Mile End, it was two prefabricated steel motor garages joined by a covered walk way. Through locked wire screens, visitors can glimpse the set of up of kitchen, bedroom and living room. Why the Land Rover is on a pole went over my head (little pun there).
Another memorial is to one of Keith’s favourite sons, Andy Caldecott, who was a rally-winning off-road motorcyclist and regular competitor in the Dakkar Rally. Sadly, he died of a neck injury he sustained in the 2006 Dakkar rally.
Local volunteers have also been hard at work restoring a Centurion Tank used by the Royal Australian Armoured Corps‘ (RAAC) in the Vietnam War. Again displayed behind wire mesh, and with its signage faded, it was looking a bit neglected on the day of our visit, but you can still appreciate the tank crews who operated it.
Our last street art was by accident – a mural spotted as we were driving past the Country Fire Service depot.
Keith is only a two and half hour drive to our next destination – Adelaide – but we did ourselves a favour and left that for the next day.