Golly Gosh

Traditionally, the end of June has come to resemble a key juncture in my life: the culmination of the financial year acting as impetus for all sorts of project completions and invoice requirements and quick-turnaround work tasks. Traditionally.

Traditionally I would also, thanks to this purple patch, begin turning my attention to a trip overseas, to Europe, escaping some of winter and connecting again with treasured family and friends. Traditional cream teas would compete with a traditional trip to Looe for a pasty and a traditional offload of dirty laundry to Mum.

But tradition has been chucked out of the window. Of a twenty storey building. Then trampled over by a herd of elephants before being set on fire alongside a car park full of dumpsters. Attempts at home made pasties and Tilba cream prove B-grade substitutes. I continue to do my own laundry. The end-of-financial-year hubbub is subdued.

In many previous years it would have been unimaginable heading for a day out on the 29th June. Unless it was to a beige motel to complete some frantic discussion about something of great importance with eight citizens of Goulburn. All to get the country perspective. Perhaps it was some innate response mechanism propelling me up the Federal Highway today. To get another country perspective.

In COVID escapes from Canberra I think things peaked with a day on the South Coast. A trip to Goulburn was never really going to compete, even if I could stop off at Collector again for coffee. Still, I managed to find a couple of attractions along with a decent, good value spot to pick up some treats for later. Which always helps.

At Marsden Weir, the Wollondilly River forms an attractive body of water by which to amble. On a kink in the river, the sturdy red brick building of the Goulburn Historic Waterworks adds even more spice. There is a touch of Victorian endeavour about it – quite a rarity in Australia – and you can imagine Tony Robinson visiting it on his fourteenth series of Mildly Interesting Places in Regional New South Wales. He would explain how the waterworks were constructed in 1885 and form – wait for it – the “only complete, steam powered municipal water supply left in its original location, in the Southern Hemisphere.” Quite a lot of caveats to prominence there.

Being a weekday in midwinter and almost the end of the tax year there were just a handful of curious souls nosing around at the waterworks. You could – though – imagine banks of people in summer, supping locally-brewed ales and indulging in hearty lunches by the water. Perhaps a nearby cottage would supply cream teas and coffee and walnut cake. This is all in my dreams of course; nothing of the like seems to happen here. But perhaps it should be the way forward when we can all meet again.

Another prominent sight sits atop a hill which I have often glimpsed at a hundred and ten kilometres an hour on the way to Sydney. This is the Rocky Hill War Memorial Tower and there is a road up to its base. The tower was constructed in 1925 and you can walk to the top – after an application of hand sanitiser – to take in the scene. This provides a fine overview of Goulburn, spreading out on the southwestern side of the rail line. In the foreground, Goulburn East has its own, historic village feel going on, segregated from the rest of town by wetlands and a golf course. If I were to live in Goulburn, perhaps I would choose here; it just seems to have a touch more charm.

I ate my takeaway lunch overlooking the landscape from the hill and mulled over what to do for the remainder of the day. Being only lunchtime, I had seemingly exhausted the sights of Goulburn, with the obvious exception of the Big Merino. North of the tower some attractive bushland hills promise exploration but seem devoid of any walking trails. Far better to head to somewhere reliable, somewhere familiar, somewhere spectacular.

Bungonia National Park is probably the closest manifestation of rugged sandstone gorge country to Canberra and – of course – Goulburn. It is a landscape typical of much of the country surrounding the Sydney Basin, with heroic rivers carving out precipitous cliffs and deep ravines. As well as millions of eucalyptus, these landscapes are home to a few of my favourite things, including numerous lookouts.

Having been here several times before, I initially took a walk on the Orange Track. It’s probably the least exciting of the trails but offers a fairly easy stroll through open forest to a pleasant enough view in between the trees. You can tell it’s not going to be the most dramatic walk since the description suggests you might see a koala – surely only there to try and keep the kids occupied. What struck me more than anything was the absolute peace and quiet. Perhaps this was balm to the freneticism and clamour of downtown Goulburn.

It was supposed to be a sunny day today, but any mid-morning brightness had largely disappeared to a layer of white and grey. There were even a few spots of rain as I neared Bungonia Lookdown. Here, a platform leads out towards and dangles over the valley. It is a captivating, spectacular scene dramatically ruined by a quarry nestled in a hilltop to the north. But retaining focus on the valley, a few miracle shafts of sunlight suddenly appear to conjure up some kind of prehistoric lost world.

There is even a hint of rainbow in the air, but this quickly fades along with the sun and the rain. Yet I feel brightened and warmed by this visit and an appreciation once again of how lucky I am to be here today. To have this sort of wilderness on your doorstep. If you consider a ninety minute drive via the city of Goulburn your doorstep.

While Bungonia definitely lifted the day, there was clear benefit in stopping in Goulburn which became realised at my final stop. Adams Lookout provides another stunning view into Bungonia and – in particular – the narrow defile of Slot Canyon. There was something about the squidgy datey syrupy oaty nutty sugary slice that I had bought earlier that lifted things to another level. I daresay I would travel to Goulburn again to get my hands on one.

