A brief breather

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.

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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…

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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.

gip01And 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

gip06bThis 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.

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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.

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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.

gip07I 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Australia Driving Food & Drink Green Bogey Photography Walking

Season’s heatings

After an indifferent run up, the Christmas and New Year period decided to go all out Aussie and deliver roasting temperatures and blistering sun. What to do in such sweltering conditions?

Try and work with pastry and bake sausage rolls for old time’s sake? Probably not the best idea.

Escape to the air-conditioned comforts of a gallery or museum? Well, nice as long as you don’t get sucked into a vortex of neo-postmodern pastiche critiquing the conflation of pre-industrial conceptualisations with fifth-dimensional realism.

Shopping in malls and supermarkets then? Cool, but not usually great for the hip pocket and the hips.

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Wading into the lake feels so tempting, but what about the prospect of blue-green algae and mutated carp for company? Ah, a mate’s pool, that’s better. If it isn’t like a hot bath after endless days of solar induction and steamy mosquito-filled nights. Yes, I wanna build a snowman! Please.

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Logic would dictate that the South Coast could offer relief, with its sea breezes and refreshing waves. Perhaps it’s a lack of sleep or one too many egg nogs or something, but I defy the logic and head inland instead. My brain hasn’t totally frazzled, reasoning that surely it’s perfect weather to hang out in a cave. I can think of no better refuge. I mean if cheese and wine like a good cave, then surely what’s not to like?

Besides, I seem to be drawn to experiencing Australia at its most inhospitable. I think there is an authenticity in the parched hills of summer, the shredded bark of gums littering the road, the parrots drawn to muddy creeks, the constant wail of cicadas zapping the air. The Real Australia, some marketing undergraduate or large-hatted politician might imagine. A landscape on the margins, a long way away from my Christmas past. Presented in harsh technicolour – but with aircon – when driving through.

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And so, to Wombeyan Caves, a spot I visited once in steady rain. How different that was. Despite arriving at a reasonably early hour today it is already hard work hiking through the bush to waterfalls that are dry and exposed paths that simply disappear. Still, the Visitor’s Centre has a fridge full of ice-cold drinks and the refuge of Victoria Arch is mere metres away. What a spot this is, like entering a Westfield on a forty-degree day, only without the slightly depressing thought of having to find solace in a Westfield.

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sum07I think about munching on some leftover sausage rolls in here, but delay lunch for one other walk before the temperature peaks. It’s already midday and clearly above thirty. Shade is intermittent on the way down to Tinted Cave and the Limestone Gorge, where sausage rolls can be enjoyed beside a shallow pool of water popular with dragonflies and sweaty humans.

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I feel pity for the extended families heading down to the gorge as I make my way back to the car. Laden with chairs and umbrellas and swimming gear, there is barely enough space to set up a picnic blanket for one. And from what I could tell, wading in the water is a trial of jagged gravel and slippery pebbles. “Is it worth it?” they ask. I offer hope and repeat what the lady in the Visitor’s Centre told me – “Go around the corner a bit and the water gets deeper.” I hope for them it does, though it may have already evaporated since this morning.

The peak of the heat hits when in the car and the aircon works overtime as I head back to Canberra via Crookwell and Gunning. A hallucinatory ice cream parlour fails to materialise in either town, and I end up with an iced coffee from McDonalds back on the fringes of Canberra. Brain freeze strikes, but I guess I wanted it cold.

The New Year approaches and passes with little respite. Only for a couple of hours around dawn do temperatures relent enough, prompting a frantic mission to open up doors and arrange blinds to coax some cooler air into my apartment at five in the morning. It feels like it’s been a losing battle by time the clock ticks round to nine. And then what? The mall, the pool, the library, the supermarket? Giving in and spending ten dollars a minute on aircon? Getting a permanent job in a cool office? It’s tempting now more than ever.

