A road trip from Byron Bay to Broken Hill and beyond takes Penny Watson to old haunts and new favourites.
We're hurtling past scrub on the long, straight road from Wentworth to Broken Hill. Our reliable old Toyota is only clocking 100km/h but the skinny bitumen lane makes it feel as if we're breaking the speed limit, the dry grass and saltbush whizzing past like a blurred watercolour.
The last time I ventured on this road was about 20 years ago. On dad's lap. With his foot on the accelerator, I gripped the steering wheel, peering intently at the black surface shimmering in the heat. My three sisters were lined up in the back seat waiting their turn and mum sat shotgun, the crook of her elbow resting on the open window.
Now it's me putting pedal to the metal. Next to me is my sister, Steph, home from New York for a holiday, and in the rear-view mirror sits mum, with red-rimmed reading glasses balanced on the tip of her nose, trying to figure out on a map where in this big brown land we are.
They have joined me on the final leg of a research trip updating Lonely Planet's Australia guide, a big brick of a book designed to sum up the country in 1000 pages of tightly spaced fine print - a kind of "Australia 101 for travellers". My patch is NSW - minus Sydney, the Blue Mountains, Newcastle, Lord Howe and Norfolk islands.
By the end of this week I'll have clocked up about two months on the road and roughly 10,000 kilometres, most of them spent driving alone through the state's vast and varied landscapes - coastal, outback and river country to hinterlands, highlands and the Snowies. I'm assigned 58,000 words, which translates to a solid six-week stint at my desk when I get home.
I haven't lived permanently in Australia for a few years but my expertise lies in my connections to the border city of Albury, where I grew up and later returned to work as a journalist and to visit family. I have seen most of the state, from dad's lap or otherwise, and the way Lonely Planet sees it, I'm combining the inside knowledge of a local with a foreigner's appraisal.
As with many good NSW adventures, this one starts in Sydney. After navigating the city's tangle of tunnels I hit the Hume Highway, that great swathe of bitumen cutting south. Beyond Bowral, the towns and regional cities bypassed by the Hume aren't exactly on the tourist route but discovering little gems in unexpected places is my one great motivator. Mightier than the Big Merino is the Old Goulburn Brewery with its local lagers and lodging in an 1830s brewer's cottage (23 Bungonia Road, 4821 6071, goulburnbrewery.servebeer.com). Jugiong's Long Track Pantry cafe has the best latte on the highway (6945 4144, longtrackpantry.com.au). And the Baan Sabai Jai in Albury is a real find for authentic Thai laksa served from a food cart on the footpath (459 Smollett Street, 6021 2250).
From Albury, the Riverina is the vast stretch of country lying west, combining river flats and irrigated farmlands with railway lines and giant silos that punctuate the skyline. Romano's Hotel is a famous old pub in Wagga Wagga (corner Fitzmaurice and Sturt streets, 6921 2013) and still has the best cheap rooms in town. But I push on to find a bed in the antique - and largely underrated - town of Junee with its bull-nosed pub verandas and film-set streetscape. It's a good feeling, tempting travellers to quirky places like this.
When I wrote my first Lonely Planet guide, I didn't quite have a handle on the note-taking or the reams of acquired brochures. This time I'm organised. I've printed a double-spaced version of the previous edition and bound the notes for each leg of the journey so I can scribble down new prices, cross out attractions that no longer exist, strike out restaurants that aren't worth recommending again and add new places as I find them. It seems to be working.
From Junee it's a straightforward drive to Griffith, an irrigated oasis of orchards and vineyards. La Scala restaurant, a local favourite, is still hidden down a flight of steps and behind a pink door (455b Banna Avenue, 6962 4322). But across the road the flash new Marcos Restaurant has made an impact on the local Italian food scene (454 Banna Avenue, 6964 3438).
At the tourist information office I'm told that Griffith is the unlikely destination of choice for Korean backpackers. A travel story on the city was published three years ago in a Seoul newspaper and they've welcomed a steady stream of Koreans ever since.
