Do you remember the time when you could leave footprints in the sand to melt away with the tide? Or take walks within forests as the sun scatters golden through a canopy of spotted gum? Can you recall when you could linger on a bench to feast on deep fried fruits of the sea? And what about that period when Australia really was the place to be?
I do, but it feels a long time ago, even though it was little over a month. With opportunity and freedom I had journeyed to the coast, cognisant of wintry weather in Canberra and the pervasive feeling that you might not be able to do this again. For a while.
I had found a quiet kind of place to stay in North Durras. The kind of place you might hunker down to see out a pandemic. A place where the biggest drama at this point in time was the wind, though where small reminders of far more disastrous natural events stir the mind. The wind quelled the temperature and whipped up sandy frenzy, but it was still an improvement on Canberra. And an invigorating reminder of the power of nature.
Not that I was thanking the wind when the power went down, just as I was about to settle into an evening escaping on a tour around France. I had to read and that felt like hard work when you really just want to lounge as lazily as possible. Thank goodness for the lights coming back on and the Col de Tourmalet.
Around North Durras I made friends with some King Parrots and Kangaroos, explored the sands and forests, and found my way wandering along the waterways as they infiltrate inland. Always across the channel, signs of South Durras peeked above the scrub and I wondered if there was a strong rivalry between the two. The South were probably boastful of having a shop while the North derided snooty Canberra-by-Sea.
Just for a while I had to remove myself from such unlikely drama. It was Saturday morning, and I was hoping for that perfect combination of sheltered sunshine and oceanside coffee strolling. I aimed for Bawley Point, noting some positive signs in my research: small bays protected from the south-easterly; a coffee caravan on a headland with a strong showing on TripAdvisor; Canberra-by-Sea.
At least the bays were sublime.
For some reason, the thought crossed my mind that Barry Cassidy had a holiday home in Bawley Point and hung out with Mike Bowers while Heather was off on some back road cracking a horse whip with Old Reggie Mundoon of Canowindra. This will mean nothing to any English readers, and most Australians too. Anyway, I think I remember this because Mike posted a picture of plumes of smoke from Bazza’s ample deck around the Christmas of 2019.
I could’ve watched Barry’s successors waffle on about ineptitude and continue to needlessly debate the pros and cons of lockdowns on the ABC on Sunday morning. But why do that when I can just take a few steps from my cabin and expose myself to a world of beautiful calm. From the abundant forest full of melodies to the glassy clear water stretching across to the south. No wind and a beaming radiance to lift the soul.
This would be a fine place to ride out a pandemic, though it could handle a decent café otherwise I may not survive. To ensure an improvement on the day before I left North Durras and drove south to Mossy Point, where there is a reliable spot for coffee. And a raspberry and white chocolate muffin. Just because.
The day was continuing to sparkle, and I was in no rush to head back home. With hardly a breath of wind it would’ve been the perfect day for a bike ride. Perhaps heading from Moruya along the river and out through pasture towards the ocean at Moruya Heads. You could pack some lunch and eat it in a sheltered bay, glistening under warm sunshine. Good job I packed my bike and prized $16 bike rack.
Doesn’t it look nice?
There was a beach at Moruya Heads – Shelly Beach – that offered the kind of nirvana that would prove an entirely effective crescendo to a piece of writing. The very essence of what I was seeking on this little break to the south coast of New South Wales in winter. Comfort, delight, beauty, and a quiet spot to sit in a T-shirt. I could have gone full shorts, but none were packed.
An ice cream would’ve hit the spot too, but I had to cycle back to Moruya – including over what felt like a mini Tourmalet – and then drive a fifty kilometre round trip. I mean, I didn’t have to take a fifty kilometre round trip but no, really I did. I’d done fish and chips, I’d done coffee by the sea and now I needed a double shot of Bodalla Dairy.
Another moment to treasure, to add to the bank of dream times to remember. And to look forward to when they are there to spoil us again.
The last time I heard the word ‘gooch’ as incessantly, an English batsman was stroking the Indians all over Lords. That was 1990. I also remember a reoccurrence when the same player was famously dismissed for handling the ball. Today, gently rising out of Toogoolawah, two hours west of Brisbane, gooch and ball handling were once again all the rage.
A stop was called for by my good friend and biking companion, Jason. Problems in the perineum that would culminate in what will only be known as the ‘Lowood Incident’. As improvised comfort was applied and jiggled, I started to contemplate whether we would need to radio in the rescue chopper.
But waiting patiently I was enjoying the break. It had been a decent upward grind after lunch. The sun was warm and glowing gold the long grass of summer. Small eucalypts lined the route, interspersed with westward views over gently undulating farmland. My bike was coping well. Despite almost falling asleep over a burger, I was coping okay. This was brilliant.
I had never heard of the Brisbane Valley Rail Trail until Jason mentioned it virtually every time we spoke over the phone. I don’t know if it was one of those things you just say, never really expecting anything to eventuate. But one day I just thought sure, why not. Or words to that effect. And this whole trip was basically arranged around it.
We took a leisurely three days to cover the 161 kilometre route by bike, retracing a rail line that commenced construction in 1884 and was finally made redundant in 1991. Today, it has been transformed into the longest recreational rail trail in Australia for use by walkers, horses and – mostly – bikes. While I never succumbed, Lycra and gooch cures are never far away.
Day 1: Yarraman – Linville (42 kms)
It took the best part of two hours to drive from Caloundra to the start line (thanks Fiona!). Over rainforest-lined passes, high above fields of mist, past bakeries that are worth making a note of for later, we reached Yarraman to face the unknown. Yes, riding a bike is like riding a bike but riding a bike on a three day bike ride is another matter.
Yarraman was still fairly quiet, though the people we did encounter were keen for a natter. Being ANZAC Day, a small dawn service had been and gone, and one old guy offered reminisces about days gone by in this small neck of the woods. He had taken the train many moons ago when joining the air force. Thus a brief history of the operation of the Brisbane Valley Line ensued. The conversation culminated with him contemplating riding the line once more, e-bike assisted of course.
We passed up the opportunity to indulge in coffee and bakery items at Yarraman, instead pursuing these goals in Blackbutt once at least a few calories had been discharged. And so the exercise commenced just out of town beside the old rail station, highly visible remnants of the line that pop up in practically every settlement along the way. Blue skies, still air, a fairly smooth dirt track accompanied by that first shot of endorphin from anticipation of what may lay ahead.
And so, we rode through avenues of low eucalyptus, alongside green pasture dotted with spiky xanthorrhoea, and through a number of rockier cuttings keeping things relatively flat. Earlier in Yarraman, the old fella rambled on about the bridges on the rail line and wondered if they were still standing. The answer quickly became clear and that answer was – for the most part – no. After cruising with only gentle effort, the downs and ups of gullylife often come as a bit of a jolt to the system.
The vibe along the trail was congenial and we passed a few other cyclists with friendly g’days and broad smiles. A few times the trail briefly transported me to a nice summer’s day in southern England, a passing resemblance nurtured by fields of corn and tunnels of trees. The idyll was quickly shaken by the gullies, the gravel, and the sound of Chinooks and Apaches putting on a flypast specifically for us.
It had taken well over an hour to get to Blackbutt which was – after the trail thus far – a veritable feast of civilisation. People were assembling for the 11am memorial service, many with padded butts and bulging Lycra. This naturally resulted in high demand for coffee. So high, in fact, that the cafe we had chosen failed to deliver it.
It seems churlish to bemoan the absence of coffee in the context of wartime remembrance, but I cannot deny how deflated I felt. One of the attractions to this ride – probably even the number one thing impelling me forward – was the frequent prospect of stopping for coffee and cake. How leisurely, how civilised, how conforming to popular stereotypes of butt-padded middle aged manliness.
But the parade passed and wreaths were laid without a hot mug of country flat white. As they do, Last Posts, Abide With Me, and sombre silence touched the right note. The special guest speaker spent a good few minutes talking to the point that his time to talk had been controversially curtailed (I can only imagine the political machinations going on in Blackbutt RSL). Meanwhile, someone posting video of the service to the local Facebook page bemoaned the fact that everyone else was using up the local 4G and quite possibly catching coronavirus from the rays.
You don’t get these quirks at the Australian War Memorial and that is why the ANZAC service in Blackbutt was such a memorable event. Above all, it radiated with the warmth of smalltown community: flags half-mast against the backdrop of XXXX signs on the pub; the high street closed off as trucks carrying cattle detour behind the small memorial; a procession featuring schoolkids, scouts, guides, old troopers and the Country Women’s Association, all waving to family members lining the route. Meanwhile some lucky butt-padded cyclists sup on their coffee.
No offence to New Zealand, but we snuck out of Blackbutt as the ceremony was nearing an end with its national anthem. I was keen to get moving before the rush of people re-joined the trail. We also had to reach the pub before it closed for the day.
Fortunately, most of the trail to Linville was downhill, through Benarkin State Forest. This induced a little adrenaline, gathering speed and negotiating clean lines and avoiding small rocks. My back end decided it wanted to head sideways on a few occasions, but speed and gravity and not particularly flash bike-handling skills kept things upright. Almost as satisfying as staying in one piece was the sight of pedallers grinding their way up towards Blackbutt and being thankful that this was not you.
Eventually the forest opens out and the landscape presents itself as rugged and unkempt. In fact, it’s probably the most enclosed part of the whole trail, where you truly feel like you are carving your way through a steep-sided valley. As the hills part, farmland again emerges, shacks appear, caravans gather for extended coronavirus holidays, and in front of you, shining like a temple, is the Linville Hotel.
The first thing that was obvious about the Linville Hotel was that the tradition of sitting around drinking on ANZAC Day was very much alive and well. Out the front, a multicoloured arrangement of frames and wheels gathered in what looked like one almighty tangle. Motorbikes glimmered in the sun. Classic cars posed with their rooftops down. City folk had come for the drive. Or the pedal.
The Linville Hotel proved every bit the Australian country pub and a little more. Chicken Schnitzel lunch was accompanied by local brews. Wooden verandas and wonky floorboards looked out over sleek parasols and hipster guitarists. Old signs mingled with largely ignored QR codes. Upstairs, rooms provided accommodation and already the century old balustrade was subject to Lycra decoupage.
Closing at three, the pub transformed into a peaceful oasis, one in which I envisioned a post-shower nap that never materialised. Jason, naturally, had no problems. I instead popped out and explored the town, taking all of five minutes. It struck me that Linville would struggle to get passing trade if it were not for the rail trail. That, and the free camping area densely populated with COVID nomads.
