Another bubble

As 2020 dawned without a sunrise in many parts of Australia, what chance that optimism associated with a new year? When the predominance is on the very present disappearing into a sickly haze ten metres in front of you, grating at your throat and chiselling at your eyes. When you know this is far from the worst of it and the days to come portend further peril. When a centre of power is cloaked in the symbolism of failure and irrelevance, an absurdity as potent as the sight of fireworks trivialising a harbour city.

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The good news is that things have quietened down a touch. There have been drops of rain. In places, there simply isn’t that much fuel left to burn.  For regions where recovery has commenced there is an uplifting wholesomeness on display in the generosity of the human spirit. Some roads have re-opened and goodwill is flooding in. With any luck, we may look upon January 4th as the culmination of this elongated calamity. Though it is far too early to rest and relax.

The hideousness of the outdoors on January 5th proved enough to cancel a trip away to Wollongong, a small inconvenience compared to the carnage faced by so many. It seems flippant to bemoan absent holidays and ruined plans. Subsequently needing supplies for dinner that day, I cannot say for sure if the watering of my eyes in the supermarket was from the smoke infiltrating the shopping centre, the heaviness in my heart, or the absence of discounted Christmas crumbly fudge from Yorkshire.

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In that supermarket I resolved to get away, to breathe, to experience life without the preoccupation of fire and smoke. In this I am one of the lucky ones, one of the climate refugees who has the resources to adapt and mitigate. As with everything it seems it is those who suffer the most who will suffer the most and I feel guilt at my relative luck and privilege. It is with a similar sentiment that I approach the task of writing about frolics in the sun, in the clear air, with friends and other animals. Getaways in the state of Queensland, earlier touched by fire but by now in its own detached bubble.

I never thought the obvious place you’d go to escape the apocalypse would be Brisbane, especially Brisbane in summer. It just goes to show the terrible state of affairs we are in. I don’t mind Brisbane, but it’s not in my top ten, unless it’s my top ten list of places to escape the apocalypse, naturally. A little extra humidity is a small price to pay for clean air.

Indeed, there was a pleasantness about the place, still fairly quiet as people loll through their summer holidays, zooming up to the coast in their Hiluxes packed with fishing rods and eskies, often trailed by flashy boats. It’s a conspicuous consumption of Australiana that begins to tire in context, a dissonance that exacerbates the sense of that Queensland bubble. People show concern, but empathy is harder to summon.

seq03I did Brisbane things in Brisbane, such as pretending to be sophisticated at a few of the galleries, crashing down to earth with sugary iced drinks for a dollar, cycling on one of those godawful city bikes along death trap rush hour cycleways, and bobbing upon the water aboard trashy ferries championing local sporting sides.

One of the joys of my rambling was an early morning potter around Roma Street Parklands, where what seemed like a revelation materialised: an abundance of green interspersed with the vibrant, exotic colours of nature bursting into bloom. Throughout the park – and across the city – the late withering of purple jacarandas was eclipsed by the bright red bursts emanating from the ubiquitous Poinciana trees. Pockets of wonder among the humdrum. Life going on.

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Another minor revelation within the city came from stumbling across new development under and around the Story Bridge. As much as it tries, this will never be that other Australian bridge, but they have done a splendid job of transforming the area beneath it into an enclave of approachable eateries, beery pit stops and picnic points. It seems every reputable town these days needs its own brewery and burgers, mimicking – once again – the pioneering zeitgeist of – yes really – Canberra.

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Tiring a little of the city and its newfound zeitgeist I escaped one morning to the coast. Well, Moreton Bay at least, which is far from a windswept ocean of pummelling surf and fine white sand. Accessible by train, the bayside suburbs of Sandgate and Shorncliffe possess a certain gentility, a more relaxed atmosphere akin to a seaside town of the 1950s. Esplanades and jetties fringe the tidal flats, children construct sandcastles in between a hotchpotch of dogs mingling on the beach, and old codgers creep down to the water’s edge to stare out into the infinity of life.

Capping this off would have been traditional fish and chips, but it seems Queensland (from my random sample of three) is very fond of crumbed fish and – of course – thinner fries over chunky chips. Malt vinegar proved a salvation to at least conjure up an essence of other times and places.

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Better beaches line the Sunshine Coast, and it was pleasing to have a brief interlude further north courtesy of old friend Jason and his gas-guzzling ute. It only seemed fair recompense for making me do an early morning Parkrun – my first – along Southbank and the Botanic Gardens in Brisbane. I’m not convinced the short but steep climb up to Wild Horse Mountain was the best warm down, but the panorama peppered with Glass House Mountains was worth it.

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This was a new perspective; inexplicably a lookout I had passed many times on the G’day Bruce Highway but one I had never actually paused to explore. Looking down upon masses of plantation forest intermingled with clutches of natural bush, perspectives had also altered: yes, this is welcome, this is beautiful but there lingers a nagging question mark, a sense of inevitability that one day this will be eaten by flames as well. Such is the preoccupation.

A stop at Beefy’s pie shop did little to dampen such thoughts for, as I devoured a giant wagon wheel with an iced coffee, all I could picture was our esteemed leader chomping down on a pie sporting a Beefy’s cap on one of his vacuous How Good Is tours. What a fucking moron.

The Sunshine Coast seems to be becoming more and more emblematic of the rampant quest for growth and consumption, perhaps to the detriment of everything else. More habitats cleared, more congestion-busting infrastructure necessary, more polluted waterways, more How Good is Beefy’s at more shopping malls that you need to drive to. Change happens and people need to live somewhere, but do they really need to live in a six bedroom home with a cinema, a rumpus room and a three-car garage? Among cleared bushland that resembles tinder waiting to explode? There has to be a better way.

It was a relief to come across one spot that – as of yet – did not seem over-developed. Testament that Australia still has a lot of space, which is both its blessing and its curse. Mudjimba Beach wildly stretching up towards Coolum and beyond. Under cool and cloudy skies. The Lucky Country still riding its luck.

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Back in Brisbane I extended my stay a little while longer in the hope that when it came time to go home the air would be clearer. Why leave the bubble when you didn’t really need to? And I reckon Millie the dog was grateful for my company.

seq09Together, we explored the land of the Quiet Australian, treading newly built pavements, discovering plots of land awaiting a six bedroom home, lounging in the garden questioning how the Quiet Australians next door can be so goddam noisy. Some of us sniffed butts and peed on lampposts. Others caught buses and sought coffee at the mall. There was a lot of cloud and a little rain. And hope on the grapevine that this would extend south.

My final evening on this Queensland trip took Millie and I down the road, past yappy dogs behind six foot fences, to the suburban fringe. A landscape penetrated by channels and creeks infiltrating from Moreton Bay. Puddles forming into larger areas of wetland feasted upon by cattle egrets and masked lapwings. Signs promoting new land releases. And the most incredible, alien swathe of green.

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Imagine such abundance, such feast. Imagine rain for days and weeks. If you’re reading this in the UK imagination is probably not necessary. But imagine creeks flowing after years and dust turning to mud. Picture dead brown and yellow earth transforming to green. Imagine the life, the rejuvenation, the hope. Those first drops of rain may not immediately solve all the woes, heal all the scars, quell all the flames. But they offer hope. Hope that didn’t come as usual with the turning of the year but may now, finally, hopefully, offer a future.