I take the long road back to Sydney, zigzagging through the state's central west, adding to the guide the tiny town of Canowindra, with its heritage-listed main street, art galleries and wine stores.
The culinary reputations of Orange and Bathurst are well known but they still surprise and impress me. Bathurst's Church Bar, in a restored 1850s church, is a local hot spot (1 Ribbon Gang Lane, 6334 2300, churchbar.com.au). And Orange's Union Bank wine bar, with its list of 500 wines, appears to have been transported direct from Melbourne's Flinders Lane (corner Sale and Byng streets, 6361 4441; unionbank.com.au).
Back in Sydney I hook up with my husband, Pip. He has put his hand up for the east-coast leg of my trip and straps his surfboard to the roof. This coastline has some of the best beaches in the world. There are plenty of other marvels, too, some suited to backpackers and others to cashed-up thirtysomethings and baby boomers doing now what they missed in their 20s. The simple things are often the best. We spend a lovely night at Crescent Head, the sleepy surf long-boarding capital, where a bloke called Mongrel sells us a dozen Sydney rock oysters for $6.50 from his little weatherboard house (7 Main Road). The unsealed road to South West Rocks rewards us with views of river country and lunch at the Heritage Hotel at Gladstone, one of a handful of great old pubs dotted along the Macleay and Clarence rivers (21 Kinchela Street, 6567 4444, heritagehotel.net.au).
I start to notice a trend towards stylish hostels. The Coffs Harbour YHA (51 Collingwood Street, 6652 6462, yha.com.au) has cheap, clean double rooms with ensuites, surpassed only by the trendy new Yamba YHA, with its rooftop pool (26 Coldstream Street, 6646 3997, yambaback packers.com.au). Yamba and the adjoining tiny town of Angourie, with its famous beach break, were barely mentioned in the guidebook's previous edition but two days here spent surfing with dolphins and jumping from cliff faces into Angourie's freshwater swimming holes inspires its own, small section.
I say goodbye to Pip in Byron Bay and drive an inland loop back to Sydney, through the hinterlands of the Far North Coast, the evergreen highlands of New England and the scrub terrain of the Fossicker's Way. The dry heat and isolation of towns along the Newell Highway make for another environment altogether, a harsh landscape supporting big cash crops.
In Moree, the owner of Yaama Maliyaa Arts (29 Herber Street, 6752 1813) brings me up to speed on local indigenous art and history, then points me in the direction of Cafe 2400 (123 Balo Street, 6752 6700) dishing up foodie's food far from the big smoke and coffees that could win awards.
The south coast from Wollongong to the Victorian border and inland to the Snowies is territory I covered in my first guide and it's heartening to see some must-dos still thriving. Seahaven Cafe, overlooking the pretty inlet at Gerroa, is my favourite place to while away a day (19 Riverleigh Avenue, 4234 3796). The luxury eco-tents at Paperbark Camp in Huskisson are a treat for those used to roughing it (571 Woollamia Road, 1300 668 167, paperbarkcamp.com.au).
The walk up Pigeon House Mountain, where Pip popped the question three years ago, is a must even without the romance.
And now I'm in the outback, a great expanse of red desert, with saltbush so evenly spread it feels as if we're driving through an Aboriginal dot painting. Soon we'll be in Broken Hill, where my family was headed on that trip 20 years ago. Fittingly, on this last and vast 3000-kilometre leg of the journey, we find the most precious gem. A key from the Broken Hill visitor centre gives us access to the Sculpture Symposium, a collection of 12 carved sandstone blocks jutting out of the scrub like ancient statues from a lost world. They are on a hill above a desert stretching so far and wide it's possible to make out the curvature of the Earth.
The setting sun bathes us in a spectacular golden light, then it disappears, leaving us in its inky blue wake. As we sit with the desert wrapped around us and the night sky winking and blinking, I'm reminded that long journeys can reap the greatest rewards, in life and on the road.
Lonely Planet's Australia guide is the publisher's best-selling title. A copy of edition 15, released in November ($48.99), was named last month as the 100 millionth Lonely Planet guide to roll off the press.