NSW Loop day 9: Mudgee to Cassilis (NSW, Australia)

I start this post by acknowledging the Wiradjuri People as the Traditional Owners of the lands through which I’ve been cycling the past few days. And I recognise their sovereignty over their lands. I pay my respects to the Wiradjuri elders past, present and future, and thank them for allowing us newcomers to this land to visit and travel through sacred places.

I leave Mudgee heading back north. I feel good about my decision to turn around instead of flogging myself. There’s so much country to be seen and it’s nice not to have to rush so that I can actually see it while I’m down here.
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I leave town heading north-east on the Ulan- Cassilis road. It’s early and the vineyards look pretty in the morning light. Vineyards always do and I’m yet to get a really good photo of any. I don’t drink wine (except when I was cycling in Hungary) but I always love cycling through wine areas. Perhaps it’s that they are often in rolling country or it’s the idea of the gourmet food that often comes with the fruit of the grapes. It’s just a shame I didn’t have more time because the vineyards are behind me too soon.
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I spend an hour or so climbing slowly. What I don’t realise is that I’m on the Great Dividing Range. I learn this fact when I come across a sign marking the high point of the range in this area. It’s quite low isn’t it. Naturally, this is cause for a photo because the Great Dividing Range is kind of a big deal in Australia’s geography. While I live to the east of the range, I prefer to travel to its west. That’s where I’m most at homme moving through the landscap. And that’s where my ride home will keep me. East of the range is rainforest, coastline and the convenience of cities. To the west is a relatively flatter more arid agricultural landscape that is wide, open and offers almost unlimited opportunity for exploration. You’ll be seeing quite a bit of what’s west of the divide on my blog this year because I’ll be spending quite a bit of time traveling the Australian bush by car and pushbike.
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I’d been told there was a coal mine out here on the Ulan-Cassilis road. I just didn’t expect it to be so big. The good thing is that the coal must be loaded onto trains because I saw very few trucks on the road. The lady at the visitor centre in Mudgee told me that the local Aboriginal Peoples are upset with the “white folk”. When I see the coal mine I can see why. This is a stunning part of the landscape and is probably sacred due to the way the mountains and rocks are so distinctly formed. And then there’s a dirty big coal mine churning through that land creating destruction in its path. Mind you, I’m not going to get on my high horse and say I’m against mining. I recognise that I use electricity and all the other things that coal creates. I also recognise that Australia is not only built “off the sheep’s back” but also that our modern economic stability is largely in thanks to the influence of mining throughout our history since invasion. So it’s a difficult topic with no easy answers. I guess the lesson is that there are multiple sides to every issue and it’s only when we open our eyes to this fact that we can work together to try to find a solution (mind you, the Australian government’s commitment to coal over cleaner energies isn’t helping anyone).
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But you don’t want to hear about my politics. Besides, it’s incredibly rude for an Australian to discuss such matters in public. So let me change the topic by sharing this photo of two emus. I love emus the same way that I love giraffes (only my favourite animal in the world). They are at once graceful and ungainly. And emus can run … fast!
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Just 10km after Ulan I come to The Drip. This is an incredible place. It’s a spiritual place for the Traditional Owners and I sense it as I walk here. I pay my respects to the Old People as I’ve been taught to do and assure them that I am only walking along the path to The Drip and back. Geographically, The Drip marks the lowest point on the Great Dividing Range. Geologically, it marks the western edge of the Sydney Sandstone Basin. And visually it is stunning. It must be delightful in summer to come here to swim. I’m as wet as a swimmer because it’s been bucketing down with rain since for hours now. There’s no way to describe this place where sandstone cliffs tower above the river, which is currently running quietly like a wide creek. It’s lush and green and alive with energy. If it were not raining I would have stayed for a few hours to soak up the atmosphere but I need to keep moving to get warm.
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So move I do. I pedal northward into the wind and rain. Turril is marked on the map but turns out to be nothing more than a General Store that looks like it hasn’t seen business in a decade. But there is a cute outdoor dunny in a paddock that I have to share. It’s so Australian and I’m glad I’m just young enough to have missed this part of Aussie life. People about a decade older than me tell stories of spiders and snakes living in their outdoor dunnies, and of late night walks through gardens and paddocks just to relieve themselves. That’s one part of the good old days that I don’t think would have been so good at all. Haha.
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It’s only 1:30pm when I arrive at my destination: Cassilis Park Rest Area. It’s a small roadside rest area on the Golden Highway about 8km south west of Cassilis township. The sky is still crying so I pull up under a picnic shelter and make myself at home. After getting dry I consider doing some work or blogging. But decide that for one afternoon I am going to do absolutely nothing. I upload some photos to Facebook then crawl into my sleeping bag for a snooze. For the rest of the night the only things I do are phone home and eat dinner. It’s absolutely glorious to turn my brain off and just relax. I think this might be the first time on this trip that I’ve taken time out to do just that. I lay there in my sleeping bag under the picnic shelter knowing that this is living.

