It’s very likely my mum would’ve answered the phone if you ordered Chinese takeaway in the country Victorian town of Stawell in the 90’s. “Hullo, Golden Weef Chinese, what you want?” she would say.
We once owned Gold Reef Chinese Restaurant aptly named for it’s location in the middle of Gold Reeef Mall and a nod to the town’s rich gold mining history.
Conveniently we all lived above the restaurant, a sprawling 1923 building that has seen better days. My parents installed a monitor from the restaurant to the living room upstairs. “Order up!”, it would buzz at any time of the night, our queue to run downstairs to help out.
Jumping off a balcony to avoid chopping onions…
I was granted a reprieve from chopping bags of onions using a meat cleaver to do the laundry on the balcony, 3 storeys up.
The ghastly lace trimmed, apricot tablecloths sewn by mum were washed in our twin-tub machine. One tub did the washing before manually transferring to the other tub to spin.
The machine as if possessed during the spin cycle would rattle loudly and jerk a few steps forward, trying to end it’s misery by pulling it’s own plug. As I waited, I would daydream of automatic washing machines and worldly adventures, before it thundered to a stop and brought me back to reality.
With no fear of the drop below, I would climb over the balcony wall and perch myself on the ledge. This spot had the best views over the shops, the Town Hall clock and the Grampians in the distance.
When the clock tower played the Westminster Chime, I would dream of London, at other times I would imagine exploring exotic coastal communities. Stawell, 236 kilometers west of Melbourne, was inland with no beach in sight.
On one such occasion, I recall the thud of a basket of clothes, as I spun around my mum quivered “Rene” with terror in her eyes and a face of ghostly white, something very hard for an Asian to do. She thought I was going to jump.
Sprung! my thoughts as the tablecloths laid wet in the basket. Rather than staying for a lecture on slacking off, I dashed past her and up the street to buy the creamed corn which was next on my list of chores.
As a mother now, I get how stupid and dangerous sitting on a balcony ledge was. I wish I had the sense to carefully come down from the ledge and reassure mum that I wasn’t suicidal and brave enough to share with her my dreams and aspirations.
Years later, mum and I had a laugh about the balcony incident. She worried that moving us from Sydney to teeny tiny Stawell may have made me go over the edge. I reassured her that as much as I hated those apricot tablecloths, I never intended to jump.
My dreams were to live large and travel the world. But I was only able to do so through hard work and never forgetting where I came from.
Stawell was a great place to grow up despite being the only Asian in town
With a population of approximately 6,000 people and the token Asian in town, it wasn’t easy to blend in. I knew there was a bigger world out there with people that even looked similar to me. I couldn’t wait to be part of it.
There was the selfish desire to escape tedious chores of folding apricot coloured crown shaped napkins, cooking fried rice orders and washing mountains of dirty dishes.
Stawell for kids was uncomplicated, we rode bikes around town, had the privileged of not one but two video stores to rent tapes from and we had access to grand hikes in the Grampians. Although the only Asian in town, Stawell on the whole was a tolerant community. There were your usual bunch of rednecks that every community has, they were just easier to spot and we were easier targets in a small country town.
Life ebbed and flowed from the restaurant, there were sleepovers every other weekend and I recruited my friends to chop veggies using meat cleavers with me. As we grew, the restaurant was the source of pocket money for the boozy but mainly innocent paddock parties, which later turned into pub gatherings as everyone came of age.
Stawell is also the place where I met my husband. We now have two kids together and their grandparents still live in town. Returning recently with the kids now age 3 and 5, we thought we would show them “the sights” and indulge ourselves with a trip down memory lane.
Visiting Stawell with kids
Visiting Stawell? Let me show you some of the best things to do in Stawell with kids:
Go up the street
The Main Street of Stawell was once a pedestrian only mall. It had a lovely green lawn perfect for sun baking, a playground and a couple of feature fountains.
Tongues were wagging and locals up in arms as the council made the controversial decision to open up the mall (pronounced M-all not M-owl as some locals do) so that cars can use is as a main thoroughfare and access the shops at the top of the mall.
