I was recently beside the ocean, clambering over rocks towards a sandy bay. While very evidently south coast New South Wales, it prompted a distinct evocation of south coast Devon. Perhaps it was the chill of the wind more than anything, working with the rockpools and smell of the sea to conjure up sensations attached to the past. I half expected to turn the corner to find a Mr Whippy van and a field of cars shimmering in a farmer’s field.
Memories are funny things, tending to manifest with specific – and often mundane – detail against a vague backdrop of time and place. Some of my earliest memories of adventuring into the great outdoors were in the backseat of Uncle Ian’s car, BJ’s head primed to thrust out of the window, tongue lolling as soon as the smell of Dartmoor wafted into his nostrils.
While the excitement of a dog comes uninhibited, within me there was an undeniable buzz of anticipation. These trips offered an escape from Plymouth and an early introduction to nature. Realisation of a wider world with seemingly infinite opportunities for discovery. I daresay they were good for my development too, from understanding the patterns of land and climate to counting the number of ponies nonchalantly hanging out in the middle of a road.
Within the confused and complicated process of childhood, these escapes were a treat. Being with Aunty Pat was always a treat, in part because as a kid you always knew you would be offered plenty of treats. It’s why I occasionally pretended to lose my bus fare so I could walk to hers from school for dinner. Sadly, our cherished Aunty Pat died in recent weeks, finally at peace with Uncle Ian again.
Being practically a zillion miles away with border restrictions more akin to 1950s Berlin, I know I will have to find my own way to reflect and celebrate. And I know it will have to involve a treat.
While Uncle Ian and Aunty Pat probably opened up my eyes to the outdoors and shaped much of a life that was to follow, I’m pretty sure they also influenced my love of cake. I cannot remember Aunty Pat without thinking about her layered chocolate sponge, coated in thick chocolate buttercream and decorated with what must have been ten bars of crumbled Cadburys Flake. She also did a fabulous coffee and walnut cake but, as a kid, it’s the chocolate you always go for.
So I decide to make a cake. I think she would approve of my form of commemoration and probably tell me to “put the kettle on and bring in a tub of clotted cream with the cake will you love”.
First, the ingredients. If justification were necessary for eating a cake, I decide to take an opportunistic bike ride on the way to the shops. Someone more spiritual and less cynical than me might have poetically equated the appearance of a rainbow as some kind of sign from above, rather than the sun refracting through water droplets in what has been a pretty damp winter. Still, this thought of people possibly thinking that way made me think of Aunty Pat nonetheless, bringing more memories to the fore. A process which totally distracted my mind from the wearying incline I pedalled up until it was well behind me. Still comforting.
The cakemaking made me appreciate what an absolute chore it all was! Baking the sponge proved straightforward enough, but the icing was another matter. First some butter and more butter, then icing and cocoa powder and so much whipping and stirring that I ended up cheating with an electric mixer. Then trying to smother the icing within and outside and finally encasing the cake in flake without getting chocolate in every nook and cranny of the kitchen. It is a labour of love which is probably why it came so naturally to Aunty Pat.
I was planning on saving the first cut for the next day at a suitable time and place, somewhat ceremoniously. But it was evening, the heating was on, the lighting cosy and there was a whole cake sitting behind a cupboard door taunting me, even though I wasn’t especially hungry. It was always behind that cupboard door. Why wait when it can make you happy now? I know she would approve of that.
In contrast, the next slice of cake spurred me towards the top of a mountain, delivered at an opportune time in the midst of a winter wonderland. A fillip ensuring I can continue to explore and discover afresh. A slice of chocolate heaven shared with a friend and – she would be aghast – coffee delivered lukewarm from a flask.
I can’t say the vistas up towards Camels Hump in Tidbinbilla especially resembled Dartmoor, though the experience of rugged wilderness and – atop the peaks – gale force winds certainly provided a similar sensation. It wasn’t the plan to go this far, to be this adventurous. Other than a mandarin, the cake was the only sustenance I had packed. Thank goodness for all those buttery calories, keeping me going again.
While I’m sure we would have clambered out onto a few tors in our time, most of my Dartmoor memories with Aunty Pat and Uncle Ian concentrate around the rivers. Twisting laneways of crystal water tumbling toward the sea. The dappled light of summer penetrating a world almost overburdened with green. BJ afraid to swim but brave enough to gather pebbles that looked far too heavy to carry in his mouth, as we sit and observe with ham sandwiches on hand.
And so, on a bleak, drizzly Monday I made my way to the Cotter River, thinking this would be the closest resemblance I might find locally. In the middle of winter, bare trees and leaf litter mingled with evergreens forming a scene that felt a touch more Scotland than Dartmoor. But that seems fitting too, for they loved those Scottish holidays in the caravan with Dolly and Ed. That caravan my sister and I spent a night in near Chudleigh, entranced by the magical folding of tables and chairs into a bed.
With the nearby dam overflowing, the water was high and running at speed. It was this sound that mostly evoked the past. The sound and, of course, the taste. Another slice of cake with a decent cup of tea, served on proper crockery rather than plastic paraphernalia. Each mouthful taken with recollection of the warmth and caring and generosity and love of our Aunty Pat.
In a fleeting moment I mulled over the prospect of sending a few crumbs down the river, but I know she would look at me bemused at the thought of wasting good cake. Still, I had a dirty plate and nothing to clean it with other than river, so a few microscopic elements have washed their way out into the ocean off South Australia. A long, long way from home in a journey that probably commenced on those first forays out onto the moors.
We have just come back from the moors and settled down on the new sofa in Ernesettle. I eye the massive bottle of scotch filled with tuppences. The heating has been cranked up almost to the point of being excessively cosy, the bitterness of Dartmoor rapidly fading away. Uncle Ian is taking a seat at his keyboard, looking out over the creek. Aunty Pat is industriously doing something in the kitchen to the benefit of us all later.
Something in the oven, she returns with a cup of tea and – of course – a few slices of chocolate cake. As Mull of Kintyre pipes up from the keyboard, there is a gentle smile on her face. And a simple shared happiness filling all of our hearts.
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.
Over the hills and far away, everyone come out to play. One. Two. Three. Four. Thousand.
Such are the conical lumps and bumps of the countryside around Jugiong, you never know what you might find down a rabbit hole. Today, it is bursting at the seams with all sorts of characters, the village swollen with trippers pausing for drinks, pastries, ice creams, chocolate eggs. It is Good Friday and, even so, I am astonished. I have never seen the Hume Highway so busy.
