It’s the distance keeps us sane
But when the silence leads to sorrow
We do it all again…
– Bryan Adams, Somebody
At Dog Kennel Corner, where Burke’s Pass opens onto the wide Mackenzie Basin, I turn onto the Haldon Road and drive south through a gateway of low hills. Merinos graze behind rabbit-proof fences as the road steps out across the barren expanse of the Whalesback Flat towards the distant Grampian Mountains. Rows of stunted pines, silver and olive against the beige background of the hills, lean stiffly downwind, their trunks permanently deformed by the blustering nor-westers.
The road crosses Red Hut Creek and, a few kilometres further on, the Mackenzie Stream. Both are dry, their beds strewn with lichen-covered rocks, matagouri and desiccated foxgloves. A battalion of pylons marches across the Whalesback and disappears into the Mackenzie Pass. Nearly twenty years have passed since I have driven this way. But apart from a few kilometres of newly-sealed road, nothing seemed to have changed. The sky is still huge, the landscape still empty and the wind still dominates it all.
I first drove down the Haldon Road in November 1981. I was eighteen years old. My cousin had jacked up a job for me at Grampians, a 38,000 acre station with a reputation for its tough, hard-drinking shepherds. A heading dog sat on the passenger seat of my Morris 1300. I had a huntaway, a crate of beer and a pair of hob-nailed boots on the back seat, and no idea what lay in store for me. I had long dreamed of being a high country shepherd. But as the snow-capped Grampian Mountains grew closer, I wondered if I belonged in such a gigantic landscape.
Beyond the Snowy River – another dry gulch, spanned by a white-painted bridge – the bitumen gives way to gravel and the memories come flooding back. Although I haven’t thought about them for years, the fences, cattle-yards, hay barns and paddocks are indelibly imprinted in my mind. I spent countless hours walking along this stretch of road behind mobs of sheep and herds of cattle. My constant companions during those days were my dogs: Jill, Toy, Mick, Bess and twenty or so others whose names are still as familiar to me as those of my children.
Off to my right, sleek Hereford-Angus cattle mooch on swampy flats dotted with clumps of willows. Lucerne shimmers in the wind. A steel hay barn stands sway-backed and lop-sided at the corner of the Hoppy Paddocks, a dozen small fields where we trained our sheepdogs and shot rabbits by the hundred. And through it all runs the chalk-white line of the road, slung between hollows and over rises; a road of memories drawn across the landscape and through my mind.
The driveway up to Grampians leaves the road beside a slender Lombardy poplar and climbs to the foot of the hills. It is eerie to see the station buildings again after so long. The woolshed and sheep-yards, the shearer’s quarters, the cookshop and shepherd’s quarters: they all look just as I remember them. The buildings are a little threadbare perhaps, but not old. Like me they are just older.
Ross and Claire White live on the station in a neat gable-roofed station house framed by willows and poplars. They moved to Grampians the year before I left, when Ross took up the position of the station’s Head Shepherd. We spend a pleasant hour drinking tea and reminiscing about musters and dogs and shepherds who came and went. Outside, the wind bustles dust and leaves across the yard. Cloud shadows play on the hillside beyond.
I worked at Grampians off and on from 1981 until 1986. Many of the formative events of my early adulthood – getting drunk for the first time, the death of my mother, losing my virginity – took place during those years. But looking back, I never really fitted in as a shepherd. Although I was good at my job (I would do it in various places for fifteen years), and I did my best to fit into the work hard/play hard lifestyle of the shepherd, my mind was always elsewhere. I longed to see the world and while my workmates were boozing in the quarters I would often be lying on the hill behind the woolshed staring up at the stars, dreaming.
Beneath the timber and tin roof of the Airstrip Barn, set back off the road beside Station Creek, I sit on a bale of meadow hay listening to the voice of the wind. An arch of cloud stretches from one end of the sky to the other. My mind drifts back to a warm October night in 1985 when my girlfriend and I lay here on a blanket, listening to Bryan Adams in the enveloping darkness while our lives changed forever. It was the first time for both of us and although her name doesn’t need to be recorded here, I remember her and that is all that matters. I smile at the memory, leave the barn to the caress of the wind and drive on.
The road passes Curraghmore and Streamlands – small stations pressed against the flanks of the hills – climbs to a wide saddle and descends to Grey’s Hills Station. The shepherd’s quarters, next to the big old woolshed, were the venue for raucous parties in which the shepherds and tractor drivers from all along the road would drink, fight and swear. My rear view mirror frames the station buildings dissolving into dust. Shingle rattles against the underside of the car and I turn the stereo up a few more decibels.
Music was my window on the world while I lived down the Haldon Road. We had no TV at Grampians; newspapers arrived once a week on the mail truck. News of big events such as Chernobyl and the Challenger Disaster took weeks to filter through to our corner of the high country. Like all good shepherds I listened to country music. But I had a secret addiction to rock music and it was through the stereo in my Holden ute that I learned about the world beyond the hills: about drugs and love and oceans and passion and war.
A narrow gorge carries the road through the last folds of Grey’s Hills and I emerge on the big flats of Haldon Station. There are No Trespassing signs and locked gates. A tattered flag snaps in the wind. I can see Lake Benmore now: a deep blue sweep of water beyond which rises the muscular flanks of the Benmore Range. Clumps of briar rose cling to outcrops of shattered grey rock above the road which curves gently down to the edge of the lake near a boat house and a ramshackle jetty.
I have reached the end of the road. The lake rustles on its hem of stones; its surface is a sliver platter in the sunlight. The wind sighs gently in the willows as they trail their branches in the water like dreamers. Part of my life will forever be entwined with the Haldon Road. But the road of memories is a long, straight one and while you can look back you can never truly go back. Even good memories hurt sometimes. Perhaps it really is the distance that keeps us sane.