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.


As Johnny Nash so eloquently sang, “There are more questions than answers”. This sign, which appeared on a telegraph pole outside Khan’s the other week, certainly got me asking a few.


I have, as requested, checked the internet. In vain. What do the Pope and Ronnie Biggs have in common (other than, apparently, being the same person)? The implanting of what?

And what kind of train are you, Lord? Diesel? Steam locomotive? Light rail?

Please come back with another sign and answer these perplexing questions!

[Photo courtesy D. Barclay.]


Recently, as part of a school professional development day, we staff were ferried around nearby parts of the Ridge to look at scar trees and old homesteads and sites of cultural significance for Yuwaalaraay people. I enjoyed the whole day, but the place I immediately felt the need to return to was Angledool. This Queen’s Birthday Monday was the perfect opportunity.

It’s not far from the Ridge, less than an hour up the Castlereagh Highway, but I elected to do a loop and head there via the back road. I set off down past the bore baths just after lunch. The sun was warm through the windscreen. Just as I was about to leave the bitumen a livestock truck headed towards me, churning up dust and gravel. As it passed me I kind of knew I’d been marked and, sure enough, on Tuesday a kid at school says, “Headed out to Colly on the weekend, sir?” I managed a small moment of satisfaction when I shook my head. “Not me, mate.” Pause. “I was off to Angledool.”

The bore baths road (which actually has a proper name: Shermans Way) hits a T junction: turn right for Collarenebri; turn left for Angledool. Then it’s across the first of many cattlegrids, and the first of many signs to watch out for cows and sheeps.

Outback roads are irresistibly photographable: all that sky and horizon and the sense of a track heading to who knows where.

The patch of country immediately north-east of the Ridge, through which this road cuts, is vast and flat and open. Some of the black soil was ploughed for crops but mostly it was livestock country; nibbled short by sheep or grazed by beef cattle.

The kill rate was moderate, less than the Colly road. I guess fewer cars pass this way, given that it’s just as easy to get to Angledool via the blacktop.

This little piggy wasn’t so lucky. Its carcass was shit-stained by the crows and magpies that had paused to strut across its back before making lazy pecks at its eyes and tongue.

I’m not Patricia Cornwell and I’ve never been to the Body Farm but the wallaby next to the pig looked to have been taken out at almost exactly the time. Must have been one heck of a bump for whoever was driving.

Apart from the great outback highway-and-horizon shot, the must-snap is the bullet-riddled road sign. I’ve seen a few over the years but this was a particularly good example, more like a piece of Belgian lace realised in metal. More holes than sign.

The vegetation thickened as I neared the Narran River. The trees became taller and packed in more closely. The river itself is a murky affair at this time of year, with barely any movement.

I wandered into the damp cool beneath the Yaranbah Bridge. The concrete stanchions were decorated by martens’ nests, many of which had fallen away from years and years of being built upon and built upon until gravity took its course.

I looked back as I crossed the bridge and was glad I did, as I got to see this beautiful still life. The dingo carcass was strapped with fencing wire to the sign post. It was hard and desiccated and yet to start falling apart.

But then it was on to Angledool proper. The building that had caught my eye on that cultural awareness day was the School of the Arts. This utterly gorgeous building dates back to Angledool’s heyday, when it’s population peaked at several thousand people.

I was taking this photo when I felt a car slow down behind me. Yup, been spotted again.

This time it was M, who works at the school and drives down each day from Angledool. She told me about this magnificent building. It’s built of rammed earth (I think, it may have been mud bricks but I’m pretty certain it was rammed earth). The cracks, M tells me, are due to the digging of bigibila, the echidnas that roam the area.

It’s empty at the moment but I understand that there are plans to reinvigorate the place. Maybe it could become a School of the Arts again: someone is at least trying!

The iron work was wonderful: a huge, cavernous roof that arced above the hall. What things had happened here? Celebrations, birthdays, weddings, love blossoming, fights happening, all the usual rum affairs of human beings jammed into a tiny patch of dirt in the middle of a vast, empty, open space.

I was intrigued by small details. What were these wall spaces used for? Was there a kitchen next to the hall, and these were the serving hatches?

