I don’t honestly know who had the idea to drive from Sydney to Melbourne in the height of summer – neither of us will ever admit to it. The trip started well. We stopped in Canberra overnight, then drove on through the Snowy Mountains. Of course, in the middle of January, the Mountains are far from snowy, and – to be frank – if you come from New Zealand, they don’t really look like mountains either. But they were covered in trees, and there was a nice big lake (the Snowy Mountains are the centre of a major hydropower network) where we stopped to eat our picnic lunch (although bugs from the lake forced us back into the car).
Rather than take the main highway direct to Melbourne, we decided to take the scenic route following the Murray River (it starts in the Snowy Mountains) along the Victoria-New South Wales border to Echuca. Once we were out of the Snowy Mountains, the landscape was flat, and barren. This was not the outback, but it was dry, dry farmland. The road tracked along the Murray River, the flat, slow river that travels 2,375 kilometres before it reaches the Indian Ocean in South Australia. We watched birds alight on drowned tree stumps – eucalypts stark white against the brown river – and kept our eyes out for crocodiles. Alas, no sightings.
The driving became tiresome as the afternoon wore on and the road left the river. We are New Zealanders, accustomed to changing landscapes, winding roads and mountains, lakes and coasts to break the boredom. Nowhere, in New Zealand, is very far from anywhere else. But as we were getting close to Echuca, we drove a stretch of road at least 40 kilometres long. It was completely straight. Not a hill, stream, lake or tree encroached to cause a bend in the road. All the side roads, going off to unseen farms and perhaps country communities and schools, were in a grid pattern. Paddocks were large, fences straight, the landscape dead flat. This was exotic for about two minutes. I amused myself by singing Waltzing Matilda, prompted by spying our first billabong under the shade of a coolabah tree. It got old quickly.
We arrived at Echuca, tired and ready to stretch our legs. Echuca , now a small town on the Victoria side of the Murray, was once Australia’s largest inland port. 130 years later its main source of income is tourism; tourists like us come to see the docks or ride one of the many paddle-steamers up the Murray River.
We visited the dock the next morning. I had heard of Murray River cruises, and had a romantic notion of gliding past tree-lined banks, listening to the kookaburras and watching the occasional crocodile, whilst relaxing with a good book.
But standing on the banks of the Murray, fighting off the January flies, I realised it would be far from relaxing. It was in Echuca that we truly understood the Aussie hat with corks hanging from the rim, and recognised the joke about the “Australian wave” – a slow flip of the hand to brush away lazy, fat, summer flies. We stood and walked along the bank for as long as we could tolerate the flies this warm summer morning. I estimate we took about five minutes, but it may have been less. The flies came in swarms, and settled on our backs, where we couldn’t wave them off. We decided to leave Echuca, turn south and head for Melbourne. But first we had to brush the carpet of flies off each other’s backs. Fortunately there was no real haste needed to escape into the car before the slowest-moving flies in the world had a chance to resettle.