Full of the joys

Wow, I see it was a totally different financial year the last time I posted something on here. What has happened since then? Well, I calculated I’ll probably owe some tax. I decided I’d lodge the return at the last possible moment. And I figured I should get some work to help pay it. Meanwhile, Melbourne happened, Canberra didn’t and Sydney sort of wavered on continual tenterhooks. I opened my first carton of UHT milk purchased in March because it was due to go off. Oh, and I completed the Canberra Centenary Trail. In case you missed it.  

Midwinter released its grip in fits and starts. And the seeping light of mornings stirred me closer toward an uncivilised hour. Wakening in the fives, I flit between hope of additional slumber, a boring interview on Radio National, and a curiosity about what might be going on outside. Sometimes this gets the better of me and I heroically part from my cocoon to embrace the day. Waiting for a coffee shop to open.

In that time between sunrise and coffee shop opening I potter through parks or take a drive to a nearby hilltop. It both surprises and comforts to find that I am not the only one out and about, the only one climbing hills, towering over the mist. There is shared solidarity on the hill, unspoken recognition that we are the lucky ones, that everyone else is missing out.

Misty mornings on Red Hill

It was on one of these mornings, mid-August, that I went in pursuit of a rainbow over Mount Taylor. A pot of gold would be handy even if the Tax Office are inevitably going to nab a handful of it. Alas, the rainbow had faded by time I parked up, but I walked a while and found treasure elsewhere. The perfect tunnel of cherry blossom in full extravagance. Adjacent to an open coffee shop.

A parade of cherry blossom

It is hard for me to conclude that spring is starting ever earlier because I’m usually in Europe during August. I return from overseas to a different world, jetlag weariness tempered by the thrum of bees and the tantalising prospect of future months bedecked in shorts. Bundles of flowers sprout from the trees and Bunnings becomes overwhelmed with people buying tomatoes far too early. The temperature trajectory is upward, but don’t remove that electric blanket just yet.

And sure enough, barely days later I was up early on another nearby hill looking out to snow. Not only on the distant ranges – dramatically revealed in the parting of valley mist – but also dusting the upper mound of Mount Taylor itself. Like a frame of pink blossom providing a window to the soul of Mount Fuji, one does not travel downstream to the replenishing river of spring with not first accomplishing the ultimate frozen mountaintop of mangled metaphor.  

Snow-capped mountains

Dotted among lurid yellow wattle and purple Paterson’s curse sprawling down the hillside, even the kangaroos looked a bit perplexed. Bemused. Ever so slightly pissed off. What the heck was this all about, this most bitter weekend of winter, when there was such colour burgeoning all around? Why on earth are we up so early on this godforsaken windswept ridge to look at snow? Is the coffee shop open yet? Click once for yes, two for no.

Kangaroo vistas

Inevitably the following weekend was A-MAZ-ING in a caps lock way that even Donald Trump would find difficult to resist. I feel like I wore a T-shirt sat on a log eating homemade quiche watching an echidna pass by in pursuit of love. I could still see snow on the highest ridge line of the mountains, but 1200 metres lower it was all sunshine and butterflies and frisky monotremes. Surely, definitely, the turning point leading to fake summer.   

Indeed, the year moves on and it is strange how quickly and yet how slowly it is going. This weekend would have heralded the start of Floriade – Canberra’s celebration of spring attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors to gawp at tulips. But this year it is, of course, cancelled due to you know what. Instead, they have planted bulbs all across the suburbs, a Floriade Local if you like. The closest to me is down by the Youth Centre, so goodness knows how all that will pan out. All I can picture is a scene from The Inbetweeners.

Luckily, us locals don’t really need an organised parade of millions of flowers planted in the pattern of a unicorn pooping stardust to truly appreciate spring. You can just walk out into the street, any street. In 2020 I feel like I have gotten to know my local streets more than ever, witnessing their withered pain during brutal orange summer skies, their relief moving into an autumn technicolour, and their barren stoicism through winter frosts. Now, they are undeniably full of the joys of spring.

