Making moments – the epitaph south

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

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

Sublime seconds in Warrumbungle National Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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One final thing to cross off

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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Shadows and light

Well haven’t things been a little quiet? I mean on this obscure little blog of mine, obviously. Elsewhere life has been as hectic as a white house full of vainglorious charlatans; shady meetings here, photo opportunities there, late post-work nights scrolling Twitter and watching better men climb mountains. Lots of covfefe to keep me going.

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IMG_1464It’s kind of a winter thing, a cross-hibernation leisure shut down enforced by financial year leftovers and inevitable doses of bugs that may or may not be flu but love to linger. Canberra has had more than its fair share of cold, but – the last week apart – it has been phenomenally dry, with big clear skies bringing about pleasant afternoons before ruining the whole mood with sharp, sadistic frosts.

IMG_2179It has been pleasant enough – out of any wind, with a little time spare – for a few walks into the bush. There are Red Hill ramblings of course, but throw in a few Mount Taylor hikes, Black Mountain bush and Botanic Garden explorers, Mount Ainslie parkways, and add a random sprinkling of Cooleman Ridge countryside ambles and Urambi Hills thrills and there’s enough to keep reasonably sane and fit. Especially when the bike is gathering cobwebs.

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The nice thing with winter is that, largely, it is far from drab. The other nice thing is red wine accompanying slow cooked meat falling apart in a lather of gravy. Outside, the eucalypts still have leaves and there is always something, somewhere that is in flower. At this time of year the wattle loves to be all extravagant in gold, while resistant rusted on leaves mingle with ghostly bare branches and the alluring onset of early blossom. Three seasons in one, proof that Australia, really, honestly, doesn’t quite have a ‘normal’ winter.

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Colour comes too in evening skies, given the right combination of luck and persistence. A lot of my time in the last month has been spent at the National Library; a change of scene from working at home, with heating supplied and coffee options close. Outside the bookish interior I have seen a lake whipped up into peaks, a fog chilling to the bone, and a giant water feature named after Lieutenant James Cook spray passers-by with a spirit of generosity. And then, you get a calm one, when the lake becomes glass and duplicates the sheer beauty of our skies. It’s not a bad office from home office.

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I’ve formed a bit of a love-hate relationship with the library; much as I have with winter. I dread to think how many words I have written there in the past month, all of which are far more insight-oriented with indications of strategic positioning than anything you might read here. A key topline take out though: it’s in a great location and, as an almost Canberran, I feel so fortunate to have ready access to such fine institutions on my doorstep.

IMG_2300And a few strategic recommendations for winter? Anything with gravy and a glass of red helps; get out in the warming afternoons even if this means working at night; and, in the midst of analytical bewilderment, book a flight to the UK, where the daytime temperature will probably end up being the same anyway! See you oop North….

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Holes and crevices

Since I started waxing lyrical about the joys of March it has been raining a fair bit. Not wall to wall drizzle but almost daily torrents of abuse from the skies. Upper level troughs, east coast lows, tropical storms, that sort of thing. While many people rightly state that it’s good for the gardens, it’s expressed with a subtle tinge of disappointment and envy that the gardens are having all the fun. You get used to not having to consult the weather forecast before planning outdoor adventures.

Still, Canberra doesn’t often get the brunt of the bad weather, shielded by the Snowy Mountains to the west and the coastal ranges to the east. Maybe that’s why they decided to site Canberra where it is, the guffawing elites of Melbourne and Sydney spitefully condemning the nation’s capital to a dusty sheep paddock. One hundred and four years later it’s quite remarkable that it is what it is really, and I’m amazed that the vast swathe of Australians fail to celebrate what has been achieved here. Only in Canberra do we get Canberra Day, when half of Canberra leave Canberra for the long weekend.

Predictable rain peppered the drive from Canberra to Braidwood on Canberra Day 2017. Over the years, Braidwood has become more attuned to Canberra’s fancies, with the emergence of better coffee and organic providores selling overpriced sourdough sandwiches in stripped back wooden cottages. For all the fine produce and renovated fireplaces around, it still alarms me when an old dear is at the coffee machine. Call it despicable ageism, but people with beards do seem to make a better coffee.

bush01aMost people use Braidwood as a coffee and loo stop on the way to the coast. Today however, with my friend Alex in the passenger seat, I was heading a little south into Deua National Park. A brown sign pointed to The Big Hole and Marble Arch, and who doesn’t want to see a big hole and a marble arch? Even if you do have to wade up to your knees in the Shoalhaven River to see these delights.

