Namadgi

It wasn’t love at first site. As national parks go, it’s not in the top tier. There are no obvious spectacles, no grand high tops, no sublime points, no copper canyons, no vernal falls. But it sits there, looking at you, consumer of sunsets and occasional catcher of winter snows. Endearing itself to you by its very persistence.

Namadgi National Park. Canberra’s park, Canberra’s playground; like Dartmoor is to Plymouth or Hampstead Heath is to North London. Before that, for many years before I came here and other strangers came here, special ground for Australia’s first people. Rising to the west, sheltering Australia’s young capital. A rugged wilderness reminding us of what we were and where we have come. And where we still have to go. Enduring still.

Igniting

The lustre of spring radiated across the valley and lifted the soul the way that spring can only do: that warming sun on your face as you cast your eyes upon a celebration of green, a chirpiness matched by the creatures awakening from their slumber. Treading into this world along the valley floor, each footstep a newfound joy, each pause a chance to breathe it all in. An enclave of life and of love, promising halcyon days ahead.

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Monday 27th January: A small plume of smoke appears over a hill as I drive back home. It throws my bearings since it isn’t where I expected to see smoke today. I check Fires Near Me for probably the fifth time this morning and see a new blue diamond symbol has appeared in Namadgi National Park. It has been listed as the Orroral Valley Fire.

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Taking hold

The sky had that washed out tone of winter that threatens but barely delivers. It is the colour of childhood skies beside the sea, when the excitement of snow was dashed by the delivery of icy rain. If you were being generous, you might describe it as sleet, but only that narrow, spitting variety rather than a satisfying splodge. As I climbed through the freshest forest to crest the ridge of Booroomba Rocks, a new squall spilled into the valley of gums below. A wind chill well below zero blew away the cobwebs. And cast a few shards of icy, spitting rain my way.

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Tuesday 28th January: The fire quickly takes hold and becomes uncontrollable, spreading west into Honeysuckle Creek, Apollo Road and climbing up towards the crest of Booroomba Rocks. A large smoke plume intensifies as the day heats up and spreads many miles west, hanging over the Canberra skyline as multiple planes and helicopters disappear into its heart.

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Consuming

We used to have adventures. These often involved hikes to lookouts and – if we were lucky – a bird roll with a view. All across Australia. 2018 offered the comeback tour and an adventure a bit closer to my home.

Older, probably not wiser, I persuaded Jill to join me on the Yerrabi Track, hoping the drag uphill wouldn’t cause consternation. Hopeful that the rocky platform at the end, with a bird roll, with a view, would appease any potential discord at my choice. May I present to you the wilderness. Close to Canberra. And a long way from Norfolk. Or Sydney. A real place to breathe on holiday, or at home.

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Thursday 30th January: A few days of cooler and quieter weather provide some respite and a chance for fire crews to lay down containment lines, large air tankers plying back and forth overhead. While much is done to try to protect properties and cultural assets, the fire continues to feed on the tinder dry heart of Namadgi, spreading down towards Yankee Hat and Boboyan Trig, a key marker on the Yerrabi Track.

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Threatening

From Canberra, Mount Tennent stands sentinel over Namadgi National Park, 1,375 metres into the sky. The first prominent peak as you enter south, looming over the visitor centre and the small village of Tharwa. In spite of this proximity it took me many years to climb. Cypress Pine lookout was usually as far as I made it before arriving at the conclusion that that is more than enough thank you very much.

Sometimes you need the momentum that comes from walking with friends. An encouraging peloton. A crisp morning that warms with the rising sun on your back. Views that deliver over the Monaro, its golden paddocks strewn with the fairy floss of rising mist. Each step up a shared endeavour, summiting a shared prize. Victors in a deep blue sky, miniscule among uninterrupted green.

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Friday 31st January: The temperature nudges towards 42 degrees and the fire threat escalates, creating spot fires which push into NSW. Authorities publish worst case projections for the fire spread that – should they come to bear – would spill further down from the summit of Mount Tennent and consume Tharwa, before entering the far southern suburbs of Canberra. The ACT declares a state of emergency and the city is on edge.

