Nature’s confetti

A lack of blogging endeavour is reflective of my position of relative stasis in the last couple of months. Still, if you were to choose a period to stay put in Canberra then this may well be it. For while my feet have largely been rooted in the capital, change has very slowly and subtly washed over me.

The late summer lingering of balmy days and comfortable nights has lingered longer than usual. On the streets, an initial shock of arboreal colour mellowed and probably wanted to turn back green. The Anzac Day ritual of firing up the heaters was drastically postponed, as armies marched in 27 degrees. Meanwhile, the western ranges burned – in a controlled way – but the taste of smoke pervaded regardless, transforming the late afternoon skies blood red as the clocks wound back. Only now in May does Canberra’s autumn peak. And trainer socks dissipate from the laundry.

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Welcome – at last – to the annual autumn edition! It began, perhaps, around the start of April with daytime temperatures dropping below thirty degrees, and overnights to single digits. This is a milestone of sorts, but one that is bordering on uncomfortably hot for visitors from Middle Buntingland-Upon-Farage. Not long after Dad had left these shores with a decent tan, Jill arrived on a relatively last-minute trip to Australia, and came to Canberra seeking a few days escape from the noise and hustle of Sydney. So what better way to flee than in the hills, to that very Australian bush, the wilderness on our doorstep.

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atm02In truth, the walk up the Yerrabri Track in Namadgi National Park was only part of a bigger equation. An equation whose solution was a delicious bird roll or two. N+J*OzNP(vt)+C0les=br. It’s a concept that has evolved from very preliminary experiments at the New Years’ Test in Sydney, refined to perhaps its ultimate manifestation on the top of Mount Kosciuszko. Replicated many times since, it is now a requisite of any encounter between Jill and I. Recently, each of us have tried to outdo one another in the bird roll stakes and today, on a rocky platform overlooking peak serenity of an abundant emptiness, I may have taken the lead. For now.

Bird rolls are not the only thing that are becoming customary. Having zig-zagged up Kangaroo Creek in Royal National Park and almost losing a boat on the Bellinger River, we have since become more finessed in guiding bright pieces of plastic upon water. Okay, I think we got up close and personal with the Norfolk Broads last year, but just the once. And this time – my first time self-propelled on Lake Burley Griffin – there was no shrubbery with which we embarrassed ourselves. Indeed, it was an incident-free beautiful late afternoon pedal in a kayak, the sun going down earlier than the day before and a noticeable coolness making itself known.

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Since then, around the lake shore, it has been peak biking conditions under calm blue skies and ambient warmth. Only more recently have shorts been swapped for long legs, T-shirts for hoodies, short socks for long. Like the weather, autumn evolves in patches, materialising in pockets; a glade untainted green here, trees stripped bare there. In between an emergence of yellows, oranges, reds and browns, meaning that every day there is something different to see from the vantage of two wheels.

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But it is at this point in the year that ambling in Canberra’s suburbia comes into its own, usurping the attractions of its lakeside coves, bushland hills, and concrete edifices. It’s the peoples’ Canberra, the homes and gardens and streets that real, mostly normal, everyday Bruces and Sheilas like you and I live in. Okay, the more affluent burbs have the lions share of autumnal splendour, but pockets of colour burst out from pavements far and wide. Even down near the local youth centre, the skulking youngsters seem softened by an explosion of nature’s confetti.

It is in these streets, around these crescents, besides these storm drains that I can happily wander. In autumn, an insipid walk becomes a quaint stroll. Not that there’s total serenity; as the number of leaves fall, the number of shrieking cockatoos rise. Thankfully there are a few black ones to offer some grace.

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In the afternoons it is still warm and golden, and coffee can still be taken alfresco and still with cake. But now, as May nears its end and winter will soon nominally start, the real change sets in. It started in shorts and T-shirts, humid hikes and toasty paddles, with a cold beer to wash the day down. It ends in an Orange Sky hoodie, bracing rides, electric blankets and the warming spice of a glass of red. Standing still, embracing change.

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Making moments – the epitaph south

Can there be anything more symbolic of returning to work than a shave in a dingy motel room in regional Australia? As two-week-old stubble clings stubbornly to off-white porcelain, a sense of beige pervades, worsened by the 1970s tiles and a toilet hygienically sealed by a useless strip of paper from the same era. Thankfully – in this case at least – the ironing board remained lurking in the cupboard.