But we’ll make it through the worst. The sun will set and the temperatures will cool, just a bit. The colourful reward of light moving towards dark amplified as a breeze sets in. And a couple more turns of the Earth might finally bring a cooler change. A forecast 26 degrees on Sunday and perhaps – at last – a climate cool enough for a Christmas roast. It’s all relative.

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Australia Driving Green Bogey Walking

Mother country

I am back in Australia, honest! Proof of this are the shorts adorning my waist, the flat white on my desk and the gorgeous melodies of magpies lurking outside ready to peck my eyes out. Yet still the European adventures linger on, and the feeling of being at home away from home away from home.

Plymouth won’t win any prizes for Britain’s most beautiful city, but it is my home town and I’m happy that way. Mostly thanks to its geography and history there is a lot to love about Plymouth, despite clusters of concrete dreariness and chavvy hang outs. Somehow I felt an air of greater positivity in Plymouth this year, which is perplexing given years of council cutbacks and the potential cliff edge that we all know weighs upon the near future. Perhaps this is what a good summer yields.

The Hoe, how I relish seeing Plymouth’s Hoe, especially on fine evenings as families gather for picnics, friends congregate for frisbee, and old fogies stare out to sea behind the protection of their car windscreens. I love the sense of community, the fraternity, this contented coming together in public spaces…from the ridiculous music coming out of the devices of yoof splayed out on the grass to the flasks of tea being enjoyed by elders within the comfort of a Nissan Micra.

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Many people are out enjoying Plymouth’s classic circular amble, milling their way through the historic Barbican before rising up along the foreshore and taking in vistas of Plymouth Sound from The Promenade. The Barbican is a reliable go-to to wile away an hour, to seek out food and drink and to perhaps even discover a good coffee…eventually. A salty air of old sea-dogs and staggering drunks, intertwined with fancy foods and crumbly fudge.

And what of the sights and experiences within half an hour or so? Well, on three sides there is Cornwall, Dartmoor, and the South Hams respectively on your doorstep. All national park or areas of outstanding natural beauty, designated or otherwise.

Probably the most pleasing way to cross the frontier west into Cornwall is on the tiny passenger ferry from Cremyll to Mount Edgecumbe. Here, the rather expansive country park offers everything from rampant rhododendrons to tumbledown towers. A shoreline of seaweed and pebbles is fractured by swathes of woodland meandering down to the waterside, while formal lawns and regimented flower beds are dotted with Romanesque statues and Georgian hidey-holes. This is a place of childhood summers, an escape accessible to all Plymothians, as long as the ferry price doesn’t continue to escalate.

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Trips to Cornwall require a river crossing of one way or another, producing a deliberate period of transition between the city and its exterior. Travelling to the South Hams provides no such moment; one minute you are navigating parked cars and speed cameras, the next, you are in the rolling green ambrosia characteristic of this part of the world. Longer drives lead to jewels such as Bantham, Hope and Salcombe and, of course, a little closer sits the timeless charm of Noss Mayo. Closer still – practically a Plymouth suburb – is Wembury, where many a local will pop out for a National Trust delicacy and stroll upon the beach. Better still – as I discovered – you can park up towards Wembury Point and head along the coast to Heybrook Bay for a pint.

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It’s a blessing to have these places on your doorstep but if there is one clear antidote to the drab post-war concrete jungle, overloaded roads, and profusion of Janners grunting something like “Fook, I’m goowun down Demnport un gonna smassh iz fookin fayce in” it is the rugged expanse of Dartmoor National Park. The higher parts are open and barren, bruised by the weather, the shattered granite tors tumbling down amongst bracken towards fast-flowing streams. But there is also a tamer side to Dartmoor, replete with an abundance of countryside charm, cute villages and human enterprise.

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ply06It is from these hills, from this sponge in the middle of Devon, that the waters which give Plymouth its name first spring. The River Plym here is a far cry from the sludgy and stinky tidal estuary meeting Plymouth Sound. Clear and rapid, tumbling over boulders and pooling on bends, the river descends into dense valleys packed green with mosses, ferns and leafy trees. Plymbridge Woods is but a short descent through a dark, narrow lane from industrial estates and Asda superstores, yet it is another world away.