It was no cream tea but just the tonic to power me home. I even found a different route back which surprised me by being sealed the whole way – down to Tarago and back on familiar roads from Bungendore. Thus to experience the wonders of Bungonia you could actually avoid Goulburn entirely. Though I doubt if I will. I feel more likely a new experience, a new tradition has now been born.

Australia Driving Food & Drink Green Bogey Photography Walking

Walking is…

In many ways, the capacity to ramble is greater than ever. I could easily stray into a verbal diarrhoea of epidemiology, politics, moronic human behaviour and what is and isn’t an essential service. Leaf blowers buzzing around outside, here’s especially looking at you.

But where to start? Writing is going to be a necessary feature of my life over the next however long, but I am not sure yet in what form. Should I keep a diary, adding to the millions of ramblings that might one day become a document of historical import? Samuel Pepys, Anne Frank, Adrian Mole. Neil. Day 8. Watched Come Dine With Me to kill 25 minutes. Send help. Besides, diaries are so passé when we can simply capture extraordinary times through a ten second twerk-off on TikTok.

No, for now I shall temper these ramblings and focus on another. Walking. What is it with the world – or at least Australia for the time being – and a newfound discovery of using your own two feet? Parks, lake shores, bush tracks, deserted shopping malls, trips with the snotty kids around the entirety of Bunnings for ‘essentials’? I guess walking is good for the health but also a representation of freedom, perhaps the only one we can still self-determine*. Walking is essential.

Strangely – paradoxically in socially distanced times – the at-one-with-nature experience that I’m used to is harder to come by, even around Canberra. There is both adventure and anxiety in a walk outdoors. Keeping the current 1.5 metre distance presents opportunity for exciting real-life gameplay, predicting paths of intersection and veering and weaving appropriately. God forbid anyone who passes without shuffling across to the other edge of the path. Eye rolls and mutterings await as you hastily plunge into the long grass.

And then there is the stress of someone approaching from behind, faster, inching nearer with every step. You hurriedly up your own pace to maintain a distance. Or strategically stand aside to check your phone or sip some water or suppress a sneeze. If another person is coming from the other direction at the same time on a narrow path, the complexities escalate exponentially. Stay At Home you think. Only them, not me.

All of which brings us to a trail along the Murrumbidgee River, littered with such experiences. Just a short drive from home I figured this would allow an essence of escapism and a dose of natural wilderness. Surely most people would be buying their 87th bag of fusilli from Woolworths anyway? Most, but not all.

rck02Setting off from Kambah Pool I delayed as a family group embarked on the route to Red Rocks Gorge. Best give them some distance. Wedging myself in between that mob and another mob congregating to follow, things were rosy at first. The landscape still an astonishing green, the river replenished, meandering gently through the steep sided valley untamed and untrammelled. This was freedom.

But then I needed to pee. The pause meant gaps became narrowed, and as the following mob paced closer, I did the whole strategic drink of water and look at phone off to the side thing. To be honest, as much as I didn’t really want to contract any viruses off this group, their constant nattering was irking me more. Off you go. Let me enjoy this nature that we still have.

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The obligation to avoid people proved the making of the walk. It simply just had to be me and the natural world, nothing more. To the extent that I shunned the intended finish point at Red Rocks Gorge Lookout, wary of the sound of kids and the hand-smeared barrier overlooking the river. Instead, I opted to follow the Murrumbidgee further south, eventually finding myself – naturally – at Red Rocks Gorge.

Call me simple but I’d always figured Red Rocks Gorge Lookout, um, looked out over Red Rocks Gorge. Now, I suppose a gorge can be a sinuous geological feature, but I had always wondered where the red rocks were. It turns out they are – after another kilometre of near solitary walking – down there to my right. An almost incongruous outcrop of not quite red rock erupting from the bush.

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A rough trail descended steeply towards the rock, the kind of trail where you are cognisant of each step down being an arduous clamber later. A test of the lungs. But the magnetism of a big rock, a sight, an attraction draws you closer still. There didn’t seem to be anyone else around either. As if this was my own little discovery, my own little secret. A spot to dangle legs over the water and eat a thoroughly washed apple. Nature. Exercise. Freedom.

Only I wasn’t alone. Over the other side, lending perspective on the scale of this gorge, a climber inched his way up via crevice and fold. Seems like extreme lengths to take to distance yourself but hey ho. It is 2020* after all. And being 2020 it wasn’t too long before other hikers and picnickers discovered my gorge, shared my nature, embraced my wilderness. I even talked to a couple, from afar. Mostly about the unique challenges of walking these days. And the utter, essential comfort, the absolute escape it can still bring us.

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* Everything should be asterisked. Just because. 2020*

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On matters of walking, did you know I have another blog that is even more poorly maintained and badly written? Where, from the confines of your own home you can revel in the sights and sounds of the world from two feet. I figure that – as well as soap – you may have some time on your hands and there is only so much sorting out of cupboards to be done. There’s a fair chance I too will add some more content to this in weeks ahead. If our bodies cannot escape, our minds still can wander.