D1Fast-forward a few days and the work was done, proving less cumbersome and far more populated with coffee and cake than I could have hoped for. This left me alone with a car and a few belongings close to the Queensland-NSW border. A massive part of me wanted to make the journey home as quickly as possible, but then an equally massive part also yearned to stop in Warrumbungle National Park. Another significant consideration was a determination to miss the whole messy Newcastle-Central Coast-Sydney conglomeration. This along with the fact that, heading inland, I could go through Texas tipped the scales definitively south and west. Yeehaw.

Sublime seconds in Warrumbungle National Park

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Sometimes when you return to a place for the second time it can underwhelm. This is especially the case if you have rose-tinted memories involving walks along rocky ridges and dry sandy creeks, absorbing earthy eucalyptus scents and far-reaching views. I had this concern approaching the Warrumbungles, but left concluding this is one of the best national parks in the whole of Australia.

Of course, all of this is entirely subjective and hinges on whatever floats your boat. For me, the campground offers a good starting point – scenic and spacious with decent facilities to make camping again seem less of a chore. Pitching the glamping tent / mower cover beside gums with views of Belougery Split Rock, you are at once at one with the land. Until a whole family sets up shanty next door.

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To really appreciate the Warrumbungles you need to walk, and – ideally – walk upwards. I had done this before on the signature Grand High Tops hike and so was hoping to find something a little different. And what better than that mountain I could see from my tent, in late afternoon sun still scorching the land upwards of thirty degrees?

Admittedly the initial stages of the walk up Belougery were a little taxing – seared by the hot westerly sun and, naturally, uphill. But each step enabled a strategic pause as a landscape of gorges and peaks became incrementally exposed. Rounding a corner and into shade, the views expanded before the rocky clump of the Grand High Tops made themselves known.

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I could scramble a further 800 metres to the very top, but this route was littered with warnings about rockfalls and climbing and three-headed drop bear spiders. Besides, contentment comes in many forms including a sit down on a crag drinking a blissfully cold lemon Solo leftover from last night’s KFC in Moree. Mission accomplished, and the views really couldn’t get that much better surely.

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By now the harsh heat had started to fade and it was a beautiful early evening heading around the rock and down towards the sinking sun. This is a magical landscape, an eden of elemental Australia dramatically rising from a sea of golden plains. Clarity under a big blue sky, sun-baked and scented by the fragrance from dried out forest. A place even better second time around.

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One final thing to cross off

With all the marvellous travelling with Dad, all the sights and sounds of late, from a harbour island to a smoky cape, along waterfall ways and luxuriant bays, climbing plateaus and canoeing among glades, Easter arrived in something of a haste. Waking at the campground in Warrumbungle National Park on Good Friday, I was glad to have ticked off that special walk last night and ready to tackle the final stretch home.

D7I was even more glad of my foresight in buying some hot cross buns and a block of butter in Coonabarabran yesterday. What better way to use the camp stove for the last time, to set me on my way to Gilgandra, to Dubbo, to Wellington, to Molong, to Canowindra, to Cowra, to Boorowa, to Yass and – 550kms later – to Canberra.

Moments can be made in small packages of fruity dough topped with lashings of butter as well as epic landscapes and outdoor escapades. So many moments that meld together to form memories that will stand the test of time. And if they don’t, at least some are now documented on a trivial little blog in a remote corner of the Internet! To use a well-worn phrase again, MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.

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Making moments – 3

Queensland. Beautiful one day, perfect the next. So they say. Which just goes to show how much you can trust those unscrupulous Queenslanders! Full of holes and overexaggerated boastfulness, it’s a kind of fake showiness that you’d associated with a white shoe laden Gold Coast property developer. And while it’s a catch cry urging the rest of Australia and the world to visit, I suspect there’s a bit of self-reflective reassurance going on, trying to quell lingering self-doubt about whether this really is some kind of chosen land.

C1aAnyway, lest I offend several friends, family, prospective employers and the rest of their state, Queensland can be beautiful and at times might be equated with some form of perfection. However, the humidity is frequently disgusting and – on this occasion at least – the marooaaans easily trounced the blues in the rainfall stakes. Meanwhile, the growth of South East Queensland is rapidly turning the area into one very long Gold Coast-Brisbane-Sunshine Coast conglomeration where it seems obligatory to buy an oversized property and a Toyota Hilux. Here, the only koala left is a giant fake blue mascot sitting around watching far too many swimming events.

Thankfully, Queensland is big and there is still space to escape for koalas and tourists alike. Indeed there are, not too far away, spots that remain beautiful which can provide some near perfect moments…

How many waterfalls in Springbrook National Park?