So, the first day of the BVRT had been safely negotiated and all was well with the bike, the bike rack, the butt padding, and the humans. Until that pounding headache and fatigue and rush down to the toilet block to empty the mish-mashed contents of my stomach. In a dramatic turn of events, would I make it through only one day? Would we need to call in the medics? Would I ever get a goddam coffee on this trail?
Day 2: Linville – Esk (52 kms)
I guess the header gives it away. I survived. In fact I somehow prospered. This was the best of days: no rush to get anywhere, me, my bike, my mate, the sun, a massive coffee, and some other foodstuffs thrown in and not thrown up.
The day commenced with a rising sun over a patchwork of mist from the top floor of the Linville Hotel. The sun kissed its first light on the Lycra bunting, dangling like the dismembered ghosts of cyclists past. Gradually the shadowy figures disappeared as small groups set off. We were the second last to go, just an e-bike left charging for those who have the power to linger.
It was a good start, especially as the first stop – Moore – was only seven kilometres down the road. I say road, but of course I mean trail, which continued to be decorated by avenues of eucalyptus and interrupted by deep gullies.
Moore appears even smaller than Linville yet boasts three places offering coffee. Wary of yesterday, I pray we choose the right one. In the end, the coffee comes, which is an improvement at least. It’s one of the biggest cups of coffee I’ve ever had in Australia, more akin to the stupid sizes you get as standard in those awful chains in the UK. In its gigantic bucket, the coffee took an age to cool down, but at least a second breakfast sausage roll kept me replenished.
After Moore, the landscape opens up considerably; wide fields undulate gently towards more prominent ranges while patches of forest become fewer and farther between. The trail even takes in some steeper rises which I’m sure weren’t part of the original railway line. Like the train in Dumbo – I think I can I think I can – I am elated with my first KOM achievement.
Another notable rise appears on the outskirts of Harlin, the next town of sorts along the way. Again I am pleased that I make it but also pleased to see some seats and a shelter at the top. It’s a bustling hive of activity as wheels spin, chains are cleaned, and flasks of tea are drunk. A gathering of older riders have made it all the way from Bundaberg or Rockhampton or somewhere like that (I forget), this now their eighteenth day on a bike. I don’t quite feel as smug having managed to overtake a couple of them on the way up.
We seem to play tag with this group for the rest of the ride. The trail’s kind of like that. All the time, in cafes and pubs, on picnic tables and in parks, you see people you think you have probably seen before but often can’t quite remember. Typically exchanges involve the matter of where you have come from and where you are going, intended bakery stops, occasional technical bike talk that goes over my head, and – increasingly – saddle sore. You leave it all out on the trail.
In these entanglements I figure we are perhaps a little more memorable to others. I say we but I mean Jason, masterfully contoured within his Boomtime bodysuit; I’m just that nondescript guy accompanying the big unit. Sometimes setting tempo on a gradual rise, other times trying to keep up on flowing descents. Organising accommodation and strategising food stops. Encouraging progress to the next town for running remediation. Hang on…I sound like a bloody domestique!
After Harlin I find myself pacing us past a rider and on towards a landmark. A damp dark hole doesn’t sound like much of a tourist attraction, but this is Yimbun Railway Tunnel, constructed in 1910. It’s the only tunnel on the entire length of the trail and I am pleased to see it, given my initial horror approaching what looked like an unscalable hill. Stops for photos and cooees are all the rage.
On the other side we progressed onward to Toogoolawah where it was most definitely time for some lunch. Our hilltop friends from earlier were encamped at a couple of shady picnic tables feasting on the provisions they had carried. Travelling light, we sought out a business that would feed us. This proved harder than one might expect – being a public holiday, the town was almost desolate. Salvation was once again in the form of the pub, and a pretty decent burger.
It was at the pub that I struggled to stay awake and was uncertain how I would manage to start out all over again. Rooms in the inn certainly had an appeal. I was also being bothered by an energy company desperately trying to cling onto my business after taking my money for many years without the slightest pretence of customer service. This is largely irrelevant and uninteresting until it got to the point where I was pleased to get back on the bike to escape a world of 4G.
Back to the simple life where it was just you, a bike, and a mate bringing things to a halt in an attempt to increase comfort. The trail rose steadily from Toogoolawah for quite some time before a delightful plunge down the other side. With time pushing on, the afternoon presented the countryside in a warm, attractive light. By the time we reached Esk, there wasn’t so much left.
Usually you’d think 52kms would only take a gentle three hours. But factor in gravel, gully crossings, stops to take pictures of cows, the time required to wait for a ridiculous sized mug of coffee and then drink it, distractions with energy sales sharks, and – progressively – pauses for gooch care, and you have a full day out.
It’s more tiring than you think too. Which may explain why I called Jason a moron outside the IGA for just assuming it would be open forever. We joked about it afterwards, ate mediocre food at the local pub and capped things off with mugs of ice cream in a motel room. I’m sure this is exactly how riders experience the Tour de France. Especially the domestiques.
Day 3: Esk – Wulkuraka (67 kms)
Okay, this may sound like I had lost by mind but there were times on the third day where I literally felt like an express train. No, more like one of those old clapped-out British Rail stopping services between Basingstoke and London Waterloo with the heavy slam shut doors. There was something about the slow acceleration, easing away and eventually building to a steady pace as we progressed through the trees between Esk and Coominya. Once on the blessed descent from Mount Hallen, speeds were probably matching those of the 8:07am to Woking.
We had departed Esk early as we – literally – had a real train to catch. The sun was only just rising above the horizon and it was more than fresh. But the plus side of this was the wonderful golden light over fields of grassy tussock, dewy spider webs, and the splendid nose-clearing aroma of gum trees embracing the day.
The section from Esk to Coominya is the longest without any civilisation and a large part of it cuts through the bush. By time you reach Coominya, you are more than ready for a coffee and treat. But good luck with that. Google Maps told me of a place called the Blue Teapot Café but unless I got my map-reading wrong (which is extremely unlikely), it appeared to be a petrol station / tackle shop / muffler supplier / chiko roll purveyor. They did have reduced price Cadbury Twirls though, more disintegrate than melt in the mouth.
Fortunately, Lowood is an entirely different proposition and just a further 12 kilometres on. We once more came across our old friends from Rockaberg and the going was pretty good on a well-groomed, mostly flat section. With the D’Aguilar Range rising up on the eastern horizon, there was a sense that Brisbane wasn’t too far away. Just over those hills.
Perhaps it was all to do with timing, but Lowood proved the liveliest town along the trail. There was of course a bakery, but we went upmarket and sat down in the local café instead. Across the road, a well-tended park and amenities offered comfort and convenience for the weary rider. A water bubbler provided a refill while I waited for Jason to do whatever he was doing.
Lowood also brings you closer to the Brisbane River as it feeds out of Lake Wivenhoe. You never really ride next to it, but at least there are a few glimpses here and there, just to remind you that – oh yeah – this is the Brisbane Valley Rail Trail. Compared to life at the other end, the landscape is much more open and there is feeling of settlement and civilisation accumulating. Indeed, the next town – Fernvale – is only a further eight kilometres.
I had heard several times – in those exchanges between BVRT veterans – that the Fernvale Bakery had some seriously good pies. So continuing our poor food choices we decided to have brunch instead. It was okay, but nothing to write home in a blog about. Hanging like a shadow over the experience, too, was the sense that we needed to get moving to catch that train.
Further delays around the public toilets in Fernvale allowed me to catch up with another rider who recognised us. Apparently, he was on the table opposite at the pub in Esk. He had been carrying everything – camping gear and all – on his back and was very much looking forward to the end. I felt fortunate to have stayed in proper rooms and for buying a $16 bike rack from Kmart. The best investment ever, cheaper than an underwhelming brunch.
Nonetheless we were all at that point where the end couldn’t come soon enough. It was a further 23kms from Fernvale to Wulkuraka and much of the novelty and thrill had worn off. Some of the track was quite sandy and while it never reared up like an Alpe d’Huez, there was this endless perception of drag. At one point, some naughty trail bikes came at us from the other direction and you knew suburban Ipswich must be close.
A sign indicating 5.2km to Wulkuraka rears out of smooth white concrete. The bike trail has become a modern, formed bike path and it’s the shot in the arm needed. We reach speeds previously unfathomable, picking up slipstream until the interruptions of traffic islands and a final little upward thrust. The penultimate hundred metres navigates the pavement alongside a row of compact townhouses. Ticker tape, fireworks, applauding admirers fail to materialise. There’s not even a sign.
Still, we have made it. We made it! I had my doubts at times. But I think there were so many things to keep us going. The green and pleasant countryside, which is never going to take your breath away but comforts like a mild June day along the lanes of Southern England. The towns and businesses, feeding us and watering us and giving us a mixed bag of dining experiences that could do better. The public amenities and tiny stores offering hope and comfort to ease accumulating ailments. The many other riders, offering this amazing feeling of camaraderie and shared experience.
And, of course, mateship made it one of the most memorable trips ever. The big unit. The boomtime body-suited, gooch-afflicted, cow-whispering Jason. You were there at the end, still batting strong and keeping me going. For every one of the 161 kilometres, the 2,300 metres up and the 2,600 down, it was an absolute pleasure to have you by my side. Or ten metres behind, making adjustments.
I had entered the point of no return. Doors closing behind me, confronted by a depleted selection of pre-cooked yellow food. A smoky, greasy vapour emanated from behind the counter. Around one of the square Formica tables, a trio of young people huddled around a carton of chips.
I had rolled into Injune desperate for a pick-me-up to push me on to the end of the road. For coffee this was the last outpost. And like a rabbit in headlights I was now captive. I had to order. Miraculously, I spotted a handwritten note on one of those fluorescent orange stars. Iced latte for $5.50. Coffee, ice, and milk which surely wouldn’t turn into a complete hash. Relief. A safer proposition than the risk of first degree burns.
Happily – should you find yourself in the situation – you’ll find iced latte and a pack of 39 cent custard creams from Aldi a winning combination on the Carnarvon Highway between Injune and Rolleston. It propels you into a more interesting landscape with plateaus rising up to the east and west. The road, finally, allows a speed limit of 110kph. And then you turn off, to fulfil a few goals and dreams.
I remember when Carnarvon National Park first piqued my interest. It was in a Qantas magazine, back when flying was more of a thing. I was probably on the last plane out of Sydney after some stupid meeting, feasting on two crackers and a vomit-coloured dip. A double-page photograph of intricately textured sandstone, a dark narrow fissure, vibrant green ferns, and the dizzying perspective provided by a human figure felt a long way away.
It’s a credit to that Qantas magazine that they managed to condense Carnarvon National Park into a few glossy pages. It’s also a credit to the professional photographers who managed to fit it all in. The vast, monotone plains in the surrounding landscape truly situate this as an oasis. The solitude required to get there leads to stimulus galore.
