Like the musical instrument he’s become famous for, gum leaf performer Uncle Herb Patten discovered Travellers Aid by accident.
Passing through Flinders St Station on his way to busk in Melbourne’s CBD, Uncle Herb noticed someone in a wheelchair headed through a glass sliding door.
He followed on his motor scooter and found himself inside Travellers Aid’s Flinders St service hub.
“I picked up the pamphlets to read about the service, and I’ve been using it ever since,” he says.
The Gunai-Kurnai Elder travels into the city by train from Epping about three times a week. Since discovering the hidden gen about 10 months ago, spending a couple of hours at Travellers Aid has become part of his routine.
Uncle Herb brings in his lunch, which staff heat in the microwave if needed. He plugs in his motor scooter to recharge while he relaxes and enjoys the company of Travellers Aid staff and fellow service users.
“The place is very, very comfortable. Especially on the cold days when the heaters are going. Keeps me warm,” he says.
“They’re wonderful people, you know? They look after me.”
Travellers Aid’s Flinders St Station service hub has a large space with chairs and tables where people can rest, take a break from the hustle and bustle, or eat lunch in a quiet, friendly environment.
It includes a well-maintained accessible bathroom with ceiling hoist and adult change table.
The service is open to the public and is as free as Uncle Herb’s gum leaves, which he describes as the cheapest musical instruments around.
Uncle Herb grew up in Newmerella, near Orbost, where the Gunai-Kurkai people are the Traditional Owners.
He was first captivated by the music of gum leaves at just five years old after seeing his own uncle play.
Within four years the youngster was entering gumleaf playing competitions. He has competed in the Australian Gumleaf Playing Championships 20 times, and came runner-up in the inaugural season of Australia’s Got Talent in 2007. He earned a Masters of Arts degree from RMIT University that same year for his multimedia exploration of gumleaf music.
Uncle Herb has performed everywhere: from busking on the streets of Melbourne to on-stage at Sydney’s Opera House. He has produced two CDs of gumleaf music, and is now collaborating with the grandson of a fellow performer to document his gumleaf playing techniques for future generations.
Uncle Herb regularly visits kindergartens and schools to teach children to play. He even brings his gum leaves in to Travellers Aid, where he has taught some of the staff.
Uncle Herb is glad to have stumbled across the Flinders St service, saying it has everything he needs to make his days in town comfortable.
He also makes use of travellers Aid’s Southern Cross service hub when he needs to travel interstate.
“The service is impeccable. I enjoy myself there with the staff and the other people,” he says.
“It’s just an amazing place.”