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ON THE ROAD TO GUNDAGAI 

Last month PETER and ANN FROST travelled down the east coast of Australia following migrating whales. In this, the second part of their holiday they journey across the most popular corner of the huge continent.  

Deja Vu, that’s the only way to describe it. We had never been to Australia before but here we were driving north just twenty miles from Adelaide and all the place names had a very familiar ring. With some like Stockwell and Spalding the connection was obvious but others also rang a bell and it took a little while to realise quite why.

Then it clicked, we were in the Barossa Valley, and the road map was a bit like the Australian wine section of our favourite supermarket back home. Some of the best and most popular Australian wine is grown here in what has become a food and drink lover’s paradise. We passed Penfold’s, Wolf Blass, Yalumba, Yaldara, Seppelsfield, Bethany and a dozen other names we had only known previously from dinner party wine labels.

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The Barossa is blessed with fertile soils and a Mediterranean climate. We are here in spring and the vines are bursting with bright green buds and other fruit trees in the orchards are a riot of colourful and fragrant blossom too. There are apricots, peaches, plums, quinces, figs, nuts, apples, pears, lemons, oranges, limes and other citrus fruits and even olives. This might be Australia’s garden of Eden.

The South East corner of Australia has four of the largest cities. Adelaide, Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney. This means that a huge percentage of Australia’s population live in this corner but with the vast land areas involved nowhere seemed crowded.

Our plan was to fly in to Adelaide from our time on the east coast and then drive to Sydney a distance of around a thousand miles yet just a tiny corner of the whole map of Australia. There are two main choices for the route west. You can take the southern road along some of the most spectacular coastal scenery anywhere, or take the inland route along the edge of Australia’s huge red desert heartland.

We decided to make it half and half. Between Adelaide and Melbourne we would hug the coast and then head north through arid gold-rush country where we had an appointment with Ned Kelly.

First however we were off to see a war memorial. Not just any war memorial, this is the most beautiful and certainly the biggest in the World. Australian troops fought in many of the key battles of the First World War not least the tragedy of Gallipoli against the Turks. Aussie soldiers coming home from war were faced with an economy of the edge of collapse and with unemployment. The Government decided to start a huge road project along the previously remote and inaccessible south coast. Building the road would employ thousands of ex soldiers between 1919 and 1932.

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Today the Great Ocean Road, as the memorial is known, runs the 151 miles (243 Km) from Torquay and Warrnambool. It is an amazing drive with miles and miles of deserted beaches, offshore sea-stacks like the famous Twelve apostles (below) and amazing vistas opening up with every mile. 

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The highway swoops from coastal dunes to heart stopping cliff-tops and occasionally leaves the coast to take hairpin curves into a cool rain forest covered mountain side. It is certainly one of the most spectacular drives in the whole world – the best we have ever made.

They do say that life isn’t a beach, so at Melbourne we left the coast and headed north to the gold-fields that back in 1851 had brought so many people to Australia in search of instant wealth. Some found the gold they were looking for but more found hardship and crime in the baking hot outback.

Some found it easier to steal gold than to mine it. Most famous was local boy Ned Kelly.

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In his iron armour and distinctive riveted helmet, Ned became a Robin Hood figure in the gold fields. When Ned robbed a bank he would take the money and gold but he would also make a bonfire of debt certificates, mortgages and IOU’s. After Ned’s raid the banks would have no records of which local farmers owed them money. No wonder Ned became a local hero.

At Glenrowan – Kelly’s hometown we learned the story of young Ned, a criminal at 15,and the amazing story of his ‘last stand’ where he tore down the telegraph wires and tore up the railway track ready for a siege. Ned ad his gang of four, all dressed in musket-ball proof armour and their iconic iron helmets did battle with more than 200 troopers for three days. Eventually the outlaws were killed or captured and Ned was taken to Melbourne to be hanged.

Sidney Nolan’s painting of Ned’s Trial
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There are plenty of other memories of the gold rush in Victoria. Towns such as Beechworth and Chiltern still have streets and buildings little changed in 150 years.

One town much changed since it became rich in the gold rush is Benalla which proved to be one of our favourite towns. Actually we shouldn’t call it a town because today the Aussies call Benella a rural city. It is a uniquely Australian concept. The population is just 14,000 but Benella has colleges, museums, parks and gardens as well as a remarkable art gallery worthy of a place with a hundred times the population.

And the we reached Gundagai – just up the road from Wagga Wagga – a place of simple outback pleasures. Of rotting wooden railway bridges, dusty drover’s roads and ancient gold rush buildings.

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Whenever Aussies break into song, after a couple of drinks perhaps, or after the match or around the embers of a campfire or barbie the first song they sing is Banjo Patterson’s Waltzing Mathilda of course. But the next song will, as like as not be Jack O’Hagan’s Road to Gundagai.

