By Damien Tann
You must be pleased the lockdown has lifted, eh?”
“Well, it hasn’t really, not for us. If anything, it’s made it harder for us because South Australia is really clamping down against tourists from Melbourne.”
Such is life in a border town, although not in Bordertown, which might have made things a bit easier for us all.
Kaniva and Serviceton are the last towns in Victoria you pass by or through on the Western Hwy, the major thoroughfare between Melbourne and Adelaide.
Kaniva is the last main town on the highway and Serviceton, about 22km away, is off the highway on the Victoria side of the border, where the interstate railway crosses over. So, when the border is closed due to COVID-19 it is at Kaniva and Serviceton where the backlog backs up. Repeatedly.
In April 2020, SA restricted entry for the first time in a century, and travellers were turned back by police at Serviceton and Wolseley and directed to remain in Victoria.
Some drivers simply threw a U-ey and drove the 18 minutes back to Kaniva and the one motel that was open; others stopped in Kaniva and continued through to Nhill, or even Horsham.
Some passengers on the interstate busses were not allowed to cross the border, so when they arrived they were ordered to get off. They were then taken back to Kaniva’s Roadhouse and directed to wait for the return coach service, which was usually the following day. They were left to fend for themselves overnight.
Between April 2020 and January 2022, Kaniva UC, which is across the road from the Roadhouse (and the bus stop), hosted many stranded travellers, providing a space on the floor for them to sleep.
It was far from ideal, but the carpeted floor, the air-con or heater on the wall, the access to tea, coffee, kettle and microwave, and the church toilet block made for a more comfortable stay than the bench seat outside the Shire Hall or the picnic table in the garden, where the old Methodist chapel used to stand.
Stranded travellers removed from the coach and returned to Kaniva’s bus stop would often walk across the highway to sleep in the church’s park. Locals would see them and contact me for assistance.
With keys in hand, I would go down to the park, meet whomever it was, and let them into the building for the tea and heating (or cold water and air-con) mentioned above.
It wasn’t just interstate travellers who were affected, however. With the SA border closed to all but essential services, the people of Kaniva and Serviceton lost access to their neighbourhood.
Kaniva residents lost access to banking and farm-supply infrastructure. Farmers who farmed on both sides of the border were required to pass through checkpoints to access their flocks or crops and were denied access without the correct passes and vaccinations.
A manned border checkpoint was set up on the Serviceton-Wolseley Rd, off the highway but on the main access road to Bordertown from the farming properties. Its revolving red and blue light, 2km west of the Serviceton township, could be seen by most residents flashing through the night as a reminder that way was closed to them.
A rural backroad, only used by locals for local communication between the West Wimmera and Tatiara shires, was guarded 24/7 by the police (and for a short time the army).
This was distressing for many. Other roads were closed at the border, regardless of their condition or the points they connected, and if that road was traversed there was the threat of fines and further prosecution issued for illegal entry to SA. If you needed to move your tractor or your flock, then you did it through the official checkpoint or you stayed in Victoria.
When border restrictions were tightened again last July and the only access to SA was by road train or by border-zone residents (defined by a line drawn 70km in each direction from the border), interstate travel was stopped in its tracks.
It was not that those travellers stopped travelling, but that they were stopped at the border and told to return to Victoria. Once again Kaniva, which was undergoing the state-wide lockdowns of Victoria, was host to many stranded people.
Notably, between July and November, the stranded people were SA residents seeking to return to their homes.
Some people had entered Victoria from SA unaware of their need to seek approval to return. Others were people moving permanently to SA, which was within the permitted reasons to leave lockdown in Victoria, but were denied entry at the border.
On several occasions, the removal truck made it to Adelaide, but the prospective residents following in private cars packed to the gunwales were denied entry and were advised to return to Serviceton or Kaniva and the motel or caravan park.
