The Newell Highway, No.39 on your road map, is a dandy way to get from Victoria to Queensland – with some help from its inland highway friends, it connects Melbourne to Rockhampton.
It’s a route of sheep and cattle country, cotton and grain farms, bushrangers, road trains. Just the ticket for a drive with my old farmer dad, from his home in southeast Queensland to our cold country in Ballarat. Guided by a brochure put out by the Newell Highway Promotions Committee, this is what we got up to:
First dayWe doglegged around Brisbane and set a steady pace, with a lunch stop at the stupidly busy Danish Flower Art complex just north of Toowoomba where I was heard to say, ‘oh my gourd!’. Sadly, there was no hallelujah, just a puzzled Dad watching me take pictures of oodles of gourds – there was a whole paddock of the things growing out the back, and at the cafe, brightly coloured ones were mounted like Vlad Tepes enemies on stakes, piled up in crates, hanging from trees. A gourd massacre, but one feels, conducted with love.
We carved south through Toowoomba and pulled up for another coffee stop at a nursery at Inglewood, chosen mostly because it was the first place we got to and it had heaps of parking. It’s a charming town – in fact, the thing that constantly strikes me on drives through the interior is the pride these country towns show. It’s a rare one that isn’t tidy and welcoming.Then we turned westerly and, a little further down the track, we stretched our legs at Yelarbon to check out the dingo fence monument, recording that this protective measure was once the longest fence in the world. I guess we can now call it post modern history.
And finally we connected with the Newell at Goondiwindi. This is roo and emu country; combined with straying stock, they make night-time driving a bit of a worry, so we were happy to pull in before dark. Dinner was Chinese at a nearby restaurant, recommended by the friendly staff at our motel, the comfortable and tidy Comfort Inn.
The pleasure of the Newell, other than that slowly changing rural landscape, is that the road is fairly empty, especially compared to Highway 1 that tracks the coast. Surprisingly, the petrol wasn’t priced sky high (up to about $1.56 a litre), either, and the most we paid for a night’s accommodation was about $135 in Moama (not on the Newell), and $130 in Dubbo.
We don’t do early. We figure there’s a reason for a 10am check-out and we might as well see what it is – I suspect just to allow the other travellers to clear out early. This morning, due to my general shopping laziness, we had a hot motel brekkie and it was damn yummy, better than the cereal I inflicted on us for the rest of the trip. (I always pack my own coffee and sugar, just in case of some truly godawful instant; a box of cereal and a bowl saves a bunch and gives us the option of a quick getaway.)
We pootled down to Dubbo, through familiar-sounding towns Narrabri and Coonabarabran and Gilgandra. Gunnedah, off the highway, was a detour too far.At Narrabri, we pulled in to check out the CSIRO’s Australia Telescope Compact Array. Six dishes, on a railway track, that combine to be greater than the sum of their parts. We were lucky: there was an astronomer on deck to give information, and the centre made for an intriguing stop thanks to excellent info boards. It’s free, too.
It was in this stretch that we passed the enticing shape of the Warrumbungles National Park, rearing from the flat earthen sea of farmland, browned stubble and dusty gum trees. But Dad’s not into bushwalking so much these days, and those peaks had to be left for another day.
We did, however, hit Dubbo’s Hog’s Breath restaurant, which Dad is most definitely into. It did not disappoint – and yay for the ramp that made it easier to steer ourselves out.
We left the highway go west to Narromine, timing our arrival for what we thought would be a polite half hour after opening time for the aviation museum there. Wrong. No one was home, and the answering service merely confirmed that they should’ve been open. We and another car of travellers were left to whistle dixie.No matter: we followed some intriguing signs to the edge of town to Andonbel Alpaca Farm and Coffee Shop, where they served coffee and light meals from a barely renovated train carriage sporting alpaca products and a couple of tables. Brilliant! We sat outside, and I eyed off the nachos being served to another table on the lawn under the shady trees, but it was too soon for a mid-morning snack. I was a little surprised the owners have had to shunt the stock – they have 250 of the cuties, and are about to start slaughtering for meat as well as selling stock and wool – away from the cafe because customers complained about the smell. But they’re so cute!
