In what can only be taken as a positive sign, I will soon need a visit to a petrol station. The last such experience was on Monday 13th September at 10:20am, a level of precision recorded in posterity – or at least for one month – by the magic of QR code. Looking back at it now, it felt a risky manoeuvre at the time, beyond the boundaries of my self-administered geographical bubble, justified in my mind by being significantly cheaper and twinned with the prospect of a different coffee shop. It was quite the holiday.
Since that date, the petrol gauge dipped in small increments only to hasten in more recent days. Friday 1st October granted the freedom for human beings to enter national parks – or a national park more precisely – and outlying nature reserves within the boundaries of the ACT. Just in time for a long weekend that would see newfound lovers of national parks and nature reserves flock to suffocate them with their devotion.
I was primed to wait, to let the suddenly-engaged nature enthusiasts have their maskless moment in the sun. But then I awoke early on the Monday – infuriatingly early given daylight savings had just kicked in – and saw an opportunity too good to pass.
An open road had been an object of desire for many weeks. Being Canberra there have been empty roads and there have been open vistas but never have these situations quite provided that sensation of travelling in a landscape. Of countryside flying past your window in an everchanging composition of shapes and colours and light and space. Each second a unique expression of time and place curated for your eyes only.
And what expressions of time and place these proved. Just out of town on the road to Tharwa, a countryside cloaked in misty lingerings and golden dew. Sturdy ranges rise up from sweeping grasslands, scattered with the withered trunks and branches of old gum tree. Cows and sheep and the odd outbuilding catch the eye, mere dots on a magnificent green canvas stretching to the sky. And oh how green.
If I were restrained within a bubble for but a few minutes this sight would still make my heart sing. And now that it is here again, I want it all the more.
I can leave the car and venture out on foot into the fringes of Namadgi National Park. Already at the Visitor Centre a dozen or so cars are parked up as their inhabitants embrace the outdoors. The trail – worn from good rains and the numerous footsteps of a long weekend – cuts a muddy swathe towards the looming summit of Mount Tennent, still capped by its own personal cloud. Today, that exertion is far from my goal. I want to linger and learn.
For all the joyous expansiveness of the landscape, topped off with flask tea on a seat at the Cypress Pine Lookout, I am distracted, fascinated, heartened by the more miniscule. The work of nature overcoming winter, recovering from fire, embracing spring. All emerging into the world once more.
One of my attempts at Lockdown 2 Self Improvement Projects has been aligned to the season and the pursuit (and somewhat more challenging identification) of our native wildflowers. Provided with generous encouragement and impetus, I have found this a satisfying, almost addictive pursuit, one that can easily turn an hour walk into two.
So, from the fragrant myrtles to the delicate orchids, the indecipherable varieties of pea to the bulbous generosity of golden lilies, there is so much to discover. Far and near, it truly is spectacular how much you can see when you actually look. Checking out as much as checking in.
I had entered the point of no return. Doors closing behind me, confronted by a depleted selection of pre-cooked yellow food. A smoky, greasy vapour emanated from behind the counter. Around one of the square Formica tables, a trio of young people huddled around a carton of chips.
I had rolled into Injune desperate for a pick-me-up to push me on to the end of the road. For coffee this was the last outpost. And like a rabbit in headlights I was now captive. I had to order. Miraculously, I spotted a handwritten note on one of those fluorescent orange stars. Iced latte for $5.50. Coffee, ice, and milk which surely wouldn’t turn into a complete hash. Relief. A safer proposition than the risk of first degree burns.
Happily – should you find yourself in the situation – you’ll find iced latte and a pack of 39 cent custard creams from Aldi a winning combination on the Carnarvon Highway between Injune and Rolleston. It propels you into a more interesting landscape with plateaus rising up to the east and west. The road, finally, allows a speed limit of 110kph. And then you turn off, to fulfil a few goals and dreams.
I remember when Carnarvon National Park first piqued my interest. It was in a Qantas magazine, back when flying was more of a thing. I was probably on the last plane out of Sydney after some stupid meeting, feasting on two crackers and a vomit-coloured dip. A double-page photograph of intricately textured sandstone, a dark narrow fissure, vibrant green ferns, and the dizzying perspective provided by a human figure felt a long way away.
It’s a credit to that Qantas magazine that they managed to condense Carnarvon National Park into a few glossy pages. It’s also a credit to the professional photographers who managed to fit it all in. The vast, monotone plains in the surrounding landscape truly situate this as an oasis. The solitude required to get there leads to stimulus galore.
Hyper-stimulation first emerges a few kilometres outside the park. People and Hiluxes amass, caravans are adorned with satellite dishes, trailers, awnings and everything including the kitchen sink. There may even be – in the middle of Queensland – a large boat or two. Instantly I know this is not my type of campground. But there is little other choice and I set up home for two nights, conscious of beady eyes judging my unfolding canvas.
Many of the people I talk to are here for a week, maybe two. They can afford to spend whole days sitting in a fold-up chair playing candy crush. I have one complete day to head into the gorge, go as far as I can, and turn back again. One whole day that is immense in so many ways.
My phone tells me it was a 41,397 step kind of day, taking me along 29.1 kilometres. It was a day that started around six in the morning, when I parked up near the visitor centre. There was an orderly-looking campground here but for some reason it is only open during school holidays. Still, I took advantage of one of the many tables to make a cuppa and eat some breakfast, free from the guilt of disturbing the old folk getting their beauty sleep.
The walk starts with a sign of things to come: a crossing of Carnarvon Creek via a series of stepping stones. The first crossing is easy, reassuring everyone who finds themselves on this path to strike out further into the wilderness. Others later on require a bit more planning and a touch of blind faith. But don’t let this put you off. Just grab a big stick and think of the reward.
The gorge is said to extend for 30 kilometres, but the day walk goes as far as Big Bend, where there is a carry-in campground for those intrepid enough to explore further. Along the way, nature has created a series of incredible rock features, shady pools, and slot canyons, while original inhabitants have left their own mark. It is these spectacles – reached via shortish detours from the main trail – that create a natural itinerary to the walk, numbered like stops on a coach tour. Only here, self-propulsion is the required vehicle, and the only souvenir stands are those that assemble within your mind. And do they sure etch their way into it…
Reaching the first stop seems to take forever, but I think that comes down to an eagerness to get there. It’s akin to sitting in the back of the car as a child, heading for a day at the beach. The side track also requires a little creek crossing and climbing of steps, penetrating into a small, fern-filled gully.
What can I say about the Moss Garden? It’s mossy and moist, fed by a narrow creek spilling into several clear pools. It’s the kind of garden that might be constructed at some expense in a billionaire megalomaniac’s estate, funded by worker exploitation and home shopping. Or constructed in the airport of some oil rich emirate to show off to the world. But nothing contrived here, just thousands and thousands of years of nature. Water, rock, vegetation. Gathering in blissful harmony.
If the Moss Garden was beautiful in a serene kind of way, the Amphitheatre is, fittingly, all head-shaking drama. I think this is the setting for that double-page spread in the Qantas magazine many years back and you would need to be a professional photographer with a mega-wide angle lens and tripod and hours of patience waiting for the right light to come anywhere close to evoking the feeling of being in this place.
At first, you wouldn’t expect much. Nothing to see here. But walking towards giant luminous sandstone walls you notice a small doorway at their foot. And a series of metal steps up to the entrance. It is a crack perhaps little more than a metre, a corridor into a cavernous courtyard of wonder. Above, a small window to the sky, afoot a delicate display of vibrant ferns. It cries out for a massive “COOEE!” but somehow feels too reverential for that. A handful of people, myself included, just sit and soak it all in.
The National Gallery of Australia is much more accessible and has a better café than the Art Gallery in Carnarvon Gorge. But you won’t find a 62 metre natural sandstone wall featuring over 2,000 engravings, ochre stencils, and free-hand paintings. The stencilling is considered to be some of the finest and most-sophisticated of its kind in their world.
This sacred spot serves a reminder that this is the land of the Bidjara and Karingbal People, and you are lucky enough to be here for a fleeting moment in time.
Many people culminate their walk at the Art Gallery fulfilled, turning around and heading back home for an afternoon rest. The next stop up the gorge is four kilometres distant, and the track grading increases a notch on the scale. There are more stones to traverse and one creek crossing in particular requires a degree in trigonometry and dose of good fortune.
I’m glad I pushed on though, for this section is perhaps the most scenic. The main trail sticks closer to the rocky course of Carnarvon Creek, and sheer-sided multicoloured outcrops begin to press in on both sides. Palms and ferns and eucalyptus gather in the valley, nurturing colourful butterfly and chirpy birds, while emerald pools attract fast-moving dragonfly.
As a destination, Cathedral Cave undoubtedly has a spiritual quality, hosting further displays of Aboriginal art. It also possesses that echoey ambience formed from the hollow of a massive rock overhang. A chamber of secrets. Peaceful and shady, the benches situated opposite the walls encourage lingering. A rest before the return journey.
But don’t turn around! After Cathedral Cave, it’s a kilometre or so on to the end of the trail at Big Bend, but I neither had the energy nor the desire to visit a camping area. Just 200 metres on from Cathedral Cave, however, another dry creek cuts in from the west. At first, it’s nothing special, just an unending collection of large pebbles that make walking a little more taxing. But pursue further and you enter Boowinda Gorge.
This I found the most staggering spectacle of the day. I can’t really explain. Nature has formed something that engineering genius and billions of dollars would struggle to replicate. Curving walls, pebble paths, ferns and trees flourishing where chinks of light again emerge. And I had it all to myself.
I’m all for saving the best to last, especially when it comes to roast dinners. But what goes up must come down and, as much as I tried to conjure up a helicopter taxi from Big Bend, the return journey needed to be undertaken. On the plus side, things were still incredibly scenic the second time around, stepping stone confidence was sky-high, and I had a few Aldi custard creams to perk me up when needed.
There was also Wards Canyon, one of the stops between the Amphitheatre and Art Gallery which I had saved for the journey home. As lovely as this was – think more small cascades and rocky walled gullies – I can’t help but think my impression was overshadowed by weariness and the wonders that had gone before. It also took a bit of a climb and used up the last custard cream.
To get back to the car, I started to concentrate more on the little things. Some of the butterflies that would never settle. The blur of small birds flitting between shrubs. The red and blue dragonflies hovering above water. The people passing me by, saying G’day and inquiring just how much further it was to so and so. Push on, I encouraged, and don’t miss Boowinda Gorge.
In all honesty though, the last hour turned into a bit of a drag. There were a surprising number of steps and undulations that I didn’t notice in my excited state on the way out. The light was now brighter, the heat of the day well and truly upon us. Creek crossings were less an adventure, more a chore. My feet hurt.
Towards the end I was pretty much walking at the same pace as a man a hundred metres in front of me. It came as no great surprise when he let out a thank feck kind of “yahoo” upon sighting the visitor centre. I didn’t need empathy training to totally get it.
And so my walk in Carnarvon Gorge, years in the making, had reached its conclusion. I felt happy and fulfilled and in desperate need of a shower, cup of tea, slice of Christmas cake and a nap. Unfortunately, Takarakka ‘Bush Resort’ had other ideas. I returned to find I had neighbours, sat outside their caravan under the awning, playing candy crush and listening to the radio. Other neighbours were setting up with a clink of a camp kitchen here and a thud of a mallet there. Four-by-fours rocked up every few minutes, engines idling as they checked in at reception. The shower, tea and cake were divine. The nap non-existent.