NSW Loop day 6: Premer to Coolah (NSW, Australia)

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I’ve slept outside under a tree and wake to the most glorious sunrise. The Lions Park in Premer faces east and there’s an unobstructed view of the horizon. I just cannot bring myself to rush this morning. I lay in my sleeping bag watching the day dawn. It’s a quick process taking no more than 20 minutes but that doesn’t make it any less magical. By the time I’ve dilly dallied around it’s 8:30am and I’m just setting off; two hours later than usual. The idea is to get to The Drip, 110km away. Note that I said this was the ‘idea’. The reality was far different and will shape the rest of my trip.
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I’m feeling weak as I set off on the road. It’s a long climb out of Premer back to the Black Stump Way. I haven’t had a day off yet and have ridden 520km (323 miles) in five days. That’s a long way for me and my body is screaming at me for a rest day. But I have a schedule to keep and an arrangement to be in Bathurst by Sunday. Besides, if I take a rest day now I’ll be chasing the clock all the way home too. So I push on. I barely take in the scenery, like this shearing shed.
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After about 30km (20 miles) a farmer stops to ask me whether I’ve seen any of his cattle further down the road. I haven’t. He’s glad because he only wants them to graze in a certain area and had hoped they hadn’t spread out too far. We talk a bit about other cyclists he’s seen out here on the road over the years and his travels to France. It revives me a bit as I tackled yet another long slow grinding climb up a mountain that doesn’t seem to exist.
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I reach the Black Stump Rest Area. There actually did used to be a black stump and a Black Stump Saloon here. The new stump is a replica after the original stump and saloon got burned down. In the 1800s, everything west of this location was called “Beyond the Black Stump”. I am sure there are many more black stumps in Australia that mark the border between the civilised landscapes of farms and towns, and the vast expanses of desert that make up Australia’s Outback proper.
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The Black Stump Rest Area is so pretty. It’s nestled near the top of a hill with rolling paddocks filled with sheep and lambs as the view. The woolly animals baa and bleat as a soundtrack to the afternoon. It’s about midday and I’ve given up any hope of making The Drip. I’ve cycled 42km (26 miles) and have had enough for the day. I chat with some caravaners and cook up a big feed before laying on my groundsheet and falling asleep under a tree. It’s two hours before I wake and have to decide whether to stay at Black Stump or ride on 10km to Coolah township.

I decide on the latter option because it will allow me to ride to Mudgee tomorrow in just 108km not 118km. I am finding that 100km is about the limit of what I am comfortable riding in a day and, psychologically, that extra 10km will probably break me tomorrow. It’s not that I can’t ride 120-130km in a day but the days are short now with sunrise at 6:30am and sunset before 5:30pm. It doesn’t leave a lot of room for error when my average moving speed is about 16kph (10mph).
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Continuing to Coolah turns out to be a fantastic decision. While the first 4km is a continuation of the long grinding uphills, the final 6km is a breathtaking whooping downhill all the way into town. I roll along at over 40kph without even pedalling. And I don’t mean that it was 6km of downhill with a few flats of rises. This was a genuine 6km descent at an easy 5% grade with no bends in the road. What a treat!

I pull into the caravan park in Coolah and am greeted by the most cheerful friendly lady. She’s seen me ride into the park and is waving and smiling at me before I even open the office door. “Find any spot you like” she says, pointing me to the unpowered section of the park. “Just use a power point in the camp kitchen to charge your phone, don’t worry about paying for a powered site.” “Oh and happy hour is at 4:30pm at the camp kitchen; come along and meet the other travellers.” This is my kind of place.

