Dipsy

Over the hills and far away, everyone come out to play. One. Two. Three. Four. Thousand.

Such are the conical lumps and bumps of the countryside around Jugiong, you never know what you might find down a rabbit hole. Today, it is bursting at the seams with all sorts of characters, the village swollen with trippers pausing for drinks, pastries, ice creams, chocolate eggs. It is Good Friday and, even so, I am astonished. I have never seen the Hume Highway so busy.

It’s the kind of day where you could get hot and cross sat on your buns waiting an interminable time for a coffee. Unless you cheekily pop around the corner to the Jam Factory Outlet. And leave the gourmet country mecca that has become Jugiong raking in the cash.

It is heartening to see. Down the road a little, Coolac is the precise antithesis. A one street kind of town with a forty year old Holden parked eternally outside the pub. A Memorial Hall hosts a little life as a couple of old dears negotiate the keys and lights. Outside, the picket-fenced oval surprises given the difficulty in conjuring enough people for a cricket team. It seems more likely a host to rusty tractors and bizarre sculptures made from hay. I kind of like Coolac.

I’m detouring off the Hume and am making my way to Gundagai via a scenic route. One year on and surely I must be getting close to traversing all the sealed highways and byways of the Hilltops region. This one is a beauty, at times narrowing to a single track nestled into steep-sided embankments following the Murrumbidgee. Other traffic is a rare sight, only increasing as I approach Gundagai from the south.

I was originally thinking of camping by the river here. As I cross over the town’s rickety bridge, I glance down to see an accumulating complex of trailers and awnings and canvas-themed opulence. I feel relieved and slightly smug at the thought of booking somewhere quieter in Tumut instead. Well, I think it should be quieter.

So Gundagai becomes simply a pause for lunch. It sounds ridiculously middle class, but one of my camping road trip staples has become homemade quiche. It’s hearty, tasty fare and means I don’t have to lug my whole box of camp kitchen paraphernalia with me. Okay, it might make it hard for me to ingratiate myself with certain other types of campground people, but it sure does use up the out-of-date eggs.

I’ve never really dwelt for long in Gundagai. The town is clearly shaped by the Murrumbidgee, with the coloured roofs of houses rising up a series of hills like a scattering of Lego bricks. The floodplain divides and is sensibly reserved for non-essential infrastructure such as a golf course, a park, and the campground. Two old bridges indicate the perils of flood, suitably ramshackle as they pass by clusters of stately river red gum. You sense the trees will be here long after man-made debris has finally washed away.

And so on to the campground in Tumut which was – yikes – just as busy as everywhere else. This one was situated on a farm alongside the banks of the Tumut River, a natural attraction to fishers and kayakers and people who simply like to empty the contents of an esky while lounging to the sound of soft rock classics on endless rotation.

Occasionally I like to ride my bicycle and – after putting up the ‘instant’ tent in one of the better times yet – was keen to immerse myself in the surrounding countryside. Enclosed within a broad river valley I assumed the riding would be pretty flat and for the most part that was the case. Still, any incline was unwelcome in the late afternoon warmth, nearing thirty degrees.

On the northern side of the valley I headed towards Lacmalac, which was really just a cluster of farm buildings with hints of charming homestead within manicured garden. Occasional wafts of silage reminded of Devon, but then a giant southern cross reinforced the Australian condition. Crossing water at Little River, it was all Devon again, embodied in a rolling hill which was simply too steep for me to pedal.

In one of the quieter moments I realised that bike-riding is quite the bipolar experience. The inclines are irritating and often lack enjoyment. But then crest the top and the downhill is all exhilaration and relief. Flat stretches are simple compromise, somewhere in between. Most of the way back to Tumut was as flat as a pancake, along – oh I see – Tumut Flats Road.

With the sinking western sun in my face it was a relief to reach a little oasis called Tumut Junction. This is no Clapham or Spaghetti, but the point at which the Tumut River splits with the Goobarragandra. Lovingly manicured by the Lions Club, it would have been a wonderful place to linger longer. But daylight was fading and I still had a little way to go, crossing the bridge built in 1893 and returning through town to the campsite.

I returned to find a camp trailer had squeezed into the little space between me and the group of let’s-see-who-can-talk-the loudest millennials. On the other side, the medley of Jimmy Barnes and Fleetwood Mac continued without pause. Fires were being lit everywhere, including one that had been arranged crazily close to my car.

Now, I can see advantages in writing off a 21 year old car, but I really would like it to stay intact for a while longer. So I shifted it a little further away as we all jovially chuckled how I could always have driven it into the river if it caught fire haw haw haw. Safe and settled, I lounged beside the river with a cold beer and a conspicuous slice of quiche. 

It’s about this time, as darkness descends, that you begin to wonder how you will fill a couple of hours before bed. There is always plenty of phaff associated with camping to pass much of that period – sort out food and drinks and dishes, arrange bed, piddle about with various items in the car, ensuring you have everything you might ever need in the middle of the night.

