Bidding farewell to the relatives, we headed north east in the direction of Gulgong. Gulgong’s name is derived from the Wiradjuri language meaning ‘deep waterhole’. The town was settled in the 1860’s as part of the gold rush but was known as a ‘poor man’s digging’ site. Much of the original 19th century character remains today and there is evidence of stone culverts and even the old cobblestone gutters. My maternal great grandparents settled in Gulgong in the early 1860’s and my great aunt was born there in 1863. It must have been a hard life because she died 5 years later in Mudgee. Henry Lawson, the Australian poet and author, lived in Gulgong briefly in 1870 while his father attempted to get rich from the diggings and his portrait, showing the town at that time, has been featured on the Australian ten dollar note.
The town has many original buildings including the Prince of Wales Opera House, several pubs, stores and the Gulgong Dispensary. In the window of the dispensary is the transcript of a court proceeding, whereby the wife of the pharmacist was awarded registration, based on her work in the shop over many years – a first for RPL!
We noted the Gulgong Symbol Trail, a ceramic plaque embedded into the footpath, showing what one could expect at each of the old buildings. I liked the ‘good haystack for sleeping’ or ‘and my dog’.
After a coffee and some pastry in a modern patisserie, we took to the road again up the Castlereagh Highway and took the turn off to Tamworth, along the Black Stump Way, which features the Black Stump outside Coolah. This country part of the Liverpool or Black Soil Plains is Kamilaroi Country. The Black Stump Way joins the Oxley Highway near Gunnedah, a prosperous agricultural town with a huge grain silo, sited near the railway line. Apparently this line carries passengers to Moree and Mungindi, however we saw many rail lines in this area and towards Narrabri. Listening to the local ABC radio county hour brought us up to date about the consultation with farmers, regarding the proposed fast inland rail link, which disappointingly will only carry produce.
Tamworth, which sits in the Peel Valley on the Peel River, was to be our lunch stop. Its name is taken from the English town by the same name in Staffordshire, the seat of the British Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel. Peel famously read the Tamworth Manifesto in the British town by that name, which led to the repeal of the Corn Laws. The Australian valley and town surveyed in 1818 by explorer John Oxley was of course the country of Moonbi and Goonoo Goonoo tribes of the Kamilaroi, whose rich lands were taken and who fell victim to disease. Their populations dwindled from 10-12,000 as they were ‘dispersed’ by the white settlers and the indigenous codes of law disregarded.
We arrived on the last day of the Tamworth Country Music Festival, an event held every January since 1973. Peel St had been blocked off as a mall and as we wandered along the last remaining buskers were still performing. The Golden Guitar awards were won by the McClymonts for best album and we had heard Amber Lawrence and Travis Collins, winners of best single interviewed on the local radio. The Country Music Hall of Fame and the giant Golden Guitar are also features of Tamworth and giant banners of the faces of well known country artists fly along Peel St for the festival. Big hats, made from crocodile skin to trucking canvas, hay bales and high heeled boots almost had us line dancing down the street.
Tamworth settles on the western side of the Great Dividing Range and we travelled east up the Moonbi Hills towards Armidale, our destination for the night. A greater contrast in towns would be difficult to find. Armidale with its bluestone houses and rich parks and grounds speaks of serious squatter money. We wandered down from our motel accommodation to the main part of town, past not one but two cathedrals. Originally settled because of gold and other minerals in the area, it soon became a rich pastoral centre and now includes the prestigious University of New England. The St Mary and Joseph Cathedral built in 1869, holds state heritage significance as the centre of the first catholic diocese outside Sydney and Newcastle. The Cathedral and surrounding building occupy a whole block of Armidale, the Cathedral being a spectacular building. Diagonally opposite is St Peters Cathedral, centre of the Anglican Diocese of Armidale and built in 1875. Both are flanked by Central Park a beautiful area featuring huge European trees.
We enjoyed the coolness of the park and noticed the usual war memorial for fallen soldiers, both men and women, also include plaques to those who have recently served as peacekeepers and in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not much was open on a Sunday however we decided a pub meal at the New England Hotel would do nicely and tied a Two Birds beer (female owned craft brewery) and emu and kanga bangers and mash, with a beetroot gravy and a touch of chilli.