After five weeks in Liston it’s time for a road trip south. We’re on a quest, not for the holy grail, but for something far more enticing – cool air, sea breezes, ocean. And home. Despite the almost overwhelming urge to reach the destination, I’m also planning to enjoy the journey: to differentiate landscapes, to notice the contours of the country, to see how the small towns we’ll pass through perceive themselves, to annotate history, and to be on the alert for the unexpected and the quirky.
Shearers Way – Stanthorpe to Texas
We leave Liston in the afternoon, billows of grey bushfire smoke far too close, white cauliflower clouds above the smoke as the fires generate their own micro-climate. The road winds up and down, small car struggling against a conspiracy between air conditioning and strong headwind.
We bounce on potholes and through floodways over creeks without a skerrick of water. Black trunks, the spires of cypresses, silver trunks shape diversity of bushland; the road is the horizon between cuttings.
Soon there are no more signs to wineries. The road is bordered by bushes with a cloud of pale yellow flowers. Here it’s traprock country, peach orchards, an orchardist who says “See that tree there: it must be 200 years old” as the chainsaw begins to whirr into it. Who says “No blackfellas ever lived around here. Too cold for them.”
Suddenly the country opens out, bare landscape reaching to wooded hills, and that sinister cloud of grey bushfire smoke. Signs remind us that this is a school bus route, and urge us to Reduce speed and sound horn; a vacuous attempt to avoid collisions between vehicles and kangaroos.
As we approach Texas there are the workings of old silver mines, woody pears with the light shining through their elliptical foliage as it does through baby piglets’ ears, and the rabbit works factory
Fossickers Way – Texas to Warialda
We drive through Texas, crossing the border into NSW and thereby losing an hour. The road across the river flats is shining in the afternoon light and a solitary tobacco hut is a reminder of a briefly-thriving tobacco industry. We pass the turnoff to Cunningham’s Weir, usually a place of pilgrimage, and travel through scrappy bush in black soil country, along a road striped with long shadows.
Then the true glory of evening appears: trunks glow silver, pale bronze, orange, black: illuminated and transformed. On the floodplains of the Gwydir sorghum flourishes, its tan tops luxuriant. For the first time we see irrigation, and other signs of prospering: expanses of cultivated land in bands of pink and green; fresh furrows in parallel lines; substantial silos. A man putters home in his ute, two working dogs sniffing the breeze from the tray.
Harbingers of a town appear, not now church spires on a hill but a congregation of communication towers. In the distance Mt Kaputar looms, and a tree wearing a glittering red bikini wishes us, tardily and ineffectually, a wet Christmas. On the outskirts of Warialda, a banner advertises a honey festival, a large bee greets us as we check in, jars of honey are for sale in reception: in the language of the local Weraerai Aboriginal people Warialda means (probably) place of wild honey.
Leafing through the information folder in the motel room, I discover that Warialda is the birthplace of Sister Kenny, last encountered in Warwick a few weeks ago as guest of honour at Anzac Day celebrations in 1952.
Fossickers Way / Allan Cunningham Rd – Warialda to Manilla
We leave Warialda later than we intended: after all an hour was snaffled from us when we crossed into NSW. The road is pleasantly hilly and wooded, predominantly ironbark and box. In the middle of a paddock a tractor has stopped, half loaded with hay bales, under the surveillance of a symmetrical hill.
A second quest emerges. My travelling companion wants to collect a thousand kurrajong seeds, and there are plenty of kurrajongs by the roadside. He comes back triumphant with a handful, and then the quest is roughly terminated. Beetles have beaten him to the seeds and they aren’t viable. Not altogether a bad thing in the quest for home: we’ve already stopped four times for at least ten minutes, and we have 600 kilometres to make before late afternoon.
Allan Cunningham, colonial explorer and botanist, was here, along this route which bears his name, in 1827. Dated signposts mark his progress as the road undulates beside a line of hills, sheep, cows, cypresses, near-empty dams.
We stop for a while in Bingara, where the river still flows and a park memorialises Cunningham.
As we leave Bingara the country becomes steeper, and roadside hills block out more distant ones. Signs direct us to gold panning, fossicking areas, bird routes, a winery. Cattle trucks thunder past, and a tumbledown slab cottage squats behind its collapsed roof. A tinselled real tree and small wooden Christmas tree guard a turn-off. A farmhouse with shrouded fruit trees, the purple of roadside verbena, cows lying in thin shade, hillsides striped by ploughing, cleared land with only an occasional tree. And then a slowdown: cows by the roadside, laying lazy claim to right of way. The Nandewar Range looms and we descend steeply into Barraba “Habitat of the regent honeyeater” which, in local Aboriginal language, might mean a camp by the river or maybe place of the yellow-jacket trees.
