Tuesday, December 2, 2014

From Broken Hill to a taste of life around the Murray at Cobram

Broken Hill Reminiscing

While the Patrol had a complete fuel system rebuild in Broken Hill due to what looked like 'metal shavings', dirt and who knows what else in the tank, we waited patiently (at least, mostly patiently) for over three weeks.  Despite not having a car, we managed to see more sights than we would have by doing the abbreviated tourist view. 

We moved around town by bus, push-bike and shanks' pony.  We enjoyed the courtesy and company of  both  locals and travellers who went out of their way to taxi us around.   Time, (and parts delivery from interstate) moves slowly in towns like Broken Hill.  In hindsight, this situation made our stay a bit unique - one that, with the exception of  the damage caused to our wallet from the repair bill, we will always look back on fondly.  

There were many broken commitments from the dealer re the car being ready, and on the final day we were promised delivery at 10am, we sat in the dealer's office waiting, waiting.  It was an anxious time.  We'd had enough of being told furphies about the work's progress, but we did want any repercussions of a rushed job at the last minute. 

When we got the bill we noticed that although the fuel system had been totally rebuilt and  cleaned (tanks, fuel lines, fuel pump, injectors), there was no mention of fitting a new fuel filter.   Our logic said that this would be normal in the circumstances.   Argh! - no goodwill here - 'just give us a little longer, we will fit it, and add it on to the $6000+ bill'.  It was around 3pm when hit the road south.  Seeing the Silver City Highway stretch ahead of us through our windscreen felt like we had wings again.  

On the road again 
Silver City Highway spans Broken Hill to the Victorian border, with very little in between.  We paused briefly where  wetlands converge along the highway's edge at Lake Popiltah.  We couldn't help but gaze eastwards over the sparse and scattered reedy waters that stretched across to the horizon.  

Not far away as the crow flies was Mungo National Park.  In the moment we reflected on the differences between where we think our destiny is going to lead us, and where it actually does.  Before the fuel system problems, we were heading for the Menindee Lakes and Mungo.   Now we needed to change our priorities as we headed to Cobram further to the east for work.  Mungo and Menindee Lakes went on to our 'next time' list.   We adopted the philosophy that it is always good to have something that we haven't seen before when we travel this way again.

The Murray emerges
The town of Wentworth brings an end to the long stretch of outback terrain.  It was a welcome sight. There is an obvious contrast - one moment it is the outback, and the next, a town defined by rivers and water.  Our travels have given us an appreciation of the significance and the presence of both the Darling and Murray Rivers.  We shared a reverence as we passed by the spot where these two vital, history steeped and history changed waterways converge.  

After our stint in Broken Hill during a warm November, we were keen to find a riverside place for the night.  From our Camps guide we picked Horseshoe Bend on the Victorian side of the Murray near the Merbein town Common.  This is not a place that can cater for a lot of large caravans.  We were lucky.  There was a spot that we were able to slot into with dining window views across the Murray – not that that's where we were going to eat – under the night sky was calling us.
A job in the pipeline

Our job in Cobram had been organised while we were waiting finalisation of the car repairs.  Our future employers had been forced to be as patient as we were, with ever extending estimates on the time frame to get the parts and work done.  A couple of weeks had already gone by.

Our new work involved collection, cold storage and on-loading of local fruit and veges for  the Victorian and interstate markets.  When the crops are ready, they wait for no man.  Cobram is on the Murray some 500 k's upstream by road from our camp here at Merbein.  When we emerged in the morning, the long haul began. 

The 500 kilometre dash
We took in passing glimpses of Mildura, Robinvale and Swan Hill.  At Lake Boga, we took a lunch stop and refreshing cold shower as relief from the December heat. Kerang and Cohuna were soon left behind, and when we got to Echuca, we stopped in at the Info Centre to take advantage of their air con and stretch the legs before taking a snappy tour of the town and port precinct. 

100kms further along, and within an hour of nightfall, the familiar sight of Dead River Beach came into view.   This is a favourite campsite of ours on the Murray, close to the centre of Cobram.  Our first trip here had been a bit crazy as the common area along the river harbours a number of tracks, some not so caravan friendly and it had taken us a while to work out how and where best to stay.   This time we knew exactly how to make our way through the maze, and where we wanted to be.  
We were numb from the day’s drive, but not so much that we couldn't manage a refreshing dip in the river and a chat with some locals as we watched the antics of their horses getting their first introduction to the river. 

We began to contemplate settling into a routine of Cobram life and work for a while.  As we soon learned, life in Cobram would be anything but routine, and even less predictable.  Who would have thought we’d leave this town in a different car, AND a different caravan?

