Welcome to the oasis: Mildura, town of contrasts. In the far north-west corner of Victoria, it's one of the country's most productive agricultural areas, with miles of lush orchards and vineyards, lapped by lunar sand dunes and saltbush plains. One of the great Murray ports, the town itself stops 100 metres shy of the river, and the Murray cod so sought after by restaurants now come from farms miles from their namesake. Salinity is on the verge of rendering the river useless for some, while others are fashioning a living selling the very salt that's causing the problem. Home to the oldest signs of human habitation in Australia (if not the world), the region's landscape has been latterly transformed by waves of immigrants, from the Canadian brothers who irrigated it to life, to the post-war Italians who tilled its fields and the more recent arrival of Pacific Islander and Vietnamese labourers and merchants.
You'll probably have heard of Stefano de Pieri, the Treviso-born chef who put Mildura on the modern map, culinarily speaking. He moved to Mildura from Melbourne in 1991 with his wife Donata Carrazza, whose family owns the landmark Mildura Grand Hotel, attracting plenty of attention from food lovers with his restaurant at the Grand, Stefano's, and A Gondola on the Murray, the TV series he presented in 1996. But more on them later; it's immigrants of an earlier vintage that first changed the face of this landscape - literally. A pair of Canadian engineers, William and George Chaffey, loom large in the town's history. It was they who turned the power of the Murray and Darling rivers (the two waterways join at nearby Wentworth; the junction is marked by a viewing platform where you can clearly discern the more turbid Darling, which runs over clay) to greening the flat scrub here in north-west Victoria. It was a trick they'd perfected in California in the years before Victorian premier Alfred Deakin lured them across the Pacific, and the naming system of Mildura's thoroughfares, with its numbered streets on a clean grid stretching away flat from the river, bears witness to the American experience even as the orchards, pastures and planted fields stand as testament to their expertise.
The end of the Second World War saw an influx of Italians moving to the town, while more recent waves of migration are leaving their impression in the shape of things such as the Vietnamese pork roll shop or its neighbouring Pacific Islander grocery with its bright shelves of canned corned beef and mutton, palm oil and mackerel. Many of the more recent arrivals have been drawn by the promise of work on the properties of the now-prosperous likes of the Italian 'tomato dons'. So the cycle goes on. And then there are the first people of the region. If the work of Australian scientists is to be believed, the remains of a man unearthed at Lake Mungo, 90km north of Mildura, in 1974 are evidence of the oldest human civilisation. Mungo Man, as the 40,000-year-old skeleton has been nicknamed, is possible proof of the theory that modern humans arose not from a single point in Africa but in several locations. The sprinkling of ochre covering the body has been held to be the earliest evidence of sophisticated burial practice. Beyond its archaeological significance, Mungo National Park is also a site of great geological interest, the Walls of China, a 33-kilometre crescent of dramatically eroded landscape. You may remember it from Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. Alongside Kakadu and the Great Barrier Reef, Mungo was among the first three Australian sites to be given World Heritage listing - though it's the rare Belgian backpacker who has seen all three.
Alongside visitors drawn to Mildura's dry lakes are others trying to make the most of the oasis. The most influential has been that aforementioned Italian, Stefano de Pieri, who became the virtual (and later official) ambassador for Mildura when he started his restaurant in the cellar at the impressive old Mildura Grand, the hotel his new wife's father had come to own after working his way to the top from bellhop beginnings. De Pieri, a recent arrival himself, having emigrated to Australia in 1974 from Casier, near Treviso in northern Italy, brought an Italian country sensibility to his work, refusing to see how culture and the country didn't go hand in hand. His restaurant, first called Stefano's Cantina, now a more stately Stefano's, brought all sorts of gourmet travellers to the town, even more after the ABC series it inspired. De Pieri, Carrazza and her family have gone on to open the Mildura Brewery brewpub and set the paddlesteamer Avoca up to cruise the Murray as a sometime floating osteria. They've opened 27 Deakin, a food store and café with a gallery attached and, their interest in culture far from being limited solely to the joys of the palate, they've also been the driving forces behind the Mildura Writers' Festival and other arts events.
