Moree pound and Colly offal pit

Maadhaay ngay nhalay. Gayrr nhama Jambo. That’s Yuwaalaraay for ‘This is my dog. He’s called Jambo.’

Maadhaay nhalay Roxy. Yilaadhu yanaawaanha nhama pound-gu. ‘This dog is Roxy. Today she’s going to the pound.’

Roxy had been on holidays in the Ridge, staying with J. But today it was time for Roxy to go back the big house.

J’s car was having its own holiday, at the fixers in Dubbo, and so I’d volunteered to do the drive. It was partly favour and partly vested interest; I needed a day out of town. We set off down the Castlereagh mid morning, turned off towards Colly and before long we were crossing the rich volcanic soil of the Moree plains.

Last year’s rain resulted in good subsoil moisture and optimistic crop sowing, but it’s dry out there at the moment. We came across mobs of cattle grazing on the slim pickings at the side of the road. The graziers’ kids pootled around on quad bikes and we wondered about their lives. What dreams do they dream? What will they become?

About ten kays out of Moree we turned off the highway and followed a bitumen track, the pale blue peak of Mount Kaputar rising up from the plains to the south of us. What I’ve been calling “the pound” is really the cunningly named Rovertel, a boarding kennel and dog rescue place.

A fat red heeler waddled up to greet us. From inside of the kennel came the mournful whine of dogs waiting for runaround time. Roxy’s ears went down but, when the gate was opened up, she padded in contentedly. She seemed to know where home was.

So that was that.

Or was it? This would be a very short and dull blog post if that were the case. Instead, we headed into town for lunch and waited for the real story to begin.

Moree’s a moderately prosperous town, but like any town that depends on agriculture it’s had more than its fair share of lean years. Sure, there were bumper crops last year, but before that there were several tough ones. We took a stroll up and down and around the main street looking for somewhere to have lunch; both the Indian restaurants were shut so our choice came down to Omega and 2400. 2400 won out. Vegetarian nachos for me. Not bad.

I think of Moree as a checked shirt and RM Williams kind of town but the mid-afternoon population was almost entirely made up of middle-aged men and women in leather jackets. It turns out this weekend was an annual Harley-Davidson festival. Harley D made its reputation on outlaw riders, Marlon Brando rebels without a cause. “Whadda ya rebellin’ against, Johnny?” “Whadda ya got?” These days, in Australia at least, the Harley’s a status symbol. You’ve got to have a significant wedge to throw at a bike like that, the kind of money that Gen Y would need as a deposit on a shoebox in Sydney’s farthest west.

I have a strange fascination for Harley riders: not the wild guys who deal meth and corrupt the daughters of good citizens, but the accountants and retired teachers who drive out to Moree for hog fest. I wanted to take a picture of them at the cafe but I knew that it’d be rude. I could have just asked, I suppose, and I bet they’d have agreed.. But I didn’t. Then, as we were getting in the car, a whole pack of them appeared like slow-moving bison grazing their way across the vast plains of Dakota. Without missing a beat, J gamely posed by the car so that I could take a gammon holiday snap with a backdrop of hog-riding risk analysts. But really I don’t know why I did that. Like, am I ten years old? Jesus.

It was an uneventful trip to Collarenebri. We refuelled and pulled out of the servo and found ourselves next to the Ridge back road. We’d had enough of the bitumen by this time so off we set along the reddish brown dirt.

The last time I came down the back road I saw this intriguing sign. Who would not want to see an offal pit? The clock was against me on that occasion but I promised myself that, should I ever be down the back road again, I would not let the opportunity pass. Today was that day.

I tried to imagine what the offal pit might look like. A vision came to me of a deep, round pool filled with livers and kidneys and brains and kidneys and intestines and kidneys. Kidneys featured very heavily. My vision pit was rather Game of Thrones; it was lined with granite and the pool of offal was frothing and bubbling and the deep maroon colour of a Queensland rugby jersey. In the middle of the pool was a bearded man in leather armour, screaming and pawing uselessly at the rippling kidneys as he sank beneath them; I think there might have been a king standing at the edge of the pit supping from a jewel-encrusted goblet and throwing back his head as he laughed cruelly.

