Tuesday, July 23, 2024

A 2,000km road trip through north-west NSW: hot bore baths, ancient traps and chaotic courtesy buses

In these pandemic days, demand for vehicles that allow people to buy beds, bathrooms, and kitchens is on the rise. We sourced…

By Chan , in Travel , at April 1, 2024

In these pandemic days, demand for vehicles that allow people to buy beds, bathrooms, and kitchens is on the rise. We sourced our motorhome for our road trip in north-west New South Wales through CampToo. This online service connects road-trippers to privately owned vehicles.

We were able to stay at “primitive,” non-powered sites because ours had solar power. If you have a 4WD or regular car, this itinerary will be different. You’ll get better access to the national park campgrounds and experiences like Lightning Ridge’s pubs, which are located in the scrub down a dirt track. View this loop of north-west NSW as a choose-your-own-adventure and this story as our highlight reel.

We saw “Aboriginal History” on many town plaques and as we were planning the trip. In this year of travel within Australia, the majority of non-Indigenous Australians should keep in mind that these are not “our” backyards. Though it isn’t made clear, Indigenous sovereignty has never been ceded.

You might ask, what about today?

Sydney-Dubbo Golden Highway

When the owner of a professionally cleaned Volkswagen demonstrates to us how to use it, my hesitations about renting a used vehicle disappear. We save ourselves from the frustrations and mistakes that come with a rental.

Our ride has no name. It is rare to see motorhomes with names like King of the Road, Hobo Heaven, or Dreamseeker Spirit 4 among the motorhomes. While the stress of the city begins to fade, noting down the vehicle names is one of the many relaxing pastimes that this trip offers.

The Golden Highway takes us to Dubbo. Its roadside is iridescent yellow with canola. Peter Peckham, a senior Wiradjuri elder, drives us from Dubbo to the Native Secrets farm owned by Phil, a Bidjara man, and his wife, Cherie. They use the bushland cleared of white Cypress to produce essential oils and beauty products. We peel off the feathery bark of clapsticks as the sun begins to set and then share a rich sausage stew with golden syrup dumplings.

Around the fire, stories are told. Phil, who practices jujitsu, tells us a story about the traditional Aboriginal form called “coreeda,” which is based partly on the “oldest method of wrestling of all time” of the red kangaroo. Peter tells about the boomerangs that were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. Covid, he should be in Cairo, Egypt, this month to participate in the grand opening of the new Grand Egyptian Museum, but he is not. Phil asks in admiration, “Peter Peckham?” “Legendary traveller of the world.”

The largest native forest in Australia is “The Pilliga,” located in Gamilaraay Country. Bernadette is ecstatic as misty rain falls when we meet her at the sandstone cavern loop walk. Lai says that the Pilliga’s flowering season has been missing for the past few years due to drought. Wildflowers are bright and glossy when wet. Hot-pink Boronia, fluffy yellow Wattle, the origami purple pea, and some elusive orchids. Carnivorous sundews grow here as well.

The caves have not been marked out at the request of the elders. A discovery tour ($15) is highly recommended. The sacred scar trees dot this ancient landscape, and kangaroo footprints and emu prints in the caves can be up to 12,000 years old. Nature reserves are more concerned with the well-being of animals and plants than national parks. In August, the nature reserve at Pilliga is usually closed to allow nesting by peregrine falcons.

Narrabri, the midway point between Melbourne and Brisbane, is located inland. When we arrived, there was a huge influx of Victorian motorhomes that had fled to Queensland before lockdown. The town opened its fairgrounds when the caravan parks were full. Covid is no different. Sign-ins are non-negotiable, and hand sanitizer is available at the entrance.

Narrabri to Walgett via Burren Junction

(2 hours)
Locals in Narrabri say that you can see a tenth of NSW from the summit of Mount Kaputar. This is a national park located in Gamilaraay Country. We head to Sawn Rocks because I would rather see the r, which are fluorescent pink slugs. This volcanic rock cliff looks like an organ pipe. Below it, hexagonal fragments of rock have crashed into the bush and resemble a Roman ruin that has deteriorated into antiquity.

The network of seven artesian baths in NSW has been a revelation. The baths are popular with grey nomads because they are healing and hot. They’re council-run, utilitarian, and stubbornly non-Instagramable. But they also remind us that luxury is available for free.

