Do you remember the time when you could leave footprints in the sand to melt away with the tide? Or take walks within forests as the sun scatters golden through a canopy of spotted gum? Can you recall when you could linger on a bench to feast on deep fried fruits of the sea? And what about that period when Australia really was the place to be?
I do, but it feels a long time ago, even though it was little over a month. With opportunity and freedom I had journeyed to the coast, cognisant of wintry weather in Canberra and the pervasive feeling that you might not be able to do this again. For a while.
I had found a quiet kind of place to stay in North Durras. The kind of place you might hunker down to see out a pandemic. A place where the biggest drama at this point in time was the wind, though where small reminders of far more disastrous natural events stir the mind. The wind quelled the temperature and whipped up sandy frenzy, but it was still an improvement on Canberra. And an invigorating reminder of the power of nature.
Not that I was thanking the wind when the power went down, just as I was about to settle into an evening escaping on a tour around France. I had to read and that felt like hard work when you really just want to lounge as lazily as possible. Thank goodness for the lights coming back on and the Col de Tourmalet.
Around North Durras I made friends with some King Parrots and Kangaroos, explored the sands and forests, and found my way wandering along the waterways as they infiltrate inland. Always across the channel, signs of South Durras peeked above the scrub and I wondered if there was a strong rivalry between the two. The South were probably boastful of having a shop while the North derided snooty Canberra-by-Sea.
Just for a while I had to remove myself from such unlikely drama. It was Saturday morning, and I was hoping for that perfect combination of sheltered sunshine and oceanside coffee strolling. I aimed for Bawley Point, noting some positive signs in my research: small bays protected from the south-easterly; a coffee caravan on a headland with a strong showing on TripAdvisor; Canberra-by-Sea.
At least the bays were sublime.
For some reason, the thought crossed my mind that Barry Cassidy had a holiday home in Bawley Point and hung out with Mike Bowers while Heather was off on some back road cracking a horse whip with Old Reggie Mundoon of Canowindra. This will mean nothing to any English readers, and most Australians too. Anyway, I think I remember this because Mike posted a picture of plumes of smoke from Bazza’s ample deck around the Christmas of 2019.
I could’ve watched Barry’s successors waffle on about ineptitude and continue to needlessly debate the pros and cons of lockdowns on the ABC on Sunday morning. But why do that when I can just take a few steps from my cabin and expose myself to a world of beautiful calm. From the abundant forest full of melodies to the glassy clear water stretching across to the south. No wind and a beaming radiance to lift the soul.
This would be a fine place to ride out a pandemic, though it could handle a decent café otherwise I may not survive. To ensure an improvement on the day before I left North Durras and drove south to Mossy Point, where there is a reliable spot for coffee. And a raspberry and white chocolate muffin. Just because.
The day was continuing to sparkle, and I was in no rush to head back home. With hardly a breath of wind it would’ve been the perfect day for a bike ride. Perhaps heading from Moruya along the river and out through pasture towards the ocean at Moruya Heads. You could pack some lunch and eat it in a sheltered bay, glistening under warm sunshine. Good job I packed my bike and prized $16 bike rack.
Doesn’t it look nice?
There was a beach at Moruya Heads – Shelly Beach – that offered the kind of nirvana that would prove an entirely effective crescendo to a piece of writing. The very essence of what I was seeking on this little break to the south coast of New South Wales in winter. Comfort, delight, beauty, and a quiet spot to sit in a T-shirt. I could have gone full shorts, but none were packed.
An ice cream would’ve hit the spot too, but I had to cycle back to Moruya – including over what felt like a mini Tourmalet – and then drive a fifty kilometre round trip. I mean, I didn’t have to take a fifty kilometre round trip but no, really I did. I’d done fish and chips, I’d done coffee by the sea and now I needed a double shot of Bodalla Dairy.
Another moment to treasure, to add to the bank of dream times to remember. And to look forward to when they are there to spoil us again.
I had entered the point of no return. Doors closing behind me, confronted by a depleted selection of pre-cooked yellow food. A smoky, greasy vapour emanated from behind the counter. Around one of the square Formica tables, a trio of young people huddled around a carton of chips.
I had rolled into Injune desperate for a pick-me-up to push me on to the end of the road. For coffee this was the last outpost. And like a rabbit in headlights I was now captive. I had to order. Miraculously, I spotted a handwritten note on one of those fluorescent orange stars. Iced latte for $5.50. Coffee, ice, and milk which surely wouldn’t turn into a complete hash. Relief. A safer proposition than the risk of first degree burns.
Happily – should you find yourself in the situation – you’ll find iced latte and a pack of 39 cent custard creams from Aldi a winning combination on the Carnarvon Highway between Injune and Rolleston. It propels you into a more interesting landscape with plateaus rising up to the east and west. The road, finally, allows a speed limit of 110kph. And then you turn off, to fulfil a few goals and dreams.
I remember when Carnarvon National Park first piqued my interest. It was in a Qantas magazine, back when flying was more of a thing. I was probably on the last plane out of Sydney after some stupid meeting, feasting on two crackers and a vomit-coloured dip. A double-page photograph of intricately textured sandstone, a dark narrow fissure, vibrant green ferns, and the dizzying perspective provided by a human figure felt a long way away.
It’s a credit to that Qantas magazine that they managed to condense Carnarvon National Park into a few glossy pages. It’s also a credit to the professional photographers who managed to fit it all in. The vast, monotone plains in the surrounding landscape truly situate this as an oasis. The solitude required to get there leads to stimulus galore.
Hyper-stimulation first emerges a few kilometres outside the park. People and Hiluxes amass, caravans are adorned with satellite dishes, trailers, awnings and everything including the kitchen sink. There may even be – in the middle of Queensland – a large boat or two. Instantly I know this is not my type of campground. But there is little other choice and I set up home for two nights, conscious of beady eyes judging my unfolding canvas.
Many of the people I talk to are here for a week, maybe two. They can afford to spend whole days sitting in a fold-up chair playing candy crush. I have one complete day to head into the gorge, go as far as I can, and turn back again. One whole day that is immense in so many ways.
My phone tells me it was a 41,397 step kind of day, taking me along 29.1 kilometres. It was a day that started around six in the morning, when I parked up near the visitor centre. There was an orderly-looking campground here but for some reason it is only open during school holidays. Still, I took advantage of one of the many tables to make a cuppa and eat some breakfast, free from the guilt of disturbing the old folk getting their beauty sleep.
The walk starts with a sign of things to come: a crossing of Carnarvon Creek via a series of stepping stones. The first crossing is easy, reassuring everyone who finds themselves on this path to strike out further into the wilderness. Others later on require a bit more planning and a touch of blind faith. But don’t let this put you off. Just grab a big stick and think of the reward.
