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Local pride?

To those outside Gippsland, have you bought into the negative stereotypes about our really beautiful part of the world?

Apr 12, 2019

Words: Oscar T. Achen
Images: Shane Gavin

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Have you ever felt embarrassed about where you grew up?

I confess that I have, many times. Although, I've never been outright mocked or shunned for growing up where I did, of course. —

Ever since I moved out of my parents’ house in Yinnar and started my new life working a somewhat stable job in inner-city Melbourne, I’ve fielded an almost endless stream of strange questions from city folk about what it was like growing up “right next to those coal mines in ‘Gippsland’”. Most people who grew up here will tell you that it’s actually quite nice — in fact, a particularly lovely part of this world that just happens to have some power stations in it. And until I left, I had never bothered to think about Gippsland beyond it being just that. The idea that my home might be problematic or embarrassing never really occurred to me. But lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about my future career and my old home and trying to decide whether or not I really want to make Gippsland a part of it.

As I’m writing this, I’ve finished unpacking about half of my things in my new rental flat in Essendon. I’m excited to be here: it’s close to the city, the shops are nice and the coffee is great; but it’s loud, planes constantly fly overhead, shops are always bustling with people and I can hear the constant dinging of a tram or the clacking of a train as they shoot by. It’s different, and you notice those differences every day.

A lot of people, having grown up in the bush, struggle to “deal” with the sheer numbers of people that congregate in the city, and I’ve definitely struggled with that over the last few years. The super dense living can be a shock, too; in my first year of university, I went from nine acres of beautiful land near Jeeralang to a small, subdivided granny flat that I shared with three other people. It’s a different kind of living and one that took a long time to adjust to.

Growing up in the Latrobe Valley had, de facto, defined my whole young life. All the family that I knew lived there, all my friends lived there, most everyone I knew had grown up and settled there — even my grandparents had emigrated there from Poland after the war ended. My family never moved and still live in the house I grew up into this day. The Valley was synonymous with Gippsland to me, the part of the bush that made coal and paper and was only an hour or so away from the beautiful south coast. It really did seem obvious as a young lad that I would end up staying there forever; as a young boy, I even imagined I would be taking over the family’s property once I got a career (whatever that was). Living in this little part of the world for the rest of my life seemed almost inevitable.

Many of my memories of Gippsland stem from trips on the M1 Freeway, the stretch of road that cuts across the eastern part of the state, taking you from Melbourne all the way to Traralgon, on to Sale through Rosedale and then onto Bairnsdale and Lakes Entrance. That freeway was the backbone to my first adventures around the state, from travelling to see dear family friends in Warragul, to going to see my Nan and Pop in Traralgon and scrambling around on Pop’s big truck he used for countless jobs and odd tasks. I have a fond memory of nearly every town along that freeway, and I’m always happy to be driving along that road, in or outbound. Those trips were my first real exploration of the wider world around me.

The freeway also, eventually, led me to Melbourne, to university and to where I first started to think about a life outside of Gippsland.

The first time I thought seriously about ‘Gippsland’ as a place to live was on the first day of my second year of university. It was a hot, sticky day, and I was driving with a friend to attend our first classes for the year. We’d taken off from my parents’ house in Yinnar and we were arguing about which back roads we could take to get to Melbourne. The argument was strained, snappy and panicked, largely because we were trying to navigate around a bushfire that was tearing through a pine plantation and had spread over the Princes Freeway, threatening homes and families and sadly forcing us to take a different route. We took twisted, potholed back roads around police roadblocks in order to circumvent the blaze, and after a few wrong turns, we managed to finally get back on the road to Melbourne and on to our classes. Not bad for a couple of plucky undergrads! Many of my peers, however, were not so lucky. Quite a few missed out on their first days at university, and one of my friends nearly died trying to get around it, trying to find a safe back road just like we had done.

