BEFORE I moved to central Victoria last October, I'd never lived in the country.
Unless you count Canberra, which you probably shouldn't.
Over the past nine months I've had the privilege of diving head-first into the stories of regional Victorians - from housing, to footy, to farming.
Now, as my time in Bendigo wraps up and I prepare to move back to the city, I've been reflecting on what I've learnt about regional Australia - and what's surprised me.
Housing at the forefront
Undoubtedly the biggest issue, and the one I've covered the most in my short time reporting here, has been the escalating housing crisis.
As the pandemic rolled on over the past few years, normalised remote working trends and appealing tree changes became pull factors to the regions.
A recent report showed between March 2020 and March 2021, relocation from cities to regions increased by 5.9 per cent, while it decreased by 3.5 per cent from regions to cities.
Now, along with most other regional towns, Bendigo's homelessness rates are skyrocketing, as people are pushed further and further out by wealthier city dwellers.
At a local level, solutions are scarce.
Residents are pushing council to deal with growing numbers of campers and rough sleepers, new social housing developments are years off fruition - if they even manage to get council approval, and housing support services are at capacity.
With the average weekly rental price in northern Victoria sitting at $409 and rising food and fuel costs, young people, families and long term residents are facing sleeping in tents, despite some having full-time employment.
Regional health on the brink
While the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in more than 10,000 deaths so far, the health crisis of the past few years has also unveiled some significant gaps in the country's healthcare system, particularly in the regions.
Despite having Victoria's largest regional hospital, the lack of specialists and GPs in Bendigo is a stark reminder that investment in rural health has a long way to go.
I spoke to one family earlier this year who were forced to travel to Melbourne to treat their four-year-old's juvenile arthritis - a little known but highly common autoimmune disease affecting almost one in 1000 children globally.
When I dug a little deeper, I discovered there were only 10 specialists in the country - all based in capital cities.
But it's not just specialists who are hard to come by.
By December last year, one in five regional GP's had closed their books to new patients, and last month, Bendigo Community Health Service reported patients were waiting up to eight weeks to get an appointment.
As the warmer months came to a close, the perfect storm of influenza, growing winter COVID cases and scarce GP appointments have put Bendigo Health's emergency department under pressure as exhaustion and sickness result in a stripped-back workforce.
Now, as variants continue to mutate, it is clear the pandemic is here to stay, and doctors and patients are pleading for governments to address the shortfalls in regional health.
Roads and resuscitations
One of the more sombre reflections I've had in my time reporting in the regions is the number of road accidents I've attended.
This year, 142 people have died on Victorian roads, 79 of those in rural areas. Motorbikes and trucks have made up the majority of accidents I've reported on.
A story that particularly stuck with me was that of a teenager killed in Lockwood earlier this year after his motorbike collided with a trailer.
The 19-year-old was exiting a dirt track onto a main road at dusk.
Paramedics, bystanders and police performed CPR for over an hour to no avail.
In only nine months, I've lost count of the number of times I've spoken to heartbroken and defeated local police officers and paramedics about crashes; some involving alcohol and drugs, most just minor errors on dodgy roads with devastating outcomes.
In one week, I attended four different collisions on the same road in Epsom.
Too many people die or are seriously injured on country roads, and it's going to take a combined effort from governments, councils and individual drivers to change the narrative.
Joy from community
While it may seem as such, my time working in the regions has not all been bleak.
I have found great joy in reporting the community stories.
The ones of regular, but extraordinary, country people striving for change in the communities they love.
Perhaps my metropolitan predispositions came into play, but I have been surprised at the way Bendigo has embraced diversity.
From covering the third annual Bendigo PRIDE festival, to attending the country's first comprehensive native title settlement right here on Dja Dja Wurrung land, I have had the pleasure of telling diverse and fascinating stories.
Early on in my time in Bendigo, I developed a relationship with local disability advocates and reporting on the large and eclectic disability community here has been some of the most eye opening and fun experiences of my (short) career.
From members of the queer community who bravely shared their stories while the religious discrimination bill was being debated in federal parliament, to the locals fighting to save native wildlife from logging, thank you for trusting me to do your stories justice.
You're in good hands with the wonderful team at the Bendigo Advertiser.
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