Good country

To Wee Jasper.

Fuel

Take me over the crossing, deliver me through the shadow of trees, inch me up to a subtle divide. The very precipice falling into a mountain creek, hidden somewhere within this big, open country.

Water

Water water everywhere, and not a drop to waste. The new, passing abnormal, flushing the land clean of years of dust and bone. Reflecting the sky, saturating the fields, imitating an English meadow. Putting the good back into the Goodradigbee.

Life

Life goes on. Gentle and serene, noisy and frenetic. Humans endeavour. Sheep shelter. Birds poise ready for attack. The productivity of spring seems unstoppable, like the clouds motoring through the sky. Life goes on to prosper, with a little push.

Abundance

It is a fleeting passage of abundance. An embarrassment of riches that is as disconcerting as its painful absence. Bounteous panoramas, generous horizons, good country. Make hay.

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Namadgi

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

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

Igniting

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

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

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Taking hold

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

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

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Consuming

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

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

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

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Threatening

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

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

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

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Tearing south

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

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

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Creeping north

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

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

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Enduring still

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

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

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

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

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

It is one small footnote this summer.

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I got chills

snow00With the undeniable passage of nature there are sure signs that winter in Canberra is slowly ebbing away. There have been a few recent days in which I have left the house without a coat, while the sunlight is waking me up well before seven and allowing me to read almost until six. Wattles explode, daffodils unfurl, the odd fly is resurrected and finds its way into my living room for what seems like all eternity.

That’s not to say winter is entirely done and dusted and – with it – the satisfaction of a roast dinner, a glass of red and an evening hunkering down until the early hours watching sport beamed direct from the sometimes sunny skies of Europe. The Ashes is the latest incarnation of late night TV toil, in which the morning session emerges during the prime time of evening followed by a drift to tea after midnight. Sometimes I stay up late and sometimes it’s worth it. Like a shiny cherry battered by Sir Ben Stokes, it can be hard to sleep straight after, such is the insane frenzy that has just taken place.

Of course, usually about now I would be in England, so it is part galling but part elevating to see Leeds bathed in unseasonal hot bank holiday sunshine. Bored of some of the drearier TV commentary I might tune into Test Match Special, delivering another evocation of Englishness. The good, wholesome Englishness involving short long legs and a discussion of cake in between bouncers. Not that other Englishness espoused by others. Without vision, the radio commentary paints a more vivid picture in my head of an England for which I might yearn.

But here I am having almost successfully navigated my first full Australian winter, in the coldest city of the lot. Has it been hard? Well, not really, partly a consequence of strategic breaks away, warm sunshine beaming through glass, roast dinners, red wine, Ben Stokes, and no doubt the upward trajectory in global temperatures as previously predicted by those pesky experts who we have all apparently become sick of.

And then it snows for a weekend and suddenly the accumulation of 200 years of temperature records can be instantly dismissed by the cast of crazy characters featured on the sitcom known as Sky News. The ‘Antarctic Blast’ delivering a bit of cool drizzle to Melbourne and a touch of breeze in Sydney, dusts the higher hills and peaks around Canberra. It’s the kind of event that happens every few years and makes a Canberra winter all the better. For there is an unmatched beauty when the snow comes to the Australian bush.

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There’s certainly a freshness accompanying an early Saturday morning jaunt upon Urambi Hills, but the sun is out and the wind has dropped meaning that, before long, I’m wanting to strip off during the march upward. Even the locals are unfazed, the youngsters popping out to gaze towards the snow for the first time in their lives.

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From afar, there is little hardship, little severity to be found in the sight of snow-capped hills. Getting closer to the snowline in Tidbinbilla, you do begin to feel the penetration of winds swirling over the ranges, picking up icy particles and moisture and delivering them to idiots like me waiting patiently on an exposed lookout. A sleety shower whips through quickly, before a valley of thousands of eucalypts are bathed in sun.

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From this perch, the snow seems tangible, touchable. Attainable with, hopefully, relative ease. And that’s the way it proves, driving to the Mountain Creek area in the reserve. A few cars are here but it is blessedly sedate, lacking the queuing, slush-churned melee of Corin Forest after a few flakes. Close to the car park, youngsters screech and coo in delight and disappear off into the forest. A trail of footprints furrow a path into the trees, eventually joining a fire trail that will go on and on, up and up, all the way to Camel’s Hump.