It’s the kind of day where you could get hot and cross sat on your buns waiting an interminable time for a coffee. Unless you cheekily pop around the corner to the Jam Factory Outlet. And leave the gourmet country mecca that has become Jugiong raking in the cash.
It is heartening to see. Down the road a little, Coolac is the precise antithesis. A one street kind of town with a forty year old Holden parked eternally outside the pub. A Memorial Hall hosts a little life as a couple of old dears negotiate the keys and lights. Outside, the picket-fenced oval surprises given the difficulty in conjuring enough people for a cricket team. It seems more likely a host to rusty tractors and bizarre sculptures made from hay. I kind of like Coolac.
I’m detouring off the Hume and am making my way to Gundagai via a scenic route. One year on and surely I must be getting close to traversing all the sealed highways and byways of the Hilltops region. This one is a beauty, at times narrowing to a single track nestled into steep-sided embankments following the Murrumbidgee. Other traffic is a rare sight, only increasing as I approach Gundagai from the south.
I was originally thinking of camping by the river here. As I cross over the town’s rickety bridge, I glance down to see an accumulating complex of trailers and awnings and canvas-themed opulence. I feel relieved and slightly smug at the thought of booking somewhere quieter in Tumut instead. Well, I think it should be quieter.
So Gundagai becomes simply a pause for lunch. It sounds ridiculously middle class, but one of my camping road trip staples has become homemade quiche. It’s hearty, tasty fare and means I don’t have to lug my whole box of camp kitchen paraphernalia with me. Okay, it might make it hard for me to ingratiate myself with certain other types of campground people, but it sure does use up the out-of-date eggs.
I’ve never really dwelt for long in Gundagai. The town is clearly shaped by the Murrumbidgee, with the coloured roofs of houses rising up a series of hills like a scattering of Lego bricks. The floodplain divides and is sensibly reserved for non-essential infrastructure such as a golf course, a park, and the campground. Two old bridges indicate the perils of flood, suitably ramshackle as they pass by clusters of stately river red gum. You sense the trees will be here long after man-made debris has finally washed away.
And so on to the campground in Tumut which was – yikes – just as busy as everywhere else. This one was situated on a farm alongside the banks of the Tumut River, a natural attraction to fishers and kayakers and people who simply like to empty the contents of an esky while lounging to the sound of soft rock classics on endless rotation.
Occasionally I like to ride my bicycle and – after putting up the ‘instant’ tent in one of the better times yet – was keen to immerse myself in the surrounding countryside. Enclosed within a broad river valley I assumed the riding would be pretty flat and for the most part that was the case. Still, any incline was unwelcome in the late afternoon warmth, nearing thirty degrees.
On the northern side of the valley I headed towards Lacmalac, which was really just a cluster of farm buildings with hints of charming homestead within manicured garden. Occasional wafts of silage reminded of Devon, but then a giant southern cross reinforced the Australian condition. Crossing water at Little River, it was all Devon again, embodied in a rolling hill which was simply too steep for me to pedal.
In one of the quieter moments I realised that bike-riding is quite the bipolar experience. The inclines are irritating and often lack enjoyment. But then crest the top and the downhill is all exhilaration and relief. Flat stretches are simple compromise, somewhere in between. Most of the way back to Tumut was as flat as a pancake, along – oh I see – Tumut Flats Road.
With the sinking western sun in my face it was a relief to reach a little oasis called Tumut Junction. This is no Clapham or Spaghetti, but the point at which the Tumut River splits with the Goobarragandra. Lovingly manicured by the Lions Club, it would have been a wonderful place to linger longer. But daylight was fading and I still had a little way to go, crossing the bridge built in 1893 and returning through town to the campsite.
I returned to find a camp trailer had squeezed into the little space between me and the group of let’s-see-who-can-talk-the loudest millennials. On the other side, the medley of Jimmy Barnes and Fleetwood Mac continued without pause. Fires were being lit everywhere, including one that had been arranged crazily close to my car.
Now, I can see advantages in writing off a 21 year old car, but I really would like it to stay intact for a while longer. So I shifted it a little further away as we all jovially chuckled how I could always have driven it into the river if it caught fire haw haw haw. Safe and settled, I lounged beside the river with a cold beer and a conspicuous slice of quiche.
It’s about this time, as darkness descends, that you begin to wonder how you will fill a couple of hours before bed. There is always plenty of phaff associated with camping to pass much of that period – sort out food and drinks and dishes, arrange bed, piddle about with various items in the car, ensuring you have everything you might ever need in the middle of the night.
There is also the ‘guess who will be the most annoying neighbour’ game to play. It wasn’t going to be the trailer couple. Despite their fondness for arson, they were rather civilised, quaffing rose and engaging in chit chat. The obvious contenders would be the gang of millennials all a hootin’ and a hollerin’. But as soon as one young lady said she was off to bed after throwing up, silence descended.
Apart from the faint sound of Midnight Oil accompanied by the clink of another empty bottle returning to its carton.
It was way past two by the time I properly got to sleep but at least I had a relative lie in, waking around seven on the final morning of daylight saving. It was still before sunrise and I was glad to find a child making a racket proximate to the late night soft rockers. Outside the scene was ethereal, a light mist floating inches above the ground. Standing within the haze, the silhouettes of eucalypts competed with the stick figures of humanity queuing for the long drop.
Thankfully, the mist didn’t survive too long as the sun rose to bathe the countryside an early gold. It was to be a crucial weapon in my operation to achieve a dry canvas by ten in the morning. A contraption of car doors, chair and bike slowly aired the flysheet while I shook the beads of moisture out of various flaps. It was the closest thing to having a morning shower.
In the absence of the camp kitchen box I didn’t get a morning cuppa, but at least found comfort with a cold hot cross bun in bed. By time everything was dry and packed up, coffee in Tumut was essential, this time accompanied by a big breakfast that kept me going for most of the day.
I spent the remainder of the morning exploring a little more around Tumut, finding it just as charming as on previous occasions. While not peaking yet, the passage of autumn was undeniably playing its hand, the yellows and ambers first to appear within riverside parks and along quiet country lanes.
Pleasantly warm and breathless, there was temptation again to jump on the bike. But I was weary, and the amble was more in keeping with my mood. Goodness knows how I am going to accomplish 162kms over three days in a few weeks. My only comfort is that I feel more prepared and bike-fit than others due to embark on that journey.
For now, soak up the tranquillity back at the Junction. What a delightful spot this would be for a picnic, if only I was hungry. I really do think in the yet-to-be-published Exploration of Regional Towns Within a Few Hours of the National Capital During the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic, Tumut would be up there in the top three. Unless there are other places unknown.