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Tearing south

I can recall the pleasure in discovering something new; a circular trail in the deepest dirt roadiest section of the southern ACT that scored high on the effort-reward ratio. It was nearing Christmas and I had been in the city that morning, catching up for coffee and passing on gifts. By afternoon I was gently climbing up through forest onto the ridge of Shanahans Mountain. The reward: a fluffy clouded blue sky hanging over the wild contours and emptiness of the Clear Range. Christmas had come early, a new vista my present.

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Saturday 1st February: A brutal day of solid northwest winds and temperatures reaching 43 degrees expanded the fire quickly southeast across NSW and upon settlements around the Monaro Highway, including Bumbalong, Colinton and Bredbo. While Tharwa and suburban Canberra dodged a bullet, around a dozen homes were destroyed, principally around Bumbalong as fire raced over the Clear Range and engulfed properties.

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Creeping north

I wonder if there is anything more satisfying than the scrunch of footsteps upon fresh snow. While chaotically parked cars and excitable humans rapidly transform Corin Forest into dirty slush, ahead of me is a virginal path of white. It took some effort to reach. Lung-busting in fact. But before me, the Smokers Trail slices through a forest of tall, majestic eucalypts under the deepest blue sky. It is a wonderland both un-Australian and undeniably Australian. Waiting to be scrunched underfoot.

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Thursday 6th February: A week of cooler, calmer weather subdues fire activity considerably, though it continues to slowly expand, particularly to the west and north. It has passed over the Smokers Trail, nearby Square Rock, and moves over and beyond Corin Forest. The slow creep of the fire appears less destructive and the infrastructure around Corin Forest is protected. Now nearing Tidbinbilla, fire crews instigate backburning to halt progress.

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Enduring still

Is it as simple, as logical, as linear as a before and after? Because a before was also an after. When I took my first steps into Namadgi it was not so long after 2003. When the hills and gullies had previously burned, arguably even more vehemently than today.

In the much used vernacular of the new normal it may not be quite the normal cycle of the Australian bush, but there is a cycle nonetheless. We may be in the immediate after now, but I can take solace that this is the start of another before. When Namadgi will again nurture love and life, expel fresh air and bounty, guide adventure and inspiration. Enduring still.

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Sunday 9th February: The rain is tantalising, teasing. We’ve had a few millimetres and promises of a deluge keep getting pushed back. Another hour. Another day. Probabilities suggest something decent will come. A few spells of drizzle and blustery showers mimic England. It is only seventeen degrees and perfect roast dinner and red wine weather. That in itself is an encouraging sign.

The Orroral Valley Fire has changed status from Out of Control to Being Controlled. That in itself is an even more encouraging sign. It has consumed around 80% of Namadgi National Park and around a third of the ACT’s landmass. Taking into account various offshoots into NSW the fire encompasses approximately 113,000 hectares, or 1,130 square kilometres. That’s about the same as Hong Kong Island. Or most of Greater London if you exclude some of the crumby bits like Croydon.

Initial reports suggest significant variability in the damage caused within the park, mirroring the variability in fire intensity over its course. Positively, key infrastructure, including historic huts, culturally significant sites and telecommunications resources have been protected, while threatened wildlife within nature reserves have been successfully relocated.

It is one small footnote this summer.

Australia Green Bogey Photography Walking

Recovering

I was hoping this really would be the final instalment of a bushfire trilogy. I had written an intro all about the process of relief and recovery, the goodness that sprouts forth as communities pull together, the hope again blossoming like sprigs of green emerging on a forest floor. And lo and behold I drove back home and observed a large plume of smoke rising over the mountains southwest of Canberra. An endless summer marching on. Ten thousand hectares and counting; like Star Wars, there may be more to come.

But recovery is taking place and I think it’s useful to focus on this. Huge amounts of money have been donated, food and clothes given away, houses opened up to strangers. We take our empty eskies down to the coast, we have benefit concerts and tennis rallies, we construct boxes for wildlife to nest in. We pull together, many as one. The best of us on display.

It was inspiring to come across such compassion this past week as I sought out something I could do, anything. This found me on the road to Gundagai and beyond, heading to a BlazeAid camp in Adelong. BlazeAid is a volunteer-led organisation which works with farmers and their families in areas impacted by natural disaster, helping them to repair their property with a focus on damaged fencing. I have never done anything like it. But I definitely will again.

