Escaping the city – travel sketches

Life within narrow geographical confines has become the norm for all of us over the last six months or so, the further reaches of our country and the rest of the world have become the stuff of memory and imagination. Here in New South Wales the coronavirus is being carefully controlled, with the case numbers steadily dropping, so we decided this was a good time to pack up the camper trailer and head into the bush. With state borders still closed, our only option was within the bounds of New South Wales. Luckily it is a large state with plenty of variety of geography, so we decided to aim for the furthest north west edges, in particular to aim for the Darling River. The last time we were there was in 2018, in severe drought, the river was low and the countryside around dry and barren. (For my sketches from that trip see here.) Earlier this year there had been rain, and we had heard that there was more water in the Darling and the flowers were out. Birds were gathering wherever there was water and life was returning.

We left at the beginning of September, on Father’s Day, so after a celebratory breakfast with our daughter and her family we set off. We spent a couple of days camped in the Warrumbungle National Park, and this is where we began to see the flowers, broad sweeps of colour whether in the open or in the more forested areas.

The Macquarie Marshes are one of the largest remaining inland semi-permanent wetlands in south eastern Australia, and are of international significance. This year there is more water than has been for some time. We spent most of a day watching the masses of birds there – magpie geese, spoonbills, a variety of waders, hawks, cranes, black swans … and more.

From here we continued north west, to Lightning Ridge, an opal mining town. The roadside flowers were prolific, but it became steadily drier as we travelled. We saw several emu families – that is, the male emu with a brood of 10-12 chicks, as he is the parent that raises the offspring. The next place we camped was Brewarrina, right on the edge of the Barwon River, which was flowing well. Here we were awakened by birdsong, some of the calls we couldn’t identify, one in particular was very beautiful, like the high notes of a massive church organ.

Leaving our camp at Brewarrina, we stopped in the town to see the fishtraps. Built in the wide flowing river thousands of years ago by the local indigenous people, they are still maintained. This is an ingenious system of interlocking pools built of river stones, which trap the fish where they can easily be collected. Pelicans had discovered how useful these are, and we counted about 18 of them, waiting on the stone edges of the traps to get an easy feed.

On to another riverside camp, this time on the Darling, at Dunlop Station. This had been a massive sheep property in the 19th century, running an extraordinary number of sheep, not sustainable nowadays. It was almost a village in itself, with a large shop that sold all the accoutrements local people needed for their everyday lives, pots and pans, nails, tools, food, a large sprawling homestead and woolshed with shearers quarters. The building that housed the shop is semi-derelict now, but the property is being restored, and the family do guided tours of all the buildings – a fascinating step back into the opulence of wealthy Victorian landowners.

Our camp was right on the edge of the river, with a steep bank down to the water. We were completely alone, so could ramble where we wanted, and swim in the river, then sit by our campfire in the evening, watching the glow of spiders eyes in the dark. We heard (and then saw) an echidna bustling around in the dark, searching for ants.

We were awakened early on our last day at Dunlop by the patter of rain on the canvas. We had been warned that a large storm cell was on its way, and it seemed that this was the beginning. If we had been caught in heavy rain there, we would have been unable to leave, as the fine silty earth turns very quickly to slippery mud, and even with a four-wheel drive we would have had difficulty getting up the steep dirt tracks away from the river. So a speedy pack up and off. Next stop was a small caravan park outside Wilcannia, also on the Darling, but not so close, and on a bitumen road, then on to Broken Hill for a few days to wait out the weather.

We spent five days in Broken Hill, and were glad we did. A chance to catch up on washing and supplies, and a bit of civilisation but also protection from the storm. We were sitting in a cafe, enjoying coffee and cake when the rain started. Light for a few minutes, then the heavens opened. We have never seen anything like it. Within minutes the streets were deep in water, the buildings across the street hidden by the rain. Then the cafe began to flood, so we were sent out into the street to shelter as best we could under awnings. We couldn’t get back to our car without wading through calf deep water, so we just watched … it wasn’t cold luckily but so dramatic! Once it eased a bit we decided to try to visit the Broken Hill Gallery, and after a short wait while they were dealing with flood water that had come in we were allowed in. It was a wonderful gallery, several different exhibitions of very high quality, such a pleasure to see.

Later, once we could reach the car we took a drive around town, through deep flood waters, too much for some small cars, and found that most of the roads were now closed. Since most of the roads out of Broken Hill are dirt – except the road south, to South Australia and the road east heading back towards Sydney, neither of which we wanted – we had to stay put until the roads we needed were once again opened. There are – justifiably – large fines for people who drive on closed roads, as they destroy the surface, and often have to be rescued at great expense.

