Take a Slow Road Trip to rekindle your sense of wonder

Australian road trips are long and often arduous affairs, depending on your view of the world. In our recent getaway after Melbourne’s ‘Ring of Steel’ was removed, which allowed Victorians freedom of movement within their own State after many months of hard lockdown, we travelled way out west to visit a friend who lives in the Wimmera, then headed to Portland on the south west coast, returning home six days later, a total journey of 1110 kilometers, not counting side trips. There are two schools of thought when it comes to planning a road trip. The old school approach plans on getting from A to B as quickly as possible. It involves travelling along major routes and highways at the speed limit. Fuel stops, lunch and toilet breaks are hasty, usually consisting of take away food from huge highway service centres, soulless and treeless places. The second approach focuses on back roads, with preference given to minor C or D roads for most of the journey, stopping along the way to walk around small towns, visiting historic sites, and taking photos along the way. Back roads are rarely frequented by trucks, speed demons, or people attached to a time frame, a construct that is based on the idea that the destination is more important than the journey. In a back road journey, a country town’s bakery might offer a tasty pastie for lunch while a packed thermos of hot water provides a cup of tea along the way. There’s always a park with picnic tables under a shady tree, a gazebo or picnic hut in an Australian country town. 

My preference for back road journeys began at some point during the late 1980s after reading the iconic road trip story, ‘Blue Highways’, by William Least Heat Moon  ( born William Lewis Trogdon). Travelling around the USA in an old van, Heat Moon chose only the “blue highways”. He coined the term to refer to small, forgotten, out-of-the-way roads connecting rural America: these roads were drawn in blue on old maps. During his three month journey, he visited small towns with interesting names, meeting quite a few characters and documenting the history of each place along the way.  He took along a copy of Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’, considered to be the quintessentially American book, published in 1892, poetry which had little appeal to me when I was obliged to read it back the 1970s. I’m wondering what the archetypal Australian book might be to take along on an Aussie road trip in a van in 2020?

Travelling around Australia’s back roads that connect old towns, there’s more chance to collide with history. These old towns were important markers along the way before the major highways bi-passed them, cutting them off from passing trade. Nowadays, many are struggling to survive though quite a few are having a renaissance too. By revisiting them, there’s a chance to relive a long forgotten childhood memory of a trip taken so many years before, or to find ancestral farms and burial grounds, or to discover the importance of agriculture in the life of the Australian economy, a thing we often take for granted. Many small towns are graced with marvelous bluestone buildings, constructed by skilled Scottish stonemasons in the 1850s, as well as a surfeit of churches, most now obsolete, shrines to the many sects that divided the Christian religion during a previous era. Many Australian small towns were built after the success of gold mining or the sheep boom or during the grand building era of the 1890s. In each small town there’s a war shrine listing those who had died in the Great War, a reminder of how war devastated farming families and communities. Perhaps there’ll be a memorial avenue of large trees, or a bank of a river by which to loiter, or a country pub with a counter meal to distract you totally from your trip.

Driving along major roads you’ll miss this wonderful exploration of the past as well as the present so peaceful and appealing. But peel away this colonial veneer, the buildings, the churches, the old houses and quaint statues, the white history of our country places, and you may begin to see, perhaps for the first time, the indigenous history of the land, spelt out in land forms, native flora, in hidden billabongs and creeks.

First short leg, St Andrews to Woodend. C roads all the way,

On our recent road trip, the first leg took us to Woodend, a 99 km trip, via the country C or back roads towards Wallan, Donnybrook, Kalkallo, a most convenient and gentle way to leave the city without meeting much traffic or speed. This route skirts just beyond the outer fringes of Melbourne’s large suburban sprawl, the route notable for the beautiful ancient red gum trees, some believed to be 500 years old, that are dotted in paddocks along the way. Looking towards the horizon near Kalkallo, Bald Hill, the well worn hill of an old volcano, dominates the flat land. Bald Hill was noted in the diaries of our colonial ancestors who settled in this area in the 1840s. The large hill, seen from every road and angle, would certainly have been a significant marker for the indigenous people, prior to white invasion. The Merri Creek rises nearby. This creek was formed over many years by incising through the lava surface near Wallan, and then flows in a southerly direction for 70 km until it joins the Yarra River in Fairfield near Dight’s Falls and subsequently flows into Port Phillip Bay. Many Melbournians are familiar with Merri creek, given that it passes through many of the older suburbs of Melbourne, but few are familiar with its source. The Merri Creek was also vital for the first nation people of Melbourne.

The Wurundjeri-willam had regular camping spots along the Merri Creek which they would visit according to season. In winter the low lying land next to the creek was subject to flooding and the general dampness made it an unsuitable place for camping. At this time they would move to the hills. In summer time when food supplies were plentiful along the creeks, clans would visit one another and host meetings and ceremonies.

