What no one tells you about Wilcannia…….

While on the road, although spirited and optimistic, I held two hearts.  One was enjoying the outback and the balanced beauty of this land.  That vast and very remote landscape of spindly saltbush, scrub and Mitchell grass so dry neither feral goat nor cattle could eat it and the bone-dry river beds where I could taste the dust and smell the eucalypt.

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The other, the one furthest from me, craved the ocean swell.  Things like that cannot be taken for granted.  I will never deny the beauty of the ocean and the call it has to me which sometimes feels like an almost physical tug.

Before leaving Cobar and with the early morning sun flooding and the day already heating up, we u-turned back to Fort Bourke Lookout to view the open cut copper mine.   The huge land scar is profoundly deep.  A yawing chasm of dirt with the rich mineral belt clearly visible, devoid of vegetation and with the township of Cobar as its backdrop.

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Christ it was hot and it had not even gone 8:30 am.  I could feel beads of perspiration run down my spine, soaked up by the waistband of my shorts.  It was time to move on.

Packed in my car were not only treasured items but a relentless optimism always dragged along for good measure.  I am forever charmed by what others find frustrating, unattractive or irritable.  Made inquisitive by negativity and pessimism and driven by a need to accept what others do not.  Case in point, Wilcannia.

In almost every town I had stopped, folk – generally of a certain demographic – advised me NOT to stop in Wilcannia.  The advice was to drive straight through yet I had an entirely different view on the matter.  Plus many months prior to me knowing of this move, my dear friend Keith (aka one half of the ‘dirty chai runners’) told me if I ever happened to find myself skulking around the vicinity of Wilcannia, I should drop in.  So I did.

Located on the banks of the Darling River with its rich history and lovely heritage listed sandstone buildings dating back to the late 1800’s, Wilcannia was once a thriving river port during the great river boat era of early Australia.

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I noted the rusted security grills, boarded up buildings, small pockets of graffiti tags and the smattering of locals all of which exist in most small towns.  These were the things I had been warned of yet on first impression, Wilcannia did not appear the shit hole I had been told to avoid.

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We pulled up in the main street, parallel parking outside of the IGA and headed inside.  We had planned to grab some bread rolls, ham and cold drinks before heading down to the river.

The store had neither bread nor ham and nor did it have any fresh fruit or veg with the exception of a couple of bags of spuds sweating and sprouting in their plastic sacks.  Processed food, bags of chips and double that of cheap confectionary lined the shelves alongside soft drink and other dust laden products.  The store was as depressing as the woman on the register and I could not reconcile at how this vulnerable community must cope.

We headed across the highway to the Liberty Road House which I will happily recommend.  There were two young guys behind the counter who after chatting with them, cheerfully whipped up a couple of rounds of fresh sandwiches.  Their openness and honesty about the town, the frankness of themselves (one was on community service) and their outlook on life was refreshingly honest.

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Eventually I wandered back out into the heat of the day to watch the vehicles on the Barrier Highway continue to drive straight through, their passengers not daring a sideways glance to the town, its heritage or its residents.  I was perplexed but not entirely surprised because this is what no one tells you about Wilcannia.

They do not tell you of the once thriving town of paddle steamers and how Wilcannia was known as Queen City of the West.  They do not tell you about the beautiful sandstone buildings built from locally quarried stone.  They do not tell you about the uplifting healing project which came to unite this remote community and they certainly do not tell you about the local cemetery which is less than two k from the edge of town.

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Wilcannia has one of the oldest cemeteries in western New South Wales with grave sites dating back to 1866.  The cemetery is a nod to our rich pioneering history, tragedy, resilience, cultural preservation and a new and colourful tradition.

Among the eroding headstones and rusting iron are war graves, family plots and the poignant graves of children, often tiny infants, too numerous to count.  Many sites have fallen into disrepair, many are unidentifiable and many remain unmarked.

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The cemetery, set amongst old gums and saltbush, was incredibly quiet and astonishingly hot yet we managed to spend hours here.