After five days in Broken Hill, the roads we needed were open again, so then we set off for Mutawintje National Park. There is a small but well-set out camping area with pre-booked sites, toilets and solar powered showers – luxury! Here we were spoilt with birds again, seeing birds we have not seen in large groups before such as cockatiels. There were choughs, noisy, quarrelsome family groups foraging constantly with no fear of us, budgies, willy wagtails, a wonderful mulga parrot, brightly coloured and with red trousers. There were corellas, galahs, sacred kingfisher, butcherbirds, Australian ravens, zebra finches, tree creepers, and many more. The flowers were prolific and intense, great banks of Paterson’s Curse, Australian Hollyhocks, sennas, acacias to name a few.

There are two gorges in the park, so on the first day we walked through Homestead Gorge, along a creek that wound through high rock walls. We found aboriginal art under overhanging rocks, petroglyphs as well as drawings, and lots of hand stencils. The scenery was stunning, very like parts of central Australia. We scrambled up a high path that took us to the very top, where we could look out across the landscape on either side as well as back down into the gorge, then climbed down again into the gorge and walked to a large deep rockpool at the end of the path. We could have gone further but neither of us was keen on climbing down a rope ‘ladder’ that we were told was just a rope with knots in …

After a cold, wet, windy night, the next day was cool and overcast, but we decided to do the walk though Mutawintje Gorge anyway, wrapped up well. (After temperatures in the high 20s and low 30s we were back to winter again.) In fact, it was a perfect temperature for the walk. Once again a lot of climbing and scrambling – if there hadn’t been the rain that had brought the flowers, we would have been able to walk along the river bed, but that was impossible. It was worth it though, the dramatic beauty of the gorge was something to remember.

The next camp was at Goodwood Station, another bush camp on a river. We had chosen to go here because it was close to Peery Lake, an ephemeral lake that only fills every 10 years or so, and a significant wetland. We had been told that it was full of birds, up to 50,000, so we were looking forward to what we might see. We drove out there early, and looked for the birds … we counted about 6 on the water, as far as the eye could see. There were a few in the small trees around the lake, in particular a beautiful crimson chat and his family, but the expected masses were no longer there, although there was still plenty of water. However, it was an interesting place, with plenty of low growing flowering plants, so we took the opportunity to go for a long walk.

We had another night at Goodwood, then began the long journey home. Great experiences, dramatic weather and many changes of plan, but overall a wonderful experience, and it reminded us we can still find places within New South Wales we have never seen before, and several to revisit and explore more.

Author: anna warren portfolio

I draw, I paint, I am a printmaker. Always searching for the interesting detail in the world around me.

20 thoughts

  1. Fabulous sketchbook! It sounds a wonderful trip – NSW should use you for their tourism promotions. It must be fascinating to revisit the area when conditions are so different, especially when you have such good records of the previous trip.

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    1. Anne, living on the land you know intimately how the weather of different years affects the landscape. It has been very comforting to know that even after 10 years or more of drought the seeds are still ready to burst out when they get some rain. Sadly the animals seem to be recovering more slowly – we saw far fewer kangaroos than normal, and last time we were by the Darling the ones we saw were weak and exhausted. But nevertheless, they will recover. Thank you for coming on a virtual visit!

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  2. It was great to come on the trip with you, and I loved your sketches. And to revisit Mutawintje National Park again. I was really pleased to hear that there has been rain up there. I am very familiar with the Menindee area. Last time I was there, in 2018, it was distressingly dry, so hopefully that amazing area has been able to flourish again.

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    1. Isn’t Mutawintji wonderful? We had not been there before, so it was a surprise and sheer delight. There had been quite a lot of rain, water in the rivers and the flowers were extraordinary – the Australian hollyhocks were up to 3m high! We walked through fields of Patterson’s Curse (not a native I know, but spectacular all the same) to get to the beginning of the Mutawintji Gorge walk, it was quite magical. We didn’t go further south than Broken Hill, but I would imagine there would have been just as much rain in the Menindee area too. There has been more rain all through the region since we got home a week ago, so I think it would be doing well.

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      1. Mutawintje was a lovely surprise. When I was there a couple of years ago there were whole patches of Cullen cinereum, which was the plant I was collecting and then painting. I was very excited to see it growing so abundantly. There were also so many flies! we had to eat and drink under our fly nets ☺️.
        It is good to know that those little outback communities have gained a reprieve from the drought.