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And as I continue to wake with the lighter mornings on a regular basis, I experience a microsecond of newfound joy as I pull up the blinds. The trees on my street have been steadily gathering buds then white cauliflower blooms then green shoots. The daffodils stand proud and the marigolds burst like orange lollipops. My snow peas, planted as part of doomsday prep, finally gather some momentum while the kale goes to seed. I may get one stir fry’s worth.

The morning too doesn’t feel as chilly as it used to. And I contemplate going outside. Or returning to bed. Just what time does that coffee shop open again?

Spring streets
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I got chills

snow00With 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Sapphire sea to blue sky

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.

jd01_editedStill, 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.

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jd03The 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Springing forward

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How had I never heard of Cooper Cronk until the last few months? Cooper Cronk. Every time that name is mentioned on the TV or radio I am convinced this is a guy whose destiny was the very east coast Australian domain of Rugby League (or NRL if you will). With a name like that it was inevitable; young Coop boofing his way to the fifth tackle for the Under 12 Greater Southern Potoroos before being signed up by the West Force Barramundi. An illustrious career ensued, only dented by a minor scandal involving a night out in the Cross, a high tackle and a leery headline in the Daily Telegraph. None of this is – I suspect – true, but there is a real NRL player called Cooper Cronk. That much I do know.

Fast forward a month or two and now we have the prospect of hearing how amazing Nathan Lyon is. Or in the conspicuously lady-free, nasally dominated domain of ex-Australian pom-slayers-turned-commentators, Naaaayfun Lawwwn. Also known as Gary. Every cherry a potential wicket inducing minor orgasms in the eight man wicket-keeping slip and bat pad cordon. Two-nil down already and I haven’t even put up the Christmas decorations. Summer could be long.

cbrspr02It’s taken a while for summer in Canberra to arrive, with the inevitable false starts and the fake summer that usually emerges for a week or so in October before retreating with startling rapidity. The variable weather conditions are largely a boon for nature which bursts into a frenzy of colour and gargantuan jungle of weeds. One minute you have a perfectly respectable outside patio area, the next it’s a (*culture alert*) frenzied sketch from Rousseau. Best to try and ignore the weeding and admire how the professionals manage things at the Botanic Gardens.

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cbrspr03There is a point for me in which winter in Canberra is definitely over and summer is certainly on the way. It’s that day when you decide to walk in the shade to cool down and protect, rather than seek out a warming sun and its melanoma vengeance. You know you should get your floppy hat out despite looking like a numpty in it.  And largely avoid the midday sun for disproven fear that it is this that is making your hair grey and not the inevitable march of age and genetics.

cbrspr05Anyway, the best times are the day’s extremities as the amount of sunshine increases. Those cool mornings when Wattlebirds wake you up at 5am and you could be tempted to a) get on your bike for a beautiful lakeside ride of virtue or b) turn on the radio in the hope that you will doze back to news of Cooper Cronk being signed by the Northern Beaches Numbats. And, at the other end, there’s those lingering light evenings, in which twilight golf is a possibility and cold beer and barbecues become a more frequent consideration.

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Just as things seem to be settling into a predictable pattern of bliss, a customary late spring upper level trough decides to utter from the mouths of weather forecasters everywhere and the climate becomes far more volatile. Clouds bubble up over the mountains, humidity progresses towards the Darwin end of the scale, and intense thunderstorms turn graffiti decorated storm drains into brown river rapids. The temperature drops fifteen degrees in fifteen minutes and suddenly you are having to resort to long trousers again.

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cbrspr09All this water, all this sunshine, all this warmth and cool change. A time for shorts and hoodies and rainbows, many rainbows. Rainbows and butterflies as summer seems to assert itself with greater authority. But still Christmas hovers as a lottery between scorching bushfires and mild drizzle; no doubt it will be 35 degrees for a classic roast or a chilly 18 for a poolside barbie with novelty oversized prawns. Only time will tell.

