Bill and I have been on the road this week. The first cause was a mercy dash to Dubbo to visit a friend in hospital, and that was followed by a 70th birthday party on the central coast of NSW. It sounds simple, unless you know the geography of this state. It was, in fact, an eleven hundred kilometre round trip (roughly seven hundred miles). To put it another way, we drove six hours north-west for a hospital visit, then six hours east for a birthday party, then three hours south to come home. All in a day’s work. (Well, three days if we need to be precise).
When I was doing university in the last couple of years, Bill and I hit on the idea of doing road trips in the mid-session breaks. Often Australians can be so keen on travelling overseas that we forget to see what is on our own doorstep. It will take us two the rest of our lifetime to cover the country. All we have managed to do so far is chunks of our home state NSW. We couldn’t pause this time, but normally we meander along, stopping off to investigate areas along the way. Dubbo is a major regional centre servicing one-third of the geographical area of NSW (pop 42,000, catchment pop 120,000) but along the way one drives through townships of various sizes. Some of them could not even be called a one-horse town. Some have ‘English’ names, such as Lithgow and Ilford. Some have names that are derivatives of Aboriginal words, such as Gulgong, which is believed to mean ‘deep waterhole.’ And some have names which I suspect have Irish roots – but might just as well be mis-heard Aboriginal words, such as Ben Bullen. One web-site based on railway and mining history states that Ben Bullen is derived from an Aboriginal word meaning: ‘high, quiet place.’ I can’t find a population statistic for that township, however its neighbour, Cullen Bullen, reported 210 people in the 2001 census – so you get the idea. Ben Bullen is very quiet indeed.
Many of the areas west of Sydney had their heyday in the gold rush of the 1850-1860 period, and some (Portland, Kandos, Rylstone) became famous for quarrying and cement. Lithgow is still all about the coal mining, and many of its street names have Welsh roots. Underpinning it all is the agriculture – grazing and grains mostly, wool, beef and wheat. Mudgee has re-invented itself as a wine and fine food area, and vineyards fan out for about thirty kilometres in all directions. Mining has made a huge resurgence (even a little gold), and people who have been on their land for generations are now facing off against the coal seam gas miners who want to drill on their properties. It has introduced a new word into our language – “fracking.” The issue has become so sensitive that the term ‘CSG’ is now being adopted by certain stakeholders, to obscure that it is coal seam gas under discussion.
The trip from Dubbo back to the east coast is made on the Golden Highway. I cannot pretend to know how it got this name. Major towns on this highway are fifty kilometres or more apart. Smaller towns would have been stops back in the Cobb&Co coach days. We set off early on the Saturday morning and stopped at Dunedoo for breakfast, the first place with a café. It was ninety kilometres down the road. We passed Ballimore, Muronbong, Elong Elong and Cobbora along the way (don’t you just love those names?). Ballimore was the largest of those. It even has a school, with apparently twenty-five students in 2007 according to the internet.
The sun was well up by the time we finished breakfast, which was a good thing, because it means there is less wildlife jumping around, and visibility is better. Road kill is a sad sight on our country roads and dusk is a dangerous time to be driving. It is not that drivers wilfully kill, but kangaroos and wallabies can come out of nowhere, and low-lying wombats are nocturnal animals that are hard to spot in the dark. When a driver is pelting down the single-lane road at 100klm/hour in half-light, it can be difficult to spot the animal and avoid it, and dangerous to swerve the vehicle in any case. Even knowing this, I was taken aback at just how much road kill we saw this time on the Golden Highway. I have since read a couple of reports which attribute this to the increase in mining, partially on account of the intrusion into their habit, and partially on account of the heavy vehicular traffic. Whatever is the cause, it is a sad, sad sight.
Driving on, we came to the foothills of the Great Dividing Range. This is Australia’s most notable mountain range, stretching 3,500 kilometres (2,175 miles) from Queensland through New South Wales and in to Victoria. This is one reason the population tend to cluster on the coast. It rains on the coast, and it can get very dry and flat on the other side of the range. From here we entered the Upper Hunter Valley – vineyards interspersed with horse studs (and mining). Many of the wines from the Hunter Valley find their way into the export market. Semillon is a signature grape, but the region also grows Shiraz, Chardonnay and Verdelho. Tyrell, Tulloch, Allandale, and Margan are a few producers who may be familiar to overseas readers. Finally, we arrived at our birthday party, at a private house set on seven acres in the bushland of the central coast, near a place called Ourimbah. The air was full of the sound of bellbirds, with the occasional whipbird, or a noisy kookaburra laugh.
The next day, Sunday, dawned hot, dry and windy. The temperature climbed to around 35’c (95’f) within a few hours. That is one thing, hot, but okay. However, winds gusting between 20klm/hour and 100 klm/hour is not. It is the combination of high temperatures, low humidity and dry, gusty winds that brings trouble. It spells bushfire weather. Sure enough, on the drive home we saw smoke in the distance and by the time we arrived and switched on the evening news, all stations were reporting a frantic day for our professional and volunteer fire fighting crews. And we are not even in summer yet.
So I leave you with a few words of My Country, written by our well known Australian poet, Dorothea Mackellar:
“I love a sunburnt country…….Her beauty and her terror – The wide brown land for me!”
Garrulous Gwendoline, Thursday 10th – Sunday 14th October 2013, Wollongong