This weekend is the official start of the ski season and traditionally a time when many Canberrans, your Akubra-clad columnist included, dust down the skis, pull out the snow chains and make a beeline for the mountains for some high altitude adventure.
However, this year to mark the onset of winter, I loaded up the yowie mobile with the family, swapped the Akubra for a beanie, cranked up the heater and headed west. Yes, west. Regular readers could be excused for thinking that west doesn't even exist on this column's compass, given the unabashed favouritism shown towards the mountain peaks to our south and beachscapes to out east.
Now before you think I've lured the Yowie clan on some faraway outback adventure into the land of camels, min min lights and shifting sand dunes, by west I just mean a few hours' drive. We're off for a weekend in the Riverina.
Not far from Gundagai (yes, we paid homage to that well-patted stone dog) the number of Y number plates thins out and the Subaru Foresters and Toyota Klugers so prevalent among territorians are soon outnumbered by utes resplendent in B&S ball stickers and with fake oversized dog testicles dangling from their tow bars.
Although we don't have to deal with over-zealous snow bunnies zooming south at speed nor ice on the road, negotiating the roads "out west" aren't without their own hazards. Just out of Junee a herd of cattle grazing on the verges swarm across the road in front of the yowie mobile. In response, Sarah, my seven-year old daughter, winds her window down and bellows a series of "moo moos" out the window. Just as Emily, my four-year-old daughter, starts to wind down her window an over-excited bovine shakes its head and in the process unceremoniously flings a generous serving of drool on her window pane. Lovely! "Nothing a quick wind up and down won't fix," quips Sarah.
Further west a flock of energetic emus race us down the highway prompting the girls to break into a raucous rendition of John Williamson's Old Man Emu song. The ungainly flightless birds lead the way for the best part of a kilometre before disappearing under a fence and into a paddock. Just a few more bends and we get up close and personal with the other half of our coat of arms as a couple of kangaroos intent on playing their own version of Russian roulette hop out in front of us from behind a bush.
No Australian rural road trip is complete without a "big thing" or two to gawk at. While many Canberrans are familiar with Goulburn's big merino and Adaminaby's big trout at Barellan (population 300, on a good day), it's a whopping big tennis racquet that takes pride of place in the main street. The impressive 13.8 metre-long wooden racquet is a scale model of the wooden Dunlop racquet that the town's favourite daughter, tennis great Evonne Cawley (nee Goolagong), wielded during her celebrated career more than 30 years ago. "Look Daddy, it's so big enough that even you couldn't miss hitting the ball with that," laughs Sarah as we bundle out of the car for a series of selfies with the jumbo-sized racquet.
Despite our close calls with the rampaging emus and skittish kangaroos, it's the kids' unexpected sighting of a One-Eyed One- Horned Flying Purple People Eater (of 1988 American sci-fi comedy family film fame) disguised as a letterbox that really captures their imagination. After almost an hour trying to explain to little Emily that the gumbooted feet emerging from the letterbox weren't those of a real postman, we arrive into Narrandera near dusk.
We are bunking down in a cabin at the Lake Talbot Caravan Park on the outskirts of town. There aren't many options for dinner and we end up at the Ex-Servicemen's club where, in on the stage of the club's historic hall, Sarah and Emily put on an impromptu performance of the emu song, this time complete with actions. A couple of stunned octogenarians on their way to the nightly raffle stop and offer up a rapturous applause.
Next morning we haul our bikes out of the yowie mobile, strap on our helmets and cycle along the Murrumbidgee River which winds through the centre of town. At dawn, with mist still clinging to the lower banks, the river is peaceful, or at least is until the yowie clan arrive. We scan the water for fish (apparently there are some big Murray cod here) and for koalas in the trees.
Eventually, in need of a morning coffee we cycle into town and lean our bikes on a post outside Trents Cafe in East Street. Thinking she might get a sachet of Nescafe Blend 43 stirred into a cup of boiling water, instead of her preferred brew, a flat white, a clearly anxious-looking Mrs Yowie asks for a coffee. However, she needn't have been worried for the coffee is real espresso and rivals any coffee you'd get in Braddon. No hipsters within cooee here, just nice hot coffee.
With our caffeine (and milkshake!) addictions under control it's back on the bikes to explore more of the family bike and hike trail network masterminded by the local council in an attempt to entice more city folk out here. Extending over 23 kilometres in and around Narrandera, the three connecting trails lead you by Lake Talbot (a water-skiers' mecca in summer), the wreck of the Paddle Steamer Wagga Wagga (which sprang a leak and ran aground in 1918 and was left to rot in the river) and the historic wooden railway bridge (a photographer's delight).
The trail also winds through the river red gum forest (again no koalas, but they must be there for the sign says so) and then around a man-made wetland at the south-western end of town. Forget the knockout bird hides from where you can spy on more than 90 different species of birdlife, the highlight for us here is a massive tree stump which bears an uncanny resemblance to a duck. There's no interpretative sign but subsequent inquiry reveals that Terry Smith, a member of the Narrandera Wetlands Committee and local Narrandera Landcare Committee moved the stump here after noticing it on the side of the road. "The tree it belonged to was a casualty of a road widening a few years back," says Terry, who then arranged for the 5-tonne wooden bird, which he thinks more closely resembles albatross than a duck, to be trucked to the wetlands.
The Town Trail (3.5 kilometres return) leads us to the Narrandera Visitor Information Centre whose modest indoor display is dominated by a big guitar. When built in 1988 by Narrandera expat Robert Palmer to help promote the Country Music Club of Narrandera, the 5.8 metre long by 2 metre high musical instrument was the world's largest playable guitar. Just because it's not the biggest any more doesn't mean you can't play it. Sarah strums a few notes which send a flock of cockatoos into a flap before we jump back in the car for the journey home.
Although the call of the mountains at this time of June still rings loudly in my ears, it's sometimes good to broaden your horizons, particularly when they are as vast as our western one.
Postscript: Thankfully it was Mrs Yowie's turn to wash the car so I'm yet to discover which is the easiest to clean, a car covered in salt and mud from a trip to the snow or one smeared in bovine slobber.
Narrandera: About a 3½ - hour drive to the west of Canberra. The journey is part of the adventure so slow down and take your time.
Stay: The Lake Talbot Tourist Park has en suite family cabins from $120 a night. For a range of other accommodation options, check out: narranderra.com.au or Ph: 02 6959 5545.
Weird letterboxes: You know you are west of the divide when letterboxes start morphing into quirky works of art. Have you seen an unusual letterbox in or around the ACT? If so, please send a photo of it to the address at the end of this column. A selection of the best will be published in a future column.
Where in the Snowies?
To mark the official start of the ski season, for the next few weeks I will be testing your observation skills with images from the NSW Snowy Mountains. Good luck!
Clue: Get some rest before hitting the slopes tomorrow.
Degree of difficulty: Medium
Last week: Congratulations to Greg Royle of Red Hill who correctly identified last week's photo, sent in by Marianne Pietersen of Kambah, as a sculpture created by New York artist Steven Siegel from old copies of The Canberra Times. The eye-catching artwork is located just outside the Nishi Building near Phillip Law Street in NewActon. Greg just beat Gavin Hillier of Kaleen and Keighley Sutherland of Belconnen to the prize while the Collins family of Hall want to know "what is going to happen when all the newspaper breaks down". Apparently the newspaper will eventually decompose and become part of the landscape bed, basically returning the paper from where it came – the earth.
How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and address to firstname.lastname@example.org. The first email sent after 10am Saturday, June 6, with the correct answer wins a double pass to Dendy cinemas.