Women were responsible for 90% of food collected, of which the staple were plants. All Wurundjeri-willam women carried a long fire hardened digging stick known as a kannan. They used their kannan to dig up the root or tuber of the murnong or yam daisy. It had a bitter taste in winter but became much sweeter when spring arrived.

The creek supplied the Wurundjeri-willam with an abundance of food such as eel, fish, and duck. Women waded through the Merri with string bags suspended around their neck, searching the bottom of the stream for shellfish. Emu and kangaroo were hunted in the surrounding grasslands.

In the forests and hills, possum was also a staple source of food and clothing, The flesh of the possum was cooked and eaten, while the skin was saved to be sewn into valuable waterproof cloaks.

These cloaks were fastened at the shoulder and extended to the knees. Clan designs were incised with a mussel shell tool into the inner surfaces of the skins. Wearing the fur side next to the body showed off the designs which were highlighted with red ochre.” *

As Melbourne’s Northern Growth Corridor begins to swamp this area with more suburban subdivision, cultural mapping is taking place in these areas near Wallan and Kalkallo. The Merri Creek was a significant route for the Wurrundjeri-willam people. Archeologists may reveal stone sharpening tools and middens along the billabongs and creeks, and perhaps not come across any sites of significance, but intangible indigenous history can be felt in these areas. You don’t need intact evidence, a birthing tree, a canoe tree or ancient fish traps to know that this land is culturally significant. And you don’t need a history book to tell you that massacre of the indigenous people took place nearby.

I’ll be returning to this area, which is not too far from home, next time to take photos of a land that reveals many surprises if you just take the time. I’m afraid that if I wait too long, the area, and the signs you can still read, will be buried under new housing estates.

Bunjil. Bunjil is a creator deity, cultural hero, and ancestral being, often depicted as a wedge tailed eagle (or eaglehawk) in the Australian aboriginal mythology of some of the aboriginal peoples of Victoria. When Bunjil visits us at home, we all rush outside to take photos. Photo by my daughter, Rachael.

A few holiday questions for you Dear Reader. What book would accompany you on a road trip in your country? Do you prefer to take C roads when travelling, assuming that you have all the time in the world? What makes a road trip special for you?

This is part one of my recent road trip. There will be more legs offered soon, I hope.

13 thoughts on “Take a Slow Road Trip to rekindle your sense of wonder”

  1. Oh, brilliant, I enjoyed this post. My preference is for back road trips…you never know what interesting sights you are going to come across….I had many an enjoyable trip in France, Italy, Germany, Austria…etc

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  2. I loved this, Francesca. I am a firm believer of the back roads. I think that might be backlash from growing up in a household were it was all about ‘making time’ to get somewhere as quickly as possible. My husband likes nothing better than to say, ‘hey remember when we found that little place…..’ and it launches us on a wonderful memory trip.

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  3. When you travelled through, or near, Darraweit Guim, you would’ve been close to a little one horse town named Springfield. I believe this was one of the main gathering places for the Wurrundjeri people. Also, further north near Lancefield is the Mt William stone axe quarry. I hope to do this tour soon.
    When we travelled to Lake Yambuk, we took C roads from Ballarat. Down through places like Cape Clear, Derinallum and Mortlake. It was wonderful. Thanks for your story; I must do the same soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I plan to go back to Daraweitguim and places nearby to explore more. Although it was a lovely slow trip, next time, those places will be the destination too. Stuarts great grandparents settled in the 1840s around Kalkallo after working for a squatter up in the Pyalong area. Thanks for the tips regarding indigenous sites. I also plan to take more photos of that area and revisit Hanging Rock, with a picnic.
      We also took back routes from Jeparit to Portland. You just see so much more. Yes, your recent back road trip would have been far more pleasant than the highway.

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  4. Your wanderings bring to mind my recent travels around Victoria with the G.O., inspired in part by earlier travels with my ex-husband, a Victorian, his only redeeming feature… family history car trips with his elderly Dad, whose stories took us from Colac around the region encompassing Terang, Warrnambool, Beac, Koroit, Camperdown, Lismore, Noorat, Derrinalum, Lismore, Berrybank, Cressy, Beaufort… that inspired my affection for Victoria, especially the western districts. Answers: The C roads of course… cafes, bakeries, op-oldwares-antique shops, pubs, history family and otherwise, cemeteries, churches, scenery, old things… The book? Well, that is a question… In Victoria’ case – Alan Marshall’s I Can Jump Puddles trilogy, as he went to school with my ex-father-in-law, plus I love his books. The other that comes to mind is Jackson’s Track by Daryl Tonkin and Carolyn Landon. For South Australia… I recently added Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar to my want to read list. So many worthy Australian authors and books… I like this idea of reading locationally relevant books while roadtripping… I feel a spreadsheet coming on.