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A postscript

My previous blog post involving a trip to East Gippsland and Far South East NSW took place immediately before much of this area was decimated by fire. It seems a bit surreal now to think I went here for relief and probably experienced places that may never be the same again or – at the very least – will take decades to recover. I probably chatted to people who evacuated in panic, bought coffee from shops now cut off, and feasted on fish and chips on a wharf where people were braced to jump into water as last resort survival.

Mallacoota has naturally received much attention. Though I didn’t go there on this last trip, I can, from past experiences, testify to its warm-hearted community and beautiful spirit. Usually a place of escape and happiness set within a wilderness, thousands sheltered by the water as flames approached on New Year’s Eve. Around 100 homes were lost. Many animals were killed, although the efforts of one man to rescue koalas melts the heart.

Nearby Cann River provided me with a lovely campsite by the dwindling waterway, as well as a bustling little high street for thousands of tourists passing through on the Princes Highway. The town has struggled with fires all around and has been cut off, though the local community are pulling together.

Cape Conran, Marlo and Orbost were threatened and at times cut off. Some outlying areas around Orbost experienced fire and some homes in rural localities were lost.

In NSW, Eden was threatened in major flare ups and expansion of fire grounds on January 4th. The fires that had burnt through Mallacoota spread north and east into Ben Boyd National Park and reached Twofold Bay. Residents of Eden were told to evacuate to Merimbula or Bega, though some sheltered by the wharf where I enjoyed amazing fish and chips around a week earlier. The fire destroyed outlying properties and ignited a fire at a woodchip mill but – thus far – has not breached the main township.

Fires from Victoria also have spread north towards Bombala and into South East Forests National Park. Presently they have not reached the Waratah Gully campground and its resident kookaburras nor have they spilled down Myanba Gorge. The fire ground presently appears around 2kms south of the walking track for Pheasants Peak and around 4km from the campground.

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Big smokes

Supposedly some of the world’s most liveable cities are in Australia; yet surely not when the climate sears. A haze of dust and smoke blows in, hanging with diesel fumes unimpeded by a reverence for industry. Sitting heavy over a cityscape of cranes and glass, whose streets are lined with withering European trees, roots bulging in defiance at the constraints of baked concrete. Impetuous car horns compete with the pulse of a pedestrian crossing, as you wait to seek solace in the air conditioning of a mall, hoping the flies will not seek solace too.

But these are – in context – mild irritants, and you walk across the harbour bridge and all can be forgiven. I think Sydney knows this too, hence a certain resting on laurels, safe in the knowledge that people will continue to flock to its shorelines regardless of unaffordable homes and congested roads.

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The unaffordable and congested were in ample supply as I decided to while away an hour or two before some appointments with a Friday morning visit to Balmoral, hopeful of a coffee and brief stroll on the sand. By time I got there it was around ten in the morning, already thirty degrees, and devoid of any parking space whatsoever. After a few circuits of various backstreets, I had to resign myself to defeat and head back to where I came from. The air conditioned mall in Chatswood.

Pleasingly, the other side of my work stuff proved more fulfilling, and that was in spite of a crawl through the Sydney Harbour Tunnel. Clearly less glamorous than the bridge, but usually more efficient at spitting you out into the Eastern Suburbs. Spitting me out with a little extra fairy dust to nab a brilliant parking space in close proximity to Bronte Beach.

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By now, the weather had cooled substantially, and a stiff breeze had kicked in to impart a touch of drizzly moisture here and there. Indeed, the late afternoon had become gloomy, a state of affairs that feels far more liveable than it looks in the brochures. Brightening things up – and almost as much a pleasant surprise as my parking space – was the annual Sculptures by the Sea parade, in which the range of photo poses and selfie contortions are a work of art in themselves.

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smk04Reaching Bondi – oh hallowed be thy name – I was determined to find a favourite little seafood haunt from times past; this was, after all, the prime reason I had not driven straight back to Canberra and had pottered about sufficiently to arrive at an acceptable time for dinner. And there it wasn’t. And there I was thinking why didn’t I just drive back to Canberra and have KFC at Marulan Service Centre instead? And there it was, on a different, quieter, cheaper street and life in Sydney was liveable for a few minutes again.

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A couple of weeks later, half of New South Wales on fire, and I was heading in the other direction to Melbourne. An archnemesis that frequently beats Sydney as being proclaimed one of the world’s most liveable cities. Expanding rapidly, it is soon to overtake Sydney in population which – if taken as an indicator of popularity alone – is enough to cause the residents of Vaucluse to choke on their breakfast oysters.

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smk06Melbourne was – typical Melbourne – half the temperature of Sydney and a darn sight cooler than the world’s most liveable city, Canberra. It is sometimes proclaimed the most European of Australian metropolises, which means cloud and showery rain and a sometimes dingy – some may say grungy – countenance. And also, trams, which laugh in the face at numerous contemporary attempts to retrofit light rail elsewhere, like a wizened professor in a pokie room full of drongoes.

That’s not to say Melbourne is anything but Australian, amply illustrated in its awesomely good coffee and obsession with sport. It also has beaches upon Port Phillip Bay – nothing that would give Sydney a run for its money but fair dinkum true blue Aussie nonetheless. The sun even came out late afternoon as I headed over to the bay at St Kilda, and things were reasonably comfortable. Liveable even.

It was here that I reflected on the fact that I hadn’t been to St Kilda in – say – ten years or so, prompted by a certain gentrification that had taken place and the adornment of waterside bars dressed up slightly on the wrong side of pretentiousness. This prompted further reflection on how long I have lived in Australia, to the extent that I can now say ‘it wasn’t like this in the old days’ while simultaneously waving my fist at a cloud.

One thing that hadn’t changed was the pier, stretching out into the increasingly cold, stiff breeze, sheltering the city of Melbourne in its lee. A pier popular for evening strolls by people better prepared for the weather than me. How can I need a coat while a country burns? Even here, though, a sign of what is called progress, as most of the people wrapped up head out in the hope of a selfie with a little penguin at dusk. I retreat.

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So, the big smokes, Sydney and Melbourne, sometimes chalk and sometimes cheese, sometimes infuriating, sometimes enthralling. A dictionary definition of liveable would be something akin to providing the core requirements for life, such as oxygen and water. I might also add the provision of good coffee and availability of fish and chips or salt and pepper squid and tempura vegetables.

smk08You’d think the latter is more Melbourne while the former is all Sydney. But for me it was vice versa, the fish and chips the target of seagulls on St Kilda Beach, just for that extra European touch. If I had another jumper and another million dollars and an escape option from the oppression of another inevitable choking summer, I could probably live here, and I could probably live in Sydney too. If nothing else, I’d sure know some good spots for dinner.

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Warming

It is a fact truer than anything to have ever come out of the British Prime Minister’s mouth that I will always take up an opportunity to work in Brisbane in July. While the locals may gripe about the icy depths of winter where overnight it might just slip below double digits and require a good for humanity coal fire, I’ve packed two pairs of shorts. And just the one jumper.

brs01And a raincoat. For it is even truer that Queensland is far from beautiful one day, perfect the next; a dubious marketing slogan dreamt up by mediocrities that continues apace in the supposed Sunshine Coast, a place frequently sodden by epic downpours and possessing a clammy mildew befitting the swampy subtropics. Saturday here was so damp that the highlight was a doughnut, and even that wasn’t much of a highlight, more a triumph of social marketing style over substance.

brs02Queensland: pissing down one day, sweaty the next. The sweatiness emerging on Sunday as the sun makes an appearance, triggering rising heat and rampant moisture. Liquid particles are lifted by ocean gusts, filtered ineffectually through the thrum of air conditioning to congregate in damp surf club carpets. Puddles among snake-infested flood plain linger, waiting for passing birds and passing property developers to drain. The ubiquitous HiLux secretes fluids while idling outside Red Rooster, as a leftover billboard of some redneck running for parliament gazes down approvingly. Just thank the lord or some other unelected deity that it is not yet high summer.