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bush02I knew I would be a fan of The Big Hole. Part of the attraction is the name itself, attributed through one of three traditional Australian place-naming techniques: the bleeding obvious (the other two methods being the Aboriginal and the Colonial rip-off). Climbing up and over a ridge, a sign in the midst of nondescript bush points to the hole a hundred metres away. And there it is. A big bloody hole. Seventy metres deep and filled with ferns that are a lot bigger than they look. At the end of the day, what else could you call this?

bush04Marble Arch is far less obvious. And a good deal farther, through an annoying shower and down into a valley. In fact I don’t recall an extravagant arch glistening in the rain, just a narrow canyon and underground cave, with a few boulders and soggy pools in the way. Nonetheless it was quite a spectacle, quite an experience, quite an adventure. And quite a climb back up, in the rain.

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A couple of weeks on and I found myself back on the bushwhacking trail in the frequently moist Southern Highlands of New South Wales. You cannot enter the highlands town of Bundanoon without saying so in a Scots accent. Welcome to Bundurrnooooooooonn. Turn right at the kilt shop and beware caber tossing ginger people on the road into Morton National Park. Where, for all the pretence of Scotland, you are in quintessential Australia, sandstone escarpment and gum tree country.

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bush05Walking along a gravel road in a landscape tamed by pasture and pricey property, the bush reclaims the country and sweeps down into the valley of Bundanoon Creek. While keen not to go all the way down to the creek (and thus back up), I dropped below the cliff line on the promisingly named Amphitheatre Track. While there are glimpses of the valley and the eastern escarpment through the trees, a lot of the attraction is in the close up, in the miniscule: the seeping moss, the crumbling sandstone, tunnels of ferns and trickling gullies.

bush06As well as savouring the sights, sounds and smells of the bush, I was on a waterfall mission, confident of success given the recent rains. It didn’t take long to find a trickle of water that had swollen sufficiently to spill through a cleft in the rock, briefly flowing over the path, disappearing into unfathomable depths below. Further gullies provided further cascading water, and such was the sogginess underfoot it was relief at times to emerge from beneath the ferns on slightly higher, drier ground.

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The only regular water feature marked on the map provided the culmination to this hike. Not one, not two, but effectively three different cascades had developed around Fairy Bower Falls. The first was most certainly a temporary affair, streaming down the rock face like Gandalf’s beard and onto the track. The second – the upper falls – appeared to come from the heavens, falling through the canopy and spreading its mist into the air. The third – the lower falls – gathered into a crystal pool which required only a little daring to cross. This was most definitely the spot to pause and eat my peppermint slice.

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It certainly was the pinnacle, here in these depths. By now I was two hundred metres below the rim and the route back was more than a chore. Fallen trees required circumnavigating; zigzags upwards necessitated breaks; vines impeded above and below. At one pause for a breather I noticed a pile of leeches on the bottom of my jeans, some having made it through to the socks and another trying to get in through my shoe. Frantically trying to peel them off before they made any further progress, my camera decided to roll away twenty metres into the undergrowth. This was now a bit shit.

Leech free (well, I thought…one made it to Moss Vale, the other to Canberra but thankfully without feasting), camera retrieved, there was just the heart-pounding, sweat-inducing climb to the top to go, a climb that never seemed to end. Thank goodness there was a lookout at the summit to recuperate and a sign on which to perch and check shoes and socks. And thank goodness for flat, gravel roads on which to walk back to the car.

bush12I was relieved to get back to the car, relieved to be just fifteen minutes from a hearty lunch in Bernie’s Diner. And relieved that the first raindrops of the day hit the windscreen as I closed the car door, raindrops which continued almost all the way home.

