Festive finale

I was expecting a quiet new years eve with a couple of friends and made a delicious mushroom pie that went very nicely with a freekeh and pomegranate salad made by my partner (I’ve included the recipes below). Despite there being only four of us (and two hounds) to celebrate we did turn the evening into a party and danced till midnight. We had a small ritual as the year turned that involved writing on two pieces of paper – one for something we wanted to let go of and leave behind in 2018, and one for something we wanted in 2019. Said paper was burnt over a bowl of water (for fire safety) whilst drinking my friends home made limoncello over ice.

Mates

Needless to say, finishing my book was my wish for 2019. The madness of the festive season has subsided and today was the first day this year I have sat down to write. I’m hoping for a productive day, as at 42 degrees Celsius it’s going to be too hot to do anything else.

Last week was filled with helping my partner build a new kennel for the hound who has grown to big to fit in the house built for her predecessor. She seems to like the new abode and has been hanging out in it during the day.

New house fur thinkin’

When the hound came to live with us as a puppy one of the first things she did was walk out onto the reeds in the pond and pee. I was unable to curb this habit so ended up having to fence it off and get a dog pool for the water obsessed beast. The pond lilies and reeds have grown uncontrollably since the fence went up and I have avoided the inevitable task of cleaning it out for some months. Yesterday the weather was perfect for working outside and getting wet so the day to do the deed arrived. The hound was not happy with being prevented from ‘helping’ but once she understood I would not let her climb the fence and get into the pond with me she contented herself playing with the detritus I tossed over to her.

The pond

I did make the fatal mistake of not shutting the back door properly and when I threw one particularly large bundle of sludge from the bottom of the pond over the fence, the hound grabbed it with glee and bounded inside whilst I yelled a futile “NO!” after her.

When I went in it was evident the hound has shaken the offending bundle as she entered and plastered the walls and kitchen cabinets with muddy blobs, left a couple of large sludge puddles on the floor where she dropped it a few times, then landed content on her bed with what was left making another muddy pool. I spent half an hour cleaning up then locked the dog outside and returned to my task. The pond and the house now sparkle, there is a fresh water supply for any thirsty birds that visit today in the heat and I can get back to working on my novel and see if I can make that new year wish come to fruition.

Oh, and here are the recipes for the fabulous Ottolenghi’s mushroom and tarragon pithivier (published in his book Plenty More and the Guardian online) and the freekeh salad (from BBC food recipes). Both are fairly easy to make and look and taste sensational.

Mushroom and Tarragon Pithivier (serves 6)
Ingredients:

  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 50g butter
  • 400g shallots, peeled
  • 50g dried porcini mushrooms
  • 200g chestnut mushrooms, cleaned and quartered
  • 150g shiitake mushrooms, cleaned and halved
  • 150g oyster mushrooms, cleaned and quartered
  • 150g buna shimeji mushrooms, divided into clusters
  • 300ml vegetable stock
  • Salt and black pepper
  • 200g crème fraîche
  • 2 tbsp ouzo (or Pernod)
  • 1½ tbsp chopped tarragon
  • 1½ tbsp chopped parsley
  • 900g all-butter puff pastry
  • 1 egg, beaten

Notes on ingredient substitutes:
Mushrooms: I was not able to find all the different types of mushrooms, so just increased the amounts of those I could find to make up the quantity.
Ouzo: I couldn’t find ouzo in mini bottles and didn’t want to buy a large one, so I substituted two tablespoons of vodka with 1/4 teaspoon of ground star anise for the ouzo.

The pie

Method:
Bring the stock to a simmer and add the porcini mushrooms. Remove from the heat and set aside to soften.

