Once you’ve cleared Nerang, you’re in the mountains. It only takes about 40 or so minutes to get to this point – so close! I often wonder why I don’t come out here more, knowing the simple answer is time. My camera, Nana Mouskouri and The Seekers are keeping me company. There’s something special about Judith singing ‘A world of our own’ when you’re in a world of your own for four hours. It’s been my first real drive since Mackay, and the first in a long time sans loved ones. An introverts dream – time alone, where the music choice is mine, the route is up to the toss of a coin and I get to do those stops that you promise to do another time.
Recent rain put the rain back in subtropical rainforest. Narrow mountain roads wound through towers of green, arching over my drive like a reclaimed cathedral. Tree trunks spired around me, reaching the heavens for a glimpse of light.
I stop by a creek for some serenity and snaps. Close your eyes and just picture it – the bubble of water tumbling over rocks. Cicadas singing the song of summer. Frogs harkening the coming of more rain. Nettle tingles my shins and my shoes sink into soft soil. Still water pools in a billabong, insects bounce off the mirror-like surface. It’s peaceful, its perfect. I bet you wish you were here!
A side-street with no name provides the perfect detour. The road has light debris, a carryover no doubt from recent storms. It seems like one of those places frequented by the rich and famous, wanting to be rich, but not famous. Farmhouses with unusually high amounts of security dot the no-through road. The letterboxes are named, not numbered. Names like Wurrunyah, Taralgon and Wangawallon adorn high fences containing perfectly manicured lawns and homes that wouldn’t look out of place in Better Homes and Gardens.
The detour is complete, and I head towards Natural Bridge. I slow down going through Numinbah. The post-war School of Arts has a dance on the 2nd Saturday of every month. I imagine the returned soldiers who built the community halls, schools of arts and RSL halls after World War Two, coming back from far-off places to build these carbon-copy halls right throughout this nation of ours. I wonder what it would have been like, coming from Europe, PNG or the Pacific, coming back to Australia, shutting up and getting on with life.
I decide not to turn to Natural Bridge. The unknown road ahead invites me with a mischievous whisper, so forward into New South Wales I go. I’m right in the middle of the hinterland now. My windows are down and the cool mountain air kisses my cheek. Moist mountain air fills my lungs. It smells like eucalyptus and moss, if you could imagine such a thing. Just over the border and I hit green, cleared farmland. Cows raise their heads from grazing on lush green grass to watch me pass. They chew listlessly, tails flicking away ever persistent flies buzzing around. Paddocks surrounded by moss-covered fences hold livestock. Holding them in, but in reality, who would want to escape this thinkers paradise?
Abandoned farm houses with rusted roofs dot the paddocks and meadows. You’d be hard pressed to find one that wasn’t either on a slant, covered in ivy or crumbling over a rusted tractor. Curiosity gets the better of me, and I train my long-range lens on these modern relics, tributes to the sheer audacity of farmers trying to tame the Australian wilderness.
Numinbah Road twists like tangled fencewire through the escarpment. Grime covered homes hide behind the tree line. Letterboxes made of tin milk cartons dare the mailman to put his hand inside and offer all manner of creepy-crawlies sanctuary. The road straightens out somewhat as I approach Chillingham. This little town hosts not much at all – a puddle-covered tennis court, an honesty-box vegetable stand, an overpriced café and an art gallery that opens every now and again. Weatherboard houses are strangely symmetrical and painted in light pastel, and I think this town wouldn’t be out of place in a Wes Anderson movie. Naturally, I construct a short story of an eccentric retiree who falls in love with a widowed hippy who bond over sunset tennis and billy-tea.
I’ve hit the plains of the valley, where sugarcane towers in the breeze. The mountains dominate my rear-view mirror. I’ve always loved the mountains, and I’m reminded of the escarpment in my hometown. Houses on stilts perch high above the floodmark, sentries watching over the sweet crops below. Fresh shoots of green explode in rich, dark soil – this rain a blessing from above.
I turn north to slowly head home. My travels will see me navigate the hinterland once more – joys to continue once more. It’s much of the same, but all so different. Lookouts invite the casual traveller to stop – an invitation I take. At one, a dampened bible sits on the rock. A feather is used as a bookmark, next to it a post it note simply says ‘take me’. A bible, and like the valley that soaks up the rain, so do I ache to soak up the truth.
I find myself disappointed to find my way back to the M1. To my west, the mountains parallel the freeway and already I long to be back in her windy roads. Alas, this straight stretch of road and responsibility carry me back home. The better the road, the more cares one seems to have. The faster the limit, the more one has to think. The more lanes brings greater complexity. I reflect back to the single-laned mountain roads, where speed is limited by natural beauty, where distractions are beautiful.
I give thanks for safety on the road, and for a few hours of selfish fun in one of the most beautiful patches of God’s green earth. The Gold Coast / northern New South Wales hinterland – thank you for slowing me down and bringing me back to earth.