Sections of this article appeared in Senior Traveller Magazine

A Slow Weekend in Mildura - by Vivien Achia

     The sweet smell of coal smoke lingered after the lone train passed our farm each day when I was young. We would run out to the fence to watch it chuff grandly by, then gather small pieces of coal from the white stones between the sleepers on the line, to burn in our stove. The maintenance crew, who drove their trolley along the track by pumping a lever up and down, would heave it off the line late morning, so the train could safely pass, light a crackling fire, boil the billy, and play a game of cards during smoko. As an adult I travelled overnight to Mildura on the ‘Vinelander’, intrigued by the foldout bathroom, and rocked to sleep in a narrow bed. In the morning, as we rolled between citrus groves, a friendly steward brought an orange, tea, toast and the daily paper. For me, this part of the journey was always over too soon.

      Now, many years later, nostalgia for the trains of my childhood caused me to book a train trip for two to Mildura. Sadly, this has become a composite train/coach journey, as the line from Swan Hill to Mildura is closed.

      Under the swooping roof of Southern Cross station, the purple, green and silver VLocity train barely resembled the trains I was dreaming of, but at least it started with a shrill whistle, and a conductor still clipped our tickets. The wheels did not make the rackety rhythm I had looked forward to, but, as always, we travelled through the backyard of Melbourne: past containers from Hamburg, graffiti on the old brick sidings and iron bridges, rusting or sagging fences, clothes lines, the narrow cottages of old Footscray, silos and warehouses.

       To my surprise, the train ran through a totally new suburb, Watergardens, before gliding out to stony paddocks, where even Scotch thistles have died in the drought, and past flocks of emus and goats picking hungrily at the bare ground. The old bluestone stations, bridges, and sidings, goods sheds and brick rooms, some with mysterious iron boxes rusted on top, were all familiar from an earlier age.

       Our fellow travellers included several slender backpackers, weighed down by packs that seemed twice their body weight. One such monster was unclipped and laid on a vacant seat, where it looked like a huge green and black torso, with legs amputated at the knees, those stumps to be strapped around the traveller’s waist on arrival at our destination. People travelled quietly, some looking out the windows, lost in thought, others attached to iPods, or playing electronic games, while my partner, George, read his book.

       At Bendigo we were transferred to a comfortable bus, and we drove through increasingly dry and barren countryside. At Robinvale we crossed the Murray River into New South Wales, and continued along the Sturt Highway, crossing back into Victoria at Mildura. In Euston, a small country town in NSW, I saw a sad reminder of a wetter age: a fountain, with two stone children sheltering under an umbrella, sat on a bone-dry base, on a barren piece of ground.

       One reason for my decision to travel slowly to Mildura, rather than to fly, was a desire to show George, who had never been to this part of Victoria, the country my mother came from. My grandparents had a wheat farm near Ultima, and my grandmother, a gentle, pious woman from Melbourne, married a local farmer and went to live in the Mallee. She coped without electricity or even a radio in her early years there, and endured fierce dust storms that coated everything in the house in red dust. During the disgusting mice plagues, the mice ran through the hessian walls of the house, and even slept in the old iron cot, seeking warmth from a sleeping baby. A few skinny old sheep helped the family to survive during the Depression of the 1930’s. From the comfort of a modern bus, I marvelled at her stoicism and courage, as for hours we drove through Mallee scrub in red sandy soil, passing an occasional whirly-whirly of spiralling red dust.

      Mildura is an oasis on the river Murray, with palm trees and green lawns. It is open, clean and spacious, with a huge dome of blue sky, and clear, bright light. The city has a definite feel of Adelaide thirty years ago, when that city was smaller and well tended. This impression persisted as we walked around the wide divided streets and through the shopping mall. 

