Lifestyle

Tongala, a town full of characters and heart

By Holly Tregenza

Just like big families, country towns have their own parade of unique characters and passions, buildings and histories — all united by a shared sense of pride and identity. In the past few months The News has visited communities near Shepparton to find out what makes them tick. This week, Holly Tregenza visits Tongala.

To understand Tongala, first you have to understand Ronny.

Ronny from Tonny.

In one sense Ronny is just a turtle who lives at one of the town's primary schools.

Sophiea Nicholson, assitant principal Melissa Pearce and Olivia Gemmill with the one, the only, Ronny from Tonny. 

But in another, Ronny is a representation of everything that makes Tongala the beloved home of 2000; a symbol of inclusiveness, a friend, and a character you will never forget.

Ronny, however, is only one animal who calls the country town home.

There's also the town emu - a cheeky chick on the main street, poking its head out the top of the pharmacy.

Walk past Tongala's emu and you'll find a particular pair of eyes and a beak following you. "It's sort of like an optical illusion," mural artist Teena Savage says. 

It’s one of many murals that paints Tongala's picture - a picture, or feeling, of home.

And no-one shares that message more than local hero, Murray Ross.

If you spend town hours in Tongala you'll hear "just ask Rossy" more times that you can count.

Rossy started the Tongala mural art project with the unrelenting support of the Tongala Lions Club in 2001.

The idea started as a seed but has since grown into a tree - spreading its branches across the town, captivating and consuming everyone in its path in the most wonderful way.

The leafy green, tangerine orange, neon pink, wisteria purple and egg yolk yellow of the paint has somehow informed the complexion of the whole place.

And told their stories.

Including the mural painted for artist Teena Savage's son who died way too young.

Teena Savage with a mural painted in memory of her son, Illah Savage. He passed away 25 years ago.

Or the clothesline above the laundromat that has a lad swinging from it.

“My nanny used to tell my brother if he didn’t stop messing around, she’d hang him up and let the magpies get him,” Teena says with a laugh.

Naughty children run the risk of being strung up on a clothesline in Tongala. This artwork is part of a complete re-imagination of the classic laundromat. 

It’s these stories that offer a window past the cheery exterior to a tale of strength, resilience and what can only be described as a stubbornness from this little town that will never die.

That said, it certainly hasn’t been as easy ride. Among the colourful garb of the main street, there are empty shops and for lease signs on the doors.

Tongala Embrace Church Pastor Lyn Hope says it's been a hard few years.

“A lot of people are worried about what will happen from here,” she says.

“We've certainly seen a knock-on effect from the difficulties our farmers are facing, and we've all had to support each other.”

Embrace Church pastor Lyn Hope has spent the last 19 years as a central figure in the Tongala community, both as the hands and feet of the church and as the resident journalist for town paper, the Tonny Times. 

The announcement from Nestle to shut its factory in town earlier this year, one of Tonny’s main employers, threatened to cripple the community.

But much like Dory or the fish painted on the side of the street art studio on the main street, they’ve found a way to just keep swimming.

Jodie Wilson, who manages the only supermarket in town, reckons a commitment to one another is a big reason they’ve not crumbled.

“Take our store for example – it was the ugliest building in the main street, but Murray and his mural artists came through, and now it’s one of the most beautiful,” she says.

“And now we have a huge amounts of tourists and visitors, lots of caravans and RVs coming through, and they are spending time and money here because of the murals.

“Everyone goes out of their way to help each other.”

This mural sits on the side of the pub, and there's some familiar faces - the people painted in the scene share a striking resemblance to the publican and his family. 

On a sweltering Wednesday in town, that certainly appears to ring true.

At Tongala Primary School, students have just returned from rehearsal of their latest production which they’ll perform later in the day.

“A lot of people from around town will be there,” assistant principal Melissa Pearce says.

Some years ago she came to this little school of a little more than 150 students and fell in love.

“This is where I want to be,” she says.

“Everyone here is like family. Anyone can have a go and the whole town will get behind them.”

We take a wander down to the school’s vegie garden, which is brimming with growing students and a smattering of growing produce.

Today the garden is full of children from the nearby specialist school and wellbeing co-ordinator Brett Radley is busy looking for a lizard in the garden the kids can squeal at.

Billie Snelling, Brett Radley and Amy Caldwell in the Tongala Primary School veggie garden. 

“The students are super proud to be a part of the garden,” Melissa said.

“In Tonny you can find your own thing. It could be sport or study, or something like the garden. Everyone supports you.”

For 90-year-old icon Norma Davies, being the unofficial best friend of every student at the school can certainly be considered her ‘thing’.

Four days a week you’ll find her in the classroom, reading to children or cooking them breakfast.

In the 40 years Norma’s lived in Tongala, things have certainly changed.

Case in point is her request to talk to me on FaceTime instead of over the phone after we miss her during our visit.

And she tells me there used to be more than one place to go in town to get a coffee.

“A lot has changed, but the town is still lovely,” she says.

“I love being a part of the school community and I’m not slowing down anytime soon.”

According to Melissa, Norma and her Ronny the turtle apron do a great job keeping the students and teachers in line, but Norma disagrees.

“They keep me in line,” she insists.

Norma is one of many wonderful, big characters in Tonny town.

And it’s a place that wears its heart on its sleeve. Or perhaps more accurately, on its walls.

But Rossy wouldn’t have it any other way.

“There’s no traffic and there’s no sad looking faces,” he said.

“The Nestle announcement was a bit scary, and it’s hard to compete for the attention of the shire when you have big towns like Echuca right next door.

“But you don’t give up. We won’t give up. We will find a way.”

At the end of the day, Rossy tells me, you can sit back in life or you can participate.

And Tongala despite the setbacks has certainly chosen the latter.

Between Ronny and Rossy and an army of passionate people who call Tongala home, it appears in the battle of the small town decline this little pocket of the GV could be on their way to winning.