This Writing Life: Home Town Homage

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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.

The Border Watch article

The Border Watch article. Such a thrill to appear on a page in my home town paper!

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!

Mount Gambier's famous Blue Lake.

Mount Gambier’s famous Blue Lake.

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.

One of the playground areas at the railway lands.

One of the playground areas at the railway lands.

frog sculpture at the Railway Lands.

Loved this frog sculpture at the Railway Lands.

Shingleback lizard sculpture

Tooling around on a carved shinglenack lizard, as you do.

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.

The western face of Jens Hotel, Mt Gambier.

The western face of Jens Hotel, Mt Gambier.

Jens Hotel staircase.

Jens Hotel’s grand staircase.

Some of the roses in the Cave Garden in the heart of town.

Some of the roses in the Cave Garden in the heart of town, and which is built around a large sinkhole.

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.

The Gambier Hotel

The Gambier Hotel on Mount Gambier’s main corner.

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.

The sandy beach inside the estuary at Nelson.

The sandy beach inside the estuary at Nelson.

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.

The Penguins by Ivo Tadic

The Penguins by Ivo Tadic

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.

A model of the steamship Admella in the Port MacDonnell and District Maritime Museum.

A model of the steamship Admella in the Port MacDonnell and District Maritime Museum.

This gave me a laugh!!

The donation box at the Port MacDonnell and District Maritime Museum.

The donation box at the Port MacDonnell and District Maritime Museum.

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!

Port MacDonnell's lovely customs house.

Port MacDonnell’s lovely customs house.

Here’s me on the foreshore at Port MacDonnell. This is where Danny first kisses Beth in Santa and the Saddler!

Me with Santa and the Saddler on the foreshore at Port MacDonnell

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!

The Albion Hotel, Casterton, Victoria.

The Albion Hotel, Casterton, Victoria. You need to come here!

A sample of the wonderful photos on the walls of the Albion Hotel.

A sample of the wonderful photos on the walls of the Albion Hotel. They were fascinating. Such a rich history.

One of the loo roll holders made from old rabbit traps.

One of the loo roll holders made from old rabbit traps. So cool!

Casterton is also home to some wonderful artwork celebrating the kelpie and the region’s history.

'On the Sheep's Back' by artist Annette Taylor.

‘On the Sheep’s Back’ by artist Annette Taylor.

'Jack Gleeson' by artist Barb Dobson.

‘Jack Gleeson’ by artist Barb Dobson. Gleeson ‘s kelpie was the start of the breed. Or so the tale goes.

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.

Cathryn and her mum

Me and Mum, Australia Day 2017

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.

The stunning country around Coleraine.

Beautiful April’s Rainbow country.

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!

Tourist office tortoise

The cute little tourist office tortoise. He looks quite small here but he was around 20 cm or so in shell length.

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!


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14 thoughts on “This Writing Life: Home Town Homage

  1. AvatarTricia

    Fantastic photos Catherine and great publicity in the paper, well done. Tears when I saw the one of you and your mum.

    1. Cathryn HeinCathryn Hein Post author

      Thanks Tricia! Yes, wonderful work by Harlequin on the publicity front, and at short notice too. Yeah, it’s tough with Mum but she seems really perky and being well looked after. Alzheimer’s is harder on the family that the afflicted I think. Horrible bloody disease.

      Thanks for dropping by and taking the time to comment.

  2. AvatarFiona

    Waving and munching at the same time. What a delightful commentary to read while I crunched my way through my Special K and blueberries. You really should be contracted for travelogues, great fun photos and interesting stories. Hmmm. Storyteller. Might be why?
    Thank you, Cathryn, lovely way to start the day. xxFi
    Special hugs to you and your mum xx

    1. Cathryn HeinCathryn Hein Post author

      Special K and blueberries sounds rather scrumptious, Fiona! Delighted that you enjoyed the piccies and narrative, and thanks for the hugs re Mum. It’s heartbreaking for us but she’s seems happy.

