In what can only be taken as a positive sign, I will soon need a visit to a petrol station. The last such experience was on Monday 13th September at 10:20am, a level of precision recorded in posterity – or at least for one month – by the magic of QR code. Looking back at it now, it felt a risky manoeuvre at the time, beyond the boundaries of my self-administered geographical bubble, justified in my mind by being significantly cheaper and twinned with the prospect of a different coffee shop. It was quite the holiday.
Since that date, the petrol gauge dipped in small increments only to hasten in more recent days. Friday 1st October granted the freedom for human beings to enter national parks – or a national park more precisely – and outlying nature reserves within the boundaries of the ACT. Just in time for a long weekend that would see newfound lovers of national parks and nature reserves flock to suffocate them with their devotion.
I was primed to wait, to let the suddenly-engaged nature enthusiasts have their maskless moment in the sun. But then I awoke early on the Monday – infuriatingly early given daylight savings had just kicked in – and saw an opportunity too good to pass.
An open road had been an object of desire for many weeks. Being Canberra there have been empty roads and there have been open vistas but never have these situations quite provided that sensation of travelling in a landscape. Of countryside flying past your window in an everchanging composition of shapes and colours and light and space. Each second a unique expression of time and place curated for your eyes only.
And what expressions of time and place these proved. Just out of town on the road to Tharwa, a countryside cloaked in misty lingerings and golden dew. Sturdy ranges rise up from sweeping grasslands, scattered with the withered trunks and branches of old gum tree. Cows and sheep and the odd outbuilding catch the eye, mere dots on a magnificent green canvas stretching to the sky. And oh how green.
If I were restrained within a bubble for but a few minutes this sight would still make my heart sing. And now that it is here again, I want it all the more.
I can leave the car and venture out on foot into the fringes of Namadgi National Park. Already at the Visitor Centre a dozen or so cars are parked up as their inhabitants embrace the outdoors. The trail – worn from good rains and the numerous footsteps of a long weekend – cuts a muddy swathe towards the looming summit of Mount Tennent, still capped by its own personal cloud. Today, that exertion is far from my goal. I want to linger and learn.
For all the joyous expansiveness of the landscape, topped off with flask tea on a seat at the Cypress Pine Lookout, I am distracted, fascinated, heartened by the more miniscule. The work of nature overcoming winter, recovering from fire, embracing spring. All emerging into the world once more.
One of my attempts at Lockdown 2 Self Improvement Projects has been aligned to the season and the pursuit (and somewhat more challenging identification) of our native wildflowers. Provided with generous encouragement and impetus, I have found this a satisfying, almost addictive pursuit, one that can easily turn an hour walk into two.
So, from the fragrant myrtles to the delicate orchids, the indecipherable varieties of pea to the bulbous generosity of golden lilies, there is so much to discover. Far and near, it truly is spectacular how much you can see when you actually look. Checking out as much as checking in.
My better instincts tell me not to add to the infinite pile of mediocrity written about lockdowns. Enough of the wry observations on human behaviour and knowing, self-satisfied quips about sourdough. But forgive me one indulgence: I absolutely hate myself every time I realise I am rolling my eyes or muttering under my breath about a misplaced mask or a small cluster of people sitting on open grass simply trying to get through life as best they can. I absolutely hate that we all now have a little COVID police officer within us.
When out and about I should really focus instead on the threat of magpies and the impending advent of flies hassling my face. These are, perversely, bright spots of our times. Reassurance that there is a normal, no matter if that involves a petulant bird trying to peck out your eyes. There are many bright spots right now.
Take Sunday morning. Scenes of Emma Raducanu and an awesome kid on a bike coming together with an awesome adult on a bike. Out in the real world another awesome kid on a bike warmed me with a good morning greeting on the way for coffee. Sun was out, bees were buzzing, magpies were lurking. Shorts were on.
Bare legs couldn’t remain all day, the weather typical of spring: one day it’s all throw open the doors, the next retreat back into your cave. Nonetheless, the joy of spring is as enduring and as uplifting as ever.
Favourite – and very local – spring spots include a clutch of trees next to Chifley shops transforming into a tunnel of pink, a cul-de-sac in Curtin that is equally as resplendent in autumn, and the natural blooms of Woden Cemetery.
The cemetery is a funny one, not that you hear anyone laughing. Here is open space on my doorstep that I conscientiously tiptoed around for a few years, driven by some hallowed sense of not wanting to intrude. Should a place of grief and loss really also be a place for me to ramble around seeking joy and delight? Well, in the full gamut of emotions that make us human, yes, or at least I have convinced myself of that in a lockdown during spring. And there is something undeniably poetic in the new life flourishing among the tombstones that I suspect many passing souls would beam a broad smile at.
