Flying by

It’s been a while since I’ve driven so far on consecutive days. The passage of years dulls the memory of cruising on straight, flat roads under an endless sky; pausing at a bakery in a one street kind of town, finding a ramshackle table beside a drying creek to stop and sample the local flavours. Seeking shade from the sun and solace from the flies. Always the flies. Now I remember the flies and that quirky shimmy to dispense of their attachment and manoeuvre into the car without them. A memory regained and repeated again.

I was heading west towards Griffith, the first stage of an elongated loop involving a couple of stops for work. Beyond Wagga it becomes much clearer that Wagga is a veritable hub of civilisation, with a handy Officeworks and everything. Another hundred clicks on and the town of Narrandera welcomes like an oasis, perched upon the muddy brown of the Murrumbidgee and boasting one of those high streets of slightly faded charm.

riv01There is a colony of koalas here, and I was pleased to come across one in the first hundred metres of my walk. It was around midday and hot, exactly the kind of conditions in which you should not be out walking. But with this early sighting, the pressure was off – no more relentlessly craning one’s neck upward in the usually forlorn hope of spotting a bulbous lump that isn’t a growth protruding from a eucalypt. I could instead loop back to the car concentrating more on keeping the flies from going up my nose. Yes, they are absolutely back.

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Through Leeton – one work site – I pushed on to stay overnight in Griffith. Griffith is famed for a few things – lots of wine production (apparently, 1 in every 4 glasses consumed in Australia), Italian mafia, flies I would think, and citrus. Quite stupendously I had arrived at the time of year when the town parades an array of citrus sculptures, mostly located in the median strip of the busiest road going through town. I suppose it’s convenient to look at if you’re just passing through, but I can’t fathom why anyone would not get out of the car to take a closer look.

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They say citrus but I don’t recall a single lemon, lime or grapefruit. Apart from the vines, most of the trees you pass are dotted with oranges, all fed by the ditches and canals of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area. It would be hard work out on those fields, under piercingly hot sun among the flies. Giant brimmed hats with nets (rather than corks) are a must.

For a touch of diversity in what is a fairly mundane landscape, I took an early evening drive out of town towards Cocoparra National Park. Getting out of town is the first adventure, given that Griffith was designed by our old friend Walter Burley Griffin. You can see the giveaway circles and roundabouts on a map, but I can’t say there was a particularly strong Canberra sensibility about the place. Leigh Creek in South Australia provides a more authentic – and surreal – replication.

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Within the national park, the Jacks Creek trail promised much – traversing a dry, rocky gorge before climbing out to vistas of the surrounding landscape. Indeed, it would have been quite idyllic bathed in the end of day light, an Australiana glowing golden brown and rusty red. The kind of earthy environment that to me has been a highlight of past trips out back.

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Yet not since Arkaroola have I found myself in such a landscape outnumbered ten thousand to one by flies. I feel like I keep repeating myself, but they truly were unbearable. Pausing to reflect and soak it in was impossible. Stopping to set up photos proved an ordeal, exacerbated by the movement of my camera shaking off another cloud of useless parasitic twatheads seeking water from whatever orifice they could find.

After coming such a long way, flies had wrecked the experience. It’s akin to a rare sunny day in England, battling through Sunday drivers to discover a lovely beer garden, nabbing a prime table overlooking a patchwork quilt of fields, tucking into a hearty lunch with ale. And then the wasps appear and come down to doom us all.

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Thankfully the number of flies per square metre dissipated a touch as I turned east, eventually to reach Sydney. Along the way the landscape softened too, more rolling and pastoral with a surprising touch of green in places. Along the way, fine country towns such as Cootamundra, Young and Cowra, famed for Bradman, cherries and prisoners of war. All words that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Shane Warne tweet.

