Fantasea

In those deepest darkest bleakest dreary days of a northern November it was difficult not to yearn for the Pacific. Soft tidal sands under an off white sky at Bigbury could only do so much. A bracing breeze may have kept rain at bay at least for a few hours, but there was little warmth in that air; little solace in a faded, washed out scene in which even the sheep seemed sullen. Beautiful melancholy yes – but melancholy all the same – and I could have done with just a day on a different south coast to lift this permeating shroud.

Apart from a touchdown over Botany Bay the ocean had eluded me in my inexplicable hunger to return to landlocked Canberra. But with the weather settling into perfection and opportunity to keep work tasks ticking over remotely, I finally saw and seized an opportunity for a few away days, back beside the saturated sapphire hues of the Pacific. I don’t think I could have dreamt of such perfect days, even when being buffeted by a south-westerly on Burgh Island a few months back.

mer01With time to spare I was happy to head that little bit farther, down to the far south coast of New South Wales. Perks of this journey include – to a limited degree – the striking, golden plains of the Monaro, baked hard and golden by summer sun; the midway bakery opportunity in inimitable Nimmitabel; the rainforest rim of Brown Mountain; and the panoramic view over the rolling cow-dotted Bega Valley, into which the road drastically plunges.

Generous January rain in the valley could, just occasionally, trick the senses into believing they were cruising through South Devon hills to Bigbury. But any doubt is eliminated when the Pacific finally comes into view at Tathra. This could only be Australia, and from parking my car underneath a clutch of ti trees to being almost blinded by the golden white sand, to dipping my toes in that ambient ocean, I had a euphoric sense of finally being back.

mer03My base for three nights was Merimbula, handy in terms of size and facilities (i.e. food, coffee, picnic tables on which to work) and generous in its setting upon the shallow inlet and oceanfront. There is even an airport here with connections to Sydney, which does genuinely make you wonder about its feasibility as a site for sea change. A plane buzzed overhead the next morning, as I ventured out for an early walk through bushland along the inlet to Bar Beach. I could get used to these early morning walks, especially when a small but perfectly formed kiosk awaits besides the modest cove to offer up waterfront coffee.

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mer04The water here is quite ludicrously beautifully opaque, which probably helps for spotting sharks and giant stingrays. The only hazard this morning was mostly on the eyes, with a generous gaggle of cashed up baby boomers making the most of retirement by lumbering about in various states of undress. Understandably glowing and jovial – why wouldn’t you be facing yet another day in paradise – it may yet be too early for me to contemplate semi-retirement at the coast.

mer07What followed over the next couple of days was a pleasing routine of waterside walking, working and wallowing in sand and sea. I explored every possible boardwalk in Merimbula and visited the ice cream parlour at least twice. Late afternoons in the mid to high twenties were perfect for attempts at beachside siestas, but the call of the outdoors and nagging feeling that I probably should be doing something more productive with this opportunity made me restless. I would wander some more or open my laptop for five minutes and stare at the screen as Windows decided to install countless updates yet again, before concluding that it was better to just stand in the sea and spy distant dolphins doing all the work.

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Beyond Merimbula I made my ‘usual’ excursion to the Pambula River. Continuing a good grasp of tidal knowledge which I rediscovered in Devon, I arrived to a low tide, which opened up a far longer stretch of white sand and crystal water in which to wade. The backdrop of bushland and bellbirds in such a paradise might have encouraged a siesta, but here I failed too. Perhaps that semi-retirement by the coast really is looking still quite a long way off.

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mer09In Eden, I love the shabby end-of-the-world outpost feeling. It’s a long way from Sydney and a long way from Melbourne, which means it generally only picks up on road trippers passing through and lost Canberrans seeking fish and chips. I have heard – along with countless other places – that it could have been the national capital instead of Canberra. And perched upon an outcrop overlooking beautiful Twofold Bay and the rising hinterland of the coastal ranges, one can only wonder what might have been.

mer10Alas, the sheep paddock that eventually became the capital awaited the next morning. The good news was that I had – or will have – a home to go back there to, and some paperwork to sort out. I wasn’t going to rush – too much – and so took a final walk out to Bar Beach and a coffee to get me over the hills and far away. The boomers were of course there, semi-naked and just slightly self-satisfied, and I could see that I really wasn’t ready to join them for a while yet. But I would definitely be open to further remote working out-of-high-season breaks, just to soak up their paradise, their fantasy for a few more days close to the Pacific.

Australia Green Bogey Photography Walking

Down South

tug01Having now spent over nine years (with interruptions) in everyone’s favourite Australian city you would think I’d have exhausted every nook, crevice and scrubby hilltop. Forget nine years…many would say two days is sufficient, and even then you might have to drag things out with a wander around the National Archives, surely the least compelling sounding attraction of the lot (which might explain why, still, I have never been). But no, it turns out Canberra has even more suburbs and scrubby hilltops than you can ever imagine.

