Many of Men at Work’s lyrics from that infamous song are undoubtedly insane. And for a sparsely populated continental land mass frequently sun-baked and on the very fringes of survival, there are legitimate question marks about its plentifulness. Plenty in size and scale and cultural history. Plenty in coal and iron ore and brazen luck. Plenty in toilet roll, despite everything.
Today, in the natural world around me, there appears again this land of plenty. Turn back a year and there would have been much head-shaking at such a thought. A cruel fantasy. But since that point, we’ve had plenty of rain resulting in plenty of growth leading to plenty of productivity. Not all of this is welcome, with rabbits and mice and locusts replicating at the rate of viruses in Kent. And the plentiful fruits of this rejuvenation are proving challenging to reap without a stream of acquiescent backpackers.
Still, “she’ll be apples” as they say. Surprising apples if you find yourself on a road between Bundanoon and Marulan. I was heading back from a day of plenty when I spotted a small sign saying ‘Big Apple’ pointing to the left. Already astounded by the incredible-in-so-many ways Big Potato, the apple emerged as a more subtle dessert.
Giant fruits and vegetables are apt in the Southern Highlands given the land is – for the most part – rich farming country. Babe was also filmed around here, combining perfectly with some of the local apple sauce and roast spuds. I could see snatches of Babe country throughout, supercharged by the verdant green rolling landscape, scattered with fine weatherboard homes and lacy verandas. Such is the well-groomed nature of this land, that it comes as a dramatic contrast when the countryside falls suddenly towards the sea. Delivering plenty.
This happens at Carrington Falls, situated within Budderoo National Park to the south of Robertson. It was a misty, head-in-the-clouds morning, the kind that lends itself to Jurassic Park moments. Tall white trees disappear into the clouds, giant ferns at their base dripping with beads of moisture. The air smells earthy and rich, peppered with wafts of cool mint. Only the fizzing sound of water signals a break in this most stagnant of scenes.
Several lookouts provide the wow factor, the intake of breath, the magnetic allure of millions of litres of water falling fifty metres into a deep pool. It is unclear whether the mist swirling through the eucalypts are remnants of waterfall or lowering fingers of cloud. I suppose they are all part of the same big cycle taking on different forms. Steaming glasses and feeding natural spectacles.
I’m surprised by how busy the place is on a cool, damp Monday. A steady flow of visitors park up, loop along the lookouts and leave again. Most pause for a picture or two, alternating between ultra-serious brooding to comical selfies. One senior lady poses with what looks like a car windscreen shade over her head, arranged to resemble Mickey Mouse ears. The youth – students from Wollongong I suspect – brave the waters of the creek before they succumb to gravity.
There is another turn off near Carrington Falls that suggests further valley lookouts. I head to the first and closest, greeted with even denser mist and a disappearing view. Fine rain is now falling and – for February – it’s cold.
Back near the car and now thinking of a warming lunch, a sign points to something called Nellie’s Glen. It’s only a hundred metres, which is hardly going to delay the arrival of comfort food. And what a pleasant surprise this turned out to be, a gorgeous pool fed by gently cascading waters. The kind of place on a warmer day to soak and swim and avoid water dragons and hope that leeches aren’t longing for a bit of attachment.
With other lookouts and a campground I feel there is unfinished business in Budderoo National Park. But my mind – and stomach – has become fixated on pie. At the junction with the Illawarra Highway stands the self-proclaimed ‘World Famous Robertson Pie Shop’. Have you heard of it over there? It looks exactly the kind of place that would disappoint and end up on the news as a COVID hotspot. A pie of plenty instead came at the Robertson Pub, no doubt known as The Robbo, oppo the big potato.
It was perfect weather for pie and mash and gravy, washed down by a surprisingly good local ale whose name I sadly do not recall. Such feasting naturally induces a contented lethargy that makes the thought of further activity, further driving, further walking, further gazing at amazing, just that little bit less enticing. But I had to get home somehow, and there was still a waterfall way to go.
Thus the afternoon heralded Belmore Falls, a double delight viewed from afar. Some people had managed to find closer views next to the top of the falls and a couple – spied through my zoom lens – had made their way between upper and lower falls. I figured, judging by the size and athleticism of said couple, that it couldn’t be too hard to reach, though how they did so remains very much a mystery. Perhaps abseiling or helicopters were involved.
The drive from Belmore Falls to Fitzroy Falls proved joyful, a pocket of pure Babes country starting to welcome a brighter, afternoon sky. At Fitzroy Falls itself – the trustiest and most accessible of the waterfalls in this area – I felt a little as though I was going through the motions, but walked and stopped and took photos and gazed out in awe nonetheless. As well as both Fitzroy and Twin Falls adding to the daily tally, the view into the Yarrunga Valley never fails to enchant.
By the time I passed through Exeter and Bundanoon and abruptly turned to the left in Tallong, the sun had started to reassert itself and offer some welcome warmth. Better conditions for ripening apples I would imagine, and less potato friendly. A landscape now drier and more typical of great swathes of eastern Australia.
As a final stop before joining the highway I detoured to Long Point Lookout, where a spur of land thrusts itself out into an incredible wilderness. Below, some five hundred metres, the Shoalhaven River turns 180 degrees, carving out the steep hills and ravines which disappear off into the distance. All that water has to lead somewhere, and the Shoalhaven is quite a remarkable gathering of natural forces.
I spent a good half hour at this spot, as the late afternoon light cast itself in fits and starts upon the scene. Not one other car, not one other person stopped by during that time. Somewhere else, in another continent, in another country I couldn’t imagine such absence, such indifference. It would be a highlight, a spectacle, hustling with people and coaches and tacky souvenirs.
Here, it was as if no-one else knew. Here, in a country of vast open space, of forests and gorges still existing untouched, still largely unexploited, it was nothing special. Just another view, just another scene, just another place. And surely that is what makes it a land of plenty, he said, smiling with a Vegemite sandwich.
The return of the traditional road trip has been another much vaunted consequence of our most recent history. With nowhere to flee overseas, we are discovering our homelands, our paddocks, our backyards. A large proportion of this adventuring has been undertaken in kitted out camper vans, luxury coaches, or simply a mattress in the back of a beat up station wagon. Canvas roofs have blossomed in trodden fields of green, the sound of mallets beating tent pegs as widespread as cicadas.
Initially when the pandemic hit, and uncertainty was rife, I thought I could do this if it came down to it. Fruit would need to be picked somewhere or fences would still be in need of repair. Possessing a swag, small dome tent and station wagon, sleeping options could be mixed and matched, while the trusty camp kitchen box could cater again for bangers and mash in thirty five degrees. There is a dreamy, deep rose-tinted quality to these visions, one that conveniently overlooks the discomfort, the dirt, the sweat and the toil.
As it turned out, I was lucky enough to be able to sit in front of a computer all day and receive the compensation of a regular income. But these wistful visions of a nomadic life have never quite gone away. The compromise has been day trips into the country, eventually culminating in a night on a mattress in the back of a beat up station wagon. Another night became aborted because – well – I could just make it home, and I began to question my commitment to life almost under the stars.
Yet a new year brings new resolution so we are led to believe, and with the prospect of more distant travel still a distant prospect there is logic to be had in persevering. What if I could make 2021 – or at least the warmest parts of 2021 – the year of the camping weekend? Could this provide – in its own way – a new purpose to fill the void that is the Centenary Trail?
Only time and possibly this blog will tell, but with this idea still racing through my mind like an out-of-control hamster wheel I swiftly purchased a new tent online. Click and collect from BCF in two hours.
I have always poured scorn on BCF, mainly because their adverts of boating, camping, and fishing escapades are layered thick with Australian drongoism. Like you can’t boat, camp or fish if you went to university. Or it is simply unheard of to do these things and care about the environment and refugees and good coffee at the same time. Only blokes in thongs with a nasal dislike of political correctness can go boating, camping, fishing.
I suspect I read too much into it. The process was very efficient. The lady in Fyshwick who handed me my tent was perfectly lovely. A new tent to add to the swag, the 2 person dome, and the mattress in the back of a beat up station wagon.
You may well ask why I even need another tent and I would say that what I need is something that doesn’t give me as much of an excuse to turn back for home. Something that – as I march towards wisdom over youthfulness – is less of an ordeal. What I need is something more akin to glamping than it is to homelessness.
And so that is how I found myself erecting a brand new ‘instant’ four person tent at Mount Clear Campground in the southern part of Namadgi National Park last Sunday. With my pristine tent, deluxe airbed, comfy lounge chair, I looked every part the newbie amateur who had just splashed out on some shiny things for Christmas. Not the hardened traveller who had done three months in a swag and persevered with bangers and mash in thirty-five degree heat.
Only the rumpled, irregular mallet hints at greater experience. With this in hand I pleasingly managed to erect the tent quickly and efficiently, as though I knew what I was doing. To say it is an instant tent is probably an overstatement once you take into account pegs and guy ropes and – should you wish – a shady awning. But it was a reasonably simple erection, and I was happy to find ample room for my deluxe mattress and comfy chair and body standing in an upright position.
The more taxing part was choosing where to pitch the thing, given so many lovely-looking spots. In this respect, an estimation of neighbours is instantly required – deciding between a cluster of boomers and a foursome of millennials, while a BCF loyalist blares out some country and his kids run amok. All potentially troublesome, yet also reassuringly present.
In the end I inched slightly closer to the millennials, which ended up a mistake when they decided to stay up around the campfire until after one. But a home is a home and not only did it stay upright and protect and comfort, but it also came with some of the most generous backyard within our little capital territory.
From settler’s huts to magical vistas, over swampy plains and through one year charred trees. An urge to pee brings staggering night skies, turning to gold as birds and boomers rise. There’s a hike through meadows, there’s wading through a creek, recovering with camp stove coffee and old Christmas cake. And then replenished, full on nature’s bounty, there’s a home to dismantle, and achievement to take.