Getting acquainted with Cobram
Cobram is an easy town to get to know.  It has the feel of a beachside holiday town....in the country - relaxed and welcoming to all-comers.  With its proximity to the river, and located about two and a half hours from Melbourne it does get its fair share of holiday-makers.  It has a sprinkling of al fresco eateries and a few interesting boutique style shops to fickle away some time in.   Between it and the town of Barooga on the other side of the Murray, most services and recreational facilities are available.

Welcome signs invite visitors to enjoy Cobram's many beaches.  Water craft and surf mats are common.   Cobram boasts Australia’s largest inland beach.  It it’s not the largest, the park-side at Thompson’s Beach is certainly a huge summer attraction.  There's extensive lush grassed picnic areas under a canopy of shady trees as well as a trendy kiosk that overlooks the swim-friendly bend in the river. 


We settled into the Apex Caravan Park.  With the benefit of hindsight, it is not one that we would re-visit unless management or major changes are made.  Fuel saving, and what we thought was the best price swayed our choice.   Apex Caravan Park is very convenient as it is situated within easy walk to central down town’s facilities. 

Once settled, work began and the rest is a blur.  The fruit season ramped up, and work became a constant that filled in long days that merged into long working weeks. 
With little play time to spare, we did make the effort to explore locally whenever possible.   We peddled the push-bikes along the pathways that straddle between Cobram and Barooga, as well as along the river where there are a few popular camping and common areas.   Ironically it took some French backpackers camped beside us to point out the numbers of koalas to be seen regularly as they napped overhead in G. J. Kennedy parklands on the Cobram side of the bridge. 

Life on and around the river

Things go 'Cactus'

A little west of Cobram at the settlement of Strathmerton is Cactus Country.  Kym did produce pick-ups here, so he first got to know Julie.  Later we found out that Julie is truly one of those women who stands behind her man and his dream.  Her husband Jim bought his father's cacti collection not long after they were married and has since invested much time and money into expanding a small collection into the 10 acres of prickly plants that it is today.  Their son John now shares the passion and helps maintain the gardens and operate the Mexican themed café.

The day that we toured Cactus Country the weather had turned on a searing 40 degree plus heat, so the backdrop and atmosphere were perfect, and so was the cool drink John served us up from the café.  Margeurita's were popular with some younger backpacking tourists, but  we opted for a milkshake to get us back out into the gardens without mishaps among the spikes.

Koonoomoo and Tocumwal

There are townships and settlements dotted in close vicinity to one another throughout the Cobram district.  One of these is just north at the junction where traffic travelling through Cobram joins the interstate route.  It is the village of Koonoomoo, famous for its Big Strawberry.  Yes, you have to try the  delicious and ‘large enough for two’ strawberry sundaes.

Over the river and in New South Wales less than 20 k's north is the town of Tocumwal.  Lyn had worked with a precious lady who had grown up in Tocumwal.  There is always something special about being in places that our friends have talked about and connecting our memories of them with the town.  Uncannily, on this occasion, we ran into her - we were all flabbergasted - something was at work to align us with Liz at that place and time.  We  returned to Tocumwal a few times, and amongst other things, we learnt it had a significant role in the 2nd World War as  a RAAF training base.  

As always drawn to the river, on the western side of town, we found the rusty steel rail bridge where we spent quite some time playing like kids, skipping between the rails and just enjoying the view.  It is still a bit unclear to us, but we have been told since that the line is still in use - would have been a sight to see us making a run for it had a loco come shuttling along. 

A safer thing to do was the stroll down the main street on a sleepy weekend afternoon.   There's several combination cafe and bric a brac stores filled with the old and new, hand-crafted goodies and unusual bits and pieces.  Lyn returned to 'Toc', (pronounced 'Toke', as the locals call it) many times on 'ladies' afternoon outings and managed to sample most of them.  


A short drive to the north east of Tocumwal is an Aboriginal site that's a bit intriguing.   It is a dormant blowhole cradled in the middle of a granite rock outcrop that mounds up out of the middle of an open grassy field.  We didn't see it any water-flow, but we're told that when the Murray is low, the blowhole does flow and bubble.

The loop through Barmah National Park and Mathoura
We bewildered some of our Cobram friends when they learnt we were celebrating Lyn's birthday with a night at nearby Numurkah, followed by a tour through the region, taking in Barmah National Park.  There’s nothing there, they said.  Well we have to say that there isn't much happening in Numurkah on Saturday night - we stayed in the town's caravan park which was pleasant enough.  Choices for dinner out came down to the one of the two pubs in town, both very quiet - we did get a meal, and since we'd worked a long day, that was the main thing.   