There’s a track winding back
to an old-fashioned shack,
Along the road to Gundagai.
Where the gum trees are growin’
and the Murrumbidgee’s flowin’
beneath the starry sky.
Oh my mother and daddy are waitin’ for me
And the pals of my childhood once more I will see
And no more will I roam ‘cos I’m headin’ right for home
Along the road to Gundagai.

Just outside the town of Gundagai, is a monument to The dog that sit on the tuckerbox it is Australia’s most important place of cultural pilgrimage.

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It is perhaps the most potent image of Australian bush life after Banjo Patterson’s Waltzing Matilda. The statue and the legend are rooted deep in the Australian’s love of their pioneer history, of the jackaroos, jumbucks, sheep stations and drovers. It is one of the foundation stones of the Australian folk memory.

Why else would have at least four Prime Ministers have contrived to have the statue moved or restored just so they could appear in the papers unveiling it? Today the statue has its own turn-off from what is now a main intercity highway. Thousands visit it every year.

Nine Miles from Gundagai by Jack Moses

I’ve done my share of shearing sheep,
Of droving and all that;
And bogged a bullock team as well,
On a Murrumbidgee flat.
I’ve seen the bullock stretch and strain
And blink his bleary eye,
And the dog sit on the tuckerbox
Nine miles from Gundagai.

I’ve been jilted, jarred and crossed in love,
And sand-bagged in the dark,
Till if a mountain fell on me,
I’d treat it as a lark.
It’s when you’ve got your bullocks bogged,
That’s the time you flog and cry,
And the dog sits on the tuckerbox
Nine miles from Gundagai.

We’ve all got our little troubles,
In life’s hard, thorny way.
Some strike them in a motor car
And others in a dray.
But when your dog and bullocks strike,
It ain’t no apple pie,
And the dog sat on the tuckerbox
Nine miles from Gundagai.

But that’s all past and dead and gone,
And I’ve sold the team for meat,
And perhaps, some day where I was bogged,
There’ll be an asphalt street,
The dog, ah! well he got a bait,
And thought he’d like to die,
So I buried him in the tuckerbox,
Nine miles from Gundagai.

As you will see the grammar and the scansion are both awful and here is the reason. The poem and the legend have always been a victim of the sensitive, some would say Calvinist, Aussie establishment. They censored the rhyme.

Here is the real story: Bullocky Bill, the hero of our tale has had a crap day. His Bullock team have bolted got his cart bogged down in a muddy river bed with a broken axle. We have all had days like that and our Bill knows nothing worse can possibly happen. Indeed Bullocky Bill has two things to cheer him up and make the sun shine again.

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First the love of a good well behaved dog. No man can ask for more. Second the thought of the lovingly prepared lunch packed in his tucker box that morning by his devoted wife. Fresh and wholesome food as only Australia can provide. And then what should Bill find…

…when he came to open his tucker box he found his dog had had deposited something warm smelly and moist on the lid. Uck! So forget those Aussie sensibilities. Add a few ‘H’s to the poem and suddenly the grammar makes sense and the lines all scan perfectly.

Let’s raise a glass to the pride of Australia – the real legend of Gundagai – The dog that shit on the tucker box.

Yet just two days later we were in Sydney, surely one of the most sophisticated cities anywhere in the world, art galleries introduced us to both modern Australian art and the still underrated work of the original aborigines.

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The Opera House is busy every night both with home grown culture and world class touring opera, ballet, orchestral, jazz and pop.

We ate Morton bay bugs, an ugly but delicious Aussie lobster, outside a restaurant in the shadow of the harbour bridge while busy beach ferries and four masted sailing ships cruised by.

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We found markets, cabaret clubs, theatres, galleries, shops and bars in a city that never sleeps, (Well actually we discovered those beautiful night people do sleep, on Bondi or Manly beach in the late afternoon.) They play World class cricket and a weird kind of football that is more like wild rugby.

But just as London isn’t the real England, nor New York the real US. Then Sydney isn’t the real Australia. Sydney is Sydney.

So what is the real Oz? The red desserts? the amazing coasts? the Queensland rain forest? the Outback? Ned Kelly? the Vineyards? the Great Barrier Reef? We spent a month and barely scratched the surface.

It’s a big country and however much or little you have time to explore it we leave you wanting more.

How do you eat an elephant?

“How do you eat an elephant?” runs the old riddle. Answer – “One small bite at a time.” Planning a holiday in Australia needs exactly the same approach. Even if you have all the time in the world Australia is such a big place with such huge expanses of empty wilderness you won’t be able to explore it all. Our advice is to find a route with a theme as we did.

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Many people may have friends or relatives down under but that can lead to rather curious thinking. It can be almost like an Australian deciding to have a holiday in England so that he can visit his aunt who lives in Moscow.

There is no doubt about it, a holiday down under needs careful planning and good advice.

This is one of two articles that appeared in Camping and Caravanning Magazine in 2011. 

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