Monday, September 10, 2007

The Grown-Up Road Trip

The Great Escape

My new frugal and pie-less lifestyle seems to be working out - tentatively at least . Last Thursday some mug deposited $636 in my account (I think it was RailCorp), thus giving me my first paypacket since November 2006. And seeing as I had already enough food for the week stashed under my bed - mainly consisting of instant noodles and tinned Korma - I was happy in the knowledge that financial consolidation was only a few more rotations of a microwave turntable away.

However, this weekend was APEC. And if, at any stage, Sydneysiders forgot this, they were reminded by the 30ft high wall and the tsunami of police inundating every public nook and cranny (incidentally, police here really don't look like police. They wear blue boiler suits, baseball caps and what looks like Batman's utility belt. It looked like they were there to install a Sky dish. Or else marshall a paintballing weekend).

APEC meant that, first, lots of shops and roads were very, very closed indeed. And second, that if you went within 1 mile of the city centre you were likely to be obliterated by an orbiting laser, or something. Kindly, to compensate New South Wales for the upheaval, the Australian government decided to give everyone Friday off. Long weekend! Super.

Time to leave the city, I think. So with $636 to my name, I began umming and aaahing as to whether to join Louise and Lisa on their "grown-up road trip" up North. After costing it out, I decided that $125 or 50 quid for a weekend int bad, especially considering that included petrol and accommodation. So I said yes.

Thelma and Louise

Louise and Lisa agreed to share the driving between them, and planned out the route accordingly. My contribution was to take up position in the backseat, eat from a jumbo bag of crisps and say "are we there yet?" a lot. If Thelma and Louise, instead of driving off that cliff, had picked up Terry Christian and taken him on a road trip, this would have been the result. And the fact that Louise's name sounds a bit, only sought to reinforce the analogy. I was hoping we weren't going to bump into that Bradley Pitt.

We blasted up the motorway for a good four hours, and by the time the torrential rain started, we still had a bit to go. The distances involved here are difficult to get to grips with. Case in point: scale on maps. Our map had the same amount of pages as your average AA Road Atlas, but because England is so much smaller, the distance between two points on the page is also smaller. On an Australian map, however, a couple of inches on a page could mean miles and miles and miles. If the Australian map was the same scale as the British map, the atlas would have to be the size of The Daily Telegraph and as thick as the Encyclopaedia Britannica. All this just meant that I started asking "are we there yet?" and "how many more corners?" with greater frequency.

We called in at Bathurst, and pushed on to Cowra, the location of a famous Japanese POW breakout in the war. 400kms or so outside of Sydney now, we were really beginning to get a taste of small town Australia. And in many ways it's similar to smalltown America: wide, gridded streets; diners; low rise shopping arcades; run down bars - and the space between those towns full of creakily-turning metal windmills, railway crossings and wooden-porched houses with trucks rusting in the garden.

Yee-ha indeed.

Star Wars

Our plan was to move on to the Observatory at Cowra - apparently the darkest place in Australia and therefore the best location for viewing the stars. But the clouds had socked in and a phone call to the man at the observatory revealed they weren't going to even bother opening it up that night. A change of plan later and we were heading for Forbes and to our digs for the night.

About half an hour out, however, we realised that the clouds had rolled back and the some stars were out. Then we realised that, actually, ALL the stars were out. We pulled the car into a laybay and turned the engine off. It was black. Pitch black. And steadily, we ventured out into the layby and turned our heads skyward.

You have never seen stars until you see them in Australia. The sky was awash with a billion pinpoints of light - cascading and falling, pooling and swirling, convening into patterns that I'd never seen before. It was like someone had emptied a bag of sugar on to a black bedsheet. The Milky Way was clearly visible too. I don't ever recall seeing it before, but here it was: a billowing, yet feint blue cloud arcing icily over the sky.

After we had stood staring for a while, making appropriate noises of "awe", Louise suggested lying on the bonnet of the car, Wayne's World Style. It was a sturdy motor and she's only a dot, so we clambered up.

"Do you reckon you could get a photo of this?" I asked, knowing Louise is a photographer by trade. Stupid question, clearly. "Sure..." she said, and then added good naturedly, "...I just need to go and fetch my tripod out the boot in the pitch black, and then leave the shutter open for about 40 minutes on maximum exposure while we freeze to death....."

So no photo of the sky then, but thanks to Wikipedia, this is what it looked like.......

The Shining

We got to our lodgings about 10pm. The Albion Hotel in Forbes is a pub, hotel and underground museum. The building has a real history, former home to the disreputable bandit and robber Ben Hall, a kind of cross between Butch Cassidy and Ned Kelly. The catacombs, where he and his gang masterminded raids on gold prospectors, has now been turned into a museum complete with yellowed newpapers and muskets behind glass cases, whilst the vast upper floors contained the accommodation.

This place was spooky. The moment we arrived on the top floor we were greeted with an impossibly long corridor that disappeared off into a dimly lit vanishing point, and a thin strip of paisley carpet which lay along the floor and, also, disappeared into the middle distance. This was The Shining. This was the Overlook Hotel. "Heeeeeeere's Johnny!" and all that jazz.

My room was no less unnerving. A sparse russet coloured room with a single 1970s bed, a single 1970s wardrobe and a sink with a rusted brown stain underneath where the cold tap had been dripping. In true The Shining style it appeared as if my doorframe had received a bit of a pounding at some stage and the eerie silence helped to heighten the "axe-murderer" atmosphere.

I thought this photo summed it up, really. That's my arm of course. But wait.... this photo was taken in 1922 it couldn't have been my arm.......aaaaaaarghhh!

The Dish

The next day we were over to The Parkes Radio Telescope, instrumental in the Moon landings and also the location for the film The Dish, starring Sam Neill, a light-hearted comedy based on those events in 1969.

The stargazing the night before only sought to make this a more involving visit and halfway through the afternoon, after staring at the dish for a while (it is good to stare at), we were all treated to a clanking and rumbling as it moved a few degrees to the left, presumably to have a gander at Betelgeuse, or something. I was tempted to buy up all the rocket-shaped pencil sharpeners and meteor-shaped erasers in the giftshop, but I'm an adult and don't do that sort of thing now.

Close Encounters

From Parkes we were on to Mount Canobolas, just outside Orange. It's an ex-volcano with a peak that commands stunning views of NSW. When we arrived the sun was beginning to set and we were soon joined by some very nosy kangaroos. They're wild up here, but let us get quite close nonetheless. The sun and the wildlife provided us with some great photo opportunities. Pity, then, that by point my memory card was full and my battery was flat. So as the lithium died I went snap-happy trying to capture the moment while I still could.

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