Today to celebrate the Easter holiday (and our days off work), my friends and I woke up early and boarded a train at Melbourne’s centrally located Southern Cross station bound for the country town of Bendigo, which is located in the center of the state of Victoria.
We were ditching Melbourne for the day to explore the fourth most populated city in the state and experience its famed Easter Festival, which my friend Caitlin had learned about a few weeks ago.After arriving to the train station this morning with enough time to drink an American sized cup of coffee and begin my newest Australian Bucket List title, The Harp of the South, I met Caitlin and Neil, we identified our Bendigo bound train, settled into our seats, and our day long adventure began.
The two-hour ride was comfortable for us and made easier by the fact that talking is a favorite pastime for our little group. We entertained ourselves with sharing fun facts and laughing at the absurd names given to particular stops along the way – ‘Kangaroo Flat’ being one of our favorite. Before we knew it, we were pulling into the Bendigo train station and were off to explore the unknown.
The Bendigo Easter Festival has been held since 1871 and is considered by many to be the longest ongoing festival in Australia. Though it is held over the Easter holiday weekend, its purpose is to celebrate “Bendigo’s diverse community through displays from the Bendigo Chinese Association as well as many other community groups that have contributed to the festival’s success over the years.”A long-established Chinese population in central Victoria may seem strange upon receipt. But let me explain.
Bendigo, like many Victorian cities, was found to have gold in the middle of the 1800s. With this revelation, an obvious rush occurred in the area. The Australian gold rush of the 1850s lured populations from far and wide, much like the American gold rush to California around the same time.
Many Chinese were anxious to participate and reap the benefits of the tremendous task of mining and panning for gold. Though many slaved with the dream of returning home to retire to a life of ease, many permanently emigrated to Australia and remain in the Bendigo area today.Though these mines have not been worked since the 1950s, the Chinese population of Bendigo and the surrounding areas remains proud of their heritage and dedicated to preserving and sharing it with locals and tourists alike.
This year’s festival began on Friday March 25th and culminated today, Easter Sunday, with a lengthy and populous parade which ran through the city’s center along View Street and Pall Mall, a picturesque strip of many three-story Victorian era styled industrial brick buildings surrounded by lush and manicured promenades.We arrived in Bendigo with enough time to have a brief lunch at the quaint, but overwhelmed Finder’s Keepers cafe, and then managed to secure a viewing spot for the quickly approaching parade.
Like most small(er) town parades, it seemed that any willing and capable community group was eligible to participate without prejudice towards their costume development, particular theme (but let’s be honest, it’s an Easter parade, people…), enthusiasm level, or even purpose. This openness towards all created an array for our viewing pleasure.At first, we noticed there was no music; a few groups walked somberly by us with little more than their organization’s flag stating their purpose. Then with a honk and a beep, the next troop was a full-fledged cabaret on a semi-truck bed, seductively singing to the audience in siren like voices.
Then with the drop of a cabaret hat, a team of volunteer fire fighters with safety warnings and suggestions for healthy living shouted towards the crowd over a powerful PA system while happily waving to the crowd. Next up? A well-developed and deeply cultish group of Doctor Who enthusiasts.
If it’s not already obvious, there didn’t seem to be much, if any, coordination amongst the group’s theme or execution, but the flow of the groups was continuous and uninterrupted. We were confused, but we were intrigued.
Throughout the first hour, there were cheerleaders of all ages (an oddity to see outside of the USA), rock bands, classic cars, school bands, mascots of every indigenous-Australian animal (and some non-indigenous animals) dancing with and representing a plethora of community groups, famous outstanding citizens, local sports teams, bagpipe groups, fitness groups, and even the mayor of Bendigo all whizzing by and entertaining the crowd, in one way or another.
Finally, around an hour into the festivities, our confusion abated when the Chinese themed groups began to appear. There were groups of Tai Chi, multiple Asian Associations from Bendigo, groups of Chinese traditional dancers, imperial dragons of all colors and lengths, and gongs galore sounding proudly as the parade’s famous theme and purpose began to present itself. It was beautiful and well worth the bizarre and clearly unrelated previews.As the dragon dancers continued to parade in front of us, the lengths and detail of their costumes, as well as the complications of their dances and gestures, developed to our delight.One of my favorite sight’s during this portion of the parade was a small boy in an infant sized imperial dragon costume. It was adorable to see him walking alongside the older members of his group who were in two and three-man dragon suits.
With the endless pop of fireworks and the crowd’s squeals of excitement we could tell the longest – and definitely longest awaited – imperial dragon was making its way towards us. Waiters stopped delivering orders, pedestrians and their strollers stopped mid-sidewalk, cameras of every shape and size appeared, and everyone’s attention was on the street. This was the moment we had traveled to witness.
Before I had time to decide if I wanted to capture it on video or picture, the world’s longest imperial dragon majestically made its way before me, wagging its head and zigzagging through the street to the incredible sound of Chinese gongs and cymbals. When I moved to Australia in September, I could never have imagined that this would be the way I spent my first Easter Down Under. I was thrilled!As the parade culminated and the dragon could only be seen from a distance, we relished over our experience, but decided it was time to sit for a bit. We walked through the promenade where a giant Marilyn Monroe towers over the crowd, a locally unwelcome blemish accompanying the current Monroe exhibition in the city’s art gallery. After giggling at the endless people looking up her famously gusty skirt, we decided to explore the Arts & Crafts stalls before heading for a beer.Because our day had turned from singly Australian to overwhelmingly inclusive of all cultures, we opted for a spot called the Shamrock Hotel, in honor of Neil’s Irish heritage. As we approached the hotel, we noticed a huge American flag and neon Budweiser bar sign hung on the patio.Spark Notes: we weren’t deterred. We walked up the stairs to the patio overlooking the festival and were greeted by a wall of American paraphernalia as we ordered three Sierra Nevadas – mmm, hello home!
After enjoying our libations, we headed to get afternoon snacks at the festival’s food stalls, again representing cultures from around the world. All too quickly the time was catching up with us and we had to make our way back to the train station to catch our ride home to Melbourne.The weather was perfect for our adventure and thanks to Caitlin’s discovery of the Bendigo Easter Festival we got to enjoy our day off and experience another incredible, but very unexpected side of Australia.
Happy Easter from Down Under!
If you’re in Melbourne and interested in visiting Bendigo, check out train departure times, costs, and more at the Public Transport Victoria website. The trip was $17.50 AUD one-way per adult and took two hours, stopping at multiple points between Melbourne and Bendigo, but not requiring us to change trains. For more information about upcoming events and festivals in Bendigo, visit Bendigo Tourism.