Stretching even further afield for a day trip down to the South Coast of New South Wales…
Humans, like the weather, are nothing if not contrary. Can it really be the same species that were so recently sharing in collective despair with heartfelt empathy, ceaselessly giving anything from money to clothes to fence posts to time to hope, who now go about pulling each other’s hair out for another six pack of three ply?
It may well be, much like the weather, that in the Venn diagram of the good and bad, the heart-warming and the head-banging, there is only a little intersection between the two. Or perhaps we are all a little conflicted. Like a leaden cloud threatening to burst or simply waiting to be dispelled by the sun. Depending which way the wind blows. A phenomenon that might also explain the contents of certain supermarket trolleys.
What seems incontrovertible is that 2020 continues to produce a hell of a lot of crap, evidently more so in those double garages stocked with 2,000 rolls of toilet paper. And while the bare aisles of toilet tissue land make me feel bemused, I quietly sneak an extra jar of pasta sauce into my basket.
There could be fewer worthy places to stockpile a years’ worth of bog roll than on the South Coast of NSW. A beautiful corner of the world both pallid and sick and overflowing with life and love. A place whose interior is savaged but whose heart and soul are still beating. A place that could use a little helping (washed) hand to thrive once again. Mother nature has applied some balm through its cloud and rain and now we – the good we – can try to offer a little gentle sunshine.
The landscape of the South Coast region right now is simply astonishing in so many ways. The crest of Clyde Mountain confronts with brutal savagery, an unending parade of blackened trees and blackened earth yielding views down to the coast that were not previously available. Yet the vibrant tree ferns and epicormic shoots sprouting from trunks seem to defy death. On the fringes of Mogo, that all too familiar sight of summer – of twisted metal and crumpled fireplace – sits within a vivid, bounteous green. The village too a bustle of people purchasing pendants, peculiarities and pies.
The beaches of the region are as good as ever, which is to say, pretty damn perfect. At Broulee, a small patch of charred dune prompts memories of a video from the beach on New Year’s Eve, a small spot fire exploding and causing understandable angst amongst those who had fled to the water’s edge. Today, the sands are peppered with people bathing, fun and laughter filling the air. Much of the lush coastal fringe of spotted gums and fern trees along the road to Moruya seems unscarred.
From Tuross Head you can see the ranges of Deua National Park to the west. No doubt a regular sight of alarm at night, illuminated by flame that flickered and flared to its own shape and will. Constantly on edge, unknowing as to where and how far it would come, the fires never did reach Tuross, at least in physical form.
This is home for a few nights and what a fine home: close to the rugged beaches and barely open shops, in proximity to numerous opportunities to spend money and eat food and lose golf balls. A home coming with the bonus of a billiard table for evening entertainment; my knowledge on the placement of snooker balls stemming from lyrics recalled of Snooker Loopy featuring Chas and Dave. Pot the red and screw back, for the yellow green brown blue pink and black… Yeah, in your dreams.
It would be fair to say that despite limitations I was a far better snooker and pool player than golfer on this trip. Which says more about my golfing doom than my snooker prowess. Still, it was good to make a hefty contribution to the community of Narooma by zig-zagging around its golf course. A perfectly sliced and skied lay up on its famous third hole almost yielded a par, and I managed a par four somewhere else in between much larger figures. The added challenge of a series of greens being perforated, sanded and watered provided further good excuses for inadequacy.
With Narooma receiving an economic injection, the next place on the spending list was Bodalla, specifically its dairy and cheese factory. In times like these you’ve got to do your utmost to support these local businesses and so it was with considerable reluctance that I forced down a toastie oozing with cheese followed up with an ice cream. You do what you can do.
The following day endured cool and grey, reminiscent of typical coastal awaydays of the past. This might have previously induced disappointment and grumbling and a roll of the eyes with a sigh. But it seems crass to complain this year. This weather is perfect. And there is still plenty of consumption of local community produce to be savoured.
I don’t know if supporting the South Coast economy has ever been so tasty. The one exception was – alas – fish and chips, a result of many of the better venues being closed on a Monday in March. But there was the Mexican brunch bowl at Mossy Point, the caramel fudge and coffee in Moruya and – probably the piece de resistance of feeling worthy and eating well – home-cooked wholesomeness and other takeaway from the farmers markets also in Moruya.
The markets were small but popular, a place very much for locals to gather and update one another on the latest news and gossip. They were also attuned to market protocols, forming orderly queues with wicker baskets as they awaited the 3pm opening bell. Twenty minutes later and most of the fresh stuff had sold out, but we managed to retrieve a medley of locally grown seasonal vegetables, some swordfish, crusty bread and a dairy product or two for me to bring home to go on a scone or three.
I can’t say our market-supplied barbecue that night was a traditional Aussie bloke-themed methane-heavy slimy snag and slab of steak celebration. But it felt good and tasted even better. Refined even. Setting up another classy evening of exemplary three-way snooker (Tuross Rules).
Which was again better than the golf that day. Looking for something to do we came across a whole nine holes to ourselves. It quickly became clear why, the course pretty basic and unkempt in places, plagued by an infestation of mosquitoes. These had apparently emerged post fire and rain, proof that not all of nature’s recovery is especially welcome. At the course boundary, fire had penetrated the forest and the relatively low fee to have a course and a million mozzies to ourselves didn’t seem such an injustice after all.
You see, it’s quite a divergent experience down on the South Coast. Like chalk and cheese. Sunshine and rain. Go Fund Me and bog-roll violence. So much of it looks and feels as good as ever. Life seems normal. Better even given the incredible swathe of green pasture now smothering the fields. And then your mind comes back to that saying I heard before: the great green cover up.
And you drive, under bucketloads of rain, through Mogo once more with its scattering of crumpled buildings. Towards and into the edges of Batemans Bay, where the forest has scorched down to its very edge and looks like it is struggling to recover. You get a sense of where the fire was most ferocious; green shoots are harder to come by. One side of the road up Clyde Mountain looks normal, the other decimated.
You enter Braidwood to support that economy, knowing that it would be near impossible to convince an overseas visitor that this was in the grip of drought, primed to borrow water from Canberra while being shrouded in smoke for months on end. You shelter with hot coffee and sense BlazeAid nomads taking a well-earned day off. You espy a generous supply of toilet paper in the café bathroom; and briefly a wicked thought enters your mind. But the sunshine wins out, the goodness, the heart. Much like it is doing, much like it will do again, down on the South Coast.
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.
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.
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.
I 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Together, 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.
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.
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.
What started as an unfortunate spectacle – that we thought would probably go away as soon as it came upon us – has settled in Canberra for the summer. There is little anyone can do to not talk about the pervasive smoke that hovers above Christmas prawns and glazed hams. Occasionally it lifts a little, dispelled by a hot northwesterly which only serves to deliver arid desert air from the only direction in which major fires are not burning. Yet. It feels only a matter of time before we are encircled.
This is not a happy Christmas really. The weather outside is indeed frightful. People are growing downbeat and sullen; infuriated and furious. We gather and share and eat fine food and go and watch the Star Wars movie in beautiful air conditioning, and these are necessary distractions. But even in the midst of a lightsabre battle, a smoky essence infiltrates the movie theatre. The ultimate 4D experience. Just give us the Lord Vader breathing masks please.
Making plans is hard to do – what road is closed, which national park on fire, which stretch of tarmac melting? Christmas gatherings cancelled; long circuitous journeys made. Holiday towns on the coast dying under a barrage of emergency warnings and absent visitors.
Even doing simple things like laundry takes strategic planning. Today I got it wrong, and now it is being washed again, content that the hot, dangerous northwesterly has now well and truly kicked in to sizzle it sans woodsmoke flavouring.
Escape is an appealing option, as long as there are still options. Three days before Christmas I looked at flights to the UK. I looked at flights to New Zealand. I looked at flights to Tasmania (where even today it is nudging forty degrees). Cost was extortionate, but then it might reach a point where even that is a burden worth bearing.
Dissuaded for the time being, I tried to make pastry in forty degree heat. I went for walks in the mall. Just because. In between I monitored the weather forecasts and wind directions and air quality readings and areas of land not on fire. I looked at campgrounds that might not be full and which might be safe. And I finally glimpsed a small window of opportunity to escape, to clear the air…
Boxing Day and the atmosphere at the MCG was bubbling up nicely, accompanying me on the radio as I drove south towards Cooma. With the Kings Highway to the coast closed this is proving a major alternative route. As a consequence, the main sights of Cooma – McDonalds and KFC – were overflowing. Around the corner, ALDI was quieter, and I picked up an obligatory half price Christmas pudding. Probably for winter if such a thing still exists.
Between Cooma and Bombala the drive is spectacularly bleak as it traverses the Monaro Plains. It is for all intents and purposes, desert at the moment. Not exactly pretty to look at, but with the smoke haze thinning a touch, at least it was something to look at.
