Red dirt country

This land, this raw-edged end-of-the-world where frills of habitation unfurl, has history. It broils with stories and lore, it is speckled with the patina of the past, and its callous beauty slams the senses.

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This is the red-dirt country of The Kimberley, splayed across WA’s northern reaches with ferocious pride. Beyond Broome, on the northern extremity of the Dampier Peninsula, Cape Leveque succumbs to the ocean in a fit of bleeding intensity, blood red rocks leeching into bone white sand strewn with ragged rocks, a pirate’s curse in paradise…

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Up here The Kimberley Land Council (KLC) represents the traditional owners of the land, with the aim of assisting Indigenous mob in ‘getting country back, caring for country, and securing the future’. The council is charged with the responsibility to do everything in its power to protect traditional land and waters as well as to protect, enhance and gain legal, social and political status for the customs, laws and traditions of the traditional owners. And its doing its job well – parts of the Kimberley have recently been awarded Indigenous protection and have been heritage listed.

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From where I am standing, bathed in the last rays of a setting sun, this country has a greater glory, swathed as it is in the care of its people. An ancient magic settles around me, and, for a landscape so starkly lunar, the Cape has an embrace that is wholly peaceful, almost loving.

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With time at a standstill we could be in any era – past or future – the slough of foaming waves and the ticking of the rocks as they cool our only constants. Fat slabs of black volcanic rock break the sea into splashing frivolity, salty debris litters the sand and as the sun blinks out in a fiery exchange with a bruised horizon we are bathed in pink, a surreal glow that is almost nauseating…

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The notorious Cape Leveque road, a gun-barrel of dirt that borders on mental instability is the reason the peace is so intense. A mere 90kms of back-jolting chassis-smashing pain divides the Cape from the rest of the world. And while we are not afraid of a little dirt, many are. Hence the quiet.

This maniacal streak of red trammels into the distance, insistent, demanding and as vitriolic as a vicious teen. It is littered with wrecks and exploded tyre treads, the rubber curled menacingly in the powdery bulldust as dire reminder, and on the odd occasion you meet a fellow traveller the casual outback wave carries the tremulous quiver of a hope not yet lost.

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Tumbledown joints sit waiting at the end of yet more dirt, protected from visitors by Locals Only signs, corrugations the size of small cars and deep sinks that swallow vehicles whole.

But deep in this primordial spirit world, ringed by bushfires, Middle Lagoon is safe water, a local fishing spot veiled in spicy eucalypt smoke,

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It is prehistoric, an ancient place that begs investigation. After a quick bear hunt – an obligation on empty beaches that howl for the cries of delight of a four year old at play – the Tin Lid and I go in search of shells and fill our pockets and hats and shoes with treasure washed in from the deep.

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The Cowboy meanwhile, after ploughing lines in the sand with glee, gets out the rod and a Burmese fishing skirt:

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He catches nothing but a thirst, though the Tin Lid is most impressed, asking why his dad is throwing back the tiddlers…

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“They’re too little mate, we gotta throw  ’em back in and try and catch a big one”;

There is a pause, a whirring of cogs in a bright little mind:

“But I’m only little Dad, I could have that one for my supper…”

Later, beneath a crinkled moon, we settle in for the night, the sift of the surf and a beach fire our only companions.

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Eat, drink and leave

It’s the most easterly point on the Australian mainland, yet Byron Bay has a certain West-side vibe, a gangsta authority over all things karmic and crown-chakra related.

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Daily ocean dips and deep Ashram-inspired devotion, spirulina smoothies and tantric touching all deliver the vibe in spades, with astral travelling, the Crystal Castle, mediums, infrared saunas and dandelion tea ensuring a good all-round blanketing of spiritual bliss.

The Bay speaks to people. It is a place etched in lore, a rite of passage and initiation chiselled into the backpacker tracks that span the coastline of Australia, paths worn shiny with overuse and the drag and splatter of banged-up vans.

