Walking is…

In many ways, the capacity to ramble is greater than ever. I could easily stray into a verbal diarrhoea of epidemiology, politics, moronic human behaviour and what is and isn’t an essential service. Leaf blowers buzzing around outside, here’s especially looking at you.

But where to start? Writing is going to be a necessary feature of my life over the next however long, but I am not sure yet in what form. Should I keep a diary, adding to the millions of ramblings that might one day become a document of historical import? Samuel Pepys, Anne Frank, Adrian Mole. Neil. Day 8. Watched Come Dine With Me to kill 25 minutes. Send help. Besides, diaries are so passé when we can simply capture extraordinary times through a ten second twerk-off on TikTok.

No, for now I shall temper these ramblings and focus on another. Walking. What is it with the world – or at least Australia for the time being – and a newfound discovery of using your own two feet? Parks, lake shores, bush tracks, deserted shopping malls, trips with the snotty kids around the entirety of Bunnings for ‘essentials’? I guess walking is good for the health but also a representation of freedom, perhaps the only one we can still self-determine*. Walking is essential.

Strangely – paradoxically in socially distanced times – the at-one-with-nature experience that I’m used to is harder to come by, even around Canberra. There is both adventure and anxiety in a walk outdoors. Keeping the current 1.5 metre distance presents opportunity for exciting real-life gameplay, predicting paths of intersection and veering and weaving appropriately. God forbid anyone who passes without shuffling across to the other edge of the path. Eye rolls and mutterings await as you hastily plunge into the long grass.

And then there is the stress of someone approaching from behind, faster, inching nearer with every step. You hurriedly up your own pace to maintain a distance. Or strategically stand aside to check your phone or sip some water or suppress a sneeze. If another person is coming from the other direction at the same time on a narrow path, the complexities escalate exponentially. Stay At Home you think. Only them, not me.

All of which brings us to a trail along the Murrumbidgee River, littered with such experiences. Just a short drive from home I figured this would allow an essence of escapism and a dose of natural wilderness. Surely most people would be buying their 87th bag of fusilli from Woolworths anyway? Most, but not all.

rck02Setting off from Kambah Pool I delayed as a family group embarked on the route to Red Rocks Gorge. Best give them some distance. Wedging myself in between that mob and another mob congregating to follow, things were rosy at first. The landscape still an astonishing green, the river replenished, meandering gently through the steep sided valley untamed and untrammelled. This was freedom.

But then I needed to pee. The pause meant gaps became narrowed, and as the following mob paced closer, I did the whole strategic drink of water and look at phone off to the side thing. To be honest, as much as I didn’t really want to contract any viruses off this group, their constant nattering was irking me more. Off you go. Let me enjoy this nature that we still have.

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The obligation to avoid people proved the making of the walk. It simply just had to be me and the natural world, nothing more. To the extent that I shunned the intended finish point at Red Rocks Gorge Lookout, wary of the sound of kids and the hand-smeared barrier overlooking the river. Instead, I opted to follow the Murrumbidgee further south, eventually finding myself – naturally – at Red Rocks Gorge.

Call me simple but I’d always figured Red Rocks Gorge Lookout, um, looked out over Red Rocks Gorge. Now, I suppose a gorge can be a sinuous geological feature, but I had always wondered where the red rocks were. It turns out they are – after another kilometre of near solitary walking – down there to my right. An almost incongruous outcrop of not quite red rock erupting from the bush.

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A rough trail descended steeply towards the rock, the kind of trail where you are cognisant of each step down being an arduous clamber later. A test of the lungs. But the magnetism of a big rock, a sight, an attraction draws you closer still. There didn’t seem to be anyone else around either. As if this was my own little discovery, my own little secret. A spot to dangle legs over the water and eat a thoroughly washed apple. Nature. Exercise. Freedom.

