Tuesday, July 19, 2011

of carriages and things

Carriage Racing - sport of the rich and famous

In a few days we will be setting out on yet another marathon journey north along the Hume Hwy. I tell you this not because I am excited but because I feel a whinge coming on.
Until I went across the Nullarbor by car, I thought the Hume Hwy was the world’s most boring road. As time passes and memories of the trip across the Nullarbor fade, and as I continue driving up and down the Hume Hwy with monotonous regularity – a tautology if ever there was one – I am becoming convinced once more that the Hume Hwy is the world’s most boring road.
How boring can the Hume Hwy be? More boring than the preceding paragraph!

My life as a frequent Humer began before I was born and it continues today. To be sure, there were periods of living away from Victoria, and the highlight of each of those stays away was that I did not have to Hume it.
Just one of the problems with the Hume is that it is such a convenient and well made road. Each time it is improved and upgraded – at least the Victorian stretch – there are fewer turns, gentler slopes, and less scenery. It just goes on and on. And it’s not so much a case of all roads lead to Hume, but the Hume leads to everywhere you need to go.

The journey begins at Franga, Frankghanistan - or Frankston as it is labelled on maps. [map of journey available]
Onto the freeway[s] we go. The highlights of this stage of the journey are ‘freeway art”, including a hideous metal flower that looks like a vicious, noxious weed, followed by a faux hotel.

The Hotel, a scaled down representation of a real hotel, sits in an infrequently mown paddock rather than the carefully landscaped surrounds shown in the artist's model shown here. This being the Franga end of the freeway, the Hotel is regularly vandalised, complete with broken windows and graffiti. Actually, it’s reminiscent of many of the buildings in Franga central, sans squatters and drug deals.

Next, the early bird what catches worms [actually a cheering sight]. Again, this is just an artist's model. The real thing is just in a paddock, but it's huge and shiny and people must like it because to the best of my knowledge it has never been graffitied.

Several “artworks” later, one heads into the tunnel, now grotty from dirt and fumes. What were they thinking that thing would look like?
The tunnel with a funnel

After an hour of these delights one reaches Collingwood. Ahhh, civilisation; 6 lanes of crawling creeping traffic.
Past the old brickworks chimney, and the Gasometer Hotel which is opposite the corner where a gasometer once stood.

Past the Fitzroy Baths featured in Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip. Memories galore til one links up with the Tulla Freeway and more, then out on to the Hume Hwy.

For a long time I avoided travelling this way, but they’ve now made the road much safer and it cuts an hour off the world’s most boring journey. Best abstain from drinking anything caffeinated for about 3 hours before leaving Franga, though, because there is nowhere to wee for about two hours. [One might stop at an inner city café, but if one found somewhere to park one might die of the excitement before one got one’s latte.]

The first pitstop is at Hungry Jacks, just before Donnybrook road. How did a road come to be named for an Irish brawl?
One enters the Hungry, praises the proprietors silently for being so extraordinarily clean, then leaves without buying anything. One feels strangely clean but grubby at the same time.

A short way on is a spot called Kalkallo. ‘Twas here my dear, sweet old Grandmother once pulled up in her Ford Consul, heading south and busting for a wee. Into the pub she went, asking where the toilet was. “This is not a $%^&^% public toilet,” spat the exasperated publican. “Well,” my Grandma spat back, hopping from one leg to another, “I wuz gunna ‘ave a beer here, but yuz can #$%$^ it.”
Another 50 years and I might stop blushing as I drive past, though I shall never stop missing the old girl.

Further up the road, at the top of a hill, is a sign which reads “Pretty Sally Hill”. The road has been straightened and improved so many times over the years this sign is now nowhere near the real Pretty Sally, but this point on the road is still a milestone, so the name has stuck.
‘Twas here, a cousin once told me, a soldier hitchhiking to Puckapunyal Army Base, was on the side of the road. When said cousin and wife pulled over to give him a lift, the soldier dropped his head down to window height and enquired “Are ya goin’a Pucka?”, to which my cousin replied, “Nah, we’re married now”.

