Namadgi

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.

Igniting

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.

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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.

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Taking hold

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.

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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.

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Consuming

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.

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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.

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Threatening

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.

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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.

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Tearing south

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.

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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.

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Creeping north

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.

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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.

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Enduring still

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.

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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 is one small footnote this summer.

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A brief breather

What started as an unfortunate spectacle – that we thought would probably go away as soon as it came upon us – has settled in Canberra for the summer. There is little anyone can do to not talk about the pervasive smoke that hovers above Christmas prawns and glazed hams. Occasionally it lifts a little, dispelled by a hot northwesterly which only serves to deliver arid desert air from the only direction in which major fires are not burning. Yet. It feels only a matter of time before we are encircled.

This is not a happy Christmas really. The weather outside is indeed frightful. People are growing downbeat and sullen; infuriated and furious. We gather and share and eat fine food and go and watch the Star Wars movie in beautiful air conditioning, and these are necessary distractions. But even in the midst of a lightsabre battle, a smoky essence infiltrates the movie theatre. The ultimate 4D experience. Just give us the Lord Vader breathing masks please.

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Making plans is hard to do – what road is closed, which national park on fire, which stretch of tarmac melting? Christmas gatherings cancelled; long circuitous journeys made. Holiday towns on the coast dying under a barrage of emergency warnings and absent visitors.

Even doing simple things like laundry takes strategic planning. Today I got it wrong, and now it is being washed again, content that the hot, dangerous northwesterly has now well and truly kicked in to sizzle it sans woodsmoke flavouring.

Escape is an appealing option, as long as there are still options. Three days before Christmas I looked at flights to the UK. I looked at flights to New Zealand. I looked at flights to Tasmania (where even today it is nudging forty degrees). Cost was extortionate, but then it might reach a point where even that is a burden worth bearing.

Dissuaded for the time being, I tried to make pastry in forty degree heat. I went for walks in the mall. Just because. In between I monitored the weather forecasts and wind directions and air quality readings and areas of land not on fire. I looked at campgrounds that might not be full and which might be safe. And I finally glimpsed a small window of opportunity to escape, to clear the air…

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Boxing Day and the atmosphere at the MCG was bubbling up nicely, accompanying me on the radio as I drove south towards Cooma. With the Kings Highway to the coast closed this is proving a major alternative route. As a consequence, the main sights of Cooma – McDonalds and KFC – were overflowing. Around the corner, ALDI was quieter, and I picked up an obligatory half price Christmas pudding. Probably for winter if such a thing still exists.

Between Cooma and Bombala the drive is spectacularly bleak as it traverses the Monaro Plains. It is for all intents and purposes, desert at the moment. Not exactly pretty to look at, but with the smoke haze thinning a touch, at least it was something to look at.

gip01And then, through Bombala and into South East Forests National Park, there was something resembling freshness. Blue sky. Green. Giant trees untainted by fire. A campground almost deserted, the camp guardian a spirited Kookaburra feeding its young. A sense of wonder and relief that this is all still actually possible. Breathe.

It remained quite hot to be sure, and on a walk around nearby Myanba Gorge there were plenty of flies as usual just to remind you that summer in Australia is actually a bit shit. The riverbed shaping the gorge was bone dry and surely it was only a matter of time before I would turn a corner and step on a deadly snake or something. But no, a dog and its two owners were the only things to greet me, in between the flies in my eyes.

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What I did find turning that final corner was a sight the likes of which I have seen a thousand times before in Australia, but which appears all the more precious today. A deep valley of eucalyptus sweeping down towards the coast. The cries of a couple of black cockatoos surveying their terrain. And a clear blue sky – perhaps more pastel than is normal – but true blue nonetheless.

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The night passed with another rarity – feeling cold. Even a few days later it seems surreal to think I was shivering a little until I finally succumbed to using a sleeping bag in the correct manner.

The freshness of morning was greeted by a 5am cacophony of hundreds of birds, which was a marked improvement on the 2am hoonage taking place on some of the nearby forest roads. Sleep was a luxury and I was reminded how the concept of camping may be more appealing than the reality. But then it was on the journey to the long drop that I felt at one with the world, enamoured by its natural grace and beauty, a feeling you never get in a Best Western.

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With the promise of another smoky scorcher back in Canberra I was in no hurry to rush back. I carried on south, across the border into Victoria on what was a beautiful drive towards Cann River. This is a corner of the land boasting tremendous old growth forests cloaking rugged, untrammelled peaks. Driving along sweeping curves under a dappled canopy, it’s all shafts of sunlight falling upon giant ferns. Keep eyes on road.

gip06bThis region – East Gippsland – is sparsely populated and only has a few access points to the coast, through the gorgeously pristine Croajingalong National Park. Camping in the park is popular over Christmas and I had no chance. But at Cann River itself, a free campground was available in which to set up at ten in the morning. And it came alongside a short walk through woodland that in places reminded me of somewhere in England, such were the treasured patches of greenery.

With plenty of time up my sleeve and following a bit of a mid-morning doze under a tree, I explored the coastal area down around Cape Conran and Marlo. Both were fairly busy, with Cape Conran again bursting with campers who had – at that time – won the holiday lottery. It was so good to be beside the seaside, especially as a cool southeasterly was emanating off the water to offer joyous relief. This was probably the freshest air I had experienced in weeks, if not months.

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Marlo is famous as the place where the Snowy River meets the sea. It’s probably the main thing it has going for it, but they certainly do well with what they have. Several lookouts and a sensibly plotted estuary trail allow you to follow the waters as they congregate into a series of shallows and lagoons before inching out into the ocean. It’s definitely worth a nosey, followed by possibly one other thing Marlo has going for it: ice cream. Thank you very much.

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Memories of ice cream lingered as I drove inland slightly towards Orbost, where several dairies were testament to what is generally a verdant, rain-blessed corner of Australia (the cream and yogurt from Gippsland Dairy is to be recommended!). But even here it looks dry, a burnished beige more than a pea green. In the distance, beyond Orbost, inevitably, the bushfires burn uncontained and out of control.

gip07I remember Orbost quite fondly from the only other time I was here in 2013, mainly because I found a bakery that served something akin to a Paris-Brest. It’s not really what you expect but my memory of this raised expectations beyond what I should have expected. I was looking to pick up some supplies for dinner, which I managed but not to the standard I had expected. The result was a very Christmas meze of leftover ham, sausage rolls, cheese and a couple of salads. How I craved a hot meal! Oh well, there is always tomorrow.

