Just Back of Melbourne: Into the Mallee
by Philip Game
As afternoon shadows lengthened, the smooth surface of the Hattah Lakes perfectly reflected the graceful, ghostly white forms of overhanging river red gums. Kangaroos scattered through the litter of eucalyptus bark which typifies the Australian woodlands. Now and then, the chattering clamor of the galah or the cackle of a kookaburra broke the silence. A solitary kayak parted the waters like a knife.
Just a day's drive from Melbourne, Australia's second largest city, this was the real Outback.
I was in the region known as The Mallee, named after mallee scrub which once covered the area. Located about 300 miles northwest of Melbourne, this is the least populated part of Australia's most densely populated state, Victoria. Wayfarers here can discover all the contrasts of the Outback. Luridly colored salt lakes. Traces of aboriginal tribes. Windblown dunes. Ruggedly charming 19th-century towns.
One of these turn-of-the-century settlements, Ouyen, makes a comfortable base for visiting the surrounding attractions. A two-street "wheat-belt" town (now tightening its belt in tougher times), Ouyen features an original two-story pub, its late-Victorian iron latticework spanning a wide frontage of red brick.
It has often been said that Aussie pubs have more in common with American Wild West saloons than with their English or Irish forebears. But in Australia, country-town pubs are also distinguished by their casual, old-fashioned hospitality.
Inside this one in Ouyen, we admired the etched-glass doors that opened onto dining rooms and saloons. Light switches were still polished brass, and a painted, shirt-cuffed gentleman's hand pointed the way to the deepest and hottest baths we had enjoyed in rural Australia for some time.
After a night's comfort in Ouyen's delightful, turn-of-the-century Victoria Hotel, the next day's explorations could include the delicately-hued Pink Lakes, located about 40 miles to the west. Following Highway 12 toward the South Australian state line, we flashed by tiny outposts like Galah, Walpeup, Underbool and Linga. This vast, trackless expanse is called Sunset Country, the last void on the map of Victoria.
Tinged a deep pink, these lakes acquire their blush from tiny algae and a high salt content. The rose-coral waters are even more striking when seen beneath an expansive sky full of fluffy, snow-white clouds. All around were vast tracts of sand dunes and tangled, sage-green scrub. Deep in the brush, the elusive mallee fowl toils incessantly to build an earthen nest for his mate's eggs.
Even in this wilderness, you can observe marks of man's passage. The crumbling remains of tramways, rusting implements, and eroding salt stockpiles all powerfully evoked the age of steam and horsepower, when backbreaking drudgery was necessary to carve out a livelihood in these parts.
Another day trip from Ouyen heads southwest to Wyperfeld National Park. Although most maps depict the region as being stippled by lakes, most are dry--Lake Brimin, located beside the main campsite, has been empty since 1921. Now, it encloses a bowl of gently waving grasses. I saw a family of emus browsing amidst the sedge--ungainly dark shapes with stick legs, long necks and sneering beaks.
Lake Brambruk was dry, too, and has been so for many years. It is presently an open woodland of rough-barked black box and river red gums. . . a fertile womb within a semi-desert of golden dunes. Rainfall is so erratic that this lake system holds water only at 20-year intervals.
For now, the region provides a haven for wildlife, the grassy lakebeds alive with native parrots. Pink-breasted grey galahs and white cockatoos with sulphur crests rose shrieking from every tree as we human invaders moved forward. Pink and white Major Mitchell cockatoos flapped from branches, and iridescent green parrots--perhaps mallee ringnecks--darted in pairs.
A mob (that is the collective noun for kangaroos en masse) of western greys bounded off into the distance. Sensing the intrusion, some kangaroos froze to become almost indistinguishable from the bark of the blackboy (grass tree).
A pod-shaped scar on an ancient but imposing river red gum bore witness to human habitation in wetter times over a century ago, when the aboriginal Wotjobaluk tribe built a canoe to travel across the lake's waters. Perhaps they set out along the river trade route to meet up with other tribes.
Last century's European settlers also left their traces, such as the poignant headstone of a pioneer family's infant, buried beside a dune. A faded wooden sign pointed the way to an early outstation.
Due north of Ouyen, Mildura sits on the banks of the Murray River. Australia's most important river, the Murray flows from the mountains of the Great Dividing Range to Encounter Bay in South Australia--a distance of over 1,500 miles.
Aside from its vineyards and orange groves, Mildura is basically nondescript. But it does have a bit of interesting history. The town was founded in the 1880s by the Chaffey brothers of California, who developed many of the irrigation projects along the Murray River. W.B. Chaffey was also one of the region's first winemakers.
Through Mildura-based tour operators, or by negotiating difficult dirt roads for three hours, travelers reach Mungo National Park in New South Wales. Its best-known feature is the Walls of China, a windblown dune of white sands and clays which has eroded into gulches beyond the ancient bed of Lake Mungo.
Half-buried in these sands lay the evidence of 40,000 years of human habitation, the strata tracing out a history of climatic change. At sunset, the white walls glowed as if irradiated across the darkening saltbush of the lake floor.
Just back of Melbourne lies a haunting and beautiful world, where just a day's voyage can take a person into the serenity of the Outback.
The best times to visit northwestern Victoria are the cooler months of April to November. Walkers need to carry sun hats and plenty of drinking water. Bring a large-scale map and compass on day or overnight walks.
For information about additional programs and tour operators, see Geographical Index under "Australia".