Nathan Johnson
Mallee Highway, December 2017

The Mallee can be an unforgiving place. In summer the searing heat, northerly winds and dry salt pans make me think it’ll never rain again. On the roadside Mallee trees cling to the rock hard soil, their multiple stems branching outwards from the root. The fields look bare after the wheat harvest. Small tumbleweeds blow across the highway.

My family is more forgiving because they know I like the long drive, though it’s a two day journey between metropolises (such as they are). I once drove along this highway in a storm of orange dust where visibility was down to twenty metres. Today, though, the air is clear and The Church is keeping us company.

Back in Metropolis, circuses and elephants
Where the oranges grew
And back in Metropolis nothing can ever topple us
When I’m standing with you.

“This is great driving music,” I say, turning to her and smiling.

 I glance back to check on the small figure in the booster seat. He’s travelling well so far, busy watching Finding Nemo on his iPad. We’ve made good progress and, after a packed lunch in a park in tidy Lameroo, we press onwards towards the border.

 “Oh, we’ve got some pears in the esky,” she says.

“Don’t worry, they don’t care what we bring out of the state.”

On the Victorian side we drive two hundred kilometres through a procession of dying towns, marked only by grain silos, the occasional pub and closed petrol stations and general stores. Some towns have fabulous names – Tutye, Boinka, Linga – but little else to recommend them. We barely see a soul, though we do spot an emu beside the highway in Underbool.

My mind drifts away with the sublime guitars and complementary vocals. The song unfolds gradually but confidently, like the highway I’m driving on. It’s a superb combination: a quintessentially Australian song for a quintessentially Australian landscape. I’m enjoying the freedom of the open road – no bosses, no meetings, no deadlines. But I’m also mindful that they want to get home.

Murrayville boasts of being the hometown of basketballer, Rachael Sporn. In Cowangie, Larry Perkins in a Holden V8 racing suit smiles down from a faded billboard.

“There’s still some daylight left,” I say. “Do you still want to check out the silo art?”

“Yeah, let’s do it,” she says.

At Walpeup, we take a right turn onto a narrow tarmac road. I expect it to become gravel over each rise and around each corner, but it never does. I’m excited about driving on a new road towards tiny settlements I’ve never heard of, deep in the heart of the grain-growing Mallee. These parts could tell some stories of yesteryear, I think to myself, back when these communities were thriving, there were jobs to be had and each town could support a local footy team.

At the superbly-named town of Patchewollock, we stop to view the artwork at the northern tip of Victoria’s silo art trail. The size of the farmer’s image is mind-boggling and I wonder how the artist kept to the correct scale (“through the use of grids”, she informs me). In the car park there’s just one other viewer, for whom Patchewollock is the final stop of seven on a long day’s drive. There’s little else here besides the pub across the road where the artist presumably quenched his thirst after a long day in a cherry picker hanging three hundred metres above the plain.

We drive onto Lascelles where two spectacular portraits of old-timers – a man and a woman – are on display. They are hugely impressive, painted in different shades of brown, like the dirt underfoot. But otherwise, Lascelles feels like a ghost town with abandoned cars, silent houses and a dormant railway. By this time it’s late afternoon: the fading light peaks through grey clouds and we return to the car.

And it’s only a day away
We could leave tonight
You can sleep along the way
Dream in black and white.

Instead, we spend the night in Swan Hill before driving through the Riverina the following day. It’s even hotter in this dry, flat land. But, unlike the Mallee, there are rivers here which support taller trees and larger town centres. We discover new roads and country hospitality, where a Deniliquin fireman invites my surprised son up into the front seat of a fire engine.

I enjoy every minute of the journey, but my patient family silently will our arrival in Metropolis. I can’t blame them. It’s a long way. This adventure along these quiet country backroads is mine. But, next time, we’ll fly.

Based in Canberra, Nathan is a public servant who'd rather write short stories and novels. He has self-published two books - 'The Watermelon Seller: Short Stories of East Asia' (2011) and '16 Ways to Ride a Bicycle' (2015) - through Peacock Publications.