Heat a large, heavy-based pan with a third of the oil and butter, add the shallots and cook on high heat for 10 minutes, stirring, until soft and brown. Transfer to a bowl. Add another third of the oil and butter to the pan, and cook the chestnut and shiitake mushrooms on medium-high heat for a minute without stirring. Stir, cook for a minute, then add to the bowl. Repeat with the oyster and buna shimeji mushrooms

Tip everything back in the pan, add the porcini mushrooms and stock and lots of salt and pepper, and simmer vigorously for eight minutes, until reduced by two-thirds. Reduce the heat to low, add the crème fraîche and cook for another eight minutes. Once a relatively small amount of thick sauce is left, add the ouzo and stir through the herbs, adjust the seasoning to taste then set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, cut the pastry in two and roll both blocks into 4mm-thick squares. Rest in the fridge for 20 minutes, then cut into circles, one 27cm in diameter, the other 29cm. Leave to rest in the fridge again for at least 10 minutes.

Heat the oven to 200C/390F/gas mark 6. Place the smaller circle on a baking sheet lined with grease-proof paper, spread the mushroom filling on top, leaving a 2cm border all around. Brush the edge with egg, lay the other circle on top and seal the edges. Use a fork to make decorative parallel lines around the edge. Brush with egg and use the blunt edge of a small knife to create circular lines running from the centre to the edge, just scoring the pastry but not cutting through it.

Bake for 35 minutes, until golden on top and cooked underneath. Allow to rest for ten minutes then serve.

Freekeh and pomegranate salad
Ingredients:

  • 200g/7oz freekeh, pearled spelt or pearled barley
  • 5 tbsp olive oil
  • 4 spring onions, finely chopped (leave these out if you don’t like them)
  • 1 pomegranate, seeds only
  • handful flatleaf parsley, roughly chopped
  • handful mint, roughly chopped
  • 1 tbsp pomegranate molasses
  • 2 tbsp pistachios, roughly crushed
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
Freakout freekeh salad

Method:

Put the freekeh and 1 litre/1¾ pint water in a pan together with 1 teaspoon of salt and 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Bring to the boil, then turn down to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes until just tender. Drain and allow to cool

When cool, mix together the freekeh with the spring onions, pomegranate seeds and herbs. Season with salt and pepper.

Whisk together the remaining 4 tablespoons of olive oil and the pomegranate molasses with a pinch of salt, and dress the salad with it, mixing gently. Serve topped with pistachios.

What did you do for new year?

Main image: Hot hound

Merry Creepsmas

A friend of mine has a special Christmas tradition. Every year she posts a selection of photos for what she calls the Twelve days of Creepsmas on Facebook. This post about alarming Christmas traditions is inspired by those photos of creepy Santa’s with terrified children.

Get my goat

Krampus

A half-goat, half-demon and his band of ill tempered elves haunt the Tyrolean mountains in the Austrian Alps during the festive season on the hunt for children . Krampus, with his furry body, disfigured face inset with red eyes below big curled horns terrorizes the streets with wild jangling bells, animal like growls and fierce dancing as he beats people with birch branches.

Good children get presents from Santa, bad children (as well as drunks and laggards) got Krampus who whips or abducts them, stuffs them in a sack and drags them off through the snow to the underworld. His roots are in pre-Germanic paganism and he is believed the be the son of the Norse god of the underworld, Hel. His legend has such force that it survived attempts by the Catholic Church to banish his celebrations in the 12th century. Krampus is a perfect antidote to the overly commercial, cheer filled version of Christmas.

Mari Lwyn (Y Fari Lwyd)

Rustle

Dead horses are more in fashion than goats in Wales. Mari Lwyd (the Grey Mare) is a horses skull wrapped with a white sheet, empty eye sockets and ear holes decorated and the figure draped with colourful reins, ribbons and bells. Despite her macabre appearance Mari Lwyd is supposed to bring good luck.

She and her entourage go door knocking and sing rhyming insults in Welsh to occupants to try and gain access. In the ritual the occupants of the house must respond with their own verse to try to outwit Mari and prevent her and her gang from entry. Eventually she is let in. Apparently Mari’s entry scares off unwanted problems from the closing year and brings the household luck for the new. She also drinks all the liquor, eats all the food and generally causes mayhem (including chasing any young women she takes a fancy to around the house). You can view an example of the doorstep exchange here.

