CWA Wool Day

Lightning Ridge has rightfully built its reputation as the black opal capital of the world. Most of the people you meet in town are involved in the mining, cutting, buying, distribution or sale of opals, in one way or another.

But there’s another community of people who are just as influential, and have been in the area as long as, if not longer than, the miners. And that’s the pastoralists.


The glue of any rural community, the world over, is the women. And the Goodooga–Lightning Ridge branch of the Country Women’s Association is a powerful and hard-working group that has been active in the region for almost a century.

And so it was that, in the last Saturday in April, I found myself rumbling up the Castlereagh Highway to Bangate Station, which this year hosted the CWA’s annual Wool Day.

Bangate is currently owned by Doug and Pam Caley (featured here in The Land back in 2017).

Bangate demands its own blog post, and so I won’t go into the extraordinary history of the place here and now. But I will mention that this is “new” Bangate; the Bangate discussed in The Land article, which was owned by the incredible Langloh Parkers (yes, I know, another post entirely!) was at a different location, just north of the Goodooga Road.

But “new” and “old” are relative terms. The Bangate Station I came to on Saturday morning was both, at the same time. I was in for a treat of pastoral history, but as I dawdled up the long dirt driveway towards the homestead I was reminded that this is a modern, practical and functioning business. The yellow building, the old store from when Bangate as a massive concern employing dozens of people, is dwarfed by an immense solar array. Old and new together.

This was wool day though, and so my first stop was the shearing shed. What a magnificent building! Australia really has “owned” corrugated iron as a vernacular building material.

The shed was full of men in jeans and checked shirts, the uniform of the bush. As usual, the women were more flamboyant in their dress, but the style was still recognisably “country chic”.

Co-owner Pam took me on a tour of the area. We started at the elevated end of the shed where the sheep, once herded up and corralled, are brought to be shorn.

It’s breath-taking to think that, at it’s recent peak, Bangate sheared 17,000 sheep! Drought and financial conditions have brought that number down to around the 10,000 mark. That is still a bloody lot of sheeps.

There are around 10 shearing stations, and the whole business takes two to three weeks. So that’s, like (pauses to do the maths) … a very lot of sheep for each shearer.

Once shorn, the sheep are dropped through chutes and back out to the pens. God, how good must it feel to have all that wool off your back!

The classification of wool is a real science. As I understand it, the key measurements are length of the fibre and the diameter or strength, measured in microns: the finer, stronger and longer the strands of the wool, the more valuable it is. In recent years wool prices have gradually risen, mainly due to demand from China, but Bangate specialises in very high quality wools and, due to local climatic conditions, have not grown their flock.

Still, 10,000 sheep is a lot of sheep.

The shearing shed itself was an absolute wonder to behold. The timber and the iron exuded the sweat and toil of the people who had worked here over generations. In more modern times, that record is more literal.

The winning fleece was, I’m sure, amazing. To me though it looked like all the others. I really have got no idea.

After the fleeces had been categorised and the awards dished out, people moved back towards the homestead for the rest of the day’s events. I took a detour to the shearers’ quarters, still functioning after all these years.

There is a long shed, as big as the one above, for sleeping, and this one for cooking, washing and generally kicking back.

The kitchen is home to this marvellous old wood stove.

Water comes from tanks and, when it’s flowing, the Narran River. (This is easily my favourite picture from the day.)

There is water in the river at the moment, but this is not from natural flows. There was an environmental release some time back, of which this was a remnant. The politics of water in this part of the world is fraught and intensely felt. We are, here, in the upper reaches of the Murray–Darling Basin, and folk have very strong opinions about the allocation of this fundamental resource.

The lawns of the homestead were verdant, though, and this was the venue for the next set of events.

As well as allowing producers to compare their products, the Wool Day is also fun, and a fundraiser. Guess the weight of the ram is a popular perennial. Here’s local legend Yvonne W, looking suitably startled at the size of this gentleman’s reproductive organs. This isn’t his best angle; believe me, they were eye-waveringly large.

How heavy to you reckon? I guessed 88 kg. When I looked at Doug for confirmation that I was in the right weight range he shook his head a fraction, just enough to dismiss me as a callow and clueless city kid. C’est moi!

Old mate was, in fact, around 130 kg.

There was a lunch. Of course there was a lunch, this is the CWA! And of course it was spectacular.

Suitably stuffed, we flopped around the lawns and found a patch of shade beneath which to watch the wool fashion parade. The costumes are, I think, created by students at the University of New England. This one was a cracker, but I would hate to have been the one wearing it on Saturday!

