The buzz. The excitement. The nerves. The never-in-my-lifetime strangeness underpinned by a back catalogue of disappointment. The sense of hope, exhilaration, and gut-wrenching drama more often than not deflated by events. The inevitable post-mortem punditry and scapegoating and resignation and acceptance. But maybe – just maybe – this time will be different.
If ever there was a weekend to finally come home this would be it. But I’ll be in bed, 12,000 miles away, turning on the bright lights of a laptop at five in the morning. Thinking about Italian coffee and chocolate digestives to perk me up. Minus three degrees in my shirt.
It’s a bed in a home that I haven’t written about for a good half a year, what with other more exciting jaunts. Canberra is still here, still going through its motions, still – touching wood – absent of coronavirus despite the best efforts of our neighbours. Still understated and beguiling, fortunate and free. Offering abundant life and opportunity if only you should look.
Over that time, Canberra has been doing what Canberra does, transitioning slowly but surely through the bursts of colour of autumn towards morning fogs which (usually) lift to reveal brilliant blue afternoons. It’s the time of year when continental superspreading sporting events disrupt sleep and sub-zero mornings add to the challenge of getting out from under the doona. A time when travel bubbles pop and masks finally become a thing. But do not despair. There is always fresh air.
From the reliable vistas atop Red Hill, a quick jaunt up the road once the laptop powers down. Winter light always doing something special just before five in the afternoon. A warm angelic glow spreads over the rising towers of Woden, the hospital and the Pfizer vaccination hub. Kangaroos munch unaware. Some things change and some things don’t.
Rapidly contesting with Red Hill as my favourite nature reserve, Cooleman Ridge offers great reward for minimal effort. Fringing the west of Weston, the reserve boasts fine views back over Canberra but the real splendour is on the other side. Paddock. Hills. Forest. Mountains. A Murrumbidgee Valley creation. With suburban sprawl and hoonish echoes fading behind the ridge, it is a country walk in a city. And because so much of the Australian countryside is shamefully locked behind fence and gate and no trespassing signs, this is a real treasure.
The treasures of Mulligans Flat are perhaps a little less obvious – and much more likely to emerge at night. But this place is a sanctuary for humans and animals alike. It is another place that has grown on me through a pandemic, from the initial Centenary Trail crossing to volunteer tasks hassling echidnas and wallabies and turtles. As is oft-mentioned on a twilight tour, the dams were dry back when we were enshrouded in smoke. Today they come alive.
A bigger dam sits further west, lapping at a much bigger wilderness. When you stop and think about it, it is quite something that you can be picking up a good coffee at the neighbourhood shops and fifteen minutes later staring out towards this. Cotter Dam vistas shrink and stretch as you rise further into the sky, reaching a new summit at Mount McDonald.
Another new summit is added to my life experience when I take the dirt trail up to Mount Jerrabomberra. I have ventured beyond Canberra, though only just, and only before the latest Bondi-fed outbreak (just in case some paramilitary border goon decides this is reason enough to bar me from Western Australia for twenty years). I have come to Queanbeyan for the rare opportunity of coffee and cake at three in the afternoon, discovering a café that actually opens beyond two. Why is this not more of a thing? Especially when you can easily walk a few crumbs off afterwards.
It is becoming harder to discover new things like this in the backyard, but I am not there yet; Coronavirus may have to last another twenty years for that to materialise, something I would dearly love not to happen. I would love instead to walk in the Alps again, to hike along the downs of southern England chasing butterflies, to stroll through the Barbican and up to Plymouth Hoe, snaffling some fudge and an ice cream along the way.
But do not despair. I discover a winter’s walk alongside the clear water of the Tidbinbilla River, striking out through green forest singing in the aromas of fresh peppermint. Occasional early wattle pops golden and soothes like honey. There are views towards rocky crags and precipitous ridges and – down the track – a little home: Nil Desperandum. It has been restored to cuteness and if only they had a kettle with some tea and perhaps freshly baked scones waiting, the walk back wouldn’t have seemed such a chore.
Nil desperandum. Whenever or whatever might come home, do not despair.
The last time I heard the word ‘gooch’ as incessantly, an English batsman was stroking the Indians all over Lords. That was 1990. I also remember a reoccurrence when the same player was famously dismissed for handling the ball. Today, gently rising out of Toogoolawah, two hours west of Brisbane, gooch and ball handling were once again all the rage.
A stop was called for by my good friend and biking companion, Jason. Problems in the perineum that would culminate in what will only be known as the ‘Lowood Incident’. As improvised comfort was applied and jiggled, I started to contemplate whether we would need to radio in the rescue chopper.
But waiting patiently I was enjoying the break. It had been a decent upward grind after lunch. The sun was warm and glowing gold the long grass of summer. Small eucalypts lined the route, interspersed with westward views over gently undulating farmland. My bike was coping well. Despite almost falling asleep over a burger, I was coping okay. This was brilliant.
I had never heard of the Brisbane Valley Rail Trail until Jason mentioned it virtually every time we spoke over the phone. I don’t know if it was one of those things you just say, never really expecting anything to eventuate. But one day I just thought sure, why not. Or words to that effect. And this whole trip was basically arranged around it.
We took a leisurely three days to cover the 161 kilometre route by bike, retracing a rail line that commenced construction in 1884 and was finally made redundant in 1991. Today, it has been transformed into the longest recreational rail trail in Australia for use by walkers, horses and – mostly – bikes. While I never succumbed, Lycra and gooch cures are never far away.
Day 1: Yarraman – Linville (42 kms)
It took the best part of two hours to drive from Caloundra to the start line (thanks Fiona!). Over rainforest-lined passes, high above fields of mist, past bakeries that are worth making a note of for later, we reached Yarraman to face the unknown. Yes, riding a bike is like riding a bike but riding a bike on a three day bike ride is another matter.
Yarraman was still fairly quiet, though the people we did encounter were keen for a natter. Being ANZAC Day, a small dawn service had been and gone, and one old guy offered reminisces about days gone by in this small neck of the woods. He had taken the train many moons ago when joining the air force. Thus a brief history of the operation of the Brisbane Valley Line ensued. The conversation culminated with him contemplating riding the line once more, e-bike assisted of course.
We passed up the opportunity to indulge in coffee and bakery items at Yarraman, instead pursuing these goals in Blackbutt once at least a few calories had been discharged. And so the exercise commenced just out of town beside the old rail station, highly visible remnants of the line that pop up in practically every settlement along the way. Blue skies, still air, a fairly smooth dirt track accompanied by that first shot of endorphin from anticipation of what may lay ahead.
And so, we rode through avenues of low eucalyptus, alongside green pasture dotted with spiky xanthorrhoea, and through a number of rockier cuttings keeping things relatively flat. Earlier in Yarraman, the old fella rambled on about the bridges on the rail line and wondered if they were still standing. The answer quickly became clear and that answer was – for the most part – no. After cruising with only gentle effort, the downs and ups of gullylife often come as a bit of a jolt to the system.
The vibe along the trail was congenial and we passed a few other cyclists with friendly g’days and broad smiles. A few times the trail briefly transported me to a nice summer’s day in southern England, a passing resemblance nurtured by fields of corn and tunnels of trees. The idyll was quickly shaken by the gullies, the gravel, and the sound of Chinooks and Apaches putting on a flypast specifically for us.
It had taken well over an hour to get to Blackbutt which was – after the trail thus far – a veritable feast of civilisation. People were assembling for the 11am memorial service, many with padded butts and bulging Lycra. This naturally resulted in high demand for coffee. So high, in fact, that the cafe we had chosen failed to deliver it.
It seems churlish to bemoan the absence of coffee in the context of wartime remembrance, but I cannot deny how deflated I felt. One of the attractions to this ride – probably even the number one thing impelling me forward – was the frequent prospect of stopping for coffee and cake. How leisurely, how civilised, how conforming to popular stereotypes of butt-padded middle aged manliness.
But the parade passed and wreaths were laid without a hot mug of country flat white. As they do, Last Posts, Abide With Me, and sombre silence touched the right note. The special guest speaker spent a good few minutes talking to the point that his time to talk had been controversially curtailed (I can only imagine the political machinations going on in Blackbutt RSL). Meanwhile, someone posting video of the service to the local Facebook page bemoaned the fact that everyone else was using up the local 4G and quite possibly catching coronavirus from the rays.
You don’t get these quirks at the Australian War Memorial and that is why the ANZAC service in Blackbutt was such a memorable event. Above all, it radiated with the warmth of smalltown community: flags half-mast against the backdrop of XXXX signs on the pub; the high street closed off as trucks carrying cattle detour behind the small memorial; a procession featuring schoolkids, scouts, guides, old troopers and the Country Women’s Association, all waving to family members lining the route. Meanwhile some lucky butt-padded cyclists sup on their coffee.
No offence to New Zealand, but we snuck out of Blackbutt as the ceremony was nearing an end with its national anthem. I was keen to get moving before the rush of people re-joined the trail. We also had to reach the pub before it closed for the day.
Fortunately, most of the trail to Linville was downhill, through Benarkin State Forest. This induced a little adrenaline, gathering speed and negotiating clean lines and avoiding small rocks. My back end decided it wanted to head sideways on a few occasions, but speed and gravity and not particularly flash bike-handling skills kept things upright. Almost as satisfying as staying in one piece was the sight of pedallers grinding their way up towards Blackbutt and being thankful that this was not you.
Eventually the forest opens out and the landscape presents itself as rugged and unkempt. In fact, it’s probably the most enclosed part of the whole trail, where you truly feel like you are carving your way through a steep-sided valley. As the hills part, farmland again emerges, shacks appear, caravans gather for extended coronavirus holidays, and in front of you, shining like a temple, is the Linville Hotel.
The first thing that was obvious about the Linville Hotel was that the tradition of sitting around drinking on ANZAC Day was very much alive and well. Out the front, a multicoloured arrangement of frames and wheels gathered in what looked like one almighty tangle. Motorbikes glimmered in the sun. Classic cars posed with their rooftops down. City folk had come for the drive. Or the pedal.
