Like Kerouac but with fewer hepcats


I started planning about three months ago by sticking blue-tac on a map and joining up the dots with ribbon. Up the centre and out a bit, through stretches of country I have known for years and others of thrilling mystery. It’s 5411 kilometers all told, providing I don’t get lost, double back or wander off the path. That’s 67 hours of driving, if I stick to the sedate pace my teeny car can keep up without burning through upsettingly large amounts of fuel.
I’m used to one stretch of this drive. I made the trek from Wangaratta to Casslis at least once a year between the ages of three and 21. Haven’t been back again since my grandmother died in 2009. Mum and I made that last journey alone, swinging off the Hume just north of Albury and following the Olympic Highway up to Canowindra, then to Cudal and on to the Mitchell at Mowlong before veering off on Goolma Road at Wellington and on to Gulgong. We always nearly hit a roo between Ulan and the Golden Highway, honking the horn twice as we pass the cousins’ property at Ingleburn. In the September school holidays the paddocks were patchworked yellow, green and purple with canola, lucerne and Patterson’s Curse. For years the only tape we could agree on was The Lion King soundtrack, played on repeat once the radio signal started to flicker out at Wagga Wagga.
That drive isn’t traced out on the purple ribbon map, but want to make it. I have been daydreaming about it for four years. There’s a scrubby patch near the Ulan coal mine where my grandmother grew up. Great-grandma Mini lurks in the dusk waiting for the kids to come down from the hills every time we pass the mining lights. I want to know who Mini is and where she came from, and what that makes my grandmother, mother and me. I want to know who the Loughery’s were before two smart-looking twins caught the eye of the Piper boys.
Other stretches of the trip include less soul, more general inquiry. I want to walk around Yorta Yorta country and head south to Gunditjamara lands at Lake Condah, before heading across to Ngarrindjeri country in South Australia and stopping by towns I haven’t seen since ’89. Then up through Mildura to Lightening Ridge, where I apparently have tenuous family connections, before heading across to Moree and down to Tamworth.
But really I’m not to fussed where I go so long as I talk to people and avoid the coast. I crave the changeless inland towns of New South Wales, frozen in 1983 when the Hawke-Keating government floated the dollar and the wheat price tumbled. The economic stagnation of Tasmania is nothing to the hollowing-out of the land west of the Great Dividing Range where the nearest supermarket can be hours away. I want to feel that space and live that pace before the last outposts close down.
This time next week I’ll be on the Spirit, that giant floating casino and car park as Anna Krien called it. I have four weeks. And I’m still not sure how the trip will work and whether I’ll follow the ribbon or the road. So I was after a few suggestions: where should I go, and what should I see? I am particularly interested in Aboriginal history, missions and migrant camps. I’ll also take recommendations for good pubs, bakeries and Big Things of local tourism fame.
Oh, and I’ll probably write a bit on the road. So if there is anything you want to know, just ask and I’ll try to find out.

The Prince and I


I am 19 and waiting for the vet. Yesterday was Melbourne Cup Day, my birthday. And today is killing day.
I am 19 and he is 34. At least, I think he is 34. He hasn’t enough teeth left to make it up. A few years ago, with some tracing paper and the Australian Harness Racing website I dated his birth year as 1972. So he is 34 and I am 19 and it is 2006 and 20 minutes ago a bulldozer arrived to scoop a hole out of the red earth.
He is 34 and his leg has stopped working. The joint pierced by a star-picket five years back has swollen too much, the ligaments have tightened, the pedal bone pulled up. One hoof slopes sharply where the rest flow smoothly, fetlock to ground. He can’t run anymore but sits in the yard, luxuriating in his old man status as he makes a nest in a pile of hay and lies there eating it, like Black Beauty narrating his memoirs.

I was 18 when I called the vet, two days ago. Eighteen and in charge. Making the mature, humane decision. And now I am 19 and the vet is here and he says, you’re right, it can’t be fixed. And he hides behind me and flares his nostrils and eyeballs the vet suspiciously because he is 34, he has seen this before.
We walk up the hill, the Prince and I, but he won’t go. He won’t walk into his own grave. And he snorts and stomps and rears up on the end of the line and I think: you bastard. You are 34 and too stiff to trot and your muzzle has turned to grey and now at the end you are rolling your eyes and looking like a colt?
The needles come out, one, two. Lurid green sticks of death. And the vet says, stand back, he’ll drop like a stone.

I am 11 and clutching terrified at the reins as he runs away from a tractor in the next paddock, and later I am fuming at my mother as she decides we will buy him because he ran, and because I managed to control him. And I hand over the $600 I earned planting my parents' vineyard as his old owners take turns running him at the float in the hope he won't notice it's there.
And now I am 12 and I thump into the sand beside the jump and he stands over me, sighing in exasperation. I am 13 and changing his bandage after he stuck his leg with a star picket, trying to jump the fence when left home alone. I am 15 and shouting abuse at him as he stands, quite calmly, at the foot of the ramp to the float where he has stood for the past three hours refusing to move. I am 17 and he shuffles close and lets me lean on him as I cry in the paddock at 3am because I will fail year 12 like I fail everything.
I am 19 and he drops like a stone.
And a horse starts screaming.