The gorge is said to extend for 30 kilometres, but the day walk goes as far as Big Bend, where there is a carry-in campground for those intrepid enough to explore further. Along the way, nature has created a series of incredible rock features, shady pools, and slot canyons, while original inhabitants have left their own mark. It is these spectacles – reached via shortish detours from the main trail – that create a natural itinerary to the walk, numbered like stops on a coach tour. Only here, self-propulsion is the required vehicle, and the only souvenir stands are those that assemble within your mind. And do they sure etch their way into it…
Reaching the first stop seems to take forever, but I think that comes down to an eagerness to get there. It’s akin to sitting in the back of the car as a child, heading for a day at the beach. The side track also requires a little creek crossing and climbing of steps, penetrating into a small, fern-filled gully.
What can I say about the Moss Garden? It’s mossy and moist, fed by a narrow creek spilling into several clear pools. It’s the kind of garden that might be constructed at some expense in a billionaire megalomaniac’s estate, funded by worker exploitation and home shopping. Or constructed in the airport of some oil rich emirate to show off to the world. But nothing contrived here, just thousands and thousands of years of nature. Water, rock, vegetation. Gathering in blissful harmony.
If the Moss Garden was beautiful in a serene kind of way, the Amphitheatre is, fittingly, all head-shaking drama. I think this is the setting for that double-page spread in the Qantas magazine many years back and you would need to be a professional photographer with a mega-wide angle lens and tripod and hours of patience waiting for the right light to come anywhere close to evoking the feeling of being in this place.
At first, you wouldn’t expect much. Nothing to see here. But walking towards giant luminous sandstone walls you notice a small doorway at their foot. And a series of metal steps up to the entrance. It is a crack perhaps little more than a metre, a corridor into a cavernous courtyard of wonder. Above, a small window to the sky, afoot a delicate display of vibrant ferns. It cries out for a massive “COOEE!” but somehow feels too reverential for that. A handful of people, myself included, just sit and soak it all in.
The National Gallery of Australia is much more accessible and has a better café than the Art Gallery in Carnarvon Gorge. But you won’t find a 62 metre natural sandstone wall featuring over 2,000 engravings, ochre stencils, and free-hand paintings. The stencilling is considered to be some of the finest and most-sophisticated of its kind in their world.
This sacred spot serves a reminder that this is the land of the Bidjara and Karingbal People, and you are lucky enough to be here for a fleeting moment in time.
Many people culminate their walk at the Art Gallery fulfilled, turning around and heading back home for an afternoon rest. The next stop up the gorge is four kilometres distant, and the track grading increases a notch on the scale. There are more stones to traverse and one creek crossing in particular requires a degree in trigonometry and dose of good fortune.
I’m glad I pushed on though, for this section is perhaps the most scenic. The main trail sticks closer to the rocky course of Carnarvon Creek, and sheer-sided multicoloured outcrops begin to press in on both sides. Palms and ferns and eucalyptus gather in the valley, nurturing colourful butterfly and chirpy birds, while emerald pools attract fast-moving dragonfly.
As a destination, Cathedral Cave undoubtedly has a spiritual quality, hosting further displays of Aboriginal art. It also possesses that echoey ambience formed from the hollow of a massive rock overhang. A chamber of secrets. Peaceful and shady, the benches situated opposite the walls encourage lingering. A rest before the return journey.
But don’t turn around! After Cathedral Cave, it’s a kilometre or so on to the end of the trail at Big Bend, but I neither had the energy nor the desire to visit a camping area. Just 200 metres on from Cathedral Cave, however, another dry creek cuts in from the west. At first, it’s nothing special, just an unending collection of large pebbles that make walking a little more taxing. But pursue further and you enter Boowinda Gorge.
This I found the most staggering spectacle of the day. I can’t really explain. Nature has formed something that engineering genius and billions of dollars would struggle to replicate. Curving walls, pebble paths, ferns and trees flourishing where chinks of light again emerge. And I had it all to myself.
I’m all for saving the best to last, especially when it comes to roast dinners. But what goes up must come down and, as much as I tried to conjure up a helicopter taxi from Big Bend, the return journey needed to be undertaken. On the plus side, things were still incredibly scenic the second time around, stepping stone confidence was sky-high, and I had a few Aldi custard creams to perk me up when needed.
There was also Wards Canyon, one of the stops between the Amphitheatre and Art Gallery which I had saved for the journey home. As lovely as this was – think more small cascades and rocky walled gullies – I can’t help but think my impression was overshadowed by weariness and the wonders that had gone before. It also took a bit of a climb and used up the last custard cream.
To get back to the car, I started to concentrate more on the little things. Some of the butterflies that would never settle. The blur of small birds flitting between shrubs. The red and blue dragonflies hovering above water. The people passing me by, saying G’day and inquiring just how much further it was to so and so. Push on, I encouraged, and don’t miss Boowinda Gorge.
In all honesty though, the last hour turned into a bit of a drag. There were a surprising number of steps and undulations that I didn’t notice in my excited state on the way out. The light was now brighter, the heat of the day well and truly upon us. Creek crossings were less an adventure, more a chore. My feet hurt.
Towards the end I was pretty much walking at the same pace as a man a hundred metres in front of me. It came as no great surprise when he let out a thank feck kind of “yahoo” upon sighting the visitor centre. I didn’t need empathy training to totally get it.
And so my walk in Carnarvon Gorge, years in the making, had reached its conclusion. I felt happy and fulfilled and in desperate need of a shower, cup of tea, slice of Christmas cake and a nap. Unfortunately, Takarakka ‘Bush Resort’ had other ideas. I returned to find I had neighbours, sat outside their caravan under the awning, playing candy crush and listening to the radio. Other neighbours were setting up with a clink of a camp kitchen here and a thud of a mallet there. Four-by-fours rocked up every few minutes, engines idling as they checked in at reception. The shower, tea and cake were divine. The nap non-existent.
At least I slept well that night. Very well, for tenting. Still, I was awake before sunrise so made a bit of noise and headed up a track to a nearby hill. A few other people were there, including a dad with a wide-awake baby and a couple of what I would say are younger boomers. The sunrise was – fleetingly – dramatic, while the younger boomers were lovely.
We chatted for a good while. They had arrived yesterday and were staying for a week. I was off to 1770 today. I passed on my tips and wished them a wonderful stay. They wished me well for my big bike ride. We parted, me feeling a little more favourable towards caravanning boomers, and them possibly thinking he is never going to manage that bike ride. Maybe.
Keen to get moving, and also keen to avoid the amenities block that was always dirty whenever I had to use it, I passed up the opportunity of a shower and hit the road. Yet instead of turning left, back to the highway, I veered right. I had come so far and something was bugging me. This had been years in the making, and when would I ever be here again?
When I arrived in Carnarvon National Park on Tuesday afternoon, I used the last of the daylight to explore a short walking trail along Mickey Creek. It was a simple and – in hindsight – relatively undramatic stroll. But that is only until the formed trail ends.
