Paxton Pub, or, Great North Walking

Not the most inviting place on first impressions.

Outside, a handful of wrinkled men sat hunched over their beers, cigarettes hanging out of the corners of their mouths. Any stranger was sized up. A gruff word of welcome came from one pair of lips. But then they would accept you as you are.

Inside was warmer, the beers cheap, the memorabilia of years hanging on the walls. The publican too loved a smoke, but he also loved pulling beers in his Hawaiian shirt.

I have been to the Paxton pub twice, once on my own at the end of a long day hiking a section of the Great North Walk, and once with my partner at the beginning of a hike. The first time I arrived in a winter dusk, with a flu-induced delirium, the second time we were on the way to rediscovering one another after too long in different parts of the world.

During the short days of a local winter, I had been longing to complete a quiet section of the Great North Walk, on my own from Pokolbin to Newcastle. It would take me through my beloved Watagan mountains, with a mixture of camping and pub stays. Five days in all, after some rain so the creeks would have water to drink.

Perhaps I should have seen the warning signs, but I told myself that the wicked flu was passing, that I was feeling fine and could manage the hike. A bus and taxi eventually found the starting point, a bare sign in the midst of the Hunter Valley vineyards. The sun shone on a cool day, my new leather boots felt fine and I strode along absorbed by the pleasure of the hike.

By the first climb, I felt a twinge in my right foot and a flush in my head. The boot came off to reveal a raw blister, which I duly bandaged. I’ll tighten the boots, I thought, and it will be fine. Soon enough multiple points began to blister, burst and ooze. Multiple bandages tried to soften the continual pain.

In the midst of the mountains, the flu-daze was upon me. What should have been perhaps ten kilometres became one hundred. The last two felt like two hundred. All I could manage was one painful foot in front of the other.

In this state, I met the Hare Krishna hippie, or at least believe I met him. He was waiting at a bus stop with a young boy and seized upon me to pass on the news of warning. Apparently, the world was coming to an end, with the mark of the beast (666) everywhere to be found. I had enough wherewithal to wonder how the Book of Revelation might fit in with Hare Krishna teaching, but refrained from asking for clarification. He and his son lived on the local commune, and with his dreadlocks and bright clothes, his mission in life was to post small stickers in innocuous places to warn us all of our impending doom. I strode on, leaving him to his important task. Mine was to get to the pub.

By dusk the pub finally appeared. In my state, I could not imagine a more welcoming sight. Yes, my room was available, since I was the only one staying amidst the 30 rooms, the grandeur of which was still evident despite the years of neglect. Yes, I could wash, in the women’s bathroom in a shower-bath that bore a sign ‘out of order’. Yes, I could eat, for the publican’s partner had come in to cook her one dish, a meat platter. And yes, the beers were cold and cheap.

Such was my delusion, that I still planned to continue the next day in the mountains, camping for a few nights. A little more bandaging on my feet, a cold-and-flue tablet and I would be fine. At 3am I woke and realised it was not on. It would be the utmost foolishness to be lost in such a state in the bush.

Reluctantly, I returned home via buses and trains, longing to tackle it again.

After my feet had recovered and my partner and I were equally recovering our life together, we agreed to the hike to celebrate her birthday. Both of us were keen, as is our wont, to get away from the world for a little while.

We began at the pub, after the buses and trains. A balcony room, but again we were the only visitors. The few regulars tried to be friendly, the bistro was now closed for good, the pokies were long retired, and the beer garden out the back was overgrown. But the publican, festooned in his Hawaiian shirt, struck up a conversation.

We talked of the troubles of country pubs, how locals no longer came to the pub regularly, how the bowling club was closing down, how the last three years had been the most difficult in his life as he tried to make the pub work. I commented on the bikies rolling past on weekends, on the appeal of Wollombi up the road, of all manner of possibilities for attracting passers-by to drop in, for it is a beautiful part of the countryside.

After my partner ducked off to photograph the last light through the windows, the publican asked us directly: ‘are you interested in buying the place?’ Of course, we were strangers visiting (me a second time), asking all manner of questions about running a country pub, so he was interpreting it all as inquiries from prospective buyers. It would be one of the last things we would want to do in our increasingly unencumbered and simplified lives.

