January 13, 2007

How I spent my summer holiday

Posted in Uncategorized at 5:17 pm by Chris

This is an article I wrote for the Citroen Car Club of NSW
newsletter, hence the absence of my usual prognostications. Hover your mouse over the pictures for captions

If you go to the beach for your holidays it’ll probably be full of
people, and most of them will probably be Holden drivers. Unless, of
course, the beach is beside a lake that dried up 15 000 years
ago. With a faultless reasoning like that to the fore, we decided to
spend our New Year at Lake Mungo in south-western New South Wales. The
mighty GS wagon with the Mystery Clunk would take us there (mostly
because it’s the only car we have).

Such an epic trip requires an early start, what my brother-in-law
calls a Longson start. Out the door by 7am, in other words. Toll roads
may be a vile capitalist excrescence on the fair face of Sydney, but
the M7 sure is handy if you live in Marsfield and wish to travel
south. I’m a convert, even with the merry cheeping of the Etag to
remind me how much money the whole thing is sucking out of my
account. Being able to drive up the road, turn left onto the M2 and
bypass most of the city at 100km/h is almost worth it. In just the
time it took to discover that the tape player was having a bad hair
day and the only music available was the contents of the mp3 player,
we’d made the jump to lightspeed down the M5 onramp and headed down
the Hume.

When you live in Sydney the boisterous summer weather and regular
thunderstorms make it easy to forget that there’s a drought. Once you
get away from the coast it gets pretty hard to ignore. I’ve done the
trip to Canberra on plenty of occasions and seen it brown along that
road, but now it’s gone past brown and into grey. No wonder they had
to close the playing fields in Goulburn; the ground even looks a bit
like concrete. It’s a slow-motion natural disaster and you really have
to feel for the people who make a living off the land out there. Now,
can I suggest that if you are heading through this particularly
dehydrated bit of the wide and generally brown land, and morning tea
time is approaching, that you say “yes” to Yass? In particular, the
Cafe Indulge on the main street has parking right out the front and do
a first-class country chicken pie, not to mention a passable
Devonshire tea (although you may have to call it “scones and cream”
before the girl behind the counter knows what you’re talking
about).Car and lavender bushes in Yass

Road and trees in blazing sun
Next stop from Yass was Wagga Wagga, although you must
first bid adeiu to the Hume Highway and get yourself set onto the
Sturt. In actual fact there’s a dirty great sign about this, but
I’m trying to make it sound harder than it is because when we went
through there a few years ago we missed the turning and ended up
joining the Sturt via Lockhart. Wagga Wagga is on the banks on
the mighty Murrimbidgee. Australia’s great rivers don’t seem to have
inspired the same degree of lyricism as the rivers in other continents
(“Oh Murrimbidgee, I love your daughter” …it’s not quite the same,
is it?). We ate lunch behind the visitors’ centre, above a
bend on the river lined with construction work to stop the water
scouring the bank out. It didn’t look like it was really working.

West of Wagga isn’t quite like West of the Black Stump, but the
landscape is pretty Aussie out there. I find it quite
compelling. Between the dead flat land and gaunt trees with their
angular trunks and branches, there’s a spare kind of beauty to
it. Part of the attraction is the light, I think. From strong, white,
and unrelenting at midday to low and golden in the evening, it throws
all the shadows and angles into sharp relief. The land wouldn’t look
half as good without the light, and the light in turn would be
completely lost without the landscape. I must admit that this
interplay of light and form would be better appreciated from inside a
car with air conditioning, because it does tend to be accompanied by
air temperatures of 30-odd degrees.

It would be nice to report that we saw lots of Citroens out there eating
up the miles and further enhancing the landscape with their elegant
good looks, but on this particular day we saw a grand total
of… none. On the bright side, the friendly owner in the caravan park
at Hay remembered the DS coming through her hometown the year that
Citroen won the London-Sydney race. The legend of the Goddess is alive
and well in rural New South Wales.