One drives northwards for a while longer, eventually passing a decrepit farm house with even more decrepit shearers’ huts and an even more decrepiterer still woolshed. Keep promising myself I'll stop one day and take some photos, so maybe...

Ask any Australian my age what their favourite smell is and, if they've ever been near a shearing shed, they will probably say nothing beats the smell of sheep shit and lanolin. But I digress. One more digression before I undigress: Took Mr D and Miss M [the schnauzers] to get a wash and trim yesterday. I can assure you they are far less compliant than the sheep in this video, and take 58 minutes longer per dog to shave. Okay, undigression program starting...

Here, at this farm with the decrepit buildings, one Christmas when the shed was newly built, everyone gathered for a huge party. An uncle arrived with heaps of little writing pads, one for each child and a few left over, and a matching number of pencils.
While the big people christened the new woolshed, and while a storm raged outside, we kids spent some time with writing pads and pencils. I watched my older brother practising his running writing and told my very young self “I can do that. What is writing but a lot of bumpy waves interspersed with big waves in an up or down direction?” [Well I probably didn’t use a word like interspersed, but precocious little devil I was, if I had known the word I would have.]

My own pad filled with echocardiograms, I moved onto a pad abandoned by some other kid with attention deficit disorder. Well, whatever I was doing left me with an enormous sense of achievement and I’ve been scribbling drivel ever since.

The decrepit shed and shearer’s huts are just outside Tallarook. Too many times a year for too many years as we drove past Tallarook, Uncle Writing Pad would say, without fail, ‘Things are crook in Tallarook and there’s no work in Burke…”. 
These are the first words of an old depression-era poem which whinges and whines its way from one town to another. Many variations on the original have been penned since then, each and every one as bad as the other.

Further north from Tallarook is a turnoff which leads either to Seymour, or to the town shown on my birth certificate - Puckapunyal.
Once one of the largest army bases in Australia, Puckapunyal is now little more than a token presence on the map. Wars and their machinery have changed too much, and training bases have been scattered far and wide in a northerly direction since Pucka’s heyday. The Pucka “street” shown on my birth certificate no longer exists.

At Pucka there is an army museum, which is rather piddly as museums go. There you’ll find the usual old uniforms, guns, a few photos and rusting tanks. The only thing of interest there is a Japanese mini-submarine of the type which entered Sydney Harbor and other ports around Australia in 1942.

It is inconceivable to me that anyone could conceive of asking a human being to climb into one of these inconceivably small things. Perhaps they are sometimes called ‘midget subs’ because only an anorexic midget would fit into one.
[Check out the diving gear - pre scuba style !]

The turnoff also gives you the option of visiting Seymour. Until long after I entered the world, the railway station at Seymour marked a break in the rail journey between Melbourne, and Albury on the Vic/NSW border. In its heyday, the station’s refreshment rooms could serve 800 people a 5 course meal so quickly they would make it back on to the train at the end of a 20 minute break.
During World War II [1939-1945], the people who ate here included German, Italian and Japanese prisoners of war as well as foreign nationals, all on their way to internment camps. Over a quarter of a million meals were also provided to servicemen travelling through. The tearooms did not close completely until the 1980s.

It's hard to find a photo which shows the enormous scale of the station buildings that remain. [Seems a lot of railway heritage people are fair dinkum train spotters and think the station is less important than the engine.] 