The next day, cooler after the rains, was glorious. Some twenty kilometres of mountains, bush, stunning views, stops to eat and talk, chocolate and muesli bars to share, water to find, and the deep weariness of bodies working all day as we reached our goal – it was a hike for the ages. We climbed and we dropped and climbed again. We ducked through overhanging bushes and branches on a track seldom used. We savoured the fresh water at an old vineyard. And we rolled over the last few kilometres through the flat countryside of the vineyards.

As we did so, we recalled our earlier hikes in eastern Germany, Scotland and Denmark, a mutual love of being out and relying on ourselves. She is a tough one, able to tackle such tasks in a way few are able. I can usually keep up with her, with the stamina of experience.

Above all, I relished being out together rather than on my own.

Returning to St Alban’s

Would this be my last time here?

This question played on my mind as we drove through the dark of a late night to a place that has drawn me for many a long year. Three or four former lives came back to me, reminding me that things change, don’t they?

I speak of St Albans, at the edge of the Yengo Wilderness, between Sydney and Newcastle. Its core is the Settlers Arms – an inn originally built in 1836 for travellers on the Great North Road to Newcastle. I am still such a traveller, seeking out the road yet again to stop for a while in a place that has had a curious pull on me.

A river valley, rugged and densely bushed mountains, a village of a dozen houses, a common and free camping area by the river, a sandstone inn built in a style long ago abandoned in light of Australian conditions …

Such a list does not capture the pull the place had had on me, the beckoning curve of a path that opens out to an ancient spreading tree or two, which invite you to sit and reflect, or the community of locals in for a drink and a smoke after the tourists have gone, or the smallest bar in the world, a window really, where one person at a time can order a drink, or the mists of the morning, when the towering cone-shaped crown of the rare Deane’s Gum is lost in the fog while the birds noisily shake off the drops of the morning, or the memories of a lifetime the place invokes, or the wilderness all about that draws me in, the chance to sense a way of being that is slower and quieter, along ancient Aboriginal paths. …

On this late evening, we – my partner and I – had arrived after a harrowing summer. St Albans, at the Settlers Arms, was a respite, a place where there is no phone coverage, where we could be free from the world and its demands (our preferred mode of being).

Much may have changed in my life to this point, but St Albans seemed to have remained the same. In its very continuity, it has been able to map the phases of that life.

The quietness of the place initially had much greater appeal during times of turmoil and frenetic demands. I recall stumbling across it in the early 1990s, a detour taken along a dirt road while exploring wilderness camping with young children. Through that decade I had a dreadful job, the children grew and a relationship broke down. At first we would all go, camping up the road at a quiet spot (Mogo), just by the Great North Road – the slave road from the 1830s, built by convicts. My parents seized the opportunity to come along, my father still fit enough to camp, growing close to my children over those years. But as the two boys became teenagers, they preferred to do other things, and as their mother increasingly preferred not to camp, I took the two girls, still with my parents coming along. Once, in 1998 I think, we stopped at St Albans on the way through to the camping spot and my youngest ate the ‘best mashed potato’ she had ever had. Mention St Albans today and she will say the same thing.

St Albans was the point where many different paths collided at the end of the decade. We tried to repair a relationship with a romantic weekend at the Settlers Arms in those last years, hoping to do it yearly, but it happened only once. I met another woman there later, who would bring a glimmer of hope and then much turmoil and pain.

And I indulged in my preferred mode of travel to get there too – a bicycle. At times with one or two companions, we would pedal the 100 km or so to get there from western Sydney, drink, eat up and then pedal home. On the last event of that life, in the first year of the new millennium, it was just me and a close friend, following the river on a different route. At the time it seemed like a farewell of sorts. We camped by the river out the front of the pub, drank many dark ales, I smoked a few cigars (for I had taken up smoking in the mess of my life) and we talked late into the night.

But after a few years – the ‘lost years’ – I returned, first in tragic circumstances and then to feel the old pull.

On a fateful winter’s night in the middle of the first decade of the 2000s, my second son almost died in a house fire as I camped out the front of the Settlers Arms during a long-anticipated ride along the Great North Road. My world felt out of kilter that night and I was spooked by the place for a little while – but that occult sense draws one in as well.

Yet a couple of years later I would return with a woman whom I wished I had met in my youth, a woman from across the seas and halfway around the world. She at first fell in love with the place, relished the beer under the ancient tree, the sandstone inn, the low, smoke-stained ceilings, the long deep rest in a warm bed. We would return again, I on my bicycle to the camping spot and we with her parents to stay at the inn in the last year of that decade.

