The Road Less Travelled

Sarah Ann Hall

© Copyright 2018 by Sarah Ann Hall


Photo of rusted out truck at Lightning Ridge.

When I travel I like to see the recommended sites, but enjoy more the hidden treasures – the restaurants where the locals eat, nature in all her beauty hidden just out of reach.     

My first holiday in ten years was a trip to see my recently emigrated brother. He met an Aussie girl at the Glastonbury Festival. They lived together in London for a few years until she had a hankering to go home. My husband and I sent them off with love and a book of favourite recipes collected from all living family members. They’d been in Victoria for a year before we headed to colonial Melbourne for family reunion and introductions to the in-laws. 
This was a once in a lifetime trip and we flew to Brisbane first to stay with friends who’d emigrated from the UK a few years earlier. We ate fruit and little else as we spent days acclimatising to the heat and humidity. After three days our friends headed to Thailand for their summer holiday and hubby and I picked up a hire car. We were heading to Melbourne via a long and scenic route. Smooth, clear motorways whisked us to overnight stops in Byron Bay, Armidale and Tamworth. It was from there we set out for the nearest bit of outback – Lightning Ridge in northern New South Wales – and our adventure proper started.
The journey to the middle of nowhere was one of ever shrinking roads. Red-tailed cockatoos accompanied us along the Oxley Highway from Tamworth to Gunnedah, and on the Kamilaroi Highway to Narrabi. The roads were straight, the land flat, the scenery uninspiring, and cockatoos provided the sole excitement. We passed Wee Waa, a cotton centre, and paused in Burren Junction to look at a makeshift map that signposted all major routes across the continent. Green tarpaulins stretched over bunkers of grain spread out in all directions, while an oblivious, and probably soon to be dead, kangaroo took an impromptu trip into the road. 
Mountains far off in the distance gave way to prairies of cotton, dark and glossy under an ever-drying sun. The cotton planters irrigated, with sprinkler systems of various technologies rigged up and watering, while other farmers seemed content to wait for rain. Pastures of wheat, and fields of sunflowers, corn and then scrub lined the road while cattle meandered into it, their grazing lands too far from civilisation and too vast for fences. Thinner roads now, but Romanesque still with their views – clear to all sides, straight and flat with few turnings, and traffic non-existent. We drove all day, the views spreading and ‘things to see’ disappearing. We passed ten cars at most on roads so empty that drivers waved to each other, acknowledging the only human contact for miles. 
We arrived in Walgett at 6pm, our entry marked by notices advertising we were now under CCTV. There were no reassurances that this was for our safety. A few Aborigine kids milled about on the one street that made up the town centre. We pulled in to the only motel, barbed wire atop any projection that might be climbed, and booked a none-too-cheap room. The motel car park was locked tight at 10.30pm; the swimming pool accessible only with a key from reception. It was Sunday. The streets were mostly empty, and everywhere seemed closed, an outback ghost town. Our dinner that night was the smallest and quickest of our three weeks away – instant noodles bought from the only shop open. 
The next morning we headed to the guidebook’s ‘must-see’ town of Grawin. The tarmac gave out at a left fork. Gravel spat the underside of the car, clouds of dust spewed and barrelled behind. The road ended in what looked like no more than a temporary camp. Corrugated iron shacks subsided in a moonscape. Rusting lorries, and discarded machinery, mocked a life that had gone before. All about was grey, road and land indistinguishable. No one was about despite it being mid-morning, or maybe because it was mid-morning. Giant cacti were the only living things deaf to the silence. 
We circled back the way we’d come and found a garage and shop. We bought chilled ginger beer to quench our thirsts, rubbing the bottles over our faces and necks to cool them. The shopkeeper suggested we drive a mile up a track to mountains of mullock, the slag from opal mining, where we could look for our own. Two mounds rose up, sunlight reflecting off the surface and blinding any who looked too long. One mound was closed to fossicking, the other newly claimed according to a hastily painted sign. Hoists and blowers were loading vans all around, generators roaring in the distance, but still no human appeared. 
With nothing to see, we retraced our steps to the main road and carried on to Lightning Ridge. Our reliable guidebook warned Lightning Ridge would be busy so we’d booked into a caravan park unit in advance to ensure we had a bed for the night. We passed two cars on the way there coming out; no one else seemed to be going our way.
We arrived early afternoon, the sun frying all below her. Slow movement brought on greater lethargy and yet there was no humidity, this was slow baking in a fan-oven. We snatched a lunch of sandwiches and fruit before visiting the walk-in mine. Down stairs and along passageways to ballroom openings where they mined the opal, the walls sliced to reveal the red and white sandstone and grey clay opal layer. Dark and cool, a delicious respite and we realised it was little wonder our human contact had been limited – all the locals spend their days underground.
In the bearable heat of the evening we drove the visitor information centre’s car door routes. Yellow, red, green and blue numbered car doors point out the historical sites - the church that featured in the film Goddess of 67; the first shaft lookout, dug in 1902. From here the scrub went on for as far as we could see, and further. Standing on the ledge looking out, the wind hit like a hair dryer. Our host estimated the day’s temperature between 41 and 45 degrees centigrade. When it gets up to 55 in high summer, the locals hide the thermometers and keep schtum – no one would come if they knew.
The next morning we turned south again, moving from structured desolation towards mass population, traffic jams in the Blue Mountains, bad weather in Sydney, and spectacular crumbling views from the Great Ocean Road. And as we left, the prospect of meeting the in-laws was no longer overwhelming. We had been awed by nature, people we could take in our stride.

Sarah Ann Hall used to be a Psychology researcher, before turning to fiction. In 2001 she wrote the book she needed to get out of her system. Since then she has written short stories, some of which have been published in anthologies. More recently Sarah Ann has completed a novel about a young woman coming to terms with terminal cancer, for which she is currently seeking agent representation. She writes flash fiction on her blog and is constantly looking for fiction and nonfiction challenges as she hopes to improve her craft.

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