The Linville Hotel proved every bit the Australian country pub and a little more. Chicken Schnitzel lunch was accompanied by local brews. Wooden verandas and wonky floorboards looked out over sleek parasols and hipster guitarists. Old signs mingled with largely ignored QR codes. Upstairs, rooms provided accommodation and already the century old balustrade was subject to Lycra decoupage.
Closing at three, the pub transformed into a peaceful oasis, one in which I envisioned a post-shower nap that never materialised. Jason, naturally, had no problems. I instead popped out and explored the town, taking all of five minutes. It struck me that Linville would struggle to get passing trade if it were not for the rail trail. That, and the free camping area densely populated with COVID nomads.
So, the first day of the BVRT had been safely negotiated and all was well with the bike, the bike rack, the butt padding, and the humans. Until that pounding headache and fatigue and rush down to the toilet block to empty the mish-mashed contents of my stomach. In a dramatic turn of events, would I make it through only one day? Would we need to call in the medics? Would I ever get a goddam coffee on this trail?
Day 2: Linville – Esk (52 kms)
I guess the header gives it away. I survived. In fact I somehow prospered. This was the best of days: no rush to get anywhere, me, my bike, my mate, the sun, a massive coffee, and some other foodstuffs thrown in and not thrown up.
The day commenced with a rising sun over a patchwork of mist from the top floor of the Linville Hotel. The sun kissed its first light on the Lycra bunting, dangling like the dismembered ghosts of cyclists past. Gradually the shadowy figures disappeared as small groups set off. We were the second last to go, just an e-bike left charging for those who have the power to linger.
It was a good start, especially as the first stop – Moore – was only seven kilometres down the road. I say road, but of course I mean trail, which continued to be decorated by avenues of eucalyptus and interrupted by deep gullies.
Moore appears even smaller than Linville yet boasts three places offering coffee. Wary of yesterday, I pray we choose the right one. In the end, the coffee comes, which is an improvement at least. It’s one of the biggest cups of coffee I’ve ever had in Australia, more akin to the stupid sizes you get as standard in those awful chains in the UK. In its gigantic bucket, the coffee took an age to cool down, but at least a second breakfast sausage roll kept me replenished.
After Moore, the landscape opens up considerably; wide fields undulate gently towards more prominent ranges while patches of forest become fewer and farther between. The trail even takes in some steeper rises which I’m sure weren’t part of the original railway line. Like the train in Dumbo – I think I can I think I can – I am elated with my first KOM achievement.
Another notable rise appears on the outskirts of Harlin, the next town of sorts along the way. Again I am pleased that I make it but also pleased to see some seats and a shelter at the top. It’s a bustling hive of activity as wheels spin, chains are cleaned, and flasks of tea are drunk. A gathering of older riders have made it all the way from Bundaberg or Rockhampton or somewhere like that (I forget), this now their eighteenth day on a bike. I don’t quite feel as smug having managed to overtake a couple of them on the way up.
We seem to play tag with this group for the rest of the ride. The trail’s kind of like that. All the time, in cafes and pubs, on picnic tables and in parks, you see people you think you have probably seen before but often can’t quite remember. Typically exchanges involve the matter of where you have come from and where you are going, intended bakery stops, occasional technical bike talk that goes over my head, and – increasingly – saddle sore. You leave it all out on the trail.
In these entanglements I figure we are perhaps a little more memorable to others. I say we but I mean Jason, masterfully contoured within his Boomtime bodysuit; I’m just that nondescript guy accompanying the big unit. Sometimes setting tempo on a gradual rise, other times trying to keep up on flowing descents. Organising accommodation and strategising food stops. Encouraging progress to the next town for running remediation. Hang on…I sound like a bloody domestique!
After Harlin I find myself pacing us past a rider and on towards a landmark. A damp dark hole doesn’t sound like much of a tourist attraction, but this is Yimbun Railway Tunnel, constructed in 1910. It’s the only tunnel on the entire length of the trail and I am pleased to see it, given my initial horror approaching what looked like an unscalable hill. Stops for photos and cooees are all the rage.
On the other side we progressed onward to Toogoolawah where it was most definitely time for some lunch. Our hilltop friends from earlier were encamped at a couple of shady picnic tables feasting on the provisions they had carried. Travelling light, we sought out a business that would feed us. This proved harder than one might expect – being a public holiday, the town was almost desolate. Salvation was once again in the form of the pub, and a pretty decent burger.
It was at the pub that I struggled to stay awake and was uncertain how I would manage to start out all over again. Rooms in the inn certainly had an appeal. I was also being bothered by an energy company desperately trying to cling onto my business after taking my money for many years without the slightest pretence of customer service. This is largely irrelevant and uninteresting until it got to the point where I was pleased to get back on the bike to escape a world of 4G.
Back to the simple life where it was just you, a bike, and a mate bringing things to a halt in an attempt to increase comfort. The trail rose steadily from Toogoolawah for quite some time before a delightful plunge down the other side. With time pushing on, the afternoon presented the countryside in a warm, attractive light. By the time we reached Esk, there wasn’t so much left.
Usually you’d think 52kms would only take a gentle three hours. But factor in gravel, gully crossings, stops to take pictures of cows, the time required to wait for a ridiculous sized mug of coffee and then drink it, distractions with energy sales sharks, and – progressively – pauses for gooch care, and you have a full day out.
It’s more tiring than you think too. Which may explain why I called Jason a moron outside the IGA for just assuming it would be open forever. We joked about it afterwards, ate mediocre food at the local pub and capped things off with mugs of ice cream in a motel room. I’m sure this is exactly how riders experience the Tour de France. Especially the domestiques.
Day 3: Esk – Wulkuraka (67 kms)
Okay, this may sound like I had lost by mind but there were times on the third day where I literally felt like an express train. No, more like one of those old clapped-out British Rail stopping services between Basingstoke and London Waterloo with the heavy slam shut doors. There was something about the slow acceleration, easing away and eventually building to a steady pace as we progressed through the trees between Esk and Coominya. Once on the blessed descent from Mount Hallen, speeds were probably matching those of the 8:07am to Woking.
We had departed Esk early as we – literally – had a real train to catch. The sun was only just rising above the horizon and it was more than fresh. But the plus side of this was the wonderful golden light over fields of grassy tussock, dewy spider webs, and the splendid nose-clearing aroma of gum trees embracing the day.
The section from Esk to Coominya is the longest without any civilisation and a large part of it cuts through the bush. By time you reach Coominya, you are more than ready for a coffee and treat. But good luck with that. Google Maps told me of a place called the Blue Teapot Café but unless I got my map-reading wrong (which is extremely unlikely), it appeared to be a petrol station / tackle shop / muffler supplier / chiko roll purveyor. They did have reduced price Cadbury Twirls though, more disintegrate than melt in the mouth.
Fortunately, Lowood is an entirely different proposition and just a further 12 kilometres on. We once more came across our old friends from Rockaberg and the going was pretty good on a well-groomed, mostly flat section. With the D’Aguilar Range rising up on the eastern horizon, there was a sense that Brisbane wasn’t too far away. Just over those hills.
Perhaps it was all to do with timing, but Lowood proved the liveliest town along the trail. There was of course a bakery, but we went upmarket and sat down in the local café instead. Across the road, a well-tended park and amenities offered comfort and convenience for the weary rider. A water bubbler provided a refill while I waited for Jason to do whatever he was doing.
Lowood also brings you closer to the Brisbane River as it feeds out of Lake Wivenhoe. You never really ride next to it, but at least there are a few glimpses here and there, just to remind you that – oh yeah – this is the Brisbane Valley Rail Trail. Compared to life at the other end, the landscape is much more open and there is feeling of settlement and civilisation accumulating. Indeed, the next town – Fernvale – is only a further eight kilometres.
I had heard several times – in those exchanges between BVRT veterans – that the Fernvale Bakery had some seriously good pies. So continuing our poor food choices we decided to have brunch instead. It was okay, but nothing to write home in a blog about. Hanging like a shadow over the experience, too, was the sense that we needed to get moving to catch that train.
Further delays around the public toilets in Fernvale allowed me to catch up with another rider who recognised us. Apparently, he was on the table opposite at the pub in Esk. He had been carrying everything – camping gear and all – on his back and was very much looking forward to the end. I felt fortunate to have stayed in proper rooms and for buying a $16 bike rack from Kmart. The best investment ever, cheaper than an underwhelming brunch.
Nonetheless we were all at that point where the end couldn’t come soon enough. It was a further 23kms from Fernvale to Wulkuraka and much of the novelty and thrill had worn off. Some of the track was quite sandy and while it never reared up like an Alpe d’Huez, there was this endless perception of drag. At one point, some naughty trail bikes came at us from the other direction and you knew suburban Ipswich must be close.
A sign indicating 5.2km to Wulkuraka rears out of smooth white concrete. The bike trail has become a modern, formed bike path and it’s the shot in the arm needed. We reach speeds previously unfathomable, picking up slipstream until the interruptions of traffic islands and a final little upward thrust. The penultimate hundred metres navigates the pavement alongside a row of compact townhouses. Ticker tape, fireworks, applauding admirers fail to materialise. There’s not even a sign.
Still, we have made it. We made it! I had my doubts at times. But I think there were so many things to keep us going. The green and pleasant countryside, which is never going to take your breath away but comforts like a mild June day along the lanes of Southern England. The towns and businesses, feeding us and watering us and giving us a mixed bag of dining experiences that could do better. The public amenities and tiny stores offering hope and comfort to ease accumulating ailments. The many other riders, offering this amazing feeling of camaraderie and shared experience.
And, of course, mateship made it one of the most memorable trips ever. The big unit. The boomtime body-suited, gooch-afflicted, cow-whispering Jason. You were there at the end, still batting strong and keeping me going. For every one of the 161 kilometres, the 2,300 metres up and the 2,600 down, it was an absolute pleasure to have you by my side. Or ten metres behind, making adjustments.
Many of Men at Work’s lyrics from that infamous song are undoubtedly insane. And for a sparsely populated continental land mass frequently sun-baked and on the very fringes of survival, there are legitimate question marks about its plentifulness. Plenty in size and scale and cultural history. Plenty in coal and iron ore and brazen luck. Plenty in toilet roll, despite everything.
