Farmers

I doubt the young lady taking my order was convinced. “Please may I have the Farmer’s Lunch please thank you? Thanks. How would I like it? I guess on a plate would be a good start, do you have these here yet? Oh, you mean the steak? Um… (killing a few seconds considering whether I should plump for rare like the locals) medium-rare please. Thank you.”

“Y’aint no farmer love are ya?”

“Yeah nah. I’ll be sitting next to the CWA ladies playing bingo if that’s okay? Thanks.”

Cowra, New South Wales, Saturday 21st November 2020 and not all of the above was true. I did order a Farmer’s Lunch and I did opt for medium-rare, but it was served to me without disdain. At least outwardly. You didn’t need to be a farmer to order it; only my internal voice was screaming out “FRAUD”.

I found myself here after much procrastination. Determined to embark on something of a mini road trip over the weekend I spent the previous few evenings plotting routes and stops largely based around where I could support the local economy. Given I was heading into the country, surely there would be a nice country pub with hearty fare and a cold beer? I pictured a shady garden perhaps, leading up to an arrangement of latticework and wood-flooring. Locals in Slim Dusty hats shading craggy, sunbeaten faces glanced up at me with a twinkle in the eye. A large fan whirred silently over a shelf crammed with ten-year-old bottles of Scotch. Above the fireplace, a framed blue jersey of some ex-footballer who once scored a field goal in Origin.

Perhaps such idyll exists, but I’m yet to find it. Still, air conditioning and keno was comforting as temperatures soared into the high 30s in Cowra. And the Farmer’s Lunch – steak, sausages, eggs and chips – was worth all that hard yakka sitting in a machine pressing a few buttons. Just like the farmers busily harvesting their grain.

Earlier that morning I had driven up from Canberra in time for a coffee stop in Boorowa. After a previous visit in early spring it was notable how much the green had already diminished, long grasses browning off after a couple of weeks of warm, drier weather. Boorowa was nonetheless as charming as before, though the coffee stop didn’t quite live up to previous highs. I feel like it was under new ownership and lacked the same, welcoming community hubbub. On my way back to the car, another café promised for the next visit.

While Boorowa was still feeling jaunty under a gentle morning breeze, a little further up the road in Murringo the withering inland heat began to bite. Crackly yellow grass, searing bitumen, and the piercing symphony of cicadas. It had been a while since it was like this.

There wasn’t much to Murringo, other than a place where you can go and check out some whips. But it was cute all the same and the drive through Murringo Gap was pleasing with its hay bales and narrowing valley slopes. On cooler days I could see a cycle ride heading through here, but maybe that’s not until autumn now.

I was hoping to swiftly reach Conimbla National Park for a walk before the heat of the day kicked in. Arriving in a remote and empty patch of dirt, the clock on my car signalled a few minutes before midday. Mad dogs and Englishmen and all that. It was the kind of walk in which I could disappear down a ravine to be eaten by snakes before discovery three weeks later. I took some solace in the fact that the lady tending her allotment down in the valley eyed me warily as I drove past – surely she would send help? Or send in the boys with pitchforks?

Spoiler alert: I survived. Was it worth it? Maybe. The highlight was a lookout midway along, offering views over a small valley. Trees of Eucalyptus mingled with black cypress pine, presenting a speckled green landscape under the fierce blue sky. Swathes of native bluebell offered comfort along the trail, tempered by the expectation that I could step on a snake hidden amongst such jolly thickets at any moment. I didn’t.

In fact I survived to make lunch. Through fields of grain and hills of sheep, the road entered Cowra to a fanfare of agricultural supplies and heavy machinery, giving way to the range of motels, fuel and fast food that heralds the fringe of a regional town centre. Across the Lachlan River, the first pub. With its Farmer’s Lunch and aircon.

With a hot afternoon in store it was tempting to linger with a cold beer in hand. But I wanted to make Grenfell and after that my home for the night. Through those hours the car was the most comfortable place to be, though I stopped in Canowindra and the even smaller settlement of Gooloogong along the way. Both seemingly at siesta or more permanently asleep.

