The Great Inland C

Strong Language Warning

When I lived in Alice Springs it was a known Fact that the government had no interest whatsoever in anything that happened outside of Darwin’s southern suburbs. The “Berrimah Line” signalled the end to government funding, representation and development in the southern 90% of the Territory.

I’ve heard a similar metaphor used in New South Wales: the “Sandstone Curtain” is a neat geological cut-off point that divides the Sydney-centric NSW Government from its western constituents in a more powerful way than the Great Dividing Range. South Australia has its rainfall division in Goyder’s Line, Western Australia its Rabbit-proof Fence, and Tasmania its infamous Black Line.

Now I’m going to stick my neck out and say that arid Australia has another important dividing line, which I call the “Cunt Line”.

[After some agonising and much debate with people wiser than me, I’m going to spell it c––– from now on.]

East of the C––– Line, this word retains its shock value. The only other word that comes close for shock is the one that people like Tupac and Chris Rock re-imagined, though usually spelt ending –igga rather than –igger. (You know the one I’m talking about.)

But c––– is different out out west. It’s as though its shock value goes up the higher the rainfall; the lower the rainfall, it’s just a word.

In his book The Bush, Don Watson transcribed a conversation with a pastoralist. He and Watson are discussing buffel grass, a species that was introduced specifically for the pastoral industry. It’s now out of control across much of inland Australia and has become a major deal because it grows quickly, dries out quickly and when it burns it burns with a heat and intensity unknown to native grasses. This has created something of a love–hate relationship between buffel grass and the pastoralists but, as the cocky stated bluntly to Watson, “We plant it for the cows. C–––s love it.”

Can you have or be a good c–––? A teacher friend once did something a little outside the box and one of his Year 10 students shook his head admiringly and muttered, “You’re a hectic c–––, sir.”

I hear women use c––– quite readily out west. There’s no sly nod, no “Hey, check us out, using bad words ironically”. It’s more like, “You’re gonna have to push that door hard; it’s a c––– of a thing”.

The Northern Territory is classic c––– country. In fact, in Alice Springs at the moment there’s a one-woman show running at the Totem Theatre called Welcome to My Cuntry, and then of course there’s the guerrilla tourism project around CU in the NT.

I’m not sure of the exact position of the C––– Line. I do know that it in NSW it runs north–south, pretty much along the Newell Highway through Moree, Narrabri and Dubbo. This does mean that towns like Tamworth, Wagga Wagga and Bathurst fall on the eastern “shock” side, so there may be variations.

That’s the thing with the C––– Line: it’s evasive and hard to pin down. A real c––– of a thing.

 

Food Safari 7: Hon Doo, Walgett

The first Federation meeting of the year took us down the Castlereagh Highway in the bouncy bus, with the redoubtable Bill at the wheel, to the RSL at Walgett.

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(I just had to look up “redoubtable”. When it came into my head it seemed like the right word to describe Bill. You know how when you think a word seems just right, but then someone asks you to define it and you don’t actually know what it means? That.)

We were sharing a room in the RSL with the Thursday night poker crew. I like playing cards but poker has always baffled me. It belongs in American films, the ones where the men wear those little clip things on their arms to hold their sleeves up, and green shades, and fat havanas hanging out of their gobs. It’s all a bit lairy and flashily intimidating. If I ever did play a single game I’d lose every penny in about ten minutes. This poker crowd seemed quite cheerfully Australian though and there wasn’t a fat havana amongst them, but I couldn’t be persuaded to have a crack. I’ll stick to old maid and gin rummy.

We had the meeting bit, the bit where people reluctantly get voted into positions on committees, then we had a bit more meeting where we got inflamed about the ethically-neutral buttknuckles in government who are busily tearing down every institution that several generations of Australians spent creating. Building a sandcastle on the beach is slow, hard work, and it’s huge fun to kick someone else’s to pieces. This is what if feels like now: the world is ruled by the gloating idiots, kicking down other people’s achievements and laughing as they do so.

