In what can only be taken as a positive sign, I will soon need a visit to a petrol station. The last such experience was on Monday 13th September at 10:20am, a level of precision recorded in posterity – or at least for one month – by the magic of QR code. Looking back at it now, it felt a risky manoeuvre at the time, beyond the boundaries of my self-administered geographical bubble, justified in my mind by being significantly cheaper and twinned with the prospect of a different coffee shop. It was quite the holiday.
Since that date, the petrol gauge dipped in small increments only to hasten in more recent days. Friday 1st October granted the freedom for human beings to enter national parks – or a national park more precisely – and outlying nature reserves within the boundaries of the ACT. Just in time for a long weekend that would see newfound lovers of national parks and nature reserves flock to suffocate them with their devotion.
I was primed to wait, to let the suddenly-engaged nature enthusiasts have their maskless moment in the sun. But then I awoke early on the Monday – infuriatingly early given daylight savings had just kicked in – and saw an opportunity too good to pass.
An open road had been an object of desire for many weeks. Being Canberra there have been empty roads and there have been open vistas but never have these situations quite provided that sensation of travelling in a landscape. Of countryside flying past your window in an everchanging composition of shapes and colours and light and space. Each second a unique expression of time and place curated for your eyes only.
And what expressions of time and place these proved. Just out of town on the road to Tharwa, a countryside cloaked in misty lingerings and golden dew. Sturdy ranges rise up from sweeping grasslands, scattered with the withered trunks and branches of old gum tree. Cows and sheep and the odd outbuilding catch the eye, mere dots on a magnificent green canvas stretching to the sky. And oh how green.
If I were restrained within a bubble for but a few minutes this sight would still make my heart sing. And now that it is here again, I want it all the more.
I can leave the car and venture out on foot into the fringes of Namadgi National Park. Already at the Visitor Centre a dozen or so cars are parked up as their inhabitants embrace the outdoors. The trail – worn from good rains and the numerous footsteps of a long weekend – cuts a muddy swathe towards the looming summit of Mount Tennent, still capped by its own personal cloud. Today, that exertion is far from my goal. I want to linger and learn.
For all the joyous expansiveness of the landscape, topped off with flask tea on a seat at the Cypress Pine Lookout, I am distracted, fascinated, heartened by the more miniscule. The work of nature overcoming winter, recovering from fire, embracing spring. All emerging into the world once more.
One of my attempts at Lockdown 2 Self Improvement Projects has been aligned to the season and the pursuit (and somewhat more challenging identification) of our native wildflowers. Provided with generous encouragement and impetus, I have found this a satisfying, almost addictive pursuit, one that can easily turn an hour walk into two.
So, from the fragrant myrtles to the delicate orchids, the indecipherable varieties of pea to the bulbous generosity of golden lilies, there is so much to discover. Far and near, it truly is spectacular how much you can see when you actually look. Checking out as much as checking in.
Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t say I’m especially fond of a cracked phone screen on top of a magpie attack on top of an earthquake on top of a lockdown on top of a pandemic. Served up with a hearty dollop of impending nuclear Armageddon intersecting with blistering fire and dust super tornados. No, Wednesday you didn’t particularly rock my world.
Frankly, out of all those, the bloody magpie irks me the most. How dare you take away the satisfaction and soothing of my allotted outdoor exercise time in lovely spring sunshine. And mean another pathway is added to the blacklist. The pathways are busy enough as they are with all these people in various states of mask undress discovering pathways for the very first time. Why don’t you attack them, stupid magpie? Oh, that’s right, you remember me, but yet conveniently you don’t remember how I have never once tried to steal your babies in all those years, you bloody shit.
If there is any positive, the magpie at least adds a bit of frisson to another daily outing in the same part of suburbia. Six weeks in, the confines of living within a vague radius or region are starting to grate. There are only so many times – for instance – you can wander upon Red Hill without getting weary of the same route. On the most recent occasion, I found myself annoyed with an endless procession of joggers and dogs not on leads and family gatherings. Eroding the sensations usually associated with an escape to and immersion in nature. Sounds, sights, space shrinking.
An actual problem looking for a solution, I find myself more often than not heading off track. A little out of the way. Not exactly bush-bashing, more weaving between weeds. There are still a few spots in which to escape around the Woden zone. I probably shouldn’t share them here but figure a readership of six people – many of whom are not in Canberra – is not going to cause a sudden ruination of my life. If it does, I’ll know who to blame. And set that magpie upon you…
The Old Mugga Mugga Way
If Red Hill is akin to Fitness First every goddam afternoon, Mount Mugga Mugga Reserve is more like that rusty bench press underneath a pile of boxes at the back of the garage. Fringing the weirdness of O’Malley, it seems the varied diplomats and consuls who inhabit the area rarely go out to exercise. Perhaps like most aliens they have been cowed by those great tales of deadly inhabitants of the Australian bush. Preferring the safety and comfort of their own little piece of soil.
The Centenary Trail runs through the reserve and introduced me to the area back in the good old days of 2020. A few people still come and go along this thoroughfare but it’s simple to veer off onto a number of faint tracks and choose your own adventure. The landscape is a very Canberra mix of weedy incursions and precious Yellow Box-Blakely’s Red Gum grassy woodland, replete with gnarly old eucalypts and their generous, homely hollows.
One particular tree has fallen, and I have taken to it on several occasions to perch and drink tea from a flask and eat a treat and watch Gang-gangs fly past while kangaroos graze and deadly inhabitants of the Australian bush lurk in the crevices of the fallen tree on which I am sat.
The whole flask of tea thing has become another more frequent happening in my life in recent weeks; I don’t know why I haven’t thought of it much before. Perhaps I simply wasn’t quite of an age. But pandemics and magpie attacks have a way of adding on the years, transforming a simple flask of tea in the middle of the bush into something that feels much more precious.
Isaacs Off Piste Ridge
Mount Mugga Mugga itself is scarred by a quarry and the summit appears fenced off, thus remaining that rare Canberra hill not trampled upon by my own two feet. Yet it’s just one lump in a broad range extending from Red Hill south towards the Tuggeranong Valley. Adjoining Mugga Mugga, Isaacs Ridge proves popular for its pine trails and dog walks and boasts an archetypal trig marker summit loop with 360 degree views.
That all sounds a bit mainstream for me at the moment, so I veer off the fine balcony trail lapping at the foot of the ridge and decide to head up cross country. There is a very faint track at first, which slowly blends into a landscape of open grassland and rocky scrub. Over a false summit, a field of thistly plants remains quelled by winter – give it a month or two and the going will come with greater hazard. A random copse of casuarina appears as if some long-forgotten scientific experiment, offering a landmark to follow slowly upwards to the top of the ridge. And lo and behold, a photogenic gum tree, with some fallen logs for a rest (and possible tea).
From here, there are views east to that far off land of New South Wales. There is countryside and Mugga Lane and quarrying work and possibly even just a little part of the tip. But mostly it’s countryside. There is also the white trig marker visible to the south, acting as a beacon to aim for, navigating the rocky boulders and grasses of the ridge and returning to the mainstream.
The Murrumbidgee Vista Rocky Outcrop
For several weeks, Cooleman Ridge was proving one of those ambiguous places in the application and interpretation of local coronavirus restrictions. Is it in the Woden, Weston and Molonglo region or is it Tuggeranong? Is it within five kilometres of home or six and a half or eight? The answers are yes and sometimes you just have to ask the question does it actually matter?
One of those days was a lunchtime and instead of a flask of tea I packed up some crackers, nuts and cheese and went on a quest for the perfect place to snack. Eschewing the usual, well-defined summit rocks and strategically-situated benches I veered off towards a hillock I had eyed up in the past. A few gum trees stood atop resistant, hosting flurries of wattlebird and passing rosellas. Imagine by delight that under one of them was the perfectly positioned, home-crafted seat.
Someone had been here before looking for the ideal situation to escape to the country. A kindred spirit. And if a backdrop of lush farmland cloaking a river valley beneath forested hills isn’t enough, check out those crackers and cheese and nuts from Kingaroy. Off track snack pack perfection.
The Oakey Dokey Hill with bonus Hummock
Along with off track adventures one of the permissible things I have been doing virtually every day is picking up a takeaway coffee. It is the stuff of contact tracing nightmares and triggers the inner COVID police in me every time. Quit loitering. Stand away from me. Stop touching your face. Don’t order multiple coffees with various shades of milk for your entire bubble.
I’m also – naturally given current confines – alternating my takeaways between a mere handful of proximate cafes, constantly hoping they fail to materialise on the exposure site listing. In Lyons, Stand By Me offers something that is walkable from home and – should I wish to venture further – can be incorporated on a climb of Oakey Hill.
Of the six hilly nature reserves forming a horseshoe around the Woden Valley, Oakey Hill is probably the least fashionable and most unkempt. Power pylons compete with decommissioned water reservoirs and temporary fencing. The flora seems more degraded, more weedy, more battered and bruised by the elements. Still, there is a nice bench beside the trig marker if it’s vacant and a little used side track that offers good views out to the mountains.
Across from the reserve, a green corridor lines the divide between Lyons and Curtin. From here, more slivers of green penetrate into suburbia, one of which hosts a determinedly vicious magpie. Nowadays I avoid that particular route and instead continue around the outside of Curtin on a track that at one point takes on the appearance of pasture. It forms part of what has become a fairly regular ten kilometre bike jaunt which culminates in a different takeaway coffee at Red Brick.
Along this way, at the back of Curtin, there is a hummock which takes me away too. Behind, fences protect garden refuges with trampolines and lemon trees and potting sheds and shrubs of shady bottlebrush. But in front there are fields of green and skies of blue. On the horizon, the distinctive angles of the Brindabellas promise at much more freedom. And I am whisked away to a place far from busily exercising humans and irritating magpies and daily case numbers and limited coffee options. I am taken again off track.
The buzz. The excitement. The nerves. The never-in-my-lifetime strangeness underpinned by a back catalogue of disappointment. The sense of hope, exhilaration, and gut-wrenching drama more often than not deflated by events. The inevitable post-mortem punditry and scapegoating and resignation and acceptance. But maybe – just maybe – this time will be different.
If ever there was a weekend to finally come home this would be it. But I’ll be in bed, 12,000 miles away, turning on the bright lights of a laptop at five in the morning. Thinking about Italian coffee and chocolate digestives to perk me up. Minus three degrees in my shirt.
It’s a bed in a home that I haven’t written about for a good half a year, what with other more exciting jaunts. Canberra is still here, still going through its motions, still – touching wood – absent of coronavirus despite the best efforts of our neighbours. Still understated and beguiling, fortunate and free. Offering abundant life and opportunity if only you should look.
Over that time, Canberra has been doing what Canberra does, transitioning slowly but surely through the bursts of colour of autumn towards morning fogs which (usually) lift to reveal brilliant blue afternoons. It’s the time of year when continental superspreading sporting events disrupt sleep and sub-zero mornings add to the challenge of getting out from under the doona. A time when travel bubbles pop and masks finally become a thing. But do not despair. There is always fresh air.
From the reliable vistas atop Red Hill, a quick jaunt up the road once the laptop powers down. Winter light always doing something special just before five in the afternoon. A warm angelic glow spreads over the rising towers of Woden, the hospital and the Pfizer vaccination hub. Kangaroos munch unaware. Some things change and some things don’t.