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The road from Gundagai was all golden Australian summer, rolling countryside featuring large paddocks baked by the sun. Recent rainfall and violent storms seemingly doing little to break the drought. While parched, there was little sign of the destruction and devastation of fire as I made my way towards Tumut. The blackness was somewhere beyond.

I arrived at the BlazeAid camp in Adelong, which was based at the local showground. More on this later but suffice to say it was all somewhat larger than I had expected. After signing away my life and setting up my tent, dinner was provided and an update on the day’s activities was made. Dessert was had. And with an early start beckoning, people dissolved into their caravans, tents and swags hopefully to sleep. Something which evaded me for a long while, reinforcing the latter day struggle that camping is proving to be.

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With a kookaburra alarm clock, a large cooked breakfast and a healthy dose of organised chaos, I was off with a small group of others to a farm somewhere in the hills around Batlow. Batlow is in the midst of a massive swathe of scorched land and the town was isolated at the peak of the firestorm. Several outlying properties are now crumpled, tortured heaps of metal and brick, the shells of cars parked outside. The petrol station in town is a ruin.

Heading up the nearby Gilmore Valley the scene was at first all rather idyllic – good farming country that would not have looked out of place in northern England. And then the first bare and blackened hillside appears on the horizon, like the shadow cast by a massive thundercloud. And before long it is all around.

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Climbing up and up a muddy road we reach the home of Paul and Andrea which is – mercifully – fully intact. You can see how close they were to devastation, the garden shrubs singed and charred like overzealously grilled broccoli. We are introduced to Smiley, a farmhand who has that high country man from Snowy River look about him. The hut he was living in didn’t fare so well, wrecked and ruined and taking most of his possessions with it. His ute survived along with a few salvaged remains.

We drive across a few bare paddocks and into the forest. Trees stand like charcoal sticks, branches down but eventually likely to prosper again. The forest floor is another matter: a bare wasteland of ash, like the remnants of a barbecue the day after the night before, spreading out in every direction. The compensation that it has cleared the weeds seemingly a small offset in the greater loss of habitat. And the loss of product – the farm up here produces pure eucalyptus oil, which will take several years to become productive again.

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Among this alien landscape there were – of course – long lines of fencing. Some standing, but most bent and broken and needing repair. I was reminded of why we had come up here. The task was to clear the fencing so that new stuff could be eventually put down in its place. This involved a lot of snipping of wires with cutters of varying quality and the pulling out of fence poles with a fence post pulling contraption. I quite liked the post pulling – more so than the snipping – even though some of the sixty-five year old poles were stubborn to yield.

blz03Focusing on the task at hand, the surrealness of the environment fades away, until you occasionally pause and look up again and take stock. Among the ash, small piles of fence post and a carpet of wire lay ready to be gathered in machines by Smiley and Paul. Our team of four alternate tasks, to relieve various aching muscles and torment others yet to be abused. I’m the youngest and glad of the experience of more practical, hands-on kind of folk who offer good advice and warm conversation. Smiley throws in the odd tip, alongside a healthy dose of banter. He suggests I work for Scomo and this is a bait it’s hard not to take.

There is immense satisfaction at seeing the visible fruits of your labour. We work our way down alongside the perimeter track in increasingly precipitous terrain. The sun is heating up and I’m glad when our team leader decides to call it a day. Sweaty, coated in grey ash, there is a perverse pleasure in acquiring the symbols of a hard day’s toil. You don’t get this writing reports.

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The next day offered more of the same but better. Better because we had a better idea of what we were doing. Better because it was cooler and more overcast. Better because we had a better pair of snippers. And, above all, better because we got to interact more with Paul, Andrea and Smiley.

Partly this was a consequence of the weather, as gusty winds mid-morning prompted a decision to leave the forested area for fear of collapsing trees and branches weakened by the fire. A small stretch of open fencing beside a dam provided a little workout but, when that was done, morning tea was declared. I like morning tea.

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It was over an elongated morning tea that we got to find out a bit more about life on the farm, the people living on this land and their recent experiences as these lives came under threat. Andrea guided us around the garden, pointing out what it was like before flame lapped at the borders. Smiley pointed us towards various contraptions that went into extracting the eucalyptus oil, included a century old steam engine acting as the driving force. And we learned about Paul’s craftsmanship creating gnarly old walking sticks simply with a sheet of sandpaper and a glass of Port.