Before I even take a shower I walk into town to eat citrus tart at the local bakery (don’t pass through Coolah without going to the bakery – it’s brilliant), buy a block of chocolate and 1.25L bottle of Coke from the IGA (supermarket), and two big fat sausages from the butcher (make sure you stop here too because he’s got some good stuff). It’s just about Happy Hour when I return to camp so I cook up my sausages on bread and sit there eating them while drinking far too much Coke at the social gathering. I’m about a decade or two younger than the next youngest person at the table who is herself a decade or two younger than everyone else. This is normal when traveling the Australian bush. Grey nomads living their retirement by moving around the country in their caravans (don’t think American movie trailer park here … think luxurious big cars towing motor homes that cost as much as a small house) make up probably 90 per cent of travellers. So you get quite used to being the young guy at the campground, even when you are in your mid-30s.

Happy Hour helps me feel relaxed and content again like I did this morning when I watched the sunrise. The caravan park owner then comes over to tell me that I can sleep in the camp kitchen if I like because it will be cold out tonight. “Just wait until everyone else is finished in there” she says with a smile. I take her up on the offer because the dew is already settling on the grass.

This is why I love to cycle tour. Because it’s a lovely reminder of some life lessons. With flexibility and a willingness to refocus you can turn frustration into something wonderful because you will always end up where you need to be, even if it’s not where you want to be.

NSW Loop day 5: Gunnedah to Premer (NSW, Australia)

I wake early and watch the sun come up in the east. I slept so well under the picnic shelter. I didn’t need the bivy bag because the shelter protected me from the dew. The caravaners are all still locked away in their vans with the blinds drawn. They miss the amazing sunrise. I take it in as I eat my breakfast and pack my kit.

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I set off with trepidation about the traffic on the Oxley Highway. It had been so busy during my ride to camp last night but this morning it is quite okay. There’s a good hard shoulder to ride along, which keeps me out of the way of the traffic. It’s absolutely beautiful out here.

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I stop in Gunnedah for what feels like ages. It’s a larger town and quite friendly. Australian bush poetry is being played on the speakers in the public bathrooms. There’s a Vietnamese bakery where I buy an egg and lettuce sandwich, and a custard ring. I love Vietnamese bakeries. One of my friend’s parents owned a bakery when I was in high school and I fell in love with this style of bread and pastry making. I spoke with some local blokes who sought me out to ask about my ride. And I stopped at a local independent clothings store to buy a high visibility vest with reflective strips on it to make myself more visible on the road.

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Back out on the road, I take pleasure in the colours and textures. The grass waves in the breeze. The blue sky contrasts against the yellow.

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It’s predominately flat but there are little mountains and hills sticking out above the flat landscape. All around me I can see little peaks that stick out at all angles and shapes. Fortunately, I don’t have to climb over any of them; the road nicely goes around them.

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Sheep graze around bores. Followers of my blog will know I love agricultural landscapes the best. And this is agricultural scenery at it’s finest. The thing of the poetry and stories I loved as a teenager when I read Banjo Patterson, Henry Lawson and Ion Idries.

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I reach Tambar Springs and have a choice: continue to Black Stump some 45km away or turn left to Premer just 15km off the main road. I’m fatigued and know that pushing another 45km is too much. I don’t want my ride to be just a matter of ticking over the miles. I need to be in Bathurst on Sunday but for today I am stopping at the 96km mark instead of the 125km mark. It’s a wonderful decision because I get to enjoy an afternoon relaxing in the Lions Park in Premer. There’s power points, clean showers and friendly fellow campers. They are all grey nomads of two different age groups. The older ones group together as a clan. Those in their early sixties greet me and then enjoy a quiet night at their own individual camps.

I take dinner at the pub because I’m desperately hungry and have hollow legs. My dehydrated food is good but the call of hot chips is too strong. The pub could be the scene of a movie; it was so ocker. Half a dozen local farmers stood around the bar watching the TV news and discussing the stories. They concluded that it was best to live way out bush if Donald Trump becomes the American President because they feared he would cause a nuclear war with “that crazy Kim guy from North Korea”. Interesting take on things. The news concluded and their conversation turned to weather and crops. The burger and chips was good honest home cooking.