Rapidly contesting with Red Hill as my favourite nature reserve, Cooleman Ridge offers great reward for minimal effort. Fringing the west of Weston, the reserve boasts fine views back over Canberra but the real splendour is on the other side. Paddock. Hills. Forest. Mountains. A Murrumbidgee Valley creation. With suburban sprawl and hoonish echoes fading behind the ridge, it is a country walk in a city. And because so much of the Australian countryside is shamefully locked behind fence and gate and no trespassing signs, this is a real treasure.
The treasures of Mulligans Flat are perhaps a little less obvious – and much more likely to emerge at night. But this place is a sanctuary for humans and animals alike. It is another place that has grown on me through a pandemic, from the initial Centenary Trail crossing to volunteer tasks hassling echidnas and wallabies and turtles. As is oft-mentioned on a twilight tour, the dams were dry back when we were enshrouded in smoke. Today they come alive.
A bigger dam sits further west, lapping at a much bigger wilderness. When you stop and think about it, it is quite something that you can be picking up a good coffee at the neighbourhood shops and fifteen minutes later staring out towards this. Cotter Dam vistas shrink and stretch as you rise further into the sky, reaching a new summit at Mount McDonald.
Another new summit is added to my life experience when I take the dirt trail up to Mount Jerrabomberra. I have ventured beyond Canberra, though only just, and only before the latest Bondi-fed outbreak (just in case some paramilitary border goon decides this is reason enough to bar me from Western Australia for twenty years). I have come to Queanbeyan for the rare opportunity of coffee and cake at three in the afternoon, discovering a café that actually opens beyond two. Why is this not more of a thing? Especially when you can easily walk a few crumbs off afterwards.
It is becoming harder to discover new things like this in the backyard, but I am not there yet; Coronavirus may have to last another twenty years for that to materialise, something I would dearly love not to happen. I would love instead to walk in the Alps again, to hike along the downs of southern England chasing butterflies, to stroll through the Barbican and up to Plymouth Hoe, snaffling some fudge and an ice cream along the way.
But do not despair. I discover a winter’s walk alongside the clear water of the Tidbinbilla River, striking out through green forest singing in the aromas of fresh peppermint. Occasional early wattle pops golden and soothes like honey. There are views towards rocky crags and precipitous ridges and – down the track – a little home: Nil Desperandum. It has been restored to cuteness and if only they had a kettle with some tea and perhaps freshly baked scones waiting, the walk back wouldn’t have seemed such a chore.
Nil desperandum. Whenever or whatever might come home, do not despair.
Two weeks on holiday normally wouldn’t be such a strange thing. But it seems a pretty big deal these days. In the world BC, holidays would involve a month crisscrossing the UK in search of friends, family, scones and ales. Plus a European side trip featuring alps of snow and mountains of cheese. One day I’ll make it home again.
However, over the years I’ve come to think of home as more than a singular physicality. There are homes and, following the big bike ride, I needed to somehow find my way from Point B – Caloundra in Queensland – to Point A – Home, Canberra.
It had been a hectic holiday really, and I had visions of a couple of days nestled beside the ocean in some mild clime with good coffee. Perhaps a pool to soothe aching muscles. And a regular ice cream jaunt in the afternoon before taking in the final golden light of sundown. Alas, the weather forecast didn’t look especially conducive to this fantasy so – once again – I opted for the John Denver approach to travelling home.
Still, this wasn’t before at least taking in the sand and water on the Sunshine Coast. It was a brief foray, in between heavy showers and ocean chop at Alexandra Headland. Nearby, the Sunshine Plaza didn’t really offer a brighter disposition but eventually I located some much sought after rocky road. For later.
Faring Jason well with the understanding that we will one day again reunite for rail trail cycling magnificence, I fired up the four wheels and headed west. The road home was all smooth to start, taking me back – as it happened – into a land previously criss-crossed on two wheels. The second time around offered an opportunity to right some wrongs.
The first was pausing to marvel at the Kilcoy Yowie, which I had failed to note when we drove through here on the way to start our bike ride. It’s just, well, I cannot really explain. Further on, once more in Blackbutt, I called into the bakery where I scored a coffee and was confronted with the kind of display that causes indecisive cake-lovers like me to break out in a cold sweat. I think I went for sticky date fudge slice when pressed.
After the kilometre zero of Yarraman, the road led on towards Kingaroy. The extent of my knowledge about Kingaroy is absolute peanuts. Which is pretty spot on, given the area is famed for the cultivation of kernels. When in Kingaroy, Go Nuts is not the motto on the town sign, but you should at least stop by the Peanut Van. And if you want a taste of the manic, pop to the local Woolworths.
I was stocking up for the return to camping with a laser-like focus on making it as minimal effort as possible. Banana for breakfast. Packet soup for dinner, with a carrot and five frozen gyoza to add some bulk. Tent popped up, cooking by torchlight would never be so satisfying, and soup proved perfect in the cold.
At altitude in Bunya Mountains National Park it was surprising how cold things were, given I was still in Queensland. The Bunya Mountains rise up distinctly from the surrounding plains, a wild island among the productive downs. It is very much an island of biodiversity, illustrated by the large swathes of unique Bunya Pine. These giant, Monkey Puzzle type trees only grow naturally here and in a few smaller, dispersed pockets further north.
The trees yield massive cones which offered good tucker for Aboriginal Australians. When I see one in the small visitor centre, I am relieved my walking for the day has finished. Not only do you need to be wary of snakes, spiders, ticks, and stinging trees, but giant bloody cones falling on your noggin as well.
I absorbed the Bunya Mountains with a nice loop walk through dense forest, following lush gullies and creeks and occasionally peering out of the woods to see Queensland below. The gentle chirping of birds was a constant, but the dappled light and dark undergrowth made it impossible to sight any of the blighters. The forest had the becalmed air and melody of one of those meditation soundtracks cobbled together on Spotify by a bearded man wearing loose flowery pants.
Not that this led to a relaxing night. While I managed to get fairly snug, gusts of wind provoked regular rattling of canvas. With fitful rest, I rose early the next morning to discover my head in the clouds. With patience, this would rise and fall in swirls, chinks in the gloom revealing a sunny day unfolding for the Darling Downs.
Gravity would propel my car that way, rapidly plunging from the Bunya Mountains towards Dalby, where the day was indeed sunny. Dalby seems every bit a forgettable town, neither obviously appalling nor exceptionally outstanding. This is perfectly encapsulated by the popularity of a Coffee Club and Brumby’s Bakery on the high street.
Out of Dalby, large cotton fields once again spilled out towards the horizon. It is one of the regrets of the trip that I never managed to find a spot where I could brake abruptly and take a photo of them. Instead, here’s a metal yabbie at Moonie next to tennis courts and much sought after public toilets.
Moonie was little more than a junction on the way to Goondiwindi, a border town receiving attention over the past year for its checkpoints ensuring Queenslanders are kept safe from nasty viruses prior to a state election. As a border town it possesses all the essentials, retaining the chain store vibe of Dalby for passers-by who simply yearn for a bit of predictability. For lunch I grabbed some takeaway from Red Rooster, before a fuel stop and then a frozen coke from McDonalds to take me into New South Wales.
Crossing the border, one step closer to home. Yet still a million miles away. It certainly felt that way once my frozen coke had run out and I found myself on a bumpy road through endless fields of grain. The road – between Boggabilla and Warialda – was doing few favours to my left shoulder and arm, which had now developed post-cycling strain and pain.
In my ideal version of today I was reaching Bingara by two, allowing time for a relaxing nap before a potter around. But I’ve continued to underestimate Australia and the quest of driving across it. It was pretty much four when I checked into a motel – cheap, basic but welcoming in a countrified beige blanket kind of way. And not camping. One of the two double beds still looked good for a nap.
I vaguely remember passing through Bingara on another trip back from Queensland, the town now an intersection with the past. That time around I had come through Inverell and Myall Creek on my way to Narrabri and the Warrumbungles. Again attempting to cover a million miles in a day, I didn’t even stop here, but remember it conveyed a surprising rustic charm.
In the remaining light of day I therefore walked down to the Gwydir River and back into town where clusters of tradie and caravanning couples were gathering for Friday night dinner outside the pub. Along the high street, trees turned auburn signalled the passage of time and place that had gone on since I left home. And with the sun dipping over the hills, there was a tangible chill in the air. And plenty of chilli on my pizza.
Bingara enjoys a fine setting, nestled in a valley backed by rolling ranges. It’s technically in New England and feels that little bit closer to civilisation, if civilisation is Tamworth. I took in the surrounds from a lookout high upon one of many hills, wondering if I could see my destination. But that was still a long way off.
The road between Bingara and Narrabri must surely rank as a hidden gem. In between the two towns, the crazy volcanic landscape of Mount Kaputar National Park infiltrates, regularly revealing golden panoramas and rugged lumps thrust upward from the horizon. It’s one of those landscapes that makes you want to stop at regular intervals, eating yet again into your estimated journey time.
With a lunch date in the diary, I didn’t really have time to pause. I was in two minds whether to stop at Sawn Rocks, but being only a few hundred metres walk from the car park I figured I could squeeze such spectacle in. This is one of Australia’s best ‘organ-pipe’ rock formations, created in geological tumult and chaos. An experience I’m sure my car was feeling for the rest of the day.
I am not going to profess to taking it any faster than 110kph of course as I progressed towards Narrabri. The sacrifice for Sawn Rocks was no coffee in Narrabri and no wee in Wee Waa. By time I reached the small settlement of Pilliga I was more than ready to pause for some brief relief.
Pilliga is – shock horror – in the heart of The Pilliga, a vast, largely flat plain of sprawling dry forest and sandy soil. At one point – and I may have been hallucinating by that stage – I passed three camels. There was no chance to stop, and I’m not entirely sure if they were on a large farm or simply roaming wild. But the fact that you can easily imagine them roaming wild here says everything about the type of environment you are in.
Talking of wildlife, did I expect to find myself in Coonamble again? Well, yes, but I never expected I would be so ecstatic at reaching the place. Oh, there’s that spot I got chased by rabid dogs. Over there, the only café open on Sunday. There’s the river, languid and brown. The supermarket with the chemical mice killer aroma. The partly constructed public toilets embroiled in drama. And the home just out of town where I can again feel at home.
My plans were vague and uncertain and once pork belly was mentioned for dinner I knew this would be my spot for the night. Before dinner, lunch, a mere 45 minutes out of town. The Armatree Hotel is the best pub in town, the only pub in town, practically the only building in town. It has character and authenticity soaking through the wooden floorboards, corrugated iron bar, and XXXX on tap. Out back, the outback. And a beer garden, lively with get togethers and celebration of another week fulfilled.
I like the fact that I can come away from the Armatree Hotel having chatted to an old codger in a ten gallon cowboy hat while we both emptied the contents of our bladders. “Great place out here, hey”. Sure is mate, sure is.
After a restorative night, it finally was time for a homecoming. Coonamble to Canberra in one hit is a pretty lengthy affair but once through Dubbo (and a much-needed stop for coffee), the drive was pretty enjoyable. The weather had closed in and rain was falling as I reached Molong, giving the place an added autumnal melancholy. All across the Central West, trees were exploding crimson and gold in small towns like Cudal and on toward Cowra.
