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Sunday 23 Feb 2014
Wangaratta, Australia

Family parties and Ned Kelly's Last Stand

This weekend, Erin took me to see her family over in Wangaratta, North East of Melbourne.  Erin has three brothers of her own and, having grown up with her aunt, is as close as sisters with her six cousins.  Deanne, the partner of Erin’s sister Jo, was celebrating her 50th Birthday and they had invited us to the party. 

It was a three-hour drive across sunbaked brown and gold farmland.  Less than a month ago, a raging wildfire had torn through the region, devastating much of the Kilmore area.  We drove past endless blackened trees and scorched fields.  It was amazing to see the pattern of burned ground skirting dangerously close to property.  Many of the local firefighters are volunteers.  They protect houses for as long as they can, dousing them in water in the hopes that the fire will pass by in a roar of noise and heat, leaving the buildings still standing.  The front line of the fire is blisteringly hot and the gum-filled eucalyptus trees explode as it approaches, sending sparks further afield to start new tiny fires where they land.  The long hot summer means the ground is so dry that even the tiniest of sparks can start a fire.  While bushfires are a natural part of the season in this area, sadly, a large number of them are caused by arsonists. 

We arrived mid afternoon at Erin’s sister Maud’s, where we were staying the night.  Maud had recently moved to an old cattle farm.  The house wasn’t in the best shape, but it was full of character.  It was a fun house, full of colour and life, every surface filled her eclectic mix of ornaments, pictures and nick-nacks.  I loved it!  We found Maud on the swing seat with a glass of wine, admiring her new garden with another of the sisters, Jacinta, who drove us around to Deanne’s house later.  

Deanna and Jo lived about 15 minutes away in the next valley.  They had a beautiful house, surrounded by decking.  On one side they’d got a long thin swimming pool, perfect for swimming lengths or just relaxing in the afternoon sun.  They had organised caterers who were busy preparing a huge vat of paella and laying out a table of delicious-looking antipasti when we arrived. 

Erin introduced me to some of her friends and travel partners.  Colleen, a vet, was a really interesting person to talk to.  We spent a while discussing places we’d both visited.  Coxy had travelled over to Europe with Erin last year – unfortunately I was out of the country when they came to the UK, or I’d have loved showing her around my little corner of the world.  We tucked into the food when it was ready – it really was as good as it looked – and I chatted with Alissa, Janine and Christine, more friends of Erin and her family.  They were very welcoming to a stray Brit in their midst.  The stars came out above us as we sat outside in the warm Aussie evening.  The view was breathtaking – so many stars packed densely into the night sky, the Milky Way clearly visible.  I never get used to seeing the stars like this.  It is a sad reflection on my overcrowded little island, where we have so much light pollution, that sights like this are reserved for so few places. 

The next morning, Erin took me on the family tour.  We went over to meet her aunt and surrogate mother, Janet, where we were also entertained by her young niece, Esther.  After that we called in to see another friend, Claire.  The front door was wide open, but nobody answered when we called.  Assuming Claire was in the garden, we went around the back, but there was no sign of her there either.  The back door was also open, the radio on and an enormous vat of chopped tomatoes sitting on the counter, but no Claire.  I found it a little disconcerting that someone might have wandered off leaving the house wide open, but Erin wasn’t worried.  She decided Claire must have needed something while cooking and popped to the shop.  Up the road, we called in on Jackie and Trevor, two more of Erin’s Europe-hopping travel buddies.  They confirmed Claire was on a tomato sauce mission for the day and had probably gone off looking for a bigger pan.  If you tried that at home you’d probably come back to the house stripped bare.  They may have wildfire risks on a regular basis, but it seems there are advantages to living in this small community, too.

On our way back over to Hepburn, Erin took me to one of the regions greatest tourist attractions: Glenrowan, the site of Ned Kelly’s last stand.  With Bill Bryon’s glowing testimony urging us on, Erin and I were going to experience the animatronic theatrical masterpiece that is Ned Kelly’s Last Stand, and we couldn’t wait:

“Inside, a friendly man presided over the till.  We were mildly staggered to see that they wanted $15 a head for admission.

‘It’s good, is it?’ asked Howe.

‘Mister,’ said the man with the greatest sincerity, ‘it’s like Disneyland in there.’

We bought tickets and shuffled through a door into a dim space where the spectacle was to begin.  After a few minutes, the lights dimmed altogether, there was a sudden startling bang of gunfire and the performance began.

Well, call me a whimp, drop a brick shithouse on me, but I can honestly say that I have seldom seen anything so wonderfully, so delightfully, so monumentally bad as Ned Kelly’s Last Stand.  It was so bad it was worth every penny.”

Erin and I checked out the running times and were told that there would be two more shows that day, so we had time for lunch in the café next door.  The café kept in the swing of things, playing traditional Aussie country songs like Waltzing Mathilda and naming their specials after Ned and his gang.  40 minutes later, we were ready to be amazed by the spectacle – now even more expensive than it was when Bryson visited back in 2001.

To our dismay, we found a closed sign hanging over the gate.  The lad who had told us the show times and recommended the café next door, knowing we would be coming back again, looked sheepishly out from behind his mother as she explained they were closed for fumigation.  She claimed they’d already started so we couldn’t come in.  Feeling at a bit of a loss after Bryson’s build-up, we wandered off down the street to see the six-metre high figure of Kelly towering over the gift shop and sought out a fridge magnet to console ourselves with.  Chatting to the owner there, she revealed the owner of Ned Kelly’s Last Stand was a bit of a law unto himself and regularly pulled this sort of stunt – he’d actually flown to Queensland for a surfing weekend so she wasn’t surprised they’d closed early.

Giving up on Ned Kelly, we drove back home and made a delicious noodle soup for dinner, along with a nice bottle of wine, and engrossed ourselves in the latest cringe-worthy installment of My Kitchen Rules.

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