A bag left on a rock signalled I wouldn’t be the only one transitioning from a gentle amble to a rock-hopping adventure. Beyond the stones and the ferns, an entrance led into a narrowing gap. Walls closing in, the sound of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ travelling down the chasm encouraged further exploration.
There was only really one spot that was a little challenging – in that I might get my feet wet. But I could do it. And so could my sunrise friends who I met again on the way out. So much better than just sitting outside your caravan playing candy crush. We both agreed, and I felt envious of the wondrous discoveries that still awaited them.
Farewell friends, and farewell finally this most magnificent oasis.
That could have been a good ending, but the road never ends. Neither does this blog post but all I can say if you are labouring is just imagine living and breathing it as opposed to a mere skim-read in your PJs.
After endeavours at Carnarvon, I planned a bit of R&R on the Queensland coast, 550km away. Worryingly I was desperate for a coffee by time I reached Rolleston, only a hundred clicks in. Even more worryingly, Rolleston didn’t look up to much. But beside the public toilets in a park, a cute caravan had popped up selling coffee and a few light snacks. The owner was charming and chatty, and I really really really wanted her coffee to be good. But scalding hot country ways are always difficult to cast off.
There is little to note between Rolleston and Biloela. The road, almost arrow straight, offers frequent car stopping bays and I realise these are essentially unofficial toilet stops as I recycle my coffee in a hedge. The highlight of this section of the road should really be the town of Banana, in Banana Shire. Yet, there is no comedy sized fibro banana or Banana World Theme Park incorporating Mango Village. A large sign erected for losers like me actually informs the world that Banana was named after a big bullock. Surrounded by coalfields, this is peak QLD.
Sadly, the only thing I knew of Biloela was the Australian Government’s really tough posturing to lock up a couple with two young children who were seeking asylum here. They now sit festering on an offshore island. The #hometobilo movement made me feel warm towards Biloela. The family in question had become part of the community, and the community part of them. They simply want their community back.
I didn’t find out much more about Biloela in my brief stop there. It didn’t seem the most appealing place, but then it is far more appealing than – say – a war zone or dictatorship inclined to ethnic-cleansing. Petrol was cheaper here, and I was surprised at the quality of coffee and a slice from the bakery – this is more like it. Road trip essentials.
Almost as Australian-sounding as locking up dark-skinned people seeking protection is the Bruce Highway. For me, it was a bit of a milestone, a sign that I had reached the Queensland coast. But like most highways along the east coast, the ocean is still miles away. And, hitting the highway south of Gladstone, the Towns of Agnes Water and Seventeen-Seventy were still 90 minutes away.
A sign that I was pretty much over the drive came when I didn’t even stop for a ‘big crab’ at Miriam Vale. It wasn’t that big, looking more like an elaborate shop sign than anything. And I don’t really like crab, stemming I think from my brother taunting me with crab claws as a kid. The same can be said for peanut butter, but I did at least stab his hand with a fork when he tried to steal some of my chips.
1770 clearly stands out from the crowd just by being a number. That was some good marketing by Lieutenant Cook and Joe Banks when they decided to make their second stop in Australia at this spot; I think Joe had seen some plants that took his fancy. If you look on the map, you will see a marker for the 1770 toilets, which you can only hope have been updated since they visited.
Confusingly 1770 has the postcode of 4667. So – in a remarkable turnaround for Australian abbreviation – it is often spelled out as Seventeen-Seventy. It also typically gets lumped together with its southern neighbour, Agnes Water. And I was staying on a campground between the two. Let me tell you the joy of driving past tents and awnings and trailers to take up home in a cabin with a double bed and kitchen and bathroom. The closest I will ever get to feeling all North Shore Sydney.
And so, with good rest, I had a lovely day in the Towns of Agnes Water and Seventeen-Seventy. In preparation for what is to come, I decided to explore it by bike. There were beaches and lookouts and a lovely coffee in some lovely gardens, embellished with sweet baklava. It was the best coffee in a long while, a clear indication this is a coastal location on the up.
Beyond the coffee stop, I was delighted by the Paperbark Forest Boardwalk. It wasn’t especially long but well worth the additional cycle up a small incline. Among the stands of paperbark, butterflies frequently floated and birds sang with joy. A nice way to get off the two wheels and stretch the legs.
Being beside the coast I had long targeted fish and chips during my stay here, which I gorged on beside the water on the wharf in 1770. Gorging again. The downside to this was that it required an uphill climb back to my cabin and a post-lunch nap. Later in the day, I returned to 1770 by car, and walked out to the headland, hopeful, like many others, that sundown would put on a decent show.
Now Saturday morning, I had been travelling for little over a week. I’d be leaving the ocean today and in memory of this I felt that getting a takeaway coffee first thing and sipping it on the beach would be a perfect moment. Situated next to a waterfront campground, the coffee took an age but when it came it was everything I had hoped for. Order and civilisation were being restored.
And so, next up Caloundra and then the Brisbane Valley Rail Trail. Heading south, I briefly paused in Bundaberg, picking up some provisions and a gift for my cycling buddy, Jason. Never would a $16 bike rack from Kmart prove so popular.
My final stop was in Childers, one last pause before hitting the elongated development of the Sunshine Coast. I had arrived, it would seem, in a town of coffee extremism. Ten minutes out of town, billboards implored me to stop at The Drunk Bean or Insane Caffeine. Nine hundred kilometres after Injune, the sound of coffee insanity appealed. It had largely been madness the whole way.
There is much comedic value in a torn pair of pantaloons. I’m sure for the wallabies it was simply poetic justice. Why detour many miles when you can simply climb a locked gate? And catch your shorts and rip them apart and walk back to your car desperate not to bump into anyone and feel the need to explain to them that you were just spying on the sex lives of wallabies. Pouch empty you say?
I will not elaborate further, other than to say the consequences of these misdemeanours included spending a Sunday lunchtime trying not to overhear the intricate details of random strangers (gammy ankles, shingles, a scratchy throat but not been tested), receiving a shot in the arm that isn’t actually the one I really, really want, and making a late dash to the coast at four in the afternoon.
With inclement weather it was always going to be a last minute affair and my procrastination barometer finally tipped over the edge when it stopped raining and I saw that Tuross Boatshed would be one of the few fish and chip outlets open on a Monday. And thus I dashed through Bungendore, whizzed through Braidwood, shot through Batemans Bay, paused briefly in Moruya, and almost sped past the turn off for Brou Lake. I am now rather pleased I spent $700 fixing my brakes.
Among the beautiful spotted gums betwixt ocean and lake, a national park campground offered the kind of real estate that only someone juiced up on old school superannuation perks and franking credits could dream of. A few of them were here, I figure, sheltering within cavernous COVID-safe caravans and gathering to compare fishing spots. I had the option of sleep in a twenty year old Subaru Outback with shining brake discs or a $200 tent.
Cognisant of time and the fading light, the mattress in the back would have been a reasonable option, especially as I was keen to get some exercise while I could still see. But a home among the gum trees just looked so appealing. Plus I had an ‘instant’ tent after all. And so, as an orange glow finally emerged on the western horizon through the trees, the final peg slid into leafy, yielding ground.
