Late Friday afternoon on the road between Braidwood and Bungendore and the wind is buffeting my car as it trundles into the sleety clouds of winter. I’m returning from the coast, where two hours before I was eating lunch on a sheltered cove saturated in warm sunshine. It’s a slightly weary drive and, for some reason, I decide to play The Lightning Seeds for probably the first time in twenty years.
After several jaunty, scousish ditties that sound identical, the sage words of Alan Hansen and Jimmy Hill emerge as the infectious, glorious, deprecating anthem that is Three Lions blares out. I cannot listen to this without bobbing my head a little, chanting, smiling like a Cheshire Cat. As much as you might try. It’s Coming Home! At least I hope so, in light of the possible blizzard up ahead.
It’s Coming Home. Euro 96. An era that now feels halcyon, days when the Donald and BJ were still complete dicks but at least not complete dicks inexplicably leading disunited states and precarious kingdoms. Back in 1996, John Major was trundling his way towards the end of years of Tory rule, a regime which now somehow seems sane and reasonable. The Spice Girls were zig-a-zag-ahing and both Mitchells were polishing their heads behind the bar of the Queen Vic. I was completing my first year of university, undistracted by a phone, immune from the ranting coalescence of conspiracy lunatics on the internet.
I don’t remember that much about my university course (who does?), but in a convoluted way which coincidentally brings us back to the present I suppose it led me to be in the South Coast NSW town of Narooma on a mild, golden evening in August 2019. I studied, I got a job, I travelled, I went back to that job, I transferred to Australia with that job and I ended up on a boardwalk meandering past calm and clear waters toward the ocean.
Did I ever imagine back in 1996 that I would be gazing out to the Pacific hoping to sight a whale? Meandering downhill alongside gardens strewn with exotic plants and colourful birds? Wandering past parks dotted with electric barbecues and sinks for dealing with the entrails of fish? Who would have thought I would have previously parred the treacherous Bogey Hole of that golf course wedged between the town and the plunging cliffs of the coastline? Certainly not me, or anyone else, which is why I bring it up again.
Even with its ageing hackers, Narooma is a pretty quiet kind of place, especially in a midweek in winter when the temperature has dipped to something around nineteen degrees. It’s tough going, having to put a light jumper on as the sun disappears behind Gulaga, pondering whether to have fish and chips for dinner or wait until tomorrow.
While I know Narooma pretty well, the first night in a strange place always seems to lead to a fitful sleep, even when you’ve opted to forego fish and chips. Waking too early the next day, the murmurings of RN Breakfast do little to inspire or send me back to doze, so I head out into the dark. I love this time of day, especially beside the ocean; facing east as the black fades to blue and grey and red and yellow, and shafts of sunlight glitter off the sea. The sun kisses the layers of morning cloud, spreading to the tops of trees, and illuminating the coffee shop on the hill. A beacon which makes the reward of an early start in Australia all the better.
With plenty of the day still ahead I took the car for a little explore south of Narooma, stopping first in the so-good-they-named-it-twice hamlet of Tilba Tilba before heading on to the relative bustle of Central Tilba. This is a corner of the county oozing genuine charm, with plenty of tin roofs and lacework awnings, flower-filled yards and rustic leftovers. By Australian standards it’s usually a green and lush place as well, which is great for local dairy products; but even here the drought looked to be taking its yellowing toll.
Given my early start it was probably pushing it to head to the bakery in Central Tilba for local produce straight away, so I took a gentle amble along the track which eventually leads to the top of Gulaga, the dominant, forest-clad peak of the area, spiritually significant to the local Yuin people. You can walk to the top, but I wasn’t really in the mood and I heard that summit views were lacking. The valley was perfectly happy enough.