There is also the ‘guess who will be the most annoying neighbour’ game to play. It wasn’t going to be the trailer couple. Despite their fondness for arson, they were rather civilised, quaffing rose and engaging in chit chat. The obvious contenders would be the gang of millennials all a hootin’ and a hollerin’. But as soon as one young lady said she was off to bed after throwing up, silence descended.

Apart from the faint sound of Midnight Oil accompanied by the clink of another empty bottle returning to its carton.

It was way past two by the time I properly got to sleep but at least I had a relative lie in, waking around seven on the final morning of daylight saving. It was still before sunrise and I was glad to find a child making a racket proximate to the late night soft rockers. Outside the scene was ethereal, a light mist floating inches above the ground. Standing within the haze, the silhouettes of eucalypts competed with the stick figures of humanity queuing for the long drop.

Thankfully, the mist didn’t survive too long as the sun rose to bathe the countryside an early gold. It was to be a crucial weapon in my operation to achieve a dry canvas by ten in the morning. A contraption of car doors, chair and bike slowly aired the flysheet while I shook the beads of moisture out of various flaps. It was the closest thing to having a morning shower. 

In the absence of the camp kitchen box I didn’t get a morning cuppa, but at least found comfort with a cold hot cross bun in bed. By time everything was dry and packed up, coffee in Tumut was essential, this time accompanied by a big breakfast that kept me going for most of the day.

I spent the remainder of the morning exploring a little more around Tumut, finding it just as charming as on previous occasions. While not peaking yet, the passage of autumn was undeniably playing its hand, the yellows and ambers first to appear within riverside parks and along quiet country lanes.

Pleasantly warm and breathless, there was temptation again to jump on the bike. But I was weary, and the amble was more in keeping with my mood. Goodness knows how I am going to accomplish 162kms over three days in a few weeks. My only comfort is that I feel more prepared and bike-fit than others due to embark on that journey.

For now, soak up the tranquillity back at the Junction. What a delightful spot this would be for a picnic, if only I was hungry. I really do think in the yet-to-be-published Exploration of Regional Towns Within a Few Hours of the National Capital During the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic, Tumut would be up there in the top three. Unless there are other places unknown.

For instance, what about Cootamundra? Having only skirted once before I decided to head home in a larger loop: from Tumut to Gundagai and up to Cootamundra before tracking back via Harden along the Burley Griffin Way to Yass. I had already checked out cake opportunities in Cootamundra to justify the extra drive.

Coota, in its inevitably abridged nomenclature, will not make my top three, unless you are reading the yet-to-be-published Regional Towns Within a Few Hours of the National Capital Still Stuck in the 1950s. The town seems harmless enough, but it was very much of the everything closed on a Saturday afternoon persuasion.

With Coota Hot Bake shut, a few stragglers were heading to Woolworths for their daily bread. Even here, the sounds from a busker gave off a mangled Buddy Holly vibe. I entered the one café open – well, it said it was open despite looking deserted – and eventually found some humans. An old guy clearly way beyond retirement age diligently sprayed tables with disinfectant. He was keen to regale me with the events of the day, which were allegedly incredibly hectic. Over four hundred cups of coffee he said. So many people on the roads he claimed. It is hard to imagine.

In my Cootamundra, I can imagine bumping into Donald Bradman at Coota Hot Bake. All chipper and strutting like a peacock in his flat cap, shouting at the young lady behind the counter that the knots in his knot rolls are not knotted enough. If she was smart, she’d reply that unfortunately the bake was 0.06 degrees too low today, hence the knot rolls not being so perfect after all.

The Don is very much alive in Cootamundra, as the town does all it can to milk the fact that he was born here. Indeed, as advertised, you can “Stand in the very room the Don was born” at the modest but pretty little cottage on the edge of town. Next door is a spot promoting rare and unusual cricketing memorabilia, perhaps like those awful collages of Warnie lolloping around the crease that used to be pushed at viewers on Nine’s Wide World of Sport.

Closer to the town centre, in a lovely shady park, is Captain’s Walk. If Donaldmania is irksome for an Englishman weaned on a diet of capitulating pommie wickets and smirking Australian assassins with beer guts, then this is not an enjoyable walk at all. Busts of every Australian cricket captain are arranged here, though it is not true to say that Steven Smith’s nose was smoothed down with a sheet of sandpaper hidden in my pants.

Passing the head of Greg Chappell inches above the grass, I departed Cootamundra before pausing in Harden for fuel and a much needed frozen sugar slush. Harden was one of those places already featured in Exploration of Regional Towns Within a Few Hours of the National Capital During the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic back in spring, when the canola was all a riot. Population 2,030 it is quite the feat to have a town which stretches on for what seems like forever along the main road.

When you finally do leave town, it’s a really pleasant drive with pleasant countryside and pleasant curves. Encountering unpleasant roadwork at one point I decided why not pull into the “Historic Village of Galong” just because it was there. Naturally even quieter than Coota I felt as though a few eyes were peering through old wooden windows at this interloper. Perhaps a banjo string being tightened. It is no Jugiong.

