Tour de ACT

The buzz. The excitement. The nerves. The never-in-my-lifetime strangeness underpinned by a back catalogue of disappointment. The sense of hope, exhilaration, and gut-wrenching drama more often than not deflated by events. The inevitable post-mortem punditry and scapegoating and resignation and acceptance. But maybe – just maybe – this time will be different.

If ever there was a weekend to finally come home this would be it. But I’ll be in bed, 12,000 miles away, turning on the bright lights of a laptop at five in the morning. Thinking about Italian coffee and chocolate digestives to perk me up. Minus three degrees in my shirt.

It’s a bed in a home that I haven’t written about for a good half a year, what with other more exciting jaunts. Canberra is still here, still going through its motions, still – touching wood – absent of coronavirus despite the best efforts of our neighbours. Still understated and beguiling, fortunate and free. Offering abundant life and opportunity if only you should look.

Over that time, Canberra has been doing what Canberra does, transitioning slowly but surely through the bursts of colour of autumn towards morning fogs which (usually) lift to reveal brilliant blue afternoons. It’s the time of year when continental superspreading sporting events disrupt sleep and sub-zero mornings add to the challenge of getting out from under the doona. A time when travel bubbles pop and masks finally become a thing. But do not despair. There is always fresh air.

From the reliable vistas atop Red Hill, a quick jaunt up the road once the laptop powers down. Winter light always doing something special just before five in the afternoon. A warm angelic glow spreads over the rising towers of Woden, the hospital and the Pfizer vaccination hub. Kangaroos munch unaware. Some things change and some things don’t.

A sunset scene over Woden and the hills

Rapidly contesting with Red Hill as my favourite nature reserve, Cooleman Ridge offers great reward for minimal effort. Fringing the west of Weston, the reserve boasts fine views back over Canberra but the real splendour is on the other side. Paddock. Hills. Forest. Mountains. A Murrumbidgee Valley creation. With suburban sprawl and hoonish echoes fading behind the ridge, it is a country walk in a city. And because so much of the Australian countryside is shamefully locked behind fence and gate and no trespassing signs, this is a real treasure. 

A view of mountain ranges and countryside

The treasures of Mulligans Flat are perhaps a little less obvious – and much more likely to emerge at night. But this place is a sanctuary for humans and animals alike. It is another place that has grown on me through a pandemic, from the initial Centenary Trail crossing to volunteer tasks hassling echidnas and wallabies and turtles. As is oft-mentioned on a twilight tour, the dams were dry back when we were enshrouded in smoke. Today they come alive. 

Sunset reflection in a dam

A bigger dam sits further west, lapping at a much bigger wilderness. When you stop and think about it, it is quite something that you can be picking up a good coffee at the neighbourhood shops and fifteen minutes later staring out towards this. Cotter Dam vistas shrink and stretch as you rise further into the sky, reaching a new summit at Mount McDonald.

A large reservoir surrounded by forest and hills

Another new summit is added to my life experience when I take the dirt trail up to Mount Jerrabomberra. I have ventured beyond Canberra, though only just, and only before the latest Bondi-fed outbreak (just in case some paramilitary border goon decides this is reason enough to bar me from Western Australia for twenty years). I have come to Queanbeyan for the rare opportunity of coffee and cake at three in the afternoon, discovering a café that actually opens beyond two. Why is this not more of a thing? Especially when you can easily walk a few crumbs off afterwards.

Last rays of sun over the silhouette of a landscape

It is becoming harder to discover new things like this in the backyard, but I am not there yet; Coronavirus may have to last another twenty years for that to materialise, something I would dearly love not to happen. I would love instead to walk in the Alps again, to hike along the downs of southern England chasing butterflies, to stroll through the Barbican and up to Plymouth Hoe, snaffling some fudge and an ice cream along the way.

But do not despair. I discover a winter’s walk alongside the clear water of the Tidbinbilla River, striking out through green forest singing in the aromas of fresh peppermint. Occasional early wattle pops golden and soothes like honey. There are views towards rocky crags and precipitous ridges and – down the track – a little home: Nil Desperandum. It has been restored to cuteness and if only they had a kettle with some tea and perhaps freshly baked scones waiting, the walk back wouldn’t have seemed such a chore.

A homestead set within forested hills

Nil desperandum. Whenever or whatever might come home, do not despair.

Australia Green Bogey Photography Walking

Stimulants

I had entered the point of no return. Doors closing behind me, confronted by a depleted selection of pre-cooked yellow food. A smoky, greasy vapour emanated from behind the counter. Around one of the square Formica tables, a trio of young people huddled around a carton of chips.

I had rolled into Injune desperate for a pick-me-up to push me on to the end of the road. For coffee this was the last outpost. And like a rabbit in headlights I was now captive. I had to order. Miraculously, I spotted a handwritten note on one of those fluorescent orange stars. Iced latte for $5.50. Coffee, ice, and milk which surely wouldn’t turn into a complete hash. Relief. A safer proposition than the risk of first degree burns.

Happily – should you find yourself in the situation – you’ll find iced latte and a pack of 39 cent custard creams from Aldi a winning combination on the Carnarvon Highway between Injune and Rolleston. It propels you into a more interesting landscape with plateaus rising up to the east and west. The road, finally, allows a speed limit of 110kph. And then you turn off, to fulfil a few goals and dreams.

I remember when Carnarvon National Park first piqued my interest. It was in a Qantas magazine, back when flying was more of a thing. I was probably on the last plane out of Sydney after some stupid meeting, feasting on two crackers and a vomit-coloured dip. A double-page photograph of intricately textured sandstone, a dark narrow fissure, vibrant green ferns, and the dizzying perspective provided by a human figure felt a long way away. 

It’s a credit to that Qantas magazine that they managed to condense Carnarvon National Park into a few glossy pages. It’s also a credit to the professional photographers who managed to fit it all in. The vast, monotone plains in the surrounding landscape truly situate this as an oasis. The solitude required to get there leads to stimulus galore.

Hyper-stimulation first emerges a few kilometres outside the park. People and Hiluxes amass, caravans are adorned with satellite dishes, trailers, awnings and everything including the kitchen sink. There may even be – in the middle of Queensland – a large boat or two. Instantly I know this is not my type of campground. But there is little other choice and I set up home for two nights, conscious of beady eyes judging my unfolding canvas.

Many of the people I talk to are here for a week, maybe two. They can afford to spend whole days sitting in a fold-up chair playing candy crush. I have one complete day to head into the gorge, go as far as I can, and turn back again. One whole day that is immense in so many ways.

My phone tells me it was a 41,397 step kind of day, taking me along 29.1 kilometres. It was a day that started around six in the morning, when I parked up near the visitor centre. There was an orderly-looking campground here but for some reason it is only open during school holidays. Still, I took advantage of one of the many tables to make a cuppa and eat some breakfast, free from the guilt of disturbing the old folk getting their beauty sleep.

The walk starts with a sign of things to come: a crossing of Carnarvon Creek via a series of stepping stones. The first crossing is easy, reassuring everyone who finds themselves on this path to strike out further into the wilderness. Others later on require a bit more planning and a touch of blind faith. But don’t let this put you off. Just grab a big stick and think of the reward.

The gorge is said to extend for 30 kilometres, but the day walk goes as far as Big Bend, where there is a carry-in campground for those intrepid enough to explore further. Along the way, nature has created a series of incredible rock features, shady pools, and slot canyons, while original inhabitants have left their own mark. It is these spectacles – reached via shortish detours from the main trail – that create a natural itinerary to the walk, numbered like stops on a coach tour. Only here, self-propulsion is the required vehicle, and the only souvenir stands are those that assemble within your mind. And do they sure etch their way into it…

Moss Garden

Reaching the first stop seems to take forever, but I think that comes down to an eagerness to get there. It’s akin to sitting in the back of the car as a child, heading for a day at the beach. The side track also requires a little creek crossing and climbing of steps, penetrating into a small, fern-filled gully.

What can I say about the Moss Garden? It’s mossy and moist, fed by a narrow creek spilling into several clear pools. It’s the kind of garden that might be constructed at some expense in a billionaire megalomaniac’s estate, funded by worker exploitation and home shopping. Or constructed in the airport of some oil rich emirate to show off to the world. But nothing contrived here, just thousands and thousands of years of nature. Water, rock, vegetation. Gathering in blissful harmony.

Amphitheatre

If the Moss Garden was beautiful in a serene kind of way, the Amphitheatre is, fittingly, all head-shaking drama. I think this is the setting for that double-page spread in the Qantas magazine many years back and you would need to be a professional photographer with a mega-wide angle lens and tripod and hours of patience waiting for the right light to come anywhere close to evoking the feeling of being in this place.

At first, you wouldn’t expect much. Nothing to see here. But walking towards giant luminous sandstone walls you notice a small doorway at their foot. And a series of metal steps up to the entrance. It is a crack perhaps little more than a metre, a corridor into a cavernous courtyard of wonder. Above, a small window to the sky, afoot a delicate display of vibrant ferns. It cries out for a massive “COOEE!” but somehow feels too reverential for that. A handful of people, myself included, just sit and soak it all in.   

Art Gallery

The National Gallery of Australia is much more accessible and has a better café than the Art Gallery in Carnarvon Gorge. But you won’t find a 62 metre natural sandstone wall featuring over 2,000 engravings, ochre stencils, and free-hand paintings. The stencilling is considered to be some of the finest and most-sophisticated of its kind in their world.

This sacred spot serves a reminder that this is the land of the Bidjara and Karingbal People, and you are lucky enough to be here for a fleeting moment in time.  

Cathedral Cave

Many people culminate their walk at the Art Gallery fulfilled, turning around and heading back home for an afternoon rest. The next stop up the gorge is four kilometres distant, and the track grading increases a notch on the scale. There are more stones to traverse and one creek crossing in particular requires a degree in trigonometry and dose of good fortune.

I’m glad I pushed on though, for this section is perhaps the most scenic. The main trail sticks closer to the rocky course of Carnarvon Creek, and sheer-sided multicoloured outcrops begin to press in on both sides. Palms and ferns and eucalyptus gather in the valley, nurturing colourful butterfly and chirpy birds, while emerald pools attract fast-moving dragonfly.

As a destination, Cathedral Cave undoubtedly has a spiritual quality, hosting further displays of Aboriginal art. It also possesses that echoey ambience formed from the hollow of a massive rock overhang. A chamber of secrets. Peaceful and shady, the benches situated opposite the walls encourage lingering. A rest before the return journey.  

Boowinda Gorge

But don’t turn around! After Cathedral Cave, it’s a kilometre or so on to the end of the trail at Big Bend, but I neither had the energy nor the desire to visit a camping area. Just 200 metres on from Cathedral Cave, however, another dry creek cuts in from the west. At first, it’s nothing special, just an unending collection of large pebbles that make walking a little more taxing. But pursue further and you enter Boowinda Gorge.

This I found the most staggering spectacle of the day. I can’t really explain. Nature has formed something that engineering genius and billions of dollars would struggle to replicate. Curving walls, pebble paths, ferns and trees flourishing where chinks of light again emerge. And I had it all to myself.

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I’m all for saving the best to last, especially when it comes to roast dinners. But what goes up must come down and, as much as I tried to conjure up a helicopter taxi from Big Bend, the return journey needed to be undertaken. On the plus side, things were still incredibly scenic the second time around, stepping stone confidence was sky-high, and I had a few Aldi custard creams to perk me up when needed.

There was also Wards Canyon, one of the stops between the Amphitheatre and Art Gallery which I had saved for the journey home. As lovely as this was – think more small cascades and rocky walled gullies – I can’t help but think my impression was overshadowed by weariness and the wonders that had gone before. It also took a bit of a climb and used up the last custard cream.

To get back to the car, I started to concentrate more on the little things. Some of the butterflies that would never settle. The blur of small birds flitting between shrubs. The red and blue dragonflies hovering above water. The people passing me by, saying G’day and inquiring just how much further it was to so and so. Push on, I encouraged, and don’t miss Boowinda Gorge.

