Dude, We're Home
Malle Country, Northwest Victoria, Australia
The road is straight and flat. The heat rises off the asphalt ahead of us like a mirage, as though we are chasing the endlessly receding tide of a river. The land around us is alternatively brown then yellow, and always dusty; the fields dotted with the odd gum tree, and sometimes with a herd of sheep taking refuge from the sun in the shade of the tree's broad limbs. It is mighty hot outside, but the car's air conditioner stops us from sweating too much. The music is turned up loudly, but it is still difficult to hear over the whirring of the cool air.
Bec and I are driving through the Mallee country of northwest Victoria, three or four hours from Melbourne. It's been two weeks since we arrived home from Bangkok, after a full year away; a year spent with a month long stop in North America, a five month stint living in Scotland, four months travelling around Central and Eastern Europe, and two months in Southeast Asia. It is good to be home, where we've spent our time predominantly catching up with family. We are driving through the vast Mallee country to go and visit my cousin, Blue Kelly, and his ladyfriend, Steph. They work a farm at the tiny town of Culgoa, population 120.
Blue is 10 or so years my senior, somewhere in his late 30s, but we've always gotten along well, I think it is because of our shared love of music, beer and big red beards. Last time I saw Blue, his beard resembled that of infamous Aussie bushranger, Ned Kelly, only bright red. The bird's nest growing on my face at Christmas had nothing on that masterpiece.
As well as wanting to catch up with Blue and Steph, our other reason to visit was to meet the young lad they popped out whilst we were away. Back in the middle of last year, when we were living in Edinburgh, we had received a text message from my mum, which read something along the lines of: BLUE AND STEPH HAD A BABY BOY DUDE HEATH KELLY, (my mum doesn't know how to turn the capitals off on her mobile phone, although if there's any time capitals are appropriate, announcing the birth of a baby must be it.)
"Um, did my mum just call me Dude? As in, Dude, Blue and Steph had a baby boy, Heath Kelly. Or did Blue and Steph call their kid Dude?" I asked, standing in our lounge room, a little confused.
"Surely they didn't call their baby Dude!" replied our housemate.
"Nup," interjected Bec, "If anyone's gonna call their baby Dude, it's Blue and Steph."
A couple of text messages later, and it was confirmed. Blue and Steph had a healthy baby boy, and named him Dude Heath Kelly. Dude was now 10 months, and welcomed us with a sloppy kiss that only an infant can get away with. It is late afternoon, and Blue is about to head back to the paddocks to move some sheep about. Bec and I jump in his dusty ute and the three of us bump our way down the dirt track to the old farm. We arrive at a worn-out shed with a wooden frame covered by corrugated iron. Inside, a group of sheep shuffle nervously about, the sound of their hooves on the wooden boards echoing about the otherwise silent old shearing shed. Outside, a rusted old car rests in the red dust, clearly having not moved in many moons. Prickly weeds are sprouting up around the flat tyres, reaching up into the bright sunshine despite the minimal moisture existing in the dry earth. The heat here is dry and unrelenting, and the flies are as stubborn as they come. A wave of the hand does nothing to remove them from your face. They simply continue to crawl about around your eyes and your nose, threatening to go exploring up your nasal cavity.
Bec and I wait outside next to the trailer backed up to the door of the shed, whilst Blue and his trusty old sheep dog, Destry, round up the sheep and herd them into the trailer. Soon after, we pass through a paddock gate, open up the trailer and watch as the sheep jump to freedom. We follow them for a bit in the ute – a couple of young lambs have fallen off the back of the group and stopped, looking lost and confused.
"We'd better chuck 'em in the back," Blue says. "Destry!" he yells, and the dog jumps out of the ute tray and races towards the now startled lambs. "See if you can grab 'em," Blue challenges us, "just go for the one the dog's after."
Bec and I hop out onto the dirt and over the next few minutes, we make complete fools of ourselves as we repeatedly lunge desperately after the little lambs, struggling to get even a fingertip on them. All it needs is some Benny Hill music and it's comedy gold. Blue has a laugh before joining us in the chase. Thirty seconds later, he strides back to the ute with a lamb under each arm, and Destry bounding about at his heels. I've still got no idea how the bastard did it.
The next night, a Friday night, we walk a few hundred metres from their house to the local pub. In these tiny places, the local pub is the town's lounge room. As the sun gets lower in the sky, people slowly drift in, prop themselves up at the bar, and order a pot of beer. They are amazingly friendly – they have no reason not to be.
Jack, an old man perhaps in his eighties and with only a couple of teeth left, turns to me, "You must be a Hogan, I'd recognise that face anywhere. Who's your old man?"
"Me old man was Jimmy Hogan, from Nully," I explain. Nully is short for Nullawil, another tiny dot on the map; a farming community of a couple of hundred people, 15 minutes down the highway.
He nods his approval, "And who's this lovely lady?" he asks with a cheeky toothless grin, gesturing towards Bec who is standing next to us. We chat with the locals for a few hours. A couple more of my cousins drop in to say g'day, and we eventually head back to listen to some music and finish off the beers in the fridge. It's good to be home.
Check out Dave Hogan's other adventures at the Fanta Pants Diaries.