Saturday, June 06, 2009

Loxton the lovely - a travelogue

In an era when history seems to have been made redundant by by the phrase "that was before my time", it is heartening to find official, state-wide celebrations of the past - reminders of our roots and both the triumphs and failures of what we like to call heritage.
I was charmed and honoured to be invited to a town called Loxton to given the opening address for History Week. I was assigned the topic of "Pioneer Women" and instructed to speak on this subject for an hour. I could have wished for less of a maelstrom of a domestic and working life to make the writing of such an epic somewhat easier. Elective time has become elusive. This is a reflection on the history we are living now - the era of information overload wherein the days grow shorter and more pressure cooker, work presses and thinking time has vanished into the archives.
Irony, irony.

However, thanks to History Week and a Loxton man called Bert Haslam, I earmarked my owed overtime from work to pilgrimage to Loxton.
What a revelatory experience.

It is about a three-hour drive from Adelaide -beginning by heading up the freeway to lovely Tailem Bend. This town on a bend of the River Murray has a fabulous roadhouse with a stunning view and decent food - not to mention wireless Internet. Heading out the Karoonda Road we suddenly were in another world - we were in the almost remote countryside. Wheat country with railway lines and tiny silo towns. Marvellous mallee groves along smooth, open road. We saw few cars. But we did see ruins and bleak little settlements.
Approaching a place which was called Sandalwood, and which had nothing much more than the sign saying it was called Sandalwood, we found a roadside pallet with a mound of pumpkins for sale with a wee honour box. We bought one of the $3 ones.

It was a beautiful road, but there was a strange spirit of desolation to its environs, sometimes uncomfortably so. We turned off at a semi-derelict settlement which, incomprehensibly, bragged a racecourse. I wanted to see this racecourse. We drove past cracked and abandoned tennis courts with knee-high weeds, past a lovely but very sadly abandoned house with its rainwater tanks toppled alongside it.

We bumped onto a dirt track with, of all things, a 15k speed sign marker. Not a car in sight, but I slowed from my wild and crazy 25kph to the required speed we wound our way to a fenced compound, at its gate, a corrugated iron ticket booth with $10 entry fee signed. Within, there was a fairly respectable country racing set up - all made of corrugated iron. There was a grandstand, horse boxes and parading ring. One wondered how often it was used. It seemed a bit surreal out there in the desolation of disuse. Like a ghost racetrack.
However, as we were turning back onto the main road of this little ghost town, a big white ute crept out of a road on the other side, one of those big vehicles with bull bars, spotlights, huge tyres... And it drove behind us. It drove close behind us. And we started to feel rather oppressed by it. If I drove fast, it drove fast. If I slowed, it slowed. Eventually we hit another sad little settlement and I pulled over outside a rusty General Store. The white ute went on by and turned down a side road. I thought it may emerge again when we continued, but it didn't. Twas all in the imagination. Too many movies about weirdos in rustic country towns.

There were many ruins and abandoned buildings along the road - telling tales of droughts and lost dreams. There was even a side road signposted "Deferred Works Road".
But the countryside generally is lovely out there. Beautiful mallee.

Loxton was a surprise. A massively wide main road with a huge median strip leads down towards glorious meandering bends of the grand old River Murray. Loxton is, or was, a citrus town. It is surrounded by "fruit blocks" created by a post-war irrigation system which provided opportunities for returned servicemen. The town itself was originally German-settled, however. There are lots of German names in the community, but now also Greek and multicultural ones. It is a famously sunny town and, despite the dire economic crisis which besets it as the river water allocations dry up the once-lush fruit blocks and vineyards, it still seems to have a thriving and progressive atmosphere. At least, that was the impression that big-hearted Bert Haslam, a former school headmaster and now a member of the Loxton Council, conveyed to us as he took us around the sights. Retirement communities are big business in Loxton. A very wise move by the council in a time when Baby Boomers are looking for alternative lifestyles. Loxton is attractive for tree changers.

