Hop, skip, jump

Or how to catch up two months in one thousand words.

Can it really be more than two months ago that I was faring well an England seemingly destined for Johnsonillae exitium philanderus? Well, yes, it was and with that comes the strange and daunting prospect this year of an entire Canberra winter. Which, to tell the truth, hasn’t been overly taxing thus far. A few cold nights and fresh mornings, the occasional horror day featuring bone-chilling winds and foggy drizzle. Yet time it right in the afternoon and you can be bathing in 15 degree sunshine. And as the temperature plummets overnight, watching a cricket world cup at four in the morning in bed is cosy, if not calming.

Arriving back in mid-May delivered me to a climate marginally warmer and certainly sunnier than the realm from which I came. A mild, ambient goldenness that stretches into early June, as leaves linger and fade and float slowly down onto the ground. It was pleasing to still see autumn abounding after experiencing spring sprouting. A soothing ointment for jetlag.

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Like the 4pm sun on a scarlet leaf, there is a distinct contrast returning from the UK to Australia, and Canberra in particular. Where are the streets clogged with parked cars and the friendly waves between drivers allowing one another to pass? What happened to the sweet birdsong and bounty of green? Just where is everyone? On the light rail maybe.

Wilderness, absolute emptiness is not really a trait of the British landscape, but here it practically feels as though it’s around every corner. A lingering day trip holiday hangover prompted me off to Braidwood for the token mid-morning coffee and cake and then on into the Budawang Wilderness. A landscape of escarpment and gorge, ferns and eucalyptus, blue hills and blue skies. A new peak to conquer – Mt Budawang – and those very Australian views. Not in Kansas or Kensington anymore.

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There was more sandstone bush aplenty on another day trip into the Southern Highlands with two friends – Michael and Angela – who were briefly in the country for a change; equally keen to taste that generous sense of antipodean air and space before embarking for the freneticism of Europe. It was a right proper miserable public holiday morning in Canberra, but a little north and east near Bundanoon the drizzle faded, the skies cleared, and the hills and valleys of a small pocket of Morton National Park glowed. It became – still – comfortable enough for t-shirt.

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Given such fortuitous conditions we stretched the day out with a visit to the ever popular Fitzroy Falls. The bulk of day trippers take the short stroll to the top of the falls, a few less meander on to the first couple of lookouts, and just the hardcore like us go all the way. It’s not that taxing – around 6km return – and it’s a walk constantly accompanied by generous vistas and plentiful woodland. Today, we had the bonus display of a lyrebird, perching and prancing and going through its repertoire of impeccable mimicry, reminding us, once again, how unique Australia truly is.

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These Australian winter days are in many ways incomparable to those of the north; I could not imagine being so comfortable and surrounded by the continuing flourish of nature on a windswept Princetown tor in January. Or May. Yet, coincide some of the higher, harsher landscapes with the handful of genuine wintry days, and it can feel like a cream tea in front of a log fire would have been a far more sensible choice. Such as exposed upon the summit of Booroomba Rocks, as a tenuous sleety shower whips across the valley.

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There is snow to be had as the year progresses into July, a clue provided by the proximity of the Snowy Mountains to Canberra. Most of the white stuff falls above 1800m or so, but a dusting can accumulate at lower levels to coat the western backdrop to the Australian capital. Clever foreshortening with big zooms can make it look as though the hill behind Parliament House is some kind of snow-capped Mount Fuji, but it takes around an hour to reach these powdery playgrounds.

When these powdery playgrounds receive a fresh dusting on a Sunday during school holidays, carnage can ensue. In fact, it creates a scene reminiscent of the frenzy after a dusting on Dartmoor, when cars stop and pull over willy-nilly, the white blanket concealing rocks and ditches and any intrinsic common sense remaining. The snow becomes muddy and slushy and by noon the picture resembles a bad day’s racing at Exeter Speedway in which the childcare centre has experienced full on meltdown.

I assumed leaving around eight in the morning I’d be one of a handful of pioneers to add fresh footsteps in the virgin snow around Corin Forest. Yet I find I’m in a queue of mainly oversized Utes idling while the road remains closed. I could wait, for goodness knows how long, to follow the many vehicles in front as they lose all sense of common sense upon the first sighting of a pile of slush. Or I could park up on this nice flat grassy verge and walk. Somewhere.

As fortuitous as the parking spot was, my luck doubled with the gate leading onto a fire trail which eventuated into a loop walk taking in a bit of a climb and gradually moving away from the road and the sound of idling engines and despairing parents with despairing children who need a wee. Fresh, fragrant eucalyptus with just a dusting of snow; seemingly not enough to really close a road, honestly, but a coating of white nonetheless. A scene sufficient to paint a picture of transition from the spring blossom to the autumnal gold to the middle of winter in two months. Two months and one thousand words. Okay, not quite one thousand, but if I just add up the words as I write this extra bit, I reckon I might just get there.

