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Mildura, Victoria

Mildura, Victoria

An Antipodean travel company serving world travellers since 1983

Mildura, Victoria

On the banks of the Murray River, Mildura is a leafy oasis in the midst of a dry region, and a magnet for tourists since the beginning of the 20th century. But delve deeper into the story of this regional centre, and you’ll find a quirky history full of larger-than-life eccentrics and big schemes, better suited to California than regional Victoria.

The town of Mildura is located 475 kilometres north-west of Melbourne, and sits on the Murray River, 880 km from its mouth. The area was likely inhabited by the Kureinji and Latje Latje Aboriginal groups before settlement, though there is also evidence of Paakantji, Ngyiampaa and Mutthi Mutthi presence in the area, dating back over 40,000 years. The name Mildura comes from a Latje Latje word, likely meaning either ‘sore eyes’ (caused by the perennial local menace of flies), or ‘red earth’, from the surrounding red soil.

Farming lands near Mildura, made possible by the irrigation schemes of the late 19th century.

The area was first occupied by European settlers as a pastoral run in 1847. However, by the 1870s, drought had reduced the sheep-carrying capacity of the area, with neglect leading to rabbit invasions. As land fell into ruin, reformers agitated for closer-settlement farmlands. In 1884, the Victorian government held a royal commission on irrigation, led by future Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, then a minister in the state government.

In 1885, Deakin led a investigation party to visit recently-irrigated areas of California, where he met George and William Chaffey. The Chaffey brothers, from Ontario, Canada, had pioneered irrigation schemes that had established the model towns of Editwanda and Ontario, near Riverside in Southern California. The Chaffeys bought land and water rights for a large area at a low price, then sold them to settlers at a lower price, with a mutual irrigation company to distribute water on a not-for-profit basis. The modes of development pioneered by the Chaffey Brothers – particularly the control of water by private developers or ‘water titans’ – paved the way for the suburban development of arid Southern California, immortalised in Roman Polanski’s noir Chinatown.

The meeting between Deakin and the Chaffeys was successful, and the Chaffeys made the rash decision to sell up their interests in California. The government made an agreement with the Chaffeys, tendering 250, 000 acres of crown land at Mildura to the brothers, subject to their creating an irrigated and developed settlement over the next 20 years. An extensive advertising campaign begun, and by 1890, over 3,300 settlers (most of them British) had moved to Mildura.

The early settlement of Mildura was beset with scandal. Deakin had not prepared the Chaffeys, used to the entrepreneurial capitalist culture of California, for the cultural differences they would encounter in Victoria. The idea of private control of water – and the fact that settlers to the town would have to pay the Chaffeys for their water – proved to be hugely controversial in the colonies, with the Chaffeys termed ‘cute Yankee land grabbers’. Furthering the controversy was the fact that while the Chaffeys were reputable businessmen, many of their associates were ‘deficient in truth and honesty’ (quotes).

The development soon struck disaster. Bad weather in Mildura saw rivers rise, causing yabby-damage to irrigation channels and salt seepage. Combined with the return of the rabbit plague, the problems led to the abandonment of many land plots. As a result, the Chaffeys’ company, Chaffey Brothers Ltd., went bankrupt in 1894. An 1897 commission into the troubles in Mildura – in which the Chaffeys and Deakin were interrogated – concluded that the Chaffeys had acted on insufficient capital and committed serious errors in planning.

Opening of Mildura Public Library, 1908.

George Chaffey returned to the United States that year, where he played an important role in the suburban development of Los Angeles. William decided to stick it through, and established a permanent home in Mildura.

Despite the rocky start, the new town continued to grow through the early 20th centuries. Like the Chaffey’s towns in California, it was a model settlement, designed with intentions of moral uplift. Social institutes were established, and Mildura (like the American settlements) was an officially dry town until 1918, a rarity in colonial Australia. Social life centred on the Coffee Palace, which only gained a liquor license in 1920. Wide streets were laid out, planted liberally with street trees. Like an American town, the streets running east-west were given numerical names (from 1st street on), while the avenues (running north-south) were given American names (Ontario Avenue, San Mateo Avenue).

The irrigation of the area allowed Mildura to become a major producer of dried fruit in the 1910s. After the war, the eccentric local businessman Clement John De Garis (memorably described by a fellow entrepreneur as a ‘prince of ballyhoo’) launched Australia’s first major American-style advertising campaign to expand the Australian market for dried fruits.

De Garis convinced the Australian Dried Fruits Association to give him a £20,000 grant, which he used for a nation-wide publicity campaign, including competitions, recipe books, and children’s books. Across Australia, people watched movies about Mildura, and danced to the ‘Sun-Raysed Waltz’. A Sunraysia Cafe was established in Melbourne, staffed with young women from Mildura, ‘raised on Sunraysia raisins’. During the influenza pandemic of 1919, jingles claimed that eating dried fruit could cure disease:

I fear no more the dreaded ‘flu,
For Sunraysed fruits will pull me through.

In 1920, De Garis found a worthy rival in the journalist-turned-swindler Grant Harvey. Posing as an American named Hervey G. Madison, Hervey called for the people of Mildura to secede from Victoria under his leadership – and strongly encouraged them to send him £5 a week, ostensibly to fund his fare to London.

De Garis used his ownership of the local newspaper, the Sunraysia Daily, to expose Harvey as a fraud. In revenge, Harvey reappeared in Mildura in 1921, claiming that De Garis was on the verge of bankruptcy. A ‘Citizens’ Vigilance Committee’ was formed to defend De Garis, and Harvey was tarred, feathered, and run out of town by the locals.

De Garis in Sun-raysed (later Sunraysia) plane, c. 1920.