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Due to the large Indigenous population in the area, Wilcannia has a death rate a third higher than the national average.  Death is an expensive business and made even more difficult by isolation and a low socio-economic status with some Indigenous grave sites being without a headstone for more than 25 years.  But all that changed when an inspiring art project recently began teaching people the skill of mosaic head stoning.

The ‘Paaka Thartu Karnu Healing Project’ teaches people the art of mosaic and in doing so, beautifully personal and affordable headstones are being made for departed loved ones.

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This is an odd thing to state but this cemetery is achingly beautiful with its mix of mosaic headstones and heritage grave sites all of which simultaneously uplift yet break your heart.  I loved the mosaics for the richness, inspiration and closure they bring and there is no overstating the power that gift must offer those left to grieve.

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We spent hours in the cemetery and were the only ‘visitors’ except for the local roos and the time spent there instilled in me further how inaccurate and misleading the image peddled of Wilcannia really was.   Yes there was poverty and a weariness to the town but this is also what made it so very, very real.

Time moved along yet somehow, it seemed not to matter much out here. We did however, need to hit the road again as we knew from experience we did not want to travel these highways after dusk and Broken Hill was just under 200k away.

As I rounded a bend I spotted a large dark shape by the very edge of the road.  It was fresh road kill.  A once massive black feral pig, no doubt slain by a road-train due to its size. Checking the rear mirror for another driver, I veered to the opposite side of the road.  Just as I did, a huge monitor lizard longer than the width of my car darted out from behind the carcass to run straight across in front of me.

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I hit the lizard immediately, the force so great my car lurched and shuddered and the wheels lifted. My hand went to my mouth and I looked in the rear view mirror to see, thankfully, that death had been instantaneous.

With tears welling I pulled up then stepped out of the car.  Devastated by what I had done, I looked back to see the huge goanna splayed across the road.

I stood for a moment then squatted in the red dirt and cried. I sobbed into my hands, the power of my desolation wracking my body.

Eventually, I walked around to the front of my car to view the damage flecked in blood and scaly skin. I cared little for the damage to my car, my thoughts only of the damage I had just inflicted upon the local wildlife population.

My husband, who had been driving ahead of me, realising I was no longer behind him doubled back.  Pragmatic as ever, which I often take to heart, he asked if I was hurt then surveyed the damage.  His rational ‘get it together and get back on the road’ kind of approach skewed deeply but I am one who refuses to fall into a pit of self-deprecation……although I did believe the death of the such a majestic beast warranted it on this occasion!

Car sorted (of sorts), emotions back in check (of sorts) and back behind the wheel I pulled out onto the highway.  Broken Hill after all, awaited.   My car made some noises I had not heard before and I did stop occasionally to check the front wheels, axel and bumper were still attached.

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He looked how I felt……

In the afternoon light the town of Broken Hill finally came into view yet my mind was still back in Wilcannia.

I guess it is so very easy to lose perspective sometimes and forget just how damn lucky most of us are.  Even on my worst days, those difficult and terrible days, I am still acutely aware of my own privilege and for this realisation I am grateful.

Perhaps we all just need an opportunity, people who love us and those who believe in us by looking past the shitty bits to find a richness of potential.  Wilcannia just doesn’t have that yet, not everyone does, but I feel very certain it will come……..xx

About as bogan as a fourteen year old mother of four…….

Loaded up with things too precious to leave to the removal, I drove out of Newcastle.  My bones called for the ocean but I did not look back.  Instead, I focused on the drive ahead which would take me along the Golden and Mitchell Highways’ toward the outback.

The days’ heat had already begun to take hold and by dusk it had fatigued with a weariness you feel almost down to your marrow.  We had our eyes on the west but still stopped at small rural townships along the way.  In these places, some of which seemed to carry the immense weight of sadness and neglect to them, I was challenged to consider why the residents have stayed.  Towns that seemed years ago to have been a world of hard work and prosperity now have very little to show for it.