Tomorrow was the time to pack up and head back to Canberra, partly because I wanted to sleep in my own bed but also because the heat was due to spread its ferocious finger down into Gippsland. As if on cue, there was a hint of smoke in the air on an early stop to amble along a rainforest walk with a coffee and mince pie in hand. And then, crossing the border again towards Eden, visibility was once more replaced by viscosity.

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This had thrown my good intentions to do a decent walk in Ben Boyd National Park as a means of justifying fish and chips for lunch. But, heck, it’s Christmas, what else am I supposed to do? And I was very good and didn’t have chips. Just three of the best potato scallops instead, oops.

The other plan I had was to hopefully laze and have a nap alongside the Pambula River before the three hour drive home. Fortunately, given the long wait for lunch as I battled a billion bogans, a stiff sea breeze had kicked in and the smoke was clearing pretty quickly. On the downside, thunderstorms were brewing slightly to the north. The relaxation necessary to nap wasn’t really possible, and my decision to quit the beach at just about the right time was sound. Not before getting a little wet.

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Rain! It all felt a bit peculiar. A strange sensation to be fleeing and sheltering from something that is so essential, so welcome, so life-giving. Yet such are the nature of storms that they proved random and fleeting. And any lightning falling on the tinder dry is far from welcome. The window was definitely closing.

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Back home the next day, I became alerted that the authorities were urging around 30,000 holidaymakers and residents to evacuate an area of East Gippsland half the size of Belgium. As I write this, 12 Emergency fire warnings are in place in the region, including the stretch of coast between Cann River and Mallacoota, and a swathe of land taking in Orbost, Cape Conran and Marlo. Highways are closed. Inland from Pambula, not a million miles from the South East Forests, another emergency warning has appeared. Multiple fires are springing up in the wilderness between Cooma and the coast. Another window doesn’t merely close but shatters.

And for all that we try to do our best, to care and share, to catch a breather, this is not a very merry Christmas at all. It is a catastrophe.

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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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Mission possible

I think a general principle of Australian exploration is the further north you go, the quirkier things get. For quirkier you could substitute odder, weirder, crazier, madder than a dozen cuts snakes lurking in the stinging trees waiting for a cassowary. It may be a result of the liberty that comes with increasing distance from the tyranny of inner city elites developing their secret mind-controlling pharmaceuticals to add to our underground water reserves. Or it could just be the balmy weather and barmy environment. Where pretty much everything wants to eat you.

I wouldn’t say Townsville is the capital of Crazytown, but there are certain idiosyncrasies to observe. Perhaps most obviously in the calibre of politicians representing the region, generally observed wearing big hats and force-feeding coal to their grandchildren, insistent that it is the future, it is it is. It is very easy to imagine Friday night here Cold War Steve style, all hi-vis hypermasculinity and gutter-strewn carnage at the foot of the concrete sugar shaker. My taxi driver confirmed as much as he took me to the airport, to pick up a hire car.

I had never been on the strip of land between Townsville and Cairns, and with a few days tagged on to a work trip I was heading up the coast towards Mission Beach. It’s an interesting enough drive with a decent selection of diversions along the way. It’s also a journey of transition from the golden dry tropics to the verdant abundance of the wet.

A little north of Townsville up the Strewth Highway, the blend of dry grassland and tropical rainforest manifests in Paluma Range National Park, with each climbing, narrow turn up the mountain road darkening as undergrowth thickens. Little Crystal Creek is on the cusp of a landscape in change, and a pretty place to pause. Higher up around Paluma, rainforest walks promise at views and deliver in sweatiness, though it’s still a long way from being as bad as it gets in high summer.

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It seems a bit ridiculous to talk of a summer in a place that is almost consistently between 26 and 30 degrees year round. Seasons are more marked by a change in humidity, from clear, arid winter days to muggy, stormy summer oppression. You can also throw in the odd cyclone, with the last big, big one – Yasi – hitting the coast around Mission Beach in 2011.

Continuing north up the highway approaching Cardwell, it is hard to picture today. But an enduring image from that storm is the pile of fancy yachts stacked upon one another at Hinchinbrook Marina. Three-quarters of buildings in Cardwell were damaged and the banana crop so tied to this part of the world was devastated. The rugged, pristine environment of Hinchinbrook Island tantalises today. But you wouldn’t have wanted to camp there back then.

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Cardwell seems a quiet kind of place, a pit top where the Bruce Highway finally meets the sea. Post-Yasi, a medium sized big crab has been resurrected on the top of a café. As you do. It’s competition along the highway with the Frosty Mango where I have already stopped and the Big Golden Gumboot of Tully in which I am destined to head.

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Finally, a turn off at Tully leads towards Mission Beach, which somewhat confusingly is a cluster of villages and bays along a stretch of coast twenty kilometres or so. We’re in a region known as the Cassowary Coast and they sure do emphasise the cassowary part of that nomenclature. Official and unofficial road signs alert you to the presence of this giant flightless bird, warnings that seem worthy given they are dwindling in numbers and most susceptible to road accidents. Some people might fear the cassowary for its strong hook-like claw, but you’ll generally find the ubiquitous Toyota Hilux is more lethal in so many ways.

Of course, being in cassowary country makes you – as they say – naturally cass-o-wary. Walking in dense rainforest at Lacey Creek it’s all a bit like encountering snakes…part of you would be thrilled to see one and to try to take a blurry picture, but part of you would be pooping your pants. Every rustle and fleeting shadow pricks the senses, only for it to be caused by an unseen gecko or another bush turkey.

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Down by the sea at Bingil Bay, there is always the chance of a crocodile or a lethal jellyfish to spot instead. Though the hosts at my B&B warned me the crocs are only in the creeks, I’m not so sure about stepping too far into that ocean. I mean, the creeks enter the sea, right. What goes in must come out. And with plenty of mangroves in which to lurk, I can just picture myself sunbaking right there if I was a saltwater crocodile. So, I move briskly on, along a fine, shady boardwalk towards the hub that is North Mission Beach. Where a cold beer with a view is the better means of cooling down, I reckon.

