A brief breather

What started as an unfortunate spectacle – that we thought would probably go away as soon as it came upon us – has settled in Canberra for the summer. There is little anyone can do to not talk about the pervasive smoke that hovers above Christmas prawns and glazed hams. Occasionally it lifts a little, dispelled by a hot northwesterly which only serves to deliver arid desert air from the only direction in which major fires are not burning. Yet. It feels only a matter of time before we are encircled.

This is not a happy Christmas really. The weather outside is indeed frightful. People are growing downbeat and sullen; infuriated and furious. We gather and share and eat fine food and go and watch the Star Wars movie in beautiful air conditioning, and these are necessary distractions. But even in the midst of a lightsabre battle, a smoky essence infiltrates the movie theatre. The ultimate 4D experience. Just give us the Lord Vader breathing masks please.

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Making plans is hard to do – what road is closed, which national park on fire, which stretch of tarmac melting? Christmas gatherings cancelled; long circuitous journeys made. Holiday towns on the coast dying under a barrage of emergency warnings and absent visitors.

Even doing simple things like laundry takes strategic planning. Today I got it wrong, and now it is being washed again, content that the hot, dangerous northwesterly has now well and truly kicked in to sizzle it sans woodsmoke flavouring.

Escape is an appealing option, as long as there are still options. Three days before Christmas I looked at flights to the UK. I looked at flights to New Zealand. I looked at flights to Tasmania (where even today it is nudging forty degrees). Cost was extortionate, but then it might reach a point where even that is a burden worth bearing.

Dissuaded for the time being, I tried to make pastry in forty degree heat. I went for walks in the mall. Just because. In between I monitored the weather forecasts and wind directions and air quality readings and areas of land not on fire. I looked at campgrounds that might not be full and which might be safe. And I finally glimpsed a small window of opportunity to escape, to clear the air…

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Boxing Day and the atmosphere at the MCG was bubbling up nicely, accompanying me on the radio as I drove south towards Cooma. With the Kings Highway to the coast closed this is proving a major alternative route. As a consequence, the main sights of Cooma – McDonalds and KFC – were overflowing. Around the corner, ALDI was quieter, and I picked up an obligatory half price Christmas pudding. Probably for winter if such a thing still exists.

Between Cooma and Bombala the drive is spectacularly bleak as it traverses the Monaro Plains. It is for all intents and purposes, desert at the moment. Not exactly pretty to look at, but with the smoke haze thinning a touch, at least it was something to look at.

gip01And then, through Bombala and into South East Forests National Park, there was something resembling freshness. Blue sky. Green. Giant trees untainted by fire. A campground almost deserted, the camp guardian a spirited Kookaburra feeding its young. A sense of wonder and relief that this is all still actually possible. Breathe.

It remained quite hot to be sure, and on a walk around nearby Myanba Gorge there were plenty of flies as usual just to remind you that summer in Australia is actually a bit shit. The riverbed shaping the gorge was bone dry and surely it was only a matter of time before I would turn a corner and step on a deadly snake or something. But no, a dog and its two owners were the only things to greet me, in between the flies in my eyes.

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What I did find turning that final corner was a sight the likes of which I have seen a thousand times before in Australia, but which appears all the more precious today. A deep valley of eucalyptus sweeping down towards the coast. The cries of a couple of black cockatoos surveying their terrain. And a clear blue sky – perhaps more pastel than is normal – but true blue nonetheless.

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The night passed with another rarity – feeling cold. Even a few days later it seems surreal to think I was shivering a little until I finally succumbed to using a sleeping bag in the correct manner.

The freshness of morning was greeted by a 5am cacophony of hundreds of birds, which was a marked improvement on the 2am hoonage taking place on some of the nearby forest roads. Sleep was a luxury and I was reminded how the concept of camping may be more appealing than the reality. But then it was on the journey to the long drop that I felt at one with the world, enamoured by its natural grace and beauty, a feeling you never get in a Best Western.

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With the promise of another smoky scorcher back in Canberra I was in no hurry to rush back. I carried on south, across the border into Victoria on what was a beautiful drive towards Cann River. This is a corner of the land boasting tremendous old growth forests cloaking rugged, untrammelled peaks. Driving along sweeping curves under a dappled canopy, it’s all shafts of sunlight falling upon giant ferns. Keep eyes on road.

gip06bThis region – East Gippsland – is sparsely populated and only has a few access points to the coast, through the gorgeously pristine Croajingalong National Park. Camping in the park is popular over Christmas and I had no chance. But at Cann River itself, a free campground was available in which to set up at ten in the morning. And it came alongside a short walk through woodland that in places reminded me of somewhere in England, such were the treasured patches of greenery.

With plenty of time up my sleeve and following a bit of a mid-morning doze under a tree, I explored the coastal area down around Cape Conran and Marlo. Both were fairly busy, with Cape Conran again bursting with campers who had – at that time – won the holiday lottery. It was so good to be beside the seaside, especially as a cool southeasterly was emanating off the water to offer joyous relief. This was probably the freshest air I had experienced in weeks, if not months.

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Marlo is famous as the place where the Snowy River meets the sea. It’s probably the main thing it has going for it, but they certainly do well with what they have. Several lookouts and a sensibly plotted estuary trail allow you to follow the waters as they congregate into a series of shallows and lagoons before inching out into the ocean. It’s definitely worth a nosey, followed by possibly one other thing Marlo has going for it: ice cream. Thank you very much.