Some years passed without a visit, as my life – with the only one who really had become my soul-mate – took on many new dimensions.

But one Saturday during winter, my second son phoned me to say – in his characteristic nonchalant way – that he was getting married. This was the son who had entered his terrible twos and left them at about 25. At last, he had met a down-to-earth woman who knew when he was trying to charm. They grew closer together, but surprised everyone with the announcement.

And they wanted to get married in St Albans. Or rather, they wished to do so in the old ruins of St Joseph’s church, a few kilometres out of the village. I had ridden past the ruins many times, noting the broken-down walls, vegetation growing as it will and the missing roof. Of late, someone had stabilised the ruins, cleared the vegetation and added a roof that highlighted the ruins. The church was converted into a function centre, with kitchen facilities, seating and accommodation upstairs. My son and his fiancée had asked me to officiate at the wedding, recalling a life of many years ago when I undertook such tasks.

So I returned to St Albans, still with my soul-mate from across the seas. As we wound our way along the dark road, I became – momentarily – acutely aware of the years that had passed. Memories came flooding back. Many lives collided with one another. The wedding itself would happen soon enough, with its expectations and duties – which I would perform with deep appreciation. Given our complex history, my son and I had drawn very close and the feeling ran very deep.

Yet St Albans had truly remained the same. In the past, it beckoned to deeper continuities, to passions deeply held and commitments one is reluctant to relinquish. As we talked late into the night, sharing in a way that is rarely possible with another human being, we realised how much we had changed, how much we had seen of the world, how other places beckoned and how our commitments had changed.

Perhaps we will return to this place, but more likely not.

Writing with Jethro Tull

A teenager in the mid-1970s studying for his high-school exams, bulky old-fashioned headphones wrapped around his head and plugged into a cassette player, blocking out the noise of his three brothers and sister as he tries to concentrate. And what is he listening to? Jethro Tull.

That teenager was me, almost 40 30 years ago. Ever since, I have listened to Tull while writing. The first bars of a Tull album have the effect of switching my concentration on and the noise of the world around me off. Only then can I write, pretty much unbroken for the next forty to sixty minutes. The words flow, my fingers dance over the keyboard, and my mind seems to fire off all sorts of new ideas. Sometimes, if the mood takes me, I will listen to another artist or three, but when I really want to think and write, it is Tull to whom I turn.

How did it all begin? I came to Jethro Tull latish – in the mid to later 70s, after the flurry of early records when they established themselves as one of the great bands of the time. My first taste was a crackly cassette tape, recorded from one of those vinyl records, of Minstrel in the Gallery. From that moment I was hooked. I loved the way hard rock, classical and medieval strands wove themselves together in the music, especially since I’d been through rock and jazz guitar and was then deep into classical guitar on an old axe I’d picked up cheaply somewhere. But my family was poor, my father a clergyman on a subsistence wage with five children to feed. So I couldn’t rush off to buy a bunch of new records. We had an ancient mono record player that my father wouldn’t let us touch and I had a tinny cassette player. I had to save hard to afford even one new record or tape, so I picked up an original Living in the Past from the sister of a friend for a couple of dollars, handed other friends cassette tapes that had been wiped so they could record over them, and scoured the discount racks at record shops. Slowly I built up a collection.

The first new record I bought was Heavy Horses. It was really precious, a brand new album in a cover that wasn’t bent or stained and a record that wasn’t scratched. It is still one of my favourite albums even after 30 years. So the Tull I got to know first was the Tull of the later 70s and 80s. Apart from Heavy Horses, records like Stormwatch, Broadsword and the Beast, Songs from the Wood and even A were my staple. Later I picked up the earlier albums and by the time Crest of a Knave, Catfish Rising and Rock Island came out I could afford to buy them when new.

How did I come to listen while studying? In my high school years we lived in a house that was really too small for five kids, four of us teenagers. I had been in a room with two of my brothers, but eventually I squatted in the back veranda. I built a wall out of book-shelves, bits of wood and a curtain, moved my bed and small desk there and it became my bedroom. The catch was that my new ‘bedroom’ was right by the toilet. Every morning, one after another, my parents, three brothers, sister and whatever friend was staying the night would make their way to the toilet. I could tell who it was not merely by the sound of footsteps, but also by the distinct noise they made when pissing or crapping. So it went on all day. I was also hard by the loudly squeaking back door, which was really the main entry point for the house, next to the laundry and its perpetually running washing machine and my room opened out onto the kitchen, which was the social hub of the house. My brothers and sister would always have friends over, they would talk in the kitchen, use the toilet, and the back door would swing and squeak without ceasing. That’s why I soon got some old headphones, plugged them into my cassette player and listened to Tull while studying.