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They are nothing if not creative, resourceful people, sensitive of the land that they live in. You feel – you hope – this will stand them in good stead moving beyond the fires. You know that this is what probably saved their lives.

Inevitably the conversation moves towards January 4th and the days before and after. There was a sense of inevitability about the fire coming and Paul highlights that the waiting was one of the worst things about it. Days of anxiety and alarm that came from forewarning and a frank admission from the fire service that, if they were to stay, they would be on their own. During this time, busying themselves with preparations: clearing the land of debris, felling overhanging branches, watering down around the house and sheds. Getting the car packed with essentials should they need to flee. Watching. Waiting. For what seems like an eternity.

Eventually it appears on the western horizon. They talk – and it feels an almost cathartic exchange – of defending their home as the fire lapped at its doors from three sides. Erratic, violent wind changes pushing the front from the west, the north and the south. The noise terrifying. Raining embers igniting bushes and trees around them. Sprinklers on the roof previously used to clear snow now somehow sputter enough to dampen sparks. The power goes out but – mercifully – the generator kicks in and the water pumps persist.

It is the longest, darkest day, one they freely admit they would never face down again. Barely was there time for a breather, though Smiley managed to take five and puff on a rollie. Paul captured this image on his phone and chuckles: if ever there was a sign of an addict that was it. Chuffing away as smoke surrounded.

He probably deserved a ciggie, his hut lost along with many of his possessions, his ute still bearing a few scorch marks from the moment he fled. On the back were some salvaged items, including a charred tin of loose change, the coins inside faded and melded to grey. Hopefully still legal tender – there is a fair amount in there, though the dollars no longer shine gold.

Smiley fondly recalls his home in a hollow among, but not right next to, the trees. It was always ten degrees cooler, he says, natural air conditioning and breeze. Snug in winter. A place of peace and solitude. He’s now in a caravan which they managed to pick up at a bargain price – for this he feels lucky. Lucky! But he hankers for a hut again and intends to rebuild in another nearby pocket of paradise.

blz07If that isn’t inspiration enough to get back out to finish our job, I don’t know what is. The gusty change of the morning has subsided and we venture back into the forest, working methodically uphill towards the boundary of the property with the forestry road. Someone spots a red belly, thankfully not me. The fence is horizontal here, and the pole puller contraption largely redundant until they can be bent upright.

As we approach our last stretch of fence to clear, rumbles of thunder echo through the forest from the west. Large spots of rain begin to plop into the ash and earth and upon our hats and gloves and hi-vis vests. The last post is pulled and we march back to the vehicles as the heavens open. It is but a shower, but a heavy shower and every little helps.

Before departing Paul invites us back to the house, offering a cold beer and a gift pack of eucalyptus products. Andrea and Smiley join us, as do the two dogs, keen for a spot of attention from strangers. Or those who were once strangers, but who now chat away like old friends. Mates helping mates.

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Of course, it is now abundantly clear that BlazeAid is about more than just fencing. It’s about connection and conversation, and a manifestation of community looking out for one another, through good times and bad. It’s not really charity, nor is it solely a case of do-gooders looking to do good and boast about it on social media. Everyone gets something out of it: practical, tangible skills, connection and interaction with different people, sore backs and filthy clothes, and the opportunity to enter some of the most beautiful lands within Australia, as savaged as they are.

It seems a bit strange to say in the context in which it takes place, but there is a feelgood factor around the experience. The atmosphere at camp is both soberly reflective and celebratory. Teary eyes are never far away. Inspiration is on tap. People from all walks of life, across the ages, from all over Australia and beyond, come together over dinner, swap tales from the day, share the stories of farmers and their families, reel off the length of fence cleared or erected.

Dinner itself is an achievement, a carb-filled wonderland engineered by an angelic mix of locals and visitors giving their time to tray bake and slow cook and whip cream and take receipt of an endless donation of cakes from CWAs and Rotaries and Mums. If I stay any longer, I’ll get fat. They keep offering me biscuits and caramel slices and passionfruit tarts. Manual labour can only burn off so many calories.