Nearby, the rocks and stones scattered on a small piece of bushland between Garran and Hughes marvel at equally magnificent transformation. This is most apparent in the explosion of golden wattle, so full and vibrant and unashamedly Australian that is hard not to feel borderline okay about the batting average of S.P.D. Smith. Gang-gangs and galahs and annoying myna birds provide the backing for the exquisite melodies of our wonderful magpies. Everything feels industrious here, with a touch of ornithological romance and floral perfume in the air.
Each bead of effervescent wattle bloom is a bright spot. As is each elongated creak of a Gang-gang, each delicate petal of cherry blossom, each sun-glazed afternoon where you can throw on some shorts until the chill returns. Marry these with uplifting moments of human endeavour and achievement and connection and compassion and you have enough bright spots to form a whole constellation. A sky of stars so powerful it can even eclipse those inner COVID police, for a while.
The Tumut River is proving a soothing spot. In spite of its swift flow, fed from the elongated dams of the Snowy Mountains, there is something becalming being upon its banks. Boasting more of an aquamarine shade than the sedimentary highways of the Murrumbidgee and Murray, it is a waterway begging to be paddled or fished. Or simply enjoyed from under the shade of a majestic River Red Gum – as long as you can overlook the fact that these trees have the pesky habit of randomly dropping their hefty limbs.
Various tributaries wind their way over fertile plains enjoyed by cattle and horses, mystery roads leading off into hidden valleys with panoramic landscapes. In Tumut itself, the river transforms what would be a pleasant enough little town into something more beguiling. Sitting among green parkland below the town centre, there may me a little part of water meadow England evoked. If you ignore the cackle of the cockatoos.
It was just under a year ago that I found myself here being rejuvenated after a day of hard labour pulling down fences in the hills behind. Sit in Tumut today and you would be hard pressed to imagine how fraught it would have been on January 4th, 2020. Approaching from the west, the Dunns Road Fire ravaged through Batlow and the Green Hills, cresting the Snubba Range and spilling down to and over Blowering Dam. It went on to merge with other large fires in the area, sweeping through pristine sections of Kosciusko National Park and the Snowy Valleys, before lapping at the edges of the ACT.
One year later I found myself in Pioneer Park sitting beside the river once again. It shows what an absolutely legendary year 2020 turned out to be that I had forgotten exactly where the fires had hit. No longer obsessively checking Fires Near Me I thought, for some reason, that the Dunns Road Fire had stopped on the western shores of Blowering Dam. Driving south from Tumut, it didn’t take too long to realise my oversight.
For sure, the western side of the dam is still quite a shock. Made up of plantation forest, the hillsides remain largely bare, apart from the blackened matchsticks of pine. Somewhere up there on the ridgetop, I wonder how Paul and Andrea are going on their farm, and whether Smiley has cheerily constructed a new hut. Hopefully the fences are still standing.
Down on the water, there is a somewhat normal scene of socially-distanced summer holidays playing out – all gargantuan encampments and four wheel drives and boat trailers. An emu pokes its head above the undergrowth, no doubt fleeing the meltdown of a toddler who just really doesn’t want to go anywhere near the water thank you very much. They seem to be everywhere.
Along the southern end of Blowering Dam, the impact of a year ago becomes clear as blackened trunks spread upwards to the east. There is regrowth, but it is thinned-out vegetation, revealing rocky, barren outcrops that probably haven’t been visible for years. Jounama Creek – a spot for camping and walking potential – seems less appealing than I expected, and I drive on.
From here it is quite the climb to Black Perry Lookout. Offering an impressive view out into the Bogong Wilderness, an information board makes it clear just how different things looked before the fires. In the picture, the peaks are still there, but cloaked in a swathe of lush green foliage like some kind of Jurassic Park. The picture also – frustratingly – features a much crisper, bluer sky than so far today. Both will come back, I hope.
The lookout is naturally a popular stop for trucks and caravans and trailers to catch their breath. One caravan seems to have had enough and the NRMA are being called. A clutch of potbelly bikers convey that menacing grizzled look that frequently becomes undermined by softly spoken, friendly chatter. One young guy appears anxious, on the phone to try and arrange a permit to access the ACT. Fire knows no boundaries and, for all we can try, neither does COVID.
My plan was to walk to a place called Landers Falls Lookout, lured by the promise of both falls and a lookout. It was either a ten kilometre there and back again or a swift 1.6km stop off from a four wheel drive parking area. I initially figured my car would be okay – it usually is – and inched down a big dipper of a rockfest. The way onward looked equally awful and – new year, no new words – I decided it was best to pivot. Back to the parking area for inadequate cars.
And so a longer walk ensued, but I’m glad about my decision. The car probably would have made it, but it might also have got two punctures, a broken exhaust, and a hazardous brake disc failure. Plus it was interesting and rewarding to tread quietly through this recovering forest, one year on.
What strikes you most in such worlds is the contrast between still very visible, jet black tree trunks and an overflowing understorey of grasses and shrubs and ferns and flowers. Where the two combine, witness the surreal procession of epicormic growth winding up into the canopy (before a certain pandemic, epicormic was probably the word of the year). The crowns of trees are still deciding whether or not they will come back, a process that will take more than just a year.