And then, through Bombala and into South East Forests National Park, there was something resembling freshness. Blue sky. Green. Giant trees untainted by fire. A campground almost deserted, the camp guardian a spirited Kookaburra feeding its young. A sense of wonder and relief that this is all still actually possible. Breathe.
It remained quite hot to be sure, and on a walk around nearby Myanba Gorge there were plenty of flies as usual just to remind you that summer in Australia is actually a bit shit. The riverbed shaping the gorge was bone dry and surely it was only a matter of time before I would turn a corner and step on a deadly snake or something. But no, a dog and its two owners were the only things to greet me, in between the flies in my eyes.
What I did find turning that final corner was a sight the likes of which I have seen a thousand times before in Australia, but which appears all the more precious today. A deep valley of eucalyptus sweeping down towards the coast. The cries of a couple of black cockatoos surveying their terrain. And a clear blue sky – perhaps more pastel than is normal – but true blue nonetheless.
The night passed with another rarity – feeling cold. Even a few days later it seems surreal to think I was shivering a little until I finally succumbed to using a sleeping bag in the correct manner.
The freshness of morning was greeted by a 5am cacophony of hundreds of birds, which was a marked improvement on the 2am hoonage taking place on some of the nearby forest roads. Sleep was a luxury and I was reminded how the concept of camping may be more appealing than the reality. But then it was on the journey to the long drop that I felt at one with the world, enamoured by its natural grace and beauty, a feeling you never get in a Best Western.
With the promise of another smoky scorcher back in Canberra I was in no hurry to rush back. I carried on south, across the border into Victoria on what was a beautiful drive towards Cann River. This is a corner of the land boasting tremendous old growth forests cloaking rugged, untrammelled peaks. Driving along sweeping curves under a dappled canopy, it’s all shafts of sunlight falling upon giant ferns. Keep eyes on road.
This region – East Gippsland – is sparsely populated and only has a few access points to the coast, through the gorgeously pristine Croajingalong National Park. Camping in the park is popular over Christmas and I had no chance. But at Cann River itself, a free campground was available in which to set up at ten in the morning. And it came alongside a short walk through woodland that in places reminded me of somewhere in England, such were the treasured patches of greenery.
With plenty of time up my sleeve and following a bit of a mid-morning doze under a tree, I explored the coastal area down around Cape Conran and Marlo. Both were fairly busy, with Cape Conran again bursting with campers who had – at that time – won the holiday lottery. It was so good to be beside the seaside, especially as a cool southeasterly was emanating off the water to offer joyous relief. This was probably the freshest air I had experienced in weeks, if not months.
Marlo is famous as the place where the Snowy River meets the sea. It’s probably the main thing it has going for it, but they certainly do well with what they have. Several lookouts and a sensibly plotted estuary trail allow you to follow the waters as they congregate into a series of shallows and lagoons before inching out into the ocean. It’s definitely worth a nosey, followed by possibly one other thing Marlo has going for it: ice cream. Thank you very much.
Memories of ice cream lingered as I drove inland slightly towards Orbost, where several dairies were testament to what is generally a verdant, rain-blessed corner of Australia (the cream and yogurt from Gippsland Dairy is to be recommended!). But even here it looks dry, a burnished beige more than a pea green. In the distance, beyond Orbost, inevitably, the bushfires burn uncontained and out of control.
I remember Orbost quite fondly from the only other time I was here in 2013, mainly because I found a bakery that served something akin to a Paris-Brest. It’s not really what you expect but my memory of this raised expectations beyond what I should have expected. I was looking to pick up some supplies for dinner, which I managed but not to the standard I had expected. The result was a very Christmas meze of leftover ham, sausage rolls, cheese and a couple of salads. How I craved a hot meal! Oh well, there is always tomorrow.
Tomorrow was the time to pack up and head back to Canberra, partly because I wanted to sleep in my own bed but also because the heat was due to spread its ferocious finger down into Gippsland. As if on cue, there was a hint of smoke in the air on an early stop to amble along a rainforest walk with a coffee and mince pie in hand. And then, crossing the border again towards Eden, visibility was once more replaced by viscosity.
This had thrown my good intentions to do a decent walk in Ben Boyd National Park as a means of justifying fish and chips for lunch. But, heck, it’s Christmas, what else am I supposed to do? And I was very good and didn’t have chips. Just three of the best potato scallops instead, oops.
The other plan I had was to hopefully laze and have a nap alongside the Pambula River before the three hour drive home. Fortunately, given the long wait for lunch as I battled a billion bogans, a stiff sea breeze had kicked in and the smoke was clearing pretty quickly. On the downside, thunderstorms were brewing slightly to the north. The relaxation necessary to nap wasn’t really possible, and my decision to quit the beach at just about the right time was sound. Not before getting a little wet.
Rain! It all felt a bit peculiar. A strange sensation to be fleeing and sheltering from something that is so essential, so welcome, so life-giving. Yet such are the nature of storms that they proved random and fleeting. And any lightning falling on the tinder dry is far from welcome. The window was definitely closing.
Back home the next day, I became alerted that the authorities were urging around 30,000 holidaymakers and residents to evacuate an area of East Gippsland half the size of Belgium. As I write this, 12 Emergency fire warnings are in place in the region, including the stretch of coast between Cann River and Mallacoota, and a swathe of land taking in Orbost, Cape Conran and Marlo. Highways are closed. Inland from Pambula, not a million miles from the South East Forests, another emergency warning has appeared. Multiple fires are springing up in the wilderness between Cooma and the coast. Another window doesn’t merely close but shatters.
And for all that we try to do our best, to care and share, to catch a breather, this is not a very merry Christmas at all. It is a catastrophe.
I think a general principle of Australian exploration is the further north you go, the quirkier things get. For quirkier you could substitute odder, weirder, crazier, madder than a dozen cuts snakes lurking in the stinging trees waiting for a cassowary. It may be a result of the liberty that comes with increasing distance from the tyranny of inner city elites developing their secret mind-controlling pharmaceuticals to add to our underground water reserves. Or it could just be the balmy weather and barmy environment. Where pretty much everything wants to eat you.
I wouldn’t say Townsville is the capital of Crazytown, but there are certain idiosyncrasies to observe. Perhaps most obviously in the calibre of politicians representing the region, generally observed wearing big hats and force-feeding coal to their grandchildren, insistent that it is the future, it is it is. It is very easy to imagine Friday night here Cold War Steve style, all hi-vis hypermasculinity and gutter-strewn carnage at the foot of the concrete sugar shaker. My taxi driver confirmed as much as he took me to the airport, to pick up a hire car.
I had never been on the strip of land between Townsville and Cairns, and with a few days tagged on to a work trip I was heading up the coast towards Mission Beach. It’s an interesting enough drive with a decent selection of diversions along the way. It’s also a journey of transition from the golden dry tropics to the verdant abundance of the wet.
A little north of Townsville up the Strewth Highway, the blend of dry grassland and tropical rainforest manifests in Paluma Range National Park, with each climbing, narrow turn up the mountain road darkening as undergrowth thickens. Little Crystal Creek is on the cusp of a landscape in change, and a pretty place to pause. Higher up around Paluma, rainforest walks promise at views and deliver in sweatiness, though it’s still a long way from being as bad as it gets in high summer.
It seems a bit ridiculous to talk of a summer in a place that is almost consistently between 26 and 30 degrees year round. Seasons are more marked by a change in humidity, from clear, arid winter days to muggy, stormy summer oppression. You can also throw in the odd cyclone, with the last big, big one – Yasi – hitting the coast around Mission Beach in 2011.
Continuing north up the highway approaching Cardwell, it is hard to picture today. But an enduring image from that storm is the pile of fancy yachts stacked upon one another at Hinchinbrook Marina. Three-quarters of buildings in Cardwell were damaged and the banana crop so tied to this part of the world was devastated. The rugged, pristine environment of Hinchinbrook Island tantalises today. But you wouldn’t have wanted to camp there back then.
Cardwell seems a quiet kind of place, a pit top where the Bruce Highway finally meets the sea. Post-Yasi, a medium sized big crab has been resurrected on the top of a café. As you do. It’s competition along the highway with the Frosty Mango where I have already stopped and the Big Golden Gumboot of Tully in which I am destined to head.
Finally, a turn off at Tully leads towards Mission Beach, which somewhat confusingly is a cluster of villages and bays along a stretch of coast twenty kilometres or so. We’re in a region known as the Cassowary Coast and they sure do emphasise the cassowary part of that nomenclature. Official and unofficial road signs alert you to the presence of this giant flightless bird, warnings that seem worthy given they are dwindling in numbers and most susceptible to road accidents. Some people might fear the cassowary for its strong hook-like claw, but you’ll generally find the ubiquitous Toyota Hilux is more lethal in so many ways.