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Memories of ice cream lingered as I drove inland slightly towards Orbost, where several dairies were testament to what is generally a verdant, rain-blessed corner of Australia (the cream and yogurt from Gippsland Dairy is to be recommended!). But even here it looks dry, a burnished beige more than a pea green. In the distance, beyond Orbost, inevitably, the bushfires burn uncontained and out of control.

gip07I remember Orbost quite fondly from the only other time I was here in 2013, mainly because I found a bakery that served something akin to a Paris-Brest. It’s not really what you expect but my memory of this raised expectations beyond what I should have expected. I was looking to pick up some supplies for dinner, which I managed but not to the standard I had expected. The result was a very Christmas meze of leftover ham, sausage rolls, cheese and a couple of salads. How I craved a hot meal! Oh well, there is always tomorrow.

Tomorrow was the time to pack up and head back to Canberra, partly because I wanted to sleep in my own bed but also because the heat was due to spread its ferocious finger down into Gippsland. As if on cue, there was a hint of smoke in the air on an early stop to amble along a rainforest walk with a coffee and mince pie in hand. And then, crossing the border again towards Eden, visibility was once more replaced by viscosity.

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This had thrown my good intentions to do a decent walk in Ben Boyd National Park as a means of justifying fish and chips for lunch. But, heck, it’s Christmas, what else am I supposed to do? And I was very good and didn’t have chips. Just three of the best potato scallops instead, oops.

The other plan I had was to hopefully laze and have a nap alongside the Pambula River before the three hour drive home. Fortunately, given the long wait for lunch as I battled a billion bogans, a stiff sea breeze had kicked in and the smoke was clearing pretty quickly. On the downside, thunderstorms were brewing slightly to the north. The relaxation necessary to nap wasn’t really possible, and my decision to quit the beach at just about the right time was sound. Not before getting a little wet.

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Rain! It all felt a bit peculiar. A strange sensation to be fleeing and sheltering from something that is so essential, so welcome, so life-giving. Yet such are the nature of storms that they proved random and fleeting. And any lightning falling on the tinder dry is far from welcome. The window was definitely closing.

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Back home the next day, I became alerted that the authorities were urging around 30,000 holidaymakers and residents to evacuate an area of East Gippsland half the size of Belgium. As I write this, 12 Emergency fire warnings are in place in the region, including the stretch of coast between Cann River and Mallacoota, and a swathe of land taking in Orbost, Cape Conran and Marlo. Highways are closed. Inland from Pambula, not a million miles from the South East Forests, another emergency warning has appeared. Multiple fires are springing up in the wilderness between Cooma and the coast. Another window doesn’t merely close but shatters.

And for all that we try to do our best, to care and share, to catch a breather, this is not a very merry Christmas at all. It is a catastrophe.

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Flying by

It’s been a while since I’ve driven so far on consecutive days. The passage of years dulls the memory of cruising on straight, flat roads under an endless sky; pausing at a bakery in a one street kind of town, finding a ramshackle table beside a drying creek to stop and sample the local flavours. Seeking shade from the sun and solace from the flies. Always the flies. Now I remember the flies and that quirky shimmy to dispense of their attachment and manoeuvre into the car without them. A memory regained and repeated again.

I was heading west towards Griffith, the first stage of an elongated loop involving a couple of stops for work. Beyond Wagga it becomes much clearer that Wagga is a veritable hub of civilisation, with a handy Officeworks and everything. Another hundred clicks on and the town of Narrandera welcomes like an oasis, perched upon the muddy brown of the Murrumbidgee and boasting one of those high streets of slightly faded charm.

riv01There is a colony of koalas here, and I was pleased to come across one in the first hundred metres of my walk. It was around midday and hot, exactly the kind of conditions in which you should not be out walking. But with this early sighting, the pressure was off – no more relentlessly craning one’s neck upward in the usually forlorn hope of spotting a bulbous lump that isn’t a growth protruding from a eucalypt. I could instead loop back to the car concentrating more on keeping the flies from going up my nose. Yes, they are absolutely back.

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Through Leeton – one work site – I pushed on to stay overnight in Griffith. Griffith is famed for a few things – lots of wine production (apparently, 1 in every 4 glasses consumed in Australia), Italian mafia, flies I would think, and citrus. Quite stupendously I had arrived at the time of year when the town parades an array of citrus sculptures, mostly located in the median strip of the busiest road going through town. I suppose it’s convenient to look at if you’re just passing through, but I can’t fathom why anyone would not get out of the car to take a closer look.

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They say citrus but I don’t recall a single lemon, lime or grapefruit. Apart from the vines, most of the trees you pass are dotted with oranges, all fed by the ditches and canals of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area. It would be hard work out on those fields, under piercingly hot sun among the flies. Giant brimmed hats with nets (rather than corks) are a must.

For a touch of diversity in what is a fairly mundane landscape, I took an early evening drive out of town towards Cocoparra National Park. Getting out of town is the first adventure, given that Griffith was designed by our old friend Walter Burley Griffin. You can see the giveaway circles and roundabouts on a map, but I can’t say there was a particularly strong Canberra sensibility about the place. Leigh Creek in South Australia provides a more authentic – and surreal – replication.