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The soothing click of poker chips. The low drone of raffle announcements (“this week’s Hot Cash winner is member 2391 in Narrabri”). The murmur of teachers avoiding being elected as secretary or women’s contact officer. And then we’re interrupted by The Ode for the Fallen; we stand and say, “Lest we forget”. A reminder of other kinds of sacrifice from the past.

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With the meeting over it was time to hit Walgett’s world famous Hon Doo Restaurant, the venue for Food Safari #7. By this time I was absolutely starving.

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It must be a tough gig, running the Chinese restaurant in a small regional town. No matter how good you are there will always be people who make snarky comments about dogs and cats, but I couldn’t resist snapping this picture on the menu. Is it really a Mongolian lamb? It looks more like a cross between a goat and a dachshund!

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But here’s the good news: the food was great! A few people made that “Oh my gosh, the servings are so huge! I’ll never eat all that!” And then they did. (And luckily I’m thinking this in my head but not writing it down: it’s always women who say that. Oops. Did I really think that out loud?)

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I had the chicken with sliced mushrooms, which is probably not even a Chinese meal. I don’t think anyone had the Mongolian lamb but everyone seemed very satisfied.

I had a conversation with a male colleague who, upon monstering his pork balls, uttered the exclamation “Yummo!” I cannot say this word. If I think of any word I think, firstly, “Can I imagine my father saying that?” It seems impossible for my dour Northern dad to ever have said that, and so I can’t either. My meal was … nice and tasty.

With the meal over we boarded the bouncy bus and the implacable Bill drove us out of Walgett, past the soldier standing guard atop the monument on the roundabout, past the servo, and back up the Castlereagh.

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I don’t know if it was all these reminders of the past – the RSL, the Ode, the discussion around rights won and lost – but I had a memory of my dad. He was at his happiest when he had his grandchildren around him and they were scoffing their dinner, and would beam at them and say, “Yummo!”. I can’t believe that I’d forgotten that, or had chosen to.

Walgett gets slagged off for lots of things, and I don’t know how much of it’s true and how much rubbish. But I can give Hon Doo the Learning About Lightning tick of approval.

Hon Doo food is indeed (deep breath) yummo.

Hot

It was around March last year when I first came up to the Ridge to check out the school. I stopped at the Crocodile Caravan Park (which did, apparently, once have a little croc in its pool) and rented a caravan with a weedy aircon jammed into the window. It was the end of summer and climbing on the mattress in that caravan was like lying on a soft, hot brick.

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The winter that followed was long, cold and wet, but here and now – on the first of February – that seems like a distant memory.

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As I type this (at 3.26pm, with the swampy churning away in the background) there is a maintenance guy working on the roof above me, fixing the neighbour’s aircon. Respect.

I took the bike for a run down the Colly road, past the few hardy souls dipping themselves in the bore baths (obviously they’re not hot enough and need a boost). The wide, flat fields on the southern side of the road have been sown following last year’s big harvests. Surface dust spins across the chocolate-brown soil. Road kill desiccates by the bitumen.

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I dawdled back into town and stopped at Morillas for a coffee. Some blokes prepping us for the NBN were there, whinging (in a good natured way) about the heat. One thing that the heat does is to give us something to talk about as a community, something other than Donald Trump or Beyonce’s twins. Everyone joined in with either “Oh my God, I know, this is hell!” but, mostly, “Pfft. This is nothing.”

I’m with the latter group. It’s easy to think that this is as hot as it’ll get, but the northern hemisphere label “summer” fails to understand the Australian inland. It can, and probably will, still be in the 40s at the end of March. The bitumen clings to the soles of my thongs when I walk down the road and my car’s tyres make a peculiar singing sound from the heat. The water that comes out of the cold tap is almost too hot to bathe in and so people turn the water heater off and get the cold water from the hot tap.

I was thinking about the early opal miners in Ion Idriess’s book. Christ, it must have been murderous back in the day. But it’s February, “summer”. It’ll be here for a while more yet.