The spectacle of a natural disaster like that is an experience most young people living rurally have grappled with at some point in their lives (in fact, I would struggle to name someone who hasn’t been affected by one at some point). This particular bushfire, though not as ‘memorable’ as some of the bigger ones in recent history, became the first thought bubble in a long procession of many that occur when a young person begins to think about their future in the wider world. What did I want to achieve with my life? What did I want to do for a career? More importantly — where did I want to end up? At the end of the day, I wasn’t sure that Gippsland was the answer to that last question.

Going to university ended up being that catalyst for change, but looking back it was sold to us in the most utilitarian of ways. Our high school teachers knew the drill right from the start — going to university was a crucially important choice, and your results were vital in making sure you got where you wanted to go. If it didn’t already look like you could manage the grades, you weren’t getting the attention. If you wanted to major in something that wasn’t STEM-related, you’d best be top of all your classes, otherwise, you might be told — as I was — just to look into it on your own. I realise now that my teachers just didn’t have the time to coddle me through those choices; in the bush, lots of schools simply don’t have the luxury or the talent to get everyone across the line, so those who can’t keep up end up sidelined so that the more able can get over the line. The staffing and resourcing to help young students succeed in “the most important years of your life” just don’t exist. A lot of young people just don’t bother and turn to local jobs as labourers or tradesmen. I wasn’t cut out for that type of work, so I ‘looked into it’ on my own, and decided to just attend a less elite university and just study something for a bit. I’d work it all out down the line, or so I figured.

What I figured out was that the things I’d gone off to learn weren’t very useful for finding work back in the Valley. I wasn’t great at maths, so I didn’t bother with engineering or science. I couldn’t really stomach looking at spreadsheets for the rest of my life, so I skipped over economics and accounting. I ended up settling on sociology and political science, arguably some of the more obscure career paths available and found my way into organising.

Needless to say, my family was very confused, but I really enjoyed myself (still do, really) and for a while even thought I could still bring my new skills back to my hometown (maybe I’ll work in the public sector, maybe I’ll go into consulting — ASIC has an office in Traralgon…). But the more I pondered, the more I realised I was trying to fit future career prospects, that were possibly unrealistic for the region, into my optimistic dream of coming back and settling in Gippsland.

It wasn’t just the economic side of the argument that was suffering, either, my own identity of being “from the country” was also in the firing line. This is, in short, where I really started to feel the embarrassment. At university, I found that being from the Valley was quite a novelty to other students. That novelty became more and more problematic as I went through uni. One thing high school teachers could never prepare me for was how little city kids actually knew about how country life actually functioned, let alone what the people who lived there were like. I learned that nobody really cares exactly where you grew up — I started off in my first year introducing myself as being “from Yinnar” (“Oh, it’s near Morwell, do you know that? Oh… like, near Moe? Yeah, the one from the Footy Show sketch. Yeah, it’s not that bad really, haha, pretty funny though”), then quickly moving to saying I was from either Traralgon or Morwell or Moe, to eventually settling on “from Gippsland originally”, and never elaborating unless prompted.

Nobody really cared, and if someone did know about the Valley, it was usually for the wrong reasons. I’ve quickly learned just how bad the ice problem is down “your way”, or how “racist those country blokes are” compared to effete grammar school boys. Last year, I attended a rally in Melbourne to support the Change the Rules campaign, and I got into a conversation about hometowns with a fellow marcher, who remarked “so your family’s big into those brown coal mines? What a stain on the state that place is”. And not too long ago, whilst doing phone calls to help organise a community meeting in Traralgon, I overheard a pair of volunteers talking about the seat of Morwell in the upcoming state election. “I don’t understand why these people don’t vote for the parties that actually want to help them”, one said. “It’s because they’re racist idiots, who don’t know any better” came the reply.

The problem is, it’s not like these people are entirely wrong. I have seen many horrid things in my hometown that made me want to hop in my car and drive into the ocean. I spent three years working in the Mid Valley shopping centre and witnessed all kinds of generational poverty on display. Kids at my university used to talk about how scary it is in Frankston or Broadmeadows — I would always think about how Morwell had a higher crime rate than both of those places. People always told me to watch out for the violent behaviour outside city nightclubs, but I always felt more afraid outside Saloon at three in the morning waiting for a hotdog in a line full of fellow drunks. The difference is, and always will be, that I lived and grew up here in the Latrobe Valley. It’s a small detail, sure, but it means a lot in the context of finding solutions and creating dialogue around these problems. I don’t pretend to understand everything, but I do feel that local communities and people who take the time to work with those communities deserve to be treated a lot better than being dismissed as “racist idiots” by somebody who has never spent time in Gippsland.