After the hall I mooched a wee way down the road to All Saints Church. You can just make it out in the picture, down the way a bit.

All Saints is, by outback church standards, pretty big and is a reminder of just how much of a deal Angledool must once have been. M told me that at one point it was almost sold and was about to be relocated, but its heritage status halted the process. Now it sits and, like the hall, enters that wabi sabi state of gentle and graceful decay.

A pane of glass was missing from one of the north-facing windows so I poked my head, and my camera, through. The altar is still in place, but no pews. I guess they’ve been on-sold to garden centres.

I bird shit-stained piano sits in the opposite corner. What hymns have been bashed out on that over the years? I wondered about the journey that piano had taken to get here: on the back of a truck or a dray, after months on a ship from who knows where.

The interior of the church is in remarkably good condition and is utterly breathtaking. I’m guessing that the timber is termite-proof cypress pine. The mansard ceiling is like the one in the nurse’s quarters in the Ridge, the building that the Historical Society now calls home. It’s a style that must have been all the go back in the day.

I headed back down the bitumen to the Ridge. It was quicker, for sure, but it felt like an impoverished journey, a just getting-there commute with none of the wonders of the back road. The vegetation was thicker – dense stands of pine and gum – and the vehicles in both directions more frequent. But if I go to Angledool again it’ll be by the back road, through the big sky country of vast horizons and bullet-riddled road signs and slaughtered dingos.

Food Safari 10: Dhinawan omelette

I went out to dinner with a bunch of linguists on Friday night. I know what you’re thinking, something along the lines of sticking pins in your eyes, but hold up. Linguists are fun. I’ve had some great nights with linguists.

This bunch were heading towards Goodooga and took the time to drop in to the Ridge. There were meetings, as there always are, and then there was dinner. In Walgett they’d taken the time to drop in to Gingie Mission and had come away with a beautiful big dhinawan (emu) egg. I’ve put a Hilary next to the egg to give you some idea of its size. (Hilary is eleven feet tall by the way.)

Hilary is also a Kiwi and knows what to do with an egg. We scrappled around the flat looking piercing objects (they were renting an AirBnB place) and eventually we found a moderately sharp knife and a corkscrew. Game on!

There was a lot egg in there. Again, for the purposes of scale, that bowl is four feet across.

As well as Hilary the linguists had brought two glamorous German exchange students, who worked like Trojans to make a feast worthy of this offering from the Big Dhinawan.

I must admit that I was one of those horrible lazy guests who does nothing. I bought a $20+ bottle of red from the bowlo bottle shop and I acted as though that somehow gave me permission to sit around, eat, pontificate, not wash up etc. I felt a bit bad about it, but not bad enough to change my behaviour. Sorry, hardworking German ladies.

There was enough dhinawan omelette for huge servings for everyone. It was very nice too. Danke und guten Appetit, meine Freund!

A big dong on the roof

Saturday night I’m writing quietly when I hear a massive dong on the roof. At first I thought it was kids chucking rocks. When I lived in Alice Springs in the 80s the kids there would stand in the bush next to the new developments in Sadadeen and fire rocks onto the tin roofs. Their David and Goliath act of resistance to the creeping development over their land was captured perfectly by my good friend Rod Moss in his painting Stoneslingers 1:

But this wasn’t a hard sound, like a rock makes. It was softer. A tennis ball? Or maybe a possum – they do get them round here. But there was no rolling of ball or scrappling of little feet.

I wasn’t going to give the kids the pleasure of going out and looking for whatever it was with a torch, and it was all quiet after anyway, so I left it.

Next afternoon I was out watering the lawn when I looked up and saw this weird shape on the roof. What could it be? I climbed up and retrieved it. I was, to say the least, a little surprised!

Only scroll down if you have a strong stomach!


I mean it.
Stop here if you get shocked by pictures of rude things.
Again, I mean it!
What more can I say? You’ve been warned.
My big dong!

Walgett Show

Whadda we want? Big hats! When do want ’em? NOW!

Damn right we do, and the place for big hats, big belt buckles and big (no: little) motorised jeeps that double up as mobile PA systems is of course Walgett Show!

