Food Safari 13: Street Food

One of the most exciting things about being in a new country is trying out the local food. There will always be cafes and restaurants and bistros, but nothing beats the thrill of bolting an exotic dish sold by a surly street vendor with a rudimentary understanding of personal hygiene.

There are few opportunities for such occasions in Yuwaalaraay country, but street food does occasionally appear, comet-like, before vanishing in a trail of dust and saturated fat. Opal Festival is one such occasion.

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But there are others, and here are a few examples from around the traps. Food Safari ratings have been applied.

The Supa Sausage / Curly Spud

I remember the thrill I got at last year’s Opal Fest when I saw my first curly spud-on-a-stick. I’d already smashed my face with salty fatty goo and so, while I meant to come back and get a curly spud later on, I got distracted by a shiny milk bottle top or a balloon or something and forgot. So I’ve been kicking myself hard in the nuts for 365 days as punishment for my stupidity.

But – at last! – the kicking stopped: the curly potato lady was back in town!

Her van wasn’t with the main stalls but was tucked away near the entrance to Spider Brown Oval. I was drawn towards it by an attractive sign. I have friends who work as designers and typographers: look on and learn, boys and girls.

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The supa sausage was tempting but I kept my resolve and got the curly spud. It took a while for the lady to cook it, and that’s one of the differences between fast food and street food. This was a mum-and-dad operation and so each curly spud was individually battered, dropped into a ridiculously small vat of moderately hot oil, and cooked slowly – sloooooowly – until ready. A hearty shake of chicken salt and a hose down with red sauce and it was good to go.

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My dining companion went down the supa sausage route.

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But I’m glad I stuck to my guns. The curly spud ticked all the street food boxes: tasty, a bit weird, potentially life-threatening, yum.

Food Safari rating: 8/10

Bruno’s Pizza

I don’t really think of pizza as street food, but Bruno’s has a mobile trailer with a genuine wood-fired pizza oven bolted on the back. They deserve points out of ten just for having a crack.

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I went for the margherita, which was really just a sauce base with a massive coating of melty cheese. Again, I was ably assisted by my dining companion, to whom a supa sausage was no more than an appetiser.

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It’s a bit hard to judge this one. What am I comparing it to: a regular Bruno’s pizza or a curly spud on a stick? Sure, the cheese was a bit burnt, but not enough to make me not eat it. And inside that creme brûlée top there was a molten core of stringy mozzarella (or mozzarella-type product). If I say, “It did the job” then that sounds a bit unflattering, but … well, it did the job.

Food Safari rating: 7/10.

Kebab truck

This thing appeared overnight and was quickly the talk of the town. A night of catastrophic binge drinking isn’t complete without a fistful of foil-wrapped kebaby loveliness. Manys the time I’ve wobbled away from the Orient Hotel in Cooks Hill, only to find that my trusty bicycle has taken me to the Oasis in Hamilton, as though it knows that I need a kebab. How do bicycles know that stuff?

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The Ridge kebab van had a bit of a queue when I arrived. A couple of coppers had pulled up their Toyota and were making an order. The interaction did not fill me confidence. The man copper asked for tabouli, but the kebab people did not have tabouli because “Khan’s can’t get it in” or something. WTF? Don’t you just chop up a bunch of parsley and mint and throw in a few bits and pieces? The salad consisted of an iceberg lettuce, some tomato and maybe a Spanish onion. The man copper looked understandably forlorn. “I’ve just come here from Fairfield” he muttered, to no-one in particular.

I ordered mine. No felafel were available but there was meat. Well, beef. So I got beef. There was some interaction about the salad; though I didn’t realise it at the time this led to further misunderstanding. Just for the record, here is the salad bar at the Oasis kebab shop in Hamilton. I’m getting EVERYTHING, and being served by a man who is impeccably polite in spite of having to serve people like me and the shrieking drunks who fall out of the Kent Hotel at 2 in the morning.

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I know that street food should be eaten on the street but I took my kebab home. When I unwrapped it I found myself frozen in a state of disbelief. The kebab had been baked in a sandwich press into a kind of flattened meat biscuit. And there was no salad at all! It was just meat and cheese!

