Homecomings

Two weeks on holiday normally wouldn’t be such a strange thing. But it seems a pretty big deal these days. In the world BC, holidays would involve a month crisscrossing the UK in search of friends, family, scones and ales. Plus a European side trip featuring alps of snow and mountains of cheese. One day I’ll make it home again.

However, over the years I’ve come to think of home as more than a singular physicality. There are homes and, following the big bike ride, I needed to somehow find my way from Point B – Caloundra in Queensland – to Point A – Home, Canberra.

It had been a hectic holiday really, and I had visions of a couple of days nestled beside the ocean in some mild clime with good coffee. Perhaps a pool to soothe aching muscles. And a regular ice cream jaunt in the afternoon before taking in the final golden light of sundown. Alas, the weather forecast didn’t look especially conducive to this fantasy so – once again – I opted for the John Denver approach to travelling home.

Still, this wasn’t before at least taking in the sand and water on the Sunshine Coast. It was a brief foray, in between heavy showers and ocean chop at Alexandra Headland. Nearby, the Sunshine Plaza didn’t really offer a brighter disposition but eventually I located some much sought after rocky road. For later.

Faring Jason well with the understanding that we will one day again reunite for rail trail cycling magnificence, I fired up the four wheels and headed west. The road home was all smooth to start, taking me back – as it happened – into a land previously criss-crossed on two wheels. The second time around offered an opportunity to right some wrongs.

The first was pausing to marvel at the Kilcoy Yowie, which I had failed to note when we drove through here on the way to start our bike ride. It’s just, well, I cannot really explain. Further on, once more in Blackbutt, I called into the bakery where I scored a coffee and was confronted with the kind of display that causes indecisive cake-lovers like me to break out in a cold sweat. I think I went for sticky date fudge slice when pressed.

After the kilometre zero of Yarraman, the road led on towards Kingaroy. The extent of my knowledge about Kingaroy is absolute peanuts. Which is pretty spot on, given the area is famed for the cultivation of kernels. When in Kingaroy, Go Nuts is not the motto on the town sign, but you should at least stop by the Peanut Van. And if you want a taste of the manic, pop to the local Woolworths.  

I was stocking up for the return to camping with a laser-like focus on making it as minimal effort as possible. Banana for breakfast. Packet soup for dinner, with a carrot and five frozen gyoza to add some bulk. Tent popped up, cooking by torchlight would never be so satisfying, and soup proved perfect in the cold.

At altitude in Bunya Mountains National Park it was surprising how cold things were, given I was still in Queensland. The Bunya Mountains rise up distinctly from the surrounding plains, a wild island among the productive downs. It is very much an island of biodiversity, illustrated by the large swathes of unique Bunya Pine. These giant, Monkey Puzzle type trees only grow naturally here and in a few smaller, dispersed pockets further north.

The trees yield massive cones which offered good tucker for Aboriginal Australians. When I see one in the small visitor centre, I am relieved my walking for the day has finished. Not only do you need to be wary of snakes, spiders, ticks, and stinging trees, but giant bloody cones falling on your noggin as well.

I absorbed the Bunya Mountains with a nice loop walk through dense forest, following lush gullies and creeks and occasionally peering out of the woods to see Queensland below. The gentle chirping of birds was a constant, but the dappled light and dark undergrowth made it impossible to sight any of the blighters. The forest had the becalmed air and melody of one of those meditation soundtracks cobbled together on Spotify by a bearded man wearing loose flowery pants. 

Not that this led to a relaxing night. While I managed to get fairly snug, gusts of wind provoked regular rattling of canvas. With fitful rest, I rose early the next morning to discover my head in the clouds. With patience, this would rise and fall in swirls, chinks in the gloom revealing a sunny day unfolding for the Darling Downs.   

Gravity would propel my car that way, rapidly plunging from the Bunya Mountains towards Dalby, where the day was indeed sunny. Dalby seems every bit a forgettable town, neither obviously appalling nor exceptionally outstanding. This is perfectly encapsulated by the popularity of a Coffee Club and Brumby’s Bakery on the high street.

Out of Dalby, large cotton fields once again spilled out towards the horizon. It is one of the regrets of the trip that I never managed to find a spot where I could brake abruptly and take a photo of them. Instead, here’s a metal yabbie at Moonie next to tennis courts and much sought after public toilets. 

Moonie was little more than a junction on the way to Goondiwindi, a border town receiving attention over the past year for its checkpoints ensuring Queenslanders are kept safe from nasty viruses prior to a state election. As a border town it possesses all the essentials, retaining the chain store vibe of Dalby for passers-by who simply yearn for a bit of predictability. For lunch I grabbed some takeaway from Red Rooster, before a fuel stop and then a frozen coke from McDonalds to take me into New South Wales.