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Within the national park, the Jacks Creek trail promised much – traversing a dry, rocky gorge before climbing out to vistas of the surrounding landscape. Indeed, it would have been quite idyllic bathed in the end of day light, an Australiana glowing golden brown and rusty red. The kind of earthy environment that to me has been a highlight of past trips out back.

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Yet not since Arkaroola have I found myself in such a landscape outnumbered ten thousand to one by flies. I feel like I keep repeating myself, but they truly were unbearable. Pausing to reflect and soak it in was impossible. Stopping to set up photos proved an ordeal, exacerbated by the movement of my camera shaking off another cloud of useless parasitic twatheads seeking water from whatever orifice they could find.

After coming such a long way, flies had wrecked the experience. It’s akin to a rare sunny day in England, battling through Sunday drivers to discover a lovely beer garden, nabbing a prime table overlooking a patchwork quilt of fields, tucking into a hearty lunch with ale. And then the wasps appear and come down to doom us all.

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Thankfully the number of flies per square metre dissipated a touch as I turned east, eventually to reach Sydney. Along the way the landscape softened too, more rolling and pastoral with a surprising touch of green in places. Along the way, fine country towns such as Cootamundra, Young and Cowra, famed for Bradman, cherries and prisoners of war. All words that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Shane Warne tweet.

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As the sun leaned low against the western sky, I paused for the night in the town of Blaney, where it cooled down sufficiently to deaden the activity of insects. Wandering around the streets early the next morning, there was a touch of the genteel in the gardens and verandas of the old brick homes, verdant patches of life fed by the creek on the eastern side of town. Of course, being Australia things do not remain sedate for too long; two magpies decided to have a go at my head while a family of geese with newborns made sure I didn’t pry too much. An old guy wheeling out a bin stared and muttered – perhaps both in contempt at my alien presence and in recognition of a deeper affinity.

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Walking back to my motel I noticed one of those brown tourist signs with a small fort-like shape pointing to Millthorpe. It wasn’t far and while I was pretty sure there would be no small fort-like building there, it had to be indicative of something. Perhaps a smaller, more endearing version of Blaney, with a quiet high street lined with buildings from yesteryear. A village brimming in spring blooms and fragrance, boasting not merely a café but a “providore”. Wine rooms and antique curios…we are nearing Orange after all.

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Millthorpe offered a tangible culmination of my growing appreciation of the grace of small town Australia. The small town Australia that isn’t too threatening or distant, somewhat gentrified by being in range of Sydney weekenders, bringing good local food and drink to the table. You can imagine renting a cottage here and treading its creaky boards, sheltering in its shady alcoves, napping as the afternoon light creeps through the blinds, casting shadows of wisteria onto the soft pastel walls. There’s probably not that much to do, but that’s all part of the attraction, offering time that can simply be sated with coffees and brunches and platters of meat and cheese and wine.

riv10Still, should you wish to rise from this indulgent slumber, another hour or so east will bring you to the western fringe of the Blue Mountains. Suddenly things change, and not just the petrol price rising thirty cents a litre in as many kilometres. The day trippers are out in force, the coaches idling at every single possible lookout, of which there are many. The escarpment top towns of Blackheath and Katoomba and Leura are brimming with people shuffling between café and bakery, spilling down like ants to the overlooks nearby. Below the ridge, however, and the wilderness wins. Only penetrable at its fringe, placid beneath a canopy of ferns and eucalyptus.

I walked down a little near Katoomba Falls, thankful to be below the tumult of the populous plateau. The falls were barely running, but the views up the valley towards the Three Sisters were inescapable. Overhead, a cableway gave visitors the easy option to take this all in through the glass and air conditioning.

The Blue Mountains have some momentous lookouts but are best appreciated on a bushwalk away from the crowds. However, my time here was limited and some ideas that formed for longer hikes will have to wait for another day. A lunch stop at Sublime Point will be the last I take in for now, that distant view of millions of trees to be replaced by millions of people navigating the congested thoroughfares of Sydney.

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The city awaits, the space disappears, the understated charm of the country fades away. The buzz of people rushing here, there and everywhere gathers, pressing in like a thousand flies in the face, and ears, and mouth and nose. Taking your car park and your seat on the train, getting the best spot on the beach, the last table at the cafe. Persistent and relentless these ones cannot to be swished away or disposed of by a disjointed shimmy into a car. The flies are unavoidable, everywhere.

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Mission possible

I think a general principle of Australian exploration is the further north you go, the quirkier things get. For quirkier you could substitute odder, weirder, crazier, madder than a dozen cuts snakes lurking in the stinging trees waiting for a cassowary. It may be a result of the liberty that comes with increasing distance from the tyranny of inner city elites developing their secret mind-controlling pharmaceuticals to add to our underground water reserves. Or it could just be the balmy weather and barmy environment. Where pretty much everything wants to eat you.

I wouldn’t say Townsville is the capital of Crazytown, but there are certain idiosyncrasies to observe. Perhaps most obviously in the calibre of politicians representing the region, generally observed wearing big hats and force-feeding coal to their grandchildren, insistent that it is the future, it is it is. It is very easy to imagine Friday night here Cold War Steve style, all hi-vis hypermasculinity and gutter-strewn carnage at the foot of the concrete sugar shaker. My taxi driver confirmed as much as he took me to the airport, to pick up a hire car.

I had never been on the strip of land between Townsville and Cairns, and with a few days tagged on to a work trip I was heading up the coast towards Mission Beach. It’s an interesting enough drive with a decent selection of diversions along the way. It’s also a journey of transition from the golden dry tropics to the verdant abundance of the wet.