Uncle Wal’s Album

Late last year my mother-in-law passed away, and The Wife was burdened with the task of emptying the family home in preparation for its sale. The house was the end-point for several generations of people’s stuff: porcelain ornaments, glassware, books, bric-a-brac. There were many gems among the potch, including a collection of photo albums kept by great-uncle Wal.

Of particular interest was the Pioneer Tour that Wal and a few friends undertook to the north-west in June 1946.

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There’s a great view of the Imperial Hotel, which I guess was the forerunner of the Diggers Rest (or one of its many incarnations). I showed the photos to a few folk and Ron identified the Tree of Knowledge (bottom photo).

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I wonder who these three old gentlemen are. Are their descendants still living and working around the Ridge? The bottom photo shows what I’m guessing to be the junction of the Castlereagh Highway and the road into the Ridge, in flood.

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If anyone has any information on any of these pictures, let me know. I’d love to hear from you.

Drawing 001

As if with learning to teach, learning a new town, learning to play the bass guitar and learning to speak Yuwaalaraay I didn’t have enough on my plate, I’ve decided to learn how to draw. My subject will be the buildings of Lightning Ridge and surrounds and, in typically unrealistic and optimistic style, I’ve numbered this first drawing “001”. There may or may not be another 998 drawings, I’m just leaving it open …

Anyway, the first building to get the MacLean treatment is the Miners Co-operative Store. I don’t know anything about its history or what it was for or even if it operates any more. But I do love its homemade feel.

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I can just imagine all the working bees that went into making this, the contributions of materials and the fundraisers at the pub.

So this is my version of it.

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I’ve got a ways to go but it’s fun. Watercolours are a bugger, that much I’ve found out.

Thank you to Christine Bruderlin, Trevor Dickinson and Isobel MacLean for the tips!

Ion Idriess

When I dropped into the Lightning Ridge Historical Society I picked up a copy of Lightning Ridge: The Land of Black Opals, written by Ion L. Idriess and first published in 1940 by Angus & Robertson.

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Idriess is roughly contemporaneous with Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson but, unlike his Bulletin colleagues, Idriess is overlooked these days, a titan whose time as passed. Idriess specialised in the rollicking yarn, with chums getting in and out of various scrapes, with a cheery, back-slapping “My oath!” at the end of it, and Lightning Ridge is very much of that style.

This edition is a facsimile, reprinted in 2009 by the Historical Society to celebrate the centenary of Idriess’s time as a miner in the nascent township.

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The first third of the book deals with Idriess’s youth and young adulthood in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It really is a time long gone, and yet much of the Ridge part of the book feels strangely contemporary. Some of the best opals were being dug from the earth at this time and fortunes were made – and lost – in a matter of days. Strikes were celebrated but, from the get-go, ratters would rob a mine in a night. Vigilante groups formed around the Three Mile but no ratters were ever caught.

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It was a male-dominated society, and the few females that are mentioned are usually done so for the purpose of a hilarious yarn, such as the time the formidable Cobar Mary has a miner cowering at the bottom of his mine shaft until he’s paid a debt. You get a feel for this man’s world in the picture below, which is captioned “Old Matt Watson’s Camp” (Idriess is fifth from the left).

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It was here that Idriess, encouraged by his camp mates, first submitted writing to the “Abo. Column” of The Bulletin. After endless rejections Idriess finally sees his name in print and likens the thrill to that of a successful day’s “gouging”. (Most of the miners are described as “gougers” rather than “diggers”; indeed, one of Idriess’s early pen names was Gouger.) Having been on the sharp end of plenty of rejections myself, but also having seen my name in print, I could immediately identify with the punter’s joy he describes.

I also got to thinking when Idriess described the first motorbike to hit the Ridge: “It startled the bush with explosions; poisoned it with smells and puffs of horrid smoke”. Writing 30 years later, Idriess wonders:

Who in that not-so-long-ago imagined fleets of aeroplanes, moving pictures and wireless? What on earth will the world be like, what inventions will there be, in another hundred years from now?