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I do stay one more day. One more cooked breakfast, one more hearty dinner, one more day of snipping and pulling and – this time – rolling up wire and starting to put brand new fence poles into the ground on a different property. The temptation to stay another day kicks in too, especially as the farmer promises to cook up a BBQ lunch the next day, the centrepiece being his 11 month aged beef nurtured on this land.

But my body, and my lack of sleep, tells me no. I struggle to clean my teeth, the grip and motion jarring on my hands and my shoulders and my chest. Writing is also pained, as I finally sign out and walk out to my car to begin the journey home.

As I do so, new arrivals are emerging for the long Australia Day weekend. A minibus of Afghan refugees from Shepparton set up their tents. A couple from Queensland offload supplies from their caravan. Teenagers from Wagga help to sort out donations. German backpackers encourage an international kickabout on the oval.

BlazeAid veterans wonder at it all. Unprecedented events resulting in unprecedented kindness. Not from superheroes, but from everyday people. Recovery belonging to us all, the community, now and in the months and years ahead.

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Please check out www.blazeaid.com.au for all the details and camps currently in operation across several states. They will be running for many months.

Anyone can do it. Like me you don’t need to have any particular skills. Just a keenness to get involved and learn. Some people are great snippers, others are wonderful sausage sizzlers. All are needed and all are valued. It’s worth it just for the bounteous dinners and home baked cakes! It’s rewarding and enriching and it will be the best thing you have done in a long time, I promise.

 

Australia Green Bogey Photography

Another bubble

As 2020 dawned without a sunrise in many parts of Australia, what chance that optimism associated with a new year? When the predominance is on the very present disappearing into a sickly haze ten metres in front of you, grating at your throat and chiselling at your eyes. When you know this is far from the worst of it and the days to come portend further peril. When a centre of power is cloaked in the symbolism of failure and irrelevance, an absurdity as potent as the sight of fireworks trivialising a harbour city.

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The good news is that things have quietened down a touch. There have been drops of rain. In places, there simply isn’t that much fuel left to burn.  For regions where recovery has commenced there is an uplifting wholesomeness on display in the generosity of the human spirit. Some roads have re-opened and goodwill is flooding in. With any luck, we may look upon January 4th as the culmination of this elongated calamity. Though it is far too early to rest and relax.

The hideousness of the outdoors on January 5th proved enough to cancel a trip away to Wollongong, a small inconvenience compared to the carnage faced by so many. It seems flippant to bemoan absent holidays and ruined plans. Subsequently needing supplies for dinner that day, I cannot say for sure if the watering of my eyes in the supermarket was from the smoke infiltrating the shopping centre, the heaviness in my heart, or the absence of discounted Christmas crumbly fudge from Yorkshire.

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In that supermarket I resolved to get away, to breathe, to experience life without the preoccupation of fire and smoke. In this I am one of the lucky ones, one of the climate refugees who has the resources to adapt and mitigate. As with everything it seems it is those who suffer the most who will suffer the most and I feel guilt at my relative luck and privilege. It is with a similar sentiment that I approach the task of writing about frolics in the sun, in the clear air, with friends and other animals. Getaways in the state of Queensland, earlier touched by fire but by now in its own detached bubble.

I never thought the obvious place you’d go to escape the apocalypse would be Brisbane, especially Brisbane in summer. It just goes to show the terrible state of affairs we are in. I don’t mind Brisbane, but it’s not in my top ten, unless it’s my top ten list of places to escape the apocalypse, naturally. A little extra humidity is a small price to pay for clean air.

Indeed, there was a pleasantness about the place, still fairly quiet as people loll through their summer holidays, zooming up to the coast in their Hiluxes packed with fishing rods and eskies, often trailed by flashy boats. It’s a conspicuous consumption of Australiana that begins to tire in context, a dissonance that exacerbates the sense of that Queensland bubble. People show concern, but empathy is harder to summon.

seq03I did Brisbane things in Brisbane, such as pretending to be sophisticated at a few of the galleries, crashing down to earth with sugary iced drinks for a dollar, cycling on one of those godawful city bikes along death trap rush hour cycleways, and bobbing upon the water aboard trashy ferries championing local sporting sides.

