A rather loaded question but at least I had a choice so opted for the latter. It had the promise of easy stages. The plan was to drive to Castlemaine staying overnight, train to Swan Hill and then bus to our destination of Buronga. Where’s Buronga, you may well ask. If you should be so inclined you could walk out of our host’s house over a lush green lawn through the palms and ancient red gums and dive into the mighty Murray. With the existing slow current you should end up on the opposite bank looking down the main street of Mildura.
It has been a long time since I visited Castlemaine and I had not fully appreciated how well this historic gold mining city had protected itself from progress. Remember this is where the locals told the McDonald chain they were not welcome to peg out a claim
The first challenge came the following morning at a time when sensible people would be contemplating their second cup of coffee. We arrived at the rail station where car parking was already tight and the platform busy with Melbourne-bound workers and racks of tangled bikes. This is a city of people who know how to travel.
But we are on the Melbourne-bound platform and must make our way over to the other side which is deserted and windswept clean. It reminds me of a scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. We successfully negotiate the connecting tunnel and my worst fears come into view. A stairway of Mt Everest magnitude leading us to our out-bound platform.
Already my partner is at the top with her suitcase while I am two steps above base camp. “Wait” she says “I’ll come down”. Then along comes my saviour, a young lass with a babe in a pusher. “Here, let me help” and applying the foot brake grabs my case and glides up the stairs and back before her abandoned baby could blink. My feelings are a mixture of gratitude and embarrassment. She could at least have made it look difficult.
Then some doubt creeps into my partner’s mind. This platform looks too neglected for her liking. So back down the stairs, through the tunnel and around to the stationmaster’s office once more. “Yes madam, all trains leave from this platform”. Back through the tunnel and up Mt Everest with some urgency. Time is moving on. Thanks to gravity our descent is quick, though I have some concern for the gift bottle of booze as my case bounces its way to the bottom.
No need to panic. We still have time before our train is due and are entertained by the mobile phone conversation two benches up. The incoming voice is loud and clear to all as we hear that Jane has put her house on the market and will move to Queensland and yes Sybil is fine and has taken up golf. So good to share these gems of private conversations with us all.
The rest of the journey is drama free. Instead of catching the bus we are picked up at Swan Hill by our hosts and lunch at a very posh restaurant, our table dappled in the shade of huge river gums. The two-hour drive to Buronga takes us through Robinvale with never-ending groves of almond trees and row upon row of table grape vines covered with white plastic sheets.
After four days beside the peaceful Murray we turn home again but potential trouble looms. Castlemaine waits ahead. My partner has arranged our cases at the exit door at the far end of our carriage so that we will depart hassle free when we arrive. “You stay here until the train stops and then come down.”
So I wait, then grab her pink jacket and untangle my walking stick from under the seats, thank the man across the aisle who had manhandled our luggage into the overhead racks and head down towards the exit door. But I have left my run too late. Already there is a wall of new arrivals coming on board and blocking my exit. “Move over, you lot, I’ve got to get off” I cry in mounting panic but they have nowhere to go.
I shoulder my way to the door but now the red light is flashing. I pull in vain with all my might. My partner is outside wildly hammering on the door. In desperation she takes off, no doubt to give the driver a piece of her mind. As she vanishes from view I have this sinking feeling that I may be seeing her for the last time.
Then another miracle. Our carriage attendant appears. “Are you trying to get off?” he asks. Somehow he contacts the driver and the door light turns a beautiful green. I tumble out into her arms, pink jacket and walking stick flying. She tells me later the handful of people gathered on the platform were greatly amused by our performance and I think I may have heard a ripple of applause.
The next day there it is. The lovely curve of the coast line and Bass Strait as the road swings around into Kilcunda. Buronga has its charms but it is good to be home.
Gold town verses Coal town? No contest.