After a stroll and video call 12,000 miles away on the beach, it was pitch black by time I returned for dinner. Fortunately, I had foraged in Moruya Woolworths for a simple gourmet affair of reduced price potato, egg and bacon salad, some leafy lettuce, and a nutritious pack of mini cabanossi. Yes, it was so good even the local possums gathered around the car.
I also had some wine, which may have contributed to the amazing-for-camping feat of falling asleep almost instantaneously. This would have been worthy of celebration if I hadn’t woken around 1am and stayed awake to the sound of the sea for another couple of hours. Oceanside real estate is so overrated.
Of course, you can forgive the incessant roaring truck of an ocean when you wake after a few more hours to stumble upon the sand. With everyone else still snoring away, it’s just you and the pounding surf patiently waiting for the sun to rise. Things are surprisingly chilly and you’re glad you went for the camp style classic hoodie under fleece mismatch. In the cold, the sun seems to take forever to emerge, obscured by that perpetual band of cloud on the distant horizon. Even the birds are starting to get tetchy. But then, all is forgiven again.
They are a fleeting five minutes when – paradoxically – the world seems to stand still. When the land and sea and sky glow amber as one. When nature briefly pauses to take it all in and say thank you. Before getting on with business.
With the sun now higher in the sky I arrive in Dalmeny and endeavour to spin at something a bit lower than 1,600 km/h. More like 8, by time I dawdle and pause at bays and clifftops along the coastal path towards Narooma. I decided to throw my bike in the back of the car and now I am rather glad I did. The path is consistently gorgeous and the weather now mild with only a gentle breeze.
The sandy bays and azure coves appear with as much frequency as old men walking dogs. Dalmeny seems to be full of them this morning, dispatched from getting under the feet of their long-suffering partners. At times they congregate for a chat in the middle of the shared path, seemingly oblivious to the sound of a bell ringing with increasing panic. Startled perhaps at the sight of someone below the age of seventy.
Helpfully for these chaps and others there are little reminders everywhere to ‘scoop a poop’ when out and about with your furry friend. I feel like this was a Kanye West lyric once and – while disturbed – it also makes me feel at least a little younger than the average.
Narooma was a touch more youthful and surprisingly busy for a Monday; I noticed an inordinate number of campervans and caravans and car conversions around Bar Beach. With calm clear waters, pelicans and rays, a boardwalk and a hole in the rock that looks like Australia just across the mouth of the inlet, it has everything going for #vanlife. Apart from much being open on a Monday.
Still, the cycle path continues into town along the quite wonderful Mill Bay boardwalk. There is a pleasing rattle of wheel on wood as you pass over the water, distracted by boats and crabs and fisherfolk. Across the bridge spanning Wagonga Inlet, a café that is actually open proves a milestone of sorts. All that is left is to drink up, turn around and do it all again.
The natural course of events would have resulted in a muffin or caramel slice with coffee in Narooma, but with nothing jumping out and saying “Eat Me” I was content to reserve space for other things. I had, after all, been propelled down this way with thoughts of crispy, salty, fishy batter upon the shores of Tuross Lake. Not that this would have been my first choice but – you guessed it – waterside options in Narooma were closed.
Back in the car, I bypassed the campground and made straight for Tuross, enjoying a long stretch of roadwork along the way. The slower trundle made for observations not normally captured at a hundred kilometres an hour: over Stony Creek, into Bodalla, past the turn off for Potato Point. Here, a sign for a very big and not that bad kind of shop caught my attention. Partly the fact that I had been uttering Potato Point in an Irish lilt for the last five minutes made this feel distinctly Father Ted.
It seems you’re never too far from something a bit odd driving through this craggy island of Australia and perhaps the concentrated parameters of COVID travel have placed such oddities into greater focus. I would never, for instance, usually stop to appreciate a replica pink plane crashing into the ground next to a service station. Nor would I even usually consider buying the sadly defunct and derelict Big Cheese complex in Bodalla. Okay, I lie. It is the ultimate dream.
For now, foodstuffs other than cheese were on my mind and all roads point to potatoes, with fish. The Boatshed at Tuross Lake appears the epitome of the general affluence and good fortune that is Australia. Perched on the water under a big blue sky, boats pull up for a six pack of salt and pepper squid. Mature age cyclists signal their arrival with too-tight clothing and the signature clickety-clack of cleats and soy lattes all round. Spritely retirees discuss the appearance of flathead and mullet while out of the water the fish emerges deep-fried and without any malt vinegar. This is – almost – the life.
While most depart lunch for ample homes with double garages and soft beige décor, I still had a tent standing. For this I was rather glad, not only banishing any lingering damp but offering a cocoon in which to briefly nap. Lolling off to the birds and ocean never felt so relaxing. This is – perhaps – the life.
Refreshed I packed up the tent in impressive time, keen to squeeze in one last thing before returning to a more permanent home. Make that two more things. It dawned on me that I hadn’t even set my feet into the sea. Right about now seemed perfect, especially since the ocean is probably at its warmest at this point in the year. The clear salt water soothed toes and ankles and maybe even knees, but mercifully kept shy of my wallaby-induced fence intrusion.
I should have lingered and in hindsight I should definitely have lingered for another ten minutes at least. But that last thing on the agenda was pressing, and I was concerned I would miss out. With each visit it becomes clear to me that the ice cream at Bodalla Dairy is the absolute best in at least the whole of the radius of coronavirus wanderings from Canberra. If not the southern hemisphere. I could taste a little Devon in it, infusing with the Devon in me*.
As she scooped two generous dollops – one coffee and wattle seed, the other hokey-pokey – the lady taking my electronic money gave me a tender, heartfelt “thank you so much.” As if my custom would somehow make the difference, perhaps allowing them to expand into the sadly defunct Big Cheese complex. But as I replied, taking on board the present and the past 24 hours, in spite of ripped shorts and tetanus dead arm, the pleasure was all mine.
* for the benefit of Antipodean acquaintances I should clarify I mean the English county of Devon, rather than the shocking variety of ham. That would be disgusting.
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.
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.
Mostly this week I have been feeling cold. This is through no fault of the weather, which has undoubtedly shifted to something more temperate, more forgiving, more damp. Weather which is playing its part in soothing the horrors of summer, though a touch too excitedly in places. Creating – as I heard one survivor from Mogo on the radio frustratingly put it – a big green cover up.
No, my feeling of chilliness has undoubtedly arisen from human-induced climate change, which is preposterously adding to the – well – accumulation of emissions leading to human-induced climate change. No ifs or buts or false equivalence please. Air-conditioning can be the devil incarnate as well as angel descending.