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Refreshed and now feeling in holiday mood, there was definitely justification in an afternoon siesta, before working up a sweat again climbing Bicton Hill in Clump Mountain National Park.  If cassowaries and crocs weren’t enough, the start of this trail warned of stinging trees, which boast attractive heart shaped leaves and plump purple fruit. The cunning bastards.

The sign at the bottom of the track also warns that this isn’t a walk for everyone, indicating heart-attack potential. But it’s not that bad, just a leafier, slightly deadlier version of Mount Ainslie with views out toward a far-less manicured landscape.

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With all this adventure and threat, one of the nice, homely touches of my B&B was the opportunity for drinks on the veranda at six o’clock. With only a few rooms it was cosy and relaxing, a chance to share the escapades of the day with those from further afield. Of course, being a naturalised Australian I was quickly assigned an authority on matters such as swooping birds, the diet of the cassowary, drought and bushfires, the hiding places of redback spiders, the pros and cons of Townsville, and…well…Brexit. I do suppose the Netherlands and Switzerland – especially Switzerland – seem very genteel by comparison.

At the B&B I was also frequently lobbied to try out the Kennedy Walking Track commencing at South Mission Beach. And so, on Sunday morning I decided to give it a go before the drive back to Townsville. And what a great recommendation to take up before eventually returning to the landlocked eucalypt land of four seasons back south. Yay for palm trees and golden sands, mangroves and croccy creeks, and that milky aquamarine sea. Another world in the same country.

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I have to say I do think the beaches of the south coast of New South Wales are in many ways better. They are typically finer and sandier and, well, you can generally paddle without as great a fear of being lunch and / or lacerated to death. But then there is just that air to the tropics, a mood and a light and colours so vivid. And palm trees and ferns and – up here – rainforest tumbling down to the sea. Like I say, another world in the same country.

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Talking of other worlds, I eventually made it back to Townsville via the largest potato scallops and smallest bites of fish in Ingham. A little early for my flight back, I remembered spotting a huge TV tower on top of a peak just to the west of town when I came to land at the same airport, and duly discovered there was a road to the top. From the summit of Mount Stuart, this possible Crazytown doesn’t seem too mad, distant as I am from its Sunday hangover.

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Perhaps madder is the scene inland, where the maddest of mad dogs can flourish. A scene dry and dusty and rugged and foreboding. A world devoid of much, exposed to a harsh, searing heat and unforgiving glare; perhaps you can see why many are happy enough to dig it up. The maddest thing though is that this world can suck you in, can draw you to it, can make you want to step one more foot into its fringe. It might even tempt you to buy a wide brimmed hat and some sturdy RM Williams boots. If only you didn’t have a flight to catch back to sanity.

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Australia Driving Green Bogey Photography Walking

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.

Australia Green Bogey Photography Walking

Uppish drives

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.

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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.

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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!

feb04I 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Australia Green Bogey Walking

Queen of the south

I had never visited or passed through the small town of Lumsden, yet it featured prominently on our road map borrowed from a keen fly fisherman friend of Dad. The road map offered annotated teasers of someone else’s holiday: Day 2 on the Oreti River, a fine haul at the Whitestone, a ride on a steam train. Lumsden was often at the heart of the scribblings, and a town with a population of 400 boasting a fishing shop just about says it all. Today, in winds stronger than Gita, the trout would have been blowing down the street alongside wheelie bins and pizza boxes. Even I might be able to catch one.

Heading north from Lumsden we paused at the southern extremity of Lake Wakitipu, at the tip of this thunderbolt shaped body of electric blue, a Harry Potter scar etched into the Southern Alps by a tectonic Lord Voldemort. Parking upon the shore in Kingston for a cheesy car picnic, lightning or death eaters were not the issue, but the wind blowing off the lake, rocking the car and creating spouts and swirls of water. A nearby lookout point marked as The Devils Staircase never seemed so apt.

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NZd02Contrast this with an hour later in Arrowtown, a cutesy (if a touch contrived) old gold rush village just out of Queenstown. Sheltered by hills, twenty-five degrees, sunshine out, there was no hesitation in showing my pants to the whole of the car park and changing into shorts. Likewise, both Dad and I had no hesitation in agreeing ice cream should be on the agenda. Such thoughts are obvious portents of the cloud rolling in, the wind rising, and drizzle emerging. But let that not stop us eating ice cream!

And so, when we eventually arrived at our lofty accommodation in Queenstown up several flights of stairs, there was no lake to see, no mountain tops to captivate, and just the sound of heavy rain and testosterone-fuelled Argentine rugby players having a balcony party to enjoy. Perfect conditions to don a mac, head into town, find a pub, and gorge on a hearty roast.

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In a mini-repeat of the post-Gita awakening, the next morning dawned with just a few residual clouds hovering over the lake, the blue skies expanding to cast Lake Wakatipu a luminescent teal. What better way to dazzle than drive along its shores to Glenorchy, the symbolic top of the fork of thunder encircled by lofty mountains. Just when you thought New Zealand could not get any more scenic, any more stunning, you turn a corner and once more get whacked in the face in a flurry of brake lights and shonky parking.

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One of the incredible things about Glenorchy other than it’s gorgeous setting and generous rocky road slice, is that it is once again on the fringes of Mount Aspiring National Park. In what is almost two full circles we have come within 20 miles of The Divide on the Milford Sound road (just a case of walking The Routeburn to get there), and around 30 miles from the Matukituki Valley and Rob Roy Glacier (jet boats up the Dart would probably get us closer). I swear the mountains fringing the western part of the lake here look just the same as those viewed from Key Summit on the other side. And they probably are.

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A few more miles up an agreeable gravel road lined with fields of sheep, our last swing bridge led across to a gentle walk through pristine red beech to Lake Sylvan. In many ways this was pleasant, lacking the spectacle encountered elsewhere, but pleasant. Another cheesy picnic by the river in warm sunshine kicked us off, a tinkling brook accompanied us to the lake, and some chirpy birdies were far from shy in greeting us on the trail.