The first thing to pop my vision was the chain-link fence. This was one big, big fence, shiny and new. It must have cost a bucketload of money. It was the kind of fence that people build to protect something very valuable. Were there offal rustlers prowling the outskirts of country towns, scooping bucketfuls of kidneys and selling them on the black market in Big Town? Or was there something more sinister at work? J and I drove onwards, a sense of unease growing inside of us.

An open gate beckoned and we drove into the tip, past piles of tyres and abandoned white goods. A man dragged branches from a trailer but otherwise the place was deserted. The silence was thick and heavy. In the far distance a huge, dead old gum tree, denuded of foliage, loomed against the skyline. As we approached, the branches appeared to come to life as a vast flock of kites and falcons rose and flapped lazily into the thermals. We had found the offal pit.

Disappointingly it was not granite-lined. There was no sinking man or sadistic king. And it was almost totally devoid of kidneys, brains, livers, tripe and intestines.

There were lots of empty beer bottles and cans of Bundy and Coke. It looked like there’d been massive party, like some Neanderthal feasting site. Maybe that’s what you do in Colly, go out to the offal pit and get shit-faced on Bundy and kidneys. As if to confirm our thoughts, J pointed out this elegant composition: a goat’s foreleg and a pair of discarded knickers. I was immediately reminded of this story from The Onion from a while back.

As our eyes became adjusted to the tumble of colours and textures, shapes began to make themselves apparent. A sheep lay face down in the dirt, its mummified tongue lolling at a grotesque angle.

A goat’s head, barely connected to its torso.

The flattened skeleton of some creature. It was all very Gothic, or like the darker still lives of the Dutch masters.

Next to a tree lay a pair of dogs. They still had their collars on; the collars were connecting them by a short length of chain to the tree. Had they been just tied up and left there?

No. Each animal bore a huge hole in the forehead. Far too big for a bullet; you’d need Clint Eastwood’s Magnum to make a hole that size. Did someone come out with the dogs and one of those “humane” killers they use in abattoirs to take out pigs and cattle?

It was all deeply surreal. I half expected to turn around and be confronted by a line of toothless, pitchfork-toting yokels. We mooched around in silence. I prodded the toe of my boot at a desiccated lump of animal hide the colour of Donald Trump’s hair. There was a pile of jaw bones. Just jaw bones. Above us the kites wheeled patiently. It was quite easily one of the weirdest places I’ve ever been.

On the back road on the way home we veered left and right to avoid the countless dead kangaroo and emu bodies.

J saw a kitten sitting demurely on the verge. Not a cat: a kitten. We saw a dog, a wild dog, huge and panting beneath its matted coat. It was hard not to be reminded of Roxy and the dogs in the pound, and the dogs chained to the tree in the offal pit.

Yaluu, Roxy. Maayu yanaaya.

Food Safari 12: Walgett Sporto

It was time for a Federation meeting again, so in the bus we got and off we set, down the Castlereagh, braking hard for the 64 trillion emus that thought it was a good idea to meander across the road without warning.

There was a change of venue for the meeting, and so it was that at about half five in the afternoon we pulled into the gravelly car park of Walgett Sporto.

Like lots of clubs in small regional towns, the Sporto was something of a memorial to lost glories. Even the smell in the foyer – a mixture of cigarette smoke that’s somehow got into the aircon, ageing carpet fibres, schooners of Tooheys New – brought upon me a Proustian moment, my own club land Remembrance of Things Past. The honour boards were filled with winners in singles and doubles events for year after year after year until, in recent times, the names are replaced by those two poignant words “Not Played”.

Inside, the club was almost empty. The Chaser was on the telly and its gravitational pull was as strong as that of a black hole. A Federation meeting or … $2,000 if you choose to take four steps, or [dramatic pause] $45,000 if you choose to take six steps. And against The Beast!

But I am, if nothing else, a dutiful person. The meeting was in a side room and was, essentially, two hours of a growing rage that was as impotent as it was intense. Teachers being defunded from prisons. TAFE being torn apart. NAPLAN. But we motioned and resolved and, at the end of it, staggered towards the bistro safe in the knowledge that we’re just a bunch of irrelevant piss ants a long, long way from Decisionsville.

But, hey, it was Parmy Thursday!

This is where I make an unAustralian confession. I’m not a fan of the parmy. When did they become a Thing? For as long as I can remember the burger was the benchmark in pub tucker. The modern parmy is a gigantic object that could not possibly have come from a single creature but must have been stitched together with fencing wire or blended into a smooth pulp before being reconstituted, like a meaty Pringle. Being “of my time”, I went for the burger. In this case the $15 Texas burger.

