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Wednesday, 2 January 2013

On a wing and a prayer

The smell of eucalyptus assaults the senses, it’s almost overpowering and the air crackles with heat.  Dust covers everything, rising into the air drifting into the bush, joining the haze that sears across the mountains.  Inside the car I’m hyperventilating, failing to control a massive panic attack that has descended upon me, whilst we are winding our way ever so slowly up a steep dirt section of the Omeo Highway in the Victorian High country. 

It’s almost one hundred kilometres of this type of road and we are unable to drive a speed of more than forty kmh.  I feel trapped and very, very afraid. It’s so dry and sweltering hot outside, I’m terrified the surrounding forest will catch fire and there’s no way out.  Only two days ago, on the 31st as we were driving back to Wodonga I’d made a suggestion we stop off at Violet Town  only to hear on the radio just ten minutes later that it and the Boho area were facing a large grass fire. Then on New Year’s Day, there was a bushfire on the outskirts of Albury.  It was fire season in Victoria.  It was also heat wave conditions in Victoria.  All day on the radio, the warning to ‘know your bushfire response’ is playing, and here we are driving in one of the most heavily wooded areas of the state.  I was in hysterics.
We had decided to skip the lower south-east coastal route and instead pick up the coast road in East Gippsland, starting at Bairnsdale.  After a quick look at the maps, Big M thought the quickest route to Bairnsdale would be via Mitta Mitta instead of the Mount Beauty wrong were we! 
Big M does his best to drive and try and keep me calm.  He points out beautiful bright red parrots as they fly past and comments on the wildflowers along the verge but to no avail. All I can think is “this is the stupidest idea and we’re going to die!’ The drive is excruciatingly slow and it’s not until we’ve finally reached the peak of the mountain we’ve been climbing and start going down again that I stop feeling faint.  

All along I keep praying for God to take me out of here and I find it a little bizarre to see sign posts telling us we’re driving across the “Devils Backbone” and crossing creeks called Haunted Creek and St Patrick’s Creek...perhaps a touch of the above..... 

At Glen Willis we come across an eerie scene of a cemetery filled with white unmarked crosses. A sign at the far end of the cemetery tells us it’s the last resting place of some ninety-seven people who died between the years of 1894 and 1920 – forty of the graves are infants.  These were people who lived and made up the community of Glen Willis and Sunnyside – Miners, wives and their children.  I look around, there is nothing here. These people working this area were isolated; their lives would have been hard, for the wives and children, almost suppressive.  It’s heartbreaking to read the names of so many babies and children. Despite it’s sadness, it feels like a peaceful place.
Omeo is a breath of fresh air and I suck it in hungrily.   I’m so relieved to arrive, some six hours after we first left Wodonga, and I take myself off on a walking tour of the village enjoying the heritage and prettiness of it all until I reach the top of the street and read how the town was practically wiped from the map by the 1939 Black Friday bushfires.   As I look down the street at the buildings, especially the Golden Age Motel which  over it’s time has burnt down some six times, I can’t help but admire the resilience and strength of our past pioneers.
Our next stop was the quaint town of Bruthen, which owes its claim to fame to being the town where Flt Lt Ralph Oborn in 1958 became the first pilot in Australia to eject safely from an aeroplane – just as his RAAF Avon-Sabre jet crashed into the outskirts of the town – just avoiding the built up area. It was also the first time Oborn had ever used a parachute. Now that’s definitely having a guardian angel on your side.  I do wonder however, if the local publican of the Bruthen Hotel is trying to get his own claim to fame – if his sign is anything to go by.

Bairnsdale was the end of our wing and prayer drive and what better way to end it then taking time to give thanks for a safe trip at the spectacular catholic church of St Mary’s.  Although quite an imposing structure on the outside,  it’s the interior that holds your attention.  Beautiful murals and ceiling paintings adorn the entire dome and walls. Stunning  in colour and vibrancy.  The tourist brochures claim they are reminiscent of the Sistine Chapel and although I myself wouldn’t go that far as to say that, I must say they are incredible and quite mesmerising.  Painted by an Italian artist Francesco Floreani in the 1930 during the Great Depression, they would have lifted the spirits of the community.  They certainly lifted mine.


post script – 2 days after writing this Victoria reaches heatwave temperatures of over 40degrees and grass and bush fires spring up; including near  the small town of Ensay which we passed through (near Omeo)

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