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Mildura, VIC

Major regional and agricultural service centre on the Murray River

Mildura is a major regional city which, although it is in Victoria, stretches across the Murray River into New South Wales. It is the cultural and economic centre of a region known as 'Sunraysia'. It is also a popular riverside resort town offering a wide range of activities from cruises on the river to exploring the fine local cuisine in the city's many restaurants. An amusing comment on the agricultural importance of the region lies in the city's street names which include Orange, Lemon, Lime, Valencia, Avocado, Cherry, Muscat, Vineyard, Olive and Walnut. The district supplies 98% of Australia's dried grapes, 24% of the nation's citrus fruit, 23% of its olives and 74% of its table grapes.

Location

Mildura is 542 km north-west of Melbourne. Although it is approximately 880 km from the mouth of the Murray River it is only 50 m above sea-level.

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Origin of Name

The first property in the district was named Yerre Yerre but in 1858 it was renamed Mildura which was a local Latje Latje Aboriginal word. No one is sure what 'mildura' means with translations ranging from 'sore eyes', a comment on the local fly population, to 'red earth', a description of the region's distinctive soils.

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Things to See and Do

Mildura Arts Centre and Rio Vista Museum
It seems appropriate that the town's first and most impressive entrepreneur, William Chaffey, should have built a large Queen Anne style home in 1889 on the banks of the Murray River. It is also appropriate that today this handsome residence has been turned into the Mildura Arts Centre combining an art gallery, a theatre and an historical museum. Named 'Rio Vista' ('river view' in Spanish) the elegant home was built for Chaffey's family but, tragically, his wife died in childbirth before its completion and the new born son died a few months later. The Chaffey family occupied the house from 1891-1950.

The home was built with bricks manufactured at the Chaffey brothers' plant and the interior featured Murray pine, red gum, jarrah floors, cedar doors and is decorated with Italian floor tiles and stained-glass windows. The home included five bedrooms, a bathroom with marble bath, a drawing and breakfast room, a smoking room, a polished black wood staircase and a ballroom in the basemen with a sprung timber floor for dancing.

Today the upstairs bedrooms contain displays relating to colonial and Aboriginal history, including furniture, photographs, period costumes, letters and other memorabilia.

The art gallery is impressive with a pastel by Edgar Degas, a sketch by Thomas Gainsborough, works by such important Australian painters and Arthur Streeton, William Orpen, Penleigh Boyd and Fred McCubbin; and an interesting sculpture collection.

The complex is open weekdays from 10.00am - 5.00pm, entry is free, tel: (03) 5018 8330. Check out http://www.milduraartscentre.com.au/.

It is located at the corner of Chaffey Ave and 199 Cureton Ave, opposite the Rio Vista Park which contains a number of outdoors sculptures. From the park you can see Lock 11 and Lock Island, completed in 1928 to regulate the flow of irrigation water. In daylight hours you can cross the lock and visit the island.

Eating at Stefano de Pieri's Restaurant
Stefano de Pieri's fame came in the early 1990s when his book, A Gondola on the Murray, was turned into a successful ABC-TV program. Since then Stefano has established himself as a proud advocate for the fresh produce of the Mildura region and an exceptional chef at his delightful, cellar restaurant under the Grand Hotel. Stefano was an important figure in the political world of Melbourne during the 1980s. He married Donata Carrazza in 1991 and moved to Mildura where his father-in-law, Don Carrazza, owned the Grand Hotel. Since then he has developed Stefano's Cafe Bakery, a range of Stefano's Preserves and a boutique brewery, the Mildura Brewery. A meal at Stefano's is a special occasion where diners defer to Stefano to choose their meal. Thus the standard dining option is either a six or eight course degustation menu with such taste thrills as Ikejime Murray Cod and Cowal Lake Yabby being typical of the local region's produce. Check out http://www.stefano.com.au/ for details and bookings. It currently has two hats from The Age Good Food Guide.

