Day 9

OK I’m off as soon as it’s light; I want to get the lion’s share of the trip to Melbourne out of the way today.

Just south of Uralla is Thunderbolt’s Rock, the granite outcrop used by the aforementioned bushranger as a lookout point to spot approaching mail coaches. I managed to capture it brilliantly lit by the sun’s first rays; sadly, it’s now covered in graffiti.

A few kilometres further south, the road descends from the ranges, offering some spectacular vistas of the plains below.

Tamworth (pop. 50,000) is the largest town in the New England region. It is famous as the country music capital of Australia, the Nashville of the Southern Hemisphere. Every January, the city comes to a standstill for the annual Tamworth Country Music Festival.

For those who follow the JD blog, it may be of interest to learn that the word “budgerigar”, and hence “budgie”, derives from the language of the Kamilaroi people, the original inhabitants of the Tamworth district. Incongruously, budgerigar in Kamilaroi means “good”: go figure.

Leaving the New England Highway at Tamworth and head west on the Oxley highway. The next main town, and my stop for breakfast, is Gunnedah; primarily a farming hub and formerly a major coal mining centre. There is a monument in the town park to the 1983 Miners’ strike, in which workers facing retrenchment downed tools and refused to move for 56 days—a world record for an underground mine. For what it’s worth, the town is also the childhood home of supermodel Miranda Kerr.

An hour or so past Gunnedah I reach Coonabarabran. This town markets itself as the “astronomy capital of Australia”, due to the presence of the nearby Siding Springs Anglo-Australian observatory. The 4-metre diameter telescope there was one of the last large optical ‘scopes to be constructed (in 1974) on an equatorial mount, and is rated one of the most productive of its type in existence.

Coonabarabran is where I turn south and join up with the Newell Highway. This road is the main inland trucking route for road freight travelling between Brisbane and Melbourne. There aren’t many tourists on this road, and traffic is dominated by B-double road trains. Many car drivers avoid the Newell for this reason, particularly city drivers, but I actually prefer it; vehicles of this size are stable and predictable, and piloted by professionals. Just don’t get in a collision with one. I saw a pretty bad prang between car and road train about 40 kms (25 miles) south of Coonabarabran; I didn’t take a photo of this one, as it looked a bit bloody, the cops and ambulances were there and it didn’t seem proper anyway.

The advantage of the Newell is speed; as a concession to truckies on this long route, the legal speed limit was raised from the standard 2-lane highway limit of 100 km/h (62 mph) to (the normally freeway-only limit of) 110 km/h (68 mph). This shaves a couple of hours off the Brisbane-Melbourne run. The downside is there aren’t many overtaking lanes, and on a two-lane highway you need a big gap in the oncoming traffic if you’re going to overtake a B-double and not risk a head-on.

Gilgandra is the next town along the way; a very flat part of the world, though in sight of the Warrumbungle Ranges, it perfectly fits the words of Gunnedah native Dorothea Mackellar’s classic poem My Country,

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.

Both of which Gilgandra has had more than its fair share.

Dubbo (pop. 40,000) is the largest city of New South Wales’ north-western plains. I remember it from my childhood as hot, dry and dusty. Today it’s a bustling, modern centre that services the outback to the north and west, an area of over a quarter of a million square kilometres. It’s well-known as the home of the Western Plains Zoo, where you can see lions, tigers, giraffes in something close to their natural savannah environment, all out the window of your car. Do keep the windows rolled up.

Keep them rolled up on the outskirts of town too, after dark. Dubbo these days unfortunately suffers from certain social problems, the precise nature of which would probably land me in court these days, were I to tell you about them. So, sadly, I can’t.

For the musically inclined, Dubbo is also the birthplace of The Reels, who had a couple of hits with overseas airplay in the early 80’s. While I was studying at university I bought what was reputedly the first 1969 Fender Jazz Bass imported into Australia, from their first (Dubbo) bass player; I’ve still got it—mighty axe, too.

Peak Hill is not much of a town to look at, but out the back of the place the Peak Hill gold deposit is something we studied almost to death back at uni. So far it’s produced over 500,000 troy ounces. Good place to remember, when paper money fails.

Parkes, named after Australia’s “Father of Federation”, is my next stop. It’s mainly known as the home of the Parkes Observatory, home of the largest radio telescope dish in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s a few miles out of the way, but as I haven’t visited it for many years, I thought I’d drop by.

I realized I should have showed up a few days later… opera under the stars, under the dish: that would have been worth coming all this way to see!

If you’ve never seen it, do yourself a favour and rent a copy of The Dish (2000, stars Sam Neill and Patrick Warburton), a light-hearted clash-of-cultures comedy surrounding this facility’s involvement in transmitting the television images of the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969. Great period soundtrack too; go to 10:00 on this clip and you’ll see a radio telescope dance—something you’re unlikely ever to see again!

Forbes, the next town along the way, is another town with much bushranging history; Ben Hall was ambushed and shot by police near here in 1865, and is buried in Forbes Cemetery. During the filming of The Dish, Forbes was used for many of the town location shots instead of nearby Parkes (where the story is set), as the architecture of Forbes was relatively unchanged since 1969.

West Wyalong, an hour past Forbes, is even more unchanged; I would almost call West Wyalong a town that time forgot.

Lying at the crossroads of two of Australia’s most important freight routes: Brisbane-Melbourne (Newell Highway) and Sydney-Adelaide (Mid-Western Highway), the town is another one that never sleeps. It is also an important rail terminal, being the hub of New South Wales’ main wheat-growing area.

Canola has also become a major crop over the past few years, and the canola fields down here stretch out from the highway, often all the way to the horizon.

Out past West Wyalong, the countryside is flat—and I mean dead flat. That, plus the fact that the road has very few bends, means you have to be on your lookout for the onset of “highway hypnosis”; particularly after you’ve been driving for eleven hours. Try listening to this while driving the Newell and you’ll see what I mean (careful; very high dynamic range from 3:21):

Narrandera, on the Murrumbidgee River, is the next stop; towns here resemble (I am told) the Old South of the United States; the old gas station with ice fridge out the front; giant wheat silos by rail sidings, wide streets and a laid-back, dry, sun-bleached feel. That sort of thing.

Jerilderie is where I finish up today. The town was made famous by legendary bushranger Ned Kelly who, in 1879, bailed up the entire town, locked the town police in their own jail cells, chopped down the telegraph line, relieved the local bank of £2,000 and while there burned all the local resident’s mortgage deeds, whereupon he and his gang herded the local inhabitants into the Royal Mail Hotel where, for the next two days, he declared food and drink “on the house”. Strangely, the locals (many of them newly de-mortgaged) did not resent their imprisonment, nor seek to escape. Can’t think why.

While there, Kelly dictated his 8,000 word Jerilderie Letter, regarded by some historians as a unique 19th century, Irish-Australian manifesto of righteous rebellion. Personally, I’m not so sure.

And that, folks, is it for today: 943 kilometres (586 miles), through as broad a cross-section of inland Australia as you’re likely to see in a single day. I’m exhausted, I’ve found myself a cheap bed and will catch up with you tomorrow. Cheers.

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