Grenfell offered a little more excitement, though mainly in the form of petrol under a dollar and exemplary public toilets. As I filled up with cheap petrol a sign promoting whippy thickshakes took my fancy. It would likely be the only source of such nutrition still open, so I took the plunge and navigated the whole complexity of a make-your-own thickshake within a servo.

First figure out which of the various range of cups to use, then add your syrup flavour of choice. Beware the lively caramel which spurts out of its dispenser and onto your shoes. Try and find some tissue to wipe this mess up and then fail to locate a bin to dispose of carnage. Now, add the whippy content from the machine that kicks into action after first releasing a dubious watery dribble. Then try to stop this process before it flows over the cup and creates more mess. Finally, add some more syrup because you’re gonna need it after this. Attempt to mix together with a straw and add a plastic lid which doesn’t really fit. Make your way to the counter where the lady looks on slightly incredulous, texting her mate at the same time as taking your money. Still, petrol under a dollar a litre people!  

With a cup sticking to my hands I couldn’t really drive again until I contracted severe brain freeze and cleaned up properly in those exquisite toilets. It gave me the chance to idle along Grenfell’s main street. I daresay on a Saturday morning it’s a bustling little place. People parking at the required reverse-in 45 degree angle (I think I was more 60, but overlooked bringing my protractor), picking up bread from Mick’s Bakery or Chris’s Bakery or the Empire Bakery by David. There is clearly a testosterone-fuelled bakery-war taking place in Grenfell. All jumbo sausage rolls at six paces and mince tarts.

Apart from a few youth loitering as Henry Lawson looked on, I was the only one out on the streets. Occasional utes reversed in at 45 degrees to pop into the IGA. This was where half the town was, a queue forming for hot chooks and lotto.

The other half of the population appeared to be at some kind of gathering beside an old railway station as I made my way out of town. For a few seconds I hoped I might have stumbled upon a rodeo or something involving giant pumpkins. But all I could see were a few food trucks that looked as if they had migrated from Canberra for the day and a small cluster of people not doing much at all. I moved on.

West of Grenfell, the sweeping fields of grain were undergoing various stages of collection. In the distance, a small plume of dust pinpointed a header hard at work. Rising abruptly from this widescreen landscape, striking by contrast, an island of bushland and rugged outcrops of rock. Uncleared, uncultivated, protected from the squatters and the pastoralists and the farmers by its very presence.

This was clearly Weddin Mountains National Park and my bed for the night. It was a new one for me, surprising in a way given its little over two hundred clicks from home. I can probably thank COVID for coming across it – coastal avoidance, travel limitations, appreciation of what is within two hundred clicks of home.

Setting up camp in a flash – more of this shortly – I set out to explore, hopeful that by 6pm the temperature would have started to drop a little and I would be blessed by golden light. The information board at Ben Halls Campground informed me of several trails from here. Against one – Lynchs Loop Trail – someone had appended in handwritten block capitals ‘RETURN THE SAME WAY YOU GO UP. THE PATH BEYOND IS NOT SAFE.’ Another promised cool shady gullies and waterfalls and no ad hoc Trumpian warnings, so I opted for that.

The Bertha’s Gully trail did indeed proceed up a gully, but I had managed to perfectly time things so that I was seared by the westerly sun. It must have been 40+ in that gully, sheltered from any breeze, clambering up boulders, conscious of snakes. The trail was quite rough, victim in part to the generous spring which has delivered a profusion of growth. Various spiky plants penetrated my legs and shoes and socks, creating a sensation every ten seconds that I was being eaten by ants. Yet despite all this, pausing for the nectar that is a chilled Berry Gatorade from Grenfell IGA, there was an elemental beauty to the place.

I think the Gatorade saved my life, finishing the last drops closer to the campground beside Ben Halls Cave. I was too spent to read the detail, but I assume Ben Hall was one of those celebrated reprobates who stole some sheep, robbed stagecoaches, shot some police, and vehemently denied homoerotic gatherings of brotherhood under precipitous cliff faces in the middle of a winter’s night.

