I leave my daughter’s after melting the ice from the windscreen, and begin the journey home apprehensively. The hundred kilometres to Texas is notorious for macropods courting death: pretty faces they’re called and they don’t have much sense of self-preservation. I see a few hopping oblivious along the road, and plenty of carnage beside the road: I swerve frequently to avoid a body in the middle of the road. I crawl along at 70 kph, reaching Texas without causing damage – and then pull out in front of an oncoming car.
In Warialda I’m very specific about what I want for breakfast, and a young man directs me to Carole’s Cafe. It’s obviously a favourite haunt of locals: oldish women sit around talking about the ills and activities of friends and relations, and enter into a discussion about youth suicide with a solitary man who is obviously on a mission to prevent it. Carole brings me my hot chocolate and raisin toast and I concentrate on eating.
Just out of Warialda, I decide to stop for a landscape shot every 30 minutes: the stops do double duty, keeping me alert. I’d forgotten how soporific driving in the sun on these out-west roads can be.
I spend the night in a motel-hotel in Collarenebri. At first sight it looks deserted: gates into the motel area are heavily padlocked. I wonder where the entry point is, and reconnoitre to see whether I have any other accommodation options. A clean-cut man in uniform emerges from a battered door, which I go through. The bar smells urinous, but the woman who checks me in is friendly. My room, up a spongy wooden ramp, is faux-panelled and white-painted brick, with rather nice minimalist abstract pictures and sconces containing light bulbs. The town doesn’t invite inspection, so I catch up on phone calls.
At 6, I head across rather hesitantly for dinner. There are eight people at the bar, including a young man intermittently strumming a banjo. When I order a mixed grill, the woman tells me I may not want such a huge meal: steak, rissoles, sausage, egg, chips. I settle for steak and eggs, and retreat to a roomy banquette in one of the dining rooms, which also contains a lounge and two lounge chairs, and a tiny radiator doing a stirling job of warming the room. Even my smaller meal looks huge. But suddenly the plate is empty, and I have a rough itinerary for the rest of the trip. I retreat to my room, past a silent solitary smoker in the yard.
The smoker is less silent this morning. We have a brief chat about what I’m up to and he takes my keys back to my room for me. I snatch a few photos before the next phase of my journey. Swallows have a colony of nests under the eaves and you can just spot one entering.
The country is flat, and the day cloudy. I remember how much I enjoy cloudscapes, when the sky bowls above me, and the land stretches to the flat horizon in every direction. Such cloudscapes were my companions on the many long journeys to the coast and back over my six years in Broken Hill.
At the first 30 minute stop I watch a stately hopping of five macropods ahead of me. Once again the road is littered with the bodies of less lucky cousins. Drivers out west don’t care: they’re intent on eating up the miles.
Eventually a pale line of hills appears far away to disrupt the bowl: the Warrumbungles where my eldest took her first daring steps away from parents when she was two. Little did we know then where this daring would take her.
I arrive in Baradine to find my reason for being here aborted. Rain’s predicted and the helpful ranger at the Pilliga Discovery Centre suggests it’s not a good idea to take the Yaris on the dirt roads. The alternative, sandstone caves with Aboriginal art, is 100 km away, and closer to tomorrow’s route, so I spend an hour prowling round the discovery centre. It covers all aspects of the Pilliga Scrub, 3,000 square kilometres of semi-arid woodland, the largest continuous remnant in NSW, with a history of Aboriginal presence stretching back at least 12000 years, logging, and finally now protection. You can hear voices of the locals telling Pilliga tales at the listening tree, and meet stuffed versions of the animals who live there. There is also gallery space for local woodworkers and artists.
Checkin at the hotel has to wait while the bar debates the code for the Sydney (or is it the Coffs Harbour?) races so a punter can place a bet. My room opens onto the verandah, where I sit and watch the rain. I don’t think I’ve seen rain since Warsaw. The bathroom tiles are the same as the ones in my childhood bathroom. The intensity of the silence at 1 am is almost frightening: no one else in the hotel, and no sound at all of passing traffic.
I leave Baradine under a blue sky, but soon it clouds over. I’m in flat country, relatively unchanging.
Not a long drive today, after a visit to stunning sandstone caves that will have a post of their own. I negotiate a city with only one wrong turn and arrive at Wellington Caves, where I’ve booked a cabin. A cave tour doesn’t eventuate because I’m the only customer, but an annotated walk amongst fossils on a gloomy hillside does, sea creatures far inland where once were shallow waters.
My cabin is set amongst kangaroos and the grey hillside periodically explodes into macropods. I rather enjoy the space – two unused bunks recall consultancy days when such bunks became my filing cabinet. I’m startled by an agonised noise outside, until I realise it’s just a possum.
In the morning, I walk through the Japanese garden, a gift of Wellington’s sister-city, Osawano. I wonder if that city has a companion Australian garden and I try to envisage what that might be like. This garden features a small symbolic mountain, a spouting fish, a couple of bamboo constructions which act as conduits for water, a thirteen-storey tower representing prosperity, and a red bridge reflected in a pool. All this against a background of eucalypts and very Australian hills, and beneath the raucous squawking of a flock of sulphur crested cockatoos.
I backtrack a bit to visit the Burrendong Botanical Gardens and Arboretum, and the Wellington gate, but those are adventures for other posts.
My last night is in a hotel in Boorowa, where it’s too chilly to sit on the verandah. The pub is the grandest I’ve stayed in, or was once. The midnight trek to the loo which I share with eight bikies and a gentleman I can’t profile is a long one.
I begin my final leisurely drive about 8, and remember my grandaughter’s wail on the way back from a week in Slovakia: “I want to go back to the holiday.” As I cover very familiar ground, I’m looking forward to home, but back on four and half weeks of many pleasures.
Suzanne’s “On the road” blog offers a haiku, haibun prompt. Retrospectively and serendipitously “You don’t find the path, you make it step by step” seems to fit this journey beautifully.