      We had felt in need of spoiling, and booked a weekend escape package at the Grand Hotel. We settled in to a spacious room overlooking the pool, and freshened up in an immaculate bathroom with a marble counter and soft towels. A bottle of sparkling wine and a fresh fruit platter awaited us, and tired after the long journey, we fell on it eagerly. The Grand has everything you need for a slow, indulgent weekend on one city block, but we tore ourselves away, and found a cheerful Greek restaurant around the corner for our first dinner. There was a buzz in the streets in the evening, everyone was smiling, and the restaurants were flourishing.

      We began each day with a swim and a spa, followed by a sumptuous breakfast in the Chandelier Room. When I complimented a staff member on her glossy, bouffant, hairdo, finished with a French roll, she replied that she wears her hair this way to suit the style of the elegant dining room.

      The highlight of our weekend was to be dinner at Stefano’s. With great anticipation we went downstairs to the old cellars of the Grand, where twelve tables for two lined the narrow brick space, with an adjoining room for larger groups. Stefano De Pieri has brought his delight in local produce to countless people through his television series, ‘A Gondola on the Murray’, and his cookbooks featuring seasonal produce and ‘slow food’. His menu changes according to what is in season, relieving diners from the hard choices they would otherwise have to make.

      We were close enough to the kitchen to observe the staff, who calmly and with grace, produced a meal that was perfect in every way. This despite their observation of earth hour, when they served us by candlelight. An old Italian friend, Paolo, who was a chef, formerly from Venice, would cry when things went wrong in his restaurant kitchen, but I could see no sign of stress or tears in this restaurant.

      Creamy goat’s cheese, wild olives and peppery olive oil arrived first, with fragrant bread for dipping. Taking the advice of a real Italian waiter, Simone, we chose a light, red Italian wine that would complement the evening’s menu. After tuna carpaccio, then char grilled quail with baked polenta, we were offered the lightest gnocchi I have ever tasted. Made from ricotta, fresh tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella, it melted in the mouth, and was gone too soon. Tender rack of veal with vegetables was followed by coconut panna cotta and local Hattah mangoes. Like Oliver Twist I wanted to ask for more, but after six perfectly balanced courses, I knew that even another mouthful would be too much. During my years in the Italian community, our magnificent meals left me struggling to breathe after dinner, but these dishes were light by comparison, and the better for it. Sated and happy, we went to sleep looking at a blue palm tree outside our upstairs window, the magical colouring the result of up-lighting from somewhere below.

       Sunday was river day. At noon we walked along the river’s edge to the Avoca, a paddleboat from 1877, adapted for long lunches and functions. The boat is built entirely of red gum. Originally fired by steam, it now runs on diesel, but the big paddles still churn and turn through the water, as they did 130 years ago. The captain, who has been working on the river for 25 years, pointed out historic and modern features along the riverbank, as we tucked into an excellent three-course lunch.    

      The Avoca proudly flies the Murray River Flag, the idea for which may have originated as far back as 1850, when a River Murray League was formed by R W Beddome, a land agent in South Australia, who promised that the river would become, ‘a channel of enterprise … from the lovely natural wharves of the Goolwa to the far distant Snow Mountains. Up with the Murray Flag’. There was a Murray flag flown by the Mary Ann, the first paddle steamer in service on the river in 1853, and other early paddle- steamers in the Murray River trade.

      All that remained to complete a perfect weekend, was a trip to the Mildura Brewery Pub, to sample the delicious beers brewed on site. We chose a Murray Honey Wheat beer to drink with dinner, and wandered ‘home’ to the Grand, happy.

      Monday morning, after another splendid breakfast, we reluctantly checked out, to catch a bus to Swan Hill, then a train, the ‘City of Portland’, back to Melbourne. This train more closely resembled the trains I remembered, and we bought our lunch from a tiny buffet in the adjoining carriage. We arrived to a cold, cloudy, Melbourne, and, along with thousands of stressed commuters on their way home from work, caught a suburban train from Southern Cross. Mildura already seemed like a distant, sunny, dream.