And as we near the longest day in Australia, and news of Cooper Cronk’s feats fade (largely because those leftist latte-lovers of our ABC go on holiday for two months #persecutedmiddleagedangrywhitemales), the sense of a summer upon us is all too clear. There is vibrancy accumulated from all that has gone before and a buzz of preparedness for crackling heat that will come. On Red Hill, the scene is set; cool early mornings in which to forage among the long shadows, and golden glowing evenings turning fiery red. In between, sit back and enjoy – or endure – those whirling cherries.

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Shadows and light

Well haven’t things been a little quiet? I mean on this obscure little blog of mine, obviously. Elsewhere life has been as hectic as a white house full of vainglorious charlatans; shady meetings here, photo opportunities there, late post-work nights scrolling Twitter and watching better men climb mountains. Lots of covfefe to keep me going.

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IMG_1464It’s kind of a winter thing, a cross-hibernation leisure shut down enforced by financial year leftovers and inevitable doses of bugs that may or may not be flu but love to linger. Canberra has had more than its fair share of cold, but – the last week apart – it has been phenomenally dry, with big clear skies bringing about pleasant afternoons before ruining the whole mood with sharp, sadistic frosts.

IMG_2179It has been pleasant enough – out of any wind, with a little time spare – for a few walks into the bush. There are Red Hill ramblings of course, but throw in a few Mount Taylor hikes, Black Mountain bush and Botanic Garden explorers, Mount Ainslie parkways, and add a random sprinkling of Cooleman Ridge countryside ambles and Urambi Hills thrills and there’s enough to keep reasonably sane and fit. Especially when the bike is gathering cobwebs.

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The nice thing with winter is that, largely, it is far from drab. The other nice thing is red wine accompanying slow cooked meat falling apart in a lather of gravy. Outside, the eucalypts still have leaves and there is always something, somewhere that is in flower. At this time of year the wattle loves to be all extravagant in gold, while resistant rusted on leaves mingle with ghostly bare branches and the alluring onset of early blossom. Three seasons in one, proof that Australia, really, honestly, doesn’t quite have a ‘normal’ winter.

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Colour comes too in evening skies, given the right combination of luck and persistence. A lot of my time in the last month has been spent at the National Library; a change of scene from working at home, with heating supplied and coffee options close. Outside the bookish interior I have seen a lake whipped up into peaks, a fog chilling to the bone, and a giant water feature named after Lieutenant James Cook spray passers-by with a spirit of generosity. And then, you get a calm one, when the lake becomes glass and duplicates the sheer beauty of our skies. It’s not a bad office from home office.

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I’ve formed a bit of a love-hate relationship with the library; much as I have with winter. I dread to think how many words I have written there in the past month, all of which are far more insight-oriented with indications of strategic positioning than anything you might read here. A key topline take out though: it’s in a great location and, as an almost Canberran, I feel so fortunate to have ready access to such fine institutions on my doorstep.

IMG_2300And a few strategic recommendations for winter? Anything with gravy and a glass of red helps; get out in the warming afternoons even if this means working at night; and, in the midst of analytical bewilderment, book a flight to the UK, where the daytime temperature will probably end up being the same anyway! See you oop North….

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April is the coolest month…

…especially when Easter nestles in its midst. And big blue skies blanket the land, burned green and orange as the seasons shift.

east01It is a time to savour suburban walks, in the comfortable pockets of Canberra that will never be in reach. Foresight planted deciduous trees for garden suburbs for genteel homes. As temperatures drop to a level mild and amicable and still warmer than England in a hot flush, the streets now enliven, the crescents glow, the neighbourhoods flourish in a makeover both incremental and dramatic. Go on certain days and a regiment of wheelie bins will parade upon the kerb, afloat in an ocean of nature’s litter.