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For this little travelling tribe, Byron was a Mecca – a refuge for the alternative and a haven for the strange. Smoky trails of nag champa and pot streamed from the emerald hills that ring the bay, the Echo ran ads for tofu welders and yoghurt-weaving workshops while straggly dogs tied to trees howled into the night. Fire twirlers lit up the sky with shafts of light and the acrid burn of kero, pubs thronged with bushies, bikers and birds, and bare feet padded hot sand into cooled milk bars.

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Radical, alternative, flecked with tie-dye and crowned with raggedy dreads stiff with salt, the Bay was a form of scruffy redemption with its off-beat counter-cultured charm, colonics and sticky chai.

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Located in the slumped gut of a long-dead volcano, this lush sea-fringed hinterland is a meeting place, a one-time corroboree site and hunting ground and the magnet that attracts the filings of life. You come, you heal, you leave. Or so they say.

But today we skirt the edge of a new scene, a brander, newer world, glossy with money and power. Muscled 4WDs leaking ice-cold aircon stalk car-parking spaces on the sea front, while the clip clip of spiked heels from those cooled interiors mark a trail to generic shops brandishing tat and tap-and-go convenience.

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Black Mary causes a stir with her rattly growl, hurling her bulk onto the pavement, prime position on the beach. With the evening wrapping its soft shroud around us we head to the pub for a cold beer. Thumping FM beats throb to a crowd of well-dressed dollies clutching lolly-bright Breezers, who natter of plush rooms in exclusive retreats and the health benefits of kale. We watch from the shadows as shards of laser light clatter through the sweating dark. Glittering eyes follow our movements, curious as to the luggage in the trolley. Emanating from them is patent PC displeasure at the Tin Lid’s presence outside of daylight hours, though he is unperturbed.

Silent censure seems to filter through this once culturally promiscuous town – where once ideals and dreams fucked in the open, now mere suggestion of a life outside the box is best sheathed, while alternative has become a brand.

Like the bloodied aftermath of a bad prom, torn and regurgitated, inappropriate, something to be ashamed of in the morning, Byron struggles with its image. The phalanxes of bashed-up HiAces littering two-minute noodle flavouring and financial despair are easily shunted to the edge of the dream, and increasingly the salacious soul of this one time hipster is sidling west in sympathy, replaced by a plastic fantastic futility.

Market forces have driven out the quirky character of the town, which has long been its drawcard. Salons still offer colonic irrigation as casually as a manicure, but on the main street the offbeat is nowhere to be seen… Byron Bay may have resisted McDonald’s but now you can buy a Subway sandwich, a Domino’s pizza and a Baskin-Robbins ice-cream. “Drunks’ tucker”, as the local police call it, has replaced alfalfa salad.

Sydney Morning Herald

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A one-time working-man’s town, with a legacy that includes sand-mining, whaling and a stinking meatworks with a bloodline that spewed offal straight into the bay, Byron has become a playground that resounds with pitched battles, superiority complexes and the squall of entitlement:

There can be few towns in Australia with a more contradictory identity than Byron Bay. On one hand it has, historically, been associated with the alternative lifestyle movement of the 1970s and seen as a kind of interesting hippie retreat in northern NSW. On another level it has been seen as a very upmarket get-away-from-it-all retreat for wealthy southerners not wanting to mix with the hoi polloi who inhabit more vulgar coastal townships like Coolangatta and Tweed Heads. And over the past thirty years it has acquired a reputation as the residence of the rich and famous…

Traveller, Sydney Morning Herald, 2009

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But the early morning beach brings some respite and ripples with life. Surfers share waves with pods of dolphins, backpackers slump, passed out on the sand, and families tag-team in the shallows. Byron is a holiday place and the wafts of Hawaiian Tropic and hot chips that sidle by on a gentle easterly temper misgivings of luxury resorts with million-dollar price tags, street brawls and a shadowy underground that reeks of the old school.

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Needless to say, the Tin Lid takes to the idea of a summer holiday with toddler-streaked verve:

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And we embrace a week in situ, with Mr Whippys that slip slide down hot skin, 22

fish tacos that promise peace,

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and the company of a baby alpaca, who peruses the Japanese fusion menu from the comfort of her washing basket.