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And, yes, the lake itself was pleasant, nothing more nothing less. Having been in New Zealand for over a week now, there was clear evidence to suggest we were encountering scenic fatigue. For here, this pristine and peaceful spot was nothing more than, well, as I have said several times, pleasant.

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NZd09And so, in this hasty encounter with a small part of a bigger-than-you-think country packed with spectacle we finish up in Queenstown. Of all the places we visited this was undoubtedly the most frenetic, but it was no London, nor even Canberra. Firstly, you can forgive the masses of backpackers and Contiki coaches and adrenaline shots because Queenstown is beautiful. And – you know what – the people, the bustle, the mixture of ages and nationalities soaking up the holiday air creates a really nice vibe down by the lake. Particularly if this is accompanied by a ‘legendary’ Fergburger and a glowing evening as the sun slides west.

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The iconic view of Queenstown comes from the top of a gondola ride and on a late afternoon under clear skies it could not be any better. Or maybe it could with a dusting of fresh snow on the incredible Remarkables. In this case, perhaps last Thursday would have been optimum, but we were off tramping in something even more spectacular back then. And this was more than good enough.

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There was a tinge of sombreness accompanied by waking for the last time in New Zealand on this trip. Sombreness that was quickly shaken by the welcoming skies outside and – unbeknownst at the time – the prospect of waking once more. That last day of a holiday in which you have a later flight and some time to somehow ‘kill’. If only there was an earlier flight we could get onto…

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It struck me that we had not done a bungee jump or jetboat ride or chucked ourselves out of a plane on a 4×4 Segway into a sub-zero glacier on this trip. Possibly one of the few that hadn’t we instead set off in pursuit of observing such mania, dosing up on lakeside coffee to get us pumped. At the Shotover River, a regular parade of jetboats whooshed and whizzed and did watery donuts to a clientele that looked – to be honest – rather aged and largely nonplussed. Meanwhile, from the Kawarau River suspension bridge, A.J. Hackett invariably cajoled and pushed people off a platform on a piece of string.

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To the sound of murderous shrieks we plunged towards the adventure of Queenstown Airport, an understandably small terminal that would take us back to Sydney. Tomorrow. After a flight cancellation we could have enjoyed more of the adventure of Queenstown airport overnight, but instead we managed to find ourselves some accommodation (something Virgin Australia couldn’t), albeit a good hour away. The Crown Range road up to Cardrona was something we missed out on this trip following a Gita-induced landslide, but it was open again for us to ascend in a new car in the dark. Not only that, but there was an additional hairpin gravel road to take, littered with rabbits and potentially hidden chasms towards New Zealand’s highest hotel. At around 1650 metres, it seemed rather lovely and part of me wished the flight back tomorrow would come a little later in the day.

NZd12But, after our final, final night of sleep in New Zealand we set off down the mountain, seeing in the light the spectacle that we were to now say goodbye to again. With the delays, the exhaustion, the impending drag down the Hume Highway from Sydney to Canberra, we were both keen to get back. And it was a shame to end this way, even if a bacon butty and coffee at the airport temporarily lifted spirits. But everyone expects a little adventure in New Zealand and we belatedly had ours. This along with much to remember, much to savour, much to linger in the mind for as long as the white cloud blessing this most amazing big little country.

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Trails and tribulations

As a new year begins, the summer holidays are in full swing down under. Nowhere is this more evident than at road service stops up and down the land. At Goulburn, interstate and overseas travellers revel underneath the glory of the Big Merino, custard slices and cappuccinos fly off the shelves of Trappers Bakery and Maccas is a frenzy of Frozen Coke Spiders and toddler tantrums. Downtown, the high street is at a crawl as people are confronted with the idiosyncrasies of rear angle parking demands that necessitate a protractor for the first time since high school, and inevitable queues form for drive-thru beer and ice.

kan01Most cars are heading up or down the Hume Highway, towards Sydney, Melbourne or – even – Canberra. And / or beyond. Fewer are taking an alternate road north, across golden farmland and riverine gorges, passing through the town of Taralga and very little else until reaching the bright lights of Oberon. Here, west of the gargantuan expanse of the Greater Blue Mountains, fingertips of road and trail penetrate into the edge of wilderness.

Kanangra-Boyd National Park is the second largest tract of wilderness in New South Wales. Which is remarkable really when you think that Sydney almost brushes up to its eastern edge. The largest wilderness area, incidentally, is Wollemi National Park, also a part of the Blue Mountains. That’s a lot of bush out there.

Arriving on a cloudy afternoon, there was – to put it less than mildly – a freshness in the air at Boyd River Campground. Indeed, the scene of a tin-roofed wooden hut among the gums was more Kosciuszko in June than Kanangra in January. The fireplaces were looking like an entirely appropriate adornment.

kan02Walking helped warm things up a little and the gloomy view of Kanangra Walls was eclipsed by the natural serenity around Kalang Falls. This required a little descending beyond the escarpment edge and each step below evoked a sense of immersion in something elemental and pristine. As well as the pervasive eucalypts, native flowering shrubs and bonsai-sized pines and cedars clung happily to the rocky outcrops. Ferns adorned the pools and watercourse of the creek as it disappeared down and down into depths unseen. A trickle seemingly so insignificant continuing to somehow carve out this impenetrable gorge country.

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Back at camp, the summer idyll of cold beers and chicken salad was challenged by the increasing chill. My only pair of long pants and only hoodie were barely enough to keep the cold at bay and the folly of not bringing any extra blankets – in January for goodness sake – was prescient. The smokiness of a fire was price worth paying for a little extra warmth and some extra evening entertainment.

Entering the cocoon of my swag for the first time in a year a light drizzle began to fall, which persisted all night and into the next morning. While it was nothing substantial – more a case of being in the clouds rather than under them – it was enough to disrupt sleep as moisture gathered on the tree branches and fell as droplets drumming onto the canvas above my head. Waking for the umpteenth time, dawn revealed a silvery lustre of leaves and gloom among the gums, only lightened by the invigorating and fragrant freshness. Still, it would be cool and calm conditions for a gentle bike ride…

kan05And indeed, by time we got underway some of the gloom had lifted and the initial pedal on smooth tracks though the forest was heartening. Things began to go downhill as the terrain went more steeply and precariously downhill (described as “gently rolling”), compounded by creek crossings and the nagging knowledge that at some point climbing would be inevitable.