Partly, the new has been thrust upon me. Well, not so much thrust but more gently cajoled after a temporary change of residence. It’s hardly a hardship (in comparison to, say, being evicted and dragged to a mosquito-infested tropical island where you will get abused and suffer long-term mental degradation courtesy of the Australian Government). But some locals will recoil in horror, the froth atop their soy lattes spilling over onto the front page of The Australian, when they hear I am living in Tuggeranong.

Quick geography lesson: Canberra is weird and like no other city. There is a city centre, of sorts and then some town centres as well, and I suppose some village centres and suburban shopping precincts, which spread out like satellites around the town centres. Occasionally an out-of-town shopping centre muscles in to compete with the town centres and no-one goes to the city centre because they are all at the new IKEA which is on the edge of a centre on the periphery of nothing. All the important government-type stuff happens without a centre, but instead is contained within its own triangle which is more like a diamond, if you take into account the War Memorial. Meanwhile grassland wedges and lumps of trees bubble up out of a mesh of roundabouts, circles and parkways where confused cars with NSW plates frequently vanish, never to be seen again.

Tuggeranong is a town centre in the south of Canberra, with Wanniassa – where I stay for now – one of those satellite suburbs on its edge. Wanniassa is actually closer to Woden (another town centre), but I will spare you even more complexities. It’s officially part of Tuggeranong, which is believed to have a higher proportion of Bogans per square kilometre than the other Canberra towns. I cannot truly vouch for this on my forays into its cul-de-sacs. All I can report is that there is a broad cross-section of mostly Anglo-centric Australia on display, from suited public servants to Shazzas in tracky-dacks. Utage – that is the popular Australian tendency to convey oneself by pimped up utility vehicle – seems high, as does baby-booming designer spectacle wearing.

In spite of repetitiveness in its suburbia, Tuggeranong sits in quite a spectacular bowl. To the south and west, the Brindabella Ranges appear much closer and far more impenetrable. North and East, a series of Canberra hills and ridges block out the rest of the city. With a little imagination, you could picture a Swiss town in that valley, with church steeples and cowbells decorating the air (alas they filled it with concrete brutalism instead). Meanwhile, the omnipresent dome of Mount Taylor is recast as Mount Fuji, a conical summit piercing the seal of a leaden sky and drawing the Lycra-bound to its trails.

It’s no Red Hill but I have found Mount Taylor to be a convenient escape from the clutches of the valley. The lower slopes of grassland are regularly grazed by kangaroos, fattening themselves for a game of chicken on the Tuggeranong Parkway. The middle section – which flattens for much-needed respite – is all bushland shrubbery, concealing colourful rosellas and wrens and a cockatoo or two. The final ascent upon gravel is open and barren, affording views over Tuggeranong and the ever-changing weather scattered over the ridges and valleys to the west. In the other direction, the needle atop Black Mountain reminds that you are still in Canberra, and another town centre or two awaits below.

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Naturally I have not confined myself to this area – old haunts are only a 15 minute drive or so and offer greater reliability of coffee. Upon returning to one of a handful of coffee spots in the Inner South in which I regularly spread my love and money, I was astounded that they remembered my name and didn’t seem at all fussed that I hadn’t been there for over six months. While some curiosity might not have gone amiss, the warm feeling of going to a place where everybody knows your name makes it harder to sever ties.

tug05Nevertheless, it was with some contentment that I found a reasonably close reasonably decent coffee stop one Saturday morning, as part of a bike ride on the many accommodating paths in the Tuggeranong Valley. One path circumnavigates its lake, which is a poor man’s Burley-Griffin but amiable enough. Others cut through the various patches of grass set between the backs of brick houses and alongside storm drains. One route takes you up towards Oxley Hill, a reasonable but not unobtainable test of legs, and another does the long uphill drag back to Wanniassa, in which aforementioned legs turn to jelly. I may be being just a touch healthier, but with this comes justification in feasting on yet another, sadly Antipodean, cream tea.

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As well as a higher-than-average distribution of Bogans, it is said that Tuggeranong gets a little more rain, at least compared with the gauge at the dry and dusty international airport. It’s the proximity of the mountains you see, and the bubbling up of storm clouds. Some of these have been very generous in their distribution of rain in the last couple of weeks, transforming Aussie golden to English green.

With these mountains just a touch closer, wilderness practically on your doorstep, ridges almost always framing your vista, there is a magnetic appeal to that which lies nearby. The fresh air of the bush is tantalisingly close to Tuggers. And for that, and really quite a lot else, it can’t be much faulted.

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Australia Green Bogey Society & Culture