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As the sun leaned low against the western sky, I paused for the night in the town of Blaney, where it cooled down sufficiently to deaden the activity of insects. Wandering around the streets early the next morning, there was a touch of the genteel in the gardens and verandas of the old brick homes, verdant patches of life fed by the creek on the eastern side of town. Of course, being Australia things do not remain sedate for too long; two magpies decided to have a go at my head while a family of geese with newborns made sure I didn’t pry too much. An old guy wheeling out a bin stared and muttered – perhaps both in contempt at my alien presence and in recognition of a deeper affinity.

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Walking back to my motel I noticed one of those brown tourist signs with a small fort-like shape pointing to Millthorpe. It wasn’t far and while I was pretty sure there would be no small fort-like building there, it had to be indicative of something. Perhaps a smaller, more endearing version of Blaney, with a quiet high street lined with buildings from yesteryear. A village brimming in spring blooms and fragrance, boasting not merely a café but a “providore”. Wine rooms and antique curios…we are nearing Orange after all.

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Millthorpe offered a tangible culmination of my growing appreciation of the grace of small town Australia. The small town Australia that isn’t too threatening or distant, somewhat gentrified by being in range of Sydney weekenders, bringing good local food and drink to the table. You can imagine renting a cottage here and treading its creaky boards, sheltering in its shady alcoves, napping as the afternoon light creeps through the blinds, casting shadows of wisteria onto the soft pastel walls. There’s probably not that much to do, but that’s all part of the attraction, offering time that can simply be sated with coffees and brunches and platters of meat and cheese and wine.

riv10Still, should you wish to rise from this indulgent slumber, another hour or so east will bring you to the western fringe of the Blue Mountains. Suddenly things change, and not just the petrol price rising thirty cents a litre in as many kilometres. The day trippers are out in force, the coaches idling at every single possible lookout, of which there are many. The escarpment top towns of Blackheath and Katoomba and Leura are brimming with people shuffling between café and bakery, spilling down like ants to the overlooks nearby. Below the ridge, however, and the wilderness wins. Only penetrable at its fringe, placid beneath a canopy of ferns and eucalyptus.

I walked down a little near Katoomba Falls, thankful to be below the tumult of the populous plateau. The falls were barely running, but the views up the valley towards the Three Sisters were inescapable. Overhead, a cableway gave visitors the easy option to take this all in through the glass and air conditioning.

The Blue Mountains have some momentous lookouts but are best appreciated on a bushwalk away from the crowds. However, my time here was limited and some ideas that formed for longer hikes will have to wait for another day. A lunch stop at Sublime Point will be the last I take in for now, that distant view of millions of trees to be replaced by millions of people navigating the congested thoroughfares of Sydney.

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The city awaits, the space disappears, the understated charm of the country fades away. The buzz of people rushing here, there and everywhere gathers, pressing in like a thousand flies in the face, and ears, and mouth and nose. Taking your car park and your seat on the train, getting the best spot on the beach, the last table at the cafe. Persistent and relentless these ones cannot to be swished away or disposed of by a disjointed shimmy into a car. The flies are unavoidable, everywhere.

Australia Driving Green Bogey Photography Walking

Trails and tribulations

As a new year begins, the summer holidays are in full swing down under. Nowhere is this more evident than at road service stops up and down the land. At Goulburn, interstate and overseas travellers revel underneath the glory of the Big Merino, custard slices and cappuccinos fly off the shelves of Trappers Bakery and Maccas is a frenzy of Frozen Coke Spiders and toddler tantrums. Downtown, the high street is at a crawl as people are confronted with the idiosyncrasies of rear angle parking demands that necessitate a protractor for the first time since high school, and inevitable queues form for drive-thru beer and ice.

kan01Most cars are heading up or down the Hume Highway, towards Sydney, Melbourne or – even – Canberra. And / or beyond. Fewer are taking an alternate road north, across golden farmland and riverine gorges, passing through the town of Taralga and very little else until reaching the bright lights of Oberon. Here, west of the gargantuan expanse of the Greater Blue Mountains, fingertips of road and trail penetrate into the edge of wilderness.