At least I slept well that night. Very well, for tenting. Still, I was awake before sunrise so made a bit of noise and headed up a track to a nearby hill. A few other people were there, including a dad with a wide-awake baby and a couple of what I would say are younger boomers. The sunrise was – fleetingly – dramatic, while the younger boomers were lovely.
We chatted for a good while. They had arrived yesterday and were staying for a week. I was off to 1770 today. I passed on my tips and wished them a wonderful stay. They wished me well for my big bike ride. We parted, me feeling a little more favourable towards caravanning boomers, and them possibly thinking he is never going to manage that bike ride. Maybe.
Keen to get moving, and also keen to avoid the amenities block that was always dirty whenever I had to use it, I passed up the opportunity of a shower and hit the road. Yet instead of turning left, back to the highway, I veered right. I had come so far and something was bugging me. This had been years in the making, and when would I ever be here again?
When I arrived in Carnarvon National Park on Tuesday afternoon, I used the last of the daylight to explore a short walking trail along Mickey Creek. It was a simple and – in hindsight – relatively undramatic stroll. But that is only until the formed trail ends.
A bag left on a rock signalled I wouldn’t be the only one transitioning from a gentle amble to a rock-hopping adventure. Beyond the stones and the ferns, an entrance led into a narrowing gap. Walls closing in, the sound of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ travelling down the chasm encouraged further exploration.
There was only really one spot that was a little challenging – in that I might get my feet wet. But I could do it. And so could my sunrise friends who I met again on the way out. So much better than just sitting outside your caravan playing candy crush. We both agreed, and I felt envious of the wondrous discoveries that still awaited them.
Farewell friends, and farewell finally this most magnificent oasis.
That could have been a good ending, but the road never ends. Neither does this blog post but all I can say if you are labouring is just imagine living and breathing it as opposed to a mere skim-read in your PJs.
After endeavours at Carnarvon, I planned a bit of R&R on the Queensland coast, 550km away. Worryingly I was desperate for a coffee by time I reached Rolleston, only a hundred clicks in. Even more worryingly, Rolleston didn’t look up to much. But beside the public toilets in a park, a cute caravan had popped up selling coffee and a few light snacks. The owner was charming and chatty, and I really really really wanted her coffee to be good. But scalding hot country ways are always difficult to cast off.
There is little to note between Rolleston and Biloela. The road, almost arrow straight, offers frequent car stopping bays and I realise these are essentially unofficial toilet stops as I recycle my coffee in a hedge. The highlight of this section of the road should really be the town of Banana, in Banana Shire. Yet, there is no comedy sized fibro banana or Banana World Theme Park incorporating Mango Village. A large sign erected for losers like me actually informs the world that Banana was named after a big bullock. Surrounded by coalfields, this is peak QLD.
Sadly, the only thing I knew of Biloela was the Australian Government’s really tough posturing to lock up a couple with two young children who were seeking asylum here. They now sit festering on an offshore island. The #hometobilo movement made me feel warm towards Biloela. The family in question had become part of the community, and the community part of them. They simply want their community back.
I didn’t find out much more about Biloela in my brief stop there. It didn’t seem the most appealing place, but then it is far more appealing than – say – a war zone or dictatorship inclined to ethnic-cleansing. Petrol was cheaper here, and I was surprised at the quality of coffee and a slice from the bakery – this is more like it. Road trip essentials.
Almost as Australian-sounding as locking up dark-skinned people seeking protection is the Bruce Highway. For me, it was a bit of a milestone, a sign that I had reached the Queensland coast. But like most highways along the east coast, the ocean is still miles away. And, hitting the highway south of Gladstone, the Towns of Agnes Water and Seventeen-Seventy were still 90 minutes away.
A sign that I was pretty much over the drive came when I didn’t even stop for a ‘big crab’ at Miriam Vale. It wasn’t that big, looking more like an elaborate shop sign than anything. And I don’t really like crab, stemming I think from my brother taunting me with crab claws as a kid. The same can be said for peanut butter, but I did at least stab his hand with a fork when he tried to steal some of my chips.
1770 clearly stands out from the crowd just by being a number. That was some good marketing by Lieutenant Cook and Joe Banks when they decided to make their second stop in Australia at this spot; I think Joe had seen some plants that took his fancy. If you look on the map, you will see a marker for the 1770 toilets, which you can only hope have been updated since they visited.
Confusingly 1770 has the postcode of 4667. So – in a remarkable turnaround for Australian abbreviation – it is often spelled out as Seventeen-Seventy. It also typically gets lumped together with its southern neighbour, Agnes Water. And I was staying on a campground between the two. Let me tell you the joy of driving past tents and awnings and trailers to take up home in a cabin with a double bed and kitchen and bathroom. The closest I will ever get to feeling all North Shore Sydney.
And so, with good rest, I had a lovely day in the Towns of Agnes Water and Seventeen-Seventy. In preparation for what is to come, I decided to explore it by bike. There were beaches and lookouts and a lovely coffee in some lovely gardens, embellished with sweet baklava. It was the best coffee in a long while, a clear indication this is a coastal location on the up.
Beyond the coffee stop, I was delighted by the Paperbark Forest Boardwalk. It wasn’t especially long but well worth the additional cycle up a small incline. Among the stands of paperbark, butterflies frequently floated and birds sang with joy. A nice way to get off the two wheels and stretch the legs.
Being beside the coast I had long targeted fish and chips during my stay here, which I gorged on beside the water on the wharf in 1770. Gorging again. The downside to this was that it required an uphill climb back to my cabin and a post-lunch nap. Later in the day, I returned to 1770 by car, and walked out to the headland, hopeful, like many others, that sundown would put on a decent show.
Now Saturday morning, I had been travelling for little over a week. I’d be leaving the ocean today and in memory of this I felt that getting a takeaway coffee first thing and sipping it on the beach would be a perfect moment. Situated next to a waterfront campground, the coffee took an age but when it came it was everything I had hoped for. Order and civilisation were being restored.
And so, next up Caloundra and then the Brisbane Valley Rail Trail. Heading south, I briefly paused in Bundaberg, picking up some provisions and a gift for my cycling buddy, Jason. Never would a $16 bike rack from Kmart prove so popular.
My final stop was in Childers, one last pause before hitting the elongated development of the Sunshine Coast. I had arrived, it would seem, in a town of coffee extremism. Ten minutes out of town, billboards implored me to stop at The Drunk Bean or Insane Caffeine. Nine hundred kilometres after Injune, the sound of coffee insanity appealed. It had largely been madness the whole way.
It is beyond doubt that coronavirus has altered our perception of the exotic. Whether it be Gundagai or the garden centre, there is much greater thrill to be had in what was once so mundane. I kind of like this revived appreciation for what is immediately around us, as we persevere in seeking out that which can still be discovered. A new view, a different seat, a random town. Or even just a change in how we think about the same place.
My first impressions of the Snowy Mountains in Australia were underwhelming; being neither snowy nor particularly mountainous. With more than a passing resemblance to Wales, it was a bit odd in 2006 to come all this way for – well – Wales. But a few years ago, back when such things were possible, I had a brilliant time in North Wales. And in the context of what is and isn’t possible today, the Snowy Mountains seem to eclipse even a perfect hike to Snowdon.
A multitude of brown tourist signs and a $17 entrance fee help to create an expectation around Kosciuszko National Park. A spacious campground in a peaceful setting at Island Bend adds to the holiday feels. It’s only for the one night but when you have an instant tent, one night is as good as a holiday. An hour later, with instant tent finally erect, a cold beer is clearly required.
But this is no place to sit and drink beer all day, well not for me at least. In between a reasonable night of comfortable sleep, there is the Welsh countryside to explore. And, oh boyo, does it deliver far much more in 2021.
Smitten at six in the evening. I think this walk was as much about an ambience, a mood as it was about the open upland panoramas and shimmering river views. It was about the pure sound of that river and the glow of the light. It was about a subtle fragrance like jasmine tea, emanating from the small shrubs and grasses through which a narrow track forged. It was about finding a little lodge perched into the hillside and reaching a swing bridge which would take those more intrepid further. It was about a time and place in which each new step came with the thrill of discovery.
The walk starts in Guthega, one of those small clusters of lodges and chalets which counts as a village up this way. Bustling in winter, these places are weirdly soulless in summer, relative ghost towns seemingly abandoned as a result of a nuclear meltdown or similar. Only occasional voices from balconies hinted at a weekending populace, and numerous cars and trucks formed towards the trailhead, many destined to greet their owners returning from overnight jaunts in the wilderness.
Guthega also exists I suspect due to the dam, where the Snowy River is first brought to a halt on its journey to Marlo. It will be tampered with and drawn from many times on its way to Gippsland, but above the Dam it is truly free to roam. It’s a freedom that rubs off on those who follow it.
The trail officially comes to a terminus at Illawong Lodge, the small building tucked into the hillside. It looks and feels idyllic right at this moment, gazing out over the valley as the sun sinks low. A cold, amber ale would be perfect followed by a bed for the night, but my bed is presumably still standing back at Island Bend.
There is one last hurrah, just down from the lodge. The swing bridge across the river acts as a landmark, a destination, a place to be daring and frolic and to possibly carry on along unofficial, unformed ways. The landscape certainly does its best to suck you in further, and perhaps one day it will. Near the bridge, a new path appears to be undergoing construction, following the river further into the wild to someplace somewhere. There is still more to discover.
Main Range with diversion
I have climbed Mount Kosciusko several times and while there is much to enjoy it’s barely an achievement to rival Kilimanjaro or K2. The route from Thredbo, cable car-assisted, is a family-friendly jaunt, while the quickest way from Charlotte Pass follows a wide trail that incrementally rises without much of a fanfare. By far the best route is to follow the Main Range, crossing the Snowy River and rising to a ridgeline over 2000 metres which plunges over to the west.
Up with the kookaburras I reached Charlotte Pass for brekkie and a cuppa on the most exquisite balcony, the first rays of sun hitting the lofty heights out in front of me. I was heading for somewhere in that direction but hadn’t particularly finalised where. My main desire was to reach a point where I could marvel at the spectacular Western Fall disappearing into the horizon. Carruthers Peak or Mount Twynam would more than suffice.
Immediately the trail is a joy, largely because you are heading downhill to that free-running Snowy River. Halfway down, I encounter another new track being constructed and – guess what – find that it will lead east to Illawong Lodge. An accompanying notice suggests this is part of a planned multi-day walking track and I can again picture a night at that lodge with a cold amber ale on the deck.
For now, I have the Snowy to cross without a swing bridge. A series of boulders offer stepping stones, with only one jagged pyramid causing some complexity. After that, it is easy and getting to the other side without making an absolute tit of yourself in front of experienced hikers coming down from a night in the wilds is almost as satisfying as simply being here.
It is a good job life is sweet because there follows an incessant drag uphill and the prominent hulk of Carruthers Peak (2,145m) still seems a long way off. Along the way, the view down to Blue Lake offers a break and not long after the trail reaches the point at which the landscape plummets dramatically over the other side. It is a spectacular view, heightened by the big reveal as you come over the rise.