Andy McLean dazzled the kids (and the grown ups) by shearing a sheep using the old-style hand shears. It was mesmerising watching him dextrously shift the beast about from one side to another, the sheers constantly scything through the fleece.

And not a single nick of the flesh.

The last event of the day was the counting of the sheep. This is an actual job, and people take it veeeerrry seriously. There are two pens and a mob of sheep are let out; as they charge past you try to count them as accurately as possible. There was a round for the kids, one for the unwashed public and one for the actual proper counters.

Unbelievably, there was a tie in the pro’s category: two blokes got exactly 102! So there had to be a play off. I, however, was rubbish.

Is there any more Aussie a sight than a bunch of kids sitting on a rail?

This wee fella won the kids’ section. He’s got a future.

At the end of the day I headed north, back towards the Goodooga Road. Pam told me about the old settler cemetery, just to the western side of the link road. I pulled up next to a grove of gum trees for a look.

The Caleys are currently restoring the cemetery, courtesy of a grant from (I think) one of the shire councils.

Many of those buried here are long forgotten, with no record. Station workers, both black and white, lived and died here. Clara: who were you? What was your story?

It was a wonderful day out. I’d recommend it to anyone. Thank you to the CWA for the organisation, and the Caleys, for opening up your home.

Roadkill

I’ve heard the section of the Castlereagh Highway between Walgett and the Ridge described as “Death Valley”. It does seem that the number of grey kangaroos that hop onto the road and into the path of an oncoming vehicle is particularly high there. I should know; I’ve put a bandaarr’s head through the radiator of a school bus on a trip to Tamworth.

Roadkill is so interesting. Each corpse has its story, each one unknowable. Did the joey get away? And is it too now dead? How could a car survive hitting that?!

I’ve pulled over to take a stupidly large number of photos of roadkill. I have no idea why but all I can say is that they’re endlessly fascinating. The contortion of body. The state of decay. Just … the story.

Here are a few, in no particular order. (BTW none of the kills are mine.)

Bandaarr / grey kangaroo. Castlereagh Highway, near Lone Pine turnoff.

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Dhinawan / emu. Cumborah to Grawin road.

Biyaagaarr / brown falcon. Castlereagh Highway.

Budjigaarr / cat. Three Mile Road.

Waan / crow. Cumborah.

Bandaarr / Colly back road.

Dhinawan / emu. Colly back road.

Bibirrgaa/ pig. Angledool back road.

Nhan.garra / ringneck parrot / Butterfly Avenue, dawn, by car light, yesterday morning.

Food Safari 14: Snak Shack

The Snak Shack is a Ridge institution. It’s remarkable that it’s taken me more than two years to feature it in the Food Safari. Outrageous. Shameful.

So what drew you to the Shack after all this time, I hear you ask. Sadly, it was the parlous state of affairs at the bowlo. The words “under new management” never instil great confidence, and the reports I was hearing were not good. Wednesday tea at the bowlo is an absolute given: the food is unpretentious and good value. But times change. K and I went in. We looked. We turned around and left.

Also, the Shack also has a new menu.

Again, plain food, all the usual suspects. Unfortunately they’d had a run on parmies the night before (someone had ordered 10!). And they were out of the pot pie. And the prawn, and maybe the vegetable pasta was off too. But everything else was on!

K went for the carbonara (which had a chicken option; she declined) while I lashed out on the steak. I could have had T-bone but went with the Scotch fillet.

You can dine in at the Snak Shack but K and I decided we’d like to take ours home. Yes, there is a kind of an atmosphere in the Snak Shack. But, well …

It must have been a really bad night at the bowlo because two other Wednesday night bowlo die-hards blew in. They promised me a report on their crumbed fish and bangers and mash. I am still waiting. Michael. Jacob. Still waiting.

The tucker was served in good time and K and I dashed home. It was a hot night and so, even though it was a steak, almost anything seemed possible. Gin and tonic? A James Boag? A full-bodied red? After browsing the cellar for some minutes I settled on a 2016 Brancott Estate sauvignon blanc, which I had wisely sourced from the bowlo bottle shop on a previous expedition. We decanted the grog and tucker, got out the dijon mustard, and ripped in.