The rain had stopped and things were brighter by time I reached fairly familiar territory in Cowra. Not so long to go now. Just need a final country coffee to push me on, eclipsed by a delicious treat…because I am still on holiday after all. Just about. Down the road, Boorowa. Then Yass. Murrumbateman. Hall. And at last, home.
The last time I heard the word ‘gooch’ as incessantly, an English batsman was stroking the Indians all over Lords. That was 1990. I also remember a reoccurrence when the same player was famously dismissed for handling the ball. Today, gently rising out of Toogoolawah, two hours west of Brisbane, gooch and ball handling were once again all the rage.
A stop was called for by my good friend and biking companion, Jason. Problems in the perineum that would culminate in what will only be known as the ‘Lowood Incident’. As improvised comfort was applied and jiggled, I started to contemplate whether we would need to radio in the rescue chopper.
But waiting patiently I was enjoying the break. It had been a decent upward grind after lunch. The sun was warm and glowing gold the long grass of summer. Small eucalypts lined the route, interspersed with westward views over gently undulating farmland. My bike was coping well. Despite almost falling asleep over a burger, I was coping okay. This was brilliant.
I had never heard of the Brisbane Valley Rail Trail until Jason mentioned it virtually every time we spoke over the phone. I don’t know if it was one of those things you just say, never really expecting anything to eventuate. But one day I just thought sure, why not. Or words to that effect. And this whole trip was basically arranged around it.
We took a leisurely three days to cover the 161 kilometre route by bike, retracing a rail line that commenced construction in 1884 and was finally made redundant in 1991. Today, it has been transformed into the longest recreational rail trail in Australia for use by walkers, horses and – mostly – bikes. While I never succumbed, Lycra and gooch cures are never far away.
Day 1: Yarraman – Linville (42 kms)
It took the best part of two hours to drive from Caloundra to the start line (thanks Fiona!). Over rainforest-lined passes, high above fields of mist, past bakeries that are worth making a note of for later, we reached Yarraman to face the unknown. Yes, riding a bike is like riding a bike but riding a bike on a three day bike ride is another matter.
Yarraman was still fairly quiet, though the people we did encounter were keen for a natter. Being ANZAC Day, a small dawn service had been and gone, and one old guy offered reminisces about days gone by in this small neck of the woods. He had taken the train many moons ago when joining the air force. Thus a brief history of the operation of the Brisbane Valley Line ensued. The conversation culminated with him contemplating riding the line once more, e-bike assisted of course.
We passed up the opportunity to indulge in coffee and bakery items at Yarraman, instead pursuing these goals in Blackbutt once at least a few calories had been discharged. And so the exercise commenced just out of town beside the old rail station, highly visible remnants of the line that pop up in practically every settlement along the way. Blue skies, still air, a fairly smooth dirt track accompanied by that first shot of endorphin from anticipation of what may lay ahead.
And so, we rode through avenues of low eucalyptus, alongside green pasture dotted with spiky xanthorrhoea, and through a number of rockier cuttings keeping things relatively flat. Earlier in Yarraman, the old fella rambled on about the bridges on the rail line and wondered if they were still standing. The answer quickly became clear and that answer was – for the most part – no. After cruising with only gentle effort, the downs and ups of gullylife often come as a bit of a jolt to the system.
The vibe along the trail was congenial and we passed a few other cyclists with friendly g’days and broad smiles. A few times the trail briefly transported me to a nice summer’s day in southern England, a passing resemblance nurtured by fields of corn and tunnels of trees. The idyll was quickly shaken by the gullies, the gravel, and the sound of Chinooks and Apaches putting on a flypast specifically for us.
It had taken well over an hour to get to Blackbutt which was – after the trail thus far – a veritable feast of civilisation. People were assembling for the 11am memorial service, many with padded butts and bulging Lycra. This naturally resulted in high demand for coffee. So high, in fact, that the cafe we had chosen failed to deliver it.
It seems churlish to bemoan the absence of coffee in the context of wartime remembrance, but I cannot deny how deflated I felt. One of the attractions to this ride – probably even the number one thing impelling me forward – was the frequent prospect of stopping for coffee and cake. How leisurely, how civilised, how conforming to popular stereotypes of butt-padded middle aged manliness.
But the parade passed and wreaths were laid without a hot mug of country flat white. As they do, Last Posts, Abide With Me, and sombre silence touched the right note. The special guest speaker spent a good few minutes talking to the point that his time to talk had been controversially curtailed (I can only imagine the political machinations going on in Blackbutt RSL). Meanwhile, someone posting video of the service to the local Facebook page bemoaned the fact that everyone else was using up the local 4G and quite possibly catching coronavirus from the rays.
You don’t get these quirks at the Australian War Memorial and that is why the ANZAC service in Blackbutt was such a memorable event. Above all, it radiated with the warmth of smalltown community: flags half-mast against the backdrop of XXXX signs on the pub; the high street closed off as trucks carrying cattle detour behind the small memorial; a procession featuring schoolkids, scouts, guides, old troopers and the Country Women’s Association, all waving to family members lining the route. Meanwhile some lucky butt-padded cyclists sup on their coffee.
No offence to New Zealand, but we snuck out of Blackbutt as the ceremony was nearing an end with its national anthem. I was keen to get moving before the rush of people re-joined the trail. We also had to reach the pub before it closed for the day.
Fortunately, most of the trail to Linville was downhill, through Benarkin State Forest. This induced a little adrenaline, gathering speed and negotiating clean lines and avoiding small rocks. My back end decided it wanted to head sideways on a few occasions, but speed and gravity and not particularly flash bike-handling skills kept things upright. Almost as satisfying as staying in one piece was the sight of pedallers grinding their way up towards Blackbutt and being thankful that this was not you.
Eventually the forest opens out and the landscape presents itself as rugged and unkempt. In fact, it’s probably the most enclosed part of the whole trail, where you truly feel like you are carving your way through a steep-sided valley. As the hills part, farmland again emerges, shacks appear, caravans gather for extended coronavirus holidays, and in front of you, shining like a temple, is the Linville Hotel.
The first thing that was obvious about the Linville Hotel was that the tradition of sitting around drinking on ANZAC Day was very much alive and well. Out the front, a multicoloured arrangement of frames and wheels gathered in what looked like one almighty tangle. Motorbikes glimmered in the sun. Classic cars posed with their rooftops down. City folk had come for the drive. Or the pedal.
The Linville Hotel proved every bit the Australian country pub and a little more. Chicken Schnitzel lunch was accompanied by local brews. Wooden verandas and wonky floorboards looked out over sleek parasols and hipster guitarists. Old signs mingled with largely ignored QR codes. Upstairs, rooms provided accommodation and already the century old balustrade was subject to Lycra decoupage.
Closing at three, the pub transformed into a peaceful oasis, one in which I envisioned a post-shower nap that never materialised. Jason, naturally, had no problems. I instead popped out and explored the town, taking all of five minutes. It struck me that Linville would struggle to get passing trade if it were not for the rail trail. That, and the free camping area densely populated with COVID nomads.
So, the first day of the BVRT had been safely negotiated and all was well with the bike, the bike rack, the butt padding, and the humans. Until that pounding headache and fatigue and rush down to the toilet block to empty the mish-mashed contents of my stomach. In a dramatic turn of events, would I make it through only one day? Would we need to call in the medics? Would I ever get a goddam coffee on this trail?
Day 2: Linville – Esk (52 kms)
I guess the header gives it away. I survived. In fact I somehow prospered. This was the best of days: no rush to get anywhere, me, my bike, my mate, the sun, a massive coffee, and some other foodstuffs thrown in and not thrown up.
The day commenced with a rising sun over a patchwork of mist from the top floor of the Linville Hotel. The sun kissed its first light on the Lycra bunting, dangling like the dismembered ghosts of cyclists past. Gradually the shadowy figures disappeared as small groups set off. We were the second last to go, just an e-bike left charging for those who have the power to linger.
It was a good start, especially as the first stop – Moore – was only seven kilometres down the road. I say road, but of course I mean trail, which continued to be decorated by avenues of eucalyptus and interrupted by deep gullies.
Moore appears even smaller than Linville yet boasts three places offering coffee. Wary of yesterday, I pray we choose the right one. In the end, the coffee comes, which is an improvement at least. It’s one of the biggest cups of coffee I’ve ever had in Australia, more akin to the stupid sizes you get as standard in those awful chains in the UK. In its gigantic bucket, the coffee took an age to cool down, but at least a second breakfast sausage roll kept me replenished.
After Moore, the landscape opens up considerably; wide fields undulate gently towards more prominent ranges while patches of forest become fewer and farther between. The trail even takes in some steeper rises which I’m sure weren’t part of the original railway line. Like the train in Dumbo – I think I can I think I can – I am elated with my first KOM achievement.
Another notable rise appears on the outskirts of Harlin, the next town of sorts along the way. Again I am pleased that I make it but also pleased to see some seats and a shelter at the top. It’s a bustling hive of activity as wheels spin, chains are cleaned, and flasks of tea are drunk. A gathering of older riders have made it all the way from Bundaberg or Rockhampton or somewhere like that (I forget), this now their eighteenth day on a bike. I don’t quite feel as smug having managed to overtake a couple of them on the way up.
We seem to play tag with this group for the rest of the ride. The trail’s kind of like that. All the time, in cafes and pubs, on picnic tables and in parks, you see people you think you have probably seen before but often can’t quite remember. Typically exchanges involve the matter of where you have come from and where you are going, intended bakery stops, occasional technical bike talk that goes over my head, and – increasingly – saddle sore. You leave it all out on the trail.
In these entanglements I figure we are perhaps a little more memorable to others. I say we but I mean Jason, masterfully contoured within his Boomtime bodysuit; I’m just that nondescript guy accompanying the big unit. Sometimes setting tempo on a gradual rise, other times trying to keep up on flowing descents. Organising accommodation and strategising food stops. Encouraging progress to the next town for running remediation. Hang on…I sound like a bloody domestique!
After Harlin I find myself pacing us past a rider and on towards a landmark. A damp dark hole doesn’t sound like much of a tourist attraction, but this is Yimbun Railway Tunnel, constructed in 1910. It’s the only tunnel on the entire length of the trail and I am pleased to see it, given my initial horror approaching what looked like an unscalable hill. Stops for photos and cooees are all the rage.
On the other side we progressed onward to Toogoolawah where it was most definitely time for some lunch. Our hilltop friends from earlier were encamped at a couple of shady picnic tables feasting on the provisions they had carried. Travelling light, we sought out a business that would feed us. This proved harder than one might expect – being a public holiday, the town was almost desolate. Salvation was once again in the form of the pub, and a pretty decent burger.
It was at the pub that I struggled to stay awake and was uncertain how I would manage to start out all over again. Rooms in the inn certainly had an appeal. I was also being bothered by an energy company desperately trying to cling onto my business after taking my money for many years without the slightest pretence of customer service. This is largely irrelevant and uninteresting until it got to the point where I was pleased to get back on the bike to escape a world of 4G.
Back to the simple life where it was just you, a bike, and a mate bringing things to a halt in an attempt to increase comfort. The trail rose steadily from Toogoolawah for quite some time before a delightful plunge down the other side. With time pushing on, the afternoon presented the countryside in a warm, attractive light. By the time we reached Esk, there wasn’t so much left.
