Moree pound and Colly offal pit

Maadhaay ngay nhalay. Gayrr nhama Jambo. That’s Yuwaalaraay for ‘This is my dog. He’s called Jambo.’

Maadhaay nhalay Roxy. Yilaadhu yanaawaanha nhama pound-gu. ‘This dog is Roxy. Today she’s going to the pound.’

Roxy had been on holidays in the Ridge, staying with J. But today it was time for Roxy to go back the big house.

J’s car was having its own holiday, at the fixers in Dubbo, and so I’d volunteered to do the drive. It was partly favour and partly vested interest; I needed a day out of town. We set off down the Castlereagh mid morning, turned off towards Colly and before long we were crossing the rich volcanic soil of the Moree plains.

Last year’s rain resulted in good subsoil moisture and optimistic crop sowing, but it’s dry out there at the moment. We came across mobs of cattle grazing on the slim pickings at the side of the road. The graziers’ kids pootled around on quad bikes and we wondered about their lives. What dreams do they dream? What will they become?

About ten kays out of Moree we turned off the highway and followed a bitumen track, the pale blue peak of Mount Kaputar rising up from the plains to the south of us. What I’ve been calling “the pound” is really the cunningly named Rovertel, a boarding kennel and dog rescue place.

A fat red heeler waddled up to greet us. From inside of the kennel came the mournful whine of dogs waiting for runaround time. Roxy’s ears went down but, when the gate was opened up, she padded in contentedly. She seemed to know where home was.

So that was that.

Or was it? This would be a very short and dull blog post if that were the case. Instead, we headed into town for lunch and waited for the real story to begin.

Moree’s a moderately prosperous town, but like any town that depends on agriculture it’s had more than its fair share of lean years. Sure, there were bumper crops last year, but before that there were several tough ones. We took a stroll up and down and around the main street looking for somewhere to have lunch; both the Indian restaurants were shut so our choice came down to Omega and 2400. 2400 won out. Vegetarian nachos for me. Not bad.

I think of Moree as a checked shirt and RM Williams kind of town but the mid-afternoon population was almost entirely made up of middle-aged men and women in leather jackets. It turns out this weekend was an annual Harley-Davidson festival. Harley D made its reputation on outlaw riders, Marlon Brando rebels without a cause. “Whadda ya rebellin’ against, Johnny?” “Whadda ya got?” These days, in Australia at least, the Harley’s a status symbol. You’ve got to have a significant wedge to throw at a bike like that, the kind of money that Gen Y would need as a deposit on a shoebox in Sydney’s farthest west.

I have a strange fascination for Harley riders: not the wild guys who deal meth and corrupt the daughters of good citizens, but the accountants and retired teachers who drive out to Moree for hog fest. I wanted to take a picture of them at the cafe but I knew that it’d be rude. I could have just asked, I suppose, and I bet they’d have agreed.. But I didn’t. Then, as we were getting in the car, a whole pack of them appeared like slow-moving bison grazing their way across the vast plains of Dakota. Without missing a beat, J gamely posed by the car so that I could take a gammon holiday snap with a backdrop of hog-riding risk analysts. But really I don’t know why I did that. Like, am I ten years old? Jesus.

It was an uneventful trip to Collarenebri. We refuelled and pulled out of the servo and found ourselves next to the Ridge back road. We’d had enough of the bitumen by this time so off we set along the reddish brown dirt.

The last time I came down the back road I saw this intriguing sign. Who would not want to see an offal pit? The clock was against me on that occasion but I promised myself that, should I ever be down the back road again, I would not let the opportunity pass. Today was that day.

I tried to imagine what the offal pit might look like. A vision came to me of a deep, round pool filled with livers and kidneys and brains and kidneys and intestines and kidneys. Kidneys featured very heavily. My vision pit was rather Game of Thrones; it was lined with granite and the pool of offal was frothing and bubbling and the deep maroon colour of a Queensland rugby jersey. In the middle of the pool was a bearded man in leather armour, screaming and pawing uselessly at the rippling kidneys as he sank beneath them; I think there might have been a king standing at the edge of the pit supping from a jewel-encrusted goblet and throwing back his head as he laughed cruelly.

