Our next road trip was in the Australian winter of 2011. With short days, cold weather, and a laptop on hand, the diary stretched into short story writing. I hope you enjoy coming along on the adventure with us……..
Wednesday 6th July 2011 Lithgow
Bill has been loosely planning our winter road trip for the last two or three weeks, and it is just as well that our itinerary never graduated past vague ideas, because nothing so far has gone to plan. Initially he had thought that after leaving Wollongong we would spend the first night or two at an upscale guest house in the Blue Mountains.
“Let’s spoil ourselves,” he said, “they have a French restaurant there that the guys have told me is worth a try. Le Coq or the Rooster or something like that, and by the way, we can have lunch with Cousin Rachel on the way.”
I murmured vague acknowledgement, more concentrated on how ‘Le Coq’ had translated as rooster and wondering if that was right or were the guys having him on. In passing, Bill also mentioned the costs of the guest house and the restaurant; I was trying not to concentrate too hard on that. Hey! Superannuation has taken such a nosedive in the last couple of months; guess we may as well spend our savings today anyway – seems it will be worthless tomorrow. That was my internal justification.
We never finished the conversation, or at least never to the point that we actually made a reservation, and then in the next moment this grand idea had somehow turned itself into an overnight stop with my step-mum Ida, and since after all we didn’t settle on a time and place with Cousin Rachel, our first night of glamour holiday in the Jamieson Valley at Katoomba turned into nothing more than a plate of pasta and a store-cooked chicken at Ida’s Castle Hill home.
That is nothing to be sneezed at, because Ida’s pasta is delicious, and she was planning a pork roast meal to follow, as our visit was an excuse for the family to get together. The piece of meat she bought looked good quality, but when we realised that the expected ten for dinner had dwindled to four, we urged her to put it on the freezer for another time, and off we went to Woolworths for a freshly barbecued chicken and two bottles of red wine.
My younger brother returned home from work, rescued his only three stubbies of beer from Bill’s foraging reach, and the four of us sat around Ida’s round cane table talking in a mixture of English and Italian and Itlesh or Englian or whatever that language is that starts a sentence in Italian and finishes in English or vice-versa, until my brother disappeared and Bill fell asleep on my shoulder, and we decided it was time to call it a night.
How is it that you can fall into bed with barely enough energy to wash your face and brush your teeth and then wake up three hours later thinking you can’t fall asleep again? If it wasn’t me who was awake it was Bill, and when the alarm went off just before 7am, it was Bill who groaned out,
“Oh no – just when I was getting into a deep sleep.”
My plaintive response was limited to: “I thought we agreed on a 7.30am start?”
So it wasn’t the most restful night’s sleep to deal with what today was to bring, and it really wouldn’t have mattered how early a start we made, today was just never going to be one of our smoothest.
Ida wanted to visit her sister in Forbes, about a five hour drive west of Castle Hill. We had agreed that we would take her as far as Bathurst, more or less halfway, and her nephew would meet us there, with his wife and Zia Emma, Ida’s sister, coming along for company.
The early morning went smoothly enough, with us negotiating around each other for showers and breakfast and Ida packing the car boot, and Bill unpacking and re-packing it to his satisfaction. Just after 9am we were on our way. We had all the time in the world as we set off over the back road across the Blue Mountains, choosing to go over the Bell’s Line of Road instead of directly over the Great Western Highway.
Zia Emma rang us shortly after we left, asking had we heard the news about the storm the night before that had blown down trees over two trains at Katoomba and that the road was blocked? “No worries, Zia,” we assured her; privately laughing over her ability to seek out the bad news wherever it was happening in the world. We passed through the old towns of Windsor and Richmond, established in the early days of the colony when Governor Macquarie imagined they would be part of an important city outpost, and on up into the mountains. Past the antique stores of Kurrajong, past the apple orchards and country stores selling home-made apple pies at Bilpin, and climbing higher into upper reaches and the entrance to Mount Tomah Botannical Gardens, boasting many plants that grow only in cool climate regions. (http://www.mounttomahbotanicgarden.com.au/).