Meow, Istanbul

Yule Cat (Jólakötturin)

In Iceland if you don’t have some swanky new clothes to wear at Christmas you could be eaten up by a giant vicious cat. It’s unclear where the cat idea originated from but the clothing part of the myth is thought to have begun as a mechanism to urge farm workers to be more productive in the lead up to Christmas when hard workers were given new clothes to wear by their employers.

Improvised Santa

Icelanders don’t just have to worry about giant cats at Christmas either. Thirteen trolls with names like Pot Scraper, Bowl Licker, Window Peeper and Doorway Sniffer; along with a many headed, child eating, husband murdering ogress called Grýla come down from the mountains in December. Naughty children are taken back to Grýla’s lair to be devoured.

Witches and broomsticks

In Eastern Europe the Christmas witch Frau Perchta, a shape-shifter, creeps into homes and leaves a piece of silver in the shoes of children and servants who have been good. The naughty ones have their stomachs split open and after being disembowelled their organs are replaced with pebbles and straw. She’s also a bit of a stickler for domestic neatness and lazy ladies get the same treatment as naughty children if their housekeeping standards don’t measure up.

Reluctance

The Norwegians worry about evil spirits and witches that appear on Christmas eve and steal their brooms to go joy riding. Households take preventative measures and hide all the household brooms so they have the equipment needed to clean up after the festivities are over. In some households the men go outside and fire shotguns for good measure to scare the bad spirits away.

I’m anticipating my own Christmas celebrations to be far less dramatic, with a focus on the company of friends and family and the devouring of good food under the watchful eye of the giant hound who will hopefully protect us against any evil visitations. May your season be peaceful and your traditions bring good will. See you on the other side.

How do (or don’t) you celebrate the festive season?

Main image: The decoration, Berlin

A good life

I started to watch The Sopranos last night. From the beginning again. Psychoanalysis anyone? It’s almost twenty years since Tony Soprano, violent mobster and family man, landed in Dr. Melfi’s therapy office after a panic attack and started his own personal search for meaning.

The show is at its heart a study in existentialism. We all look for and crave a sense of meaning in our lives. Some find it in god, love, money, or the pursuit of social justice. We expend a lot of energy seeking purpose.

Extraterrestrial Highway, Nevada

Existentialism tells us that life has no meaning except for that which we ascribe to it. In the words of Dr Melfi: “When some people first realize that they’re solely responsible for their decisions, actions, and beliefs, and that death lies at the end of every road they can be overcome by intense dread.”

Existentialism demands  we are responsible for what we do, who we are, the way we face and deal with the world, and collectively we are ultimately responsible for how the world is. We cannot abdicate that responsibility to a god that only exists because we choose to believe in them.

As Satre said we are condemned to be free and we suffer from an abundance of freedom. Each of us must design our own moral code to live by, even if it is the template offered to us by our parents or our church. It is a template we choose to inherit. To live authentically we must take responsibility for all our actions as they are freely chosen.

Sand art, Byron Bay

The Sopranos showcases the impossibility of attempts to compartmentalise evil acts, and separate them from the rest of our life. In Tony Soprano’s case maintaining a real family life and a Mafia life without the latter corrupting and threatening the former is impossible. He’s convinced he’s created a church and state separation between his two lives and somehow justifies his criminal activity by the fact that he provides for his family. His wife Carmella lives in her own orbit of self deceit and turns a blind eye to the reality of her husbands ‘business’ in order to enjoy the comfort of her Mafia funded princess lifestyle. Being his accomplice means she is constantly haunted by feelings of guilt and shame herself.

