Stretching even further afield for a day trip down to the South Coast of New South Wales…
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.
I think a general principle of Australian exploration is the further north you go, the quirkier things get. For quirkier you could substitute odder, weirder, crazier, madder than a dozen cuts snakes lurking in the stinging trees waiting for a cassowary. It may be a result of the liberty that comes with increasing distance from the tyranny of inner city elites developing their secret mind-controlling pharmaceuticals to add to our underground water reserves. Or it could just be the balmy weather and barmy environment. Where pretty much everything wants to eat you.
I wouldn’t say Townsville is the capital of Crazytown, but there are certain idiosyncrasies to observe. Perhaps most obviously in the calibre of politicians representing the region, generally observed wearing big hats and force-feeding coal to their grandchildren, insistent that it is the future, it is it is. It is very easy to imagine Friday night here Cold War Steve style, all hi-vis hypermasculinity and gutter-strewn carnage at the foot of the concrete sugar shaker. My taxi driver confirmed as much as he took me to the airport, to pick up a hire car.
I had never been on the strip of land between Townsville and Cairns, and with a few days tagged on to a work trip I was heading up the coast towards Mission Beach. It’s an interesting enough drive with a decent selection of diversions along the way. It’s also a journey of transition from the golden dry tropics to the verdant abundance of the wet.
A little north of Townsville up the Strewth Highway, the blend of dry grassland and tropical rainforest manifests in Paluma Range National Park, with each climbing, narrow turn up the mountain road darkening as undergrowth thickens. Little Crystal Creek is on the cusp of a landscape in change, and a pretty place to pause. Higher up around Paluma, rainforest walks promise at views and deliver in sweatiness, though it’s still a long way from being as bad as it gets in high summer.
It seems a bit ridiculous to talk of a summer in a place that is almost consistently between 26 and 30 degrees year round. Seasons are more marked by a change in humidity, from clear, arid winter days to muggy, stormy summer oppression. You can also throw in the odd cyclone, with the last big, big one – Yasi – hitting the coast around Mission Beach in 2011.
Continuing north up the highway approaching Cardwell, it is hard to picture today. But an enduring image from that storm is the pile of fancy yachts stacked upon one another at Hinchinbrook Marina. Three-quarters of buildings in Cardwell were damaged and the banana crop so tied to this part of the world was devastated. The rugged, pristine environment of Hinchinbrook Island tantalises today. But you wouldn’t have wanted to camp there back then.
Cardwell seems a quiet kind of place, a pit top where the Bruce Highway finally meets the sea. Post-Yasi, a medium sized big crab has been resurrected on the top of a café. As you do. It’s competition along the highway with the Frosty Mango where I have already stopped and the Big Golden Gumboot of Tully in which I am destined to head.
Finally, a turn off at Tully leads towards Mission Beach, which somewhat confusingly is a cluster of villages and bays along a stretch of coast twenty kilometres or so. We’re in a region known as the Cassowary Coast and they sure do emphasise the cassowary part of that nomenclature. Official and unofficial road signs alert you to the presence of this giant flightless bird, warnings that seem worthy given they are dwindling in numbers and most susceptible to road accidents. Some people might fear the cassowary for its strong hook-like claw, but you’ll generally find the ubiquitous Toyota Hilux is more lethal in so many ways.
Of course, being in cassowary country makes you – as they say – naturally cass-o-wary. Walking in dense rainforest at Lacey Creek it’s all a bit like encountering snakes…part of you would be thrilled to see one and to try to take a blurry picture, but part of you would be pooping your pants. Every rustle and fleeting shadow pricks the senses, only for it to be caused by an unseen gecko or another bush turkey.
Down by the sea at Bingil Bay, there is always the chance of a crocodile or a lethal jellyfish to spot instead. Though the hosts at my B&B warned me the crocs are only in the creeks, I’m not so sure about stepping too far into that ocean. I mean, the creeks enter the sea, right. What goes in must come out. And with plenty of mangroves in which to lurk, I can just picture myself sunbaking right there if I was a saltwater crocodile. So, I move briskly on, along a fine, shady boardwalk towards the hub that is North Mission Beach. Where a cold beer with a view is the better means of cooling down, I reckon.
