I got chills

snow00With the undeniable passage of nature there are sure signs that winter in Canberra is slowly ebbing away. There have been a few recent days in which I have left the house without a coat, while the sunlight is waking me up well before seven and allowing me to read almost until six. Wattles explode, daffodils unfurl, the odd fly is resurrected and finds its way into my living room for what seems like all eternity.

That’s not to say winter is entirely done and dusted and – with it – the satisfaction of a roast dinner, a glass of red and an evening hunkering down until the early hours watching sport beamed direct from the sometimes sunny skies of Europe. The Ashes is the latest incarnation of late night TV toil, in which the morning session emerges during the prime time of evening followed by a drift to tea after midnight. Sometimes I stay up late and sometimes it’s worth it. Like a shiny cherry battered by Sir Ben Stokes, it can be hard to sleep straight after, such is the insane frenzy that has just taken place.

Of course, usually about now I would be in England, so it is part galling but part elevating to see Leeds bathed in unseasonal hot bank holiday sunshine. Bored of some of the drearier TV commentary I might tune into Test Match Special, delivering another evocation of Englishness. The good, wholesome Englishness involving short long legs and a discussion of cake in between bouncers. Not that other Englishness espoused by others. Without vision, the radio commentary paints a more vivid picture in my head of an England for which I might yearn.

But here I am having almost successfully navigated my first full Australian winter, in the coldest city of the lot. Has it been hard? Well, not really, partly a consequence of strategic breaks away, warm sunshine beaming through glass, roast dinners, red wine, Ben Stokes, and no doubt the upward trajectory in global temperatures as previously predicted by those pesky experts who we have all apparently become sick of.

And then it snows for a weekend and suddenly the accumulation of 200 years of temperature records can be instantly dismissed by the cast of crazy characters featured on the sitcom known as Sky News. The ‘Antarctic Blast’ delivering a bit of cool drizzle to Melbourne and a touch of breeze in Sydney, dusts the higher hills and peaks around Canberra. It’s the kind of event that happens every few years and makes a Canberra winter all the better. For there is an unmatched beauty when the snow comes to the Australian bush.

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There’s certainly a freshness accompanying an early Saturday morning jaunt upon Urambi Hills, but the sun is out and the wind has dropped meaning that, before long, I’m wanting to strip off during the march upward. Even the locals are unfazed, the youngsters popping out to gaze towards the snow for the first time in their lives.

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From afar, there is little hardship, little severity to be found in the sight of snow-capped hills. Getting closer to the snowline in Tidbinbilla, you do begin to feel the penetration of winds swirling over the ranges, picking up icy particles and moisture and delivering them to idiots like me waiting patiently on an exposed lookout. A sleety shower whips through quickly, before a valley of thousands of eucalypts are bathed in sun.

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From this perch, the snow seems tangible, touchable. Attainable with, hopefully, relative ease. And that’s the way it proves, driving to the Mountain Creek area in the reserve. A few cars are here but it is blessedly sedate, lacking the queuing, slush-churned melee of Corin Forest after a few flakes. Close to the car park, youngsters screech and coo in delight and disappear off into the forest. A trail of footprints furrow a path into the trees, eventually joining a fire trail that will go on and on, up and up, all the way to Camel’s Hump.

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It would be folly to climb to the summit today; though judging by the footprints there are a few committed mountaineers in the area. However, walking up just a little and the snow thickens, the sledge tracks fade and untouched pockets of snow lap at the ankles. There is a pristine quality to the scene, a fresh blanket filling in the imperfections of the bush. A gentleness given to a landscape so often forbidding. For a change, snakes will not be a worry.

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Still, best not to linger as my feet are starting to numb and the day is drawing on way beyond optimum coffee time. As I head back down it’s noticeable how the depth of snow has already lessened, patches of mud are now creeping through, churned up by increasing traffic heading into the forest.

The snow will disappear soon enough, and the wattles will continue to burst forth, the blossom will suddenly sprout, the joeys will escape the comfort blanket of mum’s pouch. The winter will draw to a close, the light will lengthen, and I’ll be in shorts moaning about the heat before you know it. Barbecues will replace roasts and more decent sport will be on at a decent hour. Australia will return to its natural, sun-baked, fire-blasted state.

Yet a part of me will miss the cold, miss the late nights in Leeds, miss the excuse for slow-cooked heartiness. And I will miss the experience of anticipation of a spring just around the corner. Maybe not quite as badly as Nathan Lyon misses run outs, but missing all the same.

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Uppish drives

If I was to analogise the lingering weeks of summer, it would be to that of a very uneventful over from Glenn McGrath. Turn at the mark, trundle in with intent, deliver a solid line and length on to the pitch and through to the keeper, stare in confected intimidation at a snivelling Pom, turn back and repeat again. And again.

There is something to be said for reliability and repetition – 563 somethings in fact – but deep down we all crave a cocky blonde disruptor to enter the scene and throw down a few cherries spinning every which way but straight. The googlies are always there somewhere; you just have to put in a bit of extra effort to discover them.

