Travelling Australia - Journal 2009
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17 April 2009 - Little Desert Lodge to Mildura
Today we drove from the Little Desert Lodge, located south of Nhill, to Mildura. Initially we drove on a C-class road which had fairly narrow and bumpy bitumen; I slowed to 80 kph to have a more comfortable ride through Jeparit, Rainbow and Hopetoun. From Hopetoun we were on a B-class road with wider bitumen and a less bumpy ride, even at 90 kph. Then we joined the Calder Highway, an A-class road with two full-width lanes and generally good, flat bitumen.

This route took us across the Wimmera and the Mallee. Both regions are pretty well flat but with quite a few long and gentle slopes up low hills. Elevation only varied between 85 and 130 metres in more than 300 kilometres of driving. There were no hills or mountains in the distance, just the nearly flat horizon.

The area is heavily devoted to growing wheat and recently harvested wheat paddocks stretched to the horizon on both sides of the road. The landscape is dotted with tall silos which used to be receiving points for harvested grain but times are changing and the single body which previously sold all Australian wheat (the "single desk") has been replaced by several organisations buying farmers' wheat and some wheat-growers choose to store harvested grain on their properties until deciding to sell. Around Jeparit we passed several farm buildings with collections of metal hopper-like storages used to store grain and several paddocks had large plastic pillows holding harvested grain.
Roadside mallee The original mallee vegetation has been retained along the side of feeder roads between Nhill and Hopetoun. Wheat paddocks are visible beyond the mallee on both sides of the road.

Wheatland Wheat stretching to the horizon.

North of Hopetoun in the Mallee, the complete absence of any buildings visible from the road outside recognised townships was noticeable. Indeed, throughout the Mallee and Wimmera there was an absence of people, even in the townships such as Jeparit and Rainbow which were neat and clean but with hardly anybody in the streets.

Apart from growing large amounts of wheat, the Mallee and Wimmera are known for national parks preserving the area's original vegetation. These parks include the Little Desert, Big Desert, Wyperfield, Sunset Country and Hattah-Kulkyne covering thousands of hectares. Some parks have been developed for visitors. Other parks are intended for nature conservation, they are remote, isolated and closed to visitors.

We had seen the Little Desert National Park yesterday and today we drove along the edge of the Hattah-Kulkyne National Park stretching along the Calder Highway and could see the extent and complexity of the mallee scrub in the national park.

The difference between wheat-land and national park is startling. National parks contain random collections of trees, shrubs and ground-cover plants, including nearly continuous cover of multi-trunked mallee trees or other eucalyptus with an understory of semi-arid plants such as bluebush and saltbush. On the other hand, the wheat fields are a single colour, growing a single plant species with wheat stalks in long, straight lines. The contrast between the two environments is emphasised by the straight, sharp boundary between them. A standard fence will have wheat on one side and natural vegetation on the other.

For much of the way the Calder Highway ran alongside the railway line to Mildura. As we drove along we could see, in reverse, the various steps in the sleeper-replacement project. First, we saw the old sleepers being collected by a tractor, then passed old sleepers lying along the track waiting to be picked up. Next, we passed the sleeper-replacing machinery on the track making large clouds of thick dust while taking out old sleepers and put in new ones. Beyond the machines new sleepers were lying beside the track then closer to Mildura we passed trucks carrying sleepers towards the working area. This appeared to be a fairly routine operation but the new sleepers were wooden and we thought that was unusual given the number of concrete sleepers we have seen around Australia. Using wooden replacement sleepers is even stranger when The Weekend Australian of 19 April had a Train supplement which several times mentioned how old wooden sleepers in Victoria were being replaced by concrete ones. Not what we saw being done on the Mildura line which is not presently used and is intended to be used for freight initially with political promises to re-introduce passenger services reported to be in doubt.

After about 300 kilometres of wheat and national park scrub, 20 kilometres before Mildura the landscape suddenly changed to grape-vines, irrigation channels and closer settlement which grew progressively heavier through Red Cliffs and into Mildura. We followed the Calder Highway to the intersection with the Sturt Highway in Mildura where a collection of caravan parks and motels serves travellers using these main highways between Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia. Our preferred park was busy but we had booked a site and were soon set-up very comfortably.
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