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Australia Green Bogey Photography Walking

Catch the pigeon

For all the scurvy, seasickness and usurping imperialism it would have been quite something to voyage with Captain Cook in 1770. Cruise the ocean, meet the locals, spot exotic wildlife, hide Joseph Bank’s acacia collection in the poop deck. You’d get to discover new lands and – best of all –name them. Cook would have had first dibs mind, and being from Yorkshire he would be undeniably dry and unimaginative about it: Wide Bay (a large open bay), Sandy Cape (sand), Red Point (red), Booby Island (wishful thinking arising from a year at sea).

Cook was having a delirious day on April 21, 1770 when cruising up the south coast of what – inexplicably – was to become called New South Wales. Somewhere beyond Point Upright (yeah he named that too) Cook “saw a remarkable peaked hill which resembles a square dovehouse with a dome on top”. He thus decided to name it Pigeon House and from that point on it has acted as a beacon for sailors, sightseers and bush bashers the world over.

Pigeon House now sits within the gargantuan Budawang wilderness covered by Morton National Park and a number of adjoining reserves, a largely unexplored, impenetrable land of sandstone cliffs and gorges, coated with eucalypts, shrubs and ferns. It is almost as it was when Cook whizzed past on the way to Botany Bay. A few roads fringe its edges and offer access to scenic vistas, waterfalls and a tangle of greenery. But it can take some work to enter, even with the newly upgraded Nerriga Road taking some of the roughness temporarily out of the equation.

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One of the bonuses of a visit to Pigeon House is its proximity to the coast, meaning that with a bit of planning you can enjoy all that has to offer as well. Like fish tacos in Milton and leisurely golf in Mollymook and shopping in Ulladulla, before enduring a relaxing couple of hours in and around the water in Bendalong. Warm sunshine fading, ocean glimmering, cold beer flowing, is this ideal preparation for an assault on a mountain?

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I have had far worse Monday mornings than a dawn start in Bendalong. With the seasons supposedly changing sunrise is drifting beyond seven these days, making it an ideal period to revel in that new dawn, new day vibe. It is the hour of dog walkers and anglers and people with cameras but today just sparsely scattered; most appeared to still be in bed in the Tourist Park, even by the time we had packed up to head for the hills. Leaf blowing, I guess, can wait.

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And so, to Pigeon House Mountain, the reason we are here after all. Via a fortuitous stop at the Milton Heritage Bakery (which is definitely one that can be logged in the revisit bank). Fuel for a challenging but captivating climb. Part of the challenge being getting to the trailhead itself, via the back roads and rutted logging tracks which undulate through cool, shady, beautiful forest. The Subaru seems to love this stuff though and I quite love taking it on such journeys too.

pigeon5So the car was up to the job, but were the humans – me, Alex and Michael? The trail – well-built and marked – veers quite steadily upwards and scrambles up a number of rocks for the first kilometre. A small shelf offers the first of the views, snatched through clutches of trees and over boulders. It’s an opportune stop for breath, water and to try to dry the sweat from running down your face and into your eyes and mouth. But it’s a futile effort, with the first view of the mountaintop itself offering both allure and a sense of foreboding.

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pigeon6True, there is some relief for a while following a sheltered ridgeline, before the steps return again and the sweat comes back in profusion. It is quite remarkable that someone has gone to the effort to build all these steps though, and the piece de resistance comes with the final climb on a series of metal steps and ladders, hopefully fixed securely to the rocky dovehouse. At the top of each series of steps, views begin to open up and you can see, sense, taste, that the salty sweat will definitely be worth it.

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And, you know what, that old effort-reward ratio is positive in spite of the effort part of the equation. While the sea can be seen sparkling and blue, it is the wilderness of the Budawangs to the west, north and south that shines. It is immense, primeval, distinctly and majestically Australian. The Monolith Valley beckons, surrounded by tabletop plateaus carved by the meander of the Clyde River. Ranges expand north and south, and somewhere over one of those distant lumps the road back to Canberra rises.

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pigeon10Pigeons were lacking but instead the summit appeared to be a bastion for numerous giant butterflies, the ubiquitous Australian fly, and a curious lizard or two. No doubt accustomed to weary walkers feasting in celebration on apples and oranges and squished cakes from Milton Heritage Bakery, waiting for the crumbs to fall. I’ll say it again, but I have had far worse Monday mornings, even when cake has likewise been involved.

And so, in a matter-of-fact Yorkshire way, what goes up must come down and back to sea level we headed by foot and by car. A sea level with fish and chips, cooling drinks and cooler ice cream, seemingly modelled on the giant summit lumps of Pigeon House. Anything worked off replenished in minutes. Extra burden for the car, which now struggled a little in the heat over the hills (I know how you feel poor car).

Oh to be sailing instead, onwards to some bay surrounded by botany and up north to a rather large reef acting as a kind of barrier. To see new things and name them after the bleeding obvious (or upper crust toffs from England). To strike out into the world like a pigeon into the skies, embracing the wonders around you, finally coming home with tales to tell and sights that will ingrain in your memory until the end of days. To embark on voyages of discovery every day, long since Captain Cook’s has passed.

Australia Green Bogey Photography Walking