A new trail from Shanghai to a salt lake called Sea Lake

Recent happenings in the small sleepy town of Sea Lake (population 600) are a snapshot of global forces that are shaping not only rural Victoria, but many other places throughout the world. The influx of mainland Chinese tourists are an interesting new influence in many remote corners of the world. A social media photograph of a shallow salt lake near the town has led to large influx of Chinese tourists who make a four hour road trip from Melbourne to Sea Lake and back.

Desolate beauty on the edge of the salt lake, Lake Tyrrell, Victoria, Australia.

Our road trip from Melbourne to Sea Lake was quite fun. You head out of town on the bustling M79 Calder Freeway for a couple of hours, which eventually transforms into a country highway beyond the gold rush city of Bendigo. The journey to Sea Lake was the first time I’d ventured north of Bendigo. It’s a flat landscape of wheat fields that stretch to the horizon – a trip that would be best avoided in the summer heat. We’re talking “North By Northwest” Alfred Hitchcock territory here, in that scene where Cary Grant is stalked chased around the cornfield by the crop duster – except that these are wheat fields. This is typical Australian highway driving with long straight stretches of bitumen, running parallel to a railway line and dishevelled looking telegraph line – making a direct line across the bright sunny plains.

Abandoned siding along along the railways that pass through the grain belt of northern Victoria. This railway still operates for transport of agricultural commodities like wheat and barley.

The A79 highway from Bendigo to Sea Lake serves an important grain belt which has a network of small towns, silos and other grain handling facilities that are largely controlled by actions of GrainCorp – a home grown commodities trading and transportation corporation with global reach. Many of these towns had their heyday from the 1890s to the 1950s, but are now adversely impacted by the closure of many grain handling silos, as transportation networks muscle up – bigger trucks, more railway transportation and better machinery for more timely, efficient harvests. The spring harvest in 2019 looked like a bumper crop, but it is a little sad to see that most towns looked half abandoned as we drive through this productive rural landscape.

An incomplete artwork on a grain silo in Sea Lake

There has been a quiet revolution in these far flung country towns with the advent of Art Silo Trails. All grain towns have huge concrete silos which tower above the surrounding flat plains of the Mallee Region. Art Silo Trails are being established as huge murals are painted on the silos, perhaps being some of the largest artworks in the world. Towns and villages are about 15-25 kilometres apart, so these trails make for a fun road trip, with each artwork depicting particular aspects of a local community or local wildlife. On our visit to Sea Lake in 2019, the finishing touches were being made on a painting of a girl on a swing, overlooking the vast desolate landscape of Lake Tyrrell at sunset. Indeed, this silo is also an amazing place to visit at sunrise or sunset, with the colourful painting blending into the early amazing morning or evening sky.

Art silo on the side of the main railway through Sea Lake, Victoria, Australia

We arrived in the late afternoon in Sea Lake, checking into the Royal Hotel, which is the place to stay in the middle of town. Lake Tyrrell is the main reason people come here, with sunset being the prime time to see the amazing light. We made the short 7 kilometre drive out to the lake, which was a little busy with another dozen car loads of people, most of whom were visitors from mainland China. After some photos were posted on WeChat about 5 years ago, large numbers of Chinese tourists now make the trip to Lake Tyrrell to experience the relative solitude and mirror like horizon on the lake.

Dusk on Lake Tyrrell, a lonely landscape that is now visited by increasing numbers of tourists, particularly from mainland China.

This is the largest salt lake in Victoria, with an area of over 50,000 acres, so it can comfortably cater to a few hundred people without feeling over crowded. Aboriginal settlement has also occurred at this site for longer than anywhere else in Victoria, with evidence of human activity dating back over 45,000 years. The local Boorong indigenous people apparently had an avid interest in astronomy, which is easy to appreciate when you personally experience this natural site at sunset. The horizon seems endless across the lake. It’s the first time I felt like I could feel the earth moving through space, as you have such a clear view of the sun as it sets with the stars and planets appearing in quite quick succession as the light fades.

Bright moonlight over Lake Tyrrell, near Sea Lake, Victoria, Australia. Quite an awesome landscape.