P.S. It was beautiful and sunny today, calm and 28 degrees 🙂

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Drifting

It has been a pleasant surprise to stumble upon March without the world being blown up by some really bad or sick dude. Less surprising if you listen to scientists was the record-breaking hot Australian summer; indeed there were moments where it felt like the end of world wasn’t too far away (two successive 41 degree days in Canberra spring to mind). But, again, we made it to March, with temperatures slowly cooling and promising a period of pleasant sunny day times and sleep-friendly lows.

sum01What does one do in a hot summer which features only intermittent work? Well, trips to free air-conditioned sites of interest for a start: the cinema, the library, the gallery, the mall. Occasionally the office, mostly for a coffee and catch up. Bike rides bring a nice breeze early in the day or into the late evenings. And cooling refreshments comfort: my addiction to frozen drinks persisting (but now slowly fading), a cold beer or cider in the evenings, Dare iced coffee and occasionally something a little more extravagant.

sum02Walks are practically a daily feature (they usually are), often on Red Hill (they usually are). Again, the early mornings or late evenings work best, the low light emphasising the sweeping golden grass and colouring the white trunks of gums a laser red. Sun sinks late over the ranges and smouldering skies are common. This is better evening entertainment than what’s on TV, as post-tennis, post-holiday reality shows make a comeback, spewing forth with abandon.

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sum05Daytime strolls are better suited to places such as the Botanic Gardens, where shade is more forthcoming and the rainforest gully drops temperatures by five degrees. Moisture emerges here from the watering, and continues in the cafe serving a fairly average coffee. But to grab a takeaway and sit under a tree reading a book or interview transcripts is a fine way to spend an hour (and improve the experience of reading interview transcripts).

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sum06aAway from nature for a moment, summer in Canberra also promises event after event as the populace makes the most of the time before entering deep freeze. There are blockbuster exhibitions in the galleries and museums; there are fetes and swimming carnivals and cricket matches all over the suburbs; fireworks, flags and protests in equal measure adorn Australia Day; and the National Multicultural Festival brings oodles of noodles in a celebration of diversity that ought to be protected. In the spirit of inclusion even certain redheads are catered for.

Outside the capital the countryside sizzles in much the same way, this occasionally boiling over into grass and bushfires. In 2003 of course a big one hit the fringes of Canberra and much of the rugged land to its west. Over the course of my time here – since, OMG, 2006 – I have been able to observe nature’s recovery, the transition from blackened trunks and patchwork growth to a flourishing bulbous canopy and vivid green understorey. Nine years from the last time I stepped out, the signs at the start of the track up to Booroomba Rocks still warn of falling debris from the damage, but from what you witness along the way this previous carnage is almost imperceptible.

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While summer has been predictably hot and dry, previous wetter seasons have replenished the reservoirs and river systems around Canberra. No longer do we see LCD updates informing us of how many litres we consumed yesterday and imploring us not to water our lawns. At least for the time being.

sum07At Burrinjuck Dam – reached via coffee stop in Yass – water levels are high and this is a natural lure for cursed boatpeople who frolic about in a flurry of jetskis and Chardonnay lunches. Away from the excess surrounding the boat ramp, quieter coves and a cutesy scattering of cottages for those dam workers heralded surprise. And a reasonably flat, empty road on which to have a pedal.

There was a cool wind on that ride, late February, and soon after the first day came in which it might be handy to have a sweater in the evening. This in many respects is a blessing because at night you can sleep again and wake to blissfully clear and fresh mornings, which impel you to get out and live. Outside, only the very first tinges of autumn are appearing on the trees but other signs are more prominent: increasing work opportunities; long pants; the first fog grounding hot air balloons; and a now perennial favourite marking the transition from summer to autumn in Canberra, Enlighten.

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sum10My how this has grown since I was one of the few to trudge round on a pleasant evening a few years back snapping pictures of a handful of the capital’s illuminated buildings. Now practically every city does something similar on landmarks more well-known. But Canberra’s Enlighten seems to be ever more popular, judging by the crowds streaming from one site to another on a Saturday evening. Many are also here to queue for food in the night markets, which is entirely predictable; after several years you learn to visit midweek and come early, to guarantee delights such as a bao trifecta, Korean chilli pork fries, and deep fried ice cream.

I’m a little warm that Saturday evening in long trousers and the next day – today, March 12th – tops 32 degrees. But because it is officially autumn it feels acceptable for a loin of pork to be roasting in the oven. I’m kind of sick of barbecues and the promise of slow roasted feasts is one of the plus sides of the seasons changing. It won’t take long and everyone will be whingeing about the cold, wrapped like mummies in a pile of scarves and hats, scowling at the misery of “bloody Canberra”. Shorts and air-conditioning will feel like distant memories. But before we get to that point there is the promise of the transition, a period that is without doubt the best time of year here, in bloody Canberra.

