Random things in trees

Trees. I don’t know where to begin: there’s so much to say about them, and our relationship with them.

Look at this old monster, bearing its huge and ancient scar. Was the bark for a canoe? Or part of some cremation or interment ritual? I’ll never know. I’d gone out with some of the kids and Mr B, a very knowledgeable artisan, to collect wood for spears. (That’s what I like about schools out west. There aren’t enough places where you lads can go out and make spears during school time.)

Some scars were decorated. This is a more modern interpretation of the practice. Might’ve been cut with a cordless circular saw or similar. The world changes.

This one’s up the Castlereagh, towards Angledool. I don’t think it’s an actual scar from human activity, probably just a shed branch. But what’s the blue for? It’s not near a driveway or anything; it just seems really random.

But if you want to see really random stuff in trees you don’t have to go far. On the road between Cumborah and the Grawin there’s a tree with a microwave oven in it. How? Why? Perhaps someone put the oven down for five minutes twenty years ago then forgot about it and a tree grew beneath it.

As you head up towards Hebel you’ll come across a lot of little … um … what do I call them? Sculptures? Tableaux?

Whoever’s responsible has put a fair amount of thought and work into their creation. Not a lot of thought and work, but a fair amount.

Again: what does it mean?

As is always the case with children’s toys in a location where there are no actual children there can be an element of the creepy in the whole exercise. This is exacerbated when the artist nails the toy to the tree by the ears.

Superman makes an appearance. There’s something poignant about this Superman. Well, that might just be me. I’m always filling in imaginary back stories for things like this and perhaps his arrival in a tree at the side of the Castlereagh Highway miles from anywhere isn’t poignant at all, maybe it’s utterly hilarious and involved rum and cones and nakedness and all the other standard rituals of modern Ridge life.

But I prefer my poignant back story. It suits my natural melancholia.

Angledool

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 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.

Stanley

How can you miss him? The big fella known as Stanley stands to attention on the eastern side of the Castlereagh Highway, about five kays south of the Ridge turn-off.

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There are three plaques at the base of Stanley, like they put one on a big rock and then remembered something they should have added so went back and stuck another on. Then another. The first one’s pretty straightforward.

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But I guess the mayor of Walgett Shire (who is better known for his roles in Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day) got sick of answering pesky questions about Stanley. Questions like “Why?” and “WTF?”

So a second plaque was commissioned. (This isn’t true. I’m just making it up. But stay with me.) This second plaque had some cultural information: stuff about the Yuwaalaraay name for an emu (dhinawan) and about how father emus incubate the eggs and about the Aboriginal dance group from the Lightning Ridge Central School. So they stuck this second plaque on a boulder next Stanley, and I bet Bill Murray thought “Thank Christ for that”.

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But still the questions came.

All those nosey-parker grey nomads that camp out at the roadside stop over the road from Stanley. Those guidebook writers and retired teachers and bloggers with their pesky queries. Yeah, all right, so you’ve got this massive steel emu. And it’s like a Yuwaalaraay thing. And, yeah, daddy emus are real nice. But, like, why?

So Bill sent his offsider down to the trophy shop again and got them to bang out another feckin’ plaque.

This one’s substantially longer. I think Bill had gotten jack of the grey nomads and bloggers by this time. Maybe someone put his email address onto a “Weird outback shit” chatroom and he started getting all these cranky messages. What’s with the big emu, Bill Murray? And when are you going to leave Walgett Shire and starting making decent films again, like Lost in Translation? Huh?

So this plaque goes into extensive detail about Stanley. More detail, probably, than even the nosiest retired teacher grey nomad wants to know. But there it is: read on if you’re interested. I got most of the way through it.

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So, Stanley.

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I’ve still no idea why you’re there. But you’re one big fucking emu.