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There are a couple of incredible things about Springbrook National Park. The first is just how close it is to the Gold Coast, which is visible from several vantage points along the plateau. This offers a stark depiction of contrast; among fragrant gums and chirping birds, rolling wilderness journeys to meet suburban sprawl and the jagged teeth of waterfront high rise. Like a pristine glacier delivering its scruffy jumble of terminal moraine.

The second incredible thing is just how many waterfalls plunge off the escarpment here, to the extent that you might just encounter a touch of waterfall fatigue. This can especially be the case if you have travelled up the Waterfall Way and stopped off at Natural Bridge after crossing into Queensland via the beautiful back road. Then there’s lookouts at Purling Brook Falls and Goomoolahra Falls and that’s before you’ve even started walking down a little below the cliff edge.

What other falls could we possible fall for? Well, how about a pair of falls that together plunge into a tropical pool that you can also walk behind? This has to be the waterfall sightseers nirvana? Surely, these Twin Falls represent the climatic conclusion of our waterfall odyssey, a place in which it was easy to linger and fill up a memory card in awe. A place that you’re a bit reluctant to leave, thoughts tempered only by the prospect of some more waterfalls further along the track. And a view or two back to the Gold Coast.

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A golden hour on the Noosa Everglades

The Queensland rain was setting in the further north that Dad and I travelled. Among other delights, this heralded the joy of packing up wet camping gear which was barely drying out in the car as we steered through torrential downpours towards Noosaville. Queensland was far from beautiful, and very far from perfect for embarking on a cruise up the Noosa River and paddle upon the Everglades.

C4I think if miracles exist then we had one, for there was around one hour of dry, relatively sunny weather on that day which had seemed totally implausible earlier on. An hour that coincided with our allotted time in a canoe, gently zig-zagging with the meanders of the water towards Harry’s Hut. While the surrounds were a bit samey and somewhat nondescript (in a jungly, swampy wilderness kind of way), it was an hour of calm, of peace, of harmony with the environment. And above all, recognition of sheer bloody luck.

For as the snags were sizzled and steaks seared, another downpour heralded a return to the norm. And the less fortunate group of backpackers on the tour (some of whom seemed to be mouthier and more deserving of a drenching) were allotted our canoes for the return trip. It turns out that passing them under the cover of the cruise boat was – in itself – a moment that I’ll remember for a while too!

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Destination reached in Cooloola Cove

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After a week of traversing a tiny part of Australia there was relief in reaching Cooloola Cove: a spot to dry everything out and discover covers for ride on lawnmowers; a chance to check the car and change tyres; a soft bed under a proper roof; and, above all, the welcome and comfort from family armed with cheese and wine and no tiramisu.

These were relatively sedate days that were much needed, still dodging showers on land that was new to my feet. And perhaps it was Inskip Point – where the storm clouds just kept out to sea – that offered the greatest bliss on our tour of the area.

C6Just a hefty stone’s throw from the tip of Fraser Island, the soft sand delights the toes more than it does tyres. The rugged natural detritus of storms and tides offers a little intrigue and entertainment. The comings and goings of the ferry – and the potential for vehicles to get bogged down on Fraser – offer even more. Dark shadows intersperse with brilliant sunshine, grey waters become blue, brown sands less brown. Fatigue becomes contentment, and moments to remember form. Moments that are beautiful, even perfect. Damn you Queensland!

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Making moments – 2

The recent trip north with Dad through New South Wales was blessed with a lack of weather. By that I mean it was astonishingly unremarkable – no cyclones, storms or cool changes – just day after day of largely cloudless skies and warm to hot temperatures. Nominally it was autumn, but there was nothing in the landscape to signify as much.

Nonetheless, we did confront moisture in the clammy, salty air of the coast. Enough to encourage all the bitey insects and make putting up a tent in the afternoon an ordeal in sweatiness. It’s a contrast to the arid air of Canberra and – for all the allure of golden sand and the sapphire ocean – it’s not one I’m entirely comfortable with. Leaving South West Rocks and heading north, I was also tiring of the Pacific Highway; like autumn a misnomer that never fringes the sea. And so, nearing the junction for Coffs Harbour, a road that they’ve called The Waterfall Way acts as that final magnet dragging a metal box on wheels upwards and inland…

Drying out all the way to Armidale

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Apart from a parade of rather lovely waterfalls, one of the more interesting things about The Waterfall Way is the transition in the climate and landscape, from that of lush and moist coastal forest to dry tablelands of eucalyptus and swaying, golden grass. This transition is starkly realised between two memorable spots around fifty kilometres apart.