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So it was that the trail transformed into an archaic roadway of logs and rocks, mud and puddles, seemingly unending in the depths of the forest. Each bend revealing another uphill slog or treacherous dip, with the prospect of the good dirt road on the horizon yet again dashed. Somehow, we all stayed upright, our bikes remained in one piece, and we just about managed to keep sane. Just. Finally, the sight of the good dirt road, leading to a smooth, mostly downhill ride back to the campground, was nirvana itself.

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A sense of achievement was palpable over lunch, which took place under sunny and warming skies. Tents dried and sleeping bags aired while sunscreen and hats were now de rigueur. The morning travails were slowly beginning to dissipate though I am sure they will never be completely forgotten. Managing to drag ourselves from such placid relaxation, we revisited Kanangra Walls, which offered a far brighter scene in which to marvel at monumental sandstone country.

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kan10Being energetic types, we embarked on a walk along the plateau in the afternoon which – naturally –  only involved a few minor ups and downs. Panoramas were a regular companion, the vertiginous cliff line giving way to a green carpet plummeting down into infinity. Caution was high on the agenda peeping towards the precipice, a dizzying spectacle in which you hope not to be consumed. Let the snapchatting youth and boastful backpackers perch on the edge, for we have had enough adventure for today thank you very much; and how much more of a thrill do you need than being a part of this landscape, an insignificant dot in such spectacle.

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kan12Working up a thirst, the cold beverages on the second – and final – night were far more fitting. By now, any clouds and wind had completely disappeared and the forest was aglow in the lingering end-of-day sunlight. Even my one-pot cooking failed to ruin the experience. We had been through the tribulations of the trails of dust and drizzle, creeks and climbs and were being generously rewarded. Finishing on a high, Australia at its summer holiday best, and you, and a couple of friends, immersed within it.

Australia Driving Green Bogey Photography Walking

The Cornish episode

With access to a car and decent spells of time on my side, the last few years have opened my eyes to parts of Cornwall previously unseen. Or if not unseen, unsighted since I had browner hair, smoother skin, missing teeth, and a squeakier voice. This newfound exploration has frequently left me in admiration, appreciation and exhaustion; admiration over the alternating drama and tranquillity of wild coasts, placid coves, windswept moor and pastoral nooks; appreciation for my roots and the luck of being born and able to revisit this part of the world [1]; and exhaustion from the forty-five degree climbs up the coast path or from eating too many scones back down by the sea.

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For a few weeks this year I had opportunity to enter the Duchy again and – if truth be told – I was struggling a little for new ideas and places to discover. Not that repeat visits are a bad thing; such as the practically annual drive to Boscastle and Tintagel on the far north coast. And while there are some cherished familiarities (say, Granny Wobbly’s Fudge Crumble), just a little more digging can lead to dramatic vistas around Pentargon Falls or across to the island from the exposed positioning of St. Materiana’s Church.

cn06Other repeat visits transpire from convenience and come with pastry-coated benefits that are worth duplicating. Like the relatively short drive from Plymouth to Looe, through the most contented countryside and down towards the south coast. I don’t usually linger around Looe, but it’s a good base for refreshment and with the right light, tidal state and the discovery of a peaceful corner you can value its merits.

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cn09Even closer to home – so much so that just over the hill you will see council blocks, cranes and incinerators – Whitsand Bay is starkly, surprisingly rugged. The eroded, sea-shattered lump of Rame Head is something you’d expect to encounter further west. Bracken and gorse-clad cliffs are punctuated in clusters by cheap fibro shacks with pretty gardens clinging on for dear life. And the waves roll in to the shore in a long translucent line stretching all the way back towards Looe. It is a go-to place for that essential endeavour of ‘blowing away the cobwebs,’ an endeavour far safer in England than Australia.

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But what of new discoveries? Surely the web of country lanes and undulations of the coast mean there is so much more around the next corner? Well, technically Trevone Bay near Padstow isn’t new. But I last came here in October and today it was a startlingly sunny and warm day on the August bank holiday weekend. A different place indeed, and one in which I was not so keen to linger.

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cn04Once again, I turn to the South West Coast Path for solace; a relatively easy walk northwards towards the headland at Stepper Point, taking in some archetypal Cornish scenery with only a smattering of rambling sightseers passing me by. There are rocky coves, clear seas, sandy inlets and windswept green fields to enjoy. A highlight is the chimney stack formation at Gunver Head, resembling an ancient tin mine frozen in time, weathered and beaten by the cruelty of the Atlantic. Climbing up and up and up over this rocky, eroded headland, surely a grumpy and grizzled Luke Skywalker is hiding out here somewhere?

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The miniscule Butterhole Beach offers azure waters lapping at fine golden sand; tempting to visit but near impossible unless equipped with ropes, ladders and a death wish. Instead, you hope for a sign so that you can, er, cover up some of the letters and take a hilarious selfie before heading down to the Camel Estuary. Here the waters and sand are far more accessible, but not too accessible as to be jam packed. Padstein is still a little way away and, with the tide out, there is plenty of room to relax and eat a homemade roll assembled from BBQ leftovers.

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This is another one of those if only it was like this all of the time moments. They don’t last but they stick in the memory. Sometimes it’s a fleeting moment…the sun in your face, sweat on your brow, the sound of gulls and waves and even distant shrieks of joyous infants. Occasionally it’s a series of moments stitched together over the course of a day. Often the final Cornwall day.

If my words cannot convince you of the sheer beauty, the pockets of joy, the drama and blessedness in which Cornwall radiates, then it is probably a fictional romp about smugglers and miners and war and steamy liaisons brought lavishly to TV. I cannot confess to watching much of the most recent dramatisation of Poldark but I am well aware of its presence. Sometimes, on a Sunday night in Canberra I have glanced up from stirring a stew to see some bloke with a fancy hat all brooding and serious on Holywell Bay. Or a corseted wench galloping along some cliffs near St Agnes. It evokes memory and a little longing, but I’ll leave the serious fandom stuff to Mum.