Kanangra-Boyd National Park is the second largest tract of wilderness in New South Wales. Which is remarkable really when you think that Sydney almost brushes up to its eastern edge. The largest wilderness area, incidentally, is Wollemi National Park, also a part of the Blue Mountains. That’s a lot of bush out there.

Arriving on a cloudy afternoon, there was – to put it less than mildly – a freshness in the air at Boyd River Campground. Indeed, the scene of a tin-roofed wooden hut among the gums was more Kosciuszko in June than Kanangra in January. The fireplaces were looking like an entirely appropriate adornment.

kan02Walking helped warm things up a little and the gloomy view of Kanangra Walls was eclipsed by the natural serenity around Kalang Falls. This required a little descending beyond the escarpment edge and each step below evoked a sense of immersion in something elemental and pristine. As well as the pervasive eucalypts, native flowering shrubs and bonsai-sized pines and cedars clung happily to the rocky outcrops. Ferns adorned the pools and watercourse of the creek as it disappeared down and down into depths unseen. A trickle seemingly so insignificant continuing to somehow carve out this impenetrable gorge country.

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Back at camp, the summer idyll of cold beers and chicken salad was challenged by the increasing chill. My only pair of long pants and only hoodie were barely enough to keep the cold at bay and the folly of not bringing any extra blankets – in January for goodness sake – was prescient. The smokiness of a fire was price worth paying for a little extra warmth and some extra evening entertainment.

Entering the cocoon of my swag for the first time in a year a light drizzle began to fall, which persisted all night and into the next morning. While it was nothing substantial – more a case of being in the clouds rather than under them – it was enough to disrupt sleep as moisture gathered on the tree branches and fell as droplets drumming onto the canvas above my head. Waking for the umpteenth time, dawn revealed a silvery lustre of leaves and gloom among the gums, only lightened by the invigorating and fragrant freshness. Still, it would be cool and calm conditions for a gentle bike ride…

kan05And indeed, by time we got underway some of the gloom had lifted and the initial pedal on smooth tracks though the forest was heartening. Things began to go downhill as the terrain went more steeply and precariously downhill (described as “gently rolling”), compounded by creek crossings and the nagging knowledge that at some point climbing would be inevitable.

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So it was that the trail transformed into an archaic roadway of logs and rocks, mud and puddles, seemingly unending in the depths of the forest. Each bend revealing another uphill slog or treacherous dip, with the prospect of the good dirt road on the horizon yet again dashed. Somehow, we all stayed upright, our bikes remained in one piece, and we just about managed to keep sane. Just. Finally, the sight of the good dirt road, leading to a smooth, mostly downhill ride back to the campground, was nirvana itself.

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A sense of achievement was palpable over lunch, which took place under sunny and warming skies. Tents dried and sleeping bags aired while sunscreen and hats were now de rigueur. The morning travails were slowly beginning to dissipate though I am sure they will never be completely forgotten. Managing to drag ourselves from such placid relaxation, we revisited Kanangra Walls, which offered a far brighter scene in which to marvel at monumental sandstone country.

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kan10Being energetic types, we embarked on a walk along the plateau in the afternoon which – naturally –  only involved a few minor ups and downs. Panoramas were a regular companion, the vertiginous cliff line giving way to a green carpet plummeting down into infinity. Caution was high on the agenda peeping towards the precipice, a dizzying spectacle in which you hope not to be consumed. Let the snapchatting youth and boastful backpackers perch on the edge, for we have had enough adventure for today thank you very much; and how much more of a thrill do you need than being a part of this landscape, an insignificant dot in such spectacle.

