Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Arriving by 2.30pm at the northern extremity of the temperate zone, I unpacked a few items and then went out to buy a bottle of wine and a selection of delicacies - prawns, cabanossi, potato salad. A solitary feast but I was still wound-up, having been in the car since just after 5 in the morning. I would regret it later or, at least, my stomach would regret it. Even this morning it would be touch and go at times.

I hadn't expected to be alone but the person who was to accompany me was offered something impossible to resist that clashed with the trip. This meant that I would savour the pleasures of daytime travel by car without the company which can break up the long stretches between towns or between meal stops.

Often, in the past, we had ridden in silence as we traversed the dusty, green-grey Australian bush, where it is so easy, in any case, to lose oneself. But even silence shared can be companionable.

One difference in being alone is that I could stop and fossick among humanity's left-overs peacefully and without any curb on my use of time, which can be chaotic.

In the Upper Hunter Valley, a large tin shed full of knick knacks and sanded rustic tables offered up a selection of books, some of which I bought. Later, once arrived over the Queensland border, a similar shed with many similar items on display would give me such satisfaction as can only be met with in the life of a booklover. For 15 dollars I picked up Archer Russell's Murray Walkabout (Melbourne Univ Press, 1953) and a dozen others.

Nobody knows who Russell is. He's in fact a Leyland Brother at heart, but born a century too early to make it to the small screen. Even in the 1920s, Archer Russell would get up one day, pack a knapsack and and leave home to trek along the Murray River between its debouchement and the high country. The result of twenty five years of such trekking is in the book.

Its silver-coated prose echoes in the mind with slightly archaic tones at times, but overall it is a sensitive and fascinating account of a river that has seen better days. A book like this can only be found in such places as the Aratula tin shed 'antiques' mart. It once belonged, the gold sticker on the title page tells me, to a farmer in Warwick - a cattle-country town just over the border from New South Wales.

I had driven up the New England Highway before. This time I stopped in Tamworth, which was reached at about 1pm, after I had started driving around 6.30am. This time I was exhausted. I usually make it to Armidale. After sleeping away most of the afternoon, I showered and drove to Peel Street, Tamworth's shopping precinct. Being a Sunday not much was still open in the late afternoon.

I bought a cooked chicken, a bucket of Greek salad and a pack of chopsticks at Coles and returned to my tiny motel room, where I ate the poultry without a knife.

I ripped the flesh from the bones with the sheer force of the combined shaft-ends of my kwai-tsu. It was a satisfying repast and kept me happy until the next morning, by which time I was surfing the tarmac through New England, headed further north.

New England, like the Hunter Valley, is now tinted a fairly green colour. The slopes of the Great Dividing Range recently received a fair amount of rain. November gave Tenterfield "the whole year's allowance" according to the woman who made me a flat-white coffee.

As you go north the vegetation thickens and becomes taller, and the dry sclerophyl gives way to sub-tropical cover where, just before Cunningham's Gap and the drop into the plain of Brisbane, tall eucalypts house unnumbered birds giving out a bell-like, drippingly sweet call.

When I stopped with my steak burger in a picnic spot, a handfull of green birds with powerful beaks and purple eyes jostled with a Currawong for precedence in the fossicker's stakes. They stood atop a row of short wood poles, placed strategically to keep the cars off the grass, and eyed my burger greedily, hopping on the grass as occasion presented the troop with the opportunity to snap up a beakful of bread or a scrap of lettuce.

I felt like I was in the most gorgeous McDonald's parking lot in the world. The feeling would morph into disgust, however, after entering Brisbane's concrete surrounds and ever-under-construction motorways. It is true that I didn't stop at a traffic light for 200km, but the crowded, rapid-moving, truck-filled freeways skirting Queensland's capital city are not for the faint hearted.

1 comment:

kimbofo said...

I love this post... So evocative of the ever-changing Australian landscape.