It was a glorious May afternoon when S and I cruised down the Castlereagh to the show grounds. S had worked in Walgett and so seemed to know everyone from the people collecting the gate fees to the kids in the cake decorating section of the produce sheds. She took me on a guided tour, which is helpful as I have absolutely no sense of direction (fact).

We started with the sheepses. Australia was built on the sheep’s back (or is that sheeps’ backs), and in Walgett they still breed champion fleece-bearers.

There was an entire shedful of fleeces. I know as much about fleeces as I do about surfing (nothing) but I did enjoy this display. They’re very tactile, and the odour of lanolin was rich and heady. I could have stayed in there all afternoon, but there were other things to be overwhelmed by.

The fowl, for instance. I’m not mad on ducks as a show item. My sister has chooks and ducks and prefers the ducks and, sure, maybe they have quirky personalities and so forth, but I find them a bit meh. Chooks are the go. There were all kinds of show ponies (if a chook can be a show pony): ones with iridescent colouring or bizarrely arranged plumage, but this little guy quietly took out the large hardfeather category. Go champ!

(No, I don’t know what a large hardfeather is either. Google it.)

Outside was a row of white bulls with the most unfeasibly large testicles I’ve ever seen. They were breathtakingly large (the testicles, though the bulls were pretty humungous too) and I physically shuddered at the thought of having to walk around with a pair of gigantic cajunas clattering against your kneecaps all day long.

Feeling faint and a little queazy, S supported me by the elbow and led me to the indoor displays. Refreshed by the cooler environment, I took a calming stroll around the dressmaking, embroidery, quilting and other lady crafts. (I did look to see if any of the entries were created by men: none were.)

I was briefly startled by a collection of painted skulls, a Walgett novelty. There should be more of this. In fact, it’s disappointing that there were only four entries. Surely there are more abandoned skulls around the Walgett Shire than this? Shame, Walgett, shame!

There were cakes. Lots of cakes. They all looked good to me, but then I know as much about cake making as I do about fleeces and surfing.

I’m not much on roses either, but this one was very impressive, especially as it must’ve bee sitting in a wee jar for a day or so. (Note: I’ve been influenced by S here; she’s a Scot, and so when I say “a wee jar” I mean a small jar, not “a jar of wee”.)

The class of Ms Martinez, art teacher at Lightning Ridge Central School, was well represented in the portraiture section.

What is the collective noun for solar systems? A galaxy? There was  a galaxy of them in the science section, some of which were seriously well put together. I do like a good school project in a show. Someone had done a poster on Mongolia. I wonder if, on show day in far-off Ulaanbaatar, there’s a kid putting together a poster on Walgett. Please let it be so.

Not everyone, I think, had scheduled the creation of their project quite as well as the solar system group. Having said that, thumbs up to Kristian for having a go. It’s labelled, colourful and accurate. What else do the judges want?

Fully recovered from the testicle incident, S led me to the canteen. I have to say that this was quite easily the gourmetiest show canteen I have ever EVER seen. EVER. They had sushi! SUSHI! W.T.F.!

Is that really “home cooked asparagus & cheese quiche with garden salad”?

S got the ham roll, which she declared “delicious, but a bit bready”. I can see what she means; I’m guessing that that bread isn’t Newtown-quality Turkish, but then that is such a snarky and niggling criticism I’m not even going to think it. A new benchmark has been set in agricultural show catering. I can’t see anyone knocking Walgett off in a hurry. (Yes, that is a challenge.)

We wandered over to the ring, where little urchins were shinning up and down a climbing wall. We bumped into J, from school, and she told us that Walgett Council had put this on for free. How good is that?

On the news that evening was an article on how the government was targeting obese kids and their parents in a campaign to encourage more exercise and better diets. I hardly saw any overweight kids at the show; what I did see was little kids in big hats, denim and belt buckles as big as their heads, and none of them were outside their recommended BMI. Bush life is good.

A huge line up of Harleys ringed the race track. The Wandering Walgett Wildcats were handing out awards for best bike, best dress up and so on.

Is it a feature of the modern world that, while there were about 35 motorcycles, I could only count about seven horses in the actual oval for the quarter horse trials.