Walkingisfree.com focuses on individual walks in various parts of the world that I have visited. It’s not all ‘turn left one hundred metres after the ferret farm’ stuff. Though there is a bit of this. Just in case you are inspired in the future. Walking is the new sitting after all.

Australia Green Bogey Walking

Flying by

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.

riv01There 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

riv10Still, 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.

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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.

Australia Driving Green Bogey Photography Walking

South to North

Frosts. Enough already! But it was heavy rain with milder conditions greeting me at five o’clock in the morning bound for Canberra Airport. Despite very little traffic, every light was red, the automatic check in counter didn’t recognise me and I was, with some sympathy, relayed the news that I was too late. I looked forlorn, beaten, empty. I felt as much.  But throw in a few calls and they managed to arrange some fog in Brisbane to delay my flight and leave me with a 12 hour trip to Darwin. Annoying but also blessed.

It is hard to be anything but languid in the tropics. I felt the odd man out putting on trousers and shoes to undertake work. But in between there were outdoor coffee stop laptop catch ups, esplanade strolls, and post-work reduced-price eating at the Mindil Beach Night Markets. And there were shorts, fully taking advantage of The Dry, which provides an unstinting predictability of blue skies and 33 degrees. Darwin grew on me, but mainly because it wasn’t The Wet. And I’m not sure I could live here, because it only seems to attain adequate on the coffee measurement scale.

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NT02Having come so far, I was determined to explore beyond Darwin during The Dry, so tacked on an extra night to squeeze in what most people would probably do over two or three days. An early start on Saturday and speed limits of 130km/h help, and I found myself entering Litchfield National Park before ten; just in front of the procession of tour buses (invariably named things like Crocco Tours, The Top End Crocosaurus, NT Outback Crocclebus etc etc) entering the parking area of Florence Falls.

I had been here in The Wet and it was, undeniably, very wet (there is a blunt truth to many a Top End expression). Today, there was still plenty of water gushing from the twin cascades and into a perfect swimming hole, which soon became populated by sagging swimsuits and shocking Speedos (the tour buses had arrived). No wonder the crocs keep away!

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Off the beaten track just a little, a path leads back to the car park following a small, shady creek. It’s called Shady Creek. Again, I remember this in February, when the path was subsumed by the creek and crossing took a bit of arms-linked watch where you put your feet and hope there’s not a snake there kind of affair. Today, with barely a soul venturing this way from the pools, it was a masterpiece of tranquillity. And still devoid of snakes.

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Rejoining the Stuart Highway I noted Alice Springs was a mere 1402 kilometres south. And between there, not very much at all. Apart from Katherine, which for quite a long time I pictured as a cute, small-town feel kind of spot nestled in a rocky valley beside the tree-lined meander of the Katherine River. It might even have a nice organic coffee place with homemade Hummingbird cake and copies of The Guardian.

About one hundred clicks out, and with the road trip feels returning to my synapses, I remembered to readjust my expectations. I’m glad I did; not that there was anything wrong with Katherine, but I was restricted to Woollies and Red Rooster for dinner. Nonetheless, it didn’t matter, for Katherine was purely a functional base from which to enter Nitmiluk, more commonly known as Katherine Gorge, a place I had neither been in The Wet nor The Dry.

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The benefit of a long drive was arriving in the latter part of the day, with the air cooling just a smidgeon and the light all radiant amber. It was so good, so captivating, that I hiked for a little longer than I planned, detouring an extra few kilometres through rocky valleys and verdant oases to Pat’s Lookout. Grand and serene, primeval and elemental, it was a surprise to be joined this late in the day by a couple of backpackers. But we didn’t say much, other than accented helloes, perhaps because we were just a little beholden by the world we were in.

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The light sunk lower as I headed back down towards the visitor centre, confident that I would make it before it became too dark. And indeed, my timing was only a little out, as the last red hues of the sun cast the top of the escarpment aflame. These are the scenes you live for in the Australian outback, these are the memories that never fade.

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Almost everyone who comes to Nitmiluk goes out onto the water. My restricted time meant the only option was the Dawn Cruise the next morning, before a race back to Darwin Airport. I think even if I had longer to linger, this would still have been the best option, with only a scattering of people aboard to witness the calm commencement of a magical new day.

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Quick tour guide factoid 1: there are actually nine gorges in Nitmiluk, inevitably named Gorge 1, Gorge 2, Gorge 3 etc. During The Wet, the natural rock barriers between each get flooded, allowing saltwater crocodiles a little greater room for exploration.

Quick tour guide factoid 2: the park rangers undertake a Saltie capture and release program to clear the gorge when the waters have subsided. This was in operation now. But Freshwater crocs are there all the time. Like over there, quick, look, just to the right of the boat. But the worse a Freshie can do is tear off your arm or some such.