The world is different, but not that different. I think Idriess would recognise the Ridge in 2017. I think he’d be at home down the Three Mile or over at the Grawin among the weather-beaten guys with their long, white beards, faded singlets and trousers spattered with white dirt. It’s still a place for the romantic, the gambler, the runaway. Always will be.

Food Safari 6: Griffin’s biscuits

I’ve got a friend who has an on-site van at the Sunset Caravan Park in Woolgoolga, the town the locals call “Woopie”.

Woopie is famous for its Sikhs and for its massive Sikh temple and its frozen berry industry, but when I think of Woopie I think of one thing. You know Jatz crackers? They don’t call them Jatz crackers there – they call them “Savoys”. Savoys! I know!! A savoy is a fucking sausage!!!

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Why such a small thing should affect my sense of balance in such a way is totally baffling, but affect me but it does. If I’d bought a box that was packaged completely differently and they were called Bazookas or something and then when I opened them up and found they were just plain old Jatz I’d’ve been a bit meh. I’d have gotten over it. But when everything else is just how you expect it to be yet there’s this wee tweak, it sets a man back on his heels.

Nearly all the big brands that you can get at Coles and Woolworths back in Big Town you can get at Khan’s IGA, Lightning Ridge. But there is something you should know: the Ridge is differently biscuited.

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Griffin’s Biscuits, to be precise. When I first saw them on the shelf I was a bit like woah! What do we have here? I do not know you.

From whence do they come, these Griffin’s biscuit people? I’ve never heard of them, and I’ve lived in Australia for 30 years.

To my credit, I steadied myself and accepted the challenge. I picked a packet from the shelf and set to the job of working my way through their moderately extensive range, a packet per week for however many weeks it might take.

First up was the “Chit Chat” (note jolly quote marks), which appears to be the freckly love-child of a TimTam and an English Penguin biscuit. It was alright, but I must admit to feeling slightly underwhelmed. The biscuit part was fine but the chocolate had that plasticky taste about it, if you know what I mean.

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Next up was the Afghans (no cheerful quote marks for these guys). The picture on the packet doesn’t do them justice; in a remarkable visual pun each biscuit actually looks like a tiny turban! How cute is that?

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I realise that this is the kind of comment that would have my kids rolling their eyes and accusing me of racism, but (like many racists) I don’t mean to be. Hopefully it’s the benign non-aggressive form of racism that, as Louis CK points out, we all caught simply by growing up in the Seventies. Sorry, Afghans!

Anyway, Afghans (the biscuity type) are (again) alright. I think I’d built my hopes up and – for no good reason, it’s not on the label – expected maybe some toffee in there underneath the turbany bit, but no luck.

The other Saturday I found myself caught between the Squiggles, the Mallow Puffs and the Krispie, but none of them were doing it for me. When I was a lad, the term “top shelf” was usually reserved for the row of nudie magazines at the paper shop, and so anything where I have to make an effort and reach up high has always made me think it’s a bit wahey, a bit sexually charged. Even biscuits. It reminds me of the thrill of pretending to leaf through this month’s Electronics Now! or Trout Angler while peaking longingly at Readers’ Wives and Penthouse.

So top shelf it was: Jaffa Thins. Phwoar.

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Well, I’m sad to report that the Jaffa Thin is … alright. As a biscuit it’s, well, thin. And vaguely jaffa-ery. But you have to eat about a dozen of them to get the same feeling of one Scotch Finger.

I did some research. Where are they from, these Griffin’s biscuits? Mount Isa? Gullargambone? Tennant Creek?

Noooooo! Griffin’s are actually a Kiwi company! Could it really be true that, as their website claims:

Our biscuit factory is located in Papakura and a savoury/wrapped snacks factory in Wiri.

I was set back on my heels again. With this devastating news I decided that I could no longer support Griffin’s Biscuits. Just think of the food miles to get a packet of Afghans from Wiri to the Ridge! I’ll stick to Arnotts from now on as I do have standards.

“Alright” is simply not all right.