Saturday, January 13, 2007


How I spent my summer holiday

This is an article I wrote for the Citroen Car Club of NSW newsletter, hence the absence of my usual prognostications. Hover your mouse over the pictures for captions

If you go to the beach for your holidays it'll probably be full of people, and most of them will probably be Holden drivers. Unless, of course, the beach is beside a lake that dried up 15 000 years ago. With a faultless reasoning like that to the fore, we decided to spend our New Year at Lake Mungo in south-western New South Wales. The mighty GS wagon with the Mystery Clunk would take us there (mostly because it's the only car we have).

Such an epic trip requires an early start, what my brother-in-law calls a Longson start. Out the door by 7am, in other words. Toll roads may be a vile capitalist excrescence on the fair face of Sydney, but the M7 sure is handy if you live in Marsfield and wish to travel south. I'm a convert, even with the merry cheeping of the Etag to remind me how much money the whole thing is sucking out of my account. Being able to drive up the road, turn left onto the M2 and bypass most of the city at 100km/h is almost worth it. In just the time it took to discover that the tape player was having a bad hair day and the only music available was the contents of the mp3 player, we'd made the jump to lightspeed down the M5 onramp and headed down the Hume.

When you live in Sydney the boisterous summer weather and regular thunderstorms make it easy to forget that there's a drought. Once you get away from the coast it gets pretty hard to ignore. I've done the trip to Canberra on plenty of occasions and seen it brown along that road, but now it's gone past brown and into grey. No wonder they had to close the playing fields in Goulburn; the ground even looks a bit like concrete. It's a slow-motion natural disaster and you really have to feel for the people who make a living off the land out there. Now, can I suggest that if you are heading through this particularly dehydrated bit of the wide and generally brown land, and morning tea time is approaching, that you say "yes" to Yass? In particular, the Cafe Indulge on the main street has parking right out the front and do a first-class country chicken pie, not to mention a passable Devonshire tea (although you may have to call it "scones and cream" before the girl behind the counter knows what you're talking about).Car and lavender bushes in Yass

Road and trees in blazing sun Next stop from Yass was Wagga Wagga, although you must first bid adeiu to the Hume Highway and get yourself set onto the Sturt. In actual fact there's a dirty great sign about this, but I'm trying to make it sound harder than it is because when we went through there a few years ago we missed the turning and ended up joining the Sturt via Lockhart. Wagga Wagga is on the banks on the mighty Murrimbidgee. Australia's great rivers don't seem to have inspired the same degree of lyricism as the rivers in other continents ("Oh Murrimbidgee, I love your daughter"'s not quite the same, is it?). We ate lunch behind the visitors' centre, above a bend on the river lined with construction work to stop the water scouring the bank out. It didn't look like it was really working.

West of Wagga isn't quite like West of the Black Stump, but the landscape is pretty Aussie out there. I find it quite compelling. Between the dead flat land and gaunt trees with their angular trunks and branches, there's a spare kind of beauty to it. Part of the attraction is the light, I think. From strong, white, and unrelenting at midday to low and golden in the evening, it throws all the shadows and angles into sharp relief. The land wouldn't look half as good without the light, and the light in turn would be completely lost without the landscape. I must admit that this interplay of light and form would be better appreciated from inside a car with air conditioning, because it does tend to be accompanied by air temperatures of 30-odd degrees.

It would be nice to report that we saw lots of Citroens out there eating up the miles and further enhancing the landscape with their elegant good looks, but on this particular day we saw a grand total of... none. On the bright side, the friendly owner in the caravan park at Hay remembered the DS coming through her hometown the year that Citroen won the London-Sydney race. The legend of the Goddess is alive and well in rural New South Wales.

Moody sky beside a lake Day two saw us heading to Mildura (and seeing a C4, who didn't even give us a second look). If you're scratching your head over a map, you're quite right: Mildura isn't the most direct route from Hay to Mungo. We had to stop into the Parks headquarters and get a pass. You might think that Parks offices would spend a lot of time sorting out passes, and that all the regional offices would have great overflowing boxes of the appropriate paperwork. You would be sadly mistaken. Mildura has some history with us, because the last time we crossed the bridge over the Murray heading into that bustling metropolis, the car spat out a driveshaft which cracked the gearbox casing on the way past... this time, all things mechnical didn't appear to notice the transition. Even the Mystery Clunk was silent.

Duly Parks Passed and stocked up with fruit and veg (Mungo and Mildura are inside the fruit fly exclusion zone, and you pestilential Sydney-siders can't bring in any of your infested greenstuffs), we headed towards Mungo. Almost immediately you're on unsealed road. I don't know what the Parks people spend the pass fees on, but it obviously isn't on running a fleet of graders. I do not like corrugations... There are three schools of thought on dealing with corrugated roads. First is the "slow right down" school, which has its place when the rough patch is someone's driveway, but rather less utility when you still have 100km ahead of you. There's also the "grin and bear it" approach, best employed by manly men in 4WD utes with interior fittings bolted together from quarter inch steel. Myself I favour the "flying over the bumps" school of thought (although I will admit the occasional foray into flying over a drainage gulley whoops where did that come from), which involves what an engineer might describe as decoupling the driving frequency from the natural resonance of the car-wheel system. In other words, accelerate until the shaking stops... The critical velocity differs for each vehicle, but I find it's about 80km/h in a GS, leaving the magic floaty suspension to cope with the more serious lumps and dips.

So we floated and flew off down the road towards Mungo. After rain this road turns to sticky clay mud and is impassable. In dry weather the clay just makes drifts of red dust and it's invisible, at least after someone passes you going the other way. Eventually we caught up with someone in a pretend 4WD who followed the grin-and-bear-it school, so we had to bear it too until he turned off. I don't know exactly when the shaking killed our clock, but I feel inclined to blame the driver of the Mosman schoolbus on general principles.