What do I write? Since those days I have been pretty much a full-time writer. And I write all sorts of things. It might be magazine articles on Bulgaria, Serbia, Russia or long-distance bicycle rides. Or it may be a short story on the end of the world from the point of view of religious crackpots. Lately I have been actively filling up my blog (stalinsmoustache.org). But I spend most of my time writing about Marxism and religion. When people ask me what I do, I say, ‘Oh, I write about religion and politics’. And they would immediately turn to another topic, or better still, someone more interesting. Not any more, since religion and geopolitics have become vitally important, and the rise of China has put Marxism and modern socialism firmly on the agenda.

For all that time Jethro Tull has been in the backdrop. If I need to think through a problem, I put on a quieter album. If I’ve been stalling and need to get writing, it’s always Crest of a Knave. If I need a long stretch of concentration, I listen to one of the concert albums. If the wind is up and the rain is pouring, Stormwatch or Broadsword and the Beast comes out. If I need to get fired up and write fast, it will be a good rock album like Aqualung, Catfish Rising, Too Old to Rock ’n’ Roll, Minstrel in the Gallery or even Rock Island. Every now and then I begin with This Was and work my way through the whole collection, ending with some Youtube videos of the latest concert gigs. And unlike many a Tull fan, I thoroughly enjoy the latest offerings, such as Home Erraticus and Thick as a Brick 2.

I’ve been listening to Tull and writing for almost four decades. Who knows? Perhaps I will do so for another four.

JT

A Journey of Rediscovery

It began as a delayed mutual promise: to travel around much of Australia by rail. Often we had put the journey off, due to commitments, time pressures and responsibilities. In the end, some years ago, we simply decided to go, frazzled and pressured as we were.

The journey would take us northwards from Adelaide, two days on the Ghan train to Darwin. A car was needed for the next leg, almost 2000 kilometres through the Gulf Country, heading eastward to Mt Isa in far north Queensland. Another train would take us a further 1000 kilometres to the coast, and then we would wind our way some 3000 km southwards on a couple more trains, down the coast to home. It was to be a 9000 kilometre journey in all.

We began wearily, with long months of disrupted sleep behind us and expectations from work weighing upon us, all of it symbolised by the creaking burden of books in our packs. Initially, on the Ghan we plunged into our books and opened our computers to get some headway on the many tasks we hoped to complete on our way. Gradually, we turned less to the books and the computers began to be lie dormant for longer periods. I pulled out my camera and spent long hours walking the train and standing at windows, testing the capabilities of the camera. She slept much and gazed out the window, an open book lying on her lap unread.

In Alice Springs, Katherine Gorge and Darwin we simply walked all day. Still our talk was around projects, plans, grant funds, writing tasks and ways around problems at work. We went over difficult conflicts and frustrated projects, looking for new ways to achieve them.

The talk continued in the car we rented for the next few days. We intended to belt along the main road and get to Mt Isa as soon as possible. Soon enough a turn beckoned, into Arnhem Land and Kakadu National Park. Our talk turned to other matters, of life and death and love and the endless, endless land. We stayed a night in a remote community or two, struggling to find accommodation. Until we happened upon an extraordinary road.

Named innocuously the Tableland Highway, it was barely a ribbon of undulating and wavy asphalt across vast spaces and beneath infinite skies. Water was scarce on the way, marked by the regular wind pumps of yesteryear. Now we fell silent as we were absorbed by the land. Occasionally, a native animal would pass our way, especially as dusk drew near. We stopped regularly to soak it all in, simply standing and looking out, aware that we were possibly the only human beings as far as our eyes could see.

On every roll in the road, I felt as though I left behind one more expectation, one more pressure, one more plan, one more struggle. Into the sky and the open plains went my sense of self-importance. I had begun against my best intentions to believe in the hype and to throw my weight around, feeling that I had the gravitas to do so and thereby change the world around me. As the road unwound through the vastness, that whole sense was simply taken away, little by little. By the end of that road, as we drove into Mt Isa, I had rediscovered myself.