Usually you’d think 52kms would only take a gentle three hours. But factor in gravel, gully crossings, stops to take pictures of cows, the time required to wait for a ridiculous sized mug of coffee and then drink it, distractions with energy sales sharks, and – progressively – pauses for gooch care, and you have a full day out.
It’s more tiring than you think too. Which may explain why I called Jason a moron outside the IGA for just assuming it would be open forever. We joked about it afterwards, ate mediocre food at the local pub and capped things off with mugs of ice cream in a motel room. I’m sure this is exactly how riders experience the Tour de France. Especially the domestiques.
Day 3: Esk – Wulkuraka (67 kms)
Okay, this may sound like I had lost by mind but there were times on the third day where I literally felt like an express train. No, more like one of those old clapped-out British Rail stopping services between Basingstoke and London Waterloo with the heavy slam shut doors. There was something about the slow acceleration, easing away and eventually building to a steady pace as we progressed through the trees between Esk and Coominya. Once on the blessed descent from Mount Hallen, speeds were probably matching those of the 8:07am to Woking.
We had departed Esk early as we – literally – had a real train to catch. The sun was only just rising above the horizon and it was more than fresh. But the plus side of this was the wonderful golden light over fields of grassy tussock, dewy spider webs, and the splendid nose-clearing aroma of gum trees embracing the day.
The section from Esk to Coominya is the longest without any civilisation and a large part of it cuts through the bush. By time you reach Coominya, you are more than ready for a coffee and treat. But good luck with that. Google Maps told me of a place called the Blue Teapot Café but unless I got my map-reading wrong (which is extremely unlikely), it appeared to be a petrol station / tackle shop / muffler supplier / chiko roll purveyor. They did have reduced price Cadbury Twirls though, more disintegrate than melt in the mouth.
Fortunately, Lowood is an entirely different proposition and just a further 12 kilometres on. We once more came across our old friends from Rockaberg and the going was pretty good on a well-groomed, mostly flat section. With the D’Aguilar Range rising up on the eastern horizon, there was a sense that Brisbane wasn’t too far away. Just over those hills.
Perhaps it was all to do with timing, but Lowood proved the liveliest town along the trail. There was of course a bakery, but we went upmarket and sat down in the local café instead. Across the road, a well-tended park and amenities offered comfort and convenience for the weary rider. A water bubbler provided a refill while I waited for Jason to do whatever he was doing.
Lowood also brings you closer to the Brisbane River as it feeds out of Lake Wivenhoe. You never really ride next to it, but at least there are a few glimpses here and there, just to remind you that – oh yeah – this is the Brisbane Valley Rail Trail. Compared to life at the other end, the landscape is much more open and there is feeling of settlement and civilisation accumulating. Indeed, the next town – Fernvale – is only a further eight kilometres.
I had heard several times – in those exchanges between BVRT veterans – that the Fernvale Bakery had some seriously good pies. So continuing our poor food choices we decided to have brunch instead. It was okay, but nothing to write home in a blog about. Hanging like a shadow over the experience, too, was the sense that we needed to get moving to catch that train.
Further delays around the public toilets in Fernvale allowed me to catch up with another rider who recognised us. Apparently, he was on the table opposite at the pub in Esk. He had been carrying everything – camping gear and all – on his back and was very much looking forward to the end. I felt fortunate to have stayed in proper rooms and for buying a $16 bike rack from Kmart. The best investment ever, cheaper than an underwhelming brunch.
Nonetheless we were all at that point where the end couldn’t come soon enough. It was a further 23kms from Fernvale to Wulkuraka and much of the novelty and thrill had worn off. Some of the track was quite sandy and while it never reared up like an Alpe d’Huez, there was this endless perception of drag. At one point, some naughty trail bikes came at us from the other direction and you knew suburban Ipswich must be close.
A sign indicating 5.2km to Wulkuraka rears out of smooth white concrete. The bike trail has become a modern, formed bike path and it’s the shot in the arm needed. We reach speeds previously unfathomable, picking up slipstream until the interruptions of traffic islands and a final little upward thrust. The penultimate hundred metres navigates the pavement alongside a row of compact townhouses. Ticker tape, fireworks, applauding admirers fail to materialise. There’s not even a sign.
Still, we have made it. We made it! I had my doubts at times. But I think there were so many things to keep us going. The green and pleasant countryside, which is never going to take your breath away but comforts like a mild June day along the lanes of Southern England. The towns and businesses, feeding us and watering us and giving us a mixed bag of dining experiences that could do better. The public amenities and tiny stores offering hope and comfort to ease accumulating ailments. The many other riders, offering this amazing feeling of camaraderie and shared experience.
And, of course, mateship made it one of the most memorable trips ever. The big unit. The boomtime body-suited, gooch-afflicted, cow-whispering Jason. You were there at the end, still batting strong and keeping me going. For every one of the 161 kilometres, the 2,300 metres up and the 2,600 down, it was an absolute pleasure to have you by my side. Or ten metres behind, making adjustments.
Over the hills and far away, everyone come out to play. One. Two. Three. Four. Thousand.
Such are the conical lumps and bumps of the countryside around Jugiong, you never know what you might find down a rabbit hole. Today, it is bursting at the seams with all sorts of characters, the village swollen with trippers pausing for drinks, pastries, ice creams, chocolate eggs. It is Good Friday and, even so, I am astonished. I have never seen the Hume Highway so busy.
It’s the kind of day where you could get hot and cross sat on your buns waiting an interminable time for a coffee. Unless you cheekily pop around the corner to the Jam Factory Outlet. And leave the gourmet country mecca that has become Jugiong raking in the cash.
It is heartening to see. Down the road a little, Coolac is the precise antithesis. A one street kind of town with a forty year old Holden parked eternally outside the pub. A Memorial Hall hosts a little life as a couple of old dears negotiate the keys and lights. Outside, the picket-fenced oval surprises given the difficulty in conjuring enough people for a cricket team. It seems more likely a host to rusty tractors and bizarre sculptures made from hay. I kind of like Coolac.
I’m detouring off the Hume and am making my way to Gundagai via a scenic route. One year on and surely I must be getting close to traversing all the sealed highways and byways of the Hilltops region. This one is a beauty, at times narrowing to a single track nestled into steep-sided embankments following the Murrumbidgee. Other traffic is a rare sight, only increasing as I approach Gundagai from the south.
I was originally thinking of camping by the river here. As I cross over the town’s rickety bridge, I glance down to see an accumulating complex of trailers and awnings and canvas-themed opulence. I feel relieved and slightly smug at the thought of booking somewhere quieter in Tumut instead. Well, I think it should be quieter.
So Gundagai becomes simply a pause for lunch. It sounds ridiculously middle class, but one of my camping road trip staples has become homemade quiche. It’s hearty, tasty fare and means I don’t have to lug my whole box of camp kitchen paraphernalia with me. Okay, it might make it hard for me to ingratiate myself with certain other types of campground people, but it sure does use up the out-of-date eggs.
I’ve never really dwelt for long in Gundagai. The town is clearly shaped by the Murrumbidgee, with the coloured roofs of houses rising up a series of hills like a scattering of Lego bricks. The floodplain divides and is sensibly reserved for non-essential infrastructure such as a golf course, a park, and the campground. Two old bridges indicate the perils of flood, suitably ramshackle as they pass by clusters of stately river red gum. You sense the trees will be here long after man-made debris has finally washed away.
And so on to the campground in Tumut which was – yikes – just as busy as everywhere else. This one was situated on a farm alongside the banks of the Tumut River, a natural attraction to fishers and kayakers and people who simply like to empty the contents of an esky while lounging to the sound of soft rock classics on endless rotation.
Occasionally I like to ride my bicycle and – after putting up the ‘instant’ tent in one of the better times yet – was keen to immerse myself in the surrounding countryside. Enclosed within a broad river valley I assumed the riding would be pretty flat and for the most part that was the case. Still, any incline was unwelcome in the late afternoon warmth, nearing thirty degrees.
On the northern side of the valley I headed towards Lacmalac, which was really just a cluster of farm buildings with hints of charming homestead within manicured garden. Occasional wafts of silage reminded of Devon, but then a giant southern cross reinforced the Australian condition. Crossing water at Little River, it was all Devon again, embodied in a rolling hill which was simply too steep for me to pedal.
In one of the quieter moments I realised that bike-riding is quite the bipolar experience. The inclines are irritating and often lack enjoyment. But then crest the top and the downhill is all exhilaration and relief. Flat stretches are simple compromise, somewhere in between. Most of the way back to Tumut was as flat as a pancake, along – oh I see – Tumut Flats Road.
With the sinking western sun in my face it was a relief to reach a little oasis called Tumut Junction. This is no Clapham or Spaghetti, but the point at which the Tumut River splits with the Goobarragandra. Lovingly manicured by the Lions Club, it would have been a wonderful place to linger longer. But daylight was fading and I still had a little way to go, crossing the bridge built in 1893 and returning through town to the campsite.
I returned to find a camp trailer had squeezed into the little space between me and the group of let’s-see-who-can-talk-the loudest millennials. On the other side, the medley of Jimmy Barnes and Fleetwood Mac continued without pause. Fires were being lit everywhere, including one that had been arranged crazily close to my car.
Now, I can see advantages in writing off a 21 year old car, but I really would like it to stay intact for a while longer. So I shifted it a little further away as we all jovially chuckled how I could always have driven it into the river if it caught fire haw haw haw. Safe and settled, I lounged beside the river with a cold beer and a conspicuous slice of quiche.
It’s about this time, as darkness descends, that you begin to wonder how you will fill a couple of hours before bed. There is always plenty of phaff associated with camping to pass much of that period – sort out food and drinks and dishes, arrange bed, piddle about with various items in the car, ensuring you have everything you might ever need in the middle of the night.
There is also the ‘guess who will be the most annoying neighbour’ game to play. It wasn’t going to be the trailer couple. Despite their fondness for arson, they were rather civilised, quaffing rose and engaging in chit chat. The obvious contenders would be the gang of millennials all a hootin’ and a hollerin’. But as soon as one young lady said she was off to bed after throwing up, silence descended.
Apart from the faint sound of Midnight Oil accompanied by the clink of another empty bottle returning to its carton.
It was way past two by the time I properly got to sleep but at least I had a relative lie in, waking around seven on the final morning of daylight saving. It was still before sunrise and I was glad to find a child making a racket proximate to the late night soft rockers. Outside the scene was ethereal, a light mist floating inches above the ground. Standing within the haze, the silhouettes of eucalypts competed with the stick figures of humanity queuing for the long drop.
Thankfully, the mist didn’t survive too long as the sun rose to bathe the countryside an early gold. It was to be a crucial weapon in my operation to achieve a dry canvas by ten in the morning. A contraption of car doors, chair and bike slowly aired the flysheet while I shook the beads of moisture out of various flaps. It was the closest thing to having a morning shower.
In the absence of the camp kitchen box I didn’t get a morning cuppa, but at least found comfort with a cold hot cross bun in bed. By time everything was dry and packed up, coffee in Tumut was essential, this time accompanied by a big breakfast that kept me going for most of the day.
I spent the remainder of the morning exploring a little more around Tumut, finding it just as charming as on previous occasions. While not peaking yet, the passage of autumn was undeniably playing its hand, the yellows and ambers first to appear within riverside parks and along quiet country lanes.