Of course, being in cassowary country makes you – as they say – naturally cass-o-wary. Walking in dense rainforest at Lacey Creek it’s all a bit like encountering snakes…part of you would be thrilled to see one and to try to take a blurry picture, but part of you would be pooping your pants. Every rustle and fleeting shadow pricks the senses, only for it to be caused by an unseen gecko or another bush turkey.
Down by the sea at Bingil Bay, there is always the chance of a crocodile or a lethal jellyfish to spot instead. Though the hosts at my B&B warned me the crocs are only in the creeks, I’m not so sure about stepping too far into that ocean. I mean, the creeks enter the sea, right. What goes in must come out. And with plenty of mangroves in which to lurk, I can just picture myself sunbaking right there if I was a saltwater crocodile. So, I move briskly on, along a fine, shady boardwalk towards the hub that is North Mission Beach. Where a cold beer with a view is the better means of cooling down, I reckon.
Refreshed and now feeling in holiday mood, there was definitely justification in an afternoon siesta, before working up a sweat again climbing Bicton Hill in Clump Mountain National Park. If cassowaries and crocs weren’t enough, the start of this trail warned of stinging trees, which boast attractive heart shaped leaves and plump purple fruit. The cunning bastards.
The sign at the bottom of the track also warns that this isn’t a walk for everyone, indicating heart-attack potential. But it’s not that bad, just a leafier, slightly deadlier version of Mount Ainslie with views out toward a far-less manicured landscape.
With all this adventure and threat, one of the nice, homely touches of my B&B was the opportunity for drinks on the veranda at six o’clock. With only a few rooms it was cosy and relaxing, a chance to share the escapades of the day with those from further afield. Of course, being a naturalised Australian I was quickly assigned an authority on matters such as swooping birds, the diet of the cassowary, drought and bushfires, the hiding places of redback spiders, the pros and cons of Townsville, and…well…Brexit. I do suppose the Netherlands and Switzerland – especially Switzerland – seem very genteel by comparison.
At the B&B I was also frequently lobbied to try out the Kennedy Walking Track commencing at South Mission Beach. And so, on Sunday morning I decided to give it a go before the drive back to Townsville. And what a great recommendation to take up before eventually returning to the landlocked eucalypt land of four seasons back south. Yay for palm trees and golden sands, mangroves and croccy creeks, and that milky aquamarine sea. Another world in the same country.
I have to say I do think the beaches of the south coast of New South Wales are in many ways better. They are typically finer and sandier and, well, you can generally paddle without as great a fear of being lunch and / or lacerated to death. But then there is just that air to the tropics, a mood and a light and colours so vivid. And palm trees and ferns and – up here – rainforest tumbling down to the sea. Like I say, another world in the same country.
Talking of other worlds, I eventually made it back to Townsville via the largest potato scallops and smallest bites of fish in Ingham. A little early for my flight back, I remembered spotting a huge TV tower on top of a peak just to the west of town when I came to land at the same airport, and duly discovered there was a road to the top. From the summit of Mount Stuart, this possible Crazytown doesn’t seem too mad, distant as I am from its Sunday hangover.
Perhaps madder is the scene inland, where the maddest of mad dogs can flourish. A scene dry and dusty and rugged and foreboding. A world devoid of much, exposed to a harsh, searing heat and unforgiving glare; perhaps you can see why many are happy enough to dig it up. The maddest thing though is that this world can suck you in, can draw you to it, can make you want to step one more foot into its fringe. It might even tempt you to buy a wide brimmed hat and some sturdy RM Williams boots. If only you didn’t have a flight to catch back to sanity.
Late Friday afternoon on the road between Braidwood and Bungendore and the wind is buffeting my car as it trundles into the sleety clouds of winter. I’m returning from the coast, where two hours before I was eating lunch on a sheltered cove saturated in warm sunshine. It’s a slightly weary drive and, for some reason, I decide to play The Lightning Seeds for probably the first time in twenty years.
After several jaunty, scousish ditties that sound identical, the sage words of Alan Hansen and Jimmy Hill emerge as the infectious, glorious, deprecating anthem that is Three Lions blares out. I cannot listen to this without bobbing my head a little, chanting, smiling like a Cheshire Cat. As much as you might try. It’s Coming Home! At least I hope so, in light of the possible blizzard up ahead.
It’s Coming Home. Euro 96. An era that now feels halcyon, days when the Donald and BJ were still complete dicks but at least not complete dicks inexplicably leading disunited states and precarious kingdoms. Back in 1996, John Major was trundling his way towards the end of years of Tory rule, a regime which now somehow seems sane and reasonable. The Spice Girls were zig-a-zag-ahing and both Mitchells were polishing their heads behind the bar of the Queen Vic. I was completing my first year of university, undistracted by a phone, immune from the ranting coalescence of conspiracy lunatics on the internet.
I don’t remember that much about my university course (who does?), but in a convoluted way which coincidentally brings us back to the present I suppose it led me to be in the South Coast NSW town of Narooma on a mild, golden evening in August 2019. I studied, I got a job, I travelled, I went back to that job, I transferred to Australia with that job and I ended up on a boardwalk meandering past calm and clear waters toward the ocean.
Did I ever imagine back in 1996 that I would be gazing out to the Pacific hoping to sight a whale? Meandering downhill alongside gardens strewn with exotic plants and colourful birds? Wandering past parks dotted with electric barbecues and sinks for dealing with the entrails of fish? Who would have thought I would have previously parred the treacherous Bogey Hole of that golf course wedged between the town and the plunging cliffs of the coastline? Certainly not me, or anyone else, which is why I bring it up again.
Even with its ageing hackers, Narooma is a pretty quiet kind of place, especially in a midweek in winter when the temperature has dipped to something around nineteen degrees. It’s tough going, having to put a light jumper on as the sun disappears behind Gulaga, pondering whether to have fish and chips for dinner or wait until tomorrow.
While I know Narooma pretty well, the first night in a strange place always seems to lead to a fitful sleep, even when you’ve opted to forego fish and chips. Waking too early the next day, the murmurings of RN Breakfast do little to inspire or send me back to doze, so I head out into the dark. I love this time of day, especially beside the ocean; facing east as the black fades to blue and grey and red and yellow, and shafts of sunlight glitter off the sea. The sun kisses the layers of morning cloud, spreading to the tops of trees, and illuminating the coffee shop on the hill. A beacon which makes the reward of an early start in Australia all the better.
With plenty of the day still ahead I took the car for a little explore south of Narooma, stopping first in the so-good-they-named-it-twice hamlet of Tilba Tilba before heading on to the relative bustle of Central Tilba. This is a corner of the county oozing genuine charm, with plenty of tin roofs and lacework awnings, flower-filled yards and rustic leftovers. By Australian standards it’s usually a green and lush place as well, which is great for local dairy products; but even here the drought looked to be taking its yellowing toll.
Given my early start it was probably pushing it to head to the bakery in Central Tilba for local produce straight away, so I took a gentle amble along the track which eventually leads to the top of Gulaga, the dominant, forest-clad peak of the area, spiritually significant to the local Yuin people. You can walk to the top, but I wasn’t really in the mood and I heard that summit views were lacking. The valley was perfectly happy enough.
Did I mention dairy products? One of my favourite topics which, back in 1996, probably didn’t come with any moral distaste from ethically sourced eco-vegan leftists typing away on their not-so-pure iPhones. I guess at a philosophical level, there is valid debate as to whether we can still have our cake and eat it? At an individual level, the answer was a resounding yes. Not only in Tilba, home to Jersey Cows and related outputs. But also in Bodalla, a pitstop on my journey into and out of Narooma and for all journeys this way in the future. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.
South of Tilba, the main highway veers off towards Bermagui, along a splendid road of eucalyptus forest and the shores of Wallaga Lake. The maps indicate a few coastal rock formations here, names suggesting a likeness to horses and camels which enticed me to explore with the hope of discovering an Australian Durdle Door or Bedruthan Step. While there was not quite the same grandeur, the coastal scenery, now bathed in warm sunshine, proved a tonic after that massive apple turnover.
It was pleasing to discover I was on part of the ‘Great South Coast Walk’ according to a few signposts. This doesn’t appear to be an official trail but may yet develop into something more formal. One of my bugbears with Australia is that it doesn’t seem to have the same right to roam philosophy as the UK. Huge tracts of land are locked up in private hands or just downright inaccessible unless you have Ray Mears on hand with a machete and / or a big gas guzzling ute. Being able to just rock up anywhere on the coast and walk has an appeal unmatched. See, for example, South West Coast Path.
It was along this walk, overlooking the expanse of Wallaga Lake, that I learnt of another resemblance in the landscape around here. Gulaga is a pregnant woman, partly explaining its significance to the Yuin people who were here well, well before 1996. Today, its fertility abounds as a cluster of whales drift down the coast, mother and calf distant white caps sporadically splashing in the rich waters.