Old Mildura Homestead
Located at 278a Cureton Avenue is a replica of the red-gum slab homestead (circa 1847) which, being the first home in the district, was built by the Jamieson brothers. In the park around the homestead are a woolshed and stables. There are displays relating to irrigation and the town's riverboat past. The complex is open from 10.00am. - 4.00pm, tel: (03) 5023 7853. 150 m further along Cureton Avenue is the Mildura Homestead Cemetery with the graves of the Chaffey family.

Paddlesteamer Cruises
The first paddlesteamer to travel up the Murray River arrived in Mildura in 1853. Today historic paddlesteamers recall the days when the inland river trade was a major means of transport. The most popular cruises are on the P.S Melbourne (1912) which is still run by steam power and you can watch the original boiler being stoked. It makes the journey from Mildura Wharf to Lock 11; the P.V. Rothbury (1881) departs Mildura Wharf for lunch and dinner cruises and has a wine and lunch journey to Trentham Winery; and the P.V. Mundoo (1892) which made the journey from Goolwa to Mildura in 1999 and has been in service since then. Check out http://www.paddlesteamers.com.au/ for details and prices.

Langtree Hall Museum
Langtree Hall was built in 1889 and was Mildura's first public hall. Over the years it has been used as a skating rink, a court of petty sessions, a newspaper office. In recent times the pine interior has been restored and it has become a museum displaying local memorabilia and a large collection of musical instruments and dolls from around the world. It is located at 79 Walnut Ave and is open by appointment only, tel: (03) 5021 3090.

Kings Billabong Wildlife Reserve and Psyche Bend Pumphouse
At the intersection of Eleventh Street and Cureton Avenue is a lookout over Kings Billabong which, in 1889, became the first water supply for the Chaffeys' Mildura irrigation operation. Follow Cureton Avenue southwards you will pass a dry-weather road on the left that leads into the wildlife reserve through an area rich in river red gum, black box woodland and saline shrubland. The unsealed road leads to Psyche Bend Pumphouse (1891) which houses a steam-powered engine that pumped the water from the Murray to Kings Billabong and then to the farms in the area. It operated successfully until 1959 when it was changed to an electric engine. The pumps are open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1.00am to 4.00pm and Sundays from 10.30am to 12.30pm. For further information ring (03) 5024 5637. For more information and a video clip on the pump check out http://www.murrayriver.com.au/the-chaffey-trail/psyche-bend-pump-station/

Chateau Mildura and Horticultural Museum
Chateau Mildura was established at Irymple in 1888 when the  Chaffey Brothers planted 150 acres (60 ha) of grapes. Today it produces the Chateau Mildura Heritage, the Psyche Smuggler and Psyche Reserve ranges. The cellar door is open from 10.00am to 4.00pm daily at 191 Belar Avenue, Irymple, tel: (03) 5024 5901. There are tours of the winery and the attached museum. See http://www.murrayriver.com.au/the-chaffey-trail/chateau-mildura/ for more details.

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Other Attractions in the Area

Lake Mungo
Lake Mungo is one of the most important archaelogical sites in Australia. A unique set of circumstances have created a landscape where it is possible to get an insight into Aboriginal life some 30,000 years ago. At that time Lake Mungo was one of series of large, deep, interlocking lakes teeming with large fish. It was 20 km long, 10 km wide and 15 m deep. On the lake's eastern shore sand dunes provided sheltered campsites. Not surprisingly Aboriginal hunters and gatherers settled on the shores, established campsites and enjoyed a healthy diet of fish, crustaceans and animals which came to drink at the water's edge. It was an easy and idyllic life far removed from hunting and gathering.

About 16,000 years ago the lakes dried up leaving a 25 km-long sand dune, called a lunette, which stretched along the eastern edge of the lake and was, in places, up to 40 metres high. When shepherds, many of whom were Chinese, arrived in the area in the 1860s they called the lunette the Walls of China.