There was likely no need for spooning tonight. It was still hot when I arrived back to my camp chair and yet another disappointingly insipid Australian cider. In many ways it was the best of ciders, the worst of ciders. As refreshing as my sweat to the flies. I had forgotten about the flies and for a while it appeared they had forgotten about me. Until the time had come to relax with a cold cider.

I feel like every six months or so I have the urge to camp to be reminded of how arduous camping can be, the result of which is putting camping off for another six months or so. This time I thought I was making life easier by not really camping but sleeping in my car. This was a bit of a trial, but I had managed to remove and fold down seats to create space for my swag mattress. This padded by an old quilt created a perfectly spacious, comfortable area. Crucially I could stretch out fully from head to toe. My other less successful invention was the mosquito netting affixed on one of the rear windows by Velcro and Blu Tack.

I awoke after fitful sleep, still hot and greeted by the sound of a mosquito buzzing in my ear. Pilot test lessons: for some reason sleeping with your head at the back of the car is more comfortable. Get some better netting and use it on not one but two windows. Bring a tent just in case. Always, always consider a motel.

What you don’t usually get from a motel though is the experience of waking up at first light to a dawn chorus of joyous singing and painful shrieking. You don’t usually receive a refreshing essence from eucalypts releasing minty vapours in the cool of dawn. You are rarely greeted by an audience of kangaroos and their young, slightly startled to find that there is a person in that car around which they have been chomping overnight. You don’t have the options of a pit toilet or a tree.

Not feeling especially refreshed at six in the morning I was pleased to find that the iced coffee from Grenfell IGA was still reasonable in the car fridge. My original plan was to embrace the coolest part of the day by walking up Basin Gully to Eualdrie Lookout – billed as a ‘challenging’ and ‘adventurous’ hike, this time in printed information provided by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service. But rated as a Grade 5 hike (the most challenging) and weary as I was, I made the very sensible decision to give it a miss. What could I do instead? Oh, yes, that’s right, that shorter, mysterious Lynchs Loop.

Armed with a big stick for breaking any spider webs in front of me, I climbed steadily up through grassy woodlands, occasionally interrupted by a rocky boulder. Each step revealing more of the valley in which the campground sat and, beyond that, the plains to the west. At a junction, a trail led off to an overlook perched upon the very edge of the national park. Beyond, a view into vastness.

Scattered pools of sunlight breaking through the clouds shifted upon an endless canvas of gold. The meandering of watercourses was clearly etched into the land, as if a giant serpent had indeed been at work. Distant, only another hill rising incongruently from this flat agricultural tablecloth. Perched here, not another soul in the world. This is why it is worth it.

Enlivened and spirited by such moments, I decided to carry on the loop trail to see how unsafe it really was. The answer was NOT AT ALL. The route descended but other than a few rocks everything was gentle. All I can assume is whoever had written that strident piece of public information had done so after heavy rain – the remaining section of the trail crossed a largely dry creek which would no doubt tumble with vigour once or twice a year.

Leaving Weddin Mountains, I passed through Grenfell once again, failing to stop for a thickshake or to use its exemplary toilets. It wasn’t until Young that I embraced the luxury of running water once more. Young sits at the centre of the Hilltops region and the town itself lives up to this name. It seems whichever way you enter Young, it will be done from a height as your car winds its way down into the centre.

The centre of town – on a Sunday morning – was almost as devoid of habitation as Grenfell. Though larger, the high street also looked a bit rough-edged, run down, lacking the same faded elegance as its counterpart to the north. I always thought of Young as fairly well-to-do, set in a rich, productive landscape with a cherry on top.

This perception of Young returned upon entering a homewares store that featured a café, or more accurately a café that featured a selection of things for the home that are largely unnecessary. The café was busy with young, attractive people, extended families, and the local police collecting takeaway coffees and muffins. I felt fortunate to nab a table, close to the entrance where people were gathering in close proximity to register their presence on the off chance they had COVID.   

It is quite an adjustment from sleeping in a car in the middle of nowhere to eating eggs benedict with pulled pork and an apple cider hollandaise in an upmarket homewares café. I felt and looked out of place, possibly because I was not wearing my hat indoors like the tens of identikit males with sculpted beards, black T-shirt and shorts and designer caps. They probably even had a shower this morning, show-offs.

