Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.


Day Seven.

Late Sunday afternoon. The town rose in slow motion out of the flat, endless wheat fields of the Wimmera, like a long tracking shot in a Terence Malick movie. A couple of grand-looking buildings came into view, boom era hotels wearing ostentatious iron lacework like a couple of ageing society dames. It's not until you get closer that you see the shuttered window, the gap in the wrought iron, the yellowing mail gathering in a dusty doorway. Nhill looks closed for business.

In the forecourt of a lonely silo next to the rail line a gaudy coffee caravan was touting for business, bizarrely contrasting the swapping fortunes of country and city commerce.

A Brunswick-style hipster coffee caravan in a place like this? It looked like an escaped animal from the zoo. Then it struck me. That crackly football broadcast on the radio in the middle of nowhere yesterday had been the Adelaide game – playing in Melbourne. Many of the Croweater fans make the journey by road, and Nhill is the halfway point. Accommodation suddenly looked scarce.


I saw the sign on the door as I walked into the manager's cabin in the caravan park. I hadn't noticed it until I pushed it open. It read No Vacancy. I stopped in the half-open door. A man was sitting behind a counter next to a small window.

"You just answered my question," I said to him.

"Hang on," he replied, and ran his hand down a list. "You could have cabin four. I'll do it for ninety." I paid up front. I wondered, why the discount?


The gaffer tape on the door of cabin four should have been a warning. The key stuck at first, but I managed to wrench the door open. It wasn't tracking properly. I walked into the smell of a month's worth of stale cigarettes smoked without any open windows. Had it been any earlier or had I not already paid, I should have moved on, but the task of negotiating an immediate refund this late in the day on the basis of cigarette smoke seemed too hard. So I opened all the windows instead. That got the smell out of the air but not out of the sheets or the blankets or the curtains of cabin four. I boiled the kettle to wash the dishes I would be using for dinner.


There was still an hour or two of daylight. We went our for some fresh air. We walked through the town, past the closed hotel. Further along were houses, some federation-style still well kept, others starting to look rundown, some actually vandalised if not abandoned. I noticed a couple of dishevelled characters who had not bothered to put on their Sunday best.

Back in the middle of town – literally at the parting of five ways – was a metal and glass extravaganza of a building, a postmodern marvel sparing no expense and looking like it embraced every sustainability refrain in the songbook. It probably even sucked the sun out of the wheat fields. It was the shire office. In that environment, it looked a like a space ship that had plonked itself in an alien zombie landscape of a B-grade 1950s sci-fi movie. A couple of the shady characters from the rundown end of town walked past, playing bit parts without realising it.


Back in cabin four, I boiled some pasta and cooked up a sauce, using the two of three burners that worked, and looked for a colander to drain the pasta. Nope. Not even a lid. I used a dinner plate held against the upturned pot and tried not to burn myself on the steam.


You can deal with gaffer tape and cigarette smoke and a stove with one burner not working. But then it was time for the children to go to bed. Right above the left upper bunk, growing downwards from the ceiling, was a thing. The thing was a bulbous growth, a mass of fungus, a mould about nine inches across and hanging down like a convex art deco light fitting. I hadn't noticed it earlier. You would have your face in it if you sat bolt upright in your sleep. It was green and hairy and it was directly above the pillow, where it might fall on you at three in the morning. We put the children in the other bunks; and we got out quick next morning.


Destination summary: In Nhill the shire officers seem to be doing alright for themselves.

Accommodation summary: Avoid cabin four at the Nhill caravan park. Cabins 1-3 and 5-10 might be palatial.

Phrase of the day: Nhill desperandum.


Day Six.

Even out here, several hundred miles from a state capital, the major highways pulse twenty-four hours. The big trucks go overnight and the ones that run by day stalk the campervanning grey nomads who check the speed limit then halve it. You may as well save your money and drive up and down the Maroondah Highway all day and then sleep in your own bed. I turned off the Sturt Highway just out of Paringa and pointed the car south towards Pinnaroo, which sounds like a party game involving native fauna.