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1577 kms to go

It’s entirely natural to reminisce about holidays, to #tbt, to revel in the sights and sounds granted by being at leisure. And once home, to miss the adventures, the freedom, the thrill of discovering new places and experiencing a certain degree of randomness along the way. Casting my mind back to January – and a road trip return home – such rose-tinted sentiment is tangible, readily available to grasp.

There seems to be an added dimension of fond reminiscence surrounding this trip though. It was as if it took place in a different age, before the world got a real dumb deal; a time when things were not quite as barking mad, when there was still some value placed on logic and reason and fact, when the majestic pinnacles of the Warrumbungles were less likely to be obliterated in a twitterstorm. Thank goodness I got to see them – and more – on the return to Canberra…

Farewell pineapple paradise

xc01A couple of days on the Sunshine Coast had delivered only intermittent milky doses of sunshine, with homely patches of drizzle persisting throughout my final morning. An obvious light in the dark was the Big Pineapple on the outskirts of Nambour. A possible former plaything of an ex PM and Treasurer of Australia, I felt this was a perfect way to say goodbye to the Sunshine Coast and a suitably symbolic start of another long drive through the heart of Australia.

South of here, along the Steve Irwin Way, are the crikey strewth craggy lumps of the Glasshouse Mountains. I had hoped perhaps to go for a walk, but a dense shower and the constraints of time put a scupper on that. Instead a brief stop at a lookout to watch the cloud graze the jagged edges of rock, and a scurry to the car as it moved overhead and deposited its load was the order of the day.

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I decided to circumnavigate Brisbane, heading inland through Woodford, Kilcoy and loosely following the valley of the Brisbane River. Here, it was an insignificant trickle compared to the wide brown water beating a course through the city. At Esk the summer made a splendid return, providing the setting for an exemplary chicken sandwich-making lunch stop.

I was heading towards the New South Wales border and had entered a region promisingly labelled the Scenic Rim. Curious as to how much this was tourism marketing exaggeration, it didn’t take long to ascertain that, for once, this was not fake news. Distant views of extinct volcanic peaks became closer, the green and fertile landscape opening up as the car climbed the curving ribbon of highway to cross the divide. At its apex, Main Range National Park offered one final taste – on a brief jaunt – of the majestic rainforest that had been a significant feature of my trip.

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Beyond the rainforest, the road ambled down a valley through what appeared to be a rich vein of farmland. This continued to Warwick, which was a pleasant, well-heeled kind of place, suggesting the surrounding farmland does indeed possess significant richness. From here orchards and vineyards cluster around Stanthorpe, at the heart of the Granite Belt.

xc04Pausing at Stanthorpe the rain had returned and I made use of mobile coverage to assess the likelihood of getting soaked while camping. It was touch and go but I opted to camp a little south in Girraween National Park. This was unlike a Queensland in any of the brochures…cool, cloudy, a little dank. Clusters of giant boulders dotted the landscape, sitting within short and stubby forest and forming natural terrain for pools of water to form.

Here, in Queensland, just a few miles from the state border was a striking replica of Namadgi National Park in the ACT. Weather and all. The granite boulders a symbol of home, the coolness a familiar relief. But – pinching myself – the reality was of another thousand clicks to go, and the impending ordeal of losing an hour tomorrow.

The road

xc05I was definitely the first person to leave the campground the next morning, cognisant of a long day ahead and jumping forward an hour into New South Wales. A lonely road led to Glen Innes, the only memory of which I have is of waiting ages for a coffee and then discovering, driving out of town, that they had decided to put sugar in it. This clouded my opinion of Glen Innes, and driving through the next town of Inverell, I wish I had stopped there instead.

I was back on little used country roads, cutting a smooth swathe through fields of wheat and passing over desolate ranges coated in eucalyptus. I was making a surge to Narrabri, hoping to get there as quickly as possible for lunch. But lunch came quite late (and, inevitably, in KFC), after a few diversions slowed my progress.

Crossing a bridge into Myall Creek, the name registered in my head for some reason. Maybe it was in A Country Practice or had a Big Thing or was the birthplace of some famous Aussie cricketer who sent English wickets cartwheeling towards the Nursery End? If only. Sadly, heartbreakingly, it was the scene of slaughter, as white invaders massacred 28 Aboriginal men, women and children who were camping peacefully on the Myall Creek cattle station in 1838. Even more sadly, grotesquely, such occurrences were not rare. What distinguished this was that for the first time – the only time – white men were arrested, charged, and hanged for the murder of Aborigines.

xc06Today, it is a quiet place of solitude and reflection. The chirping of birdsong persists despite searing heat and baked earth. A simple, memorial walk exists, a swirling red path providing points of information and remembrance. There is talk of healing, of coming together of ancestors, of deep remorse and some kind of hope. A hope that, eventually, love does trump hate.