I wasn’t sure what to expect (I should have read the description on the menu but, like, who does that?). In what way was it “Texan”? What actually is Texan cuisine? I know that Dubya once nearly choked on a pretzel but then I think that happened in Washington, where he’d been seduced by fancy Yankee snacks. I’d have guessed maybe a kind of smokey rib sauce. And Cajun. Do they have Cajun stuff down there or is that somewhere else? Must Google.

The Walgett interpretation of the Texas burger had onion rings, which I didn’t immediately connect with Texas. Though I could imagine Dubya choking on an onion ring. It also had barbecue sauces and melted cheese. It was grand!

Which was the general consensus all round. The lady at the counter was lovely and cheerful and made us all feel welcome, and the food was pretty quick to arrive. They even catered for S’s bizarre request to accompany his parmy: “mashed potato and salad”. I didn’t think of myself as a food snob till now but that’s just wrong.

Chuck stole the show with his mixed grill. It had everything, including corn on the cob, which neither Chuck nor I had seen on a mixed grill before. It was becoming quite a night.

The piece de resistance was, however, the dessert cabinet. There were no madeleines, so I couldn’t extend my weak Proust metaphor, but there were …

… profiteroles and Snickers cheese cake!!!! Here is our expert dessert fondler Mr B about to tuck in. How was it, Mr B?

I think that face says it all. Out of shot, his leg is kicking like a dog having its belly scratched.

The Sporto bistro belied the down-at-heel feeling I felt when I first went in. It was a really friendly place. If my Texan burger didn’t truly evoke the wide-open plains or the Sierre Madre, I’m frankly buggered if can say what, if it didn’t taste of onion rings, it should have tasted like.

The winner was of course the dessert cabinet. Well, we were all winners on the night. Apart from those sacked teachers, dismantled TAFEs, NAPLAN coordinators, etc etc.

Last day of Term 2

Oftentimes an idea for a post doesn’t come off.

Oftentimes I take pictures on my phone and use them to remind myself later of a scene or a mood, and sometimes that triggers a post. But sometimes it doesn’t.

This was one of those. It was the last day of Term 2 at the school. Teachers were tired of the kids and the kids were sick to death of the teachers. We went to the pub. (The teachers, not the kids.) It ended up with shots at the bar.

Then afterwards was one of those weird journeys in the courtesy bus along dirt tracks, bouncing around wondering where the bloody hell you are.

Then home, at which point a fire seems like a good idea. Fire is always a good idea.

But for some reason none of it clags together in the way it has to to make a post happen. So the pictures sit there until, some time later, you see them and think, ah, bugger it. And you click “Publish”.

Walking and talking down Stoneys Road

We haven’t had much of a winter, certainly not as cold and wet as the winter of 2016, but this weekend reminded us that August isn’t spring. The wind was cold and gusty and, though the skies were blue and cloudless, it felt like indoors weather. Which was good because I had a big editing job, proofreading the references of a gigantic multi-authored work on Aboriginal song cycles. By lunchtime of Day 2 my head was like a block of cold lard and so when N texted to see if I wanted to go for a walk I could barely contain myself.

I motorbiked up to Big Town, parked the Kwaka, and we started footwalking past the water towers to Stoneys Road.

I haven’t been down Stoneys Road, but then I haven’t been to about 98% of the Ridge. I need a dog. Dogs get you out.

The “town” part of the Ridge, such as it is, quickly falls away once you step off the bitumen. Fifty yards in any direction and you hit a kind of liminal zone where humans and nature push back and forth against each other, like a First World War battle front. Sometimes one side pushes harder than the other and claims a patch of scrub for a while but then the other pushes back and reclaims it. Everywhere is evidence of occasions where one side has sallied forth and, for a short while, swaggered about in its hard-fought victory.

There are houses along the way, civilians caught in the crossfire.

I didn’t know anything about the New Jerusalem, though I kind of felt like I should. It’s mentioned in the Book of Revelation:

And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God , having been prepared as a bride having been adorned for her husband.

You can get quite caught up in the internet with these things. (I say “you” but I mean “me”.) The apostle John drew the New Jerusalem as the bride, drawn in contrast to the harlot Babylon. I have to say that Babylon sounds like a lot more fun, in the same way that the smoking carriage on trains in the olden days was always a million times more of a lark than being stuck with the Baptists and Presbyterians in non-smoking.