I was spellbound by the landscape but alert to the dangers. A kind of hypnotic vigilance. Or entranced caution. I don’t know. You have to relax but expect a kangaroo through the windscreen any second. It almost happened to me once. I was driving towards Melbourne at six in the morning about ten years ago on the Northern Highway just before Heathcote. A large eastern grey came out of the scrub just as a ute was overtaking my car. We were abreast, me on the left at 100, the ute on my right at about 130. The kangaroo shot out. I hit the brake. The ute swerved left, into my space, and the kangaroo overshot us both by inches and disappeared into the bush on the other side. Mornings are worst but you have to be vigilant all day.


This was early afternoon, on a Saturday. The radio was trying to drag an AFL football broadcast out of the white noise of some distant country station on relay from 3AW. We were in the middle of a piece of real estate called the Ngarkat Conservation Park which incorporates the Mount Shaugh, Mount Rescue and Scorpion Springs Conservation Parks; and lies alongside the Big Desert Wilderness Park, which in turn adjoins the Wyperfeld National Park to its east and has the Murray-Sunset National Park to its north.

So there's nothing to look at, according to some. Nothing but several million beautiful untouched square acres in which to admire the wonder of nature, and die from thirst when you get lost.

You comprehend the vastness of this place when you drive for hours and the children think you're going past the same tree or shrub over and over again. But this is a just postage stamp compared to the real inland - the Simpson Desert or the 'Little' Sandy Desert.

After a few hours of pristine, primeval, flat, majestic, unspoiled scenery that hadn't changed for millions of years, small localities and towns started to appear. The first was just a silo with a name, the next was a general store with a name, the following had a hotel next to the general store, and finally, one with a football ground. Civilisation! The oval was circled by cars like cattle at a dam in a heat wave and the game had just finished, the scoreboard showing Kybybolite 12.17.89, visitors 11.21.87.

Destination summary: Naracoorte is home to the World Heritage-listed fossil caves into which prehistoric animals fell, their bones collecting across millions of years and several ice ages, the cave acting as a kind of primeval Westinghouse deep freeze.

Accommodation summary: William McIntosh Motor Lodge. A Scottish-themed hotel in the outback? Our room looked through a floor to ceiling window onto a lawn sweeping away to a forest. You can sit outside this with a Scotch and imagine you're in the Highlands. Four stars.

Phrase of the day: Watch your step.


Day Five.

I sat on the edge of the Murray River just after sundown as a nearly full moon came up. The water looked still at first glance, but through the growing darkness I could see the current rippling in the soft copper moonlight. It would carry you a mile in a few minutes. Once, in 1830, they rowed a whaleboat up the river against the tide; 'they' being explorer Sturt and his crew. The party had reached the so-called mouth of the river that ended in a lake. Sturt climbed a ridge at the end of it and saw surf breaking in the far distance beyond a mile of sandbanked channel. They were landlocked. So they rowed the whaleboat a thousand kilometres back up the Murray at the height of summer. It was either that or walk. I went back inside the cabin and picked up the day's newspaper and tried to read a story about gender diversity in the workplace.


Next morning we took the road north. The other road crossed the river by ferry and followed the Murray on its south side. We would go north and rejoin the river upstream later. What Sturt would have given for a car. Earlier we'd gone into an information centre doubling as a post office/newsagent/general store/museum, I can't remember which, where a volunteer lady wearing an large and faintly ridiculous red bow (among other things) was declaring to an old couple who couldn't decide for themselves, "Oh, you don't want to go that way, there's nothing to see except paddocks."

She was right. There was nothing, if you like Big Pineapples. Level farmland dirt-brown after the harvest stretched away from the river flats on both sides of an arrow-straight highway. We passed an occasional Federation farmhouse; perhaps one every ten or twenty or fifty kilometres. These were neatly fenced as if to keep out the emptiness. Inside the neat fences were trees, shrubs, lush lawns, clotheslines partly visible in the backyard, and scattered toys. These interruptions of green looked like they had been lifted block-whole from a street in Camberwell and transplanted on the moon. The morning wore on. We passed some abandoned, ghostly houses whose residents had long gone, the buildings left to fall into disrepair. But the belladonna lilies and the freesias keep coming up decades later where the garden beds once were. You drive past and wonder who planted them and whether they knew the bulbs would outlive them and the house, and then the whole vision disappears into the distance.