I probably wouldn’t have spotted the whales if it wasn’t for a couple of retired locals staked out on a headland near Horse Head Rock. For me, this is usually the most successful method of spotting wildlife. If you’re driving in country Australia and a cluster of people have pulled over to look up at a tree, there’s a fair chance you’ll get to see a koala. The other way you tend to discover local wildlife is when you nearly run it over. Beware Wombats.
Spurred on by earlier whale sightings I ended the day back up near Narooma, taking a scenic coastal drive alongside Dalmeny and Kianga which boasts several panoramic viewing platforms along the way. The platforms are sited in between yet more pristine bays that you can have all to yourself. It was at the last of these points that I glanced a surfing dolphin, followed by a few more and a few more still. Passing below, there must have been around twenty dolphins, tracking north on a feeding mission. A whole two football teams.
I doubt I would have seen dolphins in 1996. Nor would I be questioning the prospect of snow in August, even counting for British weather. Today, this was a possibility heading back to Canberra thanks to a vigorous succession of cold fronts coming from the Antarctic. My solution was to linger down on the coast for as long as possible.
It was undoubtedly windy, but the skies were blue and with a little shelter you could sit comfortably in a light sweater or even T-shirt. Neither of which were really possible in the blustery settings of Cullendulla Creek and the nearby Eurobodalla Botanic Gardens, but these were attractive diversions nonetheless. At the gardens, the stronger gusts were a tad alarming and it felt only a matter of time before a branch would fall on my head. Mercifully it didn’t, and the march towards Spring carried on.
Just north of Batemans Bay – and the road junction back to Canberra – the graceful, tall spotted eucalypts of Murramarang National Park were probably less appealing to walk through today. Especially when picking a walk that follows a ridgeline facing the bay, directly exposed to the strong southwesterlies. The crashing chaos, the constant buffeting, the noise and fury do not entice a pause to look up and marvel. Impulsion instead for a brisk pace and the hope of respite on the other side. And what gentle and idyllic contrast this proves.
A bay with no-one and nothing. Nothing but calm clear waters, untouched sand and the backing of a gently whispering bush. A driftwood log, downed in some other storm and also finding its way to this paradise, is now a perfect setting for a late lunch. The breathlessness is not only in the air, the warmth not only on the outside. Perhaps even in 2019, these are still the days, this is still the life.
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.
And 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.
Queensland: 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On holiday, and at home, food is such a focal point to the activities of the day, whether that be a walk over hills to forage in supermarkets or an outing for coffee and cake for something to do in the rain. There are days where food gives me a sense of structure, particularly given my slavish devotion to the coffee (and biscuit or cake) gods midway through the morning.
Holidaying in Cornwall, the cream tea is often the main agenda item of the day, especially if it’s a bit gloomy, a tad tepid, a little dull. A cream tea is a little taste of solace no matter what the weather. But it turns out there are other foodstuffs which can dial up the sunshine to eleven, whether that be by design or not quite accident.
The St. Agnes Sausage Roll
After several days of dogged white cloud promising both sun and rain but delivering neither, a Sunday suddenly arrived under skies true blue. After a quick check of the Internet to see if certain places were open, I lead-footed it in good time to the North Cornwall coast, parking beside the remnants of Wheal Coates Mine. It was a bit early for lunch, so there was treasure to be discovered traversing the clifftops to Chapel Porth and working up an appetite back up past the mine buildings to the car. Sun out, tide out, T-shirt out, this is what I came for.
But in nearby St. Agnes there is an enhancement to be had among the narrow yesteryear parade of shops and cottages. Past the pub adorned by people sheltering with a shandy, the bakery in the corner is indeed open. And the big dilemma is whether to have one sausage roll or two. I mean, they are hefty affairs so one would be ample, but when would I be here again? And if I have just the one that means there’s only the single flavour to sample. Valid concerns, after the event. Much to my subsequent regret I opted for one, cognisant of leaving room for any other opportunities that should present themselves later in the day.
Thus, the quest for a very particular sausage roll had delivered me to one of the most beautiful corners of the country on one of the most beautiful days of the year so far. And it had barely reached lunchtime. It was time to walk it off.
And walk it off I did, on a pleasing circular loop taking in three of the sandiest, sunniest beaches in Britain. Setting off from West Pentire, the route immediately dipped into a sheltered valley of fluttering birdsong, before rising again to the forlorn cries of hacks criss-crossing the mini links of Holywell. One of the trails disappearing into the maze of dunes should eventually lead to the beach, but it would be easy to lose your bearings, like a couple of droids you are not looking for in a galaxy far, far away.
The beach at Holywell Bay was surprisingly underpopulated in light of this being a Bank Holiday weekend and all. The cause: a brisk nor’wester coming directly off the ocean. Even Poldork was in hiding. The dunes were clearly the place to be, strategically sheltered in a hollow hoping some berk with a backpack won’t come traipsing past to ruin the ambience of your romantic picnic.
Onward and upward the berk heads, overlooking the massive expanse of the bay and the beach now seemingly stretching to America on the low tide. Rounding the next corner, the sands of Poly Joke Beach cluster in the nooks and crevices of the land, as if gold has run off from the verdant pasture above. Mostly a tidal beach, people here create castles and clobber balls for six, reading papers in the sand and letting their dogs do whatever their dogs please, as per usual.
Walking up from Jolly Poke or whatever it’s called, I continue on the coast path rather than heading directly back to the car park. There is no rush to head home, on a day such as this. And surely I can find some sustenance as reward at the end to keep me going until Plymouth. It’s afternoon tea time after all.
Well, this is where sausage roll regrets return, for there is no happy ending, despite the blissful site of Crantock Beach sparkling at full reveal. There is a pub overlooking this vista, but I don’t fancy a beer. It. Must. Be. Tea. And. Cake. A nearby hotel offers something, but the last slice of Victoria Sponge looks a bit dry and sad. I should’ve bought one of the sweet treats from St. Agnes bakery. As well as another sausage roll.
The Bedruthan Spud
Despite the lack of a treat at the end, I was delighted to have done a North Cornwall day in such wonderful conditions. If that was that for this year, then so be it. But, then, my very last day in the southwest heralded a decent dollop of sunshine. And I wasn’t going to let a sore throat, bad back and overindulgence in clotted cream stop me.
These are the days that can simultaneously warm your soul and break your heart. The days when it would be difficult to fathom why you would be anywhere else. Sure, it was cool and blustery but that only made it all the more rewarding. Even the coffee at Mawgan Porth was bearable, which is pretty good going if I’m being honest.
Whereas I had a sausage roll in St. Agnes all to myself, today was a shared affair with Mum. Not that we were planning on sharing any food of course. No, we are related after all. But we were content to share the sands of Mawgan Porth together, with hardly anyone else in sight, determining to walk to the shoreline even though it never seemed to get any closer. Rockpools will do.
Now, the Bedruthan Spud – not to be confused with the Australian Minister for Home Affairs – has been a fixture of previous holidays but I wouldn’t call it a requisite. Cream tea: tick. Decent pasty: tick. Mum’s lasagne: tick. Une tartiflette: oui. The Bedruthan Spud today was more a consequence of convenience rather than a destination of desire.
We ventured on a walk just past Bedruthan, out towards Park Head. Accustomed to the postcard views near Spud Café I was keen to get a different perspective, a different angle. And the walk seemed reasonable enough, for both of us. A way to savour the sights and build some hunger before lunch. Wherever that may be.
Returning from the headland, I outlined the lunch options on offer: somewhere vague and probably owned by Rick in Padstow or even more vaguely anywhere opportune in between. Uncertainty is a risk (see Neil Misses Out on Tea and Cake) and so it took us about half a second to turn back to the National Trust café at Carnewas.
There is, of course, comfort in the familiar, safety in the known. And if you know it is going to be good, going to please, going to make your day and someone else’s, then why not just go ahead and do it. Whether that’s a baked potato with a slab of ham and a bowl of Cheddar or not.
Go back to the things that bring a smile to your face and warmth to your heart, again and again and again. Like that first sip of good coffee, that view of the ocean, that first family gathering over a trayful of roast potatoes, secretly seething that someone else took the crispiest one but contented with everything that this cacophonous moment brings. Go back to foods that delight, places that charm and people that love. And never ever tire of the same old picture postcard views along the way.
P.S. A sausage roll in the foreground would just about make this picture perfect.
I love how there are so many different roads meandering through the English countryside, linking villages that you never knew existed; undistinguishable places called something like Dompywell Saddlebag or West Northclumptonbrook, typically boasting a new speed bump and a church roof appeal from the 1980s. It’s a situation converse to Australia, where a few main roads emanate from the cities and towns, off which a handful of mysterious dirt tracks disperse into nothing. Setting off from home for a country drive in Australia is exhausted in four or five trips. Whereas in England the possibilities seem infinite.
