On the Road to Gundagai
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.