Zzz…

…and so to bed, a closure of sorts on this long-winded journey that started off so awesome and finishes in a cocoon of fluffy pillows and cosy doonas. Among all the wonderful things seen, the delights tasted, the rants aired, it is sleep that has allowed them to happen, recharging the body and mind just enough to ensure that things can keep on keeping on. Sleep is, well, awesome, and as friends and family surround themselves with young ones, the perplexing question on everyone’s lips is just why wouldn’t you want to go to bed and sleep solidly for eight hours, pesky child?!

Sleep deprivation is, alas, a feature of the lives of many people I know, from eternally exhausted parents to work-bothered stress heads. Occasionally it pops up in my life, but usually as a result of my own endeavours, like sitting cramped on a plane for 24 hours and moving forward in time 11 hours and then stupidly expecting to sleep like a baby that actually sleeps [1]

Z_wilsprom

Or deciding to stay in a hostel room in a tiny place somewhere in Victoria and finding that the other bunks are occupied by three rather large Germans who have had a hearty dose of ale and chunks of pork and like to sleep on their back. Still, it was a beautiful early dawn ride to Wilsons Prom that morning when no-one else was yet up.

Luckily I am apt to overcome sleep deprivation and early starts with the most blessed event that can befall anyone: the afternoon nap. I think I first fell in love with afternoon naps when it happened to me as a teenager, taking me unawares as I struggled to read a boring book on a grey day in a comfy armchair. Initially it was a bit of a shock to find that I had unintentionally nodded off and drooled a little. But the feeling of contentment and rejuvenation that ebbed into my body earmarked the afternoon nap as something to occasionally strive for.

In 2013 I had a fair few afternoon naps, along with a fair few restless nights and early starts. This was primarily my own doing, attributed to the fact that I ended up staying in 121 different locations across the globe [2]. Such restlessness can induce restlessness…that feeling of being slightly unsettled going to sleep in an unfamiliar spot. Given many of the sleeps were also conducted in a canvas coffin in the middle of nowhere, prone to every possum rustle and pounding wave of the ocean and occasional snoring fit from elsewhere, solid sleep was not always high on the agenda. But then I discovered the calming properties of earplugs and got over it and probably made a bit or noise myself, mouth agape catching flies.

Still, the early starts were common as there is only so much an earplug can do against the cacophonous cackling of a choir of Kookaburras. The compensation from the termination of sleep was the sparkle of being alive and watching the natural world wake up from its shadowy slumber. Like down amongst the spotted gums of Croajingalong National Park, fringing the silver glass of an inlet as it is kissed by the laser red sun of dawn and enlivened by the rousing chimes of bellbirds. Awake is the new sleep.

Z_croaj

A few more sleeps from this spot and I happened to be in Wilsons Prom again, this time without a hostel room of Germans, but struggling to sleep nonetheless. The day had been baking hot, an arid northerly wind blowing dust and flies and smoke and hairdryer vapours to the southern extremities of mainland Australia. Too hot to sleep until – finally in the small hours – the promised cool change, bringing a pitter-patter of rain which turns to a noisy deluge amplified on canvas. Fortunately the next sleep was Melbourne and a roof and a bed and appreciation of a roof and a bed which is so often taken for granted by us first world problem seekers.

There were a few other hot nights but many more cold ones, often surprising in their unpredictability. I expect somewhere called the Grampians to be a wee bit chilly, though in March I never expected it would be cold enough to cause me to hover over a few smouldering twigs, infiltrating smokiness into my hair and stubble and fleece and beanie, awaiting the first warmth from the sun to finally emerge from between the trees. Ironically, later that day it would swelter so much as to cause sweaty backs on a climb to one of the many spectacular overlooks, provoke comfort in a lukewarm home-made shower, and create extreme fondness for a double scooped ice cream back down in Halls Gap.

In this flim-flam wiff-waff Perryinthian volatility of hot and cold, it is perhaps not so much of a surprise that one of the best swag sleeps in the past year was conducted at a very agreeable and comfortable temperature. This in itself was not at all predictable given previous chilly nights despite (or maybe because of) being in the dry, arid South Australian outback. Perhaps it was the shelter of the Cypress pines and their earthy fragrance, or perhaps just the ease of getting to sleep after many miles of quite exemplary walking, but Aroona Valley in the Flinders Ranges provided a chance to not really sleep much like a baby. And with solid sleep, an early start is no problem to appreciate the grandeur of the emerging landscape as the day is welcomed.

Z_flinders

Beyond the swag there have been air mattresses and sofas and fold up beds to enjoy, plus the occasional real bed. I’ve had a close on-off relationship with a certain air mattress for some time now, though this year saw us part company. A little part of me was a bit forlorn when I was kindly provided with my own room and own bed, complete with funky pictures of digger trucks and awesome earthmoving machines. Yet I can still sleep soundly despite stealing the bedroom of a two year old, for I always sleep soundly here. It may come thanks to the wine and fulfilling Mexican food, the equal liveliness and weariness of family life, the penchant for odd movies and cruising around Liberty City late at night. Or the grim up north Lancashire exterior quelled by the warming welcome inside.

Z_devonAnd once more it comes back to that old chestnut roasting on an open fire of comfort and familiarity. Spending such sustained time on a fold up bed in Plymouth that my back no longer hurts. Reconnecting with my eternal homeland, nodding off to the sound of drunken crazies arguing over some munter down the street eating a kebab. Waking to the sound of seagulls and the incessant irritating loop of Bruno Mars and Olly Murs on Heart [3]. Hearing the distant trundle of the railway as it fights its way through millions of leaves and brambles; a trundle that gently lulls you to sleep again later following a majestic day walking the Cornish coast. This is quite possibly the most contented nap there is.

Finally, after all this sleeping around, I again find myself in my own bed, the one I bought at Harvey Norman in Fyshwick seven years ago, before I knew any better [4]. I remember having to catch a bus that dropped me off somewhere between a petrol station and porn shop, walking through some overgrown brown grass dotted with rubble and fast food trash. Making it to the store I then waited ages for any of the dubious sales staff to take any interest in me. I’m sure I purchased the fairly cheap mattress, thinking I was only going to be in Australia for a year. But it endures and it is mine and, as everyone always inevitably says after a bout of travel, ooh it’s always nice to be back in your own bed!

Back on that day, while waiting near the porn store for the hourly bus back to somewhere close to where I was staying, I killed some time by wandering into the p…p….petrol station. I p…p….purchased a map of New South Wales to kill some boredom. This was back in the dark old days of 2006, when maps were unfathomably large and fold out-y. But it was splendid to open it out and start looking at the roads and contours and the places by the sea that were still just names then. And it was daunting to see just how large the place was, where a two hour drive was a couple of fingers width on paper.

When the bed was delivered and assembled it not only became a place of sleep but one in which the mind would formulate plans and trips, making lists in my head and sometimes struggling to nod off with the breathless excitement of it all. I’d try to count sheep, read something dull, do a Sudoku. And then I decided, probably an unwise tactic, to list things off in my head in an A to Z fashion. Like places I have been in the USA, capital cities of the world, or legumes of the Central Asian plateau or some such. Sometimes I would drift off by Crystal River, other times I’d be wide-eyed in Zagreb. But it’s something that has endured for quite a while, until now.

So it would seem, with this particular alphabet closed, I truly can rest easy. Catch a few awesome ZZZs as a chapter closes. That is until I start to toy with the next idea and several others fall open. For now though, read this and sleep.


[1] What a misguided phrase. To sleep like a baby must mean spells of doziness for an hour with six interruptions during the night to eat, and a couple of nappy changes because you have pooped all over the place.

[2] I should point out, not 121 different beds, for many of these sleeps were carried out in a swag that just happened to find itself in a different part of Australia each night.

[3] Seriously, just buy her some frigging flowers and shut the hell up

[4] I quickly decided to deliberately avoid Harvey Norman, mainly because of its very tacky, cheap and incredibly shouty adverts in which they proclaim to be the bedding specialist, or plasma screen specialist or coffee specialist, offering interest free credit until 2023

Links

Croajingalong National Park: http://parkweb.vic.gov.au/explore/parks/croajingolong-national-park

Wilsons Promontory National Park: http://parkweb.vic.gov.au/explore/parks/wilsons-promontory-national-park

Grampians National Park: http://parkweb.vic.gov.au/explore/parks/grampians-national-park

Flinders Ranges National Park:

http://www.environment.sa.gov.au/parks/Find_a_Park/Browse_by_region/Flinders_Ranges_and_Outback/Flinders_Ranges_National_Park

They haven’t got much better (or advanced): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l3ky9cFQbbM

Back in the bed buying days: http://neiliogb.blogspot.com.au/2006/08/artistic-bedroom-furniture-ironing.html

Something else to send you to sleep: http://neiliogb.blogspot.com.au/

A to Z Australia Great Britain Society & Culture

Yurt

It was like wakening in a miniature circus tent, though with just the one clown stirring from an overnight slumber. Through a plastic window daylight was seeping into the octagonal space, the hard wooden floor radiating sunshine upwards into the plastic dome, like flame rising into a hot air balloon. Through the plastic glare the gentle sheen of the sea glimmered out in the distance, a view broken by dark pine forest and rounded headlands. One or two female deer lazily munched on the green grass in the foreground, as I set to joining them for breakfast.

It is hard to say if this was exactly what I was expecting when I came across an entry for this place in a guidebook many months before. Certainly what transpired captured the atmospheric appeal that came to my imagination back then. It was moving towards winter in Australia and times were spent in windowless offices and pointless meetings as I trudged slowly towards the date when I finally left my job. The sound of a place tucked away on an island in the pristine Pacific Northwest of the US where you could sleep in a yurt had instant allure. It seemed I had become what I never wanted to become and seeking clichéd escapes from ‘executive stress’.

And so, several months later, after visiting Hong Kong and Europe and New York City on my big time out, I landed in Seattle. Initial experiences were far from chilled. By time I had picked up a hire car it was rush hour on the I-5 and there I was in an unfamiliar car in an unfamiliar place on an unfamiliar side of the road. Sweeping through the heart of downtown Seattle I was able to avert my gaze from the weaving cars and merging lanes for just the briefest of moments. To my left, the Space Needle pierced the low cloud, affirming that I was heading in the right direction, north through the fading suburbs and fading light to a place where you can breathe again.

I slept that night under solid roof in one of those steady, unspectacular motels that permeate the highways and byways of the United States. They have beige carpets and brick walls and sturdy wooden sideboards with built in radio alarm clocks and light switches [1]. They have an included breakfast with a choice of three types of cereal dispensed from what were pretty revolutionary cereal dispensers back in the 60s. A choice of crushed cornflake, soggy rice puffs or the contents of the vacuum cleaner bag. Alternatively, you can have some undercooked toast with impossible to spread butter.

They have a laundry with tokens and powder available from the front desk, so that you can put your world-weary clothes through an expensive and time-consuming process in which they become sodden as Bangladesh during the monsoon and then undergo ten minute stints in a huge dryer and eventually come out with only a very incremental change in cleanliness and a lingering damp dog smell. Still, you put one of the clean-ish jumpers on and head out into the fresh air with the hope that at least this one will dry out in the next few hours.

The huge consolation is that Bellingham seems to possess its fair share of fresh, laundry-drying air. Beside the steely waters of Puget Sound, a pleasing boardwalk leads to a pleasing place for coffee with a pleasing-on-the-eye person making it. Elsewhere in town, the occasional deer grazes on someone’s perfectly coloured Y_whatcomprecision cut front lawn. Other deer poke their heads out of the undergrowth in Whatcom Park – named after the dotcom boom which failed to materialise this far north. Maybe. Amazingly, this is like a national park in the middle of the town, with some pretty waterfalls disturbing the peace of the forest.

Close to the border, the vibe feels more Canadian than anywhere else in America, which is a good thing for any executive stress you may have. Actually, Bellingham reminds me more than anywhere of Cypress Creek, the fictional town in The Simpsons acting as the secret base for the fantastical megalomaniac Hank Scorpio. I admit to failing to spot Put-Your-Butt-There on third in the hammock complex in the hammock district. But other than that – mountains and pine forests, chipmunks, lakeside houses and picket fences, secret underground missiles armed and aimed at France – Bellingham ticked all the boxes [2].

Another night under a solid roof led to another included breakfast, though this time with the surprise bonus of slightly stale miniature croissants. They must have been leftover from the annual general meeting of the American-Franco Dwarf Association of Washington State that took place in the conference room the previous evening. Still, I pocketed a few for the journey on what was a sublimely sunny day, warm and clear heading down to Anacortes for a ferry ride.

I can imagine, in this weather-laden extremity of America, that the ferry ride across to Orcas Island is rarely as serene as it was on this particular day. Slicing through high definition crystal calm, the ferry’s wake rippled the reflections of the many pine topped isles scattered upon the sound. Secluded bays hosted the occasional rustic dwelling, where the kayak appeared to be vehicle of choice. Between island views the mainland drifted away, but all the while the snowy volcanic peak of Mount Baker gleamed, a blinding white cone penetrating the upper atmosphere.

Disembarkation was a low key affair on Orcas Island, which is the largest of the many San Juan Islands peppering Puget Sound. Given some land mass to play with, the island offers a patchwork of working farmland and wild forest, a contoured landscape of hills and lakes, punctuated by a handful of small but serviceable towns. There is one main road linking the ferry drop off and the towns, with a few side diversions of note. So, after tucking into a pulled pork sandwich at the biggest town, Eastsound, the car took me up and up on a detour to the island’s highest point.

Mount Constitution sounds like somewhere that belongs in the United States, like Capitol Hill and Liberty City and Freedom Fries and Gun-toting Redneck Hill. The name feels solid and a little serious, denoting something which is of grand importance albeit a little dour in the detail. I don’t think any major pieces of legislature would have been signed up here, but I did spot a few written etchings professing Randy’s love for Mary-Jane.

It turns out the peak was in fact named after the USS Constitution which I am assuming plied the waters far down below in the distant past. The waters today are becalmed, a smooth sapphire sheet dotted with emerald islands, lapping at the shores of the mainland, where mammoth mountains rise to form snowy domes suspended in the sky. I can see Canada. I can see the entire Cascade Range sweeping down Washington and even into Oregon. I can see the Olympic Peninsula and its equally lofty heights, perhaps hiding Japan over its lumpy bulk. Above, the sky is as blue as blue sky strategic thinking gets, and far more credible.

