A four day weekend and an appetite for new horizons. That was how we ended up at the Queensland border. Creamy riverland bulldust in the rear view, stoic gums filtering the hot, summer sun.
We had a couple of days off scheduled, with adventurous plans to find somewhere new to stake out the swag. But, with the weatherman promising a sticky tar heatwave, we abandoned our bushwalking, basecamp plans. Instead, David suggested we expand our journey to enjoy an air conditioned, snack fuelled roadtrip. With our typical peruse of the map, we plotted a shiney new route. I then scouted out camping locations, mitigating the unknown mileage we may or may not cover. I had a few cards to play, but we still had to be back at work Monday morning.
Leaving work early on Wednesday afternoon, didnt really happen. Neither did packing much more than a clothes bag on the Tuesday. So, preparing the house for a hot weekend on its own, we packed the LandCruiser with the essentials, after work on Wednesday. Clothes, cameras, fridge. Our fire kit jettisoned in lieu of a statewide fireban. David topped up the water tanks whilst I made up the swag with fresh sheets.
By 8pm we were chatting, relaxed… and hungry. An hour on the road and we had packed everything, except dinner. Our midday meals, well and truly metabolised. We stopped at Hungry Jacks in Penrith for a burger and coffee before punching up and over the Blue Mountains. A brief pitstop at Lithgow before heading off on the dark northern stretch toward Mudgee. At this time of night, there was no traffic. Only the threat of marsupials and nightjars kept our pace mild instead of wild. The warmth of Sydney behind us, we had the windows down. I had a few quiet campsites picked, one of which we had already passed, and the next, near Leadville.
Not far out of Gulgong, an old fella with an amber blinky bill stopped us. An accident had taken out the bridge and we weren’t getting to Leadville tonight. In a thick accent, he offered us a route via Ulan. So, taking the right at his roadblock camp, we ventured south east, in the opposing direction. Looking at the map now, it must have been the Wialdra Creek bridge. I headed towards Ulan, whilst David looked for a new campsite, our course had drifted east but he quickly found Cassillis Park Rest Area, it was north of us, if not still east. Winding through this country backroad, plantation, pastoral and mining boundaries flew past. The green tea had begun to fade and the thought of this fabled Rest Area was indeed, calling for our rest.
Well signed, we rolled in to find the area inhabited with two caravans and a refrigerated truck. The amenities reflecting my spotlights as we swung around. I didn’t bother exploring too deep into the area, either by driving or looking at the map. Conscious of the sleeping residents. Instead, I quickly parked on a level clear patch, yonder of the aforementioned. I had the swag staked and we were changed for bed in minutes flat. It was chilly here, but not even the whirr of the truck fridge kept us from sleep. It was 1am.
That first morning of a trip ranks separate to the others. Especially if you’ve woken somewhere new and unknown. The sillouettes of fire blackened trees around us were now contrasted with a cloudy morning sky. The area, drought dry, is centralised around a toilet block, my first port of call when woken by a few cars on the Golden Highway. Clean and serviced, the area appeared well respected. Only one neighbour remained. I soaked some rolled oats in water while we changed and rolled the swag
Mixing powdered milk and honey in, we shared the porridge as we drove. Now headed west, toward Dunnedoo. Spotting one of our flagged camping options, our incidental detour to Cassillis was advantageous, Nullen Rest area boasted more grass, but is smaller and a bit closer to the road.
Ordering coffee in Dunnedoo, we lingered and let the warmth of the sun charge us. The clouds burned away. I visited the butcher and scratched together a meal plan for the next few days off what I saw in his cabinet.
As we travelled, the region dry, it warmed up. Gilgandra arrived, a country oasis on Castlereigh River, complete with green lawns. We bought fresh groceries, found lunch at the bakery, walking around town with a meat pie. Strolling as only a tourist strolls.
Continuing our trail, we fuelled up at Walgett, now decidedly warmer than warm. The road was shimmering hard before us. My hair was blow dried into an eighties kick by the now hot wind. This was what was promised. Our route was easy, there was barely any traffic. And the years since we last collected Castlereigh Highway bugs long enough ago. But after Walgett, this section was new to us, the view widens as agriculture wanes. The road north parts ways with the Barwon River.
Lightning Ridge welcomes you with a faded opal duster sign and then, in shocking contrast to the landscape, the lushest lawns I have ever seen bordering a main street. At first glance, I thought it faux turf. But we didn’t drive here for the kykuyu. We headed out to the signposted public bath. We were here for a swim.
A painted cast iron archway welcomes visitors to the artesian bath at Lightning Ridge, and beyond the sapphire blue pool is the amenities block. Parking under the shade of a tree, we entered. Towel and swimmers propped in the crook of our arms. We showered, as requested. That alone was refreshing in the heat. I lightly hot footed from the amenities, to the shaded picnic table, to the pool’s edge. The rubber coated steps are warm, but nothing like the scolding cement surrounding.
Strange boyancy attacked my knees as stepped auspiciously down into the pool. The temperature was warm, but not unpleasant. The clear water showed me some fuzzy algae on the floor. David joined me. A man arrived, showered, and asked us how the temperature was but dressed, he simply returned to his car and drove away.