My initial fear that I would be sharing this walk with a procession of hoons in souped-up Hiluxes doing it the lazy way were unfounded. Probably because they don’t like to get their shiny blue paintwork dirty. Midway along one vehicle did pass, accompanied by the obligatory exchange of waves. Him thanking me for standing aside, me thanking him for the dust. At least there weren’t too many flies to elevate the experience further. Yet.
There was, in fact, a peacefulness in the forest. In patches the silence was punctuated by gentle birdsong – apart from the easy to spot pair of Rosellas, mostly this heralded from those little indistinguishable critters that hide in the undergrowth. Occasional rustles in the grass signified a lizard or bug or potential snake. I felt a bit more accepting of a snake sighting today, thinking it might liven things up. But it never happened.
This is not without giving the snakes ample opportunity, regularly veering off track to snap pictures of grasses and logs and flowers.
From the 4WD parking area, a non-vehicular route leads over Landers Creek and up towards a couple of lookouts. The sound of running water was a good omen for the falls, as was the vertical climb for a vista. Away from the creek, the undergrowth rapidly diminished, replaced by bare rock, charcoal logs and gravel. Exposed, barren, humid, the perfect time for the flies to welcome me in droves.
I deleted several shots from my camera because of photobombing flies. When you get a clear shot, the first lookout offers panoramic views towards Talbingo Dam, the course of the creek winding down towards its shores. In the near distance, a second lookout appears even more precariously perched upon a towering outcrop.
At this second vantage, the falls become visible and form quite an impressive drop, even in the relative dryness of summer. The landscape is an otherworldly array of arid browns and fluorescent green, the steep hillside opposite lined with black spikes like hairs standing to end. The aerial perspective from this vantage is mesmerising and I enjoy it with a cold pork and pickle and fly sandwich.
Lingering for a while allowed me to pick out some of the minutiae: individual tree trunks clinging to a rock face; coils of epicormic growth leading to barren white crowns; cliffs streaked black; a cluster of ferns glowing luxuriant in a hollow. It was as if I was Google Earth or something.
Lest I get a godlike complex high above, I managed to get a little lost on the way back down. I find every rock and burnt log looks pretty much the same. But following the creek I found my way once again to the 4WD car park and onward much further to my own car. Nearing the end of the trail I passed a family with three kids setting off, satisfied that I’m not the only one with an inadequate vehicle.
Back in civilisation it was very much that time of the day when ice cream is mandatory. Civilisation is hard to come by, but the small township of Talbingo offers one of those amazing supermarkets that sells everything from tinned food to drill bits to crates of beer to chiko rolls to two year old editions of Angler’s Almanac. It also houses the post office, tourist information centre and a photocopier. Though lacking gourmet ice cream, a Honeycomb Maxibon on the shores of Jounama Pondage provided sufficient sustenance.
Ignoring the burnt trees on the other side there was a touch of the Lake District in the grassy foreshore and rounded hills disappearing off into the horizon. Blue skies and fluffy white clouds completed the Wordworthian idyll. Again, a year ago, Talbingo was far from it.
From English lakes to Spanish sierras, a journey of disastrous superspreading madness only now restricted by fanciful wartime yearning to regain a supposedly lost independence. Here, the European mirage took the form of a solitary, short drive down the road towards Talbingo Dam. On one side, a panorama of barren ridges and spindly trees, dusty earth and searing sun. A glass of Rioja and a siesta would go down well, but I must move on.
The dam itself has the requisite boat ramp where the road terminates. Here, a wide gravel parking area was solidly packed with trailers and those four wheel drives so suited to the walking trails around this way. A regular flow of vessels with names like Crusader 3000 and She’ll Be Right were being lowered into or dragged from the water. Outboards buzzed and jet skis thrashed and bins were overflowing with the remains of picnics and beers. Behold the domain of the boatpeople.
I was planning on camping in such an environment, albeit further north on the shores of Blowering Dam. But throughout the day there was something going on in my head looking for excuses to get out of it. Heat building. Risk of storms. Boat people. Perhaps the final straw was the realisation that I had left my salad in the fridge at home and would have to resort to a dinner of cold pork and disappointing pastry. I could survive, but would it be worth it?
Procrastinating around a greener, untarnished landscape with views to Blowering Cliffs, I figured I could drive into Tumut and procrastinate some more, while also picking up salad to complicate the decision-making process even further. If I had made a New Year’s Resolution to be more decisive – which I hadn’t – I would have failed already – which I didn’t.
Tumut was just that little bit closer to home and I was willing to embrace a two and a half hour drive into the evening, weighed against the likelihood that I would struggle to be sleeping anyway if I was to stay and camp. Hot water, comfy bed, a flushing toilet v lumpy mattress, strange noises and a long drop. Next time I head off with the intention of camping I need to exceed at least a three hour radius from home.