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kan12Working up a thirst, the cold beverages on the second – and final – night were far more fitting. By now, any clouds and wind had completely disappeared and the forest was aglow in the lingering end-of-day sunlight. Even my one-pot cooking failed to ruin the experience. We had been through the tribulations of the trails of dust and drizzle, creeks and climbs and were being generously rewarded. Finishing on a high, Australia at its summer holiday best, and you, and a couple of friends, immersed within it.

Australia Driving Green Bogey Photography Walking

Back on the road

xa01Christmas Day came and went with little fuss; a suitable blend of English traditions (think paper hats, Christmas pudding and rubbish TV) and Australian holiday (cue swimming pools, prawns and rubbish TV). And the next day like millions across both hemispheres, I hit the road to expand my horizons, meet up with others, and curse at the appalling driving ubiquitous across the highways and byways of the land.

My destination was Brisbane and a tad beyond. In the first of three undeniably thrilling instalments I shall take you with me on the journey north. I had determined to go inland, avoiding the ludicrous middle and outer lane hogging of the Sydney motorways and the family-fuelled people carrier congestion of the coast. Yes, I would mostly miss the beautiful cooling ocean but there is a lot to see in the interior of Australia, believe it or not…

Boxing Day mash up

xa02Setting out, the tones of Jim Maxwell narrating the Boxing Day test helped me along familiar ground to Goulburn and then round the back of the Blue Mountains via Taralga and Oberon. I’m not quite sure when the familiar becomes, well, exotic, but I had never been to Hartley before and I wasn’t expecting to see emus along the roadside. Attempting to quell this confronting change, I popped in for some afternoon tea in the cutesy national trust cafe. Devonshire scones with clearly non-Devonshire cream. Sigh. When will they learn?!

The journey proceeded through Lithgow and alongside the expansive Capertree Valley, where my first lookout stop offered a surprising reveal of a sweeping landscape. From here, the final sandstone ridges of the Blue Mountains stand bastion over a green carpet of eucalyptus, and – closer to the road – the occasional green taming of human activity. Apparently the Capertree Canyon is the second biggest in the world after that gargantuan gorge called The Grand Canyon. Which clearly makes it the largest in the southern hemisphere. However, despite this billing, for me, it was a detour too far.

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xa05With the day drawing to a conclusion I had to make haste to my first camp spot, passing through a seemingly deserted Mudgee, and hitting the gravel roads into Goulburn River National Park. Here I surprised myself at how efficiently I made camp, setting up gear which had not seen the light of day for a few years. Yes, the swag was back and loving its natural environment.

xa04With all this travel and excitement it was easy to forget that it was Christmas time and today was Boxing Day. It certainly didn’t feel like a typical Boxing Day, but I paid a little homage to tradition by boiling up and coarsely mashing some potatoes and carrot, serving it with some ham, and adding a few pickled onions and a pile of Branston. This camp stove and esky creation was a perfect amalgamation of English traditions and Australian summer holiday, a supremely satisfying garnish to this first day.

To England, my New England

The next morning dawned sunny and warm, a hot day ahead to progress north into New England. At some point – Merriwa I think – I rejoined a road I had once been on, and the New England Highway steadily progressed towards Tamworth. Some may disagree, but I find this route north to Brisbane more scenic, more interesting than the Pacific Highway, which follows the coast but sufficiently distant from it to rarely glimpse the gorgeousness of Pacific Ocean.

Here, the landscape is rolling and golden and covered in a warming glow. Sun-baked fields and picket-fenced horse studs line the highway, frequently terminating at abrupt rises in the land and wilderness once more. A steady stream of small towns gladly interrupt the journey, adding the interest of random claims to fame, elegant facades, and Driver Revivers. And road signs proclaim only 700kms to Brisbane. I could be there in a tick.

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xa06bBut obviously I stop and detour and make inevitable visits to big things like a giant golden guitar in Tamworth. It’s my third time here but I still cannot resist the allure of such a curious, iconic Australian landmark. The car and I refuel, we park up and make lunch of ham sandwiches and crisps. And, comfortably gathering that road trip rhythm, we set off once more, another hundred clicks up the road to Armidale.