Dorrigo National Park is all World Heritage Area Ancient Rainforests of Gondwana and at times you feel like you are walking within prehistory. A jumbled canopy of tall trees and filtered sunlight seeps down to an understorey of verdant palms, giant ferns and distorted woody vines. Numerous birds chirrup and chatter largely unseen, apart from the ubiquitous bush turkeys.

Somewhere through the forest, the sound of rushing water becomes magnified and you turn the corner to be confronted with Crystal Shower Falls. A graceful veil plunging into a dark round pool, it is a scene to invigorate the senses, a climax which the rest of the Wonga Walk finds difficult to eclipse. Organic hipster-tended cake picked up earlier in Bellingen provides some relief, before the highlight of a resident lace monitor and final view, in which this most gorgeous of forests sweeps down the escarpment towards that humid, distant ocean.

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B2Up the road at Ebor Falls, situated within Guy Fawkes River National Park, we have reached a land of rugged gorges and wild rivers, decorated with millions of eucalypts and a million more golden everlasting daisies. Indeed, green becomes more golden with the drop in rainfall. The smells and sounds are more familiar: that earthy aridity mixed with the fresh minty essence of the gums; the friendly chirp of a pair of rosellas; the chatter of an old guy named Bert to his wife Sandra. “Well, isn’t that grand.” And indeed, it sure is. It sure is.

Joining the easternmost club in Byron Bay

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Our break inland provided something of a reprieve, spending a night in relative luxury at a campground with ablutions in Armidale, taking in some random fireworks and heading on the next day through the pleasant, rolling landscape of northern New England. It’s no England and no Scotland either, despite what Glen Innes and the numerous signs to Ben Lomond may allude to.

After Tenterfield, we were heading back to the coast as we had a date with a pool in Byron Bay. My first and only visit to Byron was in 2000 and I can’t remember much about it. I suspect plenty had changed since then, even in the tint of my hair. It seems in 2018 there are still lots of fresh-faced backpackers and guys possessing a battered van and guitar desperately seeking their attention. But there are also lots of families and older couples and – even occasionally – a father and son walking up a hill. With fancy beachside cafes and a leisurely parade of SUVs and boogie boards, Byron 2018 struck me as a Sydney Middle Harbour suburb transported north.

What hasn’t changed is the lighthouse at Cape Byron and the much-vaunted most easterly point in mainland Australia. It’s a walk – which I think has been upgraded and much more trodden since 2000 – that has its ups and downs (and bush turkeys), but the views up top are ample reward. And while the lighthouse and ocean and craggy lush hinterland of volcanic remains capture attention it is perhaps the sweeping arc of sand that is Tallow Beach that captures the heart. And captures the very spirit of what Byron is still all about.

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The date with the pool

Okay, so we had camped for four nights on the trot with varying levels of comfort. We had washed in the sea and cooked in the dark. We had valiantly but unsuccessfully zipped zips to keep out the bitey bugs. My own swag mattress is undoubtedly becoming thinner, on a declining trajectory that correlates with my own ageing. Camping may just be starting to lose its appeal.

In this context if I am cataloguing memorable moments then nothing can be more striking than a proper bed, a proper shower, the creature comforts plus of a B&B in Byron. A beautiful, modern, strikingly clean setting with its pool as the piece-de-resistance. Clean water that shimmers in the afternoon light, that soothes the skin, that offers a backdrop for Facetime calls to a dank, sub-zero France. If being back on the coast is like this I could – we could – happily get used to it.

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Making moments – 1

This blogging malarkey can be daunting, overwhelming. At times it seems to be a burden, a self-imposed millstone around my neck that I started ages ago and cannot quite shake off. This is especially the case when you have just crammed in an epic few weeks with your Dad exploring as much as you can of a small part of the gargantuan landmass of Australia. So many photos to try and fix up a little with the inept tools provided by Windows 10. So many words to write. So many opportunities to be mildly humorous and maddeningly self-deprecating. Where do I start?

The thing is, I know when I do start to write that I can get into a groove. I enjoy it. Partly I am writing to myself; a record, a reminiscence. Like anyone, I can prosper through purple patches of prodigious prose and struggle in sufferance stringing sentences into some semblance of structure. Alliteration might be a side-effect. A cold beer can provide aid, something I was going to get twenty minutes ago before I got distracted by writing these last two paragraphs.