It is at this point that the Main Range trail veers left, and you can trace its outline steepening up to the lofty heights of Carruthers. To the right, an old, faint four wheel drive track is not promoted but neither is it barred. My research tells me this leads towards Mount Twynam (2,195m) and while I may not make it that high, I can at least aim for a rocky outcrop closer by.
There, mosses and flowers and hills upon hills upon hills stretching into the distance. Among these hills, the nearby Mount Sentinel stands out as the most jagged, traditional-looking mountain. This could be discovered one day too, but I would like someone else to come along for the ride, as a safeguard.
As tempted as I was to push on from this outcrop, I also figured I had reached my goal for the day with such epic vistas. I had also run out of sunscreen and broken my seven dollar sunglasses, so there was good sense in deciding to return before the day raced towards high noon. Good sense continued with a sandwich stop closer to Blue Lake, a baguette loaded with ham and brie beside a glacial cirque conjuring the pretence of France. C’etait la vie.
After such good sense at not being sucked in by the landscape at previous points, the sandwich gave me fortitude to have a nosy closer to Blue Lake. And then a faint track led towards Hedley Tarn before it simply vanished.
I spent a good 40 minutes trying to figure out a way back across to the Main Range trail, barely a kilometre away and visible thanks to its regular flow of people walking up and down. Encountering boulders and impenetrable shrubs I eventually resigned myself to retracing steps the way I had come.
All this extra energy consumed, and a sun now high in the sky, made me fearful for the final surge: the re-crossing of the Snowy and that godawful climb back up to Charlotte Pass. But in the end, it wasn’t so bad. The other half of my sandwich boosted the energy, and strategic photo stops offered necessary breathers.
While there is pleasure in an ending, those final stops proved bittersweet; captivated with the wild beauty and melancholy that it would soon be left behind. If it takes a pandemic to make me realise how special a place Kosciuszko National Park is, let’s please not have more pandemics. But instead let’s try and remember what it is like to cherish that which we had previously overlooked. Like Wales.
The return of the traditional road trip has been another much vaunted consequence of our most recent history. With nowhere to flee overseas, we are discovering our homelands, our paddocks, our backyards. A large proportion of this adventuring has been undertaken in kitted out camper vans, luxury coaches, or simply a mattress in the back of a beat up station wagon. Canvas roofs have blossomed in trodden fields of green, the sound of mallets beating tent pegs as widespread as cicadas.
Initially when the pandemic hit, and uncertainty was rife, I thought I could do this if it came down to it. Fruit would need to be picked somewhere or fences would still be in need of repair. Possessing a swag, small dome tent and station wagon, sleeping options could be mixed and matched, while the trusty camp kitchen box could cater again for bangers and mash in thirty five degrees. There is a dreamy, deep rose-tinted quality to these visions, one that conveniently overlooks the discomfort, the dirt, the sweat and the toil.
As it turned out, I was lucky enough to be able to sit in front of a computer all day and receive the compensation of a regular income. But these wistful visions of a nomadic life have never quite gone away. The compromise has been day trips into the country, eventually culminating in a night on a mattress in the back of a beat up station wagon. Another night became aborted because – well – I could just make it home, and I began to question my commitment to life almost under the stars.
Yet a new year brings new resolution so we are led to believe, and with the prospect of more distant travel still a distant prospect there is logic to be had in persevering. What if I could make 2021 – or at least the warmest parts of 2021 – the year of the camping weekend? Could this provide – in its own way – a new purpose to fill the void that is the Centenary Trail?
Only time and possibly this blog will tell, but with this idea still racing through my mind like an out-of-control hamster wheel I swiftly purchased a new tent online. Click and collect from BCF in two hours.
I have always poured scorn on BCF, mainly because their adverts of boating, camping, and fishing escapades are layered thick with Australian drongoism. Like you can’t boat, camp or fish if you went to university. Or it is simply unheard of to do these things and care about the environment and refugees and good coffee at the same time. Only blokes in thongs with a nasal dislike of political correctness can go boating, camping, fishing.
I suspect I read too much into it. The process was very efficient. The lady in Fyshwick who handed me my tent was perfectly lovely. A new tent to add to the swag, the 2 person dome, and the mattress in the back of a beat up station wagon.
You may well ask why I even need another tent and I would say that what I need is something that doesn’t give me as much of an excuse to turn back for home. Something that – as I march towards wisdom over youthfulness – is less of an ordeal. What I need is something more akin to glamping than it is to homelessness.
And so that is how I found myself erecting a brand new ‘instant’ four person tent at Mount Clear Campground in the southern part of Namadgi National Park last Sunday. With my pristine tent, deluxe airbed, comfy lounge chair, I looked every part the newbie amateur who had just splashed out on some shiny things for Christmas. Not the hardened traveller who had done three months in a swag and persevered with bangers and mash in thirty-five degree heat.
Only the rumpled, irregular mallet hints at greater experience. With this in hand I pleasingly managed to erect the tent quickly and efficiently, as though I knew what I was doing. To say it is an instant tent is probably an overstatement once you take into account pegs and guy ropes and – should you wish – a shady awning. But it was a reasonably simple erection, and I was happy to find ample room for my deluxe mattress and comfy chair and body standing in an upright position.
The more taxing part was choosing where to pitch the thing, given so many lovely-looking spots. In this respect, an estimation of neighbours is instantly required – deciding between a cluster of boomers and a foursome of millennials, while a BCF loyalist blares out some country and his kids run amok. All potentially troublesome, yet also reassuringly present.
In the end I inched slightly closer to the millennials, which ended up a mistake when they decided to stay up around the campfire until after one. But a home is a home and not only did it stay upright and protect and comfort, but it also came with some of the most generous backyard within our little capital territory.
From settler’s huts to magical vistas, over swampy plains and through one year charred trees. An urge to pee brings staggering night skies, turning to gold as birds and boomers rise. There’s a hike through meadows, there’s wading through a creek, recovering with camp stove coffee and old Christmas cake. And then replenished, full on nature’s bounty, there’s a home to dismantle, and achievement to take.
I doubt the young lady taking my order was convinced. “Please may I have the Farmer’s Lunch please thank you? Thanks. How would I like it? I guess on a plate would be a good start, do you have these here yet? Oh, you mean the steak? Um… (killing a few seconds considering whether I should plump for rare like the locals) medium-rare please. Thank you.”
“Y’aint no farmer love are ya?”
“Yeah nah. I’ll be sitting next to the CWA ladies playing bingo if that’s okay? Thanks.”
Cowra, New South Wales, Saturday 21st November 2020 and not all of the above was true. I did order a Farmer’s Lunch and I did opt for medium-rare, but it was served to me without disdain. At least outwardly. You didn’t need to be a farmer to order it; only my internal voice was screaming out “FRAUD”.
I found myself here after much procrastination. Determined to embark on something of a mini road trip over the weekend I spent the previous few evenings plotting routes and stops largely based around where I could support the local economy. Given I was heading into the country, surely there would be a nice country pub with hearty fare and a cold beer? I pictured a shady garden perhaps, leading up to an arrangement of latticework and wood-flooring. Locals in Slim Dusty hats shading craggy, sunbeaten faces glanced up at me with a twinkle in the eye. A large fan whirred silently over a shelf crammed with ten-year-old bottles of Scotch. Above the fireplace, a framed blue jersey of some ex-footballer who once scored a field goal in Origin.
Perhaps such idyll exists, but I’m yet to find it. Still, air conditioning and keno was comforting as temperatures soared into the high 30s in Cowra. And the Farmer’s Lunch – steak, sausages, eggs and chips – was worth all that hard yakka sitting in a machine pressing a few buttons. Just like the farmers busily harvesting their grain.
Earlier that morning I had driven up from Canberra in time for a coffee stop in Boorowa. After a previous visit in early spring it was notable how much the green had already diminished, long grasses browning off after a couple of weeks of warm, drier weather. Boorowa was nonetheless as charming as before, though the coffee stop didn’t quite live up to previous highs. I feel like it was under new ownership and lacked the same, welcoming community hubbub. On my way back to the car, another café promised for the next visit.
While Boorowa was still feeling jaunty under a gentle morning breeze, a little further up the road in Murringo the withering inland heat began to bite. Crackly yellow grass, searing bitumen, and the piercing symphony of cicadas. It had been a while since it was like this.
There wasn’t much to Murringo, other than a place where you can go and check out some whips. But it was cute all the same and the drive through Murringo Gap was pleasing with its hay bales and narrowing valley slopes. On cooler days I could see a cycle ride heading through here, but maybe that’s not until autumn now.
I was hoping to swiftly reach Conimbla National Park for a walk before the heat of the day kicked in. Arriving in a remote and empty patch of dirt, the clock on my car signalled a few minutes before midday. Mad dogs and Englishmen and all that. It was the kind of walk in which I could disappear down a ravine to be eaten by snakes before discovery three weeks later. I took some solace in the fact that the lady tending her allotment down in the valley eyed me warily as I drove past – surely she would send help? Or send in the boys with pitchforks?
Spoiler alert: I survived. Was it worth it? Maybe. The highlight was a lookout midway along, offering views over a small valley. Trees of Eucalyptus mingled with black cypress pine, presenting a speckled green landscape under the fierce blue sky. Swathes of native bluebell offered comfort along the trail, tempered by the expectation that I could step on a snake hidden amongst such jolly thickets at any moment. I didn’t.
In fact I survived to make lunch. Through fields of grain and hills of sheep, the road entered Cowra to a fanfare of agricultural supplies and heavy machinery, giving way to the range of motels, fuel and fast food that heralds the fringe of a regional town centre. Across the Lachlan River, the first pub. With its Farmer’s Lunch and aircon.
With a hot afternoon in store it was tempting to linger with a cold beer in hand. But I wanted to make Grenfell and after that my home for the night. Through those hours the car was the most comfortable place to be, though I stopped in Canowindra and the even smaller settlement of Gooloogong along the way. Both seemingly at siesta or more permanently asleep.
Grenfell offered a little more excitement, though mainly in the form of petrol under a dollar and exemplary public toilets. As I filled up with cheap petrol a sign promoting whippy thickshakes took my fancy. It would likely be the only source of such nutrition still open, so I took the plunge and navigated the whole complexity of a make-your-own thickshake within a servo.
First figure out which of the various range of cups to use, then add your syrup flavour of choice. Beware the lively caramel which spurts out of its dispenser and onto your shoes. Try and find some tissue to wipe this mess up and then fail to locate a bin to dispose of carnage. Now, add the whippy content from the machine that kicks into action after first releasing a dubious watery dribble. Then try to stop this process before it flows over the cup and creates more mess. Finally, add some more syrup because you’re gonna need it after this. Attempt to mix together with a straw and add a plastic lid which doesn’t really fit. Make your way to the counter where the lady looks on slightly incredulous, texting her mate at the same time as taking your money. Still, petrol under a dollar a litre people!
With a cup sticking to my hands I couldn’t really drive again until I contracted severe brain freeze and cleaned up properly in those exquisite toilets. It gave me the chance to idle along Grenfell’s main street. I daresay on a Saturday morning it’s a bustling little place. People parking at the required reverse-in 45 degree angle (I think I was more 60, but overlooked bringing my protractor), picking up bread from Mick’s Bakery or Chris’s Bakery or the Empire Bakery by David. There is clearly a testosterone-fuelled bakery-war taking place in Grenfell. All jumbo sausage rolls at six paces and mince tarts.
