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Armidale, NSW.

Grafton to Armidale

The trip from Grafton meant crossing the Great Dividing Range . . . yet again. The recommended route would have taken us west to Glen Innes and then south to Armidale - two sides of a triangle. There was another road - the triangle's hypotenuse, if you like - which cut 52 km off the distance. We were aware that the road was steep and winding but decided to give it a go anyway. Steep and winding it certainly was but nothing to worry about and the Pajero handled the weight of the caravan without complaint. Moreover, there was virtually no traffic. We peaked at 4,500 feet and the road remained above 4,000 feet for quite a way before starting to descend. The scenery over the mountains was beautiful and the weather was clear and sunny. We didn't regret our decision to go that way and were amused when we crossed Guy Fawkes Creek - the date being November 5th.
The City of Armidale

Armidale is at an elevation of 3,200 feet and they claim it is the highest city in Australia. Hmmm, perhaps a bit of subterfuge there, centred around the definition of the word 'city'. I suspect they're using the British definition: A town with a cathedral. Armidale has two cathedrals. The Australian definition of 'city' is vaguer, requiring no cathedral. Rather it concentrates on a town's size and importance. The town of Glen Innes, 100 kilometres to the north of Armidale, is at a substantially higher elevation but doesn't qualify as a city by either definition.

Armidale Cathedrals

                  Left: St. Peter's Anglican Cathedral.                            Right: St. Mary's and St. Joseph's Catholic Cathedral.
Armidale's two cathedrals are located on adjacent corners of Central Park.

Due to its altitude Armidale has a comparatively cold climate. The temperature range on the day of our arrival was a chilly 4°C. overnight, rising to a daytime maximum of 19°C. In winter, minima are frequently as low as -10°C. at night, and occasionally even lower. Precautions need to taken with exposed water pipes. The climate, being so similar to that of England, enables most English trees to thrive and there are many of them. The highlands region is, in fact, known as 'New England' and has four distinct seasons. We were encouraged to return in autumn to see the leaves turn golden and fall.

The area was first settled by white people in the early 1800s after squatters, pushing north into largely unexplored territory, brought their sheep and claimed the land for themselves (hence the name 'squatter'). The government said they must pay for it but the squatters refused, saying they had opened up new country so it was theirs. Eventually the government gave up and the squatters became known as pastoralists - a much more respectable description. Nobody, of course, asked the Aborigines.

A Scotsman by the name of George James McDonald, all 4' 10" of him, (sorry, I still think in feet and inches), was sent out by the government to establish a settlement and to bring law and order to the region. George, accompanied by a squad of police constables, decided a creek between two mountain ranges was an ideal location for a town. He named it Armidale after a castle on the Isle of Skye off the west coast of Scotland. In fact, the castle's name is Armadale Castle but George wasn't too fussed about the spelling and the city's present population believes it differentiates their city from the other two Australian Armadales, one of which is a suburb of Melbourne and the other a suburb of Perth. (We lived in the latter City of Armadale when we first arrived in Australia in 1982.)

In the 1830s gold was found in two locations near to Armidale and the population expanded rapidly. Today the town - sorry, city - and surrounding area has a population of around 25,000. We were quite surprised to discover that Armidale is a centre for education and art, quite a cultural oasis. It is home to the University of New England and has very many excellent schools to which students come from all over the world. Its health facilities benefit from the flow-on. Whereas most country towns are desperate to attract medical practitioners, doctors readily come to Armidale because their children are assured of a good education. As a result, the city has a first class hospital with all the specialties covered. We were told that there are seventy music teachers in Armidale and that the art gallery has far more paintings than it has wall space to hang them.

Last, but by no means least, because of its location in the mountains, Armidale's rainfall has ensured that it has never suffered a water shortage! There were no water restrictions and we could have washed our car and caravan every day if we'd wished . . . except it never stopped raining long enough!

On the subject of water, we took a tour one day whilst our faithful Pajero, Billy, was having a well-deserved service. The tour was free and provided by the Tourist Information Centre. The newly-painted tour bus is pictured below. As the photo shows, it was a wet day and it was to become much wetter! As the tour progressed, so the rain increased. Cold air outside the bus and warm damp passengers inside the bus resulted in all the windows steaming up.

Tour Bus

Our tour bus with built-in showers.

Our guide didn't worry. She was soon pointing out features totally invisible to her listeners.
"Look, there are some more deer under that tree."
"Which tree?"
"The one in the paddock."
"Which paddock?"