Today that Lake Mungo remains unchanged. It is little more than a flat, barren bed of a long-departed lake and some heavily weathered sand dunes rising on the eastern horizon.

Lake Mungo's claims are threefold. It has "one of the longest continual records of Aboriginal life in Australia" having been occupied for over 50,000 years. The skeletons found in the sands of the lunette are the "oldest known fully modern humans outside Africa" and, most importantly, the skeleton of Mungo Woman (or Mungo I as she is officially known), which has been radiocarbon dated to around 26,000 years ago, "has provided the oldest evidence of ritual cremation in the world."

In her book Archaeology of the Dreamtime noted anthropologist, Josephine Flood, has written of the discovery: "It is interesting that it is a woman who was cremated. Although no conclusions can be drawn from a sample of one, it at least shows that 26,000 years ago women were considered worthy of complex burial rites. What emotions inspired those rites – love, fear, or religious awe – we will never know, but all show a concern for the deceased which is the essence of humanity."

In a way, all you can do at Lake Mungo is gaze across the dry lake bed, walk up the dramatic and unusual lunette, and silently contemplate the idea that once, tens of thousands of years ago, at this lonely, haunted place, Aborigines painted themselves with ochre, ate fish and mussels from the lake, buried and cremated their dead, cooked meat in simple hearths and ovens, sewed skins to make cloaks and shaped bones and stones into tools and weapons. If you want to glimpse what life was like for Aborigines when our European ancestors were still living in caves then Lake Mungo is a genuinely unforgettable experience.

Mungo National Park lies 110 km north-east of Mildura. The roads are predominantly good quality dirt which means they can become impassable after rain. Check with the National Parks & Wildlife Service Lower Darling Area Office (03 5021 8900) or local visitor information centres re. the state of the roads.

Graham Clarke, a local Aborigine from the Paakantyi people, owns and operates the Harry Nanya Tours (http://www.harrynanyatours.com.au ). The tour, which lasts approximately eight hours, picks up visitors in Mildura and takes around 105 minutes to drive from Mildura to Lake Mungo. Clarke knows where fragments of bones, pieces of rock sharpened for cutting and old fireplaces can be found and, as such, offers an opportunity to see remnants of the life that was lived on the lunette over 25,000 years ago.

There are also National Parks Discovery Walks Talks and Tours which are run from the Mungo Visitor Centre. During school holidays representatives of the Paakantji, Ngyiampaa and Mutthi Mutthi tribal groups are employed as Discovery Rangers. They offer three walking tours – a foreshore walk which starts at 10.00am, a tag-along tour to the Walls of China which starts at 2.00pm and an evening adventure tour which starts after dark. All tours last two hours. Tickets can be purchased the Mungo Information Centre which is open 30 minutes prior to the tour.

There is a free brochure available from the Mungo Visitor Centre titled Driving the Mungo Story. It lists 39 places of interest around the lake but these tend to be places more connected with recent European occupation (wells, tanks, rabbit proof fences, old woolsheds) than directions to see ancient Aboriginal artefacts. Contact NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, Lower Darling Area Office, tel: (03) 5021 8900.

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History

* The area is thought to have been occupied by the Kureinji and Latje Latje Aborigines before white settlement. There is also evidence of the Paakantji, Ngyiampaa and Mutthi Mutthi tribal groups living in the area and their presence has been dated to 40,000 years ago.

* The first European in the vicinity was probably Charles Sturt who passed the present townsite when he travelled along the Murray River in early 1830. He reached Lake Alexandrina in February, 1830.

* In 1847 Frank Jenkins laid claim to a property in the district which he called Yerre Yerre but, because he didn't obtain a licence, the property was taken from him by the Jamieson brothers who stocked it with 6,000 sheep. Significantly they also planted some grape vines. The Jamiesons sold the property in 1874.