The first thing to pop my vision was the chain-link fence. This was one big, big fence, shiny and new. It must have cost a bucketload of money. It was the kind of fence that people build to protect something very valuable. Were there offal rustlers prowling the outskirts of country towns, scooping bucketfuls of kidneys and selling them on the black market in Big Town? Or was there something more sinister at work? J and I drove onwards, a sense of unease growing inside of us.

An open gate beckoned and we drove into the tip, past piles of tyres and abandoned white goods. A man dragged branches from a trailer but otherwise the place was deserted. The silence was thick and heavy. In the far distance a huge, dead old gum tree, denuded of foliage, loomed against the skyline. As we approached, the branches appeared to come to life as a vast flock of kites and falcons rose and flapped lazily into the thermals. We had found the offal pit.

Disappointingly it was not granite-lined. There was no sinking man or sadistic king. And it was almost totally devoid of kidneys, brains, livers, tripe and intestines.

There were lots of empty beer bottles and cans of Bundy and Coke. It looked like there’d been massive party, like some Neanderthal feasting site. Maybe that’s what you do in Colly, go out to the offal pit and get shit-faced on Bundy and kidneys. As if to confirm our thoughts, J pointed out this elegant composition: a goat’s foreleg and a pair of discarded knickers. I was immediately reminded of this story from The Onion from a while back.

As our eyes became adjusted to the tumble of colours and textures, shapes began to make themselves apparent. A sheep lay face down in the dirt, its mummified tongue lolling at a grotesque angle.

A goat’s head, barely connected to its torso.

The flattened skeleton of some creature. It was all very Gothic, or like the darker still lives of the Dutch masters.

Next to a tree lay a pair of dogs. They still had their collars on; the collars were connecting them by a short length of chain to the tree. Had they been just tied up and left there?

No. Each animal bore a huge hole in the forehead. Far too big for a bullet; you’d need Clint Eastwood’s Magnum to make a hole that size. Did someone come out with the dogs and one of those “humane” killers they use in abattoirs to take out pigs and cattle?

It was all deeply surreal. I half expected to turn around and be confronted by a line of toothless, pitchfork-toting yokels. We mooched around in silence. I prodded the toe of my boot at a desiccated lump of animal hide the colour of Donald Trump’s hair. There was a pile of jaw bones. Just jaw bones. Above us the kites wheeled patiently. It was quite easily one of the weirdest places I’ve ever been.

On the back road on the way home we veered left and right to avoid the countless dead kangaroo and emu bodies.

J saw a kitten sitting demurely on the verge. Not a cat: a kitten. We saw a dog, a wild dog, huge and panting beneath its matted coat. It was hard not to be reminded of Roxy and the dogs in the pound, and the dogs chained to the tree in the offal pit.

Yaluu, Roxy. Maayu yanaaya.

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.

Narran Lake

Lightning Ridge is Yuwaalaraay country. The Yuwaalaraay language is no longer a first language but it’s still spoken around here, and lots of schools in the region teach Yuwaalaraay at primary level or (in high school) as part of the mandatory Languages Other Than English (LOTE) course for students in Year 7 and Year 8.


The school in the Ridge is part of a group of schools involved in the Yuwaalaraay Language Nest, a system borrowed from the Kiwis to support and resource language maintenance. This week I was lucky enough to work with Yuwaalaraay and Gamilaraay language workers from the Ridge, Walgett, Goodooga, Collarenebri and Dubbo, sharing and developing materials for next year’s study and beyond. Part of the week involved a trip to a site of huge importance to Yuwaalaraay people: the Narran Lake.


The Lake’s about an hour’s drive south-west of the Ridge, down the Cumborah road then south till you hit East Mullane. This former sheep and cattle station must have been super remote back in the day. It’s now the HQ for NSW National Parks & Wildlife Services, and any group that comes to study here.