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It would be folly to climb to the summit today; though judging by the footprints there are a few committed mountaineers in the area. However, walking up just a little and the snow thickens, the sledge tracks fade and untouched pockets of snow lap at the ankles. There is a pristine quality to the scene, a fresh blanket filling in the imperfections of the bush. A gentleness given to a landscape so often forbidding. For a change, snakes will not be a worry.

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Still, best not to linger as my feet are starting to numb and the day is drawing on way beyond optimum coffee time. As I head back down it’s noticeable how the depth of snow has already lessened, patches of mud are now creeping through, churned up by increasing traffic heading into the forest.

The snow will disappear soon enough, and the wattles will continue to burst forth, the blossom will suddenly sprout, the joeys will escape the comfort blanket of mum’s pouch. The winter will draw to a close, the light will lengthen, and I’ll be in shorts moaning about the heat before you know it. Barbecues will replace roasts and more decent sport will be on at a decent hour. Australia will return to its natural, sun-baked, fire-blasted state.

Yet a part of me will miss the cold, miss the late nights in Leeds, miss the excuse for slow-cooked heartiness. And I will miss the experience of anticipation of a spring just around the corner. Maybe not quite as badly as Nathan Lyon misses run outs, but missing all the same.

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Uppish drives

If I was to analogise the lingering weeks of summer, it would be to that of a very uneventful over from Glenn McGrath. Turn at the mark, trundle in with intent, deliver a solid line and length on to the pitch and through to the keeper, stare in confected intimidation at a snivelling Pom, turn back and repeat again. And again.

There is something to be said for reliability and repetition – 563 somethings in fact – but deep down we all crave a cocky blonde disruptor to enter the scene and throw down a few cherries spinning every which way but straight. The googlies are always there somewhere; you just have to put in a bit of extra effort to discover them.

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Such terrible metaphors are all to say I went to the first Test match ever at Manuka Oval in Canberra. Australia versus Sri Lanka in probably the most one-sided match in history. Still, the setting was a delight, the atmosphere abuzz, and Canberra more than held its own as a venue. Googlies may have been sparse but then, in 2019, we are talking about the trumped up talents of Naayfun Lawwwn rather than the bona fide annoying genius of Warnie.

Outside the oval, the regular line and length of hot sunny Canberra days have occasionally hit the cracks of thunderstorms; apocalyptic tempests of wind and lightning and – often – raised dust. It’s made things a bit more interesting, even if some of the places under which such conditions breed are as reliable as ever. Places like Red Hill and Mount Taylor, the equidistant escapes from home to the bush.

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One of the cooler and windier days of late happened to beset the Canberra Triathlon. A temperature all well and good for exercise but a wind cruel and unforgiving when on a bike. To say I competed in a triathlon is a tad generous, strictly speaking. But a ten kilometre bike leg as part of a team relay was effort enough into a headwind. Still, this was just a minor, temporary obstacle for me, and worth it to deliver the imaginary baton onto Toby for the final, inspirational leg. Go Wheelsfortoby!

feb04I guess a triathlon is a bit of a googly within the normal course of events. It also led me to be in Hackett one sunny late afternoon, at the northern end of Canberra nestled underneath Mount Majura. Not so much a change of scenery, but at least a different path on which to wander, all stretching eucalypt branches, golden grass and copper earth, with some snatched views of the surrounding landscape through the bush. Plus, slithering away as I marched downhill, a brown snake disappearing from the corner of my eye.

A few weeks later I would come across two snakes in the space of five minutes, having discussed them five minutes earlier with my friend Joseph as we sat upon a rock in Namadgi National Park. I’ve hardly seen any snakes…maybe five…in my entire time in Australia I said. Mostly in Queensland I said. I know people who won’t come to Australia because of snakes, how ridiculous. When you think of all the bushwalking I have done in that time, and five snakes…

Shall we see what’s down that way, he said.

Snaaaaaaaaakkkkkkkke, I said. Quite loudly, almost tripping over a red bellied black.

Let’s actually not go that way, I said, and we turned around to head back to the car, not before a second made an appearance under a fallen tree, this time with marginally greater warning.

They did say it was going to be a good year for snakes, and in my random survey of random walks through random parts of the ACT I can conclude they were correct.