Then it got worse. One of the passengers in a window seat received a stream of cold water down her neck; the bus roof was leaking. The guide totally lacked sympathy: "It'll keep you awake" she quipped. Then it was Pam's turn; cold water poured from above and streamed down her back. (I had unselfishly forfeited the window seat to Pam. Smirk!) The guide, unphased, continued her commentary. Before Pam had struggled into her raincoat the bus had stopped for us to disembark into a deep puddle of water in torrential rain. We were shown part of a beautiful building built in 1886 as a summer residence by some bloke from Sydney with far too much money. He had employed a top architect who had excelled himself. The building has now been restored and is used by the University of New England, hence the restricted access.

On reboarding the bus, which had been standing in the downpour accumulating cold water in its roof space, we got a nasty surprise. Well, some of us did. As soon as the driver set off, not just two passengers got drenched, but almost every passenger with a window seat had icy water deposited upon them. Fortunately the tour was over and the bus was heading back to the Information Centre. In all fairness, had the weather been better it would have been a first class tour; the guide's knowledge of her subject seemed limitless. She carried no notes but could go into the greatest detail on all the places we visited. But then, she didn't have to contend with freezing water running down her neck.

Disembarking from the bus we walked through the rain to see if the car was ready. It wasn't, so we squelched on for another two kilometres to the caravan where we were stuck for somewhere to put our soggy clothes. However, if we felt cold, wet and miserable, when we looked across at our new neighbours setting up a tent we realised just how well off we were.

I mentioned Central Park earlier, in connection with the two cathedrals. The park isn't large, but had been planted with many different varieties of tree by an Italian monk, Brother Francis. He did this on a purely voluntary basis after seeing what was known as the Dismal Park deteriorate for want of some T.L.C. He was already tending the adjacent gardens of the first Catholic Cathedral, and in 1882 offered to look after the plants in Reserve No. 8, as the bureaucrats knew it. The local council, realising it was on to a good thing, commissioned Brother Francis to travel to Sydney and select four hundred trees. The good Bro, being more familiar with European trees, returned with many exotic species. He planted them and they thrived when they were allowed to. Even in those days, society had to contend with a proportion of brain-dead hoons. Bro Francis persevered, however, and was able to see the early results of his labours before he died in a 'flu epidemic in 1891.

Central Park

Part of Central Park as we saw it, with many magnificent trees including some beautiful oaks.
A living memorial to good old Brother Francis.

In the centre of the park was a war memorial with a small fountain. It was encircled by a low hedge and Pam was delighted to find poppies growing just inside the hedge, unseen from beyond, and completely surrounding the memorial. They were all in flower just in time for the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

Memorial with Poppies

Flowering poppies growing just inside the low hedge around the war memorial
commemorating those who died in two world wars and several smaller wars.
The names of all the local men who served are engraved on the central cylinder.

Glen Innes

On the Saturday before we left Armidale we drove over to Glen Innes to see the Beardies Festival. One reason for going was to see our favourite little country and western singer, Kirsty Lee Akers, who was entertaining the crowd during the evening. Before that, however, there was a whole lot more to see starting with 76 Squadron of the RAAF marching through the town to the music of their brass band.

76 Squadron

76 Squadron of the RAAF marched up the main street, around the roundabout and back. And very smart they were.

They got away with it the first time but on the second pass they found their way barred by the local plod who challenged them.

The Challenge

Picked up by the Bill for carrying firearms in public. Look what the big fella has under his arm (arrowed),
and he wasn't alone.

Had it been you or I, we'd have been sent down for a stretch for sure. But, 76 Squadron versus two cops with one little pistol? It was no contest. So the Chief Super (or whatever he was) saved face and gave 76 Squadron the Freedom of the City instead. As it turned out, it was a good move by the Bill because what they didn't know was that 76 Squadron had back-up, and had push come to shove it might have got a bit nasty.

RAAF Hawks

76 Squadron had come all tooled up, just in case . . .

The Hawks, in tight formation, roared down the length of Glen Innes's main street at a sedate pace (for them). They soon disappeared from sight and the cops breathed a sigh of relief. Then, just as everybody thought it was all over, they came back. And how!!! This time they were spaced out in line astern and they were moving! What a fantastic sound. Babies screamed, dogs barked, and . . . then they were gone, just a distant rumble growing fainter. I reckon the Bill got the message, "Don't mess with 76 Squadron or we'll be back."

There followed a parade through the town consisting of bands and veteran cars and fire engines and floats and belly dancers and a large group of the Ulysses Motor Cycle Club, mostly on Harleys. I'm sure you've got the picture. What was particularly nice about the Glen Innes parade was that it passed up one side of the main street, around a round-about, then back down the other side. Pam and I were sitting on the central reservation so we were able to watch it all twice.

