Gold rush

Compared with the mostly endless expanse of the Northern Territory and Western Australia, the southern state of Victoria is far more manageable to grasp. With its rolling green hills and web of country roads punctuated by amenable towns, it feels more familiar; cosy even. Don’t get me wrong, Victoria has some rugged and remote places and its share of foreboding bushland and bleak emptiness. But there’s usually a bakery and decent coffee stop within a 50 kilometre radius or less. Which I’m sure you’ll agree is very important indeed.

bendi01Landing at Tullamarine, Melbourne was grey and damp. It’s June, it’s Melbourne. I was about as surprised as I would be if the UK Conservative Party decided to dump everyone in the shit rather than get on with governing twice in the space of a year. The wind was strong, my crappy hire car was far from stable, but at least I was heading away from the clouds on the drive north to Bendigo.

Bendigo is almost the archetypal Victorian regional town. It’s a decent size so you can have your fair share of Harvey Norman and Maccas. But it’s also one of a string of towns born from the gold rush of the 1850s. This means there is a legacy of grace and charm, funded by glimmering rocks and transformed into ornate Victorian buildings, elegant parklands, and pompous statues. With a prominent effigy of Queen Victoria it could be the Daily Mail’s utopia, but I think that does an injustice to the fine people of Bendigo, and the fact that they at least have moved on from the 1800s.

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I was here for work, but one of the advantages of having a work appointment in a cafe was the ready availability of cakeage. With an hour or so in between appointments, I walked a little bit off exploring the centre of town and parklands, discovering remnants of autumn, embellishments in iron and stone, and opulent fountains inducing the urgency to seek relief. I also came across a tower on a hill which, naturally, I had to climb for the view. With the rather prominent spire of the Catholic Cathedral punctuating the air and an array of functional buildings interspersed with green, I figured I could be in Exeter or something. Only without the knobbers.

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The next day I had the drive back to the airport to look forward to, squeezing in a decent breakfast and coffee courtesy of proximity to Melbourne. With a little time to spare, I returned via a network of country roads rather than the freeway, which was heavily populated with end of financial year traffic cones.

In keeping with recent reminisces from 2013, I paused briefly at the village of Maldon, which is somewhat cutesy and somewhat boasting an oversupply of antique shops and useless trinkets for a place of its size. It looks like the type of high street that should have a good bakery, but I didn’t really find one, so pushed on to Castlemaine, which had a bakery but this didn’t look particularly inspiring. Still, the coffee was getting even better as the number of kilometres from Melbourne decreased.

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Veering off the main road to head up to the top of Mount Macedon, I paused in Woodend, which had a bakery that looked more the kind of thing I was after. I mean, it was called a bakehouse for goodness sake, which is something that every fine Victorian should celebrate. I purchased an overpriced wrap and inevitable caramel slice, one of which I ate rapidly at the top of the hill, the other gorged on the flight home.  The wrap fulfilled a functional purpose, the slice an emotional one.

bendi07Anyway, such have been my ramblings in Victoria over the years I wasn’t actually sure if I had been to the top of Mount Macedon before. It turns out that I hadn’t, unless I really don’t remember the upward crawl into roads lined with ever more spindly and pathetic-looking gum trees, the view of expansive plains below and a giant golden cross constructed to appease the wrath of the almighty.

bendi08It was chilly up here, but I knew I was on my way back to Canberra so it wasn’t going to get any better. And for the second time in succession, my dawdling was beginning to make it touch and go that I would make my flight. Maybe I’ll learn, or maybe I’ll just nudge a little over the speed limit and swear at every idiot who dares to pull out at a roundabout and get in my way. It seems to work, and so this gold rush came to a successful frenetic end, antidote to the sedate charm of Victorian Victoria.

Australia Driving Food & Drink Green Bogey

South to North

Frosts. Enough already! But it was heavy rain with milder conditions greeting me at five o’clock in the morning bound for Canberra Airport. Despite very little traffic, every light was red, the automatic check in counter didn’t recognise me and I was, with some sympathy, relayed the news that I was too late. I looked forlorn, beaten, empty. I felt as much.  But throw in a few calls and they managed to arrange some fog in Brisbane to delay my flight and leave me with a 12 hour trip to Darwin. Annoying but also blessed.

It is hard to be anything but languid in the tropics. I felt the odd man out putting on trousers and shoes to undertake work. But in between there were outdoor coffee stop laptop catch ups, esplanade strolls, and post-work reduced-price eating at the Mindil Beach Night Markets. And there were shorts, fully taking advantage of The Dry, which provides an unstinting predictability of blue skies and 33 degrees. Darwin grew on me, but mainly because it wasn’t The Wet. And I’m not sure I could live here, because it only seems to attain adequate on the coffee measurement scale.

