As many of you will know from last week’s This Writing Life post, Tales from the Real Rocking Horse Hill, I recently ventured to my home town of Mount Gambier in the lower south-east of South Australia to help celebrate my dad’s 80th birthday.
I was also fortunate enough to be interviewed on ABC South-East radio by Selina Green, which was enormous fun, and by Amelia Pepe from local paper The Border Watch. Amelia wrote a wonderful piece about my long connection to and love for to the area and included a great photo of me with Wayward Heart at the top of Mount Schank.
In case you missed it, there’s a video of me climbing the volcanic crater here, along with more on the inspiration behind the fictional Rocking Horse Hill of my stories.
Besides the 80th birthday bash, I had a wonderful time playing tourist. I adore doing this because of the creative energy it provides, and no matter how well you think you know an area, there are always new and amazing things to see and experience.
Here are some photos from a few of the adventures I had, as well as places that have inspired elements in my stories. I hope you enjoy them.
Mount Gambier’s biggest tourist attraction is the stunning Blue Lake. In the winter the lake is a dull grey but from December until March it turns an exquisite cobalt blue. To really appreciate the extraordinary colour it needs to be seen live, but you can get a bit of an idea from this photo.
Besides being beautiful and excellent exercise to walk around, the lake also supplies the town’s water. And no, it doesn’t come out of the tap that colour!
Once upon a time, we used to have a railway. I can still remember, as a kid, catching the train to a school camp, but the railway closed back in the mid 90s and left a large expanse of land in the centre of town derelict. After a great deal of community consultation, work started on a redevelopment in late 2013. The Railway Lands project was finished in 2015 and it’s brilliant!
I love the “green lungs” concept, the sculptures and interesting playgrounds, and hope the area continues to develop and becomes a community hub.
Mount Gambier also boasts some fine buildings and gardens. This is Jens Hotel in the heart of the town. It’s still a lovely hotel but it must have been an amazing place to stay in its heyday. The main building dates from 1884 but extensions were added in 1904 and 1927, The annex was constructed in 1902 originally as a (rather grand) coffee palace.
For those of you who have ever wondered what the Australian Arms looks like – the hotel mentioned in Rocking Horse Hill, Wayward Heart, Summer and the Groomsman and where Danny Burroughs works so hard in Santa and the Saddler – then the Gambier Hotel, pictured below and situated on Mount Gambier’s main corner and established in 1862 (although its license originates from 1847), will give you a fair idea.
Isn’t it a great looking pub? My grandmother worked here as a maid in days gone by. As with Jens Hotel, imagine the stories these places could tell.
We also took a drive down to Nelson, for no other reason than I hadn’t been there for ages. Nelson is a sleepy little town just up from where the Glenelg River meets the sea. It’s a pretty spot, tranquil and with sandy beaches and calm waters, which makes it an excellent place to take the family for a paddle. My dad used to take us night-time fishing on the river estuary when we were kids. Family lore tells that my grandfather ran boxing tournaments here too.
Speaking of Santa and the Saddler, every time I see a windmill I think of that book and big-hearted, romantic Danny. For those who haven’t read this story, Danny is a metal fabricator and windmill technician. Despite technological advances, windmills are still used thanks to, among other things, their reliability and endurance.
This windmill was on the road between Nelson and Port MacDonnell, in a major dairy farming area.
At Port MacDonnell, a local fishing village, I was delighted to discover this new sculpture by Mount Gambier artist Ivo Tadic. Isn’t it the cutest thing? I’ve since discovered that there’s another limestone sculpture called The Bay Wave at the other end of the port which weighs 50 tonnes, but I missed seeing it. So annoyed! Ah well, another excuse to come back.
Until very recently nearby Cape Northumberland boasted a little (fairy) penguin colony but, sadly, it has been decimated by predators. The hunt is now on to find surviving penguins. And hopefully devise a way to protect them. We need an Oddball!
After a very pleasant stroll about, we enjoyed a lovely lunch at the hugely popular Periwinkles Cafe, where I bumped into one of my old high school teachers, ate boar fish for the first time – delish! – and slurped some very tasty local wines which then needed to be worn off. And what better way than to explore the Port MacDonnell and District Maritime Museum. I’d visited not long after it opened, when I did a talk at the community centre, and it was wonderful to go back. This area has such a rich maritime and agricultural history, and the number of shipwrecks along this coast is astonishing – the SS Admella being being the most famous and one of Australia’s most tragic maritime disasters.
Some of you might recognise the name Admella. It’s the name of the beach outside of Port Andrews where Jasmine from Wayward Heart lives, and where she and her friends Em (from Rocking Horse Hill) and Teagan (from The Falls) love to gallop their horses.
This gave me a laugh!!
This is Port MacDonnell’s beautiful customs house built in 1863. It’s currently a private residence but a B&B operates as well. It was a multipurpose building, containing the police station and residence, cells, court room, post and telegraph station and school teacher’s residence. Must book a stay here one night. It’d be grand!
Here’s me on the foreshore at Port MacDonnell. This is where Danny first kisses Beth in Santa and the Saddler!
Casterton, across the border in Victoria, is about 70 km from Mount Gambier and famous for its annual Kelpie Muster and a lovely place to visit. The Albion Hotel has recently had a new lease on life and I can’t recommend it enough. Besides being a magnificent old building, the bistro serves fantastic food. The bistro walls are also decorated with old photographs of the district and kept our little group fascinated for ages. And the loos have toilet roll holders made out of old rabbit traps.
Seriously, this place is a must visit!
Casterton is also home to some wonderful artwork celebrating the kelpie and the region’s history.
As regular readers will know, my mum has Alzheimer’s Disease and is now in care in a wonderful facility. They were celebrating Australia Day when I went to visit, with a barbecue lunch, a singer and lots of decorations. She looked happy and healthy, which was great to see. Sadly, Mum has no idea who I am anymore, but that’s the progression of the disease. In the meantime, I’ll take what I can, even if it’s a chat that makes no sense at all and a confused smile. She’s my mum and I love her come what may.
For those of you who’ve read April’s Rainbow, which is set in Victoria’s far western districts, this is what the landscape around Rainbow looks like. Sigh. I love it here. Think I might have to write another story located in the area. This is on the Glenelg Highway at the start of the drop into Coleraine.
Back in Mount Gambier, I called into the tourist office to pick up some maps to use for research later and spotted this chappie in the pond. Cute!
The tourist office also has a great discovery centre and a replica of the Lady Nelson, the survey vessel from which Mt Gambier and Mt Schank were spotted and named by its commander Lieutenant James Grant.
I hope you enjoyed this glimpse of the special area where I grew up and which continues to provide inspiration for my stories.
If you’re ever in far western Victoria or in south-east South Australia, or simply considering holiday destinations, then please put this too unheralded area on your list. There are natural wonders galore, rich and fascinating histories, gorgeous art and architecture, and produce of a quality you wouldn’t believe. For more information and ideas, contact the Mount Gambier tourist office. You won’t regret it I promise!