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After just over 3 hours of driving, we pulled up outside the White Rose café in Dunedoo.  This is one of those rare old milk bars.  The kind that used to be around in all country towns during the 50’s and 60’s.  Stepping through the doors of the café you are met with an assortment of tables and sturdy hardwood chairs, a curved metal counter, polished glass and milkshakes made the old way by plunging a long handled dipper into a vat of ice cold milk.

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The food was okay but not great and the wait can be long but perhaps the cafes’ charm is that it succeeds on nostalgia, kitch and as an air conditioned comfort stop for a hodgepodge of travellers.

 

Fueled by a steak sandwich and a GI Blues milkshake, it was back on the road where I occasionally stopped to stretch my legs or take a photo.  I was also not adverse to stopping roadside, eroding tiny parts of the landscape as the stock pile of water and ginger beer I had on board quickly diminished.

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The sun continued to beat down, dry grass crunched under my feet and the land was parched.  It was a hot and tiring drive along the baking sheets of tar with little relief except for the ginger beer.  That was until we pulled up in Nyngan…….

Now it seems we like things BIG in Australia.  The Big Pineapple, The Big Banana, The Big Prawn, I think you get the big idea.

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Nothing like a big, sunshiny yellow banana to make you feel good 

And where better to erect a Big Bogan other than right on the edge of the outback in Nyngan New South Wales.

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Should you ever find yourself skulking along Bogan Way, or around the banks of the Bogan River or just mossying along Bogan Street which, by the way, are all smack bang in the Bogan Shire, you will happen upon this iconic structure.

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Dwarfing all around, this impressively tall thong wearing stubbie holding statue – who looks uncannily like Hulk Hogan – is about as Australian as it gets from his Southern Cross tattoo and huge-ass esky right up to his mullet.

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Hulk Bogan…….

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Big Bogan

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Little Bogan

I seemed to get my second wind in Nyngan.  Perhaps it was the break from the weariness of the road or perhaps it was just because I had a soft spot for this fun but often scorned and ridiculed effigy.

Late afternoon, and after clocking up just over 9 hours on the road, we headed to the copper town of Cobar for the night.  The 130k run from Nyngan to Cobar was slow going as unpredictable herds of feral goats (more than I have ever seen in any one location),  a random old sheep or two and the occasional kangaroo grazed or moved about right by the road side.

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Cobar eventually came in the relief of a cold shower, cold beer and a Chinese meal at the local bowls club where it seemed half of the population of the town had gathered for happy hour.

Later that evening and back in the motel room although bone tired, I could not sleep.  I felt so very far away and the ghosts of the life I had lived in Newcastle from the beautiful ocean waves, my favorite coffee haunts, the lanes and street art, the sea caves and everything and everyone else in between bled through.

The air conditioning unit above the bedhead hummed and I eventually fell asleep knowing that morning would bring with it the blank slate of another day.  I had wide open spaces, the languid pace of the road, blood red soil and forgotten townships to slow me right down and the thought of it all filled me with a freedom and longing only this kind of travel can bring…….xx

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New beginnings…….

We are deep in the good vibes of summer.  Summer is never coy in Australia and this summer has been no exception with a band of unrelenting heat-waves which set temperatures soaring to record numbers.  Now I have no hunger for coquettish summers but I can tell you, the blistering furnace of heat during the last couple of weeks really did knock many, including myself, for six.

For me, summer is usually filled with consistent swells and the clean lines of traditional boards, sunshine, mangos and cherries (my favorite spoils of the season), frangipani flower and skies which are bleached a paler shade of blue.  This year however, Australia really did have its day in the sun as everything seemed to melt  beneath our feet.

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See!  I told you it was hot!!

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Once again my jumpers, jeans and wetsuits were all traded for a lightness of season and as I packed up my wetsuits I realised, the next time these steamers see the light of day it will be in a very different ocean, in a very different state…….

2018 was a mix of the confounding and the brilliance in its yield of absolute unknowability.  People entered my life, returning in the various forms they have now morphed in to, I was challenged and equally inspired and I lived a living which teaches you a little of everything and anything.  And now in 2019, what is it I predict. Well, absolutely nothing as I do not etch my year to stone but mindfully intend to keep doing my best with what I have when I have it.