I did not realise it at the time. In Mt Isa, I slept deep and long for the first time in months. The sleep would continue all the way home. Her process was more gradual, for she was processing much about identity apart from her work. She spent the 28 hours on the amazing Innlander train, from Mt Isa to Townsville, looking out the window and snoozing. I found this rail journey one of the most fascinating I have done for a long time. I absorbed everything around, thrilled by the experience. The train played only part of the role, for it was the rediscovery of myself now expressing itself.

By the time we left Cairns a few days later (after a short bus ride north from Townsville), we realised what we needed to do. The train helped, with its rail-bed sleepers on the run south to Brisbane. She would disconnect from what frustrated her at work, pursuing her passions in new areas, wherever that took her and wherever that might be in the world. I would resign from the many editorial boards, networks and leadership roles, disconnecting from the identity that had been forced upon me. I too would recover my passions and pursue them, anticipating the opportunity to join her wherever she went.

The return home, after the day-time XPT train from Brisbane, saw an immediate manifestation of all that we had experienced. We had a massive purge of books, thousands of them. Books we would never use again, crap books we had kept, and anything deemed fit to go. Our home opened up and we felt we could breathe again. The resignations and disconnections took another day. We were full of enthusiasm, freed, passionate and rested. The summer that followed was long, quiet and simply glorious. It was perhaps the most important journey we have undertaken for quite some time.

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New Tracks, Old Tracks

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Journeying on a restored railway line for the first time – what is it like? A new line may have its own thrill, an old familiar line another. But a restored line that is both familiar and new?

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Many years ago I had lived and worked in the country town of Armidale. Often, I walked past the grand railway station, which forlornly awaited trains that never came along disused and dilapidated tracks. Often, I would cross the line itself, on foot or on bicycle, pausing and looking up and down the tracks as though a train might be coming. Often, I travelled by bus to Tamworth, more than 100 kilometres to south, in order to catch the train there. On our way, we would follow the unused railway line, with its occasional station and signalman’s cottage. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, I thought at the time, if this line was restored? All of the hard work had been done almost a century ago: easements, rail-beds, cuttings, tunnels and the route itself. Restoring the line would merely require some tracks, signals and repaired bridges – and political will.

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And then it happened: someone with political will decided to restore the line. Work began while I was living in Armidale, but it proceeded with its usual caution. Days, weeks, months passed as the line slowly found a new life. Eventually, the day came when a train once again arrived at Armidale station … but I was about to leave town, seeking my fortune elsewhere. So I never had the opportunity to catch that train.

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For more than two decades it has been on my mind – a desire to take the train to my former home. Towards the end of a hot summer, my chance came: a few days cleared and I jumped at the opportunity. My simple bag packed, I stood on the platform at my local railway station, awaiting the grand train to the northwest – all six carriages of the ‘Northern Explorer’.

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The initial part of the journal was familiar enough, winding up the Hunter Valley through vineyards, horse studs, mines and farms. We chugged over the Liverpool Range and into the Goonoo Goonoo Plains, before pausing at Werris Creek – a true railway town – to split the train. Two carriages went west to Moree and four turned northwards. Now the real pleasure of the journey began, for I was travelling on the restored tracks.

A curious experience it was. I have travelled old lines aplenty, following familiar paths, well-known habits – so much so that some are able to evoke the memories and even the feel of moments in my life decades ago. From time to time I have also journeyed on freshly laid tracks, enjoying the novelty of the experience, testing myself, before they too became habitual and were drawn into the network of the familiar.

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But the run from Tamworth to Armidale was different in unexpected ways. I knew this territory from decades past. Much of the line, the lie of the land, the occasional stops were all part of a former fabric of life. Yet to travel this way, along the railway line itself, was a new experience. I had never before seen the cuttings and twists and tunnels of the Moonbi Hills. I had not stopped at Bendemeer or Walcha Road or Uralla by train before. And I had never in my life disembarked onto the railway platform at Armidale.

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At the same time, it was an old, old line. Many decades ago trains full of people had travelled this line. When roads were rougher and cars slower and fewer, the railway line was the vital link – for people and food and produce. After being closed, it had lain idle for many a long year before being restored in a different era. I felt as though it was simultaneously a very new experience, a new venture, and yet an old one, which I knew intimately. Perhaps I can put it this way: I was discovering a way of journeying, touching other lives that felt both strange and familiar.