Bill pointed out a sign that showed we were nearly at 1000 metres. To our left we could see the gorges and valleys of the Blue Mountains, the trees and scrubs of eucalyptus forests cut where the sheer rock faces showed their golden and ochre colours. We talked about what ancient event had sliced through the mountains, as if a hole had opened and the mountain fallen into it. The road twisted and turned and double-backed, sometimes so tangled that we turned back in the direction we had just come from.
We had the road to ourselves for many kilometres, and we could see the tree-tops swaying ferociously in the wind that had raged through with so much damage the night before, but the wind barely touched our car as we had slowed our speed to negotiate the curves. Tree litter and fallen branches were all around us, but the road was clear, until eventually we came upon some road works, with bobcats and other machinery, clearing storm debris. It looked as if the crew had always planned to be doing some road maintenance in this area, and that the storm from the night before had been unexpected. There were five or six men in the gang, all of them extremely short; we made a joke that they must employ midgets for this stretch of road because only the smallest bobcat machines could work here.
As we drove, we talked about this and that, and we told Ida how our car was ten years old, and that we planned to keep driving it until the time it started to cost us repair money. We don’t drive so many kilometres now we are not working anymore. After all, it only had 160,000klms on the clock, and it had always been extremely reliable, and we serviced it regularly – so why change it until we had to? The car purred and drove along smoothly, only jerking a little when we came into an open stretch where we could speed up to 100k/per hour, and the wind was hitting us side on.
It was mid-morning, and we were making very good time to Bathurst. I suggested we stop at the next ‘quaint’ coffee shop for a short break. We kept watch for a nice place, but before too long we came on to the approach signs for the town of Lithgow. We travelled on through bush and sharp road curves and then suddenly there it was spread out to our left and below us some hundreds of metres. I know this town from years past, but I had forgotten how it lies in a deep valley, just as I imagine a Welsh coal town does. That is all we know of Lithgow, that it exists for coal and mining, and that it is the end of the line for any train services from Sydney. Lithgow is a place that people live in for the work, or pass through on their way to someplace else, it is not a holiday destination.
We stopped for a refreshment break at an artistically decorated café that was extremely busy with late breakfasts. It turned out to have incredibly slow service and not so fabulous hot chocolate for Ida. I ordered Earl Grey tea and received an English breakfast tea. If the service had been faster I would have drunk it anyway, but on this occasion I demanded my correct order. Earlier when we had stepped from the car, we were surprised at just how cold it was – and I had imagined that I had the beginnings of a sore throat. I’d ordered a fragrant tea to nurse the throat and I wasn’t about to be swayed from the idea!
So we hadn’t intended to lose forty-five minutes in Lithgow, but we were only sixty kilometres from Bathurst and would arrive at least half an hour before our intended meeting time, so we weren’t at all worried. We rushed across the road to the parked car, marvelling at how cold it was, and then drove slowly down the main street, agreeing that there wasn’t much that caught our eye or improved our impression of the town (Ed: apologies to Lithgow residents). I was looking forward to moving on to Bathurst, and reminisced with Ida about being there as an eleven year old, and my memory of the magnolia trees in the public gardens.
“Of course, they’ll be bare now?” I asked Ida, who knows everything about plants and gardens. “Are they summer trees?” –
“No, no spring, they should have flowers in spring,” she replied.
Bill was on the open highway by now, whizzing along at 100klm. I watched out particularly for the turn-off to Mudgee, which had been our original destination, before we had agreed to go on to Bathurst. I was a little sorry that our amended route meant we would miss the townships of Ben Bullen and Cullen Bullen. Who names places like that? The last time I had seen them had been more than forty years ago, when really all that existed as a township was a rickety wooden bridge over a slow flowing creek. I wondered if anything had changed in the years in between.
Suddenly the motor started to rev at a high speed. Ida thought it was a motorcycle trying to overtake us and looked around to see where it was. Bill looked perplexed and tried to drop the car into another gear. Nothing happened. It didn’t matter whether we were in drive, second, neutral, or park – the gearbox just didn’t seem to engage with anything. We coasted to a stop, a little off the highway, but not far enough to avoid an accident. We looked at each other – what just happened? Bill tried again, putting the car in drive and trying to get it to move forward – nothing. Nothing in reverse either. The wind was so strong, it did seem as if the car was moving backwards, but it wasn’t on account of the motor running. There had been no warning – no grinding, squealing, squeaking, the transmission just disengaged and the car stopped. Full stop. After a moment of confusion, Bill pushed the car off the road out of danger, and because he was assisted by the wind, Ida and I didn’t even have to get out to help.