Today, in the natural world around me, there appears again this land of plenty. Turn back a year and there would have been much head-shaking at such a thought. A cruel fantasy. But since that point, we’ve had plenty of rain resulting in plenty of growth leading to plenty of productivity. Not all of this is welcome, with rabbits and mice and locusts replicating at the rate of viruses in Kent. And the plentiful fruits of this rejuvenation are proving challenging to reap without a stream of acquiescent backpackers.
Still, “she’ll be apples” as they say. Surprising apples if you find yourself on a road between Bundanoon and Marulan. I was heading back from a day of plenty when I spotted a small sign saying ‘Big Apple’ pointing to the left. Already astounded by the incredible-in-so-many ways Big Potato, the apple emerged as a more subtle dessert.
Giant fruits and vegetables are apt in the Southern Highlands given the land is – for the most part – rich farming country. Babe was also filmed around here, combining perfectly with some of the local apple sauce and roast spuds. I could see snatches of Babe country throughout, supercharged by the verdant green rolling landscape, scattered with fine weatherboard homes and lacy verandas. Such is the well-groomed nature of this land, that it comes as a dramatic contrast when the countryside falls suddenly towards the sea. Delivering plenty.
This happens at Carrington Falls, situated within Budderoo National Park to the south of Robertson. It was a misty, head-in-the-clouds morning, the kind that lends itself to Jurassic Park moments. Tall white trees disappear into the clouds, giant ferns at their base dripping with beads of moisture. The air smells earthy and rich, peppered with wafts of cool mint. Only the fizzing sound of water signals a break in this most stagnant of scenes.
Several lookouts provide the wow factor, the intake of breath, the magnetic allure of millions of litres of water falling fifty metres into a deep pool. It is unclear whether the mist swirling through the eucalypts are remnants of waterfall or lowering fingers of cloud. I suppose they are all part of the same big cycle taking on different forms. Steaming glasses and feeding natural spectacles.
I’m surprised by how busy the place is on a cool, damp Monday. A steady flow of visitors park up, loop along the lookouts and leave again. Most pause for a picture or two, alternating between ultra-serious brooding to comical selfies. One senior lady poses with what looks like a car windscreen shade over her head, arranged to resemble Mickey Mouse ears. The youth – students from Wollongong I suspect – brave the waters of the creek before they succumb to gravity.
There is another turn off near Carrington Falls that suggests further valley lookouts. I head to the first and closest, greeted with even denser mist and a disappearing view. Fine rain is now falling and – for February – it’s cold.
Back near the car and now thinking of a warming lunch, a sign points to something called Nellie’s Glen. It’s only a hundred metres, which is hardly going to delay the arrival of comfort food. And what a pleasant surprise this turned out to be, a gorgeous pool fed by gently cascading waters. The kind of place on a warmer day to soak and swim and avoid water dragons and hope that leeches aren’t longing for a bit of attachment.
With other lookouts and a campground I feel there is unfinished business in Budderoo National Park. But my mind – and stomach – has become fixated on pie. At the junction with the Illawarra Highway stands the self-proclaimed ‘World Famous Robertson Pie Shop’. Have you heard of it over there? It looks exactly the kind of place that would disappoint and end up on the news as a COVID hotspot. A pie of plenty instead came at the Robertson Pub, no doubt known as The Robbo, oppo the big potato.
It was perfect weather for pie and mash and gravy, washed down by a surprisingly good local ale whose name I sadly do not recall. Such feasting naturally induces a contented lethargy that makes the thought of further activity, further driving, further walking, further gazing at amazing, just that little bit less enticing. But I had to get home somehow, and there was still a waterfall way to go.
Thus the afternoon heralded Belmore Falls, a double delight viewed from afar. Some people had managed to find closer views next to the top of the falls and a couple – spied through my zoom lens – had made their way between upper and lower falls. I figured, judging by the size and athleticism of said couple, that it couldn’t be too hard to reach, though how they did so remains very much a mystery. Perhaps abseiling or helicopters were involved.
The drive from Belmore Falls to Fitzroy Falls proved joyful, a pocket of pure Babes country starting to welcome a brighter, afternoon sky. At Fitzroy Falls itself – the trustiest and most accessible of the waterfalls in this area – I felt a little as though I was going through the motions, but walked and stopped and took photos and gazed out in awe nonetheless. As well as both Fitzroy and Twin Falls adding to the daily tally, the view into the Yarrunga Valley never fails to enchant.
By the time I passed through Exeter and Bundanoon and abruptly turned to the left in Tallong, the sun had started to reassert itself and offer some welcome warmth. Better conditions for ripening apples I would imagine, and less potato friendly. A landscape now drier and more typical of great swathes of eastern Australia.
As a final stop before joining the highway I detoured to Long Point Lookout, where a spur of land thrusts itself out into an incredible wilderness. Below, some five hundred metres, the Shoalhaven River turns 180 degrees, carving out the steep hills and ravines which disappear off into the distance. All that water has to lead somewhere, and the Shoalhaven is quite a remarkable gathering of natural forces.
I spent a good half hour at this spot, as the late afternoon light cast itself in fits and starts upon the scene. Not one other car, not one other person stopped by during that time. Somewhere else, in another continent, in another country I couldn’t imagine such absence, such indifference. It would be a highlight, a spectacle, hustling with people and coaches and tacky souvenirs.
Here, it was as if no-one else knew. Here, in a country of vast open space, of forests and gorges still existing untouched, still largely unexploited, it was nothing special. Just another view, just another scene, just another place. And surely that is what makes it a land of plenty, he said, smiling with a Vegemite sandwich.
The return of the traditional road trip has been another much vaunted consequence of our most recent history. With nowhere to flee overseas, we are discovering our homelands, our paddocks, our backyards. A large proportion of this adventuring has been undertaken in kitted out camper vans, luxury coaches, or simply a mattress in the back of a beat up station wagon. Canvas roofs have blossomed in trodden fields of green, the sound of mallets beating tent pegs as widespread as cicadas.
Initially when the pandemic hit, and uncertainty was rife, I thought I could do this if it came down to it. Fruit would need to be picked somewhere or fences would still be in need of repair. Possessing a swag, small dome tent and station wagon, sleeping options could be mixed and matched, while the trusty camp kitchen box could cater again for bangers and mash in thirty five degrees. There is a dreamy, deep rose-tinted quality to these visions, one that conveniently overlooks the discomfort, the dirt, the sweat and the toil.
As it turned out, I was lucky enough to be able to sit in front of a computer all day and receive the compensation of a regular income. But these wistful visions of a nomadic life have never quite gone away. The compromise has been day trips into the country, eventually culminating in a night on a mattress in the back of a beat up station wagon. Another night became aborted because – well – I could just make it home, and I began to question my commitment to life almost under the stars.
Yet a new year brings new resolution so we are led to believe, and with the prospect of more distant travel still a distant prospect there is logic to be had in persevering. What if I could make 2021 – or at least the warmest parts of 2021 – the year of the camping weekend? Could this provide – in its own way – a new purpose to fill the void that is the Centenary Trail?
Only time and possibly this blog will tell, but with this idea still racing through my mind like an out-of-control hamster wheel I swiftly purchased a new tent online. Click and collect from BCF in two hours.
I have always poured scorn on BCF, mainly because their adverts of boating, camping, and fishing escapades are layered thick with Australian drongoism. Like you can’t boat, camp or fish if you went to university. Or it is simply unheard of to do these things and care about the environment and refugees and good coffee at the same time. Only blokes in thongs with a nasal dislike of political correctness can go boating, camping, fishing.
I suspect I read too much into it. The process was very efficient. The lady in Fyshwick who handed me my tent was perfectly lovely. A new tent to add to the swag, the 2 person dome, and the mattress in the back of a beat up station wagon.
You may well ask why I even need another tent and I would say that what I need is something that doesn’t give me as much of an excuse to turn back for home. Something that – as I march towards wisdom over youthfulness – is less of an ordeal. What I need is something more akin to glamping than it is to homelessness.
And so that is how I found myself erecting a brand new ‘instant’ four person tent at Mount Clear Campground in the southern part of Namadgi National Park last Sunday. With my pristine tent, deluxe airbed, comfy lounge chair, I looked every part the newbie amateur who had just splashed out on some shiny things for Christmas. Not the hardened traveller who had done three months in a swag and persevered with bangers and mash in thirty-five degree heat.
Only the rumpled, irregular mallet hints at greater experience. With this in hand I pleasingly managed to erect the tent quickly and efficiently, as though I knew what I was doing. To say it is an instant tent is probably an overstatement once you take into account pegs and guy ropes and – should you wish – a shady awning. But it was a reasonably simple erection, and I was happy to find ample room for my deluxe mattress and comfy chair and body standing in an upright position.
The more taxing part was choosing where to pitch the thing, given so many lovely-looking spots. In this respect, an estimation of neighbours is instantly required – deciding between a cluster of boomers and a foursome of millennials, while a BCF loyalist blares out some country and his kids run amok. All potentially troublesome, yet also reassuringly present.
In the end I inched slightly closer to the millennials, which ended up a mistake when they decided to stay up around the campfire until after one. But a home is a home and not only did it stay upright and protect and comfort, but it also came with some of the most generous backyard within our little capital territory.
From settler’s huts to magical vistas, over swampy plains and through one year charred trees. An urge to pee brings staggering night skies, turning to gold as birds and boomers rise. There’s a hike through meadows, there’s wading through a creek, recovering with camp stove coffee and old Christmas cake. And then replenished, full on nature’s bounty, there’s a home to dismantle, and achievement to take.
The Tumut River is proving a soothing spot. In spite of its swift flow, fed from the elongated dams of the Snowy Mountains, there is something becalming being upon its banks. Boasting more of an aquamarine shade than the sedimentary highways of the Murrumbidgee and Murray, it is a waterway begging to be paddled or fished. Or simply enjoyed from under the shade of a majestic River Red Gum – as long as you can overlook the fact that these trees have the pesky habit of randomly dropping their hefty limbs.
