A FAIR DINKUM HOLIDAY DOWN UNDER
"Wow! Look at this! It's perfect!" My sister jabs at an advertisement in Australia's The Senior newspaper. The advert by Magic Murray Holidays sounds ideal: a 7-day trip by luxury coach around the Murray River basin in New South Wales and Victoria. Four star accommodation, most meals, and an expert tour guide-all for just $500. It's a deal!
Along with a group of Australians, most of them over 65, we are picked up from Albury station to set off on a two-hour drive through western New South Wales. This is how I've always imagined the Australian countryside-sheep and cattle stations encompassing thousands of acres and stretching to the horizon. Ensconced in the air-conditioned comfort of our coach, we drive through small settlements, most of them seemingly deserted-shops closed, houses with window shades drawn, and not a soul on the streets. Probably because the mercury is at 42oC this afternoon. Worse still, the scorching wind has whipped up forest fires through the neighbouring state of Victoria-a scant seventy miles away from us. Smoke haze has turned the sky gun-metal grey.
Our hosts at the four-star Riverland Motel in the pretty little town of Barham are a young Australian couple. Guests melt into smiles within minutes of meeting Kristy-Lee, a buxom blonde with an infectious laugh and an irreverent Aussie sense of humour. She pampers her guests, manages the motel and oversees our meals. Her husband Clint who sports a little goatee beard and a insouciant air, is less outgoing than his wife, but is an engaging and informative tour guide.
Our welcome includes a light supper of delectable sandwiches, passion-fruit cheese cake and a complimentary glass of wine - a foretaste of the scrumptious meals that we are served over the course of the week - robust steaks, succulent roast chicken, salads and veggies, as well as delicately prepared fish-and a variety of desserts, including traditional Australian Pavlova.
Our first day is spent exploring nearby towns and the surrounding countryside. The twin towns of Barham and Koondrook are separated by the Murray River which forms the boundary between New South Wales and Victoria. We cross the 109 year old span lift bridge linking the two towns, and stroll along a shady walkway fringing the banks of the river, stopping to admire a series of red gum wood sculptures chain-saw carved by world renowned carver, Kevin Guilders.
The week goes by quickly, but the images linger on: waking up to the sound of a hysterical kookaburra in the grove behind our motel; driving through avenues of eucalyptus trees, some with white barks, ghostly and stark, others lush and graceful, their high branches stroking the sky. Citrus orchards line part of our route, their fruit like pretty Christmas tree decorations - bright orange balls against shiny olive green leaves. We pause for mid-morning teas in parks with picnic tables set out under dignified oaks, and stroll along pathways where willow trees tremble over river banks.
Our itinerary includes little known attractions. The guys in our group are enthralled by a display of vintage cars in the Holden car museum in Echuca and World War II buffs are captivated by the full sized Lake Catalina Flying Boat and memorabilia, on display at the Boga Lake Base museum.
A riverboat in Echuca's historic old port takes us up the Murray river as it twists its way between high banks and thickets of gum trees. Sunlight pools across our deck, and speckles the waters.
Photo 9 The entertaining "Talking Tram" tours Bendigo Town
Bendigo, once a gold mining town, now offers other treasures, such as its famous hand sculpted pottery. We watch a potter at work as he "throws" a vase that magically takes shape under his fingers, changing from a lump of clay to a graceful tall ornament. To my delight, we board a 'talking tram' that recounts the Bendigo's history as it clangs and clatters through the town, passing old houses with filigree ironwork railings and trimming on eaves that look as delicate as crocheted lace.
Citrus Juicing and Packing Plant, Koondrook
Our last day is spent close to home. We are captivated by friendly piglets on a nearby farm, and sample sweet, freshly squeezed grapefruit juice at a citrus processing factory in Barham.
Our farewell dinner at the Riverland Motel
A bonus on this trip are our Australian companions, some of whom are well into their eighties. They are a fun-loving lot-lively, curious, and up and ready for each day's outing. At the closing of our farewell banquet, they chant: "Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!" and we two Canadians join in the response of "Oi! Oi! Oi!"
IF YOU GO:
Contact Kristy Lee and Clint of Magic Murray Holidays at:
Riverland Motel, 45 Thule Street Barham NSW 2732 Phone: 011-61-03-5453-2811; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Elegant Bed & Breakfast at Burrabliss Farm, Lake Boga : www.burrabliss.com.au
PHOTOS: By Margaret Deefholts and Phyllis Beavan as below:
1. Murray River, Koondrook: Photo Margaret Deefholts
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