Woah there, I hear you cry! Surely you wouldn’t just serve up a feast like that without dropping some monster beats? Here I give a wry chuckle. Of course not. What else but some of Memphis, Tennessee’s finest: Booker T, Eddie Floyd, Shirley Brown, Jean Knight, Mel & Tim. Oh yeah. Ohhhhh yeeaaaah.

Can there be anything better than good food, decent wine, outstanding music and excellent company for a Wednesday night? I say: “No”. There cannot. This was grand.

Except for the pineapple. I mean, seriously, Australia. Enough with the pineapple.

If you are looking for a well priced, filling and unpretentious meal that delivers on its promises, go no further than the Snak Shack. But ring ahead if you want a parmie; they do run out!

Homage to Hopper

A change came through on Monday. In other places this was a cool change: blustery winds as the front moved in; a sharp, torrential downpour; steaming bitumen and pavements; a brief plunge in temperatures that caused those abed to pull up the cotton blankets that have lain rumpled and unused for most of the season.

In the Ridge we got the bluster, and little else other than a houseful of grit blown in from under the door or through the fine mesh of the fly screen.

I went out in it around 11 o’clock at night.

Trees arched and strained and Fantasia Street was blurred in a veil of dust that stung my eyes and pasted itself to the sheen of sweat on my face and neck. It was weirdly and unpleasantly exhilarating.

I was struck by the light. I’m a night walker, mostly. I do sometimes get up early to watch the pre-dawn behind the water towers.

But night is my preference. The light puts me in mind of those paintings of Fifties American diners by that man. Rothwell? Rockwell? Norman Rothwell? The beautiful old Miners Co-op Store (possibly the most gorgeous building in the Ridge) oozes nostalgia and a modest – almost timid – kind of melancholy at night. I want to hug it.

I can’t remember the man and so I find out the usual way. Turns out it’s Edward Hopper. (Not even close.) And the painting I have in mind is Nighthawks.

I’m told by the Big Wiki that “In keeping with the title of his painting, Hopper later said, Nighthawks has more to do with the possibility of predators in the night than with loneliness.” I don’t meet many nighthawks or predators during my walks in the Ridge. They’re probably there all right; they’re just good at avoiding me. So most of the time I wander street after street, my only company a foraging pig dog.

I take pictures as mnemonics to help me with my writing, but sometimes they come out telling a better story than I can. Phone booths, for example. How do they manage to exude so much pathos? Is it the subtle reminder of loved ones far away? Of missed calls and sliding doors that led to lives that could have been?

The post office is very Hopper, perhaps not visually but in the homespun coziness it exudes. The gift card sign. The public notices. The thermometer, with its protective guard.

These ATMs are more Blake’s Seven than Edward Hopper. They’re about as mod as you’re going to get on Morilla Street and yet to me they look like something a set designer from a low-budget BBC show in the Seventies might have come up with when their brief was to create “a futuristic money machine from the far distant future!” Woot woot.

The back of Khan’s brings me back to more familiar Hopper territory. Unlike Hopper’s paintings my photos are relentlessly unpeopled. They’re sparse and harsh. The temperature could be minus 10 rather than plus 30.

Servos at night. Closed servos. I’m feeling glum just typing those words.

Thankfully the jolly “power straddle” of the street lights next to the water bowser cheered me up. How can you not feel happy looking at that?

The mood didn’t last, of course. It never does.

But if things were too much of a Hopperian dystopia, there’s always the bore baths to wash away those nighthawk blues.


It’s no Fifties diner but its sparsely cluttered geometry always fills me with an unidentifiable contentment. A couple of grey nomads from South Australia were my only company, she lapping the pool and squealing in pleasure and shouting “Come on in, honey! It’s goooorrrgeous!” and he muttering in knee-length shorts on the steps, refusing to go any further than ankle deep.

It was a scene that Cheever or Carver or Hemingway would whip into a short story in an instant. But there were no nighthawks or predators here. Just me, and those two, under the basking glow of the night lights.

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Hot, sultry days. Nights that can never quite cool down. This is when I love nightwalking.

At 10.30 the concrete driveways and bitumen streets are still trying to radiate heat into an atmosphere that has no capacity for it and so the air lies thick and cloying like a Victorian miasma. A car sweeps past me and creates a cool, diesel-scented draft against my bare chest.

nightwalking has always triggered in me a kind of mournful sense of time passing. It’s a feeling akin to nostalgia but without nostalgia’s element of glory days long since past, or some place that can never be revisited or some lost love that can never be retrieved.

