April is the coolest month…

…especially when Easter nestles in its midst. And big blue skies blanket the land, burned green and orange as the seasons shift.

east01It is a time to savour suburban walks, in the comfortable pockets of Canberra that will never be in reach. Foresight planted deciduous trees for garden suburbs for genteel homes. As temperatures drop to a level mild and amicable and still warmer than England in a hot flush, the streets now enliven, the crescents glow, the neighbourhoods flourish in a makeover both incremental and dramatic. Go on certain days and a regiment of wheelie bins will parade upon the kerb, afloat in an ocean of nature’s litter.

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east03Easter is the most perfect weekend as the warm kiss of autumn melts any eggs undiscovered by marauding imps. I don’t recall Easter egg hunts as a child; are these more a thing now, coordinated through Facebook groups and discoverable like Pikachu? Waiting until Sunday until you were permitted to make yourself sick on chocolate and then topping up with half price eggs on Monday was more my kind of thing. If I have made any progress in life, then let it be measured by cake, and I can mark the creation of a chocolate and hazelnut meringue as one of my greatest achievements.

Can it be called refinement, or is it simply a matter of shifting tastes and priorities that I no longer end up making myself sick on Easter? There is excess, but it is lunch with friends under blood red vines; it is snoozy idling after a glass of wine; it is a second helping of chocolate and hazelnut meringue. But it is measured, and I am restrained. Affluent and blessed in the golden circles of Canberra Australia, it is the very epitome of comfort.

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In the mountains, there you feel free; there you can shake off the hangover brought on by suburban indulgence. A little out from the city sits the scenic Tidbinbilla Valley; a touch green, a tad hilly, squint in places and the mind could be convinced it has been transplanted into the foothills of Switzerland. For cows read kangaroos; for cowbells, cockatoos.

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Snow very rarely dusts the tops of the ridges which surround this valley. Instead, rounded clusters of granite erupt from the surface of the peaks, shattered and weather-beaten, occasionally toppling down into the steep undergrowth. Suddenly you stumble upon a bulbous rock in the midst of eucalypts. A trail gradually rises to Gibraltar Rocks from where – a kilometre above the sea – a shimmering carpet of forest, mountain and plain stretches below. The wilderness scene a juxtaposition and antidote to the admittedly beautiful ordered world of suburbia.

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east07Here there is the best of both worlds, with coffee available a little further down the road at the Moon Rock Cafe. This is attached to the Deep Space Communication Complex where – in my head at least – gentle mutterings from Professor Brian Cox are transmitted to distant worlds in the hope that it would sufficiently soothe angry aliens from undertaking imminent invasion. If you feel small atop Gibraltar Rocks, here you are infinitesimal, insignificant beyond belief. Yet at the same time, in the warm sun with caffeine and a bonus chocolate egg, your existence is undeniably amazing and incredibly fortunate.

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Looking into the heart of light, the silence. April rolls on and the change is unstoppable. Yet the weather is holding, at least until Anzac Day; no need for breaking unwritten rules and putting the heating on before then. In fact, shorts can still be appropriate, both on breathless bike rides and afternoon ambles besides a mirror of a lake.

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east11Tucked away in a quiet corner by Lake Burley Griffin, largely forgotten apart from the odd dog walker and camera wielder, the Lindsay Pryor Arboretum is an unbridled delight. A kaleidoscope of colours adorns the different varieties of oak, elm, birch and poplar. There are no visitor centres and no playgrounds, no cafes and no sculptures. The air is calm, the light soft, the mood understated. Occasional tunnels of foliage play at being England. And you could imagine, under these boughs, a snap election might just be called.

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Forget May, April is the coolest month, a culmination of the many months that have gone into its creation. The symbolism of autumn, the inevitable decay, may well be cruel; it doesn’t need a Stark to tell you that winter is coming. Yet, in the remnants of warmth, in a light golden, and in an unending transformation from one minute to the next, April is redeemed. It is, simply, the most privileged time and place in which to be in a tiny part of the universe called Canberra Australia.

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* This post includes shameless reference to The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot. I remember studying this in English and not having any idea what he was going on about, and still not having much clue now. But “cruellest” rhymes with “coolest” so yippedydoodah.

 

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Newcy town

When I think of Newcastle some quite disturbing images come to mind. Gazza, half cut, tongue out, festooned with a pair of fake plastic tits; girls plastered with fake everythings casually hanging out in crop tops in the freezing fog of January; Kevin Keegan’s bubble perm; a language unfathomable, so much so that I can remember having to ask a couple of Geordies to say that again at least ten times before I gave up and resorted to a smile and nod. My Newcastle associations are embedded in the UK.

Like so many spots down under there is a Newcastle of the south. The resemblance is far from uncanny but one bond in common is a slightly grimy industrial heritage. This in the oh-so-sunny world of Australia is perversely refreshing. Sure, the entrance to town from the direction of the airport is not the greatest advertisement, as you cross the Hunter River in a squall and look down upon piles of coal and metalwork. But there is an honesty to it, a grit, an earthy spirit perhaps common to Newcastles all over the world, whyaye.

newc2Once clear of this blackspot of industry, you are back in a more familiar kind of Australia, with Newcastle boasting some fine beaches, cafe-cultured hubbub, and waterside retreats. I like it here, though being unfamiliar with what’s hot and what’s not it took me four attempts to get a good coffee. Cafes on Darby Street have an appearance in which they seem to talk the talk, but walking proves far more problematic. Is it me, or are baristas with an armful of tattoos, baseball caps and a love of the mirror at the gym usurping hipsters in coffee-making skills? Just something I seem to have observed in recent times…

newc3Once I found a good coffee from someone who could crush the beans by hand, I decided I liked Newcastle a lot. It probably joins the long list of places where I’d say I could live if I had to. Being on the coast has a lot to do with it, and while showers were around and daylight saving had ended, at least I got to enjoy the last of the day with the rainbows and butterflies before setting off for some evening work.

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The next morning started early (partly because daylight saving has ended) and – being on the east coast – I thought I may marvel in the sunrise over the ocean. Of course, the persistent stream of showers coming in off the Tasman Sea had other ideas. But I was up now, so I headed along the breezy coastline towards Merewether Beach. Partly this passed along a rather fine metal walkway making the cliff top route a touch easier to navigate. That is, until turning round and noticing the many steps in the other direction. Still, it justified breakfast (with average coffee / no tattoos).

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Newcastle airport is some 30 kilometres north of the city and I didn’t really need to be there until 4. If you carry on a similar distance north of the airport you enter the long peninsula of Port Stephens, a collective of holiday towns, placid bays and hilly bush-clad headlands. It’s probably worth a day or two to explore but I had a few hours, pausing for lunch at Fingal Bay, before doing undoubtedly the number one thing to do and climbing Tomaree Head. It’s not a long walk but there are a few switchbacks and metal steps involved, leading to a 360 degree view of the bay, the hills, the beaches and the agitated blue sea.

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newc7While blessed with the rugged scenery of Northumberland I doubt if the Newcastle of the north would have such a temperate idyll an hour away. You can see why people come here for holidays, or to retire. Even the koalas of NSW like it here, not that I saw any (or saw any people looking up into trees which is the best way of spotting koalas). I have only been to the other Newcastle once and I thought it was alright. But if I was to choose, I think this one would win hands down; even without a Sunderland next door aye!

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