From Armidale I find myself heading south and east…not exactly the direction for Brisbane. But just a little way out of town, farmland gives up and a corner of Oxley Wild Rivers National Park is accessible. This is gorge country which – after rain – boasts the promise of waterfalls. In the midst of this summer Dangars Falls is absent, but the deep gorge is clearly less fickle and the campground nestled above it is a delight.

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After setting up with even more surprising efficiency there are a few hours left in the long summer day for a bit of a walk. It is the perfect time of day and – at what must be approaching 1000 metres in altitude – the temperature is pleasant, the walk shady, and possessing only a couple of manageable inclines to negotiate. The final couple of kilometres weave along a ridge high above the chasms carved by Salisbury Waters, leading to an abrupt halt at McDirtys Lookout. It may sound like it’s named after a slang term for a ubiquitous fast food burger chain, but there are no car parks, no neon signs, no frozen cokes in sight. Just a landscape preserved thanks to its inaccessibility and the wild rivers that made it.

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In the Washpool

Day three and already I was making spontaneous changes to my vaguely pre-defined route. Instead of heading up a boring looking road to Glen Innes, the journey took me along a section of the Waterfall Way and then cut across on a quiet, winding road to Grafton.

xa09Along the Waterfall Way I could make a mid-morning stop at Ebor Falls, a site I had previously encountered boasting a couple of quite magnificent waterfalls. Today, they were an inferior imitation of what I remembered, reduced to a trickle and hidden in the shadows from the morning sun. But as road stop rest stops go, there was plenty to savour: a gentle shady walk along the valley rim, pockets of wildflowers and patches of birdlife, the smell of the bush. All under the deepest blue skies.

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It is broadly along the latitude of the Waterfall Way that the first of a number of pockets of ancient rainforest appear; clusters which frequently emerge all the way north from here, up to and across the Queensland border. Dorrigo National Park is the first and has much to adore. But having been there and done that, I was keen to make it to a large swathe further north.

xa11From KFC in Grafton, the car headed through patches of woodland and along the picturesque valley of the Mann River. Rugged ranges loomed, neared and eventually required climbing; like so many roads from the coast to the inland, hairpins and lookouts and massive tree ferns clinging to the eastern escarpment. Atop all this a dirt road led off the highway and plunged into the rainforest of Washpool National Park.

The Washpool walk provided nine kilometres to stare up at giant trees and admire the light through the vivid green canopy. Vines and creepers tempted Tarzan escapades. Humidity sapped and a small waterfall offered only gentle relief while also hastening the need to pee. It was an immersive and captivating rainforest experience but – perhaps after another long, hot day – a couple of kilometres too far in my opinion. Still, at least I had sweated out maybe one piece of southern fried chicken.

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xa13I felt as though I had earned a beer and decided to take one with me on a brief amble to a lookout near the park entrance. This is the benefit of having everything in the car and, um, the beer would provide hydration if I ended up getting lost or bitten by a snake or something, right? Thankfully the lookout was a mere stroll and the satisfaction of that coldish beer on that bench on those rocks in that peace with that view under early evening skies without the prospect of getting lost and having snakes for company was something to cherish.

While the beer episode is up there, it was just about surpassed by waking the next morning beside Coombadjha Creek. This is why you put up with a little discomfort and a lot of phaff by camping. You feel part of the environment, immersed in the landscape, at one with nature. Even if this means enduring the bittersweet alarm call of shrieking and cackling at four in the morning.

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xa15Before breakfast, before packing up, before moving on once more, I could hatch out of the swag and wake up with the world around me. Virtually from my bed a small trail followed the pristine waters of the creek and looped back through a large stand of Coachwood. The sun gradually made its appearance, shafts of light angling through the trees and shimmering through the ferns onto the water. The creek was clear and cool, and after three nights of camping without a shower, it was tempting to bathe. But I really didn’t want to ruin its purity; my mind turned to the allure of the ocean instead.

