We all want relationship

The Dog ‘n’ Bull hotel has been in Bonalbo for ages. Sometime in the last 15 years or so the pub has had a bit of a refurbishment. I’ve never seen the old pub, but my guess is that while the renovations have given more room inside and some added functionality, this has come at the expense of old world charm.

There were a few chairs and tables outside, occupied by a number of the locals. We offered a ‘G’day’ with the characteristic wink, which was acknowledged with a nod and a wary smile. One man, whom we later learned was Old Errol [not his real name], had a Staffy [is his real breed] which appeared to be Old Errol’s equal in years. The Staffy had less hair than Old Errol, bald over most of its lower back and down its tail. An ugly dog. Uglier than most Staffies, in fact. Even so, he and Errol appeared to be great mates, and I felt good about that.

Behind the bar was a tall man wearing a handlebar moustache, a shirt with a Rabbito’s emblem, and the best ‘mullet’ I had seen in years. Sporting photographs, other memorabilia, framed football jerseys and historic team photos held pride of place around the bar. It was pretty obvious: Bonalbo locals loved their Rugby League. We thought it prudent not to let on that we were from Queensland: the day we visited was the week before the final State of Origin challenge, and Queensland had already won two of the three game series. Few things bring out the rivalry between Queensland and New South Wales better than the State of Origin series. It’s all good fun, and for a moment I imagined what it would be like to be at the Dog ‘n’ Bull the evening the game would be played, with Old Errol, his Staffy, and everyone else piling it on the visiting Queenslanders.

One of the mounted football jerseys was from Saint Clair Junior Rugby League Club, and dedicated to “Hornie”. We were not sure who Hornie was, but we guessed he was the proprietor of the Dog ‘n’ Bull. It also occurred to me that Hornie might have been the man behind the bar. He appeared to have any amount of time to talk to people like Old Errol and others who came to the bar. I wondered why people would come and sit in a pub for hours on end. Did Old Errol and others have nothing better to do? Did they have families? Jobs? I thought it was easy to make judgements about how much money someone might spend at the bar, and what better things they could do with it. But Bonalbo is a small place, and some people are just lonely. In those contexts, places like the Dog ‘n’ Bull provide a context for mateship and community. You can have a beer, tell Hornie your thoughts on pretty well anything, and he’ll listen, like a non-judgemental father-confessor. Others at the bar listen too, and offer the occasional banter in reply. This is why people come to the Dog ‘n’ Bull. People want to be with people. They want relationship and friendship. None of us were made to be alone. The Dog ‘n’ Bull might be one of the most consistent expressions of community some people will find. And I think this is why people enjoy places like the Dog ‘n’ Bull so much.

We rattled another 40 odd kilometres down the track to Paddys Flat, where the road crosses the Clarence River. Here we found the WWII tank traps (see pic, with Erin giving the size perspective), supposedly set up along ‘The Brisbane Line’. These were sizable pyramids of concrete. I tried to imagine how they would fare against a tank advance, and I think I could clearly imagine a tank blasting the concrete barriers out of the way. What was unclear was why the Japanese would want to advance along Paddys Flat Road in the first place! I can’t say for sure, but I think there would be areas of greater military significance.

So we had set out to see the tank traps, and in the end they were not the big deal of the day. I found myself thinking about Old Errol and his ugly Staffy, and wondering what it’s like for him when the weather is cold, the night is dark, and the Dog ‘n’ Bull is closed.

(Pic: Crossing the Clarence River at Paddys Flat, near the tanks traps on the ‘Brisbane Line’)

The View

There’s a story that at the start of WWII, Australian military strategists were worried about the rapid advance of the Japanese Army. The Clarence River Wilderness Lodge’s Camp Kitchen has a photograph of some concrete tank traps that at one time were arranged across the Clarence River at Paddy’s Flat. The idea was that these concrete structures would halt the advance of the Japanese invaders. The story is that the Australian Forces believed the northern part of the continent was impossible to defend. So the claim was that the ‘Brisbane Line’ had been drawn from north of Brisbane, with the idea that everything above that line could be sacrificed to protect the south eastern population areas. Now I am not sure about the historicity of all that, but we wanted to see the tank traps, and we were told on good authority that they were still there.

Leonie, Erin, James and I hopped into the Subaru, with first stop in Urbenville (50 mins away), where Erin hoped to get some phone reception. By tethering my phone to my Vaio notebook, we would have internet on the road. Alas, Urbenville’s phone reception turned out to be pretty poor. Poorer than we needed it to be. So we thought the best idea was to drive along, while Leonie watched the phone’s reception indicator. The moment we would get three bars, we’d stop, connect the phone to the computer, and Erin could enrol in her Uni classes. We drove into a small place called Mulli Mulli, a small settlement of indigenous people, and all of a sudden we had five bars! We drove into a side street and pulled over. What was really interesting was that my PC found someone’s wireless service, and connected – so there we were thanking the people of Mulli Mulli for their hospitality!