As for Barmah Forest, it depends what takes your fancy, but for us, it lived up to expectations.  We took the 60 kilometre self-drive tour (dry weather road).  It takes in more magnificent river views, and we came across  some secluded campsites (more suitable for smaller RV's, and caution in wet weather for possible flooding as well as the tracks).  The drive takes you through the country's largest stand of River Red Gums, a wetland that has been declared of international conservation significance, and a sacred Aboriginal site with interpretative centre. 

From Numurkah, we drove to Nathalia, where the Barmah Forest Heritage and Education Centre gave us some keys to better appreciating the forest before we took the drive.   The Centre chronicles Barmah's recent history when wholesale logging was an integral part of early settlement, and river boats and cattle grazing were familiar sights.  We also learnt about lesser known activities in the forest of leech and feather collecting.   The display features illustrated information about the environmental impacts, the lessons learnt and how it is now being protected and preserved.  It also describes the significance and function of Barmah Forest over the centuries of pre-European time.    
Crossing into NSW at the western end of the forest, we drove north into N.S.W. and the town of Mathoura.  It was a dusty dry and quiet Sunday afternoon and the town was mostly closed, but we did get a welcome cool drink at the Bowling Club which also caters for short stays for RVs.   We took the River Road from Mathoura along the northern banks of the Murray, ultimately taking us back on a loop to Cobram via Tocumwal. 
This trip gave us some unexpected experiences.  One was the Reed Beds boardwalk leading to a Bird Hide.  We have a bird guide that is becoming  travel worn and also a source of interest, learning, entertainment and memories as we highlight our identified sightings en route. 

Further along, we discovered another delightful shady spot with river views - a perfect place for a late picnic lunch, aptly named Picnic Point.  There was a caravan park here as well that looked very inviting, certainly tranquil.  Their Facebook page has some gorgeous scenes.  

In true birthday celebration style, we dined out, and were delighted to be joined by some superb wrens. 

The drive from here took us through some open grain crop fields - there was gold as far as the eye could see under the equally big blue sky.  It was a true reminder of why we love this life.
East and South to Albury, Chiltern and Rutherglen
Seasonal work often involves a seven day week routine.  Our role in getting the produce to market was at the tail end of the local process.  As a result, we were frequently going to bed not long before the backpacker pickers camped beside us were getting up to start their day.  Fortunately everyone was considerate of each other's varying needs for sleep, quiet and times to let out a bit of energy. 

On rare ‘R and R’ days, we took the opportunity to extend our territory.  Cobram locals usually shop at the closest regional centre, which is Shepparton.  Kym was required to get his HR licence for the job, and this had been done at Shepparton, so for our shopping venture went in the other direction.  We followed the Murray again, on the NSW side across to Albury – about 130kms away. 


We'd heard that camping was popular along this side of the Murray at Lake Mulwala and called by to have a look.  There is a large expanse of area with some great little nooks along the lake, but you would need to be mindful of the condition of the tracks in the wet.  

Shopping is shopping, and Albury provided all we needed.  The things that left most impression of this city was that the vast  flatness that we had got accustomed to while at Cobram came to an abrupt end at Albury, as it verges on the Great Dividing Range.  Transport has, and is a major part of it's vitality.  Our other memories include some of the old, with the imposing presence the Railway Station built back in the 1880's with its bit of an Italian influence, and a more recent construction, the impressive Spirit of Progress bridge over the Murray that forms part of the Hume Highway bypass.

About 20 k's south of the Albury's twin town of Wodonga, and back in Victoria, we took the turnoff to Chiltern.  We'd heard a bit about Chiltern and also Rutherglen, and we are glad we took this loop route back home, as this area is definitely worth more than a passing glance.  
Only for the cars and dress of people in Chiltern’s main street, you could pinch yourself to check that you haven’t been caught in a time warp.   Most of the buildings in the village have shopfronts and fit-outs that are little changed since they were serving a busier 19th and early 20th century community – some are open for business, and others are like silent tenements from this time  in the past.  

We stopped in the one of the cafes and when we got chatting to the owners, heard how they had been travelling with their van when they discovered Chiltern.  They loved its charm - the rest is history, so to say.  

The district has graduated through grazing and gold rush, and now successfully combines agriculture and that charming country ambience that has been a drawcard for many entrepreneurial ventures that promote and present local produce in its various forms.  

