Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Wheels on the Bus....

After forty three trips up and down the Midland Highway over the last five years for the express purpose of getting a jab in my arm to protect me from those lethal jack jumper ants chock full of toxic poison, the scenery has become more than familiar. Travelling down from my perch partway up the Great Western Tiers, I pick up the bus twenty minutes into its journey from Launceston to Hobart.

Bus etiquette is a funny thing. Not having the luxury of boarding the bus at the outset, I quickly scan over the heads for that prized possession, a seat to myself. With precious little leg room, the opportunity to have a modicum of comfort is tantamount to essential for the two and a half hour trip. The only ones who choose to sit together are those that get on together. Most heads are bowed, engaged in their electronic device of choice. Thumbs pick up speed as messages fly around the ether, ears are plugged into music, podcasts or movies. Some are reading, real books and e-books. Very few take in the passing scenery. For me, the luxury of someone else ferrying me from A to B frees me to observe, take photos, not an easy thing when you’re being jolted, shaken and stirred, and wonder about the lives of those who constantly battle the elements to eke out a living on the land.

Opposite the Perth bus stop where I wait to start the journey, old wares spill on to the footpath, appropriate contents for the Robur House Antiques store which once sported its original Robur Tea logo on the northern wall. It’s become one of those iconic colonial landmarks along the route, along with St Andrews Inn, The Foxhunters Return, The Gables, and the Campbelltown and Ross bridges just to name a few.

It’s not a particularly warm morning, but a number of sheep have accommodated themselves in the only shady spot in a vast paddock, reminding their owner there’s more to farming than simply maximizing every square inch of land for grazing. They might be destined for the dinner table, but surely a few more trees and windbreaks to protect them from the punishing sun and biting winds can’t be that difficult. Further on another mob of sheep stand in a perfectly formed large circle, their attention focused on the one lone soul bang in the middle. Is it their monthly union meeting? Are they hatching a plan well away from the farmer’s attention? Maybe someone got out of line and discipline is being meted out, or the motivational speaker that had been baaaed about has arrived. Then again, they might just be playing some ovine version of piggy in the middle.

At one level, there’s not a great deal to grab the attention at this time of the year. No Swiss Alps or Grand Canyon to take your breath away, just a highway winding through gently rolling hills and scrubby landscape, leaning telegraph poles and skeletal trees throwing their limbs up in despair in their death throes.

The ground is leached of colour, a dull beige far into the distance, the mountain ranges to the east and west the only contrast against the inevitable result of the ravages of summer. Sun bleached paddocks wait expectantly for rain, even the thistles have shrivelled, but the hawthorn berries are bursting with colour, heralding a long cold winter so say many old timers. Give it another month or so and it will be a different sight. The colourless ground will be green again, everything softened, reminding us that what looked dead can still bring forth life.

Autumn has been a late starter, but the evidence of the cycle of the seasons is starting to appear. The poplars are always the first to herald the change. Despite the warm weather of late, their inbuilt calendar starts the shutdown process from feeding their outermost parts to looking inward, leaving the leaves to their fate while they store up reserves for the long cold winter in preparation for the production line to go into full swing come next spring.

As we travel, old and new stand side by side, often the old weathering their age much more nobly than their more frequent counterparts. Stone cottages, barns, inns and mansions in all their hues dot the landscape. Their stateliness and solidity make the sprawl of brick veneer ordinary, ugly. They have no more right to be here than everything else that’s come since, but somehow their presence, for man-made structures anyway, seem to fit better.

Yet another coat of paint and signage announces the arrival of a new business and an attempt to once more breathe new life into shops that have seen many lives. From butcher to baker, hardware to dressware, premises change hands again and again in small country towns where dreams are born and often die. Besides the essential supermarket or general store, newsagent, post office, hardware and pub, a proliferation of cafes, galleries and gift shops reflect changing interests and sources of income as travellers start to outnumber the local population.

We pass the Oatlands Mill, once abandoned but now restored and reclaimed for its original purpose, grinding out flour by the sackful. The advent of plastic wrapped sliced white bread we all thought was so progressive at one time maybe led to the demise of many a mill, so to see an original be reborn is a delight. Such businesses and trades take on a dual purpose, not only selling their produce but satisfying the curiosity of tourists and travellers.

Roadworks abound, widening the two hundred kilometre highway bit by bit, slowing down the traffic flow, bringing it to a halt at times while graders, diggers, rollers and monster machines fulfil their part of the task. At this rate, I’ll be in a nursing home by the time the highway is complete.

Signposts invite me down roads I have yet to explore, but there’s no getting off a bus hellbent on meeting its schedule. My ticket has only one destination. We bypass Pontville, courtesy of previous roadworks, a sad omission in my opinion, and instead run past the now empty Pontville detention centre, or relocation centre, or whatever its current label is. Either way it looks like a prison isolated in a barren wasteland.

Civilisation becomes more prevalent. Timber yards, car wrecking yards, rural supplies stores, Maccas at Bridgewater, then the first glimpse of the Derwent against the backdrop of Mount Wellington in the distance. Ker-lunk ker-lunk ker-lunk go the wheels across the joins of the bridge. Black swans gather near the shore, peacefully drifting, graceful, while others look somewhat undignified with their tails up, heads down, scanning the depths for their lunch.

Suburbia takes over, MONA announces itself boldly, occupying its place of prominence at the water’s edge. So often shrouded in cloud, Hobart’s iconic mountain is in full view, the sun gleaming off its transmission tower. Houses, warehouses and blocks of units make way for the city proper, an orderly patchwork of streets in which I easily become lost if I’m not paying attention. Every intersection looks the same to me, no matter what shops present themselves on each corner.

Just a few streets to go. A jogger heads uphill, passing a man in overalls plodding slowly towards the city centre, his wide girth slowing him down despite the fact he’s going downhill. Two red tee-shirted guys head into Room for a Pony for lunch, pedestrians fill the streets, my fellow passengers stir and ready themselves to leave our sardine tin, and the journey ends. Not a word has been exchanged.

Several hours later, the homeward journey is a similar affair, but with much less to see. It is light when we depart, but all too soon an orange glow diffuses into the horizon as a half moon replaces the sun, accompanied by isolated stars already dotted on the early night sky. The moon mysteriously scuds across the sky and disappears as the bus changes direction, then just as quickly reappears, telling me we’re heading north, heading home.

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