In late January, a friend (the BFF) and I set off on a long awaited road trip. We started separately, catching up with family and friends in different parts of New South Wales, then met up for a big loop through Victoria that took in the Great Ocean Road, magical forests, historic goldfields and long straight roads.
I say ‘road trip’ with tongue firmly in cheek. Our driving holiday was short, comfortable, tightly scheduled, and didn’t depart (much) from established tourist tracks. But it was fun, and it fulfilled our city-girl needs to revisit our rural pasts, see wondrous places we’d never been before, and feel the free wind in our hair.
There’s nothing like a road trip for stimulating reflections on time.
Before my rendezvous with the BFF I drove down the South Coast of NSW, a stretch of road I’d travelled many times as a teen and young adult — my parents moved to the shores of Wallaga Lake when I was 13, and lived there for 20 years. I’ve only returned once or twice since they moved away, but Mount Gulaga, the wetlands, and especially the waters of lake and beach hold a special place in my heart.
I noticed that in the decades of my absence, more trees have grown on the hill that slopes down to the lake from the Aboriginal village. When I lived there in the 1970s, I didn’t know that I was on Yuin land. Now I do. In those days, Mount Gulaga was known as Mount Dromedary. It’s good to see that time has brought about change, and Aboriginal prior ownership has been recognised by returning the mountain’s original name.
I walked around the lake towards the beach, and observed that the mist, seaweed, hermit crabs, ducks and swans hadn’t changed, 30 years on — but the wetlands have developed a new pool.
A little further down the road, I found that kangaroos now graze on my cousin’s property overlooking Cuttagee beach, instead of hiding in the forest, as they did when I was a teenager. I don’t know why their population has exploded, but it was exciting to see them so boldly out and about.
My cousin died some years ago, and a rough-hewn bench on the headland commemorates his community work. His wife still lives up on the hill in an old timber house that’s been in the family almost 50 years, and on the hill for much longer.
Leaving memories behind, I crossed the range. In the high country, fat clouds presiding over a landscape of dead trees lead me to reflect on how much has changed in the Australian landscape in the time since European colonisation. The clouds have probably appeared the same for millennia, but surely when Aboriginal people managed the land, dieback was rare — or nonexistent?
As I drove across the highlands, I was listening to Afropop, but the mass of clouds that filled my view brought this song to mind.
The next stage of the trip, after collecting the BFF, got me thinking about the enormity of time. ‘London Bridge’ on the Great Ocean road is not as permanent as it appears, being constantly at the mercy of the tides and winds howling straight through from the Antarctic.
Not so long ago, the bridge had another arch which joined it to the mainland. I’m sure that somewhere I have a photo of my mother standing on it — a souvenir of one of her own road trips with my Dad. I like the thought that on my road trip I’m following in their tracks, even though I can’t step onto London Bridge as Mum did (apart from the fact that it’s not all there any more, tourist access to all the limestone stacks is much more limited since the collapse of the arch in 1990, and other stacks more recently).
Apparently the limestone is 15-20 million years old but the formations themselves are less than 6,000 years old, and new ones are forming even now. We kept away from the cliff edges!
Even more ancient wonders awaited us when we tore ourselves away from the sea and ventured into the forests. Tree ferns are among the oldest plants on the planet, dating back hundreds of millions of years. Will humans last that long?
At our last stop before heading back inland, we found a mosaic timepiece. Unfortunately the sun was behind clouds, so we couldn’t stand on the eagle, as instructed, and find out the time by watching where our shadow fell. This beautiful sundial illustrates dreamtime stories of the traditional custodians of the area, the Wauthurong people.
The sundial also shows moon phases and stars, which have long been used to mark time by people all over the world. Sadly this is a dying skill in the age of expanding populations and the extreme light pollution of cities.
Although I’m not sure in what epoch in time you would find an echidna in a tree … perhaps the Dreamtime?
We broke our long drive back to Sydney with an overnight stop in gold country. Once the site of some of the first gold mines in Australia, Beechworth now attracts the tourist gold. 19th century gold miners hacked into the land to divert creeks into ‘races’ so they could better access the precious metal. Eroded creek banks bear witness to their greed.
Another race at nearby Yackandandah is picturesque, and the icy water is refreshing. But it’s also created by miners, and it will be there for — how long? A very, very long time.
On our last day of driving, through the dry hills and pastures of Wiradjuri land, the BFF and I talked about the invisibility of Aboriginal custodianship throughout our journey, compared to the markers of colonial history. I tried to imagine what the country was like before … 227 long years ago.
The BFF’s brother laughed at her when she told him we were doing a road trip. A farmer, he thinks nothing of long drives, they’re part of the deal for country people. But the BFF and I have lived in the city a long time now. We need our rural escapes.
For me at least, the road trip helped me reconnect to my past, to people I care about, and to this beautiful land I’m so lucky to live on. It also gave me time. Time to relax, time to open up to new experiences, and time to reflect … even on time itself.
My road trip is over, and I don’t know when the next one will be, so I’ll leave you with the next best thing: a track from one of my favourite bands and masters of the art of road music, Tinariwen. Happy travelling.