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NT02Having come so far, I was determined to explore beyond Darwin during The Dry, so tacked on an extra night to squeeze in what most people would probably do over two or three days. An early start on Saturday and speed limits of 130km/h help, and I found myself entering Litchfield National Park before ten; just in front of the procession of tour buses (invariably named things like Crocco Tours, The Top End Crocosaurus, NT Outback Crocclebus etc etc) entering the parking area of Florence Falls.

I had been here in The Wet and it was, undeniably, very wet (there is a blunt truth to many a Top End expression). Today, there was still plenty of water gushing from the twin cascades and into a perfect swimming hole, which soon became populated by sagging swimsuits and shocking Speedos (the tour buses had arrived). No wonder the crocs keep away!

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Off the beaten track just a little, a path leads back to the car park following a small, shady creek. It’s called Shady Creek. Again, I remember this in February, when the path was subsumed by the creek and crossing took a bit of arms-linked watch where you put your feet and hope there’s not a snake there kind of affair. Today, with barely a soul venturing this way from the pools, it was a masterpiece of tranquillity. And still devoid of snakes.

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Rejoining the Stuart Highway I noted Alice Springs was a mere 1402 kilometres south. And between there, not very much at all. Apart from Katherine, which for quite a long time I pictured as a cute, small-town feel kind of spot nestled in a rocky valley beside the tree-lined meander of the Katherine River. It might even have a nice organic coffee place with homemade Hummingbird cake and copies of The Guardian.

About one hundred clicks out, and with the road trip feels returning to my synapses, I remembered to readjust my expectations. I’m glad I did; not that there was anything wrong with Katherine, but I was restricted to Woollies and Red Rooster for dinner. Nonetheless, it didn’t matter, for Katherine was purely a functional base from which to enter Nitmiluk, more commonly known as Katherine Gorge, a place I had neither been in The Wet nor The Dry.

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The benefit of a long drive was arriving in the latter part of the day, with the air cooling just a smidgeon and the light all radiant amber. It was so good, so captivating, that I hiked for a little longer than I planned, detouring an extra few kilometres through rocky valleys and verdant oases to Pat’s Lookout. Grand and serene, primeval and elemental, it was a surprise to be joined this late in the day by a couple of backpackers. But we didn’t say much, other than accented helloes, perhaps because we were just a little beholden by the world we were in.

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The light sunk lower as I headed back down towards the visitor centre, confident that I would make it before it became too dark. And indeed, my timing was only a little out, as the last red hues of the sun cast the top of the escarpment aflame. These are the scenes you live for in the Australian outback, these are the memories that never fade.

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Almost everyone who comes to Nitmiluk goes out onto the water. My restricted time meant the only option was the Dawn Cruise the next morning, before a race back to Darwin Airport. I think even if I had longer to linger, this would still have been the best option, with only a scattering of people aboard to witness the calm commencement of a magical new day.

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Quick tour guide factoid 1: there are actually nine gorges in Nitmiluk, inevitably named Gorge 1, Gorge 2, Gorge 3 etc. During The Wet, the natural rock barriers between each get flooded, allowing saltwater crocodiles a little greater room for exploration.

Quick tour guide factoid 2: the park rangers undertake a Saltie capture and release program to clear the gorge when the waters have subsided. This was in operation now. But Freshwater crocs are there all the time. Like over there, quick, look, just to the right of the boat. But the worse a Freshie can do is tear off your arm or some such.

Quick tour guide factoid 3: we have now come to the end of Gorge 1, so it’s time to get out of the boat and make your way for about 400 metres to the next boat and Gorge 2. It’s all rather gorgeous.

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As the sun slowly rises into a field of dotted high cloud, it intermittently breaks through to illuminate massive canyon walls topped with precariously positioned trees. The water flickers with a murmur of wind. A cormorant sits statue in a branch half submerged by water. Sandy beaches and mangroves are interspersed, sometimes disappearing into the fissures and fault lines of the massive sandstone plateau that stretches far into Arnhem Land.

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I could never ever pretend to understand what it is like to be an Aboriginal Australian. To be one of the Jawoyn people who have lived with this land for tens of thousands of years, way before a British Lieutenant was a twinkle in his father’s eye. To live, to breath, to die upon a land that they do not see themselves as owning but of being one of itself. It was a land that was a privilege, just for a few hours, to be a part of. And it seemed strange, very strange indeed, to know that I would be back in an artificial white man’s capital, a freezing white man’s capital, later that day.

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Australia Driving Green Bogey Photography Walking