Je ne regrette rien, as they say in the aisles of Tumut Woollies, for not only did I manage to get my salad fix (albeit in the form of calorific coleslaw), but I also finally snaffled a half price Christmas cake. And then I took to that riverside, wandering and eyeing up future opportunities to explore before settling upon a delightful dinner spot.
There are places I’ll remember. Soothing. Becalming. Rejuvenating. Nourishing. Like a shot in the arm.
It’s been a while since I’ve driven so far on consecutive days. The passage of years dulls the memory of cruising on straight, flat roads under an endless sky; pausing at a bakery in a one street kind of town, finding a ramshackle table beside a drying creek to stop and sample the local flavours. Seeking shade from the sun and solace from the flies. Always the flies. Now I remember the flies and that quirky shimmy to dispense of their attachment and manoeuvre into the car without them. A memory regained and repeated again.
I was heading west towards Griffith, the first stage of an elongated loop involving a couple of stops for work. Beyond Wagga it becomes much clearer that Wagga is a veritable hub of civilisation, with a handy Officeworks and everything. Another hundred clicks on and the town of Narrandera welcomes like an oasis, perched upon the muddy brown of the Murrumbidgee and boasting one of those high streets of slightly faded charm.
There is a colony of koalas here, and I was pleased to come across one in the first hundred metres of my walk. It was around midday and hot, exactly the kind of conditions in which you should not be out walking. But with this early sighting, the pressure was off – no more relentlessly craning one’s neck upward in the usually forlorn hope of spotting a bulbous lump that isn’t a growth protruding from a eucalypt. I could instead loop back to the car concentrating more on keeping the flies from going up my nose. Yes, they are absolutely back.
Through Leeton – one work site – I pushed on to stay overnight in Griffith. Griffith is famed for a few things – lots of wine production (apparently, 1 in every 4 glasses consumed in Australia), Italian mafia, flies I would think, and citrus. Quite stupendously I had arrived at the time of year when the town parades an array of citrus sculptures, mostly located in the median strip of the busiest road going through town. I suppose it’s convenient to look at if you’re just passing through, but I can’t fathom why anyone would not get out of the car to take a closer look.
They say citrus but I don’t recall a single lemon, lime or grapefruit. Apart from the vines, most of the trees you pass are dotted with oranges, all fed by the ditches and canals of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area. It would be hard work out on those fields, under piercingly hot sun among the flies. Giant brimmed hats with nets (rather than corks) are a must.
For a touch of diversity in what is a fairly mundane landscape, I took an early evening drive out of town towards Cocoparra National Park. Getting out of town is the first adventure, given that Griffith was designed by our old friend Walter Burley Griffin. You can see the giveaway circles and roundabouts on a map, but I can’t say there was a particularly strong Canberra sensibility about the place. Leigh Creek in South Australia provides a more authentic – and surreal – replication.
Within the national park, the Jacks Creek trail promised much – traversing a dry, rocky gorge before climbing out to vistas of the surrounding landscape. Indeed, it would have been quite idyllic bathed in the end of day light, an Australiana glowing golden brown and rusty red. The kind of earthy environment that to me has been a highlight of past trips out back.
Yet not since Arkaroola have I found myself in such a landscape outnumbered ten thousand to one by flies. I feel like I keep repeating myself, but they truly were unbearable. Pausing to reflect and soak it in was impossible. Stopping to set up photos proved an ordeal, exacerbated by the movement of my camera shaking off another cloud of useless parasitic twatheads seeking water from whatever orifice they could find.
After coming such a long way, flies had wrecked the experience. It’s akin to a rare sunny day in England, battling through Sunday drivers to discover a lovely beer garden, nabbing a prime table overlooking a patchwork quilt of fields, tucking into a hearty lunch with ale. And then the wasps appear and come down to doom us all.
Thankfully the number of flies per square metre dissipated a touch as I turned east, eventually to reach Sydney. Along the way the landscape softened too, more rolling and pastoral with a surprising touch of green in places. Along the way, fine country towns such as Cootamundra, Young and Cowra, famed for Bradman, cherries and prisoners of war. All words that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Shane Warne tweet.
As the sun leaned low against the western sky, I paused for the night in the town of Blaney, where it cooled down sufficiently to deaden the activity of insects. Wandering around the streets early the next morning, there was a touch of the genteel in the gardens and verandas of the old brick homes, verdant patches of life fed by the creek on the eastern side of town. Of course, being Australia things do not remain sedate for too long; two magpies decided to have a go at my head while a family of geese with newborns made sure I didn’t pry too much. An old guy wheeling out a bin stared and muttered – perhaps both in contempt at my alien presence and in recognition of a deeper affinity.
Walking back to my motel I noticed one of those brown tourist signs with a small fort-like shape pointing to Millthorpe. It wasn’t far and while I was pretty sure there would be no small fort-like building there, it had to be indicative of something. Perhaps a smaller, more endearing version of Blaney, with a quiet high street lined with buildings from yesteryear. A village brimming in spring blooms and fragrance, boasting not merely a café but a “providore”. Wine rooms and antique curios…we are nearing Orange after all.