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east03Easter is the most perfect weekend as the warm kiss of autumn melts any eggs undiscovered by marauding imps. I don’t recall Easter egg hunts as a child; are these more a thing now, coordinated through Facebook groups and discoverable like Pikachu? Waiting until Sunday until you were permitted to make yourself sick on chocolate and then topping up with half price eggs on Monday was more my kind of thing. If I have made any progress in life, then let it be measured by cake, and I can mark the creation of a chocolate and hazelnut meringue as one of my greatest achievements.

Can it be called refinement, or is it simply a matter of shifting tastes and priorities that I no longer end up making myself sick on Easter? There is excess, but it is lunch with friends under blood red vines; it is snoozy idling after a glass of wine; it is a second helping of chocolate and hazelnut meringue. But it is measured, and I am restrained. Affluent and blessed in the golden circles of Canberra Australia, it is the very epitome of comfort.

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In the mountains, there you feel free; there you can shake off the hangover brought on by suburban indulgence. A little out from the city sits the scenic Tidbinbilla Valley; a touch green, a tad hilly, squint in places and the mind could be convinced it has been transplanted into the foothills of Switzerland. For cows read kangaroos; for cowbells, cockatoos.

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Snow very rarely dusts the tops of the ridges which surround this valley. Instead, rounded clusters of granite erupt from the surface of the peaks, shattered and weather-beaten, occasionally toppling down into the steep undergrowth. Suddenly you stumble upon a bulbous rock in the midst of eucalypts. A trail gradually rises to Gibraltar Rocks from where – a kilometre above the sea – a shimmering carpet of forest, mountain and plain stretches below. The wilderness scene a juxtaposition and antidote to the admittedly beautiful ordered world of suburbia.

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east07Here there is the best of both worlds, with coffee available a little further down the road at the Moon Rock Cafe. This is attached to the Deep Space Communication Complex where – in my head at least – gentle mutterings from Professor Brian Cox are transmitted to distant worlds in the hope that it would sufficiently soothe angry aliens from undertaking imminent invasion. If you feel small atop Gibraltar Rocks, here you are infinitesimal, insignificant beyond belief. Yet at the same time, in the warm sun with caffeine and a bonus chocolate egg, your existence is undeniably amazing and incredibly fortunate.

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Looking into the heart of light, the silence. April rolls on and the change is unstoppable. Yet the weather is holding, at least until Anzac Day; no need for breaking unwritten rules and putting the heating on before then. In fact, shorts can still be appropriate, both on breathless bike rides and afternoon ambles besides a mirror of a lake.

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east11Tucked away in a quiet corner by Lake Burley Griffin, largely forgotten apart from the odd dog walker and camera wielder, the Lindsay Pryor Arboretum is an unbridled delight. A kaleidoscope of colours adorns the different varieties of oak, elm, birch and poplar. There are no visitor centres and no playgrounds, no cafes and no sculptures. The air is calm, the light soft, the mood understated. Occasional tunnels of foliage play at being England. And you could imagine, under these boughs, a snap election might just be called.

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Forget May, April is the coolest month, a culmination of the many months that have gone into its creation. The symbolism of autumn, the inevitable decay, may well be cruel; it doesn’t need a Stark to tell you that winter is coming. Yet, in the remnants of warmth, in a light golden, and in an unending transformation from one minute to the next, April is redeemed. It is, simply, the most privileged time and place in which to be in a tiny part of the universe called Canberra Australia.

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* This post includes shameless reference to The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot. I remember studying this in English and not having any idea what he was going on about, and still not having much clue now. But “cruellest” rhymes with “coolest” so yippedydoodah.