Lunch was slated for the cafe at the Parkes Radio Telescope. It’s a mighty dish, free to wander through the visitors centre, and the tucker at the cafe was pretty darn good – the birds certainly gave it the beak up.We popped in to the tourist info centre, the Henry Parkes Centre, at Parkes (named after him) – I’d left my aforementioned brochure, containing our map and my pen marks on cool stuff – at the motel, and lo, there was Elvis, or at least, a load of his gear. And a bunch of old cars. And even more old stuff – sheds and yards of machinery! The info centre is home to four museums, including the former Yellow Wiggle Greg Page’s Elvis memorabilia collection superbly set up as a day in the life of the King, including a car, clothing, a bit of concert. I’m not a big Elvis fan, not since primary school when I bought my first and last Elvis tape, but even I could appreciate this was darn cool, thank you very much.
After we’d stumbled around the old engines and tractors in the yard for a bit, we got in our own buggy and headed further south.We got to Forbes – I know the name from ‘The Streets of Forbes’, a folk tune about bushranger Ben Hall’s body being paraded through its streets, and indeed Hall is buried here. But not for us an encounter with that long dead scallywag, but rather McFeeters Motor Museum – yes, more old cars! And what an impressive set up this private collection turned out to be – again, we were lucky, with the owner himself on hand to show a handful of we visitors around. The history of Australian motoring was on display here, from the Model T Ford onwards. A Japanese funeral car was a highlight – apparently, funerals were often held at noon, because it was bad luck to be touched by the shadow of a funeral car. What a splendid hearse, with a little temple on the back of the vehicle, with a decorative ceiling – too bad the deceased had no chance of seeing it, what with the coffin (presumably) being closed and all.
Kudos to the McFeeters: the power lift chair that let my dad get up and down the stairs to the mezzanine was much appreciated.
Sadly, the neighbouring honey shop was shut when our tour had ended. Happily, the cellar was open, and we departed with a tasty bottle of port from Banderra Estate and Sandhills Vineyard.
Fourth dayIt was time to leave the Newell for a bit, striking east to Temora and the superb aviation museum there, tracing the history of Australian military aviation. Sadly, it wasn’t a flying weekend – that’s the first and third Saturday of the month, mostly, and they can attract hundreds to the former military training ground. This private collection has put back into service a Spitfire (two!), Tiger Moth, Wirraway, Sabre, Vampire and more, and has them laid out in hangars with lots of information. You can also see the workshop where restoration and maintenance is undertaken.
From Temora, we kept going bush, passing through Coolamon before rejoining the Newell at Grong Grong to continue our southern journey.
It was as Jerilderie that we finally parted ways with the erstwhile highway, striking west to overnight at Moama, just the other side of the Murray from Echucha, and indulged in a respectable takeaway box of fish and chips for dinner.
Fifth dayIn Echucha, we had coffee at the bakery – always dependable – and I got another gargoyle garden ornament from my supplier, er, the garden ornament shop The Hard Yardz, and we indulged Dad’s love of Holdens with a visit to the National Holden Motor Museum, where all things Holden are on display. Goodness, I learnt to drive in one of those column-shift EHs … way to feel one’s age, although in fairness, the cars do extend to the modern era. I guess with Holden ceasing manufacturing, the range will be easier to keep up with in future. Our family farm was outside Maryborough, Qld, so it was only fitting that we should journey through Maryborough, Vic, on the way home. It was my dad’s second visit to the namesake town, and he was once again struck by how similar the town’s main street is to its northern counterpart: I think it’s the shop fronts and signs hanging from the awnings. There’s a lot more bustle in the Vic ’borough, and it’s train station is truly magnificent. Why yes, this is gold country, how can you tell? Victorian towns wear their heritage in stone and the width of their streets, and we passed signs bearing ‘leads’ and ‘reefs’ and ‘rests’ as we made our way to Ballaratia, our highway journey done.
But I still have the brochure: there’s a bunch of towns we whistled through, and a lot of natural attractions we bypassed. I’m looking forward to renewing my acquaintance with the Newell.