Pleasantly warm and breathless, there was temptation again to jump on the bike. But I was weary, and the amble was more in keeping with my mood. Goodness knows how I am going to accomplish 162kms over three days in a few weeks. My only comfort is that I feel more prepared and bike-fit than others due to embark on that journey.
For now, soak up the tranquillity back at the Junction. What a delightful spot this would be for a picnic, if only I was hungry. I really do think in the yet-to-be-published Exploration of Regional Towns Within a Few Hours of the National Capital During the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic, Tumut would be up there in the top three. Unless there are other places unknown.
For instance, what about Cootamundra? Having only skirted once before I decided to head home in a larger loop: from Tumut to Gundagai and up to Cootamundra before tracking back via Harden along the Burley Griffin Way to Yass. I had already checked out cake opportunities in Cootamundra to justify the extra drive.
Coota, in its inevitably abridged nomenclature, will not make my top three, unless you are reading the yet-to-be-published Regional Towns Within a Few Hours of the National Capital Still Stuck in the 1950s. The town seems harmless enough, but it was very much of the everything closed on a Saturday afternoon persuasion.
With Coota Hot Bake shut, a few stragglers were heading to Woolworths for their daily bread. Even here, the sounds from a busker gave off a mangled Buddy Holly vibe. I entered the one café open – well, it said it was open despite looking deserted – and eventually found some humans. An old guy clearly way beyond retirement age diligently sprayed tables with disinfectant. He was keen to regale me with the events of the day, which were allegedly incredibly hectic. Over four hundred cups of coffee he said. So many people on the roads he claimed. It is hard to imagine.
In my Cootamundra, I can imagine bumping into Donald Bradman at Coota Hot Bake. All chipper and strutting like a peacock in his flat cap, shouting at the young lady behind the counter that the knots in his knot rolls are not knotted enough. If she was smart, she’d reply that unfortunately the bake was 0.06 degrees too low today, hence the knot rolls not being so perfect after all.
The Don is very much alive in Cootamundra, as the town does all it can to milk the fact that he was born here. Indeed, as advertised, you can “Stand in the very room the Don was born” at the modest but pretty little cottage on the edge of town. Next door is a spot promoting rare and unusual cricketing memorabilia, perhaps like those awful collages of Warnie lolloping around the crease that used to be pushed at viewers on Nine’s Wide World of Sport.
Closer to the town centre, in a lovely shady park, is Captain’s Walk. If Donaldmania is irksome for an Englishman weaned on a diet of capitulating pommie wickets and smirking Australian assassins with beer guts, then this is not an enjoyable walk at all. Busts of every Australian cricket captain are arranged here, though it is not true to say that Steven Smith’s nose was smoothed down with a sheet of sandpaper hidden in my pants.
Passing the head of Greg Chappell inches above the grass, I departed Cootamundra before pausing in Harden for fuel and a much needed frozen sugar slush. Harden was one of those places already featured in Exploration of Regional Towns Within a Few Hours of the National Capital During the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic back in spring, when the canola was all a riot. Population 2,030 it is quite the feat to have a town which stretches on for what seems like forever along the main road.
When you finally do leave town, it’s a really pleasant drive with pleasant countryside and pleasant curves. Encountering unpleasant roadwork at one point I decided why not pull into the “Historic Village of Galong” just because it was there. Naturally even quieter than Coota I felt as though a few eyes were peering through old wooden windows at this interloper. Perhaps a banjo string being tightened. It is no Jugiong.
Yet in the afternoon sun, unseasonably hot once again, sleepiness seemed the perfect state of affairs. I could’ve quite happily joined the village for a siesta. All four of us. But I didn’t. There is Binalong and Bowning and Yass and Murrumbateman still to come before the sun will set in the sky. And then it really will be time to say goodbye. Bye-bye!
This morning I ploughed headlong towards frustration after being unable to discover where I had stored a series of empty jars. Receptacles for random concoctions of cream, fruit and sugar, hopeful Jars of Joy 2020. I reckon I shifted them somewhere back in March, clearing space for tins of tomatoes and dried lentils full of grit.
Fruitless, I gave up and went for a walk. Half an hour later I found myself in the comforting arms of countryside, reflecting on how this has actually been – astonishingly – a year of discovery. Fringing a paintball play area, rising up through pines giving off an essence of Christmas, straddling the divide between the Capital Territory and New South Wales.
Border Walks could become the 2021 sequel to 2020’s Centenary Trail. Just don’t hop over the border if you want to visit <insert as appropriate depending on the hour of the day>.
It really is quite astonishing how a year of restriction has somehow enforced greater discovery. A more immersive experience of place. Not just in the country roads and country towns, the trails and bike rides, the parks and reserves. I have also discovered exactly how long it takes to use a roll of toilet paper, how to use my phone to read QR codes and – earlier in the year – the threshold for hazardous air quality. It’s been quite the ride.
It’s crazy to think this time last year we were enduring a ferocity of fire and fury. But not forgotten. The recent whistling of easterly wind changes bringing cool air around dusk prompts memories of orange skies and choking campfire smells. The scars linger not so far from home.
In the 2020 spirit of discovery, and with an eye to having a short break before mass holiday superspreading madness, I passed through several areas that were decimated a year ago on my way to the coast. The top of Clyde Mountain still astonishes in – today – a damp misty haze. Vivid ferns and tangled vines twist their way around solid black trunks. It is still too early to tell if some of these trees will ever make it back.
Down the hill I stop briefly in Batemans Bay, where an impressive new bridge is spanning the Clyde. An altered horizon which – from a certain angle if you squint a bit – resembles the Brooklyn Bridge. Sun emerges from behind the showers that have been accompanying me all morning, continuing their work of recovery and subterfuge.
I’m heading for a couple of nights in Bermagui, some 125 kilometres further south. The extra distance worth it to escape the worst of the Canberra holiday set. And, of course, for the opportunity to discover, since I have only ever passed through this small town in the past.
What did I find? Well, it has one high street boasting the contrasting styles of Bazza’s Hot Bread and Boneless Vegetarian Café. It is fringed by a lovely headland area full of green space and convenient benches to gaze out to the ocean. And just yards from a vegan soy latte is the most perfect bay of white sand. From Horseshoe Bay, the dominant hulk of Gulaga lends the scene a tropical Queensland kind of air.
Either side of Bermi, the coastline is punctuated by largely pristine inlets and lakes, ideal for waterbirds and kayaks and the whole area is popular with fisherfolk. BCF buckets and ragged singlets are incongruent with the shiny, expensive boats parked outside Woolworths. A sizeable wharf provides anchorage, the fetid smell of stagnant salt water and fish guts detectable in the air. The promise of fish and chips and ice cream makes this a blight worth bearing.
One of the annoying things I discovered about Bermagui was that the fish and chip shop closes at 7pm. I discovered this around 7:07pm. Even more unfathomable, the ice cream spot – while I was there at least – closes at 5. I suppose, true to form, 2020 wouldn’t be 2020 without a couple of disappointments; I’ll just have to pivot.
As it turned out, in my extensive, laborious investigation I came to the personal conclusion that the ice cream from Bodalla Dairy was superior to Bermagui’s Gelati Clinic anyway. It tastes creamier and the flavours are more interesting. Not to mention the cute setting, in the midst of what has returned to being lush, green countryside. You feel as though the cows are creating magic just out the back. In situ, it’s similar to how Beaufort cheese tastes better in Beaufort.
I am reminded of a show on TV this week in which Rick Stein worked his way through eight courses featuring local cheese in a rustic auberge in the Jura. If ever a moment had me longing for international travel again that was it. Not exactly equivalent but probably as good as it gets, Australia has Tilba Tilba. So good they named it twice.
I really adore Tilba and I’m pretty sure a big part of that is the presence of a creamery bringing the goodness of Jersey cows to fruit. I’ve never actually seen the Jersey cows, but you can sense it’s good pasture, even more so a year on from drought. In the foot of Gulaga, there is a bounteousness here that is unparalleled south of the Queensland border.
Gulaga is especially significant to the Yuin People, particularly women. Even for these Anglo, invader eyes of mine there is an inescapable presence to the mountain. It draws you in, looming up behind the decorative facades of colonial cottages, appearing between rocky boulders in the landscape, spilling down into rainforest gullies and thickets of long grass, teeming with a cacophony of cicadas and the flutter of giant butterflies. Host to hundreds of snakes.
I was delighted to not encounter any snakes on a new walk that I just happened to stumble across, like so many great discoveries in this great southern land. One day I might just stumble across a massive gold nugget like one of those lucky bastards. Today, a loop walk through fields of green will do well enough. Finished off with a few golden purchases in the dairy.
South of Tilba, the Princes Highway skirts Gulaga and heads inland on its way to Bega. Before now I have always taken the alternative coastal route, via Bermagui and Tathra. And so, conveniently drawing on an overly-contrived theme, I found myself discovering a new piece of road. Destined for a date with a bevy of pretty ladies.
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, I greet an old friend who used to help me undertake research with young people. I’m not sure it’s such a leap from this to keeping around a hundred alpacas in champion order. At Wedgetail Rise Alpacas, Annemarie takes me on a guided tour of a landscape that wouldn’t be too out of place in our native lands. Apart from some still too obvious discrepancies.
Verona is situated between Cobargo and Quaama, small villages that have become synonymous with our Black Summer. While the great green cover-up continues apace, it is not hard to see the brutal impact still lingering on the ridges and penetrating through the gullies. The comeback is patchy, the torment of weeds opportunistically filling the void to add a further challenge. The characteristic isolated brick chimney stack, that potent symbol of devastation, is never far away.
In Cobargo itself it is hard not to sense a community still in shock, still slowly rebounding. I can only imagine how the permanent presence of blackened hills plays on the psyche. While much of the main street stands, vacant plots tell of the randomness of fire.
If ever there was justification for my mission to support local communities through coffee and cake, then surely it was here. And – oh look – there’s a second-hand bookshop. Christmas presents from a community-run endeavour like this trump K Mart hands down. And, in a somewhat pleasing memory of life before 2020, they only accept cash.
My remaining time down on the coast was largely filled with discovering ways to fill time before it was acceptable to have lunch, when the fish and chip shop would actually be open. A final hurrah before making my way back home, a necessary item on the coast trip checklist. Another earnest sacrifice to contribute to the local economy.
The last morning was overcast but calm and within my car I had a little red rocket on two wheels. One of the big discoveries of 2020 is a) how beautiful my bike poses in random locations and b) how there is a freedom that comes with a ride which doesn’t quite happen on two feet or four wheels. The unimpressive pace of my cycling is just about perfect to gain some decent ground while never going too fast to make the surroundings whizz by in a blur.
Quite wonderfully a cycle path cut a swathe through Bermagui onto a quiet road leading up and down to Haywards Beach. Greeting me, a rugged, sweeping stretch of sand flanked by dunes and low shrubs. Where the road came to an end, a decent trail – part worn tarmac and fine gravel – followed the bay. Curls of crystal surf competed for attention with overhanging branches. Beyond, I found myself heading towards Wallaga Lake and yet more waterside attractions. The turnaround point came at a headland where a midden of shells proved testament to the abundance of this area. Abundance in which I could now quite justifiably indulge back in Bermagui.
