Here we go again

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'Out.’
‘But we only wanted to...’
‘Out!’
‘Here’s a copy of our magazine. We really liked the cars and wanted to take some pictures...’
‘OUT!’
I would have continued reasoning with the man – despite his shaven head, muscular build and tattoos – but decided not to press our case further when I felt something sniffing around my nether regions. I looked down to see a big, burly, brown dog. Now it could have been horny, angry or just plain friendly, and all three options were unpleasant, so I quickly got back into the Merc and we got out.

No wonder this paragon of hospitality was living on the outskirts of the mining town of Broken Hill. With his limited vocabulary, his social skills would have been severely compromised. But what if he had a gun to make up for it? Still, it was our mistake to barge like a bunch of Hollywood cops into his backyard without permission. But we thought that the place was uninhabited and the bunch of classic cars rusting in peace made it look like a junkyard – a trio of Morris Minors and a bunch of 60s Fords and Holdens. It was an irresistible photo-op, but we did not want to end up in the obit section of The Broken Hill Despatch & Courier. So Mr Out, in case you are reading this (which I doubt, for more reasons than one), let me repeat in no uncertain terms what we told you earlier: Sorry. Sorry! SORRY!

But this was the only rough incident in what would be another brilliant drive Down Under, filled with gorgeous destinations, beautiful roads, curious animals, distinctive towns and of course, cheerful and friendly Australian characters. Well, most of them. Okay, it was not the marathon drive that we did last year – 3,800 km in four days, almost across Australia, from Melbourne to Perth. But this time around, we decided to experience the Australia that exists beyond the highways and bits of the real outback. We stuck mostly to the state of New South Wales, and did this loop: Sydney-Nyngan-Broken Hill-Mildura-Wollongong-Sydney. A distance of about 2,700 km across five days. So was it a walk in the park? Well, not exactly. This drive too had its share of 1,000-km days, plus we went to places that made us feel that we would never see home again in case anything went wrong. And we were glad we had the right machine to tackle some of the rough surfaces we traversed.

Last year, it was the Chevrolet/Holden Captiva, and this time round, giving us company was a massive SUV wearing the fabled three-pointed star, a white Mercedes-Benz GL 320 CDI automatic. But the question remains: Why Australia? Well, there is nothing like a country far away from everywhere else; it is fairly exotic despite speaking English; there is always something to discover because it’s vast; getting a vehicle from a manufacturer is easy and er, we had valid visas. Oh, and we wanted to see the Walls of China at Mungo.

 

 

 

  MOUNTAINS AND MOUNTAINOUS CREATURES
Day One: Sydney-Katoomba-Bathurst-Dubbo-Nyngan
The first message that Bijoy gets on his cellphone after landing at Sydney airport is that we’re getting a Mercedes for our drive. What a beginning! We were originally supposed to drive a Hyundai Tucson, but thankfully, Rajiv Mitra, who’s doing a superb job as head of corp comm at Hyundai, is an ex-motoring journalist. That’s why he understood why we wanted to take the newer GL over the Tucson, despite being the first to get us a car at a rather unfair short notice. So Rajiv, thank you once again. And Manas, thanks for the Merc.
 
It was evening when we landed in Sydney, and after freshening up at the hotel, we met up with an old friend of Bijoy’s and went out for dinner. Sydney’s Darling Harbour area is an amazing place. You have a whole host of bars and restaurants around a water body; the sort of hub where the whole of the city lands up during weekends to party. Despite it being a Monday night, there was enough activity around to make it lively. The place was so pretty and attractive that we decided we should visit it again. But for now, the GL and the Australian continent beckoned us. And we picked up the absolute essentials that would keep us going. Engine oil, spare fuses and a tyre pressure gauge? Nah. Deli-style potato chips (Sea Salt and Sour Cream & Onion), Doritos (with extra cheese), tonnes of chocolate... essentially the kind of munchies we wouldn’t want our children to eat. Oh, and wasabi nuts too. Bijoy polished off an entire packet of peanuts in the night – mentally preparing for the tough journey ahead, no doubt.

Waiting for us the next day at the Mercedes-Benz Airport Express, a company-owned dealership near the Sydney airport, was BHC 23P, a monster of an SUV, nicely prepped up and ready to hit the road. Destination Katoomba and the Three Sisters in the Blue Mountains. Despite the conflicting routes suggested by the locals and the lady sitting inside the Merc’s satnav, we managed to leave Sydney behind. And we were hungry, as we didn’t have breakfast – out with the essential commodities then! We munched and crunched our way through the gorgeous Blue Mountains unfolding in front of us. According to the Lonely Planet, explorers who first landed in Australia thought that beyond the Blue Mountains lay China! Instead, as they later discovered, was a vast continent filled with curious animals, amazing landscapes and different looking human beings.

