Drifting

It has been a pleasant surprise to stumble upon March without the world being blown up by some really bad or sick dude. Less surprising if you listen to scientists was the record-breaking hot Australian summer; indeed there were moments where it felt like the end of world wasn’t too far away (two successive 41 degree days in Canberra spring to mind). But, again, we made it to March, with temperatures slowly cooling and promising a period of pleasant sunny day times and sleep-friendly lows.

sum01What does one do in a hot summer which features only intermittent work? Well, trips to free air-conditioned sites of interest for a start: the cinema, the library, the gallery, the mall. Occasionally the office, mostly for a coffee and catch up. Bike rides bring a nice breeze early in the day or into the late evenings. And cooling refreshments comfort: my addiction to frozen drinks persisting (but now slowly fading), a cold beer or cider in the evenings, Dare iced coffee and occasionally something a little more extravagant.

sum02Walks are practically a daily feature (they usually are), often on Red Hill (they usually are). Again, the early mornings or late evenings work best, the low light emphasising the sweeping golden grass and colouring the white trunks of gums a laser red. Sun sinks late over the ranges and smouldering skies are common. This is better evening entertainment than what’s on TV, as post-tennis, post-holiday reality shows make a comeback, spewing forth with abandon.

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sum05Daytime strolls are better suited to places such as the Botanic Gardens, where shade is more forthcoming and the rainforest gully drops temperatures by five degrees. Moisture emerges here from the watering, and continues in the cafe serving a fairly average coffee. But to grab a takeaway and sit under a tree reading a book or interview transcripts is a fine way to spend an hour (and improve the experience of reading interview transcripts).

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sum06aAway from nature for a moment, summer in Canberra also promises event after event as the populace makes the most of the time before entering deep freeze. There are blockbuster exhibitions in the galleries and museums; there are fetes and swimming carnivals and cricket matches all over the suburbs; fireworks, flags and protests in equal measure adorn Australia Day; and the National Multicultural Festival brings oodles of noodles in a celebration of diversity that ought to be protected. In the spirit of inclusion even certain redheads are catered for.

Outside the capital the countryside sizzles in much the same way, this occasionally boiling over into grass and bushfires. In 2003 of course a big one hit the fringes of Canberra and much of the rugged land to its west. Over the course of my time here – since, OMG, 2006 – I have been able to observe nature’s recovery, the transition from blackened trunks and patchwork growth to a flourishing bulbous canopy and vivid green understorey. Nine years from the last time I stepped out, the signs at the start of the track up to Booroomba Rocks still warn of falling debris from the damage, but from what you witness along the way this previous carnage is almost imperceptible.

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While summer has been predictably hot and dry, previous wetter seasons have replenished the reservoirs and river systems around Canberra. No longer do we see LCD updates informing us of how many litres we consumed yesterday and imploring us not to water our lawns. At least for the time being.

sum07At Burrinjuck Dam – reached via coffee stop in Yass – water levels are high and this is a natural lure for cursed boatpeople who frolic about in a flurry of jetskis and Chardonnay lunches. Away from the excess surrounding the boat ramp, quieter coves and a cutesy scattering of cottages for those dam workers heralded surprise. And a reasonably flat, empty road on which to have a pedal.

There was a cool wind on that ride, late February, and soon after the first day came in which it might be handy to have a sweater in the evening. This in many respects is a blessing because at night you can sleep again and wake to blissfully clear and fresh mornings, which impel you to get out and live. Outside, only the very first tinges of autumn are appearing on the trees but other signs are more prominent: increasing work opportunities; long pants; the first fog grounding hot air balloons; and a now perennial favourite marking the transition from summer to autumn in Canberra, Enlighten.

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sum10My how this has grown since I was one of the few to trudge round on a pleasant evening a few years back snapping pictures of a handful of the capital’s illuminated buildings. Now practically every city does something similar on landmarks more well-known. But Canberra’s Enlighten seems to be ever more popular, judging by the crowds streaming from one site to another on a Saturday evening. Many are also here to queue for food in the night markets, which is entirely predictable; after several years you learn to visit midweek and come early, to guarantee delights such as a bao trifecta, Korean chilli pork fries, and deep fried ice cream.