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With Mum joining me for Poldark Day, my last Cornwall day, it was less about Poldark and more about the canvas – a new canvas – in which such contrived intrigue is set. Not that you would think that at Charlestown, in which tall sail ships peacefully wallow and the clutter of woven baskets and bags of fake grain adorn the quay. It turned out that they were filming here the very next day and the waterside itself was out of bounds. Still, turn one eighty degrees and from the fictional eighteenth century you find what seems something like twenty first century Australia. A rather hip, outdoorsy-focused cafe bar, offering a moderate flat white with the air of prawns and Prosecco on the agenda. Not exactly what I was expecting.

Moving westward and traversing the outskirts of Truro, the Poldark express moved on to The Lizard. Now this was an area that had been on the agenda for some time, but I had never quite made it. Today, sheltered from a blustery nor’wester, it proved the perfect spot for sightseeing, lunching, rambling and a final Cornish ice cream.

First stop, Gunwalloe Church Cove, where I applaud the National Trust for offering hourly parking rates instead of the usual all day scam. An hour was sufficient for an amble and lunch on the sandy bay, relatively sparse now that mid-September was upon us. What a difference a few weeks makes.

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Rising up from the beach the links of Mullion Golf Club made me want to grab a club and get swinging again; though some of those holes look like a long slog upwards, and there are other hills to climb. Like in Mullion Cove itself, down from a parking area to the harbour and thus back up again. If there is a piece of flat land in Cornwall I would love to see it. Perhaps at nearby RNAS Culdrose, from where a helicopter did continuous laps of The Lizard all day. They no doubt classified this as ‘training manoeuvres’ but I’m convinced they were out for a sightseeing jolly.

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There was not very much at all at Mullion Cove which is why it was so charming. A few boats, a few cottages, a few lobster pots spilling down onto the cobbled wharf. A smattering of the curious sitting in the sun or watching the waves crash into the cliffs. This is where you could stay a week and get through a good few books without being disappointed that you had ventured no further. We moved on.

cn16More popular, and having risen in stocks dramatically in the last couple of years, is Kynance Cove. To the extent that at 3:30pm in the middle of the week in September the National Trust would like you to pay a bar of gold bullion and hand over your firstborn to park. I blame Poldark, stupid knob end. Of course, being locals (okay, sort of), we’re not having any of that, and parked a little way back along the cliff line at a place only the locals (okay, those who look at the satellite view of Google maps) know. Ha, eat your hat Poldark.

You know what though, this was a better way to approach it, with views across the bay to England’s most southerly point, and a sense of anticipation at what might be over the brow of that hill. And there it was, a clump of weather-beaten rocks, encircled by golden sand becoming exposed as the tide drifted out. Despite the costs, it was a popular spot with many stopping in the cafe for an ice cream or cream tea and venturing onto the grassy banks or exploring the nooks and crannies being revealed. Meanwhile, a helicopter whirred overhead, again and again and again and again…

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It cannot be denied that Kynance Cove is a spectacular sight, an encapsulation of the Cornish coast that makes you feel lucky to exist. But for some reason I felt all the hype was a little overblown, probably because much of the rest of the county does exactly the same. So whether it’s old or new, revisited or discovered, there is admiration, appreciation and exhaustion in every footstep, every mile, every brooding stare ocean bound. An adoration and attachment that means to Cornwall I will always, like that chopper, inevitably return.

 

[1] Okay, technically I was born across the river in Devon but this appreciation stretches across both borders

Great Britain Green Bogey Photography Walking

Take a train, take a photo

In the space of an hour I crossed from France to Switzerland to France to Switzerland again. It would’ve been shorter if it weren’t for the fact that Switzerland obscures the presence of France, and France fails to advertise its presence at all. With our hire car eventually returned in a space smaller than – well – a hire car and the assistants nonchalantly watching with a shrug and a keen eye for scratches, it clearly felt like France. Then efficiently down an escalator Dad and I re-entered Switzerland, which was doing its best to imitate France.

Faring Dad well in the tobacco-scented chaos, my train left a minute or two late from Geneva Airport into the city, where I met up with Caroline and encountered more scandalous mayhem queuing for a train ticket. Onwards to Lausanne, where our train was one of only a handful not encountering a delay of five minutes or so. Heads will roll for this, I thought. Perhaps this French-speaking corner of Switzerland is attempting to be more like La Republique, I mused. But with no Orangina.

Michael Portillo would have been as pleased as pink pants to find that the trains were running like clockwork the following day. A good job too as we took eight train journeys (and missed a ferry, oops) to maximise rail pass value and soak up an array of succulent Swiss scenery. The kind of scenery where cows chew happily away to produce creamy chocolate and flavoursome cheese, luring visitors to revel in a pleasant cliché or two.

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swiss02Indeed, many visitors were lured by the smells of the Cailler chocolate factory in Broc; so much so that we skipped the long wait times and went straight to the chocolate tasting (i.e. shop) instead. One bar later we were getting off the train in Gruyeres, straight opposite the fromage factory and down below the castled old town. Undeniably cheesy with a touch of theme park, it is nonetheless a fine spot in which to amble and eat a random picnic from the Coop.

For me, the fifth, sixth and seventh train journeys of the day broke new ground, shifting south from Gruyeres through a scenic valley to the main street of Montbovon. From here, train number six was as delightful as a lime green blazer and yellow trouser combo. Outside, the landscape became increasingly mountainous, idyllically scattered with wooden chalets bathed in baskets of red geranium. Inside, the train was a treasure of wood panelling, art deco lamps and antiquated buffet service. At some point, somewhere, everything became Germanic. Guten tag Gstaad.