Apart from a few youth loitering as Henry Lawson looked on, I was the only one out on the streets. Occasional utes reversed in at 45 degrees to pop into the IGA. This was where half the town was, a queue forming for hot chooks and lotto.
The other half of the population appeared to be at some kind of gathering beside an old railway station as I made my way out of town. For a few seconds I hoped I might have stumbled upon a rodeo or something involving giant pumpkins. But all I could see were a few food trucks that looked as if they had migrated from Canberra for the day and a small cluster of people not doing much at all. I moved on.
West of Grenfell, the sweeping fields of grain were undergoing various stages of collection. In the distance, a small plume of dust pinpointed a header hard at work. Rising abruptly from this widescreen landscape, striking by contrast, an island of bushland and rugged outcrops of rock. Uncleared, uncultivated, protected from the squatters and the pastoralists and the farmers by its very presence.
This was clearly Weddin Mountains National Park and my bed for the night. It was a new one for me, surprising in a way given its little over two hundred clicks from home. I can probably thank COVID for coming across it – coastal avoidance, travel limitations, appreciation of what is within two hundred clicks of home.
Setting up camp in a flash – more of this shortly – I set out to explore, hopeful that by 6pm the temperature would have started to drop a little and I would be blessed by golden light. The information board at Ben Halls Campground informed me of several trails from here. Against one – Lynchs Loop Trail – someone had appended in handwritten block capitals ‘RETURN THE SAME WAY YOU GO UP. THE PATH BEYOND IS NOT SAFE.’ Another promised cool shady gullies and waterfalls and no ad hoc Trumpian warnings, so I opted for that.
The Bertha’s Gully trail did indeed proceed up a gully, but I had managed to perfectly time things so that I was seared by the westerly sun. It must have been 40+ in that gully, sheltered from any breeze, clambering up boulders, conscious of snakes. The trail was quite rough, victim in part to the generous spring which has delivered a profusion of growth. Various spiky plants penetrated my legs and shoes and socks, creating a sensation every ten seconds that I was being eaten by ants. Yet despite all this, pausing for the nectar that is a chilled Berry Gatorade from Grenfell IGA, there was an elemental beauty to the place.
I think the Gatorade saved my life, finishing the last drops closer to the campground beside Ben Halls Cave. I was too spent to read the detail, but I assume Ben Hall was one of those celebrated reprobates who stole some sheep, robbed stagecoaches, shot some police, and vehemently denied homoerotic gatherings of brotherhood under precipitous cliff faces in the middle of a winter’s night.
There was likely no need for spooning tonight. It was still hot when I arrived back to my camp chair and yet another disappointingly insipid Australian cider. In many ways it was the best of ciders, the worst of ciders. As refreshing as my sweat to the flies. I had forgotten about the flies and for a while it appeared they had forgotten about me. Until the time had come to relax with a cold cider.
I feel like every six months or so I have the urge to camp to be reminded of how arduous camping can be, the result of which is putting camping off for another six months or so. This time I thought I was making life easier by not really camping but sleeping in my car. This was a bit of a trial, but I had managed to remove and fold down seats to create space for my swag mattress. This padded by an old quilt created a perfectly spacious, comfortable area. Crucially I could stretch out fully from head to toe. My other less successful invention was the mosquito netting affixed on one of the rear windows by Velcro and Blu Tack.
I awoke after fitful sleep, still hot and greeted by the sound of a mosquito buzzing in my ear. Pilot test lessons: for some reason sleeping with your head at the back of the car is more comfortable. Get some better netting and use it on not one but two windows. Bring a tent just in case. Always, always consider a motel.
What you don’t usually get from a motel though is the experience of waking up at first light to a dawn chorus of joyous singing and painful shrieking. You don’t usually receive a refreshing essence from eucalypts releasing minty vapours in the cool of dawn. You are rarely greeted by an audience of kangaroos and their young, slightly startled to find that there is a person in that car around which they have been chomping overnight. You don’t have the options of a pit toilet or a tree.
Not feeling especially refreshed at six in the morning I was pleased to find that the iced coffee from Grenfell IGA was still reasonable in the car fridge. My original plan was to embrace the coolest part of the day by walking up Basin Gully to Eualdrie Lookout – billed as a ‘challenging’ and ‘adventurous’ hike, this time in printed information provided by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service. But rated as a Grade 5 hike (the most challenging) and weary as I was, I made the very sensible decision to give it a miss. What could I do instead? Oh, yes, that’s right, that shorter, mysterious Lynchs Loop.
Armed with a big stick for breaking any spider webs in front of me, I climbed steadily up through grassy woodlands, occasionally interrupted by a rocky boulder. Each step revealing more of the valley in which the campground sat and, beyond that, the plains to the west. At a junction, a trail led off to an overlook perched upon the very edge of the national park. Beyond, a view into vastness.
Scattered pools of sunlight breaking through the clouds shifted upon an endless canvas of gold. The meandering of watercourses was clearly etched into the land, as if a giant serpent had indeed been at work. Distant, only another hill rising incongruently from this flat agricultural tablecloth. Perched here, not another soul in the world. This is why it is worth it.
Enlivened and spirited by such moments, I decided to carry on the loop trail to see how unsafe it really was. The answer was NOT AT ALL. The route descended but other than a few rocks everything was gentle. All I can assume is whoever had written that strident piece of public information had done so after heavy rain – the remaining section of the trail crossed a largely dry creek which would no doubt tumble with vigour once or twice a year.
Leaving Weddin Mountains, I passed through Grenfell once again, failing to stop for a thickshake or to use its exemplary toilets. It wasn’t until Young that I embraced the luxury of running water once more. Young sits at the centre of the Hilltops region and the town itself lives up to this name. It seems whichever way you enter Young, it will be done from a height as your car winds its way down into the centre.
The centre of town – on a Sunday morning – was almost as devoid of habitation as Grenfell. Though larger, the high street also looked a bit rough-edged, run down, lacking the same faded elegance as its counterpart to the north. I always thought of Young as fairly well-to-do, set in a rich, productive landscape with a cherry on top.
This perception of Young returned upon entering a homewares store that featured a café, or more accurately a café that featured a selection of things for the home that are largely unnecessary. The café was busy with young, attractive people, extended families, and the local police collecting takeaway coffees and muffins. I felt fortunate to nab a table, close to the entrance where people were gathering in close proximity to register their presence on the off chance they had COVID.
It is quite an adjustment from sleeping in a car in the middle of nowhere to eating eggs benedict with pulled pork and an apple cider hollandaise in an upmarket homewares café. I felt and looked out of place, possibly because I was not wearing my hat indoors like the tens of identikit males with sculpted beards, black T-shirt and shorts and designer caps. They probably even had a shower this morning, show-offs.
The coffee was good and the brunch was delicious, albeit tarnished by the other great event of our times. What is it with being served only one slice of toast these days?! Two eggs and a pile of other stuff lumped onto one slice of toast. For something like twenty dollars. I don’t care if your toast is handcrafted sourdough whose airy bubbles are formed by unicorn farts, please may I have two of them?
The one slice of toast may have worked in my favour if the planets had aligned. Young is famous (in Australia at least) for cherries, harvested at this time of year and finding their way to many a Christmas table. There is even a National Cherry Festival, which may have occurred this very weekend if it wasn’t for the lingering presence of a microscopic virus. Each year, breakfast news weathermen arrive in Young to pick cherries and tell us how many tonnes are being shipped across Australia before informing of an impending heatwave. Apart from this year.
Nonetheless, the cherries and still growing and are still – despite a scarcity of backpackers to exploit – being picked. Many of the orchards offer pick your own and I had read of one that also had a café selling cherry pie. Surely the perfect ending before heading back, the cherry pie on the icing on the cake? As long as you book ahead.
For it turns out such is the renown of cherry season and such is the limitation of visitation numbers during 2020 that my intended destination was full. No more entry. Turn around and go away. Carrot cake down the road in Binalong will have to do.
Happily, starting the journey home I came across a small outdoor market in the settlement of Wombat, around which many of the orchards are based. There was a mobile coffee van, and a plant stall, and that stand promoting turmeric as the cure-all for the world’s ailments. Something colourful and knitted emanated from another corner as you amble past and try not to make eye contact. And there, out of the back of the van, the punnets of cherries. Picked yesterday just around the corner.
You cannot come to Young at this time of year and not buy cherries. Much as you cannot come into this part of the world and not be impressed, not be thankful for the people labouring to bring food to your table. Or to relish the stops in small towns withering in the heat, hiding poets and bakers and bushrangers among elegant facades and restless youth. And perhaps the most impressive of all, you cannot be indifferent to those natural islands, remnants of a distant past, witnesses to a longstanding culture, rising up in defiance to the industrial plains.
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.
Setting 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.
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.
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.
* Everything should be asterisked. Just because. 2020*
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.
It wasn’t love at first site. As national parks go, it’s not in the top tier. There are no obvious spectacles, no grand high tops, no sublime points, no copper canyons, no vernal falls. But it sits there, looking at you, consumer of sunsets and occasional catcher of winter snows. Endearing itself to you by its very persistence.
Namadgi National Park. Canberra’s park, Canberra’s playground; like Dartmoor is to Plymouth or Hampstead Heath is to North London. Before that, for many years before I came here and other strangers came here, special ground for Australia’s first people. Rising to the west, sheltering Australia’s young capital. A rugged wilderness reminding us of what we were and where we have come. And where we still have to go. Enduring still.
The lustre of spring radiated across the valley and lifted the soul the way that spring can only do: that warming sun on your face as you cast your eyes upon a celebration of green, a chirpiness matched by the creatures awakening from their slumber. Treading into this world along the valley floor, each footstep a newfound joy, each pause a chance to breathe it all in. An enclave of life and of love, promising halcyon days ahead.
Monday 27th January: A small plume of smoke appears over a hill as I drive back home. It throws my bearings since it isn’t where I expected to see smoke today. I check Fires Near Me for probably the fifth time this morning and see a new blue diamond symbol has appeared in Namadgi National Park. It has been listed as the Orroral Valley Fire.
The sky had that washed out tone of winter that threatens but barely delivers. It is the colour of childhood skies beside the sea, when the excitement of snow was dashed by the delivery of icy rain. If you were being generous, you might describe it as sleet, but only that narrow, spitting variety rather than a satisfying splodge. As I climbed through the freshest forest to crest the ridge of Booroomba Rocks, a new squall spilled into the valley of gums below. A wind chill well below zero blew away the cobwebs. And cast a few shards of icy, spitting rain my way.
Tuesday 28th January: The fire quickly takes hold and becomes uncontrollable, spreading west into Honeysuckle Creek, Apollo Road and climbing up towards the crest of Booroomba Rocks. A large smoke plume intensifies as the day heats up and spreads many miles west, hanging over the Canberra skyline as multiple planes and helicopters disappear into its heart.
We used to have adventures. These often involved hikes to lookouts and – if we were lucky – a bird roll with a view. All across Australia. 2018 offered the comeback tour and an adventure a bit closer to my home.