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And in this eccentric, eclectic and, these days, exclusive place, we find a peace from the long haul of the open road. The exquisite beauty of the bay is undeniable, a torrid affair of verdant tropical green and violent turquoise, and the sense of the metaphysical is novel. The emphasis on fresh food, alternative therapy and health is a diversion from the Australiana road show, where green veg is hoarded, stashed and eked out until replenished, and salad sandwiches from the servo must suffice.

A hotbed for creativity, the wider area beams with a wholesome originality, a unique vibrancy that allows you to shut out the sense of malignant decay that feeds on itself. Beyond the bay, the cool depths of the interior hold a deep fascination, not least because of the things you overhear:

With thanks to Overheard in Byron Bay

“It’s her housewarming. I’ve already given her an eagle feather but I feel like i should get her something else, too.”

 

Facilitated Thematic Soirees: covering inner voice dialogue to the tantra. Only if your single and over 40, please email a photo. Namaste…                                Personal ad, The Echo

“Hey, you look familiar. Were you in court the other day?”

“I need to get some beef bones for Ganesh”

“I’m very sensitive to the socks I wear – I tend to absorb the spirit of the animal they’ve come from quite strongly.”

“Do I need to bring anything?”
“No… oh – actually, just your favourite cushion. And some cacao.”

“I’m a private person. I don’t put my smoothies on Instagram.”

“Got much work on at the moment?”
“No, I’m really just focusing on getting yarn-bombing up and running in Lismore.”

“What do you do?”
“I’m a mystic. I also work in construction. Everyone needs a disguise.”

“Do you mind if I keep these aioli containers?”
“Sure, why?”
“I’m sleeping in a cave tomorrow night with seven men and I’ll use them for candles.”

“Why aren’t you seeing India any more?”
“She’s still eating sugar.”

“Look, I’ve got a boat and a bong, what else do I need?”

“I only use organic moisturiser – it seals your aura better.”

“I’m feeling very scattered. I need to eat some root vegetables.”

“Well you could go and work in Brisbane, but you’d have to wear shoes.”

“It’s very damp in here – have you been tribal belly dancing?”

“I’m not answering to ‘Avocado’ since I started eating meat again…”
“How did you put your back out?
I fell asleep on my crystal…”
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The Most Polluted Beach in Sydney

Boat Harbour squats at the end of a great sweeping curve of golden sand that flexes along the coastline from Cronulla. The shoreline stretches past sand mines and jagged 4WD tracks that scar Wanda Beach, on to the oil refinery that sits on the finger of the Kurnell Peninsula like a gaudy bauble. Amidst this, Boat Harbour has the less than salubrious distinction of being the most polluted beach in Sydney, yet I can barely contain my childish excitement to be back, cowboy and tin lid in tow.

Pockmarked and weatherbeaten, Kurnell is an a solitary place. As the truck trundles past hurricane fencing topped with gnarled barbed wire on one side, shady groves that hide pools of water on the other, the sand track smells of the ocean and leads us ever seaward.

This scarred environment hosts a horde of parasites, from sand mines and chemical companies to the ghosts of feature film landscapes and a gangster’s silence. They say the dunes are littered with bodies and that ‘bits’ of Sydney’s underworld are turned up by curious dogs, metal detectors and the ghoulish.

Aside from the Wanda Beach Murders, tragically long unsolved, the legacy of a gangsters’ world merely adds to a desert land already immortalised as the sandy apocalyptic vista of Mad Max: Beyond the Thunderdome and the war-ravaged location of The Rats of Tobruk.

But it’s not all sand. Boat Harbour has a proud population who live in a straggle of shacks, shanties and listing caravans that curl like a cheap plastic necklace around the bay.