When I say roads, of course, most are only a little wider than a Nissan Micra, especially in Devon, where they are also frequently clogged with tractors. Farming is still king – I think – in the South Hams, though tourism, teashops and production of Let’s Escape To Buy An Expensive Seaside Residence With Five Bedrooms And A Private Mooring On The Estuary To Get Through Our Retirement In The Sun TV shows prosper.
When the sun does appear, there is hardly anywhere more contented; there must be some primeval appeal in the lusciousness of those voluptuous green hills and snaking river valleys, the sheen of golden sands recently cleansed by the ebb and flow of a shimmering sea.
Remembering this is England, the sun of course doesn’t always shine and in the spring-like indecision that is early May it can be a fickle environment in which to salivate. At Bigbury-on-Sea, raincoats, fleeces and hot chocolates might be required while waiting for a break in the clouds. Temptation abounds to get back in the car and turn around; but you’ve paid for that parking now and you are British, and you’ll courageously stick it out like MEPs campaigning against their very existence (Customary Brexit Reference: tick). You have to be patient staying in this particular part of the world, but the benefits in doing so are clear and tangible.
A bit further down the A-road mostly suitable for two cars to pass, the town of Salcombe boasts a rather desirable ambience, even on another cloudy and cool day. Tucked inside the Kingsbridge Estuary it has some of the most golden sand and emerald water around, lapping at elegant houses and dense woodland thickets. There is a palpable sense of envy from the smattering of visitors strolling past the homes and gardens perched with lofty views across the water. I could live here, we all bitterly seethe in our heads.
No doubt many of the loftier residents of Salcombe were in jovial mood; not only from their elevated perch surveying the ambling peasants seeking a cheap pasty, but with the news of a royal baby to join the ranks. Does it have a name yet? I can’t even remember. Have the Daily Mail criticised the parents yet? Oh probably.
One of the perks of Salcombe are the options for food and drink, many of which come with waterside tables and a brief taste of refinement. Mum and I commenced the day at North Sands and a somewhat quirky café – The Winking Prawn – serving coffee (and for future reference, buffet breakfast). We then did the amble along the water and fancy homes to the town centre, where the usual offerings of pastry products, ice creams, pub food, overpriced crab bits and line caught organic fish goujons with quadruple cooked fondant sweet potato discs were up for grabs. Probably the best looking things were a tray of Chelsea Buns in a bakery, swiftly bagged and taken home for trouncing the Arsenal.
Really, it should have been a day for a Salcombe Dairy ice cream, the delicious embodiment of the verdant landscape all around. But after a bone-chilling ferry ride to South Sands, the moment had gone. Perhaps for another day.
Plymouth to Dartmouth is not the quickest affair despite only being around 30 miles apart. One option includes the tortuous A379 through thatched villages that become irretrievably clogged in battles between buses and B&M Bargains trucks – threading a camel through the eye of a needle is a doddle by comparison. Or there is the route via Totnes, which seems a bit too zig-zaggy to appear logical. An alternative cut through just past Avonwick was a new discovery that proved highly effective on the way almost there, and highly ridiculous on the way back.
One of the joys of that cut through, in the morning at least, was finding yet another road that took me through even more unknown villages as pretty as a picture, following river valleys and archetypal ten foot hedgerows and fields of newly minted lambs. The sun was shining too, and my meteorological calculations to head east appeared to be paying off.
It was also joyous to have a functioning car, without an exhaust dangling onto the road and probably projecting sparks onto the windscreen of a doddery couple heading to the post office. This happened later, on the A3122 at Collaton Cross, about a mile after the BP garage and before Woodlands Adventure Park. Details etched into my brain to guide the saviour that was the breakdown truck towards us.
And so, the unexpected and unplanned once again yields some of the most memorable moments. Waiting in a small layby among the gorgeous fields of Devon in the warming sunshine could be worse. Being patched up and guided to Totnes for repairs by endearing locals eager to provide a helping hand (and earn some pennies) proved heart-warming. Spending a few hours in Totnes, charmed and enlightened by good coffee, markets overflowing with abundance and leafy riverside walks. And the satisfaction of rediscovering batter bits with malt vinegar (good work Mum!)
Killing time in Totnes wasn’t too much of a chore in the end, and it was partway along a path following the River Dart that we got the call that the car was fit and ready. It had been an eventful day covering a lot of ground, but I was determined to head to where I had originally planned, several hours earlier. Another slice of succulent South Devon that oozes curvaceously into the sea.
Such are the ample proportions of the landscape here that the coast path between Strete and Blackpool Sands struggles to keep to the coast. The barriers are too immense, and the trail cuts inland as it dips down towards the bay. But this too is something of a blessing, for not only do you make it without falling to an inevitable death into the sea, but you become once again immersed into a countryside apparently so utopian. Farming must still be productive here, despite the temptation to become a campsite or a tearoom or a paddock for some pampered hobby horses.
The coast path comes back to the shore via a row of thatched cottages that could have almost been deliberately placed there to charm dewy-eyed tourists like myself. The fine shingle of Blackpool Sands lends a bright and airy light even through the sunshine of the morning is rare. And down near the shingle, a café, winding down for the day has some Salcombe Dairy on tap.
After fish and chips and batter bits there is hardly need for additional gluttony. But this is a land of overindulgence, of profligate abundance, blessed with more than its ample share of what makes life good. And I still have one of those gorgeous hills to climb to get back to the car, a climb that is incessant and delightful and my own private nirvana full of ice cream and South Devon. A climb and a day entirely, wonderfully, exhausting.
Perfect timing is an almost impossible feat for golfing hacks like me. To successfully synchronise arms and legs and shoulders and heads and buttocks and toes to make contact with a little ball in such a way as to propel it hundreds of metres straight into the yonder. Or, more likely for an annual swinger like me, veer off into the never never.
Perfect timing beyond golf can be equally tricky – think roast dinners with overcooked veg, last minute flurries of activity for work deadlines following weeks of procrastination, deals for departing continents. But, of course, the reason such a concept exists is because once the timing does work out, everything is just about, well, perfect.
And so, on a Sunday afternoon following a frenetic couple of weeks, I found myself with two friends – Alex and Michael – down in Tuross Heads on the South Coast of NSW. Late afternoon sunlight illuminating yet another typical stretch of typically Australian sand, typically devoid of humans and their typical detritus. Water in late March about perfect for a paddle, and a clutch of cold beers in the bag.
This proved an aperitif for the perfectly timed stroll beside the water to the Pickled Octopus Café, where we availed ourselves of a pristine outdoor table lapping at the glassy calm of the inlet. Fish and chip orders arrived as the daylight turned to dusk, each munch of deep fried saltiness coinciding with a deepening of colours and escalation of heavenly drama. A moment when nothing else can distract and nothing else really matters. Timing again exquisite.
The dawning of the next day heralded great opportunity for timing to go awry. Featuring my annual attempt at playing golf, it was however more about the setting than frequent futile attempts to make a small ball go into a small hole. Narooma’s dramatic oceanside holes and its winding course through tall eucalypts and saline creeks set the scene.
The 3rd hole is probably the most renowned landmark, requiring a shot over the ocean to a green among the cliffs. To my utmost surprise, following a very rocky start, I launched the ball high and true, landing 10 feet to the right of the pin. The pride of making par only matched by a birdie on the 17th. A little perfect timing amongst much that was off.
Nevertheless, the views along the way offered plenty to treasure, a perfect blue sky day when it is easy to get distracted from the tee or green or your wayward shot with the panorama of ocean. Empty sweeps of sand, crumbling wave-pounded cliffs, pebbly coves peppered with plastic golf balls destined to pollute the ocean. I did my very best to save the whales (see above).
Back in Tuross Heads, it really is a little nugget of a place, especially when you visit out of holidays and weekends when it is neither ferociously scorched by bogan summers or coated in a wintry ghost town gloom. I’d say the perfect time, perfectly timed, would be around the end of March and early April. And here we were, April 2, sat out on the deck of the Boatshed, drinking a coffee and thinking how lucky the local retirees were. But we were there too, and very thankful for that; lucky to able to have this to enjoy no matter how brief.
This would be a great spot to take out a kayak, but perhaps that’s for another perfect time. The exertions of the annual golf escapade meant slightly sore shoulders and backs and a preference for something a little more leisurely. Anywhere around here there is always a beach, or an inlet, or a patch of fragrant gum forest in which to wander.
There are serious tracks that go on a long way, up to campsites and coves and more headlands and tracts of wilderness. Will it always be like this? Heaven only knows. You don’t see it changing too much anytime soon, but it will. For now, the footsteps in the sand back to the car linger for a fleeting moment, the briefest moment of time in the grand story of our world. Insignificant imprints, but for those who left them to be blown and swept away, a perfectly timed point in time.
I really don’t get this whole Ten Year Challenge malarkey. Not because it’s like some glorified chain letter vanity project or anything. No, my only bewilderment with it is what the actual heck is the actual challenge?
