Steaming in Echuca

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.


Museum, Elmore, Vic.

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.

Echuca log wagon

Log wagon

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.

Echuca warf 2

Echuca wharf

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.

Echuca st engI 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. Echuca - ps Mary-AnnLogging 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.

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GORoad.jpgAmbling down Kororoit Street, Melbourne, I met up with Prince’s Highway – or Freeway – then passed through Geelong for the second time since coming to Australia and on to Torquay, home to the famous Bell’s Beach and so-called Surf Capital of Oz – equated to our own South Africa’s J-Bay (Jeffrey’s Bay), I suppose. It is also the start of the Great Ocean Road.
Of particular interest, though, was a visit to the local Bell’s Beach Backpackers Hostel, as it was my intention to start up something similar in Uniondale, and was keen to pick their brains. The timing was good. Now October, Marcia, the manager, had only been there since May and was willing to share the teething problems with me. They had yet to experience a full surfer season, however, and their full house was about 40 beds. Mine would be about half that.
Onward down the Great Ocean Road with splendid views of the sea and beaches –

Twelve Apostles

The Twelve Apostles – Victoria

Anglesea, Airey’s Inlet with its lighthouse, to Lorne where I had a full breakfast for lunch with a glorious view. I fired up my mobile with an Oz number for the first time and sent it off to relevant folk around the world.
Off to Apollo Bay; the sea was an amazing turquoise, then veered inland around Cape Otway through forests to Lavers Hill then south-west again via Lower Gellibrand. By Princeton I was getting glimpses of the famed sandstone cliffs and crags that, further on, became the Twelve Apostles. I did the tourist thing and parked at the display building; read the geological stuff and joined the procession that walked through an underpass to the cliffs on the far side of the highway to view the fingers of sandstone jutting up out of the roaring waves like a series of up-yours fingers. Columns of harder sandstone were once part of the cliffs, but have resisted the erosion and weathering by the waves over the millennia.
Well worth the visit! I retraced my route back to Melbourne and after a few wrong turns in the dark with poor lights, I got back to my nephew’s home in Newport.

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Weirdest of Oz

What mystified me was the lack of insect life. Not an ant on the leaves, not a boatman on the water, not a fish jumping, not a nibble on my hook. I’d borrowed a rod from my brother – surely one left over from one of his sons as I don’t think Richard was any kind of fisherman. I was up at 05h30 and sitting on his little plank jetty on Cabbage Tree Creek, the only place I could get near the water as the banks were choked with what I was told were tea-tree bushes.

musk duck

Musk duck

Then a hard, rhythmic splashing was heard getting closer and the weirdest brown duck-like bird paddled into view. It seemed to have a piece of seaweed in its beak and thrashing the water with its tail. I was totally gob-smacked as it thrashed its way along and out of view again. It turned out to be a male musk duck (Biziura lobata) which has a large, leathery, pendulous lobe of skin which it can inflate that dangles below its bill. It was actually doing its mating thing by fanning its long stiff tail feathers out, either cocked up and over the bird’s back or spread out over the water, at the same time kicking the water to produce the loud splash. Bizarre.


Crimson rosella

To balance the ugliest bird I ever saw in my life, the gum tree forest on Richard’s farm also sported the prettiest and the noisiest. It wasn’t the only cocky seen there but the crimson rosellas take the prize for beauty, in my view. But what does take some getting used to is the incessant calling of bellbirds (or Bell Miners) which can drill a hole in your head. Apparently it is part of their strategy to rid their colony’s territory of all other birds. However, I did see the famous kookaburras, ravens, an Eastern Spinebill and the odd fairy wren.


Bell Miner

Just prior to the first weekend on his farm near Marlo, Gippsland, Victoria, Oz, I went to Lakes Entrance on my own to take Mum out for the day in Richard’s Ford Stationwagon. It was the first time I had ever driven an automatic, but only once tried to push the nonexistent clutch. It had a petrol/LPG gas set-up – it was weird topping up with both at the filling station. Petrol was A$1-10 per litre and gas was half that. After lunch, I took Mum to Lake Tyers where we sat in the car overlooking the beach and the ocean of the Bass Straight. I’d hoped for a boat trip on the lake, but the weather was too cool and blustery for Mum.