A little north of Townsville up the Strewth Highway, the blend of dry grassland and tropical rainforest manifests in Paluma Range National Park, with each climbing, narrow turn up the mountain road darkening as undergrowth thickens. Little Crystal Creek is on the cusp of a landscape in change, and a pretty place to pause. Higher up around Paluma, rainforest walks promise at views and deliver in sweatiness, though it’s still a long way from being as bad as it gets in high summer.

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It seems a bit ridiculous to talk of a summer in a place that is almost consistently between 26 and 30 degrees year round. Seasons are more marked by a change in humidity, from clear, arid winter days to muggy, stormy summer oppression. You can also throw in the odd cyclone, with the last big, big one – Yasi – hitting the coast around Mission Beach in 2011.

Continuing north up the highway approaching Cardwell, it is hard to picture today. But an enduring image from that storm is the pile of fancy yachts stacked upon one another at Hinchinbrook Marina. Three-quarters of buildings in Cardwell were damaged and the banana crop so tied to this part of the world was devastated. The rugged, pristine environment of Hinchinbrook Island tantalises today. But you wouldn’t have wanted to camp there back then.

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Cardwell seems a quiet kind of place, a pit top where the Bruce Highway finally meets the sea. Post-Yasi, a medium sized big crab has been resurrected on the top of a café. As you do. It’s competition along the highway with the Frosty Mango where I have already stopped and the Big Golden Gumboot of Tully in which I am destined to head.

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Finally, a turn off at Tully leads towards Mission Beach, which somewhat confusingly is a cluster of villages and bays along a stretch of coast twenty kilometres or so. We’re in a region known as the Cassowary Coast and they sure do emphasise the cassowary part of that nomenclature. Official and unofficial road signs alert you to the presence of this giant flightless bird, warnings that seem worthy given they are dwindling in numbers and most susceptible to road accidents. Some people might fear the cassowary for its strong hook-like claw, but you’ll generally find the ubiquitous Toyota Hilux is more lethal in so many ways.

Of course, being in cassowary country makes you – as they say – naturally cass-o-wary. Walking in dense rainforest at Lacey Creek it’s all a bit like encountering snakes…part of you would be thrilled to see one and to try to take a blurry picture, but part of you would be pooping your pants. Every rustle and fleeting shadow pricks the senses, only for it to be caused by an unseen gecko or another bush turkey.

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Down by the sea at Bingil Bay, there is always the chance of a crocodile or a lethal jellyfish to spot instead. Though the hosts at my B&B warned me the crocs are only in the creeks, I’m not so sure about stepping too far into that ocean. I mean, the creeks enter the sea, right. What goes in must come out. And with plenty of mangroves in which to lurk, I can just picture myself sunbaking right there if I was a saltwater crocodile. So, I move briskly on, along a fine, shady boardwalk towards the hub that is North Mission Beach. Where a cold beer with a view is the better means of cooling down, I reckon.

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Refreshed and now feeling in holiday mood, there was definitely justification in an afternoon siesta, before working up a sweat again climbing Bicton Hill in Clump Mountain National Park.  If cassowaries and crocs weren’t enough, the start of this trail warned of stinging trees, which boast attractive heart shaped leaves and plump purple fruit. The cunning bastards.

The sign at the bottom of the track also warns that this isn’t a walk for everyone, indicating heart-attack potential. But it’s not that bad, just a leafier, slightly deadlier version of Mount Ainslie with views out toward a far-less manicured landscape.

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With all this adventure and threat, one of the nice, homely touches of my B&B was the opportunity for drinks on the veranda at six o’clock. With only a few rooms it was cosy and relaxing, a chance to share the escapades of the day with those from further afield. Of course, being a naturalised Australian I was quickly assigned an authority on matters such as swooping birds, the diet of the cassowary, drought and bushfires, the hiding places of redback spiders, the pros and cons of Townsville, and…well…Brexit. I do suppose the Netherlands and Switzerland – especially Switzerland – seem very genteel by comparison.

At the B&B I was also frequently lobbied to try out the Kennedy Walking Track commencing at South Mission Beach. And so, on Sunday morning I decided to give it a go before the drive back to Townsville. And what a great recommendation to take up before eventually returning to the landlocked eucalypt land of four seasons back south. Yay for palm trees and golden sands, mangroves and croccy creeks, and that milky aquamarine sea. Another world in the same country.

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I have to say I do think the beaches of the south coast of New South Wales are in many ways better. They are typically finer and sandier and, well, you can generally paddle without as great a fear of being lunch and / or lacerated to death. But then there is just that air to the tropics, a mood and a light and colours so vivid. And palm trees and ferns and – up here – rainforest tumbling down to the sea. Like I say, another world in the same country.

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Talking of other worlds, I eventually made it back to Townsville via the largest potato scallops and smallest bites of fish in Ingham. A little early for my flight back, I remembered spotting a huge TV tower on top of a peak just to the west of town when I came to land at the same airport, and duly discovered there was a road to the top. From the summit of Mount Stuart, this possible Crazytown doesn’t seem too mad, distant as I am from its Sunday hangover.