The Seymour Station was busy even in the 1960s, because relatively few city people had cars, and an airplane was something you looked at through the window at the airport on a cheap day out.
But the Station is far more historic and famous than you would ever think looking at it today. Picture Mark Twain stopping at Seymour in 1895, as he composes the following description of his journey to Melbourne:

And there were little villages, with neat stations well placarded with showy advertisements--mainly of almost too self-righteous brands of "sheepdip." If that is the name--and I think it is. It is a stuff like tar, and is dabbed on to places where the shearer clips a piece out of the sheep. It bars out the flies, and has healing properties, and a nip to it which makes the sheep skip like the cattle on a thousand hills. It is not good to eat. That is, it is not good to eat except when mixed with railroad coffee. It improves railroad coffee. Without it railroad coffee is too vague. But with it, it is quite assertive and enthusiastic. By itself, railroad coffee is too passive; but sheep-dip makes it wake up and get down to business. I wonder where they get railroad coffee?

I tasted a cup of railway coffee at Seymour. 

A friend once conducted a quick experiment for me in Seymour. Several times, he stopped someone in the main street, explaining he had never been to Seymour before and wondered what were the main attractions. Invariably, Seymourites responded by pointing vaguely to the distance, saying “That road there takes you to Yea, but if you head out in that other direction it goes towards Shepparton.”

Nobody thought to mention the famous caravan café. In 1956, light years before the word franchise was ever heard in Australia, a Polish immigrant bought a sad little wooden caravan from a not too successful gambler. His wife used it to start a hamburger business. 
Eventually the van/cafe collapsed, and the council let Stella Salakowski replace it with a tiny brick building. Mrs Sal kept working there until 2004 when, sadly, she had a stroke at the age of 90. 

For many years it was almost a cult thing to drive all the way from Melbourne, just to get a decent hamburger.

The next town that rates a mention is Avenel, once home to a young Ned Kelly, one of Australia’s most famous idiots heroes. His brother and father are buried in the local cemetery. 
The town has a mixture of old and new buildings but is, in many ways, quite a pretty little town.
Royal Mail Hotel [& Coach Stop] Avenel
The next important town on the journey is Longwood. It rates a special mention because for many years I lived there.

A thriving metropolis in the late 1800s, “Winding Creek” once had dairies, a creamery, a rabbit processing and exporting industry, timberyards, pubs everywhere, train lines branching out in all directions, and a Cobb & Co coach station.
Today there’s just a pub, a general store/post office, and a primary school, about 200 people, 26 feral cats [in one home], 600 dogs, and the best ever array of bird life anyone ever had the pleasure to see or hear.

The previous pub owners featured blues bands every Sunday afternoon and, if I didn’t make it to the pub, I could still enjoy the music blasting across the railway line. Friends sometimes came all the way from Melbourne for a weekend, the music as big an attraction as my own scintillating company.

It’s said that in a small town you don’t have to worry – if you don’t know what you are doing, there is always someone who can tell you. But it’s a great place where no one is intrusive, but at the first sign of an ambulance or something else out of the ordinary people drop by to see if there’s something they can do to help.

Cross the highway to East Longwood and you’ll see echidnas waddling around or koalas asleep in trees. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like when a car and a kangaroo have an argument, you only have to drive around there carelessly after dark.

The Shire is becoming something of a horse mecca, with lots of agistment, racing stables and even a horse quarantine station in the area. There’s a big turnover of youngsters on working holidays in these places which is not surprising, because you’d have to love horses or be desperate for money to take on a stable hand’s job. A young Irish girl stayed for a few months and, like many others before her, thought someone was pulling her leg when told her first job every morning would be going up to the top paddock to shoo away the roos.

The most exciting thing Longwood offers, though, is carriage driving. 
After a horse related accident when I was seven – the motor stopped suddenly causing me to fall from my wooden mount onto a concrete floor – I’ve never been terribly gaga about gee gees. 
But the carriage driving comps at the Longwood Oval are something to behold. The Longwood championships are as exciting as the ones in the video clip above of Windsor, except the clothing ain’t as posh and the horses don’t always look like they match. 
Well, in Europe it’s a popular sport with the rich [including those too old to play polo] but in Oz it’s mostly a family hobby.
The next Longwood championships will be in April 2012. It's free.

Enough for now! So far to go, but so much to do first…

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