Here was one of them, at the tourist centre at Katoomba, wearing nothing but an orange loincloth, taking puffs from something that looked like a chillum and playing on the didgeridoo, filling up the air with typical vibrations that reach deep into your heart. Notwithstanding the touristy place and the presence of hordes of sightseers, the sound was haunting. And somehow it went well with the sight of the never-ending peaks of the Blue Mountains and the unique rock formation called the Three Sisters.
 
Our stop for the night was supposed to be Dubbo, 423 km away from Sydney. Along the way was Bathurst, home to the Australian Fossil and Mineral Museum, a labour of love of one man called Sommerville. In the museum was the star of several Hollywood box office hits – no, not that old fossil Harrison Ford, but T Rex himself. Yes, the museum is host to a large and complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton. We had to see it, and it was closing time. ‘Can you come another day?’ The expression on our faces was explicit enough for the lady at the counter to let us into the museum without paying the entrance fee just to look at their star attraction (thanks, ma’am). Man, it was huge and had frightening teeth; it was scary to look at even without the help of Spielberg and Stan Winston’s CG/SFX team. Thank God the Late Cretaceous Era ended before I was born.

Now Dubbo, regardless of the name, was famous for its massive zoo, filled with over 1,500 animals. But since the roads were excellent and we were doing good time despite the 110 kph speed limit, we decided to push forward to Nyngan, another 167 km away. The nice bit about visiting the country this time of the year is that it’s summertime, so you get extended daylight hours. Still, it was dark when we reached Nyngan. We decided not to stay at a motel that had these ferocious looking truckies at the bar, for obvious reasons, and managed to get decent accommodation at another friendlier looking one. Just in time for some Victoria Bitters and a hot dinner. The GL did the first 600 km of our long road trip without a murmur and we were hardly tired, it was so smooth and comfortable. But its finest hours were yet to come.   IT WAS ALL MINE, A HALF-HOUR AGO
Nyngan-Cobar-Wilcannia-Broken Hill/Silverto
As mentioned before, this is a brilliant time to visit Australia, as you get extended daytime hours. To make the maximum use of it, you head out very early, so you can drive more kilometres in a single day. We however decided to take it easy and leave at 8. By the time we left, we should have theoretically covered about 150 km. Theoretically because when Bijoy knocked on my room door at 8.10 am, fresh and ready to hit the road, I was still discussing the merits of vegetarianism with a T Rex chewing on some ’roo roadkill.

So another day, another breakfast-bereft morning. Nyngan looked a pretty desolate place the previous night, and it was no better in the morning... heck, it doesn’t even get an entry in Lonely Planet. We hoped that the 129 km to Cobar, another mining town, would have at least one place to fill up and fill ourselves up. But it was a series of isolated ruler-straight stretches dotted with the occasional kangaroo carcass. There was no sign of life barring the few trucks and cars coming in the opposite direction. Besides we had run out of water. I’ve never felt so thirsty in my entire life, though it was actually the thought of being stranded without water in the middle of nowhere that was making my throat dry. Perfect situation for Bijoy to get delirious then. ‘McD! McD! I want a big fat burger at McD. We’ll go to McD at Cobar.’ Unfortunately for him, there seemed to be no sign of life anywhere in the horizon, let alone the golden arches.

So we decided to restart the game we left off last year, when we tackled the world’s longest straight. When you spot a car coming in the opposite direction, you should do as the Aussies do – lift a finger off the steering wheel acknowledging the presence of another human being. The roads are so desolate Down Under that even that little gesture makes you feel good. But then not all Aussie drivers do that all the time, and definitely not the lady drivers, so the rebuff you get for lifting your finger means one point minus. Exciting stuff.
 