 

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Winter classic

Apparently June was the wettest June in Canberra since the last wettest June in Canberra. I can’t say I massively noticed, though – in hindsight – my shoes do seem muddier and car dirtier. There was that whole let’s delay going to Sydney because it is incessantly raining thing, only to go the next day when it was incessantly raining and ridiculously windy. And I did purchase an umbrella from Big W I remember. Still, at least it hasn’t been summer and raining and, oh I don’t know, spiralling into a self-inflicted vacuum of shambolic uncertainty and state-sponsored xenophobia. Arguably.

With all this rain and crass ineptitude what we all need is a bit of stability and reassurance. Like a classic winter day trip to the South Coast of NSW, something which appears to be turning into an annual thing. I think it may be some kind of Aussie beach craving before I venture to the northern hemisphere. That and the potential to just maybe bare my arms for an hour or two in the sun.

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scwint02Two hours with a stop for coffee at the improvingly-serviced by coffee Braidwood and I can find myself pondering whether to take off my jumper along the calm shoreline of Broulee. I didn’t, because it was only about fifteen degrees, but it was certainly still and sunny and rather blissful for thirty minutes or so. A happiness heightened by the token lunch of fish and chips in nearby Moruya, after which I felt a bit sick.

scwint09All this is hors d’oeuvre for the main ingredients of this south coast winter classic: driving through the beautiful spotted gums and spiky palms of Murramarang National Park. Arriving at the pristine sweep of Depot Beach and ambling on foot along the sand and rock platforms to Pebbly Beach. Home to beachside kangaroos offering clichéd images of some kind of idyllic Australia. Scary waves and placid bays, reflections and a sea spray haze. Fishing nomads and foolhardy surfers. And escapees from Canberra hoping to bare their arms.

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It was, of course, almost perfect. But if I was to air one little niggle (and one can be prone to a whinge), it was the presence of winter. The afternoon sun soon disappeared behind leaden clouds shrouding the ranges. Bare arms were undoubtedly out of the question. Swollen seas provided drama with a touch of pungent seaweed. And recent storms had cut away at the cliff line to make the walk somewhat more precarious than usual.

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scwint07In fact, I didn’t even make it to Pebbly Beach, a turn of events making those fish and chips an even guiltier pleasure. Rocky debris and a surging high tide meant that onward travel would be a little bit silly, something only to be attempted on The Island with Bear Grylls. My cut off, my terminus, my turnaround point, was an impromptu cascade, tumbling from the sodden forest and weather beaten cliff. There is only so far one can go in a day, and it was a winter’s day after all.

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Kangaroo country

Nothing can be quintessentially more Australian than the sight of a man in a cork hat and grubby white singlet riding a kangaroo to work. Apart from a man on a kangaroo in a cork hat and grubby white singlet hopping over lethal spiders and snakes while fleeing a bushfire with a rescued koala, only to get to the safety of the beach and discovering a shark infested bay peppered with box jellyfish, causing a bunch of boofheads to gingerly enter the water in thongs to retrieve their cricket ball with one hand because the other is grasping onto a stubby of VB like it is the last bottle of insipid but undoubtedly cold beer in the world.

Of course, all of that is nonsense [1], lest I be sued by VB which is a popular and well-loved beer in certain areas and so well-loved it appears on the shirts of the Australian cricket team, which perhaps speaks for itself in so many ways. What is undeniable is that the kangaroo is an icon, so much so that it appears on the national airline and encourages you to buy home grown products. If you ask someone overseas to mention the three things that come to mind when they think of Australia, they will most likely say beaches, kangaroos, and punitive policies for people fleeing persecution and seeking asylum, dressed up as a concern for their safety and not really about winning votes from a cluster of the population who have an underlying xenophobia stemming from their own challenges in paying the mortgage on a home which is unnecessarily big for their needs and encountering traffic on the way to Kmart, thus displacing the blame for this onto others who are widely vilified and helpless to stand up for themselves [2]. Still, we have nice beaches and lots of open space for kangaroos, so it’s worth defending right?