The Tumut River is proving a soothing spot. In spite of its swift flow, fed from the elongated dams of the Snowy Mountains, there is something becalming being upon its banks. Boasting more of an aquamarine shade than the sedimentary highways of the Murrumbidgee and Murray, it is a waterway begging to be paddled or fished. Or simply enjoyed from under the shade of a majestic River Red Gum – as long as you can overlook the fact that these trees have the pesky habit of randomly dropping their hefty limbs.
Various tributaries wind their way over fertile plains enjoyed by cattle and horses, mystery roads leading off into hidden valleys with panoramic landscapes. In Tumut itself, the river transforms what would be a pleasant enough little town into something more beguiling. Sitting among green parkland below the town centre, there may me a little part of water meadow England evoked. If you ignore the cackle of the cockatoos.
It was just under a year ago that I found myself here being rejuvenated after a day of hard labour pulling down fences in the hills behind. Sit in Tumut today and you would be hard pressed to imagine how fraught it would have been on January 4th, 2020. Approaching from the west, the Dunns Road Fire ravaged through Batlow and the Green Hills, cresting the Snubba Range and spilling down to and over Blowering Dam. It went on to merge with other large fires in the area, sweeping through pristine sections of Kosciusko National Park and the Snowy Valleys, before lapping at the edges of the ACT.
One year later I found myself in Pioneer Park sitting beside the river once again. It shows what an absolutely legendary year 2020 turned out to be that I had forgotten exactly where the fires had hit. No longer obsessively checking Fires Near Me I thought, for some reason, that the Dunns Road Fire had stopped on the western shores of Blowering Dam. Driving south from Tumut, it didn’t take too long to realise my oversight.
For sure, the western side of the dam is still quite a shock. Made up of plantation forest, the hillsides remain largely bare, apart from the blackened matchsticks of pine. Somewhere up there on the ridgetop, I wonder how Paul and Andrea are going on their farm, and whether Smiley has cheerily constructed a new hut. Hopefully the fences are still standing.
Down on the water, there is a somewhat normal scene of socially-distanced summer holidays playing out – all gargantuan encampments and four wheel drives and boat trailers. An emu pokes its head above the undergrowth, no doubt fleeing the meltdown of a toddler who just really doesn’t want to go anywhere near the water thank you very much. They seem to be everywhere.
Along the southern end of Blowering Dam, the impact of a year ago becomes clear as blackened trunks spread upwards to the east. There is regrowth, but it is thinned-out vegetation, revealing rocky, barren outcrops that probably haven’t been visible for years. Jounama Creek – a spot for camping and walking potential – seems less appealing than I expected, and I drive on.
From here it is quite the climb to Black Perry Lookout. Offering an impressive view out into the Bogong Wilderness, an information board makes it clear just how different things looked before the fires. In the picture, the peaks are still there, but cloaked in a swathe of lush green foliage like some kind of Jurassic Park. The picture also – frustratingly – features a much crisper, bluer sky than so far today. Both will come back, I hope.
The lookout is naturally a popular stop for trucks and caravans and trailers to catch their breath. One caravan seems to have had enough and the NRMA are being called. A clutch of potbelly bikers convey that menacing grizzled look that frequently becomes undermined by softly spoken, friendly chatter. One young guy appears anxious, on the phone to try and arrange a permit to access the ACT. Fire knows no boundaries and, for all we can try, neither does COVID.
My plan was to walk to a place called Landers Falls Lookout, lured by the promise of both falls and a lookout. It was either a ten kilometre there and back again or a swift 1.6km stop off from a four wheel drive parking area. I initially figured my car would be okay – it usually is – and inched down a big dipper of a rockfest. The way onward looked equally awful and – new year, no new words – I decided it was best to pivot. Back to the parking area for inadequate cars.
And so a longer walk ensued, but I’m glad about my decision. The car probably would have made it, but it might also have got two punctures, a broken exhaust, and a hazardous brake disc failure. Plus it was interesting and rewarding to tread quietly through this recovering forest, one year on.
What strikes you most in such worlds is the contrast between still very visible, jet black tree trunks and an overflowing understorey of grasses and shrubs and ferns and flowers. Where the two combine, witness the surreal procession of epicormic growth winding up into the canopy (before a certain pandemic, epicormic was probably the word of the year). The crowns of trees are still deciding whether or not they will come back, a process that will take more than just a year.
My initial fear that I would be sharing this walk with a procession of hoons in souped-up Hiluxes doing it the lazy way were unfounded. Probably because they don’t like to get their shiny blue paintwork dirty. Midway along one vehicle did pass, accompanied by the obligatory exchange of waves. Him thanking me for standing aside, me thanking him for the dust. At least there weren’t too many flies to elevate the experience further. Yet.
There was, in fact, a peacefulness in the forest. In patches the silence was punctuated by gentle birdsong – apart from the easy to spot pair of Rosellas, mostly this heralded from those little indistinguishable critters that hide in the undergrowth. Occasional rustles in the grass signified a lizard or bug or potential snake. I felt a bit more accepting of a snake sighting today, thinking it might liven things up. But it never happened.
This is not without giving the snakes ample opportunity, regularly veering off track to snap pictures of grasses and logs and flowers.
From the 4WD parking area, a non-vehicular route leads over Landers Creek and up towards a couple of lookouts. The sound of running water was a good omen for the falls, as was the vertical climb for a vista. Away from the creek, the undergrowth rapidly diminished, replaced by bare rock, charcoal logs and gravel. Exposed, barren, humid, the perfect time for the flies to welcome me in droves.
I deleted several shots from my camera because of photobombing flies. When you get a clear shot, the first lookout offers panoramic views towards Talbingo Dam, the course of the creek winding down towards its shores. In the near distance, a second lookout appears even more precariously perched upon a towering outcrop.
At this second vantage, the falls become visible and form quite an impressive drop, even in the relative dryness of summer. The landscape is an otherworldly array of arid browns and fluorescent green, the steep hillside opposite lined with black spikes like hairs standing to end. The aerial perspective from this vantage is mesmerising and I enjoy it with a cold pork and pickle and fly sandwich.
Lingering for a while allowed me to pick out some of the minutiae: individual tree trunks clinging to a rock face; coils of epicormic growth leading to barren white crowns; cliffs streaked black; a cluster of ferns glowing luxuriant in a hollow. It was as if I was Google Earth or something.
Lest I get a godlike complex high above, I managed to get a little lost on the way back down. I find every rock and burnt log looks pretty much the same. But following the creek I found my way once again to the 4WD car park and onward much further to my own car. Nearing the end of the trail I passed a family with three kids setting off, satisfied that I’m not the only one with an inadequate vehicle.
Back in civilisation it was very much that time of the day when ice cream is mandatory. Civilisation is hard to come by, but the small township of Talbingo offers one of those amazing supermarkets that sells everything from tinned food to drill bits to crates of beer to chiko rolls to two year old editions of Angler’s Almanac. It also houses the post office, tourist information centre and a photocopier. Though lacking gourmet ice cream, a Honeycomb Maxibon on the shores of Jounama Pondage provided sufficient sustenance.
Ignoring the burnt trees on the other side there was a touch of the Lake District in the grassy foreshore and rounded hills disappearing off into the horizon. Blue skies and fluffy white clouds completed the Wordworthian idyll. Again, a year ago, Talbingo was far from it.
From English lakes to Spanish sierras, a journey of disastrous superspreading madness only now restricted by fanciful wartime yearning to regain a supposedly lost independence. Here, the European mirage took the form of a solitary, short drive down the road towards Talbingo Dam. On one side, a panorama of barren ridges and spindly trees, dusty earth and searing sun. A glass of Rioja and a siesta would go down well, but I must move on.
The dam itself has the requisite boat ramp where the road terminates. Here, a wide gravel parking area was solidly packed with trailers and those four wheel drives so suited to the walking trails around this way. A regular flow of vessels with names like Crusader 3000 and She’ll Be Right were being lowered into or dragged from the water. Outboards buzzed and jet skis thrashed and bins were overflowing with the remains of picnics and beers. Behold the domain of the boatpeople.
I was planning on camping in such an environment, albeit further north on the shores of Blowering Dam. But throughout the day there was something going on in my head looking for excuses to get out of it. Heat building. Risk of storms. Boat people. Perhaps the final straw was the realisation that I had left my salad in the fridge at home and would have to resort to a dinner of cold pork and disappointing pastry. I could survive, but would it be worth it?
Procrastinating around a greener, untarnished landscape with views to Blowering Cliffs, I figured I could drive into Tumut and procrastinate some more, while also picking up salad to complicate the decision-making process even further. If I had made a New Year’s Resolution to be more decisive – which I hadn’t – I would have failed already – which I didn’t.
Tumut was just that little bit closer to home and I was willing to embrace a two and a half hour drive into the evening, weighed against the likelihood that I would struggle to be sleeping anyway if I was to stay and camp. Hot water, comfy bed, a flushing toilet v lumpy mattress, strange noises and a long drop. Next time I head off with the intention of camping I need to exceed at least a three hour radius from home.
Je ne regrette rien, as they say in the aisles of Tumut Woollies, for not only did I manage to get my salad fix (albeit in the form of calorific coleslaw), but I also finally snaffled a half price Christmas cake. And then I took to that riverside, wandering and eyeing up future opportunities to explore before settling upon a delightful dinner spot.
There are places I’ll remember. Soothing. Becalming. Rejuvenating. Nourishing. Like a shot in the arm.
This morning I ploughed headlong towards frustration after being unable to discover where I had stored a series of empty jars. Receptacles for random concoctions of cream, fruit and sugar, hopeful Jars of Joy 2020. I reckon I shifted them somewhere back in March, clearing space for tins of tomatoes and dried lentils full of grit.
Fruitless, I gave up and went for a walk. Half an hour later I found myself in the comforting arms of countryside, reflecting on how this has actually been – astonishingly – a year of discovery. Fringing a paintball play area, rising up through pines giving off an essence of Christmas, straddling the divide between the Capital Territory and New South Wales.