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Snakes were mercifully unsighted on a longer walk to Gibraltar Rocks in Tidbinbilla during the great Australia Day day off. I’d been here before but – again seeking some variety – I approached the peak from a different side. The first couple of kilometres traversed open plains bursting with kangaroos and the odd emu, before marching incessantly upward through that low, scrawny kind of bush that excels in the higher climes frequently ravaged by fire and ice.

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Reaching the rocks of Gibraltar up in the overcast skies, there were no Spanish ships, no snakes, no bogans singing Jimmy Barnes and wearing the cheap fake blue of Australian flag products proudly made in China. Just the essence of Australia fitting for today or any day. The heart and soul of its earth and its sky, sprouting the unique environment which has been nurtured over millennia and which endures and adapts as best it can.

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And so, we reach the last ball of this ragged over as we once more revisit those terrible cricket analogies. The weather has cooled a touch and the mornings are showing signs that we are entering the golden age. Britain basks briefly in twenty degrees and a few of our mornings drop to single digits. The temperatures still rise to the mid to high twenties in the afternoon, and this is what we call ambient, mild. It’s all relative. And still plenty warm enough for cricket. And snakes.

Floating around in my brain for a while has been Mount Coree in the Brindabellas and – in this quest for difference, desire for new – it finally becomes an agenda item early one Saturday. It is a peak I have never climbed, mainly because I’ve never been entirely sure how to climb it. Mostly it’s a case of following fire trails and dirt roads, including up to the summit and, sometimes, sharing these with vehicles.

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Commencing from Blundells Flat several hundred metres below, it is a fresh, serene meander uphill towards Two Sticks Road. Only a grader on the back of a truck passes me early in the climb, leaving a lingering cloud of fine dust particles in the air, gilding the shafts of sunlight beaming through the trees. Along Two Sticks Road it is easy going towards Coree Campground before the final traverse up to the rocky summit which marks the border between NSW and the ACT.

It’s a decent slog as the sun warms and, by now, the four wheel drives have woken from their slumber. One by one they leisurely pass in a clunk of gears and pneumatics and fumes, inching ever closer to the trig at the top. For all their engineering and technical prowess, for all their ability to get to the top quicker and revel in airconditioned comfort, they are no match for a pair of feet. A pair of feet that are connected to the landscape, an intrinsic part of it rather than something carving it apart. A pair of feet that have superior bragging rights over the indolent Saturday morning car park crew accumulating at the top. And a pair of feet that will come across one more red bellied black on the way down, completing a reliably diverting over.

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The track out back

Usually a work trip to Wagga Wagga would trigger at least an eye roll and a quiet sigh. Another country town with no obvious attraction and dubious coffee. A trawl along a quiet highway surrounded by sun-parched nondescript land. Oh, and the prospect of work at the end of it all.

But, this time it was different; I was mildly enthused about the prospect. Partly this was about getting in the car for a decent drive for the first time in a while, stopping at random road stops and revelling in the golden expanse of country New South Wales. Then there was the understated, hidden gems of Wagga to discover, aided by a little expert advice. I might indeed get a good coffee. And the work? Well a necessity, but it was perfectly reasonable to manage.

wag01And so the drive out of Canberra almost immediately led to immersion into a flat, golden brown landscape almost devoid of interruptions or scenic highlights. Diverting around Yass and Jugiong and encountering extensive lane closures on the road to Gundagai, distraction naturally came with the Dog on the Tuckerbox. It’s a statue of a dog. On a tuckerbox. But it is sunny and warm and the landscape here more undulating and fertile. Gum trees offer shady refuge for the melodious magpies and chirpy galahs; tin sheds and wooden farmsteads sit snugly among long grasses and fields of sheep; and there are numerous comings and goings to observe at the Tuckerbox KFC.

Shortly after, the Sturt Highway commences on its way to Adelaide, with Wagga just a short stretch along the road. Loosely following the Murrumbidgee River valley, it’s a pleasant approach before the surprisingly elongated suburbs of Wagga arrive in the form of an airport, tractor supercentres, and Red Rooster. It’s a bustling kind of place and – like many a country town – appearing to self-sufficiently prosper in the midst of nowhere.

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wag03I enjoyed a late afternoon beside the river, checking out the sandy beach and colourful language of some local ladies engaged in a very open discussion about Tinder and uncles marrying strippers and the like. The beach is obviously no Bondi or Bantham, but there’s sand and water and – I can imagine on those scorching summer days – it has enough going for it to impel you into the Murrumbidgee. Under the shade of eucalypts the vibe is chilled, languid like the river itself and I could have sat here a while if I didn’t have some work to do.

