Warming

It is a fact truer than anything to have ever come out of the British Prime Minister’s mouth that I will always take up an opportunity to work in Brisbane in July. While the locals may gripe about the icy depths of winter where overnight it might just slip below double digits and require a good for humanity coal fire, I’ve packed two pairs of shorts. And just the one jumper.

brs01And a raincoat. For it is even truer that Queensland is far from beautiful one day, perfect the next; a dubious marketing slogan dreamt up by mediocrities that continues apace in the supposed Sunshine Coast, a place frequently sodden by epic downpours and possessing a clammy mildew befitting the swampy subtropics. Saturday here was so damp that the highlight was a doughnut, and even that wasn’t much of a highlight, more a triumph of social marketing style over substance.

brs02Queensland: pissing down one day, sweaty the next. The sweatiness emerging on Sunday as the sun makes an appearance, triggering rising heat and rampant moisture. Liquid particles are lifted by ocean gusts, filtered ineffectually through the thrum of air conditioning to congregate in damp surf club carpets. Puddles among snake-infested flood plain linger, waiting for passing birds and passing property developers to drain. The ubiquitous HiLux secretes fluids while idling outside Red Rooster, as a leftover billboard of some redneck running for parliament gazes down approvingly. Just thank the lord or some other unelected deity that it is not yet high summer.

Indeed, the sweatiness is relatively tolerable this time of year and is alleviated by the pleasure of wearing shorts in midwinter.  As dark clouds sweep north to reveal a sky of blue, there is an hour of pleasant sunshine on the coast, a welcome companion on a bare-legged walk along the beach and promenade to Mooloolaba. I rest at Alex Heads watching sandcastles being built and surfers being demolished, and sharks being hidden just out of site. Probably. It’s not even a whole day let alone an entirety of existence, but for a few moments it seems that things are beautiful, tending towards perfect.

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Somewhat annoyingly the sunshine was a sign of an improving pattern of weather as I returned to Brisbane and the prospect of work. On the plus side, there was a bit of downtime and a later flight back to Canberra on the warmest day of the week, giving me the opportunity to don shorts once again, while all around me wore coats. And then there was the hotel I was staying in, which was rather fine with its rooftop pool and terrace overlooking the ever rising city and the ever flowing brown of the Brisbane River.

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Actually, the hotel was somewhat funky and felt more like a spot for special treat bogan holidays and shadowy foreign gambling syndicates fast-tracked by Border Force than a place where weary businesspeople rest their weary heads. In my room there was a wine fridge, the TV was in the mirror (what?!), and there were a series of illuminated switches that operated a configuration of lights that I never was able to master. Switches that glow in the dark and give a sense of Chernobyl as you try to sleep. Only the lift was more luminescent, alternating between being in a Daft Punk video and a fish tank of the Barrier Reef before it got bleached.

Walking out of the lift and onto the street was a sure way to ease a headache, especially as outside it was warm and sunny and just oozing that relaxed vibe that comes with a level of warmth and sunniness. Think how England feels when the misery of flooding rain and gloom dissipates for a freakish sunny day, golden and mild after months of despair and before the impending furnace of yet another unseasonal heat plume from the African colonies. A bit like that.

The Brisbane River acts as something of a waymarker wandering the city, guiding you along South Bank and its gardens and galleries, channelling you across to the north with angular bridges and sweeping curves. Disappearing as you cut across the CBD with its blocks of one-way-street and chirruping pedestrian crossings, before emerging again in an amalgam of mangroves at the terminus of the Botanic Gardens.

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Back across the river, the cliffs of Kangaroo Point provide fine city views as well as clichéd place name delight for international visitors to post. Some people abseil down the cliffs, others look up from the riverside path below. All try to avoid getting run over by yet another dork on one of the city’s electric scooters. Most sit and wait and contemplate what it would be like to be on a scooter, as the sun goes down on another day in Queensland.

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And for me, as darkness descends, it is back to the light. The florid light of that lift going up to the many lights that I cannot figure out how to arrange in my hotel room, the switches for which will light up at night as a constant reminder that they have won. Along the way, the lights of the city flicker on, as the temperature drops below twenty.

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After a few days here I rummage in my bag for that one jumper. It’s starting to get a tad cool, just a little off being perfectly comfortable. I could survive without it, but I did pack it after all, and it would be a shame to carry it all this way and not put it to use. For the first time in Brisbane, I seem to fit in. Now all I need is a scooter to carry me off into the night, towards the light.