The entrance to Cobar was marked with huge letters announcing the name of the place affixed to a mining whatzit that stored stuff dug up from the earth. Okay, Cobar is a place that happened because it sat close to copper, zinc and lead deposits. It was mainly a main street with flat buildings, and perhaps not important enough to justify the presence of a McD – though it had a Great Cobar Heritage Centre. Still we stopped at a cheerful place for a lunchy breakfast and my paranoia meant I bought enough water to cause er, water retention.   260 km away from Cobar was the town of Wilcannia. We needed fuel and there was one isolated pump along the way at Emmdale. The old fogey running that place looked like he occasionally opened his refrigerator to check if the dead body inside was okay (well, Bijoy thought so). Anyway, the GL 320 CDI was returning an average of 10 km to the litre; it could have been better, but it is such a large SUV that the passing gigantic road trains could not affect its directional stability in their wake. The machine was consuming miles all day in great comfort and the luxuriously appointed interiors meant it was a brilliant continent cruncher. The GL came with permanent four-wheel drive, had ride height options, three different damper settings and even differential locks. Plus enough room at the rear to fill up with some sporty and very fit Aussie blondes (heh, heh). We couldn’t have got a better machine for this drive.
 
We entered the town of Wilcannia by passing over a bridge over the Darling river. Well, calling it a river was a bit much, as it was barely a muddy stream in the summer. Wilcannia was a fancy name for what looked like a town in the middle of nowhere. Again, it had one main street with kids riding their BMX bikes in the middle of the afternoon when ideally they should have been in school. The central bar was filled with characters and pinball machines – both equally used up – and smelt as if its walls were painted with booze. For the few minutes we were there, the highlight of the day was the discovery of a stinky snake carcass in the dustbin. A classic outback town, if you please.

Our destination for the day was Broken Hill, and we had stayed back the night before at Nyngan instead of Dubbo just so we could cover the vast distances. Now Broken Hill was finally coming up on the horizon and we had sighted those rundown classic cars and met that monosyllabic man whom I told you about at the beginning of the story. We were half an hour early the moment we reached the town. How? You see, in the past, the government of NSW did not give Broken Hill the support it required, so they decided they would secede and become a part of the neighbouring state of South Australia. As it was an important source of income for NSW because of the mining industry, it led to a big uproar. So the government of Australia came down upon Broken Hill and forced them to join NSW. In protest, Broken Hill adopted SA’s standard time – half an hour behind that of NSW/Eastern Standard Time – and SA’s telephone area code as well. Maybe our North East states should take a lesson from Broken Hill’s book.
 
The omnipresent Lonely Planet also had some other glowing things to say about Broken Hill (fascinating destination, mining epicentre and the BH of BHP Billiton, the world’s largest mining company). And it kept staring back at our faces from the map we were referring to before leaving Mumbai. And here it was finally, a compact grid of streets and two-storey buildings. There were huge dunes of dug-up earth on the outskirts and the entire town looked like a Hollywood set from a spaghetti western, barring the cowboys and the Injuns.
 
But for us, Broken Hill’s main attraction was another little human habitation just 23 km away, Silverton (pop. 50... yes!). Silverton was the original silver mining town, before Broken Hill took away all the glory. Today, it’s just a little outpost famous for being a place to shoot TV commercials and movies, desert scenes from Mad Max II, A Town Called Alice, Hostage, Razorback and numerous ads that needed to show a bar in the middle of nowhere. So it’s no wonder that the Silverton Bar seems to be the world’s most famous bar in Australia. We had to go to this place, and the presence of Mad Max II’s Ford Falcon replica couldn’t sway us from having mugs of chilled XXXXs there. The lady at the bar was used to starry-eyed visitors gawking at the walls covered with comments, autographs and jokes, and of course, memorabilia of the place. We asked her whether she ever felt lonely staying in a place like this. ‘No problem. You get used to it... there’s always someone around.’ Brr. From where we come from, families of 50 people or more stay in single houses, not whole towns.
 
The only other visitors to the place were an out-of-work but cheerful tile layer and his wife driving a beaten-up Mazda pickup. He was making his way to Sydney or some other city where there is government spending on buildings, which he hopefully could divert along his way. Of course, he was curious about how two brown-skinned guys driving a Mercedes were nursing their beers at the Silverton Bar. When we told him about our drive, he of course had some advice to give. ‘Watch out for those kangaroos’ and ‘If you want to get emus to come near you, wave a red handkerchief... they find it irresistible.’
 
And yes, finally, at night, Bijoy got his juicy burger all right, not at McDonald’s but at Hungry Jack’s.   MUNGO JUMBO
Broken Hill-Menindee-Pooncarie-Mungo-Mildura
Ahh, finally a big, sumptuous, not-so-healthy breakfast. Today was the big day, the day of Mungo. Before leaving India, Tourism Australia gave us a map of recommended road trips (14 Crackerjack Drives!), and we had chosen this one of the lot after seeing a picture of a surreal dune called the Walls of China at Mungo National Park. And we were all charged up to get the cover shot for this issue at that place. Heading out of Broken Hill and after filling up at Menindee, we hit the road to Pooncarie. Road? Not exactly.