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Return to a civilisation

xa17Without going into lurid detail I did wash each day thanks to boiling water and the use of a bucket, an art mastered in the trip of 2013 with Jill. Simultaneously I could make a cuppa, grill some toast and prepare my morning sink. Sure, it wasn’t exactly luxurious or even two star, but it allowed me some confidence to mingle a little with civilisation each day and order a morning coffee, buy petrol and ice. Which is exactly what I did in Grafton after descending from the hills that morning.

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Heat had been building on this trip and by now it really was scorchio. I could resist the ocean no more and joined the masses along the Pacific Highway, turning off towards Yamba. Outside of school holidays I am sure this is an easy-going little coastal town. Today a shady car park was at a premium and the wait for fish and chips was half an hour. But it had several beaches lapped by clear and calm water in which to linger. I finally felt that a layer of inland Australia had been cleansed, only to be replaced by salt, sand and – subsequently – fish and chip grease.

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xa20I encountered my first inexplicable traffic jam north of Yamba and speculated that this was being replicated up and down the highway. Still, I only had twenty clicks at a snail’s pace before I could turn off and head to Lismore. Lismore was to herald my proper return to civilisation, something which some people would find surprising in relation to Lismore. But I was to sleep in a proper bed and have a proper shower here, both of which I was quick to enjoy upon arrival. Refreshed and walking Lismore’s unfathomably charming streets, I felt part of normal society again.

Yet after the joy of showering and napping on a double bed and walking a little along the Wilsons River, I felt lost. This habitat, this environment, this standing still in one place felt a little odd. Still with a couple of hours of daylight to spare, I drove out into the lush countryside, through stretched out villages hidden amongst the trees boasting honesty fruit stalls, lefty views, and probable marijuana. To Nightcap National Park, where some falls were missing but where the late sun bathed the forest in gold. Just me and the Subaru, enjoying the last beer from the esky, the final slice of ham. We had come far and – refreshed – we could carry on until the end of days. Or, more likely, until I needed a shower and craved a soft double bed again.

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Australia Driving Green Bogey Photography Walking

Awesome!

Well what a jolly upbeat place to start, no doubt setting the scene for the boundless enthusiasm that lies ahead. So, in order to put an immediate dampener on things, let me tell you some problems with this word and its application in the world of travel.  For far too long, far too many people, myself included, have liberally used a simple ‘awesome’ to reflect or describe an experience which, while probably very good, perhaps exhilarating, maybe fun depending on company, was technically not inspiring of our awe. Akin to Australian misogynists trolling their way through the hate media in 2012, overuse has diluted its impact. Awesome is no longer quite as awesome.

And who should we blame for such degradation of our language? Well, as every reasoned, fact-based opinion piece would purport, young people and social media of course! I suppose while we are thinking along such lines then we might also point the finger at any combination of immigrants, foreigners, boatpeople, sandpeople, wookies, orcs and trolls. Bloggers, who may fit in any or all of the above categories, are no doubt entirely culpable.

Of course, this is all assuming that we have to blame someone or something, which tends to be the way these days, rather than accept that things change for better or worse and that language is merely an extension of our natural evolution. Besides, I also think we could rule out young people in the blame game, simply because “awesome” sounds so 1990s. A bit like “cool’. Which naturally brings me on to New Zealand.

Nowhere, simply nowhere, have I heard the word “awesome” used to describe so many mundane things…

How were your fish and chips? Awesome, thanks. Cool [1]

How did you sleep last night? Not bad thanks. Awesome

What do you think of the Hobbit movie? Yeah absolutely awesome Peter Jacksons a legend bro

It may be because New Zealanders – who I truly believe are one of the nicest, warmest peoples on this planet – are naturally happy and optimistic souls (the counterargument, typically from boorish Aussies, would be that they are easily pleased). The irony of this is that New Zealand probably contains the most genuinely awesome sights and experiences per capita of anywhere in the world. Yes, experiencing a silent, dawn reflection on the glass water of Milford Sound probably is awesome; the extent to which your lamb chop is seasoned really shouldn’t be.

