a long hot weekend in Mallee Country…

08lake-tyrrell-salt-bubble

The idea of the Mallee Country had piqued my imagination from childhood, since my father used to bring huge gnarled Mallee tree roots home to burn in the fireplace. With a long weekend free I decided to head up there and see just what’s in that huge north-west corner of Victoria. Turns out not a hell of a lot, but what there is I found fascinating.

Saturday 24 January 2009

Today I have driven, and driven, and driven some more. It felt like an epic journey but was only 4 hours and 45 minutes in total. I can’t quite put my finger on why it felt epic. It wasn’t especially boring or interminably long or annoyingly filled with traffic. Perhaps it was because from practically the outset it was 100+ km/hr for hour after hour and two thirds of it in landscapes I’d never seen. That doesn’t quite ring fully true though. Maybe because it exceeded well beyond my expectations in terms of flatness, dryness, emptiness, and, in terms of the farmland, barrenness.

01rich-tilled-earth 02rich-tilled-sand

Straight road after straight road of barely changing landscape in typical Australian fashion. No doubt it came as a shock to the system after the last few years of intense city living. I’m struck with a sense of wonder that people live out here in these little towns. I can only assume they go out to work on the farms, the petrol stations, the mechanic shops or help maintain the hedonistic quantity of fencing lining the freeways and highways. I pity the animals in a fire. There’s no getting past those fences.

The only likely stopping point on my way to the Pink Lakes seemed worryingly small on the map but had a motel listed in the accommodation book. Humorously titled, Sea Lake is not really very big but has a large hardware joint, a massive farm machinery depot, little hospital and two pubs. The motel was one of those shocker brick block outfits not worth even slowing down for to take a better look. So I stayed at one of the pubs – the Royal Hotel. A grand name but extremely dilapidated, but with enough old world charm not to put me off completely. I only noticed the Sea Lake Hotel’s accommodation sign on returning for a meal. It’s in much better condition, with a wonderful wall-sized painting of a gum-lined river in the dining room. The almost neon blue and yellow carpet, orange vinyl padded chairs and wood veneer tables betray its adherence to the traditions of old 50’s and 60’s pubs. Meal prices are firmly in the present though – more than what you’d pay in many Melbourne venues. Hearty sized portions though (is this why all the men here have bellies?).

10sea-lake-main-drag 11sea-lake-old-truck

After sorting out my bed for the night I headed off to see the reason I chose this town and its namesake. 5km out of town you take the turnoff then as you come over a small rise all in a rush Lake Tyrrell looms ahead, gleaming white. Sometimes it has water, most of the time it’s salt as far as you can see. The salt forms in delicate tubes that crunch underfoot. Bleached dead branches, tussocky ‘islands’ and telltale damp looking dark patches that keep to the edges. There’s a long dune on the east side with remnants of ancient Aboriginal settlements. Tomorrow I’ll return and see how far I can get with the car and hopefully take a look.

03lake-tyrrell-1 04lake-tyrrell-salt-cu 05lake-tyrrell-2 06lake-tyrrell-salt-mine-1 07lake-tyrrell-wet 08lake-tyrrell-salt-bubble 09lake-tyrrell-decay 12lake-tyrrell-salt-mine-2

Sunday 25 January 2009

Nice to know you can get a decent coffee in a small country town on a Sunday morning. Way too much marg on the toast though.

Headed back to Lake Tyrrell to Cheetham Salt Works, the salt harvesting site (last photo above), as a look at the map showed getting to the dune would be harder than expected. Then a backtrack to take a minor road west to visit a town called SPEED. Not much there of course. Everyone must just speed on through it. Ha ha, yes bad joke sorry.

13speed

On the way I stopped to see just whether those things I kept seeing on the sides of the roads were unusually large and oddly round rocks or fruit of some kind. Turned out to be fruit, similar to a honey dew but smaller and sometimes elongated. Apparently they’re inedible.

It was here I realised the dark brown/red soil is in fact sand. The area I’d been driving through for hours is one big sand dune, an ancient sea bed. Somehow the farmers grow crops in it but with just stubble remaining after the harvest I wonder that it doesn’t blow away when the wind gets up.