The coffee was good and the brunch was delicious, albeit tarnished by the other great event of our times. What is it with being served only one slice of toast these days?! Two eggs and a pile of other stuff lumped onto one slice of toast. For something like twenty dollars. I don’t care if your toast is handcrafted sourdough whose airy bubbles are formed by unicorn farts, please may I have two of them?

The one slice of toast may have worked in my favour if the planets had aligned. Young is famous (in Australia at least) for cherries, harvested at this time of year and finding their way to many a Christmas table. There is even a National Cherry Festival, which may have occurred this very weekend if it wasn’t for the lingering presence of a microscopic virus. Each year, breakfast news weathermen arrive in Young to pick cherries and tell us how many tonnes are being shipped across Australia before informing of an impending heatwave. Apart from this year.

Nonetheless, the cherries and still growing and are still – despite a scarcity of backpackers to exploit – being picked. Many of the orchards offer pick your own and I had read of one that also had a café selling cherry pie. Surely the perfect ending before heading back, the cherry pie on the icing on the cake? As long as you book ahead.

For it turns out such is the renown of cherry season and such is the limitation of visitation numbers during 2020 that my intended destination was full. No more entry. Turn around and go away. Carrot cake down the road in Binalong will have to do.

Happily, starting the journey home I came across a small outdoor market in the settlement of Wombat, around which many of the orchards are based. There was a mobile coffee van, and a plant stall, and that stand promoting turmeric as the cure-all for the world’s ailments. Something colourful and knitted emanated from another corner as you amble past and try not to make eye contact. And there, out of the back of the van, the punnets of cherries. Picked yesterday just around the corner.

You cannot come to Young at this time of year and not buy cherries. Much as you cannot come into this part of the world and not be impressed, not be thankful for the people labouring to bring food to your table. Or to relish the stops in small towns withering in the heat, hiding poets and bakers and bushrangers among elegant facades and restless youth. And perhaps the most impressive of all, you cannot be indifferent to those natural islands, remnants of a distant past, witnesses to a longstanding culture, rising up in defiance to the industrial plains.

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Good country

To Wee Jasper.

Fuel

Take me over the crossing, deliver me through the shadow of trees, inch me up to a subtle divide. The very precipice falling into a mountain creek, hidden somewhere within this big, open country.

Water

Water water everywhere, and not a drop to waste. The new, passing abnormal, flushing the land clean of years of dust and bone. Reflecting the sky, saturating the fields, imitating an English meadow. Putting the good back into the Goodradigbee.

Life

Life goes on. Gentle and serene, noisy and frenetic. Humans endeavour. Sheep shelter. Birds poise ready for attack. The productivity of spring seems unstoppable, like the clouds motoring through the sky. Life goes on to prosper, with a little push.

Abundance

It is a fleeting passage of abundance. An embarrassment of riches that is as disconcerting as its painful absence. Bounteous panoramas, generous horizons, good country. Make hay.

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Staycationing

What is it with people wanting to know about my Christmas holidays? Block out your leave on the leave planner ASAP; HQ would like to know who is around over December and January; Put a bottle of sherry and a mince pie out underneath your reverse cycle air-conditioning if you are going away.

Sorry, have you not heard WE ARE IN THE MIDST OF A PANDEMIC? I can’t make plans at the best of times, give me a break.

A break would be wonderful. There are all sorts of places I would love to go. But come December 24th, when Americans are gathering around log fires of looted furniture and Brits are off to the pub between the hours of 1825 and 1918 except on Tuesdays in Wetherspoons in Barnard Castle, who knows what will be possible? If things really go awry, the Australian news networks may have to rerun last year’s story on how many tonnes of prawns were sold at Sydney Fish Market. I doubt if anyone would notice the difference.