Older, probably not wiser, I persuaded Jill to join me on the Yerrabi Track, hoping the drag uphill wouldn’t cause consternation. Hopeful that the rocky platform at the end, with a bird roll, with a view, would appease any potential discord at my choice. May I present to you the wilderness. Close to Canberra. And a long way from Norfolk. Or Sydney. A real place to breathe on holiday, or at home.
Thursday 30th January: A few days of cooler and quieter weather provide some respite and a chance for fire crews to lay down containment lines, large air tankers plying back and forth overhead. While much is done to try to protect properties and cultural assets, the fire continues to feed on the tinder dry heart of Namadgi, spreading down towards Yankee Hat and Boboyan Trig, a key marker on the Yerrabi Track.
From Canberra, Mount Tennent stands sentinel over Namadgi National Park, 1,375 metres into the sky. The first prominent peak as you enter south, looming over the visitor centre and the small village of Tharwa. In spite of this proximity it took me many years to climb. Cypress Pine lookout was usually as far as I made it before arriving at the conclusion that that is more than enough thank you very much.
Sometimes you need the momentum that comes from walking with friends. An encouraging peloton. A crisp morning that warms with the rising sun on your back. Views that deliver over the Monaro, its golden paddocks strewn with the fairy floss of rising mist. Each step up a shared endeavour, summiting a shared prize. Victors in a deep blue sky, miniscule among uninterrupted green.
Friday 31st January: The temperature nudges towards 42 degrees and the fire threat escalates, creating spot fires which push into NSW. Authorities publish worst case projections for the fire spread that – should they come to bear – would spill further down from the summit of Mount Tennent and consume Tharwa, before entering the far southern suburbs of Canberra. The ACT declares a state of emergency and the city is on edge.
I can recall the pleasure in discovering something new; a circular trail in the deepest dirt roadiest section of the southern ACT that scored high on the effort-reward ratio. It was nearing Christmas and I had been in the city that morning, catching up for coffee and passing on gifts. By afternoon I was gently climbing up through forest onto the ridge of Shanahans Mountain. The reward: a fluffy clouded blue sky hanging over the wild contours and emptiness of the Clear Range. Christmas had come early, a new vista my present.
Saturday 1st February: A brutal day of solid northwest winds and temperatures reaching 43 degrees expanded the fire quickly southeast across NSW and upon settlements around the Monaro Highway, including Bumbalong, Colinton and Bredbo. While Tharwa and suburban Canberra dodged a bullet, around a dozen homes were destroyed, principally around Bumbalong as fire raced over the Clear Range and engulfed properties.
I wonder if there is anything more satisfying than the scrunch of footsteps upon fresh snow. While chaotically parked cars and excitable humans rapidly transform Corin Forest into dirty slush, ahead of me is a virginal path of white. It took some effort to reach. Lung-busting in fact. But before me, the Smokers Trail slices through a forest of tall, majestic eucalypts under the deepest blue sky. It is a wonderland both un-Australian and undeniably Australian. Waiting to be scrunched underfoot.
Thursday 6th February: A week of cooler, calmer weather subdues fire activity considerably, though it continues to slowly expand, particularly to the west and north. It has passed over the Smokers Trail, nearby Square Rock, and moves over and beyond Corin Forest. The slow creep of the fire appears less destructive and the infrastructure around Corin Forest is protected. Now nearing Tidbinbilla, fire crews instigate backburning to halt progress.
Is it as simple, as logical, as linear as a before and after? Because a before was also an after. When I took my first steps into Namadgi it was not so long after 2003. When the hills and gullies had previously burned, arguably even more vehemently than today.
In the much used vernacular of the new normal it may not be quite the normal cycle of the Australian bush, but there is a cycle nonetheless. We may be in the immediate after now, but I can take solace that this is the start of another before. When Namadgi will again nurture love and life, expel fresh air and bounty, guide adventure and inspiration. Enduring still.
Sunday 9th February: The rain is tantalising, teasing. We’ve had a few millimetres and promises of a deluge keep getting pushed back. Another hour. Another day. Probabilities suggest something decent will come. A few spells of drizzle and blustery showers mimic England. It is only seventeen degrees and perfect roast dinner and red wine weather. That in itself is an encouraging sign.
The Orroral Valley Fire has changed status from Out of Control to Being Controlled. That in itself is an even more encouraging sign. It has consumed around 80% of Namadgi National Park and around a third of the ACT’s landmass. Taking into account various offshoots into NSW the fire encompasses approximately 113,000 hectares, or 1,130 square kilometres. That’s about the same as Hong Kong Island. Or most of Greater London if you exclude some of the crumby bits like Croydon.
Initial reports suggest significant variability in the damage caused within the park, mirroring the variability in fire intensity over its course. Positively, key infrastructure, including historic huts, culturally significant sites and telecommunications resources have been protected, while threatened wildlife within nature reserves have been successfully relocated.
It’s been a while since I’ve driven so far on consecutive days. The passage of years dulls the memory of cruising on straight, flat roads under an endless sky; pausing at a bakery in a one street kind of town, finding a ramshackle table beside a drying creek to stop and sample the local flavours. Seeking shade from the sun and solace from the flies. Always the flies. Now I remember the flies and that quirky shimmy to dispense of their attachment and manoeuvre into the car without them. A memory regained and repeated again.
I was heading west towards Griffith, the first stage of an elongated loop involving a couple of stops for work. Beyond Wagga it becomes much clearer that Wagga is a veritable hub of civilisation, with a handy Officeworks and everything. Another hundred clicks on and the town of Narrandera welcomes like an oasis, perched upon the muddy brown of the Murrumbidgee and boasting one of those high streets of slightly faded charm.
There is a colony of koalas here, and I was pleased to come across one in the first hundred metres of my walk. It was around midday and hot, exactly the kind of conditions in which you should not be out walking. But with this early sighting, the pressure was off – no more relentlessly craning one’s neck upward in the usually forlorn hope of spotting a bulbous lump that isn’t a growth protruding from a eucalypt. I could instead loop back to the car concentrating more on keeping the flies from going up my nose. Yes, they are absolutely back.
Through Leeton – one work site – I pushed on to stay overnight in Griffith. Griffith is famed for a few things – lots of wine production (apparently, 1 in every 4 glasses consumed in Australia), Italian mafia, flies I would think, and citrus. Quite stupendously I had arrived at the time of year when the town parades an array of citrus sculptures, mostly located in the median strip of the busiest road going through town. I suppose it’s convenient to look at if you’re just passing through, but I can’t fathom why anyone would not get out of the car to take a closer look.
They say citrus but I don’t recall a single lemon, lime or grapefruit. Apart from the vines, most of the trees you pass are dotted with oranges, all fed by the ditches and canals of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area. It would be hard work out on those fields, under piercingly hot sun among the flies. Giant brimmed hats with nets (rather than corks) are a must.
For a touch of diversity in what is a fairly mundane landscape, I took an early evening drive out of town towards Cocoparra National Park. Getting out of town is the first adventure, given that Griffith was designed by our old friend Walter Burley Griffin. You can see the giveaway circles and roundabouts on a map, but I can’t say there was a particularly strong Canberra sensibility about the place. Leigh Creek in South Australia provides a more authentic – and surreal – replication.
Within the national park, the Jacks Creek trail promised much – traversing a dry, rocky gorge before climbing out to vistas of the surrounding landscape. Indeed, it would have been quite idyllic bathed in the end of day light, an Australiana glowing golden brown and rusty red. The kind of earthy environment that to me has been a highlight of past trips out back.
Yet not since Arkaroola have I found myself in such a landscape outnumbered ten thousand to one by flies. I feel like I keep repeating myself, but they truly were unbearable. Pausing to reflect and soak it in was impossible. Stopping to set up photos proved an ordeal, exacerbated by the movement of my camera shaking off another cloud of useless parasitic twatheads seeking water from whatever orifice they could find.
After coming such a long way, flies had wrecked the experience. It’s akin to a rare sunny day in England, battling through Sunday drivers to discover a lovely beer garden, nabbing a prime table overlooking a patchwork quilt of fields, tucking into a hearty lunch with ale. And then the wasps appear and come down to doom us all.
Thankfully the number of flies per square metre dissipated a touch as I turned east, eventually to reach Sydney. Along the way the landscape softened too, more rolling and pastoral with a surprising touch of green in places. Along the way, fine country towns such as Cootamundra, Young and Cowra, famed for Bradman, cherries and prisoners of war. All words that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Shane Warne tweet.
As the sun leaned low against the western sky, I paused for the night in the town of Blaney, where it cooled down sufficiently to deaden the activity of insects. Wandering around the streets early the next morning, there was a touch of the genteel in the gardens and verandas of the old brick homes, verdant patches of life fed by the creek on the eastern side of town. Of course, being Australia things do not remain sedate for too long; two magpies decided to have a go at my head while a family of geese with newborns made sure I didn’t pry too much. An old guy wheeling out a bin stared and muttered – perhaps both in contempt at my alien presence and in recognition of a deeper affinity.
Walking back to my motel I noticed one of those brown tourist signs with a small fort-like shape pointing to Millthorpe. It wasn’t far and while I was pretty sure there would be no small fort-like building there, it had to be indicative of something. Perhaps a smaller, more endearing version of Blaney, with a quiet high street lined with buildings from yesteryear. A village brimming in spring blooms and fragrance, boasting not merely a café but a “providore”. Wine rooms and antique curios…we are nearing Orange after all.
Millthorpe offered a tangible culmination of my growing appreciation of the grace of small town Australia. The small town Australia that isn’t too threatening or distant, somewhat gentrified by being in range of Sydney weekenders, bringing good local food and drink to the table. You can imagine renting a cottage here and treading its creaky boards, sheltering in its shady alcoves, napping as the afternoon light creeps through the blinds, casting shadows of wisteria onto the soft pastel walls. There’s probably not that much to do, but that’s all part of the attraction, offering time that can simply be sated with coffees and brunches and platters of meat and cheese and wine.
Still, should you wish to rise from this indulgent slumber, another hour or so east will bring you to the western fringe of the Blue Mountains. Suddenly things change, and not just the petrol price rising thirty cents a litre in as many kilometres. The day trippers are out in force, the coaches idling at every single possible lookout, of which there are many. The escarpment top towns of Blackheath and Katoomba and Leura are brimming with people shuffling between café and bakery, spilling down like ants to the overlooks nearby. Below the ridge, however, and the wilderness wins. Only penetrable at its fringe, placid beneath a canopy of ferns and eucalyptus.
I walked down a little near Katoomba Falls, thankful to be below the tumult of the populous plateau. The falls were barely running, but the views up the valley towards the Three Sisters were inescapable. Overhead, a cableway gave visitors the easy option to take this all in through the glass and air conditioning.
The Blue Mountains have some momentous lookouts but are best appreciated on a bushwalk away from the crowds. However, my time here was limited and some ideas that formed for longer hikes will have to wait for another day. A lunch stop at Sublime Point will be the last I take in for now, that distant view of millions of trees to be replaced by millions of people navigating the congested thoroughfares of Sydney.
The city awaits, the space disappears, the understated charm of the country fades away. The buzz of people rushing here, there and everywhere gathers, pressing in like a thousand flies in the face, and ears, and mouth and nose. Taking your car park and your seat on the train, getting the best spot on the beach, the last table at the cafe. Persistent and relentless these ones cannot to be swished away or disposed of by a disjointed shimmy into a car. The flies are unavoidable, everywhere.
