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Canberra to Penarie (say it Pen - AIRY) - 670kms or thereabouts.
Where the heck is Penarie? Well, it's a little dot on the map, about 28kms north of Balranald, on the Ivanhoe Road in western New South Wales. It's pretty much due west of Wollongong, and about halfway between Canberra and Adelaide.
Why Penarie? There's a fantastic outback pub there: http://www.homebushhotel.com.au/ , inhabited by a quirky array of characters. Besides, I don't get out west often. I've heard about the Hay Plain, but haven't ridden it - so it was about time!
So... the adventure begins on Saturday morning, after uncharacteristic downpours have dropped a couple of inches on Canberra AND parts west, like Hay - unheard of! The forecasts aren't great, but hey, I have wet weather gear...
At the servo in Yass I meet a trio of riders from somewhere out west. They're heading into Canberra for the annual Toy Run. Nice one! They warn me about enormous clouds of giant grasshoppers out west. Oh, great! Funnily enough, I don't encounter any at all - maybe because it's PIDDLING with rain by the time I get to Wagga Wagga, and maybe grasshoppers don't like the rain. I know I don't!
Out past Collingullie there's a place called Galore, which has the Galore Store (there's a store in Galore, the Galore Store, but out in Galore there's not much more!) and I start feeling as if I've stepped into the pages of a Dr Seuss book...
Well past Galore (and the Store) is Narrandera. That's pretty much the end of so-called 'civilisation', ha ha - and only about half way to Penarie. After Narrandera the distances between towns streeeeetch, and I'm basically heading into the outback. My next refuelling stop is a little roadhouse at Waddi. I stopped here once before, coming home from a Wintersun trip, in thick fog. Back then it was a haven of warmth, and I almost missed it because of the fog. It's unrecognisable in clearish weather!
In Hay a couple of people chat at me and tell me it's a crap day for riding. I agree! I've been on the road since about 7.30am. It's now 2pm, my shoulders are aching and I still have to fight the wind across the fabled Hay Plain. The wind is howling, the sky seems to have dropped MILES closer to the earth, and it's feeling pretty ugly. Press on, press on!
A mob of sheep is doing its thing on the road - sheep are so DUMB! I slow to a crawl, and the sheep run hither and thither across the road, changing course every couple of nanoseconds... The stockman, looking every inch the hero in an Akubra hat and a Drizabone, and astride a beautiful horse, gives me a noble and friendly wave as I negotiate a wobbly path through the mob. Forget Dr Seuss - all of a sudden I'm in a bloody Banjo Paterson poem!
Wow... the landscape out that way is amazing. It's almost sinister (but that could be because of the bleak weather...) I'm reminded of Henry Lawson's poem "Up the Country", where he talks about the hostile landscape that wants to trap the weary traveller...
Woodland gives way to stunted trees, and the grasslands disappear altogether. Dome-like shrubby things abound, and the colour of the ground changes from grey-brown to cream, to red-brown. It's so FLAT, you can see for ever.
Sad little piles of bones, in various states of bleachedness, appear every few metres by the roadside.
And then there's the dust... Between Hay and Balranald, big drifts of dust are whipped up by the wind and wafted across the road. Just what my bike needs - a good sandblasting...
My fellow travellers all appear to be trucks the size of apartment buildings, and mostly going the other way. If I forget to duck down as far as I can behind my screen to rest my chin on my tankbag, the enormous gusts of wind they generate try to rip off my helmet (and my head!)
The cattle trucks are the worst - the following blast of air is always full of cattle piss.
Why am I doing this? Because I want to get to the Homebush Hotel, that's why! Eventually I do! It's about 3.45 when I pull up out the front. Mine host, His Excellency Phil, kisses me hello - I ask you, how many places can you go and get that sort of welcome? - and gets me settled in.
After a shower I feel a little more human (although my shoulders still ache like buggery), and then the fun begins!
The Homebush Hotel is the last remaining pub of 15 which once existed on the 200km stretch of road between Balranald and Ivanhoe. (That must've been a helluva boozy pub-crawl on horseback, way back when...) Back in the old days it was also a Cobb & Co stop, and is one of the oldest continually-licensed premises in the country.
These days it's been extended (with grants from the Heritage Council that ensure poker machines will never EVER be installed there!) and Phil has grand plans to turn it into a hub of combined cultural activity and outback hospitality. The second "Country Muster" will take place next Easter. Don't miss it!
I have a fabulously boozy evening with the entire population of Penarie (that's about 5 people) and a couple of "interlopers", like Wayne's Mum and his lovely girlfriend, Valerie. What a hoot! My new friends are great company!
Sunday is quiet - a gal has to conserve her energy for the monster ride home! A busload of RSL people from Sea Lake (Victoria) descends for lunch and a tour of the Historic Homebush, and those of us who are left when they go have a few quiet drinks.
The ride home begins at about 6.45am, in the midst of a dazzling outback sunrise. I've been warned by Wayne, one of the locals, that there will be roos on the Ivanhoe Road, so I'm not surprised when 3 of the little buggers start hopping along parallel to the bike. As long as they stay parallel it's all good. But you can never trust kangaroos.... I stay slow...
I see wedge-tailed eagles rising - enormous and majestic - from the side of the road... Major Mitchell cockatoos fly upwards, wings spread, their pink and white feathers back-lit by the climbing sun, and it's just breathtaking! There are emus watching me traverse the Hay Plain... I shriek and sing and giggle like a madwoman inside my helmet - I'm having such fun in this crazy alien landscape!
The relentless sameness of the landscape does strange things to your eyes, and creates optical illusions - but the lone man in the hi-vis vest, pushing a wheelbarrow across the Hay Plain is no illusion. The Australian flag flutters proudly on the front of his wheelbarrow and he looks so tiny and alone out there. [note to self: google to find out what the heck he was up to!] By the time I realise I'm not hallucinating, I've flashed past him and missed a fabulous photo opportunity.
A little later I pull over to take photos of the countryside (there are no grey clouds today!) Somehow one of my contact lenses is blown out of my eye, and I have to retrieve it from the bloody road! It would be quite a sight for a passing motorist (if there WERE any!) to see me crouching by the bike, trying to find a spot out of the ever-present wind so I can put the bloody thing back in!
The trip home takes me a different way - after Narrandera I go via Grong Grong, Matong, Ganmain and Coolamon. The grasshoppers start just before Ganmain. Clouds of them fly at me. Some are big enough to make me say Ouch when they hit my gloves, legs and boots. They make an interesting plick noise when they hit my visor.
At Old Junee a hare lopes across the road in front of me. I don't squash it - that would be mean...
I refuel at Cootamundra (I'm feeling peckish by now, but it seems close enough to home not to bother stopping for food.) I ride through ever-denser clouds of grasshoppers (Ouch, plick, OUCH!) and finally arrive home a bit before 3pm. The landscape here is so tame, so safe, so familiar - and I really want to head back over the Hay Plain to Penarie again!
There are three blokes who run the Homebush Hotel: His Excellency Phil, Sir Edward Edward Edward, and Captain Smyth - and what an interesting crew they are! His Excellency Phil, who's a muso as well as a publican, an entrepreneur AND a pisshead
Turns out Captain Smyth and I went to the same primary school in Sydney, many many years ago (not at the same time) and we both remember certain teachers! That coincidence is just too amazing, and I intend talking to the Captain some more! Penarie (and home sweet Homebush!) here I come again!