So, I actually found a remaining Kirin Cider in the fridge and with the influence of a little Japanese Zen (hic) decided that the best way to approach things is through the time-honoured application of baby steps. Baby steps that are moments that are recollections that will stand the test of time. In effect a highlights reel, starting with a ride from Canberra up the coast of New South Wales

– – – Canberra on the rise – – –

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In March Canberra is nearing its annual state of perfection. The mornings become crisper, the air calmer, the flora and fauna engaging in a frenetic dalliance before things quieten down. In the month in which Canberra was born, Canberra is reborn from the fierce heat and drawn-out holidays of summer. Canberra celebrates with lights and fireworks and food and balloons. One elongated fiesta.

It is an early Saturday morning and the clear air of dawn is steadily lightening down by Old Parliament House. At such an hour it is almost an affront to battle for a car park and find yourself immersed into a hubbub of people, cars, and brightly coloured material lain upon dewy grass. The roar of a gas flame is like a road train rumbling into your dreams, awakening the slumber as much as it is enlivening balloons. Lumps of bright red and vivid green begin to emerge from the encircling crowds. Bulbous spheres and irregular shapes take form; a helmet, a heart, a frog, a bird. It turns out – like us – hot air balloons come in all shapes and sizes.

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From the east, the first balloon ascends peacefully, almost unnoticed, into the air. This precipitates a flurry of activity as everyone follows its lead. Like bubbles effervescing from a newly opened raspberry lemonade, one after the other pop up into the deep blue sky. There must be twenty, thirty…where they all came from goodness only knows. And even though you have seen this before and will probably see it again, it leaves you mesmerised, as enchanted as the four-year-old by your side. And all before breakfast.

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– – –  Being Mr Harbourside non-mansion in Sydney – – –

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Memories are rarely made of drives up the Hume Highway and M5 and certainly not along the A3 towards Ryde. The sparkling city of Sydney struggles under the burden of traffic and industry spreading across its sprawling suburbs, a long way from the Qantas songs atop harbour bridges and Paul Hogan leisurely cremating prawns by the beach. Eventually, increasing proximity to the city’s famed water is signified by gentrification and then ostentatious wealth, passing through salubrious homes nestled into Hunters Hill and lining the water at Greenwich. And all this can be yours – well maybe not all this – for $89 a night.

What you do get on Cockatoo Island is a spacious tent, a couple of far from plump mattresses and some fold up chairs to lounge upon the deck. Water is never far away, meaning that ferry rides are a necessary mode of transport. After exploring some of the fascinating buildings and shipbuilding remnants upon the island, you can catch a late afternoon ferry towards the city, truly glistening in the sinking sun. Along the way you are reminded that – despite the exclusive homes with private moorings – so much of this waterfront is accessible to all. And while I am sure there are some fancy enclaves for rich people dressed up very smartly, practically anyone can buy a drink down at the Opera Bar and pretend they are a millionaire.

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In hindsight it seems perverse to think we were going to give Sydney a miss on this trip, partly because of the Sydney of M5s and A3s and its procession of diesel haulage and concrete junctions. To bypass is to miss the opportunity for the Sydney of Qantas songs atop harbour bridges. To bathe in its icons and soak in its unashamedly self-satisfied ambience. To sample the transformation as the sun goes down and the illuminations glow. To feast on a delicious dinner that didn’t involve a camp stove or washing up in the dark. And to ride back upon the water, under that bridge, as the skyline of the city lights stretch out onto the horizon and an $89 mansion awaits.

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– – –  Reaching a Zenith in Port Stephens – – –

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Getting out of Sydney the following day was better than expected. But then where does Sydney really end? The Central Coast almost seems an extension of the sprawl of the city, one which proves infuriating when you veer off the main motorway. Places like The Entrance, Toukley, Swansea, Charlestown and – finally – Newcastle blend into one elongated strip of shops, retirement homes, caravan parks, lagoons and exceedingly sandy, exposed (in more than one way) beaches.

Myself underestimating the scale of Australia and its distractions along the way, it wasn’t until late afternoon that Dad and I reached our destination in Port Stephens. And though missing spectacular sunset skies while waiting for fish and chips was symptomatic of the day that had been, the saviour came in Zenith Beach. Wedged underneath the volcanic-shaped mound of Tomaree Head, its fine white sand, foot-soothing water and refreshing air was just the tonic after a day in a car, a day amply washed down by fish and chips in the dark.