For instance, what about Cootamundra? Having only skirted once before I decided to head home in a larger loop: from Tumut to Gundagai and up to Cootamundra before tracking back via Harden along the Burley Griffin Way to Yass. I had already checked out cake opportunities in Cootamundra to justify the extra drive.
Coota, in its inevitably abridged nomenclature, will not make my top three, unless you are reading the yet-to-be-published Regional Towns Within a Few Hours of the National Capital Still Stuck in the 1950s. The town seems harmless enough, but it was very much of the everything closed on a Saturday afternoon persuasion.
With Coota Hot Bake shut, a few stragglers were heading to Woolworths for their daily bread. Even here, the sounds from a busker gave off a mangled Buddy Holly vibe. I entered the one café open – well, it said it was open despite looking deserted – and eventually found some humans. An old guy clearly way beyond retirement age diligently sprayed tables with disinfectant. He was keen to regale me with the events of the day, which were allegedly incredibly hectic. Over four hundred cups of coffee he said. So many people on the roads he claimed. It is hard to imagine.
In my Cootamundra, I can imagine bumping into Donald Bradman at Coota Hot Bake. All chipper and strutting like a peacock in his flat cap, shouting at the young lady behind the counter that the knots in his knot rolls are not knotted enough. If she was smart, she’d reply that unfortunately the bake was 0.06 degrees too low today, hence the knot rolls not being so perfect after all.
The Don is very much alive in Cootamundra, as the town does all it can to milk the fact that he was born here. Indeed, as advertised, you can “Stand in the very room the Don was born” at the modest but pretty little cottage on the edge of town. Next door is a spot promoting rare and unusual cricketing memorabilia, perhaps like those awful collages of Warnie lolloping around the crease that used to be pushed at viewers on Nine’s Wide World of Sport.
Closer to the town centre, in a lovely shady park, is Captain’s Walk. If Donaldmania is irksome for an Englishman weaned on a diet of capitulating pommie wickets and smirking Australian assassins with beer guts, then this is not an enjoyable walk at all. Busts of every Australian cricket captain are arranged here, though it is not true to say that Steven Smith’s nose was smoothed down with a sheet of sandpaper hidden in my pants.
Passing the head of Greg Chappell inches above the grass, I departed Cootamundra before pausing in Harden for fuel and a much needed frozen sugar slush. Harden was one of those places already featured in Exploration of Regional Towns Within a Few Hours of the National Capital During the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic back in spring, when the canola was all a riot. Population 2,030 it is quite the feat to have a town which stretches on for what seems like forever along the main road.
When you finally do leave town, it’s a really pleasant drive with pleasant countryside and pleasant curves. Encountering unpleasant roadwork at one point I decided why not pull into the “Historic Village of Galong” just because it was there. Naturally even quieter than Coota I felt as though a few eyes were peering through old wooden windows at this interloper. Perhaps a banjo string being tightened. It is no Jugiong.
Yet in the afternoon sun, unseasonably hot once again, sleepiness seemed the perfect state of affairs. I could’ve quite happily joined the village for a siesta. All four of us. But I didn’t. There is Binalong and Bowning and Yass and Murrumbateman still to come before the sun will set in the sky. And then it really will be time to say goodbye. Bye-bye!
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.
Confinement within the boundaries of the Australian Capital Territory may sound like a nightmare to some people – mostly us privileged types who can jokingly equate it to being in prison. All without actually ever facing the very real prospect of being imprisoned. Still, I suppose it could be tough to be restricted within the clutches of a modern, affluent, well-resourced city without access to an episode of Fawlty Towers that has been shown a zillion times already in my lifetime. Oh the suffrage some people have to endure!
Other than perhaps anywhere in New Zealand, this city – Canberra – has arguably been the best place in the world to be of late. Okay, it is getting a bit chully now, but I can warm myself up with great coffee and a walk in one of the many suburban parks, bushland reserves, and panoramic hills. I have been doing a lot of that lately.
We have also been largely spared – for now – the health calamity that is Coronavirus. One hundred and eight confirmed cases in total. Only one of whom emerged in the last month: emerging from overseas and allowed to travel to Canberra because of a novel form of protection called Diplomatic Immunity. Everyone I have spoken to suspects a Yank. Because, well, you know.
Due to this good fortune and what can be fairly summarised as competent management – when did basic competence become the gold standard some of us can only yearn for from our leaders – restrictions have eased over time. Yes, the rules can seem a tad bewildering, requiring a protractor and solid understanding of trigonometry as well as a ready supply of hand sanitiser and guarded interaction. But now I can do things I would never do anyway, such as participating in a bootcamp or going to church. Never in a month of Sundays. Still, it is nice to feel like you could do them.
As of the start of this month, we were also allowed to travel outside of the ACT for leisure purposes. Being largely content in the territory, I didn’t rush off down to the coast on the first day of restrictions easing like half of the population, despite that particular day being grey, cool, and windy. Neither did I really leverage any benefit from not one, but two public holidays: one to acknowledge first Australians and promote reconciliation and harmony, the other to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s non-birthday. Yeah, go figure.
I think somewhere in my walking rambles during the midst of containment I made a sarcastic comment about the prospect of a day trip to Goulburn being something to look forward to. It was the kind of comment everyone not living in Canberra was making about Canberra. For us, we always have Goulburn. So, the day came when I finally decided I could set foot across the border and where better to head than Goulburn. Only I never actually made it; there is only so much excitement one can take after all.
About two-thirds of the way between Canberra and Goulburn is the small village of Collector. It is well-known in these parts for its pumpkin festival, an annual spectacular that fell victim this year to COVID cancel culture, a situation that probably explains why I can now buy a whole pumpkin for 99 cents. Beyond the soothing sounds of the Federal Highway and a growing population of scarecrows with gourd faces, what does Collector have to offer, I mused?
The first thing to highlight is a very fine coffee stop. To tell the truth, this is why I decided I could rationalise my first escape from the ACT to what is largely a featureless paddock on the fringe of waterless Lake George. It’s called Some Café and it benefits from a proximal relationship to the capital. Housed in a heritage building along with a wine tasting area, it conjures country charm with hipster-infused chill. I feel the cake display could be enhanced, but the coffee was indeed very fine and the cheese and ham toastie the stuff of the dreams I have been having ever since I watched that episode of Masterchef where they made toasties in the first round. Cheesy dreams.