Love a sandy track

Love a sandy track

Shanty town

But the ocean sings its siren song and we bypass the dunes and her inhabitants, intent on the shore,

where we meet the ranger, Southern Cross flying proud. He doesn’t like us. Something to do with a sound system and a mob of dancers ten years ago…

A N Y W A Y

My attorney advised me not to talk about that.

Heading east along Wanda Beach

Having negotiated the ranger we slip-slide along the water’s edge before turning back to Boat Harbour…

A 150m curve of south-facing beach formed behind a 50m wide break in the sandstone rocks, and sheltered by the low-slung rock platform of the Merries Reef, the harbour is protected from the biting southerlies that lay waste to the coast. While the Voodoo Express churns past, an infamous surf break that shunts surfers from Cronulla to Voodoo Point, the bay is calm and glassy. The roar of 4WDs and the sting of flying sand fades, an insipid sun now beats hot and the essence of this wild southern beach is gone. A swag of bare-chested locals sits on plastic pub chairs in the lee of a caravan, downing cold stubbies and watching the waves. Their fists clink around the tins, heavy with tarnished silver, skulls jostling for position with peace signs, and their contented insouciance is palpable, lulling almost.

Established after the first world war, the shanty town began as a fishing spot, an escape from the vagaries of a crumpled world.  Amid the rusted tin and fibro mansions there is a simple beauty, and while the onshore wind disturbs the scent of diesel it brings with it the fresh tang of oxygen and seaweed. Munching on a bushy’s lunch of hard-boiled eggs, bread and hot, sweet tea, we gaze at this alternative wonderland, a place that gazes back square-on, a sandy outpost crouched  in an over-industrialised wasteland.

The world’s greatest fibreglass sheep

Most beautiful is the one-eared fibreglass sheep the tin lid found…

The beach that stretches between Boat Harbour and Cronulla is in rehab; now that the 4WD park is closed, nature is beginning to reclaim what the petrol-heads churned beneath flat sand tyres. At the farthest end of the beach Cronulla, capital of the Shire, is a series of oblong shapes, a kid’s block set aged grey. The distance between the two places grows ever further as the fresh grasses grow higher.

 

Auburn’s got my back

In an effort-soaked quest to stick curious fingers in Sydney’s darkest recesses I find myself rifling through her secrets, tiny sparkling gems of Australiana my prize.

Equipped with an obliging stub of pencil, a crumpled notepad scoured with unintelligible marks, the tin lid (on occasion) and my trusty secretary, her aura of advice billowing gently, I am armed with inspiration and a tousled map from 1974.

As the crow flies, Auburn’s got my back, standing firm at the ever-shifting front between east and west. Just a dead-man’s hand from Rookwood, calm in the lee of the snarled western city arteries, Auburn is named after Oliver Goldsmith’s poem The Deserted Village, which describes the English version as the “loveliest village of the plain”. 

First impressions are less kind. No plains. No villages. But the threads of humanity have woven an exquisite pattern here, a tapestry of colour, creed and custom that sparks life into the air around me. I know that feeling. It’s the feeling of being able to breathe life, taste life and touch life in a single sensory moment.

The scent of sharp, earthy coffee snaps around my nose, fresh mint, cigarettes and scorched meats smear together in a smoky pall and the streets thrum with noise. Old men cluster around tables laden with thimble-full glasses stained with grounds, their prayer beads jostled in time with the conversation; a giggle of head-scarved girls peeps out from a milk-bar intent on attracting the boys’ attention; and statuesque African women, the bodies and hair swathed in peacock-bright tribal print, are silently, strikingly, beautiful. Joining the throng we eat and drink:

and jolted with caffeine spin out further into the streets. Our search is over before it has begun: the secretary, exhibiting a distinctly un-secretary-like intent, has barrelled into the Hot Sale furniture warehouse and is enthroned upon a glam-rock bed ensemble from the late 1970s. A quick flick of the peripherals and it is clear that we are in the heart of Australiana. Plasticky covers crackle with promise, shiny pvc glimmers in the dust and the air is stained with nostalgia:

Hot Sale furniture

Glam rock bed throne

Nostalgia mirror

Nearby a jewellery shop is gilded in light, the bright glint of yellow gold visible from a distance. Invited to “look, try” this is as close as I get:

All that glitters...