One of the joys of my rambling was an early morning potter around Roma Street Parklands, where what seemed like a revelation materialised: an abundance of green interspersed with the vibrant, exotic colours of nature bursting into bloom. Throughout the park – and across the city – the late withering of purple jacarandas was eclipsed by the bright red bursts emanating from the ubiquitous Poinciana trees. Pockets of wonder among the humdrum. Life going on.

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Another minor revelation within the city came from stumbling across new development under and around the Story Bridge. As much as it tries, this will never be that other Australian bridge, but they have done a splendid job of transforming the area beneath it into an enclave of approachable eateries, beery pit stops and picnic points. It seems every reputable town these days needs its own brewery and burgers, mimicking – once again – the pioneering zeitgeist of – yes really – Canberra.

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Tiring a little of the city and its newfound zeitgeist I escaped one morning to the coast. Well, Moreton Bay at least, which is far from a windswept ocean of pummelling surf and fine white sand. Accessible by train, the bayside suburbs of Sandgate and Shorncliffe possess a certain gentility, a more relaxed atmosphere akin to a seaside town of the 1950s. Esplanades and jetties fringe the tidal flats, children construct sandcastles in between a hotchpotch of dogs mingling on the beach, and old codgers creep down to the water’s edge to stare out into the infinity of life.

Capping this off would have been traditional fish and chips, but it seems Queensland (from my random sample of three) is very fond of crumbed fish and – of course – thinner fries over chunky chips. Malt vinegar proved a salvation to at least conjure up an essence of other times and places.

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Better beaches line the Sunshine Coast, and it was pleasing to have a brief interlude further north courtesy of old friend Jason and his gas-guzzling ute. It only seemed fair recompense for making me do an early morning Parkrun – my first – along Southbank and the Botanic Gardens in Brisbane. I’m not convinced the short but steep climb up to Wild Horse Mountain was the best warm down, but the panorama peppered with Glass House Mountains was worth it.

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This was a new perspective; inexplicably a lookout I had passed many times on the G’day Bruce Highway but one I had never actually paused to explore. Looking down upon masses of plantation forest intermingled with clutches of natural bush, perspectives had also altered: yes, this is welcome, this is beautiful but there lingers a nagging question mark, a sense of inevitability that one day this will be eaten by flames as well. Such is the preoccupation.

A stop at Beefy’s pie shop did little to dampen such thoughts for, as I devoured a giant wagon wheel with an iced coffee, all I could picture was our esteemed leader chomping down on a pie sporting a Beefy’s cap on one of his vacuous How Good Is tours. What a fucking moron.

The Sunshine Coast seems to be becoming more and more emblematic of the rampant quest for growth and consumption, perhaps to the detriment of everything else. More habitats cleared, more congestion-busting infrastructure necessary, more polluted waterways, more How Good is Beefy’s at more shopping malls that you need to drive to. Change happens and people need to live somewhere, but do they really need to live in a six bedroom home with a cinema, a rumpus room and a three-car garage? Among cleared bushland that resembles tinder waiting to explode? There has to be a better way.

It was a relief to come across one spot that – as of yet – did not seem over-developed. Testament that Australia still has a lot of space, which is both its blessing and its curse. Mudjimba Beach wildly stretching up towards Coolum and beyond. Under cool and cloudy skies. The Lucky Country still riding its luck.

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Back in Brisbane I extended my stay a little while longer in the hope that when it came time to go home the air would be clearer. Why leave the bubble when you didn’t really need to? And I reckon Millie the dog was grateful for my company.

seq09Together, we explored the land of the Quiet Australian, treading newly built pavements, discovering plots of land awaiting a six bedroom home, lounging in the garden questioning how the Quiet Australians next door can be so goddam noisy. Some of us sniffed butts and peed on lampposts. Others caught buses and sought coffee at the mall. There was a lot of cloud and a little rain. And hope on the grapevine that this would extend south.

My final evening on this Queensland trip took Millie and I down the road, past yappy dogs behind six foot fences, to the suburban fringe. A landscape penetrated by channels and creeks infiltrating from Moreton Bay. Puddles forming into larger areas of wetland feasted upon by cattle egrets and masked lapwings. Signs promoting new land releases. And the most incredible, alien swathe of green.