Known simply as the Main Street, the Gold Reef part now lost, refers to the quartz reef veins that run under Stawell which sparked the Victorian Gold Rush. Once, 25,000 eager prospectors gathered to fossick for glimmering Gold. A mural depicting Stawell’s Gold Mining history once adorned the walls along a walkway connecting the Main Street to the Woolworths, since covered up.
It’s easy to uncover the contribution Gold has made to the town, both the Town Hall and Town Hall Hotel were built in 1872 and the Post Office in 1874, constructed during Stawell’s prosperous gold era.
On the hour, the Town Hall Clock would sing the Westiminster Chime, however arrive two minutes before 9am, noon , 3pm, 6pm and 9pm and the Town Hall clock will play “With a Swag Upon His Shoulder” whilst two gold diggers at the top of the tower fossick for gold.
Everyone goes up the street, a stroll through the Main Street and commercial hub will provide an essence of the Stawell community. A reserved bunch, a little rough around the edges but otherwise good and decent folk. Today, the highway bypasses the Main Street, though it’s worth the detour for a visit and the locals appreciate the support.
The town’s bakery does a mean pie, there are good coffee shops which beats a highway instant coffee, the Town Hall turns into a cinema to show movies long since released in mainstream cinemas, catch Santa at Christmas at the pharmacy and there’s a mural dedicated to the many persona’s of Raunchy Rooster inside the local chicken shop, drop in and ask for the Snack Pack.
Watch the Stawell Gift, the oldest foot race in the world
The Stawell Gift held during Easter every year, is the town’s biggest event, the busiest time of the year and the best time to visit. The population doubles and accommodation becomes as rare as finding the next largest gold nugget. Locals open their homes as makeshift B&B’s to welcome athletes and their entourage and it’s the only time the local campsites and caravan parks full.
Watch world class running
Watch athletes dressed in their iconic satin bibs, run the oldest foot race in the world at historic Central Park. Local runners are pitted with international superstars as they are handicapped depending on results of the heats leading up to the main event.
Up for grabs is a hefty prize of $40,000 for first place. Very recently The Gift no longer discriminate between male and female races, both receiving equal prize money.
Perhaps the best place to watch The Gift is on the North Side in the impeccably maintained Grandstand built in 1899, where spectators have a panoramic view of the 120m track.
After a day at The Gift, locals and visitors rub shoulders at one of the watering holes in town, choose from: The Town Hall Hotel, The Gift, The Nash and new to the scene is The Hammer and Gad a restaurant come bar, where the cool kids hang out.
Stawell Beer Mile – not for kids
Worth a mention though one not to take kids or endorsed by The Stawell Athletics Club, is the Stawell Beer Mile organised by the local caravan park, run after the last race at the Stawell Gift. Athletes take four laps of a 400 m dirt track, where a bottle of beer is skulled at the start of each lap, runners incur a penalty should they throw up.
Other things to do at the Stawell Gift
The Stawell Gift has come along way since BYO beers enjoyed at the top of the hill on the south west corner of the stadium. A seasoned spectator noted that at $5 a beer the binge drinking is now kept to a minimum, bringing a refinement albeit slightly forced to the sport.
The food choices has become fancier for the kids there is gelato, gourmet chips and things to eat on sticks. Parents have a choice of coffee, dips, wine and cheese as well as taking a punt in the betting area with the bookmakers.
A surprising hit with my kids was the relatively new fashion parade where athletes strut in their finest between races.
When the kids tired of watching the heats, further along the North Side is a beautiful rose garden and lawn area ideal for little running feet.
Just for kids, there is a free petting zoo. For a gold coin kids get a small bag of hay to feed the large selection of adorable farm animals including a very opportunistic alpaca.
Easter Sunday is Family Day at The Stawell Gift
On the Easter Sunday kids receive free entry to The Gift’s Family Day where kids get to meet star athletes, join in on an athletic clinics and score chocolate eggs from the Easter Bunny. There’s also face painting, a bouncy castle, tattoos and organised activities.
Rides at the Carni
The locals know it only as the Carni. The Stawell Carnival rolls into town every year at Easter to coincide with the Stawell Gift.
It’s small, the rides are tired and slightly overpriced, but through the eyes of our children we were able to recapture the fun and excitement of what the Carni meant for us.