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It was absolutely crap, of course, and most of it went in the bin.

As an aside, I stopped in Walgett recently and bought a ham and cheese croissant and a coffee. Again, they put the croissant in a sandwich press. Is it a western NSW thing? I’d always thought that the point of a croissant was the lightness of the fluffy flaky pastry. But at least the Walgett croissant tasted like a croissant. Ridge kebabs? Nope. Just, nope.

Food Safari rating: 1/10

Steak Sandwich

The steak sandwich, along with the sausage sizzle, must be the pinnacle of Australian street food. And yet it is, like any classic, so easy to stuff up. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been given a piece of boot leather slopped between a couple of sheets of doughy pap, all smeared with sugary sauce.

The Men’s Shed were having a fundraising BBQ on Opal Street one morning: Grassy and (I think) Peter were hard at it, frying away on the mobile trailer they use for these things. I’d been hearing good things about the new butcher and thought what the hell, I’ll give it a go.

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I’m so glad I did. The steak was from the butcher and the bread from the baker next door, fresh that morning. There’d been a slow down in custom and so my steak, when I got it, had been rested, just like real food. It was THE BEST STEAK SANDWICH I HAVE EVER EATEN IN MY ENTIRE LIFE.

Food Safari rating: 11/10

Chicken Tender Pizza Roll

Yes, you read that right.

This doesn’t really qualify as street food as it came from the school canteen. I was on duty in the gym; the usual boys were playing basketball and the usual girls were slumped at the side watching the usual boys. There’s a “no food or drink” rule in the canteen but one of the usual boys arrived late and, in the way of boys that age, was pressing fuel into his mouth. (At what age does that end, that ability to eat two pies then play a game of football immediately after, without wanting to vomit?)

I was so startled at this thing that I asked him to deconstruct it for me. It consists of:

  • 1 x ham and cheese pizza roll
  • 5 x chicken tenders
  • 1 x tomato sauce squeezy sachet

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A cousin who lives in the shadier part of the Edinburgh docks told me about a thing called, in those parts, a “pizza supper”. You go to the chip shop and they get a frozen pizza, fold it in half, put hot chips inside the folded pizza and then deep fry the lot.

There’s a kind of genius logic in there, and I have to admit that there was a time when I would have thought that the chicken tender pizza roll was also the work of genius, rather than a starving 15-year-old boy.

Food Safari rating: untested and so unmarkable, but 8/10 for innovation.

The Ridge Has Got Talent

You can’t have yin without yang, or heads without tails, or action without reaction, or Donald Trump without  … well, anyone really. For all that the far west lacks in resources and infrastructure and opportunities, it more than makes up for in vision and zest and can-do attitude.

A prime example of this is the Lightning Ridge Central School’s trip to Nepal, the second of which is planned for 2018. You can imagine how hard it is to organise such a thing from out here, and the risk-averse Department of Education didn’t exactly lay out the red carpet. So the local branch of Rotary stepped in to auspice the trip on the proviso that the students raised the funds themselves. It happened in 2016 and it’s happening again! There are regular car washes and raffles, but the major event on the fundraising calendar is The Ridge Has Got Talent.

As I approached the doors of the bowlo’s main auditorium I could hear the hum of a goodly sized crowd. And, of course, I got hit up straight away for entry fees and donations. Well, what else did I expect? Here’s the glamorous Krystal, ably assisted in money-taking duties by Evey.

For my ten bucks I got an act list and a stubby pencil, the type you find in bookies shops or voting booths on election day. There were 17 acts and I must admit that my heart sank a little. I’ve sat through a fair few of these things for my own kids and I wondered, did I have the stamina to sit through such an affair when it’s someone else’s gorgeousness labouring through Für Elise on a Casio keyboard. And I’m still slightly traumatised by the memory – it was a stinking hot afternoon in maybe 1998 at the Lawrence O’Toole centre in Hamilton North – of three Year 5 girls in leotards and sparkly bowlers dancing energetically to You Can Leave Your Hat On. But no: this would be different.