In all honesty though, the last hour turned into a bit of a drag. There were a surprising number of steps and undulations that I didn’t notice in my excited state on the way out. The light was now brighter, the heat of the day well and truly upon us. Creek crossings were less an adventure, more a chore. My feet hurt.

Towards the end I was pretty much walking at the same pace as a man a hundred metres in front of me. It came as no great surprise when he let out a thank feck kind of “yahoo” upon sighting the visitor centre. I didn’t need empathy training to totally get it.

And so my walk in Carnarvon Gorge, years in the making, had reached its conclusion. I felt happy and fulfilled and in desperate need of a shower, cup of tea, slice of Christmas cake and a nap. Unfortunately, Takarakka ‘Bush Resort’ had other ideas. I returned to find I had neighbours, sat outside their caravan under the awning, playing candy crush and listening to the radio. Other neighbours were setting up with a clink of a camp kitchen here and a thud of a mallet there. Four-by-fours rocked up every few minutes, engines idling as they checked in at reception. The shower, tea and cake were divine. The nap non-existent.

At least I slept well that night. Very well, for tenting. Still, I was awake before sunrise so made a bit of noise and headed up a track to a nearby hill. A few other people were there, including a dad with a wide-awake baby and a couple of what I would say are younger boomers. The sunrise was – fleetingly – dramatic, while the younger boomers were lovely.

We chatted for a good while. They had arrived yesterday and were staying for a week. I was off to 1770 today. I passed on my tips and wished them a wonderful stay. They wished me well for my big bike ride. We parted, me feeling a little more favourable towards caravanning boomers, and them possibly thinking he is never going to manage that bike ride. Maybe.

Keen to get moving, and also keen to avoid the amenities block that was always dirty whenever I had to use it, I passed up the opportunity of a shower and hit the road. Yet instead of turning left, back to the highway, I veered right. I had come so far and something was bugging me. This had been years in the making, and when would I ever be here again?

When I arrived in Carnarvon National Park on Tuesday afternoon, I used the last of the daylight to explore a short walking trail along Mickey Creek. It was a simple and – in hindsight – relatively undramatic stroll. But that is only until the formed trail ends. 

A bag left on a rock signalled I wouldn’t be the only one transitioning from a gentle amble to a rock-hopping adventure. Beyond the stones and the ferns, an entrance led into a narrowing gap. Walls closing in, the sound of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ travelling down the chasm encouraged further exploration.

There was only really one spot that was a little challenging – in that I might get my feet wet. But I could do it. And so could my sunrise friends who I met again on the way out. So much better than just sitting outside your caravan playing candy crush. We both agreed, and I felt envious of the wondrous discoveries that still awaited them.

Farewell friends, and farewell finally this most magnificent oasis.

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That could have been a good ending, but the road never ends. Neither does this blog post but all I can say if you are labouring is just imagine living and breathing it as opposed to a mere skim-read in your PJs.

After endeavours at Carnarvon, I planned a bit of R&R on the Queensland coast, 550km away. Worryingly I was desperate for a coffee by time I reached Rolleston, only a hundred clicks in. Even more worryingly, Rolleston didn’t look up to much. But beside the public toilets in a park, a cute caravan had popped up selling coffee and a few light snacks. The owner was charming and chatty, and I really really really wanted her coffee to be good. But scalding hot country ways are always difficult to cast off.

There is little to note between Rolleston and Biloela. The road, almost arrow straight, offers frequent car stopping bays and I realise these are essentially unofficial toilet stops as I recycle my coffee in a hedge. The highlight of this section of the road should really be the town of Banana, in Banana Shire. Yet, there is no comedy sized fibro banana or Banana World Theme Park incorporating Mango Village. A large sign erected for losers like me actually informs the world that Banana was named after a big bullock. Surrounded by coalfields, this is peak QLD.

Sadly, the only thing I knew of Biloela was the Australian Government’s really tough posturing to lock up a couple with two young children who were seeking asylum here. They now sit festering on an offshore island. The #hometobilo movement made me feel warm towards Biloela. The family in question had become part of the community, and the community part of them. They simply want their community back.

I didn’t find out much more about Biloela in my brief stop there. It didn’t seem the most appealing place, but then it is far more appealing than – say – a war zone or dictatorship inclined to ethnic-cleansing. Petrol was cheaper here, and I was surprised at the quality of coffee and a slice from the bakery – this is more like it. Road trip essentials.

Almost as Australian-sounding as locking up dark-skinned people seeking protection is the Bruce Highway. For me, it was a bit of a milestone, a sign that I had reached the Queensland coast. But like most highways along the east coast, the ocean is still miles away. And, hitting the highway south of Gladstone, the Towns of Agnes Water and Seventeen-Seventy were still 90 minutes away. 

A sign that I was pretty much over the drive came when I didn’t even stop for a ‘big crab’ at Miriam Vale. It wasn’t that big, looking more like an elaborate shop sign than anything. And I don’t really like crab, stemming I think from my brother taunting me with crab claws as a kid. The same can be said for peanut butter, but I did at least stab his hand with a fork when he tried to steal some of my chips.

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1770 clearly stands out from the crowd just by being a number. That was some good marketing by Lieutenant Cook and Joe Banks when they decided to make their second stop in Australia at this spot; I think Joe had seen some plants that took his fancy. If you look on the map, you will see a marker for the 1770 toilets, which you can only hope have been updated since they visited.

Confusingly 1770 has the postcode of 4667. So – in a remarkable turnaround for Australian abbreviation – it is often spelled out as Seventeen-Seventy. It also typically gets lumped together with its southern neighbour, Agnes Water. And I was staying on a campground between the two. Let me tell you the joy of driving past tents and awnings and trailers to take up home in a cabin with a double bed and kitchen and bathroom. The closest I will ever get to feeling all North Shore Sydney.

And so, with good rest, I had a lovely day in the Towns of Agnes Water and Seventeen-Seventy. In preparation for what is to come, I decided to explore it by bike. There were beaches and lookouts and a lovely coffee in some lovely gardens, embellished with sweet baklava. It was the best coffee in a long while, a clear indication this is a coastal location on the up.

Beyond the coffee stop, I was delighted by the Paperbark Forest Boardwalk. It wasn’t especially long but well worth the additional cycle up a small incline. Among the stands of paperbark, butterflies frequently floated and birds sang with joy. A nice way to get off the two wheels and stretch the legs.

Being beside the coast I had long targeted fish and chips during my stay here, which I gorged on beside the water on the wharf in 1770. Gorging again. The downside to this was that it required an uphill climb back to my cabin and a post-lunch nap. Later in the day, I returned to 1770 by car, and walked out to the headland, hopeful, like many others, that sundown would put on a decent show.

Now Saturday morning, I had been travelling for little over a week. I’d be leaving the ocean today and in memory of this I felt that getting a takeaway coffee first thing and sipping it on the beach would be a perfect moment. Situated next to a waterfront campground, the coffee took an age but when it came it was everything I had hoped for. Order and civilisation were being restored.

And so, next up Caloundra and then the Brisbane Valley Rail Trail. Heading south, I briefly paused in Bundaberg, picking up some provisions and a gift for my cycling buddy, Jason. Never would a $16 bike rack from Kmart prove so popular.

My final stop was in Childers, one last pause before hitting the elongated development of the Sunshine Coast. I had arrived, it would seem, in a town of coffee extremism. Ten minutes out of town, billboards implored me to stop at The Drunk Bean or Insane Caffeine. Nine hundred kilometres after Injune, the sound of coffee insanity appealed. It had largely been madness the whole way.

Australia Driving Green Bogey Photography Walking

Entering the finger zone

You’d have to be slightly crazy to drive six hours just to visit the Gilgandra Rural Museum. Yet craziness is exactly the vibe. Assembled outside, various mechanical contraptions seek to separate wheat from chaff or draw water from the ground or power the transistor radio of old Sheepwash Charley of Dunedoo. Among the pioneering relics, random two-dimensional figures play out a scene which probably didn’t make the final cut of the original Ned Kelly movie. All the while, the incredible Man on the Thunder Box remains impassive.

I didn’t travel six hours for the Gilgandra Rural Museum, but paused for one final stop before setting out for Coonamble. For me, Gilgandra signified a final outpost of familiarity if not necessarily civilisation. Along the way, more gentrified country towns like Boorowa and Cowra and Molong had breezed on by. A stop in Wellington illuminated both the charm and economic fragility of life in a country town, while the major centre of Dubbo came with all the drawn out trappings of tractor dealerships, coffee clubs and chequered fashion wear.

It was after Dubbo that I first encountered a finger or two. A single raised pinky from fellow drivers attempting to overcome the boredom of the Newell Highway. They obviously hadn’t stopped at the Gilgandra Rural Museum for there was little cheer or energy in their movements. More an obliging duty to signify they are alive and to acknowledge the presence of other lifeforms.  

It is never clear when, where or why the finger zone starts or ends. Remoteness plays a key role, but then some areas of barren desolation barely provoke a twitch. This confuses me to the extent that some people get the finger, others get a V sign, others a full hand and, when I have faced enough rejection for one day, the rest receive absolutely nothing. One of the worst feelings in the world is being too late to acknowledge a cheerfully waving man in an akubra as he whizzes by south, just because you have been spurned one too many a time.

Another hour of this kept me mildly entertained as I broke new ground on the Castlereagh Highway. Occasionally the road’s namesake river snaked nearby, sandy with pools of water nurturing gum trees and fields of weedy yellow flowers. Corrugated metal galahs counted down the approach to Gulargambone, while a fence emblazoned with a big G’DAY greeted me as I left town. Late in the day, Coonamble embraced me with fiery skies and the smell of mice disinfectant.      

I had come to Coonamble as part of a bigger trip on my way to Queensland. And while there was distraction in its artistic water tower and a sense of disappointment in its Nickname Hall of Fame (not even being so bad to be good), the main purpose of the stopover was to visit old – and young – friends.

And so good food, company, and row row row your boat was the main order of events, delivered in abundance. I did sample hot coffee from both local cafes and discovered the intricacies of a remote town of 2,000 people where everyone knows everyone else’s business.

One late afternoon I even went for a little bike ride, which was quite delightful at first, cruising along flat countryside lanes and discovering a peaceful spot by the river. Then I ended up in town and got chased quite aggressively by the obligatory roaming hounds. The full Coonamble experience.

One of the plus points to Coonamble is its proximity (at least in regional Australia terms) to Warrumbungle National Park. A jumble of volcanic lumps and spires rise up prominently from the flat surrounds, tantalising from afar in every direction. A dirt road takes us to a spectacular reveal of this massif from the west, before becoming more deeply immersed into the heart of the park.

I’ve done longer, signature hikes here before but with little Henry enjoying shooing flies in a backpack we take on a shorter walk to Tara Cave. Still, it’s a delight featuring a small creek crossing and burgeoning bushland, rising up to reach an interesting shelter with signs of tool-sharpening from many centuries before David Bowie put on some red shoes and danced. And being in the north west of the park, a balcony view reveals the splendid panorama of this wonderful land.  

On the other side of the Warrumbungles is the town of Coonabarabran. I discover this is known locally as ‘Coona’, even by the Coonamble locals who might also claim that moniker. Coona is a pleasant enough place, with an extravagantly decorated and tasty Chinese restaurant and – the piece de resistance – a Woolworths. Coming from Coonamble, there is something utopian about entering a supermarket with fresh produce and aisle upon aisle of comforting familiarity. Like a child in a candy shop. Or Francois in a fromagerie.

And so, a final fresh dinner on Sunday night and another fine breakfast the following morning sets me up for the journey ahead. It’s a long and lonely road, and I feel a touch flat about leaving a world of comfort and companionship. After an hour or so, Walgett appears, which is hardly the kind of place to lift a funk. Fuel, toilet, and a crossing of the Barwon River at least interrupt the journey.