Hyper-stimulation first emerges a few kilometres outside the park. People and Hiluxes amass, caravans are adorned with satellite dishes, trailers, awnings and everything including the kitchen sink. There may even be – in the middle of Queensland – a large boat or two. Instantly I know this is not my type of campground. But there is little other choice and I set up home for two nights, conscious of beady eyes judging my unfolding canvas.
Many of the people I talk to are here for a week, maybe two. They can afford to spend whole days sitting in a fold-up chair playing candy crush. I have one complete day to head into the gorge, go as far as I can, and turn back again. One whole day that is immense in so many ways.
My phone tells me it was a 41,397 step kind of day, taking me along 29.1 kilometres. It was a day that started around six in the morning, when I parked up near the visitor centre. There was an orderly-looking campground here but for some reason it is only open during school holidays. Still, I took advantage of one of the many tables to make a cuppa and eat some breakfast, free from the guilt of disturbing the old folk getting their beauty sleep.
The walk starts with a sign of things to come: a crossing of Carnarvon Creek via a series of stepping stones. The first crossing is easy, reassuring everyone who finds themselves on this path to strike out further into the wilderness. Others later on require a bit more planning and a touch of blind faith. But don’t let this put you off. Just grab a big stick and think of the reward.
The gorge is said to extend for 30 kilometres, but the day walk goes as far as Big Bend, where there is a carry-in campground for those intrepid enough to explore further. Along the way, nature has created a series of incredible rock features, shady pools, and slot canyons, while original inhabitants have left their own mark. It is these spectacles – reached via shortish detours from the main trail – that create a natural itinerary to the walk, numbered like stops on a coach tour. Only here, self-propulsion is the required vehicle, and the only souvenir stands are those that assemble within your mind. And do they sure etch their way into it…
Reaching the first stop seems to take forever, but I think that comes down to an eagerness to get there. It’s akin to sitting in the back of the car as a child, heading for a day at the beach. The side track also requires a little creek crossing and climbing of steps, penetrating into a small, fern-filled gully.
What can I say about the Moss Garden? It’s mossy and moist, fed by a narrow creek spilling into several clear pools. It’s the kind of garden that might be constructed at some expense in a billionaire megalomaniac’s estate, funded by worker exploitation and home shopping. Or constructed in the airport of some oil rich emirate to show off to the world. But nothing contrived here, just thousands and thousands of years of nature. Water, rock, vegetation. Gathering in blissful harmony.
If the Moss Garden was beautiful in a serene kind of way, the Amphitheatre is, fittingly, all head-shaking drama. I think this is the setting for that double-page spread in the Qantas magazine many years back and you would need to be a professional photographer with a mega-wide angle lens and tripod and hours of patience waiting for the right light to come anywhere close to evoking the feeling of being in this place.
At first, you wouldn’t expect much. Nothing to see here. But walking towards giant luminous sandstone walls you notice a small doorway at their foot. And a series of metal steps up to the entrance. It is a crack perhaps little more than a metre, a corridor into a cavernous courtyard of wonder. Above, a small window to the sky, afoot a delicate display of vibrant ferns. It cries out for a massive “COOEE!” but somehow feels too reverential for that. A handful of people, myself included, just sit and soak it all in.
The National Gallery of Australia is much more accessible and has a better café than the Art Gallery in Carnarvon Gorge. But you won’t find a 62 metre natural sandstone wall featuring over 2,000 engravings, ochre stencils, and free-hand paintings. The stencilling is considered to be some of the finest and most-sophisticated of its kind in their world.
This sacred spot serves a reminder that this is the land of the Bidjara and Karingbal People, and you are lucky enough to be here for a fleeting moment in time.
Many people culminate their walk at the Art Gallery fulfilled, turning around and heading back home for an afternoon rest. The next stop up the gorge is four kilometres distant, and the track grading increases a notch on the scale. There are more stones to traverse and one creek crossing in particular requires a degree in trigonometry and dose of good fortune.
I’m glad I pushed on though, for this section is perhaps the most scenic. The main trail sticks closer to the rocky course of Carnarvon Creek, and sheer-sided multicoloured outcrops begin to press in on both sides. Palms and ferns and eucalyptus gather in the valley, nurturing colourful butterfly and chirpy birds, while emerald pools attract fast-moving dragonfly.
As a destination, Cathedral Cave undoubtedly has a spiritual quality, hosting further displays of Aboriginal art. It also possesses that echoey ambience formed from the hollow of a massive rock overhang. A chamber of secrets. Peaceful and shady, the benches situated opposite the walls encourage lingering. A rest before the return journey.
But don’t turn around! After Cathedral Cave, it’s a kilometre or so on to the end of the trail at Big Bend, but I neither had the energy nor the desire to visit a camping area. Just 200 metres on from Cathedral Cave, however, another dry creek cuts in from the west. At first, it’s nothing special, just an unending collection of large pebbles that make walking a little more taxing. But pursue further and you enter Boowinda Gorge.
This I found the most staggering spectacle of the day. I can’t really explain. Nature has formed something that engineering genius and billions of dollars would struggle to replicate. Curving walls, pebble paths, ferns and trees flourishing where chinks of light again emerge. And I had it all to myself.
I’m all for saving the best to last, especially when it comes to roast dinners. But what goes up must come down and, as much as I tried to conjure up a helicopter taxi from Big Bend, the return journey needed to be undertaken. On the plus side, things were still incredibly scenic the second time around, stepping stone confidence was sky-high, and I had a few Aldi custard creams to perk me up when needed.
There was also Wards Canyon, one of the stops between the Amphitheatre and Art Gallery which I had saved for the journey home. As lovely as this was – think more small cascades and rocky walled gullies – I can’t help but think my impression was overshadowed by weariness and the wonders that had gone before. It also took a bit of a climb and used up the last custard cream.
To get back to the car, I started to concentrate more on the little things. Some of the butterflies that would never settle. The blur of small birds flitting between shrubs. The red and blue dragonflies hovering above water. The people passing me by, saying G’day and inquiring just how much further it was to so and so. Push on, I encouraged, and don’t miss Boowinda Gorge.
In all honesty though, the last hour turned into a bit of a drag. There were a surprising number of steps and undulations that I didn’t notice in my excited state on the way out. The light was now brighter, the heat of the day well and truly upon us. Creek crossings were less an adventure, more a chore. My feet hurt.
Towards the end I was pretty much walking at the same pace as a man a hundred metres in front of me. It came as no great surprise when he let out a thank feck kind of “yahoo” upon sighting the visitor centre. I didn’t need empathy training to totally get it.
And so my walk in Carnarvon Gorge, years in the making, had reached its conclusion. I felt happy and fulfilled and in desperate need of a shower, cup of tea, slice of Christmas cake and a nap. Unfortunately, Takarakka ‘Bush Resort’ had other ideas. I returned to find I had neighbours, sat outside their caravan under the awning, playing candy crush and listening to the radio. Other neighbours were setting up with a clink of a camp kitchen here and a thud of a mallet there. Four-by-fours rocked up every few minutes, engines idling as they checked in at reception. The shower, tea and cake were divine. The nap non-existent.
At least I slept well that night. Very well, for tenting. Still, I was awake before sunrise so made a bit of noise and headed up a track to a nearby hill. A few other people were there, including a dad with a wide-awake baby and a couple of what I would say are younger boomers. The sunrise was – fleetingly – dramatic, while the younger boomers were lovely.
We chatted for a good while. They had arrived yesterday and were staying for a week. I was off to 1770 today. I passed on my tips and wished them a wonderful stay. They wished me well for my big bike ride. We parted, me feeling a little more favourable towards caravanning boomers, and them possibly thinking he is never going to manage that bike ride. Maybe.
Keen to get moving, and also keen to avoid the amenities block that was always dirty whenever I had to use it, I passed up the opportunity of a shower and hit the road. Yet instead of turning left, back to the highway, I veered right. I had come so far and something was bugging me. This had been years in the making, and when would I ever be here again?
When I arrived in Carnarvon National Park on Tuesday afternoon, I used the last of the daylight to explore a short walking trail along Mickey Creek. It was a simple and – in hindsight – relatively undramatic stroll. But that is only until the formed trail ends.
A bag left on a rock signalled I wouldn’t be the only one transitioning from a gentle amble to a rock-hopping adventure. Beyond the stones and the ferns, an entrance led into a narrowing gap. Walls closing in, the sound of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ travelling down the chasm encouraged further exploration.
There was only really one spot that was a little challenging – in that I might get my feet wet. But I could do it. And so could my sunrise friends who I met again on the way out. So much better than just sitting outside your caravan playing candy crush. We both agreed, and I felt envious of the wondrous discoveries that still awaited them.
Farewell friends, and farewell finally this most magnificent oasis.
That could have been a good ending, but the road never ends. Neither does this blog post but all I can say if you are labouring is just imagine living and breathing it as opposed to a mere skim-read in your PJs.
After endeavours at Carnarvon, I planned a bit of R&R on the Queensland coast, 550km away. Worryingly I was desperate for a coffee by time I reached Rolleston, only a hundred clicks in. Even more worryingly, Rolleston didn’t look up to much. But beside the public toilets in a park, a cute caravan had popped up selling coffee and a few light snacks. The owner was charming and chatty, and I really really really wanted her coffee to be good. But scalding hot country ways are always difficult to cast off.
There is little to note between Rolleston and Biloela. The road, almost arrow straight, offers frequent car stopping bays and I realise these are essentially unofficial toilet stops as I recycle my coffee in a hedge. The highlight of this section of the road should really be the town of Banana, in Banana Shire. Yet, there is no comedy sized fibro banana or Banana World Theme Park incorporating Mango Village. A large sign erected for losers like me actually informs the world that Banana was named after a big bullock. Surrounded by coalfields, this is peak QLD.
Sadly, the only thing I knew of Biloela was the Australian Government’s really tough posturing to lock up a couple with two young children who were seeking asylum here. They now sit festering on an offshore island. The #hometobilo movement made me feel warm towards Biloela. The family in question had become part of the community, and the community part of them. They simply want their community back.
I didn’t find out much more about Biloela in my brief stop there. It didn’t seem the most appealing place, but then it is far more appealing than – say – a war zone or dictatorship inclined to ethnic-cleansing. Petrol was cheaper here, and I was surprised at the quality of coffee and a slice from the bakery – this is more like it. Road trip essentials.
Almost as Australian-sounding as locking up dark-skinned people seeking protection is the Bruce Highway. For me, it was a bit of a milestone, a sign that I had reached the Queensland coast. But like most highways along the east coast, the ocean is still miles away. And, hitting the highway south of Gladstone, the Towns of Agnes Water and Seventeen-Seventy were still 90 minutes away.