Moody sky beside a lake
Day two saw us heading to Mildura (and seeing a C4, who didn’t even
give us a second look). If you’re scratching your head over a map,
you’re quite right: Mildura isn’t the most direct route from Hay to
Mungo. We had to stop into the Parks headquarters and get a pass. You
might think that Parks offices would spend a lot of time sorting out
passes, and that all the regional offices would have great overflowing
boxes of the appropriate paperwork. You would be sadly
mistaken. Mildura has some history with us, because the last time we
crossed the bridge over the Murray heading into that bustling
metropolis, the car spat out a driveshaft which cracked the gearbox
casing on the way past… this time, all things mechnical didn’t
appear to notice the transition. Even the Mystery Clunk was silent.

Duly Parks Passed and stocked up with fruit and veg (Mungo and Mildura
are inside the fruit fly exclusion zone, and you pestilential
Sydney-siders can’t bring in any of your infested greenstuffs), we
headed towards Mungo. Almost immediately you’re on unsealed road. I
don’t know what the Parks people spend the pass fees on, but it
obviously isn’t on running a fleet of graders. I do not like
corrugations… There are three schools of thought on dealing with
corrugated roads. First is the “slow right down” school, which has its
place when the rough patch is someone’s driveway, but rather less
utility when you still have 100km ahead of you. There’s also the “grin
and bear it” approach, best employed by manly men in 4WD utes with
interior fittings bolted together from quarter inch steel. Myself I
favour the “flying over the bumps” school of thought (although I will
admit the occasional foray into flying over a drainage gulley whoops
where did that come from), which involves what an engineer might
describe as decoupling the driving frequency from the natural
resonance of the car-wheel system. In other words, accelerate until
the shaking stops… The critical velocity differs for each vehicle,
but I find it’s about 80km/h in a GS, leaving the magic floaty
suspension to cope with the more serious lumps and dips.

So we floated and flew off down the road towards Mungo. After rain
this road turns to sticky clay mud and is impassable. In dry weather
the clay just makes drifts of red dust and it’s invisible, at least
after someone passes you going the other way. Eventually we caught up
with someone in a pretend 4WD who followed the grin-and-bear-it
school, so we had to bear it too until he turned off. I don’t know
exactly when the shaking killed our clock, but I feel inclined to
blame the driver of the Mosman schoolbus on general principles.

Car and tent in arid zone
Fifty thousand years ago Lake Mungo was a wide, very shallow lake
filled by an overflow from one of the neighbouring Willandra Lakes,
which were in turn filled by a side branch of the nearest river. I’m
going to have to do a Schenk here and admit that I can’t remember the
name of the river. A long history of fluctuating water levels
eventually led to the lake drying completely about 15 000 years
ago. The sand from the old lakebed was and is picked up by the
prevailing westerly winds and deposited in a long sand-dune along the
eastern shore. The upwind side of this sand-dune forms the Walls of
China for which the area is famous, and the dune as a whole is pretty
much the only topographic feature for quite a long way.

The road into the park reaches the lake at the western side, so you
look across at the Walls of China. Sunset is supposed to be the best
time to go and view these, but we were more interested in ducking into
the lovely cool visitors’ centre and then back to the main camping
area to set up our tent. The main campsite is actually quite well
equipped for a wilderness camp, with gas barbeques and rainwater
tanks. It isn’t particularly sheltered from either sun or wind,
unfortunately. A couple of families of apostle birds hang out there
and make off with leftovers and spilled water. Seeing their response
to a thimble-full of water spilled on the ground makes you realise how
precious fresh water is in that environment. There was also a goanna
wandering around that had managed to get a bone poking out through the
side of its throat, presumably from someone’s barbeque
leftovers. There was nothing we could do for it, but its future looked
grim.Sunshine through a tree

Freaky landscape
The next morning we set off to the Walls of China and out along the
loop track through the park. The road initially cuts across the old
lakebed and up to the base of the Walls; that part is two-way for the
sunset Walls-viewing traffic, but the rest of the loop is one lane and
one-way. We would have got to see a big snake on the road at this
point, if the 4WD in front of us hadn’t scared it off. You can’t take
some people anywhere.