Museum of Modern Art, New York

This morning I woke up to news from the USA in an article on Facebook reporting George Pell’s conviction on historical sexual abuse charges. It had not been reported in the Australian press due to suppression orders as there is another trial yet to take place. The article made me think of The Sopranos. Like Tony Soprano, Pell’s life choices have come back to haunt him and his actions have been shown to be inconsistent with the view of himself he had promoted to the world.

The clerical hero of some of this countries most senior politicians has fallen, and it makes me wonder what it says about the judgement of our political leaders who have sworn by Pell’s counsel. What is their role, like Carmella, as accomplices in Pells deceit? Have they all chosen religion as a moral code to hide behind, rather than live by? Do they use it to justify themselves as inherently good?

Secrets and lies are at the heart of a good mystery but they do not make for a happy life. In the Sopranos there is a scene were Tony sees an abridged quote from The Scarlet Letter displayed on the wall at his daughters college: “No man can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true.” To find happiness we must organise some kind of harmony between all the parts of ourselves. We need to create an internal attuned unity that is consistent with our actions to avoid the kind of existential crisis Tony Soprano faced. Public figures and prominent people cannot be exempt from the consequences of their failure to live authentically.

Franz Kafka, Prague

The Sopranos ends in ten seconds of black silence. An ending that bewildered viewers. Messy and contradictory. Did Tony die or not? Was he taken out without seeing it coming as he himself predicted? Does it matter? The ending is ambiguous, but we all know that eventually everything ends in death – the truth of human morality. A truth that must be faced to live authentically and grasp our full potential.

Main image: The Rocky Mountains, Colorado

Whose freedom is it?

It would be fair to say that reading the news and public commentary this week following leaks about the Religious Freedom Review has made me both sad and angry, so this blog is a bit of a rant.IMG_0159

I have more interest in watching weeds grow than I do in the institution of marriage, but when the equal marriage debate descended into an opportunity to express general bigotry toward LGBTI+ folk, I took notice. I watched with horror as the ‘no’ campaign honed in on young people, the most vulnerable segment of the queer population, and attacked them.

My horror transmogrified into perverse fascination when some segments of the faith community turned themselves into victims, claiming they would be discriminated against if queers were allowed to marry. I say ‘some segments’ intentionally here, as I have had the pleasure of coming to know many (heterosexual) religious people who voted yes and support the evolution of their faiths.

Why any self-respecting queer would want to be married by an establishment that rejects them aside, the territoriality of the institution of marriage by religions is bizarre. The concept of marriage was not invented by god or the churches. Wedding traditions date back to about the third century B.C. in China and at least 30,000 years in Australian DSC00301Aboriginal culture, well before they encountered Christianity.

I suspect a large number of people of faith are damn glad that marriage as a religious institution has evolved. Let’s face it in the Old Testament polygamy was sanctioned, becoming a wife meant becoming the property of your husband, and a woman who was raped could be forced to marry her attacker. Changes isn’t that bad.

I did attend Sunday school, but my interest in religion ended there. Each to their own. It never made sense to me to allow your life to be dictated to by an external deity and a text written around the 4th century. Somehow claiming ‘god says’ felt like abnegating responsibility for your own behavior. I strive to live my life through an ethical lens, which invests in me similar principles to many religions, but my lens is a secular one.

I was mortified when I read the media about the leaks from the Religious Freedoms Review. Religious groups already have exemptions from anti-discrimination laws that allow them to discriminate against queers – including refusing to hire gay teachers or enroll transgender children. The hype read as if the review recommended an increase inIMG_0709 sanctioned bullying and discrimination against LGBTI+ kids. This is deeply disturbing given the vulnerability of same-sex attracted (or questioning) youth who are five times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual young people. I feared that ‘religious freedom’ was being used as a smokescreen to justify extending discrimination and bigotry against minorities.