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Forty minutes in Gstaad was enough to gauge that this was another kind of Gruyeres, the Swiss theme park of gold bullion, creative offshore accounting and thousand dollar sunglasses. There were few cuckoo clocks in sight and even the vending machine at the station offered gourmet meats and diamond-encrusted olives pooped out by a rare Tuscan unicorn which belongs to Her Majesty. The supermarket water was cheap enough though and – I’m sure with more time and exploration – there would be plenty of opportunities to penetrate beyond the slightly false exterior and into nature.

swiss04Retracing some of the route back into the French speaking side of Switzerland, train seven rolled and lulled its way to snoozeville, climbing up through a hole in the rock to emerge way above Lake Geneva. The descent was disorienting as the lake shifted from left to right and eventually lapped at the foot of Montreux. What better way to stretch the legs than to walk along the lake shore in the early evening sunshine, ambling towards a Legoland castle jutting out into the water?

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Turns out it was a magical castle that disappears from view only to re-emerge further in the distance the closer you get to it. It may have been a mirage or a hallucinogenic vision created by too much train travel and ice cream. Michael Portillo would’ve had a private boat tour in some reconditioned U-boat; by time we reached the Chateau de Chillon, we missed our ferry back. Oops. Train number eight it is then.

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swiss06Following an epic day cruising the rails of eastern Switzerland, the next day – Sunday – proved a quieter affair. I mean, it did start with a train, the Lausanne metro transporting us to a dormant university campus and close to more lakeside ambles. Lausanne was emerging to life in its dog walkers and cyclists and rowers and barbecue in the park chefs. It was still rather quiet, in a Canberra-like kind of state.

The parkland serenity of Lausanne was in stark contrast to the triathlon taking place on the streets, an event that seemed to go on for like forever. It was still finishing up after another walk from the edge of the Lavaux vine terraces back into the city. Ice cream and midges accompanied the stroll past small parks, gravelly bays and waterfront homes. More people were out and about this afternoon, topping up tans and a healthy constitution. And still the triathletes finished, not at all concerned about being drug-tested as they sauntered past IOC HQ.

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Lausanne proved a good base to spend a few days in Switzerland and I am sure it could offer an agreeable life. There’s probably more to see and more that can be done (just ask our AirBnB host!) but, crucially, did it pass the ‘I could live here test?’ Well, probably…like if you were placed here for work or study or something. There could be far worse spots in which to dwell, even if you don’t like trains or triathlons.

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After vaguely bestowing some half-arsed compliments to a city that I spent a few days in (hey, this is rigorous Lonely Planet stuff here), Monday was an opportunity to get out of said city and use up our other all-inclusive travel day. Just the three trains and three ferries but these proved more than enough to recover the rail pass expenditure two-fold.

swiss08The trip from Montreux up to Rochers-de-Naye would cost an arm and a leg in itself. Better than cramp and a heart attack that would be the inevitable result of trying to make this journey on foot. Old and old at heart alike were more than happy to board the open air carriages, passing the raffish suburbs of Higher Montreux, up through clusters of chalets and expensive hotel restaurants commanding views of the lake, into pine forest under deep blue skies and out into open meadows way up high. At around two thousand metres in height, panoramas of Switzerland and France abound.

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There are plenty of opportunities to take a photo of the approaching train as you wait upon the platform for the ride down. A ride down that pauses somewhere and you see a couple of friends from Canberra on the other train going up! An occurrence almost as random, as bizarre as the Nolan sisters ordering spaghetti bolognaise and chips at a swanky hotel nearby.

Swank is in the air in Montreux, which is a pleasing-on-the-eye, sun-kissed kind of affair seemingly designed for lakeside promenading (as opposed to scrambling frantically for a ferry near a mysteriously disappearing chateau). Today, there was no major rush for our next connection, with time just about right to eat the world’s most expensive bagel and soak up a little of the shoreline ambience. And then, having covered every piece of rail in the area, it was only fitting that we should now take to the water.

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The ride on the lake to Lausanne offered an alternately sunny and hot or shady and cool experience in which to marvel at the mountains, to peer up and pick out the bulbous summit of Rochers-de-Naye, and to appreciate the tumbling green steps of the Lavaux. At Lausanne, an efficient interchange swept us, alongside the omnipresent youngsters of the Wessex Youth Orchestra, on board to a ferry to cross over to Evian, and back again into France.

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Evian was more charming than I remember from my one previous visit here. There was great ice cream, crepes and Orangina-au-wasp, pretty shops and houses, a Carrefour full of oddments, little in the way of French litter and dog poop, and – of course – a tap pumping out free water from an ornate unicorn’s mouth or something. Here, an amalgam of curious tourists and mischievous restaurateurs gathered to fill bottles, supping on cool refreshing water that tasted just like water.

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There’s also a free, old-fashioned funicular in Evian and on this trip there was no way we were going to miss out on such a thing! The Wessex Youth Orchestra were also keen; if only they had brought their instruments along we could have had a jaunty rendition of Climb Every Mountain and even less air in which to breathe. They then followed us to an overlook and we buddied up again on the way back down. Key take outs were that not all yoof are horrendous, I don’t miss the awkwardness of those years, thank god we didn’t have phones and social media when I was their age, and where the hell is Wessex anyway?

As the orchestra diminuendoed their way back across to Switzerland we lingered for dinner and a later sailing that coincided with dusk. Leaving France for the fourth time, it was rather sedate and beautiful: the triple-pronged peaks of an Evian bottle fading in the sky, the lights twinkling on around the shore, the calm of the water interrupted by birds and the chop of the ferry. The scene like an ending from some movie, or perhaps the closing credits of a Great Continental railway, bus, funicular, cog train, metro, foot and ferry journey.

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Europe Food & Drink Green Bogey Photography

Newcy town

When I think of Newcastle some quite disturbing images come to mind. Gazza, half cut, tongue out, festooned with a pair of fake plastic tits; girls plastered with fake everythings casually hanging out in crop tops in the freezing fog of January; Kevin Keegan’s bubble perm; a language unfathomable, so much so that I can remember having to ask a couple of Geordies to say that again at least ten times before I gave up and resorted to a smile and nod. My Newcastle associations are embedded in the UK.