Rutherglen is a bigger and less sleepy version of Chiltern, alive with modern eateries and an old world inn or two.    It is renowned for its wineries (17 estates nearby), and you can also indulge in lashings of locally made chocolates, cheeses, olive products and fresh fruit and vegies.

Melbourne Caravan Show
We organised some time off from the work in Cobram to take a trip to Melbourne.  The journey had two purposes.   We were working for Hema Maps at the annual Caravan Show, and it was also a springboard from which Lyn would fly back to the Gold Coast to join in a family celebration. 
Not far south of Cobram, the town of Benalla brings you back out onto the Hume Highway, and from here it’s a breezy two hour run to Melbourne.   Too adventurous to take the breezy run, we towed our van the long way round, leaving the highway at Euroa.  We meandered up hill and down dale through the villages of Merton and Molesworth, stopping for the night at the comfy roadside stop of Sheepwash Lagoon.  We sucked in  the bush air  before Melbourne and metropolis would catch up with us the next day.


Representing Hema Maps is a privilege for us – with Hema’s commitment to quality and the latest in technology.  The company has a commendable  and respectful team culture.

Working at their stand at caravan shows have been easy and enjoyable assignments. They have also provided opportunities for big learning curves that has helped us with our navigation and to keep us safe as we travel.  Commuting each day from our caravan park at Mt Waverley to the show venue at Caulfield Racecourse, dodging trams and cyclists through peak hour traffic was the greater challenge. 
At the end of the show, Lyn’s solo flight out of Tullamarine was taking her homeward bound to make sure that Blair’s promise to take our daughter, Lauren’s hand in marriage was witnessed in ceremonious fashion at the engagement party.   Kym  caught up with some of his own family links in Melbourne, and was then tasked with taking the van back up the Hume Highway to Cobram.  That was sadly, the last journey with the Sunland. 
The demise of our Sunland caravan
South of Seymour, travelling at freeway speed, the right-hand rear leaf spring  snapped, and sent the rear wheel through the floor of the van.  It came to rest out the back, hanging like an extra bumper bar.  It happened as Kym was about to take on a bridge crossing.  He did get across the bridge, and managed to manoeuvre the rig safely to the left verge of the road, and away from other traffic.   There was no moving it from there except on the back of a tow truck.

When your van is your main place of residence, its takes some getting your head around the loss.  The extent of the damage and the immediate impact on our plans and lifestyle sunk in slowly.  The van was towed back to Cobram Truck Repairs with the thinking that they could get it on the road again.  Not so easy!  We are grateful, none-the-less to John and Paul at Cobram Truck Repairs for allowing Kym to live in their yard in the van (well air-conditioned by the hole in the floor) pending insurance assessment, and eventual removal.

Tornado damage at the town common

The short story is that our insurance company wrote off our beloved Sunland.  In the circumstances, Kym held the fort together well while Lyn was still in Queensland.  He managed to empty the van and at the same time work another busy week getting local fruit off to market.  That week also saw a tornado hit the area with vast amounts of damage done to some homes and businesses, and reports of many RV's in the vicinity being totally demolished.  Ironically, our van tucked away as it was in the truck yard was totally unscathed, at least from the tornado.  When Lyn got off the Airport link bus at Cobram, it was just in time to see the Sunland towed away for the last time.  
Tina – our Saving Grace
On arriving in Cobram, we volunteered to assist at the annual ‘Doug’s Lunch’ held on Christmas Day for the less fortunate, elderly and/or isolated from family and friends.   It was an enjoyable experience and a good way to mix with and get to know some of the local community.   One of the other volunteers was Tina, then owner-operator of Cobram Florist.   We soon recognised Tina as a hard-working and generous soul and over time, we have developed a life-lasting friendship.   