I went to the source this week and read some of the Religious Freedoms Review submissions available on the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet website. It became apparent to me that allowing queers to marry remains a sore spot for those who were vehemently opposed to it. Most of the submissions that demanded additional protection of religious freedoms were actually bemoaning the fact that the ‘yes’ vote won in the postal survey. IMG_0305 (1)They grasp for an opportunity to be exempt from compliance with the new laws.

The Christian ‘problem’ with queers seems to stem primarily from Leviticus 18:22 that states “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” But I can’t help noticing the selective way in which some choose to quote the bible. Leviticus also states we may possess slaves (25:44); people who work on the sabbath should be put to death (35:2); and that we should get the whole town together and stone to death anyone guilty of blasphemy (24:10-16). Why are faith groups not demanding all god’s laws be adhered to with the same vigor they apply to their objection to gays? And where have the ethics of religion gone in this debate? What happened to compassion, humility and treating others as you would like to be treated? Life and religion have to evolve.

It strikes me as an extraordinary example of moral hypocrisy to cry for more religious freedoms on the grounds of fear of discrimination, then demand that those very freedoms enshrine a right to discriminate against another group. Its particularly IMG_4025disturbing that the loudest voices should choose children as the target of their hostility.

Article 3 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, states that all institutions should act with the best interests of the child as a primary consideration.  Media reports suggest the Religious Freedom Review supports this convention.  Yet rejecting a child for who they are cannot be considered to be in their best interests, nor their classmates.  Such behavior would only teach the un-Christian traits of intolerance and hate.

In the shadow of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse it saddens me greatly that some of those institutions may have learnt very little. Abuse comes in many forms. All children deserve to be included, and treated with respect and dignity, including LGBTI+ kids.

Main Image: Rainbow Flag, San Francisco

Inset images in order: DOX Centre for Contemporary Art, Prague; John Frum Movement, Vanuatu; Blue Mosque, Istanbul; church statue, Vienna; Street Art, San Francisco

beach at sunset at Byron Bay NSW

On the road again

Chaucer is credited with the original use of the idiom “All good things must come to an end.” A version of the saying appeared in his poem Troilus and Criseyde written in Middle English in the 1300s. It is a reminder that everything is temporary. And so it was after two weeks at an idyllic spot near Byron Bay we packed up the car and headed south toward home.

For our return journey we planned to hug the coast for a couple of days via Port ORG_DSC06094Macquarie and Newcastle then head inland and stop in the Southern Highlands and Beechworth. We began our return journey and I began a cold that left me feeling like I was wading through a quagmire of sludge. Perhaps it was a response to returning to the chilly southern state.

The drive from Byron Bay to Port Macquarie and Newcastle revealed the scale and magnificence of the Australian subtropical coastline. I love reading novels set near where I am when in holidays. We listened to My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin during the drive. The book was published in 1901 and tracks the life of a young headstrong Sybylla Melvyn in rural NSW in the 1890’s.  The novel vividly evokes the Australian landscape and is an extraordinary novel to have been written by a nineteen-year-old.

I must confess I wanted to slap the main character Sybylla. She is mercurial and contrary.  A girl who desires to pursue a big life, she’s ahead of her time and wants to have it all. She refuses to marry a man she loves as she believes it will prevent her having the professional life of a writer that she desires and curtail her independence, IMG_0957despite his protestations he will support her ambitions. In the end her own decisions leave her with very little of what she wanted. Personally, I think she should have stopped being so down on herself, married Harold and kept him to his word to support her to be a writer.

The subtropics gave way to more temperate forests and the temperature dropped we heard the news that Peter Corris had died, another sad loss to Australian crime fiction. We were supposed to stay at a place in the Southern Highlands on our third night.  The promise was a late 19th century sandstone cottage in beautiful established gardens complete with alfresco courtyard and mountain views.