The next day I said farewell to Wagga but not before a very good coffee and breakfast at Trail St which means that the city can now enter the pantheon of places that earn the ‘I could live here if I had to’ badge of honour. If I did live there, maybe the staff at Trail St would be a little less cold and engage me like they do all the regulars, rather than as someone from out of town who might just be there to write about them on Trip Advisor. Which I wasn’t. But hey, you’ve made it to a blog that no-one reads! Oh, and while I’m plugging stuff, eat or get takeaway at Saigon, just because okay.

wag04The return trip was far more diverting than a dog on a tuckerbox, mainly because I opted to take a different route back which didn’t involve dual carriageway and bypassing one street towns. The Snowy Mountains Highway stretches all the way down to Cooma, and if I was going to avoid taking a massive detour to Canberra I would have to find my way across the Brindabella Ranges. But first, time for a little bushwalk, just south of Tumut to a slab of rock called Blowering Cliffs. It was a decent jaunt out, starting off through lush meadows and rising ceaselessly through forest to a protrusion of granite. Sometimes a waterfall plunges off here, but today it was like a sporadically dripping tap.

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Back in Tumut I was surprised at the size and positive signs of life in evidence. It is not entirely clear why Tumut exists but, just like Wagga, there was a modest elegance and reasonable hubbub to the town centre. Here there is not just one main street, but a whole block, complete with dubious looking cafes and country stores selling hats and water pumps, at least three pubs to kill time, a McDonalds and – unbelievably – both a Woolworths and a Coles supermarket. Tumut, bigger than you think, was not the sign I saw as I left town with a McChiller Chocoffee in my cup holder.

The road heading towards the Brindabellas and – eventually – the ACT border was a pleasant surprise, at least to begin with. Indeed, it was rarely boring, transitioning from a beautiful pastoral scene following the path of a narrowing ravine into sweeping forested hills. The hills were all plantation pine and there was the constant thrill of the potential for a massive truck chock full of logs hurtling at you at 120 kph to keep you awake. This was all on sealed surface, but after the forest it inevitably gave way to loose gravel to dirt to rocky lumps descending precariously down towards the Goodradigbee River. And what a veritable Eden this spot was, a verdant paradise of a valley between the hills.

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wag07What goes down must go up and so there was some further climbing through Brindabella National Park on more precarious surface before cresting the ranges where the NSW-ACT border sits. I figured out this was my final road border crossing into the Australian Capital Territory and immediately the road surface improved: still dirt but smoother and significantly more tolerant. At the oh-so-ironic Piccadilly Circus I was back on familiar ground, winding down towards the subdued hum of sealed tarmac once more. Back in Canberra comfort, but with the satisfaction of a touch of exploration behind my back.

Australia Driving Green Bogey

Not quite white not quite Christmas

sn02Because this is Australia the ingeniously named Snowy Mountains are not perennially snowy. However, at the end of November I was not expecting to see so many chunks of frozen icy slush dotting the mountaintops. The snow gave distinction to the ranges, visible just after a picnic in Cooma with Caroline and a potato masher. And moving closer and climbing in altitude, it was possible to walk on a splodge of icy snow at Charlotte Pass, from where more white stuff was visible along the Main Range.

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I have walked from here to the top of Kosciuszko and back. But this was in past times when there was not so much to contend with along the trail. A short boardwalk through the snow gums with a view at the end was more fitting today, before turning round and heading back down to Jindabyne, by way of the famous Surge Tank.

sn03Jindabyne has always proven to be a bit of a pass-through town on the way to the higher mountains. But staying here for two nights offered the chance to explore many of the highlights of the town, including its TWO shopping precincts! While these provide sufficient eating and coffee opportunities, the highlight of Jindabyne is undoubtedly the expansive lake on which it sits. Part Canada, part Lake District, part Australia, it’s a haven for boat owner people and fishy types. But don’t let that put you off…there are also charming parklands and meandering pathways fringing the shore. Benches and picnic tables offer frequent recovery. From here you can watch morning mists hovering over a dead calm mirror, or bask later on in the afternoon warmth. Or live out the end of the day with never-ending hummus and laser red light.

