Authors: Niall Griffiths
They drive in, park, rent a chalet for the night. It’s small and cramped and the boy claims the top bunk, mere inches from the wooden ceiling. He goes with his father to the camp shop for food, basic food to feed the family; potatoes and baked beans and cooking oil. But there is no oil. The boy’s father speaks to the man behind the counter and another man enters from the back room, a big man in glasses and a woolly jumper and a big grey beard with his hands in the pockets of his trousers jiggling the change in them and doing a funny little dance to the song on the radio. He stops and stares at the boy’s
father and nods at him and says in a strong Yorkshire accent:
–Well, no, the dad says. –Merseyside. Same area, kind of.
They talk. There is a chocolate bar on display. On the wrapper is a picture of green fields in mist and grazing brown horses and it makes the boy think of cottages and log fires and dairies and farms and cosiness in the country. He wants the chocolate.
There is no oil so the boy’s father buys a few tubs of margarine and they return to the chalet and the boy climbs up onto his bunk to be out of the way while his mother cooks. The smell of the melted margarine surprises him with its sweetness. Shortly after they’ve eaten they all go to bed and the boy imagines he’s in a war as he falls asleep, a hero, protecting his family from armies of baddies and he wakes with a start to see wood so close to his face and they have breakfast and get back into the car and drive again into Uralla where they stop, briefly, to look at Thunderbolt’s grave, which is when the boy becomes a bushranger on a strong and faithful horse which can leap across valleys and off mountains. It’s not so much the chocolate the boy wants as the wrapper.
Tamworth. Goonoo Goonoo, which sets the children off singing ‘I’m a gnu, how do you do?’ Scone and Aberdeen, Scotland in Oz. A long day’s drive across the Great Dividing Range whose landscape both exhilarates and scares the boy, and the sky turns dark and they enter the tiny scattered hamlet of Colo and find a caravan which the boy’s mother says is ‘grotty’ but they stay there anyway and in the morning they leave the caravan and take a walk down to the river and now in daylight they can see where they are and the river gives up its mist like grey wraiths twisting slowly across the water and
climbing the walls of the canyon, delicate tendrils that wave and ripple and are quickly gone.
It’s still there, the Highland Caravan Park, still with the piper on the sign and the shop still in the same building and still with the meagre supplies, a few tins and a bread rack and a chiller cabinet. Some cooking oil, this time. We speak to reception and ask them how long the camp’s been there.
–Ages, they say.
Look around, remember, drive into Armidale, park up, breakfast, Tony goes off to find an internet caff and I wander, buy some books, enter the fluorescent hell of the underground shopping centre and find a camping shop and buy a ten-gallon water jug in case the water runs dry in the van in the middle of the desert. Pretty enough frontier-style town, this. I’d heard a lot about the merits of Tim Tam biscuits so I buy some and eat them and am disappointed. Sit on a bench beneath a tree, smoke, read a local paper. Tim Tams are just like Penguins but with jam and stuff inside. One capuccino-flavoured which is so sweet as to be inedible. Need fruit. Can’t keep fresh fruit in the van as it has to be given up at each state boundary because of the fruit fly so should stock up on it now, really. Can’t be arsed. Eat another Tim Tam. Peach or something. Tastes of purple.
On to Uralla. The grave of Thunderbolt.
–Remember stopping here?, Tony asks, and I shake my head.
–Not really. Vaguely.
Just recollected heroics in my head. Bushranger Thunderbolt: robbed mail coaches and homes in the Liverpool Ranges District. Shot dead by Constable Walker in 1870, who first shot Thunderbolt’s horse to draw the man out of hiding. Apparently, or so the sign says, Thunderbolt, for an armed robber, was a nice enough feller. These outlaws were once an Oz embarrassment; cruel, criminal, the convict strain asserting itself. Now, they’re pioneering heroes, defiant, true rebels, exemplars of the Aussie spirit, untameable and beautifully wild. I’ll see this most forcefully when I reach Ned Kelly country, but it’s here, too, in Uralla; the well-tended grave, the iron statue at the road-side, Thunderbolt on his rearing steed.