The river is fascinating in its own way – still partly in flood thanks to storms several weeks ago in an area many hundreds of kilometres distant. Waters progress at the rate of Australia’s vaccine roll out, gradually collecting into wide channels and floodplains, seeping slowly through the interior. Eventually these waters will meet the Darling, which will meet the Murray and then find their way to enter the Southern Ocean southeast of Adelaide. They are taking a far more leisurely trip than me.

After the Barwon, the landscape alternates between wide flat expanses of saltbush and clusters of hardy eucalyptus forming around further pools of floodwater. Emu sightings are becoming commonplace and as I near Lightning Ridge, the most astounding sighting yet: an emu comprised of steel girders, car parts and a whole VW Beetle. Stanley the Emu is – according to Tripadvisor – only number 8 of 17 things to do in Lightning Ridge. I clearly need to take the short detour to visit this place.

Lightning Ridge is not just a flashy name but offers some genuine drawcards. There are artesian bore baths and a house made of bottles and – probably the best of the lot – a gallery featuring Australian classics from John Murray. I almost buy a signed print of a rich red sky over a dusty outback road to remember my trip by, but figure it is far too early in the trip. Damage from dust or mice or man-eating snakes would probably become its fate.

A spot of fossicking may provide some funding for such works of art though. Lightning Ridge is best known for its opals, which have been heavily mined and continue to be sought after today. All around town, deposits of rock form in small mounds and people still come to set up a home among the pickings. Corrugated metal and rust are a predominant theme which, set into a glaring white earth and fierce sky, offer a certain Mad Max vibe.

Seriously hoping Mel Gibson is not out in town harassing people I decide it’s time to move on and head north. Well into uncharted territory, even finger waves become few and far between on the way to the Queensland border. In the middle of nowhere, a giant billboard featuring smug people on an idyllic white beach blares “WELCOME TO QUEENSLAND”. A few kilometres further on in Hebel, a ramshackle pub bedecked with golden signs for the insipid state beer confirms the change.

It feels like Queenslanders are – in this part at least – not so much into the finger waves. Perhaps they notice my ACT plates and are suspicious of southerners with their lattes and COVID-19 outbreaks. Gradually the barren landscape around the border appears to become more tamed, more cultivated. Cattle studs, sheep farms, giant silos. I notice fluffy white patches lining the side of the road and correctly deduce the presence of cotton farms. All I really know about cotton is that it is very water-intensive and seems at odds with the land I have come through. But that’s utter Balonne.

I’m not exactly sure how you pronounce Balonne, but it is the big river of the area, part of that same system which will end up in the seas off South Australia. I initially encounter it in the town of St. George, the first place of any size in my progress north. The river lends St. George a somewhat graceful air and no doubt a certain prosperity from cotton and other crops. It’s the kind of spot – at four in the afternoon – that would be perfect as a stop for the night, but I haven’t really made any plans. I decide a cup of tea and slice of Christmas cake will be enough to spur me on for another hour to camp.

Thus I arrive in Surat as the daylight fades. While escaping ferocious heat is a benefit of travelling at this time of year, the downside is the early sinking of the sun. I decide setting up the tent in the dark would be too much of a palaver, so organise my car so that I can sleep in the back. A process which also involved much palaver. But somehow, after 550km on the road, I manage a reasonable, comfortable night of sleep.

As the morning light emerges, I am pleased with my choice of accommodation. The free camping spot in Surat is spacious and shady, next to the river and includes the luxury of a well-kept toilet block with clean, running water. I think havens like this are a good idea for tiny towns in which you probably wouldn’t stop otherwise. Especially for those weary travellers who are in need of a coffee.

Crossing the Balonne again I walk over towards town and follow the course of the river through well-kept parkland with well-kept barbecues and well-kept playgrounds. I am starting to notice just about everything in Surat is well-kept. There is a clear civic pride and welcoming air around the place that you wouldn’t really imagine by just looking at it on the map. 

The main street – which is also the Carnarvon Highway – boasts a swanky looking grocery store, a pub and motel, a small museum, a few civic buildings, and a number of bottle trees. I noticed a few of these last night on the drive up and they are impressive specimens which conjure up a touch of African exoticism.

There is also a café doubling up as providore-cum-giftware shop. It’s still before nine in the morning but the sticky date and walnut cake looks too good to pass up, and I feel obliged to support the local economy given the free accommodation. That is, once I finally download ‘Check In QLD’ to add to the growing array of pandemic-related apps cluttering my phone.

I was keen to linger with coffee and cake until nine to poke my head into the museum opposite. This appeared from the outside to boast a little bit of everything. And indeed there was everything from old bottles and wool specimens to bushrangers and drovers around a campfire. A supplementary aquarium contained species from the Balonne and an adjacent art gallery was crammed full of work from one person which can most generously be described as eclectic.

The centrepiece however – and main claim to Surat – is being the setting for the last ever regular service of a Cobb & Co stagecoach in 1924. While life in an old Subaru can seem a little uncomfortable, these coach rides were another matter altogether. Passengers were able to pay handsomely for the privilege of freeing bogged wheels, clambering in tight spaces to shelter from storms, delivering post, opening and closing gates, and occasionally wading through flooded creeks and streams.

Such ardours meant the journeys were slow, and changing stations popped up along the way for a swap out of horses, crew, packages, and people. Cups of tea and plates of scones might have been arranged or accommodation for the night provided if it was getting late. Kind of like a nicer version of a Travelodge on the M42.

While the form of transport might have evolved over the years, it felt like Surat – this most unexpected of well-kept towns – was still engaged in such a modus operandi. Allowing weary travellers like me to take stock and convalesce, to rest heads and bodies, to receive generous nourishment. And most critically, to recover our worn out pinkies so that we can suitably venture out once more into the finger zone.

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For higher

It is beyond doubt that coronavirus has altered our perception of the exotic. Whether it be Gundagai or the garden centre, there is much greater thrill to be had in what was once so mundane. I kind of like this revived appreciation for what is immediately around us, as we persevere in seeking out that which can still be discovered. A new view, a different seat, a random town. Or even just a change in how we think about the same place.

My first impressions of the Snowy Mountains in Australia were underwhelming; being neither snowy nor particularly mountainous. With more than a passing resemblance to Wales, it was a bit odd in 2006 to come all this way for – well – Wales. But a few years ago, back when such things were possible, I had a brilliant time in North Wales. And in the context of what is and isn’t possible today, the Snowy Mountains seem to eclipse even a perfect hike to Snowdon.

A multitude of brown tourist signs and a $17 entrance fee help to create an expectation around Kosciuszko National Park. A spacious campground in a peaceful setting at Island Bend adds to the holiday feels. It’s only for the one night but when you have an instant tent, one night is as good as a holiday. An hour later, with instant tent finally erect, a cold beer is clearly required.

But this is no place to sit and drink beer all day, well not for me at least. In between a reasonable night of comfortable sleep, there is the Welsh countryside to explore. And, oh boyo, does it deliver far much more in 2021.

Illawong Walk

Smitten at six in the evening. I think this walk was as much about an ambience, a mood as it was about the open upland panoramas and shimmering river views. It was about the pure sound of that river and the glow of the light. It was about a subtle fragrance like jasmine tea, emanating from the small shrubs and grasses through which a narrow track forged. It was about finding a little lodge perched into the hillside and reaching a swing bridge which would take those more intrepid further. It was about a time and place in which each new step came with the thrill of discovery.

The walk starts in Guthega, one of those small clusters of lodges and chalets which counts as a village up this way. Bustling in winter, these places are weirdly soulless in summer, relative ghost towns seemingly abandoned as a result of a nuclear meltdown or similar. Only occasional voices from balconies hinted at a weekending populace, and numerous cars and trucks formed towards the trailhead, many destined to greet their owners returning from overnight jaunts in the wilderness.

Guthega also exists I suspect due to the dam, where the Snowy River is first brought to a halt on its journey to Marlo. It will be tampered with and drawn from many times on its way to Gippsland, but above the Dam it is truly free to roam. It’s a freedom that rubs off on those who follow it.

The trail officially comes to a terminus at Illawong Lodge, the small building tucked into the hillside. It looks and feels idyllic right at this moment, gazing out over the valley as the sun sinks low. A cold, amber ale would be perfect followed by a bed for the night, but my bed is presumably still standing back at Island Bend.

There is one last hurrah, just down from the lodge. The swing bridge across the river acts as a landmark, a destination, a place to be daring and frolic and to possibly carry on along unofficial, unformed ways. The landscape certainly does its best to suck you in further, and perhaps one day it will. Near the bridge, a new path appears to be undergoing construction, following the river further into the wild to someplace somewhere. There is still more to discover.

Main Range with diversion

I have climbed Mount Kosciusko several times and while there is much to enjoy it’s barely an achievement to rival Kilimanjaro or K2. The route from Thredbo, cable car-assisted, is a family-friendly jaunt, while the quickest way from Charlotte Pass follows a wide trail that incrementally rises without much of a fanfare. By far the best route is to follow the Main Range, crossing the Snowy River and rising to a ridgeline over 2000 metres which plunges over to the west.

Up with the kookaburras I reached Charlotte Pass for brekkie and a cuppa on the most exquisite balcony, the first rays of sun hitting the lofty heights out in front of me. I was heading for somewhere in that direction but hadn’t particularly finalised where. My main desire was to reach a point where I could marvel at the spectacular Western Fall disappearing into the horizon. Carruthers Peak or Mount Twynam would more than suffice.

Immediately the trail is a joy, largely because you are heading downhill to that free-running Snowy River. Halfway down, I encounter another new track being constructed and – guess what – find that it will lead east to Illawong Lodge. An accompanying notice suggests this is part of a planned multi-day walking track and I can again picture a night at that lodge with a cold amber ale on the deck.

For now, I have the Snowy to cross without a swing bridge. A series of boulders offer stepping stones, with only one jagged pyramid causing some complexity. After that, it is easy and getting to the other side without making an absolute tit of yourself in front of experienced hikers coming down from a night in the wilds is almost as satisfying as simply being here.

It is a good job life is sweet because there follows an incessant drag uphill and the prominent hulk of Carruthers Peak (2,145m) still seems a long way off. Along the way, the view down to Blue Lake offers a break and not long after the trail reaches the point at which the landscape plummets dramatically over the other side. It is a spectacular view, heightened by the big reveal as you come over the rise.

It is at this point that the Main Range trail veers left, and you can trace its outline steepening up to the lofty heights of Carruthers. To the right, an old, faint four wheel drive track is not promoted but neither is it barred. My research tells me this leads towards Mount Twynam (2,195m) and while I may not make it that high, I can at least aim for a rocky outcrop closer by.

There, mosses and flowers and hills upon hills upon hills stretching into the distance. Among these hills, the nearby Mount Sentinel stands out as the most jagged, traditional-looking mountain. This could be discovered one day too, but I would like someone else to come along for the ride, as a safeguard.

As tempted as I was to push on from this outcrop, I also figured I had reached my goal for the day with such epic vistas. I had also run out of sunscreen and broken my seven dollar sunglasses, so there was good sense in deciding to return before the day raced towards high noon. Good sense continued with a sandwich stop closer to Blue Lake, a baguette loaded with ham and brie beside a glacial cirque conjuring the pretence of France. C’etait la vie.

After such good sense at not being sucked in by the landscape at previous points, the sandwich gave me fortitude to have a nosy closer to Blue Lake. And then a faint track led towards Hedley Tarn before it simply vanished.

I spent a good 40 minutes trying to figure out a way back across to the Main Range trail, barely a kilometre away and visible thanks to its regular flow of people walking up and down. Encountering boulders and impenetrable shrubs I eventually resigned myself to retracing steps the way I had come.

All this extra energy consumed, and a sun now high in the sky, made me fearful for the final surge: the re-crossing of the Snowy and that godawful climb back up to Charlotte Pass. But in the end, it wasn’t so bad. The other half of my sandwich boosted the energy, and strategic photo stops offered necessary breathers.