Border Walks could become the 2021 sequel to 2020’s Centenary Trail. Just don’t hop over the border if you want to visit <insert as appropriate depending on the hour of the day>.
It really is quite astonishing how a year of restriction has somehow enforced greater discovery. A more immersive experience of place. Not just in the country roads and country towns, the trails and bike rides, the parks and reserves. I have also discovered exactly how long it takes to use a roll of toilet paper, how to use my phone to read QR codes and – earlier in the year – the threshold for hazardous air quality. It’s been quite the ride.
It’s crazy to think this time last year we were enduring a ferocity of fire and fury. But not forgotten. The recent whistling of easterly wind changes bringing cool air around dusk prompts memories of orange skies and choking campfire smells. The scars linger not so far from home.
In the 2020 spirit of discovery, and with an eye to having a short break before mass holiday superspreading madness, I passed through several areas that were decimated a year ago on my way to the coast. The top of Clyde Mountain still astonishes in – today – a damp misty haze. Vivid ferns and tangled vines twist their way around solid black trunks. It is still too early to tell if some of these trees will ever make it back.
Down the hill I stop briefly in Batemans Bay, where an impressive new bridge is spanning the Clyde. An altered horizon which – from a certain angle if you squint a bit – resembles the Brooklyn Bridge. Sun emerges from behind the showers that have been accompanying me all morning, continuing their work of recovery and subterfuge.
I’m heading for a couple of nights in Bermagui, some 125 kilometres further south. The extra distance worth it to escape the worst of the Canberra holiday set. And, of course, for the opportunity to discover, since I have only ever passed through this small town in the past.
What did I find? Well, it has one high street boasting the contrasting styles of Bazza’s Hot Bread and Boneless Vegetarian Café. It is fringed by a lovely headland area full of green space and convenient benches to gaze out to the ocean. And just yards from a vegan soy latte is the most perfect bay of white sand. From Horseshoe Bay, the dominant hulk of Gulaga lends the scene a tropical Queensland kind of air.
Either side of Bermi, the coastline is punctuated by largely pristine inlets and lakes, ideal for waterbirds and kayaks and the whole area is popular with fisherfolk. BCF buckets and ragged singlets are incongruent with the shiny, expensive boats parked outside Woolworths. A sizeable wharf provides anchorage, the fetid smell of stagnant salt water and fish guts detectable in the air. The promise of fish and chips and ice cream makes this a blight worth bearing.
One of the annoying things I discovered about Bermagui was that the fish and chip shop closes at 7pm. I discovered this around 7:07pm. Even more unfathomable, the ice cream spot – while I was there at least – closes at 5. I suppose, true to form, 2020 wouldn’t be 2020 without a couple of disappointments; I’ll just have to pivot.
As it turned out, in my extensive, laborious investigation I came to the personal conclusion that the ice cream from Bodalla Dairy was superior to Bermagui’s Gelati Clinic anyway. It tastes creamier and the flavours are more interesting. Not to mention the cute setting, in the midst of what has returned to being lush, green countryside. You feel as though the cows are creating magic just out the back. In situ, it’s similar to how Beaufort cheese tastes better in Beaufort.
I am reminded of a show on TV this week in which Rick Stein worked his way through eight courses featuring local cheese in a rustic auberge in the Jura. If ever a moment had me longing for international travel again that was it. Not exactly equivalent but probably as good as it gets, Australia has Tilba Tilba. So good they named it twice.
I really adore Tilba and I’m pretty sure a big part of that is the presence of a creamery bringing the goodness of Jersey cows to fruit. I’ve never actually seen the Jersey cows, but you can sense it’s good pasture, even more so a year on from drought. In the foot of Gulaga, there is a bounteousness here that is unparalleled south of the Queensland border.
Gulaga is especially significant to the Yuin People, particularly women. Even for these Anglo, invader eyes of mine there is an inescapable presence to the mountain. It draws you in, looming up behind the decorative facades of colonial cottages, appearing between rocky boulders in the landscape, spilling down into rainforest gullies and thickets of long grass, teeming with a cacophony of cicadas and the flutter of giant butterflies. Host to hundreds of snakes.
I was delighted to not encounter any snakes on a new walk that I just happened to stumble across, like so many great discoveries in this great southern land. One day I might just stumble across a massive gold nugget like one of those lucky bastards. Today, a loop walk through fields of green will do well enough. Finished off with a few golden purchases in the dairy.
South of Tilba, the Princes Highway skirts Gulaga and heads inland on its way to Bega. Before now I have always taken the alternative coastal route, via Bermagui and Tathra. And so, conveniently drawing on an overly-contrived theme, I found myself discovering a new piece of road. Destined for a date with a bevy of pretty ladies.
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, I greet an old friend who used to help me undertake research with young people. I’m not sure it’s such a leap from this to keeping around a hundred alpacas in champion order. At Wedgetail Rise Alpacas, Annemarie takes me on a guided tour of a landscape that wouldn’t be too out of place in our native lands. Apart from some still too obvious discrepancies.
Verona is situated between Cobargo and Quaama, small villages that have become synonymous with our Black Summer. While the great green cover-up continues apace, it is not hard to see the brutal impact still lingering on the ridges and penetrating through the gullies. The comeback is patchy, the torment of weeds opportunistically filling the void to add a further challenge. The characteristic isolated brick chimney stack, that potent symbol of devastation, is never far away.
In Cobargo itself it is hard not to sense a community still in shock, still slowly rebounding. I can only imagine how the permanent presence of blackened hills plays on the psyche. While much of the main street stands, vacant plots tell of the randomness of fire.
If ever there was justification for my mission to support local communities through coffee and cake, then surely it was here. And – oh look – there’s a second-hand bookshop. Christmas presents from a community-run endeavour like this trump K Mart hands down. And, in a somewhat pleasing memory of life before 2020, they only accept cash.
My remaining time down on the coast was largely filled with discovering ways to fill time before it was acceptable to have lunch, when the fish and chip shop would actually be open. A final hurrah before making my way back home, a necessary item on the coast trip checklist. Another earnest sacrifice to contribute to the local economy.
The last morning was overcast but calm and within my car I had a little red rocket on two wheels. One of the big discoveries of 2020 is a) how beautiful my bike poses in random locations and b) how there is a freedom that comes with a ride which doesn’t quite happen on two feet or four wheels. The unimpressive pace of my cycling is just about perfect to gain some decent ground while never going too fast to make the surroundings whizz by in a blur.
Quite wonderfully a cycle path cut a swathe through Bermagui onto a quiet road leading up and down to Haywards Beach. Greeting me, a rugged, sweeping stretch of sand flanked by dunes and low shrubs. Where the road came to an end, a decent trail – part worn tarmac and fine gravel – followed the bay. Curls of crystal surf competed for attention with overhanging branches. Beyond, I found myself heading towards Wallaga Lake and yet more waterside attractions. The turnaround point came at a headland where a midden of shells proved testament to the abundance of this area. Abundance in which I could now quite justifiably indulge back in Bermagui.
And so, as the sun goes down on the year and the battering that is 2020 disappears in a pile of batter, we can only hope that the next year heralds something of an improvement. And while 2020 is a year we may well be super keen to forget, let us not easily disregard the many good things, the many discoveries that we have all made in our own little way. Among the ashes, among the difficulties, the resilience, the humanity, the nuggets of joy. Or jars of joy. If only I could find the bloody things.
I doubt the young lady taking my order was convinced. “Please may I have the Farmer’s Lunch please thank you? Thanks. How would I like it? I guess on a plate would be a good start, do you have these here yet? Oh, you mean the steak? Um… (killing a few seconds considering whether I should plump for rare like the locals) medium-rare please. Thank you.”
“Y’aint no farmer love are ya?”
“Yeah nah. I’ll be sitting next to the CWA ladies playing bingo if that’s okay? Thanks.”
Cowra, New South Wales, Saturday 21st November 2020 and not all of the above was true. I did order a Farmer’s Lunch and I did opt for medium-rare, but it was served to me without disdain. At least outwardly. You didn’t need to be a farmer to order it; only my internal voice was screaming out “FRAUD”.
I found myself here after much procrastination. Determined to embark on something of a mini road trip over the weekend I spent the previous few evenings plotting routes and stops largely based around where I could support the local economy. Given I was heading into the country, surely there would be a nice country pub with hearty fare and a cold beer? I pictured a shady garden perhaps, leading up to an arrangement of latticework and wood-flooring. Locals in Slim Dusty hats shading craggy, sunbeaten faces glanced up at me with a twinkle in the eye. A large fan whirred silently over a shelf crammed with ten-year-old bottles of Scotch. Above the fireplace, a framed blue jersey of some ex-footballer who once scored a field goal in Origin.
Perhaps such idyll exists, but I’m yet to find it. Still, air conditioning and keno was comforting as temperatures soared into the high 30s in Cowra. And the Farmer’s Lunch – steak, sausages, eggs and chips – was worth all that hard yakka sitting in a machine pressing a few buttons. Just like the farmers busily harvesting their grain.
Earlier that morning I had driven up from Canberra in time for a coffee stop in Boorowa. After a previous visit in early spring it was notable how much the green had already diminished, long grasses browning off after a couple of weeks of warm, drier weather. Boorowa was nonetheless as charming as before, though the coffee stop didn’t quite live up to previous highs. I feel like it was under new ownership and lacked the same, welcoming community hubbub. On my way back to the car, another café promised for the next visit.
While Boorowa was still feeling jaunty under a gentle morning breeze, a little further up the road in Murringo the withering inland heat began to bite. Crackly yellow grass, searing bitumen, and the piercing symphony of cicadas. It had been a while since it was like this.
There wasn’t much to Murringo, other than a place where you can go and check out some whips. But it was cute all the same and the drive through Murringo Gap was pleasing with its hay bales and narrowing valley slopes. On cooler days I could see a cycle ride heading through here, but maybe that’s not until autumn now.
