Making moments – 1

This blogging malarkey can be daunting, overwhelming. At times it seems to be a burden, a self-imposed millstone around my neck that I started ages ago and cannot quite shake off. This is especially the case when you have just crammed in an epic few weeks with your Dad exploring as much as you can of a small part of the gargantuan landmass of Australia. So many photos to try and fix up a little with the inept tools provided by Windows 10. So many words to write. So many opportunities to be mildly humorous and maddeningly self-deprecating. Where do I start?

The thing is, I know when I do start to write that I can get into a groove. I enjoy it. Partly I am writing to myself; a record, a reminiscence. Like anyone, I can prosper through purple patches of prodigious prose and struggle in sufferance stringing sentences into some semblance of structure. Alliteration might be a side-effect. A cold beer can provide aid, something I was going to get twenty minutes ago before I got distracted by writing these last two paragraphs.

So, I actually found a remaining Kirin Cider in the fridge and with the influence of a little Japanese Zen (hic) decided that the best way to approach things is through the time-honoured application of baby steps. Baby steps that are moments that are recollections that will stand the test of time. In effect a highlights reel, starting with a ride from Canberra up the coast of New South Wales

– – – Canberra on the rise – – –

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In March Canberra is nearing its annual state of perfection. The mornings become crisper, the air calmer, the flora and fauna engaging in a frenetic dalliance before things quieten down. In the month in which Canberra was born, Canberra is reborn from the fierce heat and drawn-out holidays of summer. Canberra celebrates with lights and fireworks and food and balloons. One elongated fiesta.

It is an early Saturday morning and the clear air of dawn is steadily lightening down by Old Parliament House. At such an hour it is almost an affront to battle for a car park and find yourself immersed into a hubbub of people, cars, and brightly coloured material lain upon dewy grass. The roar of a gas flame is like a road train rumbling into your dreams, awakening the slumber as much as it is enlivening balloons. Lumps of bright red and vivid green begin to emerge from the encircling crowds. Bulbous spheres and irregular shapes take form; a helmet, a heart, a frog, a bird. It turns out – like us – hot air balloons come in all shapes and sizes.

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From the east, the first balloon ascends peacefully, almost unnoticed, into the air. This precipitates a flurry of activity as everyone follows its lead. Like bubbles effervescing from a newly opened raspberry lemonade, one after the other pop up into the deep blue sky. There must be twenty, thirty…where they all came from goodness only knows. And even though you have seen this before and will probably see it again, it leaves you mesmerised, as enchanted as the four-year-old by your side. And all before breakfast.

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– – –  Being Mr Harbourside non-mansion in Sydney – – –

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Memories are rarely made of drives up the Hume Highway and M5 and certainly not along the A3 towards Ryde. The sparkling city of Sydney struggles under the burden of traffic and industry spreading across its sprawling suburbs, a long way from the Qantas songs atop harbour bridges and Paul Hogan leisurely cremating prawns by the beach. Eventually, increasing proximity to the city’s famed water is signified by gentrification and then ostentatious wealth, passing through salubrious homes nestled into Hunters Hill and lining the water at Greenwich. And all this can be yours – well maybe not all this – for $89 a night.

What you do get on Cockatoo Island is a spacious tent, a couple of far from plump mattresses and some fold up chairs to lounge upon the deck. Water is never far away, meaning that ferry rides are a necessary mode of transport. After exploring some of the fascinating buildings and shipbuilding remnants upon the island, you can catch a late afternoon ferry towards the city, truly glistening in the sinking sun. Along the way you are reminded that – despite the exclusive homes with private moorings – so much of this waterfront is accessible to all. And while I am sure there are some fancy enclaves for rich people dressed up very smartly, practically anyone can buy a drink down at the Opera Bar and pretend they are a millionaire.

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In hindsight it seems perverse to think we were going to give Sydney a miss on this trip, partly because of the Sydney of M5s and A3s and its procession of diesel haulage and concrete junctions. To bypass is to miss the opportunity for the Sydney of Qantas songs atop harbour bridges. To bathe in its icons and soak in its unashamedly self-satisfied ambience. To sample the transformation as the sun goes down and the illuminations glow. To feast on a delicious dinner that didn’t involve a camp stove or washing up in the dark. And to ride back upon the water, under that bridge, as the skyline of the city lights stretch out onto the horizon and an $89 mansion awaits.

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– – –  Reaching a Zenith in Port Stephens – – –

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Getting out of Sydney the following day was better than expected. But then where does Sydney really end? The Central Coast almost seems an extension of the sprawl of the city, one which proves infuriating when you veer off the main motorway. Places like The Entrance, Toukley, Swansea, Charlestown and – finally – Newcastle blend into one elongated strip of shops, retirement homes, caravan parks, lagoons and exceedingly sandy, exposed (in more than one way) beaches.