While there is pleasure in an ending, those final stops proved bittersweet; captivated with the wild beauty and melancholy that it would soon be left behind. If it takes a pandemic to make me realise how special a place Kosciuszko National Park is, let’s please not have more pandemics. But instead let’s try and remember what it is like to cherish that which we had previously overlooked. Like Wales.

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Plenty

Many of Men at Work’s lyrics from that infamous song are undoubtedly insane. And for a sparsely populated continental land mass frequently sun-baked and on the very fringes of survival, there are legitimate question marks about its plentifulness. Plenty in size and scale and cultural history. Plenty in coal and iron ore and brazen luck. Plenty in toilet roll, despite everything.

Today, in the natural world around me, there appears again this land of plenty. Turn back a year and there would have been much head-shaking at such a thought. A cruel fantasy. But since that point, we’ve had plenty of rain resulting in plenty of growth leading to plenty of productivity. Not all of this is welcome, with rabbits and mice and locusts replicating at the rate of viruses in Kent. And the plentiful fruits of this rejuvenation are proving challenging to reap without a stream of acquiescent backpackers.

Still, “she’ll be apples” as they say. Surprising apples if you find yourself on a road between Bundanoon and Marulan. I was heading back from a day of plenty when I spotted a small sign saying ‘Big Apple’ pointing to the left. Already astounded by the incredible-in-so-many ways Big Potato, the apple emerged as a more subtle dessert.

Giant fruits and vegetables are apt in the Southern Highlands given the land is – for the most part – rich farming country. Babe was also filmed around here, combining perfectly with some of the local apple sauce and roast spuds. I could see snatches of Babe country throughout, supercharged by the verdant green rolling landscape, scattered with fine weatherboard homes and lacy verandas. Such is the well-groomed nature of this land, that it comes as a dramatic contrast when the countryside falls suddenly towards the sea. Delivering plenty.

This happens at Carrington Falls, situated within Budderoo National Park to the south of Robertson. It was a misty, head-in-the-clouds morning, the kind that lends itself to Jurassic Park moments. Tall white trees disappear into the clouds, giant ferns at their base dripping with beads of moisture. The air smells earthy and rich, peppered with wafts of cool mint. Only the fizzing sound of water signals a break in this most stagnant of scenes.

Several lookouts provide the wow factor, the intake of breath, the magnetic allure of millions of litres of water falling fifty metres into a deep pool. It is unclear whether the mist swirling through the eucalypts are remnants of waterfall or lowering fingers of cloud. I suppose they are all part of the same big cycle taking on different forms. Steaming glasses and feeding natural spectacles.

I’m surprised by how busy the place is on a cool, damp Monday. A steady flow of visitors park up, loop along the lookouts and leave again. Most pause for a picture or two, alternating between ultra-serious brooding to comical selfies. One senior lady poses with what looks like a car windscreen shade over her head, arranged to resemble Mickey Mouse ears. The youth – students from Wollongong I suspect – brave the waters of the creek before they succumb to gravity.

There is another turn off near Carrington Falls that suggests further valley lookouts. I head to the first and closest, greeted with even denser mist and a disappearing view. Fine rain is now falling and – for February – it’s cold.

Back near the car and now thinking of a warming lunch, a sign points to something called Nellie’s Glen. It’s only a hundred metres, which is hardly going to delay the arrival of comfort food. And what a pleasant surprise this turned out to be, a gorgeous pool fed by gently cascading waters. The kind of place on a warmer day to soak and swim and avoid water dragons and hope that leeches aren’t longing for a bit of attachment.  

With other lookouts and a campground I feel there is unfinished business in Budderoo National Park. But my mind – and stomach – has become fixated on pie. At the junction with the Illawarra Highway stands the self-proclaimed ‘World Famous Robertson Pie Shop’. Have you heard of it over there? It looks exactly the kind of place that would disappoint and end up on the news as a COVID hotspot. A pie of plenty instead came at the Robertson Pub, no doubt known as The Robbo, oppo the big potato.

It was perfect weather for pie and mash and gravy, washed down by a surprisingly good local ale whose name I sadly do not recall. Such feasting naturally induces a contented lethargy that makes the thought of further activity, further driving, further walking, further gazing at amazing, just that little bit less enticing. But I had to get home somehow, and there was still a waterfall way to go.

Thus the afternoon heralded Belmore Falls, a double delight viewed from afar. Some people had managed to find closer views next to the top of the falls and a couple – spied through my zoom lens – had made their way between upper and lower falls. I figured, judging by the size and athleticism of said couple, that it couldn’t be too hard to reach, though how they did so remains very much a mystery. Perhaps abseiling or helicopters were involved.

The drive from Belmore Falls to Fitzroy Falls proved joyful, a pocket of pure Babes country starting to welcome a brighter, afternoon sky. At Fitzroy Falls itself – the trustiest and most accessible of the waterfalls in this area – I felt a little as though I was going through the motions, but walked and stopped and took photos and gazed out in awe nonetheless. As well as both Fitzroy and Twin Falls adding to the daily tally, the view into the Yarrunga Valley never fails to enchant.

By the time I passed through Exeter and Bundanoon and abruptly turned to the left in Tallong, the sun had started to reassert itself and offer some welcome warmth. Better conditions for ripening apples I would imagine, and less potato friendly. A landscape now drier and more typical of great swathes of eastern Australia.

As a final stop before joining the highway I detoured to Long Point Lookout, where a spur of land thrusts itself out into an incredible wilderness. Below, some five hundred metres, the Shoalhaven River turns 180 degrees, carving out the steep hills and ravines which disappear off into the distance. All that water has to lead somewhere, and the Shoalhaven is quite a remarkable gathering of natural forces.

I spent a good half hour at this spot, as the late afternoon light cast itself in fits and starts upon the scene. Not one other car, not one other person stopped by during that time. Somewhere else, in another continent, in another country I couldn’t imagine such absence, such indifference. It would be a highlight, a spectacle, hustling with people and coaches and tacky souvenirs.

Here, it was as if no-one else knew. Here, in a country of vast open space, of forests and gorges still existing untouched, still largely unexploited, it was nothing special. Just another view, just another scene, just another place. And surely that is what makes it a land of plenty, he said, smiling with a Vegemite sandwich.

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Covers

The return of the traditional road trip has been another much vaunted consequence of our most recent history. With nowhere to flee overseas, we are discovering our homelands, our paddocks, our backyards. A large proportion of this adventuring has been undertaken in kitted out camper vans, luxury coaches, or simply a mattress in the back of a beat up station wagon. Canvas roofs have blossomed in trodden fields of green, the sound of mallets beating tent pegs as widespread as cicadas.

Initially when the pandemic hit, and uncertainty was rife, I thought I could do this if it came down to it. Fruit would need to be picked somewhere or fences would still be in need of repair. Possessing a swag, small dome tent and station wagon, sleeping options could be mixed and matched, while the trusty camp kitchen box could cater again for bangers and mash in thirty five degrees. There is a dreamy, deep rose-tinted quality to these visions, one that conveniently overlooks the discomfort, the dirt, the sweat and the toil.

As it turned out, I was lucky enough to be able to sit in front of a computer all day and receive the compensation of a regular income. But these wistful visions of a nomadic life have never quite gone away. The compromise has been day trips into the country, eventually culminating in a night on a mattress in the back of a beat up station wagon. Another night became aborted because – well – I could just make it home, and I began to question my commitment to life almost under the stars.

Yet a new year brings new resolution so we are led to believe, and with the prospect of more distant travel still a distant prospect there is logic to be had in persevering. What if I could make 2021 – or at least the warmest parts of 2021 – the year of the camping weekend? Could this provide – in its own way – a new purpose to fill the void that is the Centenary Trail?

Only time and possibly this blog will tell, but with this idea still racing through my mind like an out-of-control hamster wheel I swiftly purchased a new tent online. Click and collect from BCF in two hours.

I have always poured scorn on BCF, mainly because their adverts of boating, camping, and fishing escapades are layered thick with Australian drongoism. Like you can’t boat, camp or fish if you went to university. Or it is simply unheard of to do these things and care about the environment and refugees and good coffee at the same time. Only blokes in thongs with a nasal dislike of political correctness can go boating, camping, fishing. 

I suspect I read too much into it. The process was very efficient. The lady in Fyshwick who handed me my tent was perfectly lovely. A new tent to add to the swag, the 2 person dome, and the mattress in the back of a beat up station wagon.

You may well ask why I even need another tent and I would say that what I need is something that doesn’t give me as much of an excuse to turn back for home. Something that – as I march towards wisdom over youthfulness – is less of an ordeal. What I need is something more akin to glamping than it is to homelessness.

And so that is how I found myself erecting a brand new ‘instant’ four person tent at Mount Clear Campground in the southern part of Namadgi National Park last Sunday. With my pristine tent, deluxe airbed, comfy lounge chair, I looked every part the newbie amateur who had just splashed out on some shiny things for Christmas. Not the hardened traveller who had done three months in a swag and persevered with bangers and mash in thirty-five degree heat.

Only the rumpled, irregular mallet hints at greater experience. With this in hand I pleasingly managed to erect the tent quickly and efficiently, as though I knew what I was doing. To say it is an instant tent is probably an overstatement once you take into account pegs and guy ropes and – should you wish – a shady awning. But it was a reasonably simple erection, and I was happy to find ample room for my deluxe mattress and comfy chair and body standing in an upright position.

The more taxing part was choosing where to pitch the thing, given so many lovely-looking spots. In this respect, an estimation of neighbours is instantly required – deciding between a cluster of boomers and a foursome of millennials, while a BCF loyalist blares out some country and his kids run amok. All potentially troublesome, yet also reassuringly present.    

In the end I inched slightly closer to the millennials, which ended up a mistake when they decided to stay up around the campfire until after one. But a home is a home and not only did it stay upright and protect and comfort, but it also came with some of the most generous backyard within our little capital territory.

From settler’s huts to magical vistas, over swampy plains and through one year charred trees. An urge to pee brings staggering night skies, turning to gold as birds and boomers rise. There’s a hike through meadows, there’s wading through a creek, recovering with camp stove coffee and old Christmas cake. And then replenished, full on nature’s bounty, there’s a home to dismantle, and achievement to take.

The tent managed to fit back in its bag.  

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One year

The Tumut River is proving a soothing spot. In spite of its swift flow, fed from the elongated dams of the Snowy Mountains, there is something becalming being upon its banks. Boasting more of an aquamarine shade than the sedimentary highways of the Murrumbidgee and Murray, it is a waterway begging to be paddled or fished. Or simply enjoyed from under the shade of a majestic River Red Gum – as long as you can overlook the fact that these trees have the pesky habit of randomly dropping their hefty limbs.     

Various tributaries wind their way over fertile plains enjoyed by cattle and horses, mystery roads leading off into hidden valleys with panoramic landscapes. In Tumut itself, the river transforms what would be a pleasant enough little town into something more beguiling. Sitting among green parkland below the town centre, there may me a little part of water meadow England evoked. If you ignore the cackle of the cockatoos.

It was just under a year ago that I found myself here being rejuvenated after a day of hard labour pulling down fences in the hills behind. Sit in Tumut today and you would be hard pressed to imagine how fraught it would have been on January 4th, 2020. Approaching from the west, the Dunns Road Fire ravaged through Batlow and the Green Hills, cresting the Snubba Range and spilling down to and over Blowering Dam. It went on to merge with other large fires in the area, sweeping through pristine sections of Kosciusko National Park and the Snowy Valleys, before lapping at the edges of the ACT.

One year later I found myself in Pioneer Park sitting beside the river once again. It shows what an absolutely legendary year 2020 turned out to be that I had forgotten exactly where the fires had hit. No longer obsessively checking Fires Near Me I thought, for some reason, that the Dunns Road Fire had stopped on the western shores of Blowering Dam. Driving south from Tumut, it didn’t take too long to realise my oversight.

