On the Road to Gunda­gai

The Monthly (Australia) - - CON­TENTS - by Robert Skin­ner

The best you can say about some cars is that they give you a place to sit when you’re stuck in traf­fic. This one, though, a 1999 Toy­ota Corolla in gun­metal blue, felt like an ex­cite­ment ma­chine. To me, at least. No one driv­ing the same model ever waved back. I was liv­ing in Mel­bourne at the time, sur­rounded by brunch places, cul­tural elites, home­less peo­ple and all those other fruits of civil­i­sa­tion. The car sat out­side as a con­stant re­minder that we could say good­bye to all that when­ever we wanted. The roof lin­ing sagged and brushed my head like an old friend. It’s true that the gear­box had been mak­ing noises even when I bought it, but since I didn’t have enough money left over to get it re­paired, I solved the prob­lem by fix­ing the ra­dio in­stead. One Sat­ur­day, I set off to visit a friend in Sydney. At first, there was the ju­bi­la­tion of leav­ing a city be­hind – I could rein­vent my­self in Sydney, I thought; maybe I’d learn ac­count­ing. Next, the set­tling-in pe­riod, where trees tick past your win­dow and it feels like you could drive for days. And then the feel­ing that you re­ally have been driv­ing for days. The morn­ing’s op­ti­mism (“Look at these bound­less plains!”) be­came “God, these plains are bound­less.” (They were never bound­less.) By late af­ter­noon I’d driven 450 kilo­me­tres, eaten two bags of li­corice all­sorts, re­lived ev­ery re­grettable thing I’ve ever said or done, con­sid­ered mas­tur­bat­ing, and lis­tened to most of Slim Dusty’s back cat­a­logue on my ra­dio’s one work­ing sta­tion. I crossed a bridge and saw the Mur­rumbidgee flow­ing un­der sunny skies. Forests be­came farm­land. Hills were sprin­kled with gran­ite out­crops, but other than that re­fused to show their age. Kan­ga­roos bounded on a ridge for a mo­ment, then dis­ap­peared. Sud­denly there were three huge clunks that not even Slim Dusty could drown out. The wheels locked and the car skid­ded to a stop in the mid­dle of the lane. Three peo­ple pulled their cars off the road and ran over to help, but the gear­box had seized, and even with all of us push­ing we couldn’t budge the car. The traf­fic kept com­ing. Trucks pow­ered up the hill and changed lanes when they saw the flash­ing lights. Hol­i­day-mak­ers in new cars rushed to­wards a col­li­sion and only veered away at the last mo­ment, con­fused by the dis­tur­bance. I stood in the road and waved them all fran­ti­cally into the other lane. Still di­rect­ing traf­fic, I called the RACV and said, “So hey, lis­ten, I would love to be­come a mem­ber.” A BMW roared past and the driver leant on his horn. “Where are you call­ing from, sir?” “I’m on the road to Gunda­gai,” I said. “But I don’t know which bit.” They signed me up for a nom­i­nal fee and dis­patched a tow truck. “Good luck,” said the lady on the phone. “And hang tight.” Dusk was a killer, be­cause it turned ev­ery­thing else (the sky, the road, the hills) the same colour as my car. I stayed out there on the road, wav­ing dili­gently and des­per­ately. It was like own­ing a rock in a river and try­ing to keep it from get­ting wet. An hour later the tow-truck driver ar­rived with his wife, who was also a tow-truck driver. The hus­band climbed down from the cab. It’s a shame ours is not a kiss­ing cul­ture, be­cause I was grate­ful enough to give him one. I tried to ex­press my grat­i­tude with a dou­ble-handed shake in­stead, but even that felt a bit ex­u­ber­ant. “All right, set­tle down,” he said. “It’s good to see you, too.” They hoisted the car onto the tray and we drove down the high­way to Gunda­gai. “We grew up in Gunda­gai,” said the wife. “It’s a beau­ti­ful town.” “Oh! Do you still live there?” “Nah.” “We’ll give you a lit­tle tour,” said the hus­band. “It won’t be out of your way?” “This is the way.” As we turned onto Main Street, they pointed out the old bank, the aban­doned rail­way sta­tion, the build­ing where the post of­fice used to be. “Not much left, huh?” I asked. “Oh, it’s all still here, we just moved it down the road a bit. The pub moved, see, and ev­ery­one else sort of fol­lowed.” This mov­ing-of-the-town busi­ness had hap­pened more than once, I found out. The orig­i­nal town was built on the flood­plains of the Mur­rumbidgee, and in 1852 it was hit with a Noah’s Ark–like flood. Only no one had an ark. In­stead, two Wi­rad­juri men, Yarri and Jacky Jacky, battled rag­ing flood­wa­ters all night in a bark ca­noe, and saved 49 stranded peo­ple from drown­ing. The town was swept away and had to be re­built on higher ground. And now here I was, washed up on its shores. I checked into the Gunda­gai Mo­tel and walked down the road to the pub. I was still hold­ing out hope that I could have a rich cul­tural ex­pe­ri­ence to re­deem the fi­nan­cially dis­as­trous road trip.

