You’d have to be slightly crazy to drive six hours just to visit the Gilgandra Rural Museum. Yet craziness is exactly the vibe. Assembled outside, various mechanical contraptions seek to separate wheat from chaff or draw water from the ground or power the transistor radio of old Sheepwash Charley of Dunedoo. Among the pioneering relics, random two-dimensional figures play out a scene which probably didn’t make the final cut of the original Ned Kelly movie. All the while, the incredible Man on the Thunder Box remains impassive.
I didn’t travel six hours for the Gilgandra Rural Museum, but paused for one final stop before setting out for Coonamble. For me, Gilgandra signified a final outpost of familiarity if not necessarily civilisation. Along the way, more gentrified country towns like Boorowa and Cowra and Molong had breezed on by. A stop in Wellington illuminated both the charm and economic fragility of life in a country town, while the major centre of Dubbo came with all the drawn out trappings of tractor dealerships, coffee clubs and chequered fashion wear.
It was after Dubbo that I first encountered a finger or two. A single raised pinky from fellow drivers attempting to overcome the boredom of the Newell Highway. They obviously hadn’t stopped at the Gilgandra Rural Museum for there was little cheer or energy in their movements. More an obliging duty to signify they are alive and to acknowledge the presence of other lifeforms.
It is never clear when, where or why the finger zone starts or ends. Remoteness plays a key role, but then some areas of barren desolation barely provoke a twitch. This confuses me to the extent that some people get the finger, others get a V sign, others a full hand and, when I have faced enough rejection for one day, the rest receive absolutely nothing. One of the worst feelings in the world is being too late to acknowledge a cheerfully waving man in an akubra as he whizzes by south, just because you have been spurned one too many a time.
Another hour of this kept me mildly entertained as I broke new ground on the Castlereagh Highway. Occasionally the road’s namesake river snaked nearby, sandy with pools of water nurturing gum trees and fields of weedy yellow flowers. Corrugated metal galahs counted down the approach to Gulargambone, while a fence emblazoned with a big G’DAY greeted me as I left town. Late in the day, Coonamble embraced me with fiery skies and the smell of mice disinfectant.
I had come to Coonamble as part of a bigger trip on my way to Queensland. And while there was distraction in its artistic water tower and a sense of disappointment in its Nickname Hall of Fame (not even being so bad to be good), the main purpose of the stopover was to visit old – and young – friends.
And so good food, company, and row row row your boat was the main order of events, delivered in abundance. I did sample hot coffee from both local cafes and discovered the intricacies of a remote town of 2,000 people where everyone knows everyone else’s business.
One late afternoon I even went for a little bike ride, which was quite delightful at first, cruising along flat countryside lanes and discovering a peaceful spot by the river. Then I ended up in town and got chased quite aggressively by the obligatory roaming hounds. The full Coonamble experience.
One of the plus points to Coonamble is its proximity (at least in regional Australia terms) to Warrumbungle National Park. A jumble of volcanic lumps and spires rise up prominently from the flat surrounds, tantalising from afar in every direction. A dirt road takes us to a spectacular reveal of this massif from the west, before becoming more deeply immersed into the heart of the park.
I’ve done longer, signature hikes here before but with little Henry enjoying shooing flies in a backpack we take on a shorter walk to Tara Cave. Still, it’s a delight featuring a small creek crossing and burgeoning bushland, rising up to reach an interesting shelter with signs of tool-sharpening from many centuries before David Bowie put on some red shoes and danced. And being in the north west of the park, a balcony view reveals the splendid panorama of this wonderful land.
On the other side of the Warrumbungles is the town of Coonabarabran. I discover this is known locally as ‘Coona’, even by the Coonamble locals who might also claim that moniker. Coona is a pleasant enough place, with an extravagantly decorated and tasty Chinese restaurant and – the piece de resistance – a Woolworths. Coming from Coonamble, there is something utopian about entering a supermarket with fresh produce and aisle upon aisle of comforting familiarity. Like a child in a candy shop. Or Francois in a fromagerie.
And so, a final fresh dinner on Sunday night and another fine breakfast the following morning sets me up for the journey ahead. It’s a long and lonely road, and I feel a touch flat about leaving a world of comfort and companionship. After an hour or so, Walgett appears, which is hardly the kind of place to lift a funk. Fuel, toilet, and a crossing of the Barwon River at least interrupt the journey.
The river is fascinating in its own way – still partly in flood thanks to storms several weeks ago in an area many hundreds of kilometres distant. Waters progress at the rate of Australia’s vaccine roll out, gradually collecting into wide channels and floodplains, seeping slowly through the interior. Eventually these waters will meet the Darling, which will meet the Murray and then find their way to enter the Southern Ocean southeast of Adelaide. They are taking a far more leisurely trip than me.
After the Barwon, the landscape alternates between wide flat expanses of saltbush and clusters of hardy eucalyptus forming around further pools of floodwater. Emu sightings are becoming commonplace and as I near Lightning Ridge, the most astounding sighting yet: an emu comprised of steel girders, car parts and a whole VW Beetle. Stanley the Emu is – according to Tripadvisor – only number 8 of 17 things to do in Lightning Ridge. I clearly need to take the short detour to visit this place.
