Shearing school

Country schools are the best schools and worst schools. The worst are run like medieval fiefdoms, with limited opportunities and unprogressive teaching practices. The best are as good as any schools anywhere. I think that the school in Lightning Ridge, for all its flaws (and every public school is flawed) is pretty bloody good.

This week, before the Delta strain of COVID-19 took a stranglehold on the region, I got to take some students out for a three-day shearing school at Bangate Station. The students had already undergone a taster session at Carinya and loved it. Now it was time for Big School!

We headed out on the Goodooga Road in the school car. The weather was cool, with low-slung clouds cotton-balling the sky. The turnoff to Bangate is hard to miss: Doug Caley’s love of Big Machines is well advertised for all to see!

There were four students, all girls, and they worked hard. Wayne and Penny, their tutors, gave them a real taste of what it’s like to earn a living out bush, and Nikki the teacher’s aide kept them pepped up and on the go.

A shearing shed running in top gear is a sight, sound and smell to behold: the whine of the shears, the shouts of the shearers, the bleats of the sheep, the pounding beat of the gigantic boom box pumping out 120 bpm music to work by, the constant movement of the rouseabouts. It’s exciting!

Unfortunately, I was in my Mr Prim school clothes. Talk about self-conscious, mincing around trying not to get in the way or do something stupid.

I wanted to say, “I’m not just a teacher! I had a real job once upon a time: honestly! These soft namby-pamby hands were once rough and calloused!”

I don’t think they would have bothered; they were too busy doing actual work.

It’s a great life, working in the bush.

And this was a great opportunity for our students. We’re may not be Saint Phenergan’s College of the Holy Moley, but we’re not bad. Not bad at all.

Graffiti

I’ve written about graffiti in another blog, the one I used to write about in Newcastle. There, the graffiti I saw most of was the stuff in the drains and under the bridges of Styx Creek and its tributaries. I didn’t understand the tribal nature of graffiti gangs; to me, it was a purely aesthetic thing. So I’d say something like “I like this one, but this one’s a bit crap”. Then I’d get threats to have my head stoved in in the comments section.

Small towns tend to have less graffiti. I guess it’s a bit like being the only gay in the village: it’s harder to pull off. The cities are big and anonymous and you can find your people more easily there. But I was struck, when I first arrived, at the very lack of any kind of tagging or spraying. The best I found were a couple in the wall opposite the post boxes and some old partially scrubbed-off stuff at the pool. But, even though I photographed them, they really weren’t on a par with the big city stuff.

I had a good old chuckle when I saw this in Walgett. It’s of the “defacing” school of graffiti rather than being an original piece, but it made my day when I saw it.

This sneaky one on a goal post at Spider Brown Oval piqued my interest. Who was copping it that day? Or was it just the illicit thrill of writing the rudest words you could think of in public?

Anyway, I’d kind of given up on a graffiti post as, in close to six years, this was about the best I’d seen. Then – ta da! – I saw this on the wall of the ex-dentists’ building opposite Khan’s IGA.

Who is Trills? Out of towner, or a local? Does this herald an new era in graffiti for the Ridge? Or was it one-off by some random grey nomad reliving her salty adolescence?

Time will tell.

Food Safari 16: Hungry Spirit

The Hungry Spirit: where to start?

Well, I could start by writing it correctly: it’s THE Hungry Spirit (all caps) for reasons I can’t work out. Its website has tabs like “Healing” and “Projects” and “Workshops” and so I can’t even begin explain everything that goes on here, you’ll have to click yourself. I’ve been to a Neil Murray concert in the big tin shed there, and food festivals, as well as other weird and wonderful events.

THE Hungry Spriit’s custodians are Michael Matson and Rebel Black, but they’re not the people I was here to see today. It was Saturday lunchtime and we’d been at work all morning. It was time for Thai.

The Ridge is I guess much like any other small town in that food venues come and go. A chef arrives from A Different Town and all of sudden That Place is The Place. In June, Bruno Miglietta (of legendary Bruno’s fame) passed away, and the restaurant bearing his name has since closed. But new blood has arrived in the form of the (yet to be reviewed) Busy Bee and Opal Street cafes.

The Thai at THE Hungry Spirit has a short but complete menu. All the usual favourites are there: pad thai, red curry, papaya salad and steamed fish. The outdoor setting allows for social distancing, but if it gets chilly (as it did on this Saturday) there’s a warm fire in the big shed.