It is so quiet out here out here that you occasionally get the finger from a passing local farmer. Not the rude finger of the city, but a forefinger raised from his steering wheel in greeting. We had left the plain behind, and now the road curved gently as it climbed budding hills that seem to part like curtains to reveal long vistas. A purple haze on the horizon looked like low cloud, grew larger, came closer, and turned into a row of hills that soon became a low mountain range, still purple. Take a photo and you've got a Namatjira painting. When I was growing up we had one on the lounge room wall, soft mauve watercolour mountains and not a dot in sight. The hoi polloi working classes had Namatjira prints on their poky walls, while the literati scattered their houses with Nolans and Boyds. I used to wonder why mum took the Namatjira off the wall and hid it when her rich friends from Kew came over.


Then the purple mountains receded and we dropped slowly down into irrigation territory again, having returned to the river via a triangular journey into the vastness of rural South Australia. Now there were trees everywhere, not gums any more but deciduous trees with medium size trunks and pretty canopies, all ordered into a thousand orchards. That's a thousand orchards, not a thousand trees. There must have been literally millions of them: almond trees.


Destination summary: Renmark processed 85,000 tonnes of almonds last year, a figure expected to rise to 135,000 tonnes within eight years, with 9000 new products on supermarket shelves worldwide having almonds as an ingredient. (Source: Almondco)

Accommodation summary: Paringa caravan park, full of noisy European backpackers in for the picking season.

Day Five in a phrase: Warning, contains nuts.


Day Four.

It was raining, so I was heading north away from the coast and into some warmer weather. Before leaving town, I stopped at the main street cafe where the owner of the house worked to drop off the two-day tariff. You can just leave it on the kitchen table, she had told me, but I preferred to hand it over in person, being from a crime-ridden major city. Seems they don't have house break-ins down this way. But I had put the keys back under the terracotta pot. Same thinking: in Melbourne they don't look for the keys, they just break down the door.

I drove around the coast to Kingston then struck north along Rowney Rd for 50 or maybe 60 lonely kilometres, through mixed grazing country and pine plantations that stretched away down south as far as Mt Gambier. We hit the Riddoch Highway, and traffic again, and passed through Keith, a small settlement minding its own business. Then Tailem Bend, a town that sits on top of red cliffs along the Murray River, its main street and the road through an eastern tangent to an almost perfectly round bend in the river.

Then Murray Bridge, self-explanatory. It was close to stopping time, judged daily by the state of the rear occupants of the car, an 11-, 10-, and six-year-old. I drove another half hour or so to Mannum, an old seaport and shipbuilding centre from the paddle steamer days, and found a caravan park.

Cabin 13 was literally seven steps from the Murray River. None of us sleepwalks. The river crossing service operates around the clock and the night was punctuated by the metallic clunking rasp of the ferry docking. Late in the evening a paddle steamer churned up the river, lit up like a circus, its below-deck engine making a thudding echo across the water.

Destination summary: Mannum boasts the last steam-powered, woodfired, side paddle steamer in the world. Who was I to argue?

Accommodation summary: On the Murray - literally. Four stars.


Day Two and Three.

Another small town and another open air lunch break. We stopped in the middle of town at a small park near the 'information centre' in which volunteer staff ask you where you're going, where you've been and did you see this and that along the way; and if not, why not; and you musn't miss the historic feature on the road five miles out of town on north route 6. They're just trying to be helpful. But I just wanted a map.

Crowning the small park, set into an elaborate plinth, was a long white thing that looked like a narrow but very long overturned canoe. A plaque set into the plinth told the story. The long white thing was not an overturned canoe; it was one blade of a propeller from a wind turbine, an advertisement for the local wind farms. The local council website explained:
While in Millicent take time out to enjoy, experience 'clean & green' ... turn left at Canunda Frontage Road. Experience the peace and beauty of the natural environment, the bird life ... in their habitats ... gaze in awe at the mighty wind turbines that stretch as far as the eye can see ...
Birdlife? Mighty wind turbines? The council bureaucrats obviously published this without picking up the copywriter's savage irony. It is the very height of copywriting skill to inject irony into your words and have it published by an oblivious client. It might also be unethical, but funny nevertheless.

We ate lunch. Three or four birds sat on the propeller blade in the sun and preened themselves, the ultimate insult to the becalmed blade.


