Some days on the road I just fail to document what we have experienced. I might write a cryptic note, promising myself that I will fill in the details soon. This was one of those days, and now I find myself – two and a half years later – thinking, ‘what the heck?’
Day 5: Sunday 10th July 2011 Gulgong – Coonabarabran
Sheep – beige against beige landscape except when shorn. Some lambs. Some sheep with black faces. Road kill, wombats, two foxes. Binnaway (Been away). Coonabarabran smaller than expected. Tourist info – exhibition out back. Giant prehistoric wombat. Siding Springs, don’t understand astronomy. Walked up to observatory. View over Warrumbungles. Icy wind. Cool reception. Good meal in Chinese restaurant.
So – for our mutual benefit – let me try to decipher this.
The first sentence is easy enough. Australia is a wide brown land, full of dusty sheep. Shearing sheep in this cold weather? Could that be so? Well – maybe. I think it is commonplace to shear a ewe before lambing, and I do mention lambs in the next breath. I used to think lambs were only born in the spring, but I am wrong about that. It has much more to do with when Mr Ram meets Mrs Ewe, and that, I guess, is up to the farmer’s choice of timing.
The most common breed in Australia is the Merino, and its wool does not stop growing, so an annual shearing is essential. Fine Merino wool is highly prized. In the mid 1990s, I worked for a wool trader/exporter (specialising in exporting to China), and in 2004, that company paid at auction A$675,000 for a 90kg bale of wool (about US$600k, or 370,00 pounds sterling for a bale weighing 200 pounds). It was the softest on record, breaking the 12 micron barrier. My former boss felt that he had snatched a bargain, having expected that the price may have gone as high as A$1.5 – A$1.8 million for the bale. He is quoted as saying “the wool was likely to be made into suits, which could fetch up to A$100,00 each” (Sydney Morning Herald, March 12, 2004).
Sheep with black faces is harder to decipher. Merinos are not usually black faced, and sheep are usually grown for wool, meat, or milk. So perhaps it was another breed, that gave good meat yields. Or perhaps? Someone was experimenting with a cottage industry, spinning wool at home, using a breed that was suited to that. (Informed readers feel free to comment!)
They used to say that Australia rode the sheep’s back, so much of our wealth and economy was tied up in wool. Whenever a card game is getting too intense, we remind ourselves that we are “not playing for sheep stations.” The industry has suffered it ups and downs over the years, synthetic fibres, falling prices, drought, bushfire. It is not easy to be on the land in Australia. But it is an industry that endures, and is still an important export.
As for the road kill reference, vehicles and wildlife are not a good mix. Sad, but true. I have mentioned this before in other posts, so I won’t dwell on that here. I am not sure too many people will mourn the loss of the foxes – a non-native introduced pest – responsible for the loss of many of our unique mammal species. All the same, it is a beautiful animal, and it does give one a pang to see it go in this manner.
As for Binnaway (Been away), well that is a small town of around 500 people, about half an hour’s drive outside of Coonabarabran (Coona). Reputedly, the name derives from an Aboriginal word for a peppermint tree. We don’t appear to have stopped there, so I think my note is simply a play on words i.e. it reminded me that we have Been Away. Now, that reminds me of the young grandchild who asked what soup she was eating. “It’s bean soup dear,” said Grannie. “I don’t care what it’s been,” says the child. “I want to know what it is now!” (Boom, boom – didn’t expect that in a travelogue, did you?)
Coona markets itself as the “astronomy capital of the world“, so I must have expected to find a huge place bustling with scientists. And with a population of over 3,000 it is the largest town in the Warrumbungle Shire, marking the geographical divide between the Central West and North West Slopes regions of New South Wales. It seems I got a surprise on arrival, finding in fact, another small, peaceful rural town.
However, it did hold a surprise I was not expecting. Behind the tourist information office, there was a substantial museum display. Who knew that giant wombats once roamed Australia in the prehistoric age? According to Wikipedia, a Diprotodon, means “two forward teeth”, and it is the largest known marsupial to have ever lived. It became extinct about 46,000 years ago.
One of the major drawcards of Coona is the Siding Springs Observatory. It is owned by the Australian National University, and it also hosts telescopes for other universities and international stargazers. It is situated 1,165 metres (3,822 ft) above sea level in the Warrumbungle National Park. Part of the reason for choosing this site was the clear night skies.
Visitors can wander the Exploratory Centre, view an exhibition on astronomy and read heaps of information about the universe, the solar system and the kinds of activities undertaken by the astronomers at the site. Now here is my problem – I can still vividly remember my physics teacher thumping his desk and screaming at me, “You do understand this – you are just being obtuse!” The event happened forty years ago, but is still seared in my mind. I was lousy at science. The only reason I managed to pass my exams was because another student sat with me and coached me. So after an hour or so of examining this exhibition, all I have managed to document is – “I don’t understand astronomy.” I get the part about the sun, planet and stars, but if you are going off into nebulas, cosmic dust, gaseous atmospheres and so on, presented with lots of technical information to read – well, most of that just went over my head. However, I appreciate there are some regular readers who would thrive on this stuff 🙂
Much easier for me to take in, was the walk up to the observatory, and the spectacular view over the Warrumbungle Ranges. Even despite the chill wind ……….
And, apropos of nothing, here is a cute metal sculpture at the Siding Springs Observatory:
Next Exploration: Barradine and the Pillaga Forest
Footnote: In January 2013, this area was devastated by bushfire. The Observatory did not escape the flames. Miraculously, the telescopes survived, and the observatory is now open again to visitors. Here is a link to further information, including television footage.