Today Mildura is one of the handsomest provincial cities in Victoria. Most of Australia’s inland towns have a deadly similarity —a broad main street divided down the center by a planted area, and a crosshatch of uninteresting side streets. Mildura, however, is a lovely garden ablaze with flowers, a place of pleasant holiday apartment barcelona, and a resort area for golf, tennis, and excursions on the Murray.
Fragrant jungles of citrus trees surround the city, and I found the grapefruit growers reveling in a bonanza. The demand for the fruit—and the price—had reached all-time highs. And all because of Sir Henry Bolte. The premier, who is—or was—rotund enough to be called “Puddin’ ” by a few irreverent journalists, had innocently told a reporter about his new diet, one featuring grapefruit morning, noon, and night. He said he had lost 14 pounds. That was enough for Victoria’s weight watchers. Grapefruit suddenly became the hottest commodity in the state.
Mildura’s fruit once rode to market aboard paddle-wheel steamers plying the Murray River with produce and passengers. Only one paddle-wheeler remains in commission, the venerable Melbourne, and she is strictly an excursion boat. Melbourne used to be a winch boat, one that pulled logs and other snags from the river channels. Capt. Alby Pointon, a stocky little river veteran, bought the old lady in 1964 after she had lain a deserted hulk for 23 years in Echuca. Lovingly and knowingly, Alby restored her and made her into a sightseeing vessel based at Mildura. We had a great run on the river, Alby and Melbourne and I.
There were no passengers, so Alby let. me take the wheel. I had spoken jauntily of my own 36-foot sailboat, but the big old paddle-wheeler, pushed along at five knots by her original steam piston engine, answered the helm as obstinately as a hard-mouthed horse. “You’re too used to that ketch,” said Alby severely. “Here, stand to one side, grab a spoke of the wheel, and lean on it with all your weight. Like this.” And Melbourne turned to his knowing touch as sweetly and surely as my Andromeda. A foray into southwestern Victoria along the Great Ocean Road takes one into country as different from the Murray Valley as coastal California is from the Sacramento Valley.
The road runs from near Geelong to Portland, and you are never long from the sight, sound, and smell of the sea. Around every turn, it seems, one finds a new headland, a new gleaming beach, and always the vast blue expanse of what Australians call the Southern Ocean. It is a drive to be taken slowly and savored. Stop and watch the surfers atop the foaming combers. Stroll the soft sands. Linger in the little towns with the salty names: Barwon Heads, Aireys Inlet, Apollo Bay, Port Campbell, Port Fairy.