22 December 2023

2023 Year in Review: Community stories from the Riverina

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Tree by the river

The Murrumbidgee river from the Wiradjuri Walking Track. Photo: Chris Roe.

Along the length of the Murrumbidgee, from Wagga Beach to the orchards of Griffith, Region’s brought you the best stories from the Riverina. Here are our top 15 yarns for 2023 – number one is scarily good.

15. Can Wagga still claim to have the ninth-best beach?
by Chris Roe

Wagga Beach

Wagga Beach is now officially the nation’s best inland beach. Photo: Chris Roe.

The fact that NSW’s largest inland city once made the list of Australia’s top 10 beaches is an enormous source of pride and amusement for Wagga locals.

Visitors and new arrivals will be told within minutes of engaging a resident in conversation that, “Wagga has the ninth-best beach in the country!” and signs around the riverside precinct declare “Wagga Beach #9, Australia’s Best Beaches 2020”.

And right now it’s looking fantastic. The river level has dropped, the sun is out and hundreds have been making the most of the city’s spectacular stretch of sand. So is it still in the top ten list nationwide?

14. Best Family Cemetery marks the beginning of European settlement in ‘Wogga Wogga’
by Chris Roe

Best Family Graves

Best Family Graves with a new interpretive sign. Photo: WWDHS.

Squatter George Best staked a claim on a place he called Wogga Wogga Run in 1832.His family’s arrival in the Riverina was a tipping point in history that began European settlement of the area where Wagga Wagga is located today.

The Best Family Cemetery at Ashmont is one of the oldest monuments from those early days and Wagga Wagga and District Historical Society (WWDHS) and this year Wagga City Council unveiled a new interpretive sign to explain its significance.

13. Riverina Rewind: When Toganmain set the standard for woolsheds on the Murrumbidgee
by Chris Roe

Station workers in 1891

A group of Toganmain station workers in 1891. Photo: CSU Regional Archives.

The Toganmain woolshed still holds the Australian record of 202,292 sheep shorn by 92 blade shearers in 1876 and in the wake of the recent push by the ”Friends of Toganmain” to resurrect the Riverina’s largest woolshed, region took a look back at the iconic station’s glory days.

Situated between Darlington Point and Carrathool, Toganmain Station boasted 13 miles (20 km) of river frontage and was established in 1867 by NSW’s Colonial Secretary Sir Alexander Macleay as one of the first grazing properties in the region.

12. How a Griffith cool room saved babies’ lives during the Riverina’s brutal 1939 heatwave
by Oliver Jacques

Denis Lorenzi outside old doors

Denis Lorenzi outside the 107-year-old doors to the Griffith Producers’ cool room, now located at the Piccolo Family Farm. Photo: Oliver Jacques.

Most of us who complain about the hot Riverina summer can be grateful we weren’t alive in January 1939, when temperatures exceeded 49 degrees during a heatwave claiming the lives of 113 people across south-east Australia.

In an era before home air-conditioning, farming families surrounding Griffith were particularly vulnerable, as many properties didn’t even have fans, fridges or electricity.

Some quick thinking by local GP Dr Burrell prevented even more casualties during the heatwave – he suggested placing patients at Griffith hospital and at-risk babies in a cool room operated by Griffith Producers, a co-operative that stored and sold fruit and vegetables. The cool room still stands today.

11. Griffith’s oldest resident Berta Johnstone dies aged 106
by Oliver Jacques

Woman in nursing home bed

Berta Johnstone on her 106th birthday on 7 September. Photo: Carmela Naseby.

Griffith’s oldest person Berta Johnstone died aged 106 years and 126 days on Wednesday, 4 January. Daughter-in-law Cecilia Johnstone said her family was both sad and relieved, given she’d had such an amazing innings, with so many stories to tell.

“We’re all grateful for the time we had her and all she did to see us to where we are now,” she said.

10. Wagga’s newest snake catcher is ready to wrangle rogue reptiles
by Chris Roe

man and snakes

Josh learned how to handle venomous reptiles through a course on the Central Coast. Photo: Supplied.

Wagga’s new snake catcher, Josh Thompson, is glad he met his wife before he decided to take up a career as a reptile wrangler.

“When I started dating my wife, I had a few snakes and she was less than keen about that,” he said with a laugh.

“But after what she’s seen, she knows that they don’t really care about us at all and just want to stay out of our way, so she’s calmed down a hell of a lot”.

9. ‘We’ve never had a fight or squabble’ – 70 years on, Elsie and Cliff share their secret to a long marriage
by Shri Gayathirie Rajen

elderly couple

Married for 70 years, Elsie and Cliff McCrum have had a rollercoaster of life experiences. Photo: Shri Gayathirie Rajen/Supplied.

Wagga’s Elsie and Cliff McCrum have celebrated their platinum wedding anniversary and have plenty to share about their life and unconditional love.

Asked what the journey had been like being married to each other all these years, Cliff, 93, said his wife of 70 years was nothing but “a good woman.

“We’ve never had a fight or squabble of any sort. She is the best and can do anything,” Cliff said.

8. Italian immigrant who helped build Griffith keeps working in his 80s
by Oliver Jacques

Laurie Bellincanta with tools in a shed

Laurie Bellincanta is 81 and still does odd jobs on a volunteer basis. Photo: Oliver Jacques.