Crossing the border, one step closer to home. Yet still a million miles away. It certainly felt that way once my frozen coke had run out and I found myself on a bumpy road through endless fields of grain. The road – between Boggabilla and Warialda – was doing few favours to my left shoulder and arm, which had now developed post-cycling strain and pain.

In my ideal version of today I was reaching Bingara by two, allowing time for a relaxing nap before a potter around. But I’ve continued to underestimate Australia and the quest of driving across it. It was pretty much four when I checked into a motel – cheap, basic but welcoming in a countrified beige blanket kind of way. And not camping. One of the two double beds still looked good for a nap.

I vaguely remember passing through Bingara on another trip back from Queensland, the town now an intersection with the past. That time around I had come through Inverell and Myall Creek on my way to Narrabri and the Warrumbungles. Again attempting to cover a million miles in a day, I didn’t even stop here, but remember it conveyed a surprising rustic charm.

In the remaining light of day I therefore walked down to the Gwydir River and back into town where clusters of tradie and caravanning couples were gathering for Friday night dinner outside the pub. Along the high street, trees turned auburn signalled the passage of time and place that had gone on since I left home. And with the sun dipping over the hills, there was a tangible chill in the air. And plenty of chilli on my pizza.

Bingara enjoys a fine setting, nestled in a valley backed by rolling ranges. It’s technically in New England and feels that little bit closer to civilisation, if civilisation is Tamworth. I took in the surrounds from a lookout high upon one of many hills, wondering if I could see my destination. But that was still a long way off.

The road between Bingara and Narrabri must surely rank as a hidden gem. In between the two towns, the crazy volcanic landscape of Mount Kaputar National Park infiltrates, regularly revealing golden panoramas and rugged lumps thrust upward from the horizon. It’s one of those landscapes that makes you want to stop at regular intervals, eating yet again into your estimated journey time.

With a lunch date in the diary, I didn’t really have time to pause. I was in two minds whether to stop at Sawn Rocks, but being only a few hundred metres walk from the car park I figured I could squeeze such spectacle in. This is one of Australia’s best ‘organ-pipe’ rock formations, created in geological tumult and chaos. An experience I’m sure my car was feeling for the rest of the day.

I am not going to profess to taking it any faster than 110kph of course as I progressed towards Narrabri. The sacrifice for Sawn Rocks was no coffee in Narrabri and no wee in Wee Waa. By time I reached the small settlement of Pilliga I was more than ready to pause for some brief relief.

Pilliga is – shock horror – in the heart of The Pilliga, a vast, largely flat plain of sprawling dry forest and sandy soil. At one point – and I may have been hallucinating by that stage – I passed three camels. There was no chance to stop, and I’m not entirely sure if they were on a large farm or simply roaming wild. But the fact that you can easily imagine them roaming wild here says everything about the type of environment you are in.

Talking of wildlife, did I expect to find myself in Coonamble again? Well, yes, but I never expected I would be so ecstatic at reaching the place. Oh, there’s that spot I got chased by rabid dogs. Over there, the only café open on Sunday. There’s the river, languid and brown. The supermarket with the chemical mice killer aroma. The partly constructed public toilets embroiled in drama. And the home just out of town where I can again feel at home.

My plans were vague and uncertain and once pork belly was mentioned for dinner I knew this would be my spot for the night. Before dinner, lunch, a mere 45 minutes out of town. The Armatree Hotel is the best pub in town, the only pub in town, practically the only building in town. It has character and authenticity soaking through the wooden floorboards, corrugated iron bar, and XXXX on tap. Out back, the outback. And a beer garden, lively with get togethers and celebration of another week fulfilled.

I like the fact that I can come away from the Armatree Hotel having chatted to an old codger in a ten gallon cowboy hat while we both emptied the contents of our bladders. “Great place out here, hey”. Sure is mate, sure is.

After a restorative night, it finally was time for a homecoming. Coonamble to Canberra in one hit is a pretty lengthy affair but once through Dubbo (and a much-needed stop for coffee), the drive was pretty enjoyable. The weather had closed in and rain was falling as I reached Molong, giving the place an added autumnal melancholy. All across the Central West, trees were exploding crimson and gold in small towns like Cudal and on toward Cowra.

The rain had stopped and things were brighter by time I reached fairly familiar territory in Cowra. Not so long to go now. Just need a final country coffee to push me on, eclipsed by a delicious treat…because I am still on holiday after all. Just about. Down the road, Boorowa. Then Yass. Murrumbateman. Hall. And at last, home.

Australia Driving Food & Drink Green Bogey Photography

Entering the finger zone

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.

Australia Driving Food & Drink Green Bogey Photography Walking