If unprecedented quickly became the word of the year by March, then staycation has been steadily building in the top ten. Other emerging contenders include drug cocktail, unhinged and orange. Indeed, if you look at Instagram fairly regularly it seems that a staycation is becoming quite the thing: book a swanky hotel five minutes from home, lazily graze on avocado eggs for brunch, and top it off with an electric scooter experience upon the foreshore. If you’re lucky you may get a bonus swab shoved into your brains a fortnight later. It’s just like when we used to get the holiday photos back from the chemist.

Lose the swanky hotel, replace avocado eggs with caramel slice, swap out electric scooter with pedal-powered bike and I feel like I have been living a drawn out staycation this entire year. During this era (for it very much feels like an era) I have discovered and rediscovered many a gem in the Australian Capital Territory, from the Murrumbidgee River to Mulligans Flat. But even Canberra is going to struggle to host a staycation for a year.

Days out help. Days out are the new four week overseas holiday sharing food and hugging people. The embrace of local countryside, continuing to flabbergast in its uncharacteristic green, is a welcome one, even when it’s conjuring a wistful mirage of England. Purple Paterson’s Curse and yellow Cape Weed blight the landscape as if heather and gorse. Birds chirrup gaily while simultaneously waiting on a tree branch with murderous intent. Some splendid country towns feel more alive in spite of everything. I feel the pull of these places more than ever. In fact, I think I might even have a road tripping country holiday. If I make plans.  

This pull of the country, this allure of the road had me heading off on my most ambitious staycayawayday yet. A good solid two hours down to Jindabyne, in the foot of the Snowy Mountains. I was even considering stopping the night, camping somewhere along the Snowy River. If it were not for the fact that it was a long weekend during school holidays and everywhere was booked out, then I probably would have. If only I could make plans.

Still, the drive to Jindabyne offered a little distraction – calling in at Royalla for free noodles and farewells, pausing in Berridale for an early lunch, and stopping off on the eastern edge of Lake Jindabyne for hearty views. Snow was still visible upon the Main Range, yet it was warming up steadily to highs in the mid-twenties. A day out in shorts had me longing for something more than a staycation. It had the feeling of holidays.

Passing through Jindabyne I entered the very fringe of Kosciuszko National Park, just over the Thredbo River. I didn’t really want to go further up the road into the snow, mainly because I was keen to avoid the hit of a $29 entry fee. The river would be a pleasant place to spend an hour or two, killing time while I wait for winds to please die down so I can go on my bike by the lake pretty please.

Sheltered by steep banks of eucalyptus, the air here was deceptively calm, a striking juxtaposition to the thrashing water flowing downstream. It’s the kind of noise that evokes the pristine, blocking out everything else around and bringing on the urge to pee. A few fly fishers had chanced upon the waters gambling for trout, unconcerned about becoming damp.

Further along, all is again calm, and I spy a grassy glade on which to linger. I’ve followed the Pallaibo Track a couple of kilometres into a clearing, the river penetrating upstream into a steeper sided valley. Following the river into the mountains, a newly laid gravel track loops and winds into the forest. The cambered curves signal this is not only or not even for pedestrians. This is the Lower Thredbo Valley Trail, a thoroughfare for mountain bikes.

Only there are no mountain bikes today. From what I can tell it is still closed for construction work, another one of those stimulus packages conveniently appearing in a marginal electorate. As the hit and miss state of stimulus packages go, it’s one I can get on board with; mountain biking is a pretty good bet to bring in visitors spending money on things like accommodation, food and emergency helicopter evacuation to Canberra Hospital.

A case in point: me spending money on coffee and carrot cake in a Jindabyne café, making my dedicated contribution to the local economy. Following this I set out on my bike along a much more genteel lakeside path. The wind had dropped a touch, but this only served to encourage thousands of horrendous bugs to congregate. I thought for a while my face may come to resemble the front windscreen of a car crossing the Nullarbor.

The nice and easy bike path eventually disappeared to be replaced by a supposedly nice and easy mountain bike trail. Lacking fat tyres and killer protection I wasn’t entirely sure what I would face but, apart from a few rocky nuisances, things were pretty plain sailing. Cows to the left of me, lake views to the right there were fleeting moments of joy that seem to only come on two wheels. Several tranquil bays passed by, culminating at Hatchery Bay where yet more anglers chanced their arm. This was the turn point and the start of the trip home.

