Travel isn’t just about the places we go. It’s also about the people we meet and the friends we visit along the way.
Two years after retiring from full time work, I am missing the travel and the opportunities to catch up with interstate friends that were a bonus of my job for 13 years. So when John takes a redundancy and we plan our first short trip, it is mostly about catching up with friends in NSW we haven’t seen for a while.
Our first destination is Armidale.
We drive out of Brisbane on a warm May morning and through the stunning Cunningham’s Gap to the New England highway at a pace that is apparently leisurely. We’re mostly driving at the speed limit, but maniacs come up swiftly and sit on our tail, so sometimes when they take too long to overtake John pulls over to let them pass. That first day sets the tone for the rest of our road trip.
“Bye bye, have a nice day,” I say, waving below dashboard level, as cars speed past us.
“You’ve got to make good karma,” I say to John. “There’s no point getting cranky with them.”
Soon he too is waving. “Bye bye, have a nice day!”
We’d planned to have a few stops along the way with a leisurely look around towns we pass through, but a later than planned start changes this. We stop only for lunch and a legs stretch in Stanthorpe.
Late afternoon we are sitting at Ginny and Rod’s dining table in Armidale scoffing champagne and cheese. Eddie is at uni in Sydney and Mickey is in his room after a hello hug. I love Armidale, it reminds me a little of England and the late autumn colours don’t disappoint. I always expect it to be cold but it is warmer than our last visit, in April last year.
Still, we’re Queenslanders so the heaters are on and the house is warm as we look out onto the chilly front garden and watch the neighbour’s young children play on their bikes in the street, it’s a cul-de-sac, quiet and safe. As the evening progresses, we get hot and start opening windows.
Over dinner the talk roams over politics, journalists, family, books, the parlous state of Armidale’s economy and its University, writing and reminiscing: Ginny and I have been friends a long time, since 1979 when we studied together for our Post Graduate Diploma in Librarianship at the University of NSW.
My favourite story of the night is one Ginny tells about one of Rod’s children from his first marriage visiting one day many years ago to sit him down and tell him that everything is his fault.
“I was trying not to listen,” Ginny says, “but then I walked past the door and peeked in and noticed Rod was asleep!”
“It was boring!” Rod declares.
I am full of admiration for his dispassion.
I’m the only deaf person in the group and no one signs fluently. But everyone includes me and does their best to make it easier for me to lipread them. When we get stuck John helps out with a bit of sign language.
Ginny and Rod are always a great source of food for thought. When we mention how entertaining we find David Marr’s and Gerard Henderson’s verbal sparring on ABC TV’s Sunday morning Insiders, Rod comments that David Marr doesn’t understand working people and you don’t have to scratch him very far to find the bourgeois. He gives me a copy of Marr’s Quarterly Essay on Bill Shorten and emails me a copy of his unpublished response to it. Both, when I read them back in Brisbane, are educational and intellectually challenging.
But Rod can be difficult to lipread, and I don’t have to always be the centre of attention, so sometimes I give us all a break and leave him and John to chat, John loves talking politics with Rod, who once worked for Gough Whitlam, one of John’s heroes. He gives John a signed copy of A Certain Grandeur: Gough Whitlam in Politics.
In the morning we have brunch at a trendy café and wander around the centre of town, admiring the beautiful old buildings, shocked by the staggering number of empty shops. Whole arcades are empty. We walk past Barnaby Joyce’s electoral office and the men make jokes about Deputy Dawg that go over my head.
We check out Rod’s favourite second hand bookshop, chockful of books often hard to find. Rod tells me this is because academics leaving town offload their large collections here. I buy a hardback How tea cosies changed the world. Later, in Springwood, when I show this marvellous book to Breda she asks me to make her a quirky tea cosy for her next birthday.
Rod drives us south to Uralla, where on last year’s visit we wandered around the antique shops and I bought a lovely old soup tureen that John doesn’t like because it’s green. From there we take a narrow road through rolling drought-brown pastureland to the tiny Gostwyck Chapel, built as a memorial to a fallen WW1 solider, at a fork in the road and surrounded by beautiful old elm trees. The chapel is lovely and I’m disappointed it’s closed, I love old churches. We wander over to a nearby creek, across its dry bed, and back over its rustic white wooden bridge. In the distance we see Deeargee woolshed, it’s massive. http://www.uralla.com/gostwyck-chapel-deeargee-woolshed-60.html
Back in the car we drive through farm properties sparsely populated with sheep, back to Armidale and out to the University of New England. Ginny and Eddie both did their Bachelor degrees here a generation apart.
We wander across the campus to Booloominbah House, once a White family homestead and now the campus administration building. http://www.une.edu.au/campus-life/campus-information/booloominbah-historic-house
Another White family homestead, with fascinating stories attached to it, which we have previously twice admired is Saumarez, out near the airport. http://www.visitnsw.com/destinations/country-nsw/armidale-area/armidale/attractions/saumarez-homestead
Over afternoon tea at Booloominbah we wonder what will happen to this imposing old building and its once thriving university, which now seems in its death throes. There are few students to be seen and, Ginny tells us, fewer staff, the tennis courts we walked past are unkempt and the whole place feels deserted and sad. It should feel full of life, a place where things are happening, where young minds are dreaming of how they will change the world.
That night we have dinner at the recently refurbished historic New England Hotel (Peter Allen sang here), snug and warm near the fire. Afterwards we wander up the street to a café/bar for coffee and dessert, with Ginny pointing out buildings and telling me stories from her youth here.
The bar is deserted and the bartender tells us we can’t have coffee, they’ve just shut down the machine and are closing early because there wasn’t much custom.
Ginny is incensed. “We’re customers!” she tells him as the rest of us walk out. “You’re going to go the way of other businesses here if this is how you operate!” She joins us outside and indignantly tells me what she has just said, adding sadly, “It’s contagious!”
We go home and finish off last night’s chocolates with coffee. I feel so sad for Ginny that this town she has always loved so much and to which she and Rod moved the family three years ago, is doing so poorly. We talk about their plans to leave this place and start again somewhere new. There is hope of better times and my spirit feels replenished by this time spent with these much loved friends.
John and I drive out of Armidale early next morning, bound for Springwood in the Blue Mountains. As I look at the last of the autumn leaves I hope fervently that next time we visit (as we surely will, it’s on a major highway) things will be looking up for this lovely New England town.