Myall Creek seems a long way from anywhere. The nearest town of Bingara has a sleepy charm; it’s the kind of place I could be tempted to sup an ice cold schooner in the pub, surely the beating heart of the town. But I head on, closer to the incredible peaks and volcanic plugs of Mount Kaputar National Park. I have a fondness for this spot, which effectively heralded the happy start of an epic trip in 2013. Back then it became a surprisingly good replacement for the Warrumbungles, which had been decimated by bushfire. But now, four years later, I could finally cruise past Mount Kaputar and see how much nature had recovered.

In the bungles, the mighty Warrumbungles

xc07Entering Warrumbungle National Park, it was pretty clear that a fire had ravaged the area; blackened trunks of trees lined the steep slopes and the road produced a patchy, lumpy ride where the tarmac had no doubt melted. Up one of the hills, some of the buildings of Siding Spring Observatory had suffered damage but the telescopes survived. Well, thank goodness for that…we can still scope out future worlds to inhabit when Fake Lord Emperor Pussy Grabber destroys this one.

But this land is a resilient land. Just under four years and further into the heart of the Warrumbungles, the green explosion of new growth is abundant. I was looking forward to exploring it more in the morning. For now, time to make my bed in the delightful surrounds of Camp Blackman and enjoy the added attraction of running water and hot showers.

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I was the first person up the next morning again. This was deliberate and well worth it, for I was embarking on a pretty long walk and it would be hot. Returning to the car park towards the end of that walk I passed numerous people coming the other way. Of course I said hello, g’day, howzitgahn but my mind was saying things like good luck you fools, shouldn’t have been so lazy this morning should ya.

xc09With benefit of doubt perhaps they were not doing the entire Breadknife and Grand High Tops walk. Maybe they were just doing the first part, which was gentle and followed the course of a mostly dry creek bed. This would be a rather fine walk in itself, for it is such an elemental, earthy landscape in which to linger. I wasn’t expecting such enchantment here, such homage to the rugged environments further inland, closer to the desert. There was a bit of Flinders Ranges crossed with The Grampians about this place. Two of my favourite ever spots blended into one.

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xc10The other benefit of starting early was to witness the early rays of sun graze the hilltops and glow through the tree trunks and branches of the bush. I think the angle of an early sun also helped to illuminate some of the spider webs formed between shrubs on either side of the path, requiring a little stooping and contortion to avoid. Being a pioneer has its downsides and I guess if I was later in the day many of these webs would have been smashed by hapless walkers that had come before.

xc13Inevitably after a couple of kilometres the track climbed, with a steep but nicely constructed path giving way to endless metal steps. This was taking me up towards the Breadknife, so named because of its sheer sided slopes and thin pointed summit thrust into the sky like a scene from Crocodile Dundee in which Mick shows some New York Hoodlum a proper knife. Up close, you couldn’t really see it, but, eventually, when the trees fade away and the rocky floor of the Grand High Tops themselves are underfoot, the knife is there, just one of many rocky crags and rounded lumps rising up from an incredible sea of green.

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“Call that a knife?” was the current expression that was going through my head as I sat and ate some cold bacon sandwiches premade from the night before. I didn’t say this out loud, because two other hikers soon joined me in admiring the view. Distant to the west, beyond the sweep of green was a flat, yellow expanse that would extend to – well – Perth? Behind, further rocky mounds and eucalypt forest reached to the horizon; a horizon I would be heading towards later in the day.

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But first, descent. It wasn’t too bad, apart from a few larger rocky steps somewhat deformed and eroded into that gravelly stuff that is treacherous underfoot. Luckily I stayed upright, apart from the numerous times ducking under spider webs again, some of them occupied by things which are probably perfectly fine but Australian and therefore potentially deadly. Such was the profusion of webs in the shadow of the Breadknife, I grabbed a stick and waved it up and down in front of me. For a moment I felt like Harry Potter, but this particular wand had a success rate of something like 25%.

