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Mildura, VIC.

A cabal kidnapping babies uses Aboriginal “magic” to present the babies to new mothers under an ancient gigantic gum tree. Footprints in soft sand lead a detective to the top of an ancient series of white dunes stretching for miles. And, a young man who has inherited an enormous sheep station from his father, faces a multi-year drought.

All three of these desperate events take place in Arthur Upfield novels/mysteries near Mildura, a farming hub about a five-hour drive north of Melbourne. Over the course of several days, we visited places that Upfield wrote about from the 1930s to the 1950s. Although some of the areas had changed—old buildings replaced by newer ones—the land hasn’t changed that much. And, the area was in a four-year drought, just like the Upfield novel “Gripped by Drought.”

Our first day of Upfield-tracking was in Wentworth, a friendly town about 30 minutes from our base in Mildura. Wentworth sits at the convergence of the Darling and the Murray Rivers. The town is proud of its history as a port where steamships docked and loaded bales of wool to be shipped all over the world. Today, the town is better known for its avocados, almonds, oranges and grapes.

We started the day at the Wentworth Visitor Information Center where we were not surprised that two lively women there had no idea that a murder mystery, “Murder Must Wait,” had been published about the town in 1953. Few Australians know Upfield. In the book, the town is renamed Mitford. However, there is no doubt it is Wentworth.

Kathy had marked places where the baby-nappings took place: a bank, a hospital, a bungalow, a hotel and a dress store. The bank, which probably has a new facade, is just the way Upfield described it. In the rear of the bank is the residential annex, where the fictitious baby is removed from its pram. We found where the hospital used to be. The facility had been converted to a home. The bungalow: hard to say since Upfield renamed the streets. Same with the store. The current Royal Hotel, which Upfield calls the River Hotel, backs on to the river, as Bony found it in the early 1950s.

We visited the library. An older incarnation of the library figures into the mystery. But the library today is a relatively new structure. Even though the librarian did not know about the mystery, Jeannette Hope, a local resident working in the library, overheard our conversation. She knew the Bony books and had written some synopses, which she shared with us.

While man-made objects had changed, nature had not.

Towards the end of the mystery, Bony, the detective, hides in an ancient red gum tree that Upfield calls “the Aged King of Trees.” Today, the locals call it “the God Tree.” A significant part of the bottom of the tree is covered in fine red sand, part of the Perry Sandhills. (I will be removing that sand from my sneakers for weeks.) The area approaching the tree is very flat, a former lake bed, which Upfield noted as well. He describes the area as having not enough cover for a cow to hide her calf.

Kathy and I were excited to find the tree and the area the same as Upfield described it. No housing developments, no strip malls. Just the sound of the wind (and the flies) in your ears.

Eight years earlier in 1945, Upfield had written a different Bony book, “Death of a Swagman,” which also takes place relatively near Mildura. But, this mystery is in a fictional town, Merino, about three miles west of a natural phenomenon, called The Walls of China, which geologists term a “lunette.” More than 15,000 years ago, a lake filled the region. When it dried up, the red clay and the white sand were all that were left. The result is a Sahara-like landscape with vertical formations constantly etched by the wind.

The Walls are located in Mungo National Park, which is about 65 miles from civilization. A significant portion of the route is over unpaved roads with no cell phone service if you get in trouble. Hello, Hertz, I’ve got a flat tire...Hello, Hello.

This led us to Trevor Hancock of Murray Trek, who drives tourists to Mungo in a Toyota van. The local visitor office referred to Trevor as a “real bushie.” And, even though Trevor had never heard of Upfield, he would fit right in. He had ultra keen eyesight, finding a small gray and blue feather on a bush. “Probably a blue wren,” he said. On a station, he had spotted a huge wedge-tailed eagle’s nest in a tree and stopped to let us admire it.

Trevor could identify the footprints of lizards, foxes, even beetles as they moved over the sand surface. He picked out the calls of a flock of Major Mitchell cockatoos as they circled. He pointed out the nest of a purple martin dug into a vertical clay wall, a place that was hard for the lizards and foxes to get to. He knew the vegetation, the mallee trees (a eucalyptus), the Rosewood trees, which are valuable to wood turners, the roly poly which will dry up and get caught in the fences (and the stock will then climb over the fences), the paddy melons which are only edible for camels and cockies who roll them out into the road so cars will run over them and release the melons’ seeds.

Bony describes himself as a half-caste detective with a deep relationship to his aboriginal ancestors. In order for Trevor to bring tourists to Mungo, he had to be accepted by the elders of the local aboriginal tribes that oversee the park. As part of the visit, Kathy and I walked through a historical/archeological/explanation of aboriginal beliefs. One of the reasons that Mungo is of major significance to both the aboriginal population and scientists is the discovery of the cremated bones of a woman, called Mungo woman, which were 26,000 years old, and Mungo man, which were more than 40,000 years old. They would have arrived in Australia during an ice age when there was a land-bridge across the Torres Straits from New Guinea to a pub in the north of Australia. OK, they probably were not drinking XXXX.

However, Trevor was making sure we were real Aussies even if we didn’t have a beer in our hands. Outside the exhibit, we had a “cuppa” with delicious scones made by his wife with jam and cream. Big black ants joined in, of course.

From the man-made structure, we drove to the entrance to the Walls. A wooden boardwalk only takes you so far. Then, since Trevor is an accredited guide, we could start walking up the Walls.

At first the walk has Bluebush, which have deep roots that can find moisture. The color was a dusty green. But, then the ground becomes too dry for most of those plants. We walked up dry gullies on hard-packed sand. Most of the sand was rippled from the wind not from any water. Occasional bunches of vegetation somehow managed to survive. At the top, one could look out over the dry lake bed, which looked lush compared to the desert we were on. The dunes are steadily moving to the east and may eventually cover yet more of this dry but beautiful land. It’s easy to see how Upfield was entranced.

Here’s part of how he described the scene:
“The white plain was gouged and tossed by the fingers of the wind into an ugly chaos which made astonishing contrasts with the beautiful curves and mouldings of the sand ridges rising tier upon tier to the lofty summit lines sweeping away in great undulations to north and south.”

Thanks Upfield. Thanks Trevor.
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