I was hoping to swiftly reach Conimbla National Park for a walk before the heat of the day kicked in. Arriving in a remote and empty patch of dirt, the clock on my car signalled a few minutes before midday. Mad dogs and Englishmen and all that. It was the kind of walk in which I could disappear down a ravine to be eaten by snakes before discovery three weeks later. I took some solace in the fact that the lady tending her allotment down in the valley eyed me warily as I drove past – surely she would send help? Or send in the boys with pitchforks?
Spoiler alert: I survived. Was it worth it? Maybe. The highlight was a lookout midway along, offering views over a small valley. Trees of Eucalyptus mingled with black cypress pine, presenting a speckled green landscape under the fierce blue sky. Swathes of native bluebell offered comfort along the trail, tempered by the expectation that I could step on a snake hidden amongst such jolly thickets at any moment. I didn’t.
In fact I survived to make lunch. Through fields of grain and hills of sheep, the road entered Cowra to a fanfare of agricultural supplies and heavy machinery, giving way to the range of motels, fuel and fast food that heralds the fringe of a regional town centre. Across the Lachlan River, the first pub. With its Farmer’s Lunch and aircon.
With a hot afternoon in store it was tempting to linger with a cold beer in hand. But I wanted to make Grenfell and after that my home for the night. Through those hours the car was the most comfortable place to be, though I stopped in Canowindra and the even smaller settlement of Gooloogong along the way. Both seemingly at siesta or more permanently asleep.
Grenfell offered a little more excitement, though mainly in the form of petrol under a dollar and exemplary public toilets. As I filled up with cheap petrol a sign promoting whippy thickshakes took my fancy. It would likely be the only source of such nutrition still open, so I took the plunge and navigated the whole complexity of a make-your-own thickshake within a servo.
First figure out which of the various range of cups to use, then add your syrup flavour of choice. Beware the lively caramel which spurts out of its dispenser and onto your shoes. Try and find some tissue to wipe this mess up and then fail to locate a bin to dispose of carnage. Now, add the whippy content from the machine that kicks into action after first releasing a dubious watery dribble. Then try to stop this process before it flows over the cup and creates more mess. Finally, add some more syrup because you’re gonna need it after this. Attempt to mix together with a straw and add a plastic lid which doesn’t really fit. Make your way to the counter where the lady looks on slightly incredulous, texting her mate at the same time as taking your money. Still, petrol under a dollar a litre people!
With a cup sticking to my hands I couldn’t really drive again until I contracted severe brain freeze and cleaned up properly in those exquisite toilets. It gave me the chance to idle along Grenfell’s main street. I daresay on a Saturday morning it’s a bustling little place. People parking at the required reverse-in 45 degree angle (I think I was more 60, but overlooked bringing my protractor), picking up bread from Mick’s Bakery or Chris’s Bakery or the Empire Bakery by David. There is clearly a testosterone-fuelled bakery-war taking place in Grenfell. All jumbo sausage rolls at six paces and mince tarts.
Apart from a few youth loitering as Henry Lawson looked on, I was the only one out on the streets. Occasional utes reversed in at 45 degrees to pop into the IGA. This was where half the town was, a queue forming for hot chooks and lotto.
The other half of the population appeared to be at some kind of gathering beside an old railway station as I made my way out of town. For a few seconds I hoped I might have stumbled upon a rodeo or something involving giant pumpkins. But all I could see were a few food trucks that looked as if they had migrated from Canberra for the day and a small cluster of people not doing much at all. I moved on.
West of Grenfell, the sweeping fields of grain were undergoing various stages of collection. In the distance, a small plume of dust pinpointed a header hard at work. Rising abruptly from this widescreen landscape, striking by contrast, an island of bushland and rugged outcrops of rock. Uncleared, uncultivated, protected from the squatters and the pastoralists and the farmers by its very presence.
This was clearly Weddin Mountains National Park and my bed for the night. It was a new one for me, surprising in a way given its little over two hundred clicks from home. I can probably thank COVID for coming across it – coastal avoidance, travel limitations, appreciation of what is within two hundred clicks of home.
Setting up camp in a flash – more of this shortly – I set out to explore, hopeful that by 6pm the temperature would have started to drop a little and I would be blessed by golden light. The information board at Ben Halls Campground informed me of several trails from here. Against one – Lynchs Loop Trail – someone had appended in handwritten block capitals ‘RETURN THE SAME WAY YOU GO UP. THE PATH BEYOND IS NOT SAFE.’ Another promised cool shady gullies and waterfalls and no ad hoc Trumpian warnings, so I opted for that.
The Bertha’s Gully trail did indeed proceed up a gully, but I had managed to perfectly time things so that I was seared by the westerly sun. It must have been 40+ in that gully, sheltered from any breeze, clambering up boulders, conscious of snakes. The trail was quite rough, victim in part to the generous spring which has delivered a profusion of growth. Various spiky plants penetrated my legs and shoes and socks, creating a sensation every ten seconds that I was being eaten by ants. Yet despite all this, pausing for the nectar that is a chilled Berry Gatorade from Grenfell IGA, there was an elemental beauty to the place.
I think the Gatorade saved my life, finishing the last drops closer to the campground beside Ben Halls Cave. I was too spent to read the detail, but I assume Ben Hall was one of those celebrated reprobates who stole some sheep, robbed stagecoaches, shot some police, and vehemently denied homoerotic gatherings of brotherhood under precipitous cliff faces in the middle of a winter’s night.
There was likely no need for spooning tonight. It was still hot when I arrived back to my camp chair and yet another disappointingly insipid Australian cider. In many ways it was the best of ciders, the worst of ciders. As refreshing as my sweat to the flies. I had forgotten about the flies and for a while it appeared they had forgotten about me. Until the time had come to relax with a cold cider.
I feel like every six months or so I have the urge to camp to be reminded of how arduous camping can be, the result of which is putting camping off for another six months or so. This time I thought I was making life easier by not really camping but sleeping in my car. This was a bit of a trial, but I had managed to remove and fold down seats to create space for my swag mattress. This padded by an old quilt created a perfectly spacious, comfortable area. Crucially I could stretch out fully from head to toe. My other less successful invention was the mosquito netting affixed on one of the rear windows by Velcro and Blu Tack.
I awoke after fitful sleep, still hot and greeted by the sound of a mosquito buzzing in my ear. Pilot test lessons: for some reason sleeping with your head at the back of the car is more comfortable. Get some better netting and use it on not one but two windows. Bring a tent just in case. Always, always consider a motel.
What you don’t usually get from a motel though is the experience of waking up at first light to a dawn chorus of joyous singing and painful shrieking. You don’t usually receive a refreshing essence from eucalypts releasing minty vapours in the cool of dawn. You are rarely greeted by an audience of kangaroos and their young, slightly startled to find that there is a person in that car around which they have been chomping overnight. You don’t have the options of a pit toilet or a tree.
Not feeling especially refreshed at six in the morning I was pleased to find that the iced coffee from Grenfell IGA was still reasonable in the car fridge. My original plan was to embrace the coolest part of the day by walking up Basin Gully to Eualdrie Lookout – billed as a ‘challenging’ and ‘adventurous’ hike, this time in printed information provided by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service. But rated as a Grade 5 hike (the most challenging) and weary as I was, I made the very sensible decision to give it a miss. What could I do instead? Oh, yes, that’s right, that shorter, mysterious Lynchs Loop.
Armed with a big stick for breaking any spider webs in front of me, I climbed steadily up through grassy woodlands, occasionally interrupted by a rocky boulder. Each step revealing more of the valley in which the campground sat and, beyond that, the plains to the west. At a junction, a trail led off to an overlook perched upon the very edge of the national park. Beyond, a view into vastness.
Scattered pools of sunlight breaking through the clouds shifted upon an endless canvas of gold. The meandering of watercourses was clearly etched into the land, as if a giant serpent had indeed been at work. Distant, only another hill rising incongruently from this flat agricultural tablecloth. Perched here, not another soul in the world. This is why it is worth it.
Enlivened and spirited by such moments, I decided to carry on the loop trail to see how unsafe it really was. The answer was NOT AT ALL. The route descended but other than a few rocks everything was gentle. All I can assume is whoever had written that strident piece of public information had done so after heavy rain – the remaining section of the trail crossed a largely dry creek which would no doubt tumble with vigour once or twice a year.
Leaving Weddin Mountains, I passed through Grenfell once again, failing to stop for a thickshake or to use its exemplary toilets. It wasn’t until Young that I embraced the luxury of running water once more. Young sits at the centre of the Hilltops region and the town itself lives up to this name. It seems whichever way you enter Young, it will be done from a height as your car winds its way down into the centre.
The centre of town – on a Sunday morning – was almost as devoid of habitation as Grenfell. Though larger, the high street also looked a bit rough-edged, run down, lacking the same faded elegance as its counterpart to the north. I always thought of Young as fairly well-to-do, set in a rich, productive landscape with a cherry on top.
This perception of Young returned upon entering a homewares store that featured a café, or more accurately a café that featured a selection of things for the home that are largely unnecessary. The café was busy with young, attractive people, extended families, and the local police collecting takeaway coffees and muffins. I felt fortunate to nab a table, close to the entrance where people were gathering in close proximity to register their presence on the off chance they had COVID.
It is quite an adjustment from sleeping in a car in the middle of nowhere to eating eggs benedict with pulled pork and an apple cider hollandaise in an upmarket homewares café. I felt and looked out of place, possibly because I was not wearing my hat indoors like the tens of identikit males with sculpted beards, black T-shirt and shorts and designer caps. They probably even had a shower this morning, show-offs.
The coffee was good and the brunch was delicious, albeit tarnished by the other great event of our times. What is it with being served only one slice of toast these days?! Two eggs and a pile of other stuff lumped onto one slice of toast. For something like twenty dollars. I don’t care if your toast is handcrafted sourdough whose airy bubbles are formed by unicorn farts, please may I have two of them?
