Mission possible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sweaty New Year

Happy 2017! We made it, and what a year it promises to be. Among the highlights there’s the spectacle of a new President making Americans grate again, the joy of figuring out what the bleedin eck you are actually going to do now Great Britain, and the potential for Plymouth Argyle Football Club to slip from a promotion spot into play off misery. In spite of this I’m sure there are plenty of good things to look forward to though, like Plymouth Argyle winning promotion. And cheese. Cheese will still feature. It will also be the hottest year in history, so get your swimmers and thongs on people. The world will turn into an eternal Queensland. And wouldn’t that be just, well, bananas.

To Vegas

xb01In Part 2 of my holiday travels (Part 1 is here), we return to Lismore where I slept the night in a proper bed and once again cherished the presence of a shower. I sorted out my car just a little, grabbed a coffee and then went to see a great big prawn. As you do. The prawn is in Ballina, and so is the ocean. Not that they put the prawn next to the ocean; no, it’s more at home in the Bunnings car park, warily eyeing off the sausage sizzle. Nothing could be more Australian and it brings a tear to my eye.

Fortunately, Ballina also had an English presence to prevent me from transforming into a drongo with a mullet, singlet and ute. Caroline joined me for this part of the trip and onto Brisbane for the New Year. The first impromptu stop was Thursday Island Plantation just out of town and I can’t imagine too many drongos head this way for a tea tree fix.

xb02Pausing briefly around the border towns of Tweed Heads and Coolangatta, I decided to head around much of the Gold Coast and enjoy the lumpy patch of verdant paradise that is the hinterland. We crossed the border back into NSW and changed time zone heading up and down to Murwillumbah. Surrounded by fields of sugar cane, half of this year’s yield was in my iced soft drink from KFC in the town. After which we zoomed onwards and upwards.

Cresting the road it was back into Queensland and – just a little further on – Natural Bridge. I think I came here a couple of years back and forgot my camera. It was quieter and cooler then, and there were fewer tools with mullets and singlets walking down slippery steps in thongs. Oh well, it is the summer holidays I guess. And the falls do tend to appease any minor irritants.

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From here it was down to Nerang and back on the main road. A main road with motorway services and everything…surely worth a stop for Anglo-Australian comparison. And fuel, to take us past the suburbs, across the river, and into the midst of the city of Brisbane.

Here is New Year

xb06We were staying in a rather pleasant apartment in the CBD, with a bit of river view that was to come in handy for New Year’s Eve. The river was a frequent feature of our ambling, crossing over to South Bank, strolling alongside the Botanic Gardens, heading over to the air-conditioned awesomeness of GOMA. You could see its brown waters from the top of Mount Coot-tha, and you could encounter them at close quarters on the CityCat ferry, travelling under the Story Bridge to New Farm. In fact the river was almost as pervasive as Max Brenner; Caroline keen to get a fix or two before heading back to England, and I happy to tag along.

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Much of this was familiar ground and, to be honest, is far more pleasurable to experience in the less humid yet still low to mid-twenties winter; that period of the year when locals laughably wear scarves and eat soup! Yet at the end of December, sweatiness was unavoidable, flowing down backs and probably finding its way into the Brisbane River. Dripping en masse during New Year’s Eve fireworks, watched in a family friendly manner at 8:30 along the riverbank and, more comfortably, from the balcony at midnight.

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New year, new places. Starting with a drive to the shores of Moreton Bay at Cleveland. And then on a ferry for a pleasant ride to North Stradbroke Island. Or, to make things simpler, Straddie.

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xb07Ah, island life. A time to kick back and relax. Or wade in stagnant pools with hundreds of kids, or queue endlessly for ice cream, or take a big f*ck off truck onto the sand and ruin the wild ambience. This is what was happening all around, but we still managed to kick back and relax a little at Point Lookout. Before queuing for ice lollies in the world’s most humid shop.

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Straddie is another one of those places that would be even better in winter, when the holiday masses are at school and the humidity is less fearsome. It certainly has spectacular ocean beaches and striking coastal scenery, some of it possibly still untouched by every four-wheel drive in Queensland.

xb10A taste of what this would be like came at the end of the day, with the sun lowering, a breeze providing relief and a quiet satisfaction milling about the beach near Amity Point. In slanted sunlight kissing sand golden, you could innocently wade in the water happy, only to discover dolphins surfacing mere metres away. Before disappearing as abruptly, leaving only fond memories and countless blurry pictures of ocean on your camera.

If it goes on like this, maybe 2017 won’t be so bad after all.

