Desert Ovals

People go two ways over Easter. They lift the city off its foundations and dump it on the coast, or go to the footy. Especially footballers with the Easter bye. You can spot them in an Anzac Day crowd by the way they barrack. The AFL suporter will call: “Kick it, kick it, kick it!” The player will yell: “You’re hot, you’re hot, you’re hot!”

Neither option was my idea of a break. People aren’t my idea of a break.

I boated the work ute and dog to the mainland and hooked in with Jenny and all her tattoos, and by morning we were on a road trip that ended up covering three deserts, in three states, in four days.

The ute and dish licker felt right. The stereo was all tinny, yet damn fine. The more it crackled and fuzzed, the more it sounded like vinyl on dusty, gravel roads.

We broke into national parks, and boozed a bit with small town publicans, and kept on the move, traveling, mostly, along sandy 4wheel drive tracks as if driving, windows down, was its own destination. We took in motion while the world still has oil.

Some time on day three Jenny told me I was just doing a tour of football ovals.

I hadn’t realised, but, agreed.

Each town had it’s tourist traps, it’s polished history, their old wool sheds without the grease and pain. They never looked that good in their day. Who does that to a place? Usually the sort of ponce that yearns for a past that would eat them alive. Small and out of the way, the towns we passed through that were best, just were.

Every time we hit one I rolled the ute by their footy oval. To get a feel for the history of the place. It’s culture and romance. It’s grunt and blood. To measure its health, faded glory, or strength.

Hamilton’s main oval was the best. Not big, but it had a ripper stand with barbie between its stairwells, sheltered from any wind, and big, thin slope around its outside, so the crowd would be bunched and in the play, and everything on the other side of the brick fence fall away. It was a small veladrome. Old, but not faded. Not at all. They seemed to be the Magpies, but you can’t help luck.

There were one-pub-town ovals, tucked into gullies, off backroads you got to from other backroads. There was a ground which was a paddock with a round fence somewhere towards the back of it. It reminded me of the best oval I’ve seen, past Wilcannia, somewhere in northern NSW. Maybe the mining town of Whitecliffs, which takes six bumpy hours to get to from anywhere.

You drove out of town and its underground homes, and, somewhere in the distance you noticed the endless red desert had a round steel fence on it, with a small, shonky, raised scoreboard and an old, plastic school seat. The dust passed through it and to the horizon. The goal posts looked tired, as if they copped it from every lightning storm that came through. Your only hope of a soft landing was emu shit.

I was as jealous as all hell.

We drove through the Sunset Desert, coming out at an oval elevated above the flood plains. Wheat fields everywhere. Its height reminded me of Bridport, back in Tas. When I first came down the boys kept telling me how good the view from it was. That I should take a look while out there.

But Bridport were kicking our arses and the rain was coming in, cold and hard, sideways off the sea.

I remember, as we went from five to six goals down, just before my opponent flattened Rubber Chicken, and I, in turn, decked him, taking a half second to glance over my shoulder at the squalls coming in over the waves, and grunting, like a chore done.

Then there was Alvie, a tough, honest club from my days playing in the Colac league. A club that didn’t even have a town anymore. The oval was as hard as the team, and, when you won the toss, you had the choice of either kicking uphill, or into the  face of strong farming plain winds.

Otway, my old club, was a real bush club, buried in the hills, with so many trees around the oval it never dried out. We played in mud. The team mostly dairy farmes, loggers and their sons.

Jenny and I drove and drove and took the rougher, more remote tracks, to be away from people and avoid rangers, who’d crack the shits about my dog. Whenever we passed from one desert to another, there’d be the occasional car, a farm or two in between. A town here or there. I cruised by the oval of every one of them, but had to imagine the crowds.

Because, like me, it was  the one time in eight months they weren’t tethered to the land by their footy clubs.


  1. Stephanie Holt says

    Beautiful piece!

    But hate footy-free weekends. Thank heavens for the BFNL and an amazing night of Magpies v Magpies (Castlemaine v Maryborough) under lights at Maryborough’s beautiful ground. The teenagers were out promenading or cosying up in the cars round the boundary, the families were settling in in the grandstand, and we got a great night’s footy.

  2. Damian Callinan says

    Great article. There’s a little oval in Orbost with unpainted, treated pine goal posts as if to remind visitors that ‘it’s made of wood and yes we did cut them down ourselves!’

  3. Matt Zurbo says

    Thanks Stephanie, Damian. Thanks both for adding to the list of ovals I WILL check out one day. I wish I cold play at them all.

  4. I hope you took photos for the scoreboard collectors!

  5. Talk about evocative! It’s the sign of a fine writer when the reader wants to drop everything – work, cooking, waiting for the kids to come home from school – and hit the road to re-trace the story. And to find the velodrome in Hamilton – I reckon my dad might have done a few laps there way, way back.

  6. Alovesupreme says

    Matt, I’m thrilled with the reference to Alvie and the hill. I never played there, but my older brother had his first competitive matches on the ground (he was 12, playing under 16s). One memorable victory saw
    Alvie-Warrion 0-9-9 defeat Colac Youth Club 1-2-8.
    You’ll be delighted to know that Alvie-Warrion lost the Grand Final to Otway Rovers.
    Stephanie, I think of the teenagers trying out their flirting technique, but I guess if it’s after dark, they might be advancing a bit on that to “cosying up in cars”

Leave a Comment