The continuing decline of rural communities in Victoria is absolutely something to be concerned about. The most recent census showed that 70% of Victoria’s population is located within the Greater Melbourne area. I am now officially contributing to that decline, having settled even further into the North West of the city than before. The continued suburban sprawl of design-it-yourself catalogue homes, dotted with elaborate supermarkets and cheap small businesses, is set to reach as far as Warragul in the next 25 years. By then, who knows — maybe the Gippsland I know will be gone. The plants will be closed, the forests (plantation and old growth) will be cleared, and everything will become houses and flats as far as the eye can see. Maybe that’s better?

Often absent in my thoughts is what should be done to make things better in Gippsland. Just slapping a new coat of paint on the same old streets won’t stop unemployment from rising. Recent ideas for revitalising the region have included a new coal power plant project or a suggestion that the mines could be converted into a pumped hydro storage facility. Can we do anything else but generate power here?

I recommend you look online for Gippsland Honeymoon, a video produced in 1962 by the Gippsland Lakes and Tourism Promotion Council. It’s a great time capsule.

It highlights the unique natural beauty of Gippsland, reminding me of my childhood holidays as it visits places like Buchan, Omeo and Walhalla. The Latrobe Valley gets a look-in too; the film’s featured couple fly over the power plants, the paper mills and the gas works. We hear that, “The Yallourn coal mine is big enough to swallow most of the city of Melbourne, with not a spire showing above ground”.

For nearly 60 years, we’ve done nothing but generate energy, and we are still known for our big holes in the ground. I’d really like to see us offer something different in the future.

Returning home now, I’m inspired by the support that’s been shown towards locals to make new things happen. I like going to Traralgon, seeing new cafés and shops that are run by locals, employing locals and occupying shop fronts that have been empty for years. They provide me with a lot of hope that the region can grow beyond its previous economic history.

At the end of the day, when I think about why I moved to Essendon, rather than anywhere else in Victoria, the answer is surprisingly easy — the rent is affordable and it’s close to where I work. I didn’t choose to leave Gippsland because I didn’t like being there — I left because my career path wasn’t compatible with living here. Ultimately that has a practical solution, developing a more dynamic and nuanced economy, built on an ecosystem of thriving local small-to-medium–sized businesses and high liveability.

I don’t know when I’ll actually make a decision on giving up on Gippsland and the Valley for good. Maybe if my parents retire and give up their nine acres. Perhaps I’ll find a new job, a better job, that takes me to another state — or even to another country. And then, maybe I’ll have to admit that I’m slowly, slowly, completely giving up on settling down in Gippsland. I certainly tried my hardest not to explain what’s so much better about the city in this article. But I’ll always have a love for the place, and I’ll always have a passion for sharing how nice the area can actually be, if you just give it a try. Case in point: over the Christmas break I took two of my friends to see the power stations up close and personal. I drove them right past Yallourn, through Loy Yang, and took them up to the viewing point to stare at the open cut coal mines.

“It’s incredible”, they gaped. “It’s so huge. You can’t tell from the photos just how big it is in real life”.

“Isn’t it disgusting? All of that coal, being dug up from here?” one said.

“Absolutely”, said the other. “It’s awful, but still… it’s incredible”.

Our coal mines are controversial, but they’re awe-inspiring nonetheless, and they will eventually be filled up with dirt, or possibly flooded to make a lake. Hopefully, they’ll still be as awe-inspiring with water in them. And hopefully, we can all try to be a little less embarrassed about the place when we talk to our city friends, maybe more aware of how much we’ve bought into those negative stereotypes about a really beautiful part of the world. Let’s not forget what made Gippsland such a great place to grow up in, and what can lure us back once again.

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