Tuesday Night Fever

Did you know the Bee Gees from the Isle of Man and Manchester who probably spent most of their life in the USA are Australian? Yes it’s true, and they spent some of their formative years in the bay side suburb of Redcliffe. In places, you can see the English likeness, with an elegant pier and a waterfront walkway for genteel promenading. The weather today, too, is akin to a drizzly summer’s day in Bournemouth and, like England, there are hardy people bathing in the lido. Despite being quite cooler, sweatiness lingers.

xb11Still, this drizzle is nothing compared to the deluge the previous evening. Sat contentedly eating some Japanese food in the city, we were somewhat oblivious to the torrent of rain that had decided to unleash itself on Brisbane. Only emerging did we witness instant rivers flowing down the mall and citizens racing precariously across streets in their unsuitably thonged feet. We made it back to the apartment, but even with the protection of umbrellas there was considerable dampness.

xb12So as grey as it was today in Redcliffe, at least you could walk outside without fear of being drowned. And there are always the Bee Gees to brighten things up. It seems the canny council in Redcliffe has recognised the potential cash cow of this association by constructing The Bee Gees Way. Linking two streets, it captures people walking from the car park to the scattering of restaurants by the seafront. More than a woman walked by the pictures, words and videos telling you of their time in Australia and beyond. I guess your willingness to trek out to Redcliffe to see this display may depend on how deep your love is for the hairy triumvirate. I can take or leave them, but I found The Bee Gees Way curiously distracting.

For Caroline, on her last night in Australia, could it get any better? Well, maybe if the World Darts Championships Final from the Ally Pally was on when we got back to the apartment. But – inexplicably – provincial basketball appeared. Alas, we’ll have to make do with a final visit to Max Brenner for some chocolate indulgence to round out the trip.

Sometime Sunny Coast

A leaden morning farewelled Caroline at Brisbane Airport and it was time for me to chase the drizzle up the coast. I thought about stopping and having a walk somewhere within the Glasshouse Mountains, but you could barely see the things. Randomly I drove to Bribie Island, just for something to do, taking in the Floridian waterways and pausing for a coffee at Woorim Beach. In the grey it was more Skegness than Sunshine State.

xb14Arriving in Buderim, I made the best of the weather and tried to have a nap. While it was of limited success, the rest refreshed enough for a walk in Buderim Forest Park. Here, the dampness had the effect of illuminating the tangles of rainforest, a grey backdrop to semi-tropical vibrancy. Glistening boardwalks peppered with fallen russet leaves; lustred green foliage and ferns dusted silver with water; and bubbling cascades and falls given impetus by the weather.

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xb13I was only going to stay the one night on the Sunshine Coast, but my weather-induced weariness and the prospect of heading back to the swag tempted me to linger for one more. The extra day was drier, and the sunshine even emerged on occasion. This made the walk up to the top of Mount Coolum somewhat more hellish, but I felt like I had achieved something and could spend the rest of the day eating and being lazy.

Given this was as far north as I would come, and I was about to head back inland, I felt the need to indulge in a ceremonial wade in the ocean. Mooloolaba granted me this wish, the ocean cleansing my feet and ankles and even my legs. That was perfectly sufficient; beyond that, bigger waves and potential sharks. I had done what everyone does in Queensland in the summer holidays. Now I could leave and commence my less conventional trip back home.

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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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Capital works

I reckon every city and town and village and hamlet should have its own special ‘day’. It should be a time for locals to come together to take stock over what they have collectively achieved and to dream of what can yet be achieved. An opportunity to dress up for those from outside looking in, welcoming others into a collective ample bosom designed to make them say things like “Yeah, you know this really is quite a nice spot.” A symbiotic way for the place to provide something back to its inhabitants, made only possible by its inhabitants putting something into the place.

If Canberra Day is anything to go by, such extravagance is elongated over several weeks sometime around March. With the seasons commencing a transition, it is one final agreeable hurrah, a lingering celebration of another summer before thoughts of hibernation and exile set in. It is still warm but the days are shortening, making it an ideal time for pre-dawn balloon ensembles and post-dusk illuminations. You don’t have to get up too early or stay out too late, and you don’t yet have to risk strangulation in a melee of scarves and hats and fleece blankets because it has dropped to something arctic like ten degrees.

mar03One recent Friday in March offered a sumptuous day of deep blue skies where it was nudging a far from arctic 30 degrees; warmth that seeped into the night and made a very slow amble around the Parliamentary Triangle all the more comfortable. At scattered intervals the huge geometric edifices of the national institutions thrust up as multicoloured beacons, drawing moth-like the throngs of humans revelling in an evening of enlightenment. A beautiful day shifts into a beautiful night.