I got back to the farm to meet the first of the arrivals of the weekend’s retreat Richard and Kate hold several times a year for a number of their fellow Catholics. They were an Italian Australian couple, very excitedly showing photos taken in Richard’s little chapel at the previous retreat. There were white streaks over the congregants heads which they pronounced was ectoplasm! Holy moly, more weird.

Friday 1st October 2004 saw the rest of the retreat folk arrive, including a priest whom Richard and I fetched in Orbost off the bus from Canberra. Luckily, when we got back, my dear friend and ex-brother-in-law Nico Jaspers arrived from his home in Orange NSW. After breakfast the next day with the retreaters, Nic took me via Lakes where we visited my Mum – she recognised him right off, so nothing wrong with her marbles – to Berwick, just outside Melbourne, where his own mother lived with his brother Frans Jaspers and his family. Nobody at home, but Nic’s guess was that we’d find them playing the pokies. Spot on! We bought beer, wine and biltong – from a South African butcher – and had a very festive reunion.

Next day, Nic headed home to Orange while Frans took me to Armadale to collect Richard’s daughter Jennifer’s Toyota Corolla where it was being looked after by a friend of his. Jen had already settled in London by this time. From there I braved the Melbourne traffic and safely got back to 6 Schutt Road, Newport, to spend a few days with my nephew, Mark and his wife, Katrina.

The next day’s adventure was going to Melbourne Central by train – it took this bushman nearly an hour to figure out how to get a ticket out of the machine!– to buy an adaptor plug for my cell phone as the Oz plugs are different to those in both South Africa and Botswana. The day after, I took the train again to Parliament Station, walked along Nicholson Street and spent the day at the Museum.

It has huge gardens, but the Exhibition Hall was closed after holding a large art display. Two floors, however, were open to the public with a variety of exhibits. The more memorable ones included Australian insects and their role in our lives. The human body and development of medicine with computerized virtual reality as teaching aids for medical students. Melbourne slums in the 1880s. Weirdest was the adventures of a turd on its journey from the toilet through the sewer system all the way to the sewerage works near Werribee. The legendary racehorse, Phar-Lap. A walk through a gum forest with real trees, animals, fish and frogs. I was kicked out at closing time while mentally panning gold in 1850. I love museums!

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To get a balanced view of comparative monetary values and lifestyles between my own country and another, I enjoy going to supermarkets to compare prices and choices. (Prices of the day per kg were: Rump steak $13-00, Premium mince $9-00, whole chicken $6-00, Pork chops $9-50, potatoes $2-00, Onions $1-60.)

It gives a much more accurate idea of living costs than do exchange rates which are influenced by manipulation and politics. Simple things like courtesy and security are also great markers as to the heart of a country’s people.

On Sunday, 26th September 2004, Richard and I set off to Lake’s Entrance to visit our mum, but on the way, in Orbost, Richard attended his Catholic mass while I walked off to the local supermarket.

While in London, in ’69, I had got the impression that the Aussies that I met travelling abroad were predominantly loud and insecure, always referring to how much bigger and better things were in Oz. Meeting the populace in their own back yard soon dispelled that idea as friendliness was the overwhelming impression. Folk were not afraid to chat in queues to complete strangers in friendly helpful ways. Courtesy was the norm.

Stony Creek Trestle Bridge

Stony Creek trestle bridge

On our way again, Richard took me to see the Stony Creek trestle bridge near Nowa Nowa, just 3 km off the main road. No longer used by trains, it is a feature on a popular cycling trail. It is an impressive bit of historical engineering; the local resources put to good use to cross deep gorges.

Lakes EntranceGippsland is, like a lot of eastern Australia, heavily wooded with enormous gum trees. The views, from the twists and turns as one approaches the watery world of Lakes Entrance on the coast, are beautiful. We picked our mum up from her room in the old-age Care Centre on Lakeview Drive to take her out for a very reasonably priced lunch at the local Bowls Club.

