Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Nyah, Christmas, and the Hay plains

My hometown, insofar as I have one, is Nyah, in north-western Victoria. 'Nyah' is Aboriginal for 'this bend', which was the name the local Aborigines gave to the place where the township of Nyah was later founded. Nobody knows what was so significant about this bend.

With white settlement, the town was reportedly begun as a socialist experiment: the Taverner Community Village Settlement. Or so says Wikipedia. The official history of the town, On This Bend of the River, was written by my pre-school teacher Grace Willoughby, but it mentions nothing of socialism.

Despite its biases and terrible punctuation(!!!), Grace's book is a wonderful example of that genre amateur local history, where local constables "Rob Dailey and John MacIntyre", rather than "two policemen", intervene. That is, where individuals with names populate the landscape. This is apt in an Australian - and so hopefully egalitarian - history. Let the English have two policemen and four stable-hands, namelessly serving their importantly named aristocrats! Grace's history draws on stories and memories. It is the vernacular history of real people, which is all there is to Nyah.

On Christmas Eve I had lunch with my partner's parents at Woori Yallock. At 3pm I left for Nyah, aiming to head north to Yea, Seymour, then to choose a route according to the time and weather. It rained for this first half of the journey, through twisty mountains which I had looked forward to carving at speed with my new tyres. On the Melba highway, at 4pm, the second car in front of me hit a kangaroo at 100kph. This set the tone for the ride until Bendigo - I entered into survival mode, scanning the roadside and caring doubly about the wet.

Chum Creek Road

South of Bendigo. This tree was so full of cockatoos it seemed to bear white mangoes. Most flew away as I retrieved my camera.

Having left Bendigo, the road straightened out and the sky became epic - the great Mallee! My clothes dried and my mind settled on the horizon, as my body was immersed at speed in the glow of the temperate afternoon.

The next morning my partner and I had breakfast on 'this bend'. 

My mum's home, sunk in native and foreign foliage ruled by unkempt roses.

Nyah's race track and football ground, backing on to the Nyah forest, with its Aboriginal canoe trees, Bunyip holes, and burial mounds. That forest is as most were in 1788; not dense as people tend to imagine, but open and sparse, due to the continual burning-off by local Aborigines for the sake of easy hunting and living, and through the behaviour of native plants and animals before new species upset the old patterns. The accounts of early settlers across mainland Australia consistently describe our bush as like an English parkland, with a few trees to the acre, and an easy view for at least a mile. When you walk through the Nyah forest, you realise what a wonderful thing we have lost.

The Murray.

While at the Tooleybuc Club for tea, I saw a photo of The Ring Tree, a local thing of note. Here it is, in its naked impressiveness. This was Tuesday morning, as I headed north to Balranald, having decided, despite the high Mallee temperature, to take the long way home and visit the Hay plains. The road you see here is behind Nyah, between Koraleigh and Tooleybuc, and is one of my favourites.

At Balranald I joined the Sturt Highway. I have been reading Sturt's Narrative of an Expedition into Central Australia, the journal and report - which is also a fine piece of literature - of his attempt to determine whether or not there was an inland see on the continent, and to be the first European to stand in the very centre, which he failed to do by 90(?) miles. His horse-drawn dray bearing a wooden boat proved useless in the Simpson Desert. This picture was taken about 20km east of Balranald, when I stopped to photograph emus.

You can see more of them in paddock below. One of my earliest memories is of my dad bringing the ute to a sudden stop. He reached behind the seat for his rifle, and told me to stand by the roadside. He then jumped a ditch which I feared, from my perspective as a small child, would swallow him in its deep water, and took aim. In the paddock emus were running abreast in a long line, which seemed to pivot on us like the hand of a watch on its centre. Dad brought one down. Next I remember him cutting the thing open on the kitchen table, and seeing the orange hue of its flesh. As with anything he shot - I never once saw him shoot an animal except for food or out of pity - Dad meant for us to eat the emu, but its flesh was diseased. Apparently Mum was ill at the time. I do not remember it, but she says she walked out, saw the corrupt meat, and became a vegetarian for several years following.

Despite the beautifully empty landscape I did not stop again until Hay, where I had lunch. My reason for not stopping was, to be honest, anxiety. It was almost forty degrees under a fiery sky, and there really was nothing for 125km. The entrance to an unseen homestead wore the name Hell's Gate. It seems silly when writing or reading this in the comfort of that long suburb called Victoria, and without a vicious sun overhead, but I feared what might happen if I could not restart my motorcycle. It will be interesting to return in Winter and gain a less oppressive sense of the emptiness.