For sure, the western side of the dam is still quite a shock. Made up of plantation forest, the hillsides remain largely bare, apart from the blackened matchsticks of pine. Somewhere up there on the ridgetop, I wonder how Paul and Andrea are going on their farm, and whether Smiley has cheerily constructed a new hut. Hopefully the fences are still standing.

Down on the water, there is a somewhat normal scene of socially-distanced summer holidays playing out – all gargantuan encampments and four wheel drives and boat trailers. An emu pokes its head above the undergrowth, no doubt fleeing the meltdown of a toddler who just really doesn’t want to go anywhere near the water thank you very much. They seem to be everywhere.

Along the southern end of Blowering Dam, the impact of a year ago becomes clear as blackened trunks spread upwards to the east. There is regrowth, but it is thinned-out vegetation, revealing rocky, barren outcrops that probably haven’t been visible for years. Jounama Creek – a spot for camping and walking potential – seems less appealing than I expected, and I drive on.

From here it is quite the climb to Black Perry Lookout. Offering an impressive view out into the Bogong Wilderness, an information board makes it clear just how different things looked before the fires. In the picture, the peaks are still there, but cloaked in a swathe of lush green foliage like some kind of Jurassic Park. The picture also – frustratingly – features a much crisper, bluer sky than so far today. Both will come back, I hope.

The lookout is naturally a popular stop for trucks and caravans and trailers to catch their breath. One caravan seems to have had enough and the NRMA are being called. A clutch of potbelly bikers convey that menacing grizzled look that frequently becomes undermined by softly spoken, friendly chatter. One young guy appears anxious, on the phone to try and arrange a permit to access the ACT. Fire knows no boundaries and, for all we can try, neither does COVID.

My plan was to walk to a place called Landers Falls Lookout, lured by the promise of both falls and a lookout. It was either a ten kilometre there and back again or a swift 1.6km stop off from a four wheel drive parking area. I initially figured my car would be okay – it usually is – and inched down a big dipper of a rockfest. The way onward looked equally awful and – new year, no new words – I decided it was best to pivot. Back to the parking area for inadequate cars.

And so a longer walk ensued, but I’m glad about my decision. The car probably would have made it, but it might also have got two punctures, a broken exhaust, and a hazardous brake disc failure. Plus it was interesting and rewarding to tread quietly through this recovering forest, one year on.

What strikes you most in such worlds is the contrast between still very visible, jet black tree trunks and an overflowing understorey of grasses and shrubs and ferns and flowers. Where the two combine, witness the surreal procession of epicormic growth winding up into the canopy (before a certain pandemic, epicormic was probably the word of the year). The crowns of trees are still deciding whether or not they will come back, a process that will take more than just a year.

My initial fear that I would be sharing this walk with a procession of hoons in souped-up Hiluxes doing it the lazy way were unfounded. Probably because they don’t like to get their shiny blue paintwork dirty. Midway along one vehicle did pass, accompanied by the obligatory exchange of waves. Him thanking me for standing aside, me thanking him for the dust. At least there weren’t too many flies to elevate the experience further. Yet.

There was, in fact, a peacefulness in the forest. In patches the silence was punctuated by gentle birdsong – apart from the easy to spot pair of Rosellas, mostly this heralded from those little indistinguishable critters that hide in the undergrowth. Occasional rustles in the grass signified a lizard or bug or potential snake. I felt a bit more accepting of a snake sighting today, thinking it might liven things up. But it never happened.

This is not without giving the snakes ample opportunity, regularly veering off track to snap pictures of grasses and logs and flowers.

From the 4WD parking area, a non-vehicular route leads over Landers Creek and up towards a couple of lookouts. The sound of running water was a good omen for the falls, as was the vertical climb for a vista. Away from the creek, the undergrowth rapidly diminished, replaced by bare rock, charcoal logs and gravel. Exposed, barren, humid, the perfect time for the flies to welcome me in droves.

I deleted several shots from my camera because of photobombing flies. When you get a clear shot, the first lookout offers panoramic views towards Talbingo Dam, the course of the creek winding down towards its shores. In the near distance, a second lookout appears even more precariously perched upon a towering outcrop.

At this second vantage, the falls become visible and form quite an impressive drop, even in the relative dryness of summer. The landscape is an otherworldly array of arid browns and fluorescent green, the steep hillside opposite lined with black spikes like hairs standing to end. The aerial perspective from this vantage is mesmerising and I enjoy it with a cold pork and pickle and fly sandwich.

Lingering for a while allowed me to pick out some of the minutiae: individual tree trunks clinging to a rock face; coils of epicormic growth leading to barren white crowns; cliffs streaked black; a cluster of ferns glowing luxuriant in a hollow. It was as if I was Google Earth or something.

Lest I get a godlike complex high above, I managed to get a little lost on the way back down. I find every rock and burnt log looks pretty much the same. But following the creek I found my way once again to the 4WD car park and onward much further to my own car. Nearing the end of the trail I passed a family with three kids setting off, satisfied that I’m not the only one with an inadequate vehicle.

Back in civilisation it was very much that time of the day when ice cream is mandatory. Civilisation is hard to come by, but the small township of Talbingo offers one of those amazing supermarkets that sells everything from tinned food to drill bits to crates of beer to chiko rolls to two year old editions of Angler’s Almanac. It also houses the post office, tourist information centre and a photocopier. Though lacking gourmet ice cream, a Honeycomb Maxibon on the shores of Jounama Pondage provided sufficient sustenance.

Ignoring the burnt trees on the other side there was a touch of the Lake District in the grassy foreshore and rounded hills disappearing off into the horizon. Blue skies and fluffy white clouds completed the Wordworthian idyll. Again, a year ago, Talbingo was far from it.

From English lakes to Spanish sierras, a journey of disastrous superspreading madness only now restricted by fanciful wartime yearning to regain a supposedly lost independence. Here, the European mirage took the form of a solitary, short drive down the road towards Talbingo Dam. On one side, a panorama of barren ridges and spindly trees, dusty earth and searing sun. A glass of Rioja and a siesta would go down well, but I must move on.

The dam itself has the requisite boat ramp where the road terminates. Here, a wide gravel parking area was solidly packed with trailers and those four wheel drives so suited to the walking trails around this way. A regular flow of vessels with names like Crusader 3000 and She’ll Be Right were being lowered into or dragged from the water. Outboards buzzed and jet skis thrashed and bins were overflowing with the remains of picnics and beers. Behold the domain of the boatpeople.

I was planning on camping in such an environment, albeit further north on the shores of Blowering Dam. But throughout the day there was something going on in my head looking for excuses to get out of it. Heat building. Risk of storms. Boat people. Perhaps the final straw was the realisation that I had left my salad in the fridge at home and would have to resort to a dinner of cold pork and disappointing pastry. I could survive, but would it be worth it?

Procrastinating around a greener, untarnished landscape with views to Blowering Cliffs, I figured I could drive into Tumut and procrastinate some more, while also picking up salad to complicate the decision-making process even further. If I had made a New Year’s Resolution to be more decisive – which I hadn’t – I would have failed already – which I didn’t.

Tumut was just that little bit closer to home and I was willing to embrace a two and a half hour drive into the evening, weighed against the likelihood that I would struggle to be sleeping anyway if I was to stay and camp. Hot water, comfy bed, a flushing toilet v lumpy mattress, strange noises and a long drop. Next time I head off with the intention of camping I need to exceed at least a three hour radius from home.

Je ne regrette rien, as they say in the aisles of Tumut Woollies, for not only did I manage to get my salad fix (albeit in the form of calorific coleslaw), but I also finally snaffled a half price Christmas cake. And then I took to that riverside, wandering and eyeing up future opportunities to explore before settling upon a delightful dinner spot.

There are places I’ll remember. Soothing. Becalming. Rejuvenating. Nourishing. Like a shot in the arm.

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Farmers

I doubt the young lady taking my order was convinced. “Please may I have the Farmer’s Lunch please thank you? Thanks. How would I like it? I guess on a plate would be a good start, do you have these here yet? Oh, you mean the steak? Um… (killing a few seconds considering whether I should plump for rare like the locals) medium-rare please. Thank you.”

“Y’aint no farmer love are ya?”

“Yeah nah. I’ll be sitting next to the CWA ladies playing bingo if that’s okay? Thanks.”

Cowra, New South Wales, Saturday 21st November 2020 and not all of the above was true. I did order a Farmer’s Lunch and I did opt for medium-rare, but it was served to me without disdain. At least outwardly. You didn’t need to be a farmer to order it; only my internal voice was screaming out “FRAUD”.

I found myself here after much procrastination. Determined to embark on something of a mini road trip over the weekend I spent the previous few evenings plotting routes and stops largely based around where I could support the local economy. Given I was heading into the country, surely there would be a nice country pub with hearty fare and a cold beer? I pictured a shady garden perhaps, leading up to an arrangement of latticework and wood-flooring. Locals in Slim Dusty hats shading craggy, sunbeaten faces glanced up at me with a twinkle in the eye. A large fan whirred silently over a shelf crammed with ten-year-old bottles of Scotch. Above the fireplace, a framed blue jersey of some ex-footballer who once scored a field goal in Origin.

Perhaps such idyll exists, but I’m yet to find it. Still, air conditioning and keno was comforting as temperatures soared into the high 30s in Cowra. And the Farmer’s Lunch – steak, sausages, eggs and chips – was worth all that hard yakka sitting in a machine pressing a few buttons. Just like the farmers busily harvesting their grain.

Earlier that morning I had driven up from Canberra in time for a coffee stop in Boorowa. After a previous visit in early spring it was notable how much the green had already diminished, long grasses browning off after a couple of weeks of warm, drier weather. Boorowa was nonetheless as charming as before, though the coffee stop didn’t quite live up to previous highs. I feel like it was under new ownership and lacked the same, welcoming community hubbub. On my way back to the car, another café promised for the next visit.

While Boorowa was still feeling jaunty under a gentle morning breeze, a little further up the road in Murringo the withering inland heat began to bite. Crackly yellow grass, searing bitumen, and the piercing symphony of cicadas. It had been a while since it was like this.

There wasn’t much to Murringo, other than a place where you can go and check out some whips. But it was cute all the same and the drive through Murringo Gap was pleasing with its hay bales and narrowing valley slopes. On cooler days I could see a cycle ride heading through here, but maybe that’s not until autumn now.

I was hoping to swiftly reach Conimbla National Park for a walk before the heat of the day kicked in. Arriving in a remote and empty patch of dirt, the clock on my car signalled a few minutes before midday. Mad dogs and Englishmen and all that. It was the kind of walk in which I could disappear down a ravine to be eaten by snakes before discovery three weeks later. I took some solace in the fact that the lady tending her allotment down in the valley eyed me warily as I drove past – surely she would send help? Or send in the boys with pitchforks?

Spoiler alert: I survived. Was it worth it? Maybe. The highlight was a lookout midway along, offering views over a small valley. Trees of Eucalyptus mingled with black cypress pine, presenting a speckled green landscape under the fierce blue sky. Swathes of native bluebell offered comfort along the trail, tempered by the expectation that I could step on a snake hidden amongst such jolly thickets at any moment. I didn’t.

In fact I survived to make lunch. Through fields of grain and hills of sheep, the road entered Cowra to a fanfare of agricultural supplies and heavy machinery, giving way to the range of motels, fuel and fast food that heralds the fringe of a regional town centre. Across the Lachlan River, the first pub. With its Farmer’s Lunch and aircon.

With a hot afternoon in store it was tempting to linger with a cold beer in hand. But I wanted to make Grenfell and after that my home for the night. Through those hours the car was the most comfortable place to be, though I stopped in Canowindra and the even smaller settlement of Gooloogong along the way. Both seemingly at siesta or more permanently asleep.

Grenfell offered a little more excitement, though mainly in the form of petrol under a dollar and exemplary public toilets. As I filled up with cheap petrol a sign promoting whippy thickshakes took my fancy. It would likely be the only source of such nutrition still open, so I took the plunge and navigated the whole complexity of a make-your-own thickshake within a servo.