Another tiny town with nothing in it (6 cars outside the church though), then I headed up to the Mallee Highway and braved 13km on a dirt road to reach the Murray-Sunset National Park. After endless farms it was good to see what the original landscape would have been like. Dry, sandy, sparse vegetation, quite a lot of birds. The salt lakes were very interesting. Salty ground water wells up in winter, then evaporates in summer leaving a crust of salt. A microscopic organism is present and secretes beta-carotene when the water is over 26 deg C. This turns the water pink – sunscreen for the organism. The salt crust still had pink tinges, quite remarkable. The patterns it forms as it dries are very beautiful.

14lake-crosby-pink-salt 15lake-crosby-1 16lake-crosby-wet-salt 17lake-crosby-2 18lake-crosby-salt-crust 19lake-crosby-3

I was the only person there. The silence and sense of isolation was wonderful. Really made me admire the grit and tenacity of first explorers and settlers that come to the region. They came looking for a resource rich paradise and found this harsh salty beauty instead. It certainly didn’t stop them clearing as much as possible for farming. Fair enough, got to make a living.

For many decades there was a salt harvesting operation and small township at Lake Crosby. Men worked in extreme temperatures collecting the salt into huge piles. Horses were re-shod every 7 days as the salt was so corrosive. What I didn’t realise is how hard it becomes. Throw a rock at the abandoned piles of salt and it doesn’t give an inch. They used to have to blast it to get it small enough to put in sacks to transport. Hardcore.

20lake-crosby-salt-mine Abandoned piles of salt (now rock solid)

It was pretty damn hot out of the car so I didn’t spend much time on foot exploring the lakes. Even so I still got a good dose of sunburn across the shoulders. Was lucky enough to spot two kangaroos hop out into Lake Becking – who knows why. This lake was still quite wet – I found out the hard way, sinking in about 20cm! And does that black mud stick or what!

21lake-becking-kangaroos The kangaroos are the specs at the far side (click to enlarge)

22lake-becking-mire 23lake-becking-muddy-shoe 24lake-kenyan-kangaroo-prints

Decided to head for Swan Hill on the Murray River for the evening, to hopefully stay somewhere a bit swankier than the night before! More brilliant country town names – Linga (just a sign on the way in and a sign on the way out – no buildings), Underbool, Walpeup, and my favourite – Manangatang. It’s incredible the effect a river has on the country – upon reaching the Murray towns were bigger, there are lots of vineyards, river gums and greenery abound.

Found myself staying at the Murray Downs Golf Resort next to a large group of blokes on their annual golf long weekend. What a laugh when one knocked on the door at 11pm with a glint in his eye asking if I’d like to join him for a dip in the pool… No thanks mate!

Monday 26 January 2009 – Australia Day/Invasion Day

Brilliant to wake up from a good night’s sleep to breakfast and a newspaper. Headed back into Swan Hill, took a long walk along the river. Very suburban really, but a lovely stretch of river gums. Amazing how some of them cling for dear life to the bank with half their roots exposed. Had hoped to do a river cruise but it was not to be. Lovely lamington to celebrate the holiday then back in the car.

25murray-river-1 26murray-river-tree-roots 27murray-river-rural-idyll

Pretty uneventful from then on, but stopped to marvel at Lake Boga. Utterly bone dry and desolate with a handy caravan park for holiday makers. The lake has lots of unexploded ammunition in it too for the kids to play with. Must return next summer for a longer stay, not.

28lake-boga-ammunition 29lake-boga-caravan-park

Finally came upon a lake with WATER at last – Lake Kangaroo which connects to Racecourse Lake.

30racecourse-lake

Finished the weekend feeling quite bemused at why on earth anyone in their right mind would move to this part of the world to live. So dry, so empty. Maybe a person has to be born there to fully appreciate its pull.

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1 Response to “a long hot weekend in Mallee Country…”


  1. 1 guideontravel February 19, 2009 at 9:53 pm

    These places are excellent…I have never visited any of these places…But I am so excited to visit any of these places…..


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