Car and tent in arid zone Fifty thousand years ago Lake Mungo was a wide, very shallow lake filled by an overflow from one of the neighbouring Willandra Lakes, which were in turn filled by a side branch of the nearest river. I'm going to have to do a Schenk here and admit that I can't remember the name of the river. A long history of fluctuating water levels eventually led to the lake drying completely about 15 000 years ago. The sand from the old lakebed was and is picked up by the prevailing westerly winds and deposited in a long sand-dune along the eastern shore. The upwind side of this sand-dune forms the Walls of China for which the area is famous, and the dune as a whole is pretty much the only topographic feature for quite a long way.

The road into the park reaches the lake at the western side, so you look across at the Walls of China. Sunset is supposed to be the best time to go and view these, but we were more interested in ducking into the lovely cool visitors' centre and then back to the main camping area to set up our tent. The main campsite is actually quite well equipped for a wilderness camp, with gas barbeques and rainwater tanks. It isn't particularly sheltered from either sun or wind, unfortunately. A couple of families of apostle birds hang out there and make off with leftovers and spilled water. Seeing their response to a thimble-full of water spilled on the ground makes you realise how precious fresh water is in that environment. There was also a goanna wandering around that had managed to get a bone poking out through the side of its throat, presumably from someone's barbeque leftovers. There was nothing we could do for it, but its future looked grim.Sunshine through a tree

Freaky landscape The next morning we set off to the Walls of China and out along the loop track through the park. The road initially cuts across the old lakebed and up to the base of the Walls; that part is two-way for the sunset Walls-viewing traffic, but the rest of the loop is one lane and one-way. We would have got to see a big snake on the road at this point, if the 4WD in front of us hadn't scared it off. You can't take some people anywhere.

Neil Armstrong would feel right at home in some of this area, particularly as you go up over the shoulder of the dune. Around the back of the dune is normally more sheltered and has higher vegetation. Stopping for a look around in a red-earth picnic area, I heard a hissing noise... lo and behold, a puncture. One expects the odd puncture on gravel roads, but this was a nail! Lucky us, to find the only spare nail in the middle of a wilderness area. Out with the spare and the Citroen tire-changing party trick, and so much for the prospect of leaving the park via the longer north route; driving on remote gravel roads when you're out of spare tires just isn't that appealing a prospect. I bet Neil never had this problem.

We had lunch at the Belah campsite at the farthest point of the loop track. We had planned to stay at this site, but with the thermometer reading 37 degrees in the shade, the wind blowing through and almost no shelter from the spindly Causurina trees, it wasn't all that appealling. We did get to see some pink cockatoos playing silly beggars in the trees (do cockatoos know any other way to behave, I hear you ask). On the return leg of the loop, not only did we discover even larger corrugations, but we were treated to a an extremely brief desert rainshower, accompanied by an amazingly strong smell of rain as the water hit the dry ground. Having failed to be moved by the charms of the Belah campsite, we settled in for another night at the main camping area, complete with gusty easterly.

The more direct road from Mungo to Balranald is somewhat better than going via Mildura, but it still wouldn't be much fun in a C2. This time we only lost a hubcap. Removing a GS Club hubcap is normally a bit like getting the mouse out of a mousetrap, so having one go AWOL was a surprise. Balranald is another town nestled in a curve of the Murrimbidgee, although I'm sure the river gets smaller instead of larger as you go downstream. Must be all the water that the local horticultural persons spray high into the air over their crops at midday.

That very night in Balranald, a thunderstorm grew and grew. This thunderstorm was the real deal, the authentic item. It built with great towering clouds, multicoloured lightning and fitful winds. The galahs all settled in the tallest tree and hung on tight (yes, I know about tall trees and lightning, but try explaining that to a galah). Then the rain came down. Or possibly the river started flowing sideways. Suffice to to say that a lot of water came out of the sky. And continued to come out of the sky, as the lightning continued to do its thing directly overhead, for most of the night. Who needs man-made pyrotechnics to see in the new year when you can enjoy the naturally occurring version. Lucky our car doesn't leak. Much. Or our tent... much...

In Balranald we also met a couple from Adelaide, who had met a French couple travelling in an AMI 8 on Kangaroo Island. Sydney club members may remember Jacques and Catherine's very interesting talk in January last year. People are going to start thinking all old Citroen wagons are painted the colour of photocopiers, at this rate. I wish we had even half as many interesting miles behind us as Catherine and Jacques though, even if our cars are almost the same colour.

The drive back across the Hay plain next morning didn't reveal any features of the landscape that we missed the first time, apart from the interesting reflections the clouds were making in the new puddles. I think I've probably wasted more film over the years trying to take photos of light amongst clouds than of any other subject. We stopped the night in Narrendera, an interesting place where they've banned swimming in favour of a waterskiing lane along a big stretch of river and then built a swimming pool right beside it. Don't let anyone tell you that the people of Narrendera aren't well catered for in the civic amenties department. I can't really recommend the camping ground though, not unless you have a sloping tent that you find unsatisfactory when used on flat ground.

It's on the last leg of a trip like this, I find, that you start to wonder why you wanted to go so far for your holidays. At least it was cool and rainy for that bit, with some of the water falling on Goulburn, no less. I'm sure they were dancing in the streets. It also rained on my foot, while I was driving. I know what that means... time to break out the wire brush and the POR 15.

Catch you later, as the poets say.

You really have a way with words! Ever though of being a naturalist/journalist?
A naturist? Nah, I get sunburnt too easily. Oh, sorry a naturalist :)
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