First figure out which of the various range of cups to use, then add your syrup flavour of choice. Beware the lively caramel which spurts out of its dispenser and onto your shoes. Try and find some tissue to wipe this mess up and then fail to locate a bin to dispose of carnage. Now, add the whippy content from the machine that kicks into action after first releasing a dubious watery dribble. Then try to stop this process before it flows over the cup and creates more mess. Finally, add some more syrup because you’re gonna need it after this. Attempt to mix together with a straw and add a plastic lid which doesn’t really fit. Make your way to the counter where the lady looks on slightly incredulous, texting her mate at the same time as taking your money. Still, petrol under a dollar a litre people!  

With a cup sticking to my hands I couldn’t really drive again until I contracted severe brain freeze and cleaned up properly in those exquisite toilets. It gave me the chance to idle along Grenfell’s main street. I daresay on a Saturday morning it’s a bustling little place. People parking at the required reverse-in 45 degree angle (I think I was more 60, but overlooked bringing my protractor), picking up bread from Mick’s Bakery or Chris’s Bakery or the Empire Bakery by David. There is clearly a testosterone-fuelled bakery-war taking place in Grenfell. All jumbo sausage rolls at six paces and mince tarts.

Apart from a few youth loitering as Henry Lawson looked on, I was the only one out on the streets. Occasional utes reversed in at 45 degrees to pop into the IGA. This was where half the town was, a queue forming for hot chooks and lotto.

The other half of the population appeared to be at some kind of gathering beside an old railway station as I made my way out of town. For a few seconds I hoped I might have stumbled upon a rodeo or something involving giant pumpkins. But all I could see were a few food trucks that looked as if they had migrated from Canberra for the day and a small cluster of people not doing much at all. I moved on.

West of Grenfell, the sweeping fields of grain were undergoing various stages of collection. In the distance, a small plume of dust pinpointed a header hard at work. Rising abruptly from this widescreen landscape, striking by contrast, an island of bushland and rugged outcrops of rock. Uncleared, uncultivated, protected from the squatters and the pastoralists and the farmers by its very presence.

This was clearly Weddin Mountains National Park and my bed for the night. It was a new one for me, surprising in a way given its little over two hundred clicks from home. I can probably thank COVID for coming across it – coastal avoidance, travel limitations, appreciation of what is within two hundred clicks of home.

Setting up camp in a flash – more of this shortly – I set out to explore, hopeful that by 6pm the temperature would have started to drop a little and I would be blessed by golden light. The information board at Ben Halls Campground informed me of several trails from here. Against one – Lynchs Loop Trail – someone had appended in handwritten block capitals ‘RETURN THE SAME WAY YOU GO UP. THE PATH BEYOND IS NOT SAFE.’ Another promised cool shady gullies and waterfalls and no ad hoc Trumpian warnings, so I opted for that.

The Bertha’s Gully trail did indeed proceed up a gully, but I had managed to perfectly time things so that I was seared by the westerly sun. It must have been 40+ in that gully, sheltered from any breeze, clambering up boulders, conscious of snakes. The trail was quite rough, victim in part to the generous spring which has delivered a profusion of growth. Various spiky plants penetrated my legs and shoes and socks, creating a sensation every ten seconds that I was being eaten by ants. Yet despite all this, pausing for the nectar that is a chilled Berry Gatorade from Grenfell IGA, there was an elemental beauty to the place.

I think the Gatorade saved my life, finishing the last drops closer to the campground beside Ben Halls Cave. I was too spent to read the detail, but I assume Ben Hall was one of those celebrated reprobates who stole some sheep, robbed stagecoaches, shot some police, and vehemently denied homoerotic gatherings of brotherhood under precipitous cliff faces in the middle of a winter’s night.

There was likely no need for spooning tonight. It was still hot when I arrived back to my camp chair and yet another disappointingly insipid Australian cider. In many ways it was the best of ciders, the worst of ciders. As refreshing as my sweat to the flies. I had forgotten about the flies and for a while it appeared they had forgotten about me. Until the time had come to relax with a cold cider.

I feel like every six months or so I have the urge to camp to be reminded of how arduous camping can be, the result of which is putting camping off for another six months or so. This time I thought I was making life easier by not really camping but sleeping in my car. This was a bit of a trial, but I had managed to remove and fold down seats to create space for my swag mattress. This padded by an old quilt created a perfectly spacious, comfortable area. Crucially I could stretch out fully from head to toe. My other less successful invention was the mosquito netting affixed on one of the rear windows by Velcro and Blu Tack.

I awoke after fitful sleep, still hot and greeted by the sound of a mosquito buzzing in my ear. Pilot test lessons: for some reason sleeping with your head at the back of the car is more comfortable. Get some better netting and use it on not one but two windows. Bring a tent just in case. Always, always consider a motel.

What you don’t usually get from a motel though is the experience of waking up at first light to a dawn chorus of joyous singing and painful shrieking. You don’t usually receive a refreshing essence from eucalypts releasing minty vapours in the cool of dawn. You are rarely greeted by an audience of kangaroos and their young, slightly startled to find that there is a person in that car around which they have been chomping overnight. You don’t have the options of a pit toilet or a tree.

Not feeling especially refreshed at six in the morning I was pleased to find that the iced coffee from Grenfell IGA was still reasonable in the car fridge. My original plan was to embrace the coolest part of the day by walking up Basin Gully to Eualdrie Lookout – billed as a ‘challenging’ and ‘adventurous’ hike, this time in printed information provided by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service. But rated as a Grade 5 hike (the most challenging) and weary as I was, I made the very sensible decision to give it a miss. What could I do instead? Oh, yes, that’s right, that shorter, mysterious Lynchs Loop.

Armed with a big stick for breaking any spider webs in front of me, I climbed steadily up through grassy woodlands, occasionally interrupted by a rocky boulder. Each step revealing more of the valley in which the campground sat and, beyond that, the plains to the west. At a junction, a trail led off to an overlook perched upon the very edge of the national park. Beyond, a view into vastness.

Scattered pools of sunlight breaking through the clouds shifted upon an endless canvas of gold. The meandering of watercourses was clearly etched into the land, as if a giant serpent had indeed been at work. Distant, only another hill rising incongruently from this flat agricultural tablecloth. Perched here, not another soul in the world. This is why it is worth it.

Enlivened and spirited by such moments, I decided to carry on the loop trail to see how unsafe it really was. The answer was NOT AT ALL. The route descended but other than a few rocks everything was gentle. All I can assume is whoever had written that strident piece of public information had done so after heavy rain – the remaining section of the trail crossed a largely dry creek which would no doubt tumble with vigour once or twice a year.

Leaving Weddin Mountains, I passed through Grenfell once again, failing to stop for a thickshake or to use its exemplary toilets. It wasn’t until Young that I embraced the luxury of running water once more. Young sits at the centre of the Hilltops region and the town itself lives up to this name. It seems whichever way you enter Young, it will be done from a height as your car winds its way down into the centre.

The centre of town – on a Sunday morning – was almost as devoid of habitation as Grenfell. Though larger, the high street also looked a bit rough-edged, run down, lacking the same faded elegance as its counterpart to the north. I always thought of Young as fairly well-to-do, set in a rich, productive landscape with a cherry on top.

This perception of Young returned upon entering a homewares store that featured a café, or more accurately a café that featured a selection of things for the home that are largely unnecessary. The café was busy with young, attractive people, extended families, and the local police collecting takeaway coffees and muffins. I felt fortunate to nab a table, close to the entrance where people were gathering in close proximity to register their presence on the off chance they had COVID.   

It is quite an adjustment from sleeping in a car in the middle of nowhere to eating eggs benedict with pulled pork and an apple cider hollandaise in an upmarket homewares café. I felt and looked out of place, possibly because I was not wearing my hat indoors like the tens of identikit males with sculpted beards, black T-shirt and shorts and designer caps. They probably even had a shower this morning, show-offs.

The coffee was good and the brunch was delicious, albeit tarnished by the other great event of our times. What is it with being served only one slice of toast these days?! Two eggs and a pile of other stuff lumped onto one slice of toast. For something like twenty dollars. I don’t care if your toast is handcrafted sourdough whose airy bubbles are formed by unicorn farts, please may I have two of them?

The one slice of toast may have worked in my favour if the planets had aligned. Young is famous (in Australia at least) for cherries, harvested at this time of year and finding their way to many a Christmas table. There is even a National Cherry Festival, which may have occurred this very weekend if it wasn’t for the lingering presence of a microscopic virus. Each year, breakfast news weathermen arrive in Young to pick cherries and tell us how many tonnes are being shipped across Australia before informing of an impending heatwave. Apart from this year.

Nonetheless, the cherries and still growing and are still – despite a scarcity of backpackers to exploit – being picked. Many of the orchards offer pick your own and I had read of one that also had a café selling cherry pie. Surely the perfect ending before heading back, the cherry pie on the icing on the cake? As long as you book ahead.

For it turns out such is the renown of cherry season and such is the limitation of visitation numbers during 2020 that my intended destination was full. No more entry. Turn around and go away. Carrot cake down the road in Binalong will have to do.

Happily, starting the journey home I came across a small outdoor market in the settlement of Wombat, around which many of the orchards are based. There was a mobile coffee van, and a plant stall, and that stand promoting turmeric as the cure-all for the world’s ailments. Something colourful and knitted emanated from another corner as you amble past and try not to make eye contact. And there, out of the back of the van, the punnets of cherries. Picked yesterday just around the corner.

You cannot come to Young at this time of year and not buy cherries. Much as you cannot come into this part of the world and not be impressed, not be thankful for the people labouring to bring food to your table. Or to relish the stops in small towns withering in the heat, hiding poets and bakers and bushrangers among elegant facades and restless youth. And perhaps the most impressive of all, you cannot be indifferent to those natural islands, remnants of a distant past, witnesses to a longstanding culture, rising up in defiance to the industrial plains.

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Classic hits

Have you ever noticed how much airtime commercial radio stations use boasting about all of the epic hits they play? To the extent that jingles boasting about the epic hits they play outweigh the actual amount of epic hits they play. Many of which are not epic, incidentally. Maroon 5 here’s looking at you. 

It was on the road between Cooma and Nimmitabel that such jingles disappeared into an annoying crackle. Luckily, I was still able to pick up the ABC, midway between the first innings of Tasmania v South Australia. The soporific summer tones of balls making their way through to the keeper settled me into a groove, on an undulating, barren expanse of the Monaro. Alas, even that became interrupted, crossing to the FRADULENT VICTORY SPEECH OF SLEEPY JOE AND <INSERT RACIST MYSOGINIST DOGWHISTLE> KAMALA. SAD.

Afterwards, a dose of Springsteen would have been perfect. Or the soon-to-be-famous You’re a Big Fat Lonely Loser by Echo Chamber and the Orangemen. But by time I reached Pipers Lookout any pretence at radio signal had vanished altogether. Instead, play had been pressed on track one on my own classic hits of the Far South Coast.

Because it’s such an easy stop there’s no reason not to stop, even if you have stopped here many times before. It’s just like one of those pull-outs along an American Highway, offering dazzling vistas without requiring any physical exertion. Upon the edge of the Great Divide, the landscape plunges down Brown Mountain through lush rainforest gullies into the Bega Valley. Beyond this rumpled green tablecloth, a sliver of sea.

The sea, I had not seen thee since mid-June. In that period, waves and whales have come and gone. But with our flipped around climate, the countryside has been as soothing as water lapping at a half moon bay. At the head of the Bega Valley, Bemboka again defying the reality of hell and fury that was ten months before. Only close attention picks up the charred matchsticks of trees atop the rugged wilderness to the north.  

Tathra marks the point at which the country meets the ocean and – at historic Tathra Wharf – another classic hit. Only this was one of those hits that you hear again many years later and feel slightly disappointed. It’s like a café in the perfect location that serves good coffee but decides to warm up a muffin and turn the delicious dollop of icing into a slimy gravy. Why do places do this without consent? The same with brownies. Frankly, warm brownies are glorified sponge cakes, a cold, dense, gooey pocket of rich chocolate ruined.