 

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ply09So, to the north, to the east, to the west there are pleasures easy to reach. Should you have a boat or a longing for Brittany, the south also offers much. And slap bang in the middle, Plymouth. My home that still feels mostly like home while existing slightly distant. It’s funny how things you took for granted, things that you didn’t notice when you were younger now trigger a fond, sometimes joyous sensation. And that extends from leafy green woods and cobbled quays to the family comforts of laundry fairies and roast dinners. Home, still.

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Food & Drink Great Britain Green Bogey

Sweaty New Year

Happy 2017! We made it, and what a year it promises to be. Among the highlights there’s the spectacle of a new President making Americans grate again, the joy of figuring out what the bleedin eck you are actually going to do now Great Britain, and the potential for Plymouth Argyle Football Club to slip from a promotion spot into play off misery. In spite of this I’m sure there are plenty of good things to look forward to though, like Plymouth Argyle winning promotion. And cheese. Cheese will still feature. It will also be the hottest year in history, so get your swimmers and thongs on people. The world will turn into an eternal Queensland. And wouldn’t that be just, well, bananas.

To Vegas

xb01In Part 2 of my holiday travels (Part 1 is here), we return to Lismore where I slept the night in a proper bed and once again cherished the presence of a shower. I sorted out my car just a little, grabbed a coffee and then went to see a great big prawn. As you do. The prawn is in Ballina, and so is the ocean. Not that they put the prawn next to the ocean; no, it’s more at home in the Bunnings car park, warily eyeing off the sausage sizzle. Nothing could be more Australian and it brings a tear to my eye.

Fortunately, Ballina also had an English presence to prevent me from transforming into a drongo with a mullet, singlet and ute. Caroline joined me for this part of the trip and onto Brisbane for the New Year. The first impromptu stop was Thursday Island Plantation just out of town and I can’t imagine too many drongos head this way for a tea tree fix.

xb02Pausing briefly around the border towns of Tweed Heads and Coolangatta, I decided to head around much of the Gold Coast and enjoy the lumpy patch of verdant paradise that is the hinterland. We crossed the border back into NSW and changed time zone heading up and down to Murwillumbah. Surrounded by fields of sugar cane, half of this year’s yield was in my iced soft drink from KFC in the town. After which we zoomed onwards and upwards.

Cresting the road it was back into Queensland and – just a little further on – Natural Bridge. I think I came here a couple of years back and forgot my camera. It was quieter and cooler then, and there were fewer tools with mullets and singlets walking down slippery steps in thongs. Oh well, it is the summer holidays I guess. And the falls do tend to appease any minor irritants.

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From here it was down to Nerang and back on the main road. A main road with motorway services and everything…surely worth a stop for Anglo-Australian comparison. And fuel, to take us past the suburbs, across the river, and into the midst of the city of Brisbane.

Here is New Year

xb06We were staying in a rather pleasant apartment in the CBD, with a bit of river view that was to come in handy for New Year’s Eve. The river was a frequent feature of our ambling, crossing over to South Bank, strolling alongside the Botanic Gardens, heading over to the air-conditioned awesomeness of GOMA. You could see its brown waters from the top of Mount Coot-tha, and you could encounter them at close quarters on the CityCat ferry, travelling under the Story Bridge to New Farm. In fact the river was almost as pervasive as Max Brenner; Caroline keen to get a fix or two before heading back to England, and I happy to tag along.

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Much of this was familiar ground and, to be honest, is far more pleasurable to experience in the less humid yet still low to mid-twenties winter; that period of the year when locals laughably wear scarves and eat soup! Yet at the end of December, sweatiness was unavoidable, flowing down backs and probably finding its way into the Brisbane River. Dripping en masse during New Year’s Eve fireworks, watched in a family friendly manner at 8:30 along the riverbank and, more comfortably, from the balcony at midnight.