With the undeniable passage of nature there are sure signs that winter in Canberra is slowly ebbing away. There have been a few recent days in which I have left the house without a coat, while the sunlight is waking me up well before seven and allowing me to read almost until six. Wattles explode, daffodils unfurl, the odd fly is resurrected and finds its way into my living room for what seems like all eternity.
That’s not to say winter is entirely done and dusted and – with it – the satisfaction of a roast dinner, a glass of red and an evening hunkering down until the early hours watching sport beamed direct from the sometimes sunny skies of Europe. The Ashes is the latest incarnation of late night TV toil, in which the morning session emerges during the prime time of evening followed by a drift to tea after midnight. Sometimes I stay up late and sometimes it’s worth it. Like a shiny cherry battered by Sir Ben Stokes, it can be hard to sleep straight after, such is the insane frenzy that has just taken place.
Of course, usually about now I would be in England, so it is part galling but part elevating to see Leeds bathed in unseasonal hot bank holiday sunshine. Bored of some of the drearier TV commentary I might tune into Test Match Special, delivering another evocation of Englishness. The good, wholesome Englishness involving short long legs and a discussion of cake in between bouncers. Not that other Englishness espoused by others. Without vision, the radio commentary paints a more vivid picture in my head of an England for which I might yearn.
But here I am having almost successfully navigated my first full Australian winter, in the coldest city of the lot. Has it been hard? Well, not really, partly a consequence of strategic breaks away, warm sunshine beaming through glass, roast dinners, red wine, Ben Stokes, and no doubt the upward trajectory in global temperatures as previously predicted by those pesky experts who we have all apparently become sick of.
And then it snows for a weekend and suddenly the accumulation of 200 years of temperature records can be instantly dismissed by the cast of crazy characters featured on the sitcom known as Sky News. The ‘Antarctic Blast’ delivering a bit of cool drizzle to Melbourne and a touch of breeze in Sydney, dusts the higher hills and peaks around Canberra. It’s the kind of event that happens every few years and makes a Canberra winter all the better. For there is an unmatched beauty when the snow comes to the Australian bush.
There’s certainly a freshness accompanying an early Saturday morning jaunt upon Urambi Hills, but the sun is out and the wind has dropped meaning that, before long, I’m wanting to strip off during the march upward. Even the locals are unfazed, the youngsters popping out to gaze towards the snow for the first time in their lives.
From afar, there is little hardship, little severity to be found in the sight of snow-capped hills. Getting closer to the snowline in Tidbinbilla, you do begin to feel the penetration of winds swirling over the ranges, picking up icy particles and moisture and delivering them to idiots like me waiting patiently on an exposed lookout. A sleety shower whips through quickly, before a valley of thousands of eucalypts are bathed in sun.
From this perch, the snow seems tangible, touchable. Attainable with, hopefully, relative ease. And that’s the way it proves, driving to the Mountain Creek area in the reserve. A few cars are here but it is blessedly sedate, lacking the queuing, slush-churned melee of Corin Forest after a few flakes. Close to the car park, youngsters screech and coo in delight and disappear off into the forest. A trail of footprints furrow a path into the trees, eventually joining a fire trail that will go on and on, up and up, all the way to Camel’s Hump.
It would be folly to climb to the summit today; though judging by the footprints there are a few committed mountaineers in the area. However, walking up just a little and the snow thickens, the sledge tracks fade and untouched pockets of snow lap at the ankles. There is a pristine quality to the scene, a fresh blanket filling in the imperfections of the bush. A gentleness given to a landscape so often forbidding. For a change, snakes will not be a worry.
Still, best not to linger as my feet are starting to numb and the day is drawing on way beyond optimum coffee time. As I head back down it’s noticeable how the depth of snow has already lessened, patches of mud are now creeping through, churned up by increasing traffic heading into the forest.
The snow will disappear soon enough, and the wattles will continue to burst forth, the blossom will suddenly sprout, the joeys will escape the comfort blanket of mum’s pouch. The winter will draw to a close, the light will lengthen, and I’ll be in shorts moaning about the heat before you know it. Barbecues will replace roasts and more decent sport will be on at a decent hour. Australia will return to its natural, sun-baked, fire-blasted state.
Yet a part of me will miss the cold, miss the late nights in Leeds, miss the excuse for slow-cooked heartiness. And I will miss the experience of anticipation of a spring just around the corner. Maybe not quite as badly as Nathan Lyon misses run outs, but missing all the same.
Or how to catch up two months in one thousand words.
Can it really be more than two months ago that I was faring well an England seemingly destined for Johnsonillae exitium philanderus? Well, yes, it was and with that comes the strange and daunting prospect this year of an entire Canberra winter. Which, to tell the truth, hasn’t been overly taxing thus far. A few cold nights and fresh mornings, the occasional horror day featuring bone-chilling winds and foggy drizzle. Yet time it right in the afternoon and you can be bathing in 15 degree sunshine. And as the temperature plummets overnight, watching a cricket world cup at four in the morning in bed is cosy, if not calming.
Arriving back in mid-May delivered me to a climate marginally warmer and certainly sunnier than the realm from which I came. A mild, ambient goldenness that stretches into early June, as leaves linger and fade and float slowly down onto the ground. It was pleasing to still see autumn abounding after experiencing spring sprouting. A soothing ointment for jetlag.
Like the 4pm sun on a scarlet leaf, there is a distinct contrast returning from the UK to Australia, and Canberra in particular. Where are the streets clogged with parked cars and the friendly waves between drivers allowing one another to pass? What happened to the sweet birdsong and bounty of green? Just where is everyone? On the light rail maybe.
Wilderness, absolute emptiness is not really a trait of the British landscape, but here it practically feels as though it’s around every corner. A lingering day trip holiday hangover prompted me off to Braidwood for the token mid-morning coffee and cake and then on into the Budawang Wilderness. A landscape of escarpment and gorge, ferns and eucalyptus, blue hills and blue skies. A new peak to conquer – Mt Budawang – and those very Australian views. Not in Kansas or Kensington anymore.
There was more sandstone bush aplenty on another day trip into the Southern Highlands with two friends – Michael and Angela – who were briefly in the country for a change; equally keen to taste that generous sense of antipodean air and space before embarking for the freneticism of Europe. It was a right proper miserable public holiday morning in Canberra, but a little north and east near Bundanoon the drizzle faded, the skies cleared, and the hills and valleys of a small pocket of Morton National Park glowed. It became – still – comfortable enough for t-shirt.
Given such fortuitous conditions we stretched the day out with a visit to the ever popular Fitzroy Falls. The bulk of day trippers take the short stroll to the top of the falls, a few less meander on to the first couple of lookouts, and just the hardcore like us go all the way. It’s not that taxing – around 6km return – and it’s a walk constantly accompanied by generous vistas and plentiful woodland. Today, we had the bonus display of a lyrebird, perching and prancing and going through its repertoire of impeccable mimicry, reminding us, once again, how unique Australia truly is.
These Australian winter days are in many ways incomparable to those of the north; I could not imagine being so comfortable and surrounded by the continuing flourish of nature on a windswept Princetown tor in January. Or May. Yet, coincide some of the higher, harsher landscapes with the handful of genuine wintry days, and it can feel like a cream tea in front of a log fire would have been a far more sensible choice. Such as exposed upon the summit of Booroomba Rocks, as a tenuous sleety shower whips across the valley.
There is snow to be had as the year progresses into July, a clue provided by the proximity of the Snowy Mountains to Canberra. Most of the white stuff falls above 1800m or so, but a dusting can accumulate at lower levels to coat the western backdrop to the Australian capital. Clever foreshortening with big zooms can make it look as though the hill behind Parliament House is some kind of snow-capped Mount Fuji, but it takes around an hour to reach these powdery playgrounds.
When these powdery playgrounds receive a fresh dusting on a Sunday during school holidays, carnage can ensue. In fact, it creates a scene reminiscent of the frenzy after a dusting on Dartmoor, when cars stop and pull over willy-nilly, the white blanket concealing rocks and ditches and any intrinsic common sense remaining. The snow becomes muddy and slushy and by noon the picture resembles a bad day’s racing at Exeter Speedway in which the childcare centre has experienced full on meltdown.
I assumed leaving around eight in the morning I’d be one of a handful of pioneers to add fresh footsteps in the virgin snow around Corin Forest. Yet I find I’m in a queue of mainly oversized Utes idling while the road remains closed. I could wait, for goodness knows how long, to follow the many vehicles in front as they lose all sense of common sense upon the first sighting of a pile of slush. Or I could park up on this nice flat grassy verge and walk. Somewhere.
As fortuitous as the parking spot was, my luck doubled with the gate leading onto a fire trail which eventuated into a loop walk taking in a bit of a climb and gradually moving away from the road and the sound of idling engines and despairing parents with despairing children who need a wee. Fresh, fragrant eucalyptus with just a dusting of snow; seemingly not enough to really close a road, honestly, but a coating of white nonetheless. A scene sufficient to paint a picture of transition from the spring blossom to the autumnal gold to the middle of winter in two months. Two months and one thousand words. Okay, not quite one thousand, but if I just add up the words as I write this extra bit, I reckon I might just get there.
If I was to analogise the lingering weeks of summer, it would be to that of a very uneventful over from Glenn McGrath. Turn at the mark, trundle in with intent, deliver a solid line and length on to the pitch and through to the keeper, stare in confected intimidation at a snivelling Pom, turn back and repeat again. And again.
There is something to be said for reliability and repetition – 563 somethings in fact – but deep down we all crave a cocky blonde disruptor to enter the scene and throw down a few cherries spinning every which way but straight. The googlies are always there somewhere; you just have to put in a bit of extra effort to discover them.
Such terrible metaphors are all to say I went to the first Test match ever at Manuka Oval in Canberra. Australia versus Sri Lanka in probably the most one-sided match in history. Still, the setting was a delight, the atmosphere abuzz, and Canberra more than held its own as a venue. Googlies may have been sparse but then, in 2019, we are talking about the trumped up talents of Naayfun Lawwwn rather than the bona fide annoying genius of Warnie.
Outside the oval, the regular line and length of hot sunny Canberra days have occasionally hit the cracks of thunderstorms; apocalyptic tempests of wind and lightning and – often – raised dust. It’s made things a bit more interesting, even if some of the places under which such conditions breed are as reliable as ever. Places like Red Hill and Mount Taylor, the equidistant escapes from home to the bush.
One of the cooler and windier days of late happened to beset the Canberra Triathlon. A temperature all well and good for exercise but a wind cruel and unforgiving when on a bike. To say I competed in a triathlon is a tad generous, strictly speaking. But a ten kilometre bike leg as part of a team relay was effort enough into a headwind. Still, this was just a minor, temporary obstacle for me, and worth it to deliver the imaginary baton onto Toby for the final, inspirational leg. Go Wheelsfortoby!
I guess a triathlon is a bit of a googly within the normal course of events. It also led me to be in Hackett one sunny late afternoon, at the northern end of Canberra nestled underneath Mount Majura. Not so much a change of scenery, but at least a different path on which to wander, all stretching eucalypt branches, golden grass and copper earth, with some snatched views of the surrounding landscape through the bush. Plus, slithering away as I marched downhill, a brown snake disappearing from the corner of my eye.