I don’t have a route for my nightwalking. I find myself beneath the looming giants of the water towers or by the bore baths or outside Duncan’s. It doesn’t matter, it’s the movement in the darkness that counts.

Swampies toil away on roofs.

A beat up wagon with red P plates toots at me.

The sound of a couple arguing languidly in their kitchen.

A dog hurls itself against a chainlink fence.

Curtains flicker blue in the light of a gigantic TV screen.

Teenage lovers snog, oblivious, beneath the fluorescent light of a carport.

There’ll come a time, soon, when it’ll be so cold that I won’t want to leave the house even to go to the bore baths. But that’s a lifetime away right now.

Tra la la la lah, la la la lah

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, Baby Jesus was born in a manger. Baby Jesus grew up to become Man Jesus. Man Jesus started a carpentry apprenticeship but, embracing the Roman administration’s mantra that “Change is the only constant” and “You will have more than one career in your lifetime” and even “The job you have when you’re 30 has not yet been invented”, Man Jesus downed tools to develop a well respected career in public speaking. Things went wrong though, due to fake news and reasons that are too complex and boring to talk about here, and we remember these events by making fir trees out of cans of XXXX Gold.

I spotted this wonderful testament to our constantly evolving relationship with Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit in a shop window in Gulargambone. The Gul deserves its own full post, but in the meantime I must remain focused and remember to talk about Christmas lights. The Ridge has them!

Actually, no, the Ridge has bazillions of them!

I’m  usually a bit of a snob when it comes to Christmas lights but, like Man Jesus, I too have changed and adapted to my new world. I really like them in the Ridge! Fantasia Street, fittingly, has the best. I had thought that Black Prince Drive might have a good display as this is where, in my limited understanding of the Ridge’s class system, posh people live. But BPD was disappointing. No, I’ll go further. It was rubbish. They didn’t even have an inflatable Santa.

Nettleton Drive had a crack. These folk even arranged for the paddy wagon to park out front to add a bit of red and blue to the sparkling array. That’s initiative. Are you listening, Black Prince Drive?

It’s very hard to take decent pictures of Christmas lights with an iPhone, but please believe me when I say that this was the best one.

It made me warm inside.

As did this uniquely Ridge-esque interpretation of a Yule Tree: a Christmas cactus!

I love you, people who did this!
(But I would not like to be the person who has to get the tinsel off.)

Happy Christmas, Ridge-ites! Have a wonderful break and a spectacular 2018.

Food Safari 13: Street Food

One of the most exciting things about being in a new country is trying out the local food. There will always be cafes and restaurants and bistros, but nothing beats the thrill of bolting an exotic dish sold by a surly street vendor with a rudimentary understanding of personal hygiene.

There are few opportunities for such occasions in Yuwaalaraay country, but street food does occasionally appear, comet-like, before vanishing in a trail of dust and saturated fat. Opal Festival is one such occasion.

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But there are others, and here are a few examples from around the traps. Food Safari ratings have been applied.

The Supa Sausage / Curly Spud

I remember the thrill I got at last year’s Opal Fest when I saw my first curly spud-on-a-stick. I’d already smashed my face with salty fatty goo and so, while I meant to come back and get a curly spud later on, I got distracted by a shiny milk bottle top or a balloon or something and forgot. So I’ve been kicking myself hard in the nuts for 365 days as punishment for my stupidity.

But – at last! – the kicking stopped: the curly potato lady was back in town!

Her van wasn’t with the main stalls but was tucked away near the entrance to Spider Brown Oval. I was drawn towards it by an attractive sign. I have friends who work as designers and typographers: look on and learn, boys and girls.

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The supa sausage was tempting but I kept my resolve and got the curly spud. It took a while for the lady to cook it, and that’s one of the differences between fast food and street food. This was a mum-and-dad operation and so each curly spud was individually battered, dropped into a ridiculously small vat of moderately hot oil, and cooked slowly – sloooooowly – until ready. A hearty shake of chicken salt and a hose down with red sauce and it was good to go.

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My dining companion went down the supa sausage route.

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But I’m glad I stuck to my guns. The curly spud ticked all the street food boxes: tasty, a bit weird, potentially life-threatening, yum.

Food Safari rating: 8/10

Bruno’s Pizza

I don’t really think of pizza as street food, but Bruno’s has a mobile trailer with a genuine wood-fired pizza oven bolted on the back. They deserve points out of ten just for having a crack.

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I went for the margherita, which was really just a sauce base with a massive coating of melty cheese. Again, I was ably assisted by my dining companion, to whom a supa sausage was no more than an appetiser.