I joked – “It was so cold in Lithgow that a cable between the gear lever and the transmission has broken!”
“Yeah,” said Bill, “the rubber band must have snapped.”
“Well Ollie, this is another fine mess you’ve got me in to.” That’s what the American comedian always used to say to his side-kick. Well, if we had to be in this mess, I could think of a thousand worse places it could have happened to us. We had full reception on our mobile phones, we were on the main road between Lithgow and Bathurst, and we were able to get reception on our GPS device. So we were able to tell the National Roads and Motorists Association (NRMA) that we were 44 klm from Bathurst and 17klm from Lithgow, so they sent us assistance from the latter. We had to wait nearly ninety minutes for him to arrive – but when he did, he was a young, pleasant helpful man who drove up in a tilt truck.
While we waited, we stayed in contact every so often with my cousin who was driving from Forbes, who for some reason had decided to wait a long time at Orange, another major country town en route. If he had driven straight through to us, he would have arrived before the NRMA and we could have passed Ida on to him. But of course, none of us knew how long anything would take, and maybe he was hoping we would be repaired and could continue our journey to get closer to him.
Every so often we wondered if Bill should get out and look under the bonnet, but we both agreed it had been years since either of us could recognise anything under a car’s hood. Gone are the days when you’d pull out a spark plug, spit on it, stick it back in, and the motor would start again. Or pour a jug of hot water over the battery, or hit it with a shoe heel, and off we would go again. Now the motor is encased in a metal shield, probably to stop uninformed women pouring hot water in hydraulic parts that don’t live up to their name.
In any case, it was very clear that the problem was in the transmission, and even I knew that was underneath us. Ida was concerned that the NRMA mechanic wouldn’t recognise us without the bonnet up, but we figured that he would be insightful enough to recognise that if a ten year old blue Magna was pulled over the side of a road with traffic whizzing past at 100klm an hour, that ours was possibly the ten year old blue Magna that he was called out to retrieve from the side of the road.
Eventually, more out of boredom than hope, Bill finally braved the cold, pulled his heavy jacket from the boot, walked around the front of the car and lifted the bonnet. At least he could confirm there was oil in the correct spot. He stared into the workings for a while, took a look around at nothing, and then headed off into the bush – to do what men do in the bush on the side of the road. By the time he got back, I had convinced myself that the wind was so strong, and with us facing into it, that at any moment the bonnet would lift from its hinges and slam into the windscreen.
So he put the bonnet down and warmed himself back inside the car. Every time we saw a car in the distance with lights on the roof, we readied ourselves for rescue. Who knew so many police, fire, security and other general official-looking cars have business in Bathurst? Time and again, the cars drove past us – never looking as if they intended to stop. We weren’t really too bothered, sixty minutes was the best we had been offered, and we were prepared that it would be more likely the longer time wait, and now rain was added to the wind, so we knew that would slow our rescuer down.
As we waited, we consoled ourselves. How lucky that this had happened around midday, so much of the day still left, it could have been after dark. Or, if this incident had happened as we were coming up the Bell’s line of road, we would have had no mobile reception, and although a car would have come along pretty soon, the roads would have been extremely winding and dangerous for the tow truck. If we had not had Ida, and had taken the road to Ben Bullen, again we would have had no mobile reception, and in that case, might have waited a very long time for another car to come along that lonely road. And if it had happened further in to our trip, well then, we may have been in some quite remote parts of NSW, and far away from mechanical help.
In the end, the NRMA mechanic arrived almost exactly on his ultimate expected time of arrival, just as we had dug out some fruit from the boot and were dealing with squashed pears and what to do with the rubbish and sticky fingers. He decided very quickly that our transmission was dead, and as rain drifted down and wind gusted around him, he loaded our car on to the back of his tilt-tray truck. Then Ida, Bill and I squashed into the narrow cab of his truck, with him driving and me sitting on Bill’s lap. We had to drive some kilometres up the road before we could turn around, and this meant that we arrived at a petrol stop with a restaurant. We seized the moment. We abandoned Ida alone there – can you believe it – but we did know by then that my cousin was on the way to pick her up, which he did about a half hour later. But first we had to climb up the back of the tilt tray, in by now pouring rain, to drag her luggage out of the boot.