Indeed, the sweatiness is relatively tolerable this time of year and is alleviated by the pleasure of wearing shorts in midwinter.  As dark clouds sweep north to reveal a sky of blue, there is an hour of pleasant sunshine on the coast, a welcome companion on a bare-legged walk along the beach and promenade to Mooloolaba. I rest at Alex Heads watching sandcastles being built and surfers being demolished, and sharks being hidden just out of site. Probably. It’s not even a whole day let alone an entirety of existence, but for a few moments it seems that things are beautiful, tending towards perfect.

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Somewhat annoyingly the sunshine was a sign of an improving pattern of weather as I returned to Brisbane and the prospect of work. On the plus side, there was a bit of downtime and a later flight back to Canberra on the warmest day of the week, giving me the opportunity to don shorts once again, while all around me wore coats. And then there was the hotel I was staying in, which was rather fine with its rooftop pool and terrace overlooking the ever rising city and the ever flowing brown of the Brisbane River.

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Actually, the hotel was somewhat funky and felt more like a spot for special treat bogan holidays and shadowy foreign gambling syndicates fast-tracked by Border Force than a place where weary businesspeople rest their weary heads. In my room there was a wine fridge, the TV was in the mirror (what?!), and there were a series of illuminated switches that operated a configuration of lights that I never was able to master. Switches that glow in the dark and give a sense of Chernobyl as you try to sleep. Only the lift was more luminescent, alternating between being in a Daft Punk video and a fish tank of the Barrier Reef before it got bleached.

Walking out of the lift and onto the street was a sure way to ease a headache, especially as outside it was warm and sunny and just oozing that relaxed vibe that comes with a level of warmth and sunniness. Think how England feels when the misery of flooding rain and gloom dissipates for a freakish sunny day, golden and mild after months of despair and before the impending furnace of yet another unseasonal heat plume from the African colonies. A bit like that.

The Brisbane River acts as something of a waymarker wandering the city, guiding you along South Bank and its gardens and galleries, channelling you across to the north with angular bridges and sweeping curves. Disappearing as you cut across the CBD with its blocks of one-way-street and chirruping pedestrian crossings, before emerging again in an amalgam of mangroves at the terminus of the Botanic Gardens.

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Back across the river, the cliffs of Kangaroo Point provide fine city views as well as clichéd place name delight for international visitors to post. Some people abseil down the cliffs, others look up from the riverside path below. All try to avoid getting run over by yet another dork on one of the city’s electric scooters. Most sit and wait and contemplate what it would be like to be on a scooter, as the sun goes down on another day in Queensland.

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And for me, as darkness descends, it is back to the light. The florid light of that lift going up to the many lights that I cannot figure out how to arrange in my hotel room, the switches for which will light up at night as a constant reminder that they have won. Along the way, the lights of the city flicker on, as the temperature drops below twenty.

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After a few days here I rummage in my bag for that one jumper. It’s starting to get a tad cool, just a little off being perfectly comfortable. I could survive without it, but I did pack it after all, and it would be a shame to carry it all this way and not put it to use. For the first time in Brisbane, I seem to fit in. Now all I need is a scooter to carry me off into the night, towards the light.

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Crisscross

Lest I become too rose-tinted about Cornish beaches, life back in Australia conspired to take me once more across the continent to Perth. This is no major hardship, despite the length of the flight, for I cannot think of a city so amply adorned with lashings of fine white sand and turquoise seas. The Indian Ocean the very magnet pulling me west again. And some income.

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The city of Perth is barely discernible from those elsewhere in Australia. Shiny buildings ever-rising over suburban grids of trellis and jacaranda. Sweeping highways and glitzy stadia. Concrete enclaves of KMarts and Coles. A river, snaking its course towards a modest escarpment of fire-prone bush. And a thriving hubbub built on endeavour and good fortune.

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Flying here, from the east, it is almost a surprise to find yourself in somewhere so familiar after such a long haul. Familiar but with a twist, exemplified in the changing flora and fauna that has evolved the other side of the big red desert. Much of the same genus but variations in the species. Kind of like Australian Prime Ministers. Nowhere is better to appreciate this than in the eternally charming Kings Park.

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The other disorientating feature of arriving in Perth – particularly in summertime – is the time difference. In what might not prove to be the most self-destructive public vote in recent years, the good people of Western Australia declined to embrace daylight savings. This means three hours behind Canberra is enough to throw your body clock out of whack, with the 4am sunrises doing little to foster adjustment. I never recovered. Waxit means Waxit.

There were, though, some upsides to this plebiscite. By 6am I was so bored out of my brain lying in bed trying to get some more sleep that I popped out for coffee and waterside amblings in Fremantle. Other than people ridiculously exercising, barely a soul crossed my path on recurrent trips to Bathers Beach with a flat white in hand.

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pth02Freo was my base for the week and part of its appeal was accessibility to water. Being a busy and somewhat historic port, it’s not without its charm and boasts a high concentration of elegant turn-of-the-century colonial buildings. It seems to attract hipsters which equals good coffee, has not one but two breweries, puts on some fine markets, and has developed into a mecca for fish and chip consumption.  There is a lot to like about Freo.

The centre of Fremantle itself is based around the port, meaning there are no amazing beaches right on the doorstep. However, this is Perth we are talking about, so you only have to head a little north or south to hit the white stuff. Indeed, South Fremantle is perfectly sufficient.

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The ritualistic process of having an early evening stroll on sand followed by lingering patience to watch the sun disappear (usually behind that invisible band of cloud on the horizon), became as common a part of my routine as 6am strolls in Fremantle. Tonight I made fish and chips part of the cliché, because you’ve got to do that at least once. They were a tad disappointing, but the sunset did the business.

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While you can revel in the beaches until your heart is content, and then some more, there is perhaps a lack of significant diversity in the environment around Perth. Go north and there are fine beaches, dunes and a sand belt melange of exquisite eucalypts, banksia and xanthorrhoea. Go south, the same. Beyond the coastal plain, the escarpment is minor, a small rise of bush before it quickly transforms into a massive expanse of wheat and then desert.

In possession of a car on a Sunday I contemplated driving up to the Pinnacles Desert, which would offer a stark change of scenery. But it would be a big day requiring around six hours in a car there and back, and I had to do some work tomorrow. Instead, I made it only a little out of Perth to Yanchep and settled – quite contentedly – there.

While this didn’t deliver a dramatic contrast, it offered an encapsulation of this particular corner of the world, on steroids. For a start, Yanchep National Park provided all the sandy, semi-arid foliage you could shake a weird shaped stick at, in between swampy lagoons and bulbous gum trees. I was particularly fond of the many xanthorrhoea here, which lend an exotic, almost desert-like vibe to the surrounds.

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pth09Given the proximity of this park to Perth, there is also a more manicured and deliberately designed aspect to certain areas, with tightly mown grass, a cosy café, campgrounds, waterside boardwalks and electric barbecues. A perfect family spot for a Sunday lunch, kickabout and encounter with koalas and kangaroos, creatures which seem strategically placed for the many visitors on minibus tours heading for the Pinnacles.