Y_const

And so, from such gargantuan immensity I end up in a little yurt on the shores of Doe Bay, on the eastern side of the island. I may well be staying in some place that has the word ‘retreat’ in its name. One or two of the staff have longish hair, and I think they are serving vegetarian food in the cafe. There may be a spiritual yoga class tomorrow morning. But there is no pressure to non-conform. Simply do as you will. Meander the land and come across other yurts or cabins or swags set amongst the trees and cosy glades. Take a book and sit on a rundown bench under a fragrant pine branch, the sound of gently lapping water occasionally pierced by seals or other marine life or a guitar being strummed on some other bench over the bay. Potter about in such a complete carefree daze that you lock yourself out of your yurt and have to call out someone to help you after hours who looks very pregnant and was probably in the middle of eating their dinner but is still absolutely delighted to be of assistance.

Y_doe

Wake up on your birthday in the middle of a structure resembling a giant birthday cake, scattering opened envelopes on the radiant wood floor. Say good morning to the deer munching away on the green grass, shading your eyes from the morning sea glare. Hear the sound of soothing humming coming from the yoga shack. And revel in an absolutely delicious vegetarian breakfast burrito served with approachable charm and humour. The milestone of another year reached and, strangely, I feel ten years younger.


[1] There is always a switch which never seems to operate anything. (Meanwhile, across town, the lights at the ballpark flicker on and off as an unassuming tourist twiddles with knobs in a beige motel).

[2] Unfamiliar to your far too cultured brain? See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/You_Only_Move_Twice

Links

Scorpio: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9QEsjd1WZuY

Cypress Creek…I mean…Bellingham, WA: http://www.bellingham.org/

The San Juans: http://www.visitsanjuans.com/

Doe Bay Resort and, yes, Retreat: http://doebay.com/

Specifically, pacifically, northwest: http://neiliogb.blogspot.com.au/2011/10/specific-pacific-northwest-blogfest.html

A to Z Driving Food & Drink Photography USA & Canada Walking

Xenophobe

If X is a difficult letter then why not take on a difficult subject to make it even more difficult? Perhaps it’s because I am some culturally deficient rosbif, a soap-dodging pom who has come to take your job and steal your social security and write about it with an air of superiority and pomposity befitting of someone who can eat stodgy food and believe it is better than anything ever created anywhere else in the world and then have the cheek to enforce this food upon you by taking over the corner shops up and down the land that were once yours and using them as a cover for illicit activities. Oh yes, I am your ultimate nightmare, your superlative Daily Mail concoction of hatred.

In truth this all sounds rather silly don’t you think, but time and again, in conversations, in discussion groups, in one-liners, I come across sentiments such as these. Not directed at me of course, apart from the gentle ‘banter’ of pommie-bashing which can become quite vitriolic with alcohol fuelled cricket frenzy; or that time I was in France on a school trip and a few skulking local youths decided to call a group of us ‘Bloody English’ in a growly spittle-filled accent that was too much of a parody to be overly intimidating. Bloody French cheese-eating surrender monkeys anyway!! No, these comments frequently involve stranger foreign types, queue-jumping, tax-dodging, funny-smelling immigrants from poorer places, who, it would seem, are always up to no good.

I assume many more learned and bothered-to-do-their-research people have written theories about why this might happen in civilised society, citing one or more of protectionism, fear, resistance to change, cultural imperialism, elitism, distrust, nationalism, competition for space or resources or infrastructure, pervading social norms and stereotypes. There is, to be fair, some foundation to the concerns people have about ‘others’. For instance, we can realistically assume that an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist is more likely to be darker skinned and have connections with the Middle East, and less likely to take the form of an old granny who lives next door and bakes apple pie. However, the problem is the giant leap of an assumption that, by very irrational logic, all darker skinned people from the Middle East are potential or actual terrorists. It is as ludicrous as, say, gay people being responsible for a spell of wet weather in Britain. [1]

X_gay rainSpeaking of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), it has been interesting to observe their rise in prominence at a distance. For here, as in several other countries, is a political party premised on xenophobia, and doing so rather successfully despite an obvious number of crackpots and – well, to put it nicely – policy gaps in far more important areas of concern to us all. Clearly there remain enough antiquated barons who still distrust the Germans in Britain, but where UKIP have profited most is in tapping into the fears and concerns of those disgruntled and disenfranchised and downtrodden, whose own struggle and lack of fulfilment can feel better when apportioned to something outside of their control.  And pesky foreigners have always made an easy scapegoat for our own failings.

Observing these developments from a sunny, warm, multicultural and coffee-blessed Australia, where people don’t think twice about paying ten quid for a sandwich, you would be quite right to assume there is an air of Antipodean smugness [2]. Because of geopolitical remoteness, there can be no Australian Independence Party in the same way, though I’m sure Western Australia has something of that ilk, campaigning on a ridiculous non-daylight saving platform and the right to dig up literally every single last rock in the state and keep the money all to themselves. However, despite its undoubted multiculturalism, xenophobia is alive and kicking down under, given a fresh lease of life by some of its most prominent politicians.

The big peril in Australia comes from the north, via Indonesia, which is treated like some Hicksville backwater despite being one of the most populous countries in the world [3]. Indonesians themselves are not so much in the firing line, just the innocent casualties caught in the middle of a war (yes, you read that right, war) on people smugglers [4]. You see, people smugglers are responsible for bringing foreigners across from Indonesia on boats. Foreigners who are mostly fleeing proper war or famine or persecution, or just seeking to be reunited with their children [5]. They are desperate and willing to risk their lives on a perilous sea journey and I challenge you to say you would not do the same if the alternative was inevitable destitution and destruction.

Of course, we don’t want them to drown at sea, so the latest solution is to do everything we can to stop them from coming [6]. The fact that this addresses some of the dubious concerns that our cities and towns are being ‘swamped’ by outsiders, who are taking our jobs and our houses and making the traffic to Kmart a nightmare because they are going to the nearby mosque has nothing to do with it. It would be cynical of me to think this is a neat political outcome that again taps into fears and struggles of people who are ‘doing it tough’, leveraging just an essence of xenophobia that definitely exists – and should be acknowledged to exist –  in Australia [7].

I wonder if there is something about island nations such as the UK and Australia that provoke a touch more insularity, a tad more protectionism. A churning sea provides that clear sense of separation from others and the sense of a wholly identifiable land mass to be protected. I guess I can only draw on my experiences living in these countries and would not really know if xenophobia is more or less rife in, say, mainland Europe or southeast Asia . I suspect it differs little. Perhaps it is natural for humans to be wary, to distrust, and to compete against the unknown and the alien. A genetically embedded manifestation of the survival of the fittest, which cannot be disentangled from a yearning for one-upmanship and conflict.

One would hope that the old adage of travel broadening the mind plays true. It can certainly help to dispel some of the myths and stereotypes that underpin elements of xenophobia. For instance, I have met friendly and funny Germans who totally get my sense of humour. I have been welcomed and embraced by French people, though the cheese-eating stereotype is clearly evidence-based [8]. I have been surprised that Australians can be the antithesis of their laid back Fosters advert image – hard-working, anxious, equally whingey and obsessed about the weather as some other nationality out there. I have met and talked to clever and articulate immigrants from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka who would be an asset to any country who lets them in. And I have discovered that Asian food is far from anything to be feared.

The risk is that travel can also potentially reinforce some of the distorted views of others that we may hold. A smelly toilet in France can make us question the hygiene of the entire nation. Gloating cricket winners can annoy us so much as to make us think that Australians are a cocky, self-satisfied bunch. Hong Kong citizens adorned with face masks can lead to the assumption that everyone has bird flu. Canadians being genuinely pleasant and good-humoured can make us think that all Canadians are indeed the finest people on the planet. This may be mostly true, but I am sure there are at least a few bad eggs somewhere in the depths of Manitoba [9].

I suppose the essence of all of this is that we should at least try to be a bit more open-minded about people and the places they come from. A good start would be to consider the positives, revel in the differences and what this can bring to our lives and those of seven billion others. For instance, what about all the good things that EU membership brings to the UK, what about all the hard work that has been done by Polish immigrants and the economic contribution made? [10] What about the unknown potential of thousands of well-educated people arriving from Sri Lanka, regardless of whether they do this by sea? What about the wonderful world of cheese, of coffee, of coconut cream curry that have emanated from elsewhere and enriched our lives?

 ———————————————

I wanted to finish this meandering, slightly ranting and hopelessly idealistic piece with an anecdote from Spain. This is something of a travel blog after all, so I can tell you that I have had a few visits to Spain, mostly in the Costa Blanca region, and I will shove in a photo just to have a photo in this blog which often contains a photo or two.

X_spain

I haven’t made up my mind if I truly like this area or not, given the confused conglomeration of coastal developments, warm seas and dusty mountains. There are pockets of untainted rural beauty and then there are sprawling anglicised new towns, offering roast beef and paella at the same turn.

Perhaps it was around the early part of the century that represented the boom time for the migration of older people from Britain to these far warmer shores. Recessions and downturns, housing busts and credit crises have since impacted the influx, and it is easy in hindsight to see that the country overreached itself on a false bubble of property development. Still, amongst the unfinished lots and closed down Chinese takeaways, many ex-pats linger on, some enthusiastically embracing something of the Spanish way of life, others steadfastly ignoring it and hoping it will go away.

I remember speaking to one such new immigrant a few years back, who was quick to express disdain for Britain; perhaps a natural reaction to justify in one’s own head the move overseas. I had heard it before but the crux of the argument was that Britain had been overrun by foreigners, who were taking over and were jumping the queue for handouts. Britain, it was claimed, had gone to pot. Spain was now the place to be.

Of course, there is delicious irony in these words, uttered in the midst of a series of new developments in Spain that had been colonised by, well, immigrants. Where shops sold proper English Cheddar and the Fish ‘n’ Chips were better than at home. Where tobacco was cheaper and prescriptions too, so you could happily smoke away and get some government-subsidised anti-coagulants to keep things moving. A place where there were also other enclaves for Germans and Dutch and – recently with their smartly invested oil wealth – Norwegians.  A spot where you could concur with the thoughts of the Daily Mail as you labour over a fried breakfast: surely a top notch recipe for sustaining the inevitable cycle that is xenophobia.


[1] Yes, indeed, in Britain where rain is not uncommon. See http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-oxfordshire-25793358 and then enjoy the numerous piss-takes such as https://twitter.com/UkipWeather

[2] A smugness massively inflated by cricket results of late.

[3] And thus, you would think, a country to form positive relations with…to make the most of economic opportunities as Indonesia develops and for future security of the underpopulated resource-rich island to its south.

[4] I doubt if this one will make the A-Level history syllabus.

[5] Processing shows that 90% are genuine refugees. Some of the wars they are fleeing (unlike the war on people smugglers) are genuine serious things that Australian troops are involved in (e.g. Afghanistan).

[6] Preventing drowning at sea is of course a genuinely valid objective and mired in policy nightmares. For my part, I say build a bridge and deal with it like other countries have to! Hell, you could even employ immigrants in the construction.

[7] Ironically, some of which comes from second or third generation migrants!

[8] And instead of resisting this trait when in France, just embrace it and gorge on Camembert, Munster, Roquefort, Reblochon, Comte, Brie, Pont l’Eveque, Beaufort, Tomme de Savoie, Morbier, Chevre, Raclette, Boursin, Port Salut and Cantal after dinner.

A to Z Australia Europe Great Britain Society & Culture

Waterfalls

It was always going to be hard for me to steer clear of a road named The Waterfall Way. Linking the tablelands of Australia’s New England to the mid north coast of New South Wales,the twist and turns down to the ocean are regularly punctuated with a chocolate box selection of falls. The stops from west to east are a story in climate and geography. Commencing in a parched landscape of wild gorges and dry bushland, thin strips of silver white water spill off cliff edges and into unseen creeks. High plateaus offer wild flowers and cool forests through which rivers gather speed and depth to forge their way down steps into deep gullies. Moisture picks up closer to the coast, where rainforests form to offer crystal cascades and lush fern pools, and the water speeds into the coastal plain before mellowing broadly to the sea.

With such excess there is a danger of waterfall fatigue: parking up, strolling to a lookout, taking a picture and hopping back in the car for a short journey to the next stop. In fact, the waterfalls continue north in pockets of rainforest tucked amongst ancient volcanic plateaus all the way up into Queensland. In the wonderful natural surroundings of Springbrook National Park it is as if there is one final grand culmination before water sweeps over the Great Dividing Range and into the horror of a Gold Coast horizon. Plunging pristine water toppling over the edge before being becalmed in a complex of gaudy cashed up retirement waterways.

Tucked away before the Gold Coast looms, in the quieter western side of the park, another waterfall tantalises the traveller who crosses the border by the back way. Nestled within a beautiful green valley is the once more imaginatively named Natural Arch, replete with shady pool and shimmering cascade plunging through a tunnel of rock. It’s midway round a processional loop walk through the rainforest, where sun rays filter hazily through the tree ferns and parrots chirp away in the canopy. On a humid summer morning, the cool shade of the forest and continuous thrash of crystal water is the perfect gin ‘n tonic.

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What is it about waterfalls that are of such appeal that we seek to recreate them in garden features the world over? On balance they are usually very pretty, from elegant slivers to bubbling tiers and tormented torrents of foaming fury. They are, as much as anything, a break from the ordinary…where a placid river or lake suddenly comes to an abrupt halt and decides to throw itself over a cliff. There is an unparalleled feeling of freshness and purity and, often, invigoration from getting close to gallons and gallons of tumbling water. It can make you feel alive. It can make you want to pee.

The power of waterfalls is compelling and is why they are often best viewed after rain, or sustained snowmelt. Yosemite in May is very different to Yosemite in October. Postcards of massive gushing falls in northern Australia can tell a lie for the trickle that often dwindles in the dry season. In the UK, the weather is usually more reliably conducive to year round falls, with new ones springing up across high streets during supposedly exceptional but all too regular winter storms.