Myself underestimating the scale of Australia and its distractions along the way, it wasn’t until late afternoon that Dad and I reached our destination in Port Stephens. And though missing spectacular sunset skies while waiting for fish and chips was symptomatic of the day that had been, the saviour came in Zenith Beach. Wedged underneath the volcanic-shaped mound of Tomaree Head, its fine white sand, foot-soothing water and refreshing air was just the tonic after a day in a car, a day amply washed down by fish and chips in the dark.

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– – –  Shooting for the stars at Hat Head – – –

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A09While memories can be magnified or maligned by multiple visits, there is something special about breaking new ground. A stop around South West Rocks and Hat Head National Park provided many highlights, one of them being that this was new territory for me, Dad and the car. We all quite liked the drive alongside the Macleay River, with its green watery pastures, tiny weatherboard towns and cowbirds. We all liked a lot less the potholes around the national park campground by the beach. We were fond of the lighthouse and its views, but not so keen to traverse a rough track to some mythical walking trail. Still, if we hadn’t switched to a different walk we might have missed the sun going down. Everything works out for the best in the end.

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With the sun vanquished, cooking by torchlight is not the easiest experience in the world but when it’s a simple one pot taco feast the satisfaction is all the greater. Following such sumptuousness at home there’s a fair chance we would lounge back, probably unhitch the belt a notch and – depending on context – watch His Royal Highness Danny Dyer whack some bleedin’ tool good and proper in Eastenders. In a rustic camp with a pit toilet and little else, entertainment is on an altogether more monumental scale. Look at the stars, look how they shine for you.

A12The beach is pitch black barring the beam of light circling upon the lighthouse. The sound of waves suggest ocean somewhere vaguely nearby, a roar magnified without any other disturbance at night. The sea breeze is cooling and evaporative, seemingly keeping the blood-sucking bugs at bay. The fine sand sustains a tripod and the sky offers an infinite, ever-expanding canvas. The photos may not have turned out brilliant, but the shared experience, the learning, the new adventure was. I daresay it was even better than Eastenders. And on that bombshell, bom, bom, bom, bom-bu-bu-bu-bum.

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Take a train, take a photo

In the space of an hour I crossed from France to Switzerland to France to Switzerland again. It would’ve been shorter if it weren’t for the fact that Switzerland obscures the presence of France, and France fails to advertise its presence at all. With our hire car eventually returned in a space smaller than – well – a hire car and the assistants nonchalantly watching with a shrug and a keen eye for scratches, it clearly felt like France. Then efficiently down an escalator Dad and I re-entered Switzerland, which was doing its best to imitate France.

Faring Dad well in the tobacco-scented chaos, my train left a minute or two late from Geneva Airport into the city, where I met up with Caroline and encountered more scandalous mayhem queuing for a train ticket. Onwards to Lausanne, where our train was one of only a handful not encountering a delay of five minutes or so. Heads will roll for this, I thought. Perhaps this French-speaking corner of Switzerland is attempting to be more like La Republique, I mused. But with no Orangina.

Michael Portillo would have been as pleased as pink pants to find that the trains were running like clockwork the following day. A good job too as we took eight train journeys (and missed a ferry, oops) to maximise rail pass value and soak up an array of succulent Swiss scenery. The kind of scenery where cows chew happily away to produce creamy chocolate and flavoursome cheese, luring visitors to revel in a pleasant cliché or two.

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swiss02Indeed, many visitors were lured by the smells of the Cailler chocolate factory in Broc; so much so that we skipped the long wait times and went straight to the chocolate tasting (i.e. shop) instead. One bar later we were getting off the train in Gruyeres, straight opposite the fromage factory and down below the castled old town. Undeniably cheesy with a touch of theme park, it is nonetheless a fine spot in which to amble and eat a random picnic from the Coop.

For me, the fifth, sixth and seventh train journeys of the day broke new ground, shifting south from Gruyeres through a scenic valley to the main street of Montbovon. From here, train number six was as delightful as a lime green blazer and yellow trouser combo. Outside, the landscape became increasingly mountainous, idyllically scattered with wooden chalets bathed in baskets of red geranium. Inside, the train was a treasure of wood panelling, art deco lamps and antiquated buffet service. At some point, somewhere, everything became Germanic. Guten tag Gstaad.

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Forty minutes in Gstaad was enough to gauge that this was another kind of Gruyeres, the Swiss theme park of gold bullion, creative offshore accounting and thousand dollar sunglasses. There were few cuckoo clocks in sight and even the vending machine at the station offered gourmet meats and diamond-encrusted olives pooped out by a rare Tuscan unicorn which belongs to Her Majesty. The supermarket water was cheap enough though and – I’m sure with more time and exploration – there would be plenty of opportunities to penetrate beyond the slightly false exterior and into nature.

swiss04Retracing some of the route back into the French speaking side of Switzerland, train seven rolled and lulled its way to snoozeville, climbing up through a hole in the rock to emerge way above Lake Geneva. The descent was disorienting as the lake shifted from left to right and eventually lapped at the foot of Montreux. What better way to stretch the legs than to walk along the lake shore in the early evening sunshine, ambling towards a Legoland castle jutting out into the water?