The one slice of toast may have worked in my favour if the planets had aligned. Young is famous (in Australia at least) for cherries, harvested at this time of year and finding their way to many a Christmas table. There is even a National Cherry Festival, which may have occurred this very weekend if it wasn’t for the lingering presence of a microscopic virus. Each year, breakfast news weathermen arrive in Young to pick cherries and tell us how many tonnes are being shipped across Australia before informing of an impending heatwave. Apart from this year.
Nonetheless, the cherries and still growing and are still – despite a scarcity of backpackers to exploit – being picked. Many of the orchards offer pick your own and I had read of one that also had a café selling cherry pie. Surely the perfect ending before heading back, the cherry pie on the icing on the cake? As long as you book ahead.
For it turns out such is the renown of cherry season and such is the limitation of visitation numbers during 2020 that my intended destination was full. No more entry. Turn around and go away. Carrot cake down the road in Binalong will have to do.
Happily, starting the journey home I came across a small outdoor market in the settlement of Wombat, around which many of the orchards are based. There was a mobile coffee van, and a plant stall, and that stand promoting turmeric as the cure-all for the world’s ailments. Something colourful and knitted emanated from another corner as you amble past and try not to make eye contact. And there, out of the back of the van, the punnets of cherries. Picked yesterday just around the corner.
You cannot come to Young at this time of year and not buy cherries. Much as you cannot come into this part of the world and not be impressed, not be thankful for the people labouring to bring food to your table. Or to relish the stops in small towns withering in the heat, hiding poets and bakers and bushrangers among elegant facades and restless youth. And perhaps the most impressive of all, you cannot be indifferent to those natural islands, remnants of a distant past, witnesses to a longstanding culture, rising up in defiance to the industrial plains.
Have you ever noticed how much airtime commercial radio stations use boasting about all of the epic hits they play? To the extent that jingles boasting about the epic hits they play outweigh the actual amount of epic hits they play. Many of which are not epic, incidentally. Maroon 5 here’s looking at you.
It was on the road between Cooma and Nimmitabel that such jingles disappeared into an annoying crackle. Luckily, I was still able to pick up the ABC, midway between the first innings of Tasmania v South Australia. The soporific summer tones of balls making their way through to the keeper settled me into a groove, on an undulating, barren expanse of the Monaro. Alas, even that became interrupted, crossing to the FRADULENT VICTORY SPEECH OF SLEEPY JOE AND <INSERT RACIST MYSOGINIST DOGWHISTLE> KAMALA. SAD.
Afterwards, a dose of Springsteen would have been perfect. Or the soon-to-be-famous You’re a Big Fat Lonely Loser by Echo Chamber and the Orangemen. But by time I reached Pipers Lookout any pretence at radio signal had vanished altogether. Instead, play had been pressed on track one on my own classic hits of the Far South Coast.
Because it’s such an easy stop there’s no reason not to stop, even if you have stopped here many times before. It’s just like one of those pull-outs along an American Highway, offering dazzling vistas without requiring any physical exertion. Upon the edge of the Great Divide, the landscape plunges down Brown Mountain through lush rainforest gullies into the Bega Valley. Beyond this rumpled green tablecloth, a sliver of sea.
The sea, I had not seen thee since mid-June. In that period, waves and whales have come and gone. But with our flipped around climate, the countryside has been as soothing as water lapping at a half moon bay. At the head of the Bega Valley, Bemboka again defying the reality of hell and fury that was ten months before. Only close attention picks up the charred matchsticks of trees atop the rugged wilderness to the north.
Tathra marks the point at which the country meets the ocean and – at historic Tathra Wharf – another classic hit. Only this was one of those hits that you hear again many years later and feel slightly disappointed. It’s like a café in the perfect location that serves good coffee but decides to warm up a muffin and turn the delicious dollop of icing into a slimy gravy. Why do places do this without consent? The same with brownies. Frankly, warm brownies are glorified sponge cakes, a cold, dense, gooey pocket of rich chocolate ruined.
Of course I still ate warm muffin gloop and was starting to think I should work some of it off nearby. Somewhere new, somewhere different. For classics can also emerge in an instant. At Wajurda Point a viewing platform looked out over Nelson Beach, golden light emanating from the bush-clad hills and filtering through the ocean spray. On the beach, a lone silhouette provoked envy. Take me there.
Thirty minutes later I was accompanied by a choir of rainbow lorikeets, whip birds, and bellbirds as I made my way through a beautiful pocket of forest to the beach. I was now that lone silhouette heading north to an isthmus of sand melting into Nelson Creek. The topography of the creek, completing an entire 180 degree loop and widening into a lagoon is striking in its similarity to that of Merimbula. Only without the houses and cars and oyster beds and franked up boomers.
As good as anywhere to whip out my airline blanket circa 2010 for a brief rest. Pause.
As tempting as it was, I couldn’t linger here forever. Time moves on and to tell the truth it was starting to feel a wee bit nippy in the sea breeze. Barely twenty degrees. I rounded the bend into the lagoon for more sheer serenity, interrupted by and interrupting a fretful mother and its baby. I read that the pied oystercatcher was listed as endangered in New South Wales and I felt a little bad inadvertently getting between the two. Not that the youngster seemed to care, such is the innocence of youth.
It is quite the juxtaposition to go from here to KFC Bega. Like Korn following Bach. Where the incompetence of youth rises to the fore like mashed potato in a plastic cup of gravy. It wasn’t all their fault; it seems half the population of Bega picks up Sunday dinner here. To the extent that COVID-capacity limits become dubious.
Quite astonishingly I was stopping in Bega for the night, hence such fine dining. Not only was this the first time I had stayed in Bega, it was also the first time I had stayed anywhere other than home since the very start of March. Six wicked wings and a takeaway salad from Woolworths in my motel room seemed an appropriate way to mark the occasion.
Bega is the kind of place you drive past or through on the way to Tathra or Merimbula or Eden or – even – the amazing COVID-free state of Victoria. Known for a mass-produced cheese, it’s not the most fashionable or affluent-looking town. But given I’ve been enamoured by understated country towns of late, it will do me just fine.
The next morning I decided I should give Bega a fair shake of the sauce bottle and wandered down towards the river. What I came across were weatherboard homes and verandas possessing a touch of ramshackle elegance. The town quickly gave way to generous green pasture, married with the chirpy sounds of spring. In a small portion of time I was in the country and not just any country. A country pretending at being Devon. It’ll be the closest I get this year.
I would stay in Bega again but – crucially in the ‘I could live here’ assessment – I cannot yet testify to its quality of coffee. Keen to get back on the greatest hits tour, I determined my morning coffee should be at Bar Beach, Merimbula. A spot probably eclipsing that at Tathra Wharf and without the indignity of a melted muffin.
It was Monday – my day off – and surprising how many other people appeared to have time on their hands. Not just the usual array of wealthy retirees but paddle-boarding mums and surfing bums, living their best #vanlife. I fancy the odd person, like myself, was a wily Canberran lingering into a long weekend. Victorians seemingly absent.
Next on the tour was Pambula Beach or, to be precise, the Pambula River. Probably the standout track, the one that you revisit time and time again. When the sun is out here the clarity of colours defies belief, dazzling through the shadow of trees as you emerge from your car. The white sands leading you further into the heart of the river, ever-changing and reforming into crystal pools and sapphire swirls. One thing lacking – this time at least – was the backing track of bellbirds, quietened by the fresh wind funnelling through the valley.
The triumvirate of this hit parade is Eden and – specifically – fish and chips (or fish cocktails and potato scallops) down by the wharf. The crunchiest, most golden potato cakes this side of the border. My last memory of them was just before the end of 2019, a day or two before Mallacoota happened and when, a few days subsequently, this wharf became a shelter of last resort. Thankfully, the core of Eden remained intact and I was keen to do my usual diligent duty of supporting the local economy by eating its food.
Much like The Rolling Stones, Eden Wharf had seen better days. Horror hit me when I discovered a ‘closed for good’ sign in my favourite scallop shop. Not only this, but every other outlet on the wharf looked abandoned. As if a pandemic had rolled in and wait… I wondered if business had been decimated by the double whammy of bushfires and COVID COVID COVID. Only later did I learn that the wharf building had been closed down because it was deemed unsafe.
Eden could do without 2020 I reckon. Paradise Lost. My only hope is that talk of food trucks becomes reality so that the town can benefit from Victoria reopening and a steady stream of summer visitors. For me, I would have to seek solace in potato scallops elsewhere.
It was back up the road in Pambula that I discovered Wheelers, famed for its oysters, also had a fish and chip takeaway. The fish was great (if a little on the small side) and the chips – strictly fries – were also surprisingly good. Only the two potato scallops, pale and insipid, left me deflated.
The good news was that I could take the takeaway back to the Pambula River, on a perfect stone seat sheltered from the wind. In cream tea terms, this was like Fingle Bridge – perfect setting, decent food. Is it a classic worthy of repeat? Well, only time will tell. For now, I have to press rewind, back over that mountain, once again to the overwhelming familiarity of home, radio signals and all.
Take me over the crossing, deliver me through the shadow of trees, inch me up to a subtle divide. The very precipice falling into a mountain creek, hidden somewhere within this big, open country.
Water water everywhere, and not a drop to waste. The new, passing abnormal, flushing the land clean of years of dust and bone. Reflecting the sky, saturating the fields, imitating an English meadow. Putting the good back into the Goodradigbee.
Life goes on. Gentle and serene, noisy and frenetic. Humans endeavour. Sheep shelter. Birds poise ready for attack. The productivity of spring seems unstoppable, like the clouds motoring through the sky. Life goes on to prosper, with a little push.
It is a fleeting passage of abundance. An embarrassment of riches that is as disconcerting as its painful absence. Bounteous panoramas, generous horizons, good country. Make hay.
What is it with people wanting to know about my Christmas holidays? Block out your leave on the leave planner ASAP; HQ would like to know who is around over December and January; Put a bottle of sherry and a mince pie out underneath your reverse cycle air-conditioning if you are going away.
Sorry, have you not heard WE ARE IN THE MIDST OF A PANDEMIC? I can’t make plans at the best of times, give me a break.