A sign that I was pretty much over the drive came when I didn’t even stop for a ‘big crab’ at Miriam Vale. It wasn’t that big, looking more like an elaborate shop sign than anything. And I don’t really like crab, stemming I think from my brother taunting me with crab claws as a kid. The same can be said for peanut butter, but I did at least stab his hand with a fork when he tried to steal some of my chips.
1770 clearly stands out from the crowd just by being a number. That was some good marketing by Lieutenant Cook and Joe Banks when they decided to make their second stop in Australia at this spot; I think Joe had seen some plants that took his fancy. If you look on the map, you will see a marker for the 1770 toilets, which you can only hope have been updated since they visited.
Confusingly 1770 has the postcode of 4667. So – in a remarkable turnaround for Australian abbreviation – it is often spelled out as Seventeen-Seventy. It also typically gets lumped together with its southern neighbour, Agnes Water. And I was staying on a campground between the two. Let me tell you the joy of driving past tents and awnings and trailers to take up home in a cabin with a double bed and kitchen and bathroom. The closest I will ever get to feeling all North Shore Sydney.
And so, with good rest, I had a lovely day in the Towns of Agnes Water and Seventeen-Seventy. In preparation for what is to come, I decided to explore it by bike. There were beaches and lookouts and a lovely coffee in some lovely gardens, embellished with sweet baklava. It was the best coffee in a long while, a clear indication this is a coastal location on the up.
Beyond the coffee stop, I was delighted by the Paperbark Forest Boardwalk. It wasn’t especially long but well worth the additional cycle up a small incline. Among the stands of paperbark, butterflies frequently floated and birds sang with joy. A nice way to get off the two wheels and stretch the legs.
Being beside the coast I had long targeted fish and chips during my stay here, which I gorged on beside the water on the wharf in 1770. Gorging again. The downside to this was that it required an uphill climb back to my cabin and a post-lunch nap. Later in the day, I returned to 1770 by car, and walked out to the headland, hopeful, like many others, that sundown would put on a decent show.
Now Saturday morning, I had been travelling for little over a week. I’d be leaving the ocean today and in memory of this I felt that getting a takeaway coffee first thing and sipping it on the beach would be a perfect moment. Situated next to a waterfront campground, the coffee took an age but when it came it was everything I had hoped for. Order and civilisation were being restored.
And so, next up Caloundra and then the Brisbane Valley Rail Trail. Heading south, I briefly paused in Bundaberg, picking up some provisions and a gift for my cycling buddy, Jason. Never would a $16 bike rack from Kmart prove so popular.
My final stop was in Childers, one last pause before hitting the elongated development of the Sunshine Coast. I had arrived, it would seem, in a town of coffee extremism. Ten minutes out of town, billboards implored me to stop at The Drunk Bean or Insane Caffeine. Nine hundred kilometres after Injune, the sound of coffee insanity appealed. It had largely been madness the whole way.
Have you ever noticed how much airtime commercial radio stations use boasting about all of the epic hits they play? To the extent that jingles boasting about the epic hits they play outweigh the actual amount of epic hits they play. Many of which are not epic, incidentally. Maroon 5 here’s looking at you.
It was on the road between Cooma and Nimmitabel that such jingles disappeared into an annoying crackle. Luckily, I was still able to pick up the ABC, midway between the first innings of Tasmania v South Australia. The soporific summer tones of balls making their way through to the keeper settled me into a groove, on an undulating, barren expanse of the Monaro. Alas, even that became interrupted, crossing to the FRADULENT VICTORY SPEECH OF SLEEPY JOE AND <INSERT RACIST MYSOGINIST DOGWHISTLE> KAMALA. SAD.
Afterwards, a dose of Springsteen would have been perfect. Or the soon-to-be-famous You’re a Big Fat Lonely Loser by Echo Chamber and the Orangemen. But by time I reached Pipers Lookout any pretence at radio signal had vanished altogether. Instead, play had been pressed on track one on my own classic hits of the Far South Coast.
Because it’s such an easy stop there’s no reason not to stop, even if you have stopped here many times before. It’s just like one of those pull-outs along an American Highway, offering dazzling vistas without requiring any physical exertion. Upon the edge of the Great Divide, the landscape plunges down Brown Mountain through lush rainforest gullies into the Bega Valley. Beyond this rumpled green tablecloth, a sliver of sea.
The sea, I had not seen thee since mid-June. In that period, waves and whales have come and gone. But with our flipped around climate, the countryside has been as soothing as water lapping at a half moon bay. At the head of the Bega Valley, Bemboka again defying the reality of hell and fury that was ten months before. Only close attention picks up the charred matchsticks of trees atop the rugged wilderness to the north.
Tathra marks the point at which the country meets the ocean and – at historic Tathra Wharf – another classic hit. Only this was one of those hits that you hear again many years later and feel slightly disappointed. It’s like a café in the perfect location that serves good coffee but decides to warm up a muffin and turn the delicious dollop of icing into a slimy gravy. Why do places do this without consent? The same with brownies. Frankly, warm brownies are glorified sponge cakes, a cold, dense, gooey pocket of rich chocolate ruined.
Of course I still ate warm muffin gloop and was starting to think I should work some of it off nearby. Somewhere new, somewhere different. For classics can also emerge in an instant. At Wajurda Point a viewing platform looked out over Nelson Beach, golden light emanating from the bush-clad hills and filtering through the ocean spray. On the beach, a lone silhouette provoked envy. Take me there.
Thirty minutes later I was accompanied by a choir of rainbow lorikeets, whip birds, and bellbirds as I made my way through a beautiful pocket of forest to the beach. I was now that lone silhouette heading north to an isthmus of sand melting into Nelson Creek. The topography of the creek, completing an entire 180 degree loop and widening into a lagoon is striking in its similarity to that of Merimbula. Only without the houses and cars and oyster beds and franked up boomers.
As good as anywhere to whip out my airline blanket circa 2010 for a brief rest. Pause.
As tempting as it was, I couldn’t linger here forever. Time moves on and to tell the truth it was starting to feel a wee bit nippy in the sea breeze. Barely twenty degrees. I rounded the bend into the lagoon for more sheer serenity, interrupted by and interrupting a fretful mother and its baby. I read that the pied oystercatcher was listed as endangered in New South Wales and I felt a little bad inadvertently getting between the two. Not that the youngster seemed to care, such is the innocence of youth.
It is quite the juxtaposition to go from here to KFC Bega. Like Korn following Bach. Where the incompetence of youth rises to the fore like mashed potato in a plastic cup of gravy. It wasn’t all their fault; it seems half the population of Bega picks up Sunday dinner here. To the extent that COVID-capacity limits become dubious.
Quite astonishingly I was stopping in Bega for the night, hence such fine dining. Not only was this the first time I had stayed in Bega, it was also the first time I had stayed anywhere other than home since the very start of March. Six wicked wings and a takeaway salad from Woolworths in my motel room seemed an appropriate way to mark the occasion.
Bega is the kind of place you drive past or through on the way to Tathra or Merimbula or Eden or – even – the amazing COVID-free state of Victoria. Known for a mass-produced cheese, it’s not the most fashionable or affluent-looking town. But given I’ve been enamoured by understated country towns of late, it will do me just fine.
The next morning I decided I should give Bega a fair shake of the sauce bottle and wandered down towards the river. What I came across were weatherboard homes and verandas possessing a touch of ramshackle elegance. The town quickly gave way to generous green pasture, married with the chirpy sounds of spring. In a small portion of time I was in the country and not just any country. A country pretending at being Devon. It’ll be the closest I get this year.
I would stay in Bega again but – crucially in the ‘I could live here’ assessment – I cannot yet testify to its quality of coffee. Keen to get back on the greatest hits tour, I determined my morning coffee should be at Bar Beach, Merimbula. A spot probably eclipsing that at Tathra Wharf and without the indignity of a melted muffin.
It was Monday – my day off – and surprising how many other people appeared to have time on their hands. Not just the usual array of wealthy retirees but paddle-boarding mums and surfing bums, living their best #vanlife. I fancy the odd person, like myself, was a wily Canberran lingering into a long weekend. Victorians seemingly absent.
Next on the tour was Pambula Beach or, to be precise, the Pambula River. Probably the standout track, the one that you revisit time and time again. When the sun is out here the clarity of colours defies belief, dazzling through the shadow of trees as you emerge from your car. The white sands leading you further into the heart of the river, ever-changing and reforming into crystal pools and sapphire swirls. One thing lacking – this time at least – was the backing track of bellbirds, quietened by the fresh wind funnelling through the valley.
The triumvirate of this hit parade is Eden and – specifically – fish and chips (or fish cocktails and potato scallops) down by the wharf. The crunchiest, most golden potato cakes this side of the border. My last memory of them was just before the end of 2019, a day or two before Mallacoota happened and when, a few days subsequently, this wharf became a shelter of last resort. Thankfully, the core of Eden remained intact and I was keen to do my usual diligent duty of supporting the local economy by eating its food.
Much like The Rolling Stones, Eden Wharf had seen better days. Horror hit me when I discovered a ‘closed for good’ sign in my favourite scallop shop. Not only this, but every other outlet on the wharf looked abandoned. As if a pandemic had rolled in and wait… I wondered if business had been decimated by the double whammy of bushfires and COVID COVID COVID. Only later did I learn that the wharf building had been closed down because it was deemed unsafe.
Eden could do without 2020 I reckon. Paradise Lost. My only hope is that talk of food trucks becomes reality so that the town can benefit from Victoria reopening and a steady stream of summer visitors. For me, I would have to seek solace in potato scallops elsewhere.
It was back up the road in Pambula that I discovered Wheelers, famed for its oysters, also had a fish and chip takeaway. The fish was great (if a little on the small side) and the chips – strictly fries – were also surprisingly good. Only the two potato scallops, pale and insipid, left me deflated.
The good news was that I could take the takeaway back to the Pambula River, on a perfect stone seat sheltered from the wind. In cream tea terms, this was like Fingle Bridge – perfect setting, decent food. Is it a classic worthy of repeat? Well, only time will tell. For now, I have to press rewind, back over that mountain, once again to the overwhelming familiarity of home, radio signals and all.
Confinement within the boundaries of the Australian Capital Territory may sound like a nightmare to some people – mostly us privileged types who can jokingly equate it to being in prison. All without actually ever facing the very real prospect of being imprisoned. Still, I suppose it could be tough to be restricted within the clutches of a modern, affluent, well-resourced city without access to an episode of Fawlty Towers that has been shown a zillion times already in my lifetime. Oh the suffrage some people have to endure!
