victoria

On the river

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"Almost the still reflections quiver, the tranquil Evening reach of the silver-dreaming river Stirs with expectant life. Now sound swells louder, Fills all the hollows of silence and overflows As the steamer rounds a bend and churns upchannel."

From the poem Paddle Steamer by Nancy Cato (1957)

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Unplugged (again)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The day was bookended by the feeding of the ducks. Those ducks really love that we have come to stay in this cabin. All seven gazillion of them. My favourite is Stumpy. She was the first to find us, and appears, from the limp, as though she could do with a bit of Cornflake lovin'. My kids give her plenty.

"Over here Mrs Duck!" the children call. "Mrs Duck" is any duck and every duck, except Stumpy. My children do not like to discriminate.

A sunrise walk, a visit to the petting farm, a bumpy hay-bale ride behind a tractor… When we do tourist, we really do Tourist.

Mid-morning, Mr B drives back to Melbourne for a work event he can't escape, while we stay and holiday. And so when the children nap after lunch, the reality of "unplugged" truly sinks in, and I am confronted with… me.

All me.

No Internet, no 'phone, no book to read, no magazine, just me. I can't go for a walk, because my children are sleeping in the room behind me. There is no work to do, no garden to tend, no housework to tackle, no meals to prepare. (We are eating mac 'n cheese out of the box tonight).

I sit, I stand, I gaze outside, I make a cup of tea. This would be a perfect time to write letters, I think to myself, and that's when I realise that in addition to failing to bring a book, I also failed to bring any writing paper. The backs of all our maps and tourist brochures are covered with 'terms and conditions' and, just as I am about to give up, I clap eyes on the cereal boxes.

First, I tear apart the box of Cornflakes we had bought for the ducks. Take my tea outside to the balcony, and start to write. When the Cornflakes box is completely covered, it is time to bust apart the holiday Coco Pops. I am just eyeing the mac 'n cheese box when the kids wake up.

We spend the next three hours playing. I mean, really playing. I have nothing else to do, worry about, look at, think about, but my kids. I had thought that quitting Facebook and Twitter and a life generally free from social media (apart from the odd Instagram photograph) helped me be more present while my kids were playing. But the absence of housework or paid work or emails or text messages or phone calls or book-notes to make or letters to write or books or blogs or magazines or letters to read takes things to a whole other level.

Today, I am Fun Mum. We are explorers, seeking ancient ruins in the sand pit. We are all manner of emergency services, putting out fires and rescuing the injured and attending accidents. I am a burglar, being chased by tiny police in those tiny toddler-cars that you pedal with your feet, like the Flintstones. I am a baby, who simply refuses to behave.

At the end of our games, as we wander hand in hand back to our cabin, Ralph announces "I'm tired Mummy, I want to go to sleep." This is unprecedented. The poor kid is barely upright. At the cabin, he rallies long enough to feed the ducks and consume a barely mouthful of his dinner, and then it is time for bed. Scout is right behind him.

It is 6pm and all's quiet. I am alone with my thoughts again. I turn to the empty mac 'n cheese box and pick up a pen…

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swing

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Unplugged

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA There is no Internet here, nor does my phone work.

"This is so peaceful!" says Scout, crouching on her knees eating ramen noodles at the coffee table. Outside, pretty brown ducks leave the river and waddle up to our balcony, hopeful.

In the afternoon, we walk on sandy riverbanks and collect driftwood treasure. "Can you hold this stick please, Explorer Mummy?" asks Ralph. He needs both hands free to clamber up a sandy staircase that leads to unknown lands.

City kids, I have to keep warning them: "Don't put your hand inside that hollow log!" and "Don't go into that scrub!" and, about every five minutes, or more, "Ralph, don't jump into the river!" My caution doesn't stop their fun, as they race from one new discovery to another.

Shadows lengthen, kangaroos begin to appear. Scout follows a mother and joey, who lead her around and about, through trees and over grassy fields, stopping to watch her with intelligent eyes, then hopping away just as she gets too close.

I didn't think to pack pantry staples so, as the sun sets, we eat Chinese takeout and grapes for dinner, washed down with cheap prosecco from the supermarket.

("I have a good idea," said Ralph earlier, while we were still in the car. "What's that buddy?" I asked. "Coco Pops!" announced Ralph, triumphantly.)

So we also buy Coco Pops to have for breakfast in the morning. And Cornflakes to feed to the ducks.

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In which we visit Australia’s only booktown and purchase a fake pearl necklace, some plastic toys, and no books

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Book Town, defn: "A Book Town is a small rural town or village in which second-hand and antiquarian bookshops are concentrated. Most Book Towns have developed in villages of historic interest or of scenic beauty." International Organisation of Book Towns (IOB)

When gold was first discovered in Victoria, it was discovered in the pretty little village we now know as Clunes. Today, Clunes is home to 1600 people... and at least 15 bookstores. It is the only officially recognised "booktown" in the southern hemisphere, and one of only 17 in the world.