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New year, new places. Starting with a drive to the shores of Moreton Bay at Cleveland. And then on a ferry for a pleasant ride to North Stradbroke Island. Or, to make things simpler, Straddie.

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xb07Ah, island life. A time to kick back and relax. Or wade in stagnant pools with hundreds of kids, or queue endlessly for ice cream, or take a big f*ck off truck onto the sand and ruin the wild ambience. This is what was happening all around, but we still managed to kick back and relax a little at Point Lookout. Before queuing for ice lollies in the world’s most humid shop.

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Straddie is another one of those places that would be even better in winter, when the holiday masses are at school and the humidity is less fearsome. It certainly has spectacular ocean beaches and striking coastal scenery, some of it possibly still untouched by every four-wheel drive in Queensland.

xb10A taste of what this would be like came at the end of the day, with the sun lowering, a breeze providing relief and a quiet satisfaction milling about the beach near Amity Point. In slanted sunlight kissing sand golden, you could innocently wade in the water happy, only to discover dolphins surfacing mere metres away. Before disappearing as abruptly, leaving only fond memories and countless blurry pictures of ocean on your camera.

If it goes on like this, maybe 2017 won’t be so bad after all.

Tuesday Night Fever

Did you know the Bee Gees from the Isle of Man and Manchester who probably spent most of their life in the USA are Australian? Yes it’s true, and they spent some of their formative years in the bay side suburb of Redcliffe. In places, you can see the English likeness, with an elegant pier and a waterfront walkway for genteel promenading. The weather today, too, is akin to a drizzly summer’s day in Bournemouth and, like England, there are hardy people bathing in the lido. Despite being quite cooler, sweatiness lingers.

xb11Still, this drizzle is nothing compared to the deluge the previous evening. Sat contentedly eating some Japanese food in the city, we were somewhat oblivious to the torrent of rain that had decided to unleash itself on Brisbane. Only emerging did we witness instant rivers flowing down the mall and citizens racing precariously across streets in their unsuitably thonged feet. We made it back to the apartment, but even with the protection of umbrellas there was considerable dampness.

xb12So as grey as it was today in Redcliffe, at least you could walk outside without fear of being drowned. And there are always the Bee Gees to brighten things up. It seems the canny council in Redcliffe has recognised the potential cash cow of this association by constructing The Bee Gees Way. Linking two streets, it captures people walking from the car park to the scattering of restaurants by the seafront. More than a woman walked by the pictures, words and videos telling you of their time in Australia and beyond. I guess your willingness to trek out to Redcliffe to see this display may depend on how deep your love is for the hairy triumvirate. I can take or leave them, but I found The Bee Gees Way curiously distracting.

For Caroline, on her last night in Australia, could it get any better? Well, maybe if the World Darts Championships Final from the Ally Pally was on when we got back to the apartment. But – inexplicably – provincial basketball appeared. Alas, we’ll have to make do with a final visit to Max Brenner for some chocolate indulgence to round out the trip.

Sometime Sunny Coast

A leaden morning farewelled Caroline at Brisbane Airport and it was time for me to chase the drizzle up the coast. I thought about stopping and having a walk somewhere within the Glasshouse Mountains, but you could barely see the things. Randomly I drove to Bribie Island, just for something to do, taking in the Floridian waterways and pausing for a coffee at Woorim Beach. In the grey it was more Skegness than Sunshine State.

xb14Arriving in Buderim, I made the best of the weather and tried to have a nap. While it was of limited success, the rest refreshed enough for a walk in Buderim Forest Park. Here, the dampness had the effect of illuminating the tangles of rainforest, a grey backdrop to semi-tropical vibrancy. Glistening boardwalks peppered with fallen russet leaves; lustred green foliage and ferns dusted silver with water; and bubbling cascades and falls given impetus by the weather.

