A date with Midnight Oil in Adelaide provided the impetus for a road trip from Sydney to Adelaide, taking time to explore along the way.
Ignoring warnings to “book everything before you go” because Australians are “holidaying at home”, we set off with a rough itinerary planning on around three and a half hours driving each day. Here’s the tale of our trip.
Sydney to Parkes (355km. Around 5 hours driving)
Road trips from Sydney to Adelaide don’t usually include Parkes. As we’ve never been to Parkes, we make Parkes our first stop.
It’s heartwarming to see many visitors at the cafés along the Bells Line of Road. Devastated by fires in early 2020, and then struck by COVID, the area is slowly coming back. We enjoy a coffee and freshly baked apple pie at The Bilpin Mountain Bells Café.
New growth covers the trunks of fire damaged trees giving the appearance of “woolly jumpers”. After recently exploring Lithgow, I feel at home as we descend into the former industrial town. Holidaying at home has its benefits and I’m getting to know Sydney’s backyard.
After driving through Bathurst and past Orange we enter new territory (for us).
A row of tall concrete grain silos welcomes us to the small town of Manildra. Around the corner, the Art Deco Amusu Theatre (pronounced “amuse you”), features original seating, flooring and curtains. Run by a dedicated group of volunteers who screen new release movies once a month, it has operated continuously since 1936.
Tom’s Garage, next door serves as a movie poster museum.
After settling into the Henry Parkes Motel in the late afternoon, we walk through the town to stretch our legs. An art trail pays homage to the three things Parkes is known for: Elvis (Parkes hosts an annual Elvis Festival in January), space research (including The Dish) and Sir Henry Parkes.
Parkes on a Sunday afternoon is quiet. We explore the neat, clean streets imagining them during the Elvis Festival with crowds and Elvis lookalikes roaming the town.
The hot sun beats down as we walk up Memorial Hill for a view of the town and surrounding countryside. I drink thirstily from my water bottle. Three young boys strain as they ride their bikes up the hill laughing and calling out to each other.
Parkes to Lake Cargelligo (194km. Around 2 hours driving)
Lake Cargelligo is nearby, leaving plenty of time to visit The Dish and a museum or two in Parkes.
The CSIRO Radio telescope is 21 km from Parkes off the Newell highway. Scanning the fields to our right my husband calls out excitedly “There it is. Can you see it?” In the distance a silhouette of The Dish stands out against the early morning sky.
Signs instruct visitors to turn off mobile phones and blue tooth. The radio waves interfere with the telescope.
Standing outside, I watch as the 64m diameter dish slowly moves from its horizontal position to near vertical. The ribbed structure of concentric rings and metal spokes towers above me.
Returning to town, two rabbits scamper off the road into the grass. A crow struts across a harvested field.
The Parkes Visitor Centre
Not everyone has the opportunity to visit Graceland. Parkes’ King’s Castle Elvis Exhibit offers Elvis fans a glimpse into his life and career as Elvis croons in the background.
In the adjoining Parkes Motor Museum shiny vintage cars gleam under the electric lights. One car seems to be missing a wheel. Crouching down I look underneath the car body to discover it’s a three-wheeler.
In Moat Cottage, a replica of the house where Sir Henry Parkes was born near Coventry in England, I learn of Parkes’ humble beginnings. The ‘Father of Federation, Parkes “shaped the destiny of the nation”. As MP for North Sydney, he campaigned for a harbour bridge, was a champion of women’s suffrage and pushed for free and secular education for all.
In a large hall next door, the Historical Society Museum displays various artefacts ranging from a collection of bird eggs to clocks and a display of old tins. Ink wells in the school room prompt memories of when I went to school.
Outside rows of old tractors stand idle. There’s a dunny and a carriage from the ‘Silver City Comet’, a train that ran between Parkes and Broken hill from 1937 until 1989.
We’ve managed to do six of the twelve top things to do in Parkes. We’re about to do the seventh – the Bogan Way Tourist Drive to Lake Cargelligo. Not bad for a day and a half.
Taking The Bogan Way Tourist Drive
In Bogan Gate a grey nomad packs his table and chairs into his campervan. A red flag hangs limply from a pole standing in a ring of swept red dirt marking the putting “green”. I find the actual “Bogan Gate” in Memorial Park, relocated from its original site about half a mile out of town.
