Stressed to the point of every one of my nerve endings standing up, bristling like the hairs on a dogs back; I get in my car and drive. I play emo music loudly and enjoy the silence in the back seat. My mum, being every bit of awesome, has taken my kids for the whole weekend. I stick my metaphorical tongue out at my TinyTrainHouse that seems to be laughing at the happiness I’m trying to create here… and drive.
I aim for Katoomba and end up in Orange. It’s cold and different and the pace here is slower but tougher… these people are harder than me and they can see it. I feel as though the men at the bar of the hotel I stay in could swallow a chunk of me in one bite, smile, wipe their chin and continue drinking their beer. There’s something dreadfully intimidating about that, of course, but there’s a solace in it… I am not not as tough as it think I am, and it’s so long since I’ve allowed myself to feel vulnerable that thought almost makes me want to cry.
I sleep for ten hours and when I wake it’s the most beautiful day. I head in the direction of home and aimlessly turn off, following a brown tourist information signpost for a location I never reach.
It’s beautiful out here. They call part of it ‘Pretty Plains’ and the reason’s obvious– miles of rolling tablelands fringed with sweeping grasses, bathed in Autumn sunshine and all shades of taupe and dusk and beige. Occasionally there are squares of fluorescent green, irrigated Kikuyu grass that seems almost obscene, it’s so bright against it’s muted back drop.
|A tram, miles from Melbourne.|
And there’s the oddities. Always, no matter how where you are, there are people who are not satisfied with boring and conventional.
I fucking love those people.
My car isn’t a four wheel drive, but it’s all–wheel and built for driving dirt roads– just not bouncing over rocks. I’ve got liters of water in the boot, a tank full of petrol and even enough food to sustain a sparrow such as me for a good forty eight hours. I’m in the middle of nowhere and that’s just sensible.
|And another car-in-a-tree…|
But there’s a shadow of vulnerability left from last night. Mix that with heady freedom and the gulping massiveness of this countryside that seems familiar but isn’t– flat plains where hills should be, the foliage ever so slightly different to what I’m used to – and there’s a wave of rising panic threatening to swallow me.
If I try, I can remember… this kind of panic existed in the Before. It’s not a big deal. In fact, its natural and healthy. It keeps you safe.
And I watch in slight fascination as my healing mind rationalizes it– a flat tyre, with me simply physically unable to change it; that’s not the end of the world. Proof of that is in the most natural of human gestures– every person I see on this tack–stitched seam of back roads raises their hand to me as I pass, and I return the salutation. It takes me by pleasant surprise the first time– I’d forgotten how people in smaller, more rural areas than mine do this. It’s living proof, as much as a sprawling city, that people need to be together. We need to connect, even with a stranger in a city car on a dusty dirt road as you check your mailbox, two kilometres down the dirt driveway from your house.
There would be very few men out here who would drive past a woman alone with a flat. I’d pay for changing the tyre in friendly patronization. But they’d stop.
Roads go from sealed bitumen, to gravel, to corrugated dirt track with no obvious discriminating factors. I have some kind of Qantas moment watching a kangaroo bounding full speed through a flat grass paddock alongside the road– he seems to be keeping up with me, racing me for a good three hundred metres. It’s not the only time that day I feel as though the local fauna is playing show off for me, a tourist who’s skipped Hill End and Mount Panorama in favor of sight seeing slightly off the beaten track.
Kookaburras, magpies, an artist’s splatter of rainbow lorikeets swoop in shooting arcs in front of my car, cheeky kamikazes warning off a trespasser. Later that night as dusk falls and I do venture home, a sleepy wombat makes his way across the road near my house, pausing feet from a curb made of solidified mud to inspect me with wise brown eyes.
My sense of direction, while useless in the Sydney CBD, kicks in on open roads, and I know vaguely which direction both Orange and Bathurst are in. That’s good enough. Every t–intersection is a decision, a literal changing moment in life. Not knowing where I am, the difference between left and right could also be that between arriving home today and tomorrow; and every single event that follows in my life that comes after it is intrinsically altered.
That’s every day, every decisions, every second. But how often are we aware of it? How often do you make decisions with the knowledge you should always have- that they will, no matter how small, change everything?
I’ve been driving for maybe an hour when I spot the first small brown arrow with white lettering reading ‘Ophir’. In Australia, brown road signs point to tourist attractions and areas of interest. While it feels too far out of civilization for a tourist attraction… this is gold rush country.
I drive for another forty five minutes, not particularly fussed on where I’m going or even if I’m going anywhere at all. My peripheral vision is calibrated for ruin, abandonment and oddity; there are dilapidated farmhouses everywhere but I don’t feel like battling barb wire fences or traipsing for hours across farmlands.
The road begins to wind down into the gully, steep and unforgiving and I swear as I feel my tires glide over loose stones, my car feeling as though it weighed mere grams instead of almost a tonne.
The sign announcing ‘Ophir Recreation Area, abandoned 1851′ makes me squeal out loud and I feel like a child completing a treasure hunt, finding this place with no map and no sense of direction, driving here with only the vaguest assumption that of course there would be deserted mining towns out here, in the middle of Australia’s short-lived gold fields. I am smiling, a real smile that crinkles my eyes and pulls my muscles up towards my temples… I notice it simply because smiling properly is not the everyday normality it used to be.
I stop my car at the bottom of the gully, beside the creek that runs shallow over water–smoothed rocks. The air is cold and dense and solid despite the glorious sunshine. The thermometer in my car tells me it’s just hit eleven degrees Celsius. In summer here it would be baking, blistering heat without the coastal humidity. It’s the perfect spot for gold mining.
It’s almost sobbingly beautiful.
Sunshine sparkles off the creek, a hundred brilliantly reflected diamond spangles coming off where the water rolls over the rocks. It’s shallow here- a ford, a crossing over a river that would be icy cold and raging in wet winters. There is no plumbing, and the river water not safe for drinking; a hand pumped bore brings water up to the surface from an underground spring for campers, just as it’s done for the last hundred and fifty years.
Native pines and vines of the deepest green stretch out from the river bank, a contrast down here in the gully where the water is compared to the stark beige dryness of everywhere else. The effect lasts only two hundred metres or so– beyond that is parched eucalypt scrub that reaches up, clinging to the edge of the foothills and fifty foot high gorges that trail the path of the creek, the product of a million years of water torture.
I’d love to say I’m the only one here, but that would be lying. There’s a family with a handful of children and a big 4WD packed with camping gear. A man in his late forties collects firewood and unpacks supplies that are lashed to the roof racks of his tiny red Corolla. I wonder how he made it down the gorge road in that car, then remind myself that a whole township of people had migrated that steep landscape with horses and carts.
A young couple wander in from somewhere and ruin my Lori-in-the-wilderness fantasy. They look trendy and the chick is wearing three quarter pants and she must be freezing. There’s a ‘first date’ vibe coming off them and I wish they’d fuck off.
I study the information map and take a picture of it with my phone, just in case. In the boot of my car I have a thick denim bag packed for occasions such as this. I lace up thick leather Doc Marten boots and check the bag’s contents– lollipops and a bottle of water, sunscreen and thick gardening gloves, plastic bags for collecting weeds, an umbrella and pair of scissors, my camera, a camera.
Then I head up Walking Track One. I pause halfway up the path and look back down. And I feel my soul stretch, unclenching muscles of the psyche made for peace and tranquility. I bask in the sunlight and marvel, not for the first time, how many shades of green there are.