2019 has also bought with it a major move and it seems through choice or circumstance, any steadfast fixture in your life will change.  It’s a difficult process as sometimes you go back to a place you have once been, even if ever so briefly, to find the place you are returning to has changed……. but not as much as you have.

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Zoe, lovely and ever helpful on packing days…….

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Two shipping containers!  Really!!

Throughout my life, I have often come and gone with ease by not making any great attachment.  Leaving can be difficult for different reasons but there is a part of me that likes to go just the same.  Moving on drives my curiosity and my sense of wonderment.  It always spurs me forward even though I have no surety of what awaits.  Perhaps though, I am content with the idea of everything passing for a later return just as the waning of this summer.  It’s end also being the promise of its return.

When I initially knew of this move, my immediate thoughts went to my ocean.  I believed I would die, just a little, but of course I knew I would not.  To think like that is deeply impractical and it does no one any good.  Do I wish I could have stayed in Newcastle forever?  Perhaps!  But that was not to be so I will hold my time of Newy up to the light like a beautiful piece of sea glass and stay a little longer with all of the good of which there has been plenty.

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I am not one easily seduced but for me, there is always the seduction of an ocean and I can find that anywhere I live but leaving this time also meant leaving a job which I have loved.  A place of work and volunteering that offered a strange and unique gift.

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I read somewhere years ago to ‘find your tribe’ and in circumstances most fortunate for me, I had that wonderful gift for just on three years.  I never really understood the analogy of a tribe until my days meshed with some generous and epically wonderful folk and days became joyful beyond any expectation this girl had.  And work, which is never work when you are doing something you absolutely love, wormed its way into becoming a passion.

In a Newcastle suburb, an open and profound offering of friendship, kindness, a sense of belonging and respect took hold and my time there, so deeply appreciated has left an indelible mark upon my heart.  Humanity, in its blessed munificence, is a strange thing but perhaps these are the journeys we are meant to take when we dare to find the courage to do so.

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This was a difficult goodbye (oh heart, what is this feeling) but there is only so much time you can spend grieving that which is gone.  You can however, hold to a city or to a place or to a time and even to some folk who live there.  Nothing is impossible.

As I drove out of Newcastle for the last time, headed on a road that would lead me through the outback before reaching my final destination, I rested my head against the driver’s window when stopped at the lights.  I tried to take in a little more of the place before the traffic lights changed and the city and my time there rushed away.

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I thought of all the things I loved about living in Newcastle and New South Wales, some people, about the incredible experiences and opportunities afforded me but most of all I thought of how truly fortunate I had been and how truly fortunate I still was……..

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I gave fair warning to all pedestrians of Newcastle…..x

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Over the coming weeks it will no doubt be a chaotic time with little more than a moment to spare, the unpacking of literally hundreds of boxes – for all my perfectionism I still prefer my life lived with a little imperfection of organised clutter and lopsidedness, antiquated books and beautiful vintage china – trying to make the house a home as 5 years of rental neglect has not been kind to it nor the garden, finding my feet (and my place) and allowing those curious textures of everyday life to appear.

I will also share the road trip, countless moments I do not want to lose because the soil was so breathtakingly red and indescribable and the outback so remotely beautiful it almost broke my heart.   There are other snippets too such as the beast of a lizard which damaged my car, the roo’s bigger than I have ever seen and the hundreds of feral goats on the side of the road from Cobar to Broken Hill which never once startled as the occasional road-train hurtled by.  All moments dichromatic but no less wonderful……

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I never set out to have a blog and since those early days of 2014 I have shared much in the warmth and generosity of the countless places I have visited and the unselfish respite this beautifully wondrous world of ours offers.  So my blog will continue on as I do.  Ever evolving, ever moving, ever resilient and always ever grateful.

Here’s cheers to new beginnings and what they bring……..xx

Footnote:  Incredible ‘melting ice-cream truck’ sculpture created by Glue Society and installed in Sydney 🙂