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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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Drifting

It has been a pleasant surprise to stumble upon March without the world being blown up by some really bad or sick dude. Less surprising if you listen to scientists was the record-breaking hot Australian summer; indeed there were moments where it felt like the end of world wasn’t too far away (two successive 41 degree days in Canberra spring to mind). But, again, we made it to March, with temperatures slowly cooling and promising a period of pleasant sunny day times and sleep-friendly lows.

sum01What does one do in a hot summer which features only intermittent work? Well, trips to free air-conditioned sites of interest for a start: the cinema, the library, the gallery, the mall. Occasionally the office, mostly for a coffee and catch up. Bike rides bring a nice breeze early in the day or into the late evenings. And cooling refreshments comfort: my addiction to frozen drinks persisting (but now slowly fading), a cold beer or cider in the evenings, Dare iced coffee and occasionally something a little more extravagant.

sum02Walks are practically a daily feature (they usually are), often on Red Hill (they usually are). Again, the early mornings or late evenings work best, the low light emphasising the sweeping golden grass and colouring the white trunks of gums a laser red. Sun sinks late over the ranges and smouldering skies are common. This is better evening entertainment than what’s on TV, as post-tennis, post-holiday reality shows make a comeback, spewing forth with abandon.

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sum05Daytime strolls are better suited to places such as the Botanic Gardens, where shade is more forthcoming and the rainforest gully drops temperatures by five degrees. Moisture emerges here from the watering, and continues in the cafe serving a fairly average coffee. But to grab a takeaway and sit under a tree reading a book or interview transcripts is a fine way to spend an hour (and improve the experience of reading interview transcripts).

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sum06aAway from nature for a moment, summer in Canberra also promises event after event as the populace makes the most of the time before entering deep freeze. There are blockbuster exhibitions in the galleries and museums; there are fetes and swimming carnivals and cricket matches all over the suburbs; fireworks, flags and protests in equal measure adorn Australia Day; and the National Multicultural Festival brings oodles of noodles in a celebration of diversity that ought to be protected. In the spirit of inclusion even certain redheads are catered for.

Outside the capital the countryside sizzles in much the same way, this occasionally boiling over into grass and bushfires. In 2003 of course a big one hit the fringes of Canberra and much of the rugged land to its west. Over the course of my time here – since, OMG, 2006 – I have been able to observe nature’s recovery, the transition from blackened trunks and patchwork growth to a flourishing bulbous canopy and vivid green understorey. Nine years from the last time I stepped out, the signs at the start of the track up to Booroomba Rocks still warn of falling debris from the damage, but from what you witness along the way this previous carnage is almost imperceptible.

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While summer has been predictably hot and dry, previous wetter seasons have replenished the reservoirs and river systems around Canberra. No longer do we see LCD updates informing us of how many litres we consumed yesterday and imploring us not to water our lawns. At least for the time being.

sum07At Burrinjuck Dam – reached via coffee stop in Yass – water levels are high and this is a natural lure for cursed boatpeople who frolic about in a flurry of jetskis and Chardonnay lunches. Away from the excess surrounding the boat ramp, quieter coves and a cutesy scattering of cottages for those dam workers heralded surprise. And a reasonably flat, empty road on which to have a pedal.

There was a cool wind on that ride, late February, and soon after the first day came in which it might be handy to have a sweater in the evening. This in many respects is a blessing because at night you can sleep again and wake to blissfully clear and fresh mornings, which impel you to get out and live. Outside, only the very first tinges of autumn are appearing on the trees but other signs are more prominent: increasing work opportunities; long pants; the first fog grounding hot air balloons; and a now perennial favourite marking the transition from summer to autumn in Canberra, Enlighten.

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sum10My how this has grown since I was one of the few to trudge round on a pleasant evening a few years back snapping pictures of a handful of the capital’s illuminated buildings. Now practically every city does something similar on landmarks more well-known. But Canberra’s Enlighten seems to be ever more popular, judging by the crowds streaming from one site to another on a Saturday evening. Many are also here to queue for food in the night markets, which is entirely predictable; after several years you learn to visit midweek and come early, to guarantee delights such as a bao trifecta, Korean chilli pork fries, and deep fried ice cream.