There’s still working mines off to the side of the road. In the past I’ve edited environmental impact statements for proposed mines and there’s always a good couple of kilograms of words about the rehabilitation work that will take place when everything’s been dug out. It’s all bullshit, of course.

Ridge folk take a refreshingly honest approach to rehabilitation: they don’t claim that they’ll make any effort to rehabilitate the environment, and they stick to their word.

A bit further on and the wind that had been tugging at the brim of my hat brought with it the heady stench of roadkill. You know when you hit the centre of the scent zone and it feels like the air is almost chewably full of stinking dead beast particles? At least in a car you can put your foot down and be gone, but on Stoneys Road we fell into the epicentre of a throbbing, flesh-buckling miasma. The source was two fat pigs, pushed off the tray of someone’s ute.

I take my work seriously. No long-range lenses were used.

Then on, past more mines and bits of dead machinery and busted, rusted car chassis. We came across a big pole in the ground with a thing on top that looks like a hook goes into it. I know nothing about mining. N has an impressive working knowledge of what goes on, down in those holes in the ground, but even she had no clue. We surmised for a while, made up theories, gave up.

After skirting the airstrip for a while Stoneys Road eventually cuts into the Three Mile. Here we had the option of turning round and heading back, or cracking on. The thought of all that proofreading made me sicker than photographing a dead tusker close up so crack on we did.

The next stretch of road was a bit dull. I’ll take pictures of anything but I didn’t take any of this bit. Instead we talked, talked about all the stuff you talk about when you’re walking and talking on a windy day. We didn’t talk about Charlottesville or Barcelona or Turku, we didn’t talk about same-sex marriage or the dual nationality of politicians, we didn’t talk about North Korea’s nuclear ambitions or the wisdom of a Christian woman wearing a burqa into parliament. We talked about the other stuff.

And then we were at Bill O’Brien Way, the main road that links the Ridge to the Castlereagh Highway. The track cuts in at Benny Walford’s Crossing. We paused to look at the little memorial, the plastic flowers wagging and flapping in the buffeting breeze. So poignant, these modest acts of remembrance.

The rest of the walk felt utilitarian and more like a pedestrian commute than a refreshing stroll. We walked on the sloping camber next to the bitumen as tank-sized four-wheel drives hauled caravans into town. Grit swirled around us until we hit the paved sidewalks of Morilla Street. By this time it was mid afternoon and the town had that siesta feel about it, with barely even a dog to be seen. We stopped in at the Australian Opal Centre and admired the fossilised pine cones and sea creatures and I thought about all the things that N and I had talked about, the inconsequential things that will be forgotten when we’re fossils.

Or maybe even sooner, maybe tomorrow.

Opal Queen

It’s the last weekend in July. Can that even be possible? If it is indeed true then the middle of next week will be August. Glaaarrrgh!

But if it IS the last weekend in July, then that would explain the stupidly bigly number of cars on Morilla Street, and the depleted shelves at Khan’s, and the fact that Walgett Shire Council sent up a road crew to kick some dirt around the busted pavement edges and roadsides.

Yes! It’s Opal Festival time! And that of course means … Opal Queen!

I didn’t make it last year due to circumstances that I can’t remember. Maybe I just didn’t want to go. But this year I was determined to go! Yes! Exclamation marks!!!

Friday night was the annual gala dinner of the appallingly acronymed IOJDAA, which stands for something to do with opals. It was $100 a ticket and themed “Great Gatsby” so I went to the pub instead, which was a good move as I won a meat tray in the raffles and swapped it for beer tokens. I knew from that moment on that this was going to be a most excellent weekend.

Saturday was a hive of activity. The local junior rugby league team, the Tigers, were playing Saint George, so the area around Spider Brown Oval was already choked. Add a few dozen market stalls and you have instant bedlam.

City folk will of course scoff at this definition of congestion but it’s all relative. There were lots of elderly drivers in hats struggling to navigate the side streets; kids ran – unfettered and willy-nilly – between moving cars; people parked at alarming angles wherever they felt like. But once inside the area marked off for stalls a kind of calm resumed, the calm of familiarity that you feel when you walk around these sorts of things. There was jam and chutney and balsamic vinegar.