W_wales2013 was one of the better British summers and I felt slightly aggrieved to catch only the tail end of it. Nonetheless it was a balmy 20 degrees or so when I found myself in South Wales towards the end of August, on a different kind of waterfall way. Situated in the Brecon Beacons National Park, this literal tour de force was completed on foot along the Four Waterfalls Walk. For pronunciation lovers out there I can make your day by telling you that this commenced near Ystradfellte and took in a wonderful meander to view (brace yourselves) Sgwd Clwn-gwyn, Sgwd Isaf Clwn-gwyn, Sgwd y Pannwr [1] and Sgwd yr Eira [2].

It sounds like a trite cliché (hey, who doesn’t love a trite cliché), but each fall (or, I assume, sgwd) had its own style and character. Each one builds to the next and the final stop on the itinerary offers the ultimate white water thrill for not especially adrenaline seeking junkies. For, at the curtain falls of Sgwd y Eira, it is quite possible to walk behind the voluminous mass of water plummeting down, and – for some – to take your dog reluctantly along for the ride too. Inevitably there is plenty of spray and you will get wet, but – well – you are in Wales and you will get wet in Wales sooner rather than later. Why not make it here and take the chance to really appreciate the forcefulness of nature. Why not take your ear drums to the brink, pleading for mercy from the explosive, monumental thrash of the gigalitres of water that descend before your eyes? Amazing.

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Like Wales, Oregon is pretty familiar with rain, confronted as it is with a moist pacific airstream and climatic battle between deserts and mountains. One early October day in Portland is restricted to bookstore meanderings and coffee shop escapes, ducking out between downpours to make it to the next warming hipster refuge. Traversing wet sidewalks through a tangle of black umbrellas and beige raincoats, the city seems enveloped in the cinematic monochrome of a film noir. There is oppressiveness to the rain, something which is accepted and wholeheartedly embraced by its citizens but causes frustration to time-limited visitors like me. There are only so many lattes to sup and bookshelves to roam.

The next day shows marginal improvement – overcast but dry – and seems as good as it will get for an escape into the wilds. Passing the quite possibly interesting town of Boring, there are no views of Mount Hood to be had, rising Fuji-like out of the farmland and forests of the horizon as depicted so tantalisingly in the Lonely Planet picture. Brief glimpses are snatched beside Mirror Lake, with little reflection other than that internalised in relation to being potential early morning bear fodder. Further sneak peeks appear in the rain shadow of the mountain to the east and, here, the sun returns for a while to transform the colours of the fading autumnal forests.

With Mount Hood now somewhere behind, the road ends at the huge barrier of the Columbia River, carving a broad swathe through the Cascade Mountains and splitting Oregon and Washington States. The river has created a mammoth gorge lined with cliffs north and south. And so, with a large river system, significant rainfall, and high cliffs, there is a certainty of a quite spectacular run of waterfalls.

This particular waterfall way is undoubtedly a more developed road than that back in New South Wales, as dual lane sweeping curves follow the river in what is a dream to drive. Of the frequent cascades, it is Multnomah Falls that offers the most iconic sight. For once it seems a human element, an unnatural structure, has enhanced a natural spectacle. Splitting the precipitous double-decker descents of white water is a pedestrian arch bridge, where humans can run from bears and so effectively offer a sense of scale and perspective. Indeed, even the bears would look small opposed to the streaks of water tumbling from somewhere unfathomably high up in the sky.

W_Columbia

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Finishing a convenient circumnavigation of the globe here I am now back in Canberra. There are few falls here, other than watery concrete features around the angular constructs of the parliamentary triangle. But in a couple of days I will be going up to Sydney and, with time on my hands, I will make it scenic, detouring to Fitzroy Falls in the Southern Highlands. An old reliable favourite, fed by a reservoir and plunging off sandstone into a gum tree valley. A lyrebird may well be imitating the sounds of crashing water and a strong minty eucalyptus scent will pervade the senses. Again, it will be splendid. Because waterfalls are always splendid. But for now, I must come to a halt and stop this gushing about gurgling water and thrashing torrents, soaked in a spray of swirling liquid currents and dramatic downpours. Because now I really, really need to pee.


[1] For anyone with a customised 2014 calendar Christmas present…this one is the front cover!

A to Z Activities Australia Driving Great Britain Photography Places USA & Canada Walking

Viewpoints

We all have viewpoints. Mine tend to be moulded in a woolly leftish laissez-faire egalitarianism which is open to paying extra tax for everyone to be educated, receive healthcare and live in an environment less likely to be heading towards a fiery doom. But I would say that because I am comfortably suckling at the teats of first world capitalist privilege and not really confronted with all the hazards of war, poverty,  illness or being able to cope with a few extra immigrants contributing to our collective prosperity or the alarmist perils of gay people being able to marry. It’s not very 007, but live and let live I say.

Thankfully the world has millions of apolitical viewpoints that are generally unchanging and far more impressive. A physical vista; a snapshot of what lies in front of your eyes every time you look up, back or around the corner. And amongst these scenes are many structured and grandly formalised viewpoints: the tourist lookouts set up for our collective exploration and viewing pleasure. The mountain tops and observation decks, the roadside turn outs and waterfall balconies, the plateau points and tunnel views, the Mecca to the coach tour pilgrims.

Yes, humans seem to adore lookouts and, yes, I am entirely culpable of some kind of sycophantic, unconditional love towards them. On a map my eyes will be drawn to the star or sunny symbol denoting a high point with a view; on the road, a directional sign indicating an overlook will be dutifully, religiously followed; on a trail, the aim will often be the top. Sometimes they will disappoint, other times they will marvel, always they will provide a purposeful sense of exploration and appreciation of the landscape.

A gauge on my viewpoint love-in can be deduced from this blog. It started at the top of the Empire State Building, sporadically flailing around the globe to sublime points and hurricane ridges, taking in fairytale views and homely vistas, reaching snowy high peaks, glacier points, and key summits, pausing for elegant city views before marvelling at wild canyon overlooks. It seems a written piece dedicated to viewpoints is merely an extension of everything that has come before. Surely there can be no lookouts left to look at, no vistas left to visit?

It is perhaps no coincidence that the city in which I (kind of) live is no stranger to viewpoints. On one particular hill, people gather with all sorts of different perspectives and childishly bicker about their views in an effort to cement these into legislation [1]. Still, the good thing is you can escape this nonsense and climb onto the roof of Parliament House for a much better view, noting many other viewpoints rising up within the 360 degree panorama of Canberra.

Phil Liggett, the renowned and rambling voice of cycling, would best describe Canberra’s terrain as ‘lumpy’, akin to those long tortuous days through the Breton countryside. Sure, less verdant and lacking real quality cheese, but rarely a piece of sustained flat on which to take a breather. The geography offers a number of hills, ridges and ‘mountains’, with suburban streets clustered into undulating bowls and smaller hummocks. It’s a landscape of amphitheatres within one bigger colosseum, where numerous viewpoints are the upper circles looking down on a sedate and civilised performance.

I rather cherish these tops, particularly as they usually involve a varied and energetic walk through grasslands and Eucalypt woods, a smattering of kangaroos and darting blurs of birdlife accompanying the trip up. Each hill acts as a beacon calling, a bastion of nature and wildlife with an inevitable, reliably scenic viewpoint at its summit.

V_CBR views

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There are varying degrees of effort required for the ascent of Canberra’s hills and peaks. This brings us to a consideration of the effort-reward ratio sometimes involved in attaining a view. That is, will the view be worth the effort required to reach it? Sometimes this is blatantly in the positive, such as pulling over on the roadside and easily waddling to a nicely paved lookout over an expanse of wild forest and mountainous outcrops. On other occasions, the effort-reward ratio veers towards the negative that is a plodding, endless haul up a Scottish Munro in the cloying rain to a view of two whole metres of blanket misty white.

The effort input is – I would say – very high to extreme on the Tongariro Crossing on the north island of New Zealand. To start, there is an alarm call of 4:30am and pre-dawn gloom to navigate the initial gravelly meander along a long, narrowing valley. As the valley nears its end there is an inevitable sense of foreboding about the onward route; it is clear that there can be only one way to continue and, as Yazz & the Plastic Population screams in your head to make things even better, the only way is up. Up along the invitingly named Devil’s Staircase.

Steps and zigzags mark the way from here, but at least the emerging landscape offers the chance to use that little trick of taking a photo every ten paces, more for an intake of oxygen rather than genuine quest for photographic perfection. However, with heart pounding, head dizzying and legs in a brittle strain of tension, even that becomes a bit much to persevere with [2]. The top does come and there is an adrenaline boost of reward, quickly flattened like the astounding lifeless volcanic plateau of the South Crater on which you stand. For this is but a halfway point and over this one ridge another higher one rises.

While the first climb was hard going, at least it was well-graded and decently constructed with switchbacks and steps. On the second, the loose scree and large boulders of an ever narrowing and ever steepening arête have you wishing for a fat hobbit to carry you on his back. But as energetic youth bound their way up and past you without any offers of assistance, there is motivation to continue at your own pace. Effort inputs are maximised for reward outputs that are logarithmic in scale.

The viewpoint from the top of Red Crater is staggering in many ways. Staggering in directions and distance you can see; staggering in the otherworldly landscape of smooth craters and conical peaks and blasted red mountainsides and steaming green pools; staggering in the knowledge that the earth from underneath you could blow up as you bite into a deliciously fulfilling ham sandwich; and staggering because you made it. Here, the big effort makes for exponentially greater rewards.

V_tongariro

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Effort to reach a viewpoint comes in many forms and a final case in point can be illustrated via an afternoon in the Arkaroola Wilderness of South Australia. Indeed, this particular afternoon on a gloriously sunny late autumn day involved sitting down for two hours to reach a pinnacle called Sillers Lookout. Sitting down is surely the easiest thing in the world, but becomes infinitely more difficult when seated sideways in the semi-open back of a 4×4 that is traversing a corrugated rock-scape at precipitous gradients.

Sitting at the back, there is a different physical effort here which fluctuates with an uphill or downhill stretch of ‘road’. Uphill and it is a case of bracing the body from being squashed by the collective ample weight of other passengers and preventing it from falling out of the back; downhill and the effort is on not squashing your fellow passengers too much and falling forward to the front. Beyond these physical endeavours there is the effort to – at various points – make conversation with grey nomads, avoid swallowing flies, concentrate on not being sick, and pretending to be excited that the afternoon tea involves that underwhelming favourite: Lamingtons.

V_arkAll I can say is that it is a good job afternoon tea occurs at the ultimate viewpoint of this ridge top tour. In the afternoon, with the sun lowering it is a quite incredible vista of absolute primitive and earthen wilderness. No doubt shaped by that perennial favourite of ancient inland seabed activity, the scene is a very Australian red, with a very Australian sense of harshness and ferocity, which is somehow very, very beautiful. And despite the different perspectives and world views of the people here to see it this afternoon, it is a viewpoint we can all agree is special…a reward that comes with all good viewpoints.


[1] Meanwhile, journalists lazily refer to ‘Canberra’ as imposing these views on the rest of the country: ‘Canberra slugs unfair tax on mining billionaires’, ‘Canberra scraps science funding’, ‘Canberra hits the hip pocket of working families’. Bloody Canberra, is it any wonder there are so many negative connotations from people who have never been here?

[2] Meanwhile, lithe and energetic teens annoyingly bound their way past and, to add to the enjoyment, you are rudely reminded of ageing.

Links

Bumps in the ACT: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_mountains_in_the_Australian_Capital_Territory

Canberra Nature Park: http://www.tams.act.gov.au/parks-recreation/parks_and_reserves/canberra_nature_park

Tongariro Alpine Crossing: http://www.tongarirocrossing.org.nz/

Tongariro National Park: http://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/national-parks/tongariro/

Carry me Sam: http://lotr.wikia.com/wiki/Mount_Doom

Hold on to your hats: http://www.arkaroola.com.au/ridgetop.php

Some more top views: http://travel.nationalgeographic.com.au/travel/top-10/vistas/#page=1

A to Z Activities Australia Photography Places Walking

Umbrella

We need to talk about the weather. It’s part of my DNA: within one of my chromosomes that have also determined a reticence to introduce myself to strangers and a fondness for orderly queues linger a few cells dedicated to obsessing about the weather. I think they may be GB cells. They surfaced when I was relatively young and manifested themselves in an early career goal to be a weatherman. A rough outline of the southwest of England was etched on a sheet of A4 and stuck on the inside of my cupboard door. Other bits of paper were cut up and made into various symbols for sun, cloud, thunder, snow and rain, to be stuck on the map with blu-tac. The rain symbols tended to get worn out the quickest.

The association with rain makes it natural for me to see the umbrella as a very British thing, whether jauntily swinging along with pinstripes and bowler hats, colourfully huddled together overlooking a covered up centre court, or propelling erstwhile nannies across the streets of London to shove spoonfuls of sugar down children’s throats. However a quick bit of research (i.e. scanning Wikipedia and not really reading much of it) suggests the brolly goes back to ancient empires but – get this – it was used to shade Egyptian cats or something from the fiery orb of the angry celestial sun god (like I say, I didn’t really read much of it). Shade from the sun? In the UK? Even Mary Poppins made more purposeful use of an umbrella than that!

I have also vaguely potentially read somewhere that the Eskimos have fifty different words for snow; in the UK a similar linguistic phenomenon exists for wet stuff from the sky. So on any one day across the British Isles it could be raining, drizzling, mizzling, spitting, chucking it down, pouring, precipitating, suffering deluges, downpours, cloudbursts and sheets of rain, and, fantastically, raining cats and dogs. Which is all a bit Shih Tzu. Meanwhile in France it just pleuts and pleuts.

The crazy thing with all of this watery bombardment is that the umbrella is frequently useless, turned inside out by the howling gales kindly delivered by Atlantic storms. There is no more iconic sight than a mangled umbrella dumped despairingly into a bin on a railway station platform. Because you have been there yourself, you can easily picture the struggle that befell its former owner and the sodden mess in which he or she arrived at work, uncomfortably damp for the rest of the day. Hence the alternative or additional and very fashionable cagoule…the tasteful pack-a-mac, which I am pleased to discover is of British origin [1].