Lakes E street art 1Lakes E street art 2Although a bit tottery, using a wheelie-walker to get around, at 89, then, she was in pretty good nick. I was to see her several times in the next couple of months, but, in retrospect, I wish I had asked her more of her memories and thoughts and opinions. She had always been introverted and difficult to get close to. Rather than try harder, I’d backed away. I hadn’t been a good son, and I wish I’d said I was sorry.

We went to see the extraordinary tree carvings that line the main road of Lakes Entrance. Unbelievably intricate forms of early Australian colonial life. A lot of it was carved with a chain-saw!

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Flight to Gippsland

Richard, my bro, was having a problem with his solar set-up at his farm, so Dave, the solar expert from Melbourne, went with him when he drove home on Thursday 23 September 2004. The next day, I took Dave’s place in a group of friends heading north for a fishing trip to Mallacoota near the Victoria/NSW border.

Oz Vic Alltime Bairnsdale.jpgMark Earle took me to the light aircraft airport of Moorabbin and dropped me at the Royal Vic Aero Clubhouse where I joined the group there quaffing beers and awaiting the arrival of pilot, Russell Barnes. There were seven of us in a Piper and a Cessna 182. I was put in the latter with Russell. We passed over Warragul, Sale and Maffra. Lovely names! We landed at Bairnsdale to refuel, all pitching in to push the Cessna to the pump. Someone called a taxi to take us into town, about 6 km’s drive. After a sandwich, one of our number, a clock repairer by trade, suggested we go to a clock shop in the town on the Prince’s Highway.

What an unexpected delight. I could have browsed all day, but we had to get going.

The Cessna took off, passed over Lakes Entrance where my mum was in a home for the elderly, and headed for Orbost Field, which is a long way from Orbost and coincidentally, only three km from Richard’s farm, Ostralia-All-Over, near the little village of Marlo on the coast. He arrived to swap Dave for myself and off they flew.

Oz Vic Map- Lakes Entrance.jpgIt was nice to see my sister-in-law Kate again! Both of them were scurrying around preparing their home for a Catholic retreat, due to take place the following weekend. The following day, when Kate had rushed away to a workshop at the Orbost Hospital, Richard showed me around his farm.

He had got in on the ground floor of the Ostrich market in Australia – hence the name of his farm – and, although that had by now flattened out, had done very well out of it in the days when you could get A$1000-00 for one fertilised egg. The prices were so high because importers were forced to keep their stock in quarantine on an island off the coast for something like six months and fly their food in for them! At his maximum, he had only three breeding pairs and an incubator, which made him a handsome living. Now he had kept on an elderly couple of Ostriches just as a thank-you for their services! He had since started a venture with another African animal – boer goats.

His farm is heavily wooded with enormous gum trees which seemed to be a continuous battle to keep at bay. It lies in a curve of the Cabbagetree Creek, which runs into the Brodribb then the Snowy whose estuary to the sea is in Marlo. Yes, that Snowy River.

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Bits of Melbourne

Home for Mark Earle was a large wood-built five bedroomed affair in Schutt Street, Newport, half a block from the Newport Station. His wife Katrina and mum-in-law Cheryl (nee Hickey or married to Hickey, I’m not sure which) made me most welcome and their two kids, Kiara (4) and Tom (18 months) – yeah, another Tom Earle – were a delight. She was a pleasant chatterbox; Tom the quiet, silent type, gently snottering while his sister swiped at his face with tissues.


Mark Earle, Auctioneer

My bro’ Richard and I had bedded down in a loft room. He dashed off for an appointment while I went with Katrina to drop the kids off at their day-care place. Mark had been a property auctioneer at Jas. H. Stevens for ten years at this point and doing well. He took off some time to take Rickard and me to lunch on the South Bank of the Yarra River near Flinders Street Station, a great old Victorian building.


Flinder Street Station, Melbourne


Federation Square, Melbourne

After that we went to the weird disjointed Federation Square and drifted round in the Art Gallery. I know it is an exclusively Australian gallery, so am probably totally off track, but there seemed to be an over abundance of Aboriginal art, to my mind as a sort of grovelling apology for sidelining them for so long. Not to my taste, I’m afraid; and nor was the modern art section even though my own attempts have tended towards symbolic stuff. However, there was a section with some stunning traditional Australian colonial period oils that took my breath away.

