World news – How a small country town got swept up in the ‘Melbourne’ stage 4 lockdowns


If you hop in your car in Melbourne’s CBD and head south-east, you’ll slowly wind your way out of the city and onto the freeway.

In some cases, enormous sound-blocking walls have been erected to dim just a bit of the roar of traffic for the homes that sit mere metres from the road.

Keep driving and it starts to thin out a little. The freeway goes from four lanes to two, and the houses start to recede from the road like a low-tide ocean fading from the beach.

By the time you hit the COVID checkpoint at Nar Nar Goon, 70km from the CBD, it’s mostly farmland across your vista.

If you’re allowed to pass through that so-called « ring of steel », keep driving for another 10 minutes.

Now, it’s grassy plains stretching to the horizon. If you threw an apple core from your window you’d have a fair chance of hitting a cow in a paddock.

Keep an eye out for a blue and white sign on the side of the road that reads, « Welcome to Bunyip ».

People own their homes, which sit on roomy blocks, and almost half of all workers are some form of tradie, labourer or machinery operator.

The town centre has a couple of cafes, a few shops, a chemist, a post office, a pub and a bakery that does a mean vanilla slice.

You could kick a footy from one end of the high street to the other if you got a hold of it.

« Everybody wants to move to Bunyip for the country lifestyle, not because they want to live in outer Melbourne, » says Brad Walker.

He’s the president of the local footy club, went to the local primary school, and has recently built a new house for his young family.

For him, it doesn’t gel that Bunyip has been swept up in the same lockdowns as Melbourne.

Even Geelong, with a population literally 100 times bigger and located closer to Melbourne, is considered regional.

To cap it off, Bunyip has recorded just one coronavirus case during the pandemic. The identity of which is a mystery and the talk of the town.

« We understand the reasons for the restrictions, we just don’t understand why we’re considered part of metropolitan Melbourne, » Brad says.

« If you understood the lay of the land, how we operate out here, you’d clearly see we’re regional Victoria.

But that’s the thing about drawing a line, someone has to end up on the wrong side of it.

When the second wave of coronavirus cases swept Victoria, authorities carved the state into two categories: metropolitan Melbourne, and regional.

Bunyip falls within the Cardinia Shire, which includes the major growth suburbs of Pakenham and Officer about 25km back towards the city, and so has been caught in the net.

What’s unusual about Bunyip, though, is its small population compared to many other towns that hug this new border.

The metro-regional boundary extends to Werribee in the west (population 40,000) and Craigieburn in the north (50,000).

In the north-east there are other small towns also subject to stage 4 that could have a similar gripe to Bunyip.

Down south, the boundary stretches to the small beachside towns of Portsea and Sorrento, which have populations comparable to Bunyip, but these are also tourist destinations that can become packed in peak times as out-of-towners come to play.

Out in the empty paddocks, the farmers like to joke, ‘Gee, it’s quiet in metropolitan Melbourne today’. A kind of laugh-to-keep-from-crying humour.

And locals will wryly tell you that when they place online orders rather than shop in nearby towns, they cop a surcharge for « regional » deliveries.

(One silver lining is the local independent grocer has started doing free deliveries for people who don’t feel comfortable shopping in person.)

If you were to describe the mood in one motion, it would be a quick shrug of the shoulders and an eye roll.

« It’s tough being on the border, » says one local, who asked not to be named because of her work.

« There is so much space, we can go for a walk within our 5km and not see another person.

After all, a lot of people are in stage 4 lockdowns, so it can be tempting to dismiss Bunyip’s concerns as simply an expression of the frustration many others are feeling.

But 5km in the city is very different to 5km in the country. And that travel limit won’t even get you to the next town over.

With limited services of its own, Bunyip leans on the nearby towns of Warragul and Drouin — nominally separate places, but ones that have grown over the past decade to effectively become a regional hub.

It’s where all the high schools are for kids in Bunyip. It’s where the big supermarket chains are, where many do their weekly shop. It has the retail, the parks, the restaurants and arts centre.

And as of this week, anyone from Bunyip caught crossing that divide without permission will cop a $4,957 fine.

« A lot of people who live here associate and do everything in Drouin and Warragul, » says Bunyip local Emma Ramage.

As of this week, cafes, restaurants and shops in Warragul and Drouin can reopen with customers inside. Intrastate travel is allowed, as well as camping and hotel stays, just in time for school holidays.

You can have dinner round at mum’s house (if you’re in each other’s nominated household bubble) and there are no restrictions on leaving your home.

And, importantly for country towns, outdoor sports will resume, just in time for the cricket season.

There are some exemptions that allow people to travel into the regions for things like work, medical care, or essential services if they are the closest location to your house.

But for Bunyip, the suite of stage 4 restrictions otherwise applies, including curfews and limits on time away from the house.

And under current restrictions, Brad says the kids who live there wouldn’t be able to play with their mates in the local cricket league because it’s based out of Warragul.

« That’s when it becomes the issue, when they are getting the rewards of their efforts, » Emma says.

« It’s not like we want to butt in on that, but we as a community have done the right thing as well.

« If they look at the statistics, we’re within our right to say we should be considered regional because we’ve done the right thing. »

Both Emma’s parents and her husband’s live in the Warragul-Drouin area, and being so close yet unable to see them is taking a toll.

There’s talk of a petition around town and it’s a cause taken up by the local Liberal MP, Gary Blackwood, who has written to Premier Daniel Andrews and chief health officer Brett Sutton asking for the line to be pulled back towards Melbourne.

Professor Sutton replied within minutes and said it would be looked at. But that was weeks ago, and Mr Blackwood said he hasn’t heard anything since.

It’s been almost two weeks since Mr Andrews unveiled the « roadmap for re-opening », which surprised many with its cautious, go-slow approach for the metropolitan area.

But others have come to a sort of peace, resolving to do what they can to boost town morale.

Among those is Joanne Dijkstra, who has a simple goal for every person who comes into her cafe: that they leave feeling a bit happier than when they entered.

She jokes that she’s become something of the town counsellor and has inadvertently reduced half of Bunyip to tears simply by asking: « How’s your day? »

« Some people just want a bit of a chat and to let it all out, » she says.

Joanne put together little care packages of slices and cakes at the café that people could buy and pass on to someone who was struggling. In the end, they gave them all away for free.

At the other café in town, which has converted to a hole-in-the-wall takeaway service, owner Michelle Pope shares a similar story.

« Some people are using the two hours they’re allowed out to come here and get a coffee and take a moment, » she said.

As far as the local pub manager Rod Gillette is concerned, these unusual times are less about the almighty dollar for businesses and more about community.

« If you look at most country towns, they’re built around sport and pubs. So, key places that people can meet and have a chat and laugh, » he said.

« For this to happen to little country towns is a really big shock for a lot of people. »

Rod says he doesn’t begrudge towns in regional areas opening up again. In fact, he wishes them all the best.

Back home, his pub has started doing home deliveries throughout the week, and can have as many as four cars on the go on a busy night.

Wednesday’s parma night is a town favourite, and Tuesday’s souvlakis are also gaining a strong following.

It’s meant a fair bit of tinkering — a steak keeps cooking in the delivery box, so when do you send it off? — but for the most part it’s been a success story.

And if he is sure of one thing, it’s that regardless of how you try to classify Bunyip, the people will make it through this pandemic — together.

This service may include material from Agence France-Presse (AFP), APTN, Reuters, AAP, CNN and the BBC World Service which is copyright and cannot be reproduced.

AEST = Australian Eastern Standard Time which is 10 hours ahead of GMT (Greenwich Mean Time)


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