Back in Urbenville, we visited Glad’s shop again to find out about the condition of some local roads. The shop assistant told us how you could get a great view of the surrounding area from a fire tower, about 15km down the road. So we drive the 7 km to North Yabbra Road, and another 7km to the track to the Fire Tower. The walk to the top was a steep and strenuous 20min climb. A steady and persistent pace seemed to be the trick. It occurred to me that the ascent to the fire tower stretched my cardio vascular system better than the stress test I had undertaken a few weeks before. I have never had any heart problems, and have never felt any reason for concern. Even when recently I found out that my heartbeat was a little irregular, I was relaxed about it, and subsequent tests showed there were no issues. As we walked up the mountain, with my heart rate at around 190, I started to wonder what would happen if I started having serious chest pain. There was no anxiety, or fear. Just a thought. It’s funny how in an instant, your thoughts can take you to the deep recesses of your soul. The thought pressed deeper: “Well, what would happen? What would you do?” It caught me off guard a little. So I let it play out. I imagined having to sit down, with Leonie, Erin and James gathering round. Someone would have run to the top of the hill with my phone, and call for an ambulance. The thought dug in deeper, and I reminded myself that whether the phone works or not, or whether the ambulance arrives on time are not the really big questions. I went deeper, and said, simply, “Dave, you are mortal. One day you are going to die.” Whether it was this day or another day, it was OK, because the life God has given me in Jesus is life that cannot be taken away. I was comforted to feel real peace about that. I was just happy to live the life God has given me in the here and now. And with this I pushed on.

How long did it take to think all that through? It is amazing how quickly it can happen. It might have been ten seconds, not much longer. Even so, a deep sense of peace and a more textured life perspective has come out of it. I think it has helped me feel more resolute, more settled, and more confident of God’s assurance of life. It has deepened and renewed my commitment to live heaven’s life in the here and now. To see and seek God’s goodness more in the land of the living.

Arriving at the top was glorious (see pic, with Dome Mountain in the foreground, looking north toward Brisbane Ranges National Park), and all the more for the hard work of the walk. Climbing to the first level of the fire tower, we had a near 360° view across volcanic plugs like Dome Mountain and Edinburgh Castle, beyond Urbenville and Woodenbong, and to the southwest down along the valley toward Upper Tooloom.

Descending down the track to the car, we deflated the tyres to 24psi for a softer ride on the unsealed roads, and headed for Old Bonalbo, and 12km further, Bonalbo. I am not sure why one of these settlements is ‘old’ and one is not, but as you would expect, while Bonalbo was a larger town than its ‘older’ counterpart, it was still very small.

Bonalbo offered the best promise of a counter meal. We found the Dog ‘n’ Bull, and we were keenly aware that they had found us. The locals picked our car as being from out of town – the Qld licence plates a giveaway. It felt like all eyes we on us, and they probably were. This happens in country towns, but perhaps not to the same degree as it did in Bonalbo. We wondered about why this would be so. In the end we put it down to the Kingdom Hall a block away from the pub: perhaps people thought we were new JWs. We were quite sure all concerns evaporated when we entered the Dog ‘n’ Bull. We were pretty sure no Jehovah’s Witnesses would ever do that…

[more next time…]

Clarence River Wilderness Lodge

Some of the best things are found by accident. I say this because Clarence River Wilderness Lodge more happened upon us, than we it. Looking for some other place, I was paging through “Dirty Weekends” [a book of 4WD trips in Queensland – just in case you’re wondering…] when for some reason I spotted this little gem of a place.

Located on the upper reaches of the Clarence River in NSW, this upper Clarence high country hideaway is a great place to unwind. Some will come here to walk, others for off road adventures, others to kayak through the many rapids down the river, and still others just to camp. I come here to replenish the mind. There’s no mobile reception (unless you drive about 4km up the ridge), no email, very little power, and no shops. You need to bring all your food and equipment with you, and be reasonably self sufficient for the duration of your stay. The nearest supplies can be purchased un Urbenville, about 50 mins drive. While access is manageable for a conventional vehicle with reasonable clearance. Our Subaru handles the track with ease. There’s a bit over 30km of unsealed road after the turnoff after crossing Wallaby Creek, so you won’t want to be in a hurry. (pic: view down the gorge to ‘Twin Waters’ taken about 2km form Clarence River Wilderness Lodge)

Once you arrive, you find Steve & Sharon Ross to be fantastic hosts. We do not see Steve a lot. He’s out with canoe groups, or getting firewood, or maintaining the property, or chasing the neighbours cows after someone’s left the gate open. Sharon, on the other hand, seems to have mastered the dual art of near omnipresence and seemingly endless conversation. She’ll drop off wood for your wood stove, tell you when to see the resident platypus, give you advice on walks and tracks, fill you in on local history, and if you happen to spot some of the more reclusive wildlife, Sharon positively lights up!

