I returned home yesterday from an interstate trip. The occasion? My sister's wedding. Did I enjoy the wedding? Yes. Did I enjoy driving with my family to my erstwhile country-home-town and staying there for half a week? Not really. Why? Two words - screaming baby. (Plus on the way over my eldest son took some skin off his hand coming off a slide in Lameroo, then chucked a whitie in the supermarket and vomited freshly-ingested hot dog all over me, but that's another story). I will skip the Albury stay for now because it really wasn't very interesting, apart from my sister's wedding (and everyone knows how boring it is listening to someone talk about a wedding), and talk about two main parts of the journey to and from.
First, let me tell you about the Big4 Paringa Holiday Park in Deniliquin, NSW. It's great. I'll prove it! Here are some photos:
This is the cabin we stayed in. That's me holding the towel (the tall one). Looks pretty nice huh? No, not the towel, the cabin. Wait 'til you see the view from where I'm standing:
Nice! It was on the Edwards River which runs through Deniliquin. Below is a photo of me attempting to be a half-decent father and taking my son on a bike ride:
Apart from my sister's wedding, this was the highlight of the whole trip for me. If you have to stay in Deniliquin, make sure you stay at the Big4 Paringa.
But this brings me to my second aspect: a little town in north-western Victoria called Ouyen.
There are a few words and/or phrases that sum up my experience of Ouyen: flies, mosquitoes, assorted other little flying bugs, dust, funny-smelling meat, funny-tasting meat, grubby little cafes, haunted pubs. But in amongst all the dourness there were some remarkable positives. It's hard to delineate them though, so I'll tell the story instead.
On the way over to Albury, we stopped for the night in Ouyen at the Hilltop Motel. Phil and Julie (the proprietors) made us feel very welcome and were very pleasant conversationalists. The rooms were clean, comfortable and inviting, and after my eldest son and I had enjoyed dangling our feet in the pool and talking to some random old Pom who was having a swim for a while, we headed into town on foot for a meal at the Victoria Hotel.
From the outside it looked just like any other really old pub. After locating the particular front door that led to the meals area by trial and error due to the lack of signage, we entered the foyer. It was like stepping out of the driver's side door of the DeLorean. There was a sunken floor with antique mosaic tiling, an old wood-and-glass framed reception office that looked like it hadn't been used since 1953, and a massive wooden staircase obscuring the entrance to the dining room.
The dining room itself was newly refurbished, although this probably took place in the fifties, when ornate ivory-coloured fake ceilings and crystal-shaped plastic light fittings that looked like miniature upside-down Fortresses of Solitude were all the rage. (Google it all you non-Superman fans). There were about twenty tables for two, and one big long table for twenty running right down the middle of the upper level. That's right - another split level room! The lower level was a bit more modern, I'd say seventies era based on the wood-grain finish plywood covering every available surface.
So I decided that there was only one way to make this place better - beer. I went to the little bar on the lower level and asked for a beer. As this took place in Victoria, what I got was a "pot" of beer, although it didn't come in a pot, it came in one of those dimpled glass mugs they used to have at the Adelaide Uni bar. It contained Carlton Draught, which, when you are stranded in a regional Victorian pub, isn't so bad. I consumed it whilst waiting for my meal, and decided to go for a wander to the front bar to see what else they had on tap. I discovered that they actually had four different varieties on offer: Carlton Draught, Carlton Cold, Carlton Light, and VB. Maybe I've been spoilt by the plethora of lagers and ales on tap in Adelaide pubs, I thought. I decided I'd best stick with the Draught for my second round.