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Perhaps madder is the scene inland, where the maddest of mad dogs can flourish. A scene dry and dusty and rugged and foreboding. A world devoid of much, exposed to a harsh, searing heat and unforgiving glare; perhaps you can see why many are happy enough to dig it up. The maddest thing though is that this world can suck you in, can draw you to it, can make you want to step one more foot into its fringe. It might even tempt you to buy a wide brimmed hat and some sturdy RM Williams boots. If only you didn’t have a flight to catch back to sanity.

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Season’s heatings

After an indifferent run up, the Christmas and New Year period decided to go all out Aussie and deliver roasting temperatures and blistering sun. What to do in such sweltering conditions?

Try and work with pastry and bake sausage rolls for old time’s sake? Probably not the best idea.

Escape to the air-conditioned comforts of a gallery or museum? Well, nice as long as you don’t get sucked into a vortex of neo-postmodern pastiche critiquing the conflation of pre-industrial conceptualisations with fifth-dimensional realism.

Shopping in malls and supermarkets then? Cool, but not usually great for the hip pocket and the hips.

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Wading into the lake feels so tempting, but what about the prospect of blue-green algae and mutated carp for company? Ah, a mate’s pool, that’s better. If it isn’t like a hot bath after endless days of solar induction and steamy mosquito-filled nights. Yes, I wanna build a snowman! Please.

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Logic would dictate that the South Coast could offer relief, with its sea breezes and refreshing waves. Perhaps it’s a lack of sleep or one too many egg nogs or something, but I defy the logic and head inland instead. My brain hasn’t totally frazzled, reasoning that surely it’s perfect weather to hang out in a cave. I can think of no better refuge. I mean if cheese and wine like a good cave, then surely what’s not to like?

Besides, I seem to be drawn to experiencing Australia at its most inhospitable. I think there is an authenticity in the parched hills of summer, the shredded bark of gums littering the road, the parrots drawn to muddy creeks, the constant wail of cicadas zapping the air. The Real Australia, some marketing undergraduate or large-hatted politician might imagine. A landscape on the margins, a long way away from my Christmas past. Presented in harsh technicolour – but with aircon – when driving through.

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And so, to Wombeyan Caves, a spot I visited once in steady rain. How different that was. Despite arriving at a reasonably early hour today it is already hard work hiking through the bush to waterfalls that are dry and exposed paths that simply disappear. Still, the Visitor’s Centre has a fridge full of ice-cold drinks and the refuge of Victoria Arch is mere metres away. What a spot this is, like entering a Westfield on a forty-degree day, only without the slightly depressing thought of having to find solace in a Westfield.

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sum07I think about munching on some leftover sausage rolls in here, but delay lunch for one other walk before the temperature peaks. It’s already midday and clearly above thirty. Shade is intermittent on the way down to Tinted Cave and the Limestone Gorge, where sausage rolls can be enjoyed beside a shallow pool of water popular with dragonflies and sweaty humans.

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I feel pity for the extended families heading down to the gorge as I make my way back to the car. Laden with chairs and umbrellas and swimming gear, there is barely enough space to set up a picnic blanket for one. And from what I could tell, wading in the water is a trial of jagged gravel and slippery pebbles. “Is it worth it?” they ask. I offer hope and repeat what the lady in the Visitor’s Centre told me – “Go around the corner a bit and the water gets deeper.” I hope for them it does, though it may have already evaporated since this morning.

The peak of the heat hits when in the car and the aircon works overtime as I head back to Canberra via Crookwell and Gunning. A hallucinatory ice cream parlour fails to materialise in either town, and I end up with an iced coffee from McDonalds back on the fringes of Canberra. Brain freeze strikes, but I guess I wanted it cold.

The New Year approaches and passes with little respite. Only for a couple of hours around dawn do temperatures relent enough, prompting a frantic mission to open up doors and arrange blinds to coax some cooler air into my apartment at five in the morning. It feels like it’s been a losing battle by time the clock ticks round to nine. And then what? The mall, the pool, the library, the supermarket? Giving in and spending ten dollars a minute on aircon? Getting a permanent job in a cool office? It’s tempting now more than ever.

But we’ll make it through the worst. The sun will set and the temperatures will cool, just a bit. The colourful reward of light moving towards dark amplified as a breeze sets in. And a couple more turns of the Earth might finally bring a cooler change. A forecast 26 degrees on Sunday and perhaps – at last – a climate cool enough for a Christmas roast. It’s all relative.

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Getting Shroppy

Very very occasionally, when I find myself inordinately bored – probably a cold, dark night in the midst of a Canberra winter – I might find myself turning to Seven Two and briefly catching a few minutes of Escape to the Country. It could be my imagination, but the show always seems to go something like this…

Malcolm and Felicity are a slightly smug, good-looking couple who are entering early semi-retirement and looking to sell up their mock Tudor detached home in Surrey, which they bought for £50,000 back in 1996. Malcolm has raked in millions from financial practices of dubious morality in the City and Felicity is looking to scale back on her worthy high paid work lobbying government on behalf of an NGO. Looking to escape this stressful, fast-paced life they are now seeking an impossible to find cottage containing five bedrooms for the two of them and a modern country kitchen with unparalleled views close to a village with good transport links but not near a road of any kind whatsoever. In addition, they’d love separate outbuildings for keeping two of their horses and a workshop space for some questionable artistic endeavour involving twigs and mirrors. They are concentrating their search in Shropshire.