European visitors who first explored this part of Australia also recorded their impressions of this salt lake – they didn’t see it as a very useful site as they were trying to develop new pastoral leases for sheep. Says The Australasian Newspaper on 5 May 1888: “Stretching away to the horizon was what appeared to be a glittering sheet of water, but what was in reality a thick layer of salt.”

Walking trail on the edge of Lake Tyrrell.

After many trips to China, I can see how the solitude and expanse of Lake Tyrrell would be a highlight for Chinese people who Australia. The photos opportunities are great, but feeling the gentle sun and clean breeze that rushes across the landscape is an experience that is easily remembered. The solitude is incredible. I do wonder if people who live in huge cities throughout their life sometimes get a little fearful of complete solitude. I guess its not an issue here, as there are heaps of people here every day, despite the remote location. The surface of the salt lake is also quite fascinating, with the soil being a mix of smelly iron with a sulphur like smell. It looks solid from a distance, but it is thick gluggy mud. Mud that is incredibly difficult to remove from your shoes. I could see why there are huge signs that warn people not to drive on the lake, even though it looks dry – you can’t behave as though you are in a car TV advertisement.

Desolate landscape and ominous warning signs in English and Chinese near Lake Tyrrell. Although this salt lake can appear to be dry, the mud runs deep for many months after a rain event.

Once the light had faded, we returned into town and had a hearty meal at the Royal Hotel. The hotel has been tastefully redecorated in recent years with comfortable furnishings/bedding and an old world no-nonsense rural charm. The food at the restaurant is typical Australian pub grub and the beer (and wine) is nice and cold – either sitting in the beer garden or on the federation style verandahs that have a view over the rest of the town. A great Saturday night experience, especially if you want to escape the rat race and experience great country hospitality.

Sea Lake Royal Hotel dominates the main street of the town.

Relevant links for a Lake Tyrrell roadtrip:

Getting there and away: From Melbourne, head out of town on the M79 Calder Freeway to Bendigo and then follow the A79 to Sea Lake. Sea Lake is 354km from the centre of Melbourne: Google Maps directions. This part of Victoria is great for road trips, as the landscape is flat and quiet country roads generally don’t lead to a dead end. We took an alternate road back through the towns of Swan Hill, Echuca and Rochester on the way back to Melbourne on Sunday.

Accommodation: Royal Hotel Sea Lake – highly recommended as it is clean, well appointed and convenient to Lake Tyrrell. The whole place has a friendly relaxed atmosphere with a great sense of history – the photos on their website do not do justice to the building or rooms. (Note – Most rooms have shared bathrooms).

Apart from the hotel, Sea Lake has other basic options in terms of other restaurants, supermarkets and other provisions. There were two coffee shops open on Sunday morning. There is a petrol station on the northern edge of the town, which has limited opening hours.

You will not find these opening hours in Shanghai.

Tourism Website for Lake Tyrrell (Victorian Government) – this site has some excellent photos and an overview of access to the site.

Art Silo Trail: a dedicated website to the art trails across the wheat fields in Victoria.

Art silos in Rochester, Victoria – we took an alternate route back to Melbourne through some of the towns on the backroads of northern Victoria.

Interesting extract about Sea Lake from “The Story of the Mallee”, a local history book about the region:

Wycheproof is one of the older plains townships benefiting by the Mallee, but not quite belonging to it. Kaneira, originally Sutherland’s town, and Berriwillock have been overshadowed by Sea Lake. The lake itself, quite disregarded and unimportant in pastoral days, as it was filled only once in a generation, got its name from its unusual depth. As tradition— in the Mallee ten years is a cycle—relates, a Dago bullocky, riding after his team, came upon the strange sheet of water, and expecting it to be, as usual in Mallee swamps, a foot or so in depth, he boldly urged his horse across it. A few steps and he was up to the saddle-flaps, for the lake, though one of the smallest, is 13 feet deep. Out he scrambled in great alarm, and rode back to camp crying he had found a lake deep as the sea, a sea lake. Once the water channels were constructed Sea Lake had an assured future. The opening up of the Tyrrell country by the Mallee Agricultural and Pastoral Company (Lascelles) helped Sea Lake to become a bustling, thriving centre, and with its fine buildings, its water reticulation, and its electric lighting system, it is a standing example of Mallee possibilities. Its population is now nearly 600.

The Story of the Mallee by A.S. Kenyon (page 184)

Some more history about the town of Sea Lake.

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