Quick tour guide factoid 3: we have now come to the end of Gorge 1, so it’s time to get out of the boat and make your way for about 400 metres to the next boat and Gorge 2. It’s all rather gorgeous.

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As the sun slowly rises into a field of dotted high cloud, it intermittently breaks through to illuminate massive canyon walls topped with precariously positioned trees. The water flickers with a murmur of wind. A cormorant sits statue in a branch half submerged by water. Sandy beaches and mangroves are interspersed, sometimes disappearing into the fissures and fault lines of the massive sandstone plateau that stretches far into Arnhem Land.

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I could never ever pretend to understand what it is like to be an Aboriginal Australian. To be one of the Jawoyn people who have lived with this land for tens of thousands of years, way before a British Lieutenant was a twinkle in his father’s eye. To live, to breath, to die upon a land that they do not see themselves as owning but of being one of itself. It was a land that was a privilege, just for a few hours, to be a part of. And it seemed strange, very strange indeed, to know that I would be back in an artificial white man’s capital, a freezing white man’s capital, later that day.

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Australia Driving Green Bogey Photography Walking

Back on the road

xa01Christmas Day came and went with little fuss; a suitable blend of English traditions (think paper hats, Christmas pudding and rubbish TV) and Australian holiday (cue swimming pools, prawns and rubbish TV). And the next day like millions across both hemispheres, I hit the road to expand my horizons, meet up with others, and curse at the appalling driving ubiquitous across the highways and byways of the land.

My destination was Brisbane and a tad beyond. In the first of three undeniably thrilling instalments I shall take you with me on the journey north. I had determined to go inland, avoiding the ludicrous middle and outer lane hogging of the Sydney motorways and the family-fuelled people carrier congestion of the coast. Yes, I would mostly miss the beautiful cooling ocean but there is a lot to see in the interior of Australia, believe it or not…

Boxing Day mash up

xa02Setting out, the tones of Jim Maxwell narrating the Boxing Day test helped me along familiar ground to Goulburn and then round the back of the Blue Mountains via Taralga and Oberon. I’m not quite sure when the familiar becomes, well, exotic, but I had never been to Hartley before and I wasn’t expecting to see emus along the roadside. Attempting to quell this confronting change, I popped in for some afternoon tea in the cutesy national trust cafe. Devonshire scones with clearly non-Devonshire cream. Sigh. When will they learn?!

The journey proceeded through Lithgow and alongside the expansive Capertree Valley, where my first lookout stop offered a surprising reveal of a sweeping landscape. From here, the final sandstone ridges of the Blue Mountains stand bastion over a green carpet of eucalyptus, and – closer to the road – the occasional green taming of human activity. Apparently the Capertree Canyon is the second biggest in the world after that gargantuan gorge called The Grand Canyon. Which clearly makes it the largest in the southern hemisphere. However, despite this billing, for me, it was a detour too far.

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xa05With the day drawing to a conclusion I had to make haste to my first camp spot, passing through a seemingly deserted Mudgee, and hitting the gravel roads into Goulburn River National Park. Here I surprised myself at how efficiently I made camp, setting up gear which had not seen the light of day for a few years. Yes, the swag was back and loving its natural environment.

xa04With all this travel and excitement it was easy to forget that it was Christmas time and today was Boxing Day. It certainly didn’t feel like a typical Boxing Day, but I paid a little homage to tradition by boiling up and coarsely mashing some potatoes and carrot, serving it with some ham, and adding a few pickled onions and a pile of Branston. This camp stove and esky creation was a perfect amalgamation of English traditions and Australian summer holiday, a supremely satisfying garnish to this first day.

To England, my New England

The next morning dawned sunny and warm, a hot day ahead to progress north into New England. At some point – Merriwa I think – I rejoined a road I had once been on, and the New England Highway steadily progressed towards Tamworth. Some may disagree, but I find this route north to Brisbane more scenic, more interesting than the Pacific Highway, which follows the coast but sufficiently distant from it to rarely glimpse the gorgeousness of Pacific Ocean.

Here, the landscape is rolling and golden and covered in a warming glow. Sun-baked fields and picket-fenced horse studs line the highway, frequently terminating at abrupt rises in the land and wilderness once more. A steady stream of small towns gladly interrupt the journey, adding the interest of random claims to fame, elegant facades, and Driver Revivers. And road signs proclaim only 700kms to Brisbane. I could be there in a tick.

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xa06bBut obviously I stop and detour and make inevitable visits to big things like a giant golden guitar in Tamworth. It’s my third time here but I still cannot resist the allure of such a curious, iconic Australian landmark. The car and I refuel, we park up and make lunch of ham sandwiches and crisps. And, comfortably gathering that road trip rhythm, we set off once more, another hundred clicks up the road to Armidale.

From Armidale I find myself heading south and east…not exactly the direction for Brisbane. But just a little way out of town, farmland gives up and a corner of Oxley Wild Rivers National Park is accessible. This is gorge country which – after rain – boasts the promise of waterfalls. In the midst of this summer Dangars Falls is absent, but the deep gorge is clearly less fickle and the campground nestled above it is a delight.