And it was! Not always in ways that I’d anticipated. The rotten photo below is of The Mystery Piano Player. So mysterious in fact that he can’t be seen, his faced blacked up and his costume blending in with the curtains. Was he even there? If I hadn’t heard him with my own ears I’d have thought he was an optical illusion or a conjuring trick.

Silly man: this was the conjuring trick! We were summoned to the dance floor, where we were told volunteers would be needed. I was a bit late arriving and, honestly, I’m not very good at keeping up with these things, so frankly I had no idea what was happening.

Luckily, Stacey knew exactly what was happening. Three of diamonds! Of course!

There were a few dance troupes. This was Evey and the Barretts. I’d been strong-armed into voting for this mob by Leon, Evey’s dad. He’s not a person to argue with and so I did exactly what was asked, before they’d even performed. When they finished Leon glared around the room and defied anyone not to clap louder and longer, which we all did. Thankfully they were actually quite good and so I didn’t feel too compromised.

Jada and Ava couldn’t make the night, unfortunately, but in true Ridge style a back-up act was rustled together. Barry and Gayle look like they know their way around the stage of a bowling club and I’m guessing this was not the first time they’d stepped into the breach on a talent night. They banged out a fine rendition of a song I’d never heard of which had the slightly alarming (for a school fundraiser) refrain “He drinks tequila / And she talks dirty in Spanish”. I had a brief You Can Leave Your Hat On flashback but everyone took it in good spirit.

(I’ve saved you the effort of Googling. It’s song by Sammy Kershaw and Lorrie Morgan (aka Sammy&Lorrie) and has had over million YouTube views. Seriously, where have I been all these years?)

You’ve got to admire the pluck of these little kids, especially the ones that got up and played or sang solo. This one looked like a little Minnie Mouse in her red polka dot skirt and white face. I’m guessing that’s a mum videoing her daughter’s rendition of Bubbly on the phone. Go, girl!

The senior acts finished off the night, with the Schools Spectacular dancers and a solo number by Penny (I think it was Goo Goo Dolls’ Iris) which eventually took out the pool. Then we got hit up for more raffle tickets and donations. I now have a ticket in the Khan’t trolley dash. 2561 has always been my lucky number and I’m going to start scoping out the aisles in coming weeks.

And so that part of the night ended. I was somewhat disturbed at how much pleasure I got from watching other people’s children perform their song and dance routines. This must surely be a sign that I’m getting old; there was a time I would have sneered at such an event but we all mellow with time.

Certainly my travelling companions were so mellow that they nearly nodded off in the foyer.

Good luck, happy fundraisers. And bring back amazing, life-changing stories from Nepal in 2018. You’ll never be the same again, and neither will the Ridge.

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.

Last day of Term 2

Oftentimes an idea for a post doesn’t come off.

Oftentimes I take pictures on my phone and use them to remind myself later of a scene or a mood, and sometimes that triggers a post. But sometimes it doesn’t.

This was one of those. It was the last day of Term 2 at the school. Teachers were tired of the kids and the kids were sick to death of the teachers. We went to the pub. (The teachers, not the kids.) It ended up with shots at the bar.

Then afterwards was one of those weird journeys in the courtesy bus along dirt tracks, bouncing around wondering where the bloody hell you are.

Then home, at which point a fire seems like a good idea. Fire is always a good idea.

But for some reason none of it clags together in the way it has to to make a post happen. So the pictures sit there until, some time later, you see them and think, ah, bugger it. And you click “Publish”.

Walking and talking down Stoneys Road

We haven’t had much of a winter, certainly not as cold and wet as the winter of 2016, but this weekend reminded us that August isn’t spring. The wind was cold and gusty and, though the skies were blue and cloudless, it felt like indoors weather. Which was good because I had a big editing job, proofreading the references of a gigantic multi-authored work on Aboriginal song cycles. By lunchtime of Day 2 my head was like a block of cold lard and so when N texted to see if I wanted to go for a walk I could barely contain myself.

I motorbiked up to Big Town, parked the Kwaka, and we started footwalking past the water towers to Stoneys Road.

I haven’t been down Stoneys Road, but then I haven’t been to about 98% of the Ridge. I need a dog. Dogs get you out.