I’m a little warm that Saturday evening in long trousers and the next day – today, March 12th – tops 32 degrees. But because it is officially autumn it feels acceptable for a loin of pork to be roasting in the oven. I’m kind of sick of barbecues and the promise of slow roasted feasts is one of the plus sides of the seasons changing. It won’t take long and everyone will be whingeing about the cold, wrapped like mummies in a pile of scarves and hats, scowling at the misery of “bloody Canberra”. Shorts and air-conditioning will feel like distant memories. But before we get to that point there is the promise of the transition, a period that is without doubt the best time of year here, in bloody Canberra.

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Capitalising

march02Change is in the air. After a more than generous period of retirement, I am on the precipice of embarking on a spell of significant work again. The Treasurer will be happy, though it’s not like I stopped being a consumer. Despite recently spending extortionate amounts on dental treatment (not covered by the much-revered Medicare of course), and purchasing coffee (and sometimes cake) to break up the days a little, the economy is still heading towards possible Armageddon. So the prospect of work lies ahead of me like the Nullarbor, stretching out in hazy uniformity for the rest of my life, only to finally end up at Norseman, which is possibly even worse.

march01Change of a more subtle variety is also noticeable around the neighbourhood. The summer storms appear to have dissipated and – for now at least – Canberra has settled into a golden period of warm days, pleasantly refreshing nights, and big blue skies seemingly typical of March. Leaves are largely unturned, but there is a soft wilting and readiness to transform. Mornings are lighter later, but the wattlebird still manages to indulge in its annoying calls outside my window really early every morning without fail. Meanwhile, the cockatoos are even more voraciously attacking the acorns and itchy-bombs, causing overhead hazards on walks in this suburban wilderness.

Aligned with the glorious prospect of seasonal transformation is a final, lingering dose of Canberra activity. Enlighten, which appears more popular as the years pass (I was one of those stoic first year visitors before the advent of hipster-conducive noodle markets), always seems to coincide with the finest of nights. Each year brings a new stab at illuminative inventiveness, although one which is usurped this year by that going on within the National Gallery. To stand within an artwork in daggy little protective feet covers and be simultaneously disoriented, uncomfortable and exhilarated by light and space is just a tad different to giant projections of political cartoons on Old Parliament House. Maybe James Turrell can design all of Enlighten next year?

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Whatever, the natural light and space of Canberra can be every bit as magical all year round, though there seems increasing clarity and depth as the sun shifts lower on the horizon. Rising early to see the annual balloon extravaganza is a reminder of that hallowed time of the morning before day breaks. The wattlebird may have been carping on for half an hour already, but the indigo sky is only slowly softening, the glow on the eastern horizon building until the first rays of sun blind the eyes, redden the white bark of the gums, and silhouette the parade of tripods seeking to capture it beside the lake. Hundreds of cameras redirected because the balloons are tethered, unable to take off because of too much or too little or too much and too little wind.

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Not strong enough wind there is or wind too much in gusts of the force” mutters the giant Yoda balloon. I would trust his wisdom (certainly more than an angry bird or dodo), and thus they remain a picture lingering upon the lawns, surrounded by an always surprisingly large mass for so early in the morning.

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Further round the lake, distant in the west, several balloons have made it into the air. I guess wind conditions are more favourable away from a parliamentary area that usually generates a lot of unnecessary hot air. Hot air that has, I guess, indirectly contributed to my own forthcoming increased income tax contribution to save the economy. Hot air piped out of the giant flagpole that will mix with cooler and colder and – eventually – perishing air as the months progress. It was good while it lasted!

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Capital works

I reckon every city and town and village and hamlet should have its own special ‘day’. It should be a time for locals to come together to take stock over what they have collectively achieved and to dream of what can yet be achieved. An opportunity to dress up for those from outside looking in, welcoming others into a collective ample bosom designed to make them say things like “Yeah, you know this really is quite a nice spot.” A symbiotic way for the place to provide something back to its inhabitants, made only possible by its inhabitants putting something into the place.

If Canberra Day is anything to go by, such extravagance is elongated over several weeks sometime around March. With the seasons commencing a transition, it is one final agreeable hurrah, a lingering celebration of another summer before thoughts of hibernation and exile set in. It is still warm but the days are shortening, making it an ideal time for pre-dawn balloon ensembles and post-dusk illuminations. You don’t have to get up too early or stay out too late, and you don’t yet have to risk strangulation in a melee of scarves and hats and fleece blankets because it has dropped to something arctic like ten degrees.

mar03One recent Friday in March offered a sumptuous day of deep blue skies where it was nudging a far from arctic 30 degrees; warmth that seeped into the night and made a very slow amble around the Parliamentary Triangle all the more comfortable. At scattered intervals the huge geometric edifices of the national institutions thrust up as multicoloured beacons, drawing moth-like the throngs of humans revelling in an evening of enlightenment. A beautiful day shifts into a beautiful night.