Why oh why oh why must I feel so cold on a bus to Sydney, in a hotel lobby, in a meeting room, on a plane? Perhaps it is just me and a loopy thyroid, but I wasn’t the only one reaching for a winter coat on the bus. Not that I had a winter coat to draw on; the only long-sleeved apparel being a work shirt to throw over my frigid arms. It was quite the look, especially when I added a cap to minimise heat loss.
An underwhelming sense of fashion continued in Sydney as I ventured out into the Eastern Suburbs. In a turn up for the books so far this year, outside was proving the place to be – around 23 degrees, mostly cloudy, a gentle breeze. Perfect weather for cruising along the Eastern Suburbs Expressway also known as the Bondi to Coogee coast walk.
It’s a decent enough walk to require sustenance, so I strategically commenced in Bondi with a favourite pile of seafood. The beach was fairly busy – as you’d expect on a Sunday in February – but there is enough green space surrounding the bay to get your own little plot of land. Around me, every other person Facetiming to someone a million miles away, absent, distant. Nearby, a scruffy young guy settles down with a guitar, assuming the world near and far wants to be entertained by his derivative Passenger twaddle. It’s time to get moving.
I have completed this walk plenty of times in the past, but not for a few years. Apart from a steady flow of backpackers and tourists still allowed in from Asia, it’s typically traversed somewhat rapidly by idols of athleticism and toned contours unashamedly wearing tight-fitting garments. Who, despite being in the throes of exercise, manage to maintain a pristine, immaculate visage. I have always thought this as an impractical, impeded course for running, but perhaps that’s not the point.
Approaching the glamour of Tamarama, I realise I am wearing a pair of trainers from Big W, shorts that are at least three years old and – I’m pretty sure – a T-shirt discovered in the middle aisle of Aldi. In my cheap rags, multi-million dollar homes surround me, taking in the same view. Likely occupied by people who only know Big W as the name of the racehorse they stable in the Hunter Valley; Aldi is their gardener from Romania, perhaps. I bet they hate us walking by. But we are walking by.
Walking by BronteBeach and around the cemetery, through the cove of Clovelly, up the worse steps to circumnavigate Gordons Bay, and down again into Coogee. An egalitarian scene of Sunday sessions, volleyball, buckets and spades and barbecues. The beach has been in better shape, seemingly plagued by masses of seaweed that are surely something to do with the weird weather and warming seas. By now I finally feel a tad toasty, but ice cream proves the best way to cool back down.
So back it is onto an airconditioned bus, to an airconditioned hotel to prepare for a day in an airconditioned room. I awake snug and keen to get a dose of fresh air – something that has been really rare – before plunging into the human-induced icebox. From my window, a sliver of green nestles in a fold between the heights of Bondi Junction and Bellevue Hill and I walk that way. To a little miracle.
Cooper Park Reserve is an almost hidden oasis within some of the most opulent land in Sydney. Just a few minutes down from six lane expressways and clogged up arterial roads, somehow the sides of the gully shield the world of SUVs and private school drop offs. A dappled rainforest of gurgling water and tree ferns, the fragrant lemon and eucalyptus scent presenting a cleansing experience in the cool early morning. Surprisingly there are few others running and looking immaculate doing so, and I am able to ascend the many steps at the end without too much shame.
In a window distant, the towers of central Sydney loom large, shimmering like temples to the unstoppable commute. For me, it is onto a chilly train, bypassing under this city and out to Parramatta. Where equally chilly tower blocks await. Later, a chilly taxi crawls to the airport, where I am temporarily warmed by a beer with an old friend. We depart for chilly planes home through chillier skies. And, for once, arriving in Canberra there is the greatest relief at disembarking into the balmy evening air of a city getting back to its best.
What started as an unfortunate spectacle – that we thought would probably go away as soon as it came upon us – has settled in Canberra for the summer. There is little anyone can do to not talk about the pervasive smoke that hovers above Christmas prawns and glazed hams. Occasionally it lifts a little, dispelled by a hot northwesterly which only serves to deliver arid desert air from the only direction in which major fires are not burning. Yet. It feels only a matter of time before we are encircled.
This is not a happy Christmas really. The weather outside is indeed frightful. People are growing downbeat and sullen; infuriated and furious. We gather and share and eat fine food and go and watch the Star Wars movie in beautiful air conditioning, and these are necessary distractions. But even in the midst of a lightsabre battle, a smoky essence infiltrates the movie theatre. The ultimate 4D experience. Just give us the Lord Vader breathing masks please.
Making plans is hard to do – what road is closed, which national park on fire, which stretch of tarmac melting? Christmas gatherings cancelled; long circuitous journeys made. Holiday towns on the coast dying under a barrage of emergency warnings and absent visitors.
Even doing simple things like laundry takes strategic planning. Today I got it wrong, and now it is being washed again, content that the hot, dangerous northwesterly has now well and truly kicked in to sizzle it sans woodsmoke flavouring.
Escape is an appealing option, as long as there are still options. Three days before Christmas I looked at flights to the UK. I looked at flights to New Zealand. I looked at flights to Tasmania (where even today it is nudging forty degrees). Cost was extortionate, but then it might reach a point where even that is a burden worth bearing.
Dissuaded for the time being, I tried to make pastry in forty degree heat. I went for walks in the mall. Just because. In between I monitored the weather forecasts and wind directions and air quality readings and areas of land not on fire. I looked at campgrounds that might not be full and which might be safe. And I finally glimpsed a small window of opportunity to escape, to clear the air…
Boxing Day and the atmosphere at the MCG was bubbling up nicely, accompanying me on the radio as I drove south towards Cooma. With the Kings Highway to the coast closed this is proving a major alternative route. As a consequence, the main sights of Cooma – McDonalds and KFC – were overflowing. Around the corner, ALDI was quieter, and I picked up an obligatory half price Christmas pudding. Probably for winter if such a thing still exists.
Between Cooma and Bombala the drive is spectacularly bleak as it traverses the Monaro Plains. It is for all intents and purposes, desert at the moment. Not exactly pretty to look at, but with the smoke haze thinning a touch, at least it was something to look at.
And then, through Bombala and into South East Forests National Park, there was something resembling freshness. Blue sky. Green. Giant trees untainted by fire. A campground almost deserted, the camp guardian a spirited Kookaburra feeding its young. A sense of wonder and relief that this is all still actually possible. Breathe.
It remained quite hot to be sure, and on a walk around nearby Myanba Gorge there were plenty of flies as usual just to remind you that summer in Australia is actually a bit shit. The riverbed shaping the gorge was bone dry and surely it was only a matter of time before I would turn a corner and step on a deadly snake or something. But no, a dog and its two owners were the only things to greet me, in between the flies in my eyes.
What I did find turning that final corner was a sight the likes of which I have seen a thousand times before in Australia, but which appears all the more precious today. A deep valley of eucalyptus sweeping down towards the coast. The cries of a couple of black cockatoos surveying their terrain. And a clear blue sky – perhaps more pastel than is normal – but true blue nonetheless.
The night passed with another rarity – feeling cold. Even a few days later it seems surreal to think I was shivering a little until I finally succumbed to using a sleeping bag in the correct manner.