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After setting up with even more surprising efficiency there are a few hours left in the long summer day for a bit of a walk. It is the perfect time of day and – at what must be approaching 1000 metres in altitude – the temperature is pleasant, the walk shady, and possessing only a couple of manageable inclines to negotiate. The final couple of kilometres weave along a ridge high above the chasms carved by Salisbury Waters, leading to an abrupt halt at McDirtys Lookout. It may sound like it’s named after a slang term for a ubiquitous fast food burger chain, but there are no car parks, no neon signs, no frozen cokes in sight. Just a landscape preserved thanks to its inaccessibility and the wild rivers that made it.

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In the Washpool

Day three and already I was making spontaneous changes to my vaguely pre-defined route. Instead of heading up a boring looking road to Glen Innes, the journey took me along a section of the Waterfall Way and then cut across on a quiet, winding road to Grafton.

xa09Along the Waterfall Way I could make a mid-morning stop at Ebor Falls, a site I had previously encountered boasting a couple of quite magnificent waterfalls. Today, they were an inferior imitation of what I remembered, reduced to a trickle and hidden in the shadows from the morning sun. But as road stop rest stops go, there was plenty to savour: a gentle shady walk along the valley rim, pockets of wildflowers and patches of birdlife, the smell of the bush. All under the deepest blue skies.

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It is broadly along the latitude of the Waterfall Way that the first of a number of pockets of ancient rainforest appear; clusters which frequently emerge all the way north from here, up to and across the Queensland border. Dorrigo National Park is the first and has much to adore. But having been there and done that, I was keen to make it to a large swathe further north.

xa11From KFC in Grafton, the car headed through patches of woodland and along the picturesque valley of the Mann River. Rugged ranges loomed, neared and eventually required climbing; like so many roads from the coast to the inland, hairpins and lookouts and massive tree ferns clinging to the eastern escarpment. Atop all this a dirt road led off the highway and plunged into the rainforest of Washpool National Park.

The Washpool walk provided nine kilometres to stare up at giant trees and admire the light through the vivid green canopy. Vines and creepers tempted Tarzan escapades. Humidity sapped and a small waterfall offered only gentle relief while also hastening the need to pee. It was an immersive and captivating rainforest experience but – perhaps after another long, hot day – a couple of kilometres too far in my opinion. Still, at least I had sweated out maybe one piece of southern fried chicken.

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xa13I felt as though I had earned a beer and decided to take one with me on a brief amble to a lookout near the park entrance. This is the benefit of having everything in the car and, um, the beer would provide hydration if I ended up getting lost or bitten by a snake or something, right? Thankfully the lookout was a mere stroll and the satisfaction of that coldish beer on that bench on those rocks in that peace with that view under early evening skies without the prospect of getting lost and having snakes for company was something to cherish.

While the beer episode is up there, it was just about surpassed by waking the next morning beside Coombadjha Creek. This is why you put up with a little discomfort and a lot of phaff by camping. You feel part of the environment, immersed in the landscape, at one with nature. Even if this means enduring the bittersweet alarm call of shrieking and cackling at four in the morning.

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xa15Before breakfast, before packing up, before moving on once more, I could hatch out of the swag and wake up with the world around me. Virtually from my bed a small trail followed the pristine waters of the creek and looped back through a large stand of Coachwood. The sun gradually made its appearance, shafts of light angling through the trees and shimmering through the ferns onto the water. The creek was clear and cool, and after three nights of camping without a shower, it was tempting to bathe. But I really didn’t want to ruin its purity; my mind turned to the allure of the ocean instead.

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Return to a civilisation

xa17Without going into lurid detail I did wash each day thanks to boiling water and the use of a bucket, an art mastered in the trip of 2013 with Jill. Simultaneously I could make a cuppa, grill some toast and prepare my morning sink. Sure, it wasn’t exactly luxurious or even two star, but it allowed me some confidence to mingle a little with civilisation each day and order a morning coffee, buy petrol and ice. Which is exactly what I did in Grafton after descending from the hills that morning.

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Heat had been building on this trip and by now it really was scorchio. I could resist the ocean no more and joined the masses along the Pacific Highway, turning off towards Yamba. Outside of school holidays I am sure this is an easy-going little coastal town. Today a shady car park was at a premium and the wait for fish and chips was half an hour. But it had several beaches lapped by clear and calm water in which to linger. I finally felt that a layer of inland Australia had been cleansed, only to be replaced by salt, sand and – subsequently – fish and chip grease.

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xa20I encountered my first inexplicable traffic jam north of Yamba and speculated that this was being replicated up and down the highway. Still, I only had twenty clicks at a snail’s pace before I could turn off and head to Lismore. Lismore was to herald my proper return to civilisation, something which some people would find surprising in relation to Lismore. But I was to sleep in a proper bed and have a proper shower here, both of which I was quick to enjoy upon arrival. Refreshed and walking Lismore’s unfathomably charming streets, I felt part of normal society again.