Only I wasn’t alone. Over the other side, lending perspective on the scale of this gorge, a climber inched his way up via crevice and fold. Seems like extreme lengths to take to distance yourself but hey ho. It is 2020* after all. And being 2020 it wasn’t too long before other hikers and picnickers discovered my gorge, shared my nature, embraced my wilderness. I even talked to a couple, from afar. Mostly about the unique challenges of walking these days. And the utter, essential comfort, the absolute escape it can still bring us.

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* Everything should be asterisked. Just because. 2020*

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On matters of walking, did you know I have another blog that is even more poorly maintained and badly written? Where, from the confines of your own home you can revel in the sights and sounds of the world from two feet. I figure that – as well as soap – you may have some time on your hands and there is only so much sorting out of cupboards to be done. There’s a fair chance I too will add some more content to this in weeks ahead. If our bodies cannot escape, our minds still can wander.

Walkingisfree.com focuses on individual walks in various parts of the world that I have visited. It’s not all ‘turn left one hundred metres after the ferret farm’ stuff. Though there is a bit of this. Just in case you are inspired in the future. Walking is the new sitting after all.

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Uplift

Outside is looking remarkable. Outside is looking beautiful. An almost pinch-yourself-is-this-actually-real kind of sensation. One bringing delight rather than dread.

I was sat on a random log the other day, pleasant late afternoon sunshine nourishing the world. Rarely do I sit and stop and watch all the things going on around me: the ants milling about productively, transporting their wares in selfless community organisation; the magpie creeping from one spot of grass to the other, surveying for delicacies, a curious sideways look at my presence; the chirrup, somewhere, of two crimson rosellas, partners for life. The world going about its business.

There is an astonishment in this landscape of such verdant abundance. Where so recently it was so barren. The resilience of nature bearing fruit, flourishing again.

As well as sitting on random logs I randomly tried to capture this transition, this journey, this bounce back. Scrolling my phone for past images, dusty and brown. Attempting to line up positions and angles and replicating shots. Not always easy to know exactly where you have gone before. Fiddling about so much that sometimes it’s just far easier, far more satisfying to give up, sit on a log, and just watch the world.

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The Bullen Range and Brindabellas from Cooleman Ridge, 6 weeks apart

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Remember the smoke?!

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Scenes from Red Hill – 1

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Scenes from Red Hill – 2

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Scenes from Red Hill – 3, with random logs

Australia Green Bogey Photography Walking

Air con vent

Mostly this week I have been feeling cold. This is through no fault of the weather, which has undoubtedly shifted to something more temperate, more forgiving, more damp. Weather which is playing its part in soothing the horrors of summer, though a touch too excitedly in places. Creating – as I heard one survivor from Mogo on the radio frustratingly put it – a big green cover up.

No, my feeling of chilliness has undoubtedly arisen from human-induced climate change, which is preposterously adding to the – well – accumulation of emissions leading to human-induced climate change. No ifs or buts or false equivalence please. Air-conditioning can be the devil incarnate as well as angel descending.

Why oh why oh why must I feel so cold on a bus to Sydney, in a hotel lobby, in a meeting room, on a plane? Perhaps it is just me and a loopy thyroid, but I wasn’t the only one reaching for a winter coat on the bus. Not that I had a winter coat to draw on; the only long-sleeved apparel being a work shirt to throw over my frigid arms. It was quite the look, especially when I added a cap to minimise heat loss.

An underwhelming sense of fashion continued in Sydney as I ventured out into the Eastern Suburbs. In a turn up for the books so far this year, outside was proving the place to be – around 23 degrees, mostly cloudy, a gentle breeze. Perfect weather for cruising along the Eastern Suburbs Expressway also known as the Bondi to Coogee coast walk.

air2It’s a decent enough walk to require sustenance, so I strategically commenced in Bondi with a favourite pile of seafood. The beach was fairly busy – as you’d expect on a Sunday in February – but there is enough green space surrounding the bay to get your own little plot of land. Around me, every other person Facetiming to someone a million miles away, absent, distant. Nearby, a scruffy young guy settles down with a guitar, assuming the world near and far wants to be entertained by his derivative Passenger twaddle. It’s time to get moving.