The freshness of morning was greeted by a 5am cacophony of hundreds of birds, which was a marked improvement on the 2am hoonage taking place on some of the nearby forest roads. Sleep was a luxury and I was reminded how the concept of camping may be more appealing than the reality. But then it was on the journey to the long drop that I felt at one with the world, enamoured by its natural grace and beauty, a feeling you never get in a Best Western.
With the promise of another smoky scorcher back in Canberra I was in no hurry to rush back. I carried on south, across the border into Victoria on what was a beautiful drive towards Cann River. This is a corner of the land boasting tremendous old growth forests cloaking rugged, untrammelled peaks. Driving along sweeping curves under a dappled canopy, it’s all shafts of sunlight falling upon giant ferns. Keep eyes on road.
This region – East Gippsland – is sparsely populated and only has a few access points to the coast, through the gorgeously pristine Croajingalong National Park. Camping in the park is popular over Christmas and I had no chance. But at Cann River itself, a free campground was available in which to set up at ten in the morning. And it came alongside a short walk through woodland that in places reminded me of somewhere in England, such were the treasured patches of greenery.
With plenty of time up my sleeve and following a bit of a mid-morning doze under a tree, I explored the coastal area down around Cape Conran and Marlo. Both were fairly busy, with Cape Conran again bursting with campers who had – at that time – won the holiday lottery. It was so good to be beside the seaside, especially as a cool southeasterly was emanating off the water to offer joyous relief. This was probably the freshest air I had experienced in weeks, if not months.
Marlo is famous as the place where the Snowy River meets the sea. It’s probably the main thing it has going for it, but they certainly do well with what they have. Several lookouts and a sensibly plotted estuary trail allow you to follow the waters as they congregate into a series of shallows and lagoons before inching out into the ocean. It’s definitely worth a nosey, followed by possibly one other thing Marlo has going for it: ice cream. Thank you very much.
Memories of ice cream lingered as I drove inland slightly towards Orbost, where several dairies were testament to what is generally a verdant, rain-blessed corner of Australia (the cream and yogurt from Gippsland Dairy is to be recommended!). But even here it looks dry, a burnished beige more than a pea green. In the distance, beyond Orbost, inevitably, the bushfires burn uncontained and out of control.
I remember Orbost quite fondly from the only other time I was here in 2013, mainly because I found a bakery that served something akin to a Paris-Brest. It’s not really what you expect but my memory of this raised expectations beyond what I should have expected. I was looking to pick up some supplies for dinner, which I managed but not to the standard I had expected. The result was a very Christmas meze of leftover ham, sausage rolls, cheese and a couple of salads. How I craved a hot meal! Oh well, there is always tomorrow.
Tomorrow was the time to pack up and head back to Canberra, partly because I wanted to sleep in my own bed but also because the heat was due to spread its ferocious finger down into Gippsland. As if on cue, there was a hint of smoke in the air on an early stop to amble along a rainforest walk with a coffee and mince pie in hand. And then, crossing the border again towards Eden, visibility was once more replaced by viscosity.
This had thrown my good intentions to do a decent walk in Ben Boyd National Park as a means of justifying fish and chips for lunch. But, heck, it’s Christmas, what else am I supposed to do? And I was very good and didn’t have chips. Just three of the best potato scallops instead, oops.
The other plan I had was to hopefully laze and have a nap alongside the Pambula River before the three hour drive home. Fortunately, given the long wait for lunch as I battled a billion bogans, a stiff sea breeze had kicked in and the smoke was clearing pretty quickly. On the downside, thunderstorms were brewing slightly to the north. The relaxation necessary to nap wasn’t really possible, and my decision to quit the beach at just about the right time was sound. Not before getting a little wet.
Rain! It all felt a bit peculiar. A strange sensation to be fleeing and sheltering from something that is so essential, so welcome, so life-giving. Yet such are the nature of storms that they proved random and fleeting. And any lightning falling on the tinder dry is far from welcome. The window was definitely closing.
Back home the next day, I became alerted that the authorities were urging around 30,000 holidaymakers and residents to evacuate an area of East Gippsland half the size of Belgium. As I write this, 12 Emergency fire warnings are in place in the region, including the stretch of coast between Cann River and Mallacoota, and a swathe of land taking in Orbost, Cape Conran and Marlo. Highways are closed. Inland from Pambula, not a million miles from the South East Forests, another emergency warning has appeared. Multiple fires are springing up in the wilderness between Cooma and the coast. Another window doesn’t merely close but shatters.
And for all that we try to do our best, to care and share, to catch a breather, this is not a very merry Christmas at all. It is a catastrophe.
Supposedly some of the world’s most liveable cities are in Australia; yet surely not when the climate sears. A haze of dust and smoke blows in, hanging with diesel fumes unimpeded by a reverence for industry. Sitting heavy over a cityscape of cranes and glass, whose streets are lined with withering European trees, roots bulging in defiance at the constraints of baked concrete. Impetuous car horns compete with the pulse of a pedestrian crossing, as you wait to seek solace in the air conditioning of a mall, hoping the flies will not seek solace too.
But these are – in context – mild irritants, and you walk across the harbour bridge and all can be forgiven. I think Sydney knows this too, hence a certain resting on laurels, safe in the knowledge that people will continue to flock to its shorelines regardless of unaffordable homes and congested roads.
The unaffordable and congested were in ample supply as I decided to while away an hour or two before some appointments with a Friday morning visit to Balmoral, hopeful of a coffee and brief stroll on the sand. By time I got there it was around ten in the morning, already thirty degrees, and devoid of any parking space whatsoever. After a few circuits of various backstreets, I had to resign myself to defeat and head back to where I came from. The air conditioned mall in Chatswood.
Pleasingly, the other side of my work stuff proved more fulfilling, and that was in spite of a crawl through the Sydney Harbour Tunnel. Clearly less glamorous than the bridge, but usually more efficient at spitting you out into the Eastern Suburbs. Spitting me out with a little extra fairy dust to nab a brilliant parking space in close proximity to Bronte Beach.
By now, the weather had cooled substantially, and a stiff breeze had kicked in to impart a touch of drizzly moisture here and there. Indeed, the late afternoon had become gloomy, a state of affairs that feels far more liveable than it looks in the brochures. Brightening things up – and almost as much a pleasant surprise as my parking space – was the annual Sculptures by the Sea parade, in which the range of photo poses and selfie contortions are a work of art in themselves.
Reaching Bondi – oh hallowed be thy name – I was determined to find a favourite little seafood haunt from times past; this was, after all, the prime reason I had not driven straight back to Canberra and had pottered about sufficiently to arrive at an acceptable time for dinner. And there it wasn’t. And there I was thinking why didn’t I just drive back to Canberra and have KFC at Marulan Service Centre instead? And there it was, on a different, quieter, cheaper street and life in Sydney was liveable for a few minutes again.