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mar04Cooler and with showers threatening, a Sunday morning is cloaked in a pre-dawn gloom. It’s fairly early and the streets are even quieter than usual. It’s that peaceful time of day, a serenity that becomes confronted by parking battles and swarms of people as dawn breaks once more in the Parliamentary Triangle. As quick as the light emerges, balloons rise up from the ground; once flattened tarps smeared across the lawns inflate into rounded bulbs of colour and misshapen eccentricity. The sun sneaks up from the eastern horizon as people wave gleefully from wicker baskets shooting up into the sky. They shouldn’t look so bloody cheerful…they seem to be heading somewhere over the rainbow and into that storm. Oh well, good luck to them, I’m off to grab a coffee.

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Monday, and it’s a public holiday, all to celebrate the 101st birthday of a city. Ironically many use it (with the attaching weekend) to flee the place. It’s as if the Prime Minister has just let off the stinkiest fart known to humankind from the flagpole of Parliament House, causing people to rush out onto the Kings or Federal or Monaro Highways in some sense of manic delirium. They head back later on the Monday, once the air is clear.

mar06bBeing a flexible fellow, and paying attention to the weather forecast, I stayed put until Monday. The day was sunny and I decided – with a spontaneity that still involved making a couple of lists – to head up into the hills for a spot of the old driving-walking-camping experience.  It was an enjoyable drive and involved some new road, taking in the Snowy Mountains Highway to Kiandra and then heading over a lumpy and curvy Alpine Way down to Khancoban. There was even – and this clearly denotes a successful road trip – a big thing at Adaminaby. Little over a hundred kilometres from Canberra and it is shameful that this was my first Big Trout sighting.

The barren, frost-scarred plains of this eastern side of Kosciuszko National Park gradually transition as you head west, down through a verdant paradise of tall gums and ferns on the wetter, western side. From here, views of the Main Range are a tad more dramatic, captured at the captivating Olsens Lookout. The plunging of streams can be heard rising from the deeply cut valleys, all making their way, eventually, into the Murray River. Before that, at Geehi Flats, waters trundle along the broad Swampy Plains River, offering a genial spot for camping and, quite probably, Big Trout. Until the storm rolls in…

mar06So much for the weather forecast but I guess these are technically mountains and mountains are known to find weather a fickle companion. With rumbles of thunder close, the rain started pretty soon after parking up, before any swag had been resurrected. With no obvious sign of letting up, and with some distance to travel on slippery surfaces to a town that may or may not have a dodgy motel, I decided to complete my intense road test of a Subaru Outback. Just how well do the seats fold down to form a spacious sleeping area?  The answer: well, not too bad…ten extra centimetres of legroom would have been handy but I slept…well…no worse than I would have done in the swag.

Still, it was nice to stretch the legs the next morning which predictably dawned all damp and misty, but dry and with the sun only very reluctantly breaking through clouds. A drive up over the range and heading back east demonstrated the transformation of plant life once again. Near the road’s highest point at Dead Horse Gap things were more barren once more. Perhaps a surprising spot to take a walk but I was pleased, following the course of the Thredbo River into the Pilot Wilderness, to find myself in somewhere just slightly akin to a Dartmoor valley or a Welsh llanfygwryff-y-pobbblygwrwrochcwm.

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mar09I was heading along the Cascades trail which leads to a hut called – you guessed it – the Cascades Hut. I couldn’t be bothered to go all the way to the hut (18kms return), but made it to Bob’s Ridge and back (shall we say, with a bit of meandering, 10kms). Being a ridge there were some views, west and south into Victoria, though frequently obscured by stunted and bare gum trees.

Anyway, it was nice to partially recreate the feel of a bit of upland Britain. Being in the Australian Alps I was also happy to try and recreate an Alpine mountain sandwich, consisting of bread, cheese and cured meat. Again, it was no fancy ooh la la baguette avec fromage et saucisson, but filled a hole at the very pleasant riverside setting near the end of the walk.

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Of course, on a birthday weekend such as this I need to top off this eating with some birthday cake. I dutifully obliged with a bakery treat in Jindabyne on the way back to Canberra. With a coffee. Borderline country coffee. Which made it undoubted road trip cuisine. Which made a return to Canberra, with its guarantee of good coffee, all the more inviting. And for that, I’m very pleased to wish it a happy birthday indeed.

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Big, big things

Encounters with the ‘big things’ around Australia. It’s amazing what can be achieved with concrete, plaster and a desperation to attract weary roadside travellers…

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