There was salami.

There were olde timey Aussie bush signs. I really did fancy the one about pigging. Should I go back and get it?

These gentlemen want a minning truck. I wasn’t sure if it was a typo or if “minning” is a thing.

I went to Urban Dictionary and found out that it most definitely is a thing:

A foriegner, who acts very gay to another man, then blaming his gay actions on the “fact” that’s how they act in their home country.

(foriegner grabs a guy’s butt suggestively)

Minning Victim: “Hey man! What’s with that?!?”

Minner: “huh huh, that’s how they do it in Korea!”

Bystander: “Man, that guy is Minning all over the place.”

I live, I learn.

Earlier this year I blogged about drinking in the Pub in the Club, a strange other-worldly venue nestled within the Bowlo. This cavernous place only comes to life once a year, and this is its weekend to shine. The interior was packed with opal sellers.

They’re not just Lightning Ridge opal sellers of course; some have come from White Cliffs, Coober Pedy, Queensland – all over.

But the best location in the house is always reserved for one very, very important organisation: the Lightning Ridge Historical Society. Yet again the stall was held together by a team of volunteers led by the redoubtable, the indomitable Barb! Barb is out of hospital having had joint replacement surgery, and only just off her sticks, and yet there she is, selling raffle tickets, calling out to old-timers and locals, answering dozens of questions to baffled tourists. What a woman!

If there are opal sellers then there are also sure to be opal buyers. These guys rock into town every now and then, rent a room at the pub or the motel, and stick out their shingle.

It all seems a bit dubious but people who know about this stuff assure me that it’s legit. I wouldn’t like to be the one driving around these outback roads, alone, with a car full of cash and opals though. I bet they can tell some stories.

All this talk of cash and opals reminds me to go back to the story. Every second year the IJODOAJA, or whatever it’s called, holds a competition for the best opal jewellery design. The entries were displayed in the upstairs function room at the Bowlo but, due to photography restrictions, I can’t show you any of them. You’ll have to trust me that they were very, very good. As was the humungous blue opal necklace that Serena Williams once wore. Jeepers.

I wandered back outside for a bit to eat. The sausage sizzle trailer run by the Men’s Shed was out of sausages but I did get a magnificent steak and onion sanger. The number of food stalls was a bit down this year, which might explain the extra-long queue for the curly, battered spuds on a stick. It felt like pure greed to get one straight after a steak sandwich, but blow me down I think I’ll go back Sunday for a “mad feed” (as the kids say) of battery potatoey goodness.

After that it was home to admire my booty: caramelised strawberry balsamic vinegar; lemon, lime and ginger marmalade; wild boar salami; a tin of Kiwi Dave’s leather balsam; and a cutting board decorated by supa-talented Ridge art teacher Priscilla Martinez. All in all, not a bad morning. And still time for a nanna nap before the Big Night.

******

Well, that was satisfying. I never used to be a napper but now that I’m older than Methuselah I rather enjoy an afternoon lied down. Where was I? Yes! Opal Queen!

I headed into town around half seven. On my way I passed the community church, which had this sign out the front. Is it just me or does that not sound like the kind of club you want to join?

I bumped into E in the car park. E organises the primary school’s dance troupe, which apparently kicks off the show every year. This year they did Rock Around The Clock. It was exceedingly very cute.

I had no idea what was going to happen, but luckily there were plenty of people who knew the drill. It goes like this: arrive on time and sit around for ages waiting for something to happen; little kids do dance (see above); Opal Queen parade; winner announced; band comes on and everyone gets drunk and the whole thing gets loose and shapeless.

That sounded like a plan I could work with. The whole premise of women parading themselves for group approval sounds a bit medieval and there’s a time in my life (say, the first fifty years) when I would have moaned on about it being as bad as living in a Taliban caliphate or something, but from the lofty vantage point of late middle age I can just do a little nod and go, “Yeah, Opal Queen. I’m cool with that.”

There were ten entrants in total. Each of them fills out a form saying what they do in the community but, thankfully, they don’t have to read this out or anything. One by one they’re escorted across the dancefloor, do a wee curtsy to the judges (John and Leanne: opal traders from Winton), then up onto the stage. No swimsuits, no declarations of wishing for world peace, no Donald Trump. All in all, very tasteful.