Incidentally, upon leaving the café I noticed the logo resembles someone washing their hands. I mean, it might be clapping at the borderline pretentious latte art or rubbing your hands with glee at the prospect of Pialligo smoked bacon in a Three Mills bap. But in this day and age it is definitely someone washing their hands. Given this logo was there before the onset of COVID-19, one can actually imagine a handful of conspiracy theorists directing their unending keyboard war at a small café in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere. There is even a phone mast on the nearby ridge for goodness sake!
Dodging death rays and applying sanitiser positioned at the exit, I moved on to explore the rest of Collector. Outside of pumpkin festival time it is eerily quiet, apart from the hum of trucks upon the nearby highway. Everyone is probably in church, given the village (population 313) has three from which to choose: Anglican, Uniting and Catholic. Penance for the bushrangers.
The other place of worship in town is the pub, the Bushranger Hotel, with rooms looking out over farming country and a weird labour of love known as the Dreamer’s Gate. A gothic sculpture formed from cement and chicken wire, it resembles something that would feature in the Gunning and Breadalbane Amateur Dramatic Society’s production of Harry Potter and the Golden Horned Trans Merino. I can’t say I’m a massive fan, but I admire the dedication of its artist and his ability to piss off half of the locals.
Looping back towards Some Café from here, the road ran alongside a patch of farmland and the narrow course of Collector Creek. Given rain, it’s pleasant enough country with water even visible in the creek; not something that is guaranteed I’m sure.
It was around this point I was thinking how nice it would be to have a walk in the countryside. Yet this doesn’t really seem to be a thing in Australia – walking tracks are largely concentrated in some national parks and city reserves. There isn’t the same antiquated network of lanes and byways with right to roam as in the UK. So much country is locked out to the public, fenced off, dug away, blown up, guarded by deadly snakes. I think it’s a shame and also a missed opportunity. Imagine the benefits, for instance, if you were more impelled to pull off the Federal Highway and head into Collector, have a good coffee and a slice of cake, set off on a ramble for a few hours, and finish up in the pub. The same could be said for Gunning, Yass, Crookwell, Taralga, Tarago, Bungendore etc etc. Landholders unite!
Leaving Collector I did at least find something akin to a country lane. Eschewing the highway, I took a narrow road full of potholes towards the even smaller settlement of Breadalbane. It was so narrow (for Australia) that at one point I had to pull in to allow the only other car on it to proceed towards Collector. I’m not saying it would be a great walk or anything, but I definitely saw some cycling potential. For a start, it was mostly flat, with a small rise at what I think would be a good turn around point. It was very open, so you would see oncoming traffic. There are country sights to absorb, mostly sheep. And you could of course start and finish at Some Café, a cyclist’s dream. Just need to pick a wind-free, mild day. Perhaps Spring.
At what must have been Breadalbane I was starting to get a bit giddy being around fifty kilometres away from the ACT border. I could have turned right for Goulburn but thought I would save that for another exciting day out. Left was Gunning and – true to form, true to the real purpose of this day out – I knew of a good café there. By time I prevaricated and pottered about a little it would be acceptable afternoon tea hours.
A little shy of Gunning there is a small bridge over a small creek offering a sense of intimacy among a big land and big sky. It’s a peaceful scene, with a rail crossing and old pumphouse rising above a landscape that may occasionally flood. It would probably make another fine spot to set off on a walk, following the waterway and gradually climbing up to the gentle hills of the Cullerin Range, bedecked with wind turbines and unending views. All I can do is stop by the road and wait for clouds to blow through to reveal the sun.
The main reason I pause here is not only to kill time before afternoon tea, but to compare thee to a summer’s day. I came this way for the first time in December; those pre-COVID days that were only mired in ravaging drought, catastrophic bushfires and ‘Getting Brexit Done’, whatever that is supposed to mean. Back then, a few sheep were grazing under the bridge, clinging to remnant water like everything else seeking survival. In the sweet spot around February – the only two weeks of 2020 that were any good – the rains finally arrived. And today the sheep are nowhere to be seen, happily grazing elsewhere in a land of plenty.
Talking of grazing, the time for afternoon tea was getting closer, though I dragged things out a little further by taking in the sights of Gunning. This didn’t take too long, but I at least discovered a rough track through a park that followed a creek and for a few hundred metres resembled something akin to the replication of a simulation of a fake countryside walk. Leading from here I also ambled through a back lane decorated with the occasional section of crumbling brickwork overtaken by rampant undergrowth. In one garden, a Merino chewed upon the lawn, oblivious to the perils of a rusting trampoline.
Gunning has just the one high street offering an eclectic mix of styles and wares. A large warehouse hosts agricultural supplies. A row of Victorian-era shops display almost antiques and woollen craftwork. A garage straight out of the Midwest services passing trade. There is of course a pub and a couple of cafes to lure people off of the Hume Highway.
It was also back in dry December that I popped into one of these – the Merino Café – for a morning coffee accompanied by a delicious caramel macadamia ANZAC slice concoction. Back then it was justified by a desire to support small country communities doing it tough through the drought. Today it was about spending money in small businesses trying to get back on their feet through the COVID crisis. There is always some rationale and worthiness in cake.
The slice, along with several other varieties of fat and sugar, was still there, but a counter-top display of scones tempted and teased. Accepting the reality of disappointing cream, I was still tempted enough. And, yes, the cream was disappointing, but the scone itself was rather good.
All I needed now was a bloody good walk to burn off some of the indulgence. Looking at the map, the closest place for a bloody good walk in reality was Canberra. Yes, for all the breaking out of borders, I have to return to Canberra to go for a walk. You get the point. Country NSW: Cakes plentiful. Walks lacking.
I did at least take a stroll that included views of country NSW, discovering yet another small section of Mulligans Flat including more of its border fence. With a lowering afternoon sun and a combination of farmland and forest vistas, it was just the tonic after those relatively sedate and calorific country pursuits.
And then, with clouds congregating in a fashion that could yield a sunset spectacular, I made a last-minute call to stay out and see what might happen. Now back in the heart of Canberra I parked the car near Government House and wandered beside the lake. The sunset spectacle never really eventuated, but the light and tranquillity reminded of why this lucky little city is still one of the best places to be right now.
In fact, it’s even proving popular to those who live outside its boundaries. Among the entrails of dubious information and petulance located on Twitter I came across an article about how a trip to Canberra was generating excitement for those so confined in their oppressive Sydney bubble. Haw-bloody-haw. What do you think this is, Goulburn or something? Just don’t take all our cakes when you come here. And call in on a few towns and villages along the way.
Humans, like the weather, are nothing if not contrary. Can it really be the same species that were so recently sharing in collective despair with heartfelt empathy, ceaselessly giving anything from money to clothes to fence posts to time to hope, who now go about pulling each other’s hair out for another six pack of three ply?