Though closer inspection was required for this message, a homily I am sad I cannot understand:

Cursive beauty

Turkish, Syrian, Lebanese, Vietnamese, Chinese, Somali, Bosnian, Iraqi, Iranian, Afghani, Pakistani and Sudanese communities call Auburn home and the taste of these cultures is rich and diverse. Cardamom, clove and cinnamon marries with the crisp sourness of cherries and delicate rosewater. Rank meat sweats in the open, unidentified greens are an array of shades from Persian to pistachio and the aromatic elegance of earl grey tea swirls in the mix. In a deliciously retro supermarket shelves of products line up for inspection and include these such childhood stalwarts:

Gima supermarket

While the Wing Fat Meat Market spruiked lesser known fare:

In this Persian inspired wonderland complete with accents of Middle-Eastern devotion, Asian diligence and African pride, the backstreets tell a different story. A lost space between the comforting human chaos of the strip and the genuine peace of the burbs, the roads we found all lead to the highway and were teeming with lost 4WDs.  Here there are jargon-juggled “medium-density housing solutions”, tired facades and stereotypes. Sheets stretched taught across windows are poor substitutes for curtains:

This is another Australiana, borne of necessity. It is a suburban paradise choked in skeins of diesel and tangled in expectation. A world of tacky stereotypes and wary glances, the rumble of our fast-paced world is just metres away, belching, farting and stinking. Residential backstreets should be peaceful, full of the sound of children laughing, their indulgent parents watching from the step – this a modern suburbia that challenges its very self, encroached by storming six-lane highways, shopping malls and strip lights.

Yet I left Auburn with a bright smile courtesy of this,

a monument to the weatherboard revolution of the 1920s, wishing well front and centre; and this:

a poor-man’s mansion with a shroud of shade.

Auburn is a surprise. Abayas abound and I sense my alienation from a culture I am yet to understand in full, yet I am made so welcome and the language of the streets is hypnotic, the soft cadence of sofra, burke, baba fuat, birfazla enveloping me in another world.

I will be pursuing my secretary for the following expenses:

Mountain tea: $2.70
Earl grey tea (in tin): $2.40
Cool op-shop shoes: $2
Sour cherry juice:  $1.50
An almost excessive yet utterly delicious lunch: $12

Australiana Day

The sands at Birrubi are mottled and damp, victim of La Nina’s vicious temper, her squalling, spitting distaste at life. The coast is drowning, sodden and shivering pathetically, as downed power lines and surging floods cost lives and livelihoods without a moment’s consideration.

But the show must go on. A riot of flags rippling in a strong wind, and people relaxing under a storm-crushed sky, the roaring sea a bruised angry purple, foaming with tormented necessity.

With feet up on the fender, a local hoon proudly extols the virtue of his testosterone-fuelled 4WD, muscly with sand-eating intent, his tattoos stamps of approval in a mulleted, stubby-cooled VB world.

This is Australia. On her day. And this ancient Aboriginal land is flocked with the Union Jack, not a rising sun warming the dark earth red in sight. This is Worimi land, stretching white and wild into the distance, keeper of secrets and lore. Today there is not enough recognition of that.

It’s a beautiful day nevertheless. Plenty of successful bogan-hunting undertaken and a greater appreciation of the bogan family at play: the Laydeez are relaxing beneath a bright blue tarp slung between scarred tropes. They clutch plastic glasses brimming with booze and chatter like birds, squawking and shouting with delight. The males of the species wield long rods and cold beers, knee-deep in the ocean chewing the fat with the fish and discussing the relative value of locking diff locks while the small fry scud along the sands whooping, coated in fine grains of gravelly delight.

Australia Day

The search for Australiana Pt II – Bogan-arama

Things are looking up.

