It was a long drive, ten hours or so, undertaken in the heat of mid-February. Vinyl seats in the P76, dog at my feet, the handmade yellow trailer behind. It was the beginning of our long migration, our time of itinerancy through the byways of western New South Wales. We started heading west in the shallow cool of the morning, following the Lachlan through to Gooloogong and across to Forbes. Then the sun was up and the irrigated green of the river valley was behind us, we turned north up the Newell.
Familiar towns pass by: Parkes, Peak Hill, Tomingley, Narromine. Football fields and cricket teams recalled, petrol stations and takeaway-post offices, dirt turnoffs, no gutters and abandoned Holdens. The land has changed, a rustic brown low undulating series of pastures and crop paddocks pass by the car windows. Some orchards, rose fields, water storages too. The dish north of Parkes. It’s not green, everything is a hassled beige.
In Narromine we get out for a rest stop, it’s been four and bit hours, a long time for a nine year old, his six year old sister and fat dog to hold it in. But no charcoal chicken says my Dad with a shake of the head. It’s hotter in the car than outside. Next to the public conveniences near the library is the shire pool, tiled azure and shimmering seductively. We stare forlornly, we don’t even know how far there is to go, so blue. We turn northwest along the Mitchell, through the orange groves and past the aerodrome with parked gliders.
The Macquarie River is just over there, the line of casuarinas and eucalypts marking the sleepy waterway’s path, along with the irrigation canals that steal away the river’s flow. Then Trangie has come and gone and we stop at a rest stop which is nothing but heat, dust, a concrete picnic table too hot to sit on, and the stinkiest bins in all of New South Wales, perhaps last emptied by Charles Sturt in 1829.
My Dad provides sandwiches and a quartered orange each for the backseat team. He was always thrifty and thought fast food an unwarranted indulgence. Later in life he would stop for ice cream but he reckoned if you wanted chips you peeled the potato yourself. We sit in the shade of the car and drink orange cordial from a warmed bottle, the sweet stickiness in our mouths not dissimilar from the sweaty adhesion of our bodies to the P76’s vinyl. We spread towels over the backseat and then it’s all over pretty quick, our pause by the side of the road, we’re off again into the flattening brown. It’s a long straight from Nevertire to Nyngan and nothing much to see but the passing gates of the pastoral stations named, inevitably, after Scottish islands or manors of the English midlands. Cattle and sheep stand stunned in the heat in whatever shade they can find, as bored and uncomfortable as we are.
Pulling into Nyngan the trailer springs snap off the axle. The trailer is dragged along behind us for a while as my Dad looks for somewhere to stop and assess the damage. We pull into a huge park beside the Bogan River. He shakes his head and slaps his thigh. Deep in thrall to Billy Graham he doesn’t swear but he wants to. He ropes the trailer body back onto the axle. He ties the dog to the trailer and we walk into town to eat at a Chinese restaurant in our sweaty clothes. My sister and I are silent for the most part, we can see the tiredness and temper on his brow.
We spent the night beside the river sleeping in the car, sweating and trying not to touch each other. The dog was outside with the mosquitos. Then we spend a half day in Nyngan negotiating with welders to jimmy the trailer back into mobility. We walk up and down the main street of Nyngan, we go to a park and my sister and I play on the equipment until going down the slippery slide is dare involving considerable buttock burn and the metal infrastructure is too hot to touch. Eventually we are mustered for departure, sandwiches handed back with the last of the piss-warm cordial. My sister and I look at each other and figure we can’t be too far away from our destination. But we’re wrong.
It’s miles and miles up to Coolabah and then when we finally got there we take the turn off I put my thongs on in readiness. But a road sign puts me right, it’s another hundred and thirty kilometres, I slide my thongs off again. No pasture now, no crops, no irrigation, and none too many trees. It’s flat and empty and I watch it pass by like test cricket without close ups or replays. The afternoon is hotter than before, and the glare grows ever brighter as the sun sinks, boring the heat into my head. It’s almost two days since we left home to find our new home. Signs for Gongolgon, I sit up expectantly, but there’s nothing, a building clad into yellow weatherboard sits on stilts and then nothing, just road and a turn off down another road. And then we’re there, a tin clad grandstand by the side of the road. Empty and still, like a vast lowtech Machu Picchu. Then a town, houses, gutters, cars, Mum.
We arrive as the sun sets. I remember the colour of the light. It was a glossy yellow that bounced from a thousand surfaces, everything emanated heat, and the tarmac burned my feet.