The fruit blocks are a sorry sight, however. It is heartbreaking to see dead orchards and piles of bulldozed dry orange trees, abandoned fruit drying racks and sadly shuttered houses.

Fortunately some alternative crops are emerging - olives and almonds among them.
We were to meet some of the grape and fruit growers at the History Week opening and to learn that they had been paying something like $300,000 a year for water to keep their orchards and vineyards cropping. They are deeply in debt.

Banrock wine flowed, however, for the opening event.
It was held in a large marquee in the grounds of The Pines, which is Loxton's simply gorgeous old heritage house open to the public. The house was left to the people of Loxton and is lovingly maintained by the council and staffed by keen volunteers. Built by the Thiele family in 1909, it was handed down to Ella who married a car dealer called Kingdon. It would seem to have been an odd, childless marriage but Ella outlived her chainsmoking husband by a long time and was to become beloved of the townsfolk for her gracious ways and her regular, brandy-soaked tea parties. The house has been kept as she left it - a window to a more gracious era which, for some, is still in living memory. It was another thing one had to love about Loxton, another thing that makes it different and better than most country towns. The fact that it also maintains an historic village is another. And then there are the mammoth old gums along the river and the sandy river shores which won the award of Best Inland Beach in Australia. And there is The Big Pelican, a piece of glorious fibreglass folk art which was made originally for a street parade and now sits in all its naif glory on a big water-motif plinth at the entrance to the riverside campgrounds. It is a cultural treasure.

I was a bit anxious about speaking to the people of Loxton on the requested subject of Pioneer Women. It was my feeling, rightly, that Loxton people are already very well informed about their own and the country's history and that, whatever I said, it would seem like teaching granny to suck eggs. I angled my address to pioneer women journalists which meant that I could move through time from first settlers to my own experiences as the first woman journalist on the news floor at two newspapers.

A wonderful array of people turned up to fill the marquee and the school prefects did a sterling job of serving drinks and nibbles. There was even a jolly pioneer folk trio. I was made to feel really welcome and, indeed, despite some very unusual improvised lighting at the lectern and a bit of trouble with the mike, it as all rather good fun and the audience seemed engaged. They were certainly responsive and I had a lovely time talking to lots of them afterwards. They presented me with a hamper of superb local produce - quandong syrup, olive oil, fruit conserve...
My general impression was that it was a really civilized place full of interesting, intelligent and community-minded people. It added to my sense that Loxton was a place a person could happliy live.

With Bert and Kath Haslam, we repaired to the Loxton Community Hotel for an agreeable, albeit not gastronomically brilliant, dinner and a last glass of wine.

Again, it was the pleasure of the people. The Haslams are special - both lifelong career teachers now retired. Bert is one of those golden men whose energy, enthusiasm, knowhow and warmhearted skill with people is the glue which sticks a rural community together. He is a doer and he makes doers of everyone around him. As Kath says, he has two speeds, full-on and stopped.
In the morning, we took a beautiful stroll along the banks of the River Murray. Slow, brown and beautiful. Bird life vivid and raucous. Oh, those ancient eucalypts. Reeds and duckweed...
Bert and Kath met us after our walk and we drove around to see places where Daisy Bates had come to live and work after her famous years of working with the Aboriginals at Ooldea. We explored little backroads, some of them impassable, and saw all sorts of fruit blocks and stretches of the river before arriving at Banrock Station where the wonderful wetlands were dry and there were no waterbirds to be seen.

More evidence of the seriously sad state of the River.
Banrock Station is a very impressive enterprise way out there in the Riverland - an elegant upmarket restaurant with the best possible art and a produce store and wonderful views as well as a conservation enterprise.
Many times living in New Hampshire I have pulled up its webcams to look at the birdlife.

It was disappointing not to see it in real life. We continue to hope for long, drenching and reviving rain to resupply the rivers.
And perhaps the Government could start buying up those cotton farms and rice fields upriver and in the eastern states which have been allowed to divert our precious water.

For Banrock. For the fruit growers. For all.