This day we got a selection of starters: curry puffs, satay chicken and fish cakes. Bloody good!

We’ve also, on another day, had the pad thai chicken. Again, thumbs up.

The kitchen itself is a tiny powerhouse. Quite how they do it I don’t know!

They do phone orders during the week too so, if you can’t be bothered schlepping all that looooong way out on the tip road, give ’em a call. Is yum.

Food Safari 17: Dirranbandi

It’s only about sixty kays north to Hebel and the Queensland border, and then maybe another hour to the site of this day’s food safari: Dirranbandi. I’d been told that Dirran, as the locals know it, is home to some points of interest: it’s the birthplace of Les Norton, the big-boned bloodnut who scarpered town after a pub fight and became a famous Kings Cross bouncer; there is a statue of the Cunnamulla Fella made out of horseshoes; and it has the best Russian bakery in south-west Queensland. Oh, and the best pizzas in the west too!

I’d also been led to believe that the name Dirranbandi was something to do with processionary caterpillars, but apparently not.

The main street is very chipper and well maintained, if not very long. They’ve made the most of their connections to the outside world. I’m guessing that Dirranbandi was once quite the place.

There’s a statue of Tom Dancey, the Aboriginal stockman who won the first Stawell Gift (and was, apparently, diddled out of the £1,000 prize and came home with nothing but the trophy).

The connection to Stan Coster and the Cunnamulla Fella is a bit more opaque, to me at least. Stan was born in Casino, and the Cunnamulla Fella was, well, from Cunnamulla. So what’s the Dirranbandi connection? Beats me.

Then there’s the Beersheeba monument, which is pretty bloody spectactular.

The story goes that the charge was led by Brigadier-General William Grant, who bought a property in town after the war, and settled here until his death. There’s more information on the Dirranbandi Sight and Sound multi-media experience, except that, oh dear . . .

We strolled up and down the short main street. Wikipedia says that the pub has a bit of a Les Norton deal going on but we didn’t go in there. There were too many other surprises, small town surprises. The empty shop called, ironically, Luv Clutter.

A victim, apparently, of the first COVID lockdown, when little towns like Dirran had the tourism tap turned off hard.

Then there was the Marticia dolls in the window of the next shop along. What are Marticia dolls? I’m at a bit of a loss to explain them, other than that they seem to be highly stylised, big-eyed Japanese doll girls. You can look them up online, it’s a bit of a thing apparently. If I struggled to find the connection to the Cunnaumulla Fella then I can tell you I was totally at a loss to explain exactly what Danny Choo’s connection to the town is.

I have to be careful here. In a past life I blogged about walking around the drains of Newcastle and I’d comment on what I saw there. There was a lot – a LOT – of graffiti; oftentimes this graffiti would be painted over by other artists, and sometimes it’d be a deliberate thing by rival gangs or teams. I think it’s called “capping”. Anyway, I wrote about this and, within a few days, was getting lots of comments along the lines of “You have no fucking idea what you’re talking about dickhead. Next time we see you . . .” So, as I say, I have to be careful

Having said that . . .

I don’t know if it was the dead eyes or the huge cleavage or what, but . . . euch. I remember when my daughter was little these things called Bratz Dolls came out and I thought they were hyper-sexualised weirdos. Turns out I had no idea.

Creepy. Just creepy.

The connection to pizzas was easier to make. We ordered a supreme from the lovely folk at the Tucka Shack then headed off to get something sweet for afters.

The bakery is something else. Samovars and desserts from Mittel Europa. Baclava, ginger breads, cakes of every shape and size. It looked like a bakery that catered for about 8,000 visitors a day. Where was everyone?

There were flowers, provided by the locals. They sure ❤ their bakery.

We took our goodies down to the boat ramp on Balonne River. It was wide and brown and slow moving.

Mmmm. This pizza was two meals. We only managed half!

Then it was ginger biscuity thing for pud.

I still can’t figure out the connection to the Cunnamulla fella, and those dolls give me the creeps. But I can highly recommend Dirranbandi for a day out. Five stars!

Food Safari 16: Confusion!

This post was drafted in 2018, but for some reason never finished, or posted. Since I wrote it Confusion has itself closed down, and the building is now the site of the hugely successful Piccolo.

But here’s how I’d started it . . .

