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.
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.
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.