Trundle’s Hotel has the longest wooden verandah in NSW in the widest street in NSW. A notice in the window advertises the Trundle Abba Festival but there’s hardly a soul in town today.
Tullamore is similarly quiet with tired buildings closed up. The so-called coffee shop is really a Post Office selling a few essentials. The air conditioner isn’t working and the proprietor has propped the door open to let in the hot breeze. We buy a drink and drive on to Condobolin.
Art Deco buildings dominate the main street of Condobolin. A big town with a Court House, Post Office and Royal Hotel, it appears tired and the worse for wear. We walk up and down the main street, buy a pastry and coffee from the bakery, and move on.
Apart from knowing our destination each day, we have no plans. Choosing less well-travelled roads we relish the freedom and wide-open spaces. Often, we’re the only car on the road, occasionally passed by a local farmer raising his right index finger in acknowledgement.
This way of travel provides unexpected delights, like the “Utes in the Paddock”. A row of utes, each decorated with an Australian theme form a quirky outdoor gallery in a paddock outside Condobolin.
Recently relocated from their original location in Ootha, the utes reference Vegemite, Dame Edna and the outdoor dunny, Ned Kelly and Australian fauna and flora. If you’re in the area, it’s well worth a look.
Teenagers muck around on the shore of Lake Cargelligo swimming and throwing water bombs. They ignore the “No swimming” signs warning of blue green algae. The signs seem to have been there a long time. Has the algae?
I wake early for a brisk walk welcoming the crisp breeze after yesterday’s 34˚ heat.
Pelicans hear my rhythmic steps on the concrete path and take flight, their feet grazing the water as their broad wings work to raise their cumbersome bodies. A kayaker rows across the lake while a flock of birds fly across the slowly lightening sky.
Gradually the sky lightens and birds begin their morning song. An egret wades along the water’s edge and a large heron perches on a branch. Galahs feeding on grass seeds fly off on my approach. A wood duck crosses my path.
Three ornate bank buildings dominate prime locations in the main street. One, more recently the Old Bank Coffee Shop seems to have closed like many businesses in the town. Places like Lake Cargelligo are hurting, and COVID is probably only partly to blame.
Lake Cargelligo to Hay (233km. About 2.5 hours driving)
Coffee would be good right now, but nothing’s open in Lake Cargelligo. Trees dot the patchwork of flat plains interspersed with the occasional sheep paddock. In the distance, red dust trails a tractor.
In Rankins Springs all I can see are dilapidated buildings, closed and boarded up. We drive around the block looking for coffee then stopping on impulse to take photographs of the old buildings.
Looking around, my husband notices flags announcing an “Open Café”. We’d driven right past it. Our coffee and toasted sandwich at the Rankins Springs General Store, Post Office and Café are as good as I’ve ever had.
The accent of another patron prompts a discussion about how he was “kicked off his farm in Zimbabwe in 2004”. Since then, he has worked on walnut and almond farms in and around Mildura. He now works for the Shire Council in Griffith.
Leaving Rankins Springs, we follow the long straight white dotted line on the tree lined road. Fields stretch to the horizon beyond the trees.
Rows of grapevines mark the approach to Griffith. Are they for wine or for sultanas? Perhaps both.
Now we pass orange orchards, olive trees and the Griffith Pistol Club. Farmers in Griffith grow nuts, grain, rice and cotton (a surprise), oranges and prunes and more. It really is a food bowl.
With some time on our hands, we walk down the main street to the Centenary Sculptures in IOOF Park. Over 17 days in March 2016, seven hard stone sculptors transformed large pieces of granite into artworks which reflected Griffith’s Cultural Diversity and the importance of water in the region.
Returning to the car, I notice plaques marking the Griffith Italian Heritage Trail. Unfortunately, there’s no time to learn more.
We drive out to Hermit’s Cave Walk and Lookout. The path looks rough and I change into more suitable shoes. A good decision. Gravel slips beneath my feet as I follow the signs and scramble down the track.
Italian migrant and recluse, Valeri Ricetti, lived in a cave here between the late 1920s and 1952. Original rock art of daisies, anchors and hearts decorate the main cave. People have left religious tracts in the ‘chapel’.
A snake has shed its skin. The long fragile skin breaks off in my hand as I attempt to pick it up. We lose the path but knowing that the 1.07km return walk forms a loop, we easily find our way back to the car.