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– – –  Shooting for the stars at Hat Head – – –

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A09While memories can be magnified or maligned by multiple visits, there is something special about breaking new ground. A stop around South West Rocks and Hat Head National Park provided many highlights, one of them being that this was new territory for me, Dad and the car. We all quite liked the drive alongside the Macleay River, with its green watery pastures, tiny weatherboard towns and cowbirds. We all liked a lot less the potholes around the national park campground by the beach. We were fond of the lighthouse and its views, but not so keen to traverse a rough track to some mythical walking trail. Still, if we hadn’t switched to a different walk we might have missed the sun going down. Everything works out for the best in the end.

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With the sun vanquished, cooking by torchlight is not the easiest experience in the world but when it’s a simple one pot taco feast the satisfaction is all the greater. Following such sumptuousness at home there’s a fair chance we would lounge back, probably unhitch the belt a notch and – depending on context – watch His Royal Highness Danny Dyer whack some bleedin’ tool good and proper in Eastenders. In a rustic camp with a pit toilet and little else, entertainment is on an altogether more monumental scale. Look at the stars, look how they shine for you.

A12The beach is pitch black barring the beam of light circling upon the lighthouse. The sound of waves suggest ocean somewhere vaguely nearby, a roar magnified without any other disturbance at night. The sea breeze is cooling and evaporative, seemingly keeping the blood-sucking bugs at bay. The fine sand sustains a tripod and the sky offers an infinite, ever-expanding canvas. The photos may not have turned out brilliant, but the shared experience, the learning, the new adventure was. I daresay it was even better than Eastenders. And on that bombshell, bom, bom, bom, bom-bu-bu-bu-bum.

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Queen of the south

I had never visited or passed through the small town of Lumsden, yet it featured prominently on our road map borrowed from a keen fly fisherman friend of Dad. The road map offered annotated teasers of someone else’s holiday: Day 2 on the Oreti River, a fine haul at the Whitestone, a ride on a steam train. Lumsden was often at the heart of the scribblings, and a town with a population of 400 boasting a fishing shop just about says it all. Today, in winds stronger than Gita, the trout would have been blowing down the street alongside wheelie bins and pizza boxes. Even I might be able to catch one.

Heading north from Lumsden we paused at the southern extremity of Lake Wakitipu, at the tip of this thunderbolt shaped body of electric blue, a Harry Potter scar etched into the Southern Alps by a tectonic Lord Voldemort. Parking upon the shore in Kingston for a cheesy car picnic, lightning or death eaters were not the issue, but the wind blowing off the lake, rocking the car and creating spouts and swirls of water. A nearby lookout point marked as The Devils Staircase never seemed so apt.

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NZd02Contrast this with an hour later in Arrowtown, a cutesy (if a touch contrived) old gold rush village just out of Queenstown. Sheltered by hills, twenty-five degrees, sunshine out, there was no hesitation in showing my pants to the whole of the car park and changing into shorts. Likewise, both Dad and I had no hesitation in agreeing ice cream should be on the agenda. Such thoughts are obvious portents of the cloud rolling in, the wind rising, and drizzle emerging. But let that not stop us eating ice cream!

And so, when we eventually arrived at our lofty accommodation in Queenstown up several flights of stairs, there was no lake to see, no mountain tops to captivate, and just the sound of heavy rain and testosterone-fuelled Argentine rugby players having a balcony party to enjoy. Perfect conditions to don a mac, head into town, find a pub, and gorge on a hearty roast.

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In a mini-repeat of the post-Gita awakening, the next morning dawned with just a few residual clouds hovering over the lake, the blue skies expanding to cast Lake Wakatipu a luminescent teal. What better way to dazzle than drive along its shores to Glenorchy, the symbolic top of the fork of thunder encircled by lofty mountains. Just when you thought New Zealand could not get any more scenic, any more stunning, you turn a corner and once more get whacked in the face in a flurry of brake lights and shonky parking.

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One of the incredible things about Glenorchy other than it’s gorgeous setting and generous rocky road slice, is that it is once again on the fringes of Mount Aspiring National Park. In what is almost two full circles we have come within 20 miles of The Divide on the Milford Sound road (just a case of walking The Routeburn to get there), and around 30 miles from the Matukituki Valley and Rob Roy Glacier (jet boats up the Dart would probably get us closer). I swear the mountains fringing the western part of the lake here look just the same as those viewed from Key Summit on the other side. And they probably are.