It may well be, much like the weather, that in the Venn diagram of the good and bad, the heart-warming and the head-banging, there is only a little intersection between the two. Or perhaps we are all a little conflicted. Like a leaden cloud threatening to burst or simply waiting to be dispelled by the sun. Depending which way the wind blows. A phenomenon that might also explain the contents of certain supermarket trolleys.
What seems incontrovertible is that 2020 continues to produce a hell of a lot of crap, evidently more so in those double garages stocked with 2,000 rolls of toilet paper. And while the bare aisles of toilet tissue land make me feel bemused, I quietly sneak an extra jar of pasta sauce into my basket.
There could be fewer worthy places to stockpile a years’ worth of bog roll than on the South Coast of NSW. A beautiful corner of the world both pallid and sick and overflowing with life and love. A place whose interior is savaged but whose heart and soul are still beating. A place that could use a little helping (washed) hand to thrive once again. Mother nature has applied some balm through its cloud and rain and now we – the good we – can try to offer a little gentle sunshine.
The landscape of the South Coast region right now is simply astonishing in so many ways. The crest of Clyde Mountain confronts with brutal savagery, an unending parade of blackened trees and blackened earth yielding views down to the coast that were not previously available. Yet the vibrant tree ferns and epicormic shoots sprouting from trunks seem to defy death. On the fringes of Mogo, that all too familiar sight of summer – of twisted metal and crumpled fireplace – sits within a vivid, bounteous green. The village too a bustle of people purchasing pendants, peculiarities and pies.
The beaches of the region are as good as ever, which is to say, pretty damn perfect. At Broulee, a small patch of charred dune prompts memories of a video from the beach on New Year’s Eve, a small spot fire exploding and causing understandable angst amongst those who had fled to the water’s edge. Today, the sands are peppered with people bathing, fun and laughter filling the air. Much of the lush coastal fringe of spotted gums and fern trees along the road to Moruya seems unscarred.
From Tuross Head you can see the ranges of Deua National Park to the west. No doubt a regular sight of alarm at night, illuminated by flame that flickered and flared to its own shape and will. Constantly on edge, unknowing as to where and how far it would come, the fires never did reach Tuross, at least in physical form.
This is home for a few nights and what a fine home: close to the rugged beaches and barely open shops, in proximity to numerous opportunities to spend money and eat food and lose golf balls. A home coming with the bonus of a billiard table for evening entertainment; my knowledge on the placement of snooker balls stemming from lyrics recalled of Snooker Loopy featuring Chas and Dave. Pot the red and screw back, for the yellow green brown blue pink and black… Yeah, in your dreams.
It would be fair to say that despite limitations I was a far better snooker and pool player than golfer on this trip. Which says more about my golfing doom than my snooker prowess. Still, it was good to make a hefty contribution to the community of Narooma by zig-zagging around its golf course. A perfectly sliced and skied lay up on its famous third hole almost yielded a par, and I managed a par four somewhere else in between much larger figures. The added challenge of a series of greens being perforated, sanded and watered provided further good excuses for inadequacy.
With Narooma receiving an economic injection, the next place on the spending list was Bodalla, specifically its dairy and cheese factory. In times like these you’ve got to do your utmost to support these local businesses and so it was with considerable reluctance that I forced down a toastie oozing with cheese followed up with an ice cream. You do what you can do.
The following day endured cool and grey, reminiscent of typical coastal awaydays of the past. This might have previously induced disappointment and grumbling and a roll of the eyes with a sigh. But it seems crass to complain this year. This weather is perfect. And there is still plenty of consumption of local community produce to be savoured.
I don’t know if supporting the South Coast economy has ever been so tasty. The one exception was – alas – fish and chips, a result of many of the better venues being closed on a Monday in March. But there was the Mexican brunch bowl at Mossy Point, the caramel fudge and coffee in Moruya and – probably the piece de resistance of feeling worthy and eating well – home-cooked wholesomeness and other takeaway from the farmers markets also in Moruya.
The markets were small but popular, a place very much for locals to gather and update one another on the latest news and gossip. They were also attuned to market protocols, forming orderly queues with wicker baskets as they awaited the 3pm opening bell. Twenty minutes later and most of the fresh stuff had sold out, but we managed to retrieve a medley of locally grown seasonal vegetables, some swordfish, crusty bread and a dairy product or two for me to bring home to go on a scone or three.
I can’t say our market-supplied barbecue that night was a traditional Aussie bloke-themed methane-heavy slimy snag and slab of steak celebration. But it felt good and tasted even better. Refined even. Setting up another classy evening of exemplary three-way snooker (Tuross Rules).
Which was again better than the golf that day. Looking for something to do we came across a whole nine holes to ourselves. It quickly became clear why, the course pretty basic and unkempt in places, plagued by an infestation of mosquitoes. These had apparently emerged post fire and rain, proof that not all of nature’s recovery is especially welcome. At the course boundary, fire had penetrated the forest and the relatively low fee to have a course and a million mozzies to ourselves didn’t seem such an injustice after all.
You see, it’s quite a divergent experience down on the South Coast. Like chalk and cheese. Sunshine and rain. Go Fund Me and bog-roll violence. So much of it looks and feels as good as ever. Life seems normal. Better even given the incredible swathe of green pasture now smothering the fields. And then your mind comes back to that saying I heard before: the great green cover up.
And you drive, under bucketloads of rain, through Mogo once more with its scattering of crumpled buildings. Towards and into the edges of Batemans Bay, where the forest has scorched down to its very edge and looks like it is struggling to recover. You get a sense of where the fire was most ferocious; green shoots are harder to come by. One side of the road up Clyde Mountain looks normal, the other decimated.
You enter Braidwood to support that economy, knowing that it would be near impossible to convince an overseas visitor that this was in the grip of drought, primed to borrow water from Canberra while being shrouded in smoke for months on end. You shelter with hot coffee and sense BlazeAid nomads taking a well-earned day off. You espy a generous supply of toilet paper in the café bathroom; and briefly a wicked thought enters your mind. But the sunshine wins out, the goodness, the heart. Much like it is doing, much like it will do again, down on the South Coast.
Late Friday afternoon on the road between Braidwood and Bungendore and the wind is buffeting my car as it trundles into the sleety clouds of winter. I’m returning from the coast, where two hours before I was eating lunch on a sheltered cove saturated in warm sunshine. It’s a slightly weary drive and, for some reason, I decide to play The Lightning Seeds for probably the first time in twenty years.