Most small towns have a pub and a club, a burger place and maybe a Chinese restaurant. (The only person I know who’s dined at the Chinese told me that one night they ordered a meal over the phone, only to be told that they’d run out of rice. The Chinese restaurant has since closed down.)

The Ridge is no different, and so anything new is enough to get the townsfolk all aquiver with excitement. It doesn’t always work out for the best: the kebab trailer, for example, illustrated perfectly what can happen to street food when it all goes wrong.

When the Snak Shack closed down, there was a void in the hot-chips-and-chicken-salt market, but when the new owners re-opened the doors it was different. Very different. It was …

I know.

Was the chef Greek, skilled in melding cuisines from different parts of the world? Or just a regular Aussie who had no idea what he was doing?

The Ridge did not waste time asking philosophical questions about the place’s name: they flocked there. I mean FLOCKED there.

So one night a few of us flocked there ourselves. We had a bit of a Wednesday night thing going on, a kind of block party / you cook one week and I’ll eat at yours the next. Then we did bad karaoke or played board games. But this week someone had the idea: Confusion!

We loaded up the Bananagrams and headed to Opal Street. We are wild people.

First course: garlic bread, with a triple word score for BAIT DUMP. (But GEASE isn’t a word, Red.)

The food was not confusing, it was actually pretty good. I can’t remember what any of us had, or what our reactions were. You’ll have to zoom in on the photo and BF’s face and make your own judgement. I’m thinking lamb cutlets and “pleased”.

Here’s the chef with the dessert menu, except that this is the one arid and semi-arid zones.

It was nice too, I seem to remember. How many points for GUYS LOVED VAGINA HOES? Hm, Kylie?

Or HORSE BURNED VIRTUAL LOSER?

It was a grand night, then Red drove us home in the troopie.

Fun times.

But, sadly, no more confusion.

Brewarrina Fish Traps

There are days in the Ridge when you just want to hop in the car and go somewhere.

Anywhere.

There have been summer nights when we’ve swung by Barriekneal servo to buy ice creams then eaten them as we cruise out to the end of the bitumen on the Colly road. Other times we head up or down the Castlereagh Highway for half an hour or so and, at some completely random point, turn around and come home again. Or maybe we’ll go most (but not all) of the way to Cumborah. The options are limited.

I’d been keen to visit the fish traps at Brewarrina for some time and Bre is, by the standards of the area, a short commute. A couple of friends had enrolled in an art course there, and although the course ended up being cancelled it gave us the prod to head west on the Kamilaroi Highway. Bre, here we come!

You can book a guided tour (at twenty bucks a pop it’s bargain), which starts at the Brewarrina Aboriginal Cultural Museum. The museum is a kind of hobbit house on Bathurst Street, winner of some architectural award, and is a genuinely warm and friendly place. Our guide, Bradley, is a fast-talking bloke with a wry wit. He’d clearly heard every “Yeah, but woddabout . . .” from grey nomads sceptical about the whole “longest living culture” or “most ancient human-built artefact” claim.

Bradley defused any potential awkwardness by noting that claims of continuity or ancientness were not his domain. To him, and his friends and extended family, the fish traps were simply “there”. They had always been “there”, and would always be “there”. They nurture and support people, as they have done for generations past and into the future. It was a simple and elegant explanation that defied contradiction. Thankfully everyone on the tour had ears to hear what Bradley was saying.

The museum has a small collection of artefacts, such as this scraper . . .

. . . and this remarkable obsidian hand axe. Some things – perfectly thrown ceramic bowls, well-turned wooden tools – sit so well in the hand that the hand feels bereft when you put the thing down.

Bradley told us about the long and ongoing demolition of the fish traps, starting with the breaking-apart of one section to create a pathway for flat-bottomed steam boats in the nineteenth century through to the destruction of the top half for the creation of a weir in the mid twentieth century.

After about 45 minutes we wandered out to the traps themselves. The birdlife was spectacular: pelicans, cormorants, ducks, grebes, martens and swallows everywhere.

We had a lovely day!

It was an interesting time to be here, in the midst of a mini history war between Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe, on one side, and Bruce Pascoe on the other. Pascoe’s Dark Emu discusses the Bre fish traps in its chapter on aquaculture; Sutton and Walshe see Pascoe’s desire to elevate semi-sedentary agriculture above a more nomadic hunting and gathering economic system as a throwback to social evolutionary theory. What would Bradley say? Shake his head, I guess.