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Imagine such abundance, such feast. Imagine rain for days and weeks. If you’re reading this in the UK imagination is probably not necessary. But imagine creeks flowing after years and dust turning to mud. Picture dead brown and yellow earth transforming to green. Imagine the life, the rejuvenation, the hope. Those first drops of rain may not immediately solve all the woes, heal all the scars, quell all the flames. But they offer hope. Hope that didn’t come as usual with the turning of the year but may now, finally, hopefully, offer a future.

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A postscript

My previous blog post involving a trip to East Gippsland and Far South East NSW took place immediately before much of this area was decimated by fire. It seems a bit surreal now to think I went here for relief and probably experienced places that may never be the same again or – at the very least – will take decades to recover. I probably chatted to people who evacuated in panic, bought coffee from shops now cut off, and feasted on fish and chips on a wharf where people were braced to jump into water as last resort survival.

Mallacoota has naturally received much attention. Though I didn’t go there on this last trip, I can, from past experiences, testify to its warm-hearted community and beautiful spirit. Usually a place of escape and happiness set within a wilderness, thousands sheltered by the water as flames approached on New Year’s Eve. Around 100 homes were lost. Many animals were killed, although the efforts of one man to rescue koalas melts the heart.

Nearby Cann River provided me with a lovely campsite by the dwindling waterway, as well as a bustling little high street for thousands of tourists passing through on the Princes Highway. The town has struggled with fires all around and has been cut off, though the local community are pulling together.

Cape Conran, Marlo and Orbost were threatened and at times cut off. Some outlying areas around Orbost experienced fire and some homes in rural localities were lost.

In NSW, Eden was threatened in major flare ups and expansion of fire grounds on January 4th. The fires that had burnt through Mallacoota spread north and east into Ben Boyd National Park and reached Twofold Bay. Residents of Eden were told to evacuate to Merimbula or Bega, though some sheltered by the wharf where I enjoyed amazing fish and chips around a week earlier. The fire destroyed outlying properties and ignited a fire at a woodchip mill but – thus far – has not breached the main township.

Fires from Victoria also have spread north towards Bombala and into South East Forests National Park. Presently they have not reached the Waratah Gully campground and its resident kookaburras nor have they spilled down Myanba Gorge. The fire ground presently appears around 2kms south of the walking track for Pheasants Peak and around 4km from the campground.

Australia Green Bogey Photography Walking

A brief breather

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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SPF 50 is no longer enough

The country is dry. The country is burning.

Seeing and hearing of places I have loved broken, it breaks my heart. But I’m just a bystander. I have not lost. I am not broke.

Even heroes cannot repel the brutishness of nature, more vociferous than it has been in the past. While villains busy themselves hiding in their bubbles, lauding an achievement of persecution.

We have always been a sunburnt country,

But SPF 50 is no longer enough.


Washpool National Park, Northern NSW

 

With a grandeur it’s proclaimed: the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia.

Pockets of primordial soup

Stirred by a clammy breeze.

Creeping with the shadows

Of ferns and fronds and leaves.

A bird calls unseen, a snake disappears fast,

Hiding from the possibility of a creature from the past.

 

An ancient closet of time lingering on today,

Gnawed at by the hunger of axe and car and flame.

With solemnity some lament, these forests missing rain,

Gondwanaland is breaking up, vanishing once again.

 

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Ebor Falls, New England Tablelands NSW

 

Long dried grasses shield paper daisies,

Sprightly white gums yield gangs of Galahs.

Rumbling unseen, a torrent of water

Tumbles at speed, seeping in earth.

 

Grasses charred grey smoulder in ashes,

Blackened gum branches crash to the ground.

Trundling unseen, a teardrop of water,

Trickles in need, weeping at dearth.

 

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Murramarang National Park, South Coast NSW

 

This was my happy place.

Verdant and green,

Salty pristine.

Burnt to a crisp,

Like forgotten toast.

 

This hurts the most.

 

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photo credits:

  1. Me, December 2016
  2. Grafton Daily Examiner, November 2019
  3. Me, March 2018
  4. Kyle Donoghue, The Bellingen Shire Courier-Sun, November 2019
  5. Me, June 2016
  6. NSW RFS Milton Brigade, ABC News, December 2019
Australia Green Bogey Photography

Flying by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mission possible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Australia Driving Green Bogey Photography Walking