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        1. I would hesitate to say that the drought has broken, but these communities have had quite a lot of rain this year, which is such a joy. I just visited your post about your work on Cullen cinereum – your approach puts my fairly ad hoc identifications to shame! I do enjoy trying to identify what I find though, but it’s not always easy, even with good books! I would love to return to Mutawintji in a different season too.

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  3. This is like a David Lean film – epic! Prolific adventures and prolific art work. Were there less flies than last time you went into the country? You mentioned to me that you should take better photos but I think these photos are terrific. I like how the water-colour palette looks like it is sometimes used to hold down the piece of paper. And I also note how when the actual plants are sitting on the page, their shadows make interesting shapes – and then you paint the shadows as well. So in some photos there are real shadows and in others, painted shadows. The richness of the colours in the water-colours testifies to the abundance of life and colour and health of things that you came across. So very different to the insect husks and animal bones from past trips.
    I’d like to know what Neil does with himself while you are painting.
    I laughed at your expectation of 50,000 birds actually being six!
    I am sure that a great deal more thought and art will come out of these observational paintings, even though the paintings are so beautiful in their own right.

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    1. It is a bit of a saga isn’t it – as I was writing I kept thinking this is way too long, but I can’t leave anything else out! There was more … I was going to do a post of photos too, but choosing becomes a huge task, however I may still do it. You are absolutely right, the palette is often used to anchor pages of the sketchbook, or my glasses case, or a rock, whatever comes to hand. There was one day that was so windy it kept turning the flower I was drawing inside out! I gave up in frustration in the end. The flies weren’t too bad though, only in one or two places. I’m glad the colours look rich, I worry that they aren’t strong enough, and I know they aren’t always accurate, but I tell myself I am just getting the essence of the plant. I did get the opportunity to do plenty of drawing on this trip, which was great because there was such bounty – Neil takes photos usually when I’m drawing, particularly the birds, or he sends up the drone, and I seize the moment!

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  4. My David Lean comment wasn’t a criticism, I promise. The commentary is a valuable record of the trip. I hope you do a couple of photo posts as well (if you have too many photos for one which you probably do). Most of your readers, myself included, have never seen nor will ever see the places you photographed. So it will be a treat for us all to see the scenes you described, including flash flood.
    It is nice to think of Neil doing his own thing while you draw. Independence and togetherness simultaneously – the best kind of relationship.

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    1. I didn’t take the David Lean reference as a criticism, I think I was feeling I had just written too much! That is a very good point about most people not seeing these places, so I will try to do a photo blog too – I will include some of Neil’s photos too, some of the drone shots are amazing. Yes, if he wasn’t happily occupied I wouldn’t be able to do my drawings, so it does work well for both of us!

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  5. Anna, I loved reading this post. I shared it with John because I found it incredibly fascinating and certainly not too long. We enlarged your sketch pages to read your notes and examine your plants both exclaiming amazement in your details, both written and drawn. You live in an area of the world I can only imagine. Your post fed my imagination and filled in missing pieces. I’ll eagerly await for your next installment! I’m also impressed that you were on the road for a month, such freedom to explore. At some point you have to share more details on your trailer. I notice you have a small table you work on, such a nice set-up. Good to read that plant live is coming back. I would agree it will take longer for the animals. Thank you for the most engaging and interesting post! It filled a bit of my current “lock-down” desire to travel!

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    1. I’m so glad you and John both enjoyed it Cathe, and it took you vicariously travelling too! I’m finding that collecting the information about the plants etc is becoming more important to me, because it somehow ‘grounds’ the drawings, and puts them in context. Being away for a month was great, it gave us time to spend more than a day in each place, so we could really explore – we are lucky that NSW is a large state, and really diverse in its geography. Our trailer is wonderful, a real home away from home – it has a very comfortable bed, a fridge, two burner hotplate and a diesel hot water system. We use solar panels for our power, so can be self-sufficient for quite some time, as long as we have sufficient water – we have become very good at conserving water! It’s called a Kimberley Kamper, and is Australian made, and durable for Australian conditions – the dust seals are very good, which is important! I will be doing a photo post soon, so I will include some more close-up photos of it!

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    1. Thanks Ann! The sketchbook I used for these drawings is a Daler Rowney hardback, with 150gsm paper. I have tried many others, including Stilmann and Birn, which is the choice of many sketchers, and Fabriano, but this is the one I always come back to. It takes watercolour and pen well without bleeding and with minimal cockling. I paint with Winsor and Newton artist quality paints, using my trusty travel paint kit.

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