Shropshire. Always Shropshire. I never quite knew why…I suspect you could get a bigger mound for your pound before the cameras from Escape to the Country invaded. I feel like it’s a kind of forgotten county of England, almost irrelevant, with nothing significant whatsoever to worry about. I guess, in reality, Birmingham isn’t too far away so whether that’s an asset or not is open to question. And it is practically Wales, but not actually Wales, which means you can get all the benefits of being in Wales without being in Wales.

shrop_1Facing a long drive back from North Wales to Devon, Shropshire happened to be in my way. I approached the county a bit later than anticipated – my increasing and alarming fondness for full English breakfasts causing me to linger in the Welsh border town of Llangollen a little longer than planned. Finally crossing the frontier, the town of Oswestry offered promise, in that it had a Morrison’s petrol station in which to fill up and save a couple of quid. Which was promptly expunged dawdling behind caravans and negotiating street furniture.

Shrewsbury – like all proper English county towns – has a ring road, which means your only impression of Shrewsbury is of Costa drive throughs and B&M Bargains. It doesn’t seem Escape to the Country country but then south of here you enter the Shropshire Hills. An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. And indeed it is.

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Nestled in the bosom of these hills, the town of Church Stretton possesses enough charm and functionality to impress our friends Malcolm and Felicity. I daresay there are some fine tearooms serving wonderful slabs of Victoria Sponge alongside intricate china teapots, as well as curio shops selling things made from twigs and mirrors. I cannot guarantee this for sure though, in light of my massive breakfast and the pressing imperative of time.

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Having climbed Snowdon the day before I wasn’t overly keen on walking far, but my insatiable instinct to seek a viewpoint and take some happy snaps kicked in. Unfortunately for once my navigation faltered a little, and I ended up trudging through a forest for some time. It was a nice, leafy forest full of green, but you really couldn’t see the wood for the trees. Eventually I was able to climb up, my thighs wailing with every step out onto the heathland hilltops. And what fine country. A very nice place to escape to.

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But now, it was beyond time for my escape, and the prospect of leaving this quiet enclave of England for the counties of Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, Somerset, and Devon. Counties that you may see on Seven Two sometime soon. If they ever get a look in.

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Driving Great Britain Green Bogey Walking

Y Twwryppch Ddysccvyrnngh y byht uf Cymru

The richness of Britain is quite something. Not richness in an economic sense, that measure upon which so much weight is given – wander any town or city and it will quickly become apparent that financial riches are far from universal. No, it’s the sheer abundance of Britain. There’s so much in so little a space. Everything here is dense, whether that be the number of council houses clustered together in a cul-de-sac or the profusion of single-track lanes crisscrossing rolling green countryside. How can this small rock in the Atlantic host so much of everything? A tardis of a nation.

I feel like you could spend a lifetime and still not discover every corner of Britain. This is a task even more challenging when you don’t live there anymore, and you are largely content to frequent familiar fishing villages and creamy countryside on home turf. Why the need to go anywhere else?

Even the sands underneath me have felt my footsteps before, though I’m sure never in such a glorious glow. And under this clear air emanating from Blackpool, a horizon of land appears as alien to me as Timbuktu.

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North Wales is a corner of Britain that seems to pack more punch in its acres than most. I think it’s largely explained by the proximity of the coastline to the jagged peaks just a few miles inland. At times the uplands appear to roll directly into the sea. And where they don’t, valleys, towns, forests and lakes squeeze in to fill the gaps. I could spend a month here and still not discover it all.

But I did at least have three days to explore new terrain and it commenced with a surprisingly seamless and pleasurable drive from Lancashire under continuing blue skies. Smoothly cruising through Cheshire, the terrain elevated somewhat into Wales, with snatched views of the Wirral and – in the distance – the conglomeration of Liverpool. At one point I could see the prominent rise of Snowdonia, clearly denoted by the only patch of cloudy sky in the whole of the British Isles. And I was heading straight for it.

The car came to a halt beside Llyn Ogwen, a sliver of a lake hemmed in by the A5 and two hilly clumps of land – the massifs of the Carneddau and Glyderau. To the north, the rolling, open uplands of the Carneddau shimmered gold in the sunshine while the rockier Glyderau was grazed by cloud. And guess to which one I was heading…

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Passing a popular National Trust outpost, a gentle and well-worn path crossed the moorland towards Llyn Idwal, a small lake hemmed in by precipitous cliffs, popular with climbers and school parties vaguely attempting to do something related to Geography. While the landscape was striking, at times it was difficult to stand up, such was the wind howling through this giant bowl. And in late September, a hoodie was barely sufficient protection.

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Thankfully the wind eased a little in the lee of the cliffs, a shattered barrier which seems insurmountable from below. Apparently a cleft proclaims to lead through something enticing called The Devil’s Kitchen and up to the top, via a small track rising from the lake.  A few mountain goats appeared to be running up this in a ridiculous quest called exercise. I walked up a bit, feeling slightly breathless and a tad light-headed with each step. I figured it was a passing touch of wooziness that was quelled by a handful of Jaffa Cakes. And frankly, this view was a good enough one from which to turn around.

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With overnight rest, the next day became a jam-packed whistle-stop exploration of the valleys, towns and bays of this corner of Wales. It started with the promise of early cloud and mist lifting in the small town of Llanrwst. Here, the River Conwy was spanned by a delightful arched bridge leading to what could possibly be one of the most photographed buildings in the principality. Having done very little research prior to this trip, I had no idea such a sight existed and that I would have timed things perfectly to coincide with the flourish of autumn. Turns out it’s a tea shop that – at this time in the morning – was closed. Otherwise clotted cream could have again been in the offing.