The Barraba area invites us to more fossicking: in nearby Woodsreef Recreation Reserve (once the site of an asbestos mine) you still might turn up gold, copper, pyrites, jasper, garnet, zeolite, or opaque red, brown and yellow quartz, and if you ventured towards Mt Lindsay you could find petrified and opalised wood, or plant fossils. There are a number of bird route turnoffs from our backroad: leaflets list up to 200 species you might see. But these are adventures for other travellers, or other days.
Horses are still in their horse coats, despite the heat and the habitual shadelessness of Australian paddocks. We encounter a new kind of mirage, what my travelling companion calls “kurrajong mirages”, seeing kurrajongs where there aren’t any.
As we climb again, the road is bordered by silvery green wattle and rock-crested ridges. In the distance a range of hills lies aslant, one behind the other. There’s a sudden flush of green under irrigation, abutting red soil; a hill denuded by a quarry; a house enveloped in a mix of eucalypts, garden bushes and tall palm trees; trucks loaded with hay or water tanks; an uncoupling bay (which we may need before the end of the journey if it remains hot.) A dirty browny grey haze proves to be a dust storm (which, I discover when I reach home, has deposited its remnants on my deck at Potato Point.)
Manilla is billed as Fisherman’s Paradise, although it also boasts paragliding and other aero sports; large signs at each end of the town announce “Decorative gravel saves water and money”; and the splendid trestle railway viaduct, an old friend from many journeys, is under threat of demolition.
Oxley Highway – Manilla to Mullaley
The landscape is flattish under its dust-storm blur, and the outline of mountains, usually sharp and clear, is vague. We look ahead along a rare straight stretch. Soon we join the Oxley Highway, it’s name honouring yet another European explorer.
Three blokes yarn over a front gate in the blazing sun, one wearing only shorts, the others sheltered under akubras while their ute accumulates heat on the other side of the road. Kurrajongs appear again, their dense round tops announcing their identity mid-paddock. Farmers grow them because they’re good fodder trees in drought. A broken windmill with one blade hanging cattywumpus stands in blond grass in the air thick with dust. Cows grazing by the roadside are rounded, not ribby, and finally there’s a creek with a bit of water in it.
Crows glide above the blue-grey stubble of an already-harvested crop. Paddocks are cleared as far as the opaque horizon, with occasional rocky outcrops and very occasional trees. The road, now that it’s become a highway is busier, with clumps of cars, mainly white. There’s sign you dread on an unfamiliar road: DETOUR AHEAD. But this detour is straightforward.
The small village of Carroll, birthplace of Kibah TicToc, winner of two Olympic gold medals for eventing, looks derelict: houses half painted, tumbledown, although there’s new screening on verandahs.
Then we’re on the outskirts of Gunnedah: a letterbox like a cartoon dog with shock-absorber legs; a rural museum, a polo ground, a men’s retreat, Pensioners Hill lookout, and on the town sign a koala.
Koala signs continue, along with signs for a land care group, a Vote 1 Bacon placard, flock rams for sale. Brown horses graze on orange soil, near another collapsed windmill; a letter box shaped like a truck, trees with silvery leaves shimmering in a light breeze. We’re stopped by roadworks, a rare young woman waving the STOP sign: is that a wave as we start up again, or an irritated gesture to remove flies? Out of the flatness rises gracefully a tall symmetrical hill.
Black Stump Way – Mullaley to Coolah
At Mullaley, another unpainted and tumbledown town, we turn onto Black Stump Way, after stopping to reassess our route. It’s only 1.20: Coolah is too close for a night stop, although our energy levels are drooping. The countryside looks tired too: erosion gulleys, a long line of leaning fence, a bovine cluster grazing, unattended. On the verge, a first kangaroo sign. At last the dust haze is thinning.
Tambar Springs, another town of peeling paint, is diprotodon country, so the village sign tells us. And yes, this is a real claim to prehistoric fame. A diprotodon skull was discovered in a creek bed in 1979. If we’d been passing through 30 000 years ago, we might have encountered a diprotodon, a plant-eater as big as a rhinoceros, along with giant, short-faced, browsing kangaroos, wombats the size of a large pig, goannas up to seven metres long, strange horned turtles and flightless birds considerably larger than an emu.
The sky is a clear pale blue again; trees are substantial and fallen branches mark the passage of a recent fierce storm. The line of hills flattens, and surely I’m mistaken: Banana Simmentals bull sale? The freshly surfaced road spits gravel at our undercarriage, and soon after we’re warned of a deformed road surface, no doubt in line for repair. A rest area is dedicated to the black stump, that mythical marker of the boundary of settlement and civilisation, barely 80 kilometres as the crow flies from the coast, although a couple of serious mountain ranges intervene.