Various tributaries wind their way over fertile plains enjoyed by cattle and horses, mystery roads leading off into hidden valleys with panoramic landscapes. In Tumut itself, the river transforms what would be a pleasant enough little town into something more beguiling. Sitting among green parkland below the town centre, there may me a little part of water meadow England evoked. If you ignore the cackle of the cockatoos.
It was just under a year ago that I found myself here being rejuvenated after a day of hard labour pulling down fences in the hills behind. Sit in Tumut today and you would be hard pressed to imagine how fraught it would have been on January 4th, 2020. Approaching from the west, the Dunns Road Fire ravaged through Batlow and the Green Hills, cresting the Snubba Range and spilling down to and over Blowering Dam. It went on to merge with other large fires in the area, sweeping through pristine sections of Kosciusko National Park and the Snowy Valleys, before lapping at the edges of the ACT.
One year later I found myself in Pioneer Park sitting beside the river once again. It shows what an absolutely legendary year 2020 turned out to be that I had forgotten exactly where the fires had hit. No longer obsessively checking Fires Near Me I thought, for some reason, that the Dunns Road Fire had stopped on the western shores of Blowering Dam. Driving south from Tumut, it didn’t take too long to realise my oversight.
For sure, the western side of the dam is still quite a shock. Made up of plantation forest, the hillsides remain largely bare, apart from the blackened matchsticks of pine. Somewhere up there on the ridgetop, I wonder how Paul and Andrea are going on their farm, and whether Smiley has cheerily constructed a new hut. Hopefully the fences are still standing.
Down on the water, there is a somewhat normal scene of socially-distanced summer holidays playing out – all gargantuan encampments and four wheel drives and boat trailers. An emu pokes its head above the undergrowth, no doubt fleeing the meltdown of a toddler who just really doesn’t want to go anywhere near the water thank you very much. They seem to be everywhere.
Along the southern end of Blowering Dam, the impact of a year ago becomes clear as blackened trunks spread upwards to the east. There is regrowth, but it is thinned-out vegetation, revealing rocky, barren outcrops that probably haven’t been visible for years. Jounama Creek – a spot for camping and walking potential – seems less appealing than I expected, and I drive on.
From here it is quite the climb to Black Perry Lookout. Offering an impressive view out into the Bogong Wilderness, an information board makes it clear just how different things looked before the fires. In the picture, the peaks are still there, but cloaked in a swathe of lush green foliage like some kind of Jurassic Park. The picture also – frustratingly – features a much crisper, bluer sky than so far today. Both will come back, I hope.
The lookout is naturally a popular stop for trucks and caravans and trailers to catch their breath. One caravan seems to have had enough and the NRMA are being called. A clutch of potbelly bikers convey that menacing grizzled look that frequently becomes undermined by softly spoken, friendly chatter. One young guy appears anxious, on the phone to try and arrange a permit to access the ACT. Fire knows no boundaries and, for all we can try, neither does COVID.
My plan was to walk to a place called Landers Falls Lookout, lured by the promise of both falls and a lookout. It was either a ten kilometre there and back again or a swift 1.6km stop off from a four wheel drive parking area. I initially figured my car would be okay – it usually is – and inched down a big dipper of a rockfest. The way onward looked equally awful and – new year, no new words – I decided it was best to pivot. Back to the parking area for inadequate cars.
And so a longer walk ensued, but I’m glad about my decision. The car probably would have made it, but it might also have got two punctures, a broken exhaust, and a hazardous brake disc failure. Plus it was interesting and rewarding to tread quietly through this recovering forest, one year on.
What strikes you most in such worlds is the contrast between still very visible, jet black tree trunks and an overflowing understorey of grasses and shrubs and ferns and flowers. Where the two combine, witness the surreal procession of epicormic growth winding up into the canopy (before a certain pandemic, epicormic was probably the word of the year). The crowns of trees are still deciding whether or not they will come back, a process that will take more than just a year.
My initial fear that I would be sharing this walk with a procession of hoons in souped-up Hiluxes doing it the lazy way were unfounded. Probably because they don’t like to get their shiny blue paintwork dirty. Midway along one vehicle did pass, accompanied by the obligatory exchange of waves. Him thanking me for standing aside, me thanking him for the dust. At least there weren’t too many flies to elevate the experience further. Yet.
There was, in fact, a peacefulness in the forest. In patches the silence was punctuated by gentle birdsong – apart from the easy to spot pair of Rosellas, mostly this heralded from those little indistinguishable critters that hide in the undergrowth. Occasional rustles in the grass signified a lizard or bug or potential snake. I felt a bit more accepting of a snake sighting today, thinking it might liven things up. But it never happened.
This is not without giving the snakes ample opportunity, regularly veering off track to snap pictures of grasses and logs and flowers.
From the 4WD parking area, a non-vehicular route leads over Landers Creek and up towards a couple of lookouts. The sound of running water was a good omen for the falls, as was the vertical climb for a vista. Away from the creek, the undergrowth rapidly diminished, replaced by bare rock, charcoal logs and gravel. Exposed, barren, humid, the perfect time for the flies to welcome me in droves.
I deleted several shots from my camera because of photobombing flies. When you get a clear shot, the first lookout offers panoramic views towards Talbingo Dam, the course of the creek winding down towards its shores. In the near distance, a second lookout appears even more precariously perched upon a towering outcrop.
At this second vantage, the falls become visible and form quite an impressive drop, even in the relative dryness of summer. The landscape is an otherworldly array of arid browns and fluorescent green, the steep hillside opposite lined with black spikes like hairs standing to end. The aerial perspective from this vantage is mesmerising and I enjoy it with a cold pork and pickle and fly sandwich.
Lingering for a while allowed me to pick out some of the minutiae: individual tree trunks clinging to a rock face; coils of epicormic growth leading to barren white crowns; cliffs streaked black; a cluster of ferns glowing luxuriant in a hollow. It was as if I was Google Earth or something.
Lest I get a godlike complex high above, I managed to get a little lost on the way back down. I find every rock and burnt log looks pretty much the same. But following the creek I found my way once again to the 4WD car park and onward much further to my own car. Nearing the end of the trail I passed a family with three kids setting off, satisfied that I’m not the only one with an inadequate vehicle.
Back in civilisation it was very much that time of the day when ice cream is mandatory. Civilisation is hard to come by, but the small township of Talbingo offers one of those amazing supermarkets that sells everything from tinned food to drill bits to crates of beer to chiko rolls to two year old editions of Angler’s Almanac. It also houses the post office, tourist information centre and a photocopier. Though lacking gourmet ice cream, a Honeycomb Maxibon on the shores of Jounama Pondage provided sufficient sustenance.
Ignoring the burnt trees on the other side there was a touch of the Lake District in the grassy foreshore and rounded hills disappearing off into the horizon. Blue skies and fluffy white clouds completed the Wordworthian idyll. Again, a year ago, Talbingo was far from it.
From English lakes to Spanish sierras, a journey of disastrous superspreading madness only now restricted by fanciful wartime yearning to regain a supposedly lost independence. Here, the European mirage took the form of a solitary, short drive down the road towards Talbingo Dam. On one side, a panorama of barren ridges and spindly trees, dusty earth and searing sun. A glass of Rioja and a siesta would go down well, but I must move on.
The dam itself has the requisite boat ramp where the road terminates. Here, a wide gravel parking area was solidly packed with trailers and those four wheel drives so suited to the walking trails around this way. A regular flow of vessels with names like Crusader 3000 and She’ll Be Right were being lowered into or dragged from the water. Outboards buzzed and jet skis thrashed and bins were overflowing with the remains of picnics and beers. Behold the domain of the boatpeople.
I was planning on camping in such an environment, albeit further north on the shores of Blowering Dam. But throughout the day there was something going on in my head looking for excuses to get out of it. Heat building. Risk of storms. Boat people. Perhaps the final straw was the realisation that I had left my salad in the fridge at home and would have to resort to a dinner of cold pork and disappointing pastry. I could survive, but would it be worth it?
Procrastinating around a greener, untarnished landscape with views to Blowering Cliffs, I figured I could drive into Tumut and procrastinate some more, while also picking up salad to complicate the decision-making process even further. If I had made a New Year’s Resolution to be more decisive – which I hadn’t – I would have failed already – which I didn’t.
Tumut was just that little bit closer to home and I was willing to embrace a two and a half hour drive into the evening, weighed against the likelihood that I would struggle to be sleeping anyway if I was to stay and camp. Hot water, comfy bed, a flushing toilet v lumpy mattress, strange noises and a long drop. Next time I head off with the intention of camping I need to exceed at least a three hour radius from home.
Je ne regrette rien, as they say in the aisles of Tumut Woollies, for not only did I manage to get my salad fix (albeit in the form of calorific coleslaw), but I also finally snaffled a half price Christmas cake. And then I took to that riverside, wandering and eyeing up future opportunities to explore before settling upon a delightful dinner spot.
There are places I’ll remember. Soothing. Becalming. Rejuvenating. Nourishing. Like a shot in the arm.
Traditionally, the end of June has come to resemble a key juncture in my life: the culmination of the financial year acting as impetus for all sorts of project completions and invoice requirements and quick-turnaround work tasks. Traditionally.
Traditionally I would also, thanks to this purple patch, begin turning my attention to a trip overseas, to Europe, escaping some of winter and connecting again with treasured family and friends. Traditional cream teas would compete with a traditional trip to Looe for a pasty and a traditional offload of dirty laundry to Mum.
But tradition has been chucked out of the window. Of a twenty storey building. Then trampled over by a herd of elephants before being set on fire alongside a car park full of dumpsters. Attempts at home made pasties and Tilba cream prove B-grade substitutes. I continue to do my own laundry. The end-of-financial-year hubbub is subdued.
In many previous years it would have been unimaginable heading for a day out on the 29th June. Unless it was to a beige motel to complete some frantic discussion about something of great importance with eight citizens of Goulburn. All to get the country perspective. Perhaps it was some innate response mechanism propelling me up the Federal Highway today. To get another country perspective.
In COVID escapes from Canberra I think things peaked with a day on the South Coast. A trip to Goulburn was never really going to compete, even if I could stop off at Collector again for coffee. Still, I managed to find a couple of attractions along with a decent, good value spot to pick up some treats for later. Which always helps.
