Road + dawn





We left the keys to our motel room in a box outside the locked reception, and drove out into the dark. The kind of dark that holds its breath before the dawn. Cold air outside frosted the car windows and the children drew on the melting glass, painting the dark road, as it flashed past, with eerie swirls and scribbles.

In between dense pockets of fog, our headlights flashed over warning signs. CAUTION: SNOW AND BLACK ICE ON ROAD. Subconsciously we both leaned forward in our seats, squinting uselessly into the spotlit dark for unseen hazards as we hurtled forwards at 100 kilometres an hour.

By the time the sky began to brighten, ever so lightly, we were desperate for coffee, but there was nary a town in sight. The car rushed on through the mist. "We are driving inside clouds!" the children shouted for joy.

And then all at once, as if some unseen celestial homeowner had flipped a switch, the sun came up, and the day was glorious. Clouds floated skywards, and winter sun filtered through and over us like gold-dust. If angels had suddenly started singing opera out of sunbursts, it could not have been more magnificent a morning, and none of us would have been surprised.

Still we sped forward, now telling each other intermittently, "WHAT a morning!" and "What a beautiful dawn!"

We finally found coffee and Vegemite-on-toast about half an hour later, but all four of us were already caffeinated by the day.

Gundagai dispatch – the Niagara Café

niagara-15 niagara-9



(I tried to resist the cliché. I failed. Play this song in the background)

There is a little country town about half way between Sydney and Melbourne, called Gundagai. It has a population of about 1500. It was made famous by a folk song called The Road to Gundagai, which was written in 1922 by Jack O’Hagan (who lived, incidentally, just around the corner from me in Fitzroy). I think the song is about a soldier returning to his home town after the Great War. In my head, that's what I imagine when I hear it.

We pulled into Gundagai on our way home from Canberra last week, because Harry had just woken from his nap and we needed somewhere to sit and feed him his breakfast. Purely by chance, we chose the Niagara Café.

The Niagara is 112 years old and has been owned by Greek immigrants the entire time (not the SAME Greek immigrants, clearly). It opened in 1902 as an Oyster Saloon, and took the name Niagara in 1928 because apparently American names were considered en vogue at the time.

The décor had a snazzy new update in 1938 that made it THE super-cool and happening night-spot in all the bustling metropolis of Gundagai. And, apart from some beautiful lights lost to a fire in the '70s, it HAS NOT CHANGED SINCE THAT TIME.



I’m talking scalloped booths, gloriously narrow and uncomfortable bench seats, and lime-green table-tops. Art deco mirrors, doors and windows. And a century’s worth of newspaper clippings framed on the walls, celebrating celebrity (mostly political) visitors and other events in the café’s history.

Events overlap events and nothing is removed. A banner proudly boasting the 50th anniversary (in 1992) of a Prime Minister’s visit still graces the back wall.








The Niagara Café is SO COOL. It is the best kind of kitsch. The most authentic kind of nostalgia.

But everything looks worn and tired. It is clean, it is friendly, but it is tired. The mirrored counter is cracked and tired. The scalloped, lime-green booths are chipped and tired. The owners look tired. I’m sorry to say it, but even our food looked a little tired. [Update 7 Oct 2014: I just want to clarify that the food was neither old nor bad, and I recommend you eat here. This comment was meant to reflect a sense of weariness in presentation that I totally understand, having experienced first-hand how exhausting cafe work is.] I can hardly blame the Niagara, I reckon I’d be tired after 112 years, too.

Despite this, we fell hard for the Niagara. Mr B and I spent the next 200 kilometres (in between numerous rousing renditions of The Road to Gundagai on Madeleine’s request) discussing how we’d like to move to Gundagai and take over the Niagara Café and restore it to its former glory. Celebrating history and attracting the tourist dollar, you know?