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From Jindabyne the main road west narrows into the Thredbo Valley before topping out at Dead Horse Gap and plunging down towards Victoria. Thredbo itself is the closest thing Australia has to an alpine resort, nestled within the lower slopes of the steepening valley and generously adorned with A-Frame chalets and the promise of open fireplaces. In summer it seems to tick on over with a peppering of mountain bikers and day trippers. Many take the chairlift to Eagle’s Nest, either to plunge back down on two wheels or head to the top of Australia on two feet. We do neither, retreating from a strong and chilly wind for a ‘yummo’ hot chocolate.

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We did however have a nice amble back down alongside the Thredbo River, walking to the soundtrack of rushing water and buzzing flies. The water here is lovely and clear and pristine and in some ways reminds me very much of Dartmoor. I think it was the sound of the water more than anything that evoked such a scene, rather than the flies and gum trees and baking hot sun at the end of November.

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sn09Leaving the high mountains we drove a somewhat convoluted route back to Canberra to provide maximum adventure. First up was a brief pause at Dalgety, a tiny place perched alongside the Snowy River that could have been the capital of Australia. And they say Canberra is quiet! There must be like ten houses, a few cows, and a million flies. But it’s kinda cute nonetheless.

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sn10With the unforeseen temporary closure of the Snowy Hydro Visitor Centre in Cooma, a decision was made to proceed to Adaminaby for lunch instead. And what better way to lunch than next to a great big trout! This was indeed turning into a marvellous, sponteanous adventure and the best (or worst) was yet to come.

From Adaminaby the way back to Canberra is lonely, travelling a fair distance on dirt roads that are largely in decent shape, especially once crossing over the border into the affluent ACT. There are tiny signs pointing the way to the national capital and occasional homesteads in the midst of the bush. Bitumen returns somewhere in Namadgi National Park and there is a touch of relief, and the cherishing of smoothness. That is until a faint rattling develops into a shudder and a rumble and the front left tyre decides to give up on life. Wheel nuts are unmovable and phone reception is absent. What we need – in this scenario so typical of Neighbours when they go into the bush – are a couple of heroes with fluoro vests and a ute, with tools and an air of certainty that this, here today, is their fate. Not only to dislodge the wheel nuts but to do the whole service, to send us on our way back to civilisation with the minimum of fuss and no form of payment. This is what happens in Australia, and it makes me proud!

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Some over the hill boulder dash

I have moved into the Woden valley. Good things about this include the fact that I have a wardrobe and my own bed for practically the first time in eight months, I can cycle home without having a stroke (I think), I can avail Westfield of its air conditioning and thickshakes, and – should I wish – I can sit on the couch in my pants without undue concern for the wellbeing of others. It’s not like I do that or anything…it’s just the idea that I could, if I really wanted to, that is so gratifying.

hills03Still, with every up there’s a down and I have lost mountain views. I have also moved into an area where there is a yappy dog. I only write about this now because I just heard it, again. I always seem to find myself in a neighbourhood with a yappy dog. I think everyone does. There seem to be yappy dogs everywhere these days, coming over here, taking our peace and quiet. They frequently pester me on Canberra nature walks too, usually roaming free because their owners don’t need to pay heed to the numerous signs regarding leads and wildlife protection and all that silly nonsense. Still, at least I can see the mountains on these walks, and the dog yapping can be tolerated with such rewards.

I love the view of the mountains even more than I really do love yappy dogs. Sure, they’re not in the same league as the gargantuan cones and precipices of Switzerland, but they offer a pleasing backdrop to Canberra, particularly as the sun fades and a long shadowy ridgeline contrasts with the purpling sky and flickering lights of comfortable suburbia. And while I can no longer see them from my dog-infested ghetto in the valley, there are numerous points near and far from which to admire the heights.

hills01Take Dairy Farmers Hill, which sits in the National Arboretum on the western fringe of Canberra. I cycled up here a few times in the past, but was usually too close to fainting to really appreciate the 360 degree panorama. Driving one evening with the comfort of air con was somewhat more agreeable. The sun dipping onto and over the Brindabellas offered a treat, while the proximate lumps of Black Mountain and Mount Ainslie received a farewell glow. There were no dogs.

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The thing about seeing the ranges to the west practically every day is that you eventually want to strike out for them and almost lose yourself in their lumpy ridgelines and tangled bushiness. It must be how those buffoons who tried to get over the Blue Mountains felt, impelled by an urge to see what is on the other side (cows as it turns out, who figured going round the mountains would  be far easier). These days, buffoons have Subarus and can churn their way up dirt tracks in Namadgi National Park to see if there are cows on the other side.