Other than perhaps anywhere in New Zealand, this city – Canberra – has arguably been the best place in the world to be of late. Okay, it is getting a bit chully now, but I can warm myself up with great coffee and a walk in one of the many suburban parks, bushland reserves, and panoramic hills. I have been doing a lot of that lately.
We have also been largely spared – for now – the health calamity that is Coronavirus. One hundred and eight confirmed cases in total. Only one of whom emerged in the last month: emerging from overseas and allowed to travel to Canberra because of a novel form of protection called Diplomatic Immunity. Everyone I have spoken to suspects a Yank. Because, well, you know.
Due to this good fortune and what can be fairly summarised as competent management – when did basic competence become the gold standard some of us can only yearn for from our leaders – restrictions have eased over time. Yes, the rules can seem a tad bewildering, requiring a protractor and solid understanding of trigonometry as well as a ready supply of hand sanitiser and guarded interaction. But now I can do things I would never do anyway, such as participating in a bootcamp or going to church. Never in a month of Sundays. Still, it is nice to feel like you could do them.
As of the start of this month, we were also allowed to travel outside of the ACT for leisure purposes. Being largely content in the territory, I didn’t rush off down to the coast on the first day of restrictions easing like half of the population, despite that particular day being grey, cool, and windy. Neither did I really leverage any benefit from not one, but two public holidays: one to acknowledge first Australians and promote reconciliation and harmony, the other to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s non-birthday. Yeah, go figure.
I think somewhere in my walking rambles during the midst of containment I made a sarcastic comment about the prospect of a day trip to Goulburn being something to look forward to. It was the kind of comment everyone not living in Canberra was making about Canberra. For us, we always have Goulburn. So, the day came when I finally decided I could set foot across the border and where better to head than Goulburn. Only I never actually made it; there is only so much excitement one can take after all.
About two-thirds of the way between Canberra and Goulburn is the small village of Collector. It is well-known in these parts for its pumpkin festival, an annual spectacular that fell victim this year to COVID cancel culture, a situation that probably explains why I can now buy a whole pumpkin for 99 cents. Beyond the soothing sounds of the Federal Highway and a growing population of scarecrows with gourd faces, what does Collector have to offer, I mused?
The first thing to highlight is a very fine coffee stop. To tell the truth, this is why I decided I could rationalise my first escape from the ACT to what is largely a featureless paddock on the fringe of waterless Lake George. It’s called Some Café and it benefits from a proximal relationship to the capital. Housed in a heritage building along with a wine tasting area, it conjures country charm with hipster-infused chill. I feel the cake display could be enhanced, but the coffee was indeed very fine and the cheese and ham toastie the stuff of the dreams I have been having ever since I watched that episode of Masterchef where they made toasties in the first round. Cheesy dreams.
Incidentally, upon leaving the café I noticed the logo resembles someone washing their hands. I mean, it might be clapping at the borderline pretentious latte art or rubbing your hands with glee at the prospect of Pialligo smoked bacon in a Three Mills bap. But in this day and age it is definitely someone washing their hands. Given this logo was there before the onset of COVID-19, one can actually imagine a handful of conspiracy theorists directing their unending keyboard war at a small café in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere. There is even a phone mast on the nearby ridge for goodness sake!
Dodging death rays and applying sanitiser positioned at the exit, I moved on to explore the rest of Collector. Outside of pumpkin festival time it is eerily quiet, apart from the hum of trucks upon the nearby highway. Everyone is probably in church, given the village (population 313) has three from which to choose: Anglican, Uniting and Catholic. Penance for the bushrangers.
The other place of worship in town is the pub, the Bushranger Hotel, with rooms looking out over farming country and a weird labour of love known as the Dreamer’s Gate. A gothic sculpture formed from cement and chicken wire, it resembles something that would feature in the Gunning and Breadalbane Amateur Dramatic Society’s production of Harry Potter and the Golden Horned Trans Merino. I can’t say I’m a massive fan, but I admire the dedication of its artist and his ability to piss off half of the locals.
Looping back towards Some Café from here, the road ran alongside a patch of farmland and the narrow course of Collector Creek. Given rain, it’s pleasant enough country with water even visible in the creek; not something that is guaranteed I’m sure.
It was around this point I was thinking how nice it would be to have a walk in the countryside. Yet this doesn’t really seem to be a thing in Australia – walking tracks are largely concentrated in some national parks and city reserves. There isn’t the same antiquated network of lanes and byways with right to roam as in the UK. So much country is locked out to the public, fenced off, dug away, blown up, guarded by deadly snakes. I think it’s a shame and also a missed opportunity. Imagine the benefits, for instance, if you were more impelled to pull off the Federal Highway and head into Collector, have a good coffee and a slice of cake, set off on a ramble for a few hours, and finish up in the pub. The same could be said for Gunning, Yass, Crookwell, Taralga, Tarago, Bungendore etc etc. Landholders unite!
Leaving Collector I did at least find something akin to a country lane. Eschewing the highway, I took a narrow road full of potholes towards the even smaller settlement of Breadalbane. It was so narrow (for Australia) that at one point I had to pull in to allow the only other car on it to proceed towards Collector. I’m not saying it would be a great walk or anything, but I definitely saw some cycling potential. For a start, it was mostly flat, with a small rise at what I think would be a good turn around point. It was very open, so you would see oncoming traffic. There are country sights to absorb, mostly sheep. And you could of course start and finish at Some Café, a cyclist’s dream. Just need to pick a wind-free, mild day. Perhaps Spring.
At what must have been Breadalbane I was starting to get a bit giddy being around fifty kilometres away from the ACT border. I could have turned right for Goulburn but thought I would save that for another exciting day out. Left was Gunning and – true to form, true to the real purpose of this day out – I knew of a good café there. By time I prevaricated and pottered about a little it would be acceptable afternoon tea hours.
A little shy of Gunning there is a small bridge over a small creek offering a sense of intimacy among a big land and big sky. It’s a peaceful scene, with a rail crossing and old pumphouse rising above a landscape that may occasionally flood. It would probably make another fine spot to set off on a walk, following the waterway and gradually climbing up to the gentle hills of the Cullerin Range, bedecked with wind turbines and unending views. All I can do is stop by the road and wait for clouds to blow through to reveal the sun.
The main reason I pause here is not only to kill time before afternoon tea, but to compare thee to a summer’s day. I came this way for the first time in December; those pre-COVID days that were only mired in ravaging drought, catastrophic bushfires and ‘Getting Brexit Done’, whatever that is supposed to mean. Back then, a few sheep were grazing under the bridge, clinging to remnant water like everything else seeking survival. In the sweet spot around February – the only two weeks of 2020 that were any good – the rains finally arrived. And today the sheep are nowhere to be seen, happily grazing elsewhere in a land of plenty.
Talking of grazing, the time for afternoon tea was getting closer, though I dragged things out a little further by taking in the sights of Gunning. This didn’t take too long, but I at least discovered a rough track through a park that followed a creek and for a few hundred metres resembled something akin to the replication of a simulation of a fake countryside walk. Leading from here I also ambled through a back lane decorated with the occasional section of crumbling brickwork overtaken by rampant undergrowth. In one garden, a Merino chewed upon the lawn, oblivious to the perils of a rusting trampoline.
Gunning has just the one high street offering an eclectic mix of styles and wares. A large warehouse hosts agricultural supplies. A row of Victorian-era shops display almost antiques and woollen craftwork. A garage straight out of the Midwest services passing trade. There is of course a pub and a couple of cafes to lure people off of the Hume Highway.
It was also back in dry December that I popped into one of these – the Merino Café – for a morning coffee accompanied by a delicious caramel macadamia ANZAC slice concoction. Back then it was justified by a desire to support small country communities doing it tough through the drought. Today it was about spending money in small businesses trying to get back on their feet through the COVID crisis. There is always some rationale and worthiness in cake.
The slice, along with several other varieties of fat and sugar, was still there, but a counter-top display of scones tempted and teased. Accepting the reality of disappointing cream, I was still tempted enough. And, yes, the cream was disappointing, but the scone itself was rather good.
All I needed now was a bloody good walk to burn off some of the indulgence. Looking at the map, the closest place for a bloody good walk in reality was Canberra. Yes, for all the breaking out of borders, I have to return to Canberra to go for a walk. You get the point. Country NSW: Cakes plentiful. Walks lacking.
I did at least take a stroll that included views of country NSW, discovering yet another small section of Mulligans Flat including more of its border fence. With a lowering afternoon sun and a combination of farmland and forest vistas, it was just the tonic after those relatively sedate and calorific country pursuits.
And then, with clouds congregating in a fashion that could yield a sunset spectacular, I made a last-minute call to stay out and see what might happen. Now back in the heart of Canberra I parked the car near Government House and wandered beside the lake. The sunset spectacle never really eventuated, but the light and tranquillity reminded of why this lucky little city is still one of the best places to be right now.
In fact, it’s even proving popular to those who live outside its boundaries. Among the entrails of dubious information and petulance located on Twitter I came across an article about how a trip to Canberra was generating excitement for those so confined in their oppressive Sydney bubble. Haw-bloody-haw. What do you think this is, Goulburn or something? Just don’t take all our cakes when you come here. And call in on a few towns and villages along the way.
Humans, like the weather, are nothing if not contrary. Can it really be the same species that were so recently sharing in collective despair with heartfelt empathy, ceaselessly giving anything from money to clothes to fence posts to time to hope, who now go about pulling each other’s hair out for another six pack of three ply?
It may well be, much like the weather, that in the Venn diagram of the good and bad, the heart-warming and the head-banging, there is only a little intersection between the two. Or perhaps we are all a little conflicted. Like a leaden cloud threatening to burst or simply waiting to be dispelled by the sun. Depending which way the wind blows. A phenomenon that might also explain the contents of certain supermarket trolleys.
What seems incontrovertible is that 2020 continues to produce a hell of a lot of crap, evidently more so in those double garages stocked with 2,000 rolls of toilet paper. And while the bare aisles of toilet tissue land make me feel bemused, I quietly sneak an extra jar of pasta sauce into my basket.
There could be fewer worthy places to stockpile a years’ worth of bog roll than on the South Coast of NSW. A beautiful corner of the world both pallid and sick and overflowing with life and love. A place whose interior is savaged but whose heart and soul are still beating. A place that could use a little helping (washed) hand to thrive once again. Mother nature has applied some balm through its cloud and rain and now we – the good we – can try to offer a little gentle sunshine.
