Australia is a road-trip dream, with its big, bleached skies and wide, open stretches of tarmac. Until now, however, one route through rural Victoria’s wheatbelt has been a road less travelled – not so much off the beaten track as off the tourist radar entirely.
Careering north from Melbourne to Mildura and the mighty Murray river, travellers have often passed the one-horse towns, parched plains and pink lakes (it’s the algae) of the Wimmera Mallee, Victoria’s wild west, without a backward glance. A shame: they’ve missed treats such as Warracknabeal, the birthplace of Nick Cave, and Minyip, where the classic 80s TV series The Flying Doctors was filmed. Now, though, they’re slowing down in Yarriambiack Shire and following signs for the Silo Art Trail, a jaw-dropping tourist attraction.
Where others see rural decay and rusty railway tracks lined with disused grain silos, street artists see huge concrete canvases. These agricultural giants date to the 1930s. Until 1916, transporting grain in hessian sacks from the wheatbelt to the coast and cities had been an arduous business. The development of massive grain-handling systems along the railways changed that. During harvest they were a hive of activity, with farmers delivering grain by horse-and-cart, then truck. Fast-forward to railway closures and abandoned silos, no longer “fit for purpose”. Australian company GrainCorp now stores mountains of wheat and barley under tarpaulins instead, while the silos littering the landscape were sentinels of an economic decline.
Until Guido van Helten arrived. The first of the pioneer painters, van Helten is an artist who has created large-scale photorealist murals, from the US to the Ukraine. It had been his dream to paint one of these silos. Travelling from Brisbane (population 2.4 million) to Brim (population 171) at the end of 2015, he spent a month completing his epic art work: four figures, across six silos, rising 30m out of the sun-baked earth.
Word got out. Other artists followed, and international street artist agency Juddy Roller got involved – along with the local council and national government. GrainCorp gave the go-ahead for more silos to be used and by the end of 2017 a sixth silo had been finished and a Silo Art Trail created. The series of giant portraits celebrates the spirit of the people here and each artist spent time in a local township, searching for their muse. It’s now touted as Australia’s largest outdoor gallery.
The trail stretches around 200km, linking the country townships of Brim, Lascelles, Patchewollock, Rosebery, Rupanyup and Sheep Hills. It’s roughly a straight line – topped and tailed by Fintan Magee’s artwork at Patchewollock and Russian artist Julia Volchkova’s at Rupanyup. You could tick off all the silos in a crazy two- to three-hour trip but it’s better to do a loop, heading up on the Sunraysia Highway, then down on the Henty Highway. Slow down, take your time, spend the night en route.
One gateway is Halls Gap in the mountainous Grampians national park, a three-hour drive from Melbourne. This was gold rush territory and the historic, low-slung buildings are woven with intricate wrought-iron verandas. Roads are long and straight and lined with gum trees and flat fields. This is cowboy country and the drover still plays an important part in the Australian psyche. It’s what Australian poet Dorothea Mackellar dubbed the country’s “wide brown land” in her patriotic ode My Country.
Taking this route, the first silo is at Lascelles, a settlement named after the “Father of the Mallee”, Edward Harewood Lascelles and home to just 93 people. It has a pub, the Minapre Hotel, the area’s only drive-through bottle shop, and a mural on its silo by Melbourne artist Rone.
Rone’s work focuses on “finding the fine line between beauty and decay” and his subjects are an old farming couple, Geoff and Merrilyn Horman. “They’re not local,” say the locals, “they’ve only been here 25 years.” The monochrome images blend into the concrete’s soft sepia, giving it a haunting quality, like a faded photograph.
Drive on 50km to Patchewollock, a township that takes its name from two aboriginal words: putje, meaning plenty, and wallah, or porcupine grass. Before Brisbane artist Fintan Magee came to town, its claim to fame was the annual country music festival – with sheep racing. Magee’s lean and lanky subject is Nick “Noodle” Hulland, a local farmer who typifies the stoic spirit of the Wimmera Mallee, with his faded blue shirt and sun-bleached hair.