At some points, especially on the climb up to the New England Plateau, we travelled at the speeds of older trains – 15 or perhaps 20 kilometres an hour. The engine strained, the curves were tight, the gradient steep. Once on the plateau, we sped along in a way that older trains might have only imagined. The rolling plateau was still full of trees, perhaps more now that farmers had understood the benefits of bush on their land (instead of seeing it as a curse). The villages and towns seemed largely the same, for in country towns you do not have the sped-up process of destruction and building so characteristic of cities.

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I have to confess that I remained glued to the window, relishing each point passed, each turn of the train, each announcement of a station and the leap onto the platform to stretch my legs. But too soon did it arrive in Armidale, for the run from Tamworth is barely over 100 kilometres. At Armidale, the line stops and the train itself is parked into a secure bay to rest before the return journey the next day.

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Long did I look further up the line, where the tracks remain in a state of disrepair. The railway line once continued through the rest of the plateau, making its way eventually to Brisbane via the overland route. I began to anticipate that the remainder of the line would one day be restored, as no doubt it will when people realise the need to do so. I hope it happens in my lifetime, for I will take that train as soon as it begins that new journey over old tracks.

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The Molten Bitumen Ride

At 38 degrees Celsius, bitumen begins to melt. Shiny black bubbles, even long strips of molten bitumen appear. It sticks to my tyres; flecks fly onto the frame of my bicycle. The overheated bitumen sucks my tyres and slows their roll. Pedalling becomes more tiresome, or at least I imagine it so.

So it was for most of the 450 kilometres from an old home of many years ago to my new one, from Armidale to the northwest to Newcastle bythe coast. I had wanted to do this ride for so long, but at last my chance came – a few days free in the late summer of 2014-2015.I packed the bicycle into a box and caught the train – really a rail motor – to Armidale.2015 February 015 (320x240)

The rail line had been restored just as I was aboutto leave the place so many years ago, but I had never had the opportunity to travel along the old tracks made anew. I was mesmerised by the familiarity of the new on old, seeing the lie of a land I had once known well from a new perspective.

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Caravan of Dogs

In Armidale, it was not yet hot, at least not hot enough to melt bitumen. The town sits 1,000 metres above sea level, so while the sun can burn you quickly in summer, days are mild and nights fresh. I found myself in a camp ground by Dumaresq Creek – named after some long-forgotten Frenchman who happened find himself in these parts, far from home. Or rather, I found myself in a camp ground full of dogs and their extraordinary owners. Groomed, puffed, buffed and pampered, the dogs had their own caravans, tables and chairs and cutlery sets. Their owners lived in the dog kennels. They continued to arrive as I desperately searched for a campsite, away from the yelping, growling and barking – and that was just the owners. I thought I had found such a campsite, by a pond on some lovely grass past a sign that said, ‘no camping’. But soon enough the dogs came by one after another, walking their owners in the evening before putting them to bed.

I woke to a veritable dog heaven, as combs and sprays and powder prepared the dogs for their day on show. But it was not heaven for me, so broke camp early and hit the road. On my way out of town, up the long hill to the south, my muscles slowly became accustomed once again to being on a bicycle. And the bodily memories flooded my senses. Here was the pre-school my older daughter first attended and began learning to read; here was the primary school my two boys attended for a couple of years; here was the park where we played baseball and some cricket; here was the running track I traced out on a daily basis, as my fix after giving up smoking; here was the church we attended on a weekly basis; and here was the weatherboard house where we lived, much the same except for two grand pine trees in the front yard. I had forgotten about the trees, which I had bought at a school fete more than two decades ago. Slow growers, I was told, but long-lived. They stunned me, a visible sign of my former presence here. They will be there for many decades to come.

Moonbi Chook to Tamworth

The day passed, at a gentle pace and with the wind on my back, through the undulating New England plateau. At the 80 kilometre mark, I was sorely tempted to stop by the creek at Bendemeer. A simple camping area surrounded the only establishment in the village, which was simultaneously shop, post office, petrol station, library, pub, medical surgery and international research station. But I had time on my hands, so with a long look back I pointed my front wheel towards Tamworth, almost 40 more kilometres down the road. ‘Down’ was the operative word, for soon enough I hit the Moonbi ‘Hills’.

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In the direction I was headed, the near-vertical drop of the ‘hills’ requires emergency stopping beds for out-of-control trucks, buses and bicycles. I dared not look at the speedometer on my handle-bars, for I was sure that I was breaking the speed limit.