There’s dodgem cars, bouncy castle, inflatable balls and whirly rides suitable for toddlers. Kids can try their luck at the clowns for large stuffed toy prizes or jump on bungy trampolines. When the Carni rolled in it was a chance to treat on dagwood dogs and fairy floss.
Hit the Races
“The Races” is the annual Stawell Gold Cup horse race hosted by the Stawell Racing Club. A big event on Stawell’s calendar, rivalling the historic foot race in town and definately stealing some of The Gifts patrons and limelight.
The Main Street of Stawell is noticeably quiet as approximately 4000 people get into the racing spirit. It’s an opportunity for ladies to frock up and gents to wear a suit and tie for a boozy day out. Don’t worry about underdressing, it’s still a country race and many opt out of their Sunday best.
Kids are welcomed during the Family Fun Day where they can don jockey silks to race in the over-sized egg and spoon race on the Stawell racetrack. There’s also guest appearance from the Easter Bunny, a Easter egg hunt, a petting zoo, face painting, jumping castle and organised sports activities.
Stop at Sisters Rocks
If driving from Melbourne to Adelaide it’s worth a brief stop to see Sisters Rocks. Just off the Western Freeway before the first turn off into Stawell are a series of large granite boulders. Kids get a chance to exert some road trip energy by clambering over impressive rocks and play hide and seek in the caverns.
The Sisters Rocks is most recognisable by the graffiti. Though it’s illegal to draw on the rocks, there are plenty that do and with some dating back to the 1940’s.
Have a play at Cato Park
A short stroll from the Main Street and across the road from The Stawelll Gift is Cato Park a great green space with shady fir and eucalyptus trees. There’s an all abilities fenced playground with plenty of obstacles, slides and swings to keep the kids preoccupied.
Willow trees line the large man-made lake which from 1958-1988 was the site of the Stawell Olympic Pool. It’s now home to resident family of ducks and swans, whom have survived extreme conditions of drought, freeze and flood.
For a swim in the pool, the Stawell Leisure Centre is located on the corner of Newington Road and Houston St.
Head up Big Hill, whilst it’s still there
The lookout at the top of Big Hill offers unobstructed views over the entire town with a backdrop of the Grampians in the west.
Take in the view whilst it’s still there. Big Hill sits under rich gold deposits and Stawell Gold Mines owned by Crocodile Gold has pushed plans to create an open-cut mine at Big Hill, to more efficiently mine gold.
There has long been rumours that the gold is running out in Stawell and the gold mine becoming unviable. Though the open-cut project has been rejected twice by parliament on environmental reasons, it hasn’t stopped the mine from putting forward another proposal.
Swing past Stawell Gold Mines
Stawell is one of the last active gold mining towns from the Victorian Gold Rush. I remember startled by what I had thought were air raid sirens in the middle of the night, when I first moved to Stawell. Sometimes, the sirens were followed by a blast or vibration. I later found out the sirens were from the local gold mine and learnt to sleep through it.
When coming back down from the lookout on Big Hill on the South-East side there is a viewing area to check out relics of gold mining machinery. A clearing has been made to view the Stawell Gold Mine through a wire fence. It’s worth a look as it’s part of the towns makeup and something the kids don’t ordinarily get to see.
Take short trips from Stawell
Here are some of the things around Stawell worth checking out:
Sample a sparkling chiraz at Great Western
There are some impressive wineries 30 minutes from Stawell in the smaller region of Great Western with links back to the Barossa. Grand wineries include: Seppelts, Bests and Grampians Estate. Some offer tours of their beautiful grounds including the underground wine tunnels.
The cellar doors are large with ample space for the kids to run around. Seppelts even has a kids play room with toys and books to keep them entertained whilst mum and dad have a tasting. Of note, their award winning 2004 Sparkling Chiraz, which had been recently paired with a meal at Heston’s Fat Duck restaurant in Melbourne.
Check out a Giant Koala
Take a short drive to the Giant Koala in Dadswell Bridge, about 27 km north-west of Stawell towards Horsham.
Built in 1988, the Giant Koala stands 14 meters high. Inside is a small souvenir shop and next door a Indian restaurant. If that isn’t kitschy enough, at night it’s two beady red eyes light up, if taking the kids best to keep them close.
