The squawk of the cockatoo rings out through the frosty morning, closely echoed by bursts of laughter and excited voices. The noise disrupts the peace of the river valley, flanked by giant gums and wattles. It is not an unwelcome disruption as the peaceful effect is more reliant on the visual – which, as it appears, could have been undisrupted for centuries. The women who are meeting at the edge of this valley have ancestors who would have seen the same view hundreds of years ago and some even thousands of years ago.
Of course there have been changes. The cars crossing the new bridge are a testament to that. The old bluestone bridge beyond the bend is an indicator of a prosperous past. Some of the indicators of the past are not clear to the untrained eye, such as the boundary tree showing a circular shape formed by hand in the young boughs of a now ancient gum, delineating the Wadawurrung lands from the Gulidjan lands. Changes may be inevitable, but the river and its protective gum trees seem to withstand the test of time.
The bursts of laughter subside as the group check in with each other. This moment is when the most pressing issues are shared. A beloved pet has passed away, a family member has moved interstate, a relative is in palliative care. The check-in is genuine and responses are filled with concern and kind offers of help.
As a newcomer to this group, I am immediately accepted and trusted with personal stories and local knowledge. I can see why this group brings connection to these women. Whether you have centuries of association to the land or are just passing through, stopping to inhale the fresh air for a few years, these women make each other welcome.
The group begins walking the rough pathway alongside the river. There is no particular leader, just a quick check-in about which direction to take and then we are off. I have underestimated the fitness and stamina of these women of the land. The pace is set and does not diminish for the full hour. Small groups form and disband as the walk progresses down trails, crosses bridges and enters streets.
The conversation flows uninterrupted with topics jumping from land subdivision, to palaeontology, to local murder mysteries and personal reflections. The information shared during this hour builds a strong community. It includes what is happening at the community centre, local art groups, where to buy eggs, what the health service offers, what courses are running at the U3A, where the Probus club are meeting, where to get the best coffee – all the important stuff!
As part of fulfilling my new role in community health, I ask the group what else they would like to see offered in town for women. There is talk of Tai Chi, Laughing Yoga, fun dance classes – I am inspired! Some of these women live alone, manage land, battle illness, are discovering hidden heritage or caring for others. Yet they understand the need for this social support. It is apparent to me that this walking group gives more to its participants than just physical fitness. It is creating a connection, a bush telegraph, a helpline, a support service.
As the women wave their farewells and disperse to continue with their day, I believe their ancestors would be proud. I hope the tradition of women supporting women continues on throughout the ages.
The Winchelsea Heart Foundation Walking Group meets every Wednesday at 9.30 am. Call Hesse Rural Health on 03 5267 1200 for more information.