I am almost sad as I set off for my final day in the mallee. I have thoroughly enjoyed this part of the world. It has dished up the challenges of distance, fatigue, trucks and headwinds. But by pushing through I have grown stronger on the bike and have gained great respect for the friendly people who live out here. In every town the shop keepers, publicans and locals are ready with a smile and hello. Drivers wave in greeting and say hello when they bump into me in the towns where we are both stopped. I am glad I took this unconventional route from Adelaide towards Melbourne. It’s brought me much joy and the hardships of those first two days riding into headwinds have faded into my memory already.
As I ride further east towards the Murray the golden fields of wheat start to again mix with dark green crops. The gamble of crop prices and rain must be an intense way of life for the men and women who work this red soil land where the summers are harsh and the winter nights cold. Saltpans become common as I travel east. Water fills these lakes and then dries in the sun, leaving salt crystals in its wake. It makes me think of some of the places we travelled as a family in Outback Queensland when I was growing up. It is a visual reminder of the harsh reality of this wide brown land; a reality that might seem distant if all we see are the crops.
Spring has well and truly sprung here in the mallee. Wattles are in bloom along the roadside and the days are warm. Temperatures hover around 20 degrees Celcius (68’F). The skies start out blue with cartoon-like clouds blowing across the sky in the early afternoon before clearing again in the evening. I am wearing a lot of sunblock because I don’t want to get sunburned again now that the sunburn I got up in the Riverlands has finally settled. A light breeze blows from the side to keep the day perfect for cycling.
The tiny rural towns here have buckets of history. In Ouyen they have painted a mural to show the town’s story while Manangatang hosts the first Manangatang-style railway station building that was ever built here in Victoria. But always there’s grain. Silos stand in fields and at railway sidings. The concrete silos were all decommissioned in the early 2000s but they appear every 9-10km along the railway line that runs parallel to the Mallee Highway, which I have been following. I like the way their orange-stained concrete contrasts with the blue sky.
And so I make my final camp of this part of my trip. I am in Manangatang where there is a park that you can camp at by making a donation at either the general store or the pub. It’s up to campers to decide how much they want to donate and all donations are gratefully accepted. The money goes to the upkeep of the park, which has toilets, a hot shower, power points, a shady tree, some grass and an undercover picnic area. I am going to enjoy my final night here in the mallee.