The “town” part of the Ridge, such as it is, quickly falls away once you step off the bitumen. Fifty yards in any direction and you hit a kind of liminal zone where humans and nature push back and forth against each other, like a First World War battle front. Sometimes one side pushes harder than the other and claims a patch of scrub for a while but then the other pushes back and reclaims it. Everywhere is evidence of occasions where one side has sallied forth and, for a short while, swaggered about in its hard-fought victory.

There are houses along the way, civilians caught in the crossfire.

I didn’t know anything about the New Jerusalem, though I kind of felt like I should. It’s mentioned in the Book of Revelation:

And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God , having been prepared as a bride having been adorned for her husband.

You can get quite caught up in the internet with these things. (I say “you” but I mean “me”.) The apostle John drew the New Jerusalem as the bride, drawn in contrast to the harlot Babylon. I have to say that Babylon sounds like a lot more fun, in the same way that the smoking carriage on trains in the olden days was always a million times more of a lark than being stuck with the Baptists and Presbyterians in non-smoking.

There’s still working mines off to the side of the road. In the past I’ve edited environmental impact statements for proposed mines and there’s always a good couple of kilograms of words about the rehabilitation work that will take place when everything’s been dug out. It’s all bullshit, of course.

Ridge folk take a refreshingly honest approach to rehabilitation: they don’t claim that they’ll make any effort to rehabilitate the environment, and they stick to their word.

A bit further on and the wind that had been tugging at the brim of my hat brought with it the heady stench of roadkill. You know when you hit the centre of the scent zone and it feels like the air is almost chewably full of stinking dead beast particles? At least in a car you can put your foot down and be gone, but on Stoneys Road we fell into the epicentre of a throbbing, flesh-buckling miasma. The source was two fat pigs, pushed off the tray of someone’s ute.

I take my work seriously. No long-range lenses were used.

Then on, past more mines and bits of dead machinery and busted, rusted car chassis. We came across a big pole in the ground with a thing on top that looks like a hook goes into it. I know nothing about mining. N has an impressive working knowledge of what goes on, down in those holes in the ground, but even she had no clue. We surmised for a while, made up theories, gave up.

After skirting the airstrip for a while Stoneys Road eventually cuts into the Three Mile. Here we had the option of turning round and heading back, or cracking on. The thought of all that proofreading made me sicker than photographing a dead tusker close up so crack on we did.

The next stretch of road was a bit dull. I’ll take pictures of anything but I didn’t take any of this bit. Instead we talked, talked about all the stuff you talk about when you’re walking and talking on a windy day. We didn’t talk about Charlottesville or Barcelona or Turku, we didn’t talk about same-sex marriage or the dual nationality of politicians, we didn’t talk about North Korea’s nuclear ambitions or the wisdom of a Christian woman wearing a burqa into parliament. We talked about the other stuff.

And then we were at Bill O’Brien Way, the main road that links the Ridge to the Castlereagh Highway. The track cuts in at Benny Walford’s Crossing. We paused to look at the little memorial, the plastic flowers wagging and flapping in the buffeting breeze. So poignant, these modest acts of remembrance.

The rest of the walk felt utilitarian and more like a pedestrian commute than a refreshing stroll. We walked on the sloping camber next to the bitumen as tank-sized four-wheel drives hauled caravans into town. Grit swirled around us until we hit the paved sidewalks of Morilla Street. By this time it was mid afternoon and the town had that siesta feel about it, with barely even a dog to be seen. We stopped in at the Australian Opal Centre and admired the fossilised pine cones and sea creatures and I thought about all the things that N and I had talked about, the inconsequential things that will be forgotten when we’re fossils.

Or maybe even sooner, maybe tomorrow.

Opal Queen

It’s the last weekend in July. Can that even be possible? If it is indeed true then the middle of next week will be August. Glaaarrrgh!

But if it IS the last weekend in July, then that would explain the stupidly bigly number of cars on Morilla Street, and the depleted shelves at Khan’s, and the fact that Walgett Shire Council sent up a road crew to kick some dirt around the busted pavement edges and roadsides.

Yes! It’s Opal Festival time! And that of course means … Opal Queen!