Did I mention dairy products? One of my favourite topics which, back in 1996, probably didn’t come with any moral distaste from ethically sourced eco-vegan leftists typing away on their not-so-pure iPhones. I guess at a philosophical level, there is valid debate as to whether we can still have our cake and eat it? At an individual level, the answer was a resounding yes. Not only in Tilba, home to Jersey Cows and related outputs. But also in Bodalla, a pitstop on my journey into and out of Narooma and for all journeys this way in the future. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.
South of Tilba, the main highway veers off towards Bermagui, along a splendid road of eucalyptus forest and the shores of Wallaga Lake. The maps indicate a few coastal rock formations here, names suggesting a likeness to horses and camels which enticed me to explore with the hope of discovering an Australian Durdle Door or Bedruthan Step. While there was not quite the same grandeur, the coastal scenery, now bathed in warm sunshine, proved a tonic after that massive apple turnover.
It was pleasing to discover I was on part of the ‘Great South Coast Walk’ according to a few signposts. This doesn’t appear to be an official trail but may yet develop into something more formal. One of my bugbears with Australia is that it doesn’t seem to have the same right to roam philosophy as the UK. Huge tracts of land are locked up in private hands or just downright inaccessible unless you have Ray Mears on hand with a machete and / or a big gas guzzling ute. Being able to just rock up anywhere on the coast and walk has an appeal unmatched. See, for example, South West Coast Path.
It was along this walk, overlooking the expanse of Wallaga Lake, that I learnt of another resemblance in the landscape around here. Gulaga is a pregnant woman, partly explaining its significance to the Yuin people who were here well, well before 1996. Today, its fertility abounds as a cluster of whales drift down the coast, mother and calf distant white caps sporadically splashing in the rich waters.
I probably wouldn’t have spotted the whales if it wasn’t for a couple of retired locals staked out on a headland near Horse Head Rock. For me, this is usually the most successful method of spotting wildlife. If you’re driving in country Australia and a cluster of people have pulled over to look up at a tree, there’s a fair chance you’ll get to see a koala. The other way you tend to discover local wildlife is when you nearly run it over. Beware Wombats.
Spurred on by earlier whale sightings I ended the day back up near Narooma, taking a scenic coastal drive alongside Dalmeny and Kianga which boasts several panoramic viewing platforms along the way. The platforms are sited in between yet more pristine bays that you can have all to yourself. It was at the last of these points that I glanced a surfing dolphin, followed by a few more and a few more still. Passing below, there must have been around twenty dolphins, tracking north on a feeding mission. A whole two football teams.
I doubt I would have seen dolphins in 1996. Nor would I be questioning the prospect of snow in August, even counting for British weather. Today, this was a possibility heading back to Canberra thanks to a vigorous succession of cold fronts coming from the Antarctic. My solution was to linger down on the coast for as long as possible.
It was undoubtedly windy, but the skies were blue and with a little shelter you could sit comfortably in a light sweater or even T-shirt. Neither of which were really possible in the blustery settings of Cullendulla Creek and the nearby Eurobodalla Botanic Gardens, but these were attractive diversions nonetheless. At the gardens, the stronger gusts were a tad alarming and it felt only a matter of time before a branch would fall on my head. Mercifully it didn’t, and the march towards Spring carried on.
Just north of Batemans Bay – and the road junction back to Canberra – the graceful, tall spotted eucalypts of Murramarang National Park were probably less appealing to walk through today. Especially when picking a walk that follows a ridgeline facing the bay, directly exposed to the strong southwesterlies. The crashing chaos, the constant buffeting, the noise and fury do not entice a pause to look up and marvel. Impulsion instead for a brisk pace and the hope of respite on the other side. And what gentle and idyllic contrast this proves.
A bay with no-one and nothing. Nothing but calm clear waters, untouched sand and the backing of a gently whispering bush. A driftwood log, downed in some other storm and also finding its way to this paradise, is now a perfect setting for a late lunch. The breathlessness is not only in the air, the warmth not only on the outside. Perhaps even in 2019, these are still the days, this is still the life.