At Marsden Weir, the Wollondilly River forms an attractive body of water by which to amble. On a kink in the river, the sturdy red brick building of the Goulburn Historic Waterworks adds even more spice. There is a touch of Victorian endeavour about it – quite a rarity in Australia – and you can imagine Tony Robinson visiting it on his fourteenth series of Mildly Interesting Places in Regional New South Wales. He would explain how the waterworks were constructed in 1885 and form – wait for it – the “only complete, steam powered municipal water supply left in its original location, in the Southern Hemisphere.” Quite a lot of caveats to prominence there.
Being a weekday in midwinter and almost the end of the tax year there were just a handful of curious souls nosing around at the waterworks. You could – though – imagine banks of people in summer, supping locally-brewed ales and indulging in hearty lunches by the water. Perhaps a nearby cottage would supply cream teas and coffee and walnut cake. This is all in my dreams of course; nothing of the like seems to happen here. But perhaps it should be the way forward when we can all meet again.
Another prominent sight sits atop a hill which I have often glimpsed at a hundred and ten kilometres an hour on the way to Sydney. This is the Rocky Hill War Memorial Tower and there is a road up to its base. The tower was constructed in 1925 and you can walk to the top – after an application of hand sanitiser – to take in the scene. This provides a fine overview of Goulburn, spreading out on the southwestern side of the rail line. In the foreground, Goulburn East has its own, historic village feel going on, segregated from the rest of town by wetlands and a golf course. If I were to live in Goulburn, perhaps I would choose here; it just seems to have a touch more charm.
I ate my takeaway lunch overlooking the landscape from the hill and mulled over what to do for the remainder of the day. Being only lunchtime, I had seemingly exhausted the sights of Goulburn, with the obvious exception of the Big Merino. North of the tower some attractive bushland hills promise exploration but seem devoid of any walking trails. Far better to head to somewhere reliable, somewhere familiar, somewhere spectacular.
Bungonia National Park is probably the closest manifestation of rugged sandstone gorge country to Canberra and – of course – Goulburn. It is a landscape typical of much of the country surrounding the Sydney Basin, with heroic rivers carving out precipitous cliffs and deep ravines. As well as millions of eucalyptus, these landscapes are home to a few of my favourite things, including numerous lookouts.
Having been here several times before, I initially took a walk on the Orange Track. It’s probably the least exciting of the trails but offers a fairly easy stroll through open forest to a pleasant enough view in between the trees. You can tell it’s not going to be the most dramatic walk since the description suggests you might see a koala – surely only there to try and keep the kids occupied. What struck me more than anything was the absolute peace and quiet. Perhaps this was balm to the freneticism and clamour of downtown Goulburn.
It was supposed to be a sunny day today, but any mid-morning brightness had largely disappeared to a layer of white and grey. There were even a few spots of rain as I neared Bungonia Lookdown. Here, a platform leads out towards and dangles over the valley. It is a captivating, spectacular scene dramatically ruined by a quarry nestled in a hilltop to the north. But retaining focus on the valley, a few miracle shafts of sunlight suddenly appear to conjure up some kind of prehistoric lost world.
There is even a hint of rainbow in the air, but this quickly fades along with the sun and the rain. Yet I feel brightened and warmed by this visit and an appreciation once again of how lucky I am to be here today. To have this sort of wilderness on your doorstep. If you consider a ninety minute drive via the city of Goulburn your doorstep.
While Bungonia definitely lifted the day, there was clear benefit in stopping in Goulburn which became realised at my final stop. Adams Lookout provides another stunning view into Bungonia and – in particular – the narrow defile of Slot Canyon. There was something about the squidgy datey syrupy oaty nutty sugary slice that I had bought earlier that lifted things to another level. I daresay I would travel to Goulburn again to get my hands on one.
It was no cream tea but just the tonic to power me home. I even found a different route back which surprised me by being sealed the whole way – down to Tarago and back on familiar roads from Bungendore. Thus to experience the wonders of Bungonia you could actually avoid Goulburn entirely. Though I doubt if I will. I feel more likely a new experience, a new tradition has now been born.
Outside is looking remarkable. Outside is looking beautiful. An almost pinch-yourself-is-this-actually-real kind of sensation. One bringing delight rather than dread.
I was sat on a random log the other day, pleasant late afternoon sunshine nourishing the world. Rarely do I sit and stop and watch all the things going on around me: the ants milling about productively, transporting their wares in selfless community organisation; the magpie creeping from one spot of grass to the other, surveying for delicacies, a curious sideways look at my presence; the chirrup, somewhere, of two crimson rosellas, partners for life. The world going about its business.
There is an astonishment in this landscape of such verdant abundance. Where so recently it was so barren. The resilience of nature bearing fruit, flourishing again.
As well as sitting on random logs I randomly tried to capture this transition, this journey, this bounce back. Scrolling my phone for past images, dusty and brown. Attempting to line up positions and angles and replicating shots. Not always easy to know exactly where you have gone before. Fiddling about so much that sometimes it’s just far easier, far more satisfying to give up, sit on a log, and just watch the world.
The Bullen Range and Brindabellas from Cooleman Ridge, 6 weeks apart
It wasn’t love at first site. As national parks go, it’s not in the top tier. There are no obvious spectacles, no grand high tops, no sublime points, no copper canyons, no vernal falls. But it sits there, looking at you, consumer of sunsets and occasional catcher of winter snows. Endearing itself to you by its very persistence.
Namadgi National Park. Canberra’s park, Canberra’s playground; like Dartmoor is to Plymouth or Hampstead Heath is to North London. Before that, for many years before I came here and other strangers came here, special ground for Australia’s first people. Rising to the west, sheltering Australia’s young capital. A rugged wilderness reminding us of what we were and where we have come. And where we still have to go. Enduring still.
The lustre of spring radiated across the valley and lifted the soul the way that spring can only do: that warming sun on your face as you cast your eyes upon a celebration of green, a chirpiness matched by the creatures awakening from their slumber. Treading into this world along the valley floor, each footstep a newfound joy, each pause a chance to breathe it all in. An enclave of life and of love, promising halcyon days ahead.
Monday 27th January: A small plume of smoke appears over a hill as I drive back home. It throws my bearings since it isn’t where I expected to see smoke today. I check Fires Near Me for probably the fifth time this morning and see a new blue diamond symbol has appeared in Namadgi National Park. It has been listed as the Orroral Valley Fire.
The sky had that washed out tone of winter that threatens but barely delivers. It is the colour of childhood skies beside the sea, when the excitement of snow was dashed by the delivery of icy rain. If you were being generous, you might describe it as sleet, but only that narrow, spitting variety rather than a satisfying splodge. As I climbed through the freshest forest to crest the ridge of Booroomba Rocks, a new squall spilled into the valley of gums below. A wind chill well below zero blew away the cobwebs. And cast a few shards of icy, spitting rain my way.
Tuesday 28th January: The fire quickly takes hold and becomes uncontrollable, spreading west into Honeysuckle Creek, Apollo Road and climbing up towards the crest of Booroomba Rocks. A large smoke plume intensifies as the day heats up and spreads many miles west, hanging over the Canberra skyline as multiple planes and helicopters disappear into its heart.
We used to have adventures. These often involved hikes to lookouts and – if we were lucky – a bird roll with a view. All across Australia. 2018 offered the comeback tour and an adventure a bit closer to my home.
Older, probably not wiser, I persuaded Jill to join me on the Yerrabi Track, hoping the drag uphill wouldn’t cause consternation. Hopeful that the rocky platform at the end, with a bird roll, with a view, would appease any potential discord at my choice. May I present to you the wilderness. Close to Canberra. And a long way from Norfolk. Or Sydney. A real place to breathe on holiday, or at home.
Thursday 30th January: A few days of cooler and quieter weather provide some respite and a chance for fire crews to lay down containment lines, large air tankers plying back and forth overhead. While much is done to try to protect properties and cultural assets, the fire continues to feed on the tinder dry heart of Namadgi, spreading down towards Yankee Hat and Boboyan Trig, a key marker on the Yerrabi Track.
From Canberra, Mount Tennent stands sentinel over Namadgi National Park, 1,375 metres into the sky. The first prominent peak as you enter south, looming over the visitor centre and the small village of Tharwa. In spite of this proximity it took me many years to climb. Cypress Pine lookout was usually as far as I made it before arriving at the conclusion that that is more than enough thank you very much.
Sometimes you need the momentum that comes from walking with friends. An encouraging peloton. A crisp morning that warms with the rising sun on your back. Views that deliver over the Monaro, its golden paddocks strewn with the fairy floss of rising mist. Each step up a shared endeavour, summiting a shared prize. Victors in a deep blue sky, miniscule among uninterrupted green.
Friday 31st January: The temperature nudges towards 42 degrees and the fire threat escalates, creating spot fires which push into NSW. Authorities publish worst case projections for the fire spread that – should they come to bear – would spill further down from the summit of Mount Tennent and consume Tharwa, before entering the far southern suburbs of Canberra. The ACT declares a state of emergency and the city is on edge.
I can recall the pleasure in discovering something new; a circular trail in the deepest dirt roadiest section of the southern ACT that scored high on the effort-reward ratio. It was nearing Christmas and I had been in the city that morning, catching up for coffee and passing on gifts. By afternoon I was gently climbing up through forest onto the ridge of Shanahans Mountain. The reward: a fluffy clouded blue sky hanging over the wild contours and emptiness of the Clear Range. Christmas had come early, a new vista my present.
Saturday 1st February: A brutal day of solid northwest winds and temperatures reaching 43 degrees expanded the fire quickly southeast across NSW and upon settlements around the Monaro Highway, including Bumbalong, Colinton and Bredbo. While Tharwa and suburban Canberra dodged a bullet, around a dozen homes were destroyed, principally around Bumbalong as fire raced over the Clear Range and engulfed properties.