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hills07You don’t notice from afar, but these ranges are peppered with giant, rounded granite boulders stacked like clumps of frozen peas that have been left in the freezer for far too many years. These boulders congregate quite generously up on Orroral Ridge, where a series of slightly neglected tracks lead to rocks named for their resemblance to animals and people and other inanimate objects which aren’t rocks. Such is the profusion of rocks that geologists have wet dreams, climbers drool onto their harnesses, and random waifs and strays seeking mountain air delight in the summer coolness of virtual caves formed in the hollows of a cluster of boulders.

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Cooling rock hollows would have been most welcome on a separate foray into the wilds of Namadgi. Technically it was autumn by the time I made it down into the Orroral Valley and struck out on a much better trail to Nursery Swamp. But so far autumn has produced unyielding temperatures in the low to mid thirties and love for my newly acquired air conditioning. It’s weather that is great for drying washing, but by time I had washed and then hung said washing out it was nearing midday, and only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.

hills09I wasn’t expecting much from this walk – in truth it was something to do in a lull while my washing dried. Plus being practically the last remaining marked trail I hadn’t been on in Namadgi I felt a little obliged to complete it. The word ‘swamp’ was hardly enticing, with images of squelchy boggy plains, rotting carcasses and festering mosquitoes. But it was actually quite a delight, rising steadily through lofty Peppermint Gums, bypassing a few more giant boulders, and meandering through button grass and boardwalks under blue skies and fluffy clouds.

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hills11The swamp turns out to be a fen, as the information board at the end of the walk explained. I’m not really sure of the difference, but it was fairly less swampy than I imagined. A bench here overlooked a river of vivid green grass, lapping at tall forest and rocky outcrops. Being now beyond midday it was the perfect place for a simple homemade sandwich and, once again, for all the expensive meals and gourmet plate ups*, can there be anything more satisfying than a bushwalk sandwich? I don’t think so.

Thus, even in the heart of these enduring mountains, with their magnetic heights and silhouetted ridgelines sit divine little glades like this. So, while the mountains can be marvelled at, the views readily lapped up, here’s to the valleys of this world; contented spots with a bit of simple tucker and lack of yappy dogs.

* On a complete tangent, I was in a cafe recently and someone ordered some “activated muesli”. WTF? Do they shake the muesli up in its box before serving? I noted a price tag of $14.50 to seriously activate your wallet.

Australia Green Bogey Walking

A mountain to climb

In another week in which the Australian political landscape imploded in much self-generated excitement, it is hard not to be drawn into contributing more electronic graffiti about levels of douchebagness and the chaos and disorder that is certainly not happening again like it did with that other bunch. Nothing to see here, move along now. However, while the world really doesn’t wait with baited breath to figure which “adult” is in charge of the Knightly Order of Her Majesty’s Commonwealth of Australia, the kos12natural landscape is in much less turmoil (unless you listen to those wacky “scientists” with their corroborated, peer-reviewed “research” and years of undisputed empirical “data”). There are, clearly, mountains to climb and some are easier than others.

The Snowy Mountains are very old – older indeed than a snoozing Senator – and have been worn down over millions of years. If they were several millions of years younger they would be more akin to the New Zealand Alps or the Himalayas, but because of their age they have mellowed; they are more rounded, worn down and weather-beaten, skin baked by summer sun and scoured by winter ice. They are, perhaps, the Brecon Beacons down under, with classic U-shaped valleys, remnant moraine and small, glacial tarns.

Having digested various parts of the mountains over the years – embedded deep within Kosciuszko National Park – a one-day walk finally appeared to stitch together the different threads of footsteps past. In particular, the Main Range circuit, nudging 22km in length and looping around the highest country. This included a stretch of six kilometres or so that I had not been on before and which, undoubtedly, was the most spectacular.

So, in pursuit of clear air and with the captain’s picks of two friends for company, let me guide you around the trail in a mostly factual, pictorial and certainly not chaotic or disorderly fashion…

Starting off from Charlotte Pass (1,837m), the track drops substantially to ford the Snowy River (1,717m). The river rises somewhere amongst the boggy marshes 5km upstream, and has gathered enough water by this point to make a crossing on stepping stones sometimes hazardous. Today – still reasonably early on a crystal clear February morning – all was rather placid and safely negotiated without wet feet or soggy sandwiches.