In true Ridge style the entire event was devoid of pretension. As the hopefuls cruised past the judges the MC read out snippets of backstory: “K enjoys cooking and helping her dad fix his mining equipment” and “When she’s not working, T relaxes by pig hunting” were two that stuck in my mind.

L was there, looking extremely dapper. He showed me how to fill in my People’s Choice card, but I must have done it wrong because someone else won. Or maybe more than one people gets to vote?

When the winner was announced a throne was brought onto the stage. I had a sudden and cold clammy feeling at the back of my knees. I knew that throne!

I may even have sat in it!

That night at the Pub in the Club: it all came rushing at me like a Nam flashback.

Luckily L bought me two vodkas (two because he thought I’d drink one too quickly and it saves queuing). I bolted one for medicinal purposes and nursed the other back to my seat. (The ordinary one, not the throne.)

The band came on; they were called Crawfish Soup. Or Stew. They were a three-piece and the bassist had a six-string. I know it’s in the job description for bass players to look bored and disengaged but he looked so SO bored that I thought he might actually fall face-forward at any moment. They were ok, and I had a few dances with J. Here’s a thing (more learning time). I have an English friend whose sister came to Australia. She likes swing dancing and she pointed out that in Australia dancers twirl in the opposite direction to northern hemisphere swing dancers. I’d kind of doubted this but when J and I were twirling we found out that it was actually true! It had nothing to do with the medicinal vodka.

Here’s another thing I learnt.: there is a product called “finishing spray”. After you’ve put your makeup on you spray it on your face to “finish” everything off. I guess it’s like a resin or varnish, but maybe not as harmful. Maybe. There is also something called “volume powder” which you put on your head if you want to get “effortless ‘French Girl‘ hair”. I’ve never had effortless French girl hair and, sadly, never will, but I do like the idea of volume powder. And effortless French girls.

And yet another thing! (All this learning!) There is a phenomenon called “straw lips”. That might not be the actual name for it, but it describes the wrinkles that ladies get on the part of their face between their top lip and their nose and it comes from drinking drinks from straws. Or smoking. Or both. M claimed it was actually “a thing” and challenged me to Google it. I did. M: I could not find it. I photographed my lips to see if I had this condition but we were outside in the smokers’ area where it’s dark so I couldn’t tell. What do you think?

It was indeed getting very loose and shapeless by this point. I was at the bar with L when the newly crowned opal queen popped by. L insisted that I have my photograph taken with her. I was very reluctant, possibly even more reluctant than she was, but L is quite formidable and, when he has his mind set on something, it happens.

He also insisted that I include this picture, his favourite, “the one where she’s laughing and you have this really dumb blank expression”.

He also demanded executive producer credits. Blimey.

I’m not sure what time it all finished up. Someone said that someone said there was a stoush in the ladies toilets, which is par for the course at this kind of affair. I left the young folk to it and toddled off down the Three Mile for an early night. I have a job of work to do tomorrow. Those curly battered spuds on sticks won’t eat themselves.

 

Executive producer: Mr Leon Allen

 

PS: What is it all for? The Opal Queen, and Opal Festival, raises funds for the Australian National Opal Centre. To find out more, visit their website.

Food Safari 11: Bruno’s

When Fancy Folk from Out Of Town land in the Ridge, they will often ask their host: “Where can one dine out in style?” If your guests are on a budget there’s the Bowlo, and if they’re looking for something with a little more atmosphere there’s the bistro at the pub. But if you really want to roll out the red carpet there’s only one place to go: Bruno’s. (Possessive apostrophe optional.)

The first time I came to Bruno’s I was deeply tickled to receive, with my menu, a drinks list. But it wasn’t called a “drinks list”, it was called the “alcohol menu”. It makes me smile every time I see it. When the waitress comes to take my order I’m always tempted to say, “Don’t think I’ll bother with solids tonight. I might just work my way through the alcohol menu, thank you.”

Bruno’s is nicely presented. It has a little chained off area that leads into a tobacconist, but other than that it’s like any Italian restaurant: a bit loud and clattery, a bit heavy on the Dino and Sinatra. But that’s ok, it’s what you expect and it’s what you get. Nobody wants nasty surprises in their Italian.

The fancy folks from out of town in this occasion were children’s book illustrator Craig Smith, and publisher / artist Erica Wagner. Of course, if you’re going to take an illustrator to a restaurant with paper tablecloths, only one thing is going to happen.