I wonder if there is anything more satisfying than the scrunch of footsteps upon fresh snow. While chaotically parked cars and excitable humans rapidly transform Corin Forest into dirty slush, ahead of me is a virginal path of white. It took some effort to reach. Lung-busting in fact. But before me, the Smokers Trail slices through a forest of tall, majestic eucalypts under the deepest blue sky. It is a wonderland both un-Australian and undeniably Australian. Waiting to be scrunched underfoot.
Thursday 6th February: A week of cooler, calmer weather subdues fire activity considerably, though it continues to slowly expand, particularly to the west and north. It has passed over the Smokers Trail, nearby Square Rock, and moves over and beyond Corin Forest. The slow creep of the fire appears less destructive and the infrastructure around Corin Forest is protected. Now nearing Tidbinbilla, fire crews instigate backburning to halt progress.
Is it as simple, as logical, as linear as a before and after? Because a before was also an after. When I took my first steps into Namadgi it was not so long after 2003. When the hills and gullies had previously burned, arguably even more vehemently than today.
In the much used vernacular of the new normal it may not be quite the normal cycle of the Australian bush, but there is a cycle nonetheless. We may be in the immediate after now, but I can take solace that this is the start of another before. When Namadgi will again nurture love and life, expel fresh air and bounty, guide adventure and inspiration. Enduring still.
Sunday 9th February: The rain is tantalising, teasing. We’ve had a few millimetres and promises of a deluge keep getting pushed back. Another hour. Another day. Probabilities suggest something decent will come. A few spells of drizzle and blustery showers mimic England. It is only seventeen degrees and perfect roast dinner and red wine weather. That in itself is an encouraging sign.
The Orroral Valley Fire has changed status from Out of Control to Being Controlled. That in itself is an even more encouraging sign. It has consumed around 80% of Namadgi National Park and around a third of the ACT’s landmass. Taking into account various offshoots into NSW the fire encompasses approximately 113,000 hectares, or 1,130 square kilometres. That’s about the same as Hong Kong Island. Or most of Greater London if you exclude some of the crumby bits like Croydon.
Initial reports suggest significant variability in the damage caused within the park, mirroring the variability in fire intensity over its course. Positively, key infrastructure, including historic huts, culturally significant sites and telecommunications resources have been protected, while threatened wildlife within nature reserves have been successfully relocated.
I was hoping this really would be the final instalment of a bushfire trilogy. I had written an intro all about the process of relief and recovery, the goodness that sprouts forth as communities pull together, the hope again blossoming like sprigs of green emerging on a forest floor. And lo and behold I drove back home and observed a large plume of smoke rising over the mountains southwest of Canberra. An endless summer marching on. Ten thousand hectares and counting; like Star Wars, there may be more to come.
But recovery is taking place and I think it’s useful to focus on this. Huge amounts of money have been donated, food and clothes given away, houses opened up to strangers. We take our empty eskies down to the coast, we have benefit concerts and tennis rallies, we construct boxes for wildlife to nest in. We pull together, many as one. The best of us on display.
It was inspiring to come across such compassion this past week as I sought out something I could do, anything. This found me on the road to Gundagai and beyond, heading to a BlazeAid camp in Adelong. BlazeAid is a volunteer-led organisation which works with farmers and their families in areas impacted by natural disaster, helping them to repair their property with a focus on damaged fencing. I have never done anything like it. But I definitely will again.
The road from Gundagai was all golden Australian summer, rolling countryside featuring large paddocks baked by the sun. Recent rainfall and violent storms seemingly doing little to break the drought. While parched, there was little sign of the destruction and devastation of fire as I made my way towards Tumut. The blackness was somewhere beyond.
I arrived at the BlazeAid camp in Adelong, which was based at the local showground. More on this later but suffice to say it was all somewhat larger than I had expected. After signing away my life and setting up my tent, dinner was provided and an update on the day’s activities was made. Dessert was had. And with an early start beckoning, people dissolved into their caravans, tents and swags hopefully to sleep. Something which evaded me for a long while, reinforcing the latter day struggle that camping is proving to be.
With a kookaburra alarm clock, a large cooked breakfast and a healthy dose of organised chaos, I was off with a small group of others to a farm somewhere in the hills around Batlow. Batlow is in the midst of a massive swathe of scorched land and the town was isolated at the peak of the firestorm. Several outlying properties are now crumpled, tortured heaps of metal and brick, the shells of cars parked outside. The petrol station in town is a ruin.
Heading up the nearby Gilmore Valley the scene was at first all rather idyllic – good farming country that would not have looked out of place in northern England. And then the first bare and blackened hillside appears on the horizon, like the shadow cast by a massive thundercloud. And before long it is all around.
Climbing up and up a muddy road we reach the home of Paul and Andrea which is – mercifully – fully intact. You can see how close they were to devastation, the garden shrubs singed and charred like overzealously grilled broccoli. We are introduced to Smiley, a farmhand who has that high country man from Snowy River look about him. The hut he was living in didn’t fare so well, wrecked and ruined and taking most of his possessions with it. His ute survived along with a few salvaged remains.
We drive across a few bare paddocks and into the forest. Trees stand like charcoal sticks, branches down but eventually likely to prosper again. The forest floor is another matter: a bare wasteland of ash, like the remnants of a barbecue the day after the night before, spreading out in every direction. The compensation that it has cleared the weeds seemingly a small offset in the greater loss of habitat. And the loss of product – the farm up here produces pure eucalyptus oil, which will take several years to become productive again.
Among this alien landscape there were – of course – long lines of fencing. Some standing, but most bent and broken and needing repair. I was reminded of why we had come up here. The task was to clear the fencing so that new stuff could be eventually put down in its place. This involved a lot of snipping of wires with cutters of varying quality and the pulling out of fence poles with a fence post pulling contraption. I quite liked the post pulling – more so than the snipping – even though some of the sixty-five year old poles were stubborn to yield.
Focusing on the task at hand, the surrealness of the environment fades away, until you occasionally pause and look up again and take stock. Among the ash, small piles of fence post and a carpet of wire lay ready to be gathered in machines by Smiley and Paul. Our team of four alternate tasks, to relieve various aching muscles and torment others yet to be abused. I’m the youngest and glad of the experience of more practical, hands-on kind of folk who offer good advice and warm conversation. Smiley throws in the odd tip, alongside a healthy dose of banter. He suggests I work for Scomo and this is a bait it’s hard not to take.
There is immense satisfaction at seeing the visible fruits of your labour. We work our way down alongside the perimeter track in increasingly precipitous terrain. The sun is heating up and I’m glad when our team leader decides to call it a day. Sweaty, coated in grey ash, there is a perverse pleasure in acquiring the symbols of a hard day’s toil. You don’t get this writing reports.
The next day offered more of the same but better. Better because we had a better idea of what we were doing. Better because it was cooler and more overcast. Better because we had a better pair of snippers. And, above all, better because we got to interact more with Paul, Andrea and Smiley.
Partly this was a consequence of the weather, as gusty winds mid-morning prompted a decision to leave the forested area for fear of collapsing trees and branches weakened by the fire. A small stretch of open fencing beside a dam provided a little workout but, when that was done, morning tea was declared. I like morning tea.
It was over an elongated morning tea that we got to find out a bit more about life on the farm, the people living on this land and their recent experiences as these lives came under threat. Andrea guided us around the garden, pointing out what it was like before flame lapped at the borders. Smiley pointed us towards various contraptions that went into extracting the eucalyptus oil, included a century old steam engine acting as the driving force. And we learned about Paul’s craftsmanship creating gnarly old walking sticks simply with a sheet of sandpaper and a glass of Port.
They are nothing if not creative, resourceful people, sensitive of the land that they live in. You feel – you hope – this will stand them in good stead moving beyond the fires. You know that this is what probably saved their lives.
Inevitably the conversation moves towards January 4th and the days before and after. There was a sense of inevitability about the fire coming and Paul highlights that the waiting was one of the worst things about it. Days of anxiety and alarm that came from forewarning and a frank admission from the fire service that, if they were to stay, they would be on their own. During this time, busying themselves with preparations: clearing the land of debris, felling overhanging branches, watering down around the house and sheds. Getting the car packed with essentials should they need to flee. Watching. Waiting. For what seems like an eternity.
Eventually it appears on the western horizon. They talk – and it feels an almost cathartic exchange – of defending their home as the fire lapped at its doors from three sides. Erratic, violent wind changes pushing the front from the west, the north and the south. The noise terrifying. Raining embers igniting bushes and trees around them. Sprinklers on the roof previously used to clear snow now somehow sputter enough to dampen sparks. The power goes out but – mercifully – the generator kicks in and the water pumps persist.
It is the longest, darkest day, one they freely admit they would never face down again. Barely was there time for a breather, though Smiley managed to take five and puff on a rollie. Paul captured this image on his phone and chuckles: if ever there was a sign of an addict that was it. Chuffing away as smoke surrounded.
He probably deserved a ciggie, his hut lost along with many of his possessions, his ute still bearing a few scorch marks from the moment he fled. On the back were some salvaged items, including a charred tin of loose change, the coins inside faded and melded to grey. Hopefully still legal tender – there is a fair amount in there, though the dollars no longer shine gold.
Smiley fondly recalls his home in a hollow among, but not right next to, the trees. It was always ten degrees cooler, he says, natural air conditioning and breeze. Snug in winter. A place of peace and solitude. He’s now in a caravan which they managed to pick up at a bargain price – for this he feels lucky. Lucky! But he hankers for a hut again and intends to rebuild in another nearby pocket of paradise.
If that isn’t inspiration enough to get back out to finish our job, I don’t know what is. The gusty change of the morning has subsided and we venture back into the forest, working methodically uphill towards the boundary of the property with the forestry road. Someone spots a red belly, thankfully not me. The fence is horizontal here, and the pole puller contraption largely redundant until they can be bent upright.
As we approach our last stretch of fence to clear, rumbles of thunder echo through the forest from the west. Large spots of rain begin to plop into the ash and earth and upon our hats and gloves and hi-vis vests. The last post is pulled and we march back to the vehicles as the heavens open. It is but a shower, but a heavy shower and every little helps.
Before departing Paul invites us back to the house, offering a cold beer and a gift pack of eucalyptus products. Andrea and Smiley join us, as do the two dogs, keen for a spot of attention from strangers. Or those who were once strangers, but who now chat away like old friends. Mates helping mates.