Afterwards it was off to Muddy Waters for a coffee and caramel slice. What a great little cafe! The owner’s mum (an 81-year-old veteran of the Ridge) was cleaning tables, a sign of the times in outback Australia. Small businesses, farms and shops simply can’t get people to work out here. Every day she heads down to the caravan park to try and encourage grey nomads into a few days’ work. In this post-COVID world, without backpackers or tourists, there are very few takers.

But for us, it was time to head back to the Ridge.

Such a quick drive! We loved our time at Bre, and we’ll be back!

Goodooga bore baths

We call it ‘drought’. This is dry country in which periods of wetness are the exception. And yet, like Britain – which grinds to a halt at the first snowflake, as though each winter is an entirely new and unforeseen phenomenon – Australia still thinks of herself as a wet country punctuated by unexpected times of dry.

Goodooga is dry at the moment. As dry as.

dusty paddock

There was a time when Goodooga was quite the town. Things were hopping here before Lightning Ridge had even been thought of. But the last few years haven’t been kind to Goodooga. The banks have gone, the 12-bed hospital is now a zero-bed clinic, and the work on the land has gone the way of most work on the land.

It’s easy to focus on the signs of decay and dilapidation. Tumbledown houses . . .

. . . and abandoned businesses.

But N and I travelled to Goodooga this day not to see busted-up old houses. Last week, the Hon. Mark Coulton (Minister for Regional Services, Decentralisation & Local Government) officially opened a new bore baths in the town. Hands up anyone who knew we had a Minister for Decentralisation.

We arrived just before lunchtime, hungry and ready to inject Ridge dollars into the Goodooga economy. The pub was open but its kitchen wasn’t, but the publican gave us a hot tip that the store / post office has pies. Pies! Off we went, tummies rumbling in anticipation.

Unfortunately, like everything else in Goodooga on this fine Saturday morning, the post office / store was resolutely shut. As the Pie Nazi might have said, “No pies for you!”

Instead we had a big drink of water – mmmm – and set off to find the bore baths.

Down the street a bit and turn right and . . . here it is!

The idea is to create a reason for people to pull off the Castlereagh Highway and head west. And by ‘people’ I mean retirees hauling caravans or gigantic motor homes. Everyone wants a piece of the grey nomad economy, and I can understand why. Goodooga’s having a crack, and the bore baths is a start.

The brand new facilities are excellent, with ramp access and a nice ledge to sit on.

It was a warm-to-hot day with a northerly zephyr, the kind of day on which only a nutter would consider getting into the bore baths. It was, however, totally gorgeous. Maybe because it’s a smaller volume than the Ridge the water is cooler and so there was none of that jelly-legged head-spinning feeling you can get when the water is nose-bleedingly hot. The cool showers before and after were beautiful and refreshing.

We towelled down and headed back to the pub to see if the kitchen was open. Please be open. Please.

The tiny front bar was brimful of Yuletide cheer and, praise thanks to Our Lady the Madonna, Mother of the Divine Baby Jesus, the kitchen was open. Hallelujah!

We went for the steak sandwich and chips, with gravy on the side.

As we “munged down on a mad feed” (as the kids at school say), N scrolled through the wonderful Trove and we read excerpts of daily life from Goodooga in the 1880s. The area was, at the time, “. . . struggling through a four years’ drought . . .” (go figure) but the Maitland Mercury‘s correspondent was bubbling with excitement over new land releases, descriptions of jolly weddings, lamentations of folk falling out of buggies. It was all about hope and growth and the future.

People came and went as we ate our sangers, buying Coke or using the ciggy machine. We fell into conversation with three men – a Goodooga local and his two Kooma nephews, descended from rain-makers. (Yes, we made the necessary jokes.) Kooma is the language to the north of Goodooga, which itself falls on the border of Yuwaalaraay and Muruwari country. We had a lovely chat about language and history and demise of Goodooga as they waited for their takeaway burgers. And then it was time for off.

The road out of town has a new stretch of bitumen down towards the cemetery. I’m a sucker for graveyards. Goodooga’s is chipper and well maintained, though the older part (I guess in other places it’d be called the ‘pioneer’ or ‘settler’ cemetery) is looking neglected.

It was impossible not to be reminded of the Mercury correspondent’s bullish enthusiasm as I wandered through the shattered headstones.