Refreshed and now feeling in holiday mood, there was definitely justification in an afternoon siesta, before working up a sweat again climbing Bicton Hill in Clump Mountain National Park. If cassowaries and crocs weren’t enough, the start of this trail warned of stinging trees, which boast attractive heart shaped leaves and plump purple fruit. The cunning bastards.
The sign at the bottom of the track also warns that this isn’t a walk for everyone, indicating heart-attack potential. But it’s not that bad, just a leafier, slightly deadlier version of Mount Ainslie with views out toward a far-less manicured landscape.
With all this adventure and threat, one of the nice, homely touches of my B&B was the opportunity for drinks on the veranda at six o’clock. With only a few rooms it was cosy and relaxing, a chance to share the escapades of the day with those from further afield. Of course, being a naturalised Australian I was quickly assigned an authority on matters such as swooping birds, the diet of the cassowary, drought and bushfires, the hiding places of redback spiders, the pros and cons of Townsville, and…well…Brexit. I do suppose the Netherlands and Switzerland – especially Switzerland – seem very genteel by comparison.
At the B&B I was also frequently lobbied to try out the Kennedy Walking Track commencing at South Mission Beach. And so, on Sunday morning I decided to give it a go before the drive back to Townsville. And what a great recommendation to take up before eventually returning to the landlocked eucalypt land of four seasons back south. Yay for palm trees and golden sands, mangroves and croccy creeks, and that milky aquamarine sea. Another world in the same country.
I have to say I do think the beaches of the south coast of New South Wales are in many ways better. They are typically finer and sandier and, well, you can generally paddle without as great a fear of being lunch and / or lacerated to death. But then there is just that air to the tropics, a mood and a light and colours so vivid. And palm trees and ferns and – up here – rainforest tumbling down to the sea. Like I say, another world in the same country.
Talking of other worlds, I eventually made it back to Townsville via the largest potato scallops and smallest bites of fish in Ingham. A little early for my flight back, I remembered spotting a huge TV tower on top of a peak just to the west of town when I came to land at the same airport, and duly discovered there was a road to the top. From the summit of Mount Stuart, this possible Crazytown doesn’t seem too mad, distant as I am from its Sunday hangover.
Perhaps madder is the scene inland, where the maddest of mad dogs can flourish. A scene dry and dusty and rugged and foreboding. A world devoid of much, exposed to a harsh, searing heat and unforgiving glare; perhaps you can see why many are happy enough to dig it up. The maddest thing though is that this world can suck you in, can draw you to it, can make you want to step one more foot into its fringe. It might even tempt you to buy a wide brimmed hat and some sturdy RM Williams boots. If only you didn’t have a flight to catch back to sanity.
It’s entirely natural to reminisce about holidays, to #tbt, to revel in the sights and sounds granted by being at leisure. And once home, to miss the adventures, the freedom, the thrill of discovering new places and experiencing a certain degree of randomness along the way. Casting my mind back to January – and a road trip return home – such rose-tinted sentiment is tangible, readily available to grasp.
There seems to be an added dimension of fond reminiscence surrounding this trip though. It was as if it took place in a different age, before the world got a real dumb deal; a time when things were not quite as barking mad, when there was still some value placed on logic and reason and fact, when the majestic pinnacles of the Warrumbungles were less likely to be obliterated in a twitterstorm. Thank goodness I got to see them – and more – on the return to Canberra…
Farewell pineapple paradise
A couple of days on the Sunshine Coast had delivered only intermittent milky doses of sunshine, with homely patches of drizzle persisting throughout my final morning. An obvious light in the dark was the Big Pineapple on the outskirts of Nambour. A possible former plaything of an ex PM and Treasurer of Australia, I felt this was a perfect way to say goodbye to the Sunshine Coast and a suitably symbolic start of another long drive through the heart of Australia.