Of course I still ate warm muffin gloop and was starting to think I should work some of it off nearby. Somewhere new, somewhere different. For classics can also emerge in an instant. At Wajurda Point a viewing platform looked out over Nelson Beach, golden light emanating from the bush-clad hills and filtering through the ocean spray. On the beach, a lone silhouette provoked envy. Take me there.

Thirty minutes later I was accompanied by a choir of rainbow lorikeets, whip birds, and bellbirds as I made my way through a beautiful pocket of forest to the beach. I was now that lone silhouette heading north to an isthmus of sand melting into Nelson Creek. The topography of the creek, completing an entire 180 degree loop and widening into a lagoon is striking in its similarity to that of Merimbula. Only without the houses and cars and oyster beds and franked up boomers. 

As good as anywhere to whip out my airline blanket circa 2010 for a brief rest. Pause.

As tempting as it was, I couldn’t linger here forever. Time moves on and to tell the truth it was starting to feel a wee bit nippy in the sea breeze. Barely twenty degrees. I rounded the bend into the lagoon for more sheer serenity, interrupted by and interrupting a fretful mother and its baby. I read that the pied oystercatcher was listed as endangered in New South Wales and I felt a little bad inadvertently getting between the two. Not that the youngster seemed to care, such is the innocence of youth.

It is quite the juxtaposition to go from here to KFC Bega. Like Korn following Bach. Where the incompetence of youth rises to the fore like mashed potato in a plastic cup of gravy. It wasn’t all their fault; it seems half the population of Bega picks up Sunday dinner here. To the extent that COVID-capacity limits become dubious.

Quite astonishingly I was stopping in Bega for the night, hence such fine dining. Not only was this the first time I had stayed in Bega, it was also the first time I had stayed anywhere other than home since the very start of March. Six wicked wings and a takeaway salad from Woolworths in my motel room seemed an appropriate way to mark the occasion.

Bega is the kind of place you drive past or through on the way to Tathra or Merimbula or Eden or – even – the amazing COVID-free state of Victoria. Known for a mass-produced cheese, it’s not the most fashionable or affluent-looking town. But given I’ve been enamoured by understated country towns of late, it will do me just fine.

The next morning I decided I should give Bega a fair shake of the sauce bottle and wandered down towards the river. What I came across were weatherboard homes and verandas possessing a touch of ramshackle elegance. The town quickly gave way to generous green pasture, married with the chirpy sounds of spring. In a small portion of time I was in the country and not just any country. A country pretending at being Devon. It’ll be the closest I get this year.    

I would stay in Bega again but – crucially in the ‘I could live here’ assessment – I cannot yet testify to its quality of coffee. Keen to get back on the greatest hits tour, I determined my morning coffee should be at Bar Beach, Merimbula. A spot probably eclipsing that at Tathra Wharf and without the indignity of a melted muffin.

It was Monday – my day off – and surprising how many other people appeared to have time on their hands. Not just the usual array of wealthy retirees but paddle-boarding mums and surfing bums, living their best #vanlife. I fancy the odd person, like myself, was a wily Canberran lingering into a long weekend. Victorians seemingly absent.

Next on the tour was Pambula Beach or, to be precise, the Pambula River. Probably the standout track, the one that you revisit time and time again. When the sun is out here the clarity of colours defies belief, dazzling through the shadow of trees as you emerge from your car. The white sands leading you further into the heart of the river, ever-changing and reforming into crystal pools and sapphire swirls. One thing lacking – this time at least – was the backing track of bellbirds, quietened by the fresh wind funnelling through the valley.

The triumvirate of this hit parade is Eden and – specifically – fish and chips (or fish cocktails and potato scallops) down by the wharf. The crunchiest, most golden potato cakes this side of the border. My last memory of them was just before the end of 2019, a day or two before Mallacoota happened and when, a few days subsequently, this wharf became a shelter of last resort. Thankfully, the core of Eden remained intact and I was keen to do my usual diligent duty of supporting the local economy by eating its food.  

Much like The Rolling Stones, Eden Wharf had seen better days. Horror hit me when I discovered a ‘closed for good’ sign in my favourite scallop shop. Not only this, but every other outlet on the wharf looked abandoned. As if a pandemic had rolled in and wait… I wondered if business had been decimated by the double whammy of bushfires and COVID COVID COVID. Only later did I learn that the wharf building had been closed down because it was deemed unsafe.

Eden could do without 2020 I reckon. Paradise Lost. My only hope is that talk of food trucks becomes reality so that the town can benefit from Victoria reopening and a steady stream of summer visitors. For me, I would have to seek solace in potato scallops elsewhere.

It was back up the road in Pambula that I discovered Wheelers, famed for its oysters, also had a fish and chip takeaway. The fish was great (if a little on the small side) and the chips – strictly fries – were also surprisingly good. Only the two potato scallops, pale and insipid, left me deflated.

The good news was that I could take the takeaway back to the Pambula River, on a perfect stone seat sheltered from the wind. In cream tea terms, this was like Fingle Bridge – perfect setting, decent food. Is it a classic worthy of repeat? Well, only time will tell. For now, I have to press rewind, back over that mountain, once again to the overwhelming familiarity of home, radio signals and all.

Australia Driving Food & Drink Green Bogey Walking

Staycationing

What is it with people wanting to know about my Christmas holidays? Block out your leave on the leave planner ASAP; HQ would like to know who is around over December and January; Put a bottle of sherry and a mince pie out underneath your reverse cycle air-conditioning if you are going away.

Sorry, have you not heard WE ARE IN THE MIDST OF A PANDEMIC? I can’t make plans at the best of times, give me a break.

A break would be wonderful. There are all sorts of places I would love to go. But come December 24th, when Americans are gathering around log fires of looted furniture and Brits are off to the pub between the hours of 1825 and 1918 except on Tuesdays in Wetherspoons in Barnard Castle, who knows what will be possible? If things really go awry, the Australian news networks may have to rerun last year’s story on how many tonnes of prawns were sold at Sydney Fish Market. I doubt if anyone would notice the difference.

If unprecedented quickly became the word of the year by March, then staycation has been steadily building in the top ten. Other emerging contenders include drug cocktail, unhinged and orange. Indeed, if you look at Instagram fairly regularly it seems that a staycation is becoming quite the thing: book a swanky hotel five minutes from home, lazily graze on avocado eggs for brunch, and top it off with an electric scooter experience upon the foreshore. If you’re lucky you may get a bonus swab shoved into your brains a fortnight later. It’s just like when we used to get the holiday photos back from the chemist.

Lose the swanky hotel, replace avocado eggs with caramel slice, swap out electric scooter with pedal-powered bike and I feel like I have been living a drawn out staycation this entire year. During this era (for it very much feels like an era) I have discovered and rediscovered many a gem in the Australian Capital Territory, from the Murrumbidgee River to Mulligans Flat. But even Canberra is going to struggle to host a staycation for a year.

Days out help. Days out are the new four week overseas holiday sharing food and hugging people. The embrace of local countryside, continuing to flabbergast in its uncharacteristic green, is a welcome one, even when it’s conjuring a wistful mirage of England. Purple Paterson’s Curse and yellow Cape Weed blight the landscape as if heather and gorse. Birds chirrup gaily while simultaneously waiting on a tree branch with murderous intent. Some splendid country towns feel more alive in spite of everything. I feel the pull of these places more than ever. In fact, I think I might even have a road tripping country holiday. If I make plans.  

This pull of the country, this allure of the road had me heading off on my most ambitious staycayawayday yet. A good solid two hours down to Jindabyne, in the foot of the Snowy Mountains. I was even considering stopping the night, camping somewhere along the Snowy River. If it were not for the fact that it was a long weekend during school holidays and everywhere was booked out, then I probably would have. If only I could make plans.

Still, the drive to Jindabyne offered a little distraction – calling in at Royalla for free noodles and farewells, pausing in Berridale for an early lunch, and stopping off on the eastern edge of Lake Jindabyne for hearty views. Snow was still visible upon the Main Range, yet it was warming up steadily to highs in the mid-twenties. A day out in shorts had me longing for something more than a staycation. It had the feeling of holidays.

Passing through Jindabyne I entered the very fringe of Kosciuszko National Park, just over the Thredbo River. I didn’t really want to go further up the road into the snow, mainly because I was keen to avoid the hit of a $29 entry fee. The river would be a pleasant place to spend an hour or two, killing time while I wait for winds to please die down so I can go on my bike by the lake pretty please.

Sheltered by steep banks of eucalyptus, the air here was deceptively calm, a striking juxtaposition to the thrashing water flowing downstream. It’s the kind of noise that evokes the pristine, blocking out everything else around and bringing on the urge to pee. A few fly fishers had chanced upon the waters gambling for trout, unconcerned about becoming damp.

Further along, all is again calm, and I spy a grassy glade on which to linger. I’ve followed the Pallaibo Track a couple of kilometres into a clearing, the river penetrating upstream into a steeper sided valley. Following the river into the mountains, a newly laid gravel track loops and winds into the forest. The cambered curves signal this is not only or not even for pedestrians. This is the Lower Thredbo Valley Trail, a thoroughfare for mountain bikes.

Only there are no mountain bikes today. From what I can tell it is still closed for construction work, another one of those stimulus packages conveniently appearing in a marginal electorate. As the hit and miss state of stimulus packages go, it’s one I can get on board with; mountain biking is a pretty good bet to bring in visitors spending money on things like accommodation, food and emergency helicopter evacuation to Canberra Hospital.

A case in point: me spending money on coffee and carrot cake in a Jindabyne café, making my dedicated contribution to the local economy. Following this I set out on my bike along a much more genteel lakeside path. The wind had dropped a touch, but this only served to encourage thousands of horrendous bugs to congregate. I thought for a while my face may come to resemble the front windscreen of a car crossing the Nullarbor.

The nice and easy bike path eventually disappeared to be replaced by a supposedly nice and easy mountain bike trail. Lacking fat tyres and killer protection I wasn’t entirely sure what I would face but, apart from a few rocky nuisances, things were pretty plain sailing. Cows to the left of me, lake views to the right there were fleeting moments of joy that seem to only come on two wheels. Several tranquil bays passed by, culminating at Hatchery Bay where yet more anglers chanced their arm. This was the turn point and the start of the trip home.

Back home for another night home. Yet I was pleased not to be camping here, at least not on the shores of Lake Jindabyne. The campground was building into a frenzy, an escalating shanty town of awnings and eskies and people lounging on ten dollar Big W chairs with a beer in hand. I noted most of the number plates were from NSW – I guess ACT folk mainly escape down the coast. As much as I’m sure it will all be fine, you cannot picture such scenes without a little niggle of coronavirus in the back of your mind.

Watching the sun disappear into clouds on the western horizon, I bade farewell to Jindabyne for a drive through the dark. Really pushing a staycation to the limits. But it was an easy drive, and I was surprised to find the roads so quiet, most people obviously bedding down for the whole weekend.

Midway along the trip I paused in Cooma to support the local economy, including its service station and a deserted KFC. Eating those six wicked wings in my dark car parked on the widest street in the world might sound like I have plumbed new depths. But I have to say they were thoroughly delicious, all washed down by a frozen raspberry lemonade. Finger lickin’ – with antiseptic wipes – good. Who knows – wicked wings for Christmas lunch? Anything is possible without plans.

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Golly Gosh

Traditionally, the end of June has come to resemble a key juncture in my life: the culmination of the financial year acting as impetus for all sorts of project completions and invoice requirements and quick-turnaround work tasks. Traditionally.

Traditionally I would also, thanks to this purple patch, begin turning my attention to a trip overseas, to Europe, escaping some of winter and connecting again with treasured family and friends. Traditional cream teas would compete with a traditional trip to Looe for a pasty and a traditional offload of dirty laundry to Mum.