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The nearby town of Yanchep is practically a northern suburb of Perth, though being one of the earlier developments it is not all ugly McMansions designed with the intention to use every single bit of land to provide an essential guest suite, rumpus room, three car garage and indoor cinema. There are certainly McMansions around, but also more established blocks made up of modest concrete bungalows and fibro shacks, befitting of a seaside hideaway.

Never mind, I’m sure I could live here – in one form or another – if only for the beach. Protected by a bar, crystal clear waters are pacified over that ubiquitous fine white sand. A beach among beaches in the city of beaches. Life’s a beach and then you eat fish and chips. Again.

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A quick bath

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It is quite possible to cross borders from the kingdom of Wessex, especially given it’s a redundant concept from the middle ages. Among other borderlands, Wiltshire fringes the county of Somerset and immediately after crossing I feel more Westcountry. The hills seem rollier, the hedgerows higher and more frequent, the sheep brighter white against a more vivid green. It’s not quite right for a scone piled with jam and cream but not far off.

Nestled among these hills is the city of Bath and it is a place – apart from pausing for one minute at Bath Spa Station – that I have never visited before. So, thanks to Dad and Sonia for taking me there to experience its elegance and charm, and thanks to Kevin McCloud for sitting down on the table next to me for coffee, a voice that was instantly recognisable…to me at least! How soothing, and seemingly at place in Bath.

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Bath boasts Roman ablutions, Florentine bridges, Royal Crescents and Jane Austen dress-ups, so what’s not to like? Its compact centre has everything in every high street everywhere in Britain, but with slightly less tat and perhaps one Pound shop and Greggs less than others. Even its Wetherspoons seems tucked away, hiding somewhere among its rabbit warren streets.

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Being in Bath reminded me I haven’t actually had a bath for over a year. In my defence, I only have a shower. So here’s to Bath, the home of baths sponsored by Barry Bath of Bath Bath Fittings Ltd. I’d happily go back, bath, shower, or not.

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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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In Seoul III: The tradition edition

Warning: lots of oriental palace pictures looking almost exactly the same. It’s a similar phenomenon to being new to Europe and snapping away at every single church spire and stained glass window. Or migrating to Australia and taking a picture of a kangaroo every time you see one. Novelty and entrancement that only dwindles very incrementally. (In the case of the kangaroos ten years, and even then, the odd roo shot is not outside the realms of possibility).

Anyway, yadda yadda yadda. Palaces and temples. Seoul has a lot of them and as well as offering an insight into ancient South Korean culture and tradition they are housed within expansive grounds, providing contrast with the built up city environment bordering their perimeter. Enclaves of space and peace and gentle ornamentation, where the modern world disappears and you can find yourself all contemplative and meditative. And / or snap happy.

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Changdeokgung and the Secret Garden

The first thing to note about Changdeokgung is that you can arrive early, buy a ticket for the Secret Garden English tour and realise you have some time to kill, thereby finding a coffee place that proves reassuringly good. With the first sip I could sense I was getting closer to Australia and this plus the caffeine infiltrating my body gave me quite the buzz.

So I was already in a strangely contented state entering Changdeokgung where I didn’t really read that the palace was originally built in 1405 and acted as Seoul’s principle palace from the 1590s to 1896. Instead, I was heading off towards various buildings, all seemingly interlinked with perimeter structures and interwoven courtyards. Apart from some of the enclosed spaces, you were pretty free to roam, enabling that random meandering which proves the best form of discovery.

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The purported highlight of Changdeokgung is the Biwon, or Secret Garden. What forward-thinking pioneering marketing by calling it a secret garden. I mean, how alluring does that sound to the 21st century Anglo traveller looking for some respite from the late summer heat of a busy Asian city? The fact that you could only access it by a tour in which numbers are controlled (admittedly to a not-so-serene one hundred) can only add to that appeal.

Well, the Secret Garden was certainly agreeable, all lily ponds and curvy-roofed wooden structures, circling pathways and blissfully shady trees. I suspect it would be stupendous in the full burst of autumn and without one hundred other sightseers becoming progressively weary and disinterested as they are shepherded from one ornate compound to the next. I think the best way to appreciate the secret garden would be if you were employed as a gardener. What fabulous picnic lunch breaks there would be on the cards, and some supremely pretty sheds for your tools. Plus good coffee down the road once the horde of foreign zombies descend at two hour intervals.

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Bukchon Hanok Village

On the western flank of Changdeokgung is Bukchon Hanok Village, an area of traditional Korean housing now a little bit touristified. Nestled amongst hilly terrain there remains a sufficient network of maze-like lanes to get completely lost and stumble upon a spot that you had previously walked past. Possibly. The dwellings are single storey and – for the most part – look small, though I suspect some of this is an optical illusion and beyond those walls the interior opens out tardis-like into light and airy rooms and hidden verdant courtyards.

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On the busier strips – one ascending lane in particular seemed to be significantly more popular than the others – locals patrol with signs invoking the masses to “Please talk quietly”. It’s a reminder that this is just a regular neighbourhood with regular Joes trying to get on with their regular lives. I observe no noticeable hush, and can only deduce that the more expensive properties would be away from this major thoroughfare. But the view at the top is why so many tread this way. Looking towards the CBD and North Seoul Tower, it’s the classic juxtaposition of old and new, emblematic of this city as a whole.

Gyeongbokgung

Moving further east from Bukchon, it doesn’t take long before another royal palace comes into view. Gyeongbokgung ticks similar boxes – aesthetically at least – to Changdeokgung so I decide to keep my Wan in my wallet and have a cursory look around outside of the barriers. If anything, the site appears more imposing, with the main entrance gate at the northern end of a long thoroughfare adorned with statues and memorials. There is a greater sense of power and status here, brought to life by the presence of ceremonial guards in traditional costume. Guards which you can find in greater profusion by following the thoroughfare south…

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Deoksugung

The palace at Deoksugung may look similar to the others. I have no idea, because I never really ventured beyond its exterior walls. The main attraction here is a changing of the guard ceremony with more men in colourful costumes and garnished with stick-on facial hair. Sure, it feels like a bit of a show for visitors but – heck – I’m a visitor and expect some easily accessible semblance of traditional Korean culture, right!

I thought I may be late for the ceremony and while there was something stirring by time I arrived, I was pleased to find a space near the front. Only as the show progressed did I understand why I had secured such a premium position. Oh, that’s a big drum in front of me is it? Oh, that hastily shouted Korean was a plea to cover your ears. Oh. Ouch.

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As well as the abundance of stick-on facial hair it was funny to see this taking place in front of a Dunkin Donuts. There were also a couple of pauses in proceedings for people to come up to the guards and pose for selfies. And when it seemed like all was over, there was the sight of the ceremony heading across to City Square but – before doing so – waiting patiently at the traffic lights for the green man. For me, this was the perfect encapsulation of that inescapable (and overused term of) juxtaposition. A country moving rapidly into the 21st century while trying to hang on to its traditions. Here, progress and reverence in at least some kind of harmony.

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asia Green Bogey Photography Society & Culture

In Seoul I: Bright lights, giant Samsung flat screen city

Jong-no and Cheonggyecheon Stream

It’s hard to top that incredible sensation of arriving from a gentle, orderly place like England all tired and drained from jetlag and plunging headfirst into a blurry concoction of street food odours, flashing lights, unfathomable signs, and sapping humidity. Adrenaline, impatient curiosity and a freshly imported Double Decker propel you into the night, occasionally trance-like but always, slightly stupidly, with a smile on your face.

