For awhile now I've had this idea to do a "Portrait of Birregurra," initially because I was new here so it was worth painting the new setting, but now it's been a year, but during the intervening year I've been thinking a lot about how people don't write about what to them is most familiar -- who writes a travelogue to their hometown? I even finally made an America tag and tagged the entries from last year's Epic Roadtrip 2017, during which I first tried to treat even Los Angeles and So Cal as travelogue-worthy subjects. If nothing else, as a writing exercise I think writing about one's local town in a manner that would give the idea of it to someone who hasn't been there (ie, as if in a travelogue), is a great writing exercise -- forcing you to overcome your own assumptions of what's familiar to everyone whilst writing about something one is thoroughly knowledgeable about. Which is to say, I would love to see anyone else try the exercise. And without further ado, Birregurra: A Portrait.
II. Getting There
Melbourne is the gravitational centre that defines everything in here, in descriptions of state-wide issues here, talking heads often use "Melbourne" interchangabley with Victoria, even though the Eastern corner of the state is six hours away, and the northwest corner is seven and a half. Knowing full well I live two hours outside Melbourne, Melbournians will ask me "so how do you like living in Melbourne" without seeing anything weird about the question.
Melbourne, when one is here, one assumes is naturally the Center of the World and everyone of course knows where it is. But if you'll suspend disbelief with me for a moment and assume someone reading this might not know their Perth from their Darwin, Melbourne is on the southern edge of the Australian continent at the top of a big bay. It take 15 hours to fly here from LA, usually with a stop in Fiji or New Zealand, and nearly two days from Europe with a likely stop in Abu Dhabi, and the last eight hours of the flight are over the monotonous red deserts of central Australia.
The Tullamarine airport is on the northwest edge of Melbourne, which is fortunate since I can skirt the city on the ring-road. Some times there is traffic but even then it's not the stop-and-go of Los Angeles but a mere increased viscosity of cars on the road, like trying to pour cold honey, as we wend our way along at no worse than say 35mph. For the first half hour one is surrounded by warehouses and other industrial looking buildings, with the city's skyscrapers off to the left, and then rather abruptly one crosss the Werribee river and one is driving through open plains. I'm not sure if this is some kind of protected land or a flood plain but it doesn't appear to even be grazing land, just flat plains, as the skyscrapers fade out of sight in the background. The bay lies off to one's left, parallel to the highway, but is not visible. Twenty minutes later a single Lonely Mountain named the You Yangs rises up out of the plains, and one sees signs for the town at it's base, Little River. Then, if one looks carefully one can see the giant hangers of Avalon Airport ("Melbourne's OTHER Airport" Melbournians smugly call it, because it's totally not basically in Geelong or anything). Then there's the flaming minarets of the oil refineries, and the dock where they seem to be forever loading an interminable load of woodchips into bulk freighters (I imagine it's part of some Greek curse where for one reason or another the ship will never be full)
And then one comes up around a hill to see the suburbs of Geelong draped over the next hill, and in this valley what looks like the ruins of a roman aqueduct comes up, and stops at the highway, but clearly formerly continued up to the top of the hill on the left where, now surrounded by suburban houses, the silos of an old concrete factory stand like a castle. One then swoops down over the Boorabool river, keeping thick quarter-acre-lot suburbs on one's left and farmland on one's left, over another hill, over the Barwon River, and up and down another hill or two, the highway seeming a dyke that keeps the suburbs on the left from flooding the farmland on the right. Over at least one rise one gets a sweeping view of the city, the most memorable feature of which the the standium in the middle which appears to have a dozen giant spatulas rising into the air around it like some great temple to baking.
Then one turns right and after passing between two hills with high walls on them feels as if one's been shot out of a rapids down into the countryside again. One is headed west now, parallel to the southern coast, and can continue most of the way on this two-lane-per-side divided highway, and I do after dark to avoid kamikaze kangaroos (kangikazis?), but otherwise I soon turn off on the two lane country road known as Cape Otway Highway, which my GPS pronounces as "K Pop Highway." After just a few minutes one arrives at a railroad crossing and across it a little store with a big facade that declares in faded letters "SUNSHINE BISCUITS!" -- this is the Moriac general store and beside it a now closed saddlery store -- welcome to the country. I used to live 2km outside this town near a buddhist monastery before moving to my current location.
Continuing on west from here to Birregurra it it gently undulating countryside, driving parallel with the green someone stumpy Otway mountains on the left, and the crumbles smooothing out into the "Golden Plains" to the right. In the evening, my favorite time to drive through this area, the sun casts a golden glow on the dried grass of the countryside, rectangular black cattle seen from a short distance resemble schools guppies nibbling on a lake bottom, and bounding squadrons of kangaroos fly up the hills like leaping salmon, traversing fences as if they weren't there.
About forty minutes out from Moriac, 25 since the turnoff for my work, one crosses a short floodplain that fills with fog in early winter mornings, and the three steeples of the Birregurra churches emerge from the trees and/or fog on the far side. One rumbles over the bridge (once again over the Barwon River, much diminished now), and one is in Birregurra town!