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Such terrible metaphors are all to say I went to the first Test match ever at Manuka Oval in Canberra. Australia versus Sri Lanka in probably the most one-sided match in history. Still, the setting was a delight, the atmosphere abuzz, and Canberra more than held its own as a venue. Googlies may have been sparse but then, in 2019, we are talking about the trumped up talents of Naayfun Lawwwn rather than the bona fide annoying genius of Warnie.

Outside the oval, the regular line and length of hot sunny Canberra days have occasionally hit the cracks of thunderstorms; apocalyptic tempests of wind and lightning and – often – raised dust. It’s made things a bit more interesting, even if some of the places under which such conditions breed are as reliable as ever. Places like Red Hill and Mount Taylor, the equidistant escapes from home to the bush.

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One of the cooler and windier days of late happened to beset the Canberra Triathlon. A temperature all well and good for exercise but a wind cruel and unforgiving when on a bike. To say I competed in a triathlon is a tad generous, strictly speaking. But a ten kilometre bike leg as part of a team relay was effort enough into a headwind. Still, this was just a minor, temporary obstacle for me, and worth it to deliver the imaginary baton onto Toby for the final, inspirational leg. Go Wheelsfortoby!

feb04I guess a triathlon is a bit of a googly within the normal course of events. It also led me to be in Hackett one sunny late afternoon, at the northern end of Canberra nestled underneath Mount Majura. Not so much a change of scenery, but at least a different path on which to wander, all stretching eucalypt branches, golden grass and copper earth, with some snatched views of the surrounding landscape through the bush. Plus, slithering away as I marched downhill, a brown snake disappearing from the corner of my eye.

A few weeks later I would come across two snakes in the space of five minutes, having discussed them five minutes earlier with my friend Joseph as we sat upon a rock in Namadgi National Park. I’ve hardly seen any snakes…maybe five…in my entire time in Australia I said. Mostly in Queensland I said. I know people who won’t come to Australia because of snakes, how ridiculous. When you think of all the bushwalking I have done in that time, and five snakes…

Shall we see what’s down that way, he said.

Snaaaaaaaaakkkkkkkke, I said. Quite loudly, almost tripping over a red bellied black.

Let’s actually not go that way, I said, and we turned around to head back to the car, not before a second made an appearance under a fallen tree, this time with marginally greater warning.

They did say it was going to be a good year for snakes, and in my random survey of random walks through random parts of the ACT I can conclude they were correct.

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Snakes were mercifully unsighted on a longer walk to Gibraltar Rocks in Tidbinbilla during the great Australia Day day off. I’d been here before but – again seeking some variety – I approached the peak from a different side. The first couple of kilometres traversed open plains bursting with kangaroos and the odd emu, before marching incessantly upward through that low, scrawny kind of bush that excels in the higher climes frequently ravaged by fire and ice.

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Reaching the rocks of Gibraltar up in the overcast skies, there were no Spanish ships, no snakes, no bogans singing Jimmy Barnes and wearing the cheap fake blue of Australian flag products proudly made in China. Just the essence of Australia fitting for today or any day. The heart and soul of its earth and its sky, sprouting the unique environment which has been nurtured over millennia and which endures and adapts as best it can.

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And so, we reach the last ball of this ragged over as we once more revisit those terrible cricket analogies. The weather has cooled a touch and the mornings are showing signs that we are entering the golden age. Britain basks briefly in twenty degrees and a few of our mornings drop to single digits. The temperatures still rise to the mid to high twenties in the afternoon, and this is what we call ambient, mild. It’s all relative. And still plenty warm enough for cricket. And snakes.

Floating around in my brain for a while has been Mount Coree in the Brindabellas and – in this quest for difference, desire for new – it finally becomes an agenda item early one Saturday. It is a peak I have never climbed, mainly because I’ve never been entirely sure how to climb it. Mostly it’s a case of following fire trails and dirt roads, including up to the summit and, sometimes, sharing these with vehicles.

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Commencing from Blundells Flat several hundred metres below, it is a fresh, serene meander uphill towards Two Sticks Road. Only a grader on the back of a truck passes me early in the climb, leaving a lingering cloud of fine dust particles in the air, gilding the shafts of sunlight beaming through the trees. Along Two Sticks Road it is easy going towards Coree Campground before the final traverse up to the rocky summit which marks the border between NSW and the ACT.

It’s a decent slog as the sun warms and, by now, the four wheel drives have woken from their slumber. One by one they leisurely pass in a clunk of gears and pneumatics and fumes, inching ever closer to the trig at the top. For all their engineering and technical prowess, for all their ability to get to the top quicker and revel in airconditioned comfort, they are no match for a pair of feet. A pair of feet that are connected to the landscape, an intrinsic part of it rather than something carving it apart. A pair of feet that have superior bragging rights over the indolent Saturday morning car park crew accumulating at the top. And a pair of feet that will come across one more red bellied black on the way down, completing a reliably diverting over.

