Wednesday, 25 January 2012

To the brown country, then back to the green country

The Mallee - brown country
I drove down from the green country - Queensland, northern New South Wales - into the brown country, to my destination, which was the city of Adelaide, a place as dry as a chip surrounded by wineries soaking in the sun. There are grapes growing all across the meridien, even as far east as Griffith, a town I stayed at on the way down in NSW. I didn't have to drive. I covered around 5000 kilometres during the trip. And, for sure, next time I go to Adelaide I'll catch a plane instead. Sitting cooped up in a thundering coccoon of plastic and metal for 10 hours a day is not exactly lots of fun. But it's the price you have to pay if you want to get around in this vast country on the ground - that or the train, and I haven't travelled interstate on a train since I was a child. Maybe next time I will.

I had driven from Melbourne to Brisbane before, along the Newell Highway. But I'd never been through the Mallee country, which extends mostly west of the Newell across into South Australia, capital Adelaide. After waking up in Griffith in the half-light of dawn I hit the road, gouging a path down the local road to the Sturt Highway past paddocks filled with growing grapes and across irrigation canals that were filled with water. Once on the Sturt, I headed west, through the Mallee. It's a lonely landscape, flat, where you can see the trucks coming for a long way. The trucks appear as big, flat boxes jutting out of the landscape, then they get closer, then they thunder past a few feet from your car.

I spent four days in Adelaide talking with people. It's a comely city with lots of limestone-and-brick buildings, and sandstone buildings along the western part of North Terrace where Government House sits shoulder-to-shoulder with the library, the art gallery, the University of Adelaide, and the hospital.

On the return trip, which I decided would take me four days instead of three, I stopped at midday on the first day in Mildura, the biggest town in the Mallee. Mildura is citrus country, and is located on the Murray River from which it draws the water needed to grow its crops. Mildura is hot and dry. The hottest I felt during the trip, however, was when I stopped for a few minutes on the road between Hay and West Wyalong. This stretch of road is 250km long and you pass almost noone as you drive along it. If something goes wrong with your car out there it'll be a while before you get back to business. So I felt nervous. When I stopped to relieve myself the dead vegetation crackled under my feet as I stepped across the dirt shoulder of the road toward the trees and bushes. The cockpit temperature gauge told me it was 36 degrees Celcius outside. The desolation overwhelmed me and I didn't tarry. There's a pub out there somewhere and I stopped for a bottle of water, then continued on.

At Forbes that night there was a thunderstorm, which I watched from the motel's restaurant as I ate an enormous steak with a serving of giant grilled marrow. The space between the lightning and the thunder was a mere millisecond's distance. The action was taking place right overhead. But the storm only lasted about an hour. When it was gone the road was wet. When I woke in the morning it was dry again. That morning I drove up through Parkes and Coonabarabran, and slept in Moree. Green country again. By the next morning I was in Queensland.

As soon as I was able to see Toowoomba I could see the rain sheeting down out of a bank of cloud hovering over the mountain range. Rain fell on the country I drove through. I put the wipers on. There was no rain when I drove along the Lockyer Valley - scene of much of last year's flood drama - but by the time I hit Brisbane it was bucketing down. Back to the green country. The country I live in. The country of summer rains so heavy the rain takes on an elemental force and drowns out every other sound when it falls, unrelenting, from the grey sky.

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