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kl02I was staying roughly in an area listed as Jong-no, in what turned out to be a rather charming, peaceful small hotel (Makers). Exit lobby tranquillity, turn left past food stalls and weave through an animated stream of people enjoying the night air as you head towards the Cheonggyecheon Stream. This is an urban regeneration project par excellence, once a muddy, stinky waterway transformed and landscaped into swirling pools and cascades, lined with footpaths and sculptures and light projections, and populated with the whole gamut of Seoul society. A Korean busker croons, tiered steps along the water plead you to sit down, and free wifi penetrates the air, everywhere.

kl03The stream is in close proximity to alleyways filled with neon signs and sizzling aromas. In fact, it seems anywhere is in close proximity to food. The choice is bewildering, especially when you are tired and indecisive but also very, very hungry. In this state it seems the best option is for some Korean Fried Chicken and a beer. This is a staple, and as staples go, I’m sure down with it.

Namsan Mountain

Seoul is huge but sometimes it doesn’t seem that way. Over ten million people supposedly call it home and the population density is twice that of New York (at least according to Wikipedia). Yet I never really felt crammed in or suffocated here. I think this is in part because of the large, palatial open spaces and the visibility of forested mountains, providing the sight of wilderness from downtown (and also from my hotel room window). Indeed, the jagged hills shield the city’s spread from the viewer, particularly the case for tourists like me who largely stick to the main sights concentrated in a bowl north of the Han River.

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It is only when you head to Namsan Mountain – marking the southern limit of this bowl – that you grasp a whole new expanse of a city stretching east, west, and south. It also registers that atop this peak is a pointy needle called North Seoul Tower and this is south of where you have been mostly milling about. Which by a process of deduction must have been North North Seoul, meaning there sure is a lot more city out there.

In this context, comparisons to Canberra may seem rather silly. But there is a similar concealed quality to both cities, thanks to the hilly terrain. And Namsan Mountain is just like Black Mountain, complete with a summit road, walking tracks and that concrete syringe reaching into the sky on top. One added feature of Namsan though is the attraction of a cable car. For which there are mammoth queues late Saturday afternoon, impelling a sweaty, breathless hike instead. A hike which is a procession of people, several, pleasingly, struggling more than you, despite looking to have youth on their side. That Canberra hills training comes in handy sometimes.

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Along the climb, alternative aspects open up and other high rise clusters emerge in different directions. Finally, with a healthy dose of perspiration, the mountain top offers a view south and glimpses of the Han River. On the other side a whole new city left and right, Gangnam style and beyond. Here, you suspect, stand Samsung Tower 20, 21, 22, 23 and more. Apartment blocks where millions of people live and work and maybe even get dressed up and perhaps dance rather stupidly.

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Clearly being Seoul and not Canberra, the North Seoul Tower is obviously more than that, with a multi-level mall, numerous eateries, a giant gift shop and I think even a cinema. There is also the classical 360 degree, glass-encased viewing deck, which offers pretty much the same view as from the base, only higher and with a greater degree of photo-degrading reflection. Still, milling about here winds down some time for the sun to set and the city lights to flicker on, to twinkle, to glow. And a place to eat before embracing the cooler air, gazing out over the lights, and walking down, back down to just a tiny part of Seoul and bed.

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Gold at heart

The Olympics! I haven’t mentioned the Olympics and how good it was to see most of it on TV in the UK. Complete with the kind of partisan coverage that I love exemplarily executed by the Beeb. Great Britain, Second, Who needs Europe anyway, rah rah rah, put out the bunting. My how we have grown to love bunting!

And so to the capital of gargantuan bunting, a city that at times was an emotional and physical drain on me but is now an absolute tonic to visit. I swear the underground seems to work better nowadays, everything seems a tad cleaner and a bit less grey, the spirit is more open, eclectic, progressive, and now – as a visitor – I can see that London truly is one of the world’s greatest cities.

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Being the August bank holiday weekend I was flummoxed to find myself in shorts on a balcony in the outer suburbs of London with friends Caroline and Jill (note: above picture is not from that balcony!). With this warmth it could have been Bondi, apart from the lack of sand, good coffee, and film crews desperately waiting for the next hapless backpacker to get caught in a rip. But at least there was cake, no kids for a couple of days, and a generous array of pre-birthday celebration antics mysteriously planned. Wild times ahead!

lon01First up on a perfect day we scaled the heights of 20 Fenchurch Street. By elevator of course, up to the Sky Garden of the building popularly known as the Walkie-Talkie. No bungee jumping, no glass-bottom floor, no zip wire…just astounding views over London, shady ferns, comfy sofas and another predictably poor coffee.

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Back down amongst the hustle and bustle of the streets we grabbed some suitably middle class lunch involving hummus before embarking on a mystery journey on the meandering tentacles of the District Line. One of the fun aspects of this journey was not being told anything about where we were going or what we were doing, apart from dire warnings that I might get wet. All a hilarious ruse to baffle an old man as potential options disappeared with each tube stop, finally dwindling to something in Richmond or Kew Gardens. And at Kew Gardens Station, we abruptly bolted for the exit.

lon05I am wondering if there is any finer place than Kew Gardens on such a beautiful late summer’s day. For not only are there acres of manicured lawn, generous pockets of woodland bursting green, and a profligate array of multihued flowerbeds, but you can also play guess the airline. In the cloudless sky, the parade of jets coming into land at Heathrow provides a distracting guessing game when one finds oneself eating ice cream under the shade of a tree. The funny thing was, we didn’t seem to be the only ones playing it.

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lon06But back to earth. We must have walked a fair few miles around the gardens but at regular intervals there was an opportunity to dwell, a chance to linger. A gallery here, a cafe there, a grand house beyond the trees. Sculptures and water features and artworks to do with bees, in which human drones obediently infiltrate the hive out of nothing more than curiosity.

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Then there are the glasshouses. Today it feels like there is no need for hot, tropical climates, but it’s fair to say that the weather is rarely this good. Orchids, palms, lily pads…climb some stairs and you can even go bananas. This would be a good winter refuge.

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And finally, almost as cavernous is the gift shop. Which in gift shop terms is reasonably respectable, with tasteful botanic tea towel prints and encyclopaedic tomes relating to the history of the fennel seed. It would be a decent place to buy Christmas presents for those people you really have difficulty buying presents for. Adding to its appeal in all seasons, we concurred that buying an annual membership pass for Kew Gardens would be a worthwhile purchase if you didn’t live, say, 12,000 miles away.

One thing is for sure – people living in and around the gardens could no doubt afford it. And should they dare to venture out of their generous and elegantly proportioned homes they could entertain themselves besides the river. The Thames of course, dotted with a pub or two on the Chiswick side. An ale by the water, sat comfortably outside as the daylight faded, all supplemented by a dose of fish and chips. This has been a good, a great, a golden day.

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Such a day set a high bar to live up to and the following proved a quirkier affair. Exploits of yesterday had induced a dash of weariness but we still successfully ate some food, walked in a park, shopped, laid on a picnic blanket, and got House of Love wedged into our brains.

First up was a trip to the palace – Alexandra Palace or Ally Pally as those in the know call it. Views from here reflect back on where we were yesterday. You could see the Walkie-Talkie, but none of us could remember seeing Alexandra Palace when we were up there. I guess because there was so much of distraction in between from the other vantage.