Yet after the joy of showering and napping on a double bed and walking a little along the Wilsons River, I felt lost. This habitat, this environment, this standing still in one place felt a little odd. Still with a couple of hours of daylight to spare, I drove out into the lush countryside, through stretched out villages hidden amongst the trees boasting honesty fruit stalls, lefty views, and probable marijuana. To Nightcap National Park, where some falls were missing but where the late sun bathed the forest in gold. Just me and the Subaru, enjoying the last beer from the esky, the final slice of ham. We had come far and – refreshed – we could carry on until the end of days. Or, more likely, until I needed a shower and craved a soft double bed again.

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Australia Driving Green Bogey Photography Walking

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Just over the hills yet far away there is a landscape of sweeping upland plains, forested ridges and snaking river gorges. Wild Brumbies gallop gracefully across the grasslands or socialise under the shade of a clutch of gum trees. Kangaroos on a family outing peer up out of the golden tufts, looking fairly nonplussed about it all. Cockatoos predictably shriek and magpies chime sweet melodies. The skies are big and low and can almost be touched.

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The Cooleman Plain is about 50 kilometres from downtown Canberra, as the cockatoo flies. For us humans with four decent and independently operating wheels, it takes about 200, detouring south to pass round the Brindabella Mountains. The ride is scenic heading down the length of Namadgi National Park. The border crossing into NSW is modest, marked more strikingly by a deterioration of road surface than anything else. And then the joy of tarmac in Adaminaby is only eclipsed by the sight of the Big Trout.

Other than a giant fibre glass trout there is not much to distract in Adaminaby, so you head promptly in what seems to be – finally – the right direction. Kiandra – an abandoned high country settlement spurred on by gold – sits bleak amongst boggy plains and barren ridges. There is a touch of upland England in the vista, that same sparse striking beauty available in the high parts of Dartmoor or the Peak District. But the gum trees tell you this is unmistakably Australia, as you head down into the sheltered green valley housing the Yarrongobilly Caves.

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cool02I have been here before, but that was almost ten years ago. Almost ten years, when I first arrived to live in Australia, intending to stay for a year! I couldn’t remember much of it, though the giant hole in the ceiling of one cave opening triggered something approaching recollection. But the river walk must have been new, at least for my feet, and the thermal pool – a steady 27 degrees all year – offered surprise and consideration for wintertime lolling.

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Back up the chasm and across from Yarrangobilly, the upland plains stretch out north and east, interrupted occasionally by hilly islands of trees and the long barrier of the not-so-distant Brindabellas. I am heading towards Canberra again and almost expect to catch a glimpse of the needle tower on Black Mountain. But of course I don’t, the high peaks of Bimberi, Gingera and Ginini standing in the way.  I have been up there, and it seems oh so close.

By now the day is moving towards an end and there is a wonderful aura in the light, filtering at an angle onto the grasses and gums of the Cooleman Plain. Keen to take a walk in this golden hour I follow the dirt road towards the remnants of Coolamine Homestead. There is no-one else around and I daresay the Brumbies are more attuned to seeing cars hurtling past than humans gently ambling. A couple seem protective, endlessly circling, snorting, staring me down in an effort to keep me away. I am wary but they allow me passage.

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Coolamine Homestead is one of many that dot the highlands within and around Kosciuszko National Park. Practically all are now abandoned, the toil of work and life in such isolated and unforgiving climes proving too much to sustain. Coolamine is at least restored and, with this, promises a certain cosiness and tranquillity, at least on such a beautiful March evening as this. But you just know the winters will be harsh, the life lonely, the work unviable. Plus there is no mobile signal to be able to do anything whatsoever, a sad indictment of modernity that I resentfully find challenging now.

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At nearby Cooleman Mountain I set up camp for the night without any signal, without any other people, without the comfort of civilisation. It is perhaps because of this that setting up mostly involves shifting things around in my car to accommodate a swag mattress. For some reason I don’t fancy sleeping outdoors – the remoteness, the impending chill, the inevitable, sopping morning dew. The cocoon of the car feels protective. I’m not entirely sure watching an episode of The Walking Dead on my laptop in the dark shell of my car in the middle of an empty forest without anyone else nearby is smart. But I do anyway, and no zombies bang on the window during a fitful night’s sleep.

cool07Age must be affecting me because I am questioning the sanity of camping, even if I have copped out by reverting to the back of the car. Every little thing requires pre-planning and organising, extra time and increased awkwardness. It is effectively homelessness, perhaps more so when you sleep in the car. But then, in the morning, as the misty murk of pre-dawn is dispersed by a welcoming sun, as the deathly still air fills with birdsong, as the wattle and grasses shimmer silver with dew, as you witness the birth of a new day a part of this nature, you know why you do it.