The moneyed sprawl of the North Shore-on-Sea gives way to scrubby-fronted Bundy-towel adorned fibros, interspersed with empty lots, like a decaying mouth, its teeth gone south. Run down, tired of the uphill crawl, The Entrance is bereft and our search for decent coffee runs aground. A lonesome jar of International Roast sits plaintively in a milk bar window, jostling for space with a jaded copy of Women’s Day and a dust monster. Oh. Wait. That’s the owner.

Catherine Hill Bay is a scrabble of gentrified and still aging weatherboards, overlooking a sulky, grey ocean. An idyllic haven, blighted by a one-time coal mine, its rusty limbs ghost-like on the horizon, the town is fighting a mass development threat. Catho is garlanded in protest banners, but the fear lingers in the air. One more victim of our gross excess?

http://www.catherinehillbay.org.au/save_the_bay_campaign/save_the_bay_campaign.htm

The road threads north past crumpled wrecks, former livelihoods swallowed whole by the present, while carnie trucks swagger and boast, bivouacs of latent distrust and glorious abandon. Theirs is a rural retreat from the flashing lights and the easy sell.

Passing one drive-thru-life after another, Newcastle hoves into view, its outer suburbs greasy with failed promise yet clutching tightly to the Australian dream. It’s memory tarnished with the gritty inevitability of the rich seam of coal beneath its lands, Newcastle is slowly re-emerging, its chrysalis sparkling with well-crafted tourism slogans and the promise of a newer, less grimy future. It is, apparently, my Brand Newcastle…

The seaside town of Stockton, known for its untamed sands, shipwrecks and aircraft crashes, squats to the north, an empty shell of a former existence clinging to its vapid association with its big sister. Separated by a thread of dieselly water, Stockton can be reached by an arching bridge that sets you down next to a coal mine. Literally. Next. To. A. Coal. Mine. Well, that sets the scene.

Just past the military installation, complete with edgy looking concrete bunkers, the slipway, the bowlo and the cemetery, the streets of the town all lead to the water. The beach flashes meaningful looks at us, while the harbour is choked with lumbering coal tankers, their horns the symphony of a briny life. Three pubs mark the boundaries of social interaction, the local with outside tables bristling with insider knowledge, the old man’s pub, rheumy and sad, and the new kid, tarted up, all gloss and chrome and rules.

All eyes are on Betty as she rumbles in.

An intriguing mix of gentrified weekenders and scarred, wafer-thin weatherboard the two halves of life are sadly evident. The haves have the polished pebble, spiky succulent in a beige pot plant by the front door and an alarm set-up, while the rest have a scrabble of boards, rusting 4WDs, dog leads, wellies and scuffed sand shoes filling the yard, the paint is peeling and life spills messily onto the road.

The chick at the bottlo filled us in. She reckoned that Stockton was chockers full of drug addicts, alcos and thieves and we should get the hell out like she did, you know, over the bridge?

Parked up next to a mob with a gaggle of kids, an old fella who called himself Jumbo and drank mids with a dedication rarely seen and the flotsam of a holiday caravan park.

And caravan parks are a whole other story.

Sygna shipwreck, Stockton Beach

In search of Australiana…

My attorney advised me to take a break. Forget about some stuff. Cut loose. Take the baby.

So I did. Packed up, shipped out, left town trailing an 18-month old tin lid, the cowboy and a litany of broken promises, the most significant of which was to return (with the baby).

I taste freedom on the breeze, a salty breath of release, and the smell of unleaded brings on a headache to mark the moment.

Our steed is a 6WD ex-Hammersley Iron fire truck called Black Betty; once rusting disconsolately in Kalgoorlie, she is now 4.8 tonnes of rolling stock, a flatbed loaded high with our travelling home, a growling bitch yip-yipping with the call of the road.

Our journey into the hinterland to prove a point about good coffee only existing in the metropolis starts here. It is the search for Australiana, the hunt for all things bogan and the heart and soul of this wide brown land.

(Note to self. When planning far-reaching escapes in search of bodgy Australiana consider options well. Avoca Beach, it turns out, is not a promising start.)

 Over and out.

Black Betty