Last week my wife and I travelled to Coonabarabran and Binnaway in central New South Wales. It was a spur of the moment decision. Five years had passed since we last visited the area where we came as teachers and first met almost forty years ago. The region holds countless memories for us both. It was time to return.
On the way I photographed old churches, their paint peeling and their access difficult through natural overgrowth. Along the Castlereagh River on the outskirts of Binnaway, I discovered that the farm labourer’s cottage where I had lived in 1971 had been demolished, another “victim of time and dreams”. But things were green and the roads were good. Binnaway looked welcoming to the traveller and had a cared for look about it.
On our first morning in Coonabarabran we drove out to BurraBeeDee Mission cemetery to pay our respects at Don Trindall’s grave site. Back in December 2006, one of Don’s daughters rang me with the sad news of her father’s death. She also asked whether a song I had written about her dad could be used at the burial ceremony. Apparently Don had requested this prior to his passing. I was deeply honoured and humbled. I had met Don earlier this century. He had been a drover, a rough rider, horse breaker and had worked for the council in Coonabarabran where he raised his family. He had also documented events from his life in poems which he loved to recite. The last time I saw Don was back in October 2003 at Baradine. It was his 76th birthday.
In the quiet bushland of BurraBeeDee I took time to fondly remember this man who was blessed with a great sense of humour, combined with a wisdom that only life can teach. “It was a lovely life,” he reflected, back in 2003 about his time droving. “I’m still missing those droving days … They were good old days. Hard, rough – how I loved it!”
After visiting the mission we headed off to Gilgandra, making a quick stop at Hickey’s Falls, a picturesque, little oasis beside the Newell Highway. Years ago we spent a very pleasant Saturday climbing to the top of the falls and sketching the landscape. Little did we realise that we would return to the falls years later as a married couple. We detoured to Tooraweenah to find it still “sprawling in the sun”, as Coonabarabran poet Hod Cay so aptly described it. Then it was on to Gilgandra for lunch, overlooking a rather dry Castlereagh River.
Resuming our journey via the Castlereagh Highway to Mendooran, we pulled in to a rest stop at Breelong. There we discovered a monument to the four members of the Mawbey family and teacher Helena Kerz. The monument’s plaque stated that they “died tragically” in the area in July 1900. To anyone unfamiliar with this horrendous incident, you could have been excused for concluding that an accident such as a fire or flood ended these five lives. No mention was made of the Governor brothers or Jackie Underwood who were responsible for their murders. The next leg of the trip was spent contemplating the motivation behind the wording of the plaque which had been erected in 2000 by members of the Mawbey family and why it was unsignposted. On returning home I had another look at the film “The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith”.
Back roads through Merrygoen and Neilrex took us through scenic countryside to Binnaway. Afternoon coffee while observing children shouting and splashing about down in the Castlereagh River was picture postcard.
A brochure about self drive nature trails around the Binnaway area resulted in our returning to Coonabarabran along the red dirt Bourke and Halls Road in the late afternoon. We were looking for a natural spring that flowed across the road. The area apparently had been an important place for the local indigenous people and was a corroboree ground.
A more picturesque and reflective location you would have been hard pushed to discover. The constant sound of the spring water could be heard gurgling into a hollow between the sandstone, to emerge mysteriously in a still expanse of water below. Indentations in the sand betrayed the recent pathway of a snake of reasonable girth. Random marks left where possible tools were sharpened and strange shapes depicted on the rock transported us to another time. I thought of Judith Wright’s poem “The Bora Ring”.
The song is gone; the dance
is secret with the dancers in the earth
the ritual useless, and the tribal story
lost in an alien tale.
The next day we departed Coonabarabran and headed again for Binnaway. I stopped at Mow Creek to take some photographs of this favourite spot. The old railway bridge that crossed the creek seemed really useless.
No trains to cross it and now no water flowing under it. The creek was choked by an abundance of high grasses and weeds. I found an access gate and walked back along the track to the railway bridge to take some photographs. I was reminded of lines from a song I wrote in the mid 1990s after a previous visit.
High above the creek bed
On the Binnaway-Coona line
I gazed out on the paddocks
Washed in morning sunshine
The day was warm, the flies very friendly and abundant and the countryside hummed to the sound of the many unseen insects. The view from the bridge did not disappoint.
Then it was on to Binnaway and a drink in the Shiralee Hotel. We discovered that there were new owners and new hopes for this old pub which had featured in the 1956 film The Shiralee, along with Peter Finch. The walls of the bar room are covered with framed photographs of this still talked about event. We visited the Binnaway Progress Association shop which was once the newsagency. We left with a mug, a tea towel and a postcard, fine reminders of our visit. Actually we were amazed that souvenirs of this little town existed. How could we leave empty handed?
We travelled on via Beni Crossing. The water in the Castlereagh River was the widest I had seen it for a long time. As if to emphasise the river’s healthy state, while there a very large fish jumped out of the water and loudly belly flopped back in again.
As we headed for Lithgow we made an impromptu decision to detour at Ilford and descend to the old, gold mining town of Sofala. From there we followed the Turon River to the Razorback Road. This very narrow, steep and unsealed road is believed to have been constructed by the Chinese gold diggers who flocked to the Turon Valley in the second half of the 19th century. As it wound its way up and out of the valley it treated us to the most dramatically beautiful views of a spectacular countryside. Far below the Turon River gleamed in the afternoon sunlight as it stealthily snaked its way along the valley floor. Eventually the road met up with the Mudgee Road again at the top of Cherrytree Hill.
The Blue Mountain range soon dominated the eastern horizon and we felt like we were already home, even if we still had another hour or so on the road.
© Jim Low
8 November 2008