I am willing to cede that awesomeness is entirely subjective. Perhaps, indeed, a well seasoned lamb chop (which is important) could be awesome when one finds oneself ravenously craving salty meatiness. Thus in travel we will all come across different things that we find awesome. Not just incredible sights but experiences and emotions that pop up in the right place at the right time. The combination of physical place and emotional connection is often the most magical. One can trigger the other. For me, a physicality that is almost impossible to fathom and epic in scale is usually awesome [2]. It is something that is rightly awe-inspiring and as such generates an emotional reaction. Emotions ranging from bewilderment to wonderment. A sense of one’s own time and place in a grander narrative.

Awesome travel experiences should be impossible to fully convey through words and pictures. Which, with a sense of inevitability, I shall now attempt to do, reflecting on two very different environments. One is man-made, the other crafted by the hand of nature.

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When it comes to epic environments of a man-made scale I’d argue it would be hard to look beyond New York City and the landscape of Manhattan Island in particular. Everyone should visit and everyone should easily find an awesome moment. There is incredulity attached to the place, simply in how a muddy island has evolved over little more than two centuries to become, and I plagiarise, one hell of a town. A testament to human survival, endeavour, ingenuity and skill. A reflection too on human frailty, failings and fears. This may be how far we, as humanity, have come, both in good and bad ways.

Even from atop the very highest buildings the city is impossible to fathom (remember this being a key requisite of my definition of awesomeness). At my time of visit (2011), the Empire State Building represented the highest point in the city and the experience from the 86th floor around dusk was incredible. Each city block a melding of concrete, steel and glass, bubbling upwards like the most majestic capitalist stalagmites. Each block ringed by a dotted artwork of moving yellow taxis, police cars, black and white suits, turning to streams of candescent red and yellow as darkness falls. This scene replicated and nuanced many times over, forming a feast for the eyes of gargantuan proportions.

There is more to this experience than the visual epic. The sound is at one singular and plural; a constant background hum punctuated by sirens wailing, drills whirring, concrete blocks piling, delivery vans unloading. For all I can make out, the mutterings of individual conversations and transactions rise up – “Get me a bagel schmuck”, “Siphon residual profits into offshore hedge fund now”, “Aw gee, that’s so awesome” – and meld together to form an indistinct, indecipherable story. Yet it is also a soundtrack that is – comparative to the streets below – soft and mellow, calming and reassuring, like a doctor with a good bedside manner, telling you it’s only a cold and will go away in a couple of days.

Without wishing to sound entirely blasphemous or indeed egotistical, it is possibly the closest you can physically feel to playing God. Here I am, overlooking the chaotic order the ant like humans have made. They seem to have done pretty well, but I’m not quite so sure where they are heading with all of this. Still, if it mostly keeps them out of trouble then I’ll let them get on with it, for now. I do wonder if their structures and movements and lights flickering on as darkness approaches are a brazen act of defiance to the nature I have created. But I’ll just make sure the sun goes down and comes up again, throw in some random weather and inevitable seasons. And let them see what they can do about that – ha!

I think it’s this realisation that you are both atop a pinnacle of human endeavour yet still at the mercy of the world around you that makes the top of the Empire State Building genuinely awesome. Coming at dusk accentuates this feeling, the changing colours reminding you that not even humankind can change the revolution of our planet and relationship to other bodies within the solar system (yet!). Despite what we have achieved, parading in such an obvious fashion below you, we cannot completely change the world. And that is a merciful thought. It adds to the relief at being so high, up away from the city, taking a breather from the millions below, yet remaining connected to them. And, gee, it’s a tonic for a great view.