Griffith to Hay
The GPS guides us to Hay via back roads. Irrigation channels line the unsealed road. Rice fields, green with new growth or ploughed and ready for planting, are laser level.
A large birds’ nest rests in the fork of a tree. An eastern long necked turtle slowly plods across the road in front of us. In a far-off field, emus (or are they ostriches?) search for food. Sunflowers stand tall, their bright yellow faces turned towards the sun.
One crop mystifies us. After stopping to have a closer look we resort to Google to confirm that the yellow flowers and green pods are cotton.
Our accommodation in Hay is a little out of town, but a short walk to the Murrumbidgee River. I set out early for my walk soon realising that I’m not appropriately dressed for the cold morning.
A man gets out of his car. He looks at me and says “I probably don’t need my jumper”. “Yes, you do” I reply. He puts one on.
The artwork “Gateway” by John Wood marks the entry to the Riverside Cultural Trail and the Long Paddock which stretches from Moama to Wilcannia and follows the Cobb Highway. Eleven sculptures can be found along the route and there are three on this river walk.
Strips of bark dangle from trees, leaving the bare trunks smooth and coloured with varied shades of cream and grey.
Following the path under a bridge, I admire two murals by Indigenous artists. Then I’m excited to find a recently completed work by Matt Adnate, a Melbourne street artist, on the Hay Water Towers.
Hay to Mildura (296km. Just over 3 hours driving)
After picking up a coffee and pastry at a little corner café, we head off for Mildura sorry that we haven’t even walked down Hay’s main street. From the car window I spy interesting street art and buildings with original awnings and filigree features.
Avoiding the traffic and trucks on the Sturt Highway, we drive through Oxley to Balranald. The long, straight road passes through a featureless landscape. Low scrub trees follow the course of the Murrumbidgee River.
The occasional bird of prey hangs in the air on a wind thermal. Two emus run along a fence. A tree grows through the broken windscreen of an old rusty Morris Minor in an otherwise featureless field.
Alone with our thoughts we absorb the expansive fields and countryside. The scrub looks dry and tough. No other cars disturb the peace. A flock of sheep take fright on our approach. Cattle grids divide the road at regular intervals and warnings of stock on the road keep us alert.
Oxley hardly deserves a name on the map. There’s nothing there besides a handful of old weathered homes, their yards littered with car parts and other goods well past their prime. What do the 33 residents (according to the 2016 Census) do here?
The road from Oxley is closed when wet, but it hasn’t rained recently. Ahead the gnarled twisted limbs of a dead tree look like an emu sculpture.
Suddenly two enormous birds of prey rise up from the edge of the road. Majestic Wedge-tailed Eagles, I think, they’ve been tearing at the remains of road kill.
Soon after passing Maremley Lake where white caps whip up the lake’s surface, we pull up at the Homebush Hotel, Penarie. Red plastic chairs group around tables in front of the original 1878 façade. There’s no coffee machine, but with encouragement the woman behind the bar obliges with a cup of tea.
She takes us through the back to a dusty room filled with historic artefacts. The bathroom décor appeals to me. Old wooden doors each with their own character close off the toilet cubicles which are separated with sheets of corrugated iron.
In Balranald three metal frogs attired in Military dress stand to attention in front of the RSL. Near the Ben Scott swing bridge and Heritage walk two green frogs flank an enormous felled trunk, each holding onto a cross saw.
The frogs of Balranald represent the endangered Southern Bell Frog or Growling Grass Frog which lives in the wetlands of the Balranald Shire. The Visitor Information Centre has more information about the frog trail to uncover all twenty frog sculptures.
We cross the swing bridge accompanied by the deafening noise from hundreds of corellas. The squawking and screeching continues as we stroll alongside the Murrumbidgee River. A pleasant break from sitting in the car.
An enthusiastic volunteer guides us through a museum housing a replica of the Southern Cross flown by Kingsford Smith on the first-ever trans-Pacific flight to Australia from the mainland United States in 1928.
The last leg to Mildura on the Sturt Highway is long and boring (about two hours). There’s little to pique my interest, apart from vineyards and fruit stalls as we approach the town.
After settling into our room, we walk down to the Murray River for an evening stroll. Locals walk their dogs, exercise and enjoy the early evening light.
The next morning there’s a chill in the air as I set out to walk along the river. Women stretch and bend on their mats, tethered houseboats rock gently while rowers rhythmically ply their oars.