Surely a real challenge would be something like – oh I dunno – unpacking forty years of legislation and agreements and treaties that you have actively shaped and adopted in order to enable the cohesive and productive functioning of society without it resulting in the only certainty being the uncertainty of what exactly can fill the void which will not simultaneously provoke pandemonium and lead to a bitter aftertaste in the plummy throats of anti-elitist elites who really deep down can’t warm to little Abdullah no matter what they might say about saving their NHS which they don’t even have to use because of their private health provider in whom they have offshore investments.
Another more challenging challenge would be coming up with a sentence longer than that. Or how about getting through a particularly hot spell in a hot Australian summer?
It’s a tough gig, and the reality of four straight days in a row above 40 degrees was enough to force me fleeing to the coast, at least for a couple of those days. Thankfully when I got back there came a reprieve with temperatures dropping back down to 37 with a cool change as ineffectual as any number of Secretaries of State for Exiting the European Union. Yes, the hot air persists.
At least on the coast the temperatures dropped a good eight to ten degrees, pampered with pleasant sea breezes and clear cool waters. There was fish and chips and ice cream, paddles upon shores and across inlets, and a decent amount of lounging with a book in the sand. Yet the highlight of this escape was away from the edge of the water. Instead, upon the edge of wilderness.
Morton National Park is a gargantuan expanse of vast sandstone plateaus and dense valleys separating the coastal strip of southern NSW with the golden tablelands inland. With alluring names such as Monolith Valley and The Castle, and pockets that have probably never even seen a human face, there is a timeless, spiritual brooding conjured by its landscape.
It’s certainly tough to penetrate, with a few access points denting its edges. One of these comes around half an hour’s drive from UIlladulla, up through pockets of verdant rainforest and along a bumbling dirt road. A small car park welcomes you to the start of the Mount Bushwalker trail which is – pleasingly – all bushwalk and very little mounting.
Setting off nice and early before heat rises, the trail actually proves somewhat dull – a fire trail becoming a narrow tunnel cutting through low shrubs and over boggy watercourses. A family of black cockatoos enliven proceedings, startled by a lone bushwalker and fleeing somewhere vaguely over the horizon. There is the feeling of grandeur metres away, just around the next corner, through the bushes, palpable but never really visible. Until, that is, the very end.
The trail truly proves a means to an end. And if all endings end up ending like this then sign me up to end the end music in Eastenders. An end coming at only around half eight in the morning, just me, a vegemite sandwich (yes, truly), and millions of eucalypts spilling across to the vertiginous walls of The Castle. Australian through and through.
It was borderline whether I had really earned what was to follow, such was the relative ease of this walk. Out of the wilds, the cutesy hilltop town of Milton inevitably has a bakery, which I inevitably visited, inevitably not for the first time. There is a pleasing inevitability in the inevitability of cake and coffee.
Down the road from Milton, through the fringes of Rick Stein’s Mollymook, is the small coastal village of Narrawallee. Not only does this have a genuinely great sounding name, relaxed holiday vibes, and a good-looking coffee shop by the water, but it also hosts a delightful meandering inlet, protected from the ocean and perfect for all sorts of wading, dipping, paddle-boarding and family gatherings for cricket on a sandy tidal flat. Having passed on a shower – what with my early start and anticipation of a sweaty hike – this was refreshment at its finest.
Nearby Mollymook Beach is equally as idyllic, a fine sweep of sand reminiscent of but far superior to Bondi. It seemed to me a suitable location for an early evening read on a blanket followed by an amble along that stretch contested between land and sea. However, gathering thunderstorms also took a liking to the beach and closed in for what proved an entire night of tumultuous electrical drama.
You might hope the stormy melee would clear the air and cool things down to proffer something more reasonable. But, no, we are in an age of extremes after all. Following a sweaty goodbye ocean coffee and a cheap petrol fill up at Batemans Bay, the car had to work overtime to keep cool on the climb up Clyde Mountain. And then, returning to Canberra, the sight of Black Mountain Tower on the horizon, shimmering in a dusty haze of 38 degrees. And still rising.
A challenge means a challenge after all.
* with due deference to Adelaide.
There was a somewhat fitting addendum to my journey in supposedly great Britain, a transitional phase elongating the journey between two hemispheres. Norfolk is rarely likened to Australia – though it is the driest region of the UK and famously has an in-breeding rate some hick towns in the outback might aspire to. Yet being here felt one step closer, one step nearer to that other home down under.
Norfolk is now home to Jill, someone who I associate with so much of Australia, having covered many miles together crossing a wide brown land. And so, a weekend here had parallels: coastal walks, bird rolls, coffee and cake, and an infestation of boatpeople. The Broads, like a Noosa Everglades of tangled waterways, is plied by extravagant cruisers and basic tinnies, festooned with birdlife, and regularly adorned with waterfront retreats. Very Australian; though here, little Englanders can live on their very own island and control their borders until their hearts are content.
It is quite possible to get a roast dinner in Australia; even when it is forty degrees there will be waterfront homes boasting a chook in the fan-assisted humidifying oven, accompanied by roasted vegetables that undoubtedly include pumpkin. While the roast dinner may be a relic of colonisation, its pure deliciousness has helped it to endure as a great British export, even if it does become bastardised with pumpkin or somehow cooked on the barbie with a can of beer up its arse. But the roast is best fitting in its true home: a cosy pub on a grey day.
It is also quite possible to get coffee in England; even if you are truly desperate there will be a Costa Express at the servo down dale. The thing is, you really need to have cake with it to compensate for the likelihood of receiving a giant cup of hot liquid somewhere in the range of blandly mediocre to bitterly dreadful. I can adapt to this situation, but the thought of returning to Australia and having a coffee fills me with a little cheer.
England or Australia, Jill and I always do our very best to eat and drink well.
The good thing is we traditionally tended to walk such things off with potters around Sydney Harbour or ascents of Grampian hills. A Saturday spent on the North Norfolk coast offered conditions for a good old bushwalk, with typical weather to boot: warm winds and clear skies probably bringing temperatures I had not felt since August. Centred around the sprawling estate of Sheringham Park, the walk including lush forests, lofty lookouts, dried out pastures and placid seas. The pebbly beaches are far from Bondi, but they can equally host a tasty bird roll picnic.
This landscape was naturally far from Australian, but it was also a slightly different type of England, distanced from that familiar land of heavily undulating green plunging into the Atlantic. I was no longer home on my way home, still happily soaking up lingering remnants of what is great about Britain but preparing my mind to embrace Australia again. A long transition was in play, like that of the leaves around me, gradually drifting away towards their winter…
…And just like that the world spins and you fight against it for a day or so in this never-never land of cold air and reclining seats and unappealing movies and rice with two lumps of what might be chicken. Dessert is more of a highlight because it involves – somewhat poetically – Salcombe Dairy Ice Cream. Here I am on a Singapore Airlines A380 headed for Australia and dessert comes from a little patch of paradise on the south coast of Devon. In that taste of creamy cherry are the lush meadows and deep blue seas of home. I can see Bolt Head, as clear as day.
At some point the world becomes tropical. There are bright lights, acres of glass and miles of travellators. You could buy a Rolex or a roti with some weird money. It is five in the morning and people are eating dinner. You are somewhere in the world at some point in time but not much of it makes sense. If only it was all a dream, the relaxing sound of running water and floating butterflies lulling you into restful sleep…
…restful sleep feels like such an unrealistic aspiration. You are back in your own bed, surrounded by your own comforts, but even the 3am sounds of a boring discussion on Radio National do not cause eyes or mind to yield. It can be tough, that first week being back, but it can also be filled with joy.
The joy of finally getting the journey done counts for a lot. But there are also those home comforts, a re-acquaintance with certain foods, my car starting, a new but familiar environment, the coffee…the coffee and the sun and catch ups with friends over coffee in the sun.
As I leave one autumn, the promise of spring pervades, amply exemplified in the lavender going crazy and weeds liberally taking over my garden. Everywhere flowers and blooms and fresh green buds, from the manicured terrain of the Parliamentary Triangle to the sprawling native treasures of the Botanic Gardens. Shorts are more often than not feasible under frequent blue skies.
Maybe it’s the season, but the blue skies you find in Australia do not seem to exist in the same way in the UK, in Europe. They are bigger and bluer here, more intense and infinitesimal. They create boldness and vibrance rather than subtlety and nuance. They can make the landscape appear stark and saturated. This difference like a polarising filter thrown over my eyes.
Only as the longer days edge towards their end does the light soften, but even then there are hues of summery gold and laser red projecting onto hills, eucalypts and rapidly rising apartment windows. The sun does its reliable trick of shifting forever west as the world turns, west to embrace the rest of the world, the world from where I have come. A sun forever shared across the miles, permanently, naturally transitional.