South of here, along the Steve Irwin Way, are the crikey strewth craggy lumps of the Glasshouse Mountains. I had hoped perhaps to go for a walk, but a dense shower and the constraints of time put a scupper on that. Instead a brief stop at a lookout to watch the cloud graze the jagged edges of rock, and a scurry to the car as it moved overhead and deposited its load was the order of the day.
I decided to circumnavigate Brisbane, heading inland through Woodford, Kilcoy and loosely following the valley of the Brisbane River. Here, it was an insignificant trickle compared to the wide brown water beating a course through the city. At Esk the summer made a splendid return, providing the setting for an exemplary chicken sandwich-making lunch stop.
I was heading towards the New South Wales border and had entered a region promisingly labelled the Scenic Rim. Curious as to how much this was tourism marketing exaggeration, it didn’t take long to ascertain that, for once, this was not fake news. Distant views of extinct volcanic peaks became closer, the green and fertile landscape opening up as the car climbed the curving ribbon of highway to cross the divide. At its apex, Main Range National Park offered one final taste – on a brief jaunt – of the majestic rainforest that had been a significant feature of my trip.
Beyond the rainforest, the road ambled down a valley through what appeared to be a rich vein of farmland. This continued to Warwick, which was a pleasant, well-heeled kind of place, suggesting the surrounding farmland does indeed possess significant richness. From here orchards and vineyards cluster around Stanthorpe, at the heart of the Granite Belt.
Pausing at Stanthorpe the rain had returned and I made use of mobile coverage to assess the likelihood of getting soaked while camping. It was touch and go but I opted to camp a little south in Girraween National Park. This was unlike a Queensland in any of the brochures…cool, cloudy, a little dank. Clusters of giant boulders dotted the landscape, sitting within short and stubby forest and forming natural terrain for pools of water to form.
Here, in Queensland, just a few miles from the state border was a striking replica of Namadgi National Park in the ACT. Weather and all. The granite boulders a symbol of home, the coolness a familiar relief. But – pinching myself – the reality was of another thousand clicks to go, and the impending ordeal of losing an hour tomorrow.
I was definitely the first person to leave the campground the next morning, cognisant of a long day ahead and jumping forward an hour into New South Wales. A lonely road led to Glen Innes, the only memory of which I have is of waiting ages for a coffee and then discovering, driving out of town, that they had decided to put sugar in it. This clouded my opinion of Glen Innes, and driving through the next town of Inverell, I wish I had stopped there instead.
I was back on little used country roads, cutting a smooth swathe through fields of wheat and passing over desolate ranges coated in eucalyptus. I was making a surge to Narrabri, hoping to get there as quickly as possible for lunch. But lunch came quite late (and, inevitably, in KFC), after a few diversions slowed my progress.
Crossing a bridge into Myall Creek, the name registered in my head for some reason. Maybe it was in A Country Practice or had a Big Thing or was the birthplace of some famous Aussie cricketer who sent English wickets cartwheeling towards the Nursery End? If only. Sadly, heartbreakingly, it was the scene of slaughter, as white invaders massacred 28 Aboriginal men, women and children who were camping peacefully on the Myall Creek cattle station in 1838. Even more sadly, grotesquely, such occurrences were not rare. What distinguished this was that for the first time – the only time – white men were arrested, charged, and hanged for the murder of Aborigines.
Today, it is a quiet place of solitude and reflection. The chirping of birdsong persists despite searing heat and baked earth. A simple, memorial walk exists, a swirling red path providing points of information and remembrance. There is talk of healing, of coming together of ancestors, of deep remorse and some kind of hope. A hope that, eventually, love does trump hate.
Myall Creek seems a long way from anywhere. The nearest town of Bingara has a sleepy charm; it’s the kind of place I could be tempted to sup an ice cold schooner in the pub, surely the beating heart of the town. But I head on, closer to the incredible peaks and volcanic plugs of Mount Kaputar National Park. I have a fondness for this spot, which effectively heralded the happy start of an epic trip in 2013. Back then it became a surprisingly good replacement for the Warrumbungles, which had been decimated by bushfire. But now, four years later, I could finally cruise past Mount Kaputar and see how much nature had recovered.