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It’s a bit hard to judge this one. What am I comparing it to: a regular Bruno’s pizza or a curly spud on a stick? Sure, the cheese was a bit burnt, but not enough to make me not eat it. And inside that creme brûlée top there was a molten core of stringy mozzarella (or mozzarella-type product). If I say, “It did the job” then that sounds a bit unflattering, but … well, it did the job.

Food Safari rating: 7/10.

Kebab truck

This thing appeared overnight and was quickly the talk of the town. A night of catastrophic binge drinking isn’t complete without a fistful of foil-wrapped kebaby loveliness. Manys the time I’ve wobbled away from the Orient Hotel in Cooks Hill, only to find that my trusty bicycle has taken me to the Oasis in Hamilton, as though it knows that I need a kebab. How do bicycles know that stuff?

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The Ridge kebab van had a bit of a queue when I arrived. A couple of coppers had pulled up their Toyota and were making an order. The interaction did not fill me confidence. The man copper asked for tabouli, but the kebab people did not have tabouli because “Khan’s can’t get it in” or something. WTF? Don’t you just chop up a bunch of parsley and mint and throw in a few bits and pieces? The salad consisted of an iceberg lettuce, some tomato and maybe a Spanish onion. The man copper looked understandably forlorn. “I’ve just come here from Fairfield” he muttered, to no-one in particular.

I ordered mine. No felafel were available but there was meat. Well, beef. So I got beef. There was some interaction about the salad; though I didn’t realise it at the time this led to further misunderstanding. Just for the record, here is the salad bar at the Oasis kebab shop in Hamilton. I’m getting EVERYTHING, and being served by a man who is impeccably polite in spite of having to serve people like me and the shrieking drunks who fall out of the Kent Hotel at 2 in the morning.

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I know that street food should be eaten on the street but I took my kebab home. When I unwrapped it I found myself frozen in a state of disbelief. The kebab had been baked in a sandwich press into a kind of flattened meat biscuit. And there was no salad at all! It was just meat and cheese!

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It was absolutely crap, of course, and most of it went in the bin.

As an aside, I stopped in Walgett recently and bought a ham and cheese croissant and a coffee. Again, they put the croissant in a sandwich press. Is it a western NSW thing? I’d always thought that the point of a croissant was the lightness of the fluffy flaky pastry. But at least the Walgett croissant tasted like a croissant. Ridge kebabs? Nope. Just, nope.

Food Safari rating: 1/10

Steak Sandwich

The steak sandwich, along with the sausage sizzle, must be the pinnacle of Australian street food. And yet it is, like any classic, so easy to stuff up. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been given a piece of boot leather slopped between a couple of sheets of doughy pap, all smeared with sugary sauce.

The Men’s Shed were having a fundraising BBQ on Opal Street one morning: Grassy and (I think) Peter were hard at it, frying away on the mobile trailer they use for these things. I’d been hearing good things about the new butcher and thought what the hell, I’ll give it a go.

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I’m so glad I did. The steak was from the butcher and the bread from the baker next door, fresh that morning. There’d been a slow down in custom and so my steak, when I got it, had been rested, just like real food. It was THE BEST STEAK SANDWICH I HAVE EVER EATEN IN MY ENTIRE LIFE.

Food Safari rating: 11/10

Chicken Tender Pizza Roll

Yes, you read that right.

This doesn’t really qualify as street food as it came from the school canteen. I was on duty in the gym; the usual boys were playing basketball and the usual girls were slumped at the side watching the usual boys. There’s a “no food or drink” rule in the canteen but one of the usual boys arrived late and, in the way of boys that age, was pressing fuel into his mouth. (At what age does that end, that ability to eat two pies then play a game of football immediately after, without wanting to vomit?)

I was so startled at this thing that I asked him to deconstruct it for me. It consists of:

  • 1 x ham and cheese pizza roll
  • 5 x chicken tenders
  • 1 x tomato sauce squeezy sachet

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A cousin who lives in the shadier part of the Edinburgh docks told me about a thing called, in those parts, a “pizza supper”. You go to the chip shop and they get a frozen pizza, fold it in half, put hot chips inside the folded pizza and then deep fry the lot.

There’s a kind of genius logic in there, and I have to admit that there was a time when I would have thought that the chicken tender pizza roll was also the work of genius, rather than a starving 15-year-old boy.

Food Safari rating: untested and so unmarkable, but 8/10 for innovation.