The kangaroo was here long before the first boat people arrived to overrun the country and its culture. A popular myth is that ‘kangaroo’ meant something like ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I don’t understand’ when Cook, Banks et al enquired of local Aboriginals what on earth this peculiar creature was. Like all good myths it has subsequently been debunked [3] but you can understand why it still does the rounds. It’s a convenient story that encapsulates the sense of the bizarre, the other-worldly, the weirdness of the flora and fauna that was encountered by the first boat people. A befuddlement that continues to this day as more people spill, primarily, out of international airport terminals and come face to face with Australia.

Initially you could be forgiven for thinking that Australia is a sunnier, newer, even happier [4] version of the UK, with a US touch of the gargantuan about it. But what sets it apart as wholly unique, exquisitely exotic is its flora and fauna. The kangaroo, perhaps in conjunction with wily white Eucalypt trees and shrieking cockatoos, is the readily available, easily accessible face of the Australian bush, and a long, long way from distant, familiar lands. Perhaps that is why, even after seven years, the sight of a kangaroo bounding out of the trees and across golden grasslands brings a smile to my face and, still, a sense of wonder.

I cannot write about these experiences and this topic without covering time on Red Hill, Canberra. I may have written about this place before. I came across it three days into arrival in Australia, fighting a fight against deep afternoon jetlag driven sleep. Determined not to fall into a coma and then awake all night, I set out along charming suburban streets on one of those beautiful, clear, warming late winter afternoons. It could have almost been an old English summer. Gradually climbing in altitude and property price, the streets ended abruptly as the very richest backed their way onto the grassland and steeply rising bush of Red Hill Reserve. Without intricate knowledge of paths and trails I headed straight up, short and steep to the lookout cafe. Here I viewed Canberra from high for the first time, had a coffee and saw a handful of Eastern Grey Kangaroos milling about without much of a care in the world (much like myself really).

Since that day I almost always saw kangaroos at Red Hill, particularly as I was wont to wander there of an evening. Huge mobs would gather in the grassier patches at the bottom while others would linger along the ridge up high. Mothers and their kids would eye me with suspicion or, perhaps, familiarity. A stand-off ensued, one waiting for the other to move on. But I often emerged the victor in these early days, because I would have my camera with me, and everyone knows that as soon as you bring your camera up to your eye to take a picture of some wildlife, the wildlife flees.

K_kangaroos

Certainly it was hard to restrain myself from taking a picture every time I saw a kangaroo. It was a natural reaction because back then it was all so extraordinary and therefore entirely warranted. Increasing familiarity has restrained my picture-taking compulsion since. In fact, I don’t tend to take my camera up Red Hill anymore…hell…I don’t even go up Red Hill anymore, since I am presently 3,000 kilometres west and it is a trifle inconvenient. However, frequently armed with camera elsewhere a kangaroo or dozen have popped into view. They emerge within the context of a wider landscape, as natural as, well, a man in a cork hat and grubby white singlet. They undoubtedly add something to the mood, grounding the scene in something that is so very obviously Australian. And thus, still, so very exciting.

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Kosciuszko National Park is one of Australia’s great national parks, taking in vast swathes of upland country and river valleys in New South Wales. In winter the highest parts are caked in snow, in summer all parts are swathed in flies. It’s a fairly unique environment for Australia, which is mostly dry, brown and flat. Termed alpine, it is not so in the sense of being blessed with gigantic peaks and glaciers; instead ridges and clumpy mounts offer a scene more akin to the rounded peaks of northern and western Britain [5]. It is an ecosystem that is all-encompassing, from rare possums and miniature toads in the boggy bare stretches high up, to common wombats and kangaroos and all of their derivatives [6] in the bush and plains further down. 