And so, as the sun goes down on the year and the battering that is 2020 disappears in a pile of batter, we can only hope that the next year heralds something of an improvement. And while 2020 is a year we may well be super keen to forget, let us not easily disregard the many good things, the many discoveries that we have all made in our own little way. Among the ashes, among the difficulties, the resilience, the humanity, the nuggets of joy. Or jars of joy. If only I could find the bloody things.
I doubt the young lady taking my order was convinced. “Please may I have the Farmer’s Lunch please thank you? Thanks. How would I like it? I guess on a plate would be a good start, do you have these here yet? Oh, you mean the steak? Um… (killing a few seconds considering whether I should plump for rare like the locals) medium-rare please. Thank you.”
“Y’aint no farmer love are ya?”
“Yeah nah. I’ll be sitting next to the CWA ladies playing bingo if that’s okay? Thanks.”
Cowra, New South Wales, Saturday 21st November 2020 and not all of the above was true. I did order a Farmer’s Lunch and I did opt for medium-rare, but it was served to me without disdain. At least outwardly. You didn’t need to be a farmer to order it; only my internal voice was screaming out “FRAUD”.
I found myself here after much procrastination. Determined to embark on something of a mini road trip over the weekend I spent the previous few evenings plotting routes and stops largely based around where I could support the local economy. Given I was heading into the country, surely there would be a nice country pub with hearty fare and a cold beer? I pictured a shady garden perhaps, leading up to an arrangement of latticework and wood-flooring. Locals in Slim Dusty hats shading craggy, sunbeaten faces glanced up at me with a twinkle in the eye. A large fan whirred silently over a shelf crammed with ten-year-old bottles of Scotch. Above the fireplace, a framed blue jersey of some ex-footballer who once scored a field goal in Origin.
Perhaps such idyll exists, but I’m yet to find it. Still, air conditioning and keno was comforting as temperatures soared into the high 30s in Cowra. And the Farmer’s Lunch – steak, sausages, eggs and chips – was worth all that hard yakka sitting in a machine pressing a few buttons. Just like the farmers busily harvesting their grain.
Earlier that morning I had driven up from Canberra in time for a coffee stop in Boorowa. After a previous visit in early spring it was notable how much the green had already diminished, long grasses browning off after a couple of weeks of warm, drier weather. Boorowa was nonetheless as charming as before, though the coffee stop didn’t quite live up to previous highs. I feel like it was under new ownership and lacked the same, welcoming community hubbub. On my way back to the car, another café promised for the next visit.
While Boorowa was still feeling jaunty under a gentle morning breeze, a little further up the road in Murringo the withering inland heat began to bite. Crackly yellow grass, searing bitumen, and the piercing symphony of cicadas. It had been a while since it was like this.
There wasn’t much to Murringo, other than a place where you can go and check out some whips. But it was cute all the same and the drive through Murringo Gap was pleasing with its hay bales and narrowing valley slopes. On cooler days I could see a cycle ride heading through here, but maybe that’s not until autumn now.
I was hoping to swiftly reach Conimbla National Park for a walk before the heat of the day kicked in. Arriving in a remote and empty patch of dirt, the clock on my car signalled a few minutes before midday. Mad dogs and Englishmen and all that. It was the kind of walk in which I could disappear down a ravine to be eaten by snakes before discovery three weeks later. I took some solace in the fact that the lady tending her allotment down in the valley eyed me warily as I drove past – surely she would send help? Or send in the boys with pitchforks?
Spoiler alert: I survived. Was it worth it? Maybe. The highlight was a lookout midway along, offering views over a small valley. Trees of Eucalyptus mingled with black cypress pine, presenting a speckled green landscape under the fierce blue sky. Swathes of native bluebell offered comfort along the trail, tempered by the expectation that I could step on a snake hidden amongst such jolly thickets at any moment. I didn’t.
In fact I survived to make lunch. Through fields of grain and hills of sheep, the road entered Cowra to a fanfare of agricultural supplies and heavy machinery, giving way to the range of motels, fuel and fast food that heralds the fringe of a regional town centre. Across the Lachlan River, the first pub. With its Farmer’s Lunch and aircon.
With a hot afternoon in store it was tempting to linger with a cold beer in hand. But I wanted to make Grenfell and after that my home for the night. Through those hours the car was the most comfortable place to be, though I stopped in Canowindra and the even smaller settlement of Gooloogong along the way. Both seemingly at siesta or more permanently asleep.
Grenfell offered a little more excitement, though mainly in the form of petrol under a dollar and exemplary public toilets. As I filled up with cheap petrol a sign promoting whippy thickshakes took my fancy. It would likely be the only source of such nutrition still open, so I took the plunge and navigated the whole complexity of a make-your-own thickshake within a servo.
First figure out which of the various range of cups to use, then add your syrup flavour of choice. Beware the lively caramel which spurts out of its dispenser and onto your shoes. Try and find some tissue to wipe this mess up and then fail to locate a bin to dispose of carnage. Now, add the whippy content from the machine that kicks into action after first releasing a dubious watery dribble. Then try to stop this process before it flows over the cup and creates more mess. Finally, add some more syrup because you’re gonna need it after this. Attempt to mix together with a straw and add a plastic lid which doesn’t really fit. Make your way to the counter where the lady looks on slightly incredulous, texting her mate at the same time as taking your money. Still, petrol under a dollar a litre people!
With a cup sticking to my hands I couldn’t really drive again until I contracted severe brain freeze and cleaned up properly in those exquisite toilets. It gave me the chance to idle along Grenfell’s main street. I daresay on a Saturday morning it’s a bustling little place. People parking at the required reverse-in 45 degree angle (I think I was more 60, but overlooked bringing my protractor), picking up bread from Mick’s Bakery or Chris’s Bakery or the Empire Bakery by David. There is clearly a testosterone-fuelled bakery-war taking place in Grenfell. All jumbo sausage rolls at six paces and mince tarts.
Apart from a few youth loitering as Henry Lawson looked on, I was the only one out on the streets. Occasional utes reversed in at 45 degrees to pop into the IGA. This was where half the town was, a queue forming for hot chooks and lotto.
The other half of the population appeared to be at some kind of gathering beside an old railway station as I made my way out of town. For a few seconds I hoped I might have stumbled upon a rodeo or something involving giant pumpkins. But all I could see were a few food trucks that looked as if they had migrated from Canberra for the day and a small cluster of people not doing much at all. I moved on.
West of Grenfell, the sweeping fields of grain were undergoing various stages of collection. In the distance, a small plume of dust pinpointed a header hard at work. Rising abruptly from this widescreen landscape, striking by contrast, an island of bushland and rugged outcrops of rock. Uncleared, uncultivated, protected from the squatters and the pastoralists and the farmers by its very presence.
This was clearly Weddin Mountains National Park and my bed for the night. It was a new one for me, surprising in a way given its little over two hundred clicks from home. I can probably thank COVID for coming across it – coastal avoidance, travel limitations, appreciation of what is within two hundred clicks of home.
Setting up camp in a flash – more of this shortly – I set out to explore, hopeful that by 6pm the temperature would have started to drop a little and I would be blessed by golden light. The information board at Ben Halls Campground informed me of several trails from here. Against one – Lynchs Loop Trail – someone had appended in handwritten block capitals ‘RETURN THE SAME WAY YOU GO UP. THE PATH BEYOND IS NOT SAFE.’ Another promised cool shady gullies and waterfalls and no ad hoc Trumpian warnings, so I opted for that.
The Bertha’s Gully trail did indeed proceed up a gully, but I had managed to perfectly time things so that I was seared by the westerly sun. It must have been 40+ in that gully, sheltered from any breeze, clambering up boulders, conscious of snakes. The trail was quite rough, victim in part to the generous spring which has delivered a profusion of growth. Various spiky plants penetrated my legs and shoes and socks, creating a sensation every ten seconds that I was being eaten by ants. Yet despite all this, pausing for the nectar that is a chilled Berry Gatorade from Grenfell IGA, there was an elemental beauty to the place.
I think the Gatorade saved my life, finishing the last drops closer to the campground beside Ben Halls Cave. I was too spent to read the detail, but I assume Ben Hall was one of those celebrated reprobates who stole some sheep, robbed stagecoaches, shot some police, and vehemently denied homoerotic gatherings of brotherhood under precipitous cliff faces in the middle of a winter’s night.
There was likely no need for spooning tonight. It was still hot when I arrived back to my camp chair and yet another disappointingly insipid Australian cider. In many ways it was the best of ciders, the worst of ciders. As refreshing as my sweat to the flies. I had forgotten about the flies and for a while it appeared they had forgotten about me. Until the time had come to relax with a cold cider.
I feel like every six months or so I have the urge to camp to be reminded of how arduous camping can be, the result of which is putting camping off for another six months or so. This time I thought I was making life easier by not really camping but sleeping in my car. This was a bit of a trial, but I had managed to remove and fold down seats to create space for my swag mattress. This padded by an old quilt created a perfectly spacious, comfortable area. Crucially I could stretch out fully from head to toe. My other less successful invention was the mosquito netting affixed on one of the rear windows by Velcro and Blu Tack.
I awoke after fitful sleep, still hot and greeted by the sound of a mosquito buzzing in my ear. Pilot test lessons: for some reason sleeping with your head at the back of the car is more comfortable. Get some better netting and use it on not one but two windows. Bring a tent just in case. Always, always consider a motel.
What you don’t usually get from a motel though is the experience of waking up at first light to a dawn chorus of joyous singing and painful shrieking. You don’t usually receive a refreshing essence from eucalypts releasing minty vapours in the cool of dawn. You are rarely greeted by an audience of kangaroos and their young, slightly startled to find that there is a person in that car around which they have been chomping overnight. You don’t have the options of a pit toilet or a tree.
Not feeling especially refreshed at six in the morning I was pleased to find that the iced coffee from Grenfell IGA was still reasonable in the car fridge. My original plan was to embrace the coolest part of the day by walking up Basin Gully to Eualdrie Lookout – billed as a ‘challenging’ and ‘adventurous’ hike, this time in printed information provided by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service. But rated as a Grade 5 hike (the most challenging) and weary as I was, I made the very sensible decision to give it a miss. What could I do instead? Oh, yes, that’s right, that shorter, mysterious Lynchs Loop.
Armed with a big stick for breaking any spider webs in front of me, I climbed steadily up through grassy woodlands, occasionally interrupted by a rocky boulder. Each step revealing more of the valley in which the campground sat and, beyond that, the plains to the west. At a junction, a trail led off to an overlook perched upon the very edge of the national park. Beyond, a view into vastness.
Scattered pools of sunlight breaking through the clouds shifted upon an endless canvas of gold. The meandering of watercourses was clearly etched into the land, as if a giant serpent had indeed been at work. Distant, only another hill rising incongruently from this flat agricultural tablecloth. Perched here, not another soul in the world. This is why it is worth it.
Enlivened and spirited by such moments, I decided to carry on the loop trail to see how unsafe it really was. The answer was NOT AT ALL. The route descended but other than a few rocks everything was gentle. All I can assume is whoever had written that strident piece of public information had done so after heavy rain – the remaining section of the trail crossed a largely dry creek which would no doubt tumble with vigour once or twice a year.
Leaving Weddin Mountains, I passed through Grenfell once again, failing to stop for a thickshake or to use its exemplary toilets. It wasn’t until Young that I embraced the luxury of running water once more. Young sits at the centre of the Hilltops region and the town itself lives up to this name. It seems whichever way you enter Young, it will be done from a height as your car winds its way down into the centre.