A few weeks later I would come across two snakes in the space of five minutes, having discussed them five minutes earlier with my friend Joseph as we sat upon a rock in Namadgi National Park. I’ve hardly seen any snakes…maybe five…in my entire time in Australia I said. Mostly in Queensland I said. I know people who won’t come to Australia because of snakes, how ridiculous. When you think of all the bushwalking I have done in that time, and five snakes…
Shall we see what’s down that way, he said.
Snaaaaaaaaakkkkkkkke, I said. Quite loudly, almost tripping over a red bellied black.
Let’s actually not go that way, I said, and we turned around to head back to the car, not before a second made an appearance under a fallen tree, this time with marginally greater warning.
They did say it was going to be a good year for snakes, and in my random survey of random walks through random parts of the ACT I can conclude they were correct.
Snakes were mercifully unsighted on a longer walk to Gibraltar Rocks in Tidbinbilla during the great Australia Day day off. I’d been here before but – again seeking some variety – I approached the peak from a different side. The first couple of kilometres traversed open plains bursting with kangaroos and the odd emu, before marching incessantly upward through that low, scrawny kind of bush that excels in the higher climes frequently ravaged by fire and ice.
Reaching the rocks of Gibraltar up in the overcast skies, there were no Spanish ships, no snakes, no bogans singing Jimmy Barnes and wearing the cheap fake blue of Australian flag products proudly made in China. Just the essence of Australia fitting for today or any day. The heart and soul of its earth and its sky, sprouting the unique environment which has been nurtured over millennia and which endures and adapts as best it can.
And so, we reach the last ball of this ragged over as we once more revisit those terrible cricket analogies. The weather has cooled a touch and the mornings are showing signs that we are entering the golden age. Britain basks briefly in twenty degrees and a few of our mornings drop to single digits. The temperatures still rise to the mid to high twenties in the afternoon, and this is what we call ambient, mild. It’s all relative. And still plenty warm enough for cricket. And snakes.
Floating around in my brain for a while has been Mount Coree in the Brindabellas and – in this quest for difference, desire for new – it finally becomes an agenda item early one Saturday. It is a peak I have never climbed, mainly because I’ve never been entirely sure how to climb it. Mostly it’s a case of following fire trails and dirt roads, including up to the summit and, sometimes, sharing these with vehicles.
Commencing from Blundells Flat several hundred metres below, it is a fresh, serene meander uphill towards Two Sticks Road. Only a grader on the back of a truck passes me early in the climb, leaving a lingering cloud of fine dust particles in the air, gilding the shafts of sunlight beaming through the trees. Along Two Sticks Road it is easy going towards Coree Campground before the final traverse up to the rocky summit which marks the border between NSW and the ACT.
It’s a decent slog as the sun warms and, by now, the four wheel drives have woken from their slumber. One by one they leisurely pass in a clunk of gears and pneumatics and fumes, inching ever closer to the trig at the top. For all their engineering and technical prowess, for all their ability to get to the top quicker and revel in airconditioned comfort, they are no match for a pair of feet. A pair of feet that are connected to the landscape, an intrinsic part of it rather than something carving it apart. A pair of feet that have superior bragging rights over the indolent Saturday morning car park crew accumulating at the top. And a pair of feet that will come across one more red bellied black on the way down, completing a reliably diverting over.
I really don’t get this whole Ten Year Challenge malarkey. Not because it’s like some glorified chain letter vanity project or anything. No, my only bewilderment with it is what the actual heck is the actual challenge?
Surely a real challenge would be something like – oh I dunno – unpacking forty years of legislation and agreements and treaties that you have actively shaped and adopted in order to enable the cohesive and productive functioning of society without it resulting in the only certainty being the uncertainty of what exactly can fill the void which will not simultaneously provoke pandemonium and lead to a bitter aftertaste in the plummy throats of anti-elitist elites who really deep down can’t warm to little Abdullah no matter what they might say about saving their NHS which they don’t even have to use because of their private health provider in whom they have offshore investments.
Another more challenging challenge would be coming up with a sentence longer than that. Or how about getting through a particularly hot spell in a hot Australian summer?
It’s a tough gig, and the reality of four straight days in a row above 40 degrees was enough to force me fleeing to the coast, at least for a couple of those days. Thankfully when I got back there came a reprieve with temperatures dropping back down to 37 with a cool change as ineffectual as any number of Secretaries of State for Exiting the European Union. Yes, the hot air persists.
At least on the coast the temperatures dropped a good eight to ten degrees, pampered with pleasant sea breezes and clear cool waters. There was fish and chips and ice cream, paddles upon shores and across inlets, and a decent amount of lounging with a book in the sand. Yet the highlight of this escape was away from the edge of the water. Instead, upon the edge of wilderness.
Morton National Park is a gargantuan expanse of vast sandstone plateaus and dense valleys separating the coastal strip of southern NSW with the golden tablelands inland. With alluring names such as Monolith Valley and The Castle, and pockets that have probably never even seen a human face, there is a timeless, spiritual brooding conjured by its landscape.
It’s certainly tough to penetrate, with a few access points denting its edges. One of these comes around half an hour’s drive from UIlladulla, up through pockets of verdant rainforest and along a bumbling dirt road. A small car park welcomes you to the start of the Mount Bushwalker trail which is – pleasingly – all bushwalk and very little mounting.
Setting off nice and early before heat rises, the trail actually proves somewhat dull – a fire trail becoming a narrow tunnel cutting through low shrubs and over boggy watercourses. A family of black cockatoos enliven proceedings, startled by a lone bushwalker and fleeing somewhere vaguely over the horizon. There is the feeling of grandeur metres away, just around the next corner, through the bushes, palpable but never really visible. Until, that is, the very end.
The trail truly proves a means to an end. And if all endings end up ending like this then sign me up to end the end music in Eastenders. An end coming at only around half eight in the morning, just me, a vegemite sandwich (yes, truly), and millions of eucalypts spilling across to the vertiginous walls of The Castle. Australian through and through.
It was borderline whether I had really earned what was to follow, such was the relative ease of this walk. Out of the wilds, the cutesy hilltop town of Milton inevitably has a bakery, which I inevitably visited, inevitably not for the first time. There is a pleasing inevitability in the inevitability of cake and coffee.
Down the road from Milton, through the fringes of Rick Stein’s Mollymook, is the small coastal village of Narrawallee. Not only does this have a genuinely great sounding name, relaxed holiday vibes, and a good-looking coffee shop by the water, but it also hosts a delightful meandering inlet, protected from the ocean and perfect for all sorts of wading, dipping, paddle-boarding and family gatherings for cricket on a sandy tidal flat. Having passed on a shower – what with my early start and anticipation of a sweaty hike – this was refreshment at its finest.
Nearby Mollymook Beach is equally as idyllic, a fine sweep of sand reminiscent of but far superior to Bondi. It seemed to me a suitable location for an early evening read on a blanket followed by an amble along that stretch contested between land and sea. However, gathering thunderstorms also took a liking to the beach and closed in for what proved an entire night of tumultuous electrical drama.
You might hope the stormy melee would clear the air and cool things down to proffer something more reasonable. But, no, we are in an age of extremes after all. Following a sweaty goodbye ocean coffee and a cheap petrol fill up at Batemans Bay, the car had to work overtime to keep cool on the climb up Clyde Mountain. And then, returning to Canberra, the sight of Black Mountain Tower on the horizon, shimmering in a dusty haze of 38 degrees. And still rising.
Very very occasionally, when I find myself inordinately bored – probably a cold, dark night in the midst of a Canberra winter – I might find myself turning to Seven Two and briefly catching a few minutes of Escape to the Country. It could be my imagination, but the show always seems to go something like this…
Malcolm and Felicity are a slightly smug, good-looking couple who are entering early semi-retirement and looking to sell up their mock Tudor detached home in Surrey, which they bought for £50,000 back in 1996. Malcolm has raked in millions from financial practices of dubious morality in the City and Felicity is looking to scale back on her worthy high paid work lobbying government on behalf of an NGO. Looking to escape this stressful, fast-paced life they are now seeking an impossible to find cottage containing five bedrooms for the two of them and a modern country kitchen with unparalleled views close to a village with good transport links but not near a road of any kind whatsoever. In addition, they’d love separate outbuildings for keeping two of their horses and a workshop space for some questionable artistic endeavour involving twigs and mirrors. They are concentrating their search in Shropshire.
Shropshire. Always Shropshire. I never quite knew why…I suspect you could get a bigger mound for your pound before the cameras from Escape to the Country invaded. I feel like it’s a kind of forgotten county of England, almost irrelevant, with nothing significant whatsoever to worry about. I guess, in reality, Birmingham isn’t too far away so whether that’s an asset or not is open to question. And it is practically Wales, but not actually Wales, which means you can get all the benefits of being in Wales without being in Wales.
Facing a long drive back from North Wales to Devon, Shropshire happened to be in my way. I approached the county a bit later than anticipated – my increasing and alarming fondness for full English breakfasts causing me to linger in the Welsh border town of Llangollen a little longer than planned. Finally crossing the frontier, the town of Oswestry offered promise, in that it had a Morrison’s petrol station in which to fill up and save a couple of quid. Which was promptly expunged dawdling behind caravans and negotiating street furniture.
Shrewsbury – like all proper English county towns – has a ring road, which means your only impression of Shrewsbury is of Costa drive throughs and B&M Bargains. It doesn’t seem Escape to the Country country but then south of here you enter the Shropshire Hills. An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. And indeed it is.
Nestled in the bosom of these hills, the town of Church Stretton possesses enough charm and functionality to impress our friends Malcolm and Felicity. I daresay there are some fine tearooms serving wonderful slabs of Victoria Sponge alongside intricate china teapots, as well as curio shops selling things made from twigs and mirrors. I cannot guarantee this for sure though, in light of my massive breakfast and the pressing imperative of time.
Having climbed Snowdon the day before I wasn’t overly keen on walking far, but my insatiable instinct to seek a viewpoint and take some happy snaps kicked in. Unfortunately for once my navigation faltered a little, and I ended up trudging through a forest for some time. It was a nice, leafy forest full of green, but you really couldn’t see the wood for the trees. Eventually I was able to climb up, my thighs wailing with every step out onto the heathland hilltops. And what fine country. A very nice place to escape to.
But now, it was beyond time for my escape, and the prospect of leaving this quiet enclave of England for the counties of Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, Somerset, and Devon. Counties that you may see on Seven Two sometime soon. If they ever get a look in.
The richness of Britain is quite something. Not richness in an economic sense, that measure upon which so much weight is given – wander any town or city and it will quickly become apparent that financial riches are far from universal. No, it’s the sheer abundance of Britain. There’s so much in so little a space. Everything here is dense, whether that be the number of council houses clustered together in a cul-de-sac or the profusion of single-track lanes crisscrossing rolling green countryside. How can this small rock in the Atlantic host so much of everything? A tardis of a nation.
I feel like you could spend a lifetime and still not discover every corner of Britain. This is a task even more challenging when you don’t live there anymore, and you are largely content to frequent familiar fishing villages and creamy countryside on home turf. Why the need to go anywhere else?