The red dirt of the Burren Junction baths is in the middle of a field that could be chickpea, wheat, or cotton. My crop identification skills are poor, but I can recognize an 80-year-old holding a pool noodle. We all get pruney together in the sulfurous water; it’s both a cultural and literal immersion.

Walgett’s Baths, an hour away in Apex Park, are more orderly and fenced-off. As we soak, road trains loaded with hay thunder past. Both his job as a farmer and as a football player make him deserving of a daily soak. He says that the baths at Lightning Ridge are superior. “Hotter. Everyone’s friendly. “No one cares about your color.”

Walgett to Lightning Ridge

(1 hour)

Charles Perkins, an Arrernte activist and University of Sydney undergraduate, led a civil rights bus to rural NSW in 1965. The sign at Alex Trevallion Park, a “primitive” campground near Walgett, documents this tour. The group’s efforts to raise awareness of racial injustice culminated in Walgett when a convoy of hostile cars ran the bus off the road. This sign was made by the Dharriwaa Elders Group in 2015 to ensure that “the Walgett Community will not forget.” Has the rest of the nation? Walgett is the civil rights equivalent to Selma, Alabama. Yet, the town’s main intersection features a marble memorial honoring the soldiers who fought in the Great War.

We leave the farmland behind as we drive to Lightning Ridge and enter the vast outback country of Yuwaalaraay. The Australian Opal Centre notes that “there are Dreamtime tales which talk about the creation opal.” Here, it’s all opals. While the miners are busy mining, tourists can keep themselves occupied by taking self-drive tours. You follow the color-coded routes of blue, green, yellow, or red and then exit at the opal-themed attractions that are advertised by the car doors stuck in the dirt.

We regrettably save the circuit for the next time, as our motorhome is not able to handle long dirt roads. Our courtesy bus back into town drives down a dirt track to take a pub patron to a cottage that was made out of tin, Venetian blinds, and other materials. It turns out that he is the owner of the walk-in mining. Keep your money quiet in the remote Lightning Ridge, or get a pet.

Lightning Ridge and Brewarrina

Even our Telstra reception is lost as we enter Brewarrina, also known as “Bre.” We spend our off-grid day on the isolated jetty of Four Mile Reserve, a sharp bend along the Barwon River. The sun glints from the water and glides across the knotty gummies above. Birds that are usually caged, such as budgerigars, cockatiels, and galahs, fly free and wild here, screeching, swooping, and flying above, along with finches, galahs, and an occasional flycatcher. A squat, sole pelican is seen floating obnoxiously at dusk.

Bruce Pascoe’s 2014 book Dark Emu brought attention to Baiame’s Ngunnhu or Brewarrina Fish Traps. Some consider these to be the oldest human-made constructions. The Ngemba, Ualarai Morowari Kamilaroi Baranbinja Weliwan Kula Koama people are associated with these still-working stone traps and the ochre pits and burial grounds that accompany them.

Tour Guide and Ngemba man Bradley Hardy emphasizes the traps’ importance but is cautious about categories such as “oldest” as it competitively frames antiquity. He says that our elders taught us not to think of land as something we own but rather as something we are a part of. “They shared land and waterways. We shared everything. “That’s why we are still here.”

Brewarrina – Bourke

Who gets the title of “gateway to outback” if we’re talking about competition? Broken Hill also claims the title, so Bourke ups the stakes to be the “gateway of the real Outback.”

Bourke is located 760km away from Sydney. The Jandra paddle steamer offers a great way to see the milky green of the Darling River, but instead, we take a Kooma man, George Orcher, on a cultural tour. It is common to hear about the dispossession of Indigenous people in north-west NSW and also other places. George, who was raised in Weilmoringle’s remote area, was the only child of 10 to attend boarding school. “I became a sheep shearer just like my father and brothers,” he said.

In the 1880s, Bourke became the largest inland wool port in the world. Henry Lawson even swagged here for a time. George’s record for a single day was 204 sheep. His dad did 327. George says, “It was a record that would have been in the Guinness Book of Records. But he wasn’t Aboriginal, so couldn’t claim,”

The next morning, we leave town early to drive for an hour to the Gundabooka National Park in the Ngemba-Paakandji region. Our senses are overwhelmed by the red earth, purple sky, and abundance of wildflowers. The sign at the entrance reads, “This is Stone Country,” but it is far from dry, with Pillaga posies covering the scrub in abundance. Another sign with just two words says Exit. It reads “Yata Wiitya” in Ngiyampaa. Good luck.