In the post-war era, with the growth of car ownership, Mildura became a major centre of motor tourism, drawing visitors from Melbourne with its year-round sunny and warm weather. The town established some of Australia’s first motels and caravan parks, catering to the mass tourism enabled by car ownership.

Today, Mildura has a population of around 50, 000 and generates $3 billion in gross regional product per year, primarily thanks to the dried and fresh fruits industries. The area provides 98% of Australia’s sultanas, 74% of its grapes, 24% of its citrus, and 23% of its olives.

Things to see:

The centre of Mildura has a number of interesting architectural sites, grouped together as two major historic trails. The Chaffey Trail (guide) allows visitors to trace the history of the early irrigation settlement though a walking tour of places associated with the brothers. Highlights include the recreated Old Mildura Station Homestead, the pastoral station built by brothers Hugh and Bushby Jamieson around 1850. Chaffey was so inspired by the homestead garden on his tour of Victoria that he selected Mildura as the location of his proposed irrigation colony.

The Rio Vista historic house was built in 1897 by William Chaffey. Set on the Murray River, the house combines Queen Anne style with Californian influences. After the death of Chaffey’s wife, Hattie in 1950, the house was bought by the council and converted into an art gallery, saving the house from demolition. Today, it is restored in Arts and Crafts Style, with exhibitions exploring the history of the Chaffey family. Mildura’s excellent art collection – which includes a pastel by Edgar Degas, Femme à la baignoire se coiffant, and a number of important works by Australian artists – has moved into an adjoining gallery space.

The other walking trail is devoted to the Art Deco architecture of Mildura, which was prominent both in commercial and residential buildings in the area. Among a number of sites, the tour takes you to the Mildura Brewery, in a converted Art Deco theatre, the Former Capitol Theatre, with distinctive Mayan pattern, and to Etheringtons the Jewellers, established 1932, with original 1930s facade, interior, and fittings still in place today.

Boats on the Murray River, near Mildura

On the banks of the Murray River, Mildura also offers the opportunity to take a Murray River cruise in a paddle steamer, including the P.S. Melbourne (1912), which still runs by steam power, the P.V. Rothbury (1881), which offers lunch and dinner cruises, and the P.V. Mundoo (built 1987, but powered with a 1892 engine), which makes longer journeys down river to Goolwa, South Australia.

Mildura is also home to a vibrant food and wine culture. Thanks to the irrigation projects, the surrounding region is a major producer of fresh food, and the area is now the second-largest producer of wine in Australia. In the post-war era, Mildura became a magnet for Italian migrants, attracted by work in the fruit-picking industries, who brought their food culture with them. Today, great local restaurants line Langtree Avenue (also known as ‘Feast Street’), while wine tours take you out to the wineries of the surrounding countryside.

Odyssey Traveller visits Mildura as part of our new tour of the Southern States of Australia. Designed to make you re-think the way you see Australia, our tour breaks down traditional state lines, exploring the cultural continuities between Western Victoria and New South Wales and Eastern South Australia. Getting away from the major cities – Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide – our tour takes you through lesser-known parts of each state, uncovering fascinating local histories and making surprising connections.

The tour begins in Adelaide, heading east to Mount Gambier and along the Southern Ocean coastline to Port Fairy, Victoria. We then head to the UNESCO-listed Budj Bim Cultural Landscape, where we explore the fascinating history of this site with a local tour guide. From here we move to the town of Hamilton, from which we make a day tour to the Naracoorte Caves Park, home to fossils of ancient megafauna – Australian wildlife on a giant scale. We then head to Mungo National Park (another UNESCO World Heritage Site), where some of the oldest human remains in the world were found in the late 1960s.

From Mungo National Park we spend two days in Mildura, then head deeper into the Australian outback with a visit to Broken Hill. From Broken Hill, we head back into South Australia, visiting the railway hub of Peterborough and the outback town of Burra. Finally, our tour of Southern Australia ends in Adelaide.

Every Odyssey Traveller guided tour is designed especially for mature and senior travellers, who seek an authentic experience of their travel destinations. We don’t just go to the tourism Australia hotspots – Great Barrier Reef, Port Philip Island, and the Blue Mountains – but pride ourselves on getting off the beaten path.

Our Australia tours include:

  • Flinders Ranges tour: Explores the natural beauty and Aboriginal culture of the Flinders, including a visit to the iconic Wilpena Pound.
  • Adelaide and surrounds: Uncovers the historic South Australian capital, with day trips to the Barossa Valley, Kangaroo Island and the Adelaide Hills.
  • Victoria: Explores the 19th century history of Melbourne and regional Victoria.
  • Tasmanian Wildlife: Takes you through the spectacular scenery of Tasmania.
  • Flinders Island: Explore remote Flinders Island in the Bass Strait, one of Australia‘s hidden gems.
  • Broken Hill and back: Takes you deep into the outback of central Australia, where New South Wales, Queensland, and the Northern Territory meet.
  • Outback Queensland: Takes you through the quintessential Australian outback areas of Queensland.
  • The Kimberley: Discover the ancient landscapes of the Kimberley, Western Australia, from the Indian Ocean beaches of Broome to the remote Purnululu National Park.
  • Western Australian Wildflowers: Devoted to the stunning flora of Western Australia, including Perth and the Margaret River.

Odyssey Traveller has scheduled our Australia tours for departure in the second half of 2020. We hope that with the lifting of coronavirus restrictions by Australian state and territory governments and the federal Australian government, that interstate travel will be open soon.

Lake Mungo, New South Wales.

Articles about Australia published by Odyssey Traveller:

For all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers, click through on this link.

External articles to assist you on your visit to Australia:

We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Australians and Traditional Custodians of the lands where we live, learn and work. We pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging.

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