Lakes Entrance has always intrigued me facing onto Bass Strait and sitting as it does two-thirds of the way along Ninety Mile Beach. It’s close to a major metropolitan area yet far enough away to have a distinctly provincial character. Certainly it has all the hallmarks of a tourist town and I wondered what it must be like in the off-season, particularly June and July when the winds swing in from the west and south-west bringing a touch of polar chill.
Before I left Sydney, my next door neighbour informed me that there’d been a blue-green algal outbreak in the Gippsland lakes. A quick review of the published media revealed a story from ‘The Age‘ reporting that, “Consumption of fish, prawns and mussels from the entire lakes system was banned by the Health Department earlier this month after an outbreak of toxic blue-green algae in waters east of Paynesville.” The story made the obvious point, given the area’s dependence on tourism and commercial fishing quoting Dale Sumner, general manager of Lakes Entrance Fisherman’s Co-op who was reported as saying that, “Those commercial guys are out of work with no other income stream while the ban is in place, and there are a lot of other businesses in town which rely on recreational fishing . . .”
When this sort of thing happens to towns that are already hard pressed the economy suffers. Despite this I found enormous generosity in this town. The proprietors of The Lakes Waterfront Motel demonstrated this in their fair minded approach to the retailing of art works and artefacts from Kurnai artists. This ethos of generosity seemed widespread as I soon discovered while fishing.
Meeting a man from the Green Line
I knew that fish from the Lakes had to be cleaned carefully with the heads and gills removed, while the blur green algal outbreak was still an issue but tis seem like a small sacrifice for fresh fish. So, after checking out the satellite images of the are I reasoned that a small stretch of shoreline just west of the Kalimna wharf was the easiest and most promising area for me to fish. I picked up some green prawns and set off. It was a disappointment, not a bite. As I headed back to the motel I passed a man fishing a short distance away. ‘The Ludderick should come on in a moment’, he explained. “The tides dropping and see those mussels, well they’re excellent bait for them”. So with renewed enthusiasm I returned to me spot. Throwing out the line with a mussell on the hook, still nothing happened. In desperation I returned t prawns. Suddenly there was the unmistakable nudging of my bait, then another little nibble and finally a solid bite. The line tightened, the rod bent and in moments I was reeling in a sizeable fish. No Ludderick this fish, but a presentable silver bream measuring around 29cm and just over the 28cm Lakes Entrance limit. I fished on for a while but without so much as the slightest touch.
Passing my new acquaintance I noticed that he’d already pulled in half a dozen Ludderick. ‘They’re into it every time I throw the line in”, he observed. “Not bad eating Black Fish, although we don’t call them that these days.”
I’m surprised they’re biting on mussels, I said, I thought they preferred weed.
Well they take mussels, although it’s true they’ll bite on weed, he advised.
Gregory went fishing there everyday. He was impressed that I’d caught a bream and threw in a Ludderick for good measure. He even cleaned both, cutting off the heads and confirming the blue green algal problem.
They’ve played it down around here, he explained. It’s bad for business.
We chatted. Gregory was from the UK but his father was from France and he grew up in Pondicherry. This puzzled me when he told the story, but know I realise that his father must have had relatives in Pondicherry since it had been a French possession for a time.
Later his family migrated to the UK. He worked as a driver on the Green Line for years and then decided to migrate to Australia. He’d started work on the Victorian Railways, as a fireman on the run the Albury. He wasn’t allowed to come straight in as a driver. He said that he hated Australia at first, if only because of the distance involved. is first job being the Melbourne Albury run, not far by Australian standards, but a huge distance compared with the Green Line. I guessed that he must have been bored. He thought he’d made a mistake coming, till he met a woman. They married and he was catching lunch for her today, now that they’ve both retired to Lakes Entrance.
We chatted for a while. It’s always interesting to chat with people who’ve a broad cultural base and a sense of global history and geography. He was intimately acquainted with Pria Viswalingam’s work, as it turned out, and quite excited to learn that “Decadence: The Decline of the Western World’ was running in Melbourne. He wouldn’t make the trip but would certainly look out for the doco.
In search of fresh prawns
The trawlers along the waterfront promised an abundance of fresh prawns. Once I learned that they were being trawled from Bass Strait, I was keen to try some. The owner of the motel explained that they went out in the evenings and returned about 8.00am the next morning, with a fresh catch.
Wandering along to the trawler wharf about 8.15am I noticed that trading was straight off the boats, so stepping up onto the nearest one I was a little bemused that there was no one around. After a few moments an older Greek Australian emerged from below.
Oh, I was up at five but I thought I’d have another sleep, he explained.
I thought it odd that he was already berthed at five in the morning, so I asked, Is this last night’s catch?
No, it’s what’s left over.
They’re a bit small, I noted.
Yes, here have some. No charge, he smiled, wrapping me up a kilo of medium school prawns.
Wow! Thanks, I said with genuine appreciation, and went on my way but since that was ultimately Melbourne I thought Gregory deserved the prawns.
He was easy to find and delighted if not surprised with the offering. I was leaving that morning so I thanked him for his kindness and hit the road for Melbourne.
A varied landscape
The other intriguing feature of the area is that it sits at a boundary of the still heavily wooded East Gippsland and the largely rural and partly industrial South Gippsland.
Looking at Google maps of this area conveys a sense of just how wooded the eastern Gippsland area is extending as it does from the NSW border to the Gippsland Lakes. The Gippsland region includes a much bigger area extending to Melbourne in the west, the Victorian alpine country to the north and Wilsons Promontory to the south. Gippsland includes the Bass Coast, Baw Baw, East Gippsland, South Gippsland, Wellington Shire Councils and Latrobe City Council. The southern and eastern parts of the region are more intensely cultivated and at times I felt, when travelling through these areas that I could almost have been in England.
Leongatha proved quite a surprise. It’s importance as an educational centre was the first aspect I noticed, then the huge Murray Goulburn Cooperative Devondale Dairy. The Leongatha-based dairy processing site became part of Murray Goulburn in 1973. At first I was a little confused by this since Leongatha is nowhere bear the Murray or Goulburn rivers. Actually the Goulburn river is the main Victorian tributary of the Murray River.
The Murray Goulburn website explains the situation succinctly. As it turns out the company was established in 1950, is 100% controlled by Australian dairy farmers and is Australia’s major exporter of dairy products. Its Devondale brand is a market leader. The town itself brims with the benefits of wealth and the social legacy of rural industry.