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xb13I was only going to stay the one night on the Sunshine Coast, but my weather-induced weariness and the prospect of heading back to the swag tempted me to linger for one more. The extra day was drier, and the sunshine even emerged on occasion. This made the walk up to the top of Mount Coolum somewhat more hellish, but I felt like I had achieved something and could spend the rest of the day eating and being lazy.

Given this was as far north as I would come, and I was about to head back inland, I felt the need to indulge in a ceremonial wade in the ocean. Mooloolaba granted me this wish, the ocean cleansing my feet and ankles and even my legs. That was perfectly sufficient; beyond that, bigger waves and potential sharks. I had done what everyone does in Queensland in the summer holidays. Now I could leave and commence my less conventional trip back home.

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Australia Food & Drink Green Bogey Photography

Back on the road

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

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

Boxing Day mash up

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

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

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

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

To England, my New England

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

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

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

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

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

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In the Washpool

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Return to a civilisation

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

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

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

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

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Changing of the guard

Britain is a pretty unspectacular place. It has no alpine peaks or broad rift valleys, no mighty gorges or thundering cataracts. It is built to really quite a modest scale. And yet with a few unassuming natural endowments, a great deal of time and an unfailing instinct for improvement, the makers of Britain created the most superlatively park-like landscapes, the most orderly cities, the handsomest provincial towns, the jauntiest seaside resorts, the stateliest homes, the most dreamily-spired, cathedral-rich, castle-strewn, abbey-bedecked, folly-scattered, green-wooded, winding-laned, sheep-dotted, plumply hedgerowed, well-tended, sublimely decorated 50,318 square miles the world has ever known – almost none of it undertaken with aesthetics in mind, but all of it adding up to something that is, quite often, perfect. What an achievement that is.

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And if you are thinking that is the most masterful, evocative, and passionate paragraph I have ever written (or, alternatively, overly rose-tinted, nauseating and contentious), then you are just plain wrong. For the always marvellous Bill Bryson had that to say in a Christmas present I bought myself, courtesy of some shady international bank transfer originating in Switzerland. With researcher instinct and the preposterous suggestion that someone might a) read b) notice and c) sue me for breach of copyright, that would be Bryson (2015, p.33).

montage1aNow, back to some original nonsensical drivel, and Christmas in Great Britain finally came and went. Blink and you may have missed it. I think I was part of it – my waistline certainly attests to such – but already it seems a world away. I remember a Christmas jumper and a gargantuan dinner and a predictably endless game of monopoly. I recall a losing battle to eat my way through four types of cheese and multiple slices of ham and final dollops of clotted cream with practically anything. I recollect a Boxing Day trip to Argyle and another success to stay top of the league. This part sounds the most fantastical, and perhaps I really am just dreaming.

montage1bA fond memory persists from Christmas Eve, rain sweeping briskly through to provide a few bright hours pottering in Polperro and tackling a cloying coastal path. Sunlit and sedate, contentedly winding down towards the Christmas weekend, it was all rather lovely. With the addition of a Doom Bar in a low-ceilinged, cosily log-fired, jauntily handsome pub, it delivered a moment to cherish.

I like to think it was quite a feat for me to make it through to Christmas…November and December testing my patience for all things grey and damp. But in reality it was barely a chore. Over almost half a year I came to love the variety, the luxury of choice for walks and wanders near and far. I marvelled in some unseasonable early autumn weather and wallowed in a shifting, fading, tinted landscape. I discovered new wonders like the Jurassic Coast and sublime pockets of South Cornwall and cultural and historical hotspots of London town. I also found comfort in the familiar, the cream teas and BBC and old friends and Plymouth Sound. True, I struggled to adapt to an unending parade of TV soaps (how much Emmerdale does one really need in life?), but became wearily accepting of the indifferent coffee. I adjusted and accepted and it became the norm.

Now things shift back to Australia once more and a counter-adjustment is in flow. No bothersome soaps and plenty of amazing coffee. Warmish temperatures (not that it ever got cold in England), but still some rain. Pitiful ‘Devonshire’ Teas. An absence of a delectable coast path, but a plethora of sweeping bushland trails in its place. Happy reunions proving some compensation for forlorn farewells. A new year commences with a newish start in what feels – at this point – a new place. A novelty that will quell my curiosity for the weeks and months ahead, until England – and its people – comes calling again.

