The best of the Loddon
From scar trees to a tiny mountain, the Loddon’s top attractions.
The Mallee isn’t the sort of place that leaps out at you and declares: “Look at me!” Even if you climb its local high spot, Mount Wycheproof, which at 43 metres above the surrounding plain lays claim to being the smallest official mountain in the world, your perspective isn’t going to change immediately.
Which is why you’ve got to get out, start looking around and talking to the locals. Even Paul Haw, a historian in Boort, didn’t know what was almost in his own backyard until he had his eyes opened to the Indigenous stories of the area. That’s when he started taking a closer look at the black box trees ringing the town’s two lakes.
Slideshow images: Inglewood Eucalyptus Distillery Museum, paddling on the Serpentine River (Jeremy Bourke), a scar tree in Boort (Jeremy Bourke)
“Lake Boort has the largest concentration of trees with scars removed by stone tools in the world,” says Paul, standing by a log on the southern shore of Little Lake Boort that has a somewhat geometric gouge in its bark. “Most of the trees were drowned by the end of the 1850s. This prevented them growing over the removed bark area.”
Paul points out particular shapes for particular purposes and the almost perfect symmetry of the cuts. The bark was used for containers and drinking vessels, for the drying of possum skins, for shelters, canoes and carting fire from place to place.
“The bark for a house would last six or seven years,” he says. “It’s totally waterproof.”
This ash could be up to 10,000 years old.
Further around, we scramble down to the shore of the larger of the two Lake Boorts, to a cooking mound which to an unknowing eye is just a bump.
“Cooking mounds are usually 10 metres wide and in a perfect circle,” Paul says, picking up a clump of ash probably unearthed by a rabbit. “This ash could be up to 10,000 years old.”
He finds a tiny shard that he’s sure is a remnant of a stone axe, telling by its texture that it’s been smoothed down by the constant touch of human hands.
Yet what Paul is showing us is just a tease for what lies further around the lake. He can’t say where, but once Parks Victoria and archaeologists have established a plan that will have the least possible impact on the treasures in there, visitors will be able to walk among a grove of scar trees like nowhere else in the world. Surveys of the area are scheduled for 2019, and then the visitor experience will need to be designed, approved and incorporated into the landscape. It’s a necessarily delicate process.
Wedderburn General Store Museum.
Inglewood Eucalyptus Distillery Museum.
Wedderburn General Store Museum.
Later, we hire canoes and paddle down Serpentine Creek, a tributary of the Loddon River 20 kilometres east of Boort. Paul points out more scar trees, plus other items that the local Yung Balug people would use, such as slender water reeds, which when weighted with a mallee root made a perfect spear.
We pass a substantial double-storey red-brick building that started life as the Durham Ox Inn; a temperance property, it never had a liquor licence. Durham Ox was once one of the biggest towns in north-west Victoria, “but then the train line bypassed it and now there’s nothing there”.
It’s our liquid gold. We have the clearest sinuses in Victoria.
Looking around as you motor through the wooded Loddon Valley, you’d think they’d have enough gum trees, but down around Wedderburn and Inglewood they’re planting more. Thousands of blue mallee are being propagated in a bid to redress the situation of Australia being a net importer of eucalyptus oil.
Blue mallee is high in cineole, the ingredient that helps make eucalyptus oil the magic cleaning agent we know and love, and the great reliever of stuffy noses. You’ve got to believe Murray at the Eucy Museum in Inglewood when he says eucalyptus oil is used “in heaps of things – aw, it’s even in toothpaste”. He says a Queensland farmer dropped in one day and said he’d give it a go as sheep dip. It worked.
Outside the museum (open 10am to 4pm, Thursdays to Mondays) is a jumble of ancient pipes and vats that is actually a heritage-listed eucalyptus still. But Murray has built a small still inside the museum to demonstrate how this wonderful oil is produced by a fairly simple method of steaming gum leaves.
The still method is an advance on the original stewpot, which you can see in action at the Hard Hill Reserve in Wedderburn. Most days Robbie Vella and several mates light a fire under an 1852-vintage stewpot, load it with blue mallee and, in good time, as the smell of eucalyptus drifts over the adjacent campground, the oil appears.
They get between five and nine litres of oil per cook, for sale at various places around town. “It’s sort of illegal to leave Wedderburn without a bottle,” Robbie says. “It’s our liquid gold. We have the clearest sinuses in Victoria.”
We have to retrain our young butchers to the old way of doing things.
Also make time for Wedderburn’s General Store Museum. This shop operated until 1969, when a family tragedy saw the owner Cliff Coates walk away, leaving the place virtually as it remains today, from the medical cabinet with Dr Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People to the loose biscuits in the tin of Brockhoff Family Assortment. It’s open 10am to 3pm Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays.
Fortunately, there are fresher foodstuffs in the Loddon. The star of its food scene is a butcher shop in Inglewood where James Clee dispenses Inglewood Aged Beef, a product used in more than 60 restaurants around Victoria.
James dry-ages his beef for 21 to 40 days, and he believes it imparts a richer flavour, like meat used to taste. “We have to retrain our young butchers [James employs eight] to the old way of doing things.”
You might enjoy an Inglewood porterhouse pan-fried with olive oil from Salute Oliva at Boort and served with green tomato spread from Simply Tomatoes up the road at Yando. The juices can be mopped up with a slice of sourdough from the Bridgewater Bakehouse, made with flour from the town’s 100-year-old Laucke mill, which also supplies several Melbourne artisan bakers. And keep it local with wine from Water Wheel at Bridgewater. We have it al fresco at our uber-comfortable self-catering lodgings, Banyandah Retreat, watching ducks, a few geese and the biggest swans in the Mallee glide across Little Lake Boort.
But we’re not far enough out in the bush to get a show like the one up the road at Sea Lake where people from all over the world come to admire the night skies. So instead of the Milky Way, next day it’s just a milky latte and confirmation that the sign outside the bakery in Wedderburn promising “the best home-made pies in Australia” is no idle boast. Plus a jelly slice from the Bridgewater Bakehouse on our way back to Melbourne. All of which, in their own way, are absolutely heavenly.
- To hire canoes for the Serpentine Creek trail, call Jason Lee, 0439 731 209.
- Paul Haw is happy to show visitors around significant scar tree sites in Boort. Contact him on 0417 333 171.
Jeremy Bourke toured as a guest of Loddon Shire.