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Expotition to the south, February 2010

A trip to Victoria, triggered by my sister's wedding in Mooroopna.

One of my sisters decided to re-marry, so I'm having a brief absence from home while adding from 2000 to 2500 km to my car's odometer. (Exact number not known until I get home. I'm writing this in Melbourne, at about the halfway point.) I thought I might use this opportunity to put down some thoughts that occurred to me along the way. Those with no taste for the waffle known as a "blog" - this is not really a blog, but it's a similar stream of consciousness delivery - can stop reading now.

My sister lives in north-central Victoria, only about 100km from where I grew up. (My other sister has wandered much further afield, but that's a story for another time.) I live in Newcastle, on the NSW east coast, a long way from my native land. That means that any family get-together means a couple of days' driving each way. It can be done in one day with two drivers, or even with one driver with sufficient stamina. I've done it as a single trip in days gone by, but that was when I was younger than springtime and hilariously gay.

So: south to Sydney and beyond. Newcastle to Sydney is just an intercity freeway, with nothing special to report; I'll skip that bit.

My GPS navigating device has a female voice with a slight Irish accent. On the whole I'm well pleased with her, but she does have the slightly disconcerting habit of using the word "motorway" for what I would call a freeway. But, OK, I know what she means, and having to translate one foreign word is a small price to pay for having an even-tempered travelling companion with a sexy voice.

Now I'm even forced to question whether it is a foreign word. While driving through Sydney, the word "motorway" was clearly visible on the sign marking the entrance to the M2. A little further on, I saw the word again on the M7. Then it struck me: in all these years, I've never questioned what the "M" stood for. Tentatively I have decided that, although "motorway" is not part of my native speech, it is a perfectly normal word in Sydney dialect.

Newcastle to Melbourne used to be a nightmare trip. Nowadays it's dual carriageway nearly all the way, and much of that is freeway standard, or close to it. You can now do the entire trip in a relaxing ten or eleven hours. A little more, of course, if you don't have a bedpan, or if you want to stop to eat or sleep. From memory, I think that the highway passes through a grand total of three little towns in the entire 1000 km. The rest are bypassed. You don't slow down until you hit the urban freeways in Melbourne's suburbs. (Legal speed limit 100 km/hr. Practical speed limit can be as low as 10 km/hr, depending on time of day. In some areas you could save on housing costs by letting people sleep in their cars.)

Although this makes the driving easy, it has one disadvantage. For hundreds of kilometres there is nothing to see except trees and grass and the occasional cow. I had to fill my petrol tank in Sydney, even though it was already half full. True, it's possible to get fuel along the way; but it's very expensive in small towns, and going into one of the bypassed towns involves a detour of (often) unknown length.

Another victim of the road improvements is the "tuning fork" sign that's found whenever a two-way highway turns into a divided road, and its upside-down partner at the other end where the road conditions deteriorate again. These can still be seen now and then, but they're much less common that they used to be. They appear to be an endangered species.

Major roads often go through cuttings, which reveal the layers of material below the surface. In most of the country I drove through, the topsoil must be less than half a centimetre thick. Just enough for the grass roots, and even then the roots have to spread horizontally. In many places there's no grass, just red clay and gravel. It's well-known that Australia has very thin soil, compared with other continents, but it's sometimes a bit of a shock seeing just how thin is "thin". Trees can survive in this environment because the roots can penetrate cracks in the rocks. I suppose that this is the main mechanism by which rocks are turned into gravel. No doubt they find some nutrients in amongst the clay and rocks. Small plants, unfortunately, have difficulty getting a foothold in clay soil.

There's a reason for the thin soil. In places like Europe, successive generations of plants dropped leaves and similar material onto the ground, over many thousands of years, and as this rotted it turned into farmer-friendly humus. In Australia before white settlement, a standard land management practice was to burn the forests to encourage new growth and to drive out the animals. (And perhaps even - who knows? - produce delicacies like roast wombat as a side effect.) As it happens, eucalypts like fires: the heat encourages seeds to germinate. The catch is that most non-eucalypt species don't like fires. Over time, you have a selective breeding program: the eucalypts thrive, and the other plant species die out. Australia now has a wealth of eucalypt species, and a severe paucity of other plant types.

Nowadays, as a matter of policy, we don't light fires in the bush, except for "back-burning" exercises that are supposed to reduce the fuel supply for the next big fire. Unfortunately we can't entirely eliminate the arsonists, so bushfires happen anyway. Even without the arsonists, plenty of fires are started by lightning or by cigarette butts thrown out of cars. Public sentiment, as dictated by our media reporters and radio shock jocks, concentrates on the number of people dead and the number of houses lost in a fire. In my opinion these are minor compared with the loss of compost, but it's hard to make people think about long-term effects.

The oil that makes gum trees such excellent bushfire fuel just happens to make the leaves very poor compost material. The leaves fall to the ground, dry out, and then I suppose the remnants are carried away by ants. In a typical European forest, you'll find mulch underfoot. In a typical Australian forest, you'll find twigs and gravel. If you're lucky, you'll find grass. The grass does produce compost, I believe, but it's a slow process because there's not a lot of grass.