After several jaunty, scousish ditties that sound identical, the sage words of Alan Hansen and Jimmy Hill emerge as the infectious, glorious, deprecating anthem that is Three Lions blares out. I cannot listen to this without bobbing my head a little, chanting, smiling like a Cheshire Cat. As much as you might try. It’s Coming Home! At least I hope so, in light of the possible blizzard up ahead.
It’s Coming Home. Euro 96. An era that now feels halcyon, days when the Donald and BJ were still complete dicks but at least not complete dicks inexplicably leading disunited states and precarious kingdoms. Back in 1996, John Major was trundling his way towards the end of years of Tory rule, a regime which now somehow seems sane and reasonable. The Spice Girls were zig-a-zag-ahing and both Mitchells were polishing their heads behind the bar of the Queen Vic. I was completing my first year of university, undistracted by a phone, immune from the ranting coalescence of conspiracy lunatics on the internet.
I don’t remember that much about my university course (who does?), but in a convoluted way which coincidentally brings us back to the present I suppose it led me to be in the South Coast NSW town of Narooma on a mild, golden evening in August 2019. I studied, I got a job, I travelled, I went back to that job, I transferred to Australia with that job and I ended up on a boardwalk meandering past calm and clear waters toward the ocean.
Did I ever imagine back in 1996 that I would be gazing out to the Pacific hoping to sight a whale? Meandering downhill alongside gardens strewn with exotic plants and colourful birds? Wandering past parks dotted with electric barbecues and sinks for dealing with the entrails of fish? Who would have thought I would have previously parred the treacherous Bogey Hole of that golf course wedged between the town and the plunging cliffs of the coastline? Certainly not me, or anyone else, which is why I bring it up again.
Even with its ageing hackers, Narooma is a pretty quiet kind of place, especially in a midweek in winter when the temperature has dipped to something around nineteen degrees. It’s tough going, having to put a light jumper on as the sun disappears behind Gulaga, pondering whether to have fish and chips for dinner or wait until tomorrow.
While I know Narooma pretty well, the first night in a strange place always seems to lead to a fitful sleep, even when you’ve opted to forego fish and chips. Waking too early the next day, the murmurings of RN Breakfast do little to inspire or send me back to doze, so I head out into the dark. I love this time of day, especially beside the ocean; facing east as the black fades to blue and grey and red and yellow, and shafts of sunlight glitter off the sea. The sun kisses the layers of morning cloud, spreading to the tops of trees, and illuminating the coffee shop on the hill. A beacon which makes the reward of an early start in Australia all the better.
With plenty of the day still ahead I took the car for a little explore south of Narooma, stopping first in the so-good-they-named-it-twice hamlet of Tilba Tilba before heading on to the relative bustle of Central Tilba. This is a corner of the county oozing genuine charm, with plenty of tin roofs and lacework awnings, flower-filled yards and rustic leftovers. By Australian standards it’s usually a green and lush place as well, which is great for local dairy products; but even here the drought looked to be taking its yellowing toll.
Given my early start it was probably pushing it to head to the bakery in Central Tilba for local produce straight away, so I took a gentle amble along the track which eventually leads to the top of Gulaga, the dominant, forest-clad peak of the area, spiritually significant to the local Yuin people. You can walk to the top, but I wasn’t really in the mood and I heard that summit views were lacking. The valley was perfectly happy enough.
Did I mention dairy products? One of my favourite topics which, back in 1996, probably didn’t come with any moral distaste from ethically sourced eco-vegan leftists typing away on their not-so-pure iPhones. I guess at a philosophical level, there is valid debate as to whether we can still have our cake and eat it? At an individual level, the answer was a resounding yes. Not only in Tilba, home to Jersey Cows and related outputs. But also in Bodalla, a pitstop on my journey into and out of Narooma and for all journeys this way in the future. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.
South of Tilba, the main highway veers off towards Bermagui, along a splendid road of eucalyptus forest and the shores of Wallaga Lake. The maps indicate a few coastal rock formations here, names suggesting a likeness to horses and camels which enticed me to explore with the hope of discovering an Australian Durdle Door or Bedruthan Step. While there was not quite the same grandeur, the coastal scenery, now bathed in warm sunshine, proved a tonic after that massive apple turnover.
It was pleasing to discover I was on part of the ‘Great South Coast Walk’ according to a few signposts. This doesn’t appear to be an official trail but may yet develop into something more formal. One of my bugbears with Australia is that it doesn’t seem to have the same right to roam philosophy as the UK. Huge tracts of land are locked up in private hands or just downright inaccessible unless you have Ray Mears on hand with a machete and / or a big gas guzzling ute. Being able to just rock up anywhere on the coast and walk has an appeal unmatched. See, for example, South West Coast Path.
It was along this walk, overlooking the expanse of Wallaga Lake, that I learnt of another resemblance in the landscape around here. Gulaga is a pregnant woman, partly explaining its significance to the Yuin people who were here well, well before 1996. Today, its fertility abounds as a cluster of whales drift down the coast, mother and calf distant white caps sporadically splashing in the rich waters.
I probably wouldn’t have spotted the whales if it wasn’t for a couple of retired locals staked out on a headland near Horse Head Rock. For me, this is usually the most successful method of spotting wildlife. If you’re driving in country Australia and a cluster of people have pulled over to look up at a tree, there’s a fair chance you’ll get to see a koala. The other way you tend to discover local wildlife is when you nearly run it over. Beware Wombats.
Spurred on by earlier whale sightings I ended the day back up near Narooma, taking a scenic coastal drive alongside Dalmeny and Kianga which boasts several panoramic viewing platforms along the way. The platforms are sited in between yet more pristine bays that you can have all to yourself. It was at the last of these points that I glanced a surfing dolphin, followed by a few more and a few more still. Passing below, there must have been around twenty dolphins, tracking north on a feeding mission. A whole two football teams.
I doubt I would have seen dolphins in 1996. Nor would I be questioning the prospect of snow in August, even counting for British weather. Today, this was a possibility heading back to Canberra thanks to a vigorous succession of cold fronts coming from the Antarctic. My solution was to linger down on the coast for as long as possible.
It was undoubtedly windy, but the skies were blue and with a little shelter you could sit comfortably in a light sweater or even T-shirt. Neither of which were really possible in the blustery settings of Cullendulla Creek and the nearby Eurobodalla Botanic Gardens, but these were attractive diversions nonetheless. At the gardens, the stronger gusts were a tad alarming and it felt only a matter of time before a branch would fall on my head. Mercifully it didn’t, and the march towards Spring carried on.