I opened the door to the Cen­tu­rion Ho­tel, but the pub was empty ex­cept for two old drunks stand­ing in the cor­ner. “Who are you sup­posed to be?” one of them asked. I or­dered a beer and sat down to drink it. I was bored enough to try read­ing bush po­etry – Banjo Pater­son’s ‘The Man from Snowy River’ is printed in mi­cro­text on our $10 note. “When you’re in the coun­try,” was my dad’s ad­vice, “al­ways carry a $10 note, and you’ll never be alone.” Well, I had $10, but only in change, so I aban­doned the pro­ject and called my friend in Sydney. “Gunda­gai!” he said. “Great town, Gunda­gai.” “You’ve been here?” “Nah.” He was keen to, though, and said he’d drive from Sydney to get me. There was a party go­ing on in a back room some­where, though I couldn’t make out where. It sounded as though they were all men and about six drinks ahead of me. That, pre­sum­ably, was where you could find a cul­tural ex­pe­ri­ence, but I lost my nerve. It had the at­mos­phere of a hard-drink­ing wake, and I didn’t know the de­ceased. Peo­ple used to sing songs and write po­ems about this town. A war-time prime min­is­ter ate steak and eggs in the kitchen of a lo­cal cafe. A dog sat fa­mously on a tucker­box five miles from here (and sits there still, as a bronze statue, com­mem­o­rat­ing … well, I never did un­der­stand the sig­nif­i­cance of that dog.) I couldn’t see any­one writ­ing about the town any­more, un­less they were writ­ing about songs al­ready sung. The drink­ing was hard go­ing. The beers were so cheap I was drunk be­fore I’d reached the EFT­POS min­i­mum. Lo­cals shuf­fled in and out and told the bar­tender sto­ries about mort­gage re­pay­ments, wool prices and failed foot­ball ca­reers. When I had the bar­tender to my­self, I asked, “What’s the deal with the Dog on the Tucker­box?” I could imag­ine a dog sit­ting on a tucker­box, but I didn’t un­der­stand why we were still talk­ing about it 100 years later. The bar­tender said, “Mate, he didn’t sit on it. He shat on it. In the orig­i­nal ver­sion, at least.” One of the old drunks piped up, “Fur­ther­more, he shat in the tucker­box.” Ex­hausted from the ef­fort, he started trailing off. “Bas­tard dog.” “They changed the lyric?” I asked. “No one wants a statue of a shit­ting dog,” said the bar­tender. At least the story made sense now. I added that lit­tle trin­ket to the other life lessons I’d learned that day, per­tain­ing mostly to car main­te­nance. Frankly, I was hav­ing a hard time af­ford­ing all this wis­dom. I walked back via my car, which was “parked” out­side the lo­cal me­chanic. It sat un­der a lone street­light, with a fa­mil­iar look of pa­tient readi­ness, like a one-legged dog that can’t stop chas­ing balls. I was drunk, a lit­tle sen­ti­men­tal. I’d been hop­ing that Gunda­gai would have a bit more piz­zazz. It was, in many ways, the cul­tural heart of the Aus­tralia I grew up with. But the sto­ries of this place were barely enough to keep the town go­ing. Some­thing like a new na­tional mythol­ogy was of­fered to us, re­cently, in the form of a re­quest, a rec­om­men­da­tion, an an­guished plea called the Uluru State­ment, call­ing for con­sti­tu­tional re­form and a proper voice for Abo­rig­i­nal and Tor­res Strait Is­landers. The gov­ern­ment breezily dis­missed the land­mark state­ment, the same way you wave away 40-odd thou­sand years when you’re telling the his­tory of a place and you’re rush­ing to get to the good bits about dogs and tucker­boxes. From up on the hill I could hear the hum of traf­fic and see the glow of head­lights on the Hume High­way. The one that had by­passed Gunda­gai 40 years ago. On the way to some grander vi­sion for Aus­tralia? Well, one can hope. My friend texted to tell me he was on his way, that he would be there in the early hours of the morn­ing, and would the pub still be open? It would not. I walked back through the empty streets and let my­self into my mo­tel room. Out­side, the dog was still sit­ting on the tucker­box, my friend was munch­ing on car­rots, singing along to talk­back ra­dio, and driv­ing through the dark­ness, on the road to Gunda­gai. Above my mo­tel room, the sky was a shin­ing, vi­brant black, and I crawled into bed, to sleep the sleep of gen­er­als who know that help is on the way.

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