Ploughing might improve matters. If you mix dead grass in with the clay you'll get ... well, now that I think of it you'll get mud bricks. Back to the drawing board.

As you penetrate inland, the trees are further apart and the grass and cows turn brown. (Further south, you get small white fluffy cows. I think they're called sheep.) The other important characteristic - the one that defines the country, I think - is the lack of rain.

A little west of Goulburn there is an impressive array of wind generators. They all face towards Canberra, the national capital. This says something, I think, about the direction of the prevailing hot air.

The NSW Southern Highlands made me stop (metaphorically) and think about the meaning of the word "highlands". It's a region of low rolling hills. True, the rockier crags look a bit forbidding, and I would probably retract that "low" if I had to climb one of the hills. Now that I think of it, the car did struggle on the approach to some of the cuttings, and some of the hills look a lot like the Vancouver ski slopes we've been seeing on TV. (Without the snow, of course. It's hard to keep a good snow cover when the temperature hovers in the 30-40 degree range. It does get down to 0 on winter nights, but that's still not low enough for snow. The winter-sports regions are further south-east.) Still, there's no real sense of being in the mountains. Australia doesn't have much in the way of mountains anyway. One climbs gradually when entering this region, and who is to say  whether the road had more ups than downs? Technically, though, this is indeed a highland region in terms of height above sea level.

The McDonald's advertising sign outside Yass has been changed. It used to say "MYASS 17 km". Now it says "M 17 km", with some other stuff in smaller letters. Somebody in the company finally noticed.

To compensate, there is a Macca's sign south of Gundagai that says "I spy something starting with F", with a picture of a container of f*****' chips. I'm surprised that they can get away with this at the side of a national highway.

Ever since leaving Goulburn I had been chasing a storm. The dark clouds on the horizon held promise of a drop in temperature. (This was important: I never got around to fixing the air conditioning in my car.) When I arrived in Gundagai - the town where I had decided to spend the night - there were some satisfactory flashes and loud booms. Unfortunately, the storm skirted the town. We did get some mild rain, though, and a wind that dropped the temperature. Motels in this country almost always have air conditioning - and certainly I kept mine on all night - which let us forget about the outside temperature; but one can never forget the likely temperature on the next day.

Coincidence: the only other person in the motel restaurant was a retired academic. I'm not sure how I pick them. In my case the grey beard and the rimless glasses, and the air of perpetual questioning, are a dead giveaway; but I'm not sure what the other clues are. In any case, we had a congenial conversation.

When settling into my motel room I was reminded of a custom that I suspect to be distinctively Australian. When getting a glass of water from the tap, we first briefly run the tap: not enough to waste water, but enough to flush out any spiders. I've seen this done all over the country. I haven't noticed it in other countries. Of course, it's possible that I just wasn't sufficiently observant.

Some comments about this region. Gundagai is famous as being the place where the dog shat on the tucker box. (Although the local civic authorities don't like hearing the original version. Almost all sources have replaced "shat" with "sat".) Yass is known for having no bananas. Goulburn is known for its police speed traps. If you're a small town in the middle of nowhere, you have to grab whatever fame you can manage.

The overall impression you get of this region is dry, dry, dry. And this is only a couple of hundred kilometres from the coast. Imagine what it's like in the outback.

The southern NSW town of Holbrook has a sign saying "The submarine town". I didn't see a single sign of flooding. Indeed, the local creek looks just as dry as every other watercourse on that side of the Divide. Nevertheless, the town has an extremely large submarine in a civic park. Obviously they are well prepared for the next flood.

I stopped in Albury, on the state border, for a rest break. It struck me that the faces I saw there were rather different from the faces I would see back home. And, in fact, that in inland Australia facial types vary from town to town. I confirmed that later when I stopped for lunch in Benalla. Benalla faces look different from Albury faces. Inbreeding? No, in one sense, and yes in another. My initial theory was to do with local customs, in terms of clothes and hairstyles and facial makeup, and even in terms of whether it was more common to smile or to frown. Later I decided that it was more to do with migration patterms. Australia has seen migration from many countries, but the different waves have gone to different parts of the country. Italians, for example, have very largely moved to rural areas, and today you can find many people in country towns who are of Italian - or, more commonly, half-Italian - ancestry. (But who can't speak Italian.) In contrast, people of South-East Asian ancestry can be found in the big cities, but not often in rural areas. It is unusual to see a Chinese face in a rural town, but very common in the big cities.

Albury used to be the place where the Gestapo searched your car, at the state border, for contraband fruit. Now there is no border post. There are merely signs reminding you to dump all your fruit into the approved receptacles. I'm not sure what this indicates. It might mean that people are more trustworthy. It might also mean that the authorities have simply given up the fight.