After only a few minutes, we alighted and sat at our picnic table, sipping at cold water. It was approaching forty degrees Celsius, but dripping wet, in the shade, we were on cloud nine. As we would dry off, we would return to the water. However, on each return – the water felt hotter and our dips were quicker. I slipped my Rossi boots back on and made salmon and salad sandwiches at the back of the LandCruiser. Feeling properly refreshed, we both showered again, this time with soap. Our swimmers almost dry in the heat, we left the pool to the newly arrived. Back in town, we found little open and without a need for opals, woodfired pizza or fuel, we left.
After the Aboriginal community of Goodooga, the bitumen eventually ran out. We stopped at a bridge, shaded, for an ice-cream. The area was so dry and littered with death. Roadkill and otherwise. The kangaroo numbers were countless, all but one dead, all dried stiff. Their tails cooked and hooked skyward, like longhorns.
I spotted a large pale, striped goanna, I think a Sand Monitor ( Varanus gouldii) feeding on a road baked carcass, and forgetting we had a zoom lens on board, didn’t bother stopping. But wow, the first I have seen feeding on roadkill.
White road base through up glare in front and almost fluorescent dust behind us. A cattle grid marks the border, with a matter-of-fact welcome sign. I think these side door entries to each state hold more magic than the large technicolor signs of the mainstream. We stopped for a photo and stretch. Back on QLD dust.
Veering westbound, the sun throwing spackled light through the trees. Trees! Now in proper floodplains of the long ago, the Culgoa bares the old flora of a rich riverland of extremes. Flood and famine.
The track through the National Park is nothing short of an outback highway, better mayhap. No corrugations from traffic, but seemingly wide enough to accommodate some. Reluctantly, we didn’t turn from the main track, but with how easily we got here, the area was flagged for a sequel trip in slightly milder weather.
It was an interesting drive that afternoon. We were so far from home, but not only had we arrived in a rather relaxed, time-warping efficiency, but now this rugged wilderness was flying by. A seemingly empty oasis, so beautiful in its dry rigor. We lingered, I slowed, but the track was smooth as butter and we saw no other visitors. The Hema showed us eating up the map, the NSW border returned to us in haste. Despite the effortless offering of walking tracks, that Jiminy Cricket conscience whispered Work on Monday, Work on Monday… and I kept us coursing south.
Large kangaroos lazing in the shaded side of the track blinked against our now black dust, but didn’t get up. Deep in the Culgoa, we wound our way to camp. The black soil, I had read, turns to impenetrable muck with the lightest of rain. Churning instead, an impressive dust trail, we rounded on our camping area without delay.
Parked and walking about, the birds twittering their secret business. We were else wise alone. The toilet was sign of busier times though, overfull and smelly, but the smell didn’t carry outside of its shed. We had a spot some way away. I would later gulp at the mere flash of a reflector on the LandCruiser guiding me home from a nighttime pee later. Getting lost in the subtly dense mallee would be easy, and embarrassing.
It was hot, but shaded. I wandered about, soaking up that quiet heat, the dry peace. Remote revellers will agree, there is nothing like it. The hum of the flies threatened but their annoyance was barely notable, until food was around.
Our site had a picnic table, which we used. Both to prepare some cheese and tomato on Sayo crackers, and to later create and cook some rissoles for dinner (and tomorrow’s lunch) on the Biji Barbi and Coleman.
After dinner, we played an audio book and laying supine on the picnic benches, we both simmered in the heat. After sunset, the temperature climbed, getting ready for tomorrow. I was ok, perhaps the locale keeping my endorphins high. David was bordering on irritable with a headache. We stripped off to the essentials and employed a wet washcloth for some evaporative cooling
Watching the nightsky twinkle into life, I saw a few shooting stars, and several small bats and moths fly silently close to my face. Matte black shapes. To avoid the bugs, and enjoy the sky, we only had our solar lantern on, turned to its lowest, casting only the faintest of glows.
It was almost midnight and still warm when we were both nodding off on our hard metal slabs. Sleep took us quickly in the swag. Its canvas turned down to our ankles, it was almost midnight.
Chittering birds and warmth, measured by the buzz of flies woke us early. The sun perhaps an hour or two above the horizon. I felt deliciously refreshed, and shaded by the LandCruiser, the sheets inside the swag were cool and comfortable. We were far from home, tranquil in the dust and scrub; happy Friday indeed.
Soaking some oats, I walked about, waiting and absorbed our surroundings growing energy. I had stumbled on some Mulga Ants nests through the night and hoped to capture their residents in a morning photo, but no luck. The guards were off duty this morning. The goat family from the night before returned, a mother and two kids. Their racket giving up their position before their bright black and white pelt. They turned tail at sight of me though. I signed the Visitor book and returned to camp. David had brewed us some coffee.
Eventually, the heat increased and we rolled the swag to depart. Washing the dust off of our face and feet we were changed and charged. At the junction of Jobs Gate Road we got talking to a local farmer, he was out on a feed run for his sheep. He talked at length at the changes he had seen since the 1970s when he started out, and the lack of. Still running on passion however, he shared a pragmatic but hopeful outlook I think. We mentioned the feral goats and he promised to rouse his boys from the Bold and the Beautiful to take care of them. Someone he knew came along in their equally faded white ute, but not before he shared a more interesting route to Bourke. We asked him to send us the long way around, avoiding the bitumen. So, regretfully turning away from Cunnamulla, we said our farewells.