The NRMA mechanic brought us back to Lithgow – this is my punishment for thinking badly of this town. It is freezing here, and the wind was getting stronger with occasional lashing rain, but at least our problem had happened in the early part of the day and not late at night, which would have been extremely cold. The NRMA agent is located in a car dealership and repair office. Phone calls were flying back and forward between NRMA and us, and we discussed this and that option, and after all, we have been premium members of this organisation for many years, and they treated us very well. The customer service lady kept telling Bill that he has been a loyal member for forty-five years. Meantime the mechanics had determined that we need a new transmission, and either they did the work or we towed the car back to Wollongong. NRMA would pay for the towing, because of our membership coverage, and that means we are talking of a drive of more than five hours with many steep hills on the way. We could have sat up front with the driver, or they would pay our train or bus fare home —- or, NRMA would pay for us to hire a car and also pay for accommodation for a night in Lithgow.
Bill and I huddled over whether to abandon our holiday plans, or push on, and make the best of it.
So the end of the story is that we have decided to leave the car in Lithgow to be repaired, even though it is not cheap and the car is already ten years old, so the cost of the repairs are almost as much as the car is worth. We have picked up a Toyota Corolla hire care for eight or nine days, and we have a night in a motel in Lithgow. In the morning we will continue on our holiday, with the idea that we come back in a week and pick up our car.
We are staying in a motel on the Great Western Highway and I can hear heavy trucks going past the front door all night long, so I am glad that I remembered to bring ear plugs, and in any case I have drunk a bottle of red wine so I hope to sleep well tonight. We were a little anxious when we couldn’t get the air conditioning to work because it was so cold in this little room, but eventually we worked it out. We had missed lunch and I was looking forward to a nice meal, and we drove to the ‘Working Men’s Club’ where the food was adequate but ordinary. I was so obsessed with wanting something more to eat that I came home and ate a lot of fruit. When that didn’t satisfy me I started on Weetabix breakfast cereal with peanut butter spread on top. I was desperate for the emotional comfort that a good meal can bring.
Meanwhile, Ida finally arrived in Forbes, although my cousin, who did all the driving without any help, became so tired that there were many times along the way that they urged him to stop and take a rest.
I could tell you about the crazy man at the hire car office in Lithgow, but I just don’t have the energy left to bring him to life. Or I could tell you about the man at the car repairers and how we agreed he should do our repairs on the strength of a handshake – because that is how they do it in the country. Or I could tell you about the staff at the club where we had our dinner, or the woman at the motel who greeted us when I dragged myself in. “This must be how refugees feel,” I bleated to her. This was after we couldn’t find the motel and I was going in to her to ask for directions when suddenly I realised I was standing right outside their front door. But I am just too tired to do any of these stories justice, and besides, tomorrow is another adventure, and after all we are going to sleep soon inside a warm enough, even if very noisy place.
And that reminds me that all those hours ago, when Ida and I first stepped out of the car into the cold of Lithgow, a bag lady came up to us, not to beg, but to share a joke about a sign on the back of another car. She had everything she owned in a shopping trolley, and a faithful dog on a lead, and I hope she is not sleeping in a park tonight – because as much bad luck as we have had today, everything has worked out okay and tomorrow will be another adventure. The cold weather has been an opportunity for me to wear my new red wool coat to the club, together with my fabulous new red scarf that my girlfriend brought me from Galleries Lafayette in Paris. And much as I would like to have a faithful dog by my side, I am glad I am not in the position of needing to snuggle up to him for warmth, and if I had to sleep tonight in a park in Lithgow, I doubt if I would wake up in the morning.
Footnote: In October 2013, bush fires tore through much of these areas, closing most of the roads (including the Bells Line of road), threatening homes and forcing emergency alerts and evacuations. The Mt Tomah Gardens were also forced to close. More information on this is included in my post: Bushfires and Climate Change – Shall we ever know if there is a connection? written on October 28th, 2013
Next Destination: Gulgong