NSW Loop day 4: Barraba to Gunnedah (NSW, Australia)

I wake early from the cold pre-dawn air. There’s a thick layer of fog wetting my face, which is exposed outside my bivy bag. I try to pull it over my head and snuggle back to sleep. But it’s no use. I am awake and ready for action (falling asleep before 9pm probably contributes too).

There’s a sliver of moon peeping through a thick layer of fog. The air is moist and my kit is soaking wet from the damp. Inside my sleeping bag and my kit bags everything is dry though. It’s about 4am and the sun won’t be up for two hours. But I can’t sleep anymore so I get up and go about my morning routine of washing, cooking, eating and packing. A truckie stops while I’m eating breakfast and has a yarn. He does a morning run from the New England to a few supermarket this way and back again. “I’ll be home by two o’clock with a cold beer, tea and bed,” he tells me. I can’t think of anything worse but some people like that sort of living.

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The fog still hasn’t lifted after 7am. This leaves me in a bit of a pickle. If I wait to depart too much longer I will risk being on the Oxley Highway riding into the setting sun. Now that’s not a problem for me but it will mean the cars and trucks won’t be able to see me as clearly. If I set off now though, the cars and trucks traveling the Fossickers Way won’t be able to see me as easily. I decide to set off because there’s not much traffic and I can hear the vehicles coming from a long way off in the quiet morning air, allowing me to get off the road for them to pass. I turn on my rear light and ride into the dense fog. Visibility is limited to about 20m. Just enough for me to see the road but nothing beyond the outside white lines.

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After an hour of riding the last tenticles of fog drop away. I’m climbing now and the sun is beaming down on me. Behind me in the valley I can see the fog still filling the gaps between the hills. I pedal on, taking in the lovely landscape and plotting my next cycle tour. Ten months between rides is far too long a break.

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I reach Manilla at the 40km mark. I’m keen to get some descent food into me. Maybe a toasted sandwich or some chicken. Unfortunately, Manilla is a dud of a town. The traffic coming in was rude and I got beeped and sworn at as much as I do when cycling in Brisbane. The bakery sold me a pizza bread but the bread part was a soggy mess due to an excessive amount of oil. I went back in and queried the white wet base and was told it was meant to be that way. Sorry love but your’s is the only bakery I’ve ever been to where the oil from the pizza bread runs down your arms and the base is white from moisture and looks like it’s been sitting in a puddle of watery oil all day long. Dear reader – don’t go to the bakery in Manilla. I threw my pizza bread in the bin because it was so disgusting. So I try the Canberra Café next. They have a menu that advertises a plain hamburger for $6. I order one and am asked whether I want to dine in or take away. I say “I might as well dine in” so the guy charges me $8 for the hamburger. I point to the board and say “but it say’s $6 up there”. He tells me there’s a $2 (33%) surcharge for dining in. I cancel my order and tell him that I won’t support businesses that mislead potential customers. I’m don’t reward poor service, especially not when I’m hungry because I tend to be an angry hungry man. Manilla is obviously one of those country towns that is solely focused on residents not travelers. It can stay that way too.

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I calm down pretty quickly once I leave town. The road around Keepit Dam is pure Outback joy. I can’t see the water from here (maybe because the dam is low) but I can see lots of cattle, sheep and red dirt. Mountains rise to the north and were home to the World Paragliding Championships in 2007. They are interestingly shaped – all jagged and angular. I wonder whether they hold or held significance for the Traditional Owners due to their prominence and shape.

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I punch out the kilometers with ease despite my empty belly (I have some snack food but it isn’t the same as the feed I was daydreaming about heading into Manilla). Before I know it I’m out on the Oxley Highway. The next 20km to camp suck the big ones. There is no other way to put it. The highway is busy with caravans and trucks all heading west in a hurry. I don’t mind a spattering of traffic but this is true highway cycling and I hate it. The only high point is the Carroll Store where I buy an icy cold can of Coke and eat my tuna with crackers.

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Camp tonight is a roadside rest area about 8km from Gunnedah. It’s quite noisy both because of caravaners running generators and the Oxley Highway. But it’s free and there’s a good sized picnic hut that I’m going to sleep under. I could head down closer to the creek but it’s been raining and the ground is wet. Besides the hut might protect me from the worse of the dew and fog. And it gives me somewhere to sit while I knock out some work and this blog post.

