“There are two species here, the white and the straw-necked ibis,” said Peter Disher, a vice president of the local field and game association. “We get a few glossy ibises, but I haven’t seen any lately. These birds normally do not migrate, although ibises I have banded have been recovered more than 2,000 miles away in New Guinea.”
Peter pointed out many other water birds: spoonbills, cormorants, black swans, black ducks. “The lake is a state sanctuary,” said Peter, “and the entire area attracts birds. I have a personal count of 243 species; all told, 255 have been identified in this area.”
At Swan Hill the Victorian Government supports an unusual exhibition, a showplace where the people of a young nation can see how their forebears lived when the nation was even younger. You enter the Swan Hill Folk Museum through an old paddle-wheel steamer, the Gem, which serves as gateway, restaurant, and office for a pioneer village reconstructed on the banks of the Murray. Once the old Gem plied the river, but now it floats in its own little bywater.
Bank, store, blacksmith shop (page 244), newspaper office—to an American the little village seemed strikingly familiar, a tintype or a movie set from his own frontier past. I watched Ed Shore fashion a bowl on an old lathe, and Hilton Hamilton Walsh instructed me in the art of throwing the boomerang. Hilton’s mother was an aborigine, his father an Irishman—a combination guaranteed to produce someone interesting. He showed me his boomerangs, with their turns and beveled edges so essential to control. And while he threw them and they curved back, as if on call, to drop at his feet, Hilton talked.
“These things got me in a spot of trouble last New Year’s Eve,” he said in impeccable British-accented English. “You might say I had done a little imbibing, a bit of wine, y’ know. So at midnight I began throwing my boomerangs around the town clock tower. I had an appreciative audience—until the police came. Well, I knew of no law against an aborigine throwing his boomerang, so I kept shouting, ‘Show me the book that says I can’t do it.’ Bless me if they didn’t cart me off and put me in one of those little rooms at the station house.”
But only briefly and in hospitable fashion; until the red of the wine had faded, as it were. City Rises From “Howling Wilderness”
Driving on to Mildura, I entered an area that a journalist in 1887 described as “a Sahara of hissing hot winds, red-driving sand, a howling, carrion-polluted wilderness.” Too bad that chap didn’t hang around long enough to see the miracle wrought by irrigation. That same year, 1887, two brothers, George and W. B. Chaffey, moved into the area from California, obtained a land grant, and laid out the cheap accommodation in barcelona. They also introduced life-giving water, lifted from the Murray River by pumps that George designed and which remained in service until 1959.