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The pre-dawn murk took a little longer to clear down in the plain, and shifting my car back to the homestead required slow and steady navigation through the mist. Setting off from here by foot I resumed my journey along the dirt track towards Blue Waterholes. Ever closer to the ACT border, the mist quickly lifted to show off the backside of the Brindabellas and then, before them, the steep-sided river banks and gorges which filter water down to the very fish-friendly Goodradigbee.

cool09It is, in theory, possible to clamber your way to the Goodradigbee, but this seems almost as difficult as pronouncing it. Beyond the scenic Blue Waterholes (which enjoyed relative popularity and happy interaction with fellow humans), river crossings and the narrow pass of Clarke Gorge make it too much for someone who is already warm and weary, and has been told to beware of snakes in happy interactions with fellow humans.

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Luckily, Nichols Gorge is more family friendly but I daresay unlikely to be any less suited to snakes. I didn’t see any in the end, which is surprising given the many heated rocks of the dry creek bed and the tumbling gorge walls. The walk is pleasant, though today it seems to drag a little. The surroundings certainly offer something distinctive: with a tinge of red and a few more eucalypts it could be within the cherished Flinders Ranges. Not just across the border from the ACT, tantalising close to views of the Black Mountain tower.

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Of course, getting back to see the Black Mountain tower requires a three hour drive and, as I launch up from the gorge and back out onto the unprotected expanse of Cooleman Plain, I reward myself with a cheese-filled baguette, true mountain walking food. This will keep me going until Adaminaby, where I can pause and refresh with a giant trout. And that will nourish enough to rumble along the dirt, across the border and over the hills, back to a place not really very, very far away. At least as the cockatoo flies, or, indeed, as the Brumby gallops.

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Australia Driving Green Bogey Photography Walking

There’s something about Alice

Well, it is quite something to be thrown back into the thick of it, and quite something again to be thrown into the thick of it in the thick of it. With a hop, skip and considerable jump there could be no pretence of being in England anymore. No tranquil ponds and croquet-worthy lawns, no afternoon teas and broadleaved avenues, no ubiquitous sarcasm and cling-filmed sandwiches. Just right bloody ripper sunbaked Straya with Utes and flies and glad-wrapped beetroot sangas and drongos in high-vis and Aboriginals under trees, with rarely a hipster in sight.

That probably does Alice Springs an injustice to be fair. While there are plenty of Utes and flies and a fair share of drongos, it struck me what a right multicultural melee Alice is. An African taxi driver took me to my resort hotel, filled with – among others – softly-spoken British baby boomer couples and their lairy transatlantic cousins. Here an immaculate receptionist of Southeast Asian heritage checked me in and I passed what passed for a chambermaid from the Middle East. Later, on the way into town for a bite to eat (friendly Asian service again), I strolled along Todd Street Mall to the sounds of German and French backpacker accents and something more rarely heard in other Australian towns and cities: Aboriginal dialects, which are many and varied. For better or worse, it really is a right little melting pot in the middle of nowhere.

There is an oasis town aura to Alice – albeit a little rough around the edges – which perhaps draws these people in. Approaching from north, south, east or west it is probably the first place with a Woolworths and Kmart for a thousand miles, or something stupidly noteworthy like that. You can finally get a cappuccino, but do beware. And there are public showers so you can attempt to wrench off layers of sand and dirt and flies that have attached to your skin while ploughing through the Oodnadatta Track in your big fuck off truck. Frankly, if only more towns in Australia had such facilities, it would have been most welcome.

alice01On the other hand, natural oases appear more limited. The Todd River is mostly a river in name only. Usually it’s just a dry, wide, and sunken swathe of sand meandering through town, almost as if a dreamtime serpent had once there slivered. It is quite striking and also quite beautiful in a way: grasses and short and stocky shrubs flower along its banks and a parade of River Red Gums indulge in a majestic arrangement of bulbous roots, variegated bark and twisted, stretching branches. There really is not a better Eucalypt in all of Australia, in my uneducated opinion. It just looks like it belongs here.

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As well as dry (semi-arid is the tour guide word of choice) Alice is – it will come as no surprise – frequently hot. However, having endured a scorcher of a week in Canberra, it actually felt quite pleasantly temperate for my stay. A nice ambient thirty degrees with a bit of a breeze and occasional cloud cover. Pah, call this hot?

Anyway, venturing into the outback from Alice – once work duties have been completed – it doesn’t take long to feel a long, long way from anywhere and anything. You can sense it would be really, really nasty on a proper hot day. Flies would multiply tenfold, crickets would pulsate loudly before passing out, the cracked earth would literally bake a goanna, while giant birds would circle for unsuspecting Englishmen lost in their quest to find a tea shop.

Fortunately, this particular Englishman was on a minibus tour today, taking in the West Macdonnell Ranges. Not the entire length of the ranges mind, because they stretch virtually uninterrupted for something like five hundred kilometres. Technically there are three separate ranges in the ranges, if that makes sense. Named after British conquistadors who got a bit lost, I suspect. I cannot remember, because instead of taking in everything the tour guide was saying, I was kind of mesmerised by the almost repetitive pattern of sweeping ridges rising from scrubby red plains.