A couple of weeks later, half of New South Wales on fire, and I was heading in the other direction to Melbourne. An archnemesis that frequently beats Sydney as being proclaimed one of the world’s most liveable cities. Expanding rapidly, it is soon to overtake Sydney in population which – if taken as an indicator of popularity alone – is enough to cause the residents of Vaucluse to choke on their breakfast oysters.
Melbourne was – typical Melbourne – half the temperature of Sydney and a darn sight cooler than the world’s most liveable city, Canberra. It is sometimes proclaimed the most European of Australian metropolises, which means cloud and showery rain and a sometimes dingy – some may say grungy – countenance. And also, trams, which laugh in the face at numerous contemporary attempts to retrofit light rail elsewhere, like a wizened professor in a pokie room full of drongoes.
That’s not to say Melbourne is anything but Australian, amply illustrated in its awesomely good coffee and obsession with sport. It also has beaches upon Port Phillip Bay – nothing that would give Sydney a run for its money but fair dinkum true blue Aussie nonetheless. The sun even came out late afternoon as I headed over to the bay at St Kilda, and things were reasonably comfortable. Liveable even.
It was here that I reflected on the fact that I hadn’t been to St Kilda in – say – ten years or so, prompted by a certain gentrification that had taken place and the adornment of waterside bars dressed up slightly on the wrong side of pretentiousness. This prompted further reflection on how long I have lived in Australia, to the extent that I can now say ‘it wasn’t like this in the old days’ while simultaneously waving my fist at a cloud.
One thing that hadn’t changed was the pier, stretching out into the increasingly cold, stiff breeze, sheltering the city of Melbourne in its lee. A pier popular for evening strolls by people better prepared for the weather than me. How can I need a coat while a country burns? Even here, though, a sign of what is called progress, as most of the people wrapped up head out in the hope of a selfie with a little penguin at dusk. I retreat.
So, the big smokes, Sydney and Melbourne, sometimes chalk and sometimes cheese, sometimes infuriating, sometimes enthralling. A dictionary definition of liveable would be something akin to providing the core requirements for life, such as oxygen and water. I might also add the provision of good coffee and availability of fish and chips or salt and pepper squid and tempura vegetables.
You’d think the latter is more Melbourne while the former is all Sydney. But for me it was vice versa, the fish and chips the target of seagulls on St Kilda Beach, just for that extra European touch. If I had another jumper and another million dollars and an escape option from the oppression of another inevitable choking summer, I could probably live here, and I could probably live in Sydney too. If nothing else, I’d sure know some good spots for dinner.
I love how there are so many different roads meandering through the English countryside, linking villages that you never knew existed; undistinguishable places called something like Dompywell Saddlebag or West Northclumptonbrook, typically boasting a new speed bump and a church roof appeal from the 1980s. It’s a situation converse to Australia, where a few main roads emanate from the cities and towns, off which a handful of mysterious dirt tracks disperse into nothing. Setting off from home for a country drive in Australia is exhausted in four or five trips. Whereas in England the possibilities seem infinite.
When I say roads, of course, most are only a little wider than a Nissan Micra, especially in Devon, where they are also frequently clogged with tractors. Farming is still king – I think – in the South Hams, though tourism, teashops and production of Let’s Escape To Buy An Expensive Seaside Residence With Five Bedrooms And A Private Mooring On The Estuary To Get Through Our Retirement In The Sun TV shows prosper.
When the sun does appear, there is hardly anywhere more contented; there must be some primeval appeal in the lusciousness of those voluptuous green hills and snaking river valleys, the sheen of golden sands recently cleansed by the ebb and flow of a shimmering sea.
Remembering this is England, the sun of course doesn’t always shine and in the spring-like indecision that is early May it can be a fickle environment in which to salivate. At Bigbury-on-Sea, raincoats, fleeces and hot chocolates might be required while waiting for a break in the clouds. Temptation abounds to get back in the car and turn around; but you’ve paid for that parking now and you are British, and you’ll courageously stick it out like MEPs campaigning against their very existence (Customary Brexit Reference: tick). You have to be patient staying in this particular part of the world, but the benefits in doing so are clear and tangible.
A bit further down the A-road mostly suitable for two cars to pass, the town of Salcombe boasts a rather desirable ambience, even on another cloudy and cool day. Tucked inside the Kingsbridge Estuary it has some of the most golden sand and emerald water around, lapping at elegant houses and dense woodland thickets. There is a palpable sense of envy from the smattering of visitors strolling past the homes and gardens perched with lofty views across the water. I could live here, we all bitterly seethe in our heads.
No doubt many of the loftier residents of Salcombe were in jovial mood; not only from their elevated perch surveying the ambling peasants seeking a cheap pasty, but with the news of a royal baby to join the ranks. Does it have a name yet? I can’t even remember. Have the Daily Mail criticised the parents yet? Oh probably.
One of the perks of Salcombe are the options for food and drink, many of which come with waterside tables and a brief taste of refinement. Mum and I commenced the day at North Sands and a somewhat quirky café – The Winking Prawn – serving coffee (and for future reference, buffet breakfast). We then did the amble along the water and fancy homes to the town centre, where the usual offerings of pastry products, ice creams, pub food, overpriced crab bits and line caught organic fish goujons with quadruple cooked fondant sweet potato discs were up for grabs. Probably the best looking things were a tray of Chelsea Buns in a bakery, swiftly bagged and taken home for trouncing the Arsenal.
Really, it should have been a day for a Salcombe Dairy ice cream, the delicious embodiment of the verdant landscape all around. But after a bone-chilling ferry ride to South Sands, the moment had gone. Perhaps for another day.
Plymouth to Dartmouth is not the quickest affair despite only being around 30 miles apart. One option includes the tortuous A379 through thatched villages that become irretrievably clogged in battles between buses and B&M Bargains trucks – threading a camel through the eye of a needle is a doddle by comparison. Or there is the route via Totnes, which seems a bit too zig-zaggy to appear logical. An alternative cut through just past Avonwick was a new discovery that proved highly effective on the way almost there, and highly ridiculous on the way back.
One of the joys of that cut through, in the morning at least, was finding yet another road that took me through even more unknown villages as pretty as a picture, following river valleys and archetypal ten foot hedgerows and fields of newly minted lambs. The sun was shining too, and my meteorological calculations to head east appeared to be paying off.
It was also joyous to have a functioning car, without an exhaust dangling onto the road and probably projecting sparks onto the windscreen of a doddery couple heading to the post office. This happened later, on the A3122 at Collaton Cross, about a mile after the BP garage and before Woodlands Adventure Park. Details etched into my brain to guide the saviour that was the breakdown truck towards us.
And so, the unexpected and unplanned once again yields some of the most memorable moments. Waiting in a small layby among the gorgeous fields of Devon in the warming sunshine could be worse. Being patched up and guided to Totnes for repairs by endearing locals eager to provide a helping hand (and earn some pennies) proved heart-warming. Spending a few hours in Totnes, charmed and enlightened by good coffee, markets overflowing with abundance and leafy riverside walks. And the satisfaction of rediscovering batter bits with malt vinegar (good work Mum!)