Suddenly Moonbi was upon me. Moonbi! Here is the famous ‘Moonbi Chook’, I recalled at the last minute. I dragged on the brakes and pulled up, for I had to see whether the chook was still on its perch. Sure enough, at the only park in town, the chook stands as it has always done. A massive angular construction rearing into the sky, it attempts to rival the big peach, the big prawn or even the big mosquito in northern NSW. I sat beneath its shade for a while, wary of a possible giant egg dropping out its rear end. Someone had given the Moonbi Chook a new coat of paint, so it could survey its demesne over the slopes of Moonbi. And that demesne incorporated thousands upon thousands of chickens, who vastly outnumbered the human beings hereabouts.

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Tamworth at last, town of the Country Music Festival, with the massive golden guitar (no rival for the Moonbi Chook!), guitar-shaped swimming pools, guitar-shaped houses. Hell, even the town is designed in a guitar shape, around which the hoons in their machines roar around endlessly. For some reason, I skipped the strumming glories of Tamworth, keen instead on a shower, food and a long sleep.

Sticky Tyres to Murrurundi

By next morning, the heat of the day was upon me early. Soon enough it would top 42 degrees, and the ride out of Tamworth through the Goonoo Goonoo Plains was marked by the regular ‘click, click, click’ of popping globules of molten bitumen. As if the energy-sapping heat was not enough, I met two gut-busting mountain ranges. They divide the Goonoo Goonoo Plains from the Liverpool Plains and the latter from the Hunter Valley. This was not supposed to be, I thought. The ride was meant to be a gentle downhill affair, all the way from Armidale to Newcastle. Instead, I found myself in granny gear for a final ten kilometre climb, tyres dragging in the molten bitumen.

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Murrurundi was a blessed relief, especially after the drop out of the range into town. Pausing at the pub to gain my bearings, I watched warily a beaten up car, with two men inside smoking and drinking beers. More hoons, I thought, with time on their hands. The doors opened and they stepped out, only to reveal a couple of old men, somewhere in their seventies. Once a hoon, always a hoon.

The last time I had stopped for a night in Murrurundi, I was 16, on one of my last camping trips with my parents, brothers and sister. Then we had camped by the showground, fleeing cyclonic weather. My father had found a tick on his head, on the first occasion of removing his hat for over four weeks. While he went in search of a doctor to remove the tick, we packed the car with all the camping gear – a glorious feeing, since he always reserved the right to pack everything on his own, since only he knew the best way.

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These days, camping was no longer allowed at the showground, so I found the only camping area in town. Now I really felt in touch with another dimension of life. My only concerns were a good spot for the tent, cleaning the bicycle, a shower to clean off the sweat of the day, and some food. But at the campers kitchen, I happened upon the evening ‘Happy Hour’. At least four campers seemed to be happy on this occasion. Grey nomads: they drank beers, talked of their ailments (from gout to heart disease), of places visited, of vans and prices and places they might visit on their endless desire to make the most of the few years they had left.

Molten Road to a Singleton Drama

The next day was the hottest I have ever ridden: 45 degrees at the peak. Heat shimmered from the road, sweat dried the moment it appeared, and I arrived completely busted. In a slightly dazed state, I had ridden 120 kilometres from Murrurundi to Singleton. I have a curious knack of arriving in Singleton on a bicycle in a busted state. The town seems to have that strange effect on me.

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But the drama that unfolded at the caravan park more than compensated. As I made my way lustily through two family-sized pizzas, the bikie next door told me his life story. Smoke in one hand and beer in another, he was watering his mother’s garden. He had passed me on the road into town and thought I was a complete idiot at the time for being out on such a day. His mother was a permanent at the park. She clearly wore the toughness of life, aware of decisions made at crucial junctures, now living alone, but with a son who did his best to help. He found that such help also entailed the imbibing of copious amounts of both legal and illegal substances, so that by late evening he was in a state of loving the universe.

Meanwhile, at the campers’ kitchen, the real drama was unfolding. A young girl of 14 had disappeared with a man in his twenties. She had been under the care of her grandparents, who lived at the park. Soon, the girl’s angry and concerned mother appeared, having just finished her nursing shift. Phones rang, the man’s mother appeared, more phones rang. Eventually, the girl returned, only to be roundly told off by her mother and grounded for a few weeks. The young man was nowhere to be seen, although his voluminous mother did her best to apologise. The possibility of another teenage pregnancy was clearly on everyone’s minds.