All in all today was a lovely day of riding. I spoke with some friendly fellow travelers and am another 100km closer to Bathurst. Oh and I’ve been scheming up my next Aussie cycle tour 😉

NSW Loop day 3: Warialda to Barraba (NSW, Australia)

I had an amazing sound sleep last night. The bed at the Royal Hotel Warialda was probably one of the most comfortable I’ve ever slept in. It was so comfortable that I had to fight off sleep while texting a mate and it wasn’t until morning that I happily realised I hadn’t fallen asleep on him (phone service was not good enough for a voice call).

Heavy woolly clouds blanket the earth all morning. They trap in moisture and heat, making for a sweaty start to the day. It’s absolutely gorgeous the way the rain has made the dust fall from the grass and trees. Colours pop and there’s a freshness in the air. The locals at the bakery discuss the rain. They are grateful and will take every mil of the 24mm that fell yesterday afternoon. I hope more falls for them now that I’ve passed through.

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I only make one turn today. Three kilometers (2 miles) after leaving Warialda I turn left on a road that will take me all the way to Barraba. I will climb at 2-3% for most of the day, ascending about 1,000m with only about 400m descent. But I know this so am mentally prepared and decide to take the day steadily, riding 20km sections with food stops in between each section. This seems to work well and I find myself enjoying the whole ride without being concerned by the distance. See, I am on a bit of a time crunch this trip. I need to be back in Brisbane on 19 or 20 May and it’s 1,100km (700 miles) back to Brisbane from Bathurst. But it’s good for me to have a tour with longer days than I have been riding. It will toughen me up and help me explore more countryside. Fitness will come as I do this more often.

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The road takes me through a long valley between two low mountain ranges. I’m heading up the valley towards the point where the ranges meet on a tabletop mountain. But I won’t reach that until about 90km into the 106km ride. For the first 60km I enjoy the beauty of the valley with its yellow fields, green mountains and rusty old shedsd.

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The map shows this road as a straight line. But the map is so wrong. It’s an interesting road with gentle flowing twists and turns. Each one teasing with glimpses of the scenery beyond. Rusty sheds rot away. Old farmhouses are overgrown with young trees. New farmhouses have modern utes and sedans parked out the front in rows. And every so often I pass signs that show where the explorer Alan Cunningham traveled in May 1827 (I only know because of the signs). I must read up on Mr Cunningham one day because he is so influential in the European history of South East Queensland and Northern NSW where I do a lot of my travel.

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The valley comes to an abrupt end at about the 75km mark. A sign warns of a steep climb around the next bend and it isn’t lying. Mind you, it’s only about 7%, which is nothing compared with what I was climbing in South Korea. I was much fitter when I went to South Korea though. The climb is over in a jiffy and I find myself on top of the Nandewar Range.

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This is the heart of cattle country. By the look of the beasts, many come here from further out west to be fattened. But it’s obviously also a breeding and rearing area of its own right. I pass a stockwoman watching her herd grazing in the long paddock (along the road). Her dogs are yapping away as they work and seem confused by my appearance. One tries to herd me with the cattle but the stockwoman calls it back. I wave, smile and answer her question about where I’m headed. About 10km later I pass a group of four stockmen also watching their herd grazing along the road. They are wiry old men with sun-leathered faces and broad smiles. Another brief conversation takes place as I ride past noting them shaking their heads as if in disbelief that some madman would ride his bicycle out here. Perhaps they are correct 

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The road stays high up on the range for about 20km. It’s even more beautiful here than through the valley. Cattle graze. Lone trees mark hilltops. Birds sing.

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There’s even an echidna on the road. A live one at that. I stop to take a photo. Five cars pass but none squish the spikey creature. He (or she) turns around and toddles off the road. It’s only the second time I’ve ever seen a real live echidna in the wild. The first being when I was in Tasmania on a motorbike pilgrimage in January 2010 so it’s been a long time between sightings.

One final long whooping descent finishes the ride and I arrive into Barraba feeling content at about 3pm. I make a few phone calls and upload my photos to Facebook and Instagram; buy a cold drink, mandarin and pot of honey from the shop; and fill my water bottles to prepare for camp at the Lions Park 5km from town. It’s a free roadside rest area with a donation box, picnic tables, toilets and flat grass sites. This is my kind of camping place where I am unbothered by the goings on of a formal campground and can watch the stars instead of the camp ground lights. I eat chilli beans with corn chips and dried parmesan cheese followed by chocolate custard while the sun drops quickly in the west. It will be cold tonight so I can see myself getting tucked into bed early with a pencil, paper and the course I need to write for work.

