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Published: June 16th 2021
We're a bit weary after a late night of conviviality, so we bypass breakfast and move straight on to a very pleasant lunch. "Spoons" restaurant is apparently a Swan Hill institution, and we dine in an idyllic setting on a large deck among the gum trees overlooking the Little Murray River.
Issy's still feeling a bit tired after last night's libations, so I head off on my own to the Pioneer Settlement, another of Swan Hill's river-side institutions. It was opened in 1966 as a re-creation of a small pioneer-era Mallee town, complete with church, school, Masonic hall, blacksmith, houses, and Main Street shops - post office, bank, newspaper printing office, dentist, barber, etc. The dentist's implements look every bit as scary as today's versions, which is a bit worrying given I'm fairly sure that the average mid-1800s patient wouldn't have enjoyed the benefits of modern anaesthesia. I wonder what they did to muffle the screams. The pioneers seem to have been quite keen on horse drawn living. Displays include tiny caravans which were apparently used by farm workers to avoid them having to go to and from their permanent homes every night, and an even smaller mobile prison. I
suspect a couple of summer days in the latter may well have done the hangman out of a job. I wander along the decks of the historic "Gem" paddle steamer which is currently undergoing renovation. The cabins are tiny, apparently deliberately so to ensure there was less accommodation available for marauding mosquitoes. The lady who sold me my ticket told me to be sure not to miss the extensive display of "boys toys" - farm and other machinery, including what was apparently the first tractor ever brought to Australia.
We've booked a sunset tour of Lake Tyrrell. This is a massive ephemeral salt pan about 60 kilometres west of Swan Hill, near the appropriately named town of Sea Lake. At more than 20,000 hectares it is apparently Victoria's largest salt lake. It seems that it's only become a tourist mecca in recent decades, and is reportedly particularly popular with Chinese visitors. These are of course currently noticeably absent due to COVID. I wonder if they'd be here even if COVID wasn't, given their beloved Premier Xi's apparent dislike of our homeland. He seems keen to discourage his citizens from having anything to do with us, as apparently we're racist
and our country is dangerous. Hmmm. I think the Chinese Communist Party probably monitors any and all commentary on it and its leadership, even in obscure travel blogs, so I may well now be in trouble if they ever decide to invade.
Our guide Julie tells us that she's been running tours to the Lake every day since moving up here nine years ago. Tours run at sunrise and sunset, and the very keen can even elect to be taken out stargazing at 3am. I wonder how many takers she gets for that one.
We wander the main street of Sea Lake while we wait for our fellow tourists to arrive. It looks safe enough, but Issy's not convinced. I try to assure her that the red trail on the footpath leading from the fish and chip shop is probably only tomato sauce, but I don't think she's buying it.
It's not overly warm. Julie tells us that it can get up to 46 degrees out on the lake in summer, but it’s freezing in winter. She says it's generally dry in summer. It then fills to a shallow depth in winter from rising groundwater, and occasionally
also from flood overflows from the Avoca River. Apparently we're fortunate to be here now, as the groundwater is just starting to come up, which provides for good reflections in the shallow water, particularly at sunrise and sunset. We follow a convoy of fellow tourists off the highway and onto a rough track through the sand dunes. It's a struggle to see through the dust being thrown up by the car in front of us. There are no four wheel drives in our convoy, so I'm not sure quite how we're going to get back to civilisation when the seemingly inevitable happens and we lose sight of the track and get bogged in the sand.
We arrive at the shoreline just as the sun starts to disappear. We don our gumboots, and wander out onto what looks like water in the half light, but is actually a thick crust of salt. Julie guides us across the salt to the edge of the water. The reflections are absolutely stunning, and almost a tad unworldly. Cameras are clicking fast and hard. Julie asks Issy to do her best ballerina pose. My beloved seems to be finding this just a tad challenging,
which is possibly not all that surprising given she's wearing gumboots and they're sinking slowly into the mud. I'm asked to do a Hercules pose. Hmmm. And Issy thought the ballerina thing was hard.....
One very keen couple opts to stay out on the lake in the now almost pitch darkness while the rest of us leave. Julie says they'll find their way back alright, as they've been out here before. She then quickly adds that’s she’s got lost herself out here "about 30 times". She says that when this happens she just wanders around until she finds the shore, and then phones her partner to come and collect her. I wonder how he knows where to come. I'm not sure this is inspiring a lot of confidence. If she's a guide and she gets lost this often I'm not sure what hope there is for the rest of us. We're now not entirely sure that the couple we've left behind will ever be seen or heard from again, and we mightn’t be either. We stumble across our cars. It's a miracle. We drive on along the shoreline to a public viewing platform where visitors can come if they
haven't got a guide. The salt crust is apparently rock hard here, but there's no water for reflections. This is a bit academic at this stage, as it's now completely dark. There's no handrail on the elevated platform, which is a bit concerning. I'm not sure you'd feel all that well if you tripped over the edge and face planted on the salt.
We dine at the massive Sea Lake pub, with its impressive traditional country style wraparound balcony complete with wrought iron lacework. I think I've become a bit of a sucker for old style country pub architecture.
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