I hadn’t heard from the accommodation host that day, which is unusual. Hosts commonly send a pre-check in message about access and house rules.  When we arrived, it seemed something wasn’t quite right.   There was a car parked half on, half off the driveway near the house as if it had been abandoned in a hurry.  There was no answer when we knocked at the front door so we walked around the place trying to work out where the accommodation was.  When we looked through the windows we saw half-finished renovations and laundry strewn across the furniture and the floor.  We started to get a creepy feeling about the whole deal and when I couldn’t get hold of our host we decided to stay on the road. IMG_0958

Fortunately the host at our next destination was happy for us to swap our nights around.  We drove 750km from Newcastle to Beechworth that day. As soon as we crossed from NSW to Victoria the temperature dropped and it started to rain. We stayed at Fanny Philips Cottage in the center of Beechworth.  Built in the 1860’s it had been modernized and felt like a welcoming, warm cocoon. We were almost tempted to stay holed up there for another day.

As we left Beechworth we listened to Gun Control by Peter Corris and immersed ourselves in the Sydney underworld of motorcycle gangs, corrupt police and illicit guns.IMG_0975For some reason I find these type of issues much more engaging and exciting than teenage angst and romance.

Destructo dog was  pleased to see us when we got home and has grown so much the coat that was just a little small when we left now looked like a waist coat.  She got a bit excited at one point and jumped up on me – paws on my shoulders and nose at face height. I hope she stops growing soon.  The garden needs some weeding, but the first signs of spring are here with the almond and nectarine blossoms out. That feeling of good things coming to an end had morphed into something else.  A delight at being home in our own comfy place.

 

Main image: Byron Bay sunset

Inset images in order: Newcastle foreshore; NSW highlands; TS Elliot quote;

Harper (aka destructo dog)

Centennial Hotel at sunset Gulgong, NSW

Road trip fugitives

This week’s blog is a diversion from my usual food garden blog as I am in Byron Bay, 1,600 kilometers away. As with all stories, some thought needs to go into where to start, which subplots, characters and details to include and which to leave out. This story will not focus on food, though food does make an appearance. It’s about a road trip that made us fugitives. Make a cuppa, it’s a long one.

There was a minor disaster in the week leading up to departure. The four-year-old car that would transport us and our surfboards to Byron Bay had developed a strange noise. It sounded like a sewing machine. On presentation at the dealership the mechanics informed my partner (PP) that we could not drive the vehicle to NSW as it needed a new engine. Yes, the car was still under warranty. No, they did not have a loan vehicle available.

Twenty-four hours of creative thinking about alternative transport options resulted in PP representing at the dealership with additional determination. After 90 minutes the DSC05699service manager, let’s call him Kevin, presented PP with the keys for a loan car and our trip plans returned to normal.

Sunday mid-morning we hit the road. It was a bit of a slow start as we stopped in St Andrews for a quick lunch at A Boy Named Sue who make the kind if pizza your taste buds remember. Bellies full, we headed over the mountains through Kinglake. The rest of the state has moved on but some residents of this community still appear to live in temporary accommodation after being burnt out in the 2009 bushfires that devastated the area. Native trees killed by the intensity of the fire stand sentinel above the new growth that struggles to reestablish in the denuded soils.

Fire was to be a recurring theme on our trip. Every day we passed through areas that were in various states of recovery, and one forest near Casino in NSW that was still smoldering. It elicited a sense of both fascination and fear.

Audiobooks are perfect for road trips and we had a Raymond Chandler binge on the way. Chandler wrote hardboiled crime like a poet and was a master of simile. The first one we listened to was The Long Goodbye. Here are a couple of my favorite lines:

“There is no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself.”
“The girl gave him a look which ought to have stuck at least four inches out of his back.”

The Linesman’s Cottage is located just behind the Post Office and in front of the jail in historic Chiltern. A walk around town revealed some lovely old buildings including Lake View House which was home to Ethel Florence Richardson (pen name Henry Handel Richardson) and appeared in her book The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney. Our arrival in town was a bit late so there was not a lot of action. A perfect excuse to curl up in the warm and read a book.

