Hume Hwy

By Sophie Cunningham

Edited by Sophie Cunningham

1. The 1970s. We were from Hawthorn and the trip along Sydney Road to get to the Hume took us through other worlds. We’d fall silent when we passed Pentridge and I’d mouth, silently to my brother, IT’S A PRISON. A lot of the highway was single lane. Overtaking lanes were treated with reverence.  Craigieburn seemed a long way out of the city. We drove through country towns rather than past them. Every time there was a sign in the road that said ‘Dip ahead’ my brother and I would bob up and down, like dancing cockatoos. We thought we were hilarious. We spied, with our little eyes. We tried to work out what each other was. (Animal, vegetable or mineral?). Dad played tapes of Rod Stewart, Little Feet, Elton John and Steely Dan. As we were not allowed to eat junk food, EXCEPT WHEN WE’RE ON LONG DRIVES, I took advantage: ate meat pies, hamburgers with the lot, iced buns. I drank milkshakes. Then, as often as not, I’d throw up by the side of the road.


2. Three weeks after I got my license I shared the driving when a group of us headed up the Hume to Sydney, then onward to Brisbane. The trip lasted twenty-four hours. We only stopped for hamburgers and then rolled the car after failing to take a curve properly sometime around dawn. We got up, shook ourselves off, and kept driving. I played Michael Jackson’s The Wall as often as my fellow passengers allowed.


3. Driving back from NSW, in my boyfriend’s Wolsley (circa 1950). There was no air conditioner and the thermometer in the car read 50 degrees celsius. To stop my bare legs sticking to the leather seat I put my feet on the dash. I played Michael Jackson and Madonna until my boyfriend objected. We negotiated. The Angels, Cold Chisel, Paul Kelly. We were agreed on AC/DC. Highway to Hell. It was all a bit of a moot point as we drove with the windows open, which meant we couldn’t hear much above the whoosh of the road. Occasionally. we’d put the radio on to listen to the news but the signal flickered in and out. There were whispered warnings of fire that we ignored until we saw flames leaping in the trees on either side of the road. I remembered what I was taught at school. Stop the car. Cover yourself with a wet blanket. Lie low. Don’t run. We kept driving.


4. 198something. Carpooling with a guy I didn’t know well at the end of a group weekend away somewhere I can’t remember. We’re driving late at night and a kangaroo leapt out of the darkness. I had no idea the crash and thud would be so loud. The driver goes out and dragged the animal’s body to the side of the road while I sit there and cried. I’m not sure if he killed the kangaroo or it was already dead.


5. 1986. Driving to Terip Terip with friends to watch Halley’s Comet. Tents were packed in the boot. We squinted into binoculars and exclaimed at various silvery blurs. Convinced they were Halley’s Comet, not the Milky Way you always see in this part of the world, away from the city lights. In retrospect it seems very unlikely we saw the comet at all.


6. Driving to Sydney, against the stream of trucks headed towards Melbourne, the occasional one flicking on its high beam for a lark.  Repeat, repeat, repeat, year after year, decade after decade.


7. Early 1990s. Heading to Terip on a Friday night, the Hume pushing north, then north-east through drought. I see a tree on a hill in the distance and to the right that looks like a rooster. I call it the Rooster Tree. I tell people about this amazing discovery only to find out that everyone knows about the Rooster Tree. Grass is the colour of straw, the earth pale yellow clay. A blank slate for the setting sun that turns straw into gold.  One trip, after it has rained, the green is so vivid I become disorientated and I think I’m lost, or have taken the wrong road.


8. In 1993 I left Sydney for Melbourne. I did not drive down the Hume as often , but then I headed back south along the Hume, my red Mazda 323 full of belongings, because seven years had passed, it was a new century, and it was time to return home. Twelve hours of hard driving. It was raining.


9. My girlfriend and I drove to Seymour to buy a Burmese kitten. We had bought our Burmese, Bird, a few weeks earlier, but she was lonely, so we returned to get her brother, the only unsold kitten in the litter. We assumed his square over-sized head and crackly meow made him less appealing to the general public, but we decided these were the precise qualities we loved. We called him Wilson. It was an awfully hot summer’s day but nonetheless I needed my hamburger. I pulled into a roadhouse by the side of the freeway (the days of highway were long gone) and got myself something to eat, but it took forever and I returned to the car to find tiny Wilson on the floor beside Virginia’s feet, panting, and drinking water out of a plastic container. He was very hot. We will never, neither of us, drive past that servo again without remembering the time Wilson drank water in the car when we first got him. Even now that he’s an old cat, and not so long for this world.


10. I was tentative as I drove past Kilmore East, then turned right off the Hume, heading in the direction of Flowerdale and Kinglake. I wanted to understand the scale of the fires that ripped through Victoria on February 7th, but I didn’t want to gawk. Black trees. Charcoal gashes slashed across hills.


11. I’d been away a few years, driving the multi-lane freeways of America. I missed the Hume and its modest two-lanes. The glimpses of the old highway off to the left or right. Old bridges. I held my hand up in front of me as I drove. The veins on my hands have become bigger, bluer, slightly gnarled.  I fancied the road was an extension of one of those veins, winding its way through my heartland. Every time there was a sign in the road that said ‘Dip ahead’, I bobbed up and down like a dancing cockatoo. I used to watch the scrappy gum trees that lined the road, strobed sunlight, and go into a kind of trance. These days I concern myself with questions regarding the trees’ names: Ironbark, Manna, Peppermint. I consider the verge, that strip of land between the road’s edge and the paddocks, vestiges of uncleared land that provide habitat for bees and other creatures. Were those vestiges always so full of road kill, I wondered? Dozens of Roos.  Sometimes wombats, echidnas or wallabies. Mowed down by trucks mainly, but also, no doubt, by fools like younger me. We need wild life corridors – but from where? And to where?


12. I often used to wish that I lived in a city that went up, not out and as I drove up Sydney Road it seemed my wish has come true. SO. MANY. APARTMENTS. But the city moves ever outward as well. It used to end not far from Coburg but these days it keeps pace with the car for at least another 20 k. There are urban growth corridors. Developments. I’m teaching in Wangaratta, and as I drove it struck me I must have driven this road, or an iteration of it, hundreds of times and it’s not just the Hume that’s changed. Recent trips have seen me napping. Legs up on the dash, timer set for 15 minutes. Once back on the road an archipelago of petrol stations and fast food joints float in and out of my peripheral vision. I play Michael Jackson. Beyoncé. Kanye West. TLC. Don’t go Chasing Waterfalls. I listen to podcasts, most of which are various expressions of despair about the Trump presidency.  But the sun still sets to my left , the full moon still rises to my right. Fat as butter, golden as a sun, large as the sky.

Sophie Cunningham is the author of four books, including Melbourne.