The centre of town – on a Sunday morning – was almost as devoid of habitation as Grenfell. Though larger, the high street also looked a bit rough-edged, run down, lacking the same faded elegance as its counterpart to the north. I always thought of Young as fairly well-to-do, set in a rich, productive landscape with a cherry on top.
This perception of Young returned upon entering a homewares store that featured a café, or more accurately a café that featured a selection of things for the home that are largely unnecessary. The café was busy with young, attractive people, extended families, and the local police collecting takeaway coffees and muffins. I felt fortunate to nab a table, close to the entrance where people were gathering in close proximity to register their presence on the off chance they had COVID.
It is quite an adjustment from sleeping in a car in the middle of nowhere to eating eggs benedict with pulled pork and an apple cider hollandaise in an upmarket homewares café. I felt and looked out of place, possibly because I was not wearing my hat indoors like the tens of identikit males with sculpted beards, black T-shirt and shorts and designer caps. They probably even had a shower this morning, show-offs.
The coffee was good and the brunch was delicious, albeit tarnished by the other great event of our times. What is it with being served only one slice of toast these days?! Two eggs and a pile of other stuff lumped onto one slice of toast. For something like twenty dollars. I don’t care if your toast is handcrafted sourdough whose airy bubbles are formed by unicorn farts, please may I have two of them?
The one slice of toast may have worked in my favour if the planets had aligned. Young is famous (in Australia at least) for cherries, harvested at this time of year and finding their way to many a Christmas table. There is even a National Cherry Festival, which may have occurred this very weekend if it wasn’t for the lingering presence of a microscopic virus. Each year, breakfast news weathermen arrive in Young to pick cherries and tell us how many tonnes are being shipped across Australia before informing of an impending heatwave. Apart from this year.
Nonetheless, the cherries and still growing and are still – despite a scarcity of backpackers to exploit – being picked. Many of the orchards offer pick your own and I had read of one that also had a café selling cherry pie. Surely the perfect ending before heading back, the cherry pie on the icing on the cake? As long as you book ahead.
For it turns out such is the renown of cherry season and such is the limitation of visitation numbers during 2020 that my intended destination was full. No more entry. Turn around and go away. Carrot cake down the road in Binalong will have to do.
Happily, starting the journey home I came across a small outdoor market in the settlement of Wombat, around which many of the orchards are based. There was a mobile coffee van, and a plant stall, and that stand promoting turmeric as the cure-all for the world’s ailments. Something colourful and knitted emanated from another corner as you amble past and try not to make eye contact. And there, out of the back of the van, the punnets of cherries. Picked yesterday just around the corner.
You cannot come to Young at this time of year and not buy cherries. Much as you cannot come into this part of the world and not be impressed, not be thankful for the people labouring to bring food to your table. Or to relish the stops in small towns withering in the heat, hiding poets and bakers and bushrangers among elegant facades and restless youth. And perhaps the most impressive of all, you cannot be indifferent to those natural islands, remnants of a distant past, witnesses to a longstanding culture, rising up in defiance to the industrial plains.
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.
Take me over the crossing, deliver me through the shadow of trees, inch me up to a subtle divide. The very precipice falling into a mountain creek, hidden somewhere within this big, open country.
Water water everywhere, and not a drop to waste. The new, passing abnormal, flushing the land clean of years of dust and bone. Reflecting the sky, saturating the fields, imitating an English meadow. Putting the good back into the Goodradigbee.
Life goes on. Gentle and serene, noisy and frenetic. Humans endeavour. Sheep shelter. Birds poise ready for attack. The productivity of spring seems unstoppable, like the clouds motoring through the sky. Life goes on to prosper, with a little push.
It is a fleeting passage of abundance. An embarrassment of riches that is as disconcerting as its painful absence. Bounteous panoramas, generous horizons, good country. Make hay.
On Friday evening I did something exceedingly rare. It may restrict my ability to enter South Australia or Queensland should I care to mix with crow-eaters or banana benders, but I crossed from the Australian Capital Territory into New South Wales. Literally metres across the border, from a COVID-free paradise to a COVID ‘hotspot’. It was worth it for the chicken wings.
Succumbing to a blunt instrument of parochial politics intending to win votes, I decided I might as well embrace the situation. It has been nearly three months since I had a day outside of the ACT which in this unprecedented year is as unprecedented as it gets. The question was, where to go? The coast road would be busy, Goulburn had been exhausted, and the mountains would still be a touch snowy.
The answer lay in the methodical planning that shapes most of my trips: locations in which you can generously support the local economy by eating food. Hearty country fare of slices and pies and – increasingly – epicurean delights intertwined with fine coffee. In this regard, Long Track Pantry in Jugiong offered a foothold from which to explore; though I would, in the end, leave this until the end. I was headed for the hilltops.
Outside of obligatory food stops in charming country towns, the benefit of exploring the Hilltops region of NSW at this time of year is the explosion of spring. Fields of golden canola hit you in the face as you turn a corner, as you crest a ridge. The #canolatrail has even become a thing, ideal for selfies and people looking for something to do which doesn’t involve going overseas.
It’s sometimes a little hard to safely find a place to pull off the road at 100kph to capture the luminescent glow of fields. And this being country Australia there is rarely a public footpath to be found, something I have decried over and over again. So you’re often whizzing past scenic delights and by time you realise there was a spot you could have stopped it is disappearing in the rear view mirror and you should really look out for that truck laden with hay coming straight at you.
But today things changed. Yes, it took me an inordinate amount of time to work this most obvious solution out, but I shoved my bike in the back of the car. Just in case.
And in and around Boorowa all my dreams came true. First, the coffee stop at The Pantry on Pudman could not have been better. I would happily go back there again. Then there was a cycle path beside the river. Not especially long but a nice, leisurely amble winding through a verdant land of green. The weather was sublime; heading over twenty degrees, I wore shorts for the first time in a long while. And a bright red T-shirt to attract the friendly greeting of the magpies who were delighted to see me, as warm and jovial as ever.
On this Tour de Boorowa, the streets were – unsurprisingly – wide and empty. A gradual climb up to the Col de Recycling Centre offered views over town. And the aptly named Long Road led me off into the countryside, where I stopped every hundred metres to admire my beautiful bike within a luscious backdrop.
And of course, there was the canola. Surely there can be no better way to experience this landscape than by bike. It may well inspire me to head off into the country on two wheels in the future. As long as it’s reasonably flat. And comes with an incentive like today. Wine perhaps. Or cheese. Or chocolate. Or slow roasted local lamb barbecued on coals. Or just simply an opportunity to do something in country NSW which makes a border crossing worthwhile. Vive Le Tour!
I’m now well into my second Canberra winter in succession. Following an early pre-election trip in 2019 and – well – just go f*** yourself 2020, doing time in the icebox of Australia is now becoming as familiar to me as a pair of slippers that don’t quite keep your feet warm enough. Why the feet, always the feet?
With exposure I can’t decide if I love or loathe winter here. I’m certainly never going to complain about it because I made that promise to myself in the disgusting hot and fiery summer of smoke and hell. And if you subtract the minus overnight figures, short days and empty deciduous trees, there remains a lot to love. Like the deep blue sky, presenting a sun that offers afternoon comfort in the shelter. There’s the cosiness of warming, slow-cooked meatiness with spicy red wine. And, of course, the outdoor walks invigorating and beguiling in the sharp winter light. Even the freezing fog offers a captivating spectacle when it lifts.
On rare occasions the fog fails to lift at all, and these are the worst. Fed by our spacious artificial lakes and the rugged rivers to our west, gloomy refrigerated moisture makes for a match with the sun. Where I live – missing a large lake nearby – appears to be one of the first places to clear and I have often set off out only to see a wall of white enveloping the next suburb along. Stay at home has double resonance.
Sometimes you see the fog sitting stubbornly to the west in the valleys beneath the mountains. Today was not one of those days as I went on a discovery taking in a stretch of the Molonglo River. This is essentially the water course that forms Lake Burley Griffin, entering via Googong Dam and Queanbeyan to the east and exiting to meet up with the mightier Murrumbidgee.
I had in mind a spot called Kama Nature Reserve but didn’t know what to expect since this was all new to me. Finding it was the first mission, in particular being able to turn off into a patch of gravel somewhere along a busy dual carriageway while giving sufficient notice to the utes behind me. Heading towards West Belconnen, this was far outside my comfort zone.
The particular patch of gravel I discovered was empty, reflecting what I think is a relatively undisturbed tract of Canberra Nature Reserve. Certainly, it was a place I had never heard of until I randomly stumbled upon it on the interweb. This informed me that there were a couple of trails you could do – the Dam Walk, heading to a small dam, and the River Walk, which extends down to the river. Genius.
As it turns out I didn’t take the Dam Walk despite thinking as much as I entered the reserve to join a wide fire trail heading gently downhill. The surroundings were all fairly standard and predictable – grassland scattered with gum trees and the occasional shrub. A cluster of paper daisies added a little chirpiness to proceedings, little sunshines of colour beaming from a swathe of red dirt.
Smaller thickets of grass gathered within the hollows of the land. What I thought might have been a dam was probably more of a bog, but it was sufficiently moist for the sound of ducks to convince me that this was the promised dam of the Dam Walk. From here I headed on down to the river on, possibly, the River Walk.
The landscape here was far more open, barren even. A few areas of the reserve were fenced off for some kind of university experiment, while an endless parade of kangaroos made a mockery of such fencing. You could detect the river without really seeing it, the land sliding onward into a cleft, over which more expansive grasslands and hills continued.
At one point a small cluster of rocks in the side of a hill attracted attention. I was seeking a view of the river itself and headed over to them. And while I caught glimpses of water through a channel of trees, the view itself pretended at Dartmoor: open, rugged, golden brown. I might have been there this time of year. The temperature was probably about the same.
A smooth dirt road followed the Molonglo up on the flat land high above its course. This I assume was a part of the river walk, confirmed with some signage further along at a junction both down to the river itself and back up towards the mysterious dam. Meanwhile, the dirt road carried on following the river and I was curious to see where it might lead, tempted by some rockier, gorge-like views in the distance.
This route was a surprise and one of the more surprising things I found about it was an absence of cyclists. It seems a perfect little ride (flat and smooth) with expansive views and potential rest stops. Indeed, the road appears to go on and on and on; I guess at some point access might be barred but today it seemed endless. I could have gone on and on too, if it were not for my lack of provisions.
It may well be, of course, that this road comes out onto a horrendous water treatment plant or against a shooting range or just simply a private property scattered with rusted Holdens and fake blue Australian flags made in China. I suppose I will just have to come back one day and find out.
For today, I needed to return to the car and did so this time via the dam. It was just a small puddle in the end, but the grasses and trees provided a pleasing landscape in which to finish. And beyond that, the views again opened up, over the river and across the plains, to the distinctive ridge of Camel’s Hump; another walk to do on another day. Springtime perhaps.
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.
Outside is looking remarkable. Outside is looking beautiful. An almost pinch-yourself-is-this-actually-real kind of sensation. One bringing delight rather than dread.
I was sat on a random log the other day, pleasant late afternoon sunshine nourishing the world. Rarely do I sit and stop and watch all the things going on around me: the ants milling about productively, transporting their wares in selfless community organisation; the magpie creeping from one spot of grass to the other, surveying for delicacies, a curious sideways look at my presence; the chirrup, somewhere, of two crimson rosellas, partners for life. The world going about its business.