We’re still in November so technically it was only last month that I was finishing up on my latest quest to figure out what the heck is going on in supposedly Great Britain and – as usual – deciding the only way to deal with such complex cognitive conundrums was with a walk in the country and a nice bit of tea and cake. In fact, I’m sure a wedge of Victoria Sponge could prove wonders in finding a way through the impasse of flipstops and backjocks and frictionless pants or whatever else passes for titillating games within the Eton Old Boys Society these days. Just don’t mention ze Pumpernickel.
There’s a kind of car-crash fascination watching from afar as developments in Britain either a) lead to an apocalyptic meltdown in which some Love Island loser eats the bones of leftover pigeons to provide entertainment on the Boris Broadcasting Copulation or b) unicorns glide over abundant fields of plenty showering golden poo onto the NHS. I’m an optimist though…at least in thinking that my occasionally hard-earned Aussie dollar should go a bit further when I next visit.
And when I return will I again find peak brilliance that was my final full day in the southwest of England? One can hope so, as this is a landscape hardy and resistant to change, holding steadfast for now against the Atlantic, even if there are cliff edges around every corner.
Will the coffee get better? I doubt it. Because, you know, Costa has apparently perfected the flat white so how can you improve upon perfection? Bahahahahahahaha. Seeing masses of everyone gathered within every single Costa (and similar popular coffee-related establishments) provides an indicator of how simple it is for millions of people to be duped. But then if you do not look outward, do not expose yourself to difference, how could you know any better?
Anyway, back to my last day in Cornwall. There was some looking outward wth coffee over Watergate Bay near Newquay. It was an acceptable enough brew, but the main purpose was to get inside the Watergate Bay Hotel and take advantage of the view from the deck. A panorama of sweeping golden sand and crystal blue surf under a wonderful cloudless sky. Why would I ever leave?
While life was rather fine here, a little up the coast road comes the view to win them all. You know, I was thinking that this spot has got to be up there with some of the world’s greatest reveals. Like that first glimpse of the Opera House or the initial peer down into the Grand Canyon. Okay, maybe one of Britain’s greatest reveals, but I definitely think it’s not out of place in some Lonely Planet list of things for people to put on Instagram that features a glamorous blonde chick who is supposedly a traveller and social media influencer dangling off a cliff in the foreground.
This place is Bedruthan Steps, best Instagrammed (and yes, I did), when the tide is out.
With waters receding the scale of this magnificent stretch of coast is more pronounced, as various rocky lumps and creviced cliffs tower over tiny human specks milling about in the acres of sand. And from upon high, an appreciation of the clarity of the sea and the lines formed from each set of waves rolling in. Here, the irresistible force of nature is immense.
For those human specks there is an ankle-sapping plunge to the beach, should you be so inclined. On this occasion, my feet instead turned tail and ended up at the café, a consequence as inevitable as David Cameron hiding in a shed to eat pork scratchings. Famous baked potatoes in the National Trust cottage are worth the trip alone, vying for attention with the inevitable cream tea. I had been in the UK for around eight weeks now and – to be honest – I had probably had enough clotted cream to last a year. So baked potato it was. Followed by a few leftovers from a cream tea.
I don’t like food waste. Neither does Rick Stein, I imagine, because I’m sure the innards of a red mullet can prove a rather fine base for a Bouillabaisse. Travelling up the coast from Bedruthan there’s a point at which you enter the forcefield of greater Padstow and its outlying villages and bays. That point is literally Trevose Head. It’s a point I have never been to and today was, well, no exception.
It’s always good to have some untouched Cornwall in reserve for next time, but I did get a little closer to that point with a walk out from Harlyn Bay. This presented yet another expanse of sand laid out against a deep blue sea and rolling green fields, largely empty in the second week of October.
The coastline here is a little less gargantuan than down the road and the walking is pretty simple going, barring a strong headwind from the ocean. It doesn’t take too long to round a headland at the western end of the bay and sight Trevose Head and the Padstow lifeboat station nestled in one of its nooks. The lifeboat station is another common sight on social media, possibly with a blonde chick staring out into the distance as clear waters and golden sands glow in the background. Today it remained a sight from afar, but I was happy to gaze over the beautiful Mother Ivey’s Bay as a culmination for the day.
Indeed, a culmination for Cornwall and for the Southwest of England again. It took a while to get there but every step, every sight, every word, and every cream tea was worth it. Visions will linger from this last day and the many moments that led up to this point. Simple visions of sun and sand, sea and land, and undying fondness for a jutting out bit of a rocky island askance in a confused ocean.
A sure sign that I had been in the UK for a while was the notion that it was simply ludicrous to expect to explore the far west of Cornwall on a day trip from Plymouth. In Australia, such thoughts would be perfectly acceptable, indeed very much the norm. “Just popping down to the beach” shouts Clint cheerily from the Ute window, as he sets off across the dusty paddock and onward to golden sands some two hundred kilometres distant. People I know have driven from Canberra to Brisbane in a day and back again the day after. Just off for a quiet drive in the country…
It is true that British roads take longer: they are narrower and more disjointed, denoted in miles (which gives an illusion of proximity), and overpopulated by caravans and lorries. In Cornwall, add the probability of tractors on roads which simply run out of space and you can understand the frequent car parks that form in the summer holidays. Even in October it can take longer than you expect, resulting in pasties in Marazion that are a touch on the tepid side because it is so far beyond the normal hours of lunch.
Still, with a few nights in a caravan (a static one I should add) near the town of St. Just there should be opportunity to sample some fresh food. And savour the rugged edge-of-the-world landscape holding steadfast against the Atlantic. An Atlantic that readily spreads its moisture over Penwith, cloaking in cloud the highest patches of sticky-out Cornwall upon which static caravans perch.
Such was the persistence of this shroud for much of the time it was easy to believe we were the only souls for miles, or kilometres, around. Nothing else in sight, barring a scattering of empty caravans looking jaded after a busy summer season. Finer writers than me would better evoke a mystical mood of ghostly visions, pagan spirits and murderous pirates going “AAAAAARRRRRRGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH”. I just got bored with it and drove down the hill seeking out a break.
In Mousehole, the grey mood dissipated with an amble through the jaunty narrow streets, snooping into the windows of cosy cottages as they wind their way down towards the colourful, cobbled harbour. With calm seas and monotone skies, there was a strong serenity enveloping the village, no doubt amplified by the absence of throngs of tourists. Even the seagulls seemed subdued, fattened from their harvest of summertime chips.
Spirits lifted further following a rather good coffee overlooking the harbour (the use of Rodda’s milk could have been a factor). And in the time it takes to sup a rich creamy latte, the sun broke through to offer a taste of summer revisited. Just where are my shorts now?
A few miles back up the road and the static was still in the clouds. However, the morning below had now delivered hope and – with that – an intent to pop some shorts in the car “just in case”. Such fancies were still feasible over lunch in Trengwainton, a National Trust speciality providing a café within a charming garden setting. Ah, some fresh produce and – not for the first time – a cream tea for lunch. Reflecting now I think this might have been my favourite cream tea of the year. Proper lush.
The prospect of shorts hung in the balance but was soon shot down upon arrival in a murky St. Ives. Unlike Mousehole, St. Ives was typically bursting with visitors pacing in a slow, zombie-like shuffle between crafty art galleries and hearty pasty chains. This dawdling procession seemed to accentuate a sombre air, hardly conducive to lingering. So back along the north coast it was, with a few stops along the way, to the static caravan in the clouds.
The next morning heralded a sense of déjà vu that required a little longer to escape. In fact, it wasn’t until I was haphazardly navigating my way through lanes hopefully heading towards Portreath that the clouds lifted. Once again, I had discovered the sunshine. I was feeling a little smug with myself and taking pride in my sun-seeking skills but of course it was sheer luck. Lucky to be here, under these skies.
Sunlight illuminated much of the north coast heading up towards Newquay and we were right on its edge. A separation as distinct as the line between land and sea, a frontier you don’t want to get too close to at Hell’s Mouth. Here, vertiginous cliffs plummet into pristine ocean, though becalmed in the breathless air of today.
Heading back west, the lightening cloud signified something a little more promising. Driving into the caravan site Mum noticed an old abandoned tin mine which we hadn’t known had existed before then. The expanse of the hill slowly unfolded and, suddenly, you could make out the houses in St. Just. There was even, from one spot, a blue wedge of sea forming on the horizon.
St. Just seemed a jollier place in the sun, the depression lifting in tandem with the weather. At nearby Botallack we headed towards the famous Crown Engine Houses, following a suspicious truck proclaiming to have something to do with film production. I suspect they, like everyone else, were making hay when the sun was shining; finally they could get some panoramic money shot to fill a gap in some tedious dialogue in Poldark. Or perhaps they were just on a holiday.
Now trying to cram literally everything in under clearer air, next up was a trip to Porthcurno. Given this place seems to be the current most Instagrammed memento of Cornwall it was surprisingly quiet. Perhaps all the day-trippers had departed, or else plunged down a cliff trying to get a snap of any sand emerging from a receding tide at Pedn Vounder. With such peace and such beauty, the fruits of staying in a static in the clouds were coming to bear.