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In the parade of pre-birthday surprises I feared an onset of painful embarrassment upon the ice rink situated in the palace. But I needn’t have feared, because there was a much more suitable food festival nearby. Offering a few free samples, mostly of the alcoholic variety, it was enough to induce a craving for an organic grain fed pork sausage and onion ciabatta. As you do near Muswell Hill.

Alright, alright, everything’s gonna be alright because somehow we ended up at Walthamstow Central, East 17. Mystified as to why, there were claims of passing Bryan Harvey’s house, seeing the place where shell suited fashions were purchased, crossing the road that the group’s dog got run over on. Or something. But it turns out this part of the world is renowned for more than a former greyhound stadium and chavesque low brow Take That. William Morris did some things with design for wallpapers and turned into a raving socialist. And this was all recollected in his once grand house and gardens, way beyond the reach of the plebs.

lon10Another surprise in this area was the presence of something called Walthamstow Village. While no thatched cottage idyll in the South Hams of Devon, it possessed that quiet street, classic brickwork, church green feel of a London village, with some similarity to more celebrated haunts such as Highgate and Hampstead. Plus there was somewhere to buy ice cream, relief on another generously warm day.

And so as in so many a tale of mine it comes back to food. The final evening of this tour – exquisitely planned and executed – encapsulated a picnic within the virtual countryside of Trent Park. And for this the unfurling of a picnic blanket – a feature of so many of these get-togethers. Under planes a little too high to turn into a game, a mixed meze straight outta North London. This was pure gold at heart.

Food & Drink Great Britain Green Bogey Photography Society & Culture

Canberra 10

August 2006, and after a now customary gruelling journey by land and air I found myself at Canberra’s suitably bland Jolimont Bus Station. Here I was for a year – not the bus station but the city at large – a work swap to sample the delights of Australian bureaucracy and seek to escape Canberra for other parts of the country as frequently as possible. And while I have done all that, here I still am almost ten years later. Next week I will head to the Jolimont Centre again, to commence that journey, again, but – again – I will be back.

So, where did that ten years go exactly? Well, for a start, not every single day has been spent in the national capital, with extended periods in swags and other people’s beds both down under and abroad. I nominally left a couple of times, packing up my belongings in boxes and placing them in various friend’s nooks and crannies. But I had to go back to retrieve them, and, once I did, I decided it was agreeable enough to stay.

So, in honour of the passing of a milestone, allow me to ramble on about ten Canberra things that have kept me amused, bemused, infuriated, mystified, but largely happy. With some archive pictures to boot, in which the shade of my hair and athleticism of my body is, lamentably, so last decade. In 2006 I strove to the top of that hill in a crappy bike. Ten years later, and not so much has changed.

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Upon Red Hill with Black Mountain in the distance, October 2006 

1 – Four Seasons in One Year

It is of course customary to talk about the weather in any conversation starter. Indeed, Australians are almost as prone to this as Brits. What would we talk about if there was no weather, like on the Gold Coast? Retirement savings, Pauline Hanson, golf?

I arrived in Canberra towards the end of winter. Which presented my British bones with beautiful, pleasant sun-filled days in which you could almost strip to a T-shirt. Ha, winter, I laughed, whatever. But then I think it plunged to minus eight overnight and I had a little more respect for the hardiness of the souls living here.

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Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter

Because of its altitude, its distance from the coast, its fondness for winds direct from the mountains, Canberra has a very clear four seasons. I say very clear, but weird plants and shit seem to be in flower all the time, and birds never fail to make a racket at five in the morning. Still, there is definitely frost, blossom, sweltering bushfire smoke days (known as “stinkers”) and – best of all – the golden glowing foliage of autumn. I like that about Canberra (people ask does it make you feel at home, as an unruly pack of Cockatoos shriek their way through a decimated oak tree). With the seasons, life is constantly, visibly changing. Unlike – say – on the Gold Coast, where it largely just ebbs away.

2 – That Canberra

Canberra has cut pensions for war veterans! Canberra has imposed a great new tax on everything! Canberra has got its knickers in a twist with the latest self-absorbed leadership tussle! Apart from, of course, it hasn’t. The Federal Parliament, voted for by the great people of Australia, has allegedly done all this in my time here. But a city and 99.999% of its residents have not. Editors, sub-editors, journalists, reporters, radio shock-jocks: STOP BEING SO FRICKIN GORMLESSLY LAZY!

However, it would be remiss of me to avoid mentioning the presence of Parliament Houses, both old and new, in this capital city. They are quite distinctive and diverse, lined up to degrees of perfection on a central axis. For me, the old one is better, mainly because it’s no longer used for debates and mediocre policy formulation. Which means you can walk the halls, sit in the padded chairs, swing around in the former prime minister’s seat, cigar in hand and a scotch on the rocks. For better or worse, this was why Canberra was made.

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A reflection of Australian Parliament House, June 2007

3 – Flashes of Brilliance

I had been to Australia before 2006, and I had even been to Canberra. However, I didn’t recall the almost nonchalant parade of colourful birds swooping and hollering across suburbs and over hills. Most remarkable – to an Englishman familiar with the monotone – was the sheer brilliance of colour and decoration: a flutter of rainbow emerging from long grass, a blush of pink perched on a wire, the regal red and blue of a pair of rosellas serenading in the bush. Even the pigeons and seagulls seem a little cleaner and offer at least a little charm.

I’m no twitcher but I have grown to recognise the basics and even some of the calls that these assorted oddments provide (mostly just to identify who keeps waking me up at 5am). And while they have attained a familiarity, there are still moments, when a blur of brilliance darts through the bush, that bring a little, wondrous smile to my face.

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A pair of Gang Gang Cockatoos, April 2015

4 – And as for the Plants

I seem to make routine visits to the Australian National Botanic Gardens. After ten years I do so with little in the way of enthusiasm or expectation – it’s more like it’s somewhere different in the rotation of hill walks, lakeside ambles and suburban rambles. Yet each time, after wandering off onto one of the tracks for ten minutes, I find myself in some kind of placid contented vegan tree-hugging alternate state. It’s a bit like going to Melbourne, only with callistemon and grevillea instead of coffee and graffiti.

Of course, it goes without saying that Australian plants can be a little quirky. As someone still part foreigner, a walk through the gardens evokes a sense of discovery, a sense that you are clearly in an alien land. Indeed, you can almost imagine how Joseph Banks was feeling nearly 250 years ago, getting a boner at the sight of a bottlebrush, incessantly naming things after himself. To be fair, there were a lot of things to name in the Anglo classification scheme of things and – as the Botanic Gardens consistently exemplify – the sensory overload can be exhilarating. For me, nothing, like nothing, can beat the smell of the bush after rain.

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Waratahs bursting forth in the Botanic Gardens, October 2012

5 – Food glorious food. And coffee.

I didn’t really do coffee in the UK. And after ten years in Australia, that last statement seems even more sensible. Despite only incremental improvements it is largely awful. If there was an Ashes for coffee – and perhaps cafe culture more broadly – Australia would do the flat whitewash each time, perhaps with some stoic resistance from the English tailenders in the final dead rubber.

So now I have become one of those awful Australians who harps on about how bad the coffee is in the UK.  I remember supping on my first few coffees in Manuka, in what was once Hansel and Gretel and has now become Ona, with awards and movies and a somewhat more pretentious, more beard-infested, and more expensive take on anything that can be derived from a humble bean. I rarely go there these days, but such is the profusion of good standard coffee that it doesn’t really matter. But it is nice to find a spot where everybody knows your name.