I mean, come on. I don’t start writing blogs on the tablecloth!

I was taking this photo when I had one of those Homer Simpson “D’oh!” moments. It’s a food safari! And I’d been enjoying myself, and the food, so much that I’d forgotten to take pictures of it. Here’s the leftovers of what was a pasta dish with prawns and a creamyish tomato-y sauce called, I think (yes, it’s all a bit vague) penne monte mare, or something like that. Does that sound right? It was good!

I think we all drank a bit too much, or maybe that was just me. But at least I didn’t go tearing up the tablecloths.

Apart from Wednesdays at the Bowlo I never ever go out to eat in the Ridge. And yet, two nights later, I was back at Bruno’s. Unprecedented! The fancy folks included another illustrator and yet this one showed great restraint and did not draw on anything.

We started off with the pizza base with cheese on it, and fortunately Trevor reminded me to take a picture. We then had more pizzas – a supremo and a diavolo – and a Greek salad but I forgot to take pictures of those. They were good too.

However! What did I say about not wanting any nasty surprises? My fancy out-of-town friend was perplexed when he went to add seasoning to his salad. In my world, and his, there’s an unspoken agreement between people who go to restaurants and cafes, and people who run them: salt comes out of a pot with one hole in it, and pepper comes out of the pot with lots of holes in it. This situation, the one pictured below, caused great consternation and a distressingly large amount of discussion. It was like turning on a tap expecting cold water to come out but getting hot custard. Pepper pot with ONE hole? Salt with LOTS OF HOLES and a label? Woah! Just not right, Bruno’s!

Thankfully we regained our equilibrium. Steve got the afogato, with kaluah. It was already late at night and I warned him against it but he claimed to know what he was doing. He was wrong and was awake for a long time. But the afogato was very, very nice indeed (I had a bit).

Mmmm.

BTW, here’s a picture of Trevor struggling to understand which pot to shake over his salad. Can you see how perplexed he is?

On Sunday morning we went to Morilla’s, the cafe next door to Lost Sea Opals. This deserves a food safari of its own, but who can be bothered. Anyway, it was all very good (I know I’ve described the food in both places as “nice” and “good” which is massively lame but I’m typing this late Sunday arvo during the Tigers – Eels game and I’m not paying as much attention to my writing as I should do. Bite me.)

The point is this: at Morilla’s they have salt pots with ONE hole and pepper pots with THREE. Look at the picture of Trevor, Bruno’s: he is now content and the social contract between customer and cafe owner has been restored.

But, pepper/salt dissonance apart, Bruno’s is a classic country town Italian restaurant. Great service, lovely food, stereotypical soundtrack, tearable tablecloths and a good atmosphere. Bellissimo!

Colly back road soundscape

There are two ways to get from the Ridge to Collarenebri. The first, and the one that most people use, is to head south on the Castlereagh Highway towards Walgett, then turn east. It’s bitumen all the way and is safe and is exceptionally dull.

The other is to head out past the bore baths. This way is much shorter, but is unmade and gravelly and corrugated. This was the way I took on the Queen’s Birthday weekend, on an afternoon when the sky was smeared with white and grey clouds and there was a stillness and silence, the type of which you only get these days on public holidays in small towns.

It’s left for Angledool and right for Colly. I swung the Subaru’s wheel and headed along chocolate-brown dirt. Dead bandaarr ‘grey kangaroos’ littered the roadside. In all the drive to and from Colly I saw only four vehicles, one of which was towing a hopper and travelling at about forty kays per hour, and so was hardly a hazard to wildlife. You’d have to be an exceptionally unlucky or stupid bandaarr to hit someone’s bull bar on this road. Yet there they lay, pungent, clouds of flies swarming around them in a display of frantic energy.

The soil changed from the deep chocolatey brown to a pale dun colour. The vegetation changed. A geologist would be able to tell me what was happening but, while I was aware of the changes around me, I couldn’t explain them. This lack of understanding of my environment has always frustrated me. But, like my ignorance of the night sky (in spite of dozens of attempts to remember the names of stars and constellations), I’ve come to accept that I’ll die without ever mastering this corner of human knowledge.

I did notice that the number and height of the trees increased. This one had a huge mistletoe growing on it.