"Mildura offers a number of things," de Pieri says, citing, at a basic level, good weather and a chance to visit the river. "At a more sophisticated level, it's a place where all the explosive issues - irrigation versus environment - [will] come into light in the next few years. If there is a place which is crying out for doing things in a different way, it's this one. But again, most tourists don't go around investigating the issues of our management of the landscape and agriculture in this day, so we're left with a vigorous program of arts festivals and arts events: our writers' festival, our music festivals, our jazz festival, our special events, our alternative wine variety show - which is shaping up to be the best barometer of what's happening in the way we drink wine in Australia today - and, you know, you can have a good game of golf, and it's easy going. It's country town with a bit of attitude, I guess."
Speaking as one who had spent a lot of time planning to visit the restaurant and not a lot of time actually getting around to making it happen, I'm here to tell you that if you dine out for pleasure, the trip to Mildura for Stefano's is something you need to bump up to the top of your must-do list.
Descending the stairs from street level in the Grand Hotel into the cool warmth (trust me) of the restaurant, you enter a series of low rooms that speak very much of the cellar they once were. De Pieri's thinking was a refuge inside the oasis: a place where you could eat well and people could fuss over you with some simple food and a good bottle of wine. "In fact, when you walk in," he says, "you start to feel like you're enveloped by a timeless place, and all the noises of the world above completely disappear. There's no visual intrusion of the outside world other than the things I put on the wall, which may be mementos or works of art or whatever expresses the things I've done over the years - there's a bit of me and my wife on the walls. It's a total buffer zone.''
And for all de Pieri's talk of being a cook and not a chef ("It's the food of someone who is not a chef and never wanted to be one, and wants to stay steadfastly with the memories from the world that was"), you eat and drink very well indeed. It's a set-menu scenario, with dishes issuing from the kitchen at a pleasing pace: creamed Murray cod crostini, perhaps, then some slices of good speck, unadorned on the plate. A minestra of cotechino and rice, given local zest with the fragrant peel of oranges, might follow, or a pumpkin and rosemary torta. You could go the following evening and not repeat a dish, but the intriguing wine list and personable service are constants.
Between meals, there are the sights to be seen. You don't have to go far to find the desert that defines the oasis, whether it's the lunar eeriness of the Perry Sandhills or the saltbush plains. You've probably seen the excellent Murray River salt flakes at restaurants and provedores; it's great stuff, but nothing on seeing the evaporation ponds and hills at the site where it's produced just outside town. The town of Wentworth, just over the border, is also worth a look-in for the old gaol and the old-school museum (replete with a preserved 90-kilo cod and 'the world's finest photographic collection of riverboats').
And then there's the river itself - the town's raison d'être and its lifeline. The plans to develop the foreshores for tourism are a way off completion yet, but there's still plenty to see. You can fish, swim or hop on a paddlesteamer and cruise. Houseboats are a winning option, particularly as, beyond the Grand Hotel, there's not that much in the way of accommodation with character. The craft let by Aaah! Willandra Houseboats (bet that one's a winner in the White Pages) are like McMansions afloat - none of the head-ducking cramp of your typical floating digs, with full-service kitchens, big flat-screen TVs and - wait for it - hot tubs for eight on the top deck. You can cruise up and down the river, stopping at towns, wineries and pubs, or tying up to fish or laze, or you can stick closer to the town and just treat your launch like a condo on the water.
The Grand, though, is a must. Some of the rooms are on the ordinary side by contemporary standards, but there's no questioning the comfort. More to the point, it's a unique spot, with the row of palms outside, the grand verandahs and the green pool area all suggestive of 50s Americana, with the modern world creeping in at the edges with the likes of an odd Cherry Hood portrait in the maze of corridors and landings. A couple of doors down is the Mildura Brewery, the Carrazza clan's newish brewpub, shinily fitted out in the shell of a former Deco cinema. The beer's pretty damn good, too - I like the Night Porter - and the sight of the guys lowering a still-smoking charred Mallee root into one of the tanks is proof of their commitment to innovation in flavour.
I'll be straight with you: I'm itching to get back. On my ideal visit, I reckon I'll drive in rather than fly (convenient as it was), book myself in for two good long sessions at Stefano's and time it so I can pay another visit to the excellent farmers' market (the oranges are incredible, and local grower Tabletop Grapes's sunmuscats are the best dried grapes I've tasted), but most of all, just lay back and enjoy the dynamic: old and new, arable and arid, Canadian and Aboriginal, Italian and islander, river and desert. The oasis beckons.