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We left the city on Wednesday, for the first time since May. I cannot recall a longer period city bound in my life.
Stir crazy is an inadequate description. Since the still recent end of our infamous lockdown, it has been impossible to escape the constant announcements and re-announcements by the Andrews government, promising to breathe life back into domestic tourism.
The Andrews government has been promising support for the tourism sector.Credit:The Age
The press conferences generated a lot of photo opportunities for the news bulletins, but those who depend on tourists for their livelihood have been complaining that not much has changed. Time to find out.
Initially, I was anxious. We had made extravagant plans before, but COVID-19 kept interrupting. We had several times planned a local trip, to get fresh air into our lungs and make our contribution to the rural revival but events always conspired. But not this week.
The Ballarat Foto Biennale is on, and the art gallery features an exhibition of the photographic life of Linda McCartney. Portraits of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Mick Jagger and of course multiple unique images of the Beatles are promised.
We book accommodation and head up the highway, gaping slack jawed as the countryside slips past the cobweb-smudged car windows again.
We had company – our 11-year-old great-niece and great-nephew, who had heard of the Beatles but were more interested in Sovereign Hill.
They confidently predicted an opportunity to secure their future by finding copious amounts of gold, inspiring eager participation. They could talk of little else, and having learnt of the gold rush at school, were keen to put their history lessons to the test.
The first hurdle was easily crossed. The hotel in the centre of the city was almost empty and could not have been more obliging. The exhibition was but a few minutes’ walk up the street, and despite the website saying online booking was essential, a phone call confirmed that walk-ups were welcome.
And welcome we were – in the middle of the day, at peak viewing time, the gallery was very quiet. Much as we were happy to avoid queues and crowds, it must be disappointing and dispiriting for the organisers of a world-class exhibition to have half empty rooms instead of crowds jostling for a spot.
Linda McCartney: Retrospective is at the Art Gallery of Ballarat as part of the 2021 Biennale.Credit:Garth Oriander
McCartney’s life story is told through her photography, and although I wanted more of the iconic images from her inside view of rock’n’roll’s greatest era, it is a terrific collection and well curated.
The Foto Biennale extends beyond the gallery and wandering around Ballarat there are pop-up displays and mini-exhibitions in even the most surprising places. An ice-cream shop seems an unlikely gallery, but why not a few wildlife studies to go with your hazelnut and pistachio gelato?
This is no scientific survey, but wherever we wander, there are signs in shop windows advertising job vacancies.
Applicants for work are sought by just about every cafe, shop and restaurant. They all tell the same story – verifying the daily news reports of ‘capacity constraints’ in our economy. The prolonged absence of overseas students, that coterie of willing workers in their tens of thousands, is deeply felt in Ballarat as much as the capital.
The stories of bookshops and supermarkets struggling to replenish their shelves because of a shortage of truck drivers rings true.
We have not been to Sovereign Hill for at least 15 years. Despite a small problem buying tickets – the website says online is the only way to purchase, but the booking system refuses 10 attempts to accept any of our credit cards and a recorded message sheds no light on the problem – we present ourselves to an empty carpark and an eerily quiet reception.
An apologetic manager explains their website has rebelled – just like miners against the troopers – and as the software glitch at their bank will not permit the completion of any purchase of a ticket, there are almost no visitors.
Other than some excited school groups on end-of-year excursions, we have the diggings almost to ourselves.
Panning for gold is part of fun when visiting Sovereign Hill.
Along with success at gold panning – the tiny trophy bottle with half a dozen glittering specks of scavenged gold will be the pre-teens reminder for years to come – the wheelwright, blacksmith and candle makers were all generous with their banter and delighted to have an audience again.
For young Jimmy the most exciting part of the day was witnessing the musket loading and firing by the charming Scottish trooper.
For Zoe, the gold panning was trumped by the ride through the streets in the Cobb & Co stagecoach. Showing the benefit of years of success, Sovereign Hill has lost none of its charm.
Not for a moment pretending that our overnight jaunt up the highway is anything more than a superficial 48-hour snapshot of just one regional hub, but if the state government is serious about helping regional economies recover then a lot more creativity and even financial assistance will be needed.
Leaving behind frustrating circular debates on climate policy, another ALP factional war and rising tensions with China, instead driving home with the cricket from the Gabba on the radio, it seemed it just might be possible to put this annus horribilis of 2021 behind us.
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