I didn’t make it last year due to circumstances that I can’t remember. Maybe I just didn’t want to go. But this year I was determined to go! Yes! Exclamation marks!!!

Friday night was the annual gala dinner of the appallingly acronymed IOJDAA, which stands for something to do with opals. It was $100 a ticket and themed “Great Gatsby” so I went to the pub instead, which was a good move as I won a meat tray in the raffles and swapped it for beer tokens. I knew from that moment on that this was going to be a most excellent weekend.

Saturday was a hive of activity. The local junior rugby league team, the Tigers, were playing Saint George, so the area around Spider Brown Oval was already choked. Add a few dozen market stalls and you have instant bedlam.

City folk will of course scoff at this definition of congestion but it’s all relative. There were lots of elderly drivers in hats struggling to navigate the side streets; kids ran – unfettered and willy-nilly – between moving cars; people parked at alarming angles wherever they felt like. But once inside the area marked off for stalls a kind of calm resumed, the calm of familiarity that you feel when you walk around these sorts of things. There was jam and chutney and balsamic vinegar.

There was salami.

There were olde timey Aussie bush signs. I really did fancy the one about pigging. Should I go back and get it?

These gentlemen want a minning truck. I wasn’t sure if it was a typo or if “minning” is a thing.

I went to Urban Dictionary and found out that it most definitely is a thing:

A foriegner, who acts very gay to another man, then blaming his gay actions on the “fact” that’s how they act in their home country.

(foriegner grabs a guy’s butt suggestively)

Minning Victim: “Hey man! What’s with that?!?”

Minner: “huh huh, that’s how they do it in Korea!”

Bystander: “Man, that guy is Minning all over the place.”

I live, I learn.

Earlier this year I blogged about drinking in the Pub in the Club, a strange other-worldly venue nestled within the Bowlo. This cavernous place only comes to life once a year, and this is its weekend to shine. The interior was packed with opal sellers.

They’re not just Lightning Ridge opal sellers of course; some have come from White Cliffs, Coober Pedy, Queensland – all over.

But the best location in the house is always reserved for one very, very important organisation: the Lightning Ridge Historical Society. Yet again the stall was held together by a team of volunteers led by the redoubtable, the indomitable Barb! Barb is out of hospital having had joint replacement surgery, and only just off her sticks, and yet there she is, selling raffle tickets, calling out to old-timers and locals, answering dozens of questions to baffled tourists. What a woman!

If there are opal sellers then there are also sure to be opal buyers. These guys rock into town every now and then, rent a room at the pub or the motel, and stick out their shingle.

It all seems a bit dubious but people who know about this stuff assure me that it’s legit. I wouldn’t like to be the one driving around these outback roads, alone, with a car full of cash and opals though. I bet they can tell some stories.

All this talk of cash and opals reminds me to go back to the story. Every second year the IJODOAJA, or whatever it’s called, holds a competition for the best opal jewellery design. The entries were displayed in the upstairs function room at the Bowlo but, due to photography restrictions, I can’t show you any of them. You’ll have to trust me that they were very, very good. As was the humungous blue opal necklace that Serena Williams once wore. Jeepers.

I wandered back outside for a bit to eat. The sausage sizzle trailer run by the Men’s Shed was out of sausages but I did get a magnificent steak and onion sanger. The number of food stalls was a bit down this year, which might explain the extra-long queue for the curly, battered spuds on a stick. It felt like pure greed to get one straight after a steak sandwich, but blow me down I think I’ll go back Sunday for a “mad feed” (as the kids say) of battery potatoey goodness.

After that it was home to admire my booty: caramelised strawberry balsamic vinegar; lemon, lime and ginger marmalade; wild boar salami; a tin of Kiwi Dave’s leather balsam; and a cutting board decorated by supa-talented Ridge art teacher Priscilla Martinez. All in all, not a bad morning. And still time for a nanna nap before the Big Night.

******

Well, that was satisfying. I never used to be a napper but now that I’m older than Methuselah I rather enjoy an afternoon lied down. Where was I? Yes! Opal Queen!

I headed into town around half seven. On my way I passed the community church, which had this sign out the front. Is it just me or does that not sound like the kind of club you want to join?