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Reference

Bryson, B. (2015). The Road to Little Dribbling. More Notes From a Small Island. London: Transworld Publishers

Great Britain Green Bogey

Lighting up the dark

What were once, many month ago, memorable firsts are now becoming cherished lasts. Pasties. Cream teas. Crossings of the Tamar. Episodes of The Apprentice. Fleeting appearances of the sun. A sudden realisation that I’ll be in Australia in a couple of weeks has triggered a desperate clamour for final foodstuffs and must-do jaunts. Mostly foodstuffs…but there are minimum requisites to properly bid adieu – again – to this comely corner of the world.

Crossing the Tamar into Cornwall is one of them. Having wallowed in some tremendous sections of the county over the past few months, I decided to sign off in style. Winter may have brought miserable mild drabness, but it has blessed us with quiet roads which make the far, far west more readily amenable to a day trip. And open for a taste of genuine Christmas charm.

xcorn1Driving through squalls on the best weather day for a while, I first paused next to the surging Atlantic in Portreath. Brisk winds had parted the clouds more generously than I had hoped, and the uplifting sea air was matched by a decent coffee and indecent chocolate salted caramel slice. Another cafe stop to store in the archives for future reference.

xcorn2Westward from Portreath the coast road skirts booming cliffs and precipitous drama. At Godrevy, the massive expanse of St Ives Bay sweeps into the golden sands and stoic dunes of the coastline. Today the bay is lively, stoked by an unending blast of brisk southwesterlies and intemperate swell. The surge sounds incessant, thrusting and thrashing, cursing and crashing at England’s door.

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Seals shelter in deep coves while humans embrace the sunshine seldom seen. One member of the species slips on an innocuous patch of grass and is caked in mud for the rest of the day. The last time I hit the ground around here it was done with glee, jumping into the giant sand pits as a nine-year-old.  Other distant Gwithian memories include stinging nettles, six ounces of American hardgums from the old dear in the post office, and several jolly circuits on a campground in an orange Reliant Robin. Plus scenes of the lighthouse, steadfast on its island. Today as vivid as any a memory.

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More memories can be made with a proper job pasty experience, vital for the Cornish farewell. I have had a few. However, in a radical departure from the norm I planned my attack for Marazion, vaguely recalling a tiny bakery here serving delicious bundles of scrumptiousness. And there, on a corner of the higgledy-piggledy high street, it stood. Closed. Still, consolation came from the vista across Mounts Bay and the ever-photogenic St Michael’s Mount.

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Luckily there is a little place I know back up the road in St. Ives, known as Plan P. It has served me well in the past. Today, on the Sunday before Christmas, the miracles of St. Ives included finding some free on-street parking, dodging a nasty-looking shower, and feeling grateful that one of the few bakeries open was open. A few lingering seagulls paced around opportunistically, but they didn’t stand a chance.

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Ragged cliff walks, booming seas, sweeping sands, plump pasties…all classic Cornishness ticked off in a few hours. This year’s farewell comes with a difference though, being deep in the depths of December. Thus far I have struggled to rediscover the delights of a northern hemisphere Christmas – the build up seems a needlessly drawn out affair and the climate has been pitifully non-Dickensian. I was hoping Mousehole might change that.

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xcorn8Tucked away along the coast from the Penzance-Newlyn conglomeration, Mousehole is fairly unremarkable in being yet another remarkably quaint and cosy fishing village perched upon the Cornish coast. Dinky cottages meander along narrow streets and nestle in its hillsides. Small boats rest ashore upon stony harbour walls. Briny smells and hollering seagulls pervade the air. A pub tempts, and tea shops too. It could easily be Mevagissey or Port Isaac or Portloe or Polperro. But it is Mousehole, and it is Christmas.