Something else distinctly British is a summer trip to the seaside for a picnic in the car. Outside the sea and sky are leaden and the mid teens temperature is quelled by a cooling hurricane and squalls of rain. Inside, cheese and cucumber sandwiches are squashed and soggy while the windows are steaming up. Clothes are sticking to bodies and bodies are sticking to other bodies wedged in like slightly more animated sardines. All the time pack-a-macs are at the ready for when the rain becomes slightly less heavy and a scramble along the promenade to the dilapidated pier can be braved.

The good thing from familiarity is that Britain is generally prepared for rain and carries on carrying on regardless. There are always things to do for ‘rainy days’ such as popping out for tea and cake, or sheltering in the dark protective womb of a U_monkeysmedieval tavern, warmed by warm ale. There are amusements and fudge making demonstrations and bric-a-brac sales in the village hall, with more tea and cake thrown in. There are theme parks and zoos, where even the monkeys have the good sense to seek shelter while humans negotiate driving rain and wade through puddles to come and look at them [2].

By contrast of course Australia has this sunny image of Lara Bingle on a Whitsunday Beach sounding dumb and asking you where the bloody hell you are [3]. It would surprise some people that it does actually rain in Australia, a fact not usually depicted in adverts for that local beer that everyone drinks…what is it…Fosters or something. Neither, unfortunately, does a test match get washed out. Instead, sun-baked pitches form chasms that swallow English batsmen whole, and the only rain is that of plaudits lauded by the partisan commentary towards Mitchell bloody Johnson.

Still, there is a tendency to assume that when it comes to the weather, she’ll be right. Plans can be made for weeks in advance with the assumption that all is going to be dry and sunny. Wet weather contingency plans rarely feature and, then, if it does rain or even just a few grey clouds appear, whole events are cancelled and people shelter in their suburban homes drinking Fosters and watching Lara Bingle be Lara Bingle. I just think, when it comes to a little bit of rain, Australians are…well how to put this delicately…a bit soft, like Mitchell bloody Johnson before he had that fearsome moustache and bowled a few lucky long hops that got wickets.

I can of course include myself in this catch all generalisation of Australians. I too have become accustomed to assuming that days will be dry, which makes it even more frustrating when rain appears. Summer weekends down the coast can be grey and cool and interspersed with rain, which at least makes for a nice car picnic. Sydney can live for weeks with easterlies blowing of the ocean and dumping moisture in endless waves. And in Darwin, well, in Darwin they have a whole season dedicated to rain: the wet…

My one and only visit to Darwin came in February. February: the peak of a hot Aussie summer, when even locals are getting bored of barbecue prawns and one day cricket. But while most of the country basks in a self-satisfied glow, up in the north it is the time when most people in Darwin, if they weren’t already, go mad. The ‘wet’ is a typically Australian to-the-point description of the summer weather in the tropics, a few months shrouded in monsoonal lows and the occasional cyclone. It delivers warm, humid rain, a climate for steamed up glasses and camera lenses and consistent dampness that never goes away. It seems to me, quite horrid.

Holed up in a hotel room it appears as though the rain never eases, never stops for the briefest of interludes. There is no waiting for it to pass and so you have to embrace the wet, taking a tokenistic umbrella which will make very little difference to how damp you actually become. Leaving the sanctum of air-conditioning the humidity is instantly sapping, the pavements and roads and gutters a sheen of water, a danger zone for human aquaplaning and thong blow outs and hidden crocs. But you still push on for an ice cream regardless.

Out of Darwin the landscape is transformed by the season and it seems ninety nine percent of the haphazard interior road network is under water. In Litchfield National Park a bitumen road somehow survives above fields of sodden brown, transporting you to waterfalls that roar like a space shuttle during lift off. Hiking requires some wading – the water is warm and only mildly tumultuous where winter paths usually meander. Goodness only knows what sort of things are in there with you, but there is enough ground above water to stop and observe and inch your way closer to pools that would be idyllic for swimming if there wasn’t ten billion gigalitres of water plummeting off a cliff and directly into them.

Elsewhere, Kakadu National Park is one of the most well-known and iconic preserves in Australia, encapsulating a blend of tropical jungle, vast wetlands and rugged rocky outcrops daubed with ancient art. Here again much is under water and many roads are closed off until at least June. A few lesser sights and vistas remain accessible and it even seems to stay dry for a bit too. Walking among the landscape feels a little less soggy and it is easier to appreciate the wonderful composition of vivid green long grasses, contorted trees, and rocky outcrops. Even the waterholes are calmer and more inviting, save for the signs that say something along the lines of ‘whilst we have done our best to clear this area of crocodiles there can be no guarantee that a six metre monster called George has not moved into the area and is looking forward to tasting foolish tourist flesh.’

U_NT

Despite what turns out here to be a drier interlude it remains handy to keep an umbrella at hand. The rain is sure to return [4]. Not only will the umbrella help with this imminent rainfall but, in conjunction with a fetching cagoule, it can maintain a clear British connection and sense of identity in an alien, slightly hostile environment. Plus should George the six metre croc appear, the cagoule can be thrown over his thrashing jaws and his eyes can be poked with the umbrella’s pointy end. And then of course, even if that fails (which I doubt), there is chance of a Mary Poppins style escape over the floods and far away to a world of diabetic, tooth-decayed children. Back, of course, to the umbrella’s natural home: Great Britain.


[1] Again, according to Wikipedia…and who am I to argue with an important ministerial source of information. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cagoule

[2] This could be where the theory of evolution goes awry.

[3] Perhaps more evidence of evolution gone awry.

[4] Unless it happens to be one random day in the middle of the year when the big tap is turned off and the ‘dry’ commences…which is all a bit weird

Links

Another great day to be beside the seaside: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3X4chzObTFY

Way to get around: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5BHoDW9f7vY

NT tourism: http://www.travelnt.com/

Mad as cut snakes: http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/national/croctastic-nt-news-devotes-front-page-to-five-crocodile-stories-on-one-day/story-fndo48ca-1226509077565

A to Z Australia Great Britain Walking

Trek

It is pleasing to know that there is a minibus to transport you around on a Trek America tour. I guess this means Trek America is a bit of a misnomer, given that technically it does not involve complete self propulsion across the continental United States. Despite this, there is still plenty of opportunity for much walking, in between long country drives and Twinkie rest stops.  For me I shall always be thankful, because Trek America trips opened up the vast spectacle of the Western US, and fed early cravings of reasonably civilised first world exploration.

The trips were like all the best parts of an 18-35 holiday – a naive adventure meeting youthful peers from across the globe – without the inflatable doll tequila sessions of a lobster fleshed Magaluf pool. Entertainment was the great outdoors and sharing this with a group of like minds. Yeah you could have beers, yeah there could be frolics, and yeah you could hit the bright lights of, say, downtown Jackson, Wyoming. But the next day, it would be onwards and out there, in the van playing cards, falling asleep, listening to music and reaching another momentous national park for another great trek.

The tours were usually called something like Western Wondrousness Walkabout or Awesome Toursome Adventure, commencing in some B grade airport motel and only getting better from there. The first day would be the time to break ice, to suss out the driver, to acclimatise to a diet of ham salad lunches, to catch up on jetlagged sleep. And then, at some point, the first walk out into the wilds would take place and, outside of the confines of the van, conversation would sparkle and you would all be best mates by the end. Just in time for the campfire cook up, which could be a chilled or fraught occasion depending on your duty. There was always a vegetarian and a fussy eater who couldn’t stand any flavour whatsoever. Toast was always a good backup.

But all was forgotten the next day when out on the road and amongst the mountains and the forests, the canyons and the falls. There would be more rest stops and scenic lookouts, ham salad sandwiches and mix tapes [1]. There would be geysers and moose and mega slick coaches housing mega large Americans touring their super-sized country. Just occasionally, like ships that pass in the night, another Trek America van would criss-cross yours, containing an identical but just slightly different set of characters: a cliquey English couple, a couple of rosy-faced Germans, a leggy tanned female who was the token hottie in the group, one solo Japanese traveller with a big camera, and perhaps one or two people like me, whatever that means. They were the same, but clearly not having as much fun as us. Because nobody could be having as much fun as us.

T_platptThat’s because we were out there, in the great outdoors, walking away, trekking at least for a little while, doing what it says on the tin. We were plunging down into the Grand Canyon, zigzagging alongside rocky red cliffs, passing mules and fools in flip flops and vests. We were stretching out along the trail, in small clumps of two or three. Some were looking to set world records; others were looking like they might get lost. We were incrementally arriving at Plateau Point, to eat our premade ham salad sandwich and overlook the mighty Colorado River. We were in awe of the sound, from still a couple of thousand metres below, raging up the slots and chasms, making you feel as though you were riding the water yourself, with a ham salad sandwich in place of a paddle.

We were looking back up at the rim of the canyon and suddenly not having as much fun. Thousands of metres of switchbacks and torment, up and up to the baking hot sky. We would need more than a ham salad sandwich to have the energy for that, but most people brought Twinkies or wiggly jelly worms or peanut butter cookies or perhaps even an apple, but that was less likely. And we all made it, in dribs and drabs, for a sense of achievement that exacerbates contentment over a sunset and beer.

And all would not be forgotten the next day, because you would remember such experiences for a long, long time. Even when you had walked other walks and trekked other treks and dragged out the farewells with extra nights and extra food and extraordinary ludicrousness in Las Vegas. The landscape would linger, the moments would magnify, the experience would play over and over again on the plane home, and you could hear that rushing river rising up in rage once more…

…You hear it again a few years later and you are back in the US. It’s cool and grey and winter is very much just around the corner. Soon, Yellowstone will enter hibernation and be encased in a deep freeze. Steam from geysers sprout up along the valley, a natural sauna in contrast to this chill, windswept ridge. The sound of water is somewhere through the dark pine forests below, carving some other chasm in this country of monumental valleys.

This time you are with another bunch of buddies getting to know one another in tandem with the landscape. The walk down and through the forest passes quickly with chatter, a level of hubbub which will safely keep the bears at bay. For once there are no ham salad sandwiches for the bears to intercept. The day is nearing its end and the sound of water disappears for a little in the stillness of the woods. Suddenly it emerges again as quickly as the forest parts, and the sight of Yellowstone Falls plunging into a gorge of yellowish rocks [2] caps off another memorable and pleasingly circular trek.

T_yellowstone

Campfire nights pass with fussy eating and cold beers. Days blend into a haze of hours on the road, ham salad sandwiches, stops in random towns, turn outs for vistas and walks on rocky trails to stretch the legs. Random memories pertaining to potatoes are retained about the state of Idaho, and there is a stop for Dairy Queen. Finally, the weather is warming up and winter is still a long way from touching the barren, desert lands of Nevada. The sound of icy water would be welcome again, to splash over your face and arms and legs, to wash out the dirt from another sublime walk.

Water sounds and sublime walks are a dominant feature of Yosemite National Park, now in California and nearing the San Francisco end of this particular journey of Western Wondrousness. However, it is October and the gushing falls of June are mostly reduced to a trickle, as if a shower where the tap has not been turned off tightly enough. Nonetheless, we are all again experiencing the most fun ever, having enjoyed a couple of weeks together that now seem the natural way of life. Wake up, make breakfast, pack up, hit the road, stop for a sandwich, make camp, go for a walk. Prepare dinner, eat dinner, have a beer, sleep in a tent and pray that no bears get a whiff of the toothpaste in your mouth.

T_yosemite_smallIn Yosemite there is a break to the routine of sorts, and a day to go off and do whatever the hell we like. Such is the bond instead of going our separate ways many stick together and embark on a trip to Glacier Point and back down to the valley. The going up part is the easiest, transported by shuttle bus and delivered to a spot for the most colossal views of the Sierra Nevada. Looking toy-like thousands of metres below is Yosemite Valley. With binoculars you may be able to spot the bear entering your tent to steal a picnic basket. But you would need very strong binoculars. I just have an old camera with little to no zoom and a lack of technical capability that can do the scene justice.

It is, then, a long way down and every single metre of it is covered on foot. At first things are easy going, following the ridge with breathtaking views out to the east. Half Dome is clear and most suitably named. The landscape is of such grand magnificence that you feel as though it is almost too close, assaulting your senses and about to topple over onto your body. As you descend, the surroundings become more intimate, and trickles of leftover waterfalls scatter into shallow pools and chasms. Such shady, cool spots are more benign and perfect for a ham salad sandwich.

Steps, steps and more steps. Some well maintained like a gentle stairway to the Gallery of Soft Fluffy Cushions, others a rocky rubble leading to the School of Armageddon. Bone-jarring, shin-splitting, ankle-crunching steps. There are thousands of them and towards the end they are incredibly annoying. You can sense this in the stringing out of the group and the reduction in general chatter. Now the focus is on the job at hand: getting this over with and being able to put your feet up with a cold beer in camp.

Finally, when you do get back to camp and put your feet up, you notice legs caked in dust, in stark contrast to the glowing white clean flesh below the sock line. Like a spray on tan that has gone horribly wrong. These brown and white legs ache but the beer is sweet. And you are very happy and perhaps this is because you know this moment on this day will stick with you for a long time. As for all those steps, as for that lengthy walk…well, you can’t complain. It isn’t called Trek America for nothing.


[1] In fact, this was the brief era of the minidisc, which seemed to be enduringly popular in the vans of western US tour groups

[2] From whence came the name Yellowstone

Links

Drive round and walk a bit: http://www.trekamerica.com/

Grand Canyon National Park: http://www.nps.gov/grca/index.htm

Yellowstone National Park: http://www.nps.gov/yell/index.htm

Beware bears: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xDg7PaSEq2E

Yosemite National Park: http://www.nps.gov/yose/index.htm

Some of the best from the west: http://www.anseladams.com/

A to Z Activities Driving USA & Canada Walking

Sidetracked

Back towards the start of 2013 I decided I was going to write this piece regarding the word ‘solo’. Not a whole two thousand words dedicated to the tangy Australian lemon drink, but an exposition of the pros and cons of travelling and – to some extent – living on your own. The independence, the freedom, the ‘ah sod it I’ll do what I like’ luxury that means you don’t have to compromise with anyone over choice of cake. Offsetting this, the boredom, the lack of conversation, the absence felt by missing out on the subtle interpersonal politics of deciding on a cake that all parties can be happy with. A double-edged sword ripe for some no doubt articulate and witty analysis. But I got sidetracked.