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A few more miles up an agreeable gravel road lined with fields of sheep, our last swing bridge led across to a gentle walk through pristine red beech to Lake Sylvan. In many ways this was pleasant, lacking the spectacle encountered elsewhere, but pleasant. Another cheesy picnic by the river in warm sunshine kicked us off, a tinkling brook accompanied us to the lake, and some chirpy birdies were far from shy in greeting us on the trail.

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And, yes, the lake itself was pleasant, nothing more nothing less. Having been in New Zealand for over a week now, there was clear evidence to suggest we were encountering scenic fatigue. For here, this pristine and peaceful spot was nothing more than, well, as I have said several times, pleasant.

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NZd09And so, in this hasty encounter with a small part of a bigger-than-you-think country packed with spectacle we finish up in Queenstown. Of all the places we visited this was undoubtedly the most frenetic, but it was no London, nor even Canberra. Firstly, you can forgive the masses of backpackers and Contiki coaches and adrenaline shots because Queenstown is beautiful. And – you know what – the people, the bustle, the mixture of ages and nationalities soaking up the holiday air creates a really nice vibe down by the lake. Particularly if this is accompanied by a ‘legendary’ Fergburger and a glowing evening as the sun slides west.

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The iconic view of Queenstown comes from the top of a gondola ride and on a late afternoon under clear skies it could not be any better. Or maybe it could with a dusting of fresh snow on the incredible Remarkables. In this case, perhaps last Thursday would have been optimum, but we were off tramping in something even more spectacular back then. And this was more than good enough.

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There was a tinge of sombreness accompanied by waking for the last time in New Zealand on this trip. Sombreness that was quickly shaken by the welcoming skies outside and – unbeknownst at the time – the prospect of waking once more. That last day of a holiday in which you have a later flight and some time to somehow ‘kill’. If only there was an earlier flight we could get onto…

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It struck me that we had not done a bungee jump or jetboat ride or chucked ourselves out of a plane on a 4×4 Segway into a sub-zero glacier on this trip. Possibly one of the few that hadn’t we instead set off in pursuit of observing such mania, dosing up on lakeside coffee to get us pumped. At the Shotover River, a regular parade of jetboats whooshed and whizzed and did watery donuts to a clientele that looked – to be honest – rather aged and largely nonplussed. Meanwhile, from the Kawarau River suspension bridge, A.J. Hackett invariably cajoled and pushed people off a platform on a piece of string.

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To the sound of murderous shrieks we plunged towards the adventure of Queenstown Airport, an understandably small terminal that would take us back to Sydney. Tomorrow. After a flight cancellation we could have enjoyed more of the adventure of Queenstown airport overnight, but instead we managed to find ourselves some accommodation (something Virgin Australia couldn’t), albeit a good hour away. The Crown Range road up to Cardrona was something we missed out on this trip following a Gita-induced landslide, but it was open again for us to ascend in a new car in the dark. Not only that, but there was an additional hairpin gravel road to take, littered with rabbits and potentially hidden chasms towards New Zealand’s highest hotel. At around 1650 metres, it seemed rather lovely and part of me wished the flight back tomorrow would come a little later in the day.

NZd12But, after our final, final night of sleep in New Zealand we set off down the mountain, seeing in the light the spectacle that we were to now say goodbye to again. With the delays, the exhaustion, the impending drag down the Hume Highway from Sydney to Canberra, we were both keen to get back. And it was a shame to end this way, even if a bacon butty and coffee at the airport temporarily lifted spirits. But everyone expects a little adventure in New Zealand and we belatedly had ours. This along with much to remember, much to savour, much to linger in the mind for as long as the white cloud blessing this most amazing big little country.

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Sound

The town of Te Anau has one of the most unexpectedly elongated high streets perhaps anywhere in New Zealand. Plonked in the remote southwest corner of the country, it possesses two supermarkets, three petrol stations, at least four places where you can buy pizza, several pubs, numerous cafes and restaurants, something resembling a department store and more shops selling sheep key rings than you can shake a shepherd’s crook at.

The reason for this is – principally – Milford Sound, with Te Anau handily positioned as a coffee / lunch / afternoon tea / dinner stop on very full day excursions from Queenstown, or as a closer base from which to discover Fiordland. And while most trippers and trampers understandably head for the hills, Te Anau has a certain charm that is worth a linger. Despite the throughflow of visitors, it seems a lot quieter and subdued than Queenstown or Wanaka. The countryside around is greener and lusher, and its lakeside situation with views across to snow-capped peaks is divine.