We occupied one of the two self contained cabins. These are compact, rustic units with huge outside living/dining areas. Tables and bench tops are constructed from solid slab eucalypt. Our ensuite was small, complete with a galvanised iron shower base and an eco-friendly (and nose friendly) composting toilet. Sharon and Steve have worked hard to make their property ecologically responsible, and by my observation they are pretty good at it. Each cabin has a small slow combustion wood heater which, once going, you find you’re down to short sleeves, even in mid winter.

Sharon told us that late in the afternoon, which at this time of year is 4pm, you can sometimes see a platypus along the sides of the waterhole. So, a few afternoons we wandered down to investigate. This time of year, the last direct sunlight is about 3:50pm, so not only did we become quite cold, we saw no platypus. On our last night we decided to take a few canoes and drift down the river, hoping to spot the elusive animal. We managed some glorious sightings of an Azure Kingfisher, its electric blue form diving and darting. We saw a small herd of beef cattle crossing at the rapids with typical bovine indecision. We saw a Little Cormorant deciding whether to fish or not (he was cold, too, I think). No platypus.

Platypus or not, the river is so incredibly peaceful. The rest of the world seems to evaporate, and the mind’s eye narrows so that it is just you, your canoe companion (in this case, Leonie), the boat, the river, and whatever you’re looking at. The canoe cuts the mirrored lake, sharing ripples either side, there’s the occasional paddle gulp, and just for a while you are impossibly lost in it.

Not everyone likes this sort of holiday. Some want restaurants, espresso lounges, clubs, shops, home comforts. For me, Clarence River allows me to back off and unwind, to loose myself from the demands of career and calling. Today the thought returned, that I should just come here and write. Come here and think. For when life’s noise is left behind, I can hear more clearly my own life voice. Things become more certain. And I get to hear and see, without distraction, the voice and the heart of the one who made it all in the first place.

Clarence River – June 2010

You don’t have to travel far out of Brisbane to feel like you’re in the country. Take the Mt Lindesay Highway through Beaudesert, and there you are. Rolling hills, dairy farms, and typically improvised country architecture. The occasional odd coloured house – purple, aqua, pastel blue, a more common sight in a beach town, somehow dislocated. An enormous, twice extended undercover area attached to a farmhouse becomes a shed minus three walls. And on the road, the quintessential bucolic driver, riding the brake, grossly under the speed limit. These are not drivers who have accidents. These are the drivers that cause them.

The highway wiles and wends its way through the Great Dividing Range, passing north of the Mt Lindesay plug (pic). This section of the Mt Lindesay Highway is very windy – you won’t want to be in a hurry!

After Woodenbong, the next major town, and the last town before our destination, is Urbenville. Urbenville is decidedly un-urban. A small town: a clutch of dwellings, a newsagent cum gift store, a general store, a petrol outlet, a small hardware store. We happened upon the newsagent, after a newspaper, essential material for starting the fire in our Clarence River cabin.

The ‘newsagent’ – rather overstated in the case of Urbenville – provides a selection of typical newspapers, and magazines which develop the female mind: New Idea, Women’s Weekly, Dolly and Cleo. For those wanting to maintain mental activity, there are several editions of That’s Life and other puzzle books. In Urbenville, this is the centre of local knowledge. Stories are shared, some under muted whisper and past the back of fingers. The unexpected bonus was ‘Glad’ [not her real name], who seemed to be the owner. Glad wore a fleecy top, track pants, a cigarette, and a hacking cough. Face riven with years and tinged with nicotine. Hair, died badly red, grey regrowth and tied back, almost severely. The shop was permeated with Glad’s second hand smoke. We guessed that staying too long would mean the presence of Glad would be taken with you for the remainder of the day.

An electronic bearp, another customer: “Does anyone know where I can get any kittens?”

The shop assistant calls across the shop and down the hall to Glad, who is sitting in a not terribly easy chair, watching TV, “Glad, do you know anyone who’s got any kittens?”

“Anyone who’s got what?” rasped Glad.

“Kittens! Anyone who’s got any kittens! You know, little cats.”

Glad’s cough axes through the room, and then. “Nope. No idea…”

“Sorry, no idea who’s got any kittens” announces the shop assistant, with no thought to the superfluity of her words.

“Orright then, thanks” says the customer. And that was the end of it. Why anyone would be asking about kittens in an Urbenville newsagent did not seem to matter.

We left, with our newspaper, thinking about Glad. Wondering why she doesn’t think about presentation, the impact of all her smoke on anyone who walks in, and so on. Our thought was, that’s just how life is for some. This is their life. A day to day, hand to mouth movement, making just enough money to stay ahead. And we thought of how it might have been. An inviting shopfront, a few chairs, some good coffee, and no smoke. Any visitor would still get all the information. They could buy the paper, the magazine, the map, whatever, and they also would be met with a small oasis of life, even in Urbenville.