Back home for another night home. Yet I was pleased not to be camping here, at least not on the shores of Lake Jindabyne. The campground was building into a frenzy, an escalating shanty town of awnings and eskies and people lounging on ten dollar Big W chairs with a beer in hand. I noted most of the number plates were from NSW – I guess ACT folk mainly escape down the coast. As much as I’m sure it will all be fine, you cannot picture such scenes without a little niggle of coronavirus in the back of your mind.

Watching the sun disappear into clouds on the western horizon, I bade farewell to Jindabyne for a drive through the dark. Really pushing a staycation to the limits. But it was an easy drive, and I was surprised to find the roads so quiet, most people obviously bedding down for the whole weekend.

Midway along the trip I paused in Cooma to support the local economy, including its service station and a deserted KFC. Eating those six wicked wings in my dark car parked on the widest street in the world might sound like I have plumbed new depths. But I have to say they were thoroughly delicious, all washed down by a frozen raspberry lemonade. Finger lickin’ – with antiseptic wipes – good. Who knows – wicked wings for Christmas lunch? Anything is possible without plans.

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Hilltops

On Friday evening I did something exceedingly rare. It may restrict my ability to enter South Australia or Queensland should I care to mix with crow-eaters or banana benders, but I crossed from the Australian Capital Territory into New South Wales. Literally metres across the border, from a COVID-free paradise to a COVID ‘hotspot’. It was worth it for the chicken wings.

Succumbing to a blunt instrument of parochial politics intending to win votes, I decided I might as well embrace the situation. It has been nearly three months since I had a day outside of the ACT which in this unprecedented year is as unprecedented as it gets. The question was, where to go? The coast road would be busy, Goulburn had been exhausted, and the mountains would still be a touch snowy.

The answer lay in the methodical planning that shapes most of my trips: locations in which you can generously support the local economy by eating food. Hearty country fare of slices and pies and – increasingly – epicurean delights intertwined with fine coffee. In this regard, Long Track Pantry in Jugiong offered a foothold from which to explore; though I would, in the end, leave this until the end. I was headed for the hilltops.

Outside of obligatory food stops in charming country towns, the benefit of exploring the Hilltops region of NSW at this time of year is the explosion of spring. Fields of golden canola hit you in the face as you turn a corner, as you crest a ridge. The #canolatrail has even become a thing, ideal for selfies and people looking for something to do which doesn’t involve going overseas.

It’s sometimes a little hard to safely find a place to pull off the road at 100kph to capture the luminescent glow of fields. And this being country Australia there is rarely a public footpath to be found, something I have decried over and over again. So you’re often whizzing past scenic delights and by time you realise there was a spot you could have stopped it is disappearing in the rear view mirror and you should really look out for that truck laden with hay coming straight at you.  

But today things changed. Yes, it took me an inordinate amount of time to work this most obvious solution out, but I shoved my bike in the back of the car. Just in case.

And in and around Boorowa all my dreams came true. First, the coffee stop at The Pantry on Pudman could not have been better. I would happily go back there again. Then there was a cycle path beside the river. Not especially long but a nice, leisurely amble winding through a verdant land of green. The weather was sublime; heading over twenty degrees, I wore shorts for the first time in a long while. And a bright red T-shirt to attract the friendly greeting of the magpies who were delighted to see me, as warm and jovial as ever.

On this Tour de Boorowa, the streets were – unsurprisingly – wide and empty. A gradual climb up to the Col de Recycling Centre offered views over town. And the aptly named Long Road led me off into the countryside, where I stopped every hundred metres to admire my beautiful bike within a luscious backdrop.

And of course, there was the canola. Surely there can be no better way to experience this landscape than by bike. It may well inspire me to head off into the country on two wheels in the future. As long as it’s reasonably flat. And comes with an incentive like today. Wine perhaps. Or cheese. Or chocolate. Or slow roasted local lamb barbecued on coals. Or just simply an opportunity to do something in country NSW which makes a border crossing worthwhile. Vive Le Tour!

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