Outback 2: Bourke to Moree
We had decided to fit in a detour to Lightning Ridge on our way to Moree. So an early start was essential: thanks, Willy Wagtail, for the alarm call. (I could easily have stayed in North Bourke another day, by the way.) We'd already sussed a bakery that opened early enough for coffee and croissants now we were back in relative civilisation. I persuaded my friend that we should take time to eat it by the Darling rather than on the move. There was stillness and early-morning light, you see. Birds were at their ablutions.
It's about 300 kilometres from Bourke to Lightning Ridge, and we had to move fast if my friend was to have enough time looking at opals and we were to reach Moree before dark. We travelled along highways I'd never heard of – Kamilaroi (from the 'Great Divide to the Great Outback') and Castlereagh – and through equally unknown towns, such as Brewarrina and Walgett. Further along the Kamilaroi beyond Walgett is Wee Waa. What a splendid name. Coonabarabran is another one, near the Warrumbungle National Park. Some of these places were too far south of our route. Their names are the kind you have to practise before you can use with confidence, and even then you get the emphasis wrong. Some of my Aussie friends still fall off their chairs when I try to say Capalaba, a suburb of Brisbane. Which 'a' would you accent?
I drove the Brewarrina to Walgett stretch and have not a single photo to show for it. In fact, the whole day was ever-so-slightly disappointing. After what I'd read about Lightning Ridge – how once you've been you never want to leave; and how it's quirky and different and special, which made me think Nimbin with opals – I found it ordinary, scruffy in places, with a wide main drag like a thousand others. 'Lightning Ridge is a place you'll talk about the rest of your life', claims the Kamilaroi travel guide. Well, I might, but not necessarily in a good way. For one thing, I saw the most beautiful opal stud earrings that were unusually red, and I left town without them.
If you're after a black opal, it's worth doing a bit of research before you go. There are lots of shops and 'galleries', and you might otherwise spend ages wandering from one to the next. There are different kinds of opal: you need to familiarise yourself with solid opals and doublets and triplets here. As with most precious or semi-precious stones, the more you pay, the nicer you get. We spent quite a while in just two shops, my friend searching for rock samples that included rough opal, and me admiring polished stones set in jewellery, unusual pieces preferably. This seemed to me to be the nicest shop by far.
Then we visited the Walk In Mine, which dates from the 1960s. Here you can get a good idea of the risky conditions in which opal miners sought to make their fortunes. Hard hats are provided; but it's probably not a place for the claustrophobic. The picture below right is not the way visitors get in and out of the mine.
We had to drive south to join the Gwydir Highway, north of Walgett. A few metres beyond the junction was a wonderful view of a farm, to our right. It had all the components – homestead, outbuildings, silos, machinery, animals. But I didn't make my driver stop. Why do I mention this? Because I recall a similar situation on our last Outback trip. In one of those Darling Downs towns – Dalby, perhaps – where there are lots of farm machinery outlets. A row of brand new shiny tractors were on display in one shop, and in front of them was a large puddle in which their reflections were mirrored perfectly. I haven't forgotten the photograph that never was; and here was another whizzed-by opportunity. I'm not obsessing. It's just that you know when you 'see' a photograph with massive potential, and if you don't stop or go back you'll always regret it. How many times could I use a nice farm as a scene setter? Better move on.
We'd had the highway vs back tracks debate. Highway won, for speed. I tried to be enthusiastic about the country we were passing through. But it wasn't Outback. Interestingly, there tended to be forest on one side of the road and cleared land on the other. We often debate as we travel around this country whether or not woodland is original. I am currently reading The Bush: Travels in the Heart of Australia by Don Watson – an excellent book – and have to conclude this was probably not. The trees were the tallest we'd seen since the Wadis of Birdsville. How long ago that seemed already. There were many large trucks on the road – and still a sizeable amount of roadkill.
Our question at this stage of the trip was, where does the Outback end? Sulphur-cresteds and Galahs seemed to have replaced flocks of Little Corellas. There was no signage warning of 'roos on road' or tight bend ahead. Emus were on the wrong side of fences keeping sheep in their paddocks. Earlier in the day stretches of the road had obviously been upgraded from 'developmental': that is, there was a central strip that had relatively recently had its gravel verges sealed.
About 75 kilometres northeast of Walgett is the town of Collarenbri. We brewed a cuppa by the Barwon River where the backlit grass heads were stunning. Pause for self-indulgence, following my farm deprivation.
As we got nearer to Moree a storm was brewing over flat plains. We only skirted the rain, but still benefitted from a rainbow.
By now we were in cotton country. We passed signs to the Collymongle Cotton Gin (Colly to its mates) from the Moree Road.
Moree is a large agricultural centre at the junction of five major roads. It has daily services to Sydney by plane and train, thermal baths, the largest pecan nut farm in the southern hemisphere, the Mehi River, and a history of flooding. We liked the place: it was green and tidy with smarter houses than usual and a pleasant feel. We were staying at the Albert Motel in a quiet part of town. As we checked in to our large room, there was a brilliant sunset sky following the storm.
The Albert is just round the corner from Moree's RSL, which is where we went to eat. My friend had never been in such a large Services Club, so we had a look around: the groovers on the dancefloor, the large array of poker machines, and the bars, where glum-looking rugby fans were watching the Wallabies getting hammered by the All Blacks in round two of the Bledisloe Cup.
We had to sign in as temporary members. At the desk there was sophisticated technology whereby a swipe of a driver's licence printed your signature as if to sanction a list of rules you hadn't seen – and presumably logged your details on their database – whether you liked it or not.
So… the last night of our road trip, a fact I was trying hard to forget. I'm so bad at going home when I've been tripping. Awards this time went to the Bourke Bridge Inn (accommodation) and Birdsville (overall experience). Happy times.