The banks have gone, the hospital’s gone, the store has gone. But the rain-makers are still here, and will be for many generations after the grey nomads and Minister for Decentralisation (and the one after him, and the one after that) have retired to the Gold Coast.

Gungan || Water

Water is gungan in Yuwaalaraay. People are talking about it a lot around here at the moment. Bottles of it are being carted to dried-out towns, decades-old Murray cod are floating belly-up in pools of the green soup that used to be rivers, and there’s anger with our governments over the endless shafting of everyone in the Murray-Darling.

The above photo, with the elastic-sided boot on the big old cod, was actually taken in 2011 (courtesy Jennifer Marohasy) and was caused by black water rather than cyanobacteria. Fish kills aren’t new, but the combination of drought, poor water management and a state election has created a potent mix.

I was thinking about this as I scrolled through Walgett Shire Council’s monthly “what’s on” email. This February, the Anglican bishop of Lewes is set to visit Walgett; the Ridge bowlo is having a Valentine’s Day couples’ special; and Walgett Hospital is having a Shamrocks and Shenanigans day  (dress code: “black tie, with an Irish tone”).

In a sign of the times, though, more than half the public notices are not about tennis competitions, gymkhanas, bake-offs. The vast majority are about gungan, and the effect that its absence is having on the physical and mental health of people out west. There are healing clinics by visiting ngangkari (traditional healers from central Australia), women’s health clinics and Family Matters workshops.

But it’s gungan that we all keep coming back to.

Beating the Walgett water taste-test sounds like something you’d find in the SMH‘s weekend magazine. But they’re not talking about 10 Ways to Make Yummy Water Even Yummier!

Walgett’s drinking water is currently drawn from a bore which means that it does have more mineral content … More minerals means more taste, and in this case there is a higher than normal level of sodium (salt) in the water.

Chilling your drinking water can help reduce the salty taste … You could also add some flavouring such as cut fruit, fruit juice or low sugar cordial which may improve the taste.

More minerals means more taste! But if, for some weird reason, you’re not fond of the delicious saltiness of Walgett water, simply pop some in the fridge or add a dash of low-sugar cordial for dose of extra refreshingly yumminess!

The next council notice is headed “Walgett Raw Water At Critical Level”: “Walgett is experiencing unprecedented water shortages, the recent flow in the Namoi has now been exhausted”. Walgett is now on Level 5 water restrictions. Oh, and the boat ramp at Collarenebri has been closed due to ongoing dry conditions in the Barwon River. (And Colly is on Level 4 water restrictions.)

There isn’t much in the way of flowing water around here but I thought I’d take a look at the Narran River where it crosses the Goodooga Road, north-west of the Ridge.

[Goodooga is a Yuwaalaraay place name: guduu is “Murray cod”, with the suffix –ga “place of”.]

I headed out on a Sunday afternoon. Wide swathes (like, acres and acres) of paddocks on the northern side have had their trees flattened. I’m not a farmer and I don’t know the logic behind this. We’ve had more dust storms this season than many long-time locals remember: is this an attempt to create a kind of mulch over the top soil?

The point where the Narran crosses the Goodooga road is the site of the old Bangate Station. (I blogged about new Bangate’s wool day elsewhere.) A rock-wall weir was constructed at some point in the distant past; I guess it was to create a permanent water source for old Bangate.

The Narran is fed by rainfall from way upstream – in Queensland – and that rainfall just hasn’t been happening, not for a long time. The southern (downstream) side of the weir is dry as a bone. There isn’t a blade of grass to be seen.

The water on the northern side has been reduced to a green puddle. A longish puddle, granted, but still a puddle. The edges are littered with the desiccated skeletons of roos: Were they simply too exhausted to even drink? Were they poisoned by the foul water? Shot?

However bad the water might look, when you’re on the bones of your arse it’s going to be better than the alternative.

There must be something going on though. This sacred kingfisher looked to be in pretty good health. Or maybe he was keeping going on a diet of skinks and lizards.

The Narran at this point has been heavily modified, sometimes intentionally (the weir and road crossing) and sometimes unintentionally (changing land use). The upshot is that, like almost every river in Australia, it now flows differently and its profile is different. Trees here are slow-growing and the biggest are very, very old. They don’t move away during tough times, and looking at their roots shows how the world around them has changed dramatically during their lifetime.

As I walked along the bank of the river, small bandaarr (grey kangaroo) hopped lethargically out of my way. Showers of parrots screeched ahead me and a lone heron drifted from its perch in the tallest branch of one tree to the tallest branch of another.