From here, head to Hopetoun, a good stop-off for the night – and a relative metropolis with a population of around 500. At the Mallee Bush Retreat ($15pp excluding breakfast, 04 39 529 973, no website) you can even bed down in a silo. This architect-designed, community project on the shore of Lake Lascelles is real “cool camping”. Accommodation is available in two Silver Silos, a Cow Shed, Grain Store, Stables and Machinery Store. Or check into the recently spruced up Hopetoun Hotel ($90 a room, excluding breakfast, 03 50 833 070, no website). Like most things in the Mallee, the hotel is community-run. Alternatively, rustic-chic bolthole Leura Log Cabin sleeps two ($120 B&B, outside Warracknabeal). While here, check out the Corrong Homestead, the oldest house in the Mallee, built by the first settler, Peter McGinnis, in 1846.
After breakfast at the butchers, J&C Wellingtons (there’s a funky cafe next to the meat counter, so you can order a latte while you wait for your chops; 76 Lascelles Street), drive south from Hopetoun to Rosebery.
Lawyer-turned-street artist Kaff-eine’s mural was the last to be completed, at the end of 2017. She spent five months living in a remote farmhouse in the Mallee, getting under its skin. She fell for the place and the people. The young female farmer on the left silo sums up the spirit of the Mallee: she is the future; on the right silo, the man and his horse show the tender side of a tough existence. The project itself was a tough gig: Kaff-eine would hang high above the ground in a small cage, at the mercy of dust storms and temperatures ranging from freezer to furnace.
Continue down the road to Brim, where Guido van Helten’s monochrome portrait of four figures has a ghostly, washed-out quality … they seem to be fading from view. His work focuses on identity: not of the individual but of these marginalised farming communities. He strove to capture the essence of this place – its struggle, its stoicism, the hardship.
Sheep Hills is your next stop. Population: two. Artist Adnate also reveals the plight of marginalised communities through his works, and his is the only silo to portray the local Aboriginal community: Wergaia Elder, Uncle Ron Marks, Wotjobaluk Elder, Aunty Regina Hood and two children, Savannah Marks and Curtly McDonald – his theme the passing on of wisdom and culture to the next generation.
The end of the trail is at Rupanyup, a squat steel grain silo painted by Russian artist Julia Volchkova. She chose a couple of young teenagers who play netball and Aussie Rules football, highlighting the importance of sport for the young in rural communities. The striking black and white portraits celebrate team spirit and hope for the future.
Since the Silo Art Trail was completed, international visitor numbers have increased by 30%. The future is starting to look bright. This might be the end of the trail, for now, but it’s just the start of the story.
The silos might be the main event but the sideshows are worth checking out too.
Kaff-eine, with the help of 100 locals, created a 45m-long mural at Wagon Inn Cabins in Lascelles and painted a horse mural in Beulah, opposite the Victoria hotel. In Rupanyup, Melbourne artist Georgia Goodie painted two murals of local firefighters, while in Woomelang, on the side of the community shop, the snake mural by street artist Sirum highlights the plight of the endangered inland carpet python. Just outside town, a rusty shearing shed is being restored. The Tin Shed was built from crushed kerosene tins after the second world war, due to a shortage of building materials.
The Stick Shed in Murtoa was built as an emergency grain store during the war. It now claims to be the ‘largest rustically-built structure in the world’, at 270m long, and can hold 92,500 tonnes of wheat. Inside, 560 mountain ash poles support a corrugated iron roof. It is now a heritage-listed building. The scale of this cathedral-like space, a Narnia-like forest of tree trunks, is awe-inspiring.
St Arnaud’s Bible Museum is an Aladdin’s Cave of around 2,000 volumes in more than 300 languages, including 30 aboriginal languages, and is the work of mother and daughter Ellen and Jean Reid. You can flick (carefully) through a Geneva bible published in 1599 and made from rag paper. There are military bibles going back to the 1800s, some from the Boer war, and The Bible According to Spike Milligan. They also breed butterflies and release 1,800 each year to flutter around the town’s gardens, among them the red-spotted Jezebel.