There is an astonishment in this landscape of such verdant abundance. Where so recently it was so barren. The resilience of nature bearing fruit, flourishing again.
As well as sitting on random logs I randomly tried to capture this transition, this journey, this bounce back. Scrolling my phone for past images, dusty and brown. Attempting to line up positions and angles and replicating shots. Not always easy to know exactly where you have gone before. Fiddling about so much that sometimes it’s just far easier, far more satisfying to give up, sit on a log, and just watch the world.
The Bullen Range and Brindabellas from Cooleman Ridge, 6 weeks apart
I was hoping this really would be the final instalment of a bushfire trilogy. I had written an intro all about the process of relief and recovery, the goodness that sprouts forth as communities pull together, the hope again blossoming like sprigs of green emerging on a forest floor. And lo and behold I drove back home and observed a large plume of smoke rising over the mountains southwest of Canberra. An endless summer marching on. Ten thousand hectares and counting; like Star Wars, there may be more to come.
But recovery is taking place and I think it’s useful to focus on this. Huge amounts of money have been donated, food and clothes given away, houses opened up to strangers. We take our empty eskies down to the coast, we have benefit concerts and tennis rallies, we construct boxes for wildlife to nest in. We pull together, many as one. The best of us on display.
It was inspiring to come across such compassion this past week as I sought out something I could do, anything. This found me on the road to Gundagai and beyond, heading to a BlazeAid camp in Adelong. BlazeAid is a volunteer-led organisation which works with farmers and their families in areas impacted by natural disaster, helping them to repair their property with a focus on damaged fencing. I have never done anything like it. But I definitely will again.
The road from Gundagai was all golden Australian summer, rolling countryside featuring large paddocks baked by the sun. Recent rainfall and violent storms seemingly doing little to break the drought. While parched, there was little sign of the destruction and devastation of fire as I made my way towards Tumut. The blackness was somewhere beyond.
I arrived at the BlazeAid camp in Adelong, which was based at the local showground. More on this later but suffice to say it was all somewhat larger than I had expected. After signing away my life and setting up my tent, dinner was provided and an update on the day’s activities was made. Dessert was had. And with an early start beckoning, people dissolved into their caravans, tents and swags hopefully to sleep. Something which evaded me for a long while, reinforcing the latter day struggle that camping is proving to be.
With a kookaburra alarm clock, a large cooked breakfast and a healthy dose of organised chaos, I was off with a small group of others to a farm somewhere in the hills around Batlow. Batlow is in the midst of a massive swathe of scorched land and the town was isolated at the peak of the firestorm. Several outlying properties are now crumpled, tortured heaps of metal and brick, the shells of cars parked outside. The petrol station in town is a ruin.
Heading up the nearby Gilmore Valley the scene was at first all rather idyllic – good farming country that would not have looked out of place in northern England. And then the first bare and blackened hillside appears on the horizon, like the shadow cast by a massive thundercloud. And before long it is all around.
Climbing up and up a muddy road we reach the home of Paul and Andrea which is – mercifully – fully intact. You can see how close they were to devastation, the garden shrubs singed and charred like overzealously grilled broccoli. We are introduced to Smiley, a farmhand who has that high country man from Snowy River look about him. The hut he was living in didn’t fare so well, wrecked and ruined and taking most of his possessions with it. His ute survived along with a few salvaged remains.
We drive across a few bare paddocks and into the forest. Trees stand like charcoal sticks, branches down but eventually likely to prosper again. The forest floor is another matter: a bare wasteland of ash, like the remnants of a barbecue the day after the night before, spreading out in every direction. The compensation that it has cleared the weeds seemingly a small offset in the greater loss of habitat. And the loss of product – the farm up here produces pure eucalyptus oil, which will take several years to become productive again.
Among this alien landscape there were – of course – long lines of fencing. Some standing, but most bent and broken and needing repair. I was reminded of why we had come up here. The task was to clear the fencing so that new stuff could be eventually put down in its place. This involved a lot of snipping of wires with cutters of varying quality and the pulling out of fence poles with a fence post pulling contraption. I quite liked the post pulling – more so than the snipping – even though some of the sixty-five year old poles were stubborn to yield.
Focusing on the task at hand, the surrealness of the environment fades away, until you occasionally pause and look up again and take stock. Among the ash, small piles of fence post and a carpet of wire lay ready to be gathered in machines by Smiley and Paul. Our team of four alternate tasks, to relieve various aching muscles and torment others yet to be abused. I’m the youngest and glad of the experience of more practical, hands-on kind of folk who offer good advice and warm conversation. Smiley throws in the odd tip, alongside a healthy dose of banter. He suggests I work for Scomo and this is a bait it’s hard not to take.
There is immense satisfaction at seeing the visible fruits of your labour. We work our way down alongside the perimeter track in increasingly precipitous terrain. The sun is heating up and I’m glad when our team leader decides to call it a day. Sweaty, coated in grey ash, there is a perverse pleasure in acquiring the symbols of a hard day’s toil. You don’t get this writing reports.
The next day offered more of the same but better. Better because we had a better idea of what we were doing. Better because it was cooler and more overcast. Better because we had a better pair of snippers. And, above all, better because we got to interact more with Paul, Andrea and Smiley.
Partly this was a consequence of the weather, as gusty winds mid-morning prompted a decision to leave the forested area for fear of collapsing trees and branches weakened by the fire. A small stretch of open fencing beside a dam provided a little workout but, when that was done, morning tea was declared. I like morning tea.
It was over an elongated morning tea that we got to find out a bit more about life on the farm, the people living on this land and their recent experiences as these lives came under threat. Andrea guided us around the garden, pointing out what it was like before flame lapped at the borders. Smiley pointed us towards various contraptions that went into extracting the eucalyptus oil, included a century old steam engine acting as the driving force. And we learned about Paul’s craftsmanship creating gnarly old walking sticks simply with a sheet of sandpaper and a glass of Port.
They are nothing if not creative, resourceful people, sensitive of the land that they live in. You feel – you hope – this will stand them in good stead moving beyond the fires. You know that this is what probably saved their lives.
Inevitably the conversation moves towards January 4th and the days before and after. There was a sense of inevitability about the fire coming and Paul highlights that the waiting was one of the worst things about it. Days of anxiety and alarm that came from forewarning and a frank admission from the fire service that, if they were to stay, they would be on their own. During this time, busying themselves with preparations: clearing the land of debris, felling overhanging branches, watering down around the house and sheds. Getting the car packed with essentials should they need to flee. Watching. Waiting. For what seems like an eternity.
Eventually it appears on the western horizon. They talk – and it feels an almost cathartic exchange – of defending their home as the fire lapped at its doors from three sides. Erratic, violent wind changes pushing the front from the west, the north and the south. The noise terrifying. Raining embers igniting bushes and trees around them. Sprinklers on the roof previously used to clear snow now somehow sputter enough to dampen sparks. The power goes out but – mercifully – the generator kicks in and the water pumps persist.
It is the longest, darkest day, one they freely admit they would never face down again. Barely was there time for a breather, though Smiley managed to take five and puff on a rollie. Paul captured this image on his phone and chuckles: if ever there was a sign of an addict that was it. Chuffing away as smoke surrounded.
He probably deserved a ciggie, his hut lost along with many of his possessions, his ute still bearing a few scorch marks from the moment he fled. On the back were some salvaged items, including a charred tin of loose change, the coins inside faded and melded to grey. Hopefully still legal tender – there is a fair amount in there, though the dollars no longer shine gold.
Smiley fondly recalls his home in a hollow among, but not right next to, the trees. It was always ten degrees cooler, he says, natural air conditioning and breeze. Snug in winter. A place of peace and solitude. He’s now in a caravan which they managed to pick up at a bargain price – for this he feels lucky. Lucky! But he hankers for a hut again and intends to rebuild in another nearby pocket of paradise.
If that isn’t inspiration enough to get back out to finish our job, I don’t know what is. The gusty change of the morning has subsided and we venture back into the forest, working methodically uphill towards the boundary of the property with the forestry road. Someone spots a red belly, thankfully not me. The fence is horizontal here, and the pole puller contraption largely redundant until they can be bent upright.
As we approach our last stretch of fence to clear, rumbles of thunder echo through the forest from the west. Large spots of rain begin to plop into the ash and earth and upon our hats and gloves and hi-vis vests. The last post is pulled and we march back to the vehicles as the heavens open. It is but a shower, but a heavy shower and every little helps.
Before departing Paul invites us back to the house, offering a cold beer and a gift pack of eucalyptus products. Andrea and Smiley join us, as do the two dogs, keen for a spot of attention from strangers. Or those who were once strangers, but who now chat away like old friends. Mates helping mates.
Of course, it is now abundantly clear that BlazeAid is about more than just fencing. It’s about connection and conversation, and a manifestation of community looking out for one another, through good times and bad. It’s not really charity, nor is it solely a case of do-gooders looking to do good and boast about it on social media. Everyone gets something out of it: practical, tangible skills, connection and interaction with different people, sore backs and filthy clothes, and the opportunity to enter some of the most beautiful lands within Australia, as savaged as they are.
It seems a bit strange to say in the context in which it takes place, but there is a feelgood factor around the experience. The atmosphere at camp is both soberly reflective and celebratory. Teary eyes are never far away. Inspiration is on tap. People from all walks of life, across the ages, from all over Australia and beyond, come together over dinner, swap tales from the day, share the stories of farmers and their families, reel off the length of fence cleared or erected.
Dinner itself is an achievement, a carb-filled wonderland engineered by an angelic mix of locals and visitors giving their time to tray bake and slow cook and whip cream and take receipt of an endless donation of cakes from CWAs and Rotaries and Mums. If I stay any longer, I’ll get fat. They keep offering me biscuits and caramel slices and passionfruit tarts. Manual labour can only burn off so many calories.
I do stay one more day. One more cooked breakfast, one more hearty dinner, one more day of snipping and pulling and – this time – rolling up wire and starting to put brand new fence poles into the ground on a different property. The temptation to stay another day kicks in too, especially as the farmer promises to cook up a BBQ lunch the next day, the centrepiece being his 11 month aged beef nurtured on this land.
But my body, and my lack of sleep, tells me no. I struggle to clean my teeth, the grip and motion jarring on my hands and my shoulders and my chest. Writing is also pained, as I finally sign out and walk out to my car to begin the journey home.
As I do so, new arrivals are emerging for the long Australia Day weekend. A minibus of Afghan refugees from Shepparton set up their tents. A couple from Queensland offload supplies from their caravan. Teenagers from Wagga help to sort out donations. German backpackers encourage an international kickabout on the oval.
BlazeAid veterans wonder at it all. Unprecedented events resulting in unprecedented kindness. Not from superheroes, but from everyday people. Recovery belonging to us all, the community, now and in the months and years ahead.
Please check out www.blazeaid.com.au for all the details and camps currently in operation across several states. They will be running for many months.
Anyone can do it. Like me you don’t need to have any particular skills. Just a keenness to get involved and learn. Some people are great snippers, others are wonderful sausage sizzlers. All are needed and all are valued. It’s worth it just for the bounteous dinners and home baked cakes! It’s rewarding and enriching and it will be the best thing you have done in a long time, I promise.