2 May—3 May 2002
We packed up and left Carnarvon Gorge, and drove two hours north to Rolleston, and then on to Emerald, where we stopped at a big, well-stocked supermarket to replenish the esky. We then headed west for two hours until we reached Alpha, where we stopped overnight in a very ordinary caravan park. There was rock two inches below the surface of the soil, which made it very difficult to sink the tent pegs. The nicest thing about the stop was an open fire which we took advantage of. Susie and I stayed up until about 10.30 p.m., talking and tinkering on the guitar and gazing up at unforgettable starscape that towered over us like a vast, shimmering dome.
We were on the road again the next day at 9.00 a.m. We stopped at Barcaldine to see the Worker’s Heritage Centre. (We chose Barcaldine over Longreach, preferring a landmark in labour history over the Stockman’s Hall of Fame.) This was a disappointment, except for one exhibit that the Australian Labor Party had erected to celebrate its 100th anniversary. The decision expedited our Westward journey, as we have made it all the way to Winton, 100 km further north-west. We arrived with light to spare, thanks to Susie’s driving. She pushes the car to 110 km/h, whereas I stay on 100. We have a $20 bet riding on my argument that the car consumes less petrol at the lower speed.
Where does the Outback begin? Longreach calls itself the Gateway to the Outback, so I guess we are there now. The landscape certainly would seem to fit the description. It is increasingly flat. The sky is increasingly bigger. The soil is increasingly redder. And other drivers wave to you as you drive along.
In Winton we stopped at the Waltzing Matilda Centre. This shaped up to be a tacky tourist trap with lots of self-conscious myth-making around the theme of Banjo Patterson’s lyrics. We were pleasantly surprised by the rest of the museum, however, which was hidden away out the back, away from the glitzy myth-making multimedia exhibits. There were lots of old artefacts from steam trains to iron lungs and bottle collections.
Ruby and Clare let off steam in a small swimming pool while Susan and I set up camp at the Matilda Camping Ground in Winton. There’s a camp draft on tonight, and we could hear cattle auctions in the distance as we caught up on washing. As I write, the 1970s dance music is drifting from somewhere in town, or more probably the showground.
The kids are tolerating the car travel well. They are total angels – mostly. Ruby has perfected a routine in which she adopts the persona of Clare’s teddy bear, Ashlee. This stops them getting bored of each other’s company over long journeys. Clare sits, sometimes for hours, interacting with her bear as Ruby animates it with a mischievous personality. Ashlee speaks with a hilarious affectation that minces vowel sounds; she plays hide and seek with Clare in confined spaces, and tells rambling bullshit stories about her boyfriend.
Ashlee drives Susie crazy, and Susie had to set some ground rules concerning Ashlee’s behaviour (e.g. Ashlee is always Clare’s friend and she is never unkind to Clare ). It’s like having a fifth person in the car. What drives me spare is the horrible country music you hear all over the place: sentimental, self-pitying slush, sung with fake American accents.