It was a good thing, actually, that my surrounds in the pub were a source of such amusement, because we were left with plenty of time to survey them whilst waiting for our meals. About an hour, to be exact. This is probably where the "haunted" bit comes in. I'd say there aren't any actual ghosts at the Vic Hotel, it was probably just my imagination getting away from me as I stared at the century-old (or what seemed like century-old) first dining room next to ours, which was partitioned off from us except for a gap through which I could see a pianola, and with very little else to do other than share wisecracks about how daggy the place was with my wife, prevent my son from sliding off his chair onto the floor, and wander around in the front bar in a fruitless search for half-decent beer. My mind began to dwell on how many people must have come and enjoyed this place over so many years. The part we were in was actually called the "ladies' lounge", and I imagined ladies dressed up in those big old frilly dresses with the big bums and the bonnets, smoking cigarettes out of black holders, sitting around sipping soda water and complaining about how positively boorish men had become in these modern times whilst their husbands sat in the front bar, drinking a narrow selection of parochial lagers, smoking cigars and complaining about how outspoken women had seemed to become these days. Then you start imagining that you can feel the atmosphere of those former times, and you can almost hear the laughter and the stilted accents, and you freak yourself out a little bit, before realising that you've wandered halfway up the stairs to the accommodation section and it's dark, and maybe I'll go back downstairs and have another pot of Carlton Draught.
After said hour, our meals arrived, and I must say - they were fantastic. Seth (my eldest son) had spaghetti bog, my wife had roast lamb, and I had the mixed grill. The meat actually didn't taste funny here, and the steak on my plate was cooked to perfection, as was the bacon and the sausages. My wife's roast was a little bit dry, but only around the edges (from sitting under the heatlamp waiting for my meal to be ready). The juicy bits were tender and very tasty. Another great aspect of this meal was that we were able to charge it back to our motel room - something we hadn't been able to do anywhere else since our Hamilton Island holiday in 2006. Quite progressive thinking for the middle of nowhere, one of the benefits of being in a small and largely traveller-supported town.
On our second stopover in Ouyen on the way back to Adelaide, we decided that, whilst the meals were great, we would give the Time-Warp Hotel a miss. I had eaten a few times before at the Mallee Route Cafe, and had decided well in advance that we would eat there this time. In my past experience it was clean, the staff were friendly, and the food was good. Plus, if you read the sign out the front, they serve "Expresso Coffee", which to date I have not seen for sale anywhere else. (I once paid $2.50 for a mug filled literally to the brim with Nescafe Blend 43 at a truck stop in Ouyen. I'll take Expresso Coffee over that any day!) You can imagine my chagrin when we drove past and saw all the chairs upside down on the tables! This was not good. Where else was there to eat? The Fairy Dell Cafe? (yes, that's really what it's called). No - it smells funny, and it doesn't look clean. And they rent DVDs from there. Don't ask me why, but I don't trust eating establishments that rent DVDs. We drove past the Ouyen Club - closed. Plus it looked crap anyway. I saw a sign pointing to the Ouyen Golf Club. I headed in that direction, imagining a club house and eatery the likes of which you may find in Adelaide. I quickly realised on arrival there that apparently, in regional Victoria, a corrugated tin shed qualifies as a club house and no, there was no restaurant.
We headed back to the hotel room in despair. What were we to do? Go without? Eat the complimentary jam biscuits for tea? I looked in the visitor's guide. But it says "Mallee Route Cafe, open 7 days from 8am - 8pm". Something's not right here! So I picked up the phone and gave them a call. They answered! I said "are you open?" and they replied "yeah!" as if to say "waddya reckon ya clown?" I said "OK, it's just that I drove past and all the chairs were upside down on the tables and the lights were off" to which they responded "ah nah, just cleanin' the floors." Er... OK. You clean the floors with the lights off? I decided that asking more questions was a bad idea, and just went there and got some takeaway. And yes, I must admit that the floors did look very clean. So did the rest of the place actually. There was no funny smell, and no DVDs. My hamburger meat did smell funny, but it tasted nice, and I heard no complaints from my wife regarding the lasagne, or my son regarding his chicken bites. (My youngest son, who currently lives on breast milk and formula, complained a lot, and loudly, but he did that for most of the whole trip anyway, so I can't really attribute that to the Mallee Route Cafe).
So we survived our two nights in the middle of Nowhere, and came out with some tales to tell. But can I offer you interstate road travellers some valuable advice: if you have to stay overnight in Ouyen, stay at the Hilltop Motel, and eat at the Mallee Route Cafe.