The cleared hills presage Coolah Tops, where it sometimes snows in winter, and soon we’re on the outskirts of Coolah, home of the black stump. The Kamilaroi people called the area “weetalibah wallangan” meaning “place where the fire went out and left a black stump”. “Coolah” itself is probably a corruption of a Kamilaroi word meaning “valley of the winds”.
Like many Australian towns, Coolah claims to have a descendant of the original lone pine from Gallipoli growing in its park, but a slender girl wearing an orange dress and carrying a brown and orange parasol is indeed unique to Coolah, at least in my travelling experience.
The Castlereagh Highway – Coolah to Wellington
A welcome change in the weather reduces the chance of uncoupling en route: we turn the air conditioning off and travel on in comfort, noting that bulls and stud females are available if that’s what we were looking for. An intriguing rock stack proves to be one of a kind rather than the beginning of a roadside suite of interesting formations. The soil is brown again, occasionally carpeted with green, and there are signs of recent rain in the green of the roadside grass. Lines of hills are tree-capped, rocky bluffs on their flanks. It becomes obvious that the trees I’ve taken for cypresses are mere sticks and the bluffs, the western edge of Sydney sandstone, are visible because all vegetation has been scoured off by fire. The soil is churned to rich red, and sheep are grubby. We pass through Leadville, an old mining town, and remember that indeed there was a savage fire there not long ago.
A spinning windmill, a sparkling rectangular dam, horses swishing flies with their tails, a house with a roof of solar panels, a vineyard, gentle contours, a herd of cows rambling towards milking. And then Craboon Junction coach stop, a place of nothing in the middle of nowhere, a forlorn place to leave the bus.
Shaggy tree trunks, cows in the shade next to a dead companion, an old church with paint peeled back to bare timber, a motorcyclist be-leathered and reclining, a ragged half flag, a solitary staked goat, clumps of boulders, one painted red, a mother with her son hidden under a big sun hat just off the school bus, trunks turning pink in early evening light, travel fatigue setting in.
We whizz through Gulgong “More than history”: low pinnacles of rock, a paddock overgrown with blackberries, a windfarm, merinos, an oversized tractor, a lagoon of golden grass, a spiky yucca. Are we nearly there yet?
Not all that far to go. Only 75 kilometres. But what’s that ahead? A grey nomad vehicle filling the road and puttering along. And then, roadworks. From no tail to a long tail in the 10 minutes we waited. The pleasure has gone from the drive. We just want to be there. “Let’s stop at the first motel that looks OK”. No argument. Finally the outskirts of Wellington, a high bridge over a functioning river, and right on its banks a motel. We stop.
“River’s always full” said the man at check-in. “Perpetually fed from Keepit Dam, although that’s pretty low itself right now. I don’t mind ordinary farmers using the water, but those cotton farmers? Nah. Send them all to Asia where there’s plenty of water. I dunno about the Macquarie Marshes either. In nature there were always dry spells. They’re fed all the time too. Probably not good for them.”
But it was good for us, green-starved as we were. A grassy bank down to the river. A view past the road bridge to an old red railway bridge. A picnic of wine and dolmades.
Wellington to Boorowa
This is the day our quest ends. By mid-afternoon we should be home. But the freshness of the morning reinvigorates interest in the journey and overrides eagerness for the destination.
We extricate ourselves from Wellington with the usual uncertainties generated by taking a backroad. Two dogs are on guard at the cemetery determined not to let anyone pass without challenging them with a barrage of barks. The road is crowded in by well-timbered hills, and ducks waddle unconcerned: a small vineyard, a wildlife refuge, plenty of old trees in the cleared paddocks, more kurrajongs in an avenue leading to Kurrajong Park, a school bus, fresh white railings around a homestead, a parallel railway line, a pitiful armless windmill, a stately half-bark with pale gleaming upper branches.
Just before we reach Yeoval, “The greatest little town in the west”, the landscape flattens, the low horizon-hills are illuminated by early sun, and we join Banjo Paterson Way. Yeoval is the birth place of the poet who gave us “Once a jolly swagman” and “The man from Snowy River.” My travelling companion says laconically “My great grandma swore she sat on his knee as a child.” I’ve known him for sixty years, and still he has stories I haven’t heard. Uncoupling would be a bad idea.
Paterson’s birthplace is marked by a swagman sitting under a Banjo hat, and then we’re in animalsonbikes country. What began many years ago as pensioned-off bikes up trees has evolved into a whole zoo of animals made from repurposed farm machinery: metal rings become a fish, corrugated iron a sheep. (Photos are in a separate post: too many of them to include here.)
Once we’ve finished photographing we drive on to Molong, “Place of many rocks”, where a crowd of men in orange hi-vis gear are working on the railway tracks.
Passing a loaded hay truck, not an uncommon site in this age of drought and flood, and huddled sheep pretending to be rocks, we come to, and quickly through, Cudal, “Home of the platypus”: it’s also home to a sturdy woman dressed in tan and green and a floppy hat pushing a lawnmower along the verge.
