A Surprising Home Ground Advantage

Wodonga Raiders in action.

Aussie Rules Football has always been at the heart of Border communities. SALLY HARDING recently discovered the love goes well beyond the playing field.

A few months ago, I asked a lifelong resident sitting next to me at lunch what she liked about living in Wodonga. She paused for a while then replied, “Because it’s home.’

As someone who only moved here a few years ago – leaving behind the many personal, cultural and historic connections that make a place ‘home’ – it made me feel a little sad. How long would it be until I, too, considered the Border to be home, first, and a nice place to be, second? Would it take a lifetime?

Ironically, the lunch was at the Bonegilla Migrant Experience, the site where 320,000 new arrivals from Continental Europe first learned to call Australia home in the Commonwealth Government’s Post-World War Two mass immigration scheme. Over time, this nation-building initiative was hailed a rip-roaring success, for many reasons, but there are also countless stories in the archives of distressed newcomers desperately trying to ‘fit in’.

You wouldn’t think a migrant from Adelaide, South Australia, could feel like a foreigner but that’s the way it is some days. Turns out I speak a bit differently and round my vowels, still don’t understand how a ‘bubbler’ is something you’d drink from and can’t find a Crows or Port Adelaide supporter for love or money.

One random Saturday afternoon, however, I did something that changed everything: I went to watch a local football match at the sports ground at the end of our street. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know anything about the teams or the players, I just wanted to see if I could belong in a place that was starting to mean something to me.

Wodonga Raiders versus Yarrawonga.

For almost four years I have walked around the West Wodonga oval to take the dog or kids for a walk, sometimes both. I have watched the grass turn brown, then green, then brown again. I have learned the hard way where the swooping plovers and magpies nest and raise babies. I have watched, from a distance, hundreds of kids and adults enjoy the amazing recreational facilities in what I call The Golden Square Mile of Sport (golf, tennis, baseball, hockey, swimming…it’s all here).

I had become so comfortable with the life I’d carved for myself on the periphery that it never occurred to me that I was, in fact, a bona fide local. So, on that Saturday afternoon, I braved the wind and rain to walk a few metres down the road and through the gates of Birallee Park to watch the Wodonga Raiders play a home game. I didn’t aim to buy into the football and netball culture, just be a part of the crowd (although I did end up buying a club beanie because my head was cold).

Wodonga Raiders versus Corowa Rutherglen netball.

To my surprise, conversation with other spectators came quickly and easily (very important for a have-a-chat-person). A crowd gathered around a wood fire shuffled along to let me squeeze in and warm my hands (also very important). A stranger even bought me a drink (it doesn’t get any better than that. Actually it does…then a rainbow appeared, for real).

After the game, I legged it home in less than two minutes and walked through my front door feeling warm, inside and out. For the first time I realised I actually quite like living in Wodonga. Why? Because it’s home.