With Victoria in lockdown and the motel and caravan park closed to new arrivals, it fell upon the local community, local churches, and Kaniva-based staff of West Wimmera Shire to provide emergency assistance. One man in his motorhome stayed at Kaniva for 11 weeks awaiting a permit. The average was seven weeks, four was a miraculous outcome.
One Sunday, as I prepared for worship, I noticed a visitor sitting at the back of the church and introduced myself. The visitor smiled, shook my hand, and mumbled something about wanting to catch up at the end of the service.
After church, they told me how they had been turned away from entering SA earlier in the week and, for the past three nights, had been sleeping in their car in one of Kaniva’s backstreets. They had come to church in the hope it might be able to help.
Two hours and several phone calls later, our visitor was settled in the motel with three nights’ accommodation (at mates rates) paid for by the Kaniva Ministers Association.
There was also an IGA voucher and an emergency food and toiletries parcel provided by the Salvation Army, a lunch “on the house” at the café, and an invitation to meet with an IT-savvy person at Neighbourhood House to help navigate the online application process for a border-entry permit.
This one story, with a few alterations, has played out many times. Sometimes SA Police would ring me from the border to tell me to expect a returned traveller who would be in Kaniva in 15 minutes. Sometimes the travellers would ring my mobile number from the sign outside the church.
On one occasion, a loaded down SUV pulled up at the manse and the couple rang the doorbell. Sometimes the Roadhouse would ring because someone was asleep in the park, again. Sometimes the café would ring because someone had slept in their car overnight and had come in for breakfast.
Kaniva has been labelled “Australia’s most optimistic town” by The Centre for Optimism and its director Victor Perton. Perton passed through Kaniva last April and was impressed by the town’s up-beat nature and the simple joy of its people.
He noticed the welcome of strangers in Commercial St and made special mention of how, even though you can’t drink the water (unless it’s tank water in a bottle) the people are optimistic.
He describes the wonderful Sheep Art (a local project), which connects the Kaniva Wetlands through the town’s centre as far as the brightly-coloured Silo Art.
That he was impressed by the town and its colour in the midst of Victoria’s lockdowns and the pressure of its caring for disappointed highway travellers is worth noting. That the people of Kaniva and Serviceton were also generous and resilient in caring for the “lost of the highways and byways” when there was “no room at the inn” should not go unremarked.
Kaniva and Serviceton were not built for emergency relief, but it seems its people were.
The towns have an area population of about 900 – 620 of whom live in Kaniva. There are two pubs in Kaniva, which are open in the evening, a pizza shop open five nights a week, and one café.
There are two motels, but only one of them is open at the moment, and don’t drink the tap water because it’s from the bore. There is no bank, but there is an ATM in the wall of Elders that charges you $2.50 to use it.
There are six churches, and the UCA is in shared ministry with the Churches of Christ: the congregations meet about every two weeks and take it in turns to provide a minister.
Serviceton used to have a shop and its own footy team. Now it has its redundant-yet-monumental railway station.
You can free camp in the old carpark at the ground, so long as you are self-contained, and you’re gone in 72 hours. The public toilet and shower facilities are kept locked because of COVID-19.
Kaniva and Serviceton are not the only towns in Victoria that have faced hardship in the past two years. The Kaniva and Serviceton Shared Ministry is not the only church to have been called upon because of the needs of its local community to minister in practical and anonymous ways.
As the minister in placement, I am certainly not the only person in my congregations to have engaged in being the hands and feet to the least of these.
Yet our experience as a border community, and a staging post for stranded travellers as the last (or first) town in Victoria on the main Adelaide road, is a different experience to that of other towns.
Maybe not harder, maybe not more interesting, but different in its own way.
I am proud of Kaniva; of its one motel, and its afternoon pubs, its one café, its amazing Roadhouse and its six churches.
Most of all I am proud of Kaniva’s abundance of love and determination to serve people who should not be in Kaniva because they should be at their desired destination, and yet who are stuck here, and who while stuck here will be loved and made to feel welcome.
Damien Tann is pastor at Kaniva and Serviceton Shared Ministry.