Millthorpe offered a tangible culmination of my growing appreciation of the grace of small town Australia. The small town Australia that isn’t too threatening or distant, somewhat gentrified by being in range of Sydney weekenders, bringing good local food and drink to the table. You can imagine renting a cottage here and treading its creaky boards, sheltering in its shady alcoves, napping as the afternoon light creeps through the blinds, casting shadows of wisteria onto the soft pastel walls. There’s probably not that much to do, but that’s all part of the attraction, offering time that can simply be sated with coffees and brunches and platters of meat and cheese and wine.
Still, should you wish to rise from this indulgent slumber, another hour or so east will bring you to the western fringe of the Blue Mountains. Suddenly things change, and not just the petrol price rising thirty cents a litre in as many kilometres. The day trippers are out in force, the coaches idling at every single possible lookout, of which there are many. The escarpment top towns of Blackheath and Katoomba and Leura are brimming with people shuffling between café and bakery, spilling down like ants to the overlooks nearby. Below the ridge, however, and the wilderness wins. Only penetrable at its fringe, placid beneath a canopy of ferns and eucalyptus.
I walked down a little near Katoomba Falls, thankful to be below the tumult of the populous plateau. The falls were barely running, but the views up the valley towards the Three Sisters were inescapable. Overhead, a cableway gave visitors the easy option to take this all in through the glass and air conditioning.
The Blue Mountains have some momentous lookouts but are best appreciated on a bushwalk away from the crowds. However, my time here was limited and some ideas that formed for longer hikes will have to wait for another day. A lunch stop at Sublime Point will be the last I take in for now, that distant view of millions of trees to be replaced by millions of people navigating the congested thoroughfares of Sydney.
The city awaits, the space disappears, the understated charm of the country fades away. The buzz of people rushing here, there and everywhere gathers, pressing in like a thousand flies in the face, and ears, and mouth and nose. Taking your car park and your seat on the train, getting the best spot on the beach, the last table at the cafe. Persistent and relentless these ones cannot to be swished away or disposed of by a disjointed shimmy into a car. The flies are unavoidable, everywhere.
A habit of mine is to go for a walk somewhere every day of the week. Or at least try to, even if this is a little amble to the shops or a trudge through puddles in a park. It’s a habit easily fed in Canberra, where leafy suburbia intermingles with random patches of bushland and sprawling hilltop reserves, usually rising under big blue skies. I can walk out of my door and be in any number of spots that hardly feel as though they are in the middle of a city: trees and birds and kangaroos and a horizon of mountain wilderness espied in the west.
This habit bordering on obsession can become a little harder in the UK, which is surprising when you consider all the public footpaths and country lanes and bridleways and muddy fields marked on an Ordnance Survey map. British cities are denser and usually grimier and most definitely wetter, meaning a walk from the doorstep often requires a little deeper investigation, a tad more imagination, and a dose of good luck. Like finding the slightly cottagey lanes of Compton Vale in Plymouth or clumps of woodland on a steep highway embankment, or the spooky cemeteries of Janners past.
Of course, with a car the options open up exponentially, but so too do the speed cameras and the filter lanes and the traffic lights and the roundabouts clogged with cars rarely indicating. It can be a bit of a chore to get out of Plymouth for a walk, but once you make it the world is pretty much your oyster. Until the next village with a parade of speed bumps and cattle grids.
The roundabout at Roborough is a significant, welcome milestone in the escape from Plymouth; a conduit between giant superstores and industrial estates and the rambling wilds and shady valleys of Dartmoor National Park. This is Plymouth’s backyard and, once you get there, a fairly quiet one away from the usual honeypots and ice cream traps.
Even on a sunny Saturday – admittedly a bracingly cold Saturday for early May – the moor was more than ample to soak up the extra ramblers and cyclists and trippers tripping on cream teas. This includes an additional fellow in young Leo, who was adamant he was coming with us for a walk and, of course, ended up being carried the whole way. Kids, huh?!
The walk near Princetown felt a far cry from the city, all empty and remote, a desolate bleakness intensified by the icy wind casting sun and cloud patterns upon the barren brown moors. Yet here civilisation creeps in, or at least tries for a while. The solitary austere brick structure of Nun’s Cross Farm stands resolute, providing a little shelter in the lee of the wind to tame Leo’s hair. Rather than a blight on the landscape, it seems to fit, offering as much a representation of life on the moor as ponies and tumbling clusters of granite…
…And clotted cream teas. After such an frigid walk can there be anything more delightful than a log fire, buttery scones, pots of tea and the usual trimmings? It’s not like I planned the walk around this or anything, it just happened to be nearby, and we were hungry, and well… There is only so much rugged emptiness one can take. What’s the point of walking if you can’t get to enjoy it?!