Throughout 2013 I was going to write 26 pieces that were no doubt articulate and witty, based around a word beginning with each letter of the alphabet. Beery Fairytales with Golfing Elements from Home and across the Oceans, getting Lost on Petrol laden Journeys only to recover Awesome Momentum to finish by the end of the year. I gave myself 365 days to do this, only really because it sounded like a nice round number with a good ring to it. A personal challenge, a resolution of sorts that was far easier than the usual New Year goals of healthy eating and vigorous exercise. But I got sidetracked.

I got sidetracked by New Zealand for a trip across the ditch. A country that is so brilliant around every turn and corner that I could happily get sidetracked by it time and again. Surely as close a country can get to perfect, a sensual smorgasbord of landscapes and moods, wrapped up in an undeniable, welcoming charm. Here cloudless days in the land of the long white cloud peak as high as the mountains all around. Lookouts and scenic spots, grand walks and rest stops, a true traveller’s paradise where there is an overload of distraction, and time for just a fraction of written reflection.

I got sidetracked by Australia, a rather large obstacle in anyone’s books. From its golden surf swept coastline into its Great Dividing Range, from its shimmering cities into its one street country towns. Across wide brown fields and into the red, an expanse of emptiness from which rocky ancient wonder rises. Sidetracks to vineyards and bays and wooded vales. Diversions to ridge lines and creek beds and trails. Along B-roads and byways, from mud tracks to highways, ocean-side swag sites and huge mounds of termites. So much to traverse and get in the way.

I got sidetracked, just occasionally, by work and other chores. Life goes on and money goes around. Sometimes things that you really don’t want to do need doing. Often it turns out they weren’t so bad to do after all. Car cleaning means a clean car. Food shopping brings the added benefit of food.  Tax returns can lead to tax refunds. Work itself can stimulate the senses and open up a series of interactions and conversations and relationships. And there is the satisfaction brought by the completion of a task, something which I may eventually feel when the 26th article is published on this site.

I got sidetracked by a European summer which itself sidetracked me towards its winter. In Munich there were sunny meanders interrupted by shady spots and thirst-quenching beer. The Dolomites offered a natural jagged wonderland of routes and pathways, a spaghetti network of cable cars and trains, a confusing conglomerate of the Austro-German-Italian. A dollop of pretzel pizza strudel. Spain was easier going, but here a car countered any chance of settled discipline. And so mountain hairpins and coastal cruises restricted what writing could be achieved in between siestas.

I got sidetracked by family and friends, sharing barbecues and roasts, brewing up tea and buttering raisin toast. A culinary backdrop for some love and affection that tastes even sweeter with a biscuit selection. I had the business of new nieces to welcome and old ones to help welcome into a minefield of teen angst, quelled with a kick about in the park. There were countless timeless trips to playgrounds with all the youngsters [1], and walks in the woods a common escape with the older ones. Then there were the moments set aside for sad Saturday nights with X Factor, stuffing our faces with pizza, burping and twerking and perhaps some flirting then hurting that that singer went out who was a bit shouty but really ab-sol-ute-ly fan-tas-tic.

I got sidetracked by my beautiful southwest of England, in two prolonged spells of adoration. Spare sunny days were taken over with a bus and rail rover, a bag packed with camera and a sense of adventure. From the very end of the land distractions spread out on every rail line and country lane still serviced by bus. Around every corner of the coast path there was just a little bit more to see: another cove, another headland, another vista of purple heather in perfect weather plummeting down to the alluring azure of ocean. In every town there was just another side alley to head up, hopeful of stumbling into a nirvana of homemade pasties and fudge. On every day there was the diversion of a walk to the sea, a trip to the top of the hill, a visit to the bakery. Days that rightly meant writing was fleeting in between eating and falling in love all over again.

S_places

I got sidetracked by anything other than writing, in those spells of sublime sluggishness when you just can’t be bothered with doing anything that might require one iota of effort. When the Internet and apps are a prelude to naps, or an accompaniment to the cricket, slouched on the couch playing Words with Friends while England’s innings ends in a flurry of wickets. When Breaking Bad is so good and Grand Theft Auto is grander and Pointless is far from it. When Daenarys Stormborn is way more exciting than the thought of writing, so much more arousing than public housing and reliving through words your own dread that winter was coming, having no heating or dragons to warm things up.

S_PerthI got sidetracked by arriving back in Perth and embracing its warm sunny disposition so much that every day feels like a holiday and it is hard to motivate to do anything other than loll. I had work and chores and sublime spells of sluggishness, suffering with a cricket background and Words with Friends malaise. But I also had the diverting allure of stunningly beautiful beaches down the road and the vibrant lilac burst of jacarandas along the way. There was the return to coffee breaks and barbecue steaks, sushi rolls and laksa bowls. A life in shorts so very inviting, that it’s hard to feel like writing, unless for time in air-conditioned refuge.

I got sidetracked by sidetracks so much that I figured sidetracks are actually not sidetracks at all. They are simply our own journeys, each of us a little bus network trundling through lanes and accelerating on dual carriageways and stopping for a while to pick up passengers and perhaps coming up against a dead end and forced to turn around. And so I merely got sidetracked by living life, busy seeing and doing, thinking and not thinking, pausing at bus stops and refilling on diesel. With hundreds of trips, thousands of interactions, millions of breaths, there is simply not enough time or no point to write it all down.

I got sidetracked but have still made it to number 19 out of 26, so far. That’s 73%, which I think you’ll find is a high enough mark for a first class honours degree. It doesn’t meet original targets but it’s far closer than anyone anywhere is doing in relation to carbon dioxide emission reduction targets [2]. And there could be more to come, depending on how much more I get sidetracked this year. It may take 366 days or 465, but I will get to Z and feel happy and proud and perhaps a bit relieved. A goal achieved, just a little later than planned. But then, how many buses run to time anyway?


[1] Along with CBeebies, parks and playgrounds truly are the saviour of parents everywhere

[2] I hold my hands up and acknowledge my own rather sizeable carbon footprint; however carbon offsets include not using as much electricity I might have if I had achieved 26 articles on this blog, dedicated use of public transport in the UK, and buying lots of cake instead of baking it myself.

Links

Solo drinking: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=504OzK-VZjA

100% awesome: http://www.newzealand.com/au/

Z Factor: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZuNGc1a0Ak

Words with jismslap: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bCkc5rcSOwo

Don’t let a bit of science get in the way: http://www.climatecouncil.org.au/

A to Z Australia Europe Great Britain Places Society & Culture

Red

Red is surely the most schizophrenic colour. It is the blood that pumps through our body, and sometimes spills out in horror. It is the heart of the fire that warms us, the fire that can also consume and savage. It shrieks warning and danger, making us stop in our cars and wait for what seems like forever, all for our own safety. Red is the shade of the devil dressed, agitating up an hors category climb in the Alps, pursuing breathless cyclists to the upper limits of their EPO threshold. It’s the colour of love and passion, of Wimbledon strawberries and luscious lips on a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon. It is dry earth and fiery sunsets, timeless and boundless on the horizon.

I would not declare red as my favourite colour, but then I struggle to see how any colour can have superiority over others [1]. When I think about it though I have been drawn to red across my life, starting from the time I was placed in Budoc, the red house at primary school for which I accumulated goodie-two-shoe points and bonus long-jump merits. Since then I have gathered red t-shirts that have become faded through years of devoted use [2]. I do enjoy a glass of red wine, and of course the gooey red jam spread out on a warm scone, the sweet template for a dollop of silky, rich cream. I am clearly enamoured with a place called Red Hill, where I am especially enlivened when an explosive red sunset marks the passing of a day. There is even something ashamedly endearing about that album by Taylor Swift. Like driving a Maserati down a dead-end street.

Forget your green and gold, to me red is synonymous with Australia. It is the colour which paints the emptiness of the country and is most obviously portrayed through the sunset pictures of Uluru featuring on postcards and slick tourism adverts everywhere. It’s a scene embedded in the national consciousness despite – for most – a lived environment of golden beaches and green bushland, silver cities and yellowing countryside.

Ever since moving here an aspiration has seeded and sprouted in my head whereby I tread into fine red sand, baked and cracked by searing afternoon heat. A clutter of rocks and saltbush and spinifex sheltering frilled lizards lies before me. Small gullies weathered by flooding rain weave into the landscape, twisting toward bare, earthy ranges crumpled and folded so that they cast shadows across one another. It is remote; it is a little dangerous; it is the very essence of the heart of Australia. 

I’ve had a few tasters of this red, from Uluru itself, to giant sand dunes in the NSW outback and a visit of the fabulous Flinders Ranges in South Australia. One particular spot that I have ventured into seems almost wholly red. Pilbara red coats the northwest corner of Australia right down to the stunning blues and whites of its coast. The deep red hues cover a suitably rugged and barren landscape which gets surprisingly hilly at times, rising to the mountainous ridges of the Hammersley Range. Despite some significant intrusions, it retains a remote, untamed and enduring sense.

A gateway to this landscape proved to be Bullara Station. Bullara Station proved to be a surprise. A surprise proved to be most welcome along this sparsely populated stretch of Western Australia. A huge working cattle station, Bullara also offered a rustic camping area. Now, rustic can often be a byword for primitive and inadequate. But in this case it was more charming and quaint, from the moment you were welcomed by the friendly owners to the campfire damper with many who are enamoured enough to linger. The beautiful open top shower shed was surprisingly one of the best places to wash away some of that red dirt.

R_desert

Bullara is – in the context of this vast landscape – but a stone’s throw to the west coast and the sensational coastal colours of Ningaloo Reef. With white sands and shallow turquoise waters, the reef is every bit the tropical idyll you would expect. Yet equally striking here are the desert sands perforated with termite mounds and the upward thrusts of the Cape Range piling up into giant pillars of rock and sliced by dry gorges. This is where the red earth meets the blue sea.

Heading in the opposite direction and inland from Bullara Station it takes some time to find a settlement. Petrol is a premium price to pay to cover the country. Settlements that do spring up are principally established because of the red land around it: red rocks that are mostly dug up and taken away to China.

R_mineTom Price is one such spot; a rough replication of a Canberra suburb clustered between deep pits and mountains carved away into a spiral of tiers. The scale of these mines is huge – from giant yellow transporters whose tyres are bigger than me to rows of rocks pilfered from the ground and lined up into varying grades of iron ore. It is both crude and sophisticated, simple and advanced. And while the urban latte sipping ecomentalist in me could take offence at such obliteration, I remind myself that we all use iron, we benefit a great deal from these holes in the ground and, yes, there are plenty of red rocks still to go round.  

Thankfully environmental credentials are restored east of Tom Price, in a swathe of Pilbara red pitted with deep gorges and crumbling upland. Karijini National Park is the jewel in the crown, the ruby in the iron of this russet country. It is where you can step out into the red land and absorb it, along the panoramic cliff edges and down into the heart of quite breathtaking canyons. Rivers and pools add a vibrant green tinge to the valley floors, a ribbon of life flourishing amongst twisting red walls. It’s said that red and green should never be seen, but here it is a perfect arrangement.

Yes it sounds clichéd but this is the real Australia, the realisation of the vision and the aspiration of the fundamental essentials of a red earth country. A grand composition of nature, culminating in the view as four gorges congregate hundred of metres below Oxers Lookout. Millions of years in the making, impenetrable and untainted. Red rocks shaped by land and water and maybe a giant serpent, rocks that have not felt a human’s footstep or handprint and likely never will. This is part of the magic, the wonder, the spirit of Australia. This is the allure of red.

R_karijini


[1] Note to self: avoid vacuous interviews in vacuous magazines

[2] They used to go nicely with my black hair, but now that has become grey and the deep red material has faded, the effect has diminished

A to Z Australia Driving Photography Walking

Queen

One wonders if the Queen would care to be seen wandering the wonders of a London scene.

Dressed as a stranger, flirting with danger outside of the comforts of pastel green

Hats shoes bags and other such garnish like security detail, protecting as varnish,

Scanning over heads of the masses, assessing for assailants, assaults and clashes,

Keeping an eye out for wayward fascists and any such crisis

That might just be a travesty for Her Majesty.

 

The Queen may well dream to be unseen, leaving her gates and hitting The Mall.

Not Westfield White City, but a far more pretty thoroughfare of red white and blue.

Grand and clean and laced with green, she keeps off the grass of St James Park;

Just the same for the rich and the famous as for those playing games and

The mums with their prams, the bums with their drams and the poms with their Pimms, as

Bankers on blankets are trading on tablets all in the warmth of a bright June day.

 

At Whitehall a parade of taxis and buses, a crawling river of black and red,

Purposeful striding while nobody fusses over the tomb of the unknown dead.

A wreath bequeathed blood red at its foot, reflecting in glass of the PM’s jag

As it corners the street and scatters the press on its way to his Number 10 pad.

Protesters holler and scream and roar, axe the tax, stop the war, we don’t want this anymore;

Media play out what happened before, and what it will take to make this law.

 

So to Parliament down near Westminster Station, where such things are put to the nation

Where bells chime in New Year elation and funerals pass in mournful cremation.

To the abbey where princes wed, the good and great are remembered for dead, and, in a moment of hope and dread, one is crowned upon one’s head.

Right now though it’s quiet and still, save for footsteps echoing the hall

Of those from afar who have diligently come, to remember the passing of Pippa’s bum.

 

Outside the pigeons scatter like petals, as girls from Korea strike a pose

In front of Big Ben their visit captured, in front of landmarks that everyone knows.

The Queen may be seen in some of these snaps, traversing the road to Westminster Bridge,

Ahoy the river, the murky lifeblood, the heart and soul of this great city which

Unites and divides across north and south, from distant suburbs to mud river mouth,

Winding and binding and snaking and making

Sometimes giving and always taking.

 

The Queen would proceed onto South Bank, a people’s playground and a melee of sound,

Her eyes would eye the London eye, neck-tilting high, far off the ground.

Every next step she’ll get distracted, by modern day fools, musicians and clowns

Dressed as a dalek, break dancing to beat box, magnets drawing the global crowds.