Of course, it is now abundantly clear that BlazeAid is about more than just fencing. It’s about connection and conversation, and a manifestation of community looking out for one another, through good times and bad. It’s not really charity, nor is it solely a case of do-gooders looking to do good and boast about it on social media. Everyone gets something out of it: practical, tangible skills, connection and interaction with different people, sore backs and filthy clothes, and the opportunity to enter some of the most beautiful lands within Australia, as savaged as they are.
It seems a bit strange to say in the context in which it takes place, but there is a feelgood factor around the experience. The atmosphere at camp is both soberly reflective and celebratory. Teary eyes are never far away. Inspiration is on tap. People from all walks of life, across the ages, from all over Australia and beyond, come together over dinner, swap tales from the day, share the stories of farmers and their families, reel off the length of fence cleared or erected.
Dinner itself is an achievement, a carb-filled wonderland engineered by an angelic mix of locals and visitors giving their time to tray bake and slow cook and whip cream and take receipt of an endless donation of cakes from CWAs and Rotaries and Mums. If I stay any longer, I’ll get fat. They keep offering me biscuits and caramel slices and passionfruit tarts. Manual labour can only burn off so many calories.
I do stay one more day. One more cooked breakfast, one more hearty dinner, one more day of snipping and pulling and – this time – rolling up wire and starting to put brand new fence poles into the ground on a different property. The temptation to stay another day kicks in too, especially as the farmer promises to cook up a BBQ lunch the next day, the centrepiece being his 11 month aged beef nurtured on this land.
But my body, and my lack of sleep, tells me no. I struggle to clean my teeth, the grip and motion jarring on my hands and my shoulders and my chest. Writing is also pained, as I finally sign out and walk out to my car to begin the journey home.
As I do so, new arrivals are emerging for the long Australia Day weekend. A minibus of Afghan refugees from Shepparton set up their tents. A couple from Queensland offload supplies from their caravan. Teenagers from Wagga help to sort out donations. German backpackers encourage an international kickabout on the oval.
BlazeAid veterans wonder at it all. Unprecedented events resulting in unprecedented kindness. Not from superheroes, but from everyday people. Recovery belonging to us all, the community, now and in the months and years ahead.
Please check out www.blazeaid.com.au for all the details and camps currently in operation across several states. They will be running for many months.
Anyone can do it. Like me you don’t need to have any particular skills. Just a keenness to get involved and learn. Some people are great snippers, others are wonderful sausage sizzlers. All are needed and all are valued. It’s worth it just for the bounteous dinners and home baked cakes! It’s rewarding and enriching and it will be the best thing you have done in a long time, I promise.
What started as an unfortunate spectacle – that we thought would probably go away as soon as it came upon us – has settled in Canberra for the summer. There is little anyone can do to not talk about the pervasive smoke that hovers above Christmas prawns and glazed hams. Occasionally it lifts a little, dispelled by a hot northwesterly which only serves to deliver arid desert air from the only direction in which major fires are not burning. Yet. It feels only a matter of time before we are encircled.
This is not a happy Christmas really. The weather outside is indeed frightful. People are growing downbeat and sullen; infuriated and furious. We gather and share and eat fine food and go and watch the Star Wars movie in beautiful air conditioning, and these are necessary distractions. But even in the midst of a lightsabre battle, a smoky essence infiltrates the movie theatre. The ultimate 4D experience. Just give us the Lord Vader breathing masks please.
Making plans is hard to do – what road is closed, which national park on fire, which stretch of tarmac melting? Christmas gatherings cancelled; long circuitous journeys made. Holiday towns on the coast dying under a barrage of emergency warnings and absent visitors.
Even doing simple things like laundry takes strategic planning. Today I got it wrong, and now it is being washed again, content that the hot, dangerous northwesterly has now well and truly kicked in to sizzle it sans woodsmoke flavouring.
Escape is an appealing option, as long as there are still options. Three days before Christmas I looked at flights to the UK. I looked at flights to New Zealand. I looked at flights to Tasmania (where even today it is nudging forty degrees). Cost was extortionate, but then it might reach a point where even that is a burden worth bearing.
Dissuaded for the time being, I tried to make pastry in forty degree heat. I went for walks in the mall. Just because. In between I monitored the weather forecasts and wind directions and air quality readings and areas of land not on fire. I looked at campgrounds that might not be full and which might be safe. And I finally glimpsed a small window of opportunity to escape, to clear the air…
Boxing Day and the atmosphere at the MCG was bubbling up nicely, accompanying me on the radio as I drove south towards Cooma. With the Kings Highway to the coast closed this is proving a major alternative route. As a consequence, the main sights of Cooma – McDonalds and KFC – were overflowing. Around the corner, ALDI was quieter, and I picked up an obligatory half price Christmas pudding. Probably for winter if such a thing still exists.
Between Cooma and Bombala the drive is spectacularly bleak as it traverses the Monaro Plains. It is for all intents and purposes, desert at the moment. Not exactly pretty to look at, but with the smoke haze thinning a touch, at least it was something to look at.
And then, through Bombala and into South East Forests National Park, there was something resembling freshness. Blue sky. Green. Giant trees untainted by fire. A campground almost deserted, the camp guardian a spirited Kookaburra feeding its young. A sense of wonder and relief that this is all still actually possible. Breathe.
It remained quite hot to be sure, and on a walk around nearby Myanba Gorge there were plenty of flies as usual just to remind you that summer in Australia is actually a bit shit. The riverbed shaping the gorge was bone dry and surely it was only a matter of time before I would turn a corner and step on a deadly snake or something. But no, a dog and its two owners were the only things to greet me, in between the flies in my eyes.
What I did find turning that final corner was a sight the likes of which I have seen a thousand times before in Australia, but which appears all the more precious today. A deep valley of eucalyptus sweeping down towards the coast. The cries of a couple of black cockatoos surveying their terrain. And a clear blue sky – perhaps more pastel than is normal – but true blue nonetheless.
The night passed with another rarity – feeling cold. Even a few days later it seems surreal to think I was shivering a little until I finally succumbed to using a sleeping bag in the correct manner.
The freshness of morning was greeted by a 5am cacophony of hundreds of birds, which was a marked improvement on the 2am hoonage taking place on some of the nearby forest roads. Sleep was a luxury and I was reminded how the concept of camping may be more appealing than the reality. But then it was on the journey to the long drop that I felt at one with the world, enamoured by its natural grace and beauty, a feeling you never get in a Best Western.
With the promise of another smoky scorcher back in Canberra I was in no hurry to rush back. I carried on south, across the border into Victoria on what was a beautiful drive towards Cann River. This is a corner of the land boasting tremendous old growth forests cloaking rugged, untrammelled peaks. Driving along sweeping curves under a dappled canopy, it’s all shafts of sunlight falling upon giant ferns. Keep eyes on road.
This region – East Gippsland – is sparsely populated and only has a few access points to the coast, through the gorgeously pristine Croajingalong National Park. Camping in the park is popular over Christmas and I had no chance. But at Cann River itself, a free campground was available in which to set up at ten in the morning. And it came alongside a short walk through woodland that in places reminded me of somewhere in England, such were the treasured patches of greenery.
With plenty of time up my sleeve and following a bit of a mid-morning doze under a tree, I explored the coastal area down around Cape Conran and Marlo. Both were fairly busy, with Cape Conran again bursting with campers who had – at that time – won the holiday lottery. It was so good to be beside the seaside, especially as a cool southeasterly was emanating off the water to offer joyous relief. This was probably the freshest air I had experienced in weeks, if not months.
Marlo is famous as the place where the Snowy River meets the sea. It’s probably the main thing it has going for it, but they certainly do well with what they have. Several lookouts and a sensibly plotted estuary trail allow you to follow the waters as they congregate into a series of shallows and lagoons before inching out into the ocean. It’s definitely worth a nosey, followed by possibly one other thing Marlo has going for it: ice cream. Thank you very much.
Memories of ice cream lingered as I drove inland slightly towards Orbost, where several dairies were testament to what is generally a verdant, rain-blessed corner of Australia (the cream and yogurt from Gippsland Dairy is to be recommended!). But even here it looks dry, a burnished beige more than a pea green. In the distance, beyond Orbost, inevitably, the bushfires burn uncontained and out of control.
I remember Orbost quite fondly from the only other time I was here in 2013, mainly because I found a bakery that served something akin to a Paris-Brest. It’s not really what you expect but my memory of this raised expectations beyond what I should have expected. I was looking to pick up some supplies for dinner, which I managed but not to the standard I had expected. The result was a very Christmas meze of leftover ham, sausage rolls, cheese and a couple of salads. How I craved a hot meal! Oh well, there is always tomorrow.
Tomorrow was the time to pack up and head back to Canberra, partly because I wanted to sleep in my own bed but also because the heat was due to spread its ferocious finger down into Gippsland. As if on cue, there was a hint of smoke in the air on an early stop to amble along a rainforest walk with a coffee and mince pie in hand. And then, crossing the border again towards Eden, visibility was once more replaced by viscosity.
This had thrown my good intentions to do a decent walk in Ben Boyd National Park as a means of justifying fish and chips for lunch. But, heck, it’s Christmas, what else am I supposed to do? And I was very good and didn’t have chips. Just three of the best potato scallops instead, oops.
The other plan I had was to hopefully laze and have a nap alongside the Pambula River before the three hour drive home. Fortunately, given the long wait for lunch as I battled a billion bogans, a stiff sea breeze had kicked in and the smoke was clearing pretty quickly. On the downside, thunderstorms were brewing slightly to the north. The relaxation necessary to nap wasn’t really possible, and my decision to quit the beach at just about the right time was sound. Not before getting a little wet.
Rain! It all felt a bit peculiar. A strange sensation to be fleeing and sheltering from something that is so essential, so welcome, so life-giving. Yet such are the nature of storms that they proved random and fleeting. And any lightning falling on the tinder dry is far from welcome. The window was definitely closing.