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Turns out it was a magical castle that disappears from view only to re-emerge further in the distance the closer you get to it. It may have been a mirage or a hallucinogenic vision created by too much train travel and ice cream. Michael Portillo would’ve had a private boat tour in some reconditioned U-boat; by time we reached the Chateau de Chillon, we missed our ferry back. Oops. Train number eight it is then.

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swiss06Following an epic day cruising the rails of eastern Switzerland, the next day – Sunday – proved a quieter affair. I mean, it did start with a train, the Lausanne metro transporting us to a dormant university campus and close to more lakeside ambles. Lausanne was emerging to life in its dog walkers and cyclists and rowers and barbecue in the park chefs. It was still rather quiet, in a Canberra-like kind of state.

The parkland serenity of Lausanne was in stark contrast to the triathlon taking place on the streets, an event that seemed to go on for like forever. It was still finishing up after another walk from the edge of the Lavaux vine terraces back into the city. Ice cream and midges accompanied the stroll past small parks, gravelly bays and waterfront homes. More people were out and about this afternoon, topping up tans and a healthy constitution. And still the triathletes finished, not at all concerned about being drug-tested as they sauntered past IOC HQ.

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Lausanne proved a good base to spend a few days in Switzerland and I am sure it could offer an agreeable life. There’s probably more to see and more that can be done (just ask our AirBnB host!) but, crucially, did it pass the ‘I could live here test?’ Well, probably…like if you were placed here for work or study or something. There could be far worse spots in which to dwell, even if you don’t like trains or triathlons.

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After vaguely bestowing some half-arsed compliments to a city that I spent a few days in (hey, this is rigorous Lonely Planet stuff here), Monday was an opportunity to get out of said city and use up our other all-inclusive travel day. Just the three trains and three ferries but these proved more than enough to recover the rail pass expenditure two-fold.

swiss08The trip from Montreux up to Rochers-de-Naye would cost an arm and a leg in itself. Better than cramp and a heart attack that would be the inevitable result of trying to make this journey on foot. Old and old at heart alike were more than happy to board the open air carriages, passing the raffish suburbs of Higher Montreux, up through clusters of chalets and expensive hotel restaurants commanding views of the lake, into pine forest under deep blue skies and out into open meadows way up high. At around two thousand metres in height, panoramas of Switzerland and France abound.

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There are plenty of opportunities to take a photo of the approaching train as you wait upon the platform for the ride down. A ride down that pauses somewhere and you see a couple of friends from Canberra on the other train going up! An occurrence almost as random, as bizarre as the Nolan sisters ordering spaghetti bolognaise and chips at a swanky hotel nearby.

Swank is in the air in Montreux, which is a pleasing-on-the-eye, sun-kissed kind of affair seemingly designed for lakeside promenading (as opposed to scrambling frantically for a ferry near a mysteriously disappearing chateau). Today, there was no major rush for our next connection, with time just about right to eat the world’s most expensive bagel and soak up a little of the shoreline ambience. And then, having covered every piece of rail in the area, it was only fitting that we should now take to the water.

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The ride on the lake to Lausanne offered an alternately sunny and hot or shady and cool experience in which to marvel at the mountains, to peer up and pick out the bulbous summit of Rochers-de-Naye, and to appreciate the tumbling green steps of the Lavaux. At Lausanne, an efficient interchange swept us, alongside the omnipresent youngsters of the Wessex Youth Orchestra, on board to a ferry to cross over to Evian, and back again into France.

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Evian was more charming than I remember from my one previous visit here. There was great ice cream, crepes and Orangina-au-wasp, pretty shops and houses, a Carrefour full of oddments, little in the way of French litter and dog poop, and – of course – a tap pumping out free water from an ornate unicorn’s mouth or something. Here, an amalgam of curious tourists and mischievous restaurateurs gathered to fill bottles, supping on cool refreshing water that tasted just like water.

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There’s also a free, old-fashioned funicular in Evian and on this trip there was no way we were going to miss out on such a thing! The Wessex Youth Orchestra were also keen; if only they had brought their instruments along we could have had a jaunty rendition of Climb Every Mountain and even less air in which to breathe. They then followed us to an overlook and we buddied up again on the way back down. Key take outs were that not all yoof are horrendous, I don’t miss the awkwardness of those years, thank god we didn’t have phones and social media when I was their age, and where the hell is Wessex anyway?

As the orchestra diminuendoed their way back across to Switzerland we lingered for dinner and a later sailing that coincided with dusk. Leaving France for the fourth time, it was rather sedate and beautiful: the triple-pronged peaks of an Evian bottle fading in the sky, the lights twinkling on around the shore, the calm of the water interrupted by birds and the chop of the ferry. The scene like an ending from some movie, or perhaps the closing credits of a Great Continental railway, bus, funicular, cog train, metro, foot and ferry journey.

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