Back through that roundabout at Roborough within the city of Plymouth, there is a pocket of countryside on the banks of the Plym, wedged between the Devon Expressway and the South Hams Tractortrack. It’s ideal for a pre-dinner stroll or – better still – post-dinner, when Emmerdale, Coronation Street and Eastenders zap the brain cells of millions of devoted followers. Saltram is a gracious property boasting copious, succulent Devonian land, including plenty of woodland pockets in which Mr Darcy can brood.
Saltram has its trails but is not without its trials. First off, National Trust property, which means the good people of busybody parkingland can’t wait to rob you of gold. For all the wonderful things the National Trust provides, it all seems a little exorbitant to me…I can’t help but feel some of the charges are siphoned off to some sycophantic Daily Telegraph fundraiser to install the natural heir to Churchill as PM. That dog from the TV ads.
The other thing with Saltram is that it takes a circuitous effort to reach by car, navigating a manic roundabout whose lanes disappear into a wormhole, and then a slip lane clogged with cars turning into Lidl for a pint of milk or 60 inch flat screen. Such is the travail of the journey, the prospect of digging into your life savings to park, and – should you mistime – the odorous tidal pong of the River Plym, that Saltram can prove a frustrating affair.
Or it can be wonderful, arriving a little before rush-hour and just after the parking attendant has gone home. This yields a quiet fist pump of glee and a good mood in which to walk the parklands. Along the river, the tide is high and holding on, and clouds part to release the sun. Forget the roar of traffic along the Embankment, and the mould-tinged sails of Sainsburys, and focus instead on the flourishing green of the woods and bounteous swathes of wild garlic. Embrace the chirping birds and walk with the hope of encountering a deer.
Look down upon manicured fields and be thankful that this is indeed upon your doorstep. A doorstep in which the land and sea meets, producing conditions that are often frustrating but usually fruitful. Beyond the chav-filled potholes of the city, a land of strawberries and cream or raspberries and cream or just cream goddammit.
A daily walk is an obsession not for the air, nor for the nature, nor for the killing of time in a rather pleasant way. A daily walk is the only way I can try to keep that goddam luscious cream off!
The annual plume of unseasonal warm air making its way up towards the British Isles from North Africa (aka fake summer) coincided with a trip to France. In some ways it was a shame to miss out on such glorious weather in Britain over Easter – how I would miss the opportunity to pop to Tesco in my shorts to battle for the last bag of charcoal and three packs of sausages for a fiver. Or negotiate the single track roads to Cornish coves whose hillsides are coated in cars charged eight quid for the privilege. But France would be nice.
Indeed, the weather didn’t bring too much to grumble about and my shorts proved a justified inclusion on the continent. There were countryside ambles and meanders through parks, Easter egg hunts in the garden and trips to the market. All the usual trappings of life on the French-Swiss border in Ville-la-Grand, snow coating distant peaks while spring was springing all around.
Out of town, a morning amble around Lac du Mole took us slightly closer to the snow. Yet here the sights of ducklings and the sounds of randy toads were ample testament to the fact that things were hotting up.
It was good to be out, within flirting distance of the mountains, the sight of which always entice you to explore more. However, the primary rationale for this particular outing wasn’t really to survey mountain tops and randy toads. It was – of course – the proximity of the lake to a patisserie; a roadside stop that could be a Little Chef or a Costa Coffee in the UK, but here was brim with fondant artistry and crème extravagance. As opposed to despondent mediocrity and frothy incompetence.
While there was gateau and – naturally – cheese aplenty, this was also a trip featuring roast dinners, toads in holes and homemade lasagne; a franglais stew to cater for cross-cultural cravings. I find ice cream works in any language, whether this is whipped in Walsall or churned in Chernobyl. Both places where you’d hope not to find yourself buying ice cream to be honest.
Annecy, on the other hand, is a gem of a place to take in an ice cream or do whatever you should please. From the hive of construction that is Annemasse station, a pleasing hour long train ride delivered my nephew Guillaume and I to what has been described as the Venice of the Alps, largely on the count of a canal infiltrating a few of the streets and – possibly – gondoliers wailing about their need for Walls Cornettos.
Passing through France almost every town or village you come upon proclaims itself as a Ville Fleurie, going on to illustrate this with an intricate arrangement featuring a cast iron cow and a cluster of geraniums in the middle of a roundabout. Annecy would live up to Ville Fleurie and then some, at least in its medieval centre chock full of flower boxes and civic blooms. The suburbs could well be as grimy as Walsall for all I know, but in the midst of town, much is done to attract and charm.
The waterways and the flowers and the daytrippers milling about eating ice cream largely find their way towards the jewel in the crown that is Lac d’Annecy and its quite dazzling surrounds. Clear, glacial water hosts an array of boats, encircled by forests, villages and rapidly elevating peaks. It’s a popular spot to row or cruise or be a hoon on a jetski. Or even pedalo for half an hour in a large figure eight. Everybody loves a tourist.
