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.