A squall of shrieks and broad wingbeats came from the river ahead: whistling kites, maybe eight or ten of them. They wheeled and hung in the air, catching the thermals and floating across the sky.

I turned the corner and saw what they’d been snacking on: perhaps the unluckiest bandaarr in the whole drought-stricken north-west of the New South Wales. Drowning in puddle. I mean, what are the odds?

I left him there to the kites.

Maybe the metre of water that’s fallen on Townsville might gush down the western slops of the Great Dividing Range and, come July this year, the Narran will be flowing again. By then there will have been a state election, a federal election, maybe even an inquiry or two.

But by then there’ll be more dead bandaarr and guduu, and the people of Walgett will have become masters of spicing up their special “tasty” water. That’s life out west, where gungan is the key to life for every living thing.

Local paper

Everyone hates their local paper. I grew up with the North-western Evening Mail, which serviced my anonymous corner of northern England around the Furness peninsula and the southern Lake District.

Everyone I knew moaned about the Mail, but bought it religiously. It was the conduit for all news and tidings in the area: births, deaths and marriages (aka “hatch, match and despatch”); situations vacant; legal matters (divorce announcements, wills, assaults and theft); and, of course, the sport.

In the Britain of my youth, a person’s politics and social status were clearly defined by the national daily they bought: the Mirror for the working-class Left; the Sun for the working-class Right; the Guardian for the middle-class liberal; the Telegraph for the aspirational Tory. But the local paper was more egalitarian: everyone bought it, regardless of the colour of your collar.

Local papers say lots about a place. You can quickly get a sense of an area’s politics, affluence, and sense of self by reading the editorial, and scanning the ads. For many years my local paper was the Centralian Advocate, the newspaper for Alice Springs and Central  Australia.

I heard the Advocate referred to as “the two-minute silence”; in the circles I moved amongst it was seen as a mouthpiece for the Country Liberal Party, the party that had ruled since self-governance in 1978. That might have been a little unfair but it did fit the mould in which the local paper can please no-one most of the time.

Local papers are, sadly, an endangered species. I always buy the local paper when I arrive in town and I have a collection of them: the Bellingen Shire Courier-Sun, the Northern Daily Leader, the Curryong Courier, the Tumbarumba Times, the Mallacoota Mouth, the Coober Pedy News, the Narrabri Courier, the Walgett Spectator.

A personal favourite is the Don Dorrigo Gazette and Guy Fawkes Advocate – Australia’s last hot-metal typeset newspaper. How beautiful is it?

Sadly, I missed the Ridge News; its last edition hit the streets three years ago to the day, on 17 December 2015.

Ridge news is now transmitted, as it is in so many places, via social media. The North West News keeps folk abreast of what’s going on but it’s up against all kinds of crazy “news” sources; for some people, Lightning Ridge Buy, Swap and Sell holds as much authority as the News.

I was in Seaton’s Newsagency on the weekend and I was oddly comforted to see, amongst the stacked-high copies of The Land, Queensland Country Life and the Dubbo Liberal a sheaf of non-English newspapers.

Well, maybe not completely comforted by the Serbian Vesti, with its cover picture of grim-faced young men with machine guns. But I do miss having a local paper; it’s impossible to judge how a town feels or thinks about itself from its Facebook page. Vale, Ridge News.

Let’s Dance!

As you’re heading down the Castlereagh Highway, just south of Walgett, you’ll see a signpost for a road that heads west. This road takes you past the Walgett graveyard then heads west-south-west through country that’s  very flat and very dry. The horizon shimmers, a quivering line of gel squeezed between the immense blue sky and the hard dun-coloured earth.

Follow this road for an hour or so and you hit a small town called Carinda. Whatever flimsy reason justified Carinda’s existence has long since been forgotten but the buildings and the people stubbornly refused to listen to reason, however flimsy, and Carinda gritted its teeth and, like so many other small towns across outback Australia, got on with it. Whatever “it” was.

Then, around 35 years ago, a location scout for a video production company stumbled through Carinda and stopped in the pub for a coldie. The location scout looked around the front bar of this pub and thought: “Yeah. This is the place.”

In fact, the pub at Carinda pub became the place. In a series of events that are as baffling now as they were back then Carinda became the location for the video that accompanied David Bowie’s single Let’s Dance, the title track from the Thin White Duke’s 1983 album. Here he is, in his white shirt and white gloves, next to the double-bass player in the front bar of the hotel.

