Big M and I made the station our first stop and I admit I was excited to see this building. Not only did Thomas Julian build it, but he also owned the pug mill that built the bricks for it so I was feeling a tad proud of what my ancestor had done. As we drove up to it, I was a bit shocked to find it little more than an unimpressive single storey, red brick building with a touch of white trim. No ornate iron lace, no fancy tessellated foyer or decorative rose ceilings with chain chandelier lights, no pretty fretwork awnings. Compared with the stations we had recently seen, I would say this was quite an ugly duckling. It wasn’t even a pretty orange colour.
Despite the disappointment I was feeling, we decided to call into the Information Centre and see what we could find on the station. My sunken bottom lip didn’t last for long as I was taken into the museum part of the centre and shown two beautiful paintings of the station. It turns out the station originally had been a stunning piece of architecture; double storeyed with grand dining rooms and waiting rooms, enormous fire places and all the trimmings, then in the 1980's the top storey was removed and all the grandeur stripped. “One of the sillier development decisions ever made” the woman told me sadly. I perked up, please to know that my ancestor hadn’t been the one to leave an eyesore to Benalla.
And there is very little that is eyesore in Benalla. This is an amazingly beautiful town with a proud heritage and stunning natural scenery. The main street filled with colonial style buildings is lined with leafy trees and vintage style wrought iron lamps. The pretty ‘Monash Bridge’ crosses over the Benalla Lake and leads to the beautiful Botanical Gardens featuring memorials to two of Benalla’s most famous sons – Sir Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop and Captain Hector Waller (Australia’s most decorated Navel Officer) – both were born and grew up in Benalla. Another of Benalla’s famous, or maybe that should be infamous, residents was Ned Kelly, but compared to the bravery of Sir ‘Weary’, NK held absolute no candle or interest for me. The bronze stature of Sir ‘Weary’ was indeed quite moving and faced the most beautiful rose garden. Apparently every rose breed/type is planted in this garden and we had an enjoyable time smelling and reading the names of the hundreds of roses that grow there – Edwards rose (after Sir ‘Weary’) was exquisite in both colour and smell, and the rose named after Olive Baden-Powell (founder of girl guides/brownies) was also stunningly beautiful.
Crossing back over the bridge, we found the glorious Benalla Ceramic Mural. Of first impression, it was like find a touch of Gaudi in rural Victoria. A free flowing form of artistic community spirit, it is the largest community artwork in Australia and draws on the elements of nature. Hidden in the curves and hollows were images of indigenous peoples, comic scenes, motherhood, music and love, the elements of nature – earth, wind, fire and water – beauty in light and dark, for the sighted and those who see with their hands. A beautiful dream that began back in 1883 and came into reality; this project is still evolving and is so stunning.
Heathcote was another gorgeous little village of lace and fretwork but there was no time to discover its charm; natural wonders called and so we drove down country lanes looking for this gorge of wonderment in the largest remaining Box-Ironbark forest in Victoria. The signage to Pink Cliffs Reserve was well marked and so we followed the road...and arrived at the local refuge tip. Our trip was fast becoming the “Tip-Rat Tour” according to Big M and we turn around trying to find the right route.
Back in the village we consult the Tourist Information Centre, find that we were on the correct road, but to look for a small carpark with a picnic table. It turns out to be a very short distance from the village and we gear up ready for a bit of hike. It doesn’t take long to get to the first viewing site – the gorge is miniscule and the colour of cream clay. We sight a bit of ‘pink’ in the distance and decide to hike up to the ‘top viewing platform’. This takes up 5minutes to walk to and we look down on lots of tiny mounds. The gouge created back in the mining days is the left over environmental destruction from the sluice mining that took place. Big M is most unimpressed, “way to go to make an attraction out of erosion’ he mumbles as we wander back to the car. I agree wholeheartily with him and dream back to the pink curves of Benalla’s ‘Gaudi’.