Once a year, this already very-literary town spills its books out into the streets, and literature completely takes over the town, for the Clunes Booktown Festival. I'm not kidding. You walk into the local hairdressing salon, complete with old-fashioned hair-dryers on the wall, and the rest of the salon is filled with books, wall to wall. Nearby at an antique store, furniture and curios have been moved out of the way to make room for more books. And inside the local cafes? You guessed it, more books. There are books on tables in the street, in market-stalls that line the middle of the road, out the front of the museum, in the post office, and spilling out of residents' garages.

Actors perform Shakespeare on a makeshift stage made out of a ring of hay-bales, children learn the antique art of book-binding, and storytellers and author-talks and book-signings continue throughout the day. The air is filled with the delicious smoke of a hundred food stalls and cafes and bakeries and coffee carts, and all the dogs look happy and the children even happier. It is bustling but not impossibly crowded, and essentially it is my idea of heaven.

When we visited Clunes on the weekend, the rain held off but made mist around the surrounding hills. The streets were wide and the gold-rush era architecture absolutely stunning, with original painted signage still on many of the shop windows and walls. I ate a pulled-pork-and-coleslaw filled roll at the Bread and Circus Provedore that I would recommend to anyone.

The only fly in my personal book-browsing, book-buying ointment turned out to be my "parent" status, since it would appear that hunting for books amidst piles of other books for hours on end is not something that the average toddler likes to do. Even when you give them spending money and say "go for it." Who knew? But since I happen to believe that being a parent is the best thing ever, even better than shopping for books, I'm not about to change that status any time soon.

So we went to the Clunes Booktown Festival and bought a double-string of fake pearls (Scout), a Peppa Pig activity-book with plastic duck toys (Ralph), delicious lunches for four, chocolate ice-cream (Scout), a chocolate milk-shake (Ralph)... and no books.

Yep, not one. But we're going back next year!

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The royal family

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Not so long ago, Scout's career aspiration was to become Father Christmas, and then a doctor... and then a duck. These days she wants to be a queen. Not a princess, my daughter will have none of that: she is going straight to the top.

"I LOVE queens," she tells me. For Christmas, she asked Father Christmas for "a queen dolly." (Father Christmas found it more challenging than you might imagine to convince the elves to make such a thing).

"Why do you love queens so much?" I ask her.

"Because queens are Mummys and I love Mummy." Be still my heart.

"What do queens do?"

"They wear crowns and dresses and high heels." Of course.

"But," I prompt her, "what else do they do, after they get dressed?"

She looks at me with the air of a person patiently explaining something to someone who is a bit slow. "Well, we will just have to wait and see, won't we?"

Ralph, in the meantime, is VERY into castles. Essentially, any building that is more than two stories high is a castle.

"A castle! I see a castle!" he runs on the spot with excitement, every time we pass the construction site of an apartment complex on Sydney Road.

So on the last day of Mr B's holidays we decide to indulge both passions, and take them to Kryal Castle, the only "castle" within driving distance of Melbourne.

Say what you like about this place, my kids absolutely love it. Scout mixes potions and makes her own perfume. ("This is powdered goblin teeth," says the potions lady. "No, that's flour!" corrects Scout, despite being by far the youngest participant in the potion-mixing class. That's my little baker.) They are riveted during the jousting display (refusing to leave until the end, despite a bitter wind blowing); take turns gleefully playing "following the leader" in the maze; and Scout spends the entire drive home speculating how Merlin will rescue Queen Guinevere from Morgana.

Also, she wears her crown all day.

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Dispatch from the road

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Echuca, Central Victoria. Arrival time 5:20pm

Scout: I want to live in this hotel forever, because it has got Peppa Pig on television. Ralph [with glee] : Noise! Noise! [about the people coming and going from our hotel at all hours throughout the night] Me: Wow, this place has got a spa. That was unexpected. I might get a massage! Mr B: It's not that kind of spa. Tepid water. Strangers.

In the morning, we cruise around the town searching for a cafe that is open for breakfast at kids o'clock. Find a nice-looking cafe, order our breakfast, then thank all the deities on Olympus that I remembered to bring little boxes of sultanas because there is a 45 minute wait for food and NO TODDLER WAITS 45 MINUTES FOR ANYTHING.

Head out to Port Echuca and it is so cute! A horse-drawn carriage rolls past us as we lock the car. I love that touristy stuff! Race down the wooden ramps to catch a paddle steamer just in time. Scout is adamant she doesn't want to go on the paddle steamer, and boards under protest. After five minutes on the river, she announces she wants to ride on ALL the paddle steamers, ALL the time.