Kosciuszko is not so far from Canberra but on one occasion, having spent some time working in the town of Albury, I approached it from the west. It was a long weekend of high country meandering, through the northeast of Victoria and into New South Wales before crossing the Main Range and ploughing on more familiar roads back to Canberra. Approaching the end of March the landscape was in a state of transition, from the dry, warm summer to freezing cold winter nights and winds and rains and occasional snows. The hairpin drive up Mount Buffalo – the closest thing Australia has to an Alpe d’Huez – came with freezing fog that cleared to warm sunshine. The valley town of Bright was commencing its ascent into blushing autumn saturation and wood-fired air. And the trudge along an endless ridge towards Mount Feathertop was blanketed in cloud, a stark contrast to the clear fresh vale below.

Crossing into New South Wales and finally into Kosciuszko National Park, there is eventually a sense that these are proper mountains and not big hills, as the highest points of the Main Range, glowing in the sun above the tree line, rise up more dramatically from this western vantage. The road on this side twists and turns along a narrowing river valley, the dense green bushland plummeting down the hillsides occasionally broken by huge pipes belonging to the mammoth Snowy River Hydro scheme. At some point the road rises and crosses the range at the evocatively named Dead Horse Gap, but before this tortuous ascent, there is respite at Geehi Flats.

Geehi Flats appears like some hidden valley idyll, where the opaque water of the Swampy Plains River broadens and a swathe of grassland punctures the dark green tangle of gum trees. A spacious area along the river offers rustic camp spots and opportunity to amble. At the northern end a couple of old wooden huts testify to exploration and discovery and, now abandoned, the harsh realities of surviving in the high country [7]. Within this clearing the afternoon sunshine illuminates the rise up to the Main Range and onwards to the white cotton wool clouds hovering above. And as I stare at the serenity, a large Eastern Grey kangaroo stares back. Suddenly I feel like the intruder.

K_kossyroo

On the face of it, it is nothing remarkable…a sighting of an animal that I have seen hundreds of times before and so common in an area where it is protected to thrive. But in the landscape, in the setting, in the primitive high country context it feels very special, like I am the first white man to see it and it is the first kangaroo to see a white man. It is so amazed that it even lingers while I take a photo. It’s a chunky unit, but it is meagre within the scale of the whole, minor against the vast wildness of the scene. Yet here it sits entirely natural, a perfect foreground marker within the larger composition of my vista. What lies before me is Australia and I am reminded at how fortunate I am to be a part of it. Still a land of untapped discovery, of boundless space and unknown potential, it is something to cherish, to protect, and to share. And while the kangaroo is perhaps the pinnacle of the adaptive powers of evolution, as Australians we can still be much, much better than this.


[1] Clearly we only ride kangaroos around on the weekends for leisure, duh. Else the ute wouldn’t get much use.

[2] See http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jul/22/captain-rudd-australia-depths-shame for just one well-written, reasoned commentary on Australian Government approaches to ‘boat people’.

[3] Not by the team at Mythbusters I hasten to add, but by (and I quote Wikipedia) linguist John B. Haviland in his research with the Guugu Yimithirr people.

[4] I am unsure about this at the current time of writing, with a UK heatwave and cricket team in the ascendancy.

[5] However, rising above 2000 metres it is far higher than anything in Britain, a boast many Australians like to boast about.

[6] By which I mean the whole raft of hopping marsupial type things like wallabies, wallaroos, euros, jackeroos, jillaroos, brucearoos, kangabies, roosabies, poosaloosaroos etc etc

[7] Like camping overnight, when the warm daytime temperature plummets quite dramatically and uncomfortably

Links

All you ever needed to know: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kangaroo

Everyone’s favourite: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uRQnrY5V-rY

Walk the hill: http://www.tams.act.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0010/390592/cnpmapredhill.pdf

Kosciuszko National Park:

http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/nationalparks/parkhome.aspx?id=n0018

Hi, country: http://neiliogb.blogspot.com.au/2012/03/hi-country.html

Stop the votes: http://www.amnesty.org.au/refugees/comments/24019/

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