 

Other people mill along rows of books, set out on tables under the bridge

Leafing through pages from sages for ages, engrossed in the words, unlikely to flinch

At skateboarding noises which echo off concrete, graffiti is daubed iconic as art;

Not to one’s taste but one must accept it, for one can’t be seen to be an old fart.

 

Going with the flow it’s on to the Globe, a place to be (or not) as it’s said,

Perhaps a play of William Shakespeare, though doesn’t the monarch always end dead?

Thus the wisdom of cabbies remembered, their sage knowledge helps one decide

To cross the river back to the north bank, safe from reminders of dark regicide.

 

One opened this bridge which swayed and wobbled, back when Harry was still a boy

But now its sleekness is stable and able to glide one across in absolute joy,

Like a white tractor beam from a domed spaceship, pulling one over to the north side;

Do not resist, do not desist, in fact I insist you come for the ride,

For against this dirt Victoriana, rises the most splendid sight of them all:

This is the sight of glorious London, this is the site of Saint Paul’s.

 

One can take or leave these gherkins and shards, glass and mirrors for cruel money japes,

For nothing eclipses the heart of the city than that grand dome and the glow it makes

Even on a day that’s made of murk, when brown meets grey and the weather’s a fright,

The shining beacon of St Paul’s continues to throw a ghostly white light

As if there may be a god somehow present, lighting the way for the souls of all men,

Or perchance a skilful creation, a temple to science, a product of Wren.

 

And while thinking about engineering, it’s time one was veering to the tube,

Haphazardly tunnelling, trickily funnelling, like a tight squeeze in need of some lube.

One doesn’t frequently do it this way, it’s common and dirty and full of the masses

But there’s something enticing about running like mice in a labyrinth world of deep and dark passage,

For ten minutes worth of bumping and shaking, making one take in the means and the purpose

Of people commuting, of getting around, of finding the air once more at the Circus

 

Here should one have need for a treat, join the slow trudge, on Oxford Street

For Topshop and Gap and a pub in between, soak up the wares of the big brand machine;

But look upwards, above the first level, away from the devil where one can revel

In the detail and the sculpted crescent of the present and wholly pleasant

Elegant facade of Regent Street.

 

Piccadilly beckons and then Trafalgar, great landmarks flow on this monopoly board,

Pigeons and Nelson and lights somewhat vulgar, another statue stands of some other fat lord.

Closer to home now, one senses an end, to the meander through this magnificent place,

It’s hard to describe the awe and the wonder, the sense of what’s special, the look on one’s face

As one goes unseen just like the Queen, treading around, breathing it all

All that one knows, is as the song goes, don’t stop me now, I’m having a ball.

Q_london

 

A to Z Europe

Petrol

The ball-breaking torque combined with the twin thrust turbo delivers an astonishing rear wheeled hardon that isn’t good. It’s absolutely MASSIVE!” So says Clarkson on almost every episode of Top Gear ever.

Like most of the world, I enjoy Top Gear and the overblown ridiculousness of it all. But I have never really reached the point where the noise of a car gives me an erection. It seems I am in the sensible fuel-efficient compact car school of thought, so mocked by humorous middle aged men with pube hair and jeans and blazer combos. But that’s not to say I don’t enjoy driving, now.

I had an inauspicious start to driving, passing my test in the flattest, quietest town in Britain and then becoming flummoxed with hills and traffic elsewhere. I didn’t particularly enjoy it and practically went out of my way to avoid driving anywhere. It wasn’t until Australia, and a solo work trip where driving was virtually impossible to avoid, that I got behind the wheel again. And since that point things have changed, I feel comfortable and confident [1] and, more than anything, relish the freedom that comes with wheels.

Having a car transformed my relationship with Australia, starting in my home town of Canberra. It says a lot for Canberra’s design that people couldn’t believe I didn’t have a car for a year there. Further, I could make trips down to the beautiful South Coast, or up to Sydney, or into the high country. My love for road trips reignited, and I ended up driving up to Brisbane one Christmas, traversing Tasmania over Easter, then up-scaling to New Zealand which was a mere road test for doing the biggest traverse of all, from one ocean to the other.

For all the wonderful petrol-driven experiences in Australia it’s fair to say that road trips are synonymous with the USA. Kicks on Route 66, fun on Highway 1. Turnpikes and Freeways, Roads to Nowhere. Gas stops and Twinkies, neon signs and drive thru diners. Signs imploring you to get in touch with God, others urging you to get in touch with Hooters. In this great land, Life is a Highway, and you may end up riding it all night long.

Having only driven once in the USA – a series of amazing meanders around the Pacific Northwest – my road trip experiences here are built on shared journeys, chauffeured around by some willing participant in the process. On more than one occasion this has been my Dad, and on one of these particular occasions we were heading down the length of Florida to its very tip, with my brother making up the family triumvirate. A trip powered by sweetly abrasive gas station coffee and a George Foreman grill.

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Florida is the kind of place that can simultaneously be brilliantly amazing and desperately awful. Beyond the Mickey Mouse and McMansions, the summer humidity, the searing oppression of gun-infested sprawls of urban mess, and the inevitable queues for waiting rooms to move on into the afterlife, there is an outdoorsy, pioneering and almost cultural side to Florida. Spanish heritage and space exploration compete with sweeping beaches and a tangle of waterways created by what is one large swamp jutting out into the Gulf of Mexico. And if this gets a little much, there is always a KFC all-you-can-eat buffet in which to convalesce.

Starting somewhere in the outer suburbs of Jacksonville, the state capitol, it’s another gorgeous sunny morning to hit the open road. I say open road, but the freeways and interstates here seem to be continuously cluttered, with tailgating the norm and veering across lanes a requirement for anyone in an oversized SUV. The land is flat and really quite uninteresting, the roads keeping far enough from the coast to enable you to see very little of it. Wal-Mart is passed and I stay conscious. Keeping us going is that sweetened coffee and delicacies from Krispy Kreme. It seems totally in keeping; hopefully there is no illegal sugar driving limit.

A constant on the horizon are the signs for Miami, intermingling with Tampa and Orlando and Fort Lauderdale and other retirement holiday ventures along the way. Lacking the same sense of razzamatazz as signs encountered for San Francisco and Los Angeles on previous trips, there’s still a glamour associated with the concept of Miami – Miami Beach in particular. Thoughts of swanky high rises, neon signs, and art deco beachfronts crawling with souped up Cadillacs and beautiful people. And while this may (or may not) exist, the interstate, as is so typical of US cities, slices its way through a dense fringe of suburban decay, fear, and loathing.

Arriving in a large city after a lazy cruise down a highway is all part of the US road trip experience. Sometimes the cityscape may loom large and you hit its downtown rather abruptly, swept upon a snaking interstate raised above the streets and weaving through glassy skyscrapers. More often than not it’s an elongated process, regularly punctuated by a series of exits with names like Franklin Boulevard, Northwest Latrobe Drive, and George Bush Senior Expressway. Four way intersections become the norm, at each one a drive through cookie dough express and branch of Subs ‘n Shooters to pass the time while you wait for the lights to change.

There usually comes a very crucial point where you need to take an exit to make it on to the road that takes you back out of dodge. This comes with warning five miles out but after that no signs emerge until the very exit, and you have to cross eight lanes to get to it, with no gaps at all in between the SUVs loaded with automatic rocket launchers. The exit is locally known as Slit-throat Alley and you need to fill up on fuel somewhere here, plus you are busting for a pee because you had an oversized Caramel Macchiato from Starbucks. Is it just me, or are US cities incredibly daunting, often intimidating? I have never felt that secure in them with the exception being – you may be surprised – New York City [2].

Anyway, such tests are sent to test us. I seem to remember we made our crucial interchange in Miami, albeit with a distinct tension in the air, relieved as the city faded away in the rear view mirror. Now there were few roads to get lost on and the road trip transformed into a proper old-fashioned one, with single lane byways and scenic turn offs and stupid attractions like Aunt Maisie’s Coral and Humbug Umbrella Shoppe. The coastline also emerged more frequently, inevitable given we were now on the line of islands and cays making up the Florida Keys. Here we could camp and make a fat-reduced dinner with Mr George Foreman, the waterside setting of John Pennekamp State Park a long way metaphorically from Miami.

After a sojourn upon the water, the road trip continued the next day down to Key West, celebrated for being the end of the road and a corporately hippified haunt, out of reach and proudly out of touch with the rest of America. It feels the kind of place where eccentrics and misfits and millionaire investment bankers with a fresh Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirt for each day end up. Every third person walking down the street sports a Hemingwayesque beard, obscuring their Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirt. This is still clearly America, but with a cruisey Caribbean undercurrent.

The sun sets famously off Key West and this is the end of a one-way street, turning back is the only option [3]. Travelling on the other side of the road gives chance to see what was missed on the way down, like the Big Fuck Off Fishing and Boat Shed, the Uppitsarse Links Golf and Country Club, and Fishface Bucket O’Clams Pelican Feeding Centre. Pleasingly there remain extensive reaches of wide open water, shallow and sapphire, clusters of palm trees sprouting up from sandy bays, all within easy reach of the road and encouraging frequent stops.

A mainland of sorts returns after the last span of what is an 100 mile? elongated bridge is crossed north. Distinguishing the mainland is a challenge, since swamps, reeds, pools and channels intersect with a placid shallow sea. This is a sponge of a country, where a wrong turn or a wrong foot will swallow you whole. This is primeval and timeless, and seems to be untainted compared with much of Florida. This is the Everglades.

If Key West was the figurative end of the road, this was the high point. So close to Miami you should be able to hear the gunshots, the Everglades feels peaceful and serene, wrapped in a blanket of tall grass and smothered with mangroves. And far from being a lifeless swamp, the changing levels of water, the changing salinity, and the changing ecosystems thrive with a concentration of life as densely packed as Miami. Here, the Alligators rule the ghetto.

Road tripping really comes alive in national parks, particularly in the US which are typically generous with their access and facilities. In the most popular spots you can drive up and park and sit in your car and eat a cheese biscuit with a spray of cheese in a can on the side and look at the view. Fortunately there are plenty of trails that fewer people take, loops of an hour or two to get away from the car and discover views and animals and rocks and plants. In the Everglades, these loops offer an array of animal life, of birds and butterflies, lizards and dragonflies, and of course the perennial alligator. I was, quite frankly, amazed by it all.

P_FLeverglades

And only now, reflecting, I think of the hypocrisy of marvelling at wonders of nature such as this having burned thousands of tonnes of carbon to get there. I do this all the time, without really thinking about it. To make matters worse, I burn a dollop of extra energy trying to write something about them on a coal-fired laptop.

Still, at least I don’t tend to drive to the shops just round the corner, and I do tend to put my empty plastic bottles into a green bin for someone to do something with, and I definitely don’t waste food or anything like that. Besides, now I can take my lead from the Australian Prime Minister, whose advanced thinking tells us that carbon is an invisible substance of no importance whatsoever and what’s science ever done for us anyway? It’s thinking that probably would not be out of place in southern Florida, where I can thoroughly enjoy the hoon around in a guided propeller boat trip in the swamps bordering the Everglades.

Being hooked on travel, being hooked on road trips means I am even more hooked on petrol. It is the blessing and curse of our times [4]. It enabled me to experience the diversity of Florida, relatively cheaply compared to other countries in the world. It has also propelled me around the more incredible terrain of the Western US. My experience of Australia has transformed with every guzzle from a Coles Express petrol station, and I have spent a small fortune on it. I miss it, despite the best efforts of public transport in Europe. Like Clarkson and Hammond and May, like George W, like him and her and you and that bloke over there, I am addicted.


[1] OK, so comfortable and confident in an automatic. I feel gear changing and clutch control on hills has passed me by.

[2] Why did NYC feel safe? I think several things – it’s more familiar to an outsider thanks to its screen presence, it’s easy to get around and people actually walk on the sidewalks rather than drive everywhere. Plus there are lots of people, many tourists, and there’s safety in numbers. Plus I didn’t get mugged, neither did some hoodlum come up to me and draw a pitiful excuse for a knife, depriving me of the chance to emulate Crocodile Dundee.

[3] Unless you wish to go against the flow and swim to Cuba

[4] Though possibly soon to be usurped by the possession of an Apple product which will lock you into a tortuous love-hate relationship for life.

Links

Powerrrrrrrr: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lpDdQaS73eM

Sweet home Alabama: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p8St7jj1iFw

Florida Keys tourism: http://www.fla-keys.com/

The Everglades: http://www.nps.gov/ever/index.htm

Now that’s magic: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-opinion/a-socalled-market-in-invisible-stuff-the-meaning-of-tony-abbotts-carbon-rhetoric-20130715-2q00e.html

A to Z Driving Food & Drink USA & Canada Walking

Oceans

I grew up by the sea. Not in a romanticised way, where snug cottages overlook glistening seas and fishing trawlers bob up and down in weather-worn harbours. Neither in the glamorous manner of those doing it tough in Australia, with their angular beachside houses, all windows and look-at-me decks. In fact I survived growing up without a prized sea view, but the ocean was never too far away. Close enough for seagulls to shriek down the chimney, near enough to feel the brutality of a winter’s storm. Never too distant to walk a pebbly shore and experience the space and light and air that is unique to being on the cusp of an ocean.

You could say that the sea has been in my DNA since I arrived in the world and into the salty air of Plymouth [1]. This makes it all the more surprising that I have not lived within easy reach of the waves for what is now half of my life. I went away to university in the very centre of Britain and then coped with the occasional glimpse of muddy river in London. I moved to Australia – the land of beach bums and surf rescues – and wound up in Canberra; the only capital without prime ocean frontage. I clung to windy days on Lake Burley Griffin, when waves would whip up, and consoled myself with frequent trips to various points on the stunning east coast.

The ocean seems integral to the Australian way of life. Unsurprising given most people live on the more amenable fringe of land closest to the coast, surprising given there is a whole load of land in between [2]. The oceans here – from Pacific to Indian – are oceans apart, and it takes quite some enterprise to bridge the two.