They were fascinating to watch, though I didn’t know what a quarter horse is, was or does. This time I’ve Googled for you, it’s “a horse of a small stocky breed noted for agility and speed over short distances”. The event was a kind of cowboy dressage, but instead of English gents in red jackets and that sitty-uppy posture these guys had Akubras and a long, straight-legged riding style. Their horses had to do all kinds of quick turns, and tricks like walking sideways and backwards, the the riders cracked a whip by their heads to show that their mount was totally unfreakable.

We headed back to the main area to watch a fashion display sponsored by Walgett dress shop Frock On. The catwalk was the grassy area by the guinea pigs and rabbits; local women strutted their stuff as gamely as possible, given that mums obliviously pushed buggies right past them and kids, engrossed in their fidget spinners, nearly careered into the models.

After that it was a mosy down showbag alley and past the dodgem cars. It was still daytime and there’s something sad about carnival rides in sunlight. They’re like washed-up old rockers: they need darkness and coloured lights and a couple of lines and don’t wake up till late. As we drove out the gates, small knots of Walgett youth were making their way down Come By Chance Road to the show, twitching with anticipation. I remember that feeling. There’d be the thrill of trying to get on rides without the carnies seeing you, of filling up on junk, of boys showing off to girls and girls showing off to boys, of the smell and colour of the fireworks at the end of the night, of the long walk home in the dark telling stories of who did what to whom and why.

As for me, I had homemade vegetable soup and watched Gardening Australia and the news. Pushed a few lesson plans back and forth on my desk. Played cowboy songs on the mouthorgan.

S told me the show wasn’t as big as it had been in the past but I was impressed. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it was in the top 5 shows I’ve ever been to: big enough to have lots to look at but small enough that you got to see everything; outstandingly catered; and the most well-endowed bull south of the Barwon River.

Walgett Show: Star value 9/10.

Food Safari 9: Narran Lake Open Day

Narran Lake is a vast, flat, open area to the north of Walgett and to the south-west of the Ridge. On maps it appears as a lake, a body of water, but it’s ephemeral and only fills properly after deluges in Queensland pour down the Condamine–Balonne catchment. There’s an important creation story that involves people being eaten by crocodiles, which seems odd for this part of Australia but (in a remarkable testament to the durability of oral storytelling traditions) fossilised crocodile skeletons have been discovered in the area.

I went there with a group of Year 8 Yuwaalaraay language students for the annual open day. These days the lake is co-managed by NSW Parks and Wildlife Service and local elders. There were dances and songs and boomerang throwing and tours of the dry lakebed. Tommy Barker’s remarkable artefact collection was on display.

But most importantly there was weird food: emu rissoles, crocodile kebabs, goat and gravy and roo tail soup. Mmm!

I got stuck into a goat and gravy roll first because, well, that was the first thing to get served up. There are quite a few people farming the goats around the west of the state; I don’t know if these were farmed goats or feral. But it was good meat, nice and tender, and the gravy was proper gravy – not that prissy “jus” you get in fancy restaurants. All served up in a sop-absorbing white bread bun.

I didn’t get anywhere near the crocodile kebabs: as soon as they came off the barbecue they were pounced on by the kids. Opinions ranged from “awesome” to “disgusting”, but that could mean anything.

I went in search of emu rissoles. Too slow, old man.

But there was bucket-loads more goat-in-gravy and beggars can’t be choosers.

We dragged ourselves away from the food to take a walk of the lake. I’d been down here before to see the amazing archaeological work that’s being undertaken by the team from the University of New England. We got a good sandalwood smoking before we set off.

I could come down again and again; it’s such a multi-layered place. On the walk were a few old blokes who remembered harvesting crops on the lake in the years before it was gazetted by parks. There are still plenty of remnants of the lake’s time when cattle ran freely.

We got back in time for the most important course of the day: fried scones. There was a frenzy of margarine and syrup and kids licking slithery goo off their hands and forearms. The scones were good, but I have to say that Goodooga’s were better.

I did manage to get a late-entry emu rissole though, and I’d say that that was my food highlight.

Narran Lake open day: do yourself a favour in April next year and get down there.