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    1. Interesting Dale- sounds like you’ quite familiar with the Western districts of Victoria. Yes, Jackson’s Track is a gem, Haven’t read Salt Creek but will add it to my holiday reading now. Western Australia around Perth requires Cloudstreet by Tim Winton, or anything by Tim Winton, The Wimmera, by Mark Brandi, set in that part of Victoria, is the most disturbing book I’ve read this year. Haha, yes, a spreadsheet is required.

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  5. I daresay my current comment may deserve a ‘reprehensible’ tag, but for many of us so used to winging into the Wide Blue Yonder at times possible the tragic Covid year has almost acted as a wakeup call to what we could and should learn about our own country, our own ‘backyard’ first . . . Methinks Australia has shown the world how well a unified approach can and does work . . . methinks the tenor after Black Summer and now the blasted virus in learning and thoroughly enjoying experiences here will make us ever stronger . . . absolutely loved your back roads travel . . . yes, please – may we have some more . . .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Totally agree. We have learnt a lot this year. Our own back yard is a place of wonder, and a never ending source of learning. The disaster of last year’s Black Summer, and no doubt there’ll be more, has also taught us to take care of our land and hold it dear. The Australian approach to Covid has been amazing- we deserve to applaud our State leaders in sticking to the science. It is sad to see that the European counterpart to lockdown goes nowhere near what we understand to be a lockdown. But- we should not rest on our laurels: it’s summertime, and we can only hope that the vaccine may make a dent in the spread before our next winter. Cheers, Eha.

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  6. Write this in sadness having received a mail this morning from one of the most afflicted countries in Europe with one of the highest death tolls. How could their Government possibly break their laws relating to civil liberties and lower themselves to listen to the medical authorities if such exhortations broke the law !!!!! The basic laws of the country surely had to be changed first !!! Fran – I always attempt to see ‘the other side’ of anyone’s views but I actually know the usual number of 4-letter words ! I am so glad to live here, I am so glad of most I can see in the news . . . and I’ll surely play my tiny positive part whenever I can . . . hug . . . nice to hear from you . . .

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  7. I prefer the off-road alternative when travelling in the country – so scenic and beautiful in some parts of Australia. If I am in a hurry naturally we take the “Daytona” hair-raising highway to our final destination as that’s all we are interested in. But in the middle of COVID-19 just before Stage 2 Lockdown when we were let out of our shells for a while (which was a mistake) we drove up to Seymour, filled our esky with pies from a winning bakery (bought them frozen), had a Chinese meal for lunch in a terrific restaurant there, then headed north inland towards Rushworth and the Waranga Basin. The caravan park/camping grounds at Rushworth are next to the old gold diggings of the past and are good for a night’s stopover and fossicking for small gold nuggets which are still found. This was our recent off-road trip in August. It was a sunny winter’s day. Lake Waranga was a big eye-opener just before Rushworth – a huge expanse of water used for irrigation about 5,800 hectares in size. It’s quiet!! Don’t expect any tourist attractions there but, it’s great for boating if no wind picks up, fishing, swimming (shallow) and picnicing. There are facilities there so no hassles.. I saw a few people just fishing off the banks and most had caught fish, mainly yellow belly, redfin and cod. In summer the downside are water skiers but it’s just nice relaxing on the banks of the lake, maybe catching a fish and having a picnic. This is the sort of town you find when you travel off-road and it’s a great education.

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  8. Appreciating American small towns is harder than what you describe, because so many of them (this is pre-pandemic) were economically devastated as small-town businesses failed and the towns were as they say hollowed out. Young people left, farming became a new type of endeavor with far fewer people and families involved (thus not as much life in the towns that supported them), and many more destructive tendencies. It’s not possible to condemn what happened, though some of the “creative destruction” was more destructive than anything. So similar road trips work differently. The ones where we did see the small off-highway towns h ave been interesting, though.

    My response needs to be more complicated but that’s all I can do right now.

    be safe… mae at maefood.blogspot.com

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    1. Thanks for your comment Mae. The romanticised view offered by Heat Moon is now over 40 years ago: I appreciate that these isolated towns may now have been destroyed or have become ghost towns. A similar event has taken place over the last 50 years here in Australia. Most small places are struggling . Still, the remnants of history are still in place and , for me, more interesting than travelling along major routes frequented by road trains. Since Covid, some of our regional towns have shown signs of revitalisation, as more workers are encouraged to do so from home and have made a tree change. Melbourne has a population of 5 million, so it will be a good thing if this decentralisation continues.

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