New South Wales loop ride: packed and ready to go

Packing for a trip is always a bit like putting together a puzzle without a picture. I know everything will fit but how.

The handlebar bag is my sleeping bag, mat, clothes and wet weather gear. The frame bag is my bivy, toiletries, jacket and some random items. The rear panniers (front pannier size) are food and cooking kit. Laptop, cables, water and lantern on the rear rack. More water in the chaff bags. And then quick grabs in the lunch box bag.

I could travel lighter but want to try being self sufficient for most of my food to practice for future adventures and to save money.

Tomorrow I drive with my sister to Warwick. Then Sunday I start the ride south. It will take about 8 days to reach Bathurst. Then I’ll hang out with a friend for a day before turning around and cycling home along a different route over 10 days.

It’s exciting to be getting back out on a cycle tour. My first since Hungary.

Westmar to Cecil Plains (Queensland, Australia)

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I wake relatively early to crisp cold air. I have work and blogging to do so stoke the fire for warmth and settle in while the sun rises in the east. It’s a bright sunrise today with radiant red light colouring the sky briefly before the white of daylight takes over. I enjoy the few hours of solitude before the day begins. Luckily Paul doesn’t mind a bit of a sleep in, especially on cold mornings. It means I can still work while he’s on holidays.

We take breakfast at the Westmar roadhouse/pub/general store. The tension between the older lady who seems to be the wife of the guy who served us last night and the younger woman employed to serve customers is thick in the air. The whole time we are there it’s obvious she can do nothing right. But the old lady shows that she is at fault when Paul tries to be helpful by taking our plates to the counter after we eat and the older woman snarls at him. Thank goodness for the shop that she is not working behind the counter or she might scare customers away. The younger woman (probably in her late 30s / early 40s) is a delight to speak to as we order out meals so I hope the older woman doesn’t scare her away (for the sake of customers and business).

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Breakfast (or is it brunch when you eat at 10am) eaten we hit the road and drive east. The landscape has changed again. We are no longer in red dirt country but the road is now lined by trees. It looks like the ground here is a little rockier and rougher. This might be why there are not so many crop or grass fields.

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After about an hour we stop in Moonie for a break. Moonie is an old oil town. There’s an old drill bit on display that was the first drill bit used to take oil from the ground here. There’s also an old oil mule. There’s something about oil mules that fascinates me. I think because it reminds me of a childhood road trip across the US with my parents in a campervan (RV to Americans). Dad made a huge deal about the oil donkeys / mules in Texas and all the way there I was picturing actual animals hauling something out of the ground.

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After Moonie we re-enter the Darling Downs. The road jumps up quite a bit and the Great Dividing Range starts to come back into view for the first time since it dropped out of our rear vision mirror four days ago. We stop a few times to collect geocaches and this allows us time to take in the scenery.

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We’re headed to Paul’s aunt’s place in Tipton, which is near Cecil Plains. It’s obvious as we drive along how Cecil Plains got it’s name.

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Cecil Plains is a tiny town off the main road. There’s not much here and the town is not listed on tourist maps or itineraries. But, as Paul always says, there’s always something to do. And so it is in Cecil Plains. There’s a historic railway station complete with mural and carriages. Some huge silos typical of this part of the world and a gorgeous old Anglican Church.

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It’s not far from here to Paul’s aunt’s house in the middle of nowhere.

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It’s a gorgeous old Queenslander in the middle of a cotton field. Paul hasn’t seen his aunt in years so it’s a fantastic afternoon of catching up and being introduced for the first time to yet another family member. The tea flows freely and stories fill the air around the kitchen table where we sit.

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She has some puppies who think that I’ve come to visit them so of course I have to pat and play with them. Well, I don’t have to but I want to.

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Sunset over the fields is a stunning sight. There’s just sun and space. What more could we want for the final night on the road. Family, laughter and gorgeous sunsets. I do wish it was warmer though … The plains are the coldest place we’ve been so far and the overnight temperature will drop to about -3’C (26’F).