If you’ve lived in Griffith for a while, chances are you’ve entered a building that Laurie Bellincanta had a hand in constructing.

“We built the old ex-serviceman’s club before it burned down,” he said. “The original school at Yoogali, back in the early 1960s. The church at Yenda. A lot of houses in the old part of town. The former council shire chambers. I also redid the John Dalla (J&P Motorcycles) store.”

Mr Bellincanta, 81, worked as a carpenter and builder for 57 years, only finishing up at 74 due to a bad back. But he continues to do odd jobs on a volunteer basis and helps maintain a house for a daughter no longer residing in town.

7. New acting principal steps up to keep Wagga’s Anglican college on TRAC
by Chris Roe

Anthony Heffer

Anthony Heffer is proud to support kids from all backgrounds to find their path in life. Photo: Chris Roe.

Anthony Heffer’s path to his current role as the acting principal of The Riverina Anglican College (TRAC) was not the traditional one.

From growing up on a farm in West Wyalong to quitting his agricultural economics degree at Sydney Uni, his pre-teaching resume includes washing windows in Melbourne, working on gold drilling rigs and managing a restaurant before returning to study at Charles Sturt University to become an English teacher.

“To this day I don’t know why I chose economics,” Mr Heffer said with a laugh.

6. Bear gears up for his first shave in 43 years to support the battle against the ‘Black Dog’
by Chris Roe

Man with beard

”Bear” will bare his chin for charity for the first time in 43 years. Photo: Chris Roe.

With his towering two-metre frame, mane of white hair and wild and bushy beard, Graham ”Bear” Falconer is one of Wagga’s most recognisable characters.

But there was a good chance that even his oldest friends would walk right past him on the street after he went the full shave for charity.

“After 43 years, I’m shaving the beard off and the hair to raise money and awareness for Ronald McDonald House and the Black Dog Ride,” he says, chuckling through his impressive whiskers.

5. Griffith’s yoga guru and aged-care worker solves her mysterious origin story
by Oliver Jacques

yoga teacher

Carmela Naseby Pennisi at Riverina Yoga Studio. Photo: Oliver Jacques.

Carmela Naseby Pennisi is known in Griffith for providing aged care with flair, having a black belt in karate and her dynamic yoga teaching.

But for all her achievements, there was one mystery that bugged her until she was almost 30.

“When I was a little girl, I noticed my birth certificate said I was born in Blacktown,” she said.

4. Holy crap! Trip to Cootamundra toilet leaves Sydney family in shock
by Jarryd Rowley

A brown snake wrapped around a toilet

A brown snake wrapped around a toilet at Cootamundra Cemetery has terrified a Sydney family who were looking to take a pitstop before their long drive home. Photo: Michael Miller.

What was supposed to be a routine bathroom break before a long trip turned into the biggest scare of Michael and his family’s lives.

After saying their goodbyes to a recently passed relative at the Cootamundra Cemetery, Michael thought it was wise to head for the dunny before their four-hour journey home.

To Michael’s great surprise, he was greeted by one of Australia’s most deadly creatures, a brown snake, wrapped around the cemetery’s only toilet.

3. Is Yarrangobilly’s geothermal pool Australia’s slice of Iceland? Not everyone thinks so …
by James Coleman

Yarrangobilly Caves geothermal pool surrounded by snow

Yarrangobilly Caves geothermal pool. Photo: Visit Canberra.

Tucked away in a valley in the Kosciuszko National Park, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Wagga, is Australia’s only geothermal pool in an alpine area.

Yarrangobilly is better known for its caves, including one that lights up like an empty warehouse in a movie, thanks to sensor lights that pick up visitors walking through it, but due to seemingly idyllic posts on social media in recent years, it’s also become known as a place where you can soak in the steam and the mountain views while surrounded by snow.

Kind of like Iceland. Maybe.

2. Young Gundagai auctioneer stampedes to the ‘greatest outdoor show on earth’ in Calgary
by Michael Murphy

Harry Waters from Elders Gundagai

Harry Waters from Elders Gundagai calls out a bid during the Calgary Stampede’s International Auctioneer Championship. Photo: Show Champions.

The Calgary Stampede is billed as the greatest outdoor show on earth, and after winning the Australian young auctioneer title, Gundagai’s Harry Waters was invited to Canada to compete in the International Livestock Auctioneer Championship.

More than a million people attend the combined agricultural fair and rodeo each year, and for Harry, the international championship was an incredible opportunity to test his skills against 35 of the best cattle sellers in the world.

1. Nightmare wedding for Junee’s Queen of the Dolls and her Pumpkin King
by Chris Roe

Silvia Heszterenyiova and husband Brian Sullivan as Jack and Sally

Silvia Heszterenyiova and husband Brian Sullivan as Jack and Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas. Photo: Alese Watson Photography.

‘Til death do us part’ took on new meaning when Junee couple Silvia and Brian tied the knot.

The bride wore corpse-white with a bruise purple-accented corset that perfectly complemented her scarred skin and blueish complexion, while the skeletal groom was resplendent in pinstripes, a bat bowtie and a mournful smile.

It was certainly not your typical nuptials, but would you expect anything less from the curator of Junee’s Haunted Doll Museum, Silvia Heszterenyiova?

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