A fish jumps out the water and lands with a splash causing ripples to spread across the smooth surface. In the distance cars stream across the bridge. I get why they call this river the Mighty Murray.
I read about two Canadian engineers, George and William Chaffey who brought irrigation to the area. This enabled the “arid desert region in this part of the Murray [to be] turned into productive areas”. The Chaffey Trail traces the history of how Mildura became an irrigated oasis.
Numerous artworks enrich the natural beauty along the river. A contemporary Aboriginal Smoking pit, a mosaic seat and recorded words greet me as I pass a ‘wall’ of words in aboriginal language in metal lettering at the entrance to the park.
Mildura to Murray Bridge (336km. Around 3.5 hours)
After four days of quiet roads and empty spaces, the drive from Mildura to Renmark along the Sturt Highway feels pressured and stressful with trucks and heavy traffic.
We pass fields of red earth, galahs perched on branches of a dead tree, harvested fields with only short dry stalks of hay poking from the soil. There’s the occasional sheep and regular warnings about dust storms.
Paringa has a new addition to the silo art trail. The work by Jack Fran depicts four silhouettes of local identities each filled with colourful local scenes. We drive around the back to better view the two rear pieces including my favourite, a detailed depiction of a Murray Cod.
Opposite the bakery, I notice a ‘big stump’. This Black Stump is “the largest of eleven known black stumps in Australia”.
From Renmark we take a scenic drive along Berri’s Riverview Drive. The Murray doesn’t look particularly mighty here. Black swans swim in red water. Pelicans rest in a dead tree.
Away from the Sturt Highway now, there’s little traffic. It’s dry, very dry. We pass through Wanbi (population 44 in 2016) with its private hotel all closed up. There’s a feeling of desolation and helplessness in the air. The dry rocky land and bare earth appears overgrazed. How do farmers out here survive?
Karoondahas more silo art. Heesco, a Mongolian artist based in Melbourne, painted the rural scene. Australia’s first day and night silo artwork, the scene changes at night with light projections. I’m tempted to stay until dark.
In Tailem Bend we watch a car ferry cross the river from a picnic spot to before heading on to Murray Bridge.
Before dinner we walk across the Murray bridge. Built in 1879, it was the first bridge to span the Murray River. In 1886 the bridge became a dual road rail bridge, reverting to a road bridge in 1925 when a new rail bridge was constructed.
We’re lucky. Today is Thursday and the RSL, located at the end of the bridge, only opens on Thursday and Friday nights. We’re warmly welcomed and shown to a table to enjoy our drinks and take in the wide view across the river. A volunteer suggests we take a look at the museum. The display includes a replica of the Red Baron with a beautifully carved wooden propellor.
On my morning walk I come across a group of people gathered on the riverbank. Speed boats are lined up ready for some sort of festival. A man expains that everyone here has been “touched in some way by depression or suicide”. They are participating in the annual “Ski for life relay”.
Soon 27 boats will set off with their skiers on a relay over three days ending in Renmark. A vision impaired man walking past is “one of the skiers” the man says adding “and I think there’s another blind man who told us last night he feels the water through his feet”.
Murray Bridge to Adelaide (75km. One hour driving)
Our day begins with a search for a laundromat. We get there early but soon all the machines are full with people lining up to do their washing. We’re the only out of towners.
Approaching Adelaide, we decide to visit the Adelaide Hills. The windy road weaves through trees, fire affected areas and interesting looking villages. We stop and buy some wine before driving into the city.
One Day in Adelaide
With one full day in Adelaide, we follow a friend’s recommendation to visit the Central Adelaide Market and then take a drive to Glenelg Beach.
The undercover market teems with people. It has a very European flavour. Shops sell everything from fruit and vegetables to cheese, meat, sausages, mushrooms, Turkish delight and even books. Everything is enticingly displayed and we leave with full shopping bags.
At Glenelg Beach young boys cajole each other to jump off the high jetty into the icy water. Some are braver than others.
The sun heats up as we walk along the promenade. A woman notices us looking at a beautifully restored old two storey home sandwiched between two tall new developments. She tells us about a planning application for another thirteen-storey development that has locals up in arms.
We stayed at the Glenelg Caravan Park over thirty years ago when driving from Perth to Melbourne as new migrants. My husband recalls Glenelg as having a sleepy village atmosphere. That’s changed.