Scout's favourite paddle steamer activity: lying down on wool bales and pretending to sleep Ralph's favourite paddle steamer activity: watching the steam engine at work. He is mesmerised!

Also a favourite activity for everyone: drinking tea on the deck. Both children: Real tea! Real tea! (They take their tea weak, insipid, milky and barely warm)

The skipper lets the children have a turn at "driving" the boat. Scout gently holds the spokes of the giant wheel as the skipper steers. Ralph grabs the wheel and holds it, and suddenly we are heading straight for the banks of the Murray River. The skipper hastily redresses the situation. We beat a hasty retreat from the cabin.

Yarrawonga, Central Victoria. Arrival time 1pm

Scout calls it Arrow-Wanta. Ralph dissolves into hysterical giggles every time anyone says "Yarrawonga."

We walk up the main street and Ralph goes everywhere he is not supposed to and does everything he is told not to and then he puts his hands somewhere really disgusting and before I can get to him, shoves his thumb into his mouth. I lunge towards him yelling "Nooooo!" and it's like I'm running in slow motion and I swear my voice has that weird, deep sound that happens when you have the sound on in slow motion, but his thumb was just too quick. I whip it back out and clean and sanitise his hands, but the damage is already done. If he doesn't catch a hideous disease, he will have the best immune system in Australia. It's probably a 50-50 chance either way.

In the car again, later that afternoon.

Ralph [offering up thumb]: Mummy suck my thumb? Me: No way! That's so disgusting! Ralph: AHAHAHAHAHA [proceeds to suck his own thumb] Scout: Suck MY thumb Mummy! Me: [defeated sigh]

We sing 'The Quartermaster's Store' in the car approximately 37 times, at Scout's request. "I ONLY want to sing 'my eyes are dim,'" she insists. At every new verse, Scout picks a family member or friend and her father matches the rhyme to them (there was Mummy, Mummy, rubbing her tummy in the store...). "Now do Shohana Daddy! Now do Sebastian! Layla! Alexandra!

Albury, on the Victoria-NSW border. Arrival time 4:30pm

Scout: Let's see if this television has Peppa Pig! Me: Hey Ralph, Yarrawonga Ralph: [doubles over and screams with laughter]

There is supposed to be a restaurant and room service, but it is closed on Sundays. After we put the kids to bed, Mr B goes out to find some takeout. I turn out the light and sit on the bed in the dark, looking at my phone. Both kids sit up and try to make me laugh. I walk around behind our bed and crouch down on the floor behind the bed so they can't see me or the light of my phone. The kids keep laughing, but slowly go quiet. My back hurts from bending over. I start itching. I think the carpet has fleas. Mr B returns with Chinese takeout and it is so bad, but we are hungry and desperate. I grab an old blanket from a cupboard and we eat sitting on the floor of the bathroom. I wish I was kidding. Later, we share headphones and watch a couple of episodes of Turn: Washington's Spies that I have downloaded onto my computer. A very addictive show!

Gundagai, half way between Melbourne and Sydney. Arrival time 12:30pm

We find an old pub for lunch and I order a salad and convince the children to eat some vegetables, by way of giving them a back tickle for every mouthful of greens effectively swallowed. I am in dire need of salad and otherwise-healthy food. I have already put on weight from all the junk food on this road trip. This always happens when I travel in country Australia. Once I was on the road in the outback for three weeks for work, and came back six kilos heavier! No exaggeration. Everywhere we went, the only thing to eat was chicken kiev. I never want to see another chicken kiev as long as I live.

Things are almost as dire right now. Scout rests her head on my leg, lovingly, then looks up at me. "Mummy, your leg is getting nice and fat and squishy. It is like play dough!" Cue salad for lunch.

After the salad, we go for a walk and then it rains so we take shelter in the Gundagai Bakery, which happens to be the oldest bakery in Australia. It is also very cute and the food is very yummy, so we each have a doughnut. Salad plus gentle walk cancels out doughnut calories, so this treat in no way contributes to play-dough legs.

Currently typing this from Goulburn, southern NSW. Arrival time: 5pm.

Check-out time, if we can help it: 5:05pm. Or earlier. At reception, the lady coughs and sneezes directly into her hand, then picks up the keys and hands them to Mr B. We search for our room. It is on the bottom floor and outside our window, two men are smoking and drinking about eight VBs each. They smile and say hello to the kids. Ralph yells "HARRO!" at the top of his lungs. Scout hides behind my legs.

We unlock the door.

This room is SO GROSS. I can't even begin to tell you. And I have stayed in hotels with toilets under the showers, and weird smells, and uninvited wildlife, and suspicious stains on the bedding, and even more suspicious stains on the walls, and camel poo coming out of the taps (true story!).

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