I have completed this walk plenty of times in the past, but not for a few years. Apart from a steady flow of backpackers and tourists still allowed in from Asia, it’s typically traversed somewhat rapidly by idols of athleticism and toned contours unashamedly wearing tight-fitting garments. Who, despite being in the throes of exercise, manage to maintain a pristine, immaculate visage. I have always thought this as an impractical, impeded course for running, but perhaps that’s not the point.

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Approaching the glamour of Tamarama, I realise I am wearing a pair of trainers from Big W, shorts that are at least three years old and – I’m pretty sure – a T-shirt discovered in the middle aisle of Aldi. In my cheap rags, multi-million dollar homes surround me, taking in the same view. Likely occupied by people who only know Big W as the name of the racehorse they stable in the Hunter Valley; Aldi is their gardener from Romania, perhaps. I bet they hate us walking by. But we are walking by.

air4Walking by Bronte Beach and around the cemetery, through the cove of Clovelly, up the worse steps to circumnavigate Gordons Bay, and down again into Coogee. An egalitarian scene of Sunday sessions, volleyball, buckets and spades and barbecues. The beach has been in better shape, seemingly plagued by masses of seaweed that are surely something to do with the weird weather and warming seas. By now I finally feel a tad toasty, but ice cream proves the best way to cool back down.

So back it is onto an airconditioned bus, to an airconditioned hotel to prepare for a day in an airconditioned room. I awake snug and keen to get a dose of fresh air – something that has been really rare – before plunging into the human-induced icebox. From my window, a sliver of green nestles in a fold between the heights of Bondi Junction and Bellevue Hill and I walk that way. To a little miracle.

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Cooper Park Reserve is an almost hidden oasis within some of the most opulent land in Sydney. Just a few minutes down from six lane expressways and clogged up arterial roads, somehow the sides of the gully shield the world of SUVs and private school drop offs. A dappled rainforest of gurgling water and tree ferns, the fragrant lemon and eucalyptus scent presenting a cleansing experience in the cool early morning. Surprisingly there are few others running and looking immaculate doing so, and I am able to ascend the many steps at the end without too much shame.

air5In a window distant, the towers of central Sydney loom large, shimmering like temples to the unstoppable commute. For me, it is onto a chilly train, bypassing under this city and out to Parramatta. Where equally chilly tower blocks await. Later, a chilly taxi crawls to the airport, where I am temporarily warmed by a beer with an old friend. We depart for chilly planes home through chillier skies. And, for once, arriving in Canberra there is the greatest relief at disembarking into the balmy evening air of a city getting back to its best.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Australia Driving Food & Drink Green Bogey Photography Walking

Big smokes

Supposedly some of the world’s most liveable cities are in Australia; yet surely not when the climate sears. A haze of dust and smoke blows in, hanging with diesel fumes unimpeded by a reverence for industry. Sitting heavy over a cityscape of cranes and glass, whose streets are lined with withering European trees, roots bulging in defiance at the constraints of baked concrete. Impetuous car horns compete with the pulse of a pedestrian crossing, as you wait to seek solace in the air conditioning of a mall, hoping the flies will not seek solace too.

But these are – in context – mild irritants, and you walk across the harbour bridge and all can be forgiven. I think Sydney knows this too, hence a certain resting on laurels, safe in the knowledge that people will continue to flock to its shorelines regardless of unaffordable homes and congested roads.

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The unaffordable and congested were in ample supply as I decided to while away an hour or two before some appointments with a Friday morning visit to Balmoral, hopeful of a coffee and brief stroll on the sand. By time I got there it was around ten in the morning, already thirty degrees, and devoid of any parking space whatsoever. After a few circuits of various backstreets, I had to resign myself to defeat and head back to where I came from. The air conditioned mall in Chatswood.

