I rolled into Cobar with the sun sunk by twenty minutes and the clear autumn sky turned Indian ink blue. The rising moon was flashing through the trees on my right, distracting me from the roos taking a leisurely leap into my path. Thank goodness for peripheral vision. To my surprise all the “No” neons in front of “Vacancy” were lit, not what I was expecting in this desolate place. So I trawled up the main street, and then back looking for a place to sleep, finally settling on the Great Western Motel, a classic corner pub with verandahs and a public bar slapped down on the corner. Plenty of character on the outside but dead silence in the public bar as I booked a room. Patrons sat quietly, the television was muted and the only sound was the pulsing hiss of the gas heater. I pay my money, the warden issues a key to my cell and I head for the street.
The main street is a two block mix of modern ugh and old Federation style, with buildings dated 1909 and 1897 redeeming the street despite the best efforts of the Grand Hotel and other buildings to condemn it. Grand and Great don’t really work in these towns. Grand Central Station is, well, grand! The Grand Hotel, sunk under TAB advertising and beer signage, misses the point altogether.
Of the eight vehicles parked in the street six are utes or 4WD (SUV) and all are white. I am not sure what to make of that. An Eagle Boys purple neon glares from one side and attempts to stare down the only other fast food place, a Subway. There are more insects in Eagle Boys (about 345,000 – the ones still alive around the lights) and more customers. The locals clearly like “locusts with that”.
I guess the emergency services have been out this evening doing drills. A slight hint of eucalypt smoke tinges the air while SES yellow overalls with white reflective foil catch my eye as they drift in and out of the pubs and refuel vehicles. But even they soon drift away and I am left alone sitting outside one of the banks wondering what to do next.
I am struck by the number of vehicles passing through with punts on their roof or those towing boats. The floodwaters flowing down from Queensland are everywhere and the fishermen have been drawn. Conversation overheard of two of them on the verandah when I checked in:
Where are you going?
Following my nose
You didn’t answer my question
Just following me nose
I guess you want to keep your fishing secrets to yourself.
Alan said you were the best bloke to go bush with.
And off they went, sucking orange glow into their cigarettes, blue singlets doing a Bond job of keeping the beer guts from spilling too far. The lake in the carpark was no deterrent – walked straight through to the bar, sloshing along in their flip flops as if they were out hunting the barramundi.
A bit further along from the Grand Hotel is the façade of the W.H. Bannister Butchery. Erected in 1910. Red and white alternating strips of corrugated verandah roofing. Family. Carcass. Smallgoods. I am sure they are not meant to be read together with any conjunctions. The façade and old ventilated raised centre roof section scream character and put to shame the bland IGA white box it now faces across the road. But I am not too down on the IGA. In this rural centre I do appreciate that the IGA is not any old IGA but Khan’s IGA. (Actually, no apostrophe). I wonder how Mr and Mrs Khan are fitting in around here. It will help to own a grocery store on the main street. But that will also depend on how many Bannisters have gone out of business because of the IGA and their ilk.
Bob and Elaine’s Hot Bake is for sale if you want to buy it. It is up a side street and is unlikely to draw the highway trade. The almost stately red brick white trimmed elegant building a few doors up is a day care centre, mistaken initially as the Municiple District headquarters. Next door the Post Office, with 640 mail boxes in the annexure. Turn the corner and wander up a street back lit by the risen moon in full flood. A modest shed with insulation collapsing from the ceiling. A furniture store. An equally modest transfer on the door states they are “Stockists of 42nd Street.” 42nd St (NY) is about as far from this place as is that moon!
The Cobar Pastures Protection Board is located in an ugly utilitarian building of non descript, probably eighties vintage, design. On the other corner the partners Flas, Man and Challer have enough good taste (and funds?) to retain their legal operations in a well preserved federation style former corner store. Or so the front door says. Step around the corner and discover that it is fact Flashman and Challer laywers. Clearly no one really cares, or needs to care.
