Bill Bryson is one of my favourite authors. I think I have read just about everything he has written. That is of course with the exception of “The Mother Tongue”. At the time, it was just a little too cerebral for my energy level. However, the book on his journey through Australia is one of my absolute favourites. The only thing that gave me the erks a bit was that he stopped at Surfers Paradise and never got to Brisbane. He turned around and went back to Sydney. Fancy stopping at the worst place in Australia and missing out on one of the best! At the time I remember firing off a quick email to his publisher to express my concern at the oversight. For some reason I never received a response.
When he was in Victoria, he visited a place called King Valley and waxed lyrical about everything imaginable. To him, it was one of the highlights of his visit. Then again, he hadn’t been to Brisbane, and also missed the Sunshine Coast and its wonderful hinterland. But his eloquent and always amusing description of the King Valley was enough to make me want to have a visit and check it out.
We left Mount Beauty, Falls Creek and the Bogong High Plains after a wonderful stay in possibly the most beautiful caravan park in the country. We escaped just in time to miss out on the Three Peaks Climb – known to be the most challenging road bike ride in Australia. Thirteen Hours, three peaks and 236 Kilometres. There were lots of riders out in what appears to be a very bike friendly part of the country. “Share the Road” signs everywhere and truck drivers waving with their whole hand rather than just the one finger we usually get in Queensland. We even had a truck driver stop one morning to check whether we would be riding on that road for long. He said that he and another truck would be using the road all day and he just wanted to warn us. How good is that? We did climb the first six K’s out of Mount Beauty on the road up to Falls Creek, just as a taste of the big event to come – only another 30 to get to the top, two more peaks and 230k for the whole journey – easy?
On our arrival in King Valley, I was quite surprised. For some reason, I expected it to be lush and green. It wasn’t. It was as dry as an old boot. This part of the country has its wet season in winter, and King Valley was on the end of a five month long drought. Just like much of the rest of Victoria. The resultant fires that have ravaged large sections of the State have so far been avoided in King Valley. That is of course with the exception of the Whitfield General Store. Compared with the others, It was only a small fire, but no less catastrophic.
Mrs Barb Satori, a long term and very special resident of the King Valley, was one of the three Nonnas who inspired thousands each year at the Melbourne food festival. She purchased the Whitfield General Store and had plans to make it into a centre for regional produce. Apart from food, doing things for others was her speciality. It had only opened for five days before it burnt to the ground early one morning, and just a few weeks before our visit. The remains were still roped off when we drove into town. Police say that it looked like an electrical fault. Noona Satori did not survive the blaze.
The whole of King Valley felt like it had been through an inferno. Over fifteen hundred people attended the funeral. Such was the loss and the influence of this one woman. King Valley will take a long time to recover and it will take more than a few showers of rain to do it.
In the process of writing this piece, I happened to watch a very short lecture by Sam Harris, through the wonders of the internet. It was about death and the importance of living in the present moment. Sam says that the past is but a memory, and the future just a thought. This can all be changed in a second. A phone call from the doctor, or, in the case of King Valley, a spark in an electrical fitting, can alter everything. The only thing that matters then in life is survival. As always, Sam Harris is spot on.
And so, even in the darkest of circumstances, life continues in the present in King Valley. We tried to make the most of our time there and sampled much of the local produce that had survived the drought. On the morning of our arrival, four calves were born in the dust on the dairy farm next to our caravan park. We saw two of them just pop out as we drove by. For city slickers, it was quite an event. The farmer never missed a beat and just shrugged his shoulders as he laid out more feed on the parched ground.
And of course there were the FLIES. They were everywhere, but seemed to take special interest in my mouth – quite possibly adding additional protein to the diet during meal time. I actually came to the conclusion that I would very quickly give away my most deepest darkest secret if placed in a room full of them for too long.
As it turns out, King Valley was not at its best. Though, Bill Bryson is not one to be dismissed, except of course in relation to his non visit to Brisbane. So maybe it is worth another crack sometime down the track. King Valley will need it.