My internal clock being still screwed up, I awoke next morning at 03h00, made coffee and quietly perused tour brochures until the family surfaced. Richard took the bulk of my luggage with him when he left for firstly a protest march at an abortion clinic, and then home, his farm 4 hours drive away near the coastal village of Marlo. Needless to say, Richard is an earnest pro-lifer.

Mark being at work, I went along with Katrina and Cheryl to the town of Geelong an hour away along the western side of the bay. After Katrina had settled some business, we took the kids to the beach, then lunch. I had, for the first time ever, a Japanese meal of chicken, salad and wasabi sauce. Good tucker, mate.

After Cheryl had treated the kids to a ride on Thomas the Tank Engine there, we headed home again. Another first was supper of take-away Thai dishes Mark and I walked down the road to fetch. My twelve years in Botswana had left me internationally gastronomically deprived! More good tucker!

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Building some Jetlag

Through August 2004, I gathered the wherewithal to apply for an Australian visa, including a letter of invitation from my brother, Richard Earle, now long an Australian resident.


Elaine with son, Thomas

In the UK, my son Ryan Earle and his wife Elaine produced my first grandson.  Thomas Earle was born 13 September 2004 weighing 7.14 lbs, of course a very exciting event. By this time my visa was through and my ticket to Melbourne booked and paid for, thanks to healthy donations from both Richard and my mum.

Sheila’s son Tim Simkin & his girlfriend Juanita Ainslie gave me a lift to Cape Town as they were on their way to visit his father. We met up with Tom Maling, Sheila’s brother, near Somerset West, who took me to their home in Fish Hoek.  I spent the weekend there, then Tom took me to the airport at dawn on Monday 20 September. My flight was already international, so I bought some duty free ciggy tobacco for Richard’s roll-your-owns; a two hour link to Johannesburg, then Air Malaysia MH0202 to Kuala Lumpur, a six hour time difference away. And there it was sun-rise, already. I’d had only one hour sleep.

ozNot all Air Malaysia flights go missing.

KL International is like a giant tent with four arms with a round garden in the intersection, supported by huge steel struts. Confined there for 5 hours I saw nothing of Malaysia except the flat land surrounding it and some distant hills which seemed to be wooded. KL city was half an hour away by rail. Hungry work, exploring an airport for that length of time, dragging your luggage around. I changed R100-00 for RM56-15 (Ringgit Malaysia) and had a soup and sandwich for RM16-00. The few clocks I could find, mostly in the toilets, all seemed to show different times, so when my next flight MH 0129 was called, I figured it must be 09h15, the time on the boarding pass.

KL to Melbourne: Most of the flight was in clear daylight, so, with a window seat I had a good view of what lay below, although being six-four in Economy is always cramped. Our route took us over Jakarta, then some Indian Ocean before crossing the Australian coast near Port Headland. Just after that I could make out a dirt landing strip near Marble Bar. You can see a hellova lot of nothing as you approach the Great Sandy and Gibson Deserts at 39000 feet. Brown wrinkles the odd streak of salt pan. The largest of these was Lake Disappointment. Good name.

Taking a line from there to pass just south of Maralinga, we headed for the Eyre Peninsula. I should have been able to see the sea on the starboard side of the Boeing 747 but there was enough cloud there to thwart that. On the port side it was still clear enough to see the desert morph into farmland with several lakes. Visibility improved a bit over the Spencer Gulf at around 18h00 local time, quickly crossed the York Peninsula, a sort of almost Italian boot, before crossing the Gulf of St. Vincent and Adelaide, we lost sight of the earth due to thick cloud until we circled the beautiful lights of Melbourne and touched down at 19h30.


Richard Earle

Customs welcomed me by taking away half of Richard’s tobacco as I thought R400-00 duty was really heavy.  I was more than I had paid for the whole amount. They should communicate with the bloody Duty Free shop back in SA about the actual allowance, I told them. They searched me for drugs then let me go with a friendly “Mate” here and there.

I had arrived Down Under, Mate.

As I walked out of the airport, my nephew, Mark Earle, was coincidentally just dropping off his father Richard to look for me, so we scrambled into his Beamer and went back to his beautiful home where I met his wife, Katrina and her mum, Cheryl.

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