III. Birregurra Town
Birregurra is arranged like a tic tac toe grid, except only the main east-west road and one headed out of town north is actually paved. In this day and age most of our roads in this town are still not paved. Most houses are quaint and old (mine is casually 101!) one story weatherboard cottages. This is not to say they're dilapidated or run down, property valued in Birregurra utterly eclipse everything around because its such a delightful place to live.
On my first visit to Birregurra I was traveling through it with my boss to Colac the very first week, he was kind of showing me around, and of Birregurra he said "this is Birregurra ... that was Birregurra" as we passed through it in about thirty seconds. Upon crossing the Barwon River and entering town, one proceeds two blocks through these quiet shady residential streets, which one can do in seconds at 60kph, then crosses a small second bridge over Birregurra Creek, and the two lane country road becomes extremely wide. I'm told these old country towns are all designs so you can turn an ox cart around on the main street, and indeed, I can _almost_ even do a u-turn with the work Navara here. On the left there's a park, on the right the pharmacy, then it's houses on the right and on the left a row of half a dozensmall shops with facades like an old western town. A provedore (which I've learned means "food for hipsters" -- but they are a really nice young couple and carry all local products); an art gallery; the pub everyone complains isn't very good; an art gallery; the general store (actually has the best burgers I've found in Australia!); the post office; in a very solid looking building that was once a bank, a gluten free bakery (which I refuse to go into because gluten free is such a fad); an art gallery; this small used book store with a really great selection; and a barber shop. I really have no idea how we support three art galleries.
Walking from "down town" to my house one crosses the park, goes over a little wooden bridge over the creek, crosses a little bit more park and walks along beside a pasture with cows in it, a house that's actually an old church, complete with stained glass windows (and a beehive in the wall everyone mentions to me), and then crosses the street to my house.
I have one neighbor between me and main street, and usually they aren't there since it's, I believe their "weekend house" from Melbourne. They've never introduced themselves, which makes me feel a bit resentful when they show up on weekends blasting music on into the night. For a long time the house on the other side of me was vacant as well but now a guy with dreadlocks (not a hippie though, a construction worker, usually seen wearing his high visibility uniform at all times) and his family has moved in, apparently his parents live in the church across the street. I really quite like the neighbors across the street from me, a lovely older couple. They just moved from Melbourne, the man is easing into retirement and still works a few days a week in the big smoke. The houses on either side of them are vacant, I think both locked in a similar kind of situation where the grandmother of the family was living there and died and now the younger generation who currently owns it lives in Melbourne but doesn't want to give it up so it just sits there vacant. So at one point it was me and my across-the-street neighbors surrounded by four empty houses. Three red chickens sometimes wander around my street.
As you may gather from all the art galleries and provedores and gluten free bread, Birregurra is a bit more artsy than your average country backwater (we're more like a delightul lagoon!). Early on, I was so fortunate to be invited to a party at the historic Tarndwarncoort Homestead just outside of Birregurra, and there around the outdoor bonfire by a 150 year old bluestone building, drinking locally made wines (and mead I brought!), eating locally made cheeses and such, I chatted with many locals and learned that most of them, involved in various interesting artisan businesses, were in fact locals. Something in the air here it seems, makes people instead of getting stupid tattoos on their necks and growing rat-tails, connect with their community and start very interesting local enterprises.
IV. The Surrounds
Just twenty minutes south of town stretches the temperate rainforest in a small mountain range known as the Great Otways, and beyond the forest is the famous Great Ocean Road (everything is great!). These and the wineries in this area just north of the rainforest, as well as the "44th Best Restaurant in the World" just on the outskirts of Birregurra draw a fair number of tourists through in the summer. Brae, the restaurant, doesn't feature much in our lives since it's like $250 a plate so locals are only likely to go there for like a 50th wedding anniversary or similarly momentous event.
Just fifteen minutes south, just on the north edge of the Otways, is the tiny townlet of Dean's Marsh, with its own general store and The Martian Cafe which frequently has live music though I've never been down there for it. The Martians (as residents are called) seem a friendly community oriented lot who fall a bit more to the hippie side of things than Birregurrans.
Fifteen minutes in the other direction is the town of Colac. With a population of 12,411 to Birregurras 828, it is the cultureless gas giant our little moon forlornly orbits around. Colac is on the shore of Lake Colac and yet, they don't even know how to make use of a lake and have not developed the waterfront in any manner other than ruining by putting a parking lot right on it. Restaurants overlooking the lake? Water sports? Nope, parking lot. Mention Colac to anyone in Victoria and as reliably as an Arizonan will say "but it's a dry heat" you will be told "did you know Colac is the STD capital of Australia?" Colac is only good for groceries and even then I usually make a once a week trek to Geelong for the better grocery stores there.
And so that, you see, is Birregurra -- the last little outpost of civilization at the edge of the world.
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