Apparently there’s a New England region in Oz as well as in the states because I’m in it and I’ve got a booklet that tells me so. It’s ‘renowned for its impressive historical buildings, aboriginal rock art and Regional Museums’. Main town is Armidale. ‘Traditional landowners’ were the Anaiwan people, who left their rock art in the Mt Yarrowyck Nature Reserve. White settlement began around 1830. Ben Lomond has a railway station, opened in 1884 and named after the area’s highest mountain. Aboriginal name is Or-one geer, which means ‘plenty white gum’. Wine is produced here; fourty-four growers and labels. Loads of national parks. Armidale is known as the ‘Third City of the Arts’, I’m told; regular events include the Women’s Comedy Festival and the Pack Saddle Art Exhibition. There’s a university, with 18,000 students. Armidale’s population is 25,000, the ‘city’ has ‘two pedestrian malls, surrounding these malls are many fine cafés with alfresco dining and wonderful shopping arcades, from large department store’s to small gift shops and more’. By God, I can feel their pull. And it seems that an ineptitude with apostrophes is not confined to
British greengrocers. The town was named Armidale by John Oxley, first European to explore the area in 1818, named after MacDonald’s castle on the Isle of Skye. Uralla, where I am right now, is from the Anaiwan dialect and means, maybe, ‘ceremonial meeting place’. The booklet tells me that there are many antique emporia in the town ‘for those who prefer fossicking in shops’, and I’m impressed at the word. Always pleasing to see the resurrection of archaic terms. It’s used again, though, in the section on Guyra: ‘Imagine trying your hand at trout fishing in pristine streams, fossicking for gemstones, playing a round or two of golf.’ Once is great; twice is a bit irritating. It’s had the arse ripped out of it, now. And ‘imagine playing a round of golf’? Why on earth would I want to do that? The desperately grasping nature of guidebooks never fails to divert and entertain. Imagine playing a round of golf. If I can’t sleep, or if I require a vision of wasted time, then maybe I will.
We drive into Tamworth. This is the ‘Country Music Capital of Australia’; more Billy Ray Cyrus than Hank Williams, I’ll wager. It’s also the ‘Tidy Town Winner 1999’, as was Llandinam, between Llanidloes and Newtown, back home. We stop for petrol in Tamworth and I eat a Golden Rough, which is a large coin of chocolate stippled with bits of roasted coconut, and the taste of it unleashes a torrent of associative memory, the force of which knocks me back a bit; I remember eating these when I was here last, in Australia, I mean. When the world was nine years old.
The family groups together under the sign that says ‘LIVERPOOL RANGE’. The father takes two photographs which
will be sent home, accompanying postcards, to both
. Behind the family are hills and to the right is a wall of thick and scrubby bush which, the boy feels, must go on forever. These things on the other side of the world; echoes of Wales and a place called Liverpool Ranges. And the road atlas says there’s a town called Liverpool, too, outside Sydney. These familiar things on the other side of the planet but familiar in name only so that in fact they only underline the essential unfamiliarity of where the boy now is. Like looking at a pair of favourite shoes at the bottom of a fishtank. Confusing. They’re only a couple of days into the journey, they’ve only nibbled at the continent. It stretches before the boy, too vast to imagine; not even his childhood talent of living almost entirely in the moment can prevent the thought of that distance from dizzying his head.
–There it is, look. It’s still there.
–Not the same sign though, is it?
–No, but it’s in the same place.
–We park up and get out. I dig out the old photo of us standing by the signpost and we hold it up next to the new sign. There’s the steeply sloping hill in the background, and is that the same tree? We try to align the vegetation and the geographical features but even allowing for thirty years’ growth and weathering we can’t. Except the hill looks familiar, the main big hill. And why would a new sign have been erected in a different place? This, after all, is where the Liverpool Range begins.
–Look at that.
A giant eagle sits in a nearby tree. It watches us watching it then launches itself off the branch and soars low over us, casting a shadow across our upturned faces as it checks us out then returns to its branch again, a thick branch which bends under the bird’s weight. It’s a huge bird. My heart thumped as it swooped low over my face. I’m sure that it was only ascertaining what we are, us two strange creatures in the alpha predator’s territory, but I can’t shake the feeling that the event is laden with some kind of spiritual significance. I feel slightly unsettled but thrilled; not merely at the pure magnificence of the bird but at the hint of a meaning that I can’t quite grasp. Maybe it’s no accident that, as my brother and I get back in the van, we simultaneously mention our paternal grandfather, nearly two decades dead. I don’t know. But how mysterious this world is.
We drive through mountains. Low mountains, unspectacular as yet – they’re not Welsh – but by God they go on. And on and on and on. The road to Colo River goes on forever and we’re still on it when night has fallen and all we can see are the packed trees that densely line either side of the road. Just trees, and clotted black shadows beyond the reach of the headlights. Then some bright blue glow as we turn a corner and there surrounded by soot-black air stand three luminous blue crucifixes, each about thirty feet high, free-standing, star-bright in the thick black night. Bright, bright blue. I stand at the foot of one and hear the electricity crackling in it; the hairs on my arms prickle erect. My face bathed in the bone-white blue-bright light and all around me is blackness so thick that it’d be like swimming in ink if I left the thrown illumination of these bizarre and unexpected totems.
Christ but this is getting strange.
We park up in a layby in the darkness and sleep. In the morning we find the Colo River campsite which is closed for the
winter months but we knock and a Kiwi feller answers. We tell him what we’re doing and he agrees to show us around. He smokes American Spirit roll-ups with filters, as I do, and I like him. Colo is now a private park; all the caravans here are owned. It’s a misty morning, as it was three decades ago, but in that mist the remembered beauty can be seen. That river, that rockface rising up. I recall walking down to this river, standing on this very beach in the morning after we slept in the caravan that my mum called ‘grotty’. Which it was. I recall something of the wonder. And feel again this new wonder of encountering the younger me on the opposite side of the planet.