Just north of Batemans Bay – and the road junction back to Canberra – the graceful, tall spotted eucalypts of Murramarang National Park were probably less appealing to walk through today. Especially when picking a walk that follows a ridgeline facing the bay, directly exposed to the strong southwesterlies. The crashing chaos, the constant buffeting, the noise and fury do not entice a pause to look up and marvel. Impulsion instead for a brisk pace and the hope of respite on the other side. And what gentle and idyllic contrast this proves.
A bay with no-one and nothing. Nothing but calm clear waters, untouched sand and the backing of a gently whispering bush. A driftwood log, downed in some other storm and also finding its way to this paradise, is now a perfect setting for a late lunch. The breathlessness is not only in the air, the warmth not only on the outside. Perhaps even in 2019, these are still the days, this is still the life.
Welcome to Liverpool John Lennon Airport where the time is 10:55 in the morning, the temperature is 10 degrees Celsius and you should watch your bags at all times eh calm down calm down. Imagine. Everybody loves a cliché when they’re not victim to it, so here I was suddenly in the north, a stark, leaden shell suited contrast to the flowery air of France. It is said – mostly by Liverpudlians – that Scouse humour is unparalleled, and you’d need to have a sense of humour to live here. Boom boom.
The north was right proper grim, mostly due to the arrival of Storm Hannah. I have known a few Hannahs in my lifetime and they have all been sweet and agreeable and no offence at all. Storm Hannah, by contrast, was a true harbinger of misery, decimating the promise of spring as quickly and as conclusively as a hi-vis revolution in Queensland.
The saving grace was that this soggy, cold weekend around Lytham St Annes was perfect for central heating and afternoon naps, for cups of tea and slices of cake, for red wine and takeaway curry with treasured friends and football maniacs. Occasional breaks in the rain allowed for a brisk walk in a brisk breeze beside a sullen waterfront, outings that only really made the arrival back indoors all the more comforting. Cup of tea? Aye.
It was a more placid day departing the north, incrementally brightening on my journey towards London and then onward to Salisbury; the very heart of a conceptual south. Perhaps near here, somewhere within the borderlands of Wiltshire sits that romanticised version of England; of thatched cottages and village greens; of tinkling brooks and sun-dappled woods; of church fetes and coffee and walnut cake. Perhaps, indeed.
The promising return of spring added to the ambience of a walk in west Wiltshire, footsteps traversing a mixture of quiet villages and busy farms and flourishing woodlands. The woodlands sprouting green and carpeted with bluebells, the farms a hive of rebirth and earnest bustle, the villages cute and clustering around a church and a pub. Church or pub? Hmm, let me see…
Praise the Lord for a pint outside in the open air, soaking up the sweetly chirping birds and the smell of the country. And thank the almighty for a gentle downhill totter back to the car, parked beside the marquee on the green next to the church in the contented village of East Knoyle. Everywhere around here is easy to suspect as a secret filming location for Bake Off.
[In a Noel Fielding whisper]: In Bake Off this week our contestants go t’mill t’fetch t’grain t’make a barn cake t’take to creecket. Oop ill un darn dale in an accent neither befitting Noel Fielding nor the Wiltshire-Dorset border. Yet it is precisely here, in the affluent southern town of Shaftesbury, that the most revered depiction of life in the north persists in our psyche. That Hovis ad. Directed by Ridley Scott, many of my generation and older see this as The North. Even though – upon deeper inspection – its narrative is delivered in an undefined country twang that could be at home in Dorset. It must be the bloody brass band that does it, for only Northerners trudge up hills to the melancholy parp of a brass band.
“When I were a wee lad you didn’t see us lot wasting our time with Instagrams of food and posing for selfies,” Dad clearly didn’t say as I took a photo of some coffee and cake and indulged in a selfie. Because this wasn’t Yorkshire and neither was it the 1940s anymore, though you suspect some in Shaftesbury would be pleased to turn back time. At least to the years before that bloody advert sent people flocking to a hill to take Instagrams and selfies.
Back in a more reassuring south, a morning in Salisbury offered increasing photographic opportunities, marvelling at the famous Cathedral with its famous 123-metre spire and its famous clock, a renown reaching as far and wide as Russia. The water meadows glowing under the sunlight, it was briefly warm enough to amble in a T-shirt, a clear signal that things were still on an upward trend. The birds continued to tweet and to chirp and to wade and to pose in such land of growing abundance.
Indeed, it was a day for the birds, a time of year for their lusty antics and devoted nurture. Apart from bluebells and an impending relegation battle for Plymouth Argyle, nothing says spring more than the sight of recently arrived chicks, coddled and cajoled by their stressed-out parents who are quick to snap.
The new life of spring offers a time for optimism, for hopes and dreams of what lies ahead. It’s an optimism that extends to the many people on narrowboat holidays milling at walking pace through the murky waters of the Kennet and Avon Canal. A holiday at this time of year is a risky proposition (tell me about it!), and it didn’t take long for cloud to build and release its patchy drizzle.
The rain held off sufficiently to climb Martinsell Hill, which is the third highest point in Wiltshire apparently. And, even with a degree of dreariness, the views were expansive, taking in much of the county, much of the south: clusters of civilisation nestled among a gently undulating patchwork of green and brown and yellow.
From here, Dad and I headed across a ridge towards Oare, which I hope (but sadly suspect not) is pronounced in a wonderful countrified “Oo-arrrrr.” It would suit, because I am certain the number of tractors per head of population is well above the national average. As are the proportion of bluebells, culminating in a delightful peaceful pocket of woodland on our route towards Oare Hill.
Bluebells really were in profusion across England at this time, evident everywhere during this sojourn in the south and among the storm-laden lands of the north. Spreading across the country like the philosophy of Nigel Farage, only exponentially more unifying and much easier on the eye. They would have been a clear highlight, if it were not for that slab of coffee and walnut cake in Honey Street before catching my train west. A very perfect bookend to this haphazard instalment of North and South. And preparation for the tea and scones still to come.
The annual plume of unseasonal warm air making its way up towards the British Isles from North Africa (aka fake summer) coincided with a trip to France. In some ways it was a shame to miss out on such glorious weather in Britain over Easter – how I would miss the opportunity to pop to Tesco in my shorts to battle for the last bag of charcoal and three packs of sausages for a fiver. Or negotiate the single track roads to Cornish coves whose hillsides are coated in cars charged eight quid for the privilege. But France would be nice.
Indeed, the weather didn’t bring too much to grumble about and my shorts proved a justified inclusion on the continent. There were countryside ambles and meanders through parks, Easter egg hunts in the garden and trips to the market. All the usual trappings of life on the French-Swiss border in Ville-la-Grand, snow coating distant peaks while spring was springing all around.