Have sketchbook, will travel

1-chandler_oleary_butchartgardens 2-chandler_oleary_bigbend_chisos 3-chandler_oleary_sf_tennessee 4-chandler_oleary_sf_dogpatch2 5-chandler_oleary_mtrainier_smoke 6-chandler_oleary_boston_tmap 7-chandler_oleary_sanjuan_islands_orcas 8-chandler_oleary_roswellI’ve mentioned before about the road-trip I took across the USA before I moved from New York to Australia. I was blown away by the diversity - of culture, of geography, of architecture, of food - that revealed how little I'd known about the American story. Turns out the story of the USA is way bigger than the life I knew in New York or what you see of Middle America on TV. Who knew?

A couple of months ago I came across Drawn the Road Again, a blog by artist Chandler O'Leary, and, more than anything else, it made me incredibly nostalgic for that perspective-challenging journey.

Chandler shares little snippets of her adventures and discoveries on the road, through thoughtful words and stunning illustrations.

I reckon I could spend years browsing through her travel journals. They are the roadside scrapbooks of my dreams.

10-chandler_oleary_tools 9-chandler_oleary_nodak_stormChandler kindly gave me permission to share her illustrations with you on here. Take a look over on Drawn the Road Again for many more. They are incredible. You can also like Chandler on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

Escape to the country

It was a last-minute decision to grab a last-chance getaway before Baby B turned our life into glorious, love-filled, sleep-deprived turmoil. So on Wednesday we made the booking and by Saturday morning Mr B and I had turned our faces to the hills for a weekend away in the Yarra Valley. "It's so peaceful!" we kept saying to each other, in a kind of wonder that came from the knowledge that we were less than an hour outside of the city. And I kept saying "It's so green!" in the same awed tones, because I grew up in the country during a 10-year drought. We travelled and bumped down little dirt lanes for no other reason than they looked appealing.

We strolled through rows of grapevines, all asleep for the winter, and watched our breath form clouds in the late afternoon air.

We wandered in and out of tiny galleries and quirky craft stores.

I developed somewhat of a crush on a collection of neon-coloured crayons made in the shape of little Lego men.

We feasted on chocolate coated strawberries, then laughed through dinner with friends.

We slept in.

We took books and newspapers and read in companionable silence over a leisurely breakfast of fresh eggs and steaming coffee.

Neither of us did any work.


Somewhere on Route 66 It was more than 100 degrees outside the car. As I rolled the window down to place our order at Burger King, I swear my eyelashes singed. The sun-faded speaker box asked what I would like for lunch today.

Me: One fish burger, and...

Speaker box: Chicken nuggets, yes. Y’all want somethin’ else?

Me: No, a fish burger.

Speaker box: Ah beg pardon, two chicken nuggets. Got it.

Me: No chicken nuggets! None at all!

Speaker box: Take a deep breath, honey. We’ll get there. Speak slowly.

Me: F-I-S-H burger. Fish, like, um, fish swimming in the water.

Speaker box: Got it. One water. Anything else?

The road. Again

On Friday Mr B and I took to the road (again) and drove 1500 kilometres in two days. That's not even close to a record for us, but it was still bloody exhausting. We do love a road trip, but this one somehow left us feeling old. On the other hand, what a wonderful weekend it turned out to be. So wonderful that I completely forgot to take photographs, except this one from the car.

We stopped for dinner along the way at a pub in Nhill (pronounced Nil, I think), that looked positively derelict from the outside but inside had a delicious menu with things like duck crepes in hoi sin sauce, fish served up with cous cous and minted yoghurt, and an Asian style vegetable stack. You won't understand how welcome this was unless you've travelled in outback Australia where, more often than not, burgers, steak sandwiches and chicken kiev are the full extent of the menu for mile upon lonely mile.

Other highlights... getting out of Adelaide just in time to avoid the 38C day (will someone tell Adelaide that it's not even summer yet?); spending nearly two hours by myself exploring the fascinating Tutankhamun exhibition before it closes forever next week; wandering alone through Carlton Gardens, just one minute from my very own home (that one day I will live in, I'm sure); exploring the Melbourne Arts Centre with my fabulous friend Tonia while catching up on months of friendly gossip; cheap n cheerful Chinese dinner with friends; a morning visit to the Kangaroo Flat bakery for old fashioned cakes like finger buns, vanilla slice (aka "snot blocks" by Mr Glamorous B), lamingtons, chocolate eclairs and all kinds of other country-baked goodies; a family gathering in Bendigo; kids on sugar highs doing laps of the kitchen on scooters; chasing goats out of Gran's falling-down old house; a call from Olivia (aged 4) who missed out on the fun because she was sick: "Can you drive past our house and wave at me before you go back to Adelaide?" And we did.