Killing time in Totnes wasn’t too much of a chore in the end, and it was partway along a path following the River Dart that we got the call that the car was fit and ready. It had been an eventful day covering a lot of ground, but I was determined to head to where I had originally planned, several hours earlier. Another slice of succulent South Devon that oozes curvaceously into the sea.
Such are the ample proportions of the landscape here that the coast path between Strete and Blackpool Sands struggles to keep to the coast. The barriers are too immense, and the trail cuts inland as it dips down towards the bay. But this too is something of a blessing, for not only do you make it without falling to an inevitable death into the sea, but you become once again immersed into a countryside apparently so utopian. Farming must still be productive here, despite the temptation to become a campsite or a tearoom or a paddock for some pampered hobby horses.
The coast path comes back to the shore via a row of thatched cottages that could have almost been deliberately placed there to charm dewy-eyed tourists like myself. The fine shingle of Blackpool Sands lends a bright and airy light even through the sunshine of the morning is rare. And down near the shingle, a café, winding down for the day has some Salcombe Dairy on tap.
After fish and chips and batter bits there is hardly need for additional gluttony. But this is a land of overindulgence, of profligate abundance, blessed with more than its ample share of what makes life good. And I still have one of those gorgeous hills to climb to get back to the car, a climb that is incessant and delightful and my own private nirvana full of ice cream and South Devon. A climb and a day entirely, wonderfully, exhausting.
A sure sign that I had been in the UK for a while was the notion that it was simply ludicrous to expect to explore the far west of Cornwall on a day trip from Plymouth. In Australia, such thoughts would be perfectly acceptable, indeed very much the norm. “Just popping down to the beach” shouts Clint cheerily from the Ute window, as he sets off across the dusty paddock and onward to golden sands some two hundred kilometres distant. People I know have driven from Canberra to Brisbane in a day and back again the day after. Just off for a quiet drive in the country…
It is true that British roads take longer: they are narrower and more disjointed, denoted in miles (which gives an illusion of proximity), and overpopulated by caravans and lorries. In Cornwall, add the probability of tractors on roads which simply run out of space and you can understand the frequent car parks that form in the summer holidays. Even in October it can take longer than you expect, resulting in pasties in Marazion that are a touch on the tepid side because it is so far beyond the normal hours of lunch.
Still, with a few nights in a caravan (a static one I should add) near the town of St. Just there should be opportunity to sample some fresh food. And savour the rugged edge-of-the-world landscape holding steadfast against the Atlantic. An Atlantic that readily spreads its moisture over Penwith, cloaking in cloud the highest patches of sticky-out Cornwall upon which static caravans perch.
Such was the persistence of this shroud for much of the time it was easy to believe we were the only souls for miles, or kilometres, around. Nothing else in sight, barring a scattering of empty caravans looking jaded after a busy summer season. Finer writers than me would better evoke a mystical mood of ghostly visions, pagan spirits and murderous pirates going “AAAAAARRRRRRGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH”. I just got bored with it and drove down the hill seeking out a break.
In Mousehole, the grey mood dissipated with an amble through the jaunty narrow streets, snooping into the windows of cosy cottages as they wind their way down towards the colourful, cobbled harbour. With calm seas and monotone skies, there was a strong serenity enveloping the village, no doubt amplified by the absence of throngs of tourists. Even the seagulls seemed subdued, fattened from their harvest of summertime chips.
Spirits lifted further following a rather good coffee overlooking the harbour (the use of Rodda’s milk could have been a factor). And in the time it takes to sup a rich creamy latte, the sun broke through to offer a taste of summer revisited. Just where are my shorts now?
A few miles back up the road and the static was still in the clouds. However, the morning below had now delivered hope and – with that – an intent to pop some shorts in the car “just in case”. Such fancies were still feasible over lunch in Trengwainton, a National Trust speciality providing a café within a charming garden setting. Ah, some fresh produce and – not for the first time – a cream tea for lunch. Reflecting now I think this might have been my favourite cream tea of the year. Proper lush.
The prospect of shorts hung in the balance but was soon shot down upon arrival in a murky St. Ives. Unlike Mousehole, St. Ives was typically bursting with visitors pacing in a slow, zombie-like shuffle between crafty art galleries and hearty pasty chains. This dawdling procession seemed to accentuate a sombre air, hardly conducive to lingering. So back along the north coast it was, with a few stops along the way, to the static caravan in the clouds.
The next morning heralded a sense of déjà vu that required a little longer to escape. In fact, it wasn’t until I was haphazardly navigating my way through lanes hopefully heading towards Portreath that the clouds lifted. Once again, I had discovered the sunshine. I was feeling a little smug with myself and taking pride in my sun-seeking skills but of course it was sheer luck. Lucky to be here, under these skies.
Sunlight illuminated much of the north coast heading up towards Newquay and we were right on its edge. A separation as distinct as the line between land and sea, a frontier you don’t want to get too close to at Hell’s Mouth. Here, vertiginous cliffs plummet into pristine ocean, though becalmed in the breathless air of today.
Heading back west, the lightening cloud signified something a little more promising. Driving into the caravan site Mum noticed an old abandoned tin mine which we hadn’t known had existed before then. The expanse of the hill slowly unfolded and, suddenly, you could make out the houses in St. Just. There was even, from one spot, a blue wedge of sea forming on the horizon.
St. Just seemed a jollier place in the sun, the depression lifting in tandem with the weather. At nearby Botallack we headed towards the famous Crown Engine Houses, following a suspicious truck proclaiming to have something to do with film production. I suspect they, like everyone else, were making hay when the sun was shining; finally they could get some panoramic money shot to fill a gap in some tedious dialogue in Poldark. Or perhaps they were just on a holiday.
Now trying to cram literally everything in under clearer air, next up was a trip to Porthcurno. Given this place seems to be the current most Instagrammed memento of Cornwall it was surprisingly quiet. Perhaps all the day-trippers had departed, or else plunged down a cliff trying to get a snap of any sand emerging from a receding tide at Pedn Vounder. With such peace and such beauty, the fruits of staying in a static in the clouds were coming to bear.
And what better than the fruits of the sea, in the golden end-of-day light at Sennen Cove? To me, the beach here is the closest resemblance to Australia of any I have encountered in England. A sweeping arc of sand for the most part untainted by development. Curling waves of surf, with the obligatory dreadlocked shark bait on boards. And a little alfresco waterfront action, though in the very English gorgeousness of a proper pub with proper ale.
And now, finally, before heading back to Plymouth the next day, a chance to watch the sun set into the Atlantic. Almost. For of course this isn’t Australia and there is always a prospect of clouds on the horizon. But at least now they were only on the horizon, rather than atop a static caravan on a hill a long drive from home.