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Further up the valley, the river widens towards the Conwy estuary and the countryside softens somewhat to resemble that of South Devon. The environment is a haven for birds, something I deduce from parking at an RSPB centre across the river from the town of Conwy itself. Ever a tight-arse with parking, I decided on the spur of the moment to walk over to the town, taking in splendid views of a majestic castle and surrounding hills across the water.

I became progressively enamoured by Conwy. Obviously its castle is a dominant – and splendidly preserved – feature of the town. Beyond this, much of Conwy is walled, with various towers and steps and ramparts in a crumbling state, the least crumbly of which can be explored for free. And within the walls sits a charming array of old cottages and colourful terraced houses, leading down to a sedate harbour cove. Everything seems peaceful and at peace. And somewhere within this is a massive slab of coffee and walnut cake that is so gargantuan it eliminates the need for lunch.

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Walking back to the car in glorious sunshine I did my best to change into shorts without revealing my arse to any curious twitchers. This of course precipitated the onset of cloud as I drove further west, the A5 cutting under barren hills plunging into the sea, Holyhead across the water.

At Caernarfon, another castle straight out of a lego box impressed. Yet maybe it was the cloud and the coolness, but I found this place lacked much of the ambience of Conwy. It seemed a bit more touristy and try-hard, and the car park surrounding one side of the castle – like some kind of glass and steel moat – distracted from the scene. Meanwhile, the generator from a Mr Whippy van nearby disturbed any tranquillity.

I headed on hoping for a break in the clouds along the coast towards the Llyn Peninsula – the pointy out bit of North Wales. It seems a remote, sometimes bleak place, undoubtedly exposed to the elements throughout the year. I suspect Welsh is the first language here, all hacking throats and largely devoid of vwls. The small towns and villages tend to be off the beaten track… spots like Trefor, where I paused to survey a picturesque cove, one of the few visitors in the car park.

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More popular with curious outsiders like me is Morfa Nefyn and, in particular, the bay-side hamlet of Pothdinllaen. Literally a pub and a few flowery cottages parked by the sand, it can really only be reached by foot, passing through one of those golf courses blessed in its occupation of prime links real estate.  Some of the holes looked ludicrously unfair but the enviable setting, with water on all sides, cannot be denied.

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Following an obligatory pint in the Ty Coch Inn I ambled back towards the car, stamping prints in the sand as the tide shifted out. The salty sea air had put me in a fish and chip mood and I thought Pwllheli might prove a good bet. But it looked a tad depressing passing through and I saw no obvious contenders, instead stopping further east in Cricceith, which satisfied requirements entirely.

It’s a shame the sun never materialised post-Conwy, just to add that sparkle and extra splendour to the sights. And it proved in more ways than one that Conwy simply put everything else into the shade that day.

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Of course, the famous BBC weather forecast had been changing its sunshine symbols into white cloud ones as proximity to each day in question neared. My final day in Wales was, perhaps, the most promising online. Not that it looked especially good first thing, but surely such mist and cloud is to be expected as October nears?

Leaving early under grey skies, I was uncertain how this day would pan out. My intent was to hike proper good somewhere in Snowdonia. And as I reached a viewpoint towards Mount Snowdon itself, the magic happened. The magic that is lifting plumes of mist, evaporated by the laser-like sun of dawn.

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In a matter of minutes it was if cloud had been consigned to the pages of history, and the decision to attempt an ascent on Mount Snowdon was an easy one to make. Rather than regurgitating every single step of this walk here, you can – should you wish – read more about it in this shameless cross-promotion for yet another blog page I have been working on when lulls in work strike me down with boredom.  In summary: epic, awesome, enjoyable…enough of a challenge to provide reward without being too challenging to annoy. Though at times the train to the top did feel like the sensible option.

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It really is remarkable to have such genuine mountain landscape concentrated alongside all the other facets making up this part of the world. Yes, the mountains lack altitude compared to, say, the Alps, but they have every characteristic col, ridge, tarn and peak required. They are mountains worthy of the name.

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However, this is Britain so I guess they are mountains not entirely untamed. At lower levels, a few crumbling mining outposts remain, and slate quarries persist in other parts. And then there are sheep, lovely fluffy inevitable sheep, appearing when you least expect them on a rocky ridgeline, one hoof away from a plummet down a cliff.  It would be remiss of me – negligent even – to be in Wales and not mention sheep. Lovely.

What a glorious day to be a sheep in the green, green grass of home. Now I was seeing sheep everywhere. Sheep to the left of me, sheep to the right. There were sheep even revelling in the field behind my little Airbnb bothy. As with many other things, Britain possesses such density of sheep (though nowhere near as dense as witnessed in New Zealand).

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Sheep were dotted on the fields the next morning, as I woke up overlooking the valley of Penmachno one last time. More acquainted with a pocket of the country that had been unknown, ready to head off back to the familiar. But not before passing through and pausing among new discoveries along the way.

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Driving Great Britain Green Bogey Photography Walking

Counting counties

Did you know, the westernmost county of England has no motorways? In the height of summer, as holidaymakers trawl through Truro, pummel Padstow and flock upon Fowey, this can seem an incredible oversight. But then you encounter Britain’s motorway network and you think thank golly gosh goodness for that. No lorries overtaking lorries overtaking lorries at miniscule increments of speed. No white vans whizzing up slip roads in a traffic jam and appearing again to barge their way in, a whopping gain of ten metres to show for it. No Range Rovers hogging the outside lane forever like this is one’s own private drive. No dreadful Welcome Break Costas.