Neil Armstrong would feel right at home in some of this area,
particularly as you go up over the shoulder of the dune. Around the
back of the dune is normally more sheltered and has higher
vegetation. Stopping for a look around in a red-earth picnic area, I
heard a hissing noise… lo and behold, a puncture. One expects the
odd puncture on gravel roads, but this was a nail! Lucky us, to find
the only spare nail in the middle of a wilderness area. Out with the
spare and the Citroen tire-changing party trick, and so much for the
prospect of leaving the park via the longer north route; driving on
remote gravel roads when you’re out of spare tires just isn’t that
appealing a prospect. I bet Neil never had this problem.

We had lunch at the Belah campsite at the farthest point of the loop
track. We had planned to stay at this site, but with the thermometer
reading 37 degrees in the shade, the wind blowing through and almost
no shelter from the spindly Causurina trees, it wasn’t all that
appealling. We did get to see some pink cockatoos playing silly
beggars in the trees (do cockatoos know any other way to behave, I
hear you ask). On the return leg of the loop, not only did we discover
even larger corrugations, but we were treated to a an extremely brief
desert rainshower, accompanied by an amazingly strong smell of rain as
the water hit the dry ground. Having failed to be moved by the
charms of the Belah campsite, we settled in for another night at the
main camping area, complete with gusty easterly.

The more direct road from Mungo to Balranald is somewhat better than
going via Mildura, but it still wouldn’t be much fun in a C2. This
time we only lost a hubcap. Removing a GS Club hubcap is normally a
bit like getting the mouse out of a mousetrap, so having one go AWOL
was a surprise. Balranald is another town nestled in a curve of the
Murrimbidgee, although I’m sure the river gets smaller instead of
larger as you go downstream. Must be all the water that the local
horticultural persons spray high into the air over their crops at
midday.

That very night in Balranald, a thunderstorm grew and grew. This
thunderstorm was the real deal, the authentic item. It built with
great towering clouds, multicoloured lightning and fitful winds. The
galahs all settled in the tallest tree and hung on tight (yes, I know
about tall trees and lightning, but try explaining that to a
galah). Then the rain came down. Or possibly the river started flowing
sideways. Suffice to to say that a lot of water came out of the
sky. And continued to come out of the sky, as the lightning continued
to do its thing directly overhead, for most of the night. Who needs
man-made pyrotechnics to see in the new year when you can enjoy the
naturally occurring version. Lucky our car doesn’t leak. Much. Or our
tent… much…

In Balranald we also met a couple from Adelaide, who had met a French
couple travelling in an AMI 8 on Kangaroo Island. Sydney club members
may remember Jacques and Catherine’s very interesting talk in January
last year. People are going to start thinking all old Citroen wagons
are painted the colour of photocopiers, at this rate. I wish we had
even half as many interesting miles behind us as Catherine and Jacques
though, even if our cars are almost the same colour.

The drive back across the Hay plain next morning didn’t reveal any
features of the landscape that we missed the first time, apart from
the interesting reflections the clouds were making in the new
puddles. I think I’ve probably wasted more film over the years trying
to take photos of light amongst clouds than of any other subject. We
stopped the night in Narrendera, an interesting place where they’ve
banned swimming in favour of a waterskiing lane along a big stretch of
river and then built a swimming pool right beside it. Don’t let anyone
tell you that the people of Narrendera aren’t well catered for in the
civic amenties department. I can’t really recommend the camping ground
though, not unless you have a sloping tent that you find
unsatisfactory when used on flat ground.

It’s on the last leg of a trip like this, I find, that you start to
wonder why you wanted to go so far for your holidays. At least it was
cool and rainy for that bit, with some of the water falling on
Goulburn, no less. I’m sure they were dancing in the streets. It also
rained on my foot, while I was driving. I know what that means… time
to break out the wire brush and the POR 15.

Catch you later, as the poets say.

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