The frequent sight of tourists eating ice cream impels one to wander the streets like a tourist to seek out an ice cream. Heavily topped cornets increase in frequency back near one of the canals, and a large queue meanders from the serving hatch of Glacier des Alpes. Patience may be rewarded with sublime ice cream but neither Guillaume nor I had much patience and opted for a perfectly satisfactory version nearby. Safe from the clutches of any devious gondoliers.
Leaving Annecy, storm clouds were gathering over the mountains and the very fine weather would break the following day to deliver a period of wind and rain. Preparation for my return to England – and the frequently damp northwest of England to boot. Unlike in the northwest of England, the weather front passed here and left a glorious late afternoon and evening, ripe for a walk across to Switzerland.
A recurring spectacle across my trip this year – both in France and the UK – was the sight of rapeseed flowering in the fields. A swathe of lurid yellow regularly interrupting the tranquil patchwork of green, unable to be contained within its boundaries and peppering nearby hedges and springing from cracks in the concrete. Insatiable and seemingly inevitable around every corner, in places stretching as far as the eye can see. Only the mountains appear to stop it.
And so, the last evening in France turned out as sunny as the unseasonably warm sun that was soon to fade away in Great Britain; to be replaced by a storm so irritating it was awarded a name (Hannah), heralding a permanent return to long trousers. One last slice of gateau would compensate for the impending doom, and cap off a very fine Easter; my first in the northern hemisphere since 2006. So, fake summer or real, it was undoubtedly one that will go down in history.
There was a somewhat fitting addendum to my journey in supposedly great Britain, a transitional phase elongating the journey between two hemispheres. Norfolk is rarely likened to Australia – though it is the driest region of the UK and famously has an in-breeding rate some hick towns in the outback might aspire to. Yet being here felt one step closer, one step nearer to that other home down under.
Norfolk is now home to Jill, someone who I associate with so much of Australia, having covered many miles together crossing a wide brown land. And so, a weekend here had parallels: coastal walks, bird rolls, coffee and cake, and an infestation of boatpeople. The Broads, like a Noosa Everglades of tangled waterways, is plied by extravagant cruisers and basic tinnies, festooned with birdlife, and regularly adorned with waterfront retreats. Very Australian; though here, little Englanders can live on their very own island and control their borders until their hearts are content.
It is quite possible to get a roast dinner in Australia; even when it is forty degrees there will be waterfront homes boasting a chook in the fan-assisted humidifying oven, accompanied by roasted vegetables that undoubtedly include pumpkin. While the roast dinner may be a relic of colonisation, its pure deliciousness has helped it to endure as a great British export, even if it does become bastardised with pumpkin or somehow cooked on the barbie with a can of beer up its arse. But the roast is best fitting in its true home: a cosy pub on a grey day.
It is also quite possible to get coffee in England; even if you are truly desperate there will be a Costa Express at the servo down dale. The thing is, you really need to have cake with it to compensate for the likelihood of receiving a giant cup of hot liquid somewhere in the range of blandly mediocre to bitterly dreadful. I can adapt to this situation, but the thought of returning to Australia and having a coffee fills me with a little cheer.
England or Australia, Jill and I always do our very best to eat and drink well.
The good thing is we traditionally tended to walk such things off with potters around Sydney Harbour or ascents of Grampian hills. A Saturday spent on the North Norfolk coast offered conditions for a good old bushwalk, with typical weather to boot: warm winds and clear skies probably bringing temperatures I had not felt since August. Centred around the sprawling estate of Sheringham Park, the walk including lush forests, lofty lookouts, dried out pastures and placid seas. The pebbly beaches are far from Bondi, but they can equally host a tasty bird roll picnic.
This landscape was naturally far from Australian, but it was also a slightly different type of England, distanced from that familiar land of heavily undulating green plunging into the Atlantic. I was no longer home on my way home, still happily soaking up lingering remnants of what is great about Britain but preparing my mind to embrace Australia again. A long transition was in play, like that of the leaves around me, gradually drifting away towards their winter…
…And just like that the world spins and you fight against it for a day or so in this never-never land of cold air and reclining seats and unappealing movies and rice with two lumps of what might be chicken. Dessert is more of a highlight because it involves – somewhat poetically – Salcombe Dairy Ice Cream. Here I am on a Singapore Airlines A380 headed for Australia and dessert comes from a little patch of paradise on the south coast of Devon. In that taste of creamy cherry are the lush meadows and deep blue seas of home. I can see Bolt Head, as clear as day.
At some point the world becomes tropical. There are bright lights, acres of glass and miles of travellators. You could buy a Rolex or a roti with some weird money. It is five in the morning and people are eating dinner. You are somewhere in the world at some point in time but not much of it makes sense. If only it was all a dream, the relaxing sound of running water and floating butterflies lulling you into restful sleep…
…restful sleep feels like such an unrealistic aspiration. You are back in your own bed, surrounded by your own comforts, but even the 3am sounds of a boring discussion on Radio National do not cause eyes or mind to yield. It can be tough, that first week being back, but it can also be filled with joy.