For the first time in this journey the Canowindra Road invites us to say “Very picturesque”. It offers us a vista, the road curling up between rocky cuttings, distant mountains, the sharp white of grazing cockatoos and the pink undercarriages of a flock of galahs, a hill divided into two segments vertically, one blond, one green, cows being herded by a man in a ute, a fenceline overseen by a systematic planting of kurrajongs. This is a benign, well-tended part of NSW’s central west: land has been cleared for cropping, but the hills still wear a coronet of trees and fences are perfectly upright. We drive for two kilometres at least alongside a ploughed up area: neat lines and panels, the pelt of the earth like corduroy.
Canowindra offers hot air ballooning and the Age of fishes museum, but we stop for neither.
There’s bluish smoke on the horizon. Is that puffs? Fire anxiety is never far from an Australian mind in summer. The typical trees here are graceful droopers, and the countryside no longer looks drought stricken. For the first time Aboriginal owners are acknowledged – “Welcome to Wiradjuri Country”.
My interest in annotating the countryside is fading as the day wears on. Cowra declares itself the friendliest, tidiest town: we test neither declaration, nor do we stop at the Japanese garden or the rose garden.
We turn onto Lachlan Valley Way, named for Lachlan Macquarie, an early colonial governor of NSW. A carpet of white overlying green grass is in fact a flock of grazing corellas. Then the country becomes drier: shrunken dams, ducks on the bank heads tucked under wings, crone’s knees erosion, a tilting stack of hay bales, palms with dead-frond skirts, and sheep-shaped floodwrack in the ramshackle fences from a recent cloudburst. For the first time there are untidy clouds in the sky and we drive under cloud shadow, past a unexpected large expanse of water.
We arrive in Boorowa “Superb Parrot Country”, and decide it’s time for ginger beer and a custard tart. We’re here at the wrong time: the Running of the sheep doesn’t take place till October.
We peruse information panels that weren’t there last time we stopped, celebrating the history of the Boorowa Branch Line including the story of a couple of girls from a town 30 kilometres away. They wanted to go to a dance in Boorowa, so they did what determined girls do. They borrowed a four-wheel hand operated railway trolley and pumped their way to the dance.
On a much sadder note, a garden commemorates all the young people who’ve died in Boorowa in the last 40 years, from newborns to 40 year olds, each one named on a plaque.
Boorowa to Potato Point
In a paddock a tree stump that looks like the sculpture of a man stooped and running; sheep herded into a yard, they and the grass the same colour; a big green tractor and a little red tractor neatly parked side by side; a swooping road at midday, time of worst light. We’re heading towards Yass and The Big Merino, and the tops of hills have lost their tree crowns. It’s sheep country, and by definition degraded.
There ahead of us is the whirl of traffic on the M31, the lethal Hume (another European explorer) Highway, truck route between Sydney and Melbourne. Focus is beginning fade.
“Joe, this is the turnoff.”
“Nah. We’re not going to Yass. We’re not going to Canberra.”
So we stay on the motorway. But we’re definitely not going to Goulburn. We should be going towards Canberra and Yass. How do you get off a motorway? You wait ten kilometres and then if you’re lucky you can do an about turn and retrace your route.
“I need to stop and take my blood pressure pill” he says. So we do, as we once again leave highways for backroads. I stop paying so much attention to my notes and become co-driver.
We’re in cool climate wine country – shrouded vineyards, Dionysus Winery, Level 1 water restrictions; geese preening and swimming on the edge of a dam; a quarry (“I’d like to get in there and have a look at the geology”); a truck pulling out in front of us and braking jerkily; a bald man with his head under the bonnet of a white car, his companion emerging from the roadside almost under our wheels; a protest about the location of Sutton solar station (NIMBY, thank you very much); horse farms; a chevron of cleared land below a treed hilltop.
We nip across a major highway onto Sutton Road: a mine (slate for shingles?); peeled trunks, white grey and pink; a summer-house beside a dam. And across another highway amongst the wineries of Lake George; a welsh pony stud.
We stop for coffee in Braidwood, fuelling up for the remaining mere 100 kilometres: organic compost for sale, a Santa glittering on the trunk of a grand tree, a travelling stock reserve, shimmering poplar leaves.
The dams look full but our travel-energy is running on empty.
Finally, at last, after 1300 kilometres, we crest the hill on the Potato Point road and the sea is our new horizon. The quest for home is over.
I was inspired and guided in part by Paul Theroux’s article Taking the great American road trip in which he wrote a journey of more than 3 000 miles with astonishing smoothness.
My discovery of this article was directed by wanderessence, her commitment to intentions and a desire to take her up on her “On journey” invitation.