Time to stop for a Wunghnu warm-up

By John Lewis

Just like big families, country towns have their own parade of unique characters and passions, buildings and histories — all united by a shared sense of pride and identity. In the next few months, The News will visit communities near Shepparton to find out what makes them tick. Last week, The News’ John Lewis visited Wunghnu.

Early on a foggy winter morning, Wunghnu arrives like warm toast from the grey blanket of the Goulburn Valley Highway.

The town’s water tower emerges with its cheery cartoon reminder that Wunghnu is actually Australia’s smallest sheep station – One Ewe.

Suddenly you’ve got a thirst for coffee and a chat – and if a custard slice with pink icing is your thing – then the Wunghnu café is your kind of place.

Tracey Bright has been cooking up fruitcakes and sweet slices, all-day breakfasts, and serving coffee with the help of daughter Ashley since she took over the café a year ago.

If you need proof of her cooking prowess – one wall of the big shiny tin shed is covered in ribbons and sashes her fruit cakes and slices have picked up at country shows across the district.

The café has been through several reincarnations – it was closed for four months before Tracey and Ashley arrived last year.

“It’s just something I’ve always wanted to do. Then this one came up,” Tracey says.

Tracey Bright and daughter Ashley keep the cafe running for passing sweet tooths and coffee revivers.

But it’s the middle of winter, and she’s a bit worried.

“Things have been a bit quiet for the last month or two,” she says.

Wunghnu Tavern publican Trish Milne offers some advice.

“You just have to hope you make enough in the summer to get you through the winter,” she says.

Trish has lived in Wunghnu for 20 years and took on the pub in 2011 – just before the town’s footy club was forced to close because of a lack of numbers.

Wunghnu is the classic Australian passing-through place. 

Trucks thunder down the highway which bisects the town, as do caravans and farm vehicles – and if Tracey or Trish are lucky, some drivers will stop for a reviver or some lunch.

The town has seen better times - in the past few years it has seen its general store, gas station and post office close down as well as the footy club. It has also been hit by destructive floods in 2012, followed by  fires in 2014.

Some say Wunghnu is an Aboriginal word for boomerang, and there may be some truth in that. The township keeps bouncing back, and as with small towns everywhere, there is always something to smile about.

A farewell dinner for solar farm staff and townspeople put a big grin on everyone’s face last week.

French company Neoen has spent the past year building Victoria’s biggest solar farm on 515 ha of land 5 km east of Wunghnu.

Last Saturday night, The Wunghnu Tavern hosted a shindig to celebrate the solar project’s opening and farewell the project’s workers who came from across Australia.

“What a good night that was,” Tracey says, smiling as she remembers.

“We had oysters, salmon, prawns all paid for by the company – and they brought up three chefs to cater. There must have been 150 people in the place,” Trish says.

With music by local country star Callum Gleeson and food served until midnight the shenanigans went on until 4am on Sunday.

But it was still opening time as usual at 11 am.

 “I was dragging my feet a bit on Sunday – but that was my big boost for the year,” Trish says.

“It’s quietened down a bit now – we’re looking for the next big project.”

Tony Carter (left) and Laurie Kennedy preparing track for the long-planned Moira Miniature Railway at the recreation reserve.

Down the road at the recreation reserve, Laurie Kennedy and Tony Carter are in a shed next to the old footy club rooms working on a project they hope will blow some steam into Wunghnu’s future.

The Moira Miniature Railway has been a dream of the two railway buffs and Laurie’s wife Denise for more than 10 years.

Tony and Laurie are welding steel train tracks on to 6m panels – which they hope will complete a 1.2 km train track running along the eastern edge of the reserve by Christmas.

“We’re hoping it will bring people to the town – so we can have fun and bring some money in at the same time,” Laurie says.

Next door, the footy club rooms stand empty – a forlorn reminder of how things used to be.

Over at Locheilan Cheese, west of Wunghnu, new owners Ryan and Mary Lawless are still on the learning curve of cheesemaking.

They bought the business from founders Bruce and Sue McGorlick just over a year ago.

 “It’s a 100 per cent learning curve – but it’s been going great,” Ryan says.

He’s a Wunghnu man born and bred, and even though the footy club has gone leaving a big hole for the town’s youth – he and his family are staying put.

“We won’t be going anywhere. I’ve just planted 2000 acres of crop – it’s a good little community,” he says.

Back at the footy oval, Laurie and Denise are finishing their working bee and packing up their track and trains.

They have lived in Wunghnu for 33 years and like most small town people, they see the positives.

“It’s a nice quiet place. We’re only a small town, but we love it,” Denise says.