Food in Australia leaves me a little more ambivalent. Ashes contests would be more competitive in this space. Highlights include mangoes, most Asian food, steak, and some of the seafood. Cheese can be a little hit and miss, especially with some crucial French cheeses off the agenda due to health and safety regulations (sigh). The biggest issue though is the absence of genuine clotted cream. Clearly this is a problem. And it may well be the driving force for return visits to the UK (sorry family and friends!).

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A classic before it became much more: Brodburger, October 2008

6 – On the Edge of Wilderness

Australia has a luxury of space which makes any dispiriting rant of “F**k off we’re full” all the more silly. Sure, a lot of it is hostile and infertile, jam-packed with snakes and spiders. But even in the temperate south east corner there are vast tracts of not very much at all. The airiness, the freedom, the big blue sky, this is why Canberra itself was such a tonic arriving from London ten years ago. And while the city has an excess of underused scrubby grassland, this pales into insignificance when looking south and west.

Namadgi National Park sits entirely within the ACT and while it’s not up there with the likes of some of the other spectacular wilderness areas of Eastern Australia, you can at least get a good view. Sadly most of these views require a reasonable hike there and back again, trails I have now exhausted in their entirety. But being little over forty minutes away, access to wilderness is literally on your doorstep. And where a familiar trail ends, there is so much temptation, so much allure, so much that is pulling you to want to dive in further. To bush bash. Until the thought of all those snakes and spiders sends you back the way you came, again.

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The end of the Yerrabri Track in Namadgi NP, January 2015

7 – Culcha innit

Being a capital city, Canberra has the rather good fortune of containing all the usual national suspects: a library, a museum, a big war memorial and countless other ones, national archives, a portrait gallery, and the National Gallery of Australia. While interstate visitors and schools parties can pile off their coaches for a whistlestop gawp, the benefits of being a local mean that you can go back and explore, time and time again.

In the main, these institutions are free and have cafes. Which means I frequently pop to one or other when I have an hour or so to kill. The National Library has provided a workspace on occasion, the Portrait Gallery some photographic inspiration, the National Museum respite from a biting wind on a bike. And as for the National Gallery, there is something quite satisfying about popping in and casually cruising past some famous works and famous names, diverting one’s attention in pursuit of a coffee.

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Hanging outside the National Gallery of Australia, March 2009

8 – Sod it, Let’s go to the Coast

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Beach in Murramarang NP, October 2008

Okay not technically Canberra, but referring to Batemans Bay as Canberra-on-Sea has some justification. Australians’ slavish desire to worship beach frontage contributes to the high disregard attributed to the national capital. But I’ve obviously quite rightly made the argument that Canberra is closer to the coast than Western Sydney, once you take into account traffic and the all-round awfulness of Parramatta Road. And what a coast it has.

My first visit (and escape from Canberra) was at the end of September in 2006. A bus down Clyde Mountain to the Bay, hopping off at Broulee. It was a fortuitous choice, as Broulee is one of the best. Sweeping golden sand, rugged coastal forest, distant mountains. So much so that Broulee regularly comes back into play, on any fabled day trip that has been made many times since.

9 – Jesus of Suburbia

Canberra’s suburbs can be at one utopian and hellish. Ten years on, and it is still feasible that I could get lost in them. Essentially Canberra is a city of suburbs with some hills and a few important buildings in between. Many of them have politically inspired names, but I fail to distinguish between such places as Ainslie, Scullin, Theodore.

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Navigating the suburbs to Rocky Knob Park, April 2014

I’m currently in Phillip, which is either named after Governor Phillip or an expression the Duke of Edinburgh caught wind of a few times in boarding school. Before this I was in Red Hill, and this presented the best aspect of suburban living: leafy avenues, quiet crescents, popular schools, and cafes and shops a pleasant fifteen minute walk away. Often finding myself working at home, it was so easy to take a break, ogle at expensive houses, scrunch through leaves, dodge resident peacocks, and emerge to a bit of a view – and a bit of a titter – at Rocky Knob Park.

10 – The summit

It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me reasonably well that I save the best to last. Much like the crackling from a Sunday roast, for which fork stabbing is in order if anyone dares try nab it from my plate.

The last and best of Canberra’s things may come as no surprise either; my subject and muse, my meditation and therapy, my gym and inspiration, where the suburbs give way to a bushland ridge known collectively as Red Hill.

It’s possible it could have been another hill. But this was the first and will always be the best. Three days into the Canberra experience, a sunny Sunday and desperate to fend off jetlag, I opened the door and walked west. Kingston, Manuka, Forrest…the last luxurious homes giving way to Red Hill reserve. A summit climb, a coffee and cake, a special view. Nature, space, golden light, the excitement of a new city and new people below. The city may have become more familiar, the hair may have – ahem –mellowed, the people may have come and gone, the discoveries faded, but still I can be happily, contentedly, thanking my lucky stars upon this very hill today.

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Late light at Red Hill Nature Park, October 2007

Australia Green Bogey

Sydney shorts

Time has transformed with the antipodean clocks turning backward. What was previously generous is now more meagre. The sun still shines but dwells less in the sky, the time in the day becoming both a literal and figurative challenge: sometimes there is just not enough of it. Catching the sunset can cause a rush, the luxury of lingering and meandering and simply just killing time vanished. Time, with the predictably sudden splurge of work, is now precious. So much so, that I want to keep this brief. You may be thankful for such small mercies.

syd03With work travel finally emerging like the red gloss upon a Canberra oak, I have the fortune of tacking on bits and pieces of tourism around insightful spells of blue sky strategy. Like a spell last week in Sydney, giving me the perfect opportunity to simply dwell in Sydney again. To walk alongside its waterways and admire its skyline. To stride through its city streets part England, part America, part Asia. To turn a corner and come up against the looming harbour bridge, all brickwork glitz and dark steel glamour. And from there – of course – to embrace that centrepiece of shells jutting out from Circular Quay, impossible to resist.

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syd04With sun-filled days setting record April temperatures it was hard to avoid getting distracted. An early morning coffee run turned into a walk under the fig tree shade of Hyde Park which turned into a jaunt over The Domain which led into the many pathways of the Botanic Gardens. I often find refuge in the gardens of over-researched regional towns, a touch of civic serenity amidst a clutch of daggy stores and gargantuan pokie palaces. The Botanic Gardens in Sydney are another matter entirely, a mammoth attraction in their own right, lapping at the silver towers of the city and the sparkling opal waters of the harbour. They are free and open and – even with oodles of exercisers and selfie takers and backpackers – remain forever fabulous.

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A cliché-ridden, repetitively photographed documentation of Sydney would not be complete without some beach shots.  And because this was – after an absence of what must be getting on for a year – a journey down memory lane – there was no other place for me to go than Coogee. After a lengthy evening discussing interesting things with interesting people I had earned that breakfast at Globe the next morning. And while I should probably have been listening back to interesting people discussing interesting things and making sense of it all, it was infinitely more alluring to stride on the sand and to push on along the Eastern Suburbs Pedestrian Expressway.

syd08Each step a memory, each stride made afresh. Gordon’s Bay, Clovelly, Bronte, Tamarama…I am not sure I have seen them looking quite as lovely as they do now. The midweek morning provides a contrast from the irritating queues and blockages of walkers and runners and selfie takers cluttering the place on weekends, almost all of whom are exquisitely beautiful, but almost all of whom somehow ruin the views. Today there is freedom and space and just the attractiveness of golden sands and a becalmed, translucent Pacific to excite. Today, it really is all in the timing, and I just about got it right.