The landscape of the South Coast region right now is simply astonishing in so many ways. The crest of Clyde Mountain confronts with brutal savagery, an unending parade of blackened trees and blackened earth yielding views down to the coast that were not previously available. Yet the vibrant tree ferns and epicormic shoots sprouting from trunks seem to defy death. On the fringes of Mogo, that all too familiar sight of summer – of twisted metal and crumpled fireplace – sits within a vivid, bounteous green. The village too a bustle of people purchasing pendants, peculiarities and pies.
The beaches of the region are as good as ever, which is to say, pretty damn perfect. At Broulee, a small patch of charred dune prompts memories of a video from the beach on New Year’s Eve, a small spot fire exploding and causing understandable angst amongst those who had fled to the water’s edge. Today, the sands are peppered with people bathing, fun and laughter filling the air. Much of the lush coastal fringe of spotted gums and fern trees along the road to Moruya seems unscarred.
From Tuross Head you can see the ranges of Deua National Park to the west. No doubt a regular sight of alarm at night, illuminated by flame that flickered and flared to its own shape and will. Constantly on edge, unknowing as to where and how far it would come, the fires never did reach Tuross, at least in physical form.
This is home for a few nights and what a fine home: close to the rugged beaches and barely open shops, in proximity to numerous opportunities to spend money and eat food and lose golf balls. A home coming with the bonus of a billiard table for evening entertainment; my knowledge on the placement of snooker balls stemming from lyrics recalled of Snooker Loopy featuring Chas and Dave. Pot the red and screw back, for the yellow green brown blue pink and black… Yeah, in your dreams.
It would be fair to say that despite limitations I was a far better snooker and pool player than golfer on this trip. Which says more about my golfing doom than my snooker prowess. Still, it was good to make a hefty contribution to the community of Narooma by zig-zagging around its golf course. A perfectly sliced and skied lay up on its famous third hole almost yielded a par, and I managed a par four somewhere else in between much larger figures. The added challenge of a series of greens being perforated, sanded and watered provided further good excuses for inadequacy.
With Narooma receiving an economic injection, the next place on the spending list was Bodalla, specifically its dairy and cheese factory. In times like these you’ve got to do your utmost to support these local businesses and so it was with considerable reluctance that I forced down a toastie oozing with cheese followed up with an ice cream. You do what you can do.
The following day endured cool and grey, reminiscent of typical coastal awaydays of the past. This might have previously induced disappointment and grumbling and a roll of the eyes with a sigh. But it seems crass to complain this year. This weather is perfect. And there is still plenty of consumption of local community produce to be savoured.
I don’t know if supporting the South Coast economy has ever been so tasty. The one exception was – alas – fish and chips, a result of many of the better venues being closed on a Monday in March. But there was the Mexican brunch bowl at Mossy Point, the caramel fudge and coffee in Moruya and – probably the piece de resistance of feeling worthy and eating well – home-cooked wholesomeness and other takeaway from the farmers markets also in Moruya.
The markets were small but popular, a place very much for locals to gather and update one another on the latest news and gossip. They were also attuned to market protocols, forming orderly queues with wicker baskets as they awaited the 3pm opening bell. Twenty minutes later and most of the fresh stuff had sold out, but we managed to retrieve a medley of locally grown seasonal vegetables, some swordfish, crusty bread and a dairy product or two for me to bring home to go on a scone or three.
I can’t say our market-supplied barbecue that night was a traditional Aussie bloke-themed methane-heavy slimy snag and slab of steak celebration. But it felt good and tasted even better. Refined even. Setting up another classy evening of exemplary three-way snooker (Tuross Rules).
Which was again better than the golf that day. Looking for something to do we came across a whole nine holes to ourselves. It quickly became clear why, the course pretty basic and unkempt in places, plagued by an infestation of mosquitoes. These had apparently emerged post fire and rain, proof that not all of nature’s recovery is especially welcome. At the course boundary, fire had penetrated the forest and the relatively low fee to have a course and a million mozzies to ourselves didn’t seem such an injustice after all.
You see, it’s quite a divergent experience down on the South Coast. Like chalk and cheese. Sunshine and rain. Go Fund Me and bog-roll violence. So much of it looks and feels as good as ever. Life seems normal. Better even given the incredible swathe of green pasture now smothering the fields. And then your mind comes back to that saying I heard before: the great green cover up.
And you drive, under bucketloads of rain, through Mogo once more with its scattering of crumpled buildings. Towards and into the edges of Batemans Bay, where the forest has scorched down to its very edge and looks like it is struggling to recover. You get a sense of where the fire was most ferocious; green shoots are harder to come by. One side of the road up Clyde Mountain looks normal, the other decimated.
You enter Braidwood to support that economy, knowing that it would be near impossible to convince an overseas visitor that this was in the grip of drought, primed to borrow water from Canberra while being shrouded in smoke for months on end. You shelter with hot coffee and sense BlazeAid nomads taking a well-earned day off. You espy a generous supply of toilet paper in the café bathroom; and briefly a wicked thought enters your mind. But the sunshine wins out, the goodness, the heart. Much like it is doing, much like it will do again, down on the South Coast.
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.
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.
I am back in Australia, honest! Proof of this are the shorts adorning my waist, the flat white on my desk and the gorgeous melodies of magpies lurking outside ready to peck my eyes out. Yet still the European adventures linger on, and the feeling of being at home away from home away from home.
Plymouth won’t win any prizes for Britain’s most beautiful city, but it is my home town and I’m happy that way. Mostly thanks to its geography and history there is a lot to love about Plymouth, despite clusters of concrete dreariness and chavvy hang outs. Somehow I felt an air of greater positivity in Plymouth this year, which is perplexing given years of council cutbacks and the potential cliff edge that we all know weighs upon the near future. Perhaps this is what a good summer yields.
The Hoe, how I relish seeing Plymouth’s Hoe, especially on fine evenings as families gather for picnics, friends congregate for frisbee, and old fogies stare out to sea behind the protection of their car windscreens. I love the sense of community, the fraternity, this contented coming together in public spaces…from the ridiculous music coming out of the devices of yoof splayed out on the grass to the flasks of tea being enjoyed by elders within the comfort of a Nissan Micra.
Many people are out enjoying Plymouth’s classic circular amble, milling their way through the historic Barbican before rising up along the foreshore and taking in vistas of Plymouth Sound from The Promenade. The Barbican is a reliable go-to to wile away an hour, to seek out food and drink and to perhaps even discover a good coffee…eventually. A salty air of old sea-dogs and staggering drunks, intertwined with fancy foods and crumbly fudge.
And what of the sights and experiences within half an hour or so? Well, on three sides there is Cornwall, Dartmoor, and the South Hams respectively on your doorstep. All national park or areas of outstanding natural beauty, designated or otherwise.
Probably the most pleasing way to cross the frontier west into Cornwall is on the tiny passenger ferry from Cremyll to Mount Edgecumbe. Here, the rather expansive country park offers everything from rampant rhododendrons to tumbledown towers. A shoreline of seaweed and pebbles is fractured by swathes of woodland meandering down to the waterside, while formal lawns and regimented flower beds are dotted with Romanesque statues and Georgian hidey-holes. This is a place of childhood summers, an escape accessible to all Plymothians, as long as the ferry price doesn’t continue to escalate.
Trips to Cornwall require a river crossing of one way or another, producing a deliberate period of transition between the city and its exterior. Travelling to the South Hams provides no such moment; one minute you are navigating parked cars and speed cameras, the next, you are in the rolling green ambrosia characteristic of this part of the world. Longer drives lead to jewels such as Bantham, Hope and Salcombe and, of course, a little closer sits the timeless charm of Noss Mayo. Closer still – practically a Plymouth suburb – is Wembury, where many a local will pop out for a National Trust delicacy and stroll upon the beach. Better still – as I discovered – you can park up towards Wembury Point and head along the coast to Heybrook Bay for a pint.
It’s a blessing to have these places on your doorstep but if there is one clear antidote to the drab post-war concrete jungle, overloaded roads, and profusion of Janners grunting something like “Fook, I’m goowun down Demnport un gonna smassh iz fookin fayce in” it is the rugged expanse of Dartmoor National Park. The higher parts are open and barren, bruised by the weather, the shattered granite tors tumbling down amongst bracken towards fast-flowing streams. But there is also a tamer side to Dartmoor, replete with an abundance of countryside charm, cute villages and human enterprise.
It is from these hills, from this sponge in the middle of Devon, that the waters which give Plymouth its name first spring. The River Plym here is a far cry from the sludgy and stinky tidal estuary meeting Plymouth Sound. Clear and rapid, tumbling over boulders and pooling on bends, the river descends into dense valleys packed green with mosses, ferns and leafy trees. Plymbridge Woods is but a short descent through a dark, narrow lane from industrial estates and Asda superstores, yet it is another world away.
So, to the north, to the east, to the west there are pleasures easy to reach. Should you have a boat or a longing for Brittany, the south also offers much. And slap bang in the middle, Plymouth. My home that still feels mostly like home while existing slightly distant. It’s funny how things you took for granted, things that you didn’t notice when you were younger now trigger a fond, sometimes joyous sensation. And that extends from leafy green woods and cobbled quays to the family comforts of laundry fairies and roast dinners. Home, still.
I had spent almost two weeks overseas before making it officially home. While Bristol Airport provided little pockets of Englishness (M&S pork pie, terrible latte from Costa), and the impressive one pound Falcon Stagecoach crossed borders into luscious Devon, it wasn’t until the Sainsbury sails of Marsh Mills emerged in sight that I truly felt back home. Plymouth.
It’s funny because arriving here doesn’t particularly feel exciting or exotic or out of the ordinary. But it was a moment I had longed for; I suspect precisely because it doesn’t feel exciting or exotic or out of the ordinary. I say this despite a diversion to a new coach station, the inevitable addition of more Greggs in town, and some positive additions to family structure. But at the heart of it, the connection with home yields a familiarity that is the very essence of comfort and, for the most part, happiness.
Happiness is that first bite of scone with jam with clotted cream. OH. MY. GOD. Obviously this happened the day immediately after my arrival at the coach station. And it was in a new location. Cardinham Woods in Cornwall, where there was plenty of wooded green to soothe the mind, Snakes and Owls and Gruffalo to find, and deliciousness of a kind, which is unmatched anywhere on earth.
Happiness is going to see a Hoe, and a very familiar one at that. That walk that I have walked five hundred times and I will walk five hundred more. Plymouth Sound constant companion by my side, the stripes of Smeaton’s Tower a backdrop to proper footy kick abouts and OAPs parked up, gazing out to ocean as they lick languidly away at their Miss Whippys. For me, it’s coffee in the sun by the Sound; shit coffee but sun and the Sound.