When the van went, Tina recognised our dilemma.  She offered us storage for our belongings, and a roof over our heads until we sourced another van.  This was a major God-send!   The efficient and timely responses of our insurers, Ken Tame and Assoc, was another.   Internet searches for a second hand van filled our idle hours.  We were considering travelling distances spanning from Adelaide, Melbourne, Ulladulla and Newcastle to inspect potential contenders. 
Tina (right) and friend, Loma
 ensuring Kym enjoys his birthday.
During the Easter break, with Tina’s family coming to visit, we temporarily moved into a cabin in Willows Caravan Park on the edge of Cobram.   From here, word spread that we were looking for another van, and the RV telegraph responded:  ‘There is a lovely van up for sale in town.’    We tracked it down, and we loved it - a Roma Elegance, 22 foot internal, lovingly cared for, and ticking most of our boxes.  There was one minor issue to overcome – it was a little weightier than the Sunland, and a tad over-rated for our Patrol.   
We took the plunge and paid the deposit anyway, beginning another series of Internet searches for a suitable second hand tow vehicle.   Our Patrol is much loved, but in the face of necessity, we were transitioning our mindset towards something like a Ford Ranger dual cab.  
To Melbourne in search of a new car for the new van
A Pakenham car-yard had one of interest.  No matter how good it looked in the photos and how great the wrap from the over the phone sales-lady, the reality when we got to Pakenham was disappointment.  More disillusioning was adding up the $’s involved in engineering a safe and suitable frame to carry our boat and loader on top.   Desperate sales-people call on desperate measures, and the car-yard even brought in a rep from a local fabricating business  to devise methods and means, but we needed more convincing.   Then we saw the light.
In the same yard – an identical looking Silver Nissan Patrol, 3 years later model.  It was a manual, and its tow rating met the requirements for the Roma.   The same desperate sales-people were easily diverted, and we successfully negotiated a deal.  Transferring all extras possible from our existing Patrol to the new one was an easier and cost saving solution, and to us, more satisfying.  We drove home to Cobram indulging in our lambs-wool seat-covers that had, for a fickle moment of delusion, been under threat by a Ford Ranger.  A close call! 
Returning to Qld in a new rig and tow
The work contract came to a close, and the new rig and tow were ready.  We had a few  reasons to head back to S.E. Queensland  for a while – a Caravan Park practicum through P.R.O. Management,   short term work with Hema Maps, a house-sit in south-side Brisbane,  son Jarrod’s wedding to Jess, a new grandson on the way for our daughter, and an opportunity for Kym to reminisce with old mates at a Naval Coxswain’s reunion.  The cards were well stacked - we were Queensland bound.   

Back to Cobram

We returned to Cobram for the next year's season.  In all, we spent seven months in this town.  The second time around, we chose to stay at the Oasis Caravan Park which we would recommend to anyone.  Mac, who is owner-manager, is very approachable and runs a professional park, which her and her husband Libro developed from scratch.  
As operators, they are unobtrusive, unassuming, and somehow seem 'to get' the needs of RV'ers.  The park is managed well, without being overwhelmed with rules and restrictions.  One of the innovations that we thought was great in the planning and construction was that there was a series of dump points provided centrally that catered for the four sites around it.

Things are never the same the second time around - not that Cobram was any less attractive to us.  It was more the changes that had evolved in the workplace.  There was some relief that the hours weren't as constant, but nor were they in any way predictable.  Crops vary from year to year, markets restructure and companies go in and out of favour.  We spent a lot of the second season waiting around for the work to come.  On a positive note, Lyn got to know the facilitators and regulars at the YMCA gym and local pool, and we got to spend more time on the river. 

People make the difference in any experience, and in Cobram we had a number of friends from our past call by.  We also made some new friends, and learnt a little about the lives and challenges of some locals.   All of these people help make our memories of Cobram special. 

Stephen and Kym swap yarns.

We saw in the 2013 New Year in grand style with Stephen Pauline on his way back to Sydney from a visit to Melbourne. 

From back home, Marilyn and Leon Boddington took a detour in their travels visiting southern family members to visit us.

We spent a lovely morning with Joy and Laurie Hanlon with their adorable dog, Banjo, as they wended their way to visit family north of Bourke after a jaunt to Kangaroo Island. 


'Bob Le Bago' road residents, Sharon and Geoff Loller, along with Sharon's son, James Martin whom we had met while touring Tasmania, made sure they made the trip to Cobram while in the area.  More faces were put to names from the Caravanner's Forum when we realised we were neighbours with 'Hazo' and his lovely wife Jan from W.A.  They were good company and shared some of the different caravan park experiences while we were staying at the Apex CP.  

We met Melbournian, Roz Keddie, and her King Cavalier spaniel, Codie and still keep in touch.  Kym keeps some contact with a some of local farmers, Pete Carponelli, Pete Demaio and Steve Anzolin. 

Another Caravanner's Forum member who had given up a lot of his time to show us around while we were car-less in Broken Hill made Cobram a port of call on his touring holiday.  Chris and Maxine Rawlins enjoyed their stay at Oasis Caravan Park and we did a tour of a few local hotspots.

And the second time around, our friend Tina was going through a time of big change, and it was good to just be around for her.

Our Cobram experience will remain a part of us.  It is not a place we will forget, and no doubt we will not be able to resist a return visit sometime in the future.