My ancient, isolated, inscrutable country

This weekend, Mr B and I packed up our suitcases, the dog, and the cat, and drove more than 2000 kilometres across Australia to our new home in Adelaide, South Australia. The drive took us through the heart of the Australian outback and I wish I had the words or pictures to do it justice.But we covered the distance in just two days, so there were few stops, and the only photos I have are Instagram snapshots taken from the moving car.And words... well if you've been in the Australian outback, you'll know it pre-dates words by about 30 millennia.

The outback is too ancient, too isolated, too harsh, and too inscrutable for a city dweller like me to be granted the right words to tell its story. So here, instead, are snippets - little totems - from the journey.

Day 1:

The houses disappear first. Then the hills, and any tall trees. The road stretches into a distance where the horizon starts to curve, and we drive an hour without meeting another car in any direction. It is all very silent.On the rare occasion that we do pass another vehicle, most often they are shipping trucks or road trains, Mr B gives them what he believes is the Salute of the Road, an unspoken camaraderie. This consists of him straightening the fingers of his right hand into a stationery wave, without actually lifting his hand off the wheel. To Mr B's dismay, most truckers appear oblivious to the Salute of the Road, but he persists in hope.I put on a reading of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, a welcome and very entertaining diversion as the desert relentlessly unfolds.

As dusk gathers, our drive becomes dangerous. This is the hour that kangaroos get lively, and a Big Red leaping onto the road at the precise time that we meet a rare oncoming fellow motorist almost has us. When you're hurtling along the open road at 110, 'roos crossing are a lethal hazard.

After the sun sets, quite spectacularly and blindingly in the red dust and directly in our eyes, the tension builds and we are both on high alert for animals appearing out of the darkness. We turn off the story. Night draws in. From our place directly underneath the Milky Way, the stars appear as big as plums. We encounter more 'roos but manage to avoid catastrophe, and Mr B spots an echidna ambling by the side of the road, going about its private business.

By the time we pull into Bourke, our stopover for the night, we are both wrung out. Pets are not welcome, so the dog sleeps in the car and we sneak the cat into the hotel bathroom in the little fruit box she has slept in all day.

Day 2:
We wake before dawn and are on the road as the sky begins to open up. It's almost two hours before we get to the next town (the next town = breakfast, so I am starving).Today, we see all the animals we mercifully missed last night. Kangaroos of course, grey ones, red ones, and the smaller wallabies. We pass emus, mostly in twos but once or twice in a whole flock. Feral goats are everywhere, and cattle, wild boars, foxes, and a sheep that sends the dog into a frenzy when it runs clumsily away from the car, unshorn wool dragging along the ground.(Oh! Joy of joys! Someone has just returned Mr B's Salute of the Road. He lets out a "WOOP!" and then "YEAH!" and punches the air with his fist. You'd think he just won an Olympic gold medal.)

When we stop for fuel in a remote little town, a flock of red-crested black cockatoos lands noisily in the tree above us. With their wings spread, the sun glints through the red underneath and the cockatoos appear otherworldly: dark and fiery and unpredictable.

Fuel and food stops are fascinating. We pass through towns of utter isolation, rotting fence-posts and rusting corrugated iron buildings bowing in the winter wind and sun. There are wildflowers, this time of year, but no pasture. It is a cruel place. We wonder how people survive out here, and why they choose to. I admire but I don't understand them.

At one stop, Mannahill, an abandoned race track sinks back into the desert. We think about the town it must once have been.

Then I put The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie back on, and we drive into another dusk.

Have you ever felt like a foreigner in your own country? Tell me I'm not alone.