Happiness is going to see Sarah, who is definitely not a hoe, but a very fine woman who I am hugely in love with. I have no idea who Sarah is, but she makes bloody good pasties. So much so that any other pasty is now disappointing. It means a trip to Looe, an adventure in trying to find a car park, an effort of restraining expletives as grockles spill aimlessly over the roads and flock to inferior pasty chain stores. There is achievement to be felt, reward to be had, and attention still needed to protect incredible nuggets of pastry from seagulls as undiscerning as the grockles.
Meanwhile, have I mentioned the accessibility of cream teas at home? That makes me happy. Cream teas in Devon that are not Devonshire teas in Cremorne. Another quest, another discovery, this time at the Fox Tor Cafe in Princetown. It’s not much to look at – and weekends bring out an excess of Lycra – but the buttery scones are utterly Devonly divine. And the jam and cream ain’t so bad either.
Happiness is not often a product of the English weather. But expectations are so, so low that you cannot fail to smile when the forecast is for light cloud and a top of nineteen degrees. Get a bank holiday weekend when the temperature builds under blue skies and you’ll find everyone turns mildly, wildly delirious. Blackened charcoal sausage is the staple food source, evenings out are comfortable and you begin to think, hmm maybe this isn’t so bad after all. Followed by the inevitable if only it could be like this all the time. These are the words uttered outside waterside pubs, along the promenades, within the leafy parks and wedged between giant hedges as countryside spills down to coast.
It has to rain sometime though. To grow grass, to colour those fields the most soothing shade of green. To make the cows happy and produce the very best cream. A landscape you criss-cross all the way to Fingle Bridge on the eastern side of Dartmoor. Where lush wooded riverside offers the picture perfect snap of Devon. Even if the scones turn out a little stale and insipid.
But Devon is far more then Devonshire Teas or – god forbid – that brand of fatty processed meat that they sell in the deli counter in Coles. Devon is more a fine, aged Serrano in the ham stakes, as you might find out here!
For all its tea-based pleasures and intricacies, Devon and Cornwall – and England and the rest of the UK – is not, it must be oft said with an eye roll thrown in, accomplished in the art of coffee. But there are glimmers of hope; hope that possibly makes you think hmm maybe this isn’t so bad after all. Followed by the inevitable if only it could be like this all the time. These are the words uttered inside my head as I sup on a reasonable flat white among the glistening cobbles and boats of Plymouth’s Barbican.
Happiness is the aspiration pushed by marketers at Morrisons and Sainsburys and Tesco and, yes, Aldi. The Aldi happiness is more a utilitarian, Germanic form of pleasure, and certainly hard to pinpoint at 3:30pm on a Sunday afternoon, before the stores close in a quaint but annoying reminder that Sunday used to be a day of rest. These are the temples of a kid in a candy shop or, um, actually a grown man in a candy shop. For every reliable revisit of a Double Decker there is a new discovery or a forgotten one rediscovered. Like Wispa bites, and Digestive cake bars, and more things contributing to the presence of salted caramel as a major food group. And then I see the dairy aisle and the copious supply of clotted cream, and I feel a bit sad.
Sad that I am leaving tomorrow, sad that I am leaving Plymouth, Devon, Cornwall and – eventually – the UK. Again. More than pasties and green fields and hoes and chavs and freakish warm days and even more than the clotted cream, sad to be leaving behind those who are linked by blood and love and a shared fondness of some plain old cake with a lump of tooth-rotting fruit and heart-shattering congealed cow milk on top.
But let us not dwell on such sadness, because we can squeeze in a little more happy and let that linger in our minds and our hearts. The train isn’t until three and there is a final family visit to the Fox Tor Cafe to be had…
When I think of Newcastle some quite disturbing images come to mind. Gazza, half cut, tongue out, festooned with a pair of fake plastic tits; girls plastered with fake everythings casually hanging out in crop tops in the freezing fog of January; Kevin Keegan’s bubble perm; a language unfathomable, so much so that I can remember having to ask a couple of Geordies to say that again at least ten times before I gave up and resorted to a smile and nod. My Newcastle associations are embedded in the UK.
Like so many spots down under there is a Newcastle of the south. The resemblance is far from uncanny but one bond in common is a slightly grimy industrial heritage. This in the oh-so-sunny world of Australia is perversely refreshing. Sure, the entrance to town from the direction of the airport is not the greatest advertisement, as you cross the Hunter River in a squall and look down upon piles of coal and metalwork. But there is an honesty to it, a grit, an earthy spirit perhaps common to Newcastles all over the world, whyaye.
Once clear of this blackspot of industry, you are back in a more familiar kind of Australia, with Newcastle boasting some fine beaches, cafe-cultured hubbub, and waterside retreats. I like it here, though being unfamiliar with what’s hot and what’s not it took me four attempts to get a good coffee. Cafes on Darby Street have an appearance in which they seem to talk the talk, but walking proves far more problematic. Is it me, or are baristas with an armful of tattoos, baseball caps and a love of the mirror at the gym usurping hipsters in coffee-making skills? Just something I seem to have observed in recent times…
Once I found a good coffee from someone who could crush the beans by hand, I decided I liked Newcastle a lot. It probably joins the long list of places where I’d say I could live if I had to. Being on the coast has a lot to do with it, and while showers were around and daylight saving had ended, at least I got to enjoy the last of the day with the rainbows and butterflies before setting off for some evening work.
The next morning started early (partly because daylight saving has ended) and – being on the east coast – I thought I may marvel in the sunrise over the ocean. Of course, the persistent stream of showers coming in off the Tasman Sea had other ideas. But I was up now, so I headed along the breezy coastline towards Merewether Beach. Partly this passed along a rather fine metal walkway making the cliff top route a touch easier to navigate. That is, until turning round and noticing the many steps in the other direction. Still, it justified breakfast (with average coffee / no tattoos).
Newcastle airport is some 30 kilometres north of the city and I didn’t really need to be there until 4. If you carry on a similar distance north of the airport you enter the long peninsula of Port Stephens, a collective of holiday towns, placid bays and hilly bush-clad headlands. It’s probably worth a day or two to explore but I had a few hours, pausing for lunch at Fingal Bay, before doing undoubtedly the number one thing to do and climbing Tomaree Head. It’s not a long walk but there are a few switchbacks and metal steps involved, leading to a 360 degree view of the bay, the hills, the beaches and the agitated blue sea.
While blessed with the rugged scenery of Northumberland I doubt if the Newcastle of the north would have such a temperate idyll an hour away. You can see why people come here for holidays, or to retire. Even the koalas of NSW like it here, not that I saw any (or saw any people looking up into trees which is the best way of spotting koalas). I have only been to the other Newcastle once and I thought it was alright. But if I was to choose, I think this one would win hands down; even without a Sunderland next door aye!
August 2006, and after a now customary gruelling journey by land and air I found myself at Canberra’s suitably bland Jolimont Bus Station. Here I was for a year – not the bus station but the city at large – a work swap to sample the delights of Australian bureaucracy and seek to escape Canberra for other parts of the country as frequently as possible. And while I have done all that, here I still am almost ten years later. Next week I will head to the Jolimont Centre again, to commence that journey, again, but – again – I will be back.
So, where did that ten years go exactly? Well, for a start, not every single day has been spent in the national capital, with extended periods in swags and other people’s beds both down under and abroad. I nominally left a couple of times, packing up my belongings in boxes and placing them in various friend’s nooks and crannies. But I had to go back to retrieve them, and, once I did, I decided it was agreeable enough to stay.
So, in honour of the passing of a milestone, allow me to ramble on about ten Canberra things that have kept me amused, bemused, infuriated, mystified, but largely happy. With some archive pictures to boot, in which the shade of my hair and athleticism of my body is, lamentably, so last decade. In 2006 I strove to the top of that hill in a crappy bike. Ten years later, and not so much has changed.
Upon Red Hill with Black Mountain in the distance, October 2006
1 – Four Seasons in One Year
It is of course customary to talk about the weather in any conversation starter. Indeed, Australians are almost as prone to this as Brits. What would we talk about if there was no weather, like on the Gold Coast? Retirement savings, Pauline Hanson, golf?
I arrived in Canberra towards the end of winter. Which presented my British bones with beautiful, pleasant sun-filled days in which you could almost strip to a T-shirt. Ha, winter, I laughed, whatever. But then I think it plunged to minus eight overnight and I had a little more respect for the hardiness of the souls living here.
Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter
Because of its altitude, its distance from the coast, its fondness for winds direct from the mountains, Canberra has a very clear four seasons. I say very clear, but weird plants and shit seem to be in flower all the time, and birds never fail to make a racket at five in the morning. Still, there is definitely frost, blossom, sweltering bushfire smoke days (known as “stinkers”) and – best of all – the golden glowing foliage of autumn. I like that about Canberra (people ask does it make you feel at home, as an unruly pack of Cockatoos shriek their way through a decimated oak tree). With the seasons, life is constantly, visibly changing. Unlike – say – on the Gold Coast, where it largely just ebbs away.
2 – That Canberra
Canberra has cut pensions for war veterans! Canberra has imposed a great new tax on everything! Canberra has got its knickers in a twist with the latest self-absorbed leadership tussle! Apart from, of course, it hasn’t. The Federal Parliament, voted for by the great people of Australia, has allegedly done all this in my time here. But a city and 99.999% of its residents have not. Editors, sub-editors, journalists, reporters, radio shock-jocks: STOP BEING SO FRICKIN GORMLESSLY LAZY!
However, it would be remiss of me to avoid mentioning the presence of Parliament Houses, both old and new, in this capital city. They are quite distinctive and diverse, lined up to degrees of perfection on a central axis. For me, the old one is better, mainly because it’s no longer used for debates and mediocre policy formulation. Which means you can walk the halls, sit in the padded chairs, swing around in the former prime minister’s seat, cigar in hand and a scotch on the rocks. For better or worse, this was why Canberra was made.
A reflection of Australian Parliament House, June 2007
3 – Flashes of Brilliance
I had been to Australia before 2006, and I had even been to Canberra. However, I didn’t recall the almost nonchalant parade of colourful birds swooping and hollering across suburbs and over hills. Most remarkable – to an Englishman familiar with the monotone – was the sheer brilliance of colour and decoration: a flutter of rainbow emerging from long grass, a blush of pink perched on a wire, the regal red and blue of a pair of rosellas serenading in the bush. Even the pigeons and seagulls seem a little cleaner and offer at least a little charm.
I’m no twitcher but I have grown to recognise the basics and even some of the calls that these assorted oddments provide (mostly just to identify who keeps waking me up at 5am). And while they have attained a familiarity, there are still moments, when a blur of brilliance darts through the bush, that bring a little, wondrous smile to my face.