It was a non-tarmac stretch of almost 400 km – what the locals called unsealed roads – but it was good enough to keep decent average speeds. Though you could tackle it in a normal car, the going would have been slow. Thankfully, we had an SUV with permanent 4WD, so the long, sandy stretches were effortlessly shrugged off by the Merc. However, the GL’s electronic systems decided to give up the 110 kph cruise control that we had set, as the car was not getting 100 per cent traction all the time, but we were doing easily over 90 kph consistently. The setting was eerie; it was only sand dunes and the bush and very little signs of human habitation – well, those large lizards and emus that we saw looked relaxed enough. But the presence of castaway beer bottles on both sides of the road meant that this road was being used.

It was like driving in the desert in Rajasthan or somewhere in Africa. The sight in the rear view mirror of twin whirls of sand being kicked by the Merc’s tyre made us feel as if this was a real adventure after all. Two days after the trip, we would discover that there was sand in every orifice of the car, but none of it actually would make it inside thanks to those very effective rubber seals... if not, we would still be sitting somewhere in Sydney, turning the car inside-out and vacuuming it clean.

We reached Pooncarie after leaving a 400 km trail of dust and made our way to the information centre. It was run by a happy Kiwi couple. The New Zealanders fell in love with the place when they chanced upon it and decided to make it their home. After a quick coffee and shuffling of some maps, we left the couple and a half-hour later, took the turn off to the fabled Mungo National Park. The roads got slightly rougher now and it was very tempting to give the Merc a dash of opposite lock and slide a little bit. But we were not giving in to temptation as the Walls of China were waiting. Getting into the national park, the scene looked like something out of The Lord Of The Rings, dark, sombre clouds stretching to eternity, short, rough bushes scattered here and there and not a sign of life. Ironical, considering that this entire World Heritage zone is supposed to be a place with over 400 centuries of continuous human habitation. This entire area was a huge lake some 18,000 years ago and now is a giant showpiece for nature’s work of art. And there it was, the Walls of China – a large moon-shaped 25 km dune created by constant wind erosion. Something like a wind-created mini-Grand Canyon, if you please. Very, very mini, actually.    It was nowhere close to the dramatic moonrise picture we saw in the Tourism Australia catalogue, though we didn’t go all around that 25-km lunette. Hmm. The mandatory picture done, we were still happy that we experienced the incredible vastness of the Mungo National Park, and I feel I must say something profound now. So here goes: This remote, beautiful and most important place is full of great significance for the human species. Not me, it’s from Lonely Planet.

The dark clouds were threatening to send showers of rain down and that could only mean that we would be stuck at Mungo till Frodo could wrest the ring back from Gollum. Four-wheel drive or not, the muddy road would become virtually impassable if it rained. So we gunned the Merc for all it
was worth, but it didn’t rain eventually. Our destination for the evening, Mildura.

Compared to the dusty wastes of Mungo, Mildura was like a petite, doll-house town with its manicured lawns, crisply maintained houses and large clean roads. We found accommodation in the heritage Grand Hotel, and its piece de resistance was its celebrity chef (world famous in Australia, methinks) Stefano de Pieri’s restaurant. For us however, the Mildura Brewery Pub (with its own bottling line right there for you to see) next to the hotel with its own bunch of unique award winning beers was more like it. God knows, we earned it. So we asked the pretty waitress with this really award-winning smile what she recommended amongst their five inhouse beers. So did she like the Mallee Bull or the Honey Wheat? ‘I don’t know, I don’t drink,’ she flashed that toothpaste commercial smile again and took our orders. Cheers!   LONG WAY ROUND
Mildura-Balranald-Wagga Wagga-Wollongong-Sydney
When we were emptying out the contents on the breakfast table in the morning, little did we know it was going to be an epic drive. We got out of Mildura in a relaxed manner, and so relaxed were we that I was instantly asleep in the passenger seat while Bijoy was fighting to keep his eyes open. After yesterday’s day-long adrenaline rush, the straight, empty roads of Australia were like tarmac-coated sleeping pills.
 