In the bungles, the mighty Warrumbungles
Entering Warrumbungle National Park, it was pretty clear that a fire had ravaged the area; blackened trunks of trees lined the steep slopes and the road produced a patchy, lumpy ride where the tarmac had no doubt melted. Up one of the hills, some of the buildings of Siding Spring Observatory had suffered damage but the telescopes survived. Well, thank goodness for that…we can still scope out future worlds to inhabit when Fake Lord Emperor Pussy Grabber destroys this one.
But this land is a resilient land. Just under four years and further into the heart of the Warrumbungles, the green explosion of new growth is abundant. I was looking forward to exploring it more in the morning. For now, time to make my bed in the delightful surrounds of Camp Blackman and enjoy the added attraction of running water and hot showers.
I was the first person up the next morning again. This was deliberate and well worth it, for I was embarking on a pretty long walk and it would be hot. Returning to the car park towards the end of that walk I passed numerous people coming the other way. Of course I said hello, g’day, howzitgahn but my mind was saying things like good luck you fools, shouldn’t have been so lazy this morning should ya.
With benefit of doubt perhaps they were not doing the entire Breadknife and Grand High Tops walk. Maybe they were just doing the first part, which was gentle and followed the course of a mostly dry creek bed. This would be a rather fine walk in itself, for it is such an elemental, earthy landscape in which to linger. I wasn’t expecting such enchantment here, such homage to the rugged environments further inland, closer to the desert. There was a bit of Flinders Ranges crossed with The Grampians about this place. Two of my favourite ever spots blended into one.
The other benefit of starting early was to witness the early rays of sun graze the hilltops and glow through the tree trunks and branches of the bush. I think the angle of an early sun also helped to illuminate some of the spider webs formed between shrubs on either side of the path, requiring a little stooping and contortion to avoid. Being a pioneer has its downsides and I guess if I was later in the day many of these webs would have been smashed by hapless walkers that had come before.
Inevitably after a couple of kilometres the track climbed, with a steep but nicely constructed path giving way to endless metal steps. This was taking me up towards the Breadknife, so named because of its sheer sided slopes and thin pointed summit thrust into the sky like a scene from Crocodile Dundee in which Mick shows some New York Hoodlum a proper knife. Up close, you couldn’t really see it, but, eventually, when the trees fade away and the rocky floor of the Grand High Tops themselves are underfoot, the knife is there, just one of many rocky crags and rounded lumps rising up from an incredible sea of green.
“Call that a knife?” was the current expression that was going through my head as I sat and ate some cold bacon sandwiches premade from the night before. I didn’t say this out loud, because two other hikers soon joined me in admiring the view. Distant to the west, beyond the sweep of green was a flat, yellow expanse that would extend to – well – Perth? Behind, further rocky mounds and eucalypt forest reached to the horizon; a horizon I would be heading towards later in the day.
But first, descent. It wasn’t too bad, apart from a few larger rocky steps somewhat deformed and eroded into that gravelly stuff that is treacherous underfoot. Luckily I stayed upright, apart from the numerous times ducking under spider webs again, some of them occupied by things which are probably perfectly fine but Australian and therefore potentially deadly. Such was the profusion of webs in the shadow of the Breadknife, I grabbed a stick and waved it up and down in front of me. For a moment I felt like Harry Potter, but this particular wand had a success rate of something like 25%.
The largest, ugliest, potentially deadliest spider sat low over the path, guarding the final section of the loop back to the metal steps. I started to take a photo of it and it looked at me as if it didn’t really like being in pictures. So I stopped. Wary, I assessed any alternative routes but to the left of me, a scrubby, rocky drop and to the right a cliff face. There was nothing for it but to crouch as low as possible, scramble quickly underneath and avoid looking up.
Further down the trail I encountered a young lady throwing rocks at another occupied web. It was one I must have ducked under a couple of hours earlier. She looked terrified and said as much. In trying to comfort and reassure, I told her it was probably the last of them and moved promptly on. She scarpered under the web to continue her walk while I went to look at a deadly snake. Pausing at a little wooden bridge over the dry creek, a beautiful Red-bellied black meandered along the rocks beneath. It was quite mesmerising, until it disappeared out of sight, when it became a snake that I couldn’t see and therefore significantly less appealing.