The pub went on to become something of a pilgrimage site for dedicated Bowie fans, and the tiled wall has become a makeshift shrine.

It took a while, about three decades, but some enterprising Carindinians capitalised on this glancing moment with fame. If Parkes can become synonymous with Elvis Presley, then why not Carinda with Bowie? Why not indeed!

The Let’s Dance Carinda festival has been running for a few years now. Last year Jeff Duff, who plies a living as an extremely plausible Bowie tribute, brought his band along. Duff and co. returned for a second crack in September, playing a set of Bowie songs down at the race course on Saturday night and then, the culmination of a weekend-long Bowie fest, recreating the Let’s Dance video in the pub on Sunday afternoon.

Carinda went crazy, and everyone dressed up! Well, these two did.

There was a dog show, belly dancing and a street parade, which featured a Bowie-themed ukulele band. Sorry, trio.

A bunch of kids joined in to add to the numbers and they sashayed from the race course to the pub, finishing with a rousing rendition of Rebel, Rebel.

The audience looked to be made up of people very similar to me: middle-aged Australians who, at first glance, would not appear to have had a past in which they might have dressed up in funny clothes, applied thick layers of garish make-up, or taken shitloads of non-prescription drugs. Just proves Chuck Berry was right: you never can tell.

Duff’s band is a tight unit. There was a guy on guitar who had clearly been playing at a very high level for about 60 years; a drummer who spent the half hour before the gig trying to chat up the only two women under 25; and a keyboard player who also, with his left hand, played the bass lines on a second keyboard. (I should have said, “He played it left hand” for 3-point Ziggy reference. Too late.)

Duff himself had dressed the part. I have friends who’ve seen his tribute act in big towns like Newcastle, and he takes on the whole persona. But here in Carinda it was a much more homespun affair. There was audience banter (hard not to when you’re only 18 inches away from them), chat and back-chat, and a casually relaxed and convivial atmosphere that, I hope, the big DB would have approved of.

The band punched out a short set of classics (Space Oddity, Ziggy Stardust, Young Americans “Do you remember your Julia Gillard?”) before the one we’d all been waiting for:

Aaaaah
Aaaaaaaah
Aaaaaaaaaaah
Aaaaaaaaaaaaaah!
Let’s dance! Put on your red shoes and dance the blues.

Everyone joined in. I mean everyone. Even the high notes that no-one could reach any more, if they ever could have done even in their funny clothes, make-up and drugs days. And at the end we all went off, big time. The band could hardly leave the stage so they were forced into an encore of Suffragette City, a high energy ending that left everyone buzzing.

I pulled out early to beat the traffic, but wasn’t quite quick enough and had to eat the dust of a ute that must have bolted before the encore. The road took me east-south-east back towards Coonamble, through more flat, pale-brown tracks

and red dirt country.

I passed abandoned sheep stations,

and buildings on the last cusp of transforming from vertical to horizontal. I tried to imagine the hum and hustle of mustering and shearing but the tin walls were too dry, or reluctant, to talk to me. Instead they ticked and tocked as the afternoon sun gradually lost its bite.

A little further down the road a homestead, burnt to the ground, only its chimney stack still standing. I wondered about the work that went into building this place, the teams of Chinese ring-barkers hired to clear the country, the promising early wool clips followed by the endless years of hand-feeding sheep too drought-busted and burr-ridden to produce a sellable fleece.

It was a sobering end to the afternoon. What did Bowie make of this landscape as he drove through it on the way to Carinda, 35 years ago? When I think of Bowie I think of hedonism, heroin, Berlin, gaudily-coloured boots with implausibly high heels, a peacock-like flamboyance, and a bullet-proof belief in the importance of style. When I see these shearing sheds and homesteads I think of checked shirts and elastic-sided boots, I think of graft, callouses, private and unacknowledged grind, a slit-eyed suspicion of ostentation.

But maybe I’m wrong. The crowd at the Carinda hotel was, almost exclusively, “ordinary” middle-aged white Australians. The kind of people who shear sheep, drive cotton harvesters and fly crop sprayers. But also the kind who, once upon a time, slapped on make-up, took drugs, and put on their red shoes and danced the blues.

Appearances can be deceiving. Especially in small towns like Carinda, New South Wales. Dance on, Carinda, dance on.