Along the road to the apocalypse

20 January 2020

Beechworth to Canberra via Gundagai, 391km

Our journey from Beechworth to Canberra was one of our longest drives for a while. It was nothing compared to our interminable days on the Stuart Highway but it seemed a very long way.

And it was a very strange kind of day, one on which we were destined to drive through some pretty apocalyptic Australian weather.

We left the caravan park in a thunderstorm and heavy rain – the same caravan park that only a couple of weeks ago had been evacuated because of fire. On the Hume Highway, we found evidence of the bushfires that had closed the road only a few weeks ago. Fire had jumped across two lanes of the road to set fire to the central reservation and we knew that fierce fires were still burning not far away in the Snowy Mountains.

In driving drizzle we made a coffee stop in Gundagai, an old country town immortalised by the 1922 folk song “Along the road to Gundagai” to which Stefan introduced me with an interesting rendition as we made our approach! The song became the theme tune to a popular Australian radio series called Dad and Dave. We found Dad and Dave along with Mum and Mabel looking a little wet outside the Visitors Information Centre.

It was the kind of weather in which fire danger seemed far away but in which we could instead imagine the floods that have plagued the town during its history. In 1852 the river Murrumbidgee broke its bank washing away the early town built on its floodplains and killing 89 of its 250 inhabitants. Local Aboringinal men Yarri and Jacky Jacky rescued 40 people in their bark canoes and are commemorated in another sculpture on the high street.

The town’s civil buildings all seem a little more flood proof now, built uphill from the river.

The Gundagai Bakehouse claims to be the oldest working bakery in Australia. I wish we had kept a list of all the bakehouses that make that claim because we must be in double figures by now.

Just outside Gundagai and back on the Hume Highway the thunderous sky dried but turned a different kind of dark and the wind started to howl. Visibility worsened and we feared smoke. It just didn’t smell like smoke. Instead we drove straight into a dust storm. Relieved it wasn’t fire we watched the landscape and road ahead all but disappear.

Driving into Canberra an hour later it was like the thunder, rain and dust had missed the city and all was bright and sunny. Except, pulling up at the traffic lights we noticed something a bit odd. A car in front was driving around with its rear windscreen completely smashed in. “Hail” Stefan said, knowingly. What kind of hail does damage like that, I thought sceptically.

This kind of hail apparently! Hailmageddon no less. And we had missed it by just half an hour.

Wandering around Canberra over the next couple of days we saw more of the destruction wrought on its cars. Windscreens were smashed, wing mirrors destroyed and bonnets and roofs dimpled. The tow trucks and insurance companies were working overtime. 16,000 cars were damaged in just a few minutes. Just as we put the car on the market we were so grateful that we didn’t get caught up in it. Decorative hail dents are definitely not a selling point! Just in case it returned we left Tick safely undercover for the duration of our stay.

It wasn’t just the cars that felt the force of the giant hailstones. Trees all over the city had lost leaves and branches and the grass full of huge holes made by the hail. Council workers were out in force clearing the paths and tidying up all the green spaces. Nothing quite prepared me for the extremes of Australia’s weather.

Whilst we were in Canberra fires continued to burn in the Snowy Mountains and the terrible news came that three American firefighters had been killed in their plane whilst on a water-bombing run. As I write, just a week after leaving Canberra, the ACT declared a state of emergency due to out of control bushfires threatening the city’s south. Even at close hand, it is hard to grasp the enormity of these brutal, unpredictable bushfires and the terror of those who live so close. We, like the residents of those places affected are so grateful to the local volunteers and international firefighters giving their all to minimise the harm.

Vicious thunderstorms, lashing rain, dust storms, giant hail, still rampaging bushfires all in one day. We were glad to have Tick safely under cover in the relative safety of Australia’s capital city whilst we explored…

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