Play at Halls Gap
What’s not to love about mountains, birds chirping and clean crisp country air. Halls Gap nestled in the Grampians National Park is a lovely spot for a picnic and a play. Kids can enjoy an ice-cream or clamber over rocks at Stoney Creek shops. At dusk there are frequent sightings of kangaroos and koalas.
Nearby is a playground and when the weather is warm the local pool is a hit with the kids.
A short drive away is Lake Bellfield Dam where kids can take a walk along the dam wall.
A recent addition to to the area is Halls Gap Zoo, the biggest regional Zoo in Victoria with an impressive list of animals. As well as native Australian species there is also a family of meerkats, spider monkeys, bison and giraffe.
But the main reason people visit Halls Gap is for the walking trails, waterfalls and rock climbing. Walks suitable for young kids include:
- Venus Baths Loop, 2.3 km return, easy grade walk. Pack bathers and a towel as the kids will want to take a splash in the inviting rock pools.
- Silver Band Falls, a 700m stroller friendly walk across two footbridges to Silverband Falls where the waterfall streams down a very thin line and disappears.
- The Balconies Lookout, a 2km return, easy grade walk to panoramic views over Victoria Valley.
- Makenzie Falls, the most popular waterfall in the area and a 40 mintue drive from Halls Gap. From the car park it is a 1km accessible walk to the viewing platform. However, the best way to view Makenzie Falls is from the base. It’s a steep, moderate grade trail to the base (30 minutes one way) and a steeper incline journey back up.
Time travel and Chinese food
I still shudder at the thought of the never ending orders of Gold Reef Silver Banquets which was our signature set menu. There were piles of linen to press and food to prep during Easter. My folks haven’t owned the restaurant for nearly 20 years, but as I step through the glass door which still catches on the decades old carpet, the memories come flooding back.
The same light fixtures hung on the wall, the carpet remains the same and a prosperity cat powered by a solar panel, sits in the same spot on a china cabinet we once owned. I suppressed the urge to answer the familiar ring of the telephone, instead a young Asian girl rushed to it’s call, as I once did.
It was like being transported back in time only my kids were with me. As they scampered up the well trodden lino path that leads to kitchen door, I wonder how many times their Por Por (Nanna) had done the same thing.
As we order from the lunch menu, I could already envisage what the meal would taste and how it was plated. When it arrived it was starkly unfamiliar, instead of an oval plate it was on a round plate and without the garnish of lettuce, parsley and a carrot decorated in the shape of a butterfly. Whilst the meal tasted fine it was missing Dad’s cantonese flavours and it snapped me out of my time warp.
Then all the noticeable differences sprung to the fore, the tablecloths were gone, a decision I would’ve welcomed. The tables were missing their neatly folded crown shaped napkins and polished wine glasses. The waiters were casually dressed rather than in their pressed black and whites. It saddens me that country Chinese restaurants no longer hang onto it’s retro 70’s style, there was a tacky refinery that went with dining out at the local.
A meal at the local Chinese does feel like travelling back in time, where Satay Chicken is served with a fire flambé or a Mongolian Sizzling Lamb arrives from the kitchen smoking hot on a sizzling platter. Embrace this dining experience as it will soon be a thing of the past.
The thought crossed my mind to run up the stairs and onto the balcony, to get a glimpse of that vista and perhaps dangle my legs a little over the balcony. However, that balcony ledge and the big dreams belonged to someone else now.
If it wasn’t for Stawell and growing up above a Chinese restaurant which included the much hated chore of chopping bags of onion right after school. I would not have the work ethic I have or the deep appreciation for my parents that I do. They are the epitome of hard work and they sacrificed much to scrape together a better future for my siblings and I.
What a bright future they gave me, a chance for higher education leading to a career and lifestyle they never had. I have since watched the sunset in Italy’s Cinque Terre, lived in London to hear the chime of Big Ben, scored great jobs overseas to budget for wonderful travels around the world.
I owe it all to a little day dreaming, a bit of luck and the insatiable hunger of a making a life better than my humble beginnings. With a clear focu everything I did and every opportunity given, worked towards realising my travel dream.
Keep dreaming and thanks for taking a trip to Stawell with me.
Have you been to Stawell? What are your tips for visiting with kids? Love to hear your thoughts below: