Flying by

It’s been a while since I’ve driven so far on consecutive days. The passage of years dulls the memory of cruising on straight, flat roads under an endless sky; pausing at a bakery in a one street kind of town, finding a ramshackle table beside a drying creek to stop and sample the local flavours. Seeking shade from the sun and solace from the flies. Always the flies. Now I remember the flies and that quirky shimmy to dispense of their attachment and manoeuvre into the car without them. A memory regained and repeated again.

I was heading west towards Griffith, the first stage of an elongated loop involving a couple of stops for work. Beyond Wagga it becomes much clearer that Wagga is a veritable hub of civilisation, with a handy Officeworks and everything. Another hundred clicks on and the town of Narrandera welcomes like an oasis, perched upon the muddy brown of the Murrumbidgee and boasting one of those high streets of slightly faded charm.

riv01There is a colony of koalas here, and I was pleased to come across one in the first hundred metres of my walk. It was around midday and hot, exactly the kind of conditions in which you should not be out walking. But with this early sighting, the pressure was off – no more relentlessly craning one’s neck upward in the usually forlorn hope of spotting a bulbous lump that isn’t a growth protruding from a eucalypt. I could instead loop back to the car concentrating more on keeping the flies from going up my nose. Yes, they are absolutely back.

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Through Leeton – one work site – I pushed on to stay overnight in Griffith. Griffith is famed for a few things – lots of wine production (apparently, 1 in every 4 glasses consumed in Australia), Italian mafia, flies I would think, and citrus. Quite stupendously I had arrived at the time of year when the town parades an array of citrus sculptures, mostly located in the median strip of the busiest road going through town. I suppose it’s convenient to look at if you’re just passing through, but I can’t fathom why anyone would not get out of the car to take a closer look.

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They say citrus but I don’t recall a single lemon, lime or grapefruit. Apart from the vines, most of the trees you pass are dotted with oranges, all fed by the ditches and canals of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area. It would be hard work out on those fields, under piercingly hot sun among the flies. Giant brimmed hats with nets (rather than corks) are a must.

For a touch of diversity in what is a fairly mundane landscape, I took an early evening drive out of town towards Cocoparra National Park. Getting out of town is the first adventure, given that Griffith was designed by our old friend Walter Burley Griffin. You can see the giveaway circles and roundabouts on a map, but I can’t say there was a particularly strong Canberra sensibility about the place. Leigh Creek in South Australia provides a more authentic – and surreal – replication.

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Within the national park, the Jacks Creek trail promised much – traversing a dry, rocky gorge before climbing out to vistas of the surrounding landscape. Indeed, it would have been quite idyllic bathed in the end of day light, an Australiana glowing golden brown and rusty red. The kind of earthy environment that to me has been a highlight of past trips out back.

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Yet not since Arkaroola have I found myself in such a landscape outnumbered ten thousand to one by flies. I feel like I keep repeating myself, but they truly were unbearable. Pausing to reflect and soak it in was impossible. Stopping to set up photos proved an ordeal, exacerbated by the movement of my camera shaking off another cloud of useless parasitic twatheads seeking water from whatever orifice they could find.

After coming such a long way, flies had wrecked the experience. It’s akin to a rare sunny day in England, battling through Sunday drivers to discover a lovely beer garden, nabbing a prime table overlooking a patchwork quilt of fields, tucking into a hearty lunch with ale. And then the wasps appear and come down to doom us all.

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Thankfully the number of flies per square metre dissipated a touch as I turned east, eventually to reach Sydney. Along the way the landscape softened too, more rolling and pastoral with a surprising touch of green in places. Along the way, fine country towns such as Cootamundra, Young and Cowra, famed for Bradman, cherries and prisoners of war. All words that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Shane Warne tweet.

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As the sun leaned low against the western sky, I paused for the night in the town of Blaney, where it cooled down sufficiently to deaden the activity of insects. Wandering around the streets early the next morning, there was a touch of the genteel in the gardens and verandas of the old brick homes, verdant patches of life fed by the creek on the eastern side of town. Of course, being Australia things do not remain sedate for too long; two magpies decided to have a go at my head while a family of geese with newborns made sure I didn’t pry too much. An old guy wheeling out a bin stared and muttered – perhaps both in contempt at my alien presence and in recognition of a deeper affinity.

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Walking back to my motel I noticed one of those brown tourist signs with a small fort-like shape pointing to Millthorpe. It wasn’t far and while I was pretty sure there would be no small fort-like building there, it had to be indicative of something. Perhaps a smaller, more endearing version of Blaney, with a quiet high street lined with buildings from yesteryear. A village brimming in spring blooms and fragrance, boasting not merely a café but a “providore”. Wine rooms and antique curios…we are nearing Orange after all.

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Millthorpe offered a tangible culmination of my growing appreciation of the grace of small town Australia. The small town Australia that isn’t too threatening or distant, somewhat gentrified by being in range of Sydney weekenders, bringing good local food and drink to the table. You can imagine renting a cottage here and treading its creaky boards, sheltering in its shady alcoves, napping as the afternoon light creeps through the blinds, casting shadows of wisteria onto the soft pastel walls. There’s probably not that much to do, but that’s all part of the attraction, offering time that can simply be sated with coffees and brunches and platters of meat and cheese and wine.

riv10Still, should you wish to rise from this indulgent slumber, another hour or so east will bring you to the western fringe of the Blue Mountains. Suddenly things change, and not just the petrol price rising thirty cents a litre in as many kilometres. The day trippers are out in force, the coaches idling at every single possible lookout, of which there are many. The escarpment top towns of Blackheath and Katoomba and Leura are brimming with people shuffling between café and bakery, spilling down like ants to the overlooks nearby. Below the ridge, however, and the wilderness wins. Only penetrable at its fringe, placid beneath a canopy of ferns and eucalyptus.

I walked down a little near Katoomba Falls, thankful to be below the tumult of the populous plateau. The falls were barely running, but the views up the valley towards the Three Sisters were inescapable. Overhead, a cableway gave visitors the easy option to take this all in through the glass and air conditioning.

The Blue Mountains have some momentous lookouts but are best appreciated on a bushwalk away from the crowds. However, my time here was limited and some ideas that formed for longer hikes will have to wait for another day. A lunch stop at Sublime Point will be the last I take in for now, that distant view of millions of trees to be replaced by millions of people navigating the congested thoroughfares of Sydney.

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The city awaits, the space disappears, the understated charm of the country fades away. The buzz of people rushing here, there and everywhere gathers, pressing in like a thousand flies in the face, and ears, and mouth and nose. Taking your car park and your seat on the train, getting the best spot on the beach, the last table at the cafe. Persistent and relentless these ones cannot to be swished away or disposed of by a disjointed shimmy into a car. The flies are unavoidable, everywhere.

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Crisscross

Lest I become too rose-tinted about Cornish beaches, life back in Australia conspired to take me once more across the continent to Perth. This is no major hardship, despite the length of the flight, for I cannot think of a city so amply adorned with lashings of fine white sand and turquoise seas. The Indian Ocean the very magnet pulling me west again. And some income.

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The city of Perth is barely discernible from those elsewhere in Australia. Shiny buildings ever-rising over suburban grids of trellis and jacaranda. Sweeping highways and glitzy stadia. Concrete enclaves of KMarts and Coles. A river, snaking its course towards a modest escarpment of fire-prone bush. And a thriving hubbub built on endeavour and good fortune.

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Flying here, from the east, it is almost a surprise to find yourself in somewhere so familiar after such a long haul. Familiar but with a twist, exemplified in the changing flora and fauna that has evolved the other side of the big red desert. Much of the same genus but variations in the species. Kind of like Australian Prime Ministers. Nowhere is better to appreciate this than in the eternally charming Kings Park.

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The other disorientating feature of arriving in Perth – particularly in summertime – is the time difference. In what might not prove to be the most self-destructive public vote in recent years, the good people of Western Australia declined to embrace daylight savings. This means three hours behind Canberra is enough to throw your body clock out of whack, with the 4am sunrises doing little to foster adjustment. I never recovered. Waxit means Waxit.

There were, though, some upsides to this plebiscite. By 6am I was so bored out of my brain lying in bed trying to get some more sleep that I popped out for coffee and waterside amblings in Fremantle. Other than people ridiculously exercising, barely a soul crossed my path on recurrent trips to Bathers Beach with a flat white in hand.

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pth02Freo was my base for the week and part of its appeal was accessibility to water. Being a busy and somewhat historic port, it’s not without its charm and boasts a high concentration of elegant turn-of-the-century colonial buildings. It seems to attract hipsters which equals good coffee, has not one but two breweries, puts on some fine markets, and has developed into a mecca for fish and chip consumption.  There is a lot to like about Freo.

The centre of Fremantle itself is based around the port, meaning there are no amazing beaches right on the doorstep. However, this is Perth we are talking about, so you only have to head a little north or south to hit the white stuff. Indeed, South Fremantle is perfectly sufficient.

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The ritualistic process of having an early evening stroll on sand followed by lingering patience to watch the sun disappear (usually behind that invisible band of cloud on the horizon), became as common a part of my routine as 6am strolls in Fremantle. Tonight I made fish and chips part of the cliché, because you’ve got to do that at least once. They were a tad disappointing, but the sunset did the business.

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While you can revel in the beaches until your heart is content, and then some more, there is perhaps a lack of significant diversity in the environment around Perth. Go north and there are fine beaches, dunes and a sand belt melange of exquisite eucalypts, banksia and xanthorrhoea. Go south, the same. Beyond the coastal plain, the escarpment is minor, a small rise of bush before it quickly transforms into a massive expanse of wheat and then desert.

In possession of a car on a Sunday I contemplated driving up to the Pinnacles Desert, which would offer a stark change of scenery. But it would be a big day requiring around six hours in a car there and back, and I had to do some work tomorrow. Instead, I made it only a little out of Perth to Yanchep and settled – quite contentedly – there.

While this didn’t deliver a dramatic contrast, it offered an encapsulation of this particular corner of the world, on steroids. For a start, Yanchep National Park provided all the sandy, semi-arid foliage you could shake a weird shaped stick at, in between swampy lagoons and bulbous gum trees. I was particularly fond of the many xanthorrhoea here, which lend an exotic, almost desert-like vibe to the surrounds.

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pth09Given the proximity of this park to Perth, there is also a more manicured and deliberately designed aspect to certain areas, with tightly mown grass, a cosy café, campgrounds, waterside boardwalks and electric barbecues. A perfect family spot for a Sunday lunch, kickabout and encounter with koalas and kangaroos, creatures which seem strategically placed for the many visitors on minibus tours heading for the Pinnacles.

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The nearby town of Yanchep is practically a northern suburb of Perth, though being one of the earlier developments it is not all ugly McMansions designed with the intention to use every single bit of land to provide an essential guest suite, rumpus room, three car garage and indoor cinema. There are certainly McMansions around, but also more established blocks made up of modest concrete bungalows and fibro shacks, befitting of a seaside hideaway.

Never mind, I’m sure I could live here – in one form or another – if only for the beach. Protected by a bar, crystal clear waters are pacified over that ubiquitous fine white sand. A beach among beaches in the city of beaches. Life’s a beach and then you eat fish and chips. Again.

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