VICTORIA’S Mallee region is a vast expanse of wheat-and-sheep country that travellers have typically passed through on their way to other places considered more enticing, like the thriving riverside cities of Mildura and Swan Hill.
You can’t blame tourists for overlooking the region. Until recently, it had a reputation for being a harsh place filled with dying towns and struggling farmers locked in a never-ending battle against droughts, dust storms and plagues of rabbits and mice. Indeed, if you look at the Visit Victoria website, the Mallee is barely mentioned at all, buried as it is in a section called ‘The Grampians’.
Yet the Mallee now finds itself in the midst of an unlikely tourism-led revival, sparked largely by the development of the Silo Art Trail and a growing appreciation for the natural beauty of Lake Tyrrell.
It is this moment in time, when a region best known for being in the middle of nowhere has found a new relevance as a destination for travellers keen to explore their backyard, that we have captured in our new documentary book The Mallee: A journey through north-west Victoria.
Having grown up in the tiny Mallee town of Manangatang, I had long dreamed about putting together a publication that celebrated the region and its great characters. Teaming up with five of Australia’s best documentary photographers – Andrew Chapman, Jaime Murcia, Melanie Faith Dove, Noel Butcher and Erin Jonasson – gave me the chance to make it happen. And I can’t forget our superstar book designer and part-time snapper, Phil Campbell. We think his graphic design prowess sets our book apart from many others.
Our snapshot of the Mallee follows the railway lines built through the region in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Using this as the narrative, we tell the story of the Mallee’s history as a whole and also focus on the stories of the little towns we find along the lines. Many are greatly diminished when compared to the bustling commercial centres they were 60, 70 or 80 years ago.
Rosebery, for example, once had a population of more than 300. It had numerous shops and sporting clubs. Today, just five people call the Rosebery district home. As photographer Andrew Chapman likes to say, “The Mallee has a clapped-out look about it.” Yet the sense of nostalgia you get from walking the streets of a Mallee town is a tourism drawcard in itself.
AND tourism is already reviving a number of other towns that could have gone the same way as Rosebery. The outpost of Patchewollock, which is only 430km from Melbourne but has a real outback feel, has been swarming with caravanners since the opening of its painted silo. The silo is handily located over the road from the much-loved ‘Patche Pub’ where you can be assured of cold beer, hearty food and spotless rooms, has benefitted greatly from this influx of people.
EXPLORE: Murray-Sunset National Park
Be sure to have a cold one while leaning on the horseshoe-shaped front bar. You’ll no doubt end up chatting about the weather or wheat prices or even the annual Patchewollock Music Festival with one of the super-friendly locals. You might even get to say hi to Nick ‘Noodle’ Hulland, the farmer who is painted on the silo.
Patchewollock’s other great strength when it comes to tourism is its proximity to Wyperfeld National Park. The park has plenty of attractions for 4x4 lovers, although it’s a good idea to steer clear of the area in summer when temperatures can rise to near 50⁰C … in the shade.
One of the most popular things to do in Wyperfeld National Park, if you have entered the park from near Patchewollock, is visit the giant sand dune known as Snowdrift. Kids can have hours of fun rolling down the steep dune or riding down it on one of the rudimentary boards that are housed in a shelter at the bottom of the dune near the campsites.
The view from the top of Snowdrift is spectacular. You look across the vast Wirrengren Plain and see the trees that line Outlet Creek arranged snake-like across the landscape. The Wirrengren Plain was once an important indigenous trading route, with the area playing host to gatherings of people who had travelled north from the Wimmera River and south from the Murray River.
Another popular spot in the north of the park is the Casuarina Camping Area. If driving in from Patchewollock, you can access the area with a two-wheel drive. But a four-wheel drive is required if coming from the Mallee Highway town of Underbool via the Gunners Track.
There are no booking requirements or fees for camping at Snowdrift or Casuarina, but advance bookings and payment are required to camp at the Wonga Camping Area in the south of the park, which is accessed from the town of Rainbow.
To the north of Wyperfeld is the Murray-Sunset National Park and its Pink Lakes. Once home to a salt mine, the lakes are now celebrated for their natural beauty. This area, too, has some beautiful camping areas and some excellent tracks for 4x4 enthusiasts.
Away from the national parks, the Mallee has plenty of other attractions to offer. There are now painted silos in a host of towns, including Lascelles, Sea Lake and Nullawil. Sea Lake is also the perfect base for exploring Lake Tyrrell, a giant salt lake renowned for its shallow water that on most days provides a perfect mirror of the sky. You can’t beat a trip to the lake at sunrise or sunset with Julie Pringle, who runs Sea Lake Tyrrell Tours.
If events are your thing, there are iconic horseracing meetings at Wycheproof and Manangatang, the latter of which has achieved a degree of fame thanks to the popularity of the saying, “They’re racing at Manangatang.” Both events are sure to be bigger than ever in 2021 after being cancelled this year.
No matter which way you want to approach the region, now is the time to put the Mallee’s reputation for drought and disaster aside and take a look at the place for yourself.