(Movement of undesirable pests past the last line of defence continues to be an issue in Australia. The Victorians, quite understandably, don't want to be infected with fruit fly. The further-northians, equally understandably, don't want their horses to get foot-and-mouth disease, even though it's quite obvious that their politicians already suffer from foot-in-mouth disease. And so on. I still recall my feeling of horror at the discovery that European wasps had reached my home on their northward march. Australia was for a long time free from some otherwise global pests, and we're uncomfortably aware that many native species will go extinct once some European and/or Asian predators get here. It's a losing battle, though. Some of our most distinctive local species have already been outsourced to India.)

The Hume Freeway in Victoria has signs along the shoulder saying "Emergency stopping lane only. Bicycles excepted." This has always struck me as unfair. Cyclists can have emergencies too.

Seymour: the town I grew up in, but it's changed. The area known as 'the housing commission area' is also known as the trouble-making area: the home turf of the drug dealers, the burglars, the drunks, the single mothers with no means of support, etc. I grew up in that part of the town, and in my day it was respectable. Nowadays the State government has a policy of moving the dregs of society - the permanent welfare recipients who used to live on the northern fringes of Melbourne - to a less urban location. From the government's point of view, this makes them less visible. It's a net gain for Melbourne, I suppose, but it's sad that my old home town has been turned into a dump. From the politicians' viewpoint it doesn't matter, because most of the vote is in the big cities. From us, the people with a rural background, it's a disaster.

One big political issue in this region, by the way, is water. The state governnment has initiated the implementation of a major pipeline that will move water from the water-starved north to the (relatively) water-rich city. It will be four or five years before the north will be able to tell the city that it can longer supply food to the city, because of a lack of water. Meanwhile, the state government will have changed, so that the present politicians will be able to claim that they are no longer tesponsible to the electorate. This problem will never be solved until we can convince the politicians to stop thinking in three- or four-year time slices. Will we have to install dictators to get the benefit of long-term thinking? I don't know. I only know that the present system is not working.

The Melbourne people will of course deny that they live in a water-rich area, but it's obvious from their lifestyle. They shower every day. They casually drink tap water as if it were beer, and they expect the tap to produce water every time. They let their stormwater run into the sea; they don't bother to collect it. It's true that the people in the low-income and middle-income suburbs do obey the laws against watering lawns and gardens, but apart from that they are so molly-coddled by the water supply authorities that they're almost entirely ignorant of the fact that they live in a dry country.

(The rich consider, of course, that the sole function of laws is to protect the well-off from the rabble, so obviously the water restrictions don't apply to them. But I guess that much the same is true in other countries.)

It's a national disgrace, in my opinion, that our politicians are so totally fixated on the big cities. Representatives from the rural areas are very quickly told to sit down and shut up. Australia presents itself to the world as a "frontier" country, with kangaroos and goannas wandering our cities while crocodile hunters wander the rest of the country. The reality is otherwise. We are one of the most urbanised countries in the world, with some huge proportion of the population hugging the coast, and most of those living in the two biggest cities in the country. Now, I wouldn't mind that - you have to have somewhere to put the idiots, after all - if it weren't for the facts that (a) the electoral power is concentrated in the cities, with the country having essentially no power, and (b) the city-dwellers have almost zero comprehension of the fact that their food is coming from those "invisible" areas. If the city-dwellers had their druthers, they would get rid of the farms and hand food production over to the supermarkets.

The reason why this matters is that farmers all over the country are facing a water shortage. Collectively they can supply food to about ten million people. They can't supply the water, though, because this depends on river flows. They can supply food - but not water - to about twenty million people (the present population). This is working because we are willing to shortchange our descendants. If the population ever rises to 30 million, we would be looking at slow starvation. The politicians who have advocated such a level have not given much thought to the cost of importing water.

Addendum. I'm writing this on my return trip. I'm in the same motel as the one I used for the southward trip. The dining room in this place has the best view - a rather stark mountain view - in the entire town, and in fact the best in all of the motels I've ever stayed in. I really must speak about this to the owner. He's probably not doing as well as the motels in the centre of the town, motels that I've tried in the past and found to be second-rate. He doesn't have a web site. I could do one cheaply, but frankly - and I'll tell him this - he shouldn't hire me to do it. I'm a computer engineer, which means that I understand all the technical stuff, and certainly I've created web sites in the past, but I don't have much competence in the artistic side. If this were a big city I could recommend plenty of people who would know how to "grow his business". (Horrible metaphor. Does this mean they would put seeds in and then cover him with shit?) In a rural town, who could do it? There are possibly people in Albury - that's a couple of hours' drive away - who could do it, but it's doubtful that they would even bother coming here to get the local information. The more I think of it, the more I see that the city/country divide is a barrier that is almost possible to surmount. I'm conscious of it because I grew up in a country town and then moved to cities. Most people in this country don't have that dual experience.

This evening I had trout for dinner. I hadn't tasted trout for years. For inland dwellers it's an everyday fish. For people who live on the coast, it's an exotic unknown. Ditto for the wine. I live in a major wine-growing region, and the people there have never heard of Gundagai wine.

Author: Peter Moylan