The largest, ugliest, potentially deadliest spider sat low over the path, guarding the final section of the loop back to the metal steps. I started to take a photo of it and it looked at me as if it didn’t really like being in pictures. So I stopped. Wary, I assessed any alternative routes but to the left of me, a scrubby, rocky drop and to the right a cliff face. There was nothing for it but to crouch as low as possible, scramble quickly underneath and avoid looking up.

xc16Further down the trail I encountered a young lady throwing rocks at another occupied web. It was one I must have ducked under a couple of hours earlier. She looked terrified and said as much. In trying to comfort and reassure, I told her it was probably the last of them and moved promptly on. She scarpered under the web to continue her walk while I went to look at a deadly snake. Pausing at a little wooden bridge over the dry creek, a beautiful Red-bellied black meandered along the rocks beneath. It was quite mesmerising, until it disappeared out of sight, when it became a snake that I couldn’t see and therefore significantly less appealing.

Come to Warrumbungle National Park, to experience an epic, timeless Australian landscape and to appreciate its friendly animals. Actually, do come. I loved this place more than anywhere else on my trip. Good campgrounds, great walks, beautiful country. And only six solid hours from Canberra…so I may return!

Old country for no men

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xc18A couple of hours and I was back in more familiar country. Dubbo is one of my token regional research towns and I had a sense of déjà vu checking into a motel with a plastic cow on a pole out front. But still, a motel, with refurbished rooms, air-conditioning and a king-sized bed. After my morning adventures, what better way to appreciate this scenario than nap.

I was still a little weary as the evening emerged, so randomly stumbled upon the comfort and cooling refuge of the local cinema. Star Wars and a natural blue raspberry Slush Puppie in a cinema in Dubbo. It was like it was 1985 again.

xc19The next morning, after obligatory buffet breakfast, I set off on the final stretch of road home. It was a day in which there was little of note. As a commemoration of all things road trip I made a spontaneous stop at a place called Peak Hill. Here I went on a little walk along the perimeter of a big hole in the ground, previously mined for gold. While gold sounds glamorous, it was a hot and dusty walk with countless flies trying to go up my nose and the pervasive smell of urine in the air.

xc20South of here, Parkes had a more pleasant aroma, decent coffee, and was positively bustling with the prospect of Elvis coming to town. Or thousands of Elvises (or Elvi?) all dressed up for the annual festival, starting in a few days. If ever you needed an encapsulation of randomness this was it. Seeking quirky Elvis sights, many shops were filled with posters for upcoming Elvis impersonation gigs, and a couple of murals were dotted about the town. One, I was informed by a very enthusiastic lady, lit up at night and projected videos and played songs out loud and everything. I should come back tonight she said. I got my coffee and moved on.

From here, more familiar names like Canowindra, Cowra and Boorowa passed by. All surrounded by a gentle landscape of golden wheat fields and occasional strips of bushland. It was a placid, smooth, easy ride where the only real highlight was the prospect of falling asleep at the wheel and creating a massive fireball visible for miles around. A frozen coke kept me going to join the Hume Highway and bypass Yass. The Hume Highway! Yass! This is practically home.

xc21Of the 4,232 kilometres covered on this trip to Queensland and back there were around 50 more to go. Past Poacher’s Pantry where a pre-Christmas lunch lingered in the memory; across the state border and back into capital territory; a roundabout and empty dual carriageway through bush towards home. The city of Canberra is here somewhere, but I could still be out on the open road, in the middle of nowhere. Suburbia and never-ending apartment construction does finally emerge. There are supermarkets in which to replenish supplies, and, crucially, stock up on hot cross buns for Easter.

It is January 9th and with a cup of tea and hot cross bun I am relaxing at home. It is always nice to be home for sure. The ready availability of a bed and shower are not to be underestimated. However, there is that slight disappointment in the air of a good trip finished. With summer still in full swing and the prospect of extensive work minimal, there are still days ahead which could be holiday-like. But they will be comparatively static, comfortable, predictable. Well, at least until January 20th 2017.

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If you really enjoyed this endless waffle or have more time to kill while you should be working or doing something far more productive, check out the other two parts of my Christmas and New Year trilogy. Like Star Wars, only less something something something dark side.

Part 1: Back on the road: Canberra-Mudgee-Scone-Tamworth-Armidale-Grafton-Lismore

Part 2: Sweaty New Year: Ballina-Nerang-Brisbane-Stradbroke Island-Sunshine Coast

Australia Driving Green Bogey Photography Walking