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Sure, the weather hardly evokes a Christmas card scene, but the harbour lights delight. Lanterns line the sea wall and crisscross their way above the busily constricted streets. Festive shapes twinkle and shimmer off the water. The pub is jammed with bonhomie and drooling lines spill out of Janners chippy. While a brass band wouldn’t have gone amiss, it is as close to the unrealistic Dickensian vision of a Cornish Christmas I had yearned for. And today it is the icing and marzipan on a special goodbye cake. Avv an ansom krissmus one and all.

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The twelve themes of Christmas

On twelve days after Christmas, my true love gave to me, another serve of leftover Christmas pudding with valiant Tasmanian attempts at clotted cream. By then it was 2015, and I was thinking that this indulgence really needed to come to an end. But the Australian Christmas seems a more elongated affair, blending as it does with summer holidays which creep all the way to Australia Day at the end of January. I say this every year, but Christmas in Australia is still somewhat bizarre and while I adore the lazy holiday feel and the addition of fine seafood to the agenda, a large part of me craves a good windy winter storm and a good windy dose of roast potatoes and Brussels sprouts.

While there are obvious differences between the Australian and European Christmas experiences, both are obsessed with a crazy excess of food. And so a day or so prior to Christmas I had acquired an esky full of crisps and nuts, chocolates and puddings. A fridge full to capacity with ham and sausage rolls and cream and cheese and (just for a touch of balance) fruit and salad. Longevity was the name of the game for the ham, and the hidden orange Christmas pudding (serves 10), took me alone a whole week to devour. In some way I was glad to see them go, but also a little wistful that they were no longer a part of my life.

Christmas Day itself was a suitably multifarious affair, bringing together the Australian, the Anglo, and the Italian. The day commenced with what any good day should – a walk up Red Hill in preparation for calorific overload – before a relaxing hour of reading and an early shandy with nibbles at home. jan01From then on the eating proceeded with a mostly seafood lunch involving the largest prawns ever created, sweets, desserts, nibbles, barbecue, sweets, snacks, more nibbles, etc. Presents were unwrapped, outdoor chairs were reclined, family discussions were robust. And to cap the day, I came home for a touch more nourishment and a little drink to lubricate the Skype calls to Europe.

By New Year’s Eve, some food stocks were depleting and I needed to buy more provisions from the supermarket to prepare salads and desserts for an excellent few hours of outdoor pool soaking, meaty barbecuing, and, well, dessert-eating. It was here that the tiramisu I made delivered everything I wanted and more; better than the Italians’ creation (soaking time was important after all) and more satisfying than watching the Sydney fireworks on the TV. Is it me, or was someone just shuffling through their iTunes playlist and skipping tracks they didn’t like that much while some crackers went off to fill the night sky with smoke? There was some discussion on the news the next day (post 11am) that London may be giving Sydney a run for its money in the New Year firework stakes. Again, the natural advantage that is that beautiful harbour may well be a cause of complacency.

jan02There have been some natural and arguably more spectacular fireworks anyway. The hot dry summer which occurred in November has now been usurped by a north Queensland period of sunny, sultry mornings building to climatic storms and downpours later in the day. The pattern has been so recurrent that the days are becoming almost entirely tediously predictable, and so activities (unless they involve storm-chasing) are almost best undertaken in the mornings.

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Fortunately, for the prospect of my cholesterol and obesity levels, I have been able to engage in decent amounts of exercise over the holiday period. In part, this is merely an extension of my normal life and having lots of time to do things in, rather than some hyped-up resolve to get fit. Local walks are a normative feature of the days. Most frequently of course this has involved trips to Red Hill reserve, where all is well with just about everything and everyone. But such has been the excess of free time that I have even sought out walks elsewhere!