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Great views abound in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales in Australia. Before I go any further here I should reiterate the guide book lines: they are not actually mountains and they are not really blue, unless Bernard Manning has been resurrected in the wattle to yell out random profanities. Don’t expect high alpine drama of ragged granite shards and snow-capped peaks here. And, despite its very real wilderness, don’t be thinking you’ll be entirely escaping the clutches of mankind, given the most common way to see the place is along the not-so-Great Western Highway, with typically nondescript towns and Sydney style traffic. However, what is really awesome is the fact that you can walk down the streets of several of these towns and come to a rather abrupt halt. Or you could, should you really want to, carry on and topple many hundreds of metres down to join millions of Eucalyptus trees sweeping their way through valleys, tucking up like broccoli textured blankets against sheer sandstone cliffs, sheltering crazy birds and possums and snakes and spiders. A world before we were here.

Even though it may seem about as far away from New York City as the former planet Pluto, there are parallels between the two, conveniently suggesting common threads exist in my take on awesomeness. Sandstone pinnacles thrust upwards like the Empire State Building. Down below, a tree-filled pattern of regular irregularity. Sounds drift up, only, this time, the sirens are the echoes of bellbirds and the cackles of kookaburras and cockatoos. You are once more God-like, and with a sense of befuddlement at the sheer comprehension of what is set out below.

Out there remains wilderness, all still remarkably close to a sprawling city of over four million people. The ‘mountains’ remain an effective barrier to the seemingly endless sprawl, with shoots of Sydney forced south and north to new suburbs promising ample land and countryside but without really being in Sydney at all. The suburbs are unwittingly following the route of a few cows that escaped around 200 years earlier in search of pasture; cows that eventually found their way around the mountains, unlike the intrepid explorers who thought they could just head west in a straight line, endlessly naming everything that got in their way after themselves. Can we deduce that cows are smarter than many 18th century British colonial dandies? Surely not.

From the small towns that emerged once the explorers had stumbled across the mountains (only with the essential assistance of the local Aborigines) there are many vantage points to peer out into the void of the Grose Valley (to the north) and Jamison Valley (to the south) [3]. Some of these lookouts are grand, glamorous affairs, with safety rails and public toilets, information placards and tame rosellas. Echo Point in Katoomba is the most obvious yet still it offers a dramatically photogenic vista. You may find it awesome.

For the record, I find Sublime Point, further along to the east offers greater potential for an awesome experience. It’s harder to reach and thus you are more likely to experience it on your own, just you and the world for company. You are especially likely to have it to yourself at 6am in June, the wind piercing the bones and shaping bleary-eyed hallucinations of the valley mist into a soft, warming duvet. It is elemental, timeless and boundless. And as the first laser beams of sun hit the sandstone and the birdsong strikes upwards from within the mist, it is sublime, it is awesome.


[1] Everything that is awesome is also cool. Some things that are cool may not be awesome.

[2] Perhaps “epic” is in fact the modern day “awesome”, particularly since it requires fewer characters in a tweet.

[3] Further west there is the Megalong Valley, since tamed and given over to farming shortly after someone came up with its inspired choice of name.

Links

Speak like a New Zealander: http://www.statravel.com.au/new-zealand-language.htm

The Empire State Building: http://www.esbnyc.com/

Me and NYC: http://neiliogb.blogspot.com.au/2011/10/spreading-news.html

Bernard John Manning: http://www.bernardmanning.com/

Destination NSW – Blue Mountains: http://www.visitnsw.com/destinations/blue-mountains?gclid=CMzA4_uUmbQCFcohpQodCiYA-g

Crossing the Mountains: http://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/discover_collections/history_nation/exploration/blue_mountains/index.html

Sublime times: http://neiliogb.blogspot.com.au/2011/06/sublime-points.html

A to Z Australia Photography Society & Culture USA & Canada