Bailed up by the art of Be­nalla

A Vic­to­rian coun­try town that’s worth the de­tour

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Australia - HEATHER ROS­SITER

IN north­east Vic­to­ria’s Ned Kelly coun­try, on my way to the gold­fields, I am bailed up in Be­nalla. Not by Ned, though he is here, swag­ger­ing out of a ta­pes­try by Sid­ney Nolan at the Be­nalla Art Gallery, but by the charm of this coun­try town.

I had ar­rived early, just as lo­cal bak­eries were set­ting out their chairs. Re­stored by cof­fee and crois­sants, I cross a bridge and spy an ele­gant mod­ern build­ing jut­ting out to­wards the lake. It’s the Be­nalla Art Gallery. Just pop in, I de­cide, but the col­lec­tion traps me.

Lau­rie Ledger, the gallery’s ma­jor donor, obeyed his mother, who said, ‘‘In­clude women artists.’’ Thanks to her, Be­nalla has mem­o­rable works such as Alice Bale’s In­te­rior (1906), an en­chant­ing view across a room into a light­filled hall­way where a fig­ure waits . . . to open a door, per­haps, or eaves­drop on a con­ver­sa­tion? It is rather killed by a heavy gilded frame, but that was the fash­ion of its era.

Af­ter sev­eral hours, I feel I’ve earned lunch on the gallery ter­race over­look­ing Lake Be­nalla. Ec­static squeals come from two small boys at the next ta­ble when early Easter eggs ar­rive with their hot choco­late. I am just as pleased with zuc­chini frit­ters topped with poached egg and creme fraiche, smoked salmon and av­o­cado driz­zled with fresh lime juice tucked into a rocket salad. But I con­tain my squeals.

On the wooden prom­e­nade be­neath the gallery, an el­derly cou­ple seem mes­merised by two model yachts out on the water. The lit­tle boats come about, but then the wind fills their sails and they are away again. The cou­ple re­lax back into their deckchairs.

I stop to chat as I walk around the lake. The me­tre-long yachts, the cou­ple’s own hand-crafted, re­mote-con­trolled toys, are in no dan­ger of over­turn­ing, their hulls lead-

It seems that on any night you can join a group do­ing the palais glide, the pride of Erin, a quick­step or even the schot­tische

weighted and their keels short to avoid the wa­ter­weed. There are sev­eral skilled Be­nalla en­thu­si­asts who make model yachts to or­der.

Near the Weary Dun­lop Me­mo­rial, I am al­most run down by those squeal­ing boys work­ing off their Easter eggs in the labyrinthine paths of the rose garden.

Em­bed­ded in roses, the bronze sculp­ture pays homage to a boy who grew up in the area, be­came a phar­ma­cist in the town, stud­ied medicine in Mel­bourne and was a saviour to Aus­tralian pris­on­ers-of-war on the ThaiBurma rail­way. Sculp­tor Louis Lau­men’s work evokes the suf­fer­ing of those men.

From the gallery’s ter­race, I had seen a strange con- struc­tion across the lake and when I cross the bridge I find a mag­i­cal piece of fan­tasy. To say the Be­nalla Ce­ramic Mu­ral is a three-di­men­sional tile-dec­o­rated struc­ture is an in­ad­e­quate de­scrip­tion of such a wildly play­ful cre­ation. Imag­i­na­tive de­signs in cobalt-blue, turquoise, gold and maroon burst from the mostly ter­ra­cotta sur­faces.

Snakes slither along ledges, birds wing from the para­pet, a baby with legs drawn up lies asleep on its tummy. A lit­tle cave at waist height makes me want to be a child again, so I can crawl in and sleep on its flower-pat­terned floor. I sit in the minia­ture am­phithe­atre and won­der what mir­a­cle in­spired this com­mu­nity work.

Old-time danc­ing is the go in Be­nalla. It seems that on any night you can join a group do­ing the palais glide, the pride of Erin, a quick­step or even the schot­tische. Ladies bring a plate, please, and all are wel­come, I read in the lo­cal pa­per. But I can’t stay.

Fish­ing in Lake Eil­don is lit­tle more than a cast away and there is, of course, a Ned Kelly mu­seum to see, since Glen­rowan is just up the track. But I come to my senses. Bendigo is call­ing.

The art gallery over­looks pretty Lake Be­nalla

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