The common thread today was the floodplain of the Murray River, where the red gums towered majestically in unusual shapes, depending on the way the floodwaters had shaped them. Sunlight filtered and gleamed on the trunks. The township of Tocumwal had been bypassed by passenger trains but the Lions members served us a classic morning tea in the station staff room. Meanwhile, a modern diesel locomotive engine stood ready to cart containers across the river and down to Port Melbourne.
Rainbow bee eaters fluttered high in the red gums, catching insects. Three paused briefly on a branch and I managed to zoom in on their vivid colours.
From a bird hide on Quinn Island, we observed a friar bird attending to its nest, suspended in the shape of a Viking ship and tastefully decorated with blue twine.
Further upstream, we came upon a narrow bridge with a three-tonne load limit. David assured me that the Prado weighs only two tonnes, so we were all right. We carefully eased the 4WD over the wobbly planks to the other side.
It was the first day of the fishing season and fishers in little tinnies were trying their luck for Murray cod.
Kookaburras kept an eye out for edible movement. A platypus wriggled its flat tail in the snags near the riverbank, but I wasn’t quick enough to capture them on record. All about was spring activity.
A farm gate visit to three properties near Cobram provided some tasty Christmas presents. First stop was Cobrawonga Estate and Nursery, where we sampled Luke’s native plum jam and wild bush dukkah and toured a dry country garden with a creek running down the centre.
The owner’s wife had rag-doll cats, which were cute and laid back.
Next stop was Byramine Homestead, one of the oldest homesteads in Victoria, built by Elizabeth Hume (sister-in-law of the celebrated explorer) in about 1840.
They served a delicious lunch.
Then it was on to Rich Glen Olives, which gave us an insight into the diversity of products which can be made with olive oil, including beauty products. Being with Red Hill Probus, we admired the painting of Red Hill that hung behind the counter.
They also stocked other local produce including a delicious soft Boosey Creek cheese. What better way to finish the day than a Monday night two-for-one deal for Diamond Club members at The Top Pub, founded 1897.
A short-necked turtle ignored us as we tootled by, heading upstream on the paddle boat Cobba.
Riverboats don’t need a wooden helm these days. The skipper of the Cobba uses a remote control. A diesel engine drives a generator that powers each paddle wheel separately, so each paddle can be controlled independently, at different speeds or direction.
The Cobba paddle boat moored at beach on River Murray, Cobram. The Murray is Australia’s longest river system, defining some of the boundary between the states of Victoria and New South Wales and finally emptying into Bass Strait in South Australia.
A pleasant cruise from Cobram up the Murray River took us under a historic drawbridge, past houseboats, then alongside an island sanctuary where koalas looked down at us from red gums above century old post-and-rail fences.
Disused drawbridge on River Murray, built in the days of paddle steamers and sailing boats.
Koala in red gum on Quinn Island, now a sanctuary.
Houseboats moored at the anabranch at the end of Quinn Island.
Post-and-rail fence from early twentieth Century stands above eroded bank of Murray River on Quinn Island.
From the gym on the upper deck you can spin along on the exercise bike and feel as though you are riding over the sea. A petrel skims on the wake and someone claims to have sighted a whale spout, while below the shouts from those playing desk cricket.
Coming over from Capetown, the five day cruise was preliminary training for St Helenian life. The return journey serves as a debrief. Time seems to alternatively drag and fly. There are more Napoleonic lectures in French:
These concerned Cuba which Napoleon’s doctor, Antonmarchi visited after the Emperor’s death, a talk comparing the Zulu leader Shaka, Louise of Prussia and the life of Napoleon’s stepdaughter, Hortense, Queen of Holland. Prof Hicks gave a talk on Napoleon in English, which was appreciated by many passengers.
A countdown clock recorded the days until the RMS St Helena will be decommissioned.
On the last evening, in the lounge, the officer who had shared our table showed us his guitar which was made in Melbourne.
Finally we gathered on deck to watch Table Cape and our own shadows lined up on the wharf. We gathered our backpacks and waited with mixed feelings for our number group to be called so we could escape to the wider world. We will remember fondly one of the last voyages of the Royal Mail Ship St Helena.
We seven band of brothers gathered for the last time for our last cup of St Helenian coffee outside the Coffee Shop on the wharf. The five Aussies leaving and the Saint and adoptive Saint staying on another month were all sad. We had gradually bonded over the five days at sea, and that had strengthened as we discovered and rediscovered St Helena.
Even Napoleon came down to see us, the French and other passengers off.
The French were grieving for their Emperor’s exile and carried a wreath which they cast into the sea when they sailed out of the harbour.
As we passed through emigration, we farewelled Patsy and Philip one last time through the gate. Perhaps we’ll catch up with them in London one day – who knows?
From the RMS St Helena the daunting cliffs faded gradually and we rounded the Island.
This time, as we rounded the island, we recognised the features, which have become familiar: Half Tree Hollow, Lot, Lots Wife, Diana’s Peak, the airport. Then Atlantic Ocean, two kilometres of it below us and one or two thousands of kilometres around. Yet emotionally we are still on St Helenian territory. The crew are mostly Saints and we have five days of Island discussions in two languages to look forward to.
The RMS St Helena can’t dock at Jamestown wharf, St Helena, so we were ferried ashore in tender boats.
Jamestown wharf looked interesting, but first we had to be bussed a hundred metres to be processed by customs and immigration. Even with a population of only 4000, this is a separate country with the usual border restrictions.
Finally we were through and were met by our landlords, Peter and Jean Fowler and taken to our self-catering accommodation, a stone courtyard house nestled into the side of the cliff. It is just right for the three of us.
This is our front door and flat roof with solar heating for the shower. The white house is the one behind us. Shy Road is to the right and runs above the roof! Such is the steepness of the cliffs above Jamestown
We eat meals on a round table under the little verandah. There’s another table in the kitchen and a third in the open courtyard, but we prefer eating in the shade with a view of the fairy terns soaring round the cliffs.
After negotiating the bread slicing machine in the Star supermarket ( there is on bakery and bread is delivered around 10am and sells out before midday), we had a lunch of the starter pack left by the Fowlers and met Basil George for a walking tour of the town.
This included a demonstration of the local kids’ technique for descending the 699 steps of Jacob’s Ladder.
Basil demonstrating Ladder descending 101. Don’t try this yourself !
He then took us into the Executive meeting chamber in the Castle which is the government headquarters and through the cool Castle Gardens to St James church.
We finished with afternoon tea in the Consulate hotel (where David posed with Napoleon) then photographed the RMS in the lowering sunlight. Dinner was Asian food at the Orange Tree, light and fresh. We are enjoying being part of this remote Georgian town.
At a waterhole just around the corner from Jocks Lodge, we came upon three elephants cooling off by spraying themselves with water.
Just as we were setting up our cameras, they scrambled out.
The cause was two rhinos that had arrived and chased them off.
After checking out the lie of the land, they too wandered away, leaving the muddy waterhole deserted. Estien, our guide, took the 4WD down to a larger muddy wallow, where four rhinos were placing mud packs on their delicate complexion.
On the back of one, the red-beaked oxpicker birds were cooling off; their beaks wide open.