Just how many days does it take my lovely latest hero to ride from Sydney to Bunyip’s Bend, a distance of one hundred and fifty dusty miles, during the gold rush in the mid nineteenth century?
Today, consulting Google Maps and a plethora of other handy click-and-calculate resources, the answer would seem simple. Motorcars, depending upon the sobriety, wakefulness and endurance of the driver, are reasonably reliable over distances. One can say it will take approximately three hours to drive from Sydney to Bathurst today, pit-stops and red-lights on Parramatta Road notwithstanding.
But on horseback? First you need to establish the breed and fitness of the horse and consider whether or not the rider will take that one horse the whole distance or change horses along the way. Consider the weather and the state of the roads, too – if it’s particularly muddy, then you will be going slow.
Then there is the added complication of the horse having a mind of its own and deciding halfway that it needs a rest for an entire day, or maybe two. Push a horse too hard and he or she will get injured, fall ill, or fall over, and you won’t be going anywhere at all.
So, for my hero, who loves his super-athletic, super-keen Arab stallion like a brother, the journey takes four and a half days. And this is a reasonable dash for one horse, over the mountains and into the Central West.
Had my hero taken the more sensible option of catching the freshly tracked-up train from Redfern to Mount Victoria and then the Cobb & Co evening mail coach, he’d have likely got into Bathurst sometime late in the night of the same day, having left Sydney at seven a.m.
Bathurst was the epicentre of the inland transport system in those days, with coaches and bullock drays trucking in and out twenty-four hours a day at world-record speeds. These days, if you miss your bus to Bathurst, you might have to wait several hours for another, or even stay overnight – not much has changed then in that regard.
But a hundred and fifty years ago, the flash red carriages of Cobb & Co zipped back and forth and up and down the vast stretches of New South Wales, teams of heavy-chested, specially bred horses pulling their express loads of passengers, mail and gold non-stop. There were some thirty thousand of these horses spread out across the colony in our service, six thousand on the go at any one time. The drivers changed their expertly trained and chosen teams every sixteen miles, at pubs grand and tiny all the way out to Bourke and back.
It was a different world. Miss your bus back from Bourke today and you’re definitely staying overnight. But Bourke was a different town a hundred and fifty years ago, too, with paddle steamers choofing up and down the Darling River carrying bumper loads of wool. Caravans of Afghan cameleers hauling the latest fashion fabrics sent all the way from George Street emporiums for the fickle fancy of super-wealthy squatters’ wives.
It’s always a good idea to get these travel details more or less right in one’s adventures in historical fictioneering – finding out about the state of the roads, the precise date that railway tracks were laid down and stations opened, so much to check and know! – but it’s wonderful fun to follow these trails of research, too, just to imagine what this essential part of human existence was like, travelling in a different time, under different circumstances, through country as dramatically beautiful today as it was then.
It’s enough to make you want to hit the road…