A pair of Gang Gang Cockatoos, April 2015
4 – And as for the Plants
I seem to make routine visits to the Australian National Botanic Gardens. After ten years I do so with little in the way of enthusiasm or expectation – it’s more like it’s somewhere different in the rotation of hill walks, lakeside ambles and suburban rambles. Yet each time, after wandering off onto one of the tracks for ten minutes, I find myself in some kind of placid contented vegan tree-hugging alternate state. It’s a bit like going to Melbourne, only with callistemon and grevillea instead of coffee and graffiti.
Of course, it goes without saying that Australian plants can be a little quirky. As someone still part foreigner, a walk through the gardens evokes a sense of discovery, a sense that you are clearly in an alien land. Indeed, you can almost imagine how Joseph Banks was feeling nearly 250 years ago, getting a boner at the sight of a bottlebrush, incessantly naming things after himself. To be fair, there were a lot of things to name in the Anglo classification scheme of things and – as the Botanic Gardens consistently exemplify – the sensory overload can be exhilarating. For me, nothing, like nothing, can beat the smell of the bush after rain.
Waratahs bursting forth in the Botanic Gardens, October 2012
5 – Food glorious food. And coffee.
I didn’t really do coffee in the UK. And after ten years in Australia, that last statement seems even more sensible. Despite only incremental improvements it is largely awful. If there was an Ashes for coffee – and perhaps cafe culture more broadly – Australia would do the flat whitewash each time, perhaps with some stoic resistance from the English tailenders in the final dead rubber.
So now I have become one of those awful Australians who harps on about how bad the coffee is in the UK. I remember supping on my first few coffees in Manuka, in what was once Hansel and Gretel and has now become Ona, with awards and movies and a somewhat more pretentious, more beard-infested, and more expensive take on anything that can be derived from a humble bean. I rarely go there these days, but such is the profusion of good standard coffee that it doesn’t really matter. But it is nice to find a spot where everybody knows your name.
Food in Australia leaves me a little more ambivalent. Ashes contests would be more competitive in this space. Highlights include mangoes, most Asian food, steak, and some of the seafood. Cheese can be a little hit and miss, especially with some crucial French cheeses off the agenda due to health and safety regulations (sigh). The biggest issue though is the absence of genuine clotted cream. Clearly this is a problem. And it may well be the driving force for return visits to the UK (sorry family and friends!).
A classic before it became much more: Brodburger, October 2008
6 – On the Edge of Wilderness
Australia has a luxury of space which makes any dispiriting rant of “F**k off we’re full” all the more silly. Sure, a lot of it is hostile and infertile, jam-packed with snakes and spiders. But even in the temperate south east corner there are vast tracts of not very much at all. The airiness, the freedom, the big blue sky, this is why Canberra itself was such a tonic arriving from London ten years ago. And while the city has an excess of underused scrubby grassland, this pales into insignificance when looking south and west.
Namadgi National Park sits entirely within the ACT and while it’s not up there with the likes of some of the other spectacular wilderness areas of Eastern Australia, you can at least get a good view. Sadly most of these views require a reasonable hike there and back again, trails I have now exhausted in their entirety. But being little over forty minutes away, access to wilderness is literally on your doorstep. And where a familiar trail ends, there is so much temptation, so much allure, so much that is pulling you to want to dive in further. To bush bash. Until the thought of all those snakes and spiders sends you back the way you came, again.
The end of the Yerrabri Track in Namadgi NP, January 2015
7 – Culcha innit
Being a capital city, Canberra has the rather good fortune of containing all the usual national suspects: a library, a museum, a big war memorial and countless other ones, national archives, a portrait gallery, and the National Gallery of Australia. While interstate visitors and schools parties can pile off their coaches for a whistlestop gawp, the benefits of being a local mean that you can go back and explore, time and time again.
In the main, these institutions are free and have cafes. Which means I frequently pop to one or other when I have an hour or so to kill. The National Library has provided a workspace on occasion, the Portrait Gallery some photographic inspiration, the National Museum respite from a biting wind on a bike. And as for the National Gallery, there is something quite satisfying about popping in and casually cruising past some famous works and famous names, diverting one’s attention in pursuit of a coffee.
Hanging outside the National Gallery of Australia, March 2009
8 – Sod it, Let’s go to the Coast
Beach in Murramarang NP, October 2008
Okay not technically Canberra, but referring to Batemans Bay as Canberra-on-Sea has some justification. Australians’ slavish desire to worship beach frontage contributes to the high disregard attributed to the national capital. But I’ve obviously quite rightly made the argument that Canberra is closer to the coast than Western Sydney, once you take into account traffic and the all-round awfulness of Parramatta Road. And what a coast it has.
My first visit (and escape from Canberra) was at the end of September in 2006. A bus down Clyde Mountain to the Bay, hopping off at Broulee. It was a fortuitous choice, as Broulee is one of the best. Sweeping golden sand, rugged coastal forest, distant mountains. So much so that Broulee regularly comes back into play, on any fabled day trip that has been made many times since.
9 – Jesus of Suburbia
Canberra’s suburbs can be at one utopian and hellish. Ten years on, and it is still feasible that I could get lost in them. Essentially Canberra is a city of suburbs with some hills and a few important buildings in between. Many of them have politically inspired names, but I fail to distinguish between such places as Ainslie, Scullin, Theodore.
Navigating the suburbs to Rocky Knob Park, April 2014
I’m currently in Phillip, which is either named after Governor Phillip or an expression the Duke of Edinburgh caught wind of a few times in boarding school. Before this I was in Red Hill, and this presented the best aspect of suburban living: leafy avenues, quiet crescents, popular schools, and cafes and shops a pleasant fifteen minute walk away. Often finding myself working at home, it was so easy to take a break, ogle at expensive houses, scrunch through leaves, dodge resident peacocks, and emerge to a bit of a view – and a bit of a titter – at Rocky Knob Park.
10 – The summit
It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me reasonably well that I save the best to last. Much like the crackling from a Sunday roast, for which fork stabbing is in order if anyone dares try nab it from my plate.
The last and best of Canberra’s things may come as no surprise either; my subject and muse, my meditation and therapy, my gym and inspiration, where the suburbs give way to a bushland ridge known collectively as Red Hill.
It’s possible it could have been another hill. But this was the first and will always be the best. Three days into the Canberra experience, a sunny Sunday and desperate to fend off jetlag, I opened the door and walked west. Kingston, Manuka, Forrest…the last luxurious homes giving way to Red Hill reserve. A summit climb, a coffee and cake, a special view. Nature, space, golden light, the excitement of a new city and new people below. The city may have become more familiar, the hair may have – ahem –mellowed, the people may have come and gone, the discoveries faded, but still I can be happily, contentedly, thanking my lucky stars upon this very hill today.
I’m not sure if the Southern Highlands of NSW are deliberately trying to be Scottish or English or even Irish. I mean, there’s the name, but I do not see ragged rocks round which raggedy rascals run, nor boggy glens of heather and gorse lurking in the haar. There are big country estates akin to the tweed jacket terrain of a southern England itching for a brexit, but the falling leaves and withered buds lining their driveways can no longer mask the reality of eucalyptus and brown, scrubby land. Meanwhile, in Robertson, a fondness for potatoes is clear for all to see, only it culminates in the splendid apparition of a big thing, undeniably Australian.
The landscape can at best be described as greenish and pleasantish, a subdued and ultimately futile attempt by those illiterate and innumerate immigrants to create a home away from home, made all the more difficult by prolonged heat and drought. The United Kingdom is the United Kingdom due to its lousy but somehow endearing weather, and because of that Australia will never be able to compete. And nor should it, because Australia is definitely better for being more than just a half-baked recreation of a previous rose-tinted incarnation of a mother country. Plus it can just vie instead – rather well as it turns out – at Eurovision.
As the fading gentrification of the Southern Highlands descends toward the sea you can be in no doubt that this is Australia. Indeed, an Australia as it was before anyone, even its first peoples, decided to venture over by boat. The plateau abruptly falls away into a dense system of deep valleys and gorges. Massive walls of sandstone plummet towards pristine creeks obscured by a blanket of gums. A pair of black cockatoos glide in the air, conversing in prehistoric shrieks. Banksia and wattles compete for attention in the understorey topping the escarpment. And a thin veil of water tumbles over its edge, destined ultimately for the ocean.
Between Fitzroy Falls and the ocean, further endeavours to pacify the landscape emerge in Kangaroo Valley. Undeniably pretty, flower gardens and cottages adorn the valley, while larger lodges bask on elevated terraces as if attempting to emulate the initial slopes of an Alpine pass. Indeed, a winding road gathers some form of height before snaking down to Berry, where the quaintness is a tad more commercialised but delivered in style with good coffee and expensive buttery tarts.
After the surprisingly sprawling outlet strips of Nowra, the environment becomes evidently coastal. Salty inlets and spotted gums signal the ocean is near, and at Jervis Bay it is realised in a flourish of white sands and opaque water, a brilliance which softens as the day says its farewell. Today’s departure is a cut above, a boastful multicoloured extravaganza of transitioning light and incandescent skies. It is an exquisite end to an enthralling ride.
To provide some attempt at balance, not everything down at Jervis Bay was entirely utopian. The next morning was decidedly cool, a persistent easterly wind restricting twenty four hour shorts wearing. The first breakfast I had in Huskisson disappointed and the coffee was only adequate. But such first world irritations faded quickly away upon the welcoming green and white terrain of the White Sands Walk.
From bay to bay, traversing succulent coastal forests in between, it’s an easy amble from Blenheim Beach to Hyams Beach. The only real difficulty is deciding whether to take your shoes and socks off on the sandy bits only to then have the hassle of putting them on again for rougher terrain (conclusion: wear sandals or thongs). Plus there’s the challenge of restraining your photo-taking so that you don’t have endless, repetitive pictures of clear water lapping at fine, white sand.
The sand is so white here that it famously gets on every piece of tourist literature and recurrently features on Sydney Weekender as the whitest sand in the world. In fact, it is genuinely so white that even small-minded immigration ministers would feel unthreatened and some cretin with a golden toupee would approve. Personally, I think there is probably whiter (for instance, around Esperance), but that is probably just supremacist talk.
Regardless, the presence of such beaches is a blessing and I was feeling immensely satisfied early the next morning with an improved coffee overlooking the glowing, becalmed bay. And for a few minutes at least you can breathe it in, cherish what makes Australia so special, what helps to make it so compellingly attractive. And to think such coffee-fuelled nirvana may not have happened without openness to the world. We could all still be enduring that ghastly blend of oversized Americanised coffee mixed with UK ineptitude instead. Something, I suspect, even the Southern Highlands would turn their nose up at.