      Really want blueberries now…

  3. AvatarMichelle Douglas

    You make me want to pack up the car and head to Mount Gambier immediately, Cathryn! Great photos (I love me an iconic Aussie pub or three!). I sighed in bliss at the gorgeous countryside near Coleraine. And I’m quite sure my life won’t be complete until I’ve paddled in the estuary at Nelson. 🙂

    1. Cathryn HeinCathryn Hein Post author

      Mt Gambier has some really cool pubs, for sure, Michelle! I love reading stories from their days gone by. They’re fascinating. Great that so many have been well preserved too.

      The western districts of Victoria are one of my favourite places and I love driving through there. There are great historic squattocracy houses tucked away in those hills, that many don’t know about, all built on wool and gold. You catch glimspes sometimes driving around.

      Thanks so much for dropping by and commenting. I hope you make it for a visit one day. Everyone needs to explore and the wines are fantastic!!

  4. AvatarJenn J McLeod

    Jens Hotel? I think it has my name on it. Must visit. I am Mt G for a week in March, then off to property sit outside of Naracoorte for a month. Loving the gypsy life. Very timely post.

    1. Cathryn HeinCathryn Hein Post author

      Ha!!! So it does, Jenn, so it does. You’ll definitely have to pop in for a tipple when you hit town.

      You’ll love it round Naracoorte. It’s beautiful country. Don’t forget to visit the caves. They’re a marvel.

      Thanks for popping by!

  5. AvatarChristine Ernest

    Wow, Cathryn, what a great article on the Mount and surrounds. Living here sometimes makes you forget what we have. Was great to see that you called into the Middle Pub (Albion) in Casterton. I was born and bred in that area, so was nice to see it through different eyes. That view from the top of the hill at Coleraine is amazing, as are the views between Casterton and Coleraine.
    Jens Hotel in the Mount also has a secret passage. It goes under Commercial Street East to the building over the road. I’ve been led to believe that it was a discreet way for the gentlemen of the area to visit the ladies of the night without being caught!

    1. Cathryn HeinCathryn Hein Post author

      I’ve heard about that passage, Christine! Wouldn’t it be great to take an adventure down it. Aren’t stories like that fun?. They’re fascinating and give you an idea of the goings on of the town. I bet Jens wasn’t alone in the discreet entrances. I imagine a few of the pubs had those.
      The Albion was such an eye-opener. I’m so glad we visited and I am DEFINITELY going back. I had the best beef and Guinness pie there I’ve ever eaten, and I’ve eaten a few, and I just love the photos.
      I’m so glad you enjoyed this post and thanks for commenting.

  6. AvatarSue Gerhardt Griffiths

    Such a fascinating blog post and gorgeous pics to boot! Great article and love that pic of you, Cathryn. I’ve saved this post to my desktop for future reference for when we head down to Mt Gambier. Makes me want to pack the caravan and go this minute. I reckon we could easily spend a month down that area, seems like there is lots of exploring to be had.
    I must tell April about the customs house she loves staying in unique places – at the moment they’re staying in an old railway carriage which has been newly renovated in Junee. They’re loving it and she is madly in love with the town and would like to live there. I don’t see the fascination but the first time she visited 10 years ago she fell in love with the place and seems like that hasn’t changed.
    I got all teary when I saw the pic of you and your mum. She looks happy though.

    1. Cathryn HeinCathryn Hein Post author

      I hope you get down there soon, Sue. Summer would be the best when the lake is at its peak colour. It really does have to be seen to be believed. But yes, LOTS of things to explore.
      The Customs House sounds a great place to stay. The history of the port is really something and the Customs House would be a good way to experience some of it. Wonder if there’s a ghost?
      April’s railway carriage sounds lovely!

  7. AvatarLois Reeves got married last Saturday

    Great reading Cathryn lovely memories Oh boy Pat looks so much like her Dad big hugs next time you see her Love Cousin Lois XXX

    1. Cathryn HeinCathryn Hein Post author

      Hey, you got married! Congratulations! I just rang Dad to let him know and he passes on his best wishes too.

      No worries on giving Mum a hug next time I see her. I’m sure she’d give you a big one back.

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