My choice of novel to read between the car audio tapes was Find You in the Dark by Nathan Ripley. It’s a slow reveal thriller with echoes of Dexter and one of those stories that drags me into it in a creepy way at a pace that keeps me going back for more.

DSC05660On Tuesday morning we noticed a couple of missed calls but no messages from Kevin. We thought nothing of it and packed up the car to head to Cowra, our second stop over.

I’d worried about the lack of winter rain at home, but crossing the border into NSW I found myself immersed in a real drought. Except for some green strips along the coast, the whole of state is dry. It is the kind of dry where the grass sizzles if you spit on it.

A little off the Hume Highway on the Murrumbidgee River past Gundagai, home of the dog on the tucker box, there’s tiny little town called Jugiong. There’s not much at Jugiong but the town punches above its weight on the food stakes at the Long Track Pantry where we stopped for lunch and bought a great pre-made curry for dinner. Food is one of the big changes I’ve noticed in country towns over the last twenty years or so. Where once your best bet was parma and chips at the local pub, now entrepreneurial folk with a food obsession are opening up eateries in a scattering of out of the way places across the country. And they can make a good strong coffee as well. To find them you have to know where to look or travel with someone who can sniff them out.

Back on the road again and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep entertained us on the way to Cowra. I was particularly taken with these descriptions:

“The gentle eyed, horse faced maid…”
“She bent over me again. Blood began to move around in me, like a prospective tenant looking over a house.”DSC05631

Cowra hosted a prisoner of war camp during the second world war. In 1944 more than 1,000 Japanese prisoners staged a mass breakout. 231 Japanese POWs and four Australians died during the ensuing conflict. In the early 70’s the Japanese Government and Cowra agreed to develop a Japanese Garden and Cultural Centre. The Garden covers 12 acres set on the side of a hill and is a beautiful spot to visit for a stroll or to lie in the sun and read a book.

The country side got drier and drier the further north we went. Miles and miles of farmland parched by the drought. Sheep and cattle sifted through the dirt looking forDSC05618 food or gathered around hay bales delivered by farmers to keep them alive. There’s a sadness that lingers over country held captive by drought and I don’t understand how anyone can see this and not at least entertain the possibility that climate change is real.

Our next stop was Gulgong in the Central Tablelands. It was home to Henry Lawson for a while in the 1870’s while his father fossicked for gold. Gulgong is a movie set waiting for a script. Large parts of the town are heritage listed and retain a 19th century character. DSC05642It’s home to a Pioneer Museum that covers a couple of acres. Some rooms look like they were set up by hoarders but it has an extensive array of domestic tools, utensils and typewriters as well as mining equipment and agricultural machinery. It’s definitely worth putting aside a couple of hours to visit if you are ever in Gulgong.

We received an odd email from one of Kevin’s colleagues. She wanted to know if we could arrange to meet. They had sold the car we were driving and wanted to swap it over. Having spent ten years working in the public service, not much surprises me. I can’t bear to watch political sitcoms like Utopia and the Hollowmen. They seem too real. So, we emailed back and let them know our movements. We’d be in Byron Bay in a couple of days and could meet them there.

After Gulgong we drove north-west to Coonabarbaran, the astronomy capital of Australia, and had lunch in a tiny cafe called Tastebuds. Tastebuds lived up to its name and served us pumpkin pies, crisp fresh salads and a vegan berry cheese cake. Another of those hidden gems. We grabbed some frozen vegetarian lasagna and salads to have for dinner.

DSC05673Not a day passed without moving through country touched by fire. Piligia National Park was in that fragile stage after fire when new soft green growth sprouts in clumps from eucalypts and the black exposed earth reveals rocks scattered through it like bones through a graveyard. There was also a lot of wildlife touched by man on the roads, usually in four-wheel drives.

From Narrabri we headed east toward Glen Innes through Mount Kaputar National Park, DSC05672much of which had been burnt recently. We stopped and walked into Sawn Rocks a forty-meter-high rock wall of pentagonal basalt pipes formed 21 million years ago when basalt lava flow from the Nandewar Volcano cooled.