It’s mid-March down in Mallacoota, on the very southeast corner of southeast Australia in southeast Victoria where a southeast wind blows. It’s fairly sedate compared to previous days, a sea breeze in contrast to the cold blasts streaming off the ocean and bombarding the shore with downpours. Around the corner, in Ben Boyd National Park, dirt roads are churned into muddy blancmange leaving a detritus of abandoned cars. I know this because my car nearly joined them, drifting sideways like a drunken celebrity ice skater. Precariously though it made it through to the salvation of tarmac and gleefully crossed the state border to recover in Mallacoota. And what a recovery Mallacoota offered.

This sparse corner is both rugged and tame; the waves of the Southern Ocean and Tasman Sea conjoin and thrust onto sweeping sands while gargantuan dunes remould themselves on the breeze. Behind, protected and sheltered gleams the expansive surface of Mallacoota Inlet, spilling into creeks densely lined with Eucalypts and Tea Trees and Acacia; quietly lapping at the boardwalks and manicured front of the town. Pelicans and people flock to fish, the more intrepid cycle, run, and fly.

Out on a limb, Mallacoota really is a long way from anywhere, perhaps as wild as it gets along the most populous strip of this huge country. Possessing essentials like a pub, bakery, two small grocery stores, a bakery, hardware store, and – did I mention – bakery, it is self-sufficient, with a long day trip required for Big W and McDonalds and Flight Centre. There’s not a great deal to do, other than interact with the outdoors, to walk, run, cycle, surf, fish, or simply sit in the sun and gaze out across water. I suspect this is part of its appeal.

The constant roar of the ocean is often the only sound to shatter the peace; at least outside of peak summer holiday times when Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra converge along the shores up and down this coast. It’s a sound which may seem appealing, an obvious marker of being close to water, of arriving at the edge of the world. I think on top of this though, the ocean can sound threatening and cruel, daunting in its vastness and unrelenting, unrestrained energy. People may fantasise about going to sleep with the soothing, repetitive sound of the ocean in the background but the reality, particular when a layer of canvas is all that separates you and the outside world, is of an incessant crescendo of noise, amplified in the stillness of night.  

The noise echoes from the cliffs and trees fringing the ocean beach here, which is itself like a thousand other beaches in Australia. In that, it is nothing remarkable, even though it is, objectively, remarkable. Pristine sand and pristine waters, so clean the aroma is pungent with the abundant seaweed and crustaceans and fish. Scattered with the dog walker and fisherman and surfer and yoga practitioner, it is the spot to clear the head and mind, the place to come at the end of day to walk, fish, surf, or contort. It is the spot to feel at one with the world, humbled in insignificance as the sun lowers, the sands blow, and the waves churn out into the eternal horizon.

O_mallacoota

Beyond Mallacoota the southern coastline invariably throws up much more in the way of ocean-sculpted lands. Long beaches of ninety mile and entrances to lakes. Vast promontories and bays, becoming refined with sandcastles and beach huts and docklands and Melbourne. Westward still and curving great ocean roads meet shipwrecked coasts. Lagoons and islands of kangaroo turn upwards to Adelaide, and the waters greet peninsulas fringed with small ports and big jetties. Beyond things return to the empty simplicity of ocean and land, the land meeting ocean, a bight of irresistible force and unmovable object. Beautiful archipelagos emerge and vast sounds appear as civilisation returns, and the ocean weathers colour the corner of the southwest. A corner which turns onto another ocean and signifies the crossing of a continent.   

Some two months later and a lighthouse appears on the horizon, another lighthouse rising elegantly into a softly painted blue sky. Passing through Augusta the coastline takes on an edge-of-the-world charm, as the land narrows between two seas [3]Small bays and coves fringe the leeward side and teeter their way along to Cape Leeuwin, from where the lighthouse surveys the Indian Ocean. Next stop from here: South Africa.

In this prized corner of Western Australia the Indian Ocean is very much like the seas that have come before, knocking out a reassuring rhythm of surf and disappearing into a depth of endlessness. It’s a different ocean but the same country; many kilometres distant but not a million miles apart [4]. Windswept hills slope down and break off into the ocean, broad sands form at river mouths and creeks. Majestic forests revel in moist valleys while vines take advantage of open, sun-soaked slopes. Near this ocean, small settlements and towns still serve flat whites and offer The Australian for all the propaganda you can stomach. The same brands of coolant are available to top up a car which has done much since almost becoming bogged down in mud on the other side of the country, oceans apart.

There are of course subtle differences formed through climate and geology and mankind’s hand. A different array of deadly sharks and jellyfish may well linger in the water, ready to nibble on loonies in wetsuits embracing the epic waves. For the less adventurous, the diversity of the terroir yields different aromas in the Cabernet Sauvignon…perhaps less blackcurrant and pepper and more pomegranate and diesel (though don’t quote me on it). Tourist information signs are a different colour, though nonetheless as mysterious and confusing. And practically every town ends with the letters ‘up’, like Manjimup and Nannup and Whatsup Buttercup.

The big contrast – and a satisfying symbol embodying the accomplishment of crossing a continent – is that the sun sets into this ocean. At Yallingup, camped beside the roar of the sea for one last night, Mallacoota is reincarnate, a mirror image of sand, sea and sun. There is just chance, with the now shortened days of May, to amble on the beach as the day draws to a close; to battle through the sands and scarper from waves thrusting up the beach with great flourish; to join the smattering of dog walkers and fishermen and surfers and yoga practitioners, watching as the sun sets into this particular ocean and seals the wax on a momentous journey. A journey that has frequently mingled with the sea along its course, and astonished in scale as it has crossed from ocean to ocean.

O_yallingup


[1] Which is now branded as ‘Britain’s Ocean City’ no less

[2] Is it any wonder the latest Australian Prime Minister is such a visually strident man of the seas, sometimes scarily so?

[3] A charm seemingly being addressed by the construction of a large marina for more boat-owner people…Stop the Boats!

[4] In fact, for me, 17,000 kilometres, but more like 3,500 as the seagull flies.

Links

Britain’s Ocean City: http://www.visitplymouth.co.uk/

Mallacoota visitor information: http://www.visitmallacoota.com.au/

Destination Margaret River:

http://www.westernaustralia.com/en/Destination/Margaret_River/9009633

Wasssssup in Yallingup: http://www.margaretriver.com/regions/1

Another ocean apart: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c_e2D2qsaso

A to Z Australia Driving Photography

Neil

Okay, this is not going to be the ultimate in self-absorbed egotism revealing the characteristics and complexities of just one soul among the seven billion on this planet. In fact, it’s not even going to be an analysis of the origins of the name Neil or its equivalents like Niall or Neenoo [1] or, as one Aunt persists in handwritten cards twice a year, Neal. Neither will I look at the many famous Neil’s of popular culture, like Mr Armstrong, Kinnock and the hippy from the Young Ones [2], or linger on the hilarious japes where people might just kneel down after you tell them your name. Instead, in this episode of Neil, I would like to consider the art of getting a picture of oneself, a tenuous link because I am called Neil and when I try to take a picture of myself I am taking a picture of Neil, geddit?

Of course, now I have come to realise that this action has come to be regarded as a ‘selfie’, which is likely to become a ‘selfs’ and then just a general mumble sounding something like ‘sufphs’ as the transformative degeneration of language continues. And I think, well why not, let the young people mess up our language; it’s only fair as we screw over the planet for them, in a period of inaction that will become known as ‘planballs abbottburger’ or something. As long as enough selfies capture the moment the rising sea submerges the Sydney Harbour Bridge everything will be OK.

Anyway, the pictures I want to write about are not really selfies in the take a snap of yourself with a shaving cut in the mirror or the pout from above with bum slightly sticking out sense [3]. They are the pictures you seek at landmarks, on holidays or in situ, usually to prove you are alive / around / doing something far more interesting than anyone else who happens to see it on Facebook. They are the pictures that break up the filmstrip capturing one hundred slightly alternate images of the Eiffel Tower, the poses scattered among five hundred mountain views of the north face of the Eiger. They are the profile pictures and the images that can go on a mother’s day card to say, “hey, look at me, here I am, you love me so much here is a picture of me!” In that respect, they are not much different from selfies.

Like most things in life, I’m generally ambivalent towards having pictures taken of my own image. I possess enough vanity to delete those in which my hair looks too grey, my teeth too crooked, and my breasts too flabby. This is a vetting process that becomes increasingly difficult as hair gets greyer, teeth rot and flab gathers. But still, a picture occasionally emerges in which I think I look quite alright…it may not make one of those stupid exclusive for hot people only dating sites, but it’ll pass and has a pretty background of hills or something. It’s wonderful what an amazingly beautiful backdrop can do to distract from an unflattering gut angle.

So, I don’t really go round seeking shots of myself all of the time. Mostly they are meeting a requirement of proving I am alive and well in a location taking lots of pictures of it. For some reason, the fact that you have one hundred and twenty six pictures of the Statue of Liberty is insufficient to prove you were there; only when you are in front of the camera, thrusting your torch arm in the air like a total pilchard, is the shoot complete and future memories can be safely set in archive.

Of course, a big part of the reason that only a very small proportion of the thousands of photos I have include Neil as a subject is that Neil is usually the artist (in an informal and non-commercial sense) and the scene is the subject. My photography is typically a subjective composition of an objective subject, with the objective being to subject the viewer to experience my subjective position from an objective standpoint. And how can you object to something as straightforward a subject as that? I like to capture the world around me from my perspective, and not so much the perspective of me around the world.

The other obvious limiting factor is that frequently I am taking pictures on my own and thus face the perennial challenge of achieving the successful selfie. A chunky DSLR is far less selfie friendly than a phone, a battle of physiology and technology and art. I find a chunky DSLR often leads to a chunky picture of me. Even a phone picture seems to bring out an extra chin, as if the strain of extending an arm and finding the button to press is all too much for the body and brain to deal with. The use of a timer can be an effective way round this, but this is subject to the hope that the camera will stay level on the rock you have balanced it on and then being able to safely scramble over a yawning gap and on to some crumbling rocks, flatten your hair, and smile in ten seconds. Plus my camera decides it will only allow a ten second time delay if you choose a burst of about 12 pictures, resulting in a comical set of identical but slightly different frames in which I get progressively bemused.

N_burst

There is an unspoken etiquette, typically in such populous spots as lookouts and famous landmarks, in which people will mutually take a photo for one another. Often being alone and with a chunky DSLR I frequently get earmarked for this high pressure task. This shot could make or break their visit; either they will look back at the time they were gorgeously posed over a breathtaking valley or recoil in the moment they looked a right munter with eyes closed around some dark grainy landscape that resembles an abandoned nuclear test site. I quite like the pressure, the chance to fiddle with someone else’s camera briefly, and be a part of their trip for a few seconds. And I don’t mind the reciprocal offers that come back, though invariably my unspoken reaction is of a picture produced that is at best ‘alright’.

Part of the reason that the picture is only ‘alright’ is how Neil ends up looking in it. Not so much in terms of hair greyness or breast flabbiness, but more in the composition and pose. I, of course, would have taken it very differently, and imagined that the big mountain would be to the left and I would feature in the bottom right corner; whereas the result is a close up of me in the middle with an overflowing bin expertly captured in the foreground.

As for the pose, well, this is the biggest dilemma. Open toothy smile, closed smirk, moody sulk? Face on, side on, backside on looking out, down, up, inside out? And what to do with those hands?  In pockets, on hips, defensive balls position as if awaiting a free kick, relaxed down the side, laid back on a wall, aloft in celebration, pointing in the middle distance? My two default poses are arms dangling down looking somewhat artificial and uncomfortable or, particularly in dramatic terrain, spread out wide and accompanied with an open-gaped mouth as if I am about to wail out a big ‘TA DA!’

And so, by a process of elimination it turns out the best way to be able to monitor pose, determine composition and retain control over a picture of Neil is to make use of a mirror. Every accomplished selfie obsessed tweeter knows this. But unlike bathrooms and bedrooms, there is a relative dearth of mirrors at tourist sites and attractions around the world. Occasionally though it’s possible to find some random public artwork or street furniture in the right place at the right time. Like around St Paul’s Cathedral in London town, bedecked in a colourful fury of post-Olympian September sunshine. What more can you ask for than an iconic landmark soaring into blue skies as vivid red London buses swirl around its base intermingling with the green remains of summer. Suddenly the scattering of shiny balls lining the pavements nearby are less a random obstruction and more the ultimately funky selfie mirror. Real but distorted, much like London town itself.

N_selfie2

The issue remains that it’s practically impossible to take a reflected picture like this without the camera getting in the way. Heaven forbid the disaster should the flash also decide to burst forth. I’ve tried moving it from my face and to the side, with haphazard results and a much more convoluted pose. Shooting from the hip is an option, but this looks even more bizarre, bordering on the sickly perverse. In the end, I decided I quite liked a) my face hidden and b) the dominance of the camera itself. For this is how you would typically see me, around St Paul’s, slacking off on a sunny September day. This is me in the moment, doing what I love, doing what so many are doing around me. This is Neenoo, Neal, Neil.


[1] This one comes from the land of my niece

[2] Gosh, there really aren’t that many luminaries with my name hey?

[3] Both of which a former Prime Minister of Australia likely performed

Links

I’m Kevin and I’m here to help you shave: http://au.tv.yahoo.com/sunrise/soapbox/article/-/17945464/kevin-rudd-posts-shaving-selfie/

Planballs Abbottburger?: http://www.crikey.com.au/2013/09/03/direct-action-a-gross-waste-and-abbotts-right-to-cap-its-funding/

Propicfails: http://www.heavy.com/social/2013/03/the-20-worst-profile-picture-fails/

If you are really bovverred: http://snapguide.com/guides/take-good-selfies/

St Paul’s: http://www.stpauls.co.uk/

A to Z Europe Photography Society & Culture

Momentum

I do tend to like a song that builds; one that’s all tender and melancholy to begin, subtle layers of sound layered with every soft verse until they rise into a crashing crescendo of strings and vocals and guitars and tambourines and bassoons and triangles and maracas and backing singers, passing out in an epic conclusion. Well, I didn’t expect that, may be your reaction if you hadn’t listened to it a hundred times already. What could have been so dreary gradually gains pace and noise, rhythm and harmony, and comes with a climax that makes you feel good and want to cry out loud. Which you sometimes do when not in company or stopped at traffic lights.