Alas, while the appalling ubiquity of Costa has not left Cornwall untouched, it is a truth universally acknowledged that the county is often a wild and rugged place, unsuited to motorways and factories and large B&M Bargain warehouse hubs. The pock-marked, rumpled coastline preserves small towns and villages largely the way they have been, barring a Grand Design here and a landslide there. Both of which are inevitable in Boscastle.

There is something ritualistic in heading to Boscastle, an almost-annual feat of figuring out the various B-road junctions around Tintagel, meandering down several hairpins and feeling bitter at the price of parking and the price to pee. But the bitterness fades like jam underneath lashings of cream as you walk past the cottages, above the small harbour and towards the entrance to the Atlantic, often a Hell’s Gate of oceanic torment.

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trip02With its prominent headlands, Boscastle offers a sense of protection from the great expanse beyond. There’s a cosiness to the village, which is a formidable asset in attracting people down its B roads. Nearby Tintagel doesn’t possess as much cosiness but instead relies on tenuous associations with King Arthur, Pengenna Pasties and – until recently – Granny Wobblys Fudge Pantry. Sadly, this year it seems Granny Wobbly has retired, along with her legendary fudge making abilities and fudge crumble ice cream (ice cream + clotted cream + fudge). Suddenly Tintagel seems devoid of purpose and Boscastle wins.

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Navigating B roads and the occasional dual carriageway back to Devon it is not until the east of this county that motorways first appear: the solitary blue line of the M5, commencing at Exeter and happily transporting folk to the alluring attractions of Birmingham. I was only on here for the briefest of spells, turning off towards the town of Seaton on the fringe of the Jurassic Coast.

The first stop on a trip up country, my departure from the south west was accompanied by a determination to take a break from clotted cream. BUT, I was still in Devon and hadn’t reckoned on the temptation fostered by a meet up with my Aussie cousin Fleur and Rob. Indeed, when Rob and I both received our chocolate cake sans clotted, I was the first to pipe up and gesticulate wildly in a state of panic, desperately miming the necessity of cream at the same time my cheeks were stuffed with cake. All class.

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After cake we headed off to the nearby village of Beer on what was a very grey and windy day. The sea churning brown, a row of deckchairs positioned on the pebbly cove appeared a fanciful proposition. But then of course a couple with a dog sat down and you were reminded this was Britain and clearly not Queensland. Some of us were a long way from home.

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From Beer I continued to avoid the motorway network while crisscrossing the Devon-Dorset-Somerset countryside in reaching my destination for the night, Street. It seems the main attraction of Street – its raison d’etre – is Clark’s Village, a conglomeration of ubiquitous high street brands and factory outlets. A town that embodies the Costafication of Great Britain to the Extra-Grande.

What this means is that nearby Glastonbury is refreshingly absent – barring a Boots chemist – of all the trappings of almost every single British town and city. In part, this void is filled by the ‘New Age’ industry: crystals, mindfulness mantras, tie-dye shawls, and all kinds of crazy crap. Unwittingly lured by free Wi-Fi I had possibly the worst coffee of my trip in a spot that was too veganly earnest for its own good. Maybe a Costa would go down well…

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Glastonbury is a pretty place and I suppose its new-age industry is premised on a combination of mythical relics, luscious countryside, and an almost annual music festival somewhere in a muddy field nearby. From these fields, the ancient – indeed mystical – rock of Glastonbury Tor dominates, topped out by St Michael’s Tower. At its base I encountered a small group of people with unwashed hair banging some drums and fluttering some rainbows. All part of the scenery.

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The climb up the tor was steep but short, an ascent rewarded by astounding views over Somerset. Patchwork fields occasionally dotted by sheep would run into farmsteads and small hamlets. To the north, the Mendips framed the horizon while the Somerset Levels stretched to infinity further south and west.  Somewhere out there was perhaps the M5, continuing its journey to Birmingham. Perhaps somewhere, over the rainbow.

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I left Glastonbury around 11am on a trip traversing a parade of other counties towards Lytham in Lancashire. From the south to the north, a journey that shouldn’t really take eight and a half hours. But I hadn’t factored in the motorway network, where almost every junction seems to bring traffic to a halt and this feels like it will continue all the way to the M6. Tuning into BBC Radio 2, every traffic report elevates a sense that this is going to be a long day.

Passing into Gloucestershire and then Worcestershire, I was becoming increasingly bored of the interminable trawl that would re-form every few miles. Just as you were getting up speed, brake lights would synchronise, and once more a car park. White transit vans would disappear up slip roads to emerge again two spots further up. Lorries would attempt to overtake lorries in slow motion. Range Rovers wouldn’t budge from the outside.  And still the radio would report more stuff-ups yet to come.

So I gave up. I turned off. Back onto A-roads through Shropshire, a tiny bit of Wales, Cheshire, and – finally – Lancashire. In the end it was unlikely any quicker, limited dual carriageway and roundabout ring roads making progress slow. But in a way it seemed more pleasing as it wasn’t professing to be an express route. Some of the countryside was nice. And I avoided Birmingham. After all, who needs motorways anyway?

Driving Great Britain Green Bogey Photography