I have a friend who did his Phd on mistletoe. Seven years studying mistletoe. This friend is a good man whom I admire deeply. He knows about geology and the night sky, as well as chaos theory and international finance and the US criminal justice system. I don’t feel intimidated by him and his immense wisdom, or inadequate in his company; quite the contrary, after talking to him I always feel like a better person. And I always think of him when I see mistletoe.

I headed through areas where I’m guessing there were ephemeral waterways or dried out creeks. The sun made occasional appearances in awkward places and so I swung the shade thing above the car’s windscreen this way and that to shade my eyes. Out east they’ve been getting day after day of rain but we’ve had none of it. Last week it was close to freezing at night but with this cloud cover it’s been much milder.

There were cactuses dotted here, there and everywhere. I’ve never liked cactuses, and seeing them in the Australian bush makes me like them even less.

There’s a horrible one called Hudson Pear, which is on the register of Weeds of National Significance. Some bright spark thought that this would make an excellent garden plant for the arid zone but now it’s the bane of farmers’ and rangers’ lives.

At Dunumbral Station there was also a sign up for African Boxthorn, another WoNS.

Just past the entrance to Dunumbral I stopped next to what I think might be a large body of water, certainly much bigger than a dam. I huge stand of rushes or reeds lined its banks. I paused for a while and listened to the Earth. In the 1960s a musicologist called Murray Schafer invented the term ‘soundscape’ to describe the relationship between humans and our acoustic environment. Schafer believed that we are formed by these sounds: wind in grass or trees, birdsong, water on rocks or sand. In Australia some people have tried to use Schafer’s theory to better understand Indigenous spiritual connections to country, but this seems to be something eternally lost in translation or relegated to blanket terms such as “songline” or “dreaming”.

I tried to hear the breeze in the reeds, but there wasn’t enough wind, or maybe they were too far away, or maybe I didn’t have the correct listening ears.

I drove on further. Sheep lumbered across the road beneath the weight of their fleeces. When I stopped the car they too stopped and stared dully back at me.

At the junction to Willis Road I paused to look back and was delighted to see the old sign.

It was barely legible and was leaning precariously, beginning its gradual descent back into the earth.

I’m generally a sedate driver. I pick up speeding tickets every now and again. The Wife fondly and regularly reminds of the time I didn’t slow down to 80 kays when passing some godforsaken wheat silo in outback South Australia. “You’re in an 80 zone,” she remarked. I said, “Pfft. That’s only a guideline.” There was a stack of brown envelopes waiting for me when we got back from our holiday, fines and double de-merits, and the words “That’s only a guideline” have gone into family folklore.

So I was toddling along at a steady 80 when this white Commodore flew past at about one-ten. I pursed my lips like an old codger and silently admonished these young men bustling around the world at high speed. As I’m sure they pursed their lips at me, driving on the Queen’s Birthday weekend, wearing my hat inside the car, probably leaning a bit over the steering wheel like Elmer Fudd.

It was disappointing to hit the bitumen again, about ten kays outside Colly. I’m guessing this is the point where everyone speeds up because the bandaarr kill rate escalated sharply. There are three in this picture, within about 20 metres of one another, and I counted 12 in the first kilometre.

Collarenbri has a waste facility and an offal pit. It’s not often you see one of those any more. I’m wishing now that I’d gone down and had a look, but maybe it’s best to keep some things in reserve for next time.

There was another sign, this one asking trucks to drop their dust. How do they do that? Can a truck shake itself like a dog? Or do they go really, really fast then suddenly slam the brakes on? Or do the drivers get out with little dust pans and brushes?

I did a lap of Colly but didn’t get out of the car. In fact, I didn’t even stop. I’ve been here before and, frankly, there was bugger all worth looking at, especially on a Queen’s Birthday weekend.

Instead I swung the car round and headed down the short strip of bitumen until it turned to dirt again, past the crumbling Willis Road turn off and the bank of reeds by Dunumbral Station and the endless bloated bandaarr under their clouds of flies.

As I neared the Ridge, maybe 25 kays outside, the clouds parted and then closed again across the early afternoon sky.

I pulled over and turned the engine off. I could hear the occasional calls of birds whose names and identities I do not know. I heard the car tick and ping as the engine cooled. I heard the dust that I had stirred as it settled back into the chocolate-brown soil of the unpaved road.

The air sounded like it had mass or weight, like I could hold it in my hand, like the sound of public holiday in a small town.