A break would be wonderful. There are all sorts of places I would love to go. But come December 24th, when Americans are gathering around log fires of looted furniture and Brits are off to the pub between the hours of 1825 and 1918 except on Tuesdays in Wetherspoons in Barnard Castle, who knows what will be possible? If things really go awry, the Australian news networks may have to rerun last year’s story on how many tonnes of prawns were sold at Sydney Fish Market. I doubt if anyone would notice the difference.
If unprecedented quickly became the word of the year by March, then staycation has been steadily building in the top ten. Other emerging contenders include drug cocktail, unhinged and orange. Indeed, if you look at Instagram fairly regularly it seems that a staycation is becoming quite the thing: book a swanky hotel five minutes from home, lazily graze on avocado eggs for brunch, and top it off with an electric scooter experience upon the foreshore. If you’re lucky you may get a bonus swab shoved into your brains a fortnight later. It’s just like when we used to get the holiday photos back from the chemist.
Lose the swanky hotel, replace avocado eggs with caramel slice, swap out electric scooter with pedal-powered bike and I feel like I have been living a drawn out staycation this entire year. During this era (for it very much feels like an era) I have discovered and rediscovered many a gem in the Australian Capital Territory, from the Murrumbidgee River to Mulligans Flat. But even Canberra is going to struggle to host a staycation for a year.
Days out help. Days out are the new four week overseas holiday sharing food and hugging people. The embrace of local countryside, continuing to flabbergast in its uncharacteristic green, is a welcome one, even when it’s conjuring a wistful mirage of England. Purple Paterson’s Curse and yellow Cape Weed blight the landscape as if heather and gorse. Birds chirrup gaily while simultaneously waiting on a tree branch with murderous intent. Some splendid country towns feel more alive in spite of everything. I feel the pull of these places more than ever. In fact, I think I might even have a road tripping country holiday. If I make plans.
This pull of the country, this allure of the road had me heading off on my most ambitious staycayawayday yet. A good solid two hours down to Jindabyne, in the foot of the Snowy Mountains. I was even considering stopping the night, camping somewhere along the Snowy River. If it were not for the fact that it was a long weekend during school holidays and everywhere was booked out, then I probably would have. If only I could make plans.
Still, the drive to Jindabyne offered a little distraction – calling in at Royalla for free noodles and farewells, pausing in Berridale for an early lunch, and stopping off on the eastern edge of Lake Jindabyne for hearty views. Snow was still visible upon the Main Range, yet it was warming up steadily to highs in the mid-twenties. A day out in shorts had me longing for something more than a staycation. It had the feeling of holidays.
Passing through Jindabyne I entered the very fringe of Kosciuszko National Park, just over the Thredbo River. I didn’t really want to go further up the road into the snow, mainly because I was keen to avoid the hit of a $29 entry fee. The river would be a pleasant place to spend an hour or two, killing time while I wait for winds to please die down so I can go on my bike by the lake pretty please.
Sheltered by steep banks of eucalyptus, the air here was deceptively calm, a striking juxtaposition to the thrashing water flowing downstream. It’s the kind of noise that evokes the pristine, blocking out everything else around and bringing on the urge to pee. A few fly fishers had chanced upon the waters gambling for trout, unconcerned about becoming damp.
Further along, all is again calm, and I spy a grassy glade on which to linger. I’ve followed the Pallaibo Track a couple of kilometres into a clearing, the river penetrating upstream into a steeper sided valley. Following the river into the mountains, a newly laid gravel track loops and winds into the forest. The cambered curves signal this is not only or not even for pedestrians. This is the Lower Thredbo Valley Trail, a thoroughfare for mountain bikes.
Only there are no mountain bikes today. From what I can tell it is still closed for construction work, another one of those stimulus packages conveniently appearing in a marginal electorate. As the hit and miss state of stimulus packages go, it’s one I can get on board with; mountain biking is a pretty good bet to bring in visitors spending money on things like accommodation, food and emergency helicopter evacuation to Canberra Hospital.
A case in point: me spending money on coffee and carrot cake in a Jindabyne café, making my dedicated contribution to the local economy. Following this I set out on my bike along a much more genteel lakeside path. The wind had dropped a touch, but this only served to encourage thousands of horrendous bugs to congregate. I thought for a while my face may come to resemble the front windscreen of a car crossing the Nullarbor.
The nice and easy bike path eventually disappeared to be replaced by a supposedly nice and easy mountain bike trail. Lacking fat tyres and killer protection I wasn’t entirely sure what I would face but, apart from a few rocky nuisances, things were pretty plain sailing. Cows to the left of me, lake views to the right there were fleeting moments of joy that seem to only come on two wheels. Several tranquil bays passed by, culminating at Hatchery Bay where yet more anglers chanced their arm. This was the turn point and the start of the trip home.
Back home for another night home. Yet I was pleased not to be camping here, at least not on the shores of Lake Jindabyne. The campground was building into a frenzy, an escalating shanty town of awnings and eskies and people lounging on ten dollar Big W chairs with a beer in hand. I noted most of the number plates were from NSW – I guess ACT folk mainly escape down the coast. As much as I’m sure it will all be fine, you cannot picture such scenes without a little niggle of coronavirus in the back of your mind.
Watching the sun disappear into clouds on the western horizon, I bade farewell to Jindabyne for a drive through the dark. Really pushing a staycation to the limits. But it was an easy drive, and I was surprised to find the roads so quiet, most people obviously bedding down for the whole weekend.
Midway along the trip I paused in Cooma to support the local economy, including its service station and a deserted KFC. Eating those six wicked wings in my dark car parked on the widest street in the world might sound like I have plumbed new depths. But I have to say they were thoroughly delicious, all washed down by a frozen raspberry lemonade. Finger lickin’ – with antiseptic wipes – good. Who knows – wicked wings for Christmas lunch? Anything is possible without plans.
On Friday evening I did something exceedingly rare. It may restrict my ability to enter South Australia or Queensland should I care to mix with crow-eaters or banana benders, but I crossed from the Australian Capital Territory into New South Wales. Literally metres across the border, from a COVID-free paradise to a COVID ‘hotspot’. It was worth it for the chicken wings.
Succumbing to a blunt instrument of parochial politics intending to win votes, I decided I might as well embrace the situation. It has been nearly three months since I had a day outside of the ACT which in this unprecedented year is as unprecedented as it gets. The question was, where to go? The coast road would be busy, Goulburn had been exhausted, and the mountains would still be a touch snowy.
The answer lay in the methodical planning that shapes most of my trips: locations in which you can generously support the local economy by eating food. Hearty country fare of slices and pies and – increasingly – epicurean delights intertwined with fine coffee. In this regard, Long Track Pantry in Jugiong offered a foothold from which to explore; though I would, in the end, leave this until the end. I was headed for the hilltops.
Outside of obligatory food stops in charming country towns, the benefit of exploring the Hilltops region of NSW at this time of year is the explosion of spring. Fields of golden canola hit you in the face as you turn a corner, as you crest a ridge. The #canolatrail has even become a thing, ideal for selfies and people looking for something to do which doesn’t involve going overseas.
It’s sometimes a little hard to safely find a place to pull off the road at 100kph to capture the luminescent glow of fields. And this being country Australia there is rarely a public footpath to be found, something I have decried over and over again. So you’re often whizzing past scenic delights and by time you realise there was a spot you could have stopped it is disappearing in the rear view mirror and you should really look out for that truck laden with hay coming straight at you.
But today things changed. Yes, it took me an inordinate amount of time to work this most obvious solution out, but I shoved my bike in the back of the car. Just in case.
And in and around Boorowa all my dreams came true. First, the coffee stop at The Pantry on Pudman could not have been better. I would happily go back there again. Then there was a cycle path beside the river. Not especially long but a nice, leisurely amble winding through a verdant land of green. The weather was sublime; heading over twenty degrees, I wore shorts for the first time in a long while. And a bright red T-shirt to attract the friendly greeting of the magpies who were delighted to see me, as warm and jovial as ever.
On this Tour de Boorowa, the streets were – unsurprisingly – wide and empty. A gradual climb up to the Col de Recycling Centre offered views over town. And the aptly named Long Road led me off into the countryside, where I stopped every hundred metres to admire my beautiful bike within a luscious backdrop.
And of course, there was the canola. Surely there can be no better way to experience this landscape than by bike. It may well inspire me to head off into the country on two wheels in the future. As long as it’s reasonably flat. And comes with an incentive like today. Wine perhaps. Or cheese. Or chocolate. Or slow roasted local lamb barbecued on coals. Or just simply an opportunity to do something in country NSW which makes a border crossing worthwhile. Vive Le Tour!
Traditionally, the end of June has come to resemble a key juncture in my life: the culmination of the financial year acting as impetus for all sorts of project completions and invoice requirements and quick-turnaround work tasks. Traditionally.
Traditionally I would also, thanks to this purple patch, begin turning my attention to a trip overseas, to Europe, escaping some of winter and connecting again with treasured family and friends. Traditional cream teas would compete with a traditional trip to Looe for a pasty and a traditional offload of dirty laundry to Mum.
But tradition has been chucked out of the window. Of a twenty storey building. Then trampled over by a herd of elephants before being set on fire alongside a car park full of dumpsters. Attempts at home made pasties and Tilba cream prove B-grade substitutes. I continue to do my own laundry. The end-of-financial-year hubbub is subdued.
In many previous years it would have been unimaginable heading for a day out on the 29th June. Unless it was to a beige motel to complete some frantic discussion about something of great importance with eight citizens of Goulburn. All to get the country perspective. Perhaps it was some innate response mechanism propelling me up the Federal Highway today. To get another country perspective.
In COVID escapes from Canberra I think things peaked with a day on the South Coast. A trip to Goulburn was never really going to compete, even if I could stop off at Collector again for coffee. Still, I managed to find a couple of attractions along with a decent, good value spot to pick up some treats for later. Which always helps.
