“The first fall of snow is not only an event, it is a magical event. You go to bed in one kind of a world and wake up in another quite different, and if this is not enchantment then where is it to be found?”
― J.B Priestley
2013 was looking like being becoming the Year of the Scan. By May, I had decided to rebel against looming health problems and the shadow of death and turn it into The Year of the Snow instead.
My daughter was born in northwest New South Wales, Australia. Much of the country was stark, red sandy soil, which contrasted with a vast cloudless blue sky. Rains would magically transform the landscape into a sea of wildflowers. Here is where she spent her early years. Next we moved to a tiny town with a population of 400 in north-western Queensland where the sheep survive on stones. A few years later, Longreach and Roma became our homes. Having predominantly dry, flat landscapes with frosty winter nights and summer temperatures often above 40C, these areas were about as far removed from snow-capped mountains as you could imagine.
This was a country of stark beauty, extreme heat, spectacular sunsets and sunrises and million star night skies. It may seem strange but often the landscape reminded me of the ocean. The vastness, the solitude, the freedom, the power and the isolation were all there. At times the sound of the wind roaring through the box gums and the spinifex reminded me of gusty ocean breezes ruffling palm trees and whistling across the sand dunes. It was a country we both loved and hated. Rain was a rare treat to my little bush girl and snow was certainly an alien concept. She often asked if we could go to the snow one day but she was seventeen before an opportunity arose.
We now live in the Brisbane region where the climate is more subtropical. The alpine regions of Australia are in the southern states and a long drive from here with accommodation very costly in the school holidays. How were we going to see snow? I came up with a highly “complicated” plan. Fill the car with food, camping equipment and warm clothes and just drive south until we saw snow. Yes, I know, it must have taken a mind rivaling Einstein to devise that one.
I had another cunning plan. Apparently the signs were looking very good for snow hitting the New England Tablelands so if we took the inland roads instead of the coast we may see snow much earlier. My research showed that the little town of Guyra only 400km from sunny Brisbane was a hot candidate for snow that year. It is one of the highest towns in Australia at 1,330 metres (4,364 feet) above sea level. Perched on a high plateau, Guyra rarely gets above 30 C (86 F) during summer. If it didn’t snow in Guyra, I’d have to drive all the way south to the alpine regions which I was hoping to avoid as my bank balance was just as unhealthy as me.
For the next couple of weeks I stayed glued to the weather forecast until conditions looked perfect for freezing weather. The day arrived to start our quest for snow and we hit the road, giggling like kids. Did I forget to mention that I had never seen snow either?
On our way we planned to explore the attractions of inland Queensland and New South Wales as we passed through towns like Stanthorpe, Tenterfield, Glenn Innes, Armidale and Tamworth.
At Stanthorpe we saw apples growing on trees for the first time and heard rave reviews about a little camping ground at Ebor Falls east of Guyra that apparently I HAD to stay in at least once in my life. I filed that little gem away for later in the trip.
The next stop was Tenterfield, where we spent an hour trying to find the oldest cork tree. The child in me really hoped it would have little bottle corks hanging off the branches like fruit, however of course it was only ever going to be a big fat tree.
Glenn Innes is where the lovely red-headed people breed! I’ve never seen so many glorious redheads in one town before! As the name suggests this town has strong Scottish origins. We checked out the Australian Standing Stones, all the while conscious of the rapidly chilling air.
A stop at the tourist information centre had us setting off for the Three Waters High Country Camping Grounds at Bullock Mountain. The last 13km of road was unsealed and in need of grading so the corrugated, pot holed, puddle covered surface was a slight challenge for my little old sedan.
However, we made it to the front gate with a few teeth left in our jaws, not too much mud around the wheels and the absence of kangaroo blood on the bonnet. Our reservations were replaced by relief when we spied horses grazing by a peaceful creek, the whole scene bathed in the golden glow of the setting sun.
The owners, Kerri and Steve, are lovely people and when we ventured into the communal recreation building later we were surprised to read how celebrated Steve Langley is in the horse trail riding field. We were also shocked to read that he was in his 80s. His twinkling sapphire blue eyes and active body deceived us into believing he was 20 years younger! This caricature on the wall is a very accurate representation of him.
I’ve a fondness for horses and this trip brought back childhood memories for me of my father’s work, breaking in horses on a property near Rockhampton. One day he took Sandy, a partially broken-in gelding, out riding with me. I was perched on Lockett, an old fat lazy pony. Sandy took off and Lockett bolted after him. Taken by surprise I pulled on the reins to pull her up, which she did…suddenly! I flew over her head and landed flat on my back. This was my first experience of being winded and so of course I thought I was paralysed.
Steve’s son, Mark, is also well known in the horse breaking/trail riding area and was interviewed by Outback Magazine. In the article he describes what he has learnt over time:
“I’ve judged horses too quickly in the past and I try not to judge people too hastily either. Like horses, some people can kick and bite because they don’t know how to react to you or because they feel insecure. But there’s nothing better than convincing a wild horse to trust you and even become your friend.”
It was a strange night – still, cold and silent apart from the occasional snorting of horses grazing near us. Where were the sounds of traffic, the barking dogs, the occasional gunshot and the wailing sirens of our suburb?
At sunrise we headed off early in our frost covered car to Guyra. As we left, the sky was tinged with delicate pink clouds, a contrast to the vibrant sunset of the previous day.
