Victoria: The sunny side of life

By Eloise Gibson

The Murray River is the lifeblood of Mildura thanks to an irrigation system. Photo / Eloise Gibson.
The Murray River is the lifeblood of Mildura thanks to an irrigation system. Photo / Eloise Gibson.

It almost never rains in Mildura, Victoria.

That's why Chris and Marina Durban stopped here more than a decade ago, and it is one of the reasons they are still here.

The entrepreneurial pair were driving around Australia looking for a place to live when they came across the sunny town on the river, bang in the middle of what should be a desert.

Today they and their young daughters are living the dream they had all those years ago, with a thriving business, room for their horses and an outdoor lifestyle that suits them to a T.

It sounds like a miraculous combination: a town with little rain, but fields filled with olives, grapes and oranges and an average house price under $200,000.

Everything that grows here relies completely on the wide Murray River, which meanders through the town splitting the state of Victoria on one side from New South Wales on the other.

Thanks to irrigation, the fields flow with fruit and wine, which Mildura sells to the rest of the Australia and New Zealand under the region's trade name of Sunraysia.

It is perhaps not surprising that Mildura's favourite historical heroes are the fathers of the local irrigation system, the Canadian-born Chaffey brothers, who somehow managed to convince the early European settlers to build a town based on growing things in the middle of salty desert.

Today the region is a buzzing hub for food growers and food tourism.

But there are pitfalls.

A few years ago, growers were forced to uproot their crops when the Murray, Australia's largest river, ran low in a drought.

Landholders are still smarting from a decision by the regional water authority to temporarily cut irrigation allowances by up to 80 per cent, which left some of them with little choice but to pull out decades-old vines and trees.

Although water allowances are now back to normal, our aboriginal tour guide Graham Clarke believes the wine industry is taking too much water and leaving too little for wildlife downstream.

Tensions are inevitable when people, birds and fish from here to the New South Wales coast, several hours' drive away, rely on the same wide, brown river to survive.

You can see how vital the precious water pipes are by taking a short drive on the flat roads heading out of the city, where vines, asparagus and fruit trees suddenly give way to red dirt and a smattering of stunted shrubs.

We stifle a giggle when, on a day trip to visit some nearby growers', a resident proudly points out some "lush" vegetation that has sprouted in recent rains.

He is talking about some spindly sticks of a grey-green shrub that miraculously grows in the arid, salty soils.

But when you look at the parched dirt surrounding the city, you can see why Mildura is thought of locally as an oasis. Growing anything here is a kind of miracle.

The Durbans are lucky.

They were drawn here as much by the river as by the climate, but their livelihood depends on keeping the water where it is.

Thanks to a system of lochs and weirs, their fleet of houseboats can roam for an hour up or down the Murray with scarcely a ripple to trouble them.

The boats can be driven at a leisurely 8km (by anyone who has a licence to drive a car) and moored at golf courses, wineries and parks along the tree-lined shores - and many tourists use them as an alternative to a riverside hotel.

We use a boat as a base for three days of eating, drinking and sightseeing.

Any visions we had of rustic wooden vessels conjured from the likes of European movie sets (cue wind chimes and stained-glass windows) disappear quickly when we see the boat. It is more like a floating new house, complete with dishwasher, plasma television and spa pool.

In fact, the television is so huge the boat's generator has to keep running in the evenings just to power the screen.

Driving it is an adventure, but of the softest possible kind.

We quickly learn that the Durbans are part of a tight-knit network of tourism and hospitality workers, many of whom pop up repeatedly at different spots around the town.

Much of the tourism here is based on food, a concept which rocketed to popularity after one-time politician and local celebrity chef Stefano de Pieri sampled the region's produce on a pushbike for a television cooking show.

These days his restaurant is one of a clutch of top eateries that sit within a block of each other in the city, all stressing their reliance on fresh, local food.

On separate nights, we sample figs, cod, quince, kangaroo and plenty of local wine at these bustling eating spots.

Another day we tour some of the growers (picked by our tour guide by trawling food stalls at the local farmers' market) and find families running boutique operations involving olive oil, mandarins, raisins and the region's famous pink salt.

The wines, too, are often grown in boutique amounts, allowing us, within a short drive, to sample locally grown viognier, chardonnay, rose, pinot gris, merlot and shiraz at very reasonable prices by New Zealand standards.

With this kind of lifestyle and the seemingly permanent sunshine, you can see why some people seem to forget to move on.

Life would be easy here, if only they could count on a little bit of rain.

Dry lakes key to past

If you are looking for a striking contrast to the vineyards and olive groves surrounding Mildura township, Willandra Lakes is the place to find it.

Anyone expecting a watery wonderland will be sorely disappointed: the lakes dried up between 10,000 and 30,000 years ago, leaving behind scorching desert and some very eerie shapes in the sand.

Tour guide Graham Clarke, who runs the only Aboriginal-owned and operated tour of the area, explains how the bones of long-dead sea creatures have been unearthed from the sand-dunes in what is now Mungo National Park, along with cooking pits and tools spanning many thousands of years of Aboriginal settlement.

Graham regales us with these smatterings of history, as well as his lively and often strident views on almost every topic imaginable (archaeologists, climate change, real estate agents, termites), while we sit in the scorching sun, watched over by a couple of emus.

Luckily, Graham has thought to bring spare water bottles for those of us too foolish to bring our own (mostly New Zealanders unused to such searing temperatures in winter). He finishes with a spectacular display on the didgeridoo, followed by a home-packed lunch.

Then it is time to climb back in the bus to Mildura.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Qantas offers three daily services to Melbourne from Auckland and a daily service from Wellington. Phone Qantas on 0800 767 400, or contact your bonded travel agent.

Further information: For more information on Melbourne and Victoria go to visitmelbourne.com.

Eloise Gibson visited Mildura as a guest of Tourism Victoria and Qantas

Find out more at Australia.com

- NZ Herald

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