South of Hay, the emptiness was even more extreme (though there were three civilised places, including a pub, in the 125km to Deniliquin), and the Earth, which was flat and treeless in every direction, seemed constantly to rise before me even though I knew all was on a level. It was an illusion created by the extremity of absence.

This artwork commemorates the 19th century headless horseman who, in this area, would terrorise drovers, causing the cattle to stampede. It was thought that he was the ghost of a dead drover until perchance the apparition was caught. He turned out to be the butcher at Moulemein, who would help himself to the subsequently scattered stock!

An eagle's nest where trees are scarce.

This Kangaroo's face bones were smashed. It had managed to move ten meters from the road, where it died.

And still the road goes on.

Deniliquin, Echuca, Rochester, the land became more green. And yet this Victorian lake remains barren.

I arrived home tired, having spread my body and mind over a larger than hitherto part of the country. 

Monday, December 21, 2009

Hope and Promise

Motorcycling, when it is an act of loving the world, is the practice of keeping the present open to the light of just this moment.  This place.  This experience. It is a kind of hope.  Or promise.  With no content, no predictions about the future: that having started out, the path will not lead nowhere, that I will be set down in a good occasion up ahead that will not take place without me – among wild lemons, a sun, corrugation, and the scent of dirt. A proof of this is the stony graded road among its paddocks; someone has been here and set down a life - this corner marks a birth, that one a death.  Another is the warmth of this land, shimmering in its distance. Up close a reverberation of insects in the hot weighty air. And a pool of fresh clear water, pierced by leaves. The present is always open, and to what I am making as I replace the map and turn my body, who can tell? Moments worked out in silence, mathematical equations built on chance. Later, when I lie down, I am that same body, which is where the road led. Seeming to tag along, it made the route. But so did time, clouds melting into tomorrow’s promise, which is only ever the present.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Pyramid Hill

I was expected at an occasion up ahead that would not take place without me. I wondered what it might be, as I rode the highway past Rochester, Echuca, on my way to southern NSW. I had read until 2am about death. If that was the occasion, it was no more real than the one I experienced now: the sun on my skin at 100kph, as I emerged from the shadows of roadside gums.

Later when I stood atop Pyramid Hill and read Major Mitchell’s words on being the first European to look out over those plains, I felt I had met the occasion which defined the day. The farms dissolved and it was 1836.

Motorcycling is a kind of day-time dream. When asleep my hands are still alert, like animals, while my consciousness sinks and dissipates. When I ride my mind again rises and falls. At first today it was absorbed by tragic thoughts – I wept thinking of the inevitable death of my partner; then the blue-white blurring of sun and sky drew me again into the beautiful world; then my imagination brought the 19th century back to life. And all along my body was there, alert, responsive, driving on.

Between Kerang and Cohuna.

Mitiamo-Kow Swamp Road.

Kow Swamp.

Further along the road: a band of haze - a blanket of heat on the scrub before Mount Hope.

I rode hundreds of kilometers for this landscape which I love:

to stand by the salt lake.

A short ride from Kow Swamp and there it was, Pyramid Hill.

I should have ridden home from Pyramid Hill, but headed to Boort instead. I lay by the lake, then went south on narrow back roads to Serpentine. I experimented with the ton, but the road ahead with its corner became a blur approaching very quickly. So I backed off.

From the journal of Major Mitchell:
"Having seen the party on the way and directed it to proceed on a bearing of 215 degrees from North I ascended the rocky pyramidic hill, which I found arose to the height of 300 feet above the plain.
Its apex consisted of a single block of granite, and the view was exceedingly beautiful over the surrounding plains, shining fresh and green in the light of a fine morning. The scene was different from anything I had ever before witnessed either in New South Wales or elsewhere. A land so inviting and still without inhabitants! As I stood, the first European intruder on the sublime solitude of these verdant plains as yet untouched by flocks or herds, I felt conscious of being the harbinger of mighty changes; and that our steps would soon be followed by the men and the animals for which it seemed to have been prepared."

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Kawasaki GT550

I took some photos the other night of my old Kawasaki GT550, which has been sitting beside a friend's shed for two and a half years. I loved that bike!