Pleasingly, the other side of my work stuff proved more fulfilling, and that was in spite of a crawl through the Sydney Harbour Tunnel. Clearly less glamorous than the bridge, but usually more efficient at spitting you out into the Eastern Suburbs. Spitting me out with a little extra fairy dust to nab a brilliant parking space in close proximity to Bronte Beach.

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By now, the weather had cooled substantially, and a stiff breeze had kicked in to impart a touch of drizzly moisture here and there. Indeed, the late afternoon had become gloomy, a state of affairs that feels far more liveable than it looks in the brochures. Brightening things up – and almost as much a pleasant surprise as my parking space – was the annual Sculptures by the Sea parade, in which the range of photo poses and selfie contortions are a work of art in themselves.

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smk04Reaching Bondi – oh hallowed be thy name – I was determined to find a favourite little seafood haunt from times past; this was, after all, the prime reason I had not driven straight back to Canberra and had pottered about sufficiently to arrive at an acceptable time for dinner. And there it wasn’t. And there I was thinking why didn’t I just drive back to Canberra and have KFC at Marulan Service Centre instead? And there it was, on a different, quieter, cheaper street and life in Sydney was liveable for a few minutes again.

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A couple of weeks later, half of New South Wales on fire, and I was heading in the other direction to Melbourne. An archnemesis that frequently beats Sydney as being proclaimed one of the world’s most liveable cities. Expanding rapidly, it is soon to overtake Sydney in population which – if taken as an indicator of popularity alone – is enough to cause the residents of Vaucluse to choke on their breakfast oysters.

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smk06Melbourne was – typical Melbourne – half the temperature of Sydney and a darn sight cooler than the world’s most liveable city, Canberra. It is sometimes proclaimed the most European of Australian metropolises, which means cloud and showery rain and a sometimes dingy – some may say grungy – countenance. And also, trams, which laugh in the face at numerous contemporary attempts to retrofit light rail elsewhere, like a wizened professor in a pokie room full of drongoes.

That’s not to say Melbourne is anything but Australian, amply illustrated in its awesomely good coffee and obsession with sport. It also has beaches upon Port Phillip Bay – nothing that would give Sydney a run for its money but fair dinkum true blue Aussie nonetheless. The sun even came out late afternoon as I headed over to the bay at St Kilda, and things were reasonably comfortable. Liveable even.

It was here that I reflected on the fact that I hadn’t been to St Kilda in – say – ten years or so, prompted by a certain gentrification that had taken place and the adornment of waterside bars dressed up slightly on the wrong side of pretentiousness. This prompted further reflection on how long I have lived in Australia, to the extent that I can now say ‘it wasn’t like this in the old days’ while simultaneously waving my fist at a cloud.

One thing that hadn’t changed was the pier, stretching out into the increasingly cold, stiff breeze, sheltering the city of Melbourne in its lee. A pier popular for evening strolls by people better prepared for the weather than me. How can I need a coat while a country burns? Even here, though, a sign of what is called progress, as most of the people wrapped up head out in the hope of a selfie with a little penguin at dusk. I retreat.

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So, the big smokes, Sydney and Melbourne, sometimes chalk and sometimes cheese, sometimes infuriating, sometimes enthralling. A dictionary definition of liveable would be something akin to providing the core requirements for life, such as oxygen and water. I might also add the provision of good coffee and availability of fish and chips or salt and pepper squid and tempura vegetables.

smk08You’d think the latter is more Melbourne while the former is all Sydney. But for me it was vice versa, the fish and chips the target of seagulls on St Kilda Beach, just for that extra European touch. If I had another jumper and another million dollars and an escape option from the oppression of another inevitable choking summer, I could probably live here, and I could probably live in Sydney too. If nothing else, I’d sure know some good spots for dinner.

Australia Food & Drink Green Bogey Walking