There are many parallels to be had between music and travel. Both offer the chance of escape, an exposure to culture, and a form of enjoyment (or annoyance!). We often listen to music while we travel and we often travel while listening to music. Indeed, catch any bus or train today and see if you can spot anyone who is not attached to a small electronic device by some white wires sticking out of their ears or a pair of oversize earmuffs like they are some kind of Craig David wannabe. Craaaaaiiiiiiiig David. And like a good piece of music (i.e. not Craig David), can there be anything better than travel experiences that gather an unexpectedly irresistible momentum and culminate in an ecstatic high? Transformative moments which end with you pinching yourself to check that they really happened?

Well, picture the scene on the far south coast of New Zealand, in a picturesque swathe of countryside and coast making up The Catlins. Alas today, like many days no doubt, is grey and a constant chill wind blows off an iron sea. Mist and drizzle occasionally grips the rocky tumult of the seashore and hovers among dense, dark forests. It’s Waitangi Day, a national holiday, but there is little sign of people gathering in revelry, the area remote and sparsely inhabited. It feels as though banjo-plucking will be echoing through the rolling valleys as the van propels itself on the few remaining drops of petrol in its tank. But that would perhaps be a bit too chirpy a soundtrack for this uninspiring morning.

It’s been a few days like this now…swishing wipers down to Dunedin and braving gaps in weather to look at seals and seabirds, admiring their resolve to make a bombarded clump of grey rock their home. Home for me has mostly been the van and it smells damp. It’s also almost out of petrol now, but there is a town or two coming up. The first offers a small garage but a wonky handwritten sign tells me I would have better luck going to the next stop along. It’s only twenty kilometres, but lights, heating, radio and lead foot driving are all dispelled while the red warning light continues to taunt me. And these valiant attempts mean that the van makes it to a town with another closed petrol station.

This is the low, and there has got to be a way to climb out of it. At the other end of town from the petrol station that is also a visitor centre and shop and fishing bait store and whatever else not being offered for sale today, is a house that has a banner for ice cream beside the road. I’m not sure whether this is a shop or cafe or just someone’s shed with a few trinkets in. I didn’t see any ice cream, but then I wasn’t really looking. The owner – we shall call him Pat (because I don’t remember his name) – looks bemused when asked whether the petrol station is open. “Well, if it don’t look like it’s open I guess it’s not open”. For once, endearing Kiwi frankness not very endearing. “I’ll call Nigel”.

Whoever Nigel was he wasn’t so keen to speak to Pat, the phone line mysteriously cutting out on the first contact attempt. Things looked bleak, while my exterior has a forlorn look about it, inside I was quietly sobbing. This would not be a great place to stay for another night…and it was barely 10am. Behind his beard Pat could sense this, so he tried another call and this time successfully woke Nigel from his hungover slumber. Nigel, it turns out, could fill our car with petrol. Begrudgingly so and clearly needing another beer to kick start his day, but he gave up some liquid gold (at a commensurate price) nevertheless. Nigel and Pat, two unlikely saviours, a solid backing coming in to give thrust to this song of a day.

So it was that the van comfortably made its way to Invercargill where it could properly fill up its tank on petrol and cruise past the disproportionate amount of drive-through liquor stores which do a roaring trade [1]. M_catsInvercargill represented a line in the sand and from here the journey was west and north. Straight out of a Tolkien tale, the town of Riverton was a necessary pit stop that became late morning tea. If Pat and Nigel kick-started the van, this was the sugar comfort hit that kick-started the endorphins.

Somewhere between Riverton and Te Anau the sun emerged, weakly at first but increasing in frequency, offering a pleasant symphony of colour and warmth across the landscape. This was turning into a very different day, a day where you need to change into shorts at Te Anau itself, because it is warm and clear and sparkling. A day where you need to savour a ham sandwich beside the beautiful lake but avoid lingering too long because it can still get even better. From here, Fiordland National Park is waiting.

There is a dead end road from Te Anau, but it is no dead end of discarded breeze blocks and tumbleweed tottering in the wind. Its terminus is Milford Sound and the route to it must rank as one of the most awe-inspiring in the world. The scenery is so grand it will make Gandalf look small, as the road follows valley and plain, fringes a series of small lakes and eventually has to cut through the mountains to get down to the precipitous chasm of water that is Milford Sound.

It is a journey where you want to pull over at every available opportunity and take a dozen photos and pinch yourself again because it is so inexplicably sunny and warm and better than what could have been. Eglinton Valley is a perfect place to do this, with its broad plain of swaying gold grass tantalising you to loll around in it like you are five again. Or, as is often the case in such mountainous terrain, break out like Julie Andrews and proclaim the hills to be alive. But I can save that for a higher vantage, a reward for a walk and a lofty paradise in the late afternoon sun.

Can there be anything better to do than getting out in this environment on foot, leaving the van far behind and below. A walk. A hike. A tramp! Who would have thought it this morning? It’s a bit of a climb but sure and steady, inspiration added by being on a section of the Routeburn Track, one of New Zealand’s premier multi-day tramps. With forest at first there is little to see beyond the dark green boughs and flourishing fronds. It is cool and shady, serene and ancient. Occasional glimpses sight the road down in the valley or tops of mountains still a long way above. Then, all of a sudden, the vegetation clears and you are reaching the crescendo.

A few more steep zigzags and you emerge onto a rolling plateau – Key Summit [2] – where the hills do seem to be alive with the sound of music. Small tarns pepper the bright green grass and forests continue to spread over and along the hillsides. The late afternoon sun, still warm and pristine, highlights the pleasingly rocky Humboldt Range as it disappears north and east. The bright light battles with towering peaks that plummet to the west, down into the waters of the fiords and Tasman Sea. Far below, the van sits with half a tank of petrol, happy to rest and sit vacant and linger in memories of Nigel.

M_keysummit

It’s an immense ending to an indifferent start, a reminder that things change for the better all of the time. You may have gotten out of bed the wrong side or endured a period of drab drizzle, but the sun does always shine again.[3] And shine again it did for many more days on that trip of New Zealand – on Milford Sound the next day and into the mountains after, glistening off the amazing bays of Abel Tasman and striking dramatic light on the volcanic doom of the north island. Indeed, such is its remarkableness it doesn’t take much to gain momentum in New Zealand. Just a little bit of petrol and some good tunes along the way.


[1] They do call this region ‘The Scotland of the South’ after all.

[2] I don’t think named after New Zealand’s current Prime Minister

[3] At least for something crazy like 500 billion years or whatever Brian Cox said in some documentary, by which time we would have easily destroyed everything anyway

Links

The kitty kat Catlins: http://www.catlins.org.nz/

Amazing Fiordland: http://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/national-parks/fiordland/

Dirty tramp: http://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/tracks-and-walks/fiordland/northern-fiordland/routeburn-track/

Route to Routeburn: http://neiliogb.blogspot.it/2013/02/finding-me-marbles-christchurch-to.html

A to Z Driving Walking

Lost

L_florence0

It must have been the third time I had come across the unassuming facade of a small church, white columns illuminated at night in a dim yellow glow and reaching up to a plain second level with modest belltower on top. It appeared at the junction of a darkened alley and small cobblestone road, wedged in among terraces of apartment blocks and surrounded by a few parked cars and more parked mopeds. It was an unspectacular scene in a city such as Florence, and clearly there were very few tourists who had ventured down this particular street. Yet somehow I had ended up here three times, seeking a way out of the tangle of alleys and streets to the solace of my hotel bed.

It had all started off so well, arriving in the city centre on an impressively fast train from Milan, just in time for lunch off the giant square of Piazza Signoria. Around the corner, my budget hotel room sat behind a huge wooden door and up five flights of stairs but it was amenable and comfortable, albeit with what is likely the world’s smallest shower. Freshly showered, I loved walking down those stairs and out of that door into a tiny alley that funnelled onto the grand piazza, with decadent statues and imposing arcades around the fortress-like towers of the Palazzo Vecchio. From here and down alongside the Uffizi Gallery, with its never-ending queues, I came out onto the River Arno, and to my right, the ramshackle arrangement of buildings that line the Ponte Vecchio drew me along.

Things seemed to worsen with the onset of a thunderstorm and though I hastily and successfully retraced my steps, the atmospherics had changed. Rather than cleansing and refreshing, the rain left a residue of water, channelling the hot summer dirt of a city into pools and leaving a gritty film across its cobblestones. The darkness of clouds and the howl of winds created a doomsday of Dantean proportions, where it seemed only a matter of time before arches would crash to the ground and the earth would open up and swallow the array of sculptures congregating in every square. And out of this darkness came a new hell, an army of revitalised mosquitoes, hungry and thirsty for blood.

It was into this post-apocalyptic environment that I returned after dark, only to find I may have been over-egging the scene, as the rain had passed, the lights were still on and people had returned to the streets in pursuit of a heavenly combination of food, music, art, and animated conversation. I was ready for a quieter night and content just to seek a bite to eat; any music, art or animated conversation would be a secondary outcome. A modest goal, but one with just enough vagueness to prove my undoing.

I don’t get lost very often. I mean proper lost, like I don’t know where the hell I am or where I am supposed to go. Typically I have this in-built radar that can orient my position, the direction in which to head, and the way to get there. Even a few minor diversions and detours generally become easily rectified. But on this night indecisiveness about what to eat and the setting in which to do it said hello to the labyrinthine streets and alleys of Florence to prove a frustrating concoction. My complacency to not take a map or read where to eat first or to just settle for the first option compounded this. And while there was an initial sense of excitement and discovery about losing yourself in the city, by the end I was footsore and sweaty and hungry and mosquito-bitten.

Now, I can hear you saying that surely there are many places to eat in Florence. I can hear you loud and clear. Indeed, if I was to head left or right, north or south, I would be guaranteed some pizza or a bowl of pasta or a juicy hunk of Bistecca alla Fiorentina. The issue was finding somewhere that most closely resembled the idealised image I had in my head, the concept that best met my needs: quiet but with bustle, tucked away in some quaint little alley but not far from the main tourist drags, a place that was reasonably priced and, importantly, a spot where you wouldn’t feel too much of a loser for being there on your own while others dined on spaghetti like a couple of trampy dogs in a cartoon. Significantly, the fact that I wasn’t in a pasta or pizza mood didn’t help one bit.

The night now turns into a blur, one street looking like the next, rows of mopeds cluttering the kerbs, buildings tightly clumped next to and on top of each other. Amongst them the occasional grander building decorated with neat columns and fancy cornice work would be memorable landmarks from which to navigate, but here they are ten a penny. Each of these streets seems to flush out onto a small piazza, where five others shoot off, like the legs of some grubby Italian insect. The disorientation is palpable, only occasional guidance provided by the giant glowing beacon of the Duomo, which is never in the direction in which you thought it should logically be. The river is somewhere, and eventually I come across it, and can backtrack along its banks to my hotel room. For dinner, two hours later, some takeaway tagliatelle from the tacky restaurant five doors down.

For the rest of my stay in Florence I decided to take a map in my back pocket. It turns out you can still embrace the pleasures of ambling aimlessly around the streets while having a destination in mind (and occasionally checking a map to ensure you are on course). The glimpses of Duomo on the first night cemented my desire to explore this centrepiece further. Towering over the rest of the city it should be fairly easy to find, though the constricted density of the streets mean you can approach the square in which it sits without a sighting until the very last moment. Where a laneway takes a sudden jolt to the left or right, as if it had wholly shifted five metres in an earthquake, a glimpse of the Duomo almost magically emerges in the gap of air between window shutters and washing.

Having located the huge cathedral without incident, further steps took me on a breathtaking climb to the top of its belltower. And while my heart rate slowed and breathing recovered, I was taken away by the expansive view over the city. From this godly vantage you can understand how easy it is to lose yourself in the melange of terracotta roofs and earthy brickwork. Streets appear to disappear, with only major thoroughfares visible, radiating out from the larger piazzas in perfectly straight slices. There is a strident hum of business thrust upwards from those streets and I can see the tops of heads clustering and flowing in all directions, some of which are no doubt getting lost.

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From this height I can also see beyond the packed cityscape that jams its way along to the north bank of the Arno. Across the other side, hills rise and buildings begin to scatter, marking a more gentrified, palatial part of town. This is where the rich people would have gathered and set down their extravagance in showy mansions and gilded villas and trigonometric gardens. Here there is the perfect opportunity to lose yourself in a different type of Florence, a manicured Florence that is perched on the doorstep of the Tuscan countryside.

Across this side of the river the behemoth of Palazzo Pitti is eclipsed by the grandiose Boboli Gardens which spread from its back door. A route into the gardens was typically not the easiest to find, an indistinct hole in a brick wall leading me into a rambling paradise of manicured lawns and fountain embellished ponds, unkempt meadows and leafy woods. The gardens are a great place in which to lose oneself, to take a breather from the manic buzz of life to the north of the Arno. In fact, you may emerge atop a hill and forget you are in Florence altogether, casting an eye south and east over rambling olive groves and cypress pine perforated by the odd beige and sienna villa. A Tuscan landscape with the pomp of a city behind it.

The ticket to Boboli Gardens also includes entry to another, smaller breathing space nearby: Bardini Gardens. I don’t think so many people make it here which, to me, makes it even better. I am not sure why fewer visitors come here. It’s certainly less grand than Boboli and if you are pushed for time I suppose you may skip the opportunity, wary of garden fatigue. Naturally it’s not very well signposted so some people may get lost on the way and give up. I almost did the same, but retraced my steps, took a different turn which did not seem logical and then found the entrance which just looked like the front door of a posh house.

Within, the gardens are less manicured, woody and leafier and dotted with an assortment of faded terracotta pots and crumbling walls. It’s more difficult to get lost, which on this trip is starting to sound like a blessing. A main path zigzags its way back down to river level, stopping off on the way at a weatherworn terrace offering some of the best views of the city. Those infamous city streets, a crammed conglomerate of buildings whose blanket of roofs is penetrated by the spires, towers and domes of all the major sights, glowing in the afternoon sun. Those streets into which you again spill and navigate with increasing mastery. No need for a map again, happily lost.

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A to Z Europe Food & Drink Walking