I’m a little warm that Saturday evening in long trousers and the next day – today, March 12th – tops 32 degrees. But because it is officially autumn it feels acceptable for a loin of pork to be roasting in the oven. I’m kind of sick of barbecues and the promise of slow roasted feasts is one of the plus sides of the seasons changing. It won’t take long and everyone will be whingeing about the cold, wrapped like mummies in a pile of scarves and hats, scowling at the misery of “bloody Canberra”. Shorts and air-conditioning will feel like distant memories. But before we get to that point there is the promise of the transition, a period that is without doubt the best time of year here, in bloody Canberra.

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In Seoul I: Bright lights, giant Samsung flat screen city

Jong-no and Cheonggyecheon Stream

It’s hard to top that incredible sensation of arriving from a gentle, orderly place like England all tired and drained from jetlag and plunging headfirst into a blurry concoction of street food odours, flashing lights, unfathomable signs, and sapping humidity. Adrenaline, impatient curiosity and a freshly imported Double Decker propel you into the night, occasionally trance-like but always, slightly stupidly, with a smile on your face.

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kl02I was staying roughly in an area listed as Jong-no, in what turned out to be a rather charming, peaceful small hotel (Makers). Exit lobby tranquillity, turn left past food stalls and weave through an animated stream of people enjoying the night air as you head towards the Cheonggyecheon Stream. This is an urban regeneration project par excellence, once a muddy, stinky waterway transformed and landscaped into swirling pools and cascades, lined with footpaths and sculptures and light projections, and populated with the whole gamut of Seoul society. A Korean busker croons, tiered steps along the water plead you to sit down, and free wifi penetrates the air, everywhere.

kl03The stream is in close proximity to alleyways filled with neon signs and sizzling aromas. In fact, it seems anywhere is in close proximity to food. The choice is bewildering, especially when you are tired and indecisive but also very, very hungry. In this state it seems the best option is for some Korean Fried Chicken and a beer. This is a staple, and as staples go, I’m sure down with it.

Namsan Mountain

Seoul is huge but sometimes it doesn’t seem that way. Over ten million people supposedly call it home and the population density is twice that of New York (at least according to Wikipedia). Yet I never really felt crammed in or suffocated here. I think this is in part because of the large, palatial open spaces and the visibility of forested mountains, providing the sight of wilderness from downtown (and also from my hotel room window). Indeed, the jagged hills shield the city’s spread from the viewer, particularly the case for tourists like me who largely stick to the main sights concentrated in a bowl north of the Han River.

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It is only when you head to Namsan Mountain – marking the southern limit of this bowl – that you grasp a whole new expanse of a city stretching east, west, and south. It also registers that atop this peak is a pointy needle called North Seoul Tower and this is south of where you have been mostly milling about. Which by a process of deduction must have been North North Seoul, meaning there sure is a lot more city out there.

In this context, comparisons to Canberra may seem rather silly. But there is a similar concealed quality to both cities, thanks to the hilly terrain. And Namsan Mountain is just like Black Mountain, complete with a summit road, walking tracks and that concrete syringe reaching into the sky on top. One added feature of Namsan though is the attraction of a cable car. For which there are mammoth queues late Saturday afternoon, impelling a sweaty, breathless hike instead. A hike which is a procession of people, several, pleasingly, struggling more than you, despite looking to have youth on their side. That Canberra hills training comes in handy sometimes.

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Along the climb, alternative aspects open up and other high rise clusters emerge in different directions. Finally, with a healthy dose of perspiration, the mountain top offers a view south and glimpses of the Han River. On the other side a whole new city left and right, Gangnam style and beyond. Here, you suspect, stand Samsung Tower 20, 21, 22, 23 and more. Apartment blocks where millions of people live and work and maybe even get dressed up and perhaps dance rather stupidly.

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Clearly being Seoul and not Canberra, the North Seoul Tower is obviously more than that, with a multi-level mall, numerous eateries, a giant gift shop and I think even a cinema. There is also the classical 360 degree, glass-encased viewing deck, which offers pretty much the same view as from the base, only higher and with a greater degree of photo-degrading reflection. Still, milling about here winds down some time for the sun to set and the city lights to flicker on, to twinkle, to glow. And a place to eat before embracing the cooler air, gazing out over the lights, and walking down, back down to just a tiny part of Seoul and bed.

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