Christ but this is getting strange.
Drive on. Deeper into the Blue Mountains. The ground rises up. At Blackheath we park up and look out for Govett’s Leap. Our youngest sister – who was born in Perth, as you’ll discover – had been here a year earlier and advised us to visit it and, when we find it, we’re glad she did; it’s a suspended patio looking out over an abyssal drop between sheer cliff faces, spectacular, astonishing. Vast plunging space, tree’d escarpments far below immense slashes of bared stone. The waterfall off to the right is such a plunge that the water is gas rather than liquid before it reaches the valley floor all those skull-spinning metres below. I never came here as a kid. I think of the settlers, the explorers, encountering this for the first time; I imagine they felt as I do as they regarded this landscape, both stuffed with terror and bursting with possibility. It’s vertiginous, immense. What lies atop those distant plateaus, across those great gulfs of blue and shimmering air? Oceans of space, here. I feel wonder.
At the gift shop I buy a Jacaroo hat and some information books and sit at a table with a can of cold cola and read them
while Tony goes off to find internet access. I haven’t checked my emails in days and I know that there’ll be several that will require an urgent response but I’m enjoying myself here, it feels like a holiday, and I don’t want to waste time at a keyboard so I sit in the shade of my new titfer and drink my cold cola and read my new books. Or flick through them, at least. I’ll go online when we reach the next big city, when I’ve got a few hours to kill. Meantime, I read what Steve Parish has to say about this area in his
Discovering Blue Mountains.
What, no definite article? ‘Sixty-five kilometres west of Sydney’, he says, ‘the Blue Mountains parts its shimmering veil to reveal the beauty of its sculptured cliffs and forested valleys’. Grammar, Steve, grammar; sort out your pronouns, lad. Think that should be ‘sculpted’, as well. Still, he’s informative; twenty-four towns, apparently, occupy the main plateau. Chief settlement is Katoomba, the area’s long been a resort for those Sydney-ites wanting to temporarily escape the big and nearby city. Another booklet, called
Layers of Time
, tells me that where I’m sitting is called the Evans Lookout, and Govett’s Leap Creek is below me; to the left, at the end of the gorge, is Mount Banks, then Mount Wilson, then Mount Tomah to my right, and, after that, Mount Hay. Charles Darwin explored the region, in 1836. He stayed at the Weatherboard Inn, which is a brilliant name for a pub. Wish I could stay there too, if it’s still there. And if I knew where it was. And could spare the time. The book doesn’t tell me who Evans was, but it does tell me that Oswald Ziegler wanted to build a posh hotel on Evans Lookout in the 1960s, and to make a kind of Oz Mount Rushmore, with the faces of three explorers carved into the cliff face opposite, across the canyon, but the soft texture of the rock forestalled the project. Thankfully. Oswald the Idiot. Who’d want the power of that view spoiled
and broken by a trio of vast blank faces? The States has a Mount Rushmore. The world doesn’t need another one. God, what is it with some people? The unchallenged surety that the natural world can, and must, be improved if it’s forced to take on a recognisably human form. God almighty. For those with the eyes to see, all faces are contained in the folds and nodules and striations and crannies of rocks. Nature offers the geoglyphs; take them. Don’t try to impose your own. And who was this Ziegler? The thought of that question being asked at some future date no doubt led, in part, to his cliff-carving desires, but it’s resulted merely in his memory being linked to megalomania, twisted vision and supreme arrogance. Where was he from? My third book, the
Glovebox Guide to the Blue Mountains
, written by Peter Meredith and Dan Fuchs, doesn’t tell me, but it does mention that the Evans Lookout was ‘named in 1882 after local solicitor George Evans’. That’s all it says. Good Welsh name, or half of it is; I’d like to know more about him. This is by far the best book of the bunch; pretty well-written, full of maps and anecdotes and nuggets of information. Should I return here, this is the book I’ll bring. It tells me that Blackheath is built at an elevation of 1,065.3 m, and has a permanent population of 4,119 (or it did in the year 2000). Sydney is just 133 km away. The whoops and trills and whistles I can hear in the canyon’s trees below me are made by lyrebirds and whipbirds and currawongs. The place was named by Governor Macquarie, who first, in 1815, called it Hounslow (after the London Hounslow Heath), then forgot he’d done so and named it Blackheath (again after a district of London) on his way back through. The thicko. How can you forget seeing and naming a place like this? The book tells me, too, that Darwin also stayed at the Gardners Inn, once called the Scotch Thistle Inn, and that
William Govett used to love rolling huge boulders off the cliffs here, supposedly as a way of gauging their height, although he did admit that the activity was ‘an amusement with me’. Fair play. And he was remarkably close; 160 m, he calculated. It’s actually 161 m.