But tradition has been chucked out of the window. Of a twenty storey building. Then trampled over by a herd of elephants before being set on fire alongside a car park full of dumpsters. Attempts at home made pasties and Tilba cream prove B-grade substitutes. I continue to do my own laundry. The end-of-financial-year hubbub is subdued.

In many previous years it would have been unimaginable heading for a day out on the 29th June. Unless it was to a beige motel to complete some frantic discussion about something of great importance with eight citizens of Goulburn. All to get the country perspective. Perhaps it was some innate response mechanism propelling me up the Federal Highway today. To get another country perspective.

In COVID escapes from Canberra I think things peaked with a day on the South Coast. A trip to Goulburn was never really going to compete, even if I could stop off at Collector again for coffee. Still, I managed to find a couple of attractions along with a decent, good value spot to pick up some treats for later. Which always helps.

At Marsden Weir, the Wollondilly River forms an attractive body of water by which to amble. On a kink in the river, the sturdy red brick building of the Goulburn Historic Waterworks adds even more spice. There is a touch of Victorian endeavour about it – quite a rarity in Australia – and you can imagine Tony Robinson visiting it on his fourteenth series of Mildly Interesting Places in Regional New South Wales. He would explain how the waterworks were constructed in 1885 and form – wait for it – the “only complete, steam powered municipal water supply left in its original location, in the Southern Hemisphere.” Quite a lot of caveats to prominence there.

Being a weekday in midwinter and almost the end of the tax year there were just a handful of curious souls nosing around at the waterworks. You could – though – imagine banks of people in summer, supping locally-brewed ales and indulging in hearty lunches by the water. Perhaps a nearby cottage would supply cream teas and coffee and walnut cake. This is all in my dreams of course; nothing of the like seems to happen here. But perhaps it should be the way forward when we can all meet again.

Another prominent sight sits atop a hill which I have often glimpsed at a hundred and ten kilometres an hour on the way to Sydney. This is the Rocky Hill War Memorial Tower and there is a road up to its base. The tower was constructed in 1925 and you can walk to the top – after an application of hand sanitiser – to take in the scene. This provides a fine overview of Goulburn, spreading out on the southwestern side of the rail line. In the foreground, Goulburn East has its own, historic village feel going on, segregated from the rest of town by wetlands and a golf course. If I were to live in Goulburn, perhaps I would choose here; it just seems to have a touch more charm.

I ate my takeaway lunch overlooking the landscape from the hill and mulled over what to do for the remainder of the day. Being only lunchtime, I had seemingly exhausted the sights of Goulburn, with the obvious exception of the Big Merino. North of the tower some attractive bushland hills promise exploration but seem devoid of any walking trails. Far better to head to somewhere reliable, somewhere familiar, somewhere spectacular.

Bungonia National Park is probably the closest manifestation of rugged sandstone gorge country to Canberra and – of course – Goulburn. It is a landscape typical of much of the country surrounding the Sydney Basin, with heroic rivers carving out precipitous cliffs and deep ravines. As well as millions of eucalyptus, these landscapes are home to a few of my favourite things, including numerous lookouts.

Having been here several times before, I initially took a walk on the Orange Track. It’s probably the least exciting of the trails but offers a fairly easy stroll through open forest to a pleasant enough view in between the trees. You can tell it’s not going to be the most dramatic walk since the description suggests you might see a koala – surely only there to try and keep the kids occupied. What struck me more than anything was the absolute peace and quiet. Perhaps this was balm to the freneticism and clamour of downtown Goulburn.

It was supposed to be a sunny day today, but any mid-morning brightness had largely disappeared to a layer of white and grey. There were even a few spots of rain as I neared Bungonia Lookdown. Here, a platform leads out towards and dangles over the valley. It is a captivating, spectacular scene dramatically ruined by a quarry nestled in a hilltop to the north. But retaining focus on the valley, a few miracle shafts of sunlight suddenly appear to conjure up some kind of prehistoric lost world.

There is even a hint of rainbow in the air, but this quickly fades along with the sun and the rain. Yet I feel brightened and warmed by this visit and an appreciation once again of how lucky I am to be here today. To have this sort of wilderness on your doorstep. If you consider a ninety minute drive via the city of Goulburn your doorstep.

While Bungonia definitely lifted the day, there was clear benefit in stopping in Goulburn which became realised at my final stop. Adams Lookout provides another stunning view into Bungonia and – in particular – the narrow defile of Slot Canyon. There was something about the squidgy datey syrupy oaty nutty sugary slice that I had bought earlier that lifted things to another level. I daresay I would travel to Goulburn again to get my hands on one.

It was no cream tea but just the tonic to power me home. I even found a different route back which surprised me by being sealed the whole way – down to Tarago and back on familiar roads from Bungendore. Thus to experience the wonders of Bungonia you could actually avoid Goulburn entirely. Though I doubt if I will. I feel more likely a new experience, a new tradition has now been born.

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Good Kama

I’m now well into my second Canberra winter in succession. Following an early pre-election trip in 2019 and – well – just go f*** yourself 2020, doing time in the icebox of Australia is now becoming as familiar to me as a pair of slippers that don’t quite keep your feet warm enough. Why the feet, always the feet?

With exposure I can’t decide if I love or loathe winter here. I’m certainly never going to complain about it because I made that promise to myself in the disgusting hot and fiery summer of smoke and hell. And if you subtract the minus overnight figures, short days and empty deciduous trees, there remains a lot to love. Like the deep blue sky, presenting a sun that offers afternoon comfort in the shelter. There’s the cosiness of warming, slow-cooked meatiness with spicy red wine. And, of course, the outdoor walks invigorating and beguiling in the sharp winter light. Even the freezing fog offers a captivating spectacle when it lifts.

On rare occasions the fog fails to lift at all, and these are the worst. Fed by our spacious artificial lakes and the rugged rivers to our west, gloomy refrigerated moisture makes for a match with the sun. Where I live – missing a large lake nearby – appears to be one of the first places to clear and I have often set off out only to see a wall of white enveloping the next suburb along. Stay at home has double resonance.

Sometimes you see the fog sitting stubbornly to the west in the valleys beneath the mountains. Today was not one of those days as I went on a discovery taking in a stretch of the Molonglo River. This is essentially the water course that forms Lake Burley Griffin, entering via Googong Dam and Queanbeyan to the east and exiting to meet up with the mightier Murrumbidgee.

I had in mind a spot called Kama Nature Reserve but didn’t know what to expect since this was all new to me. Finding it was the first mission, in particular being able to turn off into a patch of gravel somewhere along a busy dual carriageway while giving sufficient notice to the utes behind me. Heading towards West Belconnen, this was far outside my comfort zone.

The particular patch of gravel I discovered was empty, reflecting what I think is a relatively undisturbed tract of Canberra Nature Reserve. Certainly, it was a place I had never heard of until I randomly stumbled upon it on the interweb. This informed me that there were a couple of trails you could do – the Dam Walk, heading to a small dam, and the River Walk, which extends down to the river. Genius.

As it turns out I didn’t take the Dam Walk despite thinking as much as I entered the reserve to join a wide fire trail heading gently downhill. The surroundings were all fairly standard and predictable – grassland scattered with gum trees and the occasional shrub. A cluster of paper daisies added a little chirpiness to proceedings, little sunshines of colour beaming from a swathe of red dirt.

Smaller thickets of grass gathered within the hollows of the land. What I thought might have been a dam was probably more of a bog, but it was sufficiently moist for the sound of ducks to convince me that this was the promised dam of the Dam Walk. From here I headed on down to the river on, possibly, the River Walk.    

The landscape here was far more open, barren even. A few areas of the reserve were fenced off for some kind of university experiment, while an endless parade of kangaroos made a mockery of such fencing. You could detect the river without really seeing it, the land sliding onward into a cleft, over which more expansive grasslands and hills continued. 

At one point a small cluster of rocks in the side of a hill attracted attention. I was seeking a view of the river itself and headed over to them. And while I caught glimpses of water through a channel of trees, the view itself pretended at Dartmoor: open, rugged, golden brown. I might have been there this time of year. The temperature was probably about the same.

A smooth dirt road followed the Molonglo up on the flat land high above its course. This I assume was a part of the river walk, confirmed with some signage further along at a junction both down to the river itself and back up towards the mysterious dam. Meanwhile, the dirt road carried on following the river and I was curious to see where it might lead, tempted by some rockier, gorge-like views in the distance.

This route was a surprise and one of the more surprising things I found about it was an absence of cyclists. It seems a perfect little ride (flat and smooth) with expansive views and potential rest stops. Indeed, the road appears to go on and on and on; I guess at some point access might be barred but today it seemed endless. I could have gone on and on too, if it were not for my lack of provisions.

It may well be, of course, that this road comes out onto a horrendous water treatment plant or against a shooting range or just simply a private property scattered with rusted Holdens and fake blue Australian flags made in China. I suppose I will just have to come back one day and find out.

For today, I needed to return to the car and did so this time via the dam. It was just a small puddle in the end, but the grasses and trees provided a pleasing landscape in which to finish. And beyond that, the views again opened up, over the river and across the plains, to the distinctive ridge of Camel’s Hump; another walk to do on another day. Springtime perhaps.

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Another Day Out!

Stretching even further afield for a day trip down to the South Coast of New South Wales…


Clyde Mountain

Around the top of Clyde Mountain, vivid green growth flourishes almost six months following the devastating bushfires of summer. Away from the road, it’s a serene, mesmerising world filled with gentle birdsong. Heading down the mountain, different stages of recovery are discernible: from vibrant thickets to some very barren, charred terrain with little new growth in sight – clearly subject to fire of such intensity that it may never fully recover.

Broulee

At Broulee there is an island that isn’t really an island but is almost an island attached to the Australian mainland by a narrow neck between Broulee Beach and Shark Bay. No sharks spotted today but best to keep out of the water!
Shark Bay
Approaching something close to 18 degrees with only light winds, sheltered spots at least prompt consideration of short sleeves. While a little cloud bubbles up from time to time, the views out to sea and back to the coastal ranges are striking.

Burrewarra Point

A rugged headland offers a maze of rambles through coastal heath dotted with flowing Banksia. At one point a couple of seals are pointed out to me by a man wistfully seeking whales. However, the largest lump sighted on the distance horizon proves to be the spiritual peak of Gulaga.

Guerilla Bay

Guerilla Bay seems a little off the beaten track. Grand homes and shacks hide in the bush. No shops or cafes to tempt the tourists. And a cove reachable only with a little instinct and good fortune.
Golden winter afternoons
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Warmth

Back in January, when we were in the midst of that horrible summer, I proclaimed out loud that I would never complain about winter in Canberra ever again. So there you go. I am absolutely loving the first day of May, with its frigid drizzle and single digit tops. It’s even better than yesterday.

On Tuesday afternoon I was still in shorts, walking up Mount Ainslie. Such are the inconsistencies of change, the indecisiveness of an autumn spanning thirty degree highs to single digit lows. Sunburn in the suburbs and snow on the hills, closed off and out of reach.

I was curious how autumn would pan out this year after the terror summer, the massive hailstorm, the rain, and now the chill. But I shouldn’t have worried because – on this most dismal of days – there are still riots of colour in every other cul-de-sac, around every empty circle. And I’ve had plenty of opportunity to investigate multiple nooks and crannies in these recent weeks. From COVID-walks around the corner to expeditions along the Centenary Trail, there is always something of wonder on offer to brighten up the dark…

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Walks from home, discovering every single street in an effort to mix it up a little

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If you can walk clockwise and put up with the zillions of people getting their mandated exercise, Lake Burley Griffin offers all the usual spectacle

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Red Hill: the street sweeper’s dream

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It’s not only the cockies causing all the shenanigans. Flocks of pretty gang-gangs, vibrant king parrots and stately yellow-tailed black cockatoos are a regular sight feasting on the fruits of summer, and not practising social distancing

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Colours in Campbell, sidestepping from the Centenary Trail

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Look close and there is autumn magic around every corner

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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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