Too Good To Miss!

Story and Photography by Lloyd Junor

Copyright © On The Road Magazine 2001. Any unauthorised use, copying or mirroring is prohibited.

Jeparit has a curious mix of history and an inescapable sense of siesta.

Jeparit has had moments of glory, there is no disputing that. This small town, in Victoria’s mid-west Wimmera region, is a welcoming place. It is certainly off the track nowadays, and in some ways that seems a pity. But, on the other hand, the fact that few people know of it makes it an ideal place to lose some time in a tranquil setting.
The tranquil Wimmera River running near tranquil Jeparit.

About halfway between Adelaide and Melbourne is Dimboola, with the “Jeparit 37km” sign at its western end. As one travels north from Dimboola there is a presage of what is to come: the rail line beside the road is rusted, the Antwerp general store is closed, but scores of glistening new field bins at Tarranyurk village suggest that it’s an industrious farming area. 

Every driver waves acknowledgment. A fog of thick chocolate dust almost obscures a tractor and scarifier working up paddocks of rich brown soil. New Landcare-sponsored seedling trees stand between stark trunks ringbarked by misguided ancestors.

I’ve known Jeparit for longer than I care to admit. When we were toddlers we sometimes left our patch near the edge of the Big Desert to visit the town, bumping along dirt and limestone roads that generated white dust as enormous as sky clouds. Then Jeparit was humming, shops were busy, garages had queues, and the town was grappling with the fact that a local called “young Bob” – who eventually was to become the nation’s longest-serving Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies – was making his presence felt in politics.

To this day there is an ambivalent feeling about Menzies; there are tributes like the spire, but many feel that he forgot his roots when he gained fame. Some distance out the road to Nhill sits a memorial to a local man who may well have done more for humanity than any prime minister. A plaque at the Gerang-Lorquon road intersection commemorates Alf Traeger, the inventor of the pedal radio adopted by John Flynn to support Outback medical services.

The sign outside Jeparit says “Welcome” and explains that the town lies where the river meets the lake. The Wimmera River, which has its origin in the mountainous region of the Grampians around 100km away, winds slowly to its end only a few kilometres west of the town where it spills over a little weir and into Lake Hindmarsh. The river twists, turns and meanders to create a series of wetland spots and a couple of billabongs that attract birds and fish. The word “jeparit” stems from Aboriginal language, and means “home of small birds”.

Lake Hindmarsh was named after a governor of South Australia and at about 10km wide and 21km long it is easily the largest natural freshwater catchment in Victoria. Fishing (redfin and yellowbelly amongst carp), swimming, skiing, bird-watching and sailing trailer yachts are all popular water sports at the lake. It attracts much bird life, including at various times larger birds like pelicans, ducks, waders and swans.

At 4-Mile Beach, just west of Jeparit, the shallow sandy shores are a popular destination for caravanners and tent-campers. The beach, managed by the Hindmarsh Shire, has all essential amenities except for serviced sites. In seasons of good rainfall, Lake Hindmarsh overflows at its northern extremity into Lake Albacutya, a site of sheep run settlement around the early- to mid-1800s.

Back in Jeparit town itself there is a shady and relatively unfrequented caravan park with powered sites, washing machines and clothes lines. Nearby, a few minutes’ search will reveal a couple of trees scarred by Aboriginal people who hunted and fished along the river. It is easy to see where a large sheet of bark was unwrapped from the trunk to manufacture a fishing platform or canoe.

Another attraction, missed by the half-a-day’s-all-you-need type traveller, lies on south side of the Dimboola road. It is a house with artefacts inspired by cartoonist Ken Maynard.

With “skud” missiles and aircraft on the roof, signpost trees in the front yard, a lawn crammed with a helicopter, a chainsawn crocodile, and a Foster’s motorcyclist pursuing a chain-and-spring contraption plowing the buffalo grass, it’s a spot for a few wry smiles from the most stoic onlooker. 

Modern art?

You might be tempted to write down some of the homespun philosophy nailed to the house front wall.

The life-blood of Jeparit is unequivocally grain. The township is dominated by its silos and the grainstack yards: they can be seen from almost any point. At the rail crossing large red signs exclaim “Beware of wheat trucks”, and broadacre farm machinery seems to lie around every corner. At the bar of the Hindmarsh Hotel the talk among the muscled middle-aged cockies and the retired farmers is always about yields, prices, rain and the forthcoming season.

The Hindmarsh Hotel must have been remarkable in its hey-day. From the outside the ornate verandah balcony is impressive, and provides shade. Inside, the timber panelling, the vestibule with its broad staircase to the refurbished rooms upstairs, and the relief-decorated ceilings in the dining and function rooms point to a wealthy past. My early memories are of freshly caught redfin being on the menu here every day of the week, but especially promoted on Saturdays or Sundays when farm people would come into town.

The jewel of Jeparit is the Wimmera-Mallee Pioneer Museum. It may well hold one of the main keys to the future of the town. Having seen museums galore around Australia, this gets my tick as number one. At four-hectares it’s big – there’s no prospect of seeing it in an hour
The Wimmwea-Mallee Pioneer Museum

.It is low key, understated, and for most who visit it that is part of the attraction. The museum office is a former homestead, and a dozen or so other buildings have been transported to the museum grounds to live on as exhibits. Subtleties abound, like the Albacutya homestead that was built without any nails in the early iron-starved days, and the peg-less clothes line. All the buildings have period furnishings and explanations about many exhibits.

If the ladies love the houses, the clothes and all the memorabilia in the houses, then the boys have sheds full of toys to romance. Gigs, sulkies, dozens (truly dozens) of vintage tractors and pieces of tilling equipment of every size and style provide an overload of information about farming heritage in the district. Former village halls have arrived at the museum, and now shelter such unusual historical collections as refrigerators, washing machines, saddlery equipment, kerosene heaters and wood working hand tools, even undertakers’ wagons and primitive grain pickling. This museum is perhaps the best shop-front into the past days of farming in Australia.

Australia was at the forefront of farming inventions across the turn of last century, and introduced the stump-jump plow and the combine harvester. Examples of these are housed at the museum, along with a partially-sponsored historical collection of Sunshine McKay farm products.

On Australia Day weekend 1999 the Pioneer Museum staged its first “History Alive!” day, attracting people from as far away as Melbourne and South Australia. All who came were impressed, I’m sure, with what they saw and heard and felt there.

If you have the chance to sneak off the highway to discover Jeparit, don’t be astonished if the day you planned to spend turns into two or three, as you may well become bewitched or bothered or bewildered by this fascinating spot.
 

Jeparit Information

 

Jeparit is about half-way between Melbourne and Adelaide. Mildura is about 255km away.

Camping is at Jeparit Caravan Park (03) 5389 1416 and at 4-Mile Beach, just out of town. 

For more information contact the museum on (03) 5397 2101 or Wayne (Jeparit Cafe) on (03) 5397 2005. 

We always use maps provided by  Hema’s Road Atlas, contact (07) 3340 0000.

 

Contact
Copyright © On The Road Magazine 2001. Any unauthorised use, copying or mirroring is prohibited.