A Mallee Time Machine


Every weekend I am bombarded with the same repetitive statement from my kids, ‘I’m bored…’ or ‘I’m hungry’ as soon as the boredom stirs. I could proceed to tell you that I like to spend the weekend eagerly baking mouth watering goodies to fill their insatiable tummies or that I have an array of craft activities on display to extend their creativity, but I do not. The weekend arrives and – call me a little self-centred – but at my house it’s the non-celebrity reality tv show adaptation, ‘I’m a mum, get me out of here.’

My standard replies are usually, ‘well I’ve got jobs you could do’ or ‘you don’t know how lucky you are.’ Arghhhhh.  Yes I did just push you on the swing for an hour, drew pictures of everything in the dictionary and played an adventurous game of fake hide and seek in which I even managed to hide in a linen press, all by 12 o’clock. Isn’t that enough? My latter response is always met with a dubious glance from my oldest daughter as she processes the credibility of my words. ‘Lucky? But we haven’t done anything this weekend,’ she will grunt at me, as she continues to propose many more creative in-house activities that are just too much for me to bear on a Sunday morning.

However, if you are feeling like me, and need to get out of your house, I am not kidding you when I tell you that Pioneer Settlement set upon the banks of the Murray River in Swan Hill ticks all the ‘entertainment’, ‘learning’, ‘cheap’ and ‘appreciation’ boxes. Let this time machine work its magic as it transports you and your bored offspring back to the mystifying, yet harder working late 1800’s/early 1900’s. After an enlightening morning of busy butter churning, blacksmithing and learning about the manual labour of our ancestors who never had time to be bored, gratitude will be flowing.

At only a gold coin donation for locals, minimal expenditure if you are willing to pack your lunch (although there is the amazing new Paragon café, with a host of affable volunteers in full olden day clothing to help you) and an itinerary of unique activities to partake in that require little or no thought process from yourself (not to mention a great appreciation of 21st century living), it is definitely one to put on your weekend or school holiday schedule.

As regular Pioneer Settlement devotees – not to mention nature’s gift of cooler weather  – we packed up our lunch a few Sundays ago (okay, and Wednesday too) and set off for this pioneer paradise yet again, ready to embrace the whole olden day experience with enthusiasm.

Children are creatures of habit and our visit started in the same way it always does; a fight over who puts the coin in the box, a quick inspection of the nifty souvenir shop just in case I am feeling generous (which is never), and a race down the ramp and straight into the old gaol. This is the part where I locked them in and enjoyed a peaceful walk around the Pioneer Settlement on my own. The end.


Hmmmm, in my dreams!

Usually we are in full throttle by this part of the excursion and a quick lesson in the school, where they enjoy giving me a few strict orders from the teacher’s desk at the front, was on the agenda as per normal. However, this was short-lived. Time is money and these kids were on a limited budget this particular day. They had a stern word with me regarding my ‘listening’ skills, or lack thereof, and then told me to promptly pack up my stuff and head to the boat or I’d get detention. No point arguing.

This more isolated section of the Pioneer Settlement near the Paddle Steamer Gem (built in 1876) provides no mercy for tiresome parents as you are teased with tantalising coffee smells and chatter coming from the nearby bustling Spoons Riverside café/Restaurant, so we tend to attack it at the beginning of the excursion. Today was no exception. After ten or so rounds of climbing up and down the steps and a little boat captain role play, it was time to carry on.

From here we meandered back through the charming olden day streets, visiting the Post Office (you can bring a letter to post), checking out the array of horse carriages, the Echo Print Shop and a little mosey through one of the old cottages with a succession of pitiful voices. Yes their houses were small. I told you that you are blessed.

A visit to the Pioneer Settlement is never complete without a horse and cart ride or hitching a lift in the resident 1920’s Dodge (both included in your entry). Either of two big infamous Clydesdales, Gemma and Harry (as my eight-year-old daughter and every school kid in town will inform you), will transport you through the Mallee township in style as you take in all the sights and the adjacent Little Murray River.

If you are new to the Settlement, riding in the cart or car is a fantastic way to enjoy a snap shot of the property with a knowledgeable driver prior to your own exploration. However, if you are a regular attendee like me, both of these rides are purely bribes that are worth savouring.

So after a visit with the chooks, a play in the half-cellar, some eye-opening blacksmithing, a look at all the vintage machinery, some imaginary fire fighting (complete with truck, bell and fireman hats) and an enlightening viewing in the Kaiser Stereoscopic Theatre (built in 1895 in Germany- one of only a handful in the world), I finally succumbed to the expectant horse and cart ride.

Always dealt with in the same courteous manner by the pleasant volunteer drivers, we were treated to a relaxing ride around the Pioneer Settlement, but not without a host of friendly waves from the various volunteers and visitors about the place.

The friendly volunteers never fail to make every visit worthwhile.

Dismounting the carriage with beaming smiles and adrenaline still running high, it didn’t take them long to sprint to the Music shop and Drapery where the old vintage car was parked. The car was already running errands, but there is never a dull moment in this Mallee Township, so we entered the shop for the longest 20c kid’s ride on a horse in my mothering life. Forget the $2 ride in the shopping centre that lasts about as quickly as you can blink. My kids had two turns each off the same 20c and we were still forced to abandon our new rocking friend when our glistening 1920’s dodge arrived for pick up.

On this day we did deviate slightly from our normal routine. After five years in Swan Hill and the absence of a very unwilling husband on this day, we thought it was finally time to let our inhibitions go, don the olden day clothing and embrace the photo parlour experience. The kids thoroughly enjoyed playing dress ups and at only $5 a costume for an olden day keepsake that will last a lifetime, it was undeniably good value.

Not my usual running attire and one of the few times you will see me in a dress, but ten minutes wasn’t too unbearable.

There are was an endless array of activities still to enjoy at the Pioneer Settlement, but unfortunately the washing and cleaning were awaiting (at the click of a few appreciative buttons), so after an enjoyable lunch in front of the jaw-dropping steam train and another useless round of begging in the souvenir shop, we clicked on our seatbelts and let our time machine transport us back to the reality of the 21st century.

What a lunch time view!

Perhaps we take it for granted in Swan Hill, but what kid could say, ‘I went for a horse and cart ride, rode in a 1920’s Dodge, captained a paddle steamer, fought fires, dressed in olden day clothing and spent some time in gaol all by 12 o’clock?’ So when my kids proceeded to tell me later that day that, ‘there’s nothing to do,’ I sighed with defeat. The magic was gone.

With the new addition of the ‘Heartbeat of the Murray,’ – a laser light show that spans 30 million years – maybe it is time we cranked the time machine up a notch and send them into the bush to hunt for their own food?

Check out the Pioneer Settlement at www.pioneersettlement.com.au


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