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One such place was Cooleman Ridge, which obviously is not as good as Red Hill but – being on the western edge of Canberra – has a more pastoral aspect. Hobby horses and scattered cows dot the fields, still relatively golden despite the stormy interludes. Somewhere yonder the brown waters of the Murrumbidgee laze, splitting the tamed grassland with the bush-tangled upward thrust of the Bullen Range. Further west and the larger mountains of the Brindabellas hit the sky, ever-present and ever-enticing.

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It was up into these hills that a more substantial adventure transpired in between serves of Christmas pudding and tiramisu. A mountain walk along the high borders of the ACT and NSW, taking in the summit of Mount Gingejan07ra (1,855m), offered the perfect antidote to Christmas torpor. And it wasn’t even too difficult – the first six kilometres along a fire trail with interruptions for forest views, bird sightings, flower-filled glades, blue-tongued lizards and lunch beside a rickety mountain hut.

The remaining kilometre to the rocky outcrop capping the mountain was a more steadfastly uphill affair, the trees giving way to grasses and sphagnum moss and more flowery glades and the odd snow gum. The views increasingly opened out to reveal vast wilderness stretching west and south, and even east, at least until you could see the tack-like tower atop Black Mountain, looking diminutive in comparison to the ridges of bushland lain out before it.

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Being in the interlude between Christmas and New Year, the feats of energy required to climb a mountain were intrinsically counterbalanced with a delightful stop on the journey home. Emerging from the car fridge three cool beers, trophies of conquest to accompany crackers, cheese, ham, nuts, dips, vegetables and pickles. Extra weight to provide extra grip as the car wound back down the gravel of Brindabella Road.

Beyond the walks, the bike continues to receive attention and while the category 4 climbs have been a bit absent of late (attempted once in the midst of the Christmas pudding / tiramisu jan09period with less than impressive results), it has been nice to venture lakeside and use a bicycle as a functional means of attaining coffee and shopping. A day spent re-visiting some of the national attractions was ideal by bike, and trips to town are scenic and satisfying, despite the fact that this means entering stores glistening and red-faced.

And if all that wasn’t sporty enough, golf has become a feature on the agenda of late, aided by the light evenings and cheaper twilight rates. Surprisingly, my game has been passable and there have even been a few shots to remember. Alas, such is golf that it seems the more you play, the more the bad habits return, and the memory of why this is such an utterly infuriating but addictive endeavour becomes real again.

So it seems that the holidays have been reasonably active, but for every climb up Red Hill there is an afternoon nap. For every pedal along the lake, a stretch out on the settee, reading and infrequently observing cricket in the background. I enjoy this time but also feel sometimes like I should be using it more productively. This is when writing may kick in, whether something inarticulate about my boring life over the Christmas holidays, recollections of trips of the past, or deliberations on the month of January. I’ve found some of the writing to be particularly pleasurable in an old-fashioned pencil and notepad kind of way, from a blanket in the Botanic Gardens to a bench down by the Cotter River. However, the scale of my endeavours has been, at best, average. Prolificacy bears no correlation to time availability.

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Part of the problem has been other distractions. Distractions that are entirely self-created and – if you were to analyse it – may symbolise a deliberate intent to enhance procrastination and delay doing something that sounds like it could entail hard work.  Morning coffee is a distraction, particularly when it has involved trying to find an alternative venue while your regular favourites are closed over the holidays. Visits to the Westfield shopping mall are a distraction, though I feel only I am partly to blame here, having been kindly provided with vouchers to spend. And technology, always a distraction. More so when you spill a whole cup of tea over your iphone and unfortunately have to upgrade, and then spend several days visiting the Westfield shopping mall to get a protective, tea-resistant cover (picking up a takeaway coffee whilst there).

Alas, the interference from technology and its associated expense may mean that time availability will have to decrease at some point reasonably soon. Living off my pre-Christmas earnings will not last forever, as much as I want it to. This is not helped too with the purchase of a new body (for my camera) and an almost slavish desperation to travel to some places sometime in 2015. But still, I have a day at the cricket, a trip to Sydney, and it is Australia Day weekend soon enough. No need to do anything too drastic just yet, the year is still but a baby.

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