On Friday 8th October 2004 I set off from Melbourne, with Orange NSW as my target to visit my friend and ex-brother-in-law, Nic Jaspers. However, my route was governed by a trace mission: find the present whereabouts of a man who went to school in the town of Echuca on the Murray River.
I took the West Ring to the Calder Highway, heading for Gisborne and Mt. Macedon, turning off through gum forests to visit the War Memorial Cross. The view all the way back to Melbourne was awesome, but the weather was very cold so I didn’t tarry. I gave Hanging Rock a miss as it was fenced off. Lancefield, Toobarac, through green fields and rolling hills with bouldery outcrops to the Northern Highway. To Heathcote, with alpacas, sheep and canola fields, arriving at Elmore at 10h30.
There is nothing like a museum to stall my plans. Elmore, a little town on the Campaspe River, is home to a little agricultural museum celebrating the surrounding area’s wheat farms and farm life of the 1800s. More specifically, it is a tribute to a local son, Hugh Victor MacKay, the inventor of the Sunshine Harvester. I had even seen Sunshine Harvesters at home in South Africa on the Springbok Flats! The fifth child of Irish immigrants who had settled to farm nearby, he was born in 1865. He attended a primary school, but by 13 he was back on the farm. By the time he was 20, he had patented the Sunshine Harvester which was to revolutionise wheat harvesting and would eventually be sold throughout the world.
With great reluctance, I tore myself away to head for Echuca. And, would you believe my good luck?! One of my passions is steam engines; oh yes, trains of course, but more especially, all the other steam driven machines from rollers to tractors, pumps and mills.
Not only was the Murray riverbank a wharf glutted with paddle steamers, the Annual Steam Festival was on that
Of course, because of the Festival, accommodation was scarce, but that was not a problem as I needed the experience of staying a night in a backpackers to further my education in that direction for my own planned hostel back in Uniondale, South Africa. I booked into The Nomads Oasis Backpackers – top bunk in a dormitory for ten! Surviving, and contributing to, all the snores, grunts, moans and farts, I was up at 05h00 the next morning.
I hightailed it to the wharf to look at the paddle-steamers. The wharf itself is built of huge gum trunks, of course, and exploring where I was not actually supposed to, I found myself on walkways under the wharf leading right down to these beautiful river relics. Their crews were beginning to stir; coming on deck half dressed, with mugs and tooth-brushes, to spit into the mighty Murray. Smoke began to appear at some of the stacks, but whether this was for breakfast or to get up steam, I couldn’t tell. I dared not ask to come aboard.
Heading upward to get on top of the wharf, I found myself trapped inside the museum of steam and river life of 1850 that had yet to open for the day. So there was nobody around to see me climb over the fence. Beautifully restored engines were now being unloaded for the festival, and a steam tractor came chuffing down the road. Logging had obviously been – and still was – a huge industry in Australia, and steam tractors had played an essential part in every aspect, from loading, hauling, to running the sawmills themselves. The whole street behind the warf is 1800s; wagons, threshing machines, a blacksmith’s shop with steam engines being repaired, timber joinery for ship repairs.
It was with huge reluctance that I had to tear myself away for an interview with the Riverine Herald newspaper at 09h00 and then hit the road north to Orange, NSW.