Our recent touring holiday, a journey of about 3 500 km, took us on a round trip to Melbourne and back, stopping at eight different towns and seeing a lot of Australian countryside in the process. From arid marginal land to rolling countryside of glorious green on the coast, we covered a lot of ground, and yet, looking at a map, it was only a small part of the south-eastern corner. We all know and understand that Australia is a huge country, but its immensity really becomes apparent when you start driving around in it.
Our first two days (from Mudgee to Griffith and then Griffith to Mildura), were fascinating in their own right, although many folk would only see the journey as something to be over and done with as soon as possible. Each day was a long drive: about five hours not including a short stop for lunch.
Much of that part of New South Wales is unrelentingly flat. If you could make a 360 degree turn, the land would be almost completely flat in every direction. And yet there is so much to see!
The road surface is good, which is surprising considering the number of trucks, called road trains, that use it on a daily basis. They are huge and rumble along at a steady 110 km/ph -as fast as they're allowed to go. In the distance ahead of us, they reminded me of sailing ships becalmed in the doldrums, seeming to be suspended above the heat haze, until they approached and passed, on three occasions flinging up gravel. The gravel, which had been laid recently, flew through the air in an alarming fashion, like small meteorites, peppering our windscreen with chips and cracks.
On each side of the road, it's possible to see that farming goes on: wheat, mostly, except around Griffith and Mildura which are irrigated areas, where citrus fruits, rice and grapes are grown. Occasionally there’s a copse on the horizon. Now and then an emu can be spotted, or a bird of prey. Sometimes remnant scrub can be seen. Or a lone farmer ploughs a paddock big enough to contain a small town.
The very enormity and emptiness of it is, in itself, fascinating. I found myself wondering about the tenacity of the people who cleared this land and the terrible wholesale removal of trees to create arable land. Towns along the way are far apart, and small: usually a few houses, a servo and a pub, and in one case a wonderful mural painted on the side of an old silo.
In recent times, silos have been replaced with more modern methods of storing grain, but the old silos have found a new life. Artists are painting murals on them, and in fact, there's a Silo Art Trail in western Victoria. Visitors to this area can see enormous murals honouring local people, painted by well-known artists.
Both Griffith and Mildura are on rivers: Griffith on the Murrumbidgee and Mildura on the Murray. The effect of entering them after the journey on the open road is as I imagine entering an oasis to be. Suddenly there are trees and lawns. There's an air of busyness. People are out shopping or sitting at footpath cafés in the sun, the shadows of street trees casting patterns on the footpaths.
We met some great people along the way, from the woman at the service station at Weethalle who said she prefers to shop in Griffith (round trip 200 km), to the friendly man in Hay who helped us decide whether we should replace the windscreen or not -we didn't.
While it wasn't a trip I'd want to make on a daily basis, as truck drivers might do, I wouldn't mind making it again one day, perhaps in a good season when rain has fallen, when the countryside would look completely different.
Have you been on a long road trip or do you prefer to stop in one place for a longer stay?