Out of town, a morning amble around Lac du Mole took us slightly closer to the snow. Yet here the sights of ducklings and the sounds of randy toads were ample testament to the fact that things were hotting up.
It was good to be out, within flirting distance of the mountains, the sight of which always entice you to explore more. However, the primary rationale for this particular outing wasn’t really to survey mountain tops and randy toads. It was – of course – the proximity of the lake to a patisserie; a roadside stop that could be a Little Chef or a Costa Coffee in the UK, but here was brim with fondant artistry and crème extravagance. As opposed to despondent mediocrity and frothy incompetence.
While there was gateau and – naturally – cheese aplenty, this was also a trip featuring roast dinners, toads in holes and homemade lasagne; a franglais stew to cater for cross-cultural cravings. I find ice cream works in any language, whether this is whipped in Walsall or churned in Chernobyl. Both places where you’d hope not to find yourself buying ice cream to be honest.
Annecy, on the other hand, is a gem of a place to take in an ice cream or do whatever you should please. From the hive of construction that is Annemasse station, a pleasing hour long train ride delivered my nephew Guillaume and I to what has been described as the Venice of the Alps, largely on the count of a canal infiltrating a few of the streets and – possibly – gondoliers wailing about their need for Walls Cornettos.
Passing through France almost every town or village you come upon proclaims itself as a Ville Fleurie, going on to illustrate this with an intricate arrangement featuring a cast iron cow and a cluster of geraniums in the middle of a roundabout. Annecy would live up to Ville Fleurie and then some, at least in its medieval centre chock full of flower boxes and civic blooms. The suburbs could well be as grimy as Walsall for all I know, but in the midst of town, much is done to attract and charm.
The waterways and the flowers and the daytrippers milling about eating ice cream largely find their way towards the jewel in the crown that is Lac d’Annecy and its quite dazzling surrounds. Clear, glacial water hosts an array of boats, encircled by forests, villages and rapidly elevating peaks. It’s a popular spot to row or cruise or be a hoon on a jetski. Or even pedalo for half an hour in a large figure eight. Everybody loves a tourist.
The frequent sight of tourists eating ice cream impels one to wander the streets like a tourist to seek out an ice cream. Heavily topped cornets increase in frequency back near one of the canals, and a large queue meanders from the serving hatch of Glacier des Alpes. Patience may be rewarded with sublime ice cream but neither Guillaume nor I had much patience and opted for a perfectly satisfactory version nearby. Safe from the clutches of any devious gondoliers.
Leaving Annecy, storm clouds were gathering over the mountains and the very fine weather would break the following day to deliver a period of wind and rain. Preparation for my return to England – and the frequently damp northwest of England to boot. Unlike in the northwest of England, the weather front passed here and left a glorious late afternoon and evening, ripe for a walk across to Switzerland.
A recurring spectacle across my trip this year – both in France and the UK – was the sight of rapeseed flowering in the fields. A swathe of lurid yellow regularly interrupting the tranquil patchwork of green, unable to be contained within its boundaries and peppering nearby hedges and springing from cracks in the concrete. Insatiable and seemingly inevitable around every corner, in places stretching as far as the eye can see. Only the mountains appear to stop it.
And so, the last evening in France turned out as sunny as the unseasonably warm sun that was soon to fade away in Great Britain; to be replaced by a storm so irritating it was awarded a name (Hannah), heralding a permanent return to long trousers. One last slice of gateau would compensate for the impending doom, and cap off a very fine Easter; my first in the northern hemisphere since 2006. So, fake summer or real, it was undoubtedly one that will go down in history.
There is comfort to be had in the depressing grey shades of Heathrow Airport, a reassuring tinge of concrete and pessimism. But what’s this? People here seem a little perkier than usual, a bit more easy-going. A touch nonchalant perhaps, purposefully blinding themselves as they near the edge of a self-inflicted precipice made worse by those purportedly born to rule. That heatwave they have gone on and on about must have made life bearable again.
That heatwave was turning into a thing of the past by the time I made it onto England’s shores, and things will be reassuringly back to normal soon. Its legacy will emerge through inflatable pools from Argos gathering cobwebs in sheds up and down the land, frozen Calippo slushes, and a chance for rose-tinted reminiscence of that famous summer before the storm (or sunny skies with fluffy white clouds and unicorns pooing golden trade deals) of Brexit. Plus blackberries, lots of blackberries.
Regardless of sunshine or headwinds there will always be tea and cake or in this case coffee and cake. You could be forgiven for thinking coffee might be overtaking tea in popularity in the UK given the rampant reproduction of godawful Costa Coffee shops every fifty metres, with their godawful massive mugs and godawful patrons thinking this thing they are drinking is the height of sophistication and really isn’t godawful. Give it a week and I’ll be with them. But today, an independent café in swanky South Kensington and coffee that was not at all deitybad.
Cake commenced a Sunday afternoon that was an absolute delight, sunny skies banishing the grey and encouraging an ambient amble with my friend Caroline through London’s parks and parades. With the warmth building again and many people still in holiday mode, the vibe was convivial and quite un-London like. Almost European, dare I say Nigel and Boris and Jacob et al.
There was biking and boating and picnicking through Hyde Park, selfies and group gatherings around the Palace and Whitehall, and the languid saunter of families and friends matching the slow march of the ever-brown Thames. That is, until all was disrupted by some kind of urban party boat, the Stormzy Steamer or something. But once that blitzed downstream to pick up Jezza, life was once again grand and London was the finest place in the world for a little bit.
One of the pleasures of returning to London goes beyond famous sights, cake, and hearing people speaking with like proper English accents innit. There are the familiarities of place and person, reconnecting with treasured friends, perusing past haunts and – especially fresh off the boat – attempting to retune into the current Britannic zeitgeist. Spending time with Caroline helped a great deal in this regard, and with many steps across London and the Zone 5 countryside, there was much to discover; a veritable bullseye of a weekend, tru dat.
From Zone 5 to Zone 4, and a return to Finchley and a return to a friend I have now known for more than half my life. We graduated twenty years ago goddammit and don’t look a day older. More like years and years. And there was charming Orla, my chess-playing pub lunch pal, who has always been enjoyable company across the parks of North London. I may have a sense of two homes, but they make this feel like coming home.
Lunch in leafy Highgate while wearing shorts was hard to beat. The heatwave – or at least a minor, cooler version of it – was back. And here, happy with a beer in a pub garden, I could see how easy the grey could fade into the background, and the light, the glorious, English light, could shine through.