I bumped into E in the car park. E organises the primary school’s dance troupe, which apparently kicks off the show every year. This year they did Rock Around The Clock. It was exceedingly very cute.

I had no idea what was going to happen, but luckily there were plenty of people who knew the drill. It goes like this: arrive on time and sit around for ages waiting for something to happen; little kids do dance (see above); Opal Queen parade; winner announced; band comes on and everyone gets drunk and the whole thing gets loose and shapeless.

That sounded like a plan I could work with. The whole premise of women parading themselves for group approval sounds a bit medieval and there’s a time in my life (say, the first fifty years) when I would have moaned on about it being as bad as living in a Taliban caliphate or something, but from the lofty vantage point of late middle age I can just do a little nod and go, “Yeah, Opal Queen. I’m cool with that.”

There were ten entrants in total. Each of them fills out a form saying what they do in the community but, thankfully, they don’t have to read this out or anything. One by one they’re escorted across the dancefloor, do a wee curtsy to the judges (John and Leanne: opal traders from Winton), then up onto the stage. No swimsuits, no declarations of wishing for world peace, no Donald Trump. All in all, very tasteful.

In true Ridge style the entire event was devoid of pretension. As the hopefuls cruised past the judges the MC read out snippets of backstory: “K enjoys cooking and helping her dad fix his mining equipment” and “When she’s not working, T relaxes by pig hunting” were two that stuck in my mind.

L was there, looking extremely dapper. He showed me how to fill in my People’s Choice card, but I must have done it wrong because someone else won. Or maybe more than one people gets to vote?

When the winner was announced a throne was brought onto the stage. I had a sudden and cold clammy feeling at the back of my knees. I knew that throne!

I may even have sat in it!

That night at the Pub in the Club: it all came rushing at me like a Nam flashback.

Luckily L bought me two vodkas (two because he thought I’d drink one too quickly and it saves queuing). I bolted one for medicinal purposes and nursed the other back to my seat. (The ordinary one, not the throne.)

The band came on; they were called Crawfish Soup. Or Stew. They were a three-piece and the bassist had a six-string. I know it’s in the job description for bass players to look bored and disengaged but he looked so SO bored that I thought he might actually fall face-forward at any moment. They were ok, and I had a few dances with J. Here’s a thing (more learning time). I have an English friend whose sister came to Australia. She likes swing dancing and she pointed out that in Australia dancers twirl in the opposite direction to northern hemisphere swing dancers. I’d kind of doubted this but when J and I were twirling we found out that it was actually true! It had nothing to do with the medicinal vodka.

Here’s another thing I learnt.: there is a product called “finishing spray”. After you’ve put your makeup on you spray it on your face to “finish” everything off. I guess it’s like a resin or varnish, but maybe not as harmful. Maybe. There is also something called “volume powder” which you put on your head if you want to get “effortless ‘French Girl‘ hair”. I’ve never had effortless French girl hair and, sadly, never will, but I do like the idea of volume powder. And effortless French girls.

And yet another thing! (All this learning!) There is a phenomenon called “straw lips”. That might not be the actual name for it, but it describes the wrinkles that ladies get on the part of their face between their top lip and their nose and it comes from drinking drinks from straws. Or smoking. Or both. M claimed it was actually “a thing” and challenged me to Google it. I did. M: I could not find it. I photographed my lips to see if I had this condition but we were outside in the smokers’ area where it’s dark so I couldn’t tell. What do you think?

It was indeed getting very loose and shapeless by this point. I was at the bar with L when the newly crowned opal queen popped by. L insisted that I have my photograph taken with her. I was very reluctant, possibly even more reluctant than she was, but L is quite formidable and, when he has his mind set on something, it happens.

He also insisted that I include this picture, his favourite, “the one where she’s laughing and you have this really dumb blank expression”.

He also demanded executive producer credits. Blimey.

I’m not sure what time it all finished up. Someone said that someone said there was a stoush in the ladies toilets, which is par for the course at this kind of affair. I left the young folk to it and toddled off down the Three Mile for an early night. I have a job of work to do tomorrow. Those curly battered spuds on sticks won’t eat themselves.