The joy of finally getting the journey done counts for a lot. But there are also those home comforts, a re-acquaintance with certain foods, my car starting, a new but familiar environment, the coffee…the coffee and the sun and catch ups with friends over coffee in the sun.
As I leave one autumn, the promise of spring pervades, amply exemplified in the lavender going crazy and weeds liberally taking over my garden. Everywhere flowers and blooms and fresh green buds, from the manicured terrain of the Parliamentary Triangle to the sprawling native treasures of the Botanic Gardens. Shorts are more often than not feasible under frequent blue skies.
Maybe it’s the season, but the blue skies you find in Australia do not seem to exist in the same way in the UK, in Europe. They are bigger and bluer here, more intense and infinitesimal. They create boldness and vibrance rather than subtlety and nuance. They can make the landscape appear stark and saturated. This difference like a polarising filter thrown over my eyes.
Only as the longer days edge towards their end does the light soften, but even then there are hues of summery gold and laser red projecting onto hills, eucalypts and rapidly rising apartment windows. The sun does its reliable trick of shifting forever west as the world turns, west to embrace the rest of the world, the world from where I have come. A sun forever shared across the miles, permanently, naturally transitional.
How had I never heard of Cooper Cronk until the last few months? Cooper Cronk. Every time that name is mentioned on the TV or radio I am convinced this is a guy whose destiny was the very east coast Australian domain of Rugby League (or NRL if you will). With a name like that it was inevitable; young Coop boofing his way to the fifth tackle for the Under 12 Greater Southern Potoroos before being signed up by the West Force Barramundi. An illustrious career ensued, only dented by a minor scandal involving a night out in the Cross, a high tackle and a leery headline in the Daily Telegraph. None of this is – I suspect – true, but there is a real NRL player called Cooper Cronk. That much I do know.
Fast forward a month or two and now we have the prospect of hearing how amazing Nathan Lyon is. Or in the conspicuously lady-free, nasally dominated domain of ex-Australian pom-slayers-turned-commentators, Naaaayfun Lawwwn. Also known as Gary. Every cherry a potential wicket inducing minor orgasms in the eight man wicket-keeping slip and bat pad cordon. Two-nil down already and I haven’t even put up the Christmas decorations. Summer could be long.
It’s taken a while for summer in Canberra to arrive, with the inevitable false starts and the fake summer that usually emerges for a week or so in October before retreating with startling rapidity. The variable weather conditions are largely a boon for nature which bursts into a frenzy of colour and gargantuan jungle of weeds. One minute you have a perfectly respectable outside patio area, the next it’s a (*culture alert*) frenzied sketch from Rousseau. Best to try and ignore the weeding and admire how the professionals manage things at the Botanic Gardens.
There is a point for me in which winter in Canberra is definitely over and summer is certainly on the way. It’s that day when you decide to walk in the shade to cool down and protect, rather than seek out a warming sun and its melanoma vengeance. You know you should get your floppy hat out despite looking like a numpty in it. And largely avoid the midday sun for disproven fear that it is this that is making your hair grey and not the inevitable march of age and genetics.
Anyway, the best times are the day’s extremities as the amount of sunshine increases. Those cool mornings when Wattlebirds wake you up at 5am and you could be tempted to a) get on your bike for a beautiful lakeside ride of virtue or b) turn on the radio in the hope that you will doze back to news of Cooper Cronk being signed by the Northern Beaches Numbats. And, at the other end, there’s those lingering light evenings, in which twilight golf is a possibility and cold beer and barbecues become a more frequent consideration.
Just as things seem to be settling into a predictable pattern of bliss, a customary late spring upper level trough decides to utter from the mouths of weather forecasters everywhere and the climate becomes far more volatile. Clouds bubble up over the mountains, humidity progresses towards the Darwin end of the scale, and intense thunderstorms turn graffiti decorated storm drains into brown river rapids. The temperature drops fifteen degrees in fifteen minutes and suddenly you are having to resort to long trousers again.
All this water, all this sunshine, all this warmth and cool change. A time for shorts and hoodies and rainbows, many rainbows. Rainbows and butterflies as summer seems to assert itself with greater authority. But still Christmas hovers as a lottery between scorching bushfires and mild drizzle; no doubt it will be 35 degrees for a classic roast or a chilly 18 for a poolside barbie with novelty oversized prawns. Only time will tell.
And as we near the longest day in Australia, and news of Cooper Cronk’s feats fade (largely because those leftist latte-lovers of our ABC go on holiday for two months #persecutedmiddleagedangrywhitemales), the sense of a summer upon us is all too clear. There is vibrancy accumulated from all that has gone before and a buzz of preparedness for crackling heat that will come. On Red Hill, the scene is set; cool early mornings in which to forage among the long shadows, and golden glowing evenings turning fiery red. In between, sit back and enjoy – or endure – those whirling cherries.