At Marsden Weir, the Wollondilly River forms an attractive body of water by which to amble. On a kink in the river, the sturdy red brick building of the Goulburn Historic Waterworks adds even more spice. There is a touch of Victorian endeavour about it – quite a rarity in Australia – and you can imagine Tony Robinson visiting it on his fourteenth series of Mildly Interesting Places in Regional New South Wales. He would explain how the waterworks were constructed in 1885 and form – wait for it – the “only complete, steam powered municipal water supply left in its original location, in the Southern Hemisphere.” Quite a lot of caveats to prominence there.
Being a weekday in midwinter and almost the end of the tax year there were just a handful of curious souls nosing around at the waterworks. You could – though – imagine banks of people in summer, supping locally-brewed ales and indulging in hearty lunches by the water. Perhaps a nearby cottage would supply cream teas and coffee and walnut cake. This is all in my dreams of course; nothing of the like seems to happen here. But perhaps it should be the way forward when we can all meet again.
Another prominent sight sits atop a hill which I have often glimpsed at a hundred and ten kilometres an hour on the way to Sydney. This is the Rocky Hill War Memorial Tower and there is a road up to its base. The tower was constructed in 1925 and you can walk to the top – after an application of hand sanitiser – to take in the scene. This provides a fine overview of Goulburn, spreading out on the southwestern side of the rail line. In the foreground, Goulburn East has its own, historic village feel going on, segregated from the rest of town by wetlands and a golf course. If I were to live in Goulburn, perhaps I would choose here; it just seems to have a touch more charm.
I ate my takeaway lunch overlooking the landscape from the hill and mulled over what to do for the remainder of the day. Being only lunchtime, I had seemingly exhausted the sights of Goulburn, with the obvious exception of the Big Merino. North of the tower some attractive bushland hills promise exploration but seem devoid of any walking trails. Far better to head to somewhere reliable, somewhere familiar, somewhere spectacular.
Bungonia National Park is probably the closest manifestation of rugged sandstone gorge country to Canberra and – of course – Goulburn. It is a landscape typical of much of the country surrounding the Sydney Basin, with heroic rivers carving out precipitous cliffs and deep ravines. As well as millions of eucalyptus, these landscapes are home to a few of my favourite things, including numerous lookouts.
Having been here several times before, I initially took a walk on the Orange Track. It’s probably the least exciting of the trails but offers a fairly easy stroll through open forest to a pleasant enough view in between the trees. You can tell it’s not going to be the most dramatic walk since the description suggests you might see a koala – surely only there to try and keep the kids occupied. What struck me more than anything was the absolute peace and quiet. Perhaps this was balm to the freneticism and clamour of downtown Goulburn.
It was supposed to be a sunny day today, but any mid-morning brightness had largely disappeared to a layer of white and grey. There were even a few spots of rain as I neared Bungonia Lookdown. Here, a platform leads out towards and dangles over the valley. It is a captivating, spectacular scene dramatically ruined by a quarry nestled in a hilltop to the north. But retaining focus on the valley, a few miracle shafts of sunlight suddenly appear to conjure up some kind of prehistoric lost world.
There is even a hint of rainbow in the air, but this quickly fades along with the sun and the rain. Yet I feel brightened and warmed by this visit and an appreciation once again of how lucky I am to be here today. To have this sort of wilderness on your doorstep. If you consider a ninety minute drive via the city of Goulburn your doorstep.
While Bungonia definitely lifted the day, there was clear benefit in stopping in Goulburn which became realised at my final stop. Adams Lookout provides another stunning view into Bungonia and – in particular – the narrow defile of Slot Canyon. There was something about the squidgy datey syrupy oaty nutty sugary slice that I had bought earlier that lifted things to another level. I daresay I would travel to Goulburn again to get my hands on one.
It was no cream tea but just the tonic to power me home. I even found a different route back which surprised me by being sealed the whole way – down to Tarago and back on familiar roads from Bungendore. Thus to experience the wonders of Bungonia you could actually avoid Goulburn entirely. Though I doubt if I will. I feel more likely a new experience, a new tradition has now been born.
Confinement within the boundaries of the Australian Capital Territory may sound like a nightmare to some people – mostly us privileged types who can jokingly equate it to being in prison. All without actually ever facing the very real prospect of being imprisoned. Still, I suppose it could be tough to be restricted within the clutches of a modern, affluent, well-resourced city without access to an episode of Fawlty Towers that has been shown a zillion times already in my lifetime. Oh the suffrage some people have to endure!
Other than perhaps anywhere in New Zealand, this city – Canberra – has arguably been the best place in the world to be of late. Okay, it is getting a bit chully now, but I can warm myself up with great coffee and a walk in one of the many suburban parks, bushland reserves, and panoramic hills. I have been doing a lot of that lately.
We have also been largely spared – for now – the health calamity that is Coronavirus. One hundred and eight confirmed cases in total. Only one of whom emerged in the last month: emerging from overseas and allowed to travel to Canberra because of a novel form of protection called Diplomatic Immunity. Everyone I have spoken to suspects a Yank. Because, well, you know.
Due to this good fortune and what can be fairly summarised as competent management – when did basic competence become the gold standard some of us can only yearn for from our leaders – restrictions have eased over time. Yes, the rules can seem a tad bewildering, requiring a protractor and solid understanding of trigonometry as well as a ready supply of hand sanitiser and guarded interaction. But now I can do things I would never do anyway, such as participating in a bootcamp or going to church. Never in a month of Sundays. Still, it is nice to feel like you could do them.
As of the start of this month, we were also allowed to travel outside of the ACT for leisure purposes. Being largely content in the territory, I didn’t rush off down to the coast on the first day of restrictions easing like half of the population, despite that particular day being grey, cool, and windy. Neither did I really leverage any benefit from not one, but two public holidays: one to acknowledge first Australians and promote reconciliation and harmony, the other to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s non-birthday. Yeah, go figure.
I think somewhere in my walking rambles during the midst of containment I made a sarcastic comment about the prospect of a day trip to Goulburn being something to look forward to. It was the kind of comment everyone not living in Canberra was making about Canberra. For us, we always have Goulburn. So, the day came when I finally decided I could set foot across the border and where better to head than Goulburn. Only I never actually made it; there is only so much excitement one can take after all.
About two-thirds of the way between Canberra and Goulburn is the small village of Collector. It is well-known in these parts for its pumpkin festival, an annual spectacular that fell victim this year to COVID cancel culture, a situation that probably explains why I can now buy a whole pumpkin for 99 cents. Beyond the soothing sounds of the Federal Highway and a growing population of scarecrows with gourd faces, what does Collector have to offer, I mused?
The first thing to highlight is a very fine coffee stop. To tell the truth, this is why I decided I could rationalise my first escape from the ACT to what is largely a featureless paddock on the fringe of waterless Lake George. It’s called Some Café and it benefits from a proximal relationship to the capital. Housed in a heritage building along with a wine tasting area, it conjures country charm with hipster-infused chill. I feel the cake display could be enhanced, but the coffee was indeed very fine and the cheese and ham toastie the stuff of the dreams I have been having ever since I watched that episode of Masterchef where they made toasties in the first round. Cheesy dreams.
Incidentally, upon leaving the café I noticed the logo resembles someone washing their hands. I mean, it might be clapping at the borderline pretentious latte art or rubbing your hands with glee at the prospect of Pialligo smoked bacon in a Three Mills bap. But in this day and age it is definitely someone washing their hands. Given this logo was there before the onset of COVID-19, one can actually imagine a handful of conspiracy theorists directing their unending keyboard war at a small café in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere. There is even a phone mast on the nearby ridge for goodness sake!
Dodging death rays and applying sanitiser positioned at the exit, I moved on to explore the rest of Collector. Outside of pumpkin festival time it is eerily quiet, apart from the hum of trucks upon the nearby highway. Everyone is probably in church, given the village (population 313) has three from which to choose: Anglican, Uniting and Catholic. Penance for the bushrangers.
The other place of worship in town is the pub, the Bushranger Hotel, with rooms looking out over farming country and a weird labour of love known as the Dreamer’s Gate. A gothic sculpture formed from cement and chicken wire, it resembles something that would feature in the Gunning and Breadalbane Amateur Dramatic Society’s production of Harry Potter and the Golden Horned Trans Merino. I can’t say I’m a massive fan, but I admire the dedication of its artist and his ability to piss off half of the locals.
Looping back towards Some Café from here, the road ran alongside a patch of farmland and the narrow course of Collector Creek. Given rain, it’s pleasant enough country with water even visible in the creek; not something that is guaranteed I’m sure.
It was around this point I was thinking how nice it would be to have a walk in the countryside. Yet this doesn’t really seem to be a thing in Australia – walking tracks are largely concentrated in some national parks and city reserves. There isn’t the same antiquated network of lanes and byways with right to roam as in the UK. So much country is locked out to the public, fenced off, dug away, blown up, guarded by deadly snakes. I think it’s a shame and also a missed opportunity. Imagine the benefits, for instance, if you were more impelled to pull off the Federal Highway and head into Collector, have a good coffee and a slice of cake, set off on a ramble for a few hours, and finish up in the pub. The same could be said for Gunning, Yass, Crookwell, Taralga, Tarago, Bungendore etc etc. Landholders unite!
Leaving Collector I did at least find something akin to a country lane. Eschewing the highway, I took a narrow road full of potholes towards the even smaller settlement of Breadalbane. It was so narrow (for Australia) that at one point I had to pull in to allow the only other car on it to proceed towards Collector. I’m not saying it would be a great walk or anything, but I definitely saw some cycling potential. For a start, it was mostly flat, with a small rise at what I think would be a good turn around point. It was very open, so you would see oncoming traffic. There are country sights to absorb, mostly sheep. And you could of course start and finish at Some Café, a cyclist’s dream. Just need to pick a wind-free, mild day. Perhaps Spring.
At what must have been Breadalbane I was starting to get a bit giddy being around fifty kilometres away from the ACT border. I could have turned right for Goulburn but thought I would save that for another exciting day out. Left was Gunning and – true to form, true to the real purpose of this day out – I knew of a good café there. By time I prevaricated and pottered about a little it would be acceptable afternoon tea hours.