Come to Warrumbungle National Park, to experience an epic, timeless Australian landscape and to appreciate its friendly animals. Actually, do come. I loved this place more than anywhere else on my trip. Good campgrounds, great walks, beautiful country. And only six solid hours from Canberra…so I may return!
Old country for no men
A couple of hours and I was back in more familiar country. Dubbo is one of my token regional research towns and I had a sense of déjà vu checking into a motel with a plastic cow on a pole out front. But still, a motel, with refurbished rooms, air-conditioning and a king-sized bed. After my morning adventures, what better way to appreciate this scenario than nap.
I was still a little weary as the evening emerged, so randomly stumbled upon the comfort and cooling refuge of the local cinema. Star Wars and a natural blue raspberry Slush Puppie in a cinema in Dubbo. It was like it was 1985 again.
The next morning, after obligatory buffet breakfast, I set off on the final stretch of road home. It was a day in which there was little of note. As a commemoration of all things road trip I made a spontaneous stop at a place called Peak Hill. Here I went on a little walk along the perimeter of a big hole in the ground, previously mined for gold. While gold sounds glamorous, it was a hot and dusty walk with countless flies trying to go up my nose and the pervasive smell of urine in the air.
South of here, Parkes had a more pleasant aroma, decent coffee, and was positively bustling with the prospect of Elvis coming to town. Or thousands of Elvises (or Elvi?) all dressed up for the annual festival, starting in a few days. If ever you needed an encapsulation of randomness this was it. Seeking quirky Elvis sights, many shops were filled with posters for upcoming Elvis impersonation gigs, and a couple of murals were dotted about the town. One, I was informed by a very enthusiastic lady, lit up at night and projected videos and played songs out loud and everything. I should come back tonight she said. I got my coffee and moved on.
From here, more familiar names like Canowindra, Cowra and Boorowa passed by. All surrounded by a gentle landscape of golden wheat fields and occasional strips of bushland. It was a placid, smooth, easy ride where the only real highlight was the prospect of falling asleep at the wheel and creating a massive fireball visible for miles around. A frozen coke kept me going to join the Hume Highway and bypass Yass. The Hume Highway! Yass! This is practically home.
Of the 4,232 kilometres covered on this trip to Queensland and back there were around 50 more to go. Past Poacher’s Pantry where a pre-Christmas lunch lingered in the memory; across the state border and back into capital territory; a roundabout and empty dual carriageway through bush towards home. The city of Canberra is here somewhere, but I could still be out on the open road, in the middle of nowhere. Suburbia and never-ending apartment construction does finally emerge. There are supermarkets in which to replenish supplies, and, crucially, stock up on hot cross buns for Easter.
It is January 9th and with a cup of tea and hot cross bun I am relaxing at home. It is always nice to be home for sure. The ready availability of a bed and shower are not to be underestimated. However, there is that slight disappointment in the air of a good trip finished. With summer still in full swing and the prospect of extensive work minimal, there are still days ahead which could be holiday-like. But they will be comparatively static, comfortable, predictable. Well, at least until January 20th 2017.
If you really enjoyed this endless waffle or have more time to kill while you should be working or doing something far more productive, check out the other two parts of my Christmas and New Year trilogy. Like Star Wars, only less something something something dark side.
Part 1: Back on the road: Canberra-Mudgee-Scone-Tamworth-Armidale-Grafton-Lismore
Part 2: Sweaty New Year: Ballina-Nerang-Brisbane-Stradbroke Island-Sunshine Coast
One of the things I was keen on doing in Seoul was to get out of Seoul. Not substantially, but enough to satisfy an idealised Zen-like image in my head of rugged mountains cloaked in forest with the occasional temple perched upon a rocky outcrop. The kind of scene you might expect to see on the front of a guide book, probably in the midst of a multicoloured autumn. A throwback to times past, to tradition, to a world before Samsung, M*A*S*H and Kim Jong-Un being weird across a border.