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mar04Cooler and with showers threatening, a Sunday morning is cloaked in a pre-dawn gloom. It’s fairly early and the streets are even quieter than usual. It’s that peaceful time of day, a serenity that becomes confronted by parking battles and swarms of people as dawn breaks once more in the Parliamentary Triangle. As quick as the light emerges, balloons rise up from the ground; once flattened tarps smeared across the lawns inflate into rounded bulbs of colour and misshapen eccentricity. The sun sneaks up from the eastern horizon as people wave gleefully from wicker baskets shooting up into the sky. They shouldn’t look so bloody cheerful…they seem to be heading somewhere over the rainbow and into that storm. Oh well, good luck to them, I’m off to grab a coffee.

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Monday, and it’s a public holiday, all to celebrate the 101st birthday of a city. Ironically many use it (with the attaching weekend) to flee the place. It’s as if the Prime Minister has just let off the stinkiest fart known to humankind from the flagpole of Parliament House, causing people to rush out onto the Kings or Federal or Monaro Highways in some sense of manic delirium. They head back later on the Monday, once the air is clear.

mar06bBeing a flexible fellow, and paying attention to the weather forecast, I stayed put until Monday. The day was sunny and I decided – with a spontaneity that still involved making a couple of lists – to head up into the hills for a spot of the old driving-walking-camping experience.  It was an enjoyable drive and involved some new road, taking in the Snowy Mountains Highway to Kiandra and then heading over a lumpy and curvy Alpine Way down to Khancoban. There was even – and this clearly denotes a successful road trip – a big thing at Adaminaby. Little over a hundred kilometres from Canberra and it is shameful that this was my first Big Trout sighting.

The barren, frost-scarred plains of this eastern side of Kosciuszko National Park gradually transition as you head west, down through a verdant paradise of tall gums and ferns on the wetter, western side. From here, views of the Main Range are a tad more dramatic, captured at the captivating Olsens Lookout. The plunging of streams can be heard rising from the deeply cut valleys, all making their way, eventually, into the Murray River. Before that, at Geehi Flats, waters trundle along the broad Swampy Plains River, offering a genial spot for camping and, quite probably, Big Trout. Until the storm rolls in…

mar06So much for the weather forecast but I guess these are technically mountains and mountains are known to find weather a fickle companion. With rumbles of thunder close, the rain started pretty soon after parking up, before any swag had been resurrected. With no obvious sign of letting up, and with some distance to travel on slippery surfaces to a town that may or may not have a dodgy motel, I decided to complete my intense road test of a Subaru Outback. Just how well do the seats fold down to form a spacious sleeping area?  The answer: well, not too bad…ten extra centimetres of legroom would have been handy but I slept…well…no worse than I would have done in the swag.

Still, it was nice to stretch the legs the next morning which predictably dawned all damp and misty, but dry and with the sun only very reluctantly breaking through clouds. A drive up over the range and heading back east demonstrated the transformation of plant life once again. Near the road’s highest point at Dead Horse Gap things were more barren once more. Perhaps a surprising spot to take a walk but I was pleased, following the course of the Thredbo River into the Pilot Wilderness, to find myself in somewhere just slightly akin to a Dartmoor valley or a Welsh llanfygwryff-y-pobbblygwrwrochcwm.

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mar09I was heading along the Cascades trail which leads to a hut called – you guessed it – the Cascades Hut. I couldn’t be bothered to go all the way to the hut (18kms return), but made it to Bob’s Ridge and back (shall we say, with a bit of meandering, 10kms). Being a ridge there were some views, west and south into Victoria, though frequently obscured by stunted and bare gum trees.

Anyway, it was nice to partially recreate the feel of a bit of upland Britain. Being in the Australian Alps I was also happy to try and recreate an Alpine mountain sandwich, consisting of bread, cheese and cured meat. Again, it was no fancy ooh la la baguette avec fromage et saucisson, but filled a hole at the very pleasant riverside setting near the end of the walk.

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Of course, on a birthday weekend such as this I need to top off this eating with some birthday cake. I dutifully obliged with a bakery treat in Jindabyne on the way back to Canberra. With a coffee. Borderline country coffee. Which made it undoubted road trip cuisine. Which made a return to Canberra, with its guarantee of good coffee, all the more inviting. And for that, I’m very pleased to wish it a happy birthday indeed.

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