Even the sands underneath me have felt my footsteps before, though I’m sure never in such a glorious glow. And under this clear air emanating from Blackpool, a horizon of land appears as alien to me as Timbuktu.
North Wales is a corner of Britain that seems to pack more punch in its acres than most. I think it’s largely explained by the proximity of the coastline to the jagged peaks just a few miles inland. At times the uplands appear to roll directly into the sea. And where they don’t, valleys, towns, forests and lakes squeeze in to fill the gaps. I could spend a month here and still not discover it all.
But I did at least have three days to explore new terrain and it commenced with a surprisingly seamless and pleasurable drive from Lancashire under continuing blue skies. Smoothly cruising through Cheshire, the terrain elevated somewhat into Wales, with snatched views of the Wirral and – in the distance – the conglomeration of Liverpool. At one point I could see the prominent rise of Snowdonia, clearly denoted by the only patch of cloudy sky in the whole of the British Isles. And I was heading straight for it.
The car came to a halt beside Llyn Ogwen, a sliver of a lake hemmed in by the A5 and two hilly clumps of land – the massifs of the Carneddau and Glyderau. To the north, the rolling, open uplands of the Carneddau shimmered gold in the sunshine while the rockier Glyderau was grazed by cloud. And guess to which one I was heading…
Passing a popular National Trust outpost, a gentle and well-worn path crossed the moorland towards Llyn Idwal, a small lake hemmed in by precipitous cliffs, popular with climbers and school parties vaguely attempting to do something related to Geography. While the landscape was striking, at times it was difficult to stand up, such was the wind howling through this giant bowl. And in late September, a hoodie was barely sufficient protection.
Thankfully the wind eased a little in the lee of the cliffs, a shattered barrier which seems insurmountable from below. Apparently a cleft proclaims to lead through something enticing called The Devil’s Kitchen and up to the top, via a small track rising from the lake. A few mountain goats appeared to be running up this in a ridiculous quest called exercise. I walked up a bit, feeling slightly breathless and a tad light-headed with each step. I figured it was a passing touch of wooziness that was quelled by a handful of Jaffa Cakes. And frankly, this view was a good enough one from which to turn around.
With overnight rest, the next day became a jam-packed whistle-stop exploration of the valleys, towns and bays of this corner of Wales. It started with the promise of early cloud and mist lifting in the small town of Llanrwst. Here, the River Conwy was spanned by a delightful arched bridge leading to what could possibly be one of the most photographed buildings in the principality. Having done very little research prior to this trip, I had no idea such a sight existed and that I would have timed things perfectly to coincide with the flourish of autumn. Turns out it’s a tea shop that – at this time in the morning – was closed. Otherwise clotted cream could have again been in the offing.
Further up the valley, the river widens towards the Conwy estuary and the countryside softens somewhat to resemble that of South Devon. The environment is a haven for birds, something I deduce from parking at an RSPB centre across the river from the town of Conwy itself. Ever a tight-arse with parking, I decided on the spur of the moment to walk over to the town, taking in splendid views of a majestic castle and surrounding hills across the water.
I became progressively enamoured by Conwy. Obviously its castle is a dominant – and splendidly preserved – feature of the town. Beyond this, much of Conwy is walled, with various towers and steps and ramparts in a crumbling state, the least crumbly of which can be explored for free. And within the walls sits a charming array of old cottages and colourful terraced houses, leading down to a sedate harbour cove. Everything seems peaceful and at peace. And somewhere within this is a massive slab of coffee and walnut cake that is so gargantuan it eliminates the need for lunch.
Walking back to the car in glorious sunshine I did my best to change into shorts without revealing my arse to any curious twitchers. This of course precipitated the onset of cloud as I drove further west, the A5 cutting under barren hills plunging into the sea, Holyhead across the water.
At Caernarfon, another castle straight out of a lego box impressed. Yet maybe it was the cloud and the coolness, but I found this place lacked much of the ambience of Conwy. It seemed a bit more touristy and try-hard, and the car park surrounding one side of the castle – like some kind of glass and steel moat – distracted from the scene. Meanwhile, the generator from a Mr Whippy van nearby disturbed any tranquillity.
I headed on hoping for a break in the clouds along the coast towards the Llyn Peninsula – the pointy out bit of North Wales. It seems a remote, sometimes bleak place, undoubtedly exposed to the elements throughout the year. I suspect Welsh is the first language here, all hacking throats and largely devoid of vwls. The small towns and villages tend to be off the beaten track… spots like Trefor, where I paused to survey a picturesque cove, one of the few visitors in the car park.
More popular with curious outsiders like me is Morfa Nefyn and, in particular, the bay-side hamlet of Pothdinllaen. Literally a pub and a few flowery cottages parked by the sand, it can really only be reached by foot, passing through one of those golf courses blessed in its occupation of prime links real estate. Some of the holes looked ludicrously unfair but the enviable setting, with water on all sides, cannot be denied.
Following an obligatory pint in the Ty Coch Inn I ambled back towards the car, stamping prints in the sand as the tide shifted out. The salty sea air had put me in a fish and chip mood and I thought Pwllheli might prove a good bet. But it looked a tad depressing passing through and I saw no obvious contenders, instead stopping further east in Cricceith, which satisfied requirements entirely.
It’s a shame the sun never materialised post-Conwy, just to add that sparkle and extra splendour to the sights. And it proved in more ways than one that Conwy simply put everything else into the shade that day.
Of course, the famous BBC weather forecast had been changing its sunshine symbols into white cloud ones as proximity to each day in question neared. My final day in Wales was, perhaps, the most promising online. Not that it looked especially good first thing, but surely such mist and cloud is to be expected as October nears?
Leaving early under grey skies, I was uncertain how this day would pan out. My intent was to hike proper good somewhere in Snowdonia. And as I reached a viewpoint towards Mount Snowdon itself, the magic happened. The magic that is lifting plumes of mist, evaporated by the laser-like sun of dawn.
In a matter of minutes it was if cloud had been consigned to the pages of history, and the decision to attempt an ascent on Mount Snowdon was an easy one to make. Rather than regurgitating every single step of this walk here, you can – should you wish – read more about it in this shameless cross-promotion for yet another blog page I have been working on when lulls in work strike me down with boredom. In summary: epic, awesome, enjoyable…enough of a challenge to provide reward without being too challenging to annoy. Though at times the train to the top did feel like the sensible option.
It really is remarkable to have such genuine mountain landscape concentrated alongside all the other facets making up this part of the world. Yes, the mountains lack altitude compared to, say, the Alps, but they have every characteristic col, ridge, tarn and peak required. They are mountains worthy of the name.
However, this is Britain so I guess they are mountains not entirely untamed. At lower levels, a few crumbling mining outposts remain, and slate quarries persist in other parts. And then there are sheep, lovely fluffy inevitable sheep, appearing when you least expect them on a rocky ridgeline, one hoof away from a plummet down a cliff. It would be remiss of me – negligent even – to be in Wales and not mention sheep. Lovely.
What a glorious day to be a sheep in the green, green grass of home. Now I was seeing sheep everywhere. Sheep to the left of me, sheep to the right. There were sheep even revelling in the field behind my little Airbnb bothy. As with many other things, Britain possesses such density of sheep (though nowhere near as dense as witnessed in New Zealand).
Sheep were dotted on the fields the next morning, as I woke up overlooking the valley of Penmachno one last time. More acquainted with a pocket of the country that had been unknown, ready to head off back to the familiar. But not before passing through and pausing among new discoveries along the way.
As Europe scorches and folk back home whinge about it being too hot, the disjuncture between England and Australia heightens. Minus fives accompany football matches at four in the morning, condensation provides a ceaseless battle, and pictures of a sun-soaked France on steroids beckon like an electronic blanket and doona. Mercifully, once the fog lifts the afternoons are pure Canberra winter, with clear sunny skies proffering warmth in which a jumper can remain sufficient (today, an unseasonably warm 18 degrees). Still, it’s not shorts and thongs stuff exactly. For most people.
Queenslanders are a different breed and rarely own a pair of long trousers. It’s understandable up that way – see, for instance, my previous post in FNQ – but is something that would present a challenge visiting Canberra in July. For most people.
I never truly expected my mate Jason to appear off a flight from Brisbane in shorts and thongs. Okay 5% of me did, but there he was. Queenslander. Ready to catch up on Canberra haunts and friends, strategise and hypothesise, and prove that Real Australians Welcome Shorts. And should the minus fives and condensation get too much, there is always chance to flee to the coast.
Two hours away on the South Coast of NSW, the moderating effect of ocean keeps the minimums higher and a chance for daytime sunshine to warm things enough for a T-shirt to still be possible. But not today, with a brisk breeze tempering things. For most people.
Still, sheltered by untainted forest and rolling coastal hills, kissed by the radiance of the crystal ocean under clear skies, there is certain comfort to winter here. It is at one tranquil and vivacious, glowing in a freshness swept in by cold fronts and a seasonal lull in nature’s freneticism. The tried and trusted walk between Depot and Pebbly Beach proves to be at its very best.
The kangaroos and wallabies appear to be fans of this weather, out in force grazing on the luscious fringe of grassy dune and really, really hoping for a stray sandwich. While far from the explosion in #quokkaselfies on Rottnest Island in Western Australia, the placidity of these animals – along with the idyllic Australian coastal setting – have made #rooselfies a thing, sort of. Especially when there are tourists about.
One of the boasts made to lure tourists to certain destinations (for instance I’m thinking California) is that you can be surfing in the morning and skiing in the afternoon. Well, Canberra is very much like California, though perhaps not as strong in the sun-kissed-girls-so-hot-they-melt-your-popsicle department. From sparkling ocean to snowy mountains…
An hour or so out of Canberra, traversing a winding but decent gravel road, the Brindabellas rise to something like 1900 metres. Sometimes the road is closed for snow, but the run of fine dry weather allowed access to a world in which human intervention is almost impossible to perceive. Looking west from Mount Aggie, it is a concertina of ridge and valley, fold after fold of deep green eucalyptus cascading over the horizon. With a silence so striking that it cries out in distinction.
A little further down the road, Mount Franklin used to house a very archaic, make-it-up-as-you-go-along skiing area for Canberra devotees. It wasn’t exactly exemplary cover or persistent across winter, but the hardiest pioneers gave it a shot. Today, a few remnants linger including the necessary patches of snow. Indeed, snow was a surprising bonus accompanying a walk gradually upwards to an overlook south and east. A vista again largely untainted by anything whatsoever. Just the world and the blue, blue sky.
It wasn’t entirely peaceful here however, as we came across what were probably the only other people in this section of Namadgi National Park on a Monday in July. I think they were quite astonished to a) see someone else and b) see someone wearing shorts and a T-shirt. I explained the Queensland thing and that seemed to appease their simmering incredulity. Bidding farewell, we lingered for a while before the coolness eventually started to descend.
Heading back down to the car, our new-found friends were still lingering in the parking area, I sense relieved that not just one but both of us had made it back without catching hypothermia and resorting to cannibalism. In reality though it was an Australian winter afternoon; yes there was some leftover snow on the ground, but in no way whatsoever was it distressingly cold. Indeed, from the sapphire sea to the blue sky, winter here can still be divine. For most people.