Lightning Ridge is not just a flashy name but offers some genuine drawcards. There are artesian bore baths and a house made of bottles and – probably the best of the lot – a gallery featuring Australian classics from John Murray. I almost buy a signed print of a rich red sky over a dusty outback road to remember my trip by, but figure it is far too early in the trip. Damage from dust or mice or man-eating snakes would probably become its fate.
A spot of fossicking may provide some funding for such works of art though. Lightning Ridge is best known for its opals, which have been heavily mined and continue to be sought after today. All around town, deposits of rock form in small mounds and people still come to set up a home among the pickings. Corrugated metal and rust are a predominant theme which, set into a glaring white earth and fierce sky, offer a certain Mad Max vibe.
Seriously hoping Mel Gibson is not out in town harassing people I decide it’s time to move on and head north. Well into uncharted territory, even finger waves become few and far between on the way to the Queensland border. In the middle of nowhere, a giant billboard featuring smug people on an idyllic white beach blares “WELCOME TO QUEENSLAND”. A few kilometres further on in Hebel, a ramshackle pub bedecked with golden signs for the insipid state beer confirms the change.
It feels like Queenslanders are – in this part at least – not so much into the finger waves. Perhaps they notice my ACT plates and are suspicious of southerners with their lattes and COVID-19 outbreaks. Gradually the barren landscape around the border appears to become more tamed, more cultivated. Cattle studs, sheep farms, giant silos. I notice fluffy white patches lining the side of the road and correctly deduce the presence of cotton farms. All I really know about cotton is that it is very water-intensive and seems at odds with the land I have come through. But that’s utter Balonne.
I’m not exactly sure how you pronounce Balonne, but it is the big river of the area, part of that same system which will end up in the seas off South Australia. I initially encounter it in the town of St. George, the first place of any size in my progress north. The river lends St. George a somewhat graceful air and no doubt a certain prosperity from cotton and other crops. It’s the kind of spot – at four in the afternoon – that would be perfect as a stop for the night, but I haven’t really made any plans. I decide a cup of tea and slice of Christmas cake will be enough to spur me on for another hour to camp.
Thus I arrive in Surat as the daylight fades. While escaping ferocious heat is a benefit of travelling at this time of year, the downside is the early sinking of the sun. I decide setting up the tent in the dark would be too much of a palaver, so organise my car so that I can sleep in the back. A process which also involved much palaver. But somehow, after 550km on the road, I manage a reasonable, comfortable night of sleep.
As the morning light emerges, I am pleased with my choice of accommodation. The free camping spot in Surat is spacious and shady, next to the river and includes the luxury of a well-kept toilet block with clean, running water. I think havens like this are a good idea for tiny towns in which you probably wouldn’t stop otherwise. Especially for those weary travellers who are in need of a coffee.
Crossing the Balonne again I walk over towards town and follow the course of the river through well-kept parkland with well-kept barbecues and well-kept playgrounds. I am starting to notice just about everything in Surat is well-kept. There is a clear civic pride and welcoming air around the place that you wouldn’t really imagine by just looking at it on the map.
The main street – which is also the Carnarvon Highway – boasts a swanky looking grocery store, a pub and motel, a small museum, a few civic buildings, and a number of bottle trees. I noticed a few of these last night on the drive up and they are impressive specimens which conjure up a touch of African exoticism.
There is also a café doubling up as providore-cum-giftware shop. It’s still before nine in the morning but the sticky date and walnut cake looks too good to pass up, and I feel obliged to support the local economy given the free accommodation. That is, once I finally download ‘Check In QLD’ to add to the growing array of pandemic-related apps cluttering my phone.
I was keen to linger with coffee and cake until nine to poke my head into the museum opposite. This appeared from the outside to boast a little bit of everything. And indeed there was everything from old bottles and wool specimens to bushrangers and drovers around a campfire. A supplementary aquarium contained species from the Balonne and an adjacent art gallery was crammed full of work from one person which can most generously be described as eclectic.
The centrepiece however – and main claim to Surat – is being the setting for the last ever regular service of a Cobb & Co stagecoach in 1924. While life in an old Subaru can seem a little uncomfortable, these coach rides were another matter altogether. Passengers were able to pay handsomely for the privilege of freeing bogged wheels, clambering in tight spaces to shelter from storms, delivering post, opening and closing gates, and occasionally wading through flooded creeks and streams.
Such ardours meant the journeys were slow, and changing stations popped up along the way for a swap out of horses, crew, packages, and people. Cups of tea and plates of scones might have been arranged or accommodation for the night provided if it was getting late. Kind of like a nicer version of a Travelodge on the M42.
While the form of transport might have evolved over the years, it felt like Surat – this most unexpected of well-kept towns – was still engaged in such a modus operandi. Allowing weary travellers like me to take stock and convalesce, to rest heads and bodies, to receive generous nourishment. And most critically, to recover our worn out pinkies so that we can suitably venture out once more into the finger zone.