A little shy of Gunning there is a small bridge over a small creek offering a sense of intimacy among a big land and big sky. It’s a peaceful scene, with a rail crossing and old pumphouse rising above a landscape that may occasionally flood. It would probably make another fine spot to set off on a walk, following the waterway and gradually climbing up to the gentle hills of the Cullerin Range, bedecked with wind turbines and unending views. All I can do is stop by the road and wait for clouds to blow through to reveal the sun.
The main reason I pause here is not only to kill time before afternoon tea, but to compare thee to a summer’s day. I came this way for the first time in December; those pre-COVID days that were only mired in ravaging drought, catastrophic bushfires and ‘Getting Brexit Done’, whatever that is supposed to mean. Back then, a few sheep were grazing under the bridge, clinging to remnant water like everything else seeking survival. In the sweet spot around February – the only two weeks of 2020 that were any good – the rains finally arrived. And today the sheep are nowhere to be seen, happily grazing elsewhere in a land of plenty.
Talking of grazing, the time for afternoon tea was getting closer, though I dragged things out a little further by taking in the sights of Gunning. This didn’t take too long, but I at least discovered a rough track through a park that followed a creek and for a few hundred metres resembled something akin to the replication of a simulation of a fake countryside walk. Leading from here I also ambled through a back lane decorated with the occasional section of crumbling brickwork overtaken by rampant undergrowth. In one garden, a Merino chewed upon the lawn, oblivious to the perils of a rusting trampoline.
Gunning has just the one high street offering an eclectic mix of styles and wares. A large warehouse hosts agricultural supplies. A row of Victorian-era shops display almost antiques and woollen craftwork. A garage straight out of the Midwest services passing trade. There is of course a pub and a couple of cafes to lure people off of the Hume Highway.
It was also back in dry December that I popped into one of these – the Merino Café – for a morning coffee accompanied by a delicious caramel macadamia ANZAC slice concoction. Back then it was justified by a desire to support small country communities doing it tough through the drought. Today it was about spending money in small businesses trying to get back on their feet through the COVID crisis. There is always some rationale and worthiness in cake.
The slice, along with several other varieties of fat and sugar, was still there, but a counter-top display of scones tempted and teased. Accepting the reality of disappointing cream, I was still tempted enough. And, yes, the cream was disappointing, but the scone itself was rather good.
All I needed now was a bloody good walk to burn off some of the indulgence. Looking at the map, the closest place for a bloody good walk in reality was Canberra. Yes, for all the breaking out of borders, I have to return to Canberra to go for a walk. You get the point. Country NSW: Cakes plentiful. Walks lacking.
I did at least take a stroll that included views of country NSW, discovering yet another small section of Mulligans Flat including more of its border fence. With a lowering afternoon sun and a combination of farmland and forest vistas, it was just the tonic after those relatively sedate and calorific country pursuits.
And then, with clouds congregating in a fashion that could yield a sunset spectacular, I made a last-minute call to stay out and see what might happen. Now back in the heart of Canberra I parked the car near Government House and wandered beside the lake. The sunset spectacle never really eventuated, but the light and tranquillity reminded of why this lucky little city is still one of the best places to be right now.
In fact, it’s even proving popular to those who live outside its boundaries. Among the entrails of dubious information and petulance located on Twitter I came across an article about how a trip to Canberra was generating excitement for those so confined in their oppressive Sydney bubble. Haw-bloody-haw. What do you think this is, Goulburn or something? Just don’t take all our cakes when you come here. And call in on a few towns and villages along the way.
Humans, like the weather, are nothing if not contrary. Can it really be the same species that were so recently sharing in collective despair with heartfelt empathy, ceaselessly giving anything from money to clothes to fence posts to time to hope, who now go about pulling each other’s hair out for another six pack of three ply?
It may well be, much like the weather, that in the Venn diagram of the good and bad, the heart-warming and the head-banging, there is only a little intersection between the two. Or perhaps we are all a little conflicted. Like a leaden cloud threatening to burst or simply waiting to be dispelled by the sun. Depending which way the wind blows. A phenomenon that might also explain the contents of certain supermarket trolleys.
What seems incontrovertible is that 2020 continues to produce a hell of a lot of crap, evidently more so in those double garages stocked with 2,000 rolls of toilet paper. And while the bare aisles of toilet tissue land make me feel bemused, I quietly sneak an extra jar of pasta sauce into my basket.
There could be fewer worthy places to stockpile a years’ worth of bog roll than on the South Coast of NSW. A beautiful corner of the world both pallid and sick and overflowing with life and love. A place whose interior is savaged but whose heart and soul are still beating. A place that could use a little helping (washed) hand to thrive once again. Mother nature has applied some balm through its cloud and rain and now we – the good we – can try to offer a little gentle sunshine.
The landscape of the South Coast region right now is simply astonishing in so many ways. The crest of Clyde Mountain confronts with brutal savagery, an unending parade of blackened trees and blackened earth yielding views down to the coast that were not previously available. Yet the vibrant tree ferns and epicormic shoots sprouting from trunks seem to defy death. On the fringes of Mogo, that all too familiar sight of summer – of twisted metal and crumpled fireplace – sits within a vivid, bounteous green. The village too a bustle of people purchasing pendants, peculiarities and pies.
The beaches of the region are as good as ever, which is to say, pretty damn perfect. At Broulee, a small patch of charred dune prompts memories of a video from the beach on New Year’s Eve, a small spot fire exploding and causing understandable angst amongst those who had fled to the water’s edge. Today, the sands are peppered with people bathing, fun and laughter filling the air. Much of the lush coastal fringe of spotted gums and fern trees along the road to Moruya seems unscarred.
From Tuross Head you can see the ranges of Deua National Park to the west. No doubt a regular sight of alarm at night, illuminated by flame that flickered and flared to its own shape and will. Constantly on edge, unknowing as to where and how far it would come, the fires never did reach Tuross, at least in physical form.
This is home for a few nights and what a fine home: close to the rugged beaches and barely open shops, in proximity to numerous opportunities to spend money and eat food and lose golf balls. A home coming with the bonus of a billiard table for evening entertainment; my knowledge on the placement of snooker balls stemming from lyrics recalled of Snooker Loopy featuring Chas and Dave. Pot the red and screw back, for the yellow green brown blue pink and black… Yeah, in your dreams.
It would be fair to say that despite limitations I was a far better snooker and pool player than golfer on this trip. Which says more about my golfing doom than my snooker prowess. Still, it was good to make a hefty contribution to the community of Narooma by zig-zagging around its golf course. A perfectly sliced and skied lay up on its famous third hole almost yielded a par, and I managed a par four somewhere else in between much larger figures. The added challenge of a series of greens being perforated, sanded and watered provided further good excuses for inadequacy.
With Narooma receiving an economic injection, the next place on the spending list was Bodalla, specifically its dairy and cheese factory. In times like these you’ve got to do your utmost to support these local businesses and so it was with considerable reluctance that I forced down a toastie oozing with cheese followed up with an ice cream. You do what you can do.
The following day endured cool and grey, reminiscent of typical coastal awaydays of the past. This might have previously induced disappointment and grumbling and a roll of the eyes with a sigh. But it seems crass to complain this year. This weather is perfect. And there is still plenty of consumption of local community produce to be savoured.
I don’t know if supporting the South Coast economy has ever been so tasty. The one exception was – alas – fish and chips, a result of many of the better venues being closed on a Monday in March. But there was the Mexican brunch bowl at Mossy Point, the caramel fudge and coffee in Moruya and – probably the piece de resistance of feeling worthy and eating well – home-cooked wholesomeness and other takeaway from the farmers markets also in Moruya.
The markets were small but popular, a place very much for locals to gather and update one another on the latest news and gossip. They were also attuned to market protocols, forming orderly queues with wicker baskets as they awaited the 3pm opening bell. Twenty minutes later and most of the fresh stuff had sold out, but we managed to retrieve a medley of locally grown seasonal vegetables, some swordfish, crusty bread and a dairy product or two for me to bring home to go on a scone or three.
I can’t say our market-supplied barbecue that night was a traditional Aussie bloke-themed methane-heavy slimy snag and slab of steak celebration. But it felt good and tasted even better. Refined even. Setting up another classy evening of exemplary three-way snooker (Tuross Rules).
Which was again better than the golf that day. Looking for something to do we came across a whole nine holes to ourselves. It quickly became clear why, the course pretty basic and unkempt in places, plagued by an infestation of mosquitoes. These had apparently emerged post fire and rain, proof that not all of nature’s recovery is especially welcome. At the course boundary, fire had penetrated the forest and the relatively low fee to have a course and a million mozzies to ourselves didn’t seem such an injustice after all.
You see, it’s quite a divergent experience down on the South Coast. Like chalk and cheese. Sunshine and rain. Go Fund Me and bog-roll violence. So much of it looks and feels as good as ever. Life seems normal. Better even given the incredible swathe of green pasture now smothering the fields. And then your mind comes back to that saying I heard before: the great green cover up.
And you drive, under bucketloads of rain, through Mogo once more with its scattering of crumpled buildings. Towards and into the edges of Batemans Bay, where the forest has scorched down to its very edge and looks like it is struggling to recover. You get a sense of where the fire was most ferocious; green shoots are harder to come by. One side of the road up Clyde Mountain looks normal, the other decimated.
You enter Braidwood to support that economy, knowing that it would be near impossible to convince an overseas visitor that this was in the grip of drought, primed to borrow water from Canberra while being shrouded in smoke for months on end. You shelter with hot coffee and sense BlazeAid nomads taking a well-earned day off. You espy a generous supply of toilet paper in the café bathroom; and briefly a wicked thought enters your mind. But the sunshine wins out, the goodness, the heart. Much like it is doing, much like it will do again, down on the South Coast.
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.
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…
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.
And 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.
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.
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.
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.
This 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.
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.
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.
I 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Still, 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.
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.