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. 

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