Back home the next day, I became alerted that the authorities were urging around 30,000 holidaymakers and residents to evacuate an area of East Gippsland half the size of Belgium. As I write this, 12 Emergency fire warnings are in place in the region, including the stretch of coast between Cann River and Mallacoota, and a swathe of land taking in Orbost, Cape Conran and Marlo. Highways are closed. Inland from Pambula, not a million miles from the South East Forests, another emergency warning has appeared. Multiple fires are springing up in the wilderness between Cooma and the coast. Another window doesn’t merely close but shatters.
And for all that we try to do our best, to care and share, to catch a breather, this is not a very merry Christmas at all. It is a catastrophe.
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.
There 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Still, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If I was to analogise the lingering weeks of summer, it would be to that of a very uneventful over from Glenn McGrath. Turn at the mark, trundle in with intent, deliver a solid line and length on to the pitch and through to the keeper, stare in confected intimidation at a snivelling Pom, turn back and repeat again. And again.
There is something to be said for reliability and repetition – 563 somethings in fact – but deep down we all crave a cocky blonde disruptor to enter the scene and throw down a few cherries spinning every which way but straight. The googlies are always there somewhere; you just have to put in a bit of extra effort to discover them.
Such terrible metaphors are all to say I went to the first Test match ever at Manuka Oval in Canberra. Australia versus Sri Lanka in probably the most one-sided match in history. Still, the setting was a delight, the atmosphere abuzz, and Canberra more than held its own as a venue. Googlies may have been sparse but then, in 2019, we are talking about the trumped up talents of Naayfun Lawwwn rather than the bona fide annoying genius of Warnie.
Outside the oval, the regular line and length of hot sunny Canberra days have occasionally hit the cracks of thunderstorms; apocalyptic tempests of wind and lightning and – often – raised dust. It’s made things a bit more interesting, even if some of the places under which such conditions breed are as reliable as ever. Places like Red Hill and Mount Taylor, the equidistant escapes from home to the bush.
One of the cooler and windier days of late happened to beset the Canberra Triathlon. A temperature all well and good for exercise but a wind cruel and unforgiving when on a bike. To say I competed in a triathlon is a tad generous, strictly speaking. But a ten kilometre bike leg as part of a team relay was effort enough into a headwind. Still, this was just a minor, temporary obstacle for me, and worth it to deliver the imaginary baton onto Toby for the final, inspirational leg. Go Wheelsfortoby!
I guess a triathlon is a bit of a googly within the normal course of events. It also led me to be in Hackett one sunny late afternoon, at the northern end of Canberra nestled underneath Mount Majura. Not so much a change of scenery, but at least a different path on which to wander, all stretching eucalypt branches, golden grass and copper earth, with some snatched views of the surrounding landscape through the bush. Plus, slithering away as I marched downhill, a brown snake disappearing from the corner of my eye.
A few weeks later I would come across two snakes in the space of five minutes, having discussed them five minutes earlier with my friend Joseph as we sat upon a rock in Namadgi National Park. I’ve hardly seen any snakes…maybe five…in my entire time in Australia I said. Mostly in Queensland I said. I know people who won’t come to Australia because of snakes, how ridiculous. When you think of all the bushwalking I have done in that time, and five snakes…
Shall we see what’s down that way, he said.
Snaaaaaaaaakkkkkkkke, I said. Quite loudly, almost tripping over a red bellied black.
Let’s actually not go that way, I said, and we turned around to head back to the car, not before a second made an appearance under a fallen tree, this time with marginally greater warning.
They did say it was going to be a good year for snakes, and in my random survey of random walks through random parts of the ACT I can conclude they were correct.
Snakes were mercifully unsighted on a longer walk to Gibraltar Rocks in Tidbinbilla during the great Australia Day day off. I’d been here before but – again seeking some variety – I approached the peak from a different side. The first couple of kilometres traversed open plains bursting with kangaroos and the odd emu, before marching incessantly upward through that low, scrawny kind of bush that excels in the higher climes frequently ravaged by fire and ice.
Reaching the rocks of Gibraltar up in the overcast skies, there were no Spanish ships, no snakes, no bogans singing Jimmy Barnes and wearing the cheap fake blue of Australian flag products proudly made in China. Just the essence of Australia fitting for today or any day. The heart and soul of its earth and its sky, sprouting the unique environment which has been nurtured over millennia and which endures and adapts as best it can.
And so, we reach the last ball of this ragged over as we once more revisit those terrible cricket analogies. The weather has cooled a touch and the mornings are showing signs that we are entering the golden age. Britain basks briefly in twenty degrees and a few of our mornings drop to single digits. The temperatures still rise to the mid to high twenties in the afternoon, and this is what we call ambient, mild. It’s all relative. And still plenty warm enough for cricket. And snakes.
Floating around in my brain for a while has been Mount Coree in the Brindabellas and – in this quest for difference, desire for new – it finally becomes an agenda item early one Saturday. It is a peak I have never climbed, mainly because I’ve never been entirely sure how to climb it. Mostly it’s a case of following fire trails and dirt roads, including up to the summit and, sometimes, sharing these with vehicles.
Commencing from Blundells Flat several hundred metres below, it is a fresh, serene meander uphill towards Two Sticks Road. Only a grader on the back of a truck passes me early in the climb, leaving a lingering cloud of fine dust particles in the air, gilding the shafts of sunlight beaming through the trees. Along Two Sticks Road it is easy going towards Coree Campground before the final traverse up to the rocky summit which marks the border between NSW and the ACT.
It’s a decent slog as the sun warms and, by now, the four wheel drives have woken from their slumber. One by one they leisurely pass in a clunk of gears and pneumatics and fumes, inching ever closer to the trig at the top. For all their engineering and technical prowess, for all their ability to get to the top quicker and revel in airconditioned comfort, they are no match for a pair of feet. A pair of feet that are connected to the landscape, an intrinsic part of it rather than something carving it apart. A pair of feet that have superior bragging rights over the indolent Saturday morning car park crew accumulating at the top. And a pair of feet that will come across one more red bellied black on the way down, completing a reliably diverting over.
I really don’t get this whole Ten Year Challenge malarkey. Not because it’s like some glorified chain letter vanity project or anything. No, my only bewilderment with it is what the actual heck is the actual challenge?
Surely a real challenge would be something like – oh I dunno – unpacking forty years of legislation and agreements and treaties that you have actively shaped and adopted in order to enable the cohesive and productive functioning of society without it resulting in the only certainty being the uncertainty of what exactly can fill the void which will not simultaneously provoke pandemonium and lead to a bitter aftertaste in the plummy throats of anti-elitist elites who really deep down can’t warm to little Abdullah no matter what they might say about saving their NHS which they don’t even have to use because of their private health provider in whom they have offshore investments.
Another more challenging challenge would be coming up with a sentence longer than that. Or how about getting through a particularly hot spell in a hot Australian summer?
It’s a tough gig, and the reality of four straight days in a row above 40 degrees was enough to force me fleeing to the coast, at least for a couple of those days. Thankfully when I got back there came a reprieve with temperatures dropping back down to 37 with a cool change as ineffectual as any number of Secretaries of State for Exiting the European Union. Yes, the hot air persists.
At least on the coast the temperatures dropped a good eight to ten degrees, pampered with pleasant sea breezes and clear cool waters. There was fish and chips and ice cream, paddles upon shores and across inlets, and a decent amount of lounging with a book in the sand. Yet the highlight of this escape was away from the edge of the water. Instead, upon the edge of wilderness.
Morton National Park is a gargantuan expanse of vast sandstone plateaus and dense valleys separating the coastal strip of southern NSW with the golden tablelands inland. With alluring names such as Monolith Valley and The Castle, and pockets that have probably never even seen a human face, there is a timeless, spiritual brooding conjured by its landscape.
It’s certainly tough to penetrate, with a few access points denting its edges. One of these comes around half an hour’s drive from UIlladulla, up through pockets of verdant rainforest and along a bumbling dirt road. A small car park welcomes you to the start of the Mount Bushwalker trail which is – pleasingly – all bushwalk and very little mounting.
Setting off nice and early before heat rises, the trail actually proves somewhat dull – a fire trail becoming a narrow tunnel cutting through low shrubs and over boggy watercourses. A family of black cockatoos enliven proceedings, startled by a lone bushwalker and fleeing somewhere vaguely over the horizon. There is the feeling of grandeur metres away, just around the next corner, through the bushes, palpable but never really visible. Until, that is, the very end.
The trail truly proves a means to an end. And if all endings end up ending like this then sign me up to end the end music in Eastenders. An end coming at only around half eight in the morning, just me, a vegemite sandwich (yes, truly), and millions of eucalypts spilling across to the vertiginous walls of The Castle. Australian through and through.
It was borderline whether I had really earned what was to follow, such was the relative ease of this walk. Out of the wilds, the cutesy hilltop town of Milton inevitably has a bakery, which I inevitably visited, inevitably not for the first time. There is a pleasing inevitability in the inevitability of cake and coffee.
Down the road from Milton, through the fringes of Rick Stein’s Mollymook, is the small coastal village of Narrawallee. Not only does this have a genuinely great sounding name, relaxed holiday vibes, and a good-looking coffee shop by the water, but it also hosts a delightful meandering inlet, protected from the ocean and perfect for all sorts of wading, dipping, paddle-boarding and family gatherings for cricket on a sandy tidal flat. Having passed on a shower – what with my early start and anticipation of a sweaty hike – this was refreshment at its finest.
Nearby Mollymook Beach is equally as idyllic, a fine sweep of sand reminiscent of but far superior to Bondi. It seemed to me a suitable location for an early evening read on a blanket followed by an amble along that stretch contested between land and sea. However, gathering thunderstorms also took a liking to the beach and closed in for what proved an entire night of tumultuous electrical drama.
You might hope the stormy melee would clear the air and cool things down to proffer something more reasonable. But, no, we are in an age of extremes after all. Following a sweaty goodbye ocean coffee and a cheap petrol fill up at Batemans Bay, the car had to work overtime to keep cool on the climb up Clyde Mountain. And then, returning to Canberra, the sight of Black Mountain Tower on the horizon, shimmering in a dusty haze of 38 degrees. And still rising.