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Australia Green Bogey Photography Walking

Advance to 2016

The best way I can describe a thirteen hour flight from Europe to Asia is that it feels like one elongated sigh. Tentatively sidestepping countries that may be a tad hostile to flying objects creates a convoluted route, and ample time to mull over life’s little niggles. Like why won’t my seat fully recline? And what possesses airlines to have one hundred movies, all of which are at best mediocre or at worst starring Tom Cruise? Worse than that, the selection of ‘comedy’ contains no trace of wit whatsoever, churned out direct from Hollywood with copious amounts of canned laughter. Six hours in, zigzagging the Middle East, I can understand why the Scotsman in front of me downed wine after wine. And never shut the f**k up.

So I was undeniably a bit delicate and frazzled arriving at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, but pleased to be on solid ground. It was now – somehow – eight in the morning on New Year’s Eve. Usually I would march through various sterile checkpoints and stride ten miles by travelator to board a plane for a further nine hours of frustration at 36,000 feet. This time, though, I was embarking on the luxury of a stopover, and a new spot to see in a new year.

You know you are no longer in England when you are whisked at high speed in spacious and air-conditioned futurism to the middle of a city somewhere over the horizon. All sleek glass and swish whooshing noises as stunted palm trees and suspiciously golfy-looking estates flash past in a blur. You also know you are no longer in England when you turn into a gasping pile of sweat traipsing through an inner city jungle. Despairingly unable to check in to hoped-for luxury so early, KL had me bright, hot, and early.

So, I clambered up steps and dawdled down hills and crossed roads that were of questionable safety, unexpected u-turns being a favourite of hundreds of mopeds per minute. Eventual refuge emerged in one of many shopping malls, wonderfully air-conditioned and extravagantly Christmassy. And to think I had the naivety to assume Christmas was done and dusted; here it was bigger and more opulent than ever, and with a mosque or two just down the road. Still, grand extravagance seems to have been all the rage in KL over the last decade or so, encapsulated in the shiny Petronas Towers stretching into the sky above Santa’s grotto.

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Extravagance of a kind was waiting for me back at my hotel once I could – with the utmost relief – check in. There was a pool and gym and chandeliered lobby with lots of people in red uniforms and gold buttons feverishly milling around seeking tips. There was a water feature and sweeping driveway for parades of taxis and eight elevators to propel you to the 27th floor. A floor with city views but the most famous of the towers obscured. A floor with room and king bed and satin sheets and probably the most deserved afternoon nap ever…

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…the city was still there and still in daylight when waking and I calculated that any New Year’s Eve fireworks would largely be obscured from this spot. Thus the option to see in 2016 in my pants with a bag of peanuts lost some of its appeal, and meant I had to put in the effort to go outside again.

kl02In the end I’m rather glad I did, because I saw a few different parts of the city and discovered a more chaotic and odorous KL, more befitting of one’s expectations of being in Asia. Luminous signs and satay sticks on smoke, bars with Bintang and bang bang, street sellers trading in ancient arts and iphone cases. I was offered a massage on at least fifteen occasions in the space of twenty metres and a tacky umbrella at every alternate shop. It was raining now, and threatening to dampen the wait until midnight.

When in KL, do what it looks like many of the Lumpens do. Head to a mall, never more than half a kilometre away. Revel in the cool, dry air and twinkling diamonds of Christmas. Take five escalators down to a gargantuan food court and then another hour to decide which sublime looking bargain concoction to eat. In the end I chose Japanese, content to fulfil my Malaysian quota over the course of the stopover.

By ten the rain had stopped and I ventured back out into the night air to establish exactly where to watch fireworks. Logic dictated somewhere around the Petronas Towers, and I practically circumnavigated the perimeter of its adjoining park to suss out the opportunities. Eventually I came to a halt, joining an amiable throng of people lining the banks of a feature lake. Music was playing and coloured fountains were bubbling and projections were being beamed onto buildings, one of which handily had a giant digital clock. There was enough space and a clear view and even a little cooling breeze and I immediately thought this would just not be possible in Sydney at 11pm on 31st December.

kl03Only with ten minutes to spare did locals and visitors rise to their feet, counting down the final minute of the year. Phones and tablets floated above heads, forever capturing the last ten seconds of 2015 and the first few of 2016. Almost everyone pointed shiny screens at the towers, waiting for the bangs and sparkles. The clock struck twelve, the bangs rang out and the sparkles were, oh, behind you.

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Now very happily in 2016, the first hour of the year was spent trying to avoid inadvertently photobombing selfies while taking a very gradual, processional walk back to my hotel. What was an easy entry became a more congested exit, but there was a jovial aura, strangers were friends, the crowd was cosy and the blaring of cheap plastic horns was incredibly annoying. My mind said SHUT. THE. HELL. UP. But good manners and New Year cheer ought to persist for at least an hour, I feel.

I enjoyed the final day of the year immensely and was glad to have made the effort to see in 2016 in a different place. The first day of the New Year commenced uneventfully – subdued even – and I was in no rush to check out early and embrace the mugginess. Farewell five star comfort and hello hours of walking and pausing and dodging traffic and cooling off in every mall stop available. First mall for iced coffee, second mall for lunch (a highlight-worthy Nasi Lemak), third mall just for the hell of it. Across from this, the monorail took me laboriously to a further mall, acting as a glorified transit tunnel towards the Botanic Gardens.

kl05Any city worth its weight in Ringgits can only be judged by the quality of its Botanic Gardens. Here they were – for the most part – divinely lovely. In spots shadily cooling, tropically exotic, elegantly coiffured. A few quiet roads intersected with meandering paths and crossed ornamental streams. Most welcome though was the relative peace and calm, a sanctuary in what can be a busy, noisy, pungent place. And surely that is all you can ask of a city’s Botanic Gardens.

kl06Heading back down into humid chaos and occasional grime of the city I unexpectedly stumbled onto Kuala Lumpur’s Central Mosque. I like it when random stuff like this happens in places you have never been before. I may not have chosen to go there, but here I was now, and appreciative I was of the geometric architecture and alignment and symbolism crossed with a concrete styling worthy of Plymouth city centre post-war brutalism. You were welcome – as a non-Muslim – to visit inside and be guided around the place. The only stumbling block was the thought of taking of my shoes, and subjecting an entire religion to the smell of my by now equatorial flavoursome feet.

So I pushed onto the frequently touted in guidebooks but underwhelming Merdeka Square, crossed a very brown stretch of water, explored the Central Markets disappointing lack of food stalls, struggled to cross complex road intersections and eventually ended up back in Bintang. Daytime was quieter and generally devoid of satay sticks. Massages appeared to be a thing of the night. Only ambling tourists and opportunistic traders lingered, while everyone else must have been at the mall.

With seemingly little left to see and do and weariness now set in, the mall became my refuge as well. I still had five hours until my flight departed, but time for some dinner and a sit on a bench and a potter around a bookshop. Endless arrays of escalators from an M.C. Escher fantasy took some strain off the feet. Christmas was still out in force, perhaps for just a few more days, but I was quietly accepting of this by now.  For all that I was starting to tire of malls, it still beats being cooped up on an aluminium tube, fighting a losing battle with headphone sockets and movies featuring Tom Cruise. I was ready to leave but also wasn’t. The tedium of the tube awaits, but at least it would deliver me – at last – back to Australia 2016.

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Green Bogey