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Lest Te Anau get a little too busy we stayed a tad out of town in a log cabin wedged into the side of a hill. This was the Barnyard Backpackers complex, and while it retained a style of basic but comfortable accommodation, I was struck by how different staying in hostels is these days. Mostly this is down to the internet and its ability to transport you away from the here and now. So while I may have played shithead accompanied with a bottle of cheap wine with a group of randoms twenty years ago, nowadays it’s all about WhatsApp calls home and squinting solitarily into a small screen. Something I did with limited success thanks to all the bandwidth being taken up by WhatsApp calls to Germany! Still, at least here you can just look up and soak in the views.

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From Te Anau, the inevitable stream of people and cars converging on Milford Sound benefits from a little strategising; a calculation involving the avoidance of peak coach tour times, maximum weather and reflection opportunities, and which of the plethora of boat trips to pick. But really it’s just luck and we got pretty lucky. Striking out early via a coffee stop at the Sandfly Café, dawn light gradually infiltrated the Eglinton Valley, the sunlight and early mist rising from the river serving to accentuate its majesty.

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The calm of morning also meant that Mirror Lakes were actually mirror-like, reflecting the glowing mountains, and observed by just a smattering of early day-trippers like us.

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NZc04The sunny start changed around The Divide as we headed into the clouds and prospects for a clear cruise on the sound were diminished. It was the kind of weather I expected, typical of this area which is famed for being the wettest spot in New Zealand[1]. But emerging into and out of the Homer Tunnel there were breaks, mountain tops could be seen, and the winding road down to the water remained largely clear. Sure, it was not the rare blue sky day that you see in the advertising, but the pinnacle of Mitre Peak emerged, the tide was in, and there was ample time for relaxation and reflection before hitting the water.

This was to be my third visit to Milford Sound and each time has offered different conditions. The first visit was one of those wet affairs that delivered little visibility, only compensated by numerous spectacular waterfalls plunging from the heavens; second time around gave some blue sky, a brisk breeze and significant glare; and today was without doubt the most placid I had seen it, clear, calm under a high level white sky. Seasickness would not be a problem.

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And so the obligatory cruise, which is a very pleasant experience but one which somehow you are fairly content to finish after two hours. Up to the Tasman Sea and back, taking in waterfalls, forests and seal-dotted rocks, neck-craned constantly to fathom the height of the precipitous mountains that encircle the fiord. The scale is hard to comprehend and harder to capture, but a steady stream of sightseeing planes and choppers looking the size of seagulls against the cliffs provided a persistent sense of perspective. All washed down by a ‘glacial facial’.

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Our cruise finished at 12:30, meaning we had time to pause along the road back to Te Anau. What was an empty coach park (containing at least 40 bays) when we set off on the boat was now crammed, and the tide receding and breeze rising had scuppered any iconic Mitre Peak reflections for the masses. Strategy or luck, it ran out briefly at The Chasm, where we lingered long for a car park and failed to find a delightful glade for lunch. But further stops along the highway offered more opportunity to delight, to take in waterfalls, peaks and pristine river valleys.

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Back in the Eglinton Valley – where it had all really started this morning – the warm sun was once again shining and the day did its very best to resemble an idyll. I was more than happy to linger here, to wallow in the golden grasses beside jade waters, while Dad wallowed in a little fishing time. And even if the trout don’t bite so much here, surely in such a setting netting doesn’t matter.

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It turns out the better (aka easier haha!) fishing spots are closer to Te Anau. A prime spot to dump Dad and take the hire car for a bit of an explore, down south of Te Anau to Manapouri. If Te Anau had a serene calm about it, Manapouri was decidedly comatose. But I mean that in a good way, the lake wild and rugged, visitors few and far between and mostly heading toward or coming back from trips to Doubtful Sound. Doubtless there are trout here too, on the edge of the world.

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With this little foray, three hours and five fish had passed and we joined up to dine on takeaway pizza in the car overlooking Lake Te Anau. The breeze was up, the weather closing in a little, the car rocking. Omens of the mostly fine post-cyclone weather that we had enjoyed in the last few days coming to an end. It was looking as if rain might just visit us again, transforming Milford Sound to a funnel of waterfalls and blowing us back towards our final stop, Queenstown.

 

[1] The day after our visit, Milford Sound received over 30 centimetres (not millimetres!) of rain

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