 

Executive producer: Mr Leon Allen

 

PS: What is it all for? The Opal Queen, and Opal Festival, raises funds for the Australian National Opal Centre. To find out more, visit their website.

Food Safari 11: Bruno’s

When Fancy Folk from Out Of Town land in the Ridge, they will often ask their host: “Where can one dine out in style?” If your guests are on a budget there’s the Bowlo, and if they’re looking for something with a little more atmosphere there’s the bistro at the pub. But if you really want to roll out the red carpet there’s only one place to go: Bruno’s. (Possessive apostrophe optional.)

The first time I came to Bruno’s I was deeply tickled to receive, with my menu, a drinks list. But it wasn’t called a “drinks list”, it was called the “alcohol menu”. It makes me smile every time I see it. When the waitress comes to take my order I’m always tempted to say, “Don’t think I’ll bother with solids tonight. I might just work my way through the alcohol menu, thank you.”

Bruno’s is nicely presented. It has a little chained off area that leads into a tobacconist, but other than that it’s like any Italian restaurant: a bit loud and clattery, a bit heavy on the Dino and Sinatra. But that’s ok, it’s what you expect and it’s what you get. Nobody wants nasty surprises in their Italian.

The fancy folks from out of town in this occasion were children’s book illustrator Craig Smith, and publisher / artist Erica Wagner. Of course, if you’re going to take an illustrator to a restaurant with paper tablecloths, only one thing is going to happen.

I mean, come on. I don’t start writing blogs on the tablecloth!

I was taking this photo when I had one of those Homer Simpson “D’oh!” moments. It’s a food safari! And I’d been enjoying myself, and the food, so much that I’d forgotten to take pictures of it. Here’s the leftovers of what was a pasta dish with prawns and a creamyish tomato-y sauce called, I think (yes, it’s all a bit vague) penne monte mare, or something like that. Does that sound right? It was good!

I think we all drank a bit too much, or maybe that was just me. But at least I didn’t go tearing up the tablecloths.

Apart from Wednesdays at the Bowlo I never ever go out to eat in the Ridge. And yet, two nights later, I was back at Bruno’s. Unprecedented! The fancy folks included another illustrator and yet this one showed great restraint and did not draw on anything.

We started off with the pizza base with cheese on it, and fortunately Trevor reminded me to take a picture. We then had more pizzas – a supremo and a diavolo – and a Greek salad but I forgot to take pictures of those. They were good too.

However! What did I say about not wanting any nasty surprises? My fancy out-of-town friend was perplexed when he went to add seasoning to his salad. In my world, and his, there’s an unspoken agreement between people who go to restaurants and cafes, and people who run them: salt comes out of a pot with one hole in it, and pepper comes out of the pot with lots of holes in it. This situation, the one pictured below, caused great consternation and a distressingly large amount of discussion. It was like turning on a tap expecting cold water to come out but getting hot custard. Pepper pot with ONE hole? Salt with LOTS OF HOLES and a label? Woah! Just not right, Bruno’s!

Thankfully we regained our equilibrium. Steve got the afogato, with kaluah. It was already late at night and I warned him against it but he claimed to know what he was doing. He was wrong and was awake for a long time. But the afogato was very, very nice indeed (I had a bit).

Mmmm.

BTW, here’s a picture of Trevor struggling to understand which pot to shake over his salad. Can you see how perplexed he is?

On Sunday morning we went to Morilla’s, the cafe next door to Lost Sea Opals. This deserves a food safari of its own, but who can be bothered. Anyway, it was all very good (I know I’ve described the food in both places as “nice” and “good” which is massively lame but I’m typing this late Sunday arvo during the Tigers – Eels game and I’m not paying as much attention to my writing as I should do. Bite me.)

The point is this: at Morilla’s they have salt pots with ONE hole and pepper pots with THREE. Look at the picture of Trevor, Bruno’s: he is now content and the social contract between customer and cafe owner has been restored.

But, pepper/salt dissonance apart, Bruno’s is a classic country town Italian restaurant. Great service, lovely food, stereotypical soundtrack, tearable tablecloths and a good atmosphere. Bellissimo!

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.

I AM THE TRAIN

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.]

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.