The local government offices are opposite. In today speak they are the NSW Government Access Centre. These host, among other representatives, NSW Maritime. Really? We are in the middle of outback NSW (as the road signs have proudly welcomed and reminded me). What on earth would a Maritime posting out here look like? Next door the Police Station. Cobar Blue Light Disco photos on the notice board from the 23.10.2009. Crimestopper posters. Safe Party Pack – get it here. Copper inside is on the phone discussing night shift arrangements. Sounds like Damien has some work coming up. I move on.
The Town Hall cinema is showing Alice in Wonderland. If you don’t want to see that movie, you can catch Alice in Wonderland. Sat. at 7pm. Sunday at B.00pm Monday at B.00pm Tuesday at 1030 and 7.00. I imagine Tuesday will be a packed house at 10.30. Someone please find me an 8. We are running out of ‘B’s. A marble plaque declares R.O. Breden was President in 1904. Attached to the front of a quaint Federation façade. Now a black gecko keeps Mr Breden company, stuck up on the wall alongside. Is this a private residence or something else? Number 13 give me no further clues. I wander down the street, A former gas station sans pumps tells me I can buy “Fruit and Service”. The original gas station hoarding was tacked over by the fruitier, but even that is starting to fall away, leaving mixed messages.
The whining twang of country music spills out of the New Occidental Hotel, a plain bunker proudly declaring “Our Rum since 1888”. Bundaberg? I assume so. I am rescued from the music by the shuddering diesel braking of a semi trailer descending the slight incline into town. It grumbles up the main street. I hear another approaching. There will be many more of those this evening.
The memorial park commemorating the copper and gold mining on which Cobar has been built is neat and informative. And disconcertedly sits atop a 500’ deep shaft. As I peer at the information plaques in the moonlight I wonder if the thing was backfilled or if I am standing on a slowly corroding cap. The problem with claiming that you are the “Great Cobar Heritage Centre” is that you can be undone by a sadly faded sign claiming same, and by spelling errors on the plaques explaining the greatness.
It is a working railway station but only for the minutes a train stops. Weeds grow out of the building and concrete is fragmented along the edge of the platform. Mind your step, never mind the gap! The station sits brooding under its verandah in the moonlight, no lights to make it a welcoming place. It is a few blocks from the main street. I thought main street was quiet when I was down there but now I can hear the constant mush and hum of cars and the distant yip of dogs. It’s the heartbeat of the place, helped along by the slow cadence of crickets, which give the impression the cooling weather is a disincentive to get a decent rhythm up.
So here I am back where I started. In the public bar of the Great Western Hotel. The gas still hums but the TVs have been unmuted and an old boy in his RM Williams and sports jacket sits at the bar looking for a conversation. I order a beer and duck into a corner – he looks like he could be a long chat and I don’t have the heart for that tonight. Fortunately another elderly fellow bustles in, jumps on a bar stool and soon they are chatting like old mates. Which they probably are. They start talking to the barman (a slightly built facsimile of Billy Slater) about boots and how they can never wear shoes, only boots, good country boys ’n all. They all nod and growl and agree. I have to grin – despite insisting he could only ever wear boots one of the old boys is wearing lace up shoes, both now discretely tucked behind the bar stool he is on, well out of side in the shadows.
The prison cell accommodation (four walls, no toilet seat) has concrete block walls that prove too thin at 04:15 when the far too cheery fishermen next door whistle and yarn their way through half an hour of ablutions. I need to tell Alan this guy is good for the bush only. I drift off after their Landcruiser diesel rattles us all awake and they slosh off through that car park flood. I drift off again only to be woken at 0500 by the old boy on the other side shouting at his missus about yard lengths of timber. At least I think it is timber. I hear “yard lengths” before he is drowned out by her shouting at him to be quiet. They rattle off in their clattering diesel and thereafter a procession of diesels start up and fade off up the highway until the sun is up and I follow it out. With quiet relief I discover the Gecko Express is open and flat white revives me.
Time to get back on the road. It’s a quirky place this Cobar but it’s a small town, neat as a pin and proud of itself and you can’t ask for much more than that. If you do I don’t much care. I like the place anyway.