It’s at moments like these that wasabi nuts come to the rescue. I recommend these for anyone who’s heading out for a long drive. Popping one in your mouth means a vinegary shot that rises from the nape of your neck and explodes in your brain (and burns your nose hairs when you breathe out – Bijoy). A few of these and you can’t think of sleep for the next few hours. Sure enough, with enough wasabi nuts propelling the two of us, we were covering hundreds of kilometres without even thinking of it. The countryside was of course gorgeous and the sky was a fantastic shade of blue, and we passed through towns with queer sounding names... actually this holds true for the entire duration of the trip.
 
When Bijoy was chatting with these two huge matrons running the breakfast place in Cobar on Day 2 and was telling them about our drive, one of them advised us to look out for the animals on the road while driving. Indeed, we had seen plenty of sheep and cows grazing all over the landscape, though they were busy mowing the grass with their mouths rather than wanting to cross the road. To describe them, she uttered the word ‘feral’. That word would get repeated throughout our trip – THE word of our Australia Drive For January 2009 – applicable to man and machine... and animals.

Meanwhile, the big Merc of course had shrugged off the rigours of the previous day and was back to tackling the tarmac. For its size, the GL’s a brilliant handler, and moves its mass as if it’s a passenger car a fraction of its size. Matching the sporty nature of the underpinnings is its taut and well-weighted steering wheel. The 224 bhp and over 51 kgm of torque from the turbocharged 3.0-litre V6 was more than adequate to join the dots in our map effortlessly.
 
The charm of driving Down Under is that you freeze your car at the 110 kph speed limit and go on and on and on. So we reached our scheduled night stop at Wagga Wagga in the late afternoon and decided to press on to the seaside town of Wollongong. Only about 500-odd km to cover by sunset. Heck, in Australia, you can do that! Only watch out for that poor little ’roo. Feral!   It was a 1,000-km day by the time we reached the outskirts of Wollongong, a diversion caused by a traffic accident only making the trip slightly longer. We had been on the road continuously for over 11 hours and were not too zoned out. The reason we pushed this day was that we wanted to see the Pacific Ocean and Wollongong was only an hour’s drive to Sydney. This means we had some time to catch the sights of Sydney the next day before we headed back home.

Wollongong is the classic weekend town for people living in Sydney, and as it was the weekend, all the Harleys and the Mini convertibles were out showboating on the town’s beach-facing road. And occasionally, a fire truck too! There were toned and tanned bodies returning from a swim in the sea everywhere, and the even the old people looked like they could walk across to Perth right away. Stuffing our faces with breakfast and watching these lovely folks pass by only made us want to leave for Sydney right away.

We reached the city by noon and sadly returned to Mercedes-Benz what was our home for five days and then decided to do the touristy things. We fitted in a ferry ride and took in the iconic Harbour Bridge and of course the Opera House. The city was agog, there were tourists everywhere and people were enjoying themselves. The Opera House seemed like a venue for weddings and there were numerous Chinese origin people out there all dressed up for the ceremony like it were the Academy Awards night. We looked like country bumpkins around them. Late in the evening, we went back to the Darling Harbour area and downed a few, watching the colourful Christmas lights come alive and the Australian flag fluttering on a very tall mast high in the sky. Cheeyeahs, maite!

G’day everyday

Though we spent only six days overall, you can fill up months in the places we have been through. Sydney, of course, is a thriving and exciting city with innumerable things to do, places to see and bars and restaurants to hang out in. Katoomba is a good place to set off from to explore the Blue Mountains, preferably walking. So if you are into treks and nature, this is a good way to spend some quality time. Motorheads will love Bathurst. Other than the fossil museum, the town is famous for its National Motor Racing Museum. Bathurst is the hub of motorsport in Australia, and hosts the Bathurst Motorsport Spectacular in October at the 6.2 km Mt Panorama Motor Racing Circuit. Dubbo, as mentioned in the story, has the Western Plains Zoo as its singular attraction. There are over 1,500 animals in there and you can get pretty close to many of them, according to Lonely Planet. Broken Hill is the classic, quintessential outback town, but it has its other novelties too. It provides brilliant insights into Australia’s mining history via mine tours and is also close to several of NSW’s national parks. The unique Royal Flying Doctor Service Base has a museum about this winged medical wonders. And of course, Silverton is also close by. The town of Mildura is known for its wine-making and golf courses, but it also offers you the option of living your Tom Sawyer days by going on a paddle-steamer cruise over the Murray river. New South Wales’ largest inland city is Wagga Wagga, here at the Charles Sturt University, they have courses on wine-making. And finally, hit any or all of the 17 beaches at Wollongong and chill in the city’s many bars and restaurants. Phew! There’s so much to do, and this is just a fraction of what Australia has to offer!