High Country Patrol
Based at Swifts Creek, High Country, Victorian Alps.
This patrol ministry operates in partnership with the Gippsland Presbytery. While the formal Frontier Services Patrol began in January 2008, ministry in the region has been established for many years.
The main church, in Swifts Creek, has a small but involved congregation, and it is supportive of the minister's involvement in the remote parts of the patrol. Swifts Creek has a population of about 1500, as does Omeo. Both towns have small, but bustling populations and activities. Some population is seasonal, with the traffic and the tourist industry, as this route is the eastern road up to the ski resorts, further on in the ranges. There is not much of a trickle-down effect, as tourists rarely stop in the townships, let alone visit the remote ranges and valleys.
The region associated with this patrol includes townships of Omeo, Benambra, Gelantipy and Swifts Creek, the area up along the Great Alpine Road, the highway up to Mt Hotham, and also the region north of Buchan. The latter straddles the border with NSW, through the steep Alps/ Snowy Mountains. A few small villages dot the area, but many farmers live in the region, in isolated valleys, or perched on high mountain slopes. Services are scarce, even in the tiny townships, and locals bemoan the lack of supportive helping professionals.
The patrol minister, Rev Rowena Harris, is one of the few such professionals left in the region. Isolation is made worse here, as many farmers live in valleys accessible by only one road in and out. She drives many kilometres over the same roads. Families often cannot afford to fuel to do the same, and this adds to their isolation. Many services have been withdrawn from the region in recent years, as providers do not have the resources necessary to care for these remote and vulnerable people. Accordingly, the patrol minister has been seen as an integral part of the region, as she travels, visits, and offers supportive pastoral/ liturgical care. Rowena has been involved in formal disaster response ministry programmes in the region. She is also involved in community activities and associations.
Transport in the region, apart from the highway to the resorts, poses difficulties. Roads are usually unsurfaced, they cling to steep mountains, winding treacherously through remote passes. Many are above the snow line. Winter's challenges make driving difficult. Snow, ice, floods, avalanches, and storms can close roads, whilst summer fires occur regularly. Much of the region is still recovering from the worst recorded fires in history, in the first few months of 2014. The fires added to the various hardships endured by many, down through the years.
The only road into the region, the highway, although in good condition, is indicative of the region's remoteness, as it weaves through the foothills of the ranges for some two hours or so of driving before townships are reached. Distances here are talked of 'in driving time' and not geographical distance, as, very frequently, cars simply cannot drive more that about 25 kms an hour. Conditions are just too chancy or downright dangerous.
The region offers a strong sense of identity as "the High Country", and utterly beautiful scenery.