* In 1886 Alfred Deakin, who had chaired a royal commission on irrigation and would later become prime minister, travelled to California to study model irrigation settlements which were being developed in the Californian desert by two Canadians, William and George Chaffey. He was responding to a drought which had devastated Victoria from 1877-1884. Deakin believed the Chaffey's model may be a solution to irrigating the Mallee which, at the time, had agricultural potential but low rainfall. The Chaffeys were convinced by Deakin. They sold up in California and moved to Mildura where they were given £300,000 by the Victorian government to improve the region over the next twenty years. The Chaffeys planned Mildura like a town in California. The streets running east-west were given numerical names (First to Twenty-first Streets) and avenues which ran north-south were given North American names (San Mateo, Ontario). The town's main thoroughfare (Deakin Avenue) is reputedly the longest straight avenue in the country. They did not stop at street names. There was a plan to run trams through the town which meant the streets were designed to be particularly wide and the central median strip was enhanced with a band rotunda, a fountain, gum and palm trees all of which were planted by William Chaffey.

* In 1887 the new town was heavily promoted which resulted in the arrival of 3,300 settlers, many from Britain, by 1891. This was despite the fact that the nearest railway was 163 km away.

* The settlers cleared the land and dug irrigation channels. The Chaffey brothers imported two enormous engines for the pumping stations and water was raised from the Murray to irrigate the fields. So successful was the project that by 1893 the first fruits were being transported to the markets in Melbourne. Problems with transportation resulted in the rapid development of a dried fruit industry and its proximity to the Murray River meant the town quickly became an important river port.

* In 1908 the American millionaire philanthropist Andrew Carnegie donated £2000 to build a free public library in Deakin Street.

* Like many of the model towns in California, Mildura was alcohol free. It wasn't until 1918 that the first hotel, the Grand Hotel, was opened for business.

* In spite of initial success the town suffered major economic problems (drought, plagues of rabbits, transportation problems) and by 1894 Chaffey Brothers Ltd was bankrupt. George Chaffey returned to the USA while his brother, William, remained and went on to establish a winery at Irymple in 1888 and become the town's first mayor in 1920.

* A railway line from Melbourne finally reached the town in 1903.

* The area was opened to soldier settlers after World War I with over 1,000 being granted land at Merbein.

* After World War I the town undertook a nation-wide promotional campaign to boost sales of its dried fruits. This was led by a larger-than-life local businessman C.J. De Garis who ran a public competition which led to the term 'sun-raysed' being applied to Mildura sultanas and raisins. So successful was the campaign that pamphlets, recipe books, children's books, cartoons, music (the 'Sun-Raysed Waltz'), screenings of a film about Mildura in capital cities, a local newspaper named the Sunraysia Daily and even a Sunraysia Cafe in Melbourne staffed by young women from Mildura who were 'raised on Sunraysia raisins', were all used to promote the local products.

* In 1919 a swindler named George Henry Cochrane, who had recently been released from prison for forgery, arrived in Mildura. He claimed to be an American named Hervey G. Madison, a 'gigantic brain that was to lead Mildura to its destiny' and managed, at a public meeting, to convince the gullible locals to back a scheme to secede from Victoria and form the new state of 'Greater Mildura' under his leadership. He was exposed, fled, and when he attempted to return to the town in 1921 local citizens formed a 'vigilance committee', tarred and feathered him and ran him out of town.

* Mildura became a borough in 1920, a town in 1922 and a city in 1937.

* Today the Mildura region, with a population of over 50,000, generates nearly $3 billion in Gross Regional Product per annum. 17% of this is agriculture and 11% manufacturing.

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Visitor Information

Mildura Visitor Information Centre, 180-190 Deakin Avenue, tel: 1800 039 043 or (03) 5018 8380. Open 9.00am - 5.30pm Monday-Friday and 9.00am - 5.00pm Saturday and Sunday.

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Useful Websites

The city's official website is http://www.visitmildura.com.au/ and http://www.murrayriver.com.au/ the-chaffey-trail provides an excellent overview of the city's historic highlights.

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