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Australia Green Bogey Walking

Greenish and golden

IMG_6743There comes a point in January when people pause to consider what it means to be Australian. This usually occurs on or around the anniversary of a few hundred boatpeople from Great Britain arriving to “nothing but bush” (to quote the minister for Indigenous Australians and His Lordship Prime Minister of the Monarchical Colony of Australian Subjects). Considered writings of pride, of angst, of hope, of uncertainty litter the newspapers and infiltrate the electronic graffiti of the twittersphere. For the common man – let’s call him Shane – the Australian essence is commemorated through the bite of a lamb chop from a gas barbecue the size of a truck, a youthful discussion of rising intonation about the best 100 songs involving people with beards lamenting at life, or a day in front of the TV watching tennicrickcycletfooty with a so-cold-it-hurts beer.

IMG_6732While I could brave a venture into the question ‘What does it mean to be Australian?’  I neither have the will nor the current brainpower to go down this path. It may be I am suffering from that particularly laconic strand of Australianism that arises specifically at this time of year – the can’t really be arsed is it still the holidays period. I’m also in the dubious position of not really being a proper Australian, not really, even though the flag of my country of birth is still emblazed like some badge of imperial approval upon yours. All I can say is that I feel lucky, immensely lucky, to be a part of you, attached to your deep blue skies, your sandy shores, your withering white gum trees, and your mostly generous and progressive people.

IMG_6759I feel lucky, on most days, to be in Canberra. Yes really! A capital you have built in little over one hundred years from sun and frost-baked plains and bush-tangled hills. You really ought to be a little prouder of this achievement, especially because you have left some of those bush-tangled hills alone. The sweeping roundabouts and nationalist edifices now scattered across the plains are looking particularly fine as well, what with the regular stormy soakings keeping the grass nice and green. A summer of such generous rainfall that it could almost be British. How soothing.

IMG_7049Despite such impertinence, the sun still shines most days here, and for that I am grateful. The slight irony is that I write this looking out of my window on grey accompanied by a cool 17 degrees only. But this is surely a blip, for other days have offered ample warm sunshine before the storms. Conditions in which I can enjoy your verdant lawns and embrace your rising humidity. To climb bushland hills and swing golf clubs very amateurishly. To cycle alongside the water and sip coffee with the hipsters. To be that most Australian of creatures and watch sport; and not just any sport, but cricket, and cricket in an atmosphere of cleverly articulated critique of the opposing English team. Pommie-bashing I think you call it, and too bloody right.

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Despite being curiously enamoured here, I feel lucky that Australia is a very big country beyond its capital. Just up the road, a mere three hours, is where – if you conveniently ignore 50,000 years of human occupation and quite ingenious cultivation and care of the land – it all started. 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney, Australia. Ah Sydney, that icon of iconic sights on iconic marketing campaigns that seek to invoke envy. As much as I try to find holes in it, to unstitch its veneer of perfection, to cut down such a tall poppy, I stumble upon its harbour shores and return to a state of complicit adoration.

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IMG_6752It’s been a little while since I have seen you Sydney, and I enjoyed your company. I enjoyed seeing friends and playing in parks and being temporarily transformed into a mermaid at Greenwich baths. I enjoyed nine more amateurish holes of golf and the cold beer that followed. I enjoyed Bondi lunch and Coogee brunch and Crow’s Nest salted caramel gelato (on two occasions). I enjoyed getting on a boat at Bronte, but, alas, not making it out onto the open sea. And I really, really enjoyed catching the ferry across the harbour on a warm Saturday night and having a few drinks as the sun set behind the old coat hanger and reddened the discarded prawn shells atop its giant typewriter.

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From excess the next morning was consequently less enjoyable, as was the traffic on Military Road, and the frequent T-shirt changing humidity, and just the general busyness of beachside suburbs on warm and sunny January weekends. Such congestion in a continent with vast emptiness is a stark juxtaposition. There is no doubt comfort in this metropolitan hubbub – a civilisation, a taming, a sense of being and belonging to others. Perhaps it is a feeling of security and protection from the wild endless uncertainty of what lies inland that keeps you – that keeps us – mostly clinging onto the coastal extremities.

IMG_7121As a more recent entrant upon this giant landmass I feel blessed that I can maintain a comfortable, civilised, and invariably cultured urban existence while still being easily belittled by nature. I can live in a clean, safe, prosperous city scattered with sweeping roundabouts and take one of the exits towards nothingness. Though for nothingness read abundance. An abundance of gum trees and hills and high plains in Namadgi, from which rocky outcrops pierce an abundant blue sky. A plethora of grasses and wildflowers emerging in swampy hollows, the weeds also thriving in a show of acceptance and egalitarianism. A setting for black cockatoos and butterflies to float in the air, riding the breeze upon which small white clouds cluster and vanish.

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Clouds which may reappear again to water the lawns around the National Gallery, or dispense rain into falls and gorges around Bungonia. Landscapes that were once seas and took 450 million years to come to this. Wildness and natural drama that is but 30 minutes from a coffee and a peppermint slice and an inexplicable giant concrete sheep. The developed and the untamed, living side by side in something hopefully approaching harmony. This is the fortune I feel at being in this place at this time, around Australia Day.

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