Our pit stop at Guyra had us running back inside the car. A bitterly cold wind had sprung up, piercing our 4 layers of clothing. I was unsure what to do next. Should we stay in Guyra for the hoped for snow or move further south? A cup of coffee would help me decide but my thermos was empty. That’s when I made the radical decision to actually purchase hot drinks at the first café we found. Yes, I know the luxury was scandalous but sometimes you’ve got to go a little crazy…
My daughter and I still talk about our strange experience in that little cafe. We walked into a vast forest of coloured knitted socks and beanies and were greeted by a tall man in shorts. Didn’t he know it was cold? Neat piles of unused coffee grounds sat on the counter along with a huge collection of unmatched coffee mugs. Instead of a cash register he recorded the transaction in minute writing in a ledger that looked like it was started in 1925.
I jokingly commented that we were hoping to see snow, fully expecting a rather skeptical reply. But in a serious voice that indicated absolutely no doubt he stated that it was definitely going to snow in Guyra that night. I thought he was teasing me but he sounded so confident that we had to believe him. He’d make a great politician.
Next he brought our enormous steaming mugs over to the open fireplace where he had decided we were to sit. As we listened to his conversation, sparks flew out of the fire over us and I tried to remember if our heavy clothing was fire retardant. While he chatted away, he tinkered with a table covered in what looked like expensive Rolex watches.
A mobile phone call interrupted his story and he took the phone outside into the bitter wind to have a private conversation. My daughter and I looked at the open crackling fire, the table of Rolex watches, the wall of socks and each other, unsure whether we should wait until he got back. Eventually after about 20 minutes we decided it was a long phone call and ventured outside. We waved goodbye to the man with the blue legs and headed off.
Mr Blue Legs had told us about a free spot we could camp by The Mother of Ducks Lagoon but we would need to watch out for leeches. I think any leech which survives such cold really deserves to feast on our warm blood. Should we set up camp next to the lagoon and wait for the snow to hit that night or keep traveling? There aren’t many sights to see in Guyra so we decided to make a trip east to Ebor Falls in Guy Fawkes National Park, and come back again before sunset. If necessary we could stay at the legendary Ebor Falls Camping Ground if we took longer than expected.
What followed was an interesting conversation between me and the world’s cheapest GPS system designed by a sadist. I probably should have expected that a $70 special that has a picture of an animated cookie car on the screen traveling on wide pink roads might be less than accurate. After driving in circles twice we decided to do something novel and just follow the road signs. These took us on a sometimes hair-raising, knuckle-biting drive.
After being showered with rocks by a speeding truck we were relieved to make it to the tiny town of Ebor Falls. I was not going to return to Guyra via that road! We would either stay in the Ebor Falls caravan park or drive to Armidale and then head back to Guyra.
A quick chat to a café owner in the tiny community had her looking at me as though I was crazy. A caravan park in Ebor Falls? Are you mad? Often I get some fantastic word of mouth advice. Apparently my source in Stanthorpe was mistaken though. Such a place didn’t exist unless it was back in 1958 perhaps. So what to do but just enjoy Ebor Falls and make the drive to Armidale before sunset.
The clouds had a strange white shimmer to them that we had never seen before. Was it snow? The wind turned our faces numb and after a quick explore and food guzzling affair we escaped to the warmth of the car and slowly felt the tingling/burning as the feeling returned to our cheeks and noses.
On to Armidale and the sky in that direction was looking green. Hail? Instead of camping I booked into a cheap caravan park that had undercover parking. A check of the news had us glad we’d done so as a wild hail storm had hit Tamworth further south. Armidale had snow predicted as well!
That night I was too excited to sleep, determined not to miss any snow falls, no matter how light. I eventually collapsed in the early hours of the morning and was less than happy to be woken by my daughter at 5am. “C’mon Mum we don’t want to miss the snow. It’s coming down in Guyra and Black Mountain.” I lay there bleary eyed, thinking that snow is really not all that special and it would probably melt before we got there anyway. After being force-fed a triple strength coffee by Tough Cookie we were on the road again.
When I first glimpsed the white on the hills near Black Mountain, my reaction left my daughter’s ears ringing for the rest of the day. All my years of childish excitement about snow exploded in high pitched squeals. Yes, we had snow! As soon as it was safe we pulled into a side road to indulge in a bit of contact with the frozen stuff.
The snow in the tread of my daughter’s warm shoes melted and re-froze leaving her slipping and sliding around. After finding out that snow is indeed wet and cold, we hopped back in the car leaving little puddles on the floor and continued along the highway where we came across this scene. My fantasy picture! A cabin with smoke coming out of the chimney, and pine trees laced with snow.
I wish I could include the pictures of us with stupid grins on our faces but my desire to protect our privacy means you’ll have to imagine our ridiculous joy instead. After years of craving snow we’d found it only 400km from sunny Brisbane. My possible two week quest for snow turned into a 2 ½ day miracle trip. The next day back at home my health deteriorated so continuing on would have been difficult. We’d also saved a small fortune in fuel.
So that is the quest for snow I’ve alluded to in a few posts. No, we didn’t climb Everest, or spend a week skiing the alps. But we saw, felt and tasted snow and that is something I wondered if I would ever get a chance to do in my life. Best of all, I got a chance to share this first experience with my daughter, the girl from the bush. She’d finally made the journey from dust to snow. Planning not to plan too much turned out to be a resounding success, give or take a few dodgy roads and close encounters with trucks.