Return to Scenic Hill

The novelty of the New Year wears off soon after returning to work. As I resume commuting from Leeton to Griffith, I’m reminded that it was immediately after the school holidays that I most felt like wagging.

The drive up Scenic Hill toward Pioneer Park Museum isn’t as blinding as it was a couple of months ago. The angle of the sun has changed so it no longer shines directly through the windscreen. As I park the car I can smell the chlorine evaporating from the water being sprinkled on the beautiful gardens. Local birds seem to know when the sprinklers are due to start. Apostle Birds and Grass Parrots can be seen showering outside the Italian Museum in the morning.

Last week when the temperature rose above 45 degrees there were many birds around the water tanks. Crested Pigeons were hanging around the tank by the working windmill, while next to ‘Fairview’ Cottage I saw a couple of Pardalotes diving into another tank. Up the hill were a mob of thirsty-looking Black Jays.

While 45 isn’t the hottest day Griffith has seen — a record 46 in 2001! — it’s a new experience for me. I still remember when it first got above 40 after moving to Wagga Wagga about a decade ago. Since moving to the Riverina it now doesn’t feel warm enough to swim until it gets to 30 degrees. Even then, if you’re swimming in the Murrumbidgee, it can still feel cool. Despite spending more than a week travelling down from the nearest dams, the ‘big waters’ of the ‘Bidgee feel like snowmelt until the creeks and channels allow the sunlight to better penetrate the murk as it flows into the MIA.

The landscape has paled under the summer sun but it doesn’t look like it’ll get to the point where it’s varying shades of beige, as it was during the drought last decade. The rain in the Western Riverina has been regular enough to ensure there are cracks of green weeds along the edges of paddocks and roads.

There are signs of optimism among farmers, if I’m not mistaken. The plumes of smoke seem to indicate preparations for the sowing of summer crops. While passing a blackened paddock last week I observed one farmer watering the power pole on the edge of his land while fires remove debris. It’s entertaining to think that he’s growing electrical infrastructure.

It’s not just smoke that means the dry air on the summer wind has lost the fragrant scents of spring. As the weather warms, the road melts and becomes shiny and smells like fresh bitumen. Hot wind has an effect of stealing my breath, a sensation that makes me wonder if this is how a vacuum would smell?

On the really hot mornings Cicadas make their shrill music from the trees. As I drive past there’s a Doppler effect as the screech reluctantly seems to pitch down, as though grasping to keep ahold of my ears. They are deafening in places, like down by the Murrumbidgee River or near the Peppermint Gums up the road from my house.

Cicadas are also among the Cyprus Pines at Pioneer Park, particularly behind the Irrigation Museum. That’s the spot where a feral Olive tree has grown under a big Grey Box. There are lots of olives growing in the Riverina and I think it’s a beaut analogy for the way other exports from the Mediterranean have thrived in the region.

Near the turn to Griffith there’s an old tractor outside a vineyard. For years it had a For Sale sign but now it seems to have blown away. I’m entertained to see this leads to a slew of photographs on Instagram as new arrivals of backpacker fruit-pickers seem to decide it’s a landmark or possibly public art.

A dead kangaroo near the railway crossing at Widgelli decomposes over the last fortnight. It goes from being bloated like a stuffed toy to being red raw and to being a flattened rug. Last week I disturbed winged scavengers, ranging from flies to a massive Wedge-tailed Eagle. It’s a contrast to the dead tortoise near the railway crossing on the Whitton Stock Route Road, whose shell remains as an outline on the dog-leg-like bend in the road under a sheen of rubber left by the tyres of turning trucks.

A little further along and there’s the Madonna of Mirrool Creek. She looks somewhat Italian, so she may be a resident of Griffith — where around half the population are from Italy or their parents were. She seems to be peering around a wattle and smiling toward someone in the scrub away from the road. It isn’t until you’re close enough to see a sparkle in her eyes and the red in her glass that one can read the text accompanying her on the billboard and learn that one in four glasses of Australian wine is produced in this region.

On the hot days before a change in the weather, I see the smoke rising in the distance as I drive down from Scenic Hill. There’s a mild but intent focus that follows. I can rationalise that it’s a paddock being cleared but the element of fire is a risk. One that is limited by the extensive clearing of the highly-flammable Cyprus Pine undertaken by earlier settlers like Alfred Hill in the late 19th Century. It was these straight trunks that he used to build ‘Fairview’ Cottage and the name is a description of the landscape he saw as he surveyed a fair view of the work before him.

As I survey Scenic Hill I see thickets of Cyprus Pine and then look at the smoking paddocks on the way home.