Thankfully I noticed the presence of Bukhansan National Park literally on the northern and western doorstep of Seoul. My guide book with idealised images told me you could reach here on the metro and offered a walk from one station to another, via winding trails, mountainous ridges and occasional temples. It also advised avoiding the weekends, because half of Seoul would be here.
So it was a Friday and unbeknown to me a public holiday. The train to Dobongsan was suspiciously bustling with people in sturdy shoes, sweat-proof tops and the kind of trousers with 12 pockets and 20 zips. From the station it was not at all difficult to find the park entrance – just follow the backpacked mass past more food stalls and stores selling outdoor adventure wear (should you decide you look conspicuously out of place in everyday shorts and a plain T shirt).
The stream of people continued along the first, generously wide and paved section of a trail, thinning slightly with the introduction of a junction. Before long, an incessant parade of steps appeared, the upward thrust causing pockets of walkers to pause and congregate in clusters for water, snack bars, some even breaking out a stove and cooking up a soupy concoction. Barring a handful of souls, almost everyone was Korean and I received the odd, surprised, what is he doing here look. One old guy offered me a boiled sweet in broken English, proclaiming them as the elixir to conquer Jaunbong. In our stilted conversation, he deduced that I was from Austria, noting his love of Mozart and possibly proclaiming the hills to be alive. For an Austrian, such climbing as it was here should be a breeze. For an Australian: faaaaaaahk.
There was no breeze and it was tough going…particularly given it was the day after I had arrived on a plane from England and then gorged on fried chicken. Some welcome respite came at Cheonchuksa, a small detour leading away from the upward procession and revealing a temple and its various ornaments snuggled into a cliff. Simultaneously serene and vivid, offering fresh water to refill bottles, to take a break, to tread briefly on level ground and tiptoe in a suitably reverential hush. I could have lingered and napped.
But apparently the path to enlightenment continues up and up, past increasingly frequent groups pausing for food and water, wiping sweating brows, recovering breath and looking somewhat abject. Eyes silently pleaded when would this end, how much more of this would there be? Signs that were once in Korean and English had reverted to Korean but I deduced there was something like a kilometre to the top. And it probably took an hour, but after that time a rocky crag appeared above the forest. Bedecked with yet more picnickers, convivial and relieved, catching hazy, smoggy views of the hills and occasional snatches of suburban apartment tower sprawl.
It was more like a series of mountaintops here, some reached via slick rock faces and chains, others by more sedate steps and switchbacks. In fact, there were paths leading off in any number of directions to various places unknown. The two information signs I could find were practically unfathomable and after an enthusiastic and accurate start my guidebook had given up the ghost. I’d like to say it was through rational deduction and decision-making that I made the right choice, but it was 90% luck and 10% checking the compass direction on my phone.
Beyond the top of Jaunbong the trail became blissfully less populous and delightfully more even. It broadly followed the Podaeneugsan ridgeline through a patchwork of fragrant shrubs and shady trees, pierced by a series of rocky platforms with more murky views to Seoul. In the lull between two of these outcrops, a path dropped down towards Mangwolsa Temple, where I finally found my nirvana.
The path to enlightenment is never easy and after a long slog upwards all day it was only when gravity was on my side that I fell completely ass over tit. A winding, gravelly descent was more competent than my footwear and I received a very nice caking of dust over one side of my body. No-one else was present to witness this event, something I was actually pleased about in terms of embarrassment management. It’s kind of like if a tree falls in a forest and if no-one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
Unharmed and dusting myself off as best I could, a few more corners led to the reveal of Mangwolsa Temple. This was the kind of place I had imagined before coming to South Korea, the idealised image within forested mountains far from the madding crowd. Yes, for a guide book cover the sky could have been clearer, the foliage more autumnal. But this was pretty much exactly as I had imagined (making me wonder if somewhere, subconsciously, I had viewed such an image). Featuring a bonus water fountain in which to clean myself up and refresh, this pause, this retreat was worth the hike, including the looming, endless shin-jarring descent back into the confines of Seoul.