And there are lots that do. You can’t just drop in to Narran Lake. It’s not a park, it’s a nature reserve, co-managed by Parks and the Yuwaalaraay community. You have to have a reason to come here, usually scientific or cultural. There are people studying birds (the Lake’s on the Ramsar list for migrant birds), water movement, vegetation and – this past couple of weeks – a team of archaeologists from the University of New England.

Among them was Dr Mark Moore, a native of Indiana, USA, and a leading expert in stone tool manufacture, or “knapping”.


Mark and his team were analysing earth ovens when we came across them. What looked like a bunch of rocks was in fact the exposed remains of heated stones used to cook food. We were up on the ridge, near the station, but the team had also examined these ovens down at the Lake and on the flats, though down there generations of livestock had pretty much smashed the evidence.


As is so often the case with archaeology I had no idea what I was looking at until I’d been told. Buncha stones? Nah! This is always sobering for someone with a History degree and a qualification from the NSW Government to teach Ancient History.

The evidence wasn’t just in the stones on the ground; by mapping their location the team had developed patterns of placement, use and movement that offered a glimpse into the way that people from dozens and dozens of generations past had lived and moved on this patch of dirt. Bloody amazing.


There were hundreds of shards of tools too. Again, things that – in my ignorance – I’d have stepped over or kicked aside. Each piece was flagged, recorded and replaced. Nothing was taken away; this is modern archaeology with a focus on the partnership between the academy and the community.


Back at the station, in fact, there were boxes and boxes of previously plundered artefacts that are being repatriated by the university. These artefacts will be stored in a keeping place, probably at the station.


After we left the team we dropped off the ridge and into the Lake proper. Our guides were two Yuwaalaraay men, N (Bubs) and J. These guys were brilliant: they had the extraordinary ability to simultaneously describe the world around us in the language and mindset of the Yuwaalaraay and the scientists, botanists, hydrologists and academics who make their pilgrimage to the Lake.


We crossed a massive, two-kilometre shell midden created from seasonal feasting on freshwater shellfish created by countless generations of Yuwaalaraay people, and the visitors from who knows how many other language groups who met and camped and celebrated here over thousands of years.


While the women took off to do whatever is Yuwaalaraay women do, Bubs and J took me around a series of lunettes recently exposed by wind and rain. The ground was littered with rocks; at least, that’s what they looked like to me. Under their tutelage I began to see hammer tools, spear barbs, axe heads, grinding stones: a whole, industrial-scale manufacturing site for the tools of living in this part of the world.


There were amazingly complex pieces of worked stone. Who was the last person to pick up or use this drilled stone? (Dr Mark, Bubs and J conclude that it may have been used as part of a fire-starting kit.)


The Lake wasn’t full, maybe half full. Black swans, pelicans, plovers, cormorants and shags squawked and wheeled in the sky around us. Against this ancient backdrop, the occasional vapour trail of some invisible passenger jet hauling tourists and business people to Singapore or Dubai scribed its way through the blueness above.


We regathered, men and women, and headed back to the station for a late lunch of salad, and chops barbecued by Bubs and J. We were ravenous and fell on it like we hadn’t seen food in a month. Sated, we lolled around for a little while, before R and D collected some fresh sandalwood leaves, set them afire, and we passed through its aromatic smoke.


It was a magical day. Even the tyre shredded by the brilliant white shincracker road couldn’t put a dent in our enthusiasm.


The Lake was unlike anywhere else I’d been and, without wanting to sound like I’ve been everywhere man, I’ve been fortunate and privileged enough to have visited some quite extraordinary places in my time. I doubt Narran Lake would have had such an impact on me without the company of the Yuwaalaraay people, and Dr Mark and his team.

On Friday night at the pub, the usual group of wise men lamented modern politics and we gnashed our teeth and shredded our garments over the exponential surge in global population and the rise of the Stupid People and wondered, pessimistically, where it would all end. Then we drank some more and solved all those easily solvable problems (global pandemic, anyone?). At least, it appeared to have been solved until Saturday morning, when we woke to find that the Stupids were still in charge and the population was still exploding.

But Narran Lake will still be there, in all its quietness and stillness.