Shortly after escaping Brisbane in a Toyota Camry, I break free into open countryside. The enveloping hills are a mirror image of the Bluestacks in south Donegal. A temporary patch of lush greenery along the roadside resembles Inishowen, the fertile, rolling garden of Ireland, rich in soil and gentry, and like there you can feel a heat emanating from the dense riot of blooming vegetation. Giant pylons march through the mountains in an orderly file with their hands on their hips.
I continue westward towards the town of Goondiwindi. The village straddles the border with New South Wales, the local accents heavy and sweet like warm treacle and from here the southbound Newell Highway comes to a point in the distance before vanishing over the horizon. I pull in at the edge of town and go for a brisk walk to stretch my legs. I aimlessly wander into a music-equipment store and am immediately disarmed by their smartly-amassed collection of instruments, microphones and amps. To be surrounded by such equipment is a pleasure and I smile through the experience and imagine what it would be like to be Rory Gallagher in Hamburg in 1976. At least I am holding a Fender Stratocaster, the same one he is strumming on the cover of Live at Rockpalast. I will never get any closer than that.
My digs for the night are an old, family-run hotel with a homely bar. I settle in for a cold beverage. The barmaid looks at me as though I’m just the next in a line of pasty Irish men to face her that day. “You’re in the wrong place, Luv,” she offers when I ask about an adventure somewhere in the town to pass the evening. My plans scuppered, I plump for a quiet night. Tomorrow’s job, Coonabarabran – ‘Coona’ to the locals – should offer a little more.
I rise early, keen to complete the day’s journey and make the most of the evening. I fire over steel bridges spanning lush valleys as the rolling hills are silhouetted by lingering morning haze, and gargantuan roadtrains roar by hauling huge weights in the opposite direction. In the town of Moree I browse a bookshop filled with pristine, cellophane-wrapped volumes. I pick up a tastefully presented copy of Wuthering Heights, more through duty than curiosity, and stifle the urge to mention Kate Bush with her dope and her nightgown. I escape unburdened by purchases and make my way back to the Highway.
My hostel in Coona strikes me as a place where maintenance is a last resort. Perhaps after a near-death, for example. On my way up the stairs the owner advises me that “The floor’s a bit dodgy on the landing” and am greeted by a gaping hole leading to the concrete below. In the evening I find a second-hand shop selling everything from Jeff Buckley CDs to boomerangs. I go for the former. Buckley’s intense vocals on Grace are as good a companion as any on these barren outback routes. Elsewhere in town I stumble upon a plaque dedicated to Mary Jane Cain. An aboriginal woman born in 1844, she was instrumental in the establishment of the nearby Burra Bee Dee Aboriginal Reserve in 1912, and came to be known as the Queen of Burrabeedee, or “Queenie Cain”. She had fought fiercely for aboriginal land rights, something virtually unheard of at the time. I learn that her mother had married an Irishman, Eugene Griffin.
Melbourne is within touching distance and the following morning I ramble on through the outback’s bush and vast plains as Buckley keeps me company with his agile tenor. Remnants of frazzled tyres and contorted bumpers litter the roadside as kangaroos make a dash for it, but some of their mates haven’t been so fortunate; you could get three coats and a good stew from the carnage. Lorries grumble past on the Freeway as they race to Victoria’s capital, their drivers hidden from the world by tinted glass. If they’re shadows to me I must be technicoloured to them in my rainbow-themed get-up.
I take a ride on the world’s fastest lift to the Skydeck, the highest viewing point in the southern hemisphere, and it’s clear why Melburnians are proud of their home; the afternoon sunshine chimes off the Southern Ocean and state-of-the-art skyscrapers form a landscape uninterrupted by cloud. It looks beautiful, warm and sedate, and I mutter clumsily to myself; please, let me come back.
Sydney brings a fresh breeze absent up north, fingers of sea break up the city and from the freeway this place looks like an industrial centre for New South Wales. Infinite blocks of factories, warehouses, chimneys and imposing cranes go about their daily duties. BMW’s everywhere. You could die of shame here if you gave a damn.
Wednesday’s job is the Blue Mountains to the city’s west. The journey there provides an insight into the ferocity of its relentless westward sprawl, gradually petering out as the neighbouring peaks close in. Our driver/tour-guide oozes confidence and authority, garnished with a cowboy hat and pockets possessing state-of-the-art exploring equipment to make Paul Hogan wince. A whore for the work, I think to myself. He informs us via speaker-system when the time comes to disembark the coach. His zealous aplomb with the microphone has him an international superstar: broadcast worldwide to an audience of eleven. I want to kick him from his complacency but maybe I’m complacent myself. The return trip takes twice as long, the evening smog a rosy red from the infinite tail lights in front. I watch a Harley rider bum a light from a female smoker with her window open. They share a joke and swiftly go their separate ways. Friday looms and the long flight home awaits, it never seems as daunting on a map. Departure time from Sydney is 5pm.
We leave the cars and concrete in our wake as the gimmick-laden Qantas airbus ascends towards the clouds, the Great Dividing Range sprawled out underneath like some array of gigantic mythical horses. Snakes of traffic zig-zagging below, pulled along by some mysterious force; steady in the arteries, slower in the veins. I gaze into a book in an attempt to appear sophisticated. It occurred to me yesterday as I realised I would have not a spare second to poke around Sydney that I’m unlikely to pass these ways again. Now I have all the time in the world to reflect on my stint in this land of hopes and desires, stopped short and buried in the shallow earth.