Scenery passing by the window, I noticed how once every few kilometres the ridgeline dips and is eroded to varying degrees. In some spots this has created a significant gap and a way through to the north, sometimes narrower than an American tourist. This is where waterholes and gorges form – Simpsons Gap, Standley Chasm, Ellery’s Big Hole and the like – providing opportune stops for purveyors of sightseeing day tours. They are stops worth making, for there is an air of magnificent serenity in such sheltered grandeur.

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Further down the road there are some ochre pits, imaginatively marked on the map as ‘Ochre Pits’ (it is a rare thing indeed to find any ambiguity whatsoever in modern Australian place names). The pits offer evidence of mining long before unscrupulous Queenslanders and Chinese corporations arrived. I never realised how rare ochre was, this being one of only nine such pits in Australia. Quite coincidentally I had been to one other, down in the Flinders Ranges, a couple of years ago. And I remember just as many flies there as there were here today.

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Beyond noon and the sun was starting to become a little fiercer and, of course, the flies had been stoked into action. Time for a cold beer and a feed I would say. And quite astonishingly there is a place just for that. At Glen Helen Gorge – which really does appear in the middle of nowhere – someone has decided to build a resort. It’s not your resort in the Abu Dhabi or Port Douglas sense – think more shack-like and rubble-strewn. But it has a pub, a pub with cold beer, along with a plethora of touring essentials like fly nets and trail guides and fridge magnets. And just down from the pub you can stagger down to the next waterhole.

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Refreshed, you may like to take a post-lunch dip and float on the waters that have collected in the hollows of Ormiston Gorge, ten minutes or so up a side road from Glen Helen. Or, like me and several others, you may wish to feel the full force of the early afternoon sun on a short but steady climb to an overlook. Perhaps it is the sweat from collective hordes of visitors that gathers in the open air swimming pool several hundred feet below?

Still, it is all worthwhile toil, for the view is pure red heart of Australia stuff. With trails and river beds and curiosity beckoning on every rocky ridge top, you can begin to see why Aboriginal tribes were prone to wander. For food and water for sure, but there is also something captivating and enticing about this landscape which is hard to describe. It wants to lure you in, to see what is around the next corner, and, in doing so, to fool you into a frazzled state of bewilderment and possible death because you are not part of it.

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Thankfully, an air-conditioned minibus was enough to tempt me away from disappearing into a chasm, but I have made a mental note of the Larapinta Trail – or parts thereof – for future reference.

The pleasingly cool bus happily commenced its return to Alice with another waterhole stop – where you could invariably change into swimmers, bathers, togs, swimsuits or just go stark bollock naked – to come. And then, what will later be re-created as an episode of pure outback horror for some, commenced. A puncture, hordes of flies, hot afternoon sun, circling vultures, probable snakes, likely serial killers. Would we make it back in time for our dinner reservations? What about our flights tomorrow? What if we get eaten by kangaroo zombies? Anyone want any lamingtons? AGGGHHHHHH, lamingtons, help!!

Mercifully, the tyre got changed, with just a little help from yours truly. Being the only male of a certain age on the bus I felt obliged. And a touch heroic, vanquishing the oily grime from my hands with a wet wipe from someone’s handbag. What. A. Man. We still might make the waterhole stop now, and not have to eat lamingtons to survive. Unless we get another puncture, but what are the chances of that?!

alice07And so, ten minutes later with a flat front right, someone opened the lamingtons while others flagged down help to get a message back to Alice for another bus to be despatched. Certain overseas visitors couldn’t fathom that there was no mobile reception here, and it was not as simple as getting a rescue helicopter so they could still make it in time for their dinner reservation. One hour in, an extended family resorted to playing the ABC game and I desperately hoped they would ask me to join in. Two hours, and restlessness heightened. People needed to pee in the bushes and generally say what they would have done differently with the eternal benefit of hindsight and no experience whatsoever travelling in the Australian outback. A man with binoculars scanned the road on the horizon, each occasional sighting of a vehicle bringing brief hope before its despair.

Two and a half hours in, one more vehicle sighting provided another glimmer of hope. With sunlight dipping, the time when kangaroo zombies stir from the caves was nearing. I had resisted the lamingtons thus far and wanted to keep it that way. The vehicle slowed and revealed itself to be an identical minibus, apart from some livery telling us it’s the airport shuttle. Jeez, that’s some transfer, so let us hope it’s for us.

And of course it was, for this isn’t really an outback horror tale at all, just some inconvenient episode that soured a fine day but will find use in a vacation anecdote (or maybe even an inane post on an obscure blog). It may have already appeared on Trip Advisor, thanks to the ruining of dinner reservations. And of course, it’s just another reminder that you’re back in Australia Neil, the real ‘Straya. And there aint a lot you can do about anything in the real ‘Straya, so suck it up, maaaate!

Australia Driving Green Bogey Photography