The Chook and I have returned from our sojourn in the west. It was a good long drive, over 2000 kilometres in all. We headed off north through the city, up the central coast, taking a left up the Hunter Valley following the river for several hundred kilometres. We stopped in Scone and The Chook got her picture taken with a bronze horse (don’t think about a bronze horse). We were unaware that Scone is the horse capital of Australia and while this is not something I really needed to know it also means I now know we don’t ever have to return to Scone. It was impressive to follow the narrowing walls of the valley, and where it gets narrow the rocks have all the authority of heading up a Himalayan valley (Langtang, say) but with the yellow sepia toned glare of the Blue Mountains.
We made Gunnedah on the first night. We sat up late into the night and watched the world cup rugby, snacking on our leftover KFC and adjusting the air-conditioning. Next day we kept on heading north stopping in Narrabri for morning tea. Not much to say about Narrabri except: it is over supplied with swimwear sales, Chinese restaurants and personal trainers. We kept on until we reached Moree where we admired its classic art deco main street and had a schnitzel in the pub. In the afternoon we check into our motel which we selected because it had its own hot springs and after two days driving I can tell you that hot springs really do good work on my sorry arsed spine. Again we got take away and watched the rugby. The Chook was trying hard to be enthusiastic about the rugby, trying real hard.
Next day we kept on our northerly course to Mungindi, a NSW-QLD border crossing in the middle of nowhere. Mungindi was one of the places that strong childhood memories had romanticized and that I was showing The Chook. But there is even less there now than there was in the mid-eighties. It had always struck me as being the arse-end of the earth, and that was when it managed to have a pub and post office independent of each other. Now there is a servo which is also the post office, the bottle-oh and as well as being the place where people buy milk. Apart from the dilapidated and moribund RSL Club (open Thursday night, Friday night and Saturdays) that was it. We crossed the mighty Barwon River and I photographed The Chook in Queensland. Again the only saving grace was the hot springs and again I plunged in before we turned tail and returned to Moree where The Chook could at least get a pie. More hot springs, more schnitzel.
Having reached our furthest north we headed west into the saltbush country and made for Lightning Ridge which was fearsome hot and as ramshackle as you’d expect a frontier mining town to be. A patchwork of claims, counter claims, caravans and tarps stretched between straggly eucalyptus. Every second house, about eighteen of them, had a hand painted sign out front saying “BUYING.” There was very much a frisson of down on your luck meets welfare reject meets silver dollar saloon. It was a hard drinking town with a surprising number of ethnically diverse churches (the Serbian Orthodox compound was particularly impressive). The Chook and I found a guide and went down quite a deep shaft, where the relief from the heat was wonderfully comforting. The Chook loved it.
We bought some opals from a very down at heel miner and then went to the (really quite extravagant) Lightning Ridge municipal swimming pool. Kevin Rudd’s GFC infrastructure spending clearly had enabled the burghers of Lightning Ridge to get a swimming pool with at least a couple of square metres of cool chlorinated water for each of its 2000 citizens. When we were done we went to the pub and The Chook learned no one ever wins at Keno and also that Chinese food in Australia is both not Chinese and is identical to all the other versions of Chinese food throughout Australia. Fried Rice and spring rolls are Fried Rice and spring rolls wherever you are in the wide brown land.
Then we went to Brewarrina, a place I lived for a good portion of my childhood and The Chook’s eyes went really wide. There really was bugger all there; much less than I recalled and what was there was so sad that it was wasn’t worth visiting. Of course, I dragged her around the town pointing out all sorts of nostalgic bollocks. Houses I lived in, the school I went to, the spot where the take away used to be before it burned down, the place where we used swim in the river, the track where we rode our bikes. What really shocked her was that Brewarrina was a town where not only could you not buy chips, she couldn’t even buy a pie. Added to which there wasn’t any mobile coverage, so her ipad was next to useless. She was reduced to watching Family Feud on the motel television. I could see she didn’t quite believe me when I told that in my day Brewarrina only got one channel, the ABC. But her eyes widened with every gap in the accoutrements of civilisation, with every expectation that Brewarrina could not live up to, not even close. Forty thousand year old archaeological treasures weren’t impressive when there was no food but that which we brought with us. After cereal and peanut butter sandwiches she was only too pleased to hit the road. I don’t think she’ll ever ask to go back.
Then we turned south and took in a few more of my childhood haunts as we made our way to Dubbo. We stopped in Trangie and Narromine and again I showed her the places I lived, the ovals I played cricket on and the schools I went to and the rivers I swam in. The Chook’s eyes were rolling back in her head by this point and she was only too pleased to get to Dubbo where there were fizzy drinks and schnitzel. She was over the heat and the distance and the car and my nostalgia by this point and after six days on the road just wanted to be home. The next day we were.
As I drove I thought a lot about my Dad and how he dragged my Mum and my sister and I throughout western NSW for the best part of fifteen years. To what end I still can’t tell, but I reckon it was something to do with belonging . Not that he can tell me now, and even if he was alive I don’t believe he’d have the words for explanation. Maybe none of us do when it comes to that. How do you explain longing? How do you make that material? Make it real? How do you turn it into something you can share?