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From the river crossing it is unsurprisingly onwards and upwards; in fact the climb, while never too steep, is quite incessant and longer than I remember! However, with altitude the views start to open up, including the sight of Hedley’s Tarn and the ridgelines of the Main Range’s highest peaks.

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After some 300 metres of ascent and four kilometres from the start a view of Blue Lake is attained. Today it is lacking much of a blue colour and the glaring morning sun and a wind whipping across the surface are photogenically challenging! From here though it is not too much further to reach a saddle with the first views of more spectacular jagged mountains and the ranges of blue spreading west. A perfect opportunity for a morning food stop taking in a homemade sausage roll and spot of middle-class hiker’s quiche.

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From this point, the trail is all new ground for me and the morning sustenance is useful for the slow climb up to Carruthers Peak (2,139m). The spectacular views continue, and the summit itself affords the first look at Club Lake, as well as the trail following the ridgeline to the rather bland summit of Mount Kosciuszko.

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The ridgeline is a joy to follow, with remnant wildflowers, the prominence of Mount Townsend to kos09the right and deep ravines carved by Lady Northcote’s Creek, the mountains seeming to tumble sharply west. I have no idea who Lady Northcote was but if her character was anything like that of the landscape in which she was named, she was probably a bit of a looker, though occasionally bleak and somewhat cutting.

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kos10Before too long Albina Lake emerges, tucked in a sheltered valley seemingly conducive to an array of wildflowers and other alpine plants. The lake looks quite inviting in the warmth and would prove a nice spot for a picnic. It’s about nine kilometres into the walk now, and with the summit of Mount Kosciusko just a few thousand metres distant, we resolve to head on and join the masses carrying their lunch to the top of Australia. On reflection, the best part of the walk is over…though this may be in part because familiar paths will soon be rejoined.

kos11Unfortunately we seem to have gradually descended a little, and the hoick up to the main summit thoroughfare is probably the steepest of the day. We’re not talking rock climbing here, but frequent steps and, by now, quite a penetrating sun. The junction with the main summit trail is like emerging from a country lane onto the M1. Mostly originating from Thredbo, families, fitness freaks and old fogies join us in a steady stream coiling up to the top (2,228m). A medley of Aussie flags and fluoro leggings congregates around the summit marker, and lunching is de rigueur. With homemade hummus and more quiche ours is perhaps one of the more pretentious of picnics!

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Apart from a little blip it is all downhill from here, some eight and a half kilometres back to Charlotte Pass. From Rawson Pass (2,119m) – which is something akin to the base camp for the kos14summit climb and apparently includes Australia’s highest public toilet – a sedate, well-graded trail makes it all the way back. This is the old summit road and I read that a shuttle bus used to ply along here, part of me wishing it was still running. The open scenery is not unpleasant, but in comparison to other parts of the track and given the gathering weariness this part is a bit of a drag. Markers every kilometre break it up, as does Seaman’s Hut (2,020m) and a more comfortable bridging of the Snowy River with four kilometres remaining.

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Approaching Charlotte Pass, signs of civilisation re-appear – a chairlift and the occasional dark grey metallic huts populated by visitors in winter. The Snowy courses to the left and from across the valley the earlier, kos16upwards trail to Blue Lake looks like an impressive climb! Snow Gums also cluster here, stunted and bending with their striped, smooth bark of chocolate and sand, of black and white. Afternoon clouds are building and the risk of storms hypothesised look as though they will be realised. But, after six and a half hours and 21.9 kilometres, we reach the (relative) safety of a Subaru Outback. Accomplished and relieved, invigorated and weary; trundling another 220km back to Canberra (577m), via Jindabyne caffeine and Cooma steak. From the real Australia and back to the bizarre.

Australia Green Bogey Walking

Mountain Views

I love mountains! This may be because usually they offer a lookout or two and, frequently, a good, feisty walk or a spectacular trip on a masterful feat of railway engineering. Some are close to home, others far away. Green, red, white, blue; snow-capped, sun-baked, forested, bare; cut by water, ice and wind. Mountains just sit there and beg to be looked at!

Below are a few images from mountains and high points I have captured and cherished. Click on an image to open a slideshow view…

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