Both the road kill and the active wildlife intensified along this quiet country road as the skies turned pink and illuminated the surrounding bush in a surreal glow. It was dark by the time we got to Glen Innes and discovered that somewhere on that lonely country road we had become fugitives.

Another one of Kevin’s colleagues had sent an email saying he’d heard we were about to DSC05734leave Melbourne to go to Byron Bay and he needed to inform us we could not take the car interstate. Too late. We checked the paper work the dealership gave PP when she signed out the car and there was nothing in it about this. We assumed there was some confusion or failed communication at the dealerships office.

We stayed in Susan’s Airbnb apartment above her toyshop that looks out across the main street at The Book Market building and the Town Hall. It was one of the only country DSC05733towns I had noticed flying the aboriginal flag in recognition of local aboriginal people, the Ngoorabul. Susan had lived in Glen Innes most of her life and it was obvious she loved her town. The apartment had a number of pictures from the 1900’s which we were able to compare to the present on our walk around the deserted streets to look at the preserved Federation buildings.

In the morning I dropped the keys back to Susan in the toy shop and had a chat. Her face revealed the pain of the community when she responded to a comment I made about how dry it was. “Dry’s terrible. Whole of the state declared in-drought, it’s killing people. Literally. Some been in drought two years. Nothing they can do except try to hang on for rain. The only green bit is the strip along the coast.”

My heart and mind went out to all the local communities we had driven through like Glen Innes that were trying to hold on for rain as I got back in the car and headed for the green strip along the coast. Home to open hearts, free lovin’ hippies and surfers.

We drove through Peter Allen’s home town of Tenterfield and towards the smoke DSC05738billowing into the sky from surrounding bushfires. We responded to Kevin’s colleague letting him know our plans, explaining our understanding of the terms of using the car and that we had complied with them. We sent a picture of the document the dealership had given PP about the terms and condition when she signed. As we drove we listened to Raymond Chandler’s The High Window. Here’s a couple of quotes that made me smile:

“I’m a little disappointed. I rather expected someone with dirty fingernails…I’ve never met a private detective. A shifty business, one gathers. Keyhole peeping, raking up scandal, that sort of thing.”

“From 30 feet away, she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away, she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.”

Byron Bay central is a beachside town on steroids these days but if you drive a little way toward the Cape Byron Lighthouse the mania melts away. NSW Parks has four houses dotted along the foreshore near The Pass. We are staying at Thomson Cottage a little oasis nestled in the Cape Byron State Conservation Area a few meters from the beach with views over The Pass.  The surf at the pass is made up of consistent easy rolling waves that you can catch a long ride on. It’s loads of fun.IMG_0779

The holiday idyll received a bit of a shock when Kevin’s colleague emailed back with a different document that stated that we could not drive dealership cars outside of metropolitan Melbourne and they could demand its immediate return at any time. Yet they loaned us the car without advising PP of any of this despite the holiday being the very reason we asked for it. Interestingly we also live outside of metropolitan Melbourne. I was suddenly deep in my own Utopian drama.

We sent Kevin an appropriately bureaucratic email in response, setting out in detail that the documents he’d sent had never been shown, or provided to PP, we would not have taken the car had we known this as it was the only reason we needed it. There was a hint without saying it that their conduct was unconscionable. Fortunately for us Kevin backed off after this interaction and said to get the car back as soon as we return to Melbourne.

Time for a surf.

Main image: Gulgong at sunset

Inset images in order: Recovery after fire; Drums in drought; Japanese Garden, Cowra; Black sheep; Henry Lawson, Gulgong; Swan rocks, Mount Kaputar National Park; Glen Innes, 1900; Glen Innes Town Hall, 2018; Unsee this; The Pass, Byron Bay.

More photos can be seen at my Instagram account.