I and the grandfather in his stained white singlet talked politics. Instinctually Labor, he could not stand the current conservative government and sincerely hoped the prime minister’s days were numbered – ‘before he ruins the country!’ The inebriated bikie vehemently agreed, so we stood for a while cursing the rich ruling class who had no concern for the everyday lives of people who do it tough. I was inspired: there it was, the innate Left of the lower working class. Yet the party that has their allegiance shows little enough attention to their concerns.

Headwind Home

By morning I realised that I should have taken a rest day. Instead, I broke camp and mounted the bike for one more day. I will take it easy, I thought, since it will be a short day’s ride. In this case, ‘short’ meant 97 kilometres. As for taking it easy … it was at least cooler, but that was only because I had a gale-force headwind. But much of the ride was along a new section of expressway. Such types of road may seem like the last type of ride a bicycle tourer might choose. Far better, is it not, to find lonely country roads, single lanes meandering through farms and national parks? But an expressway seems to draw me, with its wide shoulder, gentle gradients and rest areas where I can switch off and think.

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This piece of road intrigued me more than most. I cursed the sheer expense, running into the billions. I thought of many better projects upon which the government money might be spent. Yet I was intrigued by the state-of-the-art engineering and especially by the way the environment around the expressway actually seemed to be improved. Water courses had been cleaned and treated with natural features to ensure their health. Animal crossings abounded, both under the road and over it. Regular rope lattices were strung across the expressway to enable possums to cross. And the whole road had been developed and planned with extensive consultation with the local Awabakal people. Song lines – ancient maps – were evoked, features named for important local animals, thousands of artefacts found and given to the people, and the abundant sacred sites in the nearby hills had been carefully noted and skirted.

The ride remained with me for days afterwards. My body reminded me of the pain and thrill at being taken to the edge of my endurance. But my mind remained longer on the ride, pondering the innate Left of the lower working class and Marx’s insight that human beings have always been part of and engaged with nature and land in the process of labour.

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Old Ghosts

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His lame leg is stiff and twisted awkwardly at the ankle, the belated effect of childhood polio. The grey moustache bristles with the effort of pitching the worn tent. The lean frame bends stiffly at the waist as he works in the pegs and poles. But he has done it so many times before and insists on doing it mostly by himself. My youngest daughter, his favourite grandchild, assists him with tenderness and adoration – holding a rope here, a peg there.

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I had not expected to meet him here, an old ghost who had once frequented these parts. Yet here he is; his presence palpable as I pitch my tent on the same spot. Some twenty years ago, he had come here eagerly along with my mother. They were keen to take time with their grandchildren, sharing a love of camping in the bush. Since then he had died and I have become used to not thinking of him for long stretches of time. But then he returns, unexpectedly.

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Or perhaps I should have expected it, for this is one of my favourite places in the world – in the Yengo Wilderness. The long day on the bicycle, or two at a more reasonable pace, is full of anticipation. The dirt track for the last six kilometres even more so.

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A last turn of the track and I glimpse the simple shelter on a nondescript shoulder of the ridge. Around the small clearing the trees and wallabies and pademelons and goannas quietly carry on as they have always done. Nothing much has changed for two decades, if not much, much longer. Here one can be entirely removed from the world and get in touch with a far better one.

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While I pitch the tent, gather wood, light a fire and wash with a cup from the water tank, I pause often to look out, suck in the air, absorb the trees, greet the animals. I may see my small children playing with a ball (or a goanna running off with the ball), chopping wood, being washed in a bucket, eating a meal at a foldout table, brushing teeth before bed, reading while wrapped in a sleeping bag. I may recall the strange visit a decade ago (after too long a gap) when I was conscious of the tap on the tank while one of my sons – unknown to me until later that day – was in an intensive burns unit after his house burnt down. Or I may revisit my times here since, regretting that it has been too long since the last time a couple of years ago and vowing to return far more often. But above all, I sense my father, appreciating ever more deeply why he felt the call to come to places like this.

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I too feel the pull more strongly this time. Much has to do with a profound sense of turning, of a recovery of what I like to do rather than what others expect me to do (for their own benefit). With each pedal of the day, I had felt as though one unnecessary expectation after the other had been dumped. So by the time I arrive, they are gone, as if simply being here counts as completion of the process.

No wonder I have time for old ghosts on All Saints.

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