Earlier, we had stopped at the South Australian border and dumped a load of apples, after eating some, in the quarantine bin. Do the bugs know not to cross the border, one of the children very logically asked. I didn't know, I said. I imagined they stayed around their food source and that transportation, not self-propulsion, was the main cause of fruit fly infestation. I was able to demonstrate this later.


Ten thousand - or more - years ago, a Postglacial Marine Transgression made the sea rise, resulting in a coastline kink that was later named Guichen Bay in 1802 by French explorers who went around naming things but never actually settling. Not sure what the French were after but it obviously wasn't a pretty if somewhat wild and windblown bay which the British eventually turned into the seaport of Robe, now a sleepy fishing village.

We arrived at the house mid-afternoon. It was a 1940s timber cottage set on limestone footings, off the main street on a corner block. I opened the gate, drove in, parked by an overgrown rose garden at the side of the house and retrieved the keys - as instructed by the owner - from under an upturned terracotta pot on a shelf behind a small shed. A lawn behind the rose garden led to a rear garden, and an orchard behind that was sectioned off by a lattice fence with a small gate. I half expected Peter Rabbit to bolt from somewhere chased by Mr McGregor wielding a garden rake.

Inside the cottage was a timber-lined lounge with easy chairs arranged around a heater, an east-facing kitchen off that with a huge window that let in the morning sun, bedrooms at either end of the house and an old-fashioned covered laundry off the back door porch. There was a table and chairs on a front deck under the cover of some trees and another small table outside the back door that caught the morning sun. We stayed here two days but I could have moved there permanently.


Later the owner, a tall thin pleasant lady in her early fifties who had an easy smile and an air of being permanently busy in that getting-things-done way dropped in to see if everything was in order. She went behind the lattice gate in the garden, re-emerged a few minutes later with a basket of apples and figs, placed them on the table and then disappeared with a wave.

I looked at the apples. Perfect. Every home garden apple tree in Victoria produces fruit that is always full of worms or codling moths or whatever they are. There's the reason for the quarantine.


Day One.

The rain started in Gellibrand, a small town on the edge of the Otways. We had started at eight in the morning of a warm, sunny late March morning.

Now it was midday and I had pulled the car into a small grassed park with one of those octagonal concrete picnic table and chairs. We sat and ate and watched the clouds gather. Down this way it can turn in minutes. I threw the lunch things back into the box I use as a hamper as the rain started and we resumed the journey into a raging storm.

Deep in the forest it was black at two thirty in the afternoon. The only other traffic was logging trucks going the other way, and I pulled over tight against the edge of the bitumen as they barrelled past carrying timber to be turned into home renovations for city hipsters with Save the Forests stickers on their cars.

Then over Laver's Hill, and the drive was a long coast down the mountains to the Great Ocean Road. The sky was clear now, but spume drifted across from the waves eating into the jagged cliffs. Past Loch Ard gorge. Imagine climbing up that at night, being one of only two people to survive a sailing shipwreck. Then the Twelve Apostles, all eight of them or is it seven now? Across the road from this, fifty buses were parked in careful lines, having disgorged tourists who were clambering along a small ridge where the cliffs met the churning ocean. Over the road, uniformed bus drivers could be seen smoking, bored, staring at nothing. Seen it all before. Then the collapsed London Bridge, or was that earlier? Port Fairy was a fuel stop.

I turned off before Portland along a lonely, picturesque road with no traffic, past towns with names like Bessiebelle and Codrington, and rolled to a stop in Heywood. Found a double room in an original fifties motel ("Business For Sale") with a DVD player and a selection of obscure old movies. For no reason, I put on The Magnificent Two, a 1967 Morecambe and Wise product extension satirising the John Sturges movie, its humour arising chiefly through Morecambe and Wise not being Yul Brynner, James Coburn, Steve McQueen or Charles Bronson. Earlier, the boys and I had visited the local footy oval which was still in that special twilight zone of having its cricket pitch still up, its football lines freshly marked and goalposts in place. Bring it on.


Destination summary: Heywood is a small town with very little in it except genuine shops and no 'shoppes', which is its main attraction. Tourist attractions and theme shops are the great fakery of the age.

Accommodation summary: Book in at a fifties-style motel while you still can and relive your retro dreams. Four stars.

Day One in a phrase: Hey! Wood!