And what better than the fruits of the sea, in the golden end-of-day light at Sennen Cove? To me, the beach here is the closest resemblance to Australia of any I have encountered in England. A sweeping arc of sand for the most part untainted by development. Curling waves of surf, with the obligatory dreadlocked shark bait on boards. And a little alfresco waterfront action, though in the very English gorgeousness of a proper pub with proper ale.
And now, finally, before heading back to Plymouth the next day, a chance to watch the sun set into the Atlantic. Almost. For of course this isn’t Australia and there is always a prospect of clouds on the horizon. But at least now they were only on the horizon, rather than atop a static caravan on a hill a long drive from home.
The richness of Britain is quite something. Not richness in an economic sense, that measure upon which so much weight is given – wander any town or city and it will quickly become apparent that financial riches are far from universal. No, it’s the sheer abundance of Britain. There’s so much in so little a space. Everything here is dense, whether that be the number of council houses clustered together in a cul-de-sac or the profusion of single-track lanes crisscrossing rolling green countryside. How can this small rock in the Atlantic host so much of everything? A tardis of a nation.
I feel like you could spend a lifetime and still not discover every corner of Britain. This is a task even more challenging when you don’t live there anymore, and you are largely content to frequent familiar fishing villages and creamy countryside on home turf. Why the need to go anywhere else?
Even the sands underneath me have felt my footsteps before, though I’m sure never in such a glorious glow. And under this clear air emanating from Blackpool, a horizon of land appears as alien to me as Timbuktu.
North Wales is a corner of Britain that seems to pack more punch in its acres than most. I think it’s largely explained by the proximity of the coastline to the jagged peaks just a few miles inland. At times the uplands appear to roll directly into the sea. And where they don’t, valleys, towns, forests and lakes squeeze in to fill the gaps. I could spend a month here and still not discover it all.
But I did at least have three days to explore new terrain and it commenced with a surprisingly seamless and pleasurable drive from Lancashire under continuing blue skies. Smoothly cruising through Cheshire, the terrain elevated somewhat into Wales, with snatched views of the Wirral and – in the distance – the conglomeration of Liverpool. At one point I could see the prominent rise of Snowdonia, clearly denoted by the only patch of cloudy sky in the whole of the British Isles. And I was heading straight for it.
The car came to a halt beside Llyn Ogwen, a sliver of a lake hemmed in by the A5 and two hilly clumps of land – the massifs of the Carneddau and Glyderau. To the north, the rolling, open uplands of the Carneddau shimmered gold in the sunshine while the rockier Glyderau was grazed by cloud. And guess to which one I was heading…
Passing a popular National Trust outpost, a gentle and well-worn path crossed the moorland towards Llyn Idwal, a small lake hemmed in by precipitous cliffs, popular with climbers and school parties vaguely attempting to do something related to Geography. While the landscape was striking, at times it was difficult to stand up, such was the wind howling through this giant bowl. And in late September, a hoodie was barely sufficient protection.
Thankfully the wind eased a little in the lee of the cliffs, a shattered barrier which seems insurmountable from below. Apparently a cleft proclaims to lead through something enticing called The Devil’s Kitchen and up to the top, via a small track rising from the lake. A few mountain goats appeared to be running up this in a ridiculous quest called exercise. I walked up a bit, feeling slightly breathless and a tad light-headed with each step. I figured it was a passing touch of wooziness that was quelled by a handful of Jaffa Cakes. And frankly, this view was a good enough one from which to turn around.
With overnight rest, the next day became a jam-packed whistle-stop exploration of the valleys, towns and bays of this corner of Wales. It started with the promise of early cloud and mist lifting in the small town of Llanrwst. Here, the River Conwy was spanned by a delightful arched bridge leading to what could possibly be one of the most photographed buildings in the principality. Having done very little research prior to this trip, I had no idea such a sight existed and that I would have timed things perfectly to coincide with the flourish of autumn. Turns out it’s a tea shop that – at this time in the morning – was closed. Otherwise clotted cream could have again been in the offing.
Further up the valley, the river widens towards the Conwy estuary and the countryside softens somewhat to resemble that of South Devon. The environment is a haven for birds, something I deduce from parking at an RSPB centre across the river from the town of Conwy itself. Ever a tight-arse with parking, I decided on the spur of the moment to walk over to the town, taking in splendid views of a majestic castle and surrounding hills across the water.
I became progressively enamoured by Conwy. Obviously its castle is a dominant – and splendidly preserved – feature of the town. Beyond this, much of Conwy is walled, with various towers and steps and ramparts in a crumbling state, the least crumbly of which can be explored for free. And within the walls sits a charming array of old cottages and colourful terraced houses, leading down to a sedate harbour cove. Everything seems peaceful and at peace. And somewhere within this is a massive slab of coffee and walnut cake that is so gargantuan it eliminates the need for lunch.
Walking back to the car in glorious sunshine I did my best to change into shorts without revealing my arse to any curious twitchers. This of course precipitated the onset of cloud as I drove further west, the A5 cutting under barren hills plunging into the sea, Holyhead across the water.
At Caernarfon, another castle straight out of a lego box impressed. Yet maybe it was the cloud and the coolness, but I found this place lacked much of the ambience of Conwy. It seemed a bit more touristy and try-hard, and the car park surrounding one side of the castle – like some kind of glass and steel moat – distracted from the scene. Meanwhile, the generator from a Mr Whippy van nearby disturbed any tranquillity.
I headed on hoping for a break in the clouds along the coast towards the Llyn Peninsula – the pointy out bit of North Wales. It seems a remote, sometimes bleak place, undoubtedly exposed to the elements throughout the year. I suspect Welsh is the first language here, all hacking throats and largely devoid of vwls. The small towns and villages tend to be off the beaten track… spots like Trefor, where I paused to survey a picturesque cove, one of the few visitors in the car park.
More popular with curious outsiders like me is Morfa Nefyn and, in particular, the bay-side hamlet of Pothdinllaen. Literally a pub and a few flowery cottages parked by the sand, it can really only be reached by foot, passing through one of those golf courses blessed in its occupation of prime links real estate. Some of the holes looked ludicrously unfair but the enviable setting, with water on all sides, cannot be denied.
Following an obligatory pint in the Ty Coch Inn I ambled back towards the car, stamping prints in the sand as the tide shifted out. The salty sea air had put me in a fish and chip mood and I thought Pwllheli might prove a good bet. But it looked a tad depressing passing through and I saw no obvious contenders, instead stopping further east in Cricceith, which satisfied requirements entirely.
It’s a shame the sun never materialised post-Conwy, just to add that sparkle and extra splendour to the sights. And it proved in more ways than one that Conwy simply put everything else into the shade that day.
Of course, the famous BBC weather forecast had been changing its sunshine symbols into white cloud ones as proximity to each day in question neared. My final day in Wales was, perhaps, the most promising online. Not that it looked especially good first thing, but surely such mist and cloud is to be expected as October nears?
Leaving early under grey skies, I was uncertain how this day would pan out. My intent was to hike proper good somewhere in Snowdonia. And as I reached a viewpoint towards Mount Snowdon itself, the magic happened. The magic that is lifting plumes of mist, evaporated by the laser-like sun of dawn.
In a matter of minutes it was if cloud had been consigned to the pages of history, and the decision to attempt an ascent on Mount Snowdon was an easy one to make. Rather than regurgitating every single step of this walk here, you can – should you wish – read more about it in this shameless cross-promotion for yet another blog page I have been working on when lulls in work strike me down with boredom. In summary: epic, awesome, enjoyable…enough of a challenge to provide reward without being too challenging to annoy. Though at times the train to the top did feel like the sensible option.
It really is remarkable to have such genuine mountain landscape concentrated alongside all the other facets making up this part of the world. Yes, the mountains lack altitude compared to, say, the Alps, but they have every characteristic col, ridge, tarn and peak required. They are mountains worthy of the name.
However, this is Britain so I guess they are mountains not entirely untamed. At lower levels, a few crumbling mining outposts remain, and slate quarries persist in other parts. And then there are sheep, lovely fluffy inevitable sheep, appearing when you least expect them on a rocky ridgeline, one hoof away from a plummet down a cliff. It would be remiss of me – negligent even – to be in Wales and not mention sheep. Lovely.
What a glorious day to be a sheep in the green, green grass of home. Now I was seeing sheep everywhere. Sheep to the left of me, sheep to the right. There were sheep even revelling in the field behind my little Airbnb bothy. As with many other things, Britain possesses such density of sheep (though nowhere near as dense as witnessed in New Zealand).
Sheep were dotted on the fields the next morning, as I woke up overlooking the valley of Penmachno one last time. More acquainted with a pocket of the country that had been unknown, ready to head off back to the familiar. But not before passing through and pausing among new discoveries along the way.