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.