One poor girl driving a bright red Austin Healey Sprite (below centre) stalled the engine and couldn't restart it. Everything behind her came to a grinding halt, so three blokes pushed the Sprite so she could jump start it. Well, she hadn't a clue. There were shouts of "Put it in second gear" followed by loud grinding noises. Eventually the engine fired and she set off after the first half of the parade. When the parade returned along the other side of the street, guess who was missing?

Fire, Sports Car, Pipe Band

Just a small sample of some of the participants in the parade
The poor girl driving the stalled Austin Healey Sprite probably wished she'd stayed home.

After the parade had finished we went down to the park where the action would be for the rest of the day. There were plenty of stalls and amusements, and the entertainment started at 3 o'clock. Well, so did the rain! It simply p---ed down. What? 'Poured', of course, what else? The amplifiers or something went pop and there was an appeal for any electricians in the crowd. What crowd? Everybody had run for shelter. Anyway, it all worked out in the end as these things usually do. One act was cancelled which brought the entertainment more or less back on schedule and the sun sort of came out. One of the performers that really impressed us was a young lass called Melanie Dyer. Melanie had just turned fourteen but she had a maturity far beyond her years. We discovered we were sitting next to her very proud grandmother.

Melanie Dyer

If we don't hear a lot more of Melanie Dyer in the future I'll be really surprised.
She not only sings and plays, she composes too.

While the entertainment continued, the Beardies Contest was being judged nearby. Of course, there was no shortage of beards as the Ulysses guys were all there. I was asked to enter but declined - I was way out of my league. But what is this "Beardies" thing? It all started with two bearded ex-convict stockmen who settled in the area in the 1840s. They're dead now, by the way. We'd earlier crossed a creek called Beardy Waters just outside Glen Innes, and back in Armidale we'd seen a Beardy Street right in the middle of town, so the name is well established. I suspect there must be more to that story. Anyway, there were prizes in the Beardies Contest for the longest beard, the most unruly beard, the best groomed beard, the most colourful beard and more. Here are the winners:

Beard winners

The winners of the Beardy Competition posed for the official press photographer.
Tony Windsor, the local Independent Federal MP grabs a photo opportunity on the back row.

One of the festival stalls featured face and body painting. The lady who was doing it looked so fearsome that I wasn't game to ask if I could photograph her at work, but I bumped into her later and she wasn't fierce at all, in fact she was very nice. I asked if I could take her picture and she said "Certainly". Just shows how you shouldn't judge a book by its cover.

Face Painter

Scary! Under the paint she was a lovely lady.

And finally, it was time for the star of the evening - Kirsty Lee Akers - to perform. Kirsty had won the Toyota Star Maker Award at Tamworth in 2007 and following that had a hit record (are they still called 'records'?) at number seven in the Country Music Charts.

Kirsty Lee Akers

Kirsty Lee Akers on stage at the Beardies Festival at Glen Innes.

Kirsty, as we've mentioned before in these pages, is tiny yet she has such energy and drive to succeed that you can't help but admire her. Last year, or was it the year before, I photographed Pam and Kirsty together. In spite of Kirty's high heels, Pam towered above her. At the Beardies Festival, Kirsty was appearing with her backing group. One of the guitarists is a giant of a man and there just had to be a photo there if only they would stand close enough together.

Kirsty and Guitarist

Kirsty Lee Akers, dwarfed by her guitarist, on stage at Glen Innes

All in all, we had a very enjoyable day despite the rain. 'Course, I had to mess it up at the last minute by going on one of the rides on the funfair. It was called "The Zipper" and it was like a giant propeller with chairs rotating around its blade even as the whole propeller thing rotated. The result was that horrible forces were applied to your body, first in one direction then another, while the chair spun violently around and then reversed. All my organs seemed to migrate around in my body and it was all I could do to keep a very tasty beef roll and cup of coffee inside. But enough of that, I'd prefer to forget it.

Two days later saw us hitched up and heading for the coast. For about 150 kilometres the road went up and down, left and right, without ever descending below 3,000 feet. Then we hit the edge of the range and the road dropped really steeply, still twisting and turning, the caravan doing its best to push us over the edge at every hairpin bend. Towards the bottom we stopped on a flat stretch to allow the brakes to cool while we had lunch. For much of the way the road surface was appalling. Some roads were just a patchwork of repairs; those were the good ones. The bad ones consisted of potholes held together by bumps.

Eventually we arrived at the Halifax Holiday Park at Nelson Bay, Port Stephens, 150 kilometres north east of Sydney as the crow flies. But I've used up my allotted kilobytes for this page, so how about meeting me on Page 57?

Footnote: This re-working of Page 56 was completed on 7th June 2013. It conforms to HTML5 and CSS level 3.