Yet in the afternoon sun, unseasonably hot once again, sleepiness seemed the perfect state of affairs. I could’ve quite happily joined the village for a siesta. All four of us. But I didn’t. There is Binalong and Bowning and Yass and Murrumbateman still to come before the sun will set in the sky. And then it really will be time to say goodbye. Bye-bye!

Australia Driving Food & Drink Green Bogey

The track out back

Usually a work trip to Wagga Wagga would trigger at least an eye roll and a quiet sigh. Another country town with no obvious attraction and dubious coffee. A trawl along a quiet highway surrounded by sun-parched nondescript land. Oh, and the prospect of work at the end of it all.

But, this time it was different; I was mildly enthused about the prospect. Partly this was about getting in the car for a decent drive for the first time in a while, stopping at random road stops and revelling in the golden expanse of country New South Wales. Then there was the understated, hidden gems of Wagga to discover, aided by a little expert advice. I might indeed get a good coffee. And the work? Well a necessity, but it was perfectly reasonable to manage.

wag01And so the drive out of Canberra almost immediately led to immersion into a flat, golden brown landscape almost devoid of interruptions or scenic highlights. Diverting around Yass and Jugiong and encountering extensive lane closures on the road to Gundagai, distraction naturally came with the Dog on the Tuckerbox. It’s a statue of a dog. On a tuckerbox. But it is sunny and warm and the landscape here more undulating and fertile. Gum trees offer shady refuge for the melodious magpies and chirpy galahs; tin sheds and wooden farmsteads sit snugly among long grasses and fields of sheep; and there are numerous comings and goings to observe at the Tuckerbox KFC.

Shortly after, the Sturt Highway commences on its way to Adelaide, with Wagga just a short stretch along the road. Loosely following the Murrumbidgee River valley, it’s a pleasant approach before the surprisingly elongated suburbs of Wagga arrive in the form of an airport, tractor supercentres, and Red Rooster. It’s a bustling kind of place and – like many a country town – appearing to self-sufficiently prosper in the midst of nowhere.

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wag03I enjoyed a late afternoon beside the river, checking out the sandy beach and colourful language of some local ladies engaged in a very open discussion about Tinder and uncles marrying strippers and the like. The beach is obviously no Bondi or Bantham, but there’s sand and water and – I can imagine on those scorching summer days – it has enough going for it to impel you into the Murrumbidgee. Under the shade of eucalypts the vibe is chilled, languid like the river itself and I could have sat here a while if I didn’t have some work to do.

The next day I said farewell to Wagga but not before a very good coffee and breakfast at Trail St which means that the city can now enter the pantheon of places that earn the ‘I could live here if I had to’ badge of honour. If I did live there, maybe the staff at Trail St would be a little less cold and engage me like they do all the regulars, rather than as someone from out of town who might just be there to write about them on Trip Advisor. Which I wasn’t. But hey, you’ve made it to a blog that no-one reads! Oh, and while I’m plugging stuff, eat or get takeaway at Saigon, just because okay.

wag04The return trip was far more diverting than a dog on a tuckerbox, mainly because I opted to take a different route back which didn’t involve dual carriageway and bypassing one street towns. The Snowy Mountains Highway stretches all the way down to Cooma, and if I was going to avoid taking a massive detour to Canberra I would have to find my way across the Brindabella Ranges. But first, time for a little bushwalk, just south of Tumut to a slab of rock called Blowering Cliffs. It was a decent jaunt out, starting off through lush meadows and rising ceaselessly through forest to a protrusion of granite. Sometimes a waterfall plunges off here, but today it was like a sporadically dripping tap.

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Back in Tumut I was surprised at the size and positive signs of life in evidence. It is not entirely clear why Tumut exists but, just like Wagga, there was a modest elegance and reasonable hubbub to the town centre. Here there is not just one main street, but a whole block, complete with dubious looking cafes and country stores selling hats and water pumps, at least three pubs to kill time, a McDonalds and – unbelievably – both a Woolworths and a Coles supermarket. Tumut, bigger than you think, was not the sign I saw as I left town with a McChiller Chocoffee in my cup holder.

The road heading towards the Brindabellas and – eventually – the ACT border was a pleasant surprise, at least to begin with. Indeed, it was rarely boring, transitioning from a beautiful pastoral scene following the path of a narrowing ravine into sweeping forested hills. The hills were all plantation pine and there was the constant thrill of the potential for a massive truck chock full of logs hurtling at you at 120 kph to keep you awake. This was all on sealed surface, but after the forest it inevitably gave way to loose gravel to dirt to rocky lumps descending precariously down towards the Goodradigbee River. And what a veritable Eden this spot was, a verdant paradise of a valley between the hills.

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wag07What goes down must go up and so there was some further climbing through Brindabella National Park on more precarious surface before cresting the ranges where the NSW-ACT border sits. I figured out this was my final road border crossing into the Australian Capital Territory and immediately the road surface improved: still dirt but smoother and significantly more tolerant. At the oh-so-ironic Piccadilly Circus I was back on familiar ground, winding down towards the subdued hum of sealed tarmac once more. Back in Canberra comfort, but with the satisfaction of a touch of exploration behind my back.

Australia Driving Green Bogey