Like so many spots down under there is a Newcastle of the south. The resemblance is far from uncanny but one bond in common is a slightly grimy industrial heritage. This in the oh-so-sunny world of Australia is perversely refreshing. Sure, the entrance to town from the direction of the airport is not the greatest advertisement, as you cross the Hunter River in a squall and look down upon piles of coal and metalwork. But there is an honesty to it, a grit, an earthy spirit perhaps common to Newcastles all over the world, whyaye.

newc2Once clear of this blackspot of industry, you are back in a more familiar kind of Australia, with Newcastle boasting some fine beaches, cafe-cultured hubbub, and waterside retreats. I like it here, though being unfamiliar with what’s hot and what’s not it took me four attempts to get a good coffee. Cafes on Darby Street have an appearance in which they seem to talk the talk, but walking proves far more problematic. Is it me, or are baristas with an armful of tattoos, baseball caps and a love of the mirror at the gym usurping hipsters in coffee-making skills? Just something I seem to have observed in recent times…

newc3Once I found a good coffee from someone who could crush the beans by hand, I decided I liked Newcastle a lot. It probably joins the long list of places where I’d say I could live if I had to. Being on the coast has a lot to do with it, and while showers were around and daylight saving had ended, at least I got to enjoy the last of the day with the rainbows and butterflies before setting off for some evening work.

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The next morning started early (partly because daylight saving has ended) and – being on the east coast – I thought I may marvel in the sunrise over the ocean. Of course, the persistent stream of showers coming in off the Tasman Sea had other ideas. But I was up now, so I headed along the breezy coastline towards Merewether Beach. Partly this passed along a rather fine metal walkway making the cliff top route a touch easier to navigate. That is, until turning round and noticing the many steps in the other direction. Still, it justified breakfast (with average coffee / no tattoos).

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Newcastle airport is some 30 kilometres north of the city and I didn’t really need to be there until 4. If you carry on a similar distance north of the airport you enter the long peninsula of Port Stephens, a collective of holiday towns, placid bays and hilly bush-clad headlands. It’s probably worth a day or two to explore but I had a few hours, pausing for lunch at Fingal Bay, before doing undoubtedly the number one thing to do and climbing Tomaree Head. It’s not a long walk but there are a few switchbacks and metal steps involved, leading to a 360 degree view of the bay, the hills, the beaches and the agitated blue sea.

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newc7While blessed with the rugged scenery of Northumberland I doubt if the Newcastle of the north would have such a temperate idyll an hour away. You can see why people come here for holidays, or to retire. Even the koalas of NSW like it here, not that I saw any (or saw any people looking up into trees which is the best way of spotting koalas). I have only been to the other Newcastle once and I thought it was alright. But if I was to choose, I think this one would win hands down; even without a Sunderland next door aye!

Australia Green Bogey

Holes and crevices

Since I started waxing lyrical about the joys of March it has been raining a fair bit. Not wall to wall drizzle but almost daily torrents of abuse from the skies. Upper level troughs, east coast lows, tropical storms, that sort of thing. While many people rightly state that it’s good for the gardens, it’s expressed with a subtle tinge of disappointment and envy that the gardens are having all the fun. You get used to not having to consult the weather forecast before planning outdoor adventures.

Still, Canberra doesn’t often get the brunt of the bad weather, shielded by the Snowy Mountains to the west and the coastal ranges to the east. Maybe that’s why they decided to site Canberra where it is, the guffawing elites of Melbourne and Sydney spitefully condemning the nation’s capital to a dusty sheep paddock. One hundred and four years later it’s quite remarkable that it is what it is really, and I’m amazed that the vast swathe of Australians fail to celebrate what has been achieved here. Only in Canberra do we get Canberra Day, when half of Canberra leave Canberra for the long weekend.

Predictable rain peppered the drive from Canberra to Braidwood on Canberra Day 2017. Over the years, Braidwood has become more attuned to Canberra’s fancies, with the emergence of better coffee and organic providores selling overpriced sourdough sandwiches in stripped back wooden cottages. For all the fine produce and renovated fireplaces around, it still alarms me when an old dear is at the coffee machine. Call it despicable ageism, but people with beards do seem to make a better coffee.

bush01aMost people use Braidwood as a coffee and loo stop on the way to the coast. Today however, with my friend Alex in the passenger seat, I was heading a little south into Deua National Park. A brown sign pointed to The Big Hole and Marble Arch, and who doesn’t want to see a big hole and a marble arch? Even if you do have to wade up to your knees in the Shoalhaven River to see these delights.

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bush02I knew I would be a fan of The Big Hole. Part of the attraction is the name itself, attributed through one of three traditional Australian place-naming techniques: the bleeding obvious (the other two methods being the Aboriginal and the Colonial rip-off). Climbing up and over a ridge, a sign in the midst of nondescript bush points to the hole a hundred metres away. And there it is. A big bloody hole. Seventy metres deep and filled with ferns that are a lot bigger than they look. At the end of the day, what else could you call this?

bush04Marble Arch is far less obvious. And a good deal farther, through an annoying shower and down into a valley. In fact I don’t recall an extravagant arch glistening in the rain, just a narrow canyon and underground cave, with a few boulders and soggy pools in the way. Nonetheless it was quite a spectacle, quite an experience, quite an adventure. And quite a climb back up, in the rain.

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A couple of weeks on and I found myself back on the bushwhacking trail in the frequently moist Southern Highlands of New South Wales. You cannot enter the highlands town of Bundanoon without saying so in a Scots accent. Welcome to Bundurrnooooooooonn. Turn right at the kilt shop and beware caber tossing ginger people on the road into Morton National Park. Where, for all the pretence of Scotland, you are in quintessential Australia, sandstone escarpment and gum tree country.

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bush05Walking along a gravel road in a landscape tamed by pasture and pricey property, the bush reclaims the country and sweeps down into the valley of Bundanoon Creek. While keen not to go all the way down to the creek (and thus back up), I dropped below the cliff line on the promisingly named Amphitheatre Track. While there are glimpses of the valley and the eastern escarpment through the trees, a lot of the attraction is in the close up, in the miniscule: the seeping moss, the crumbling sandstone, tunnels of ferns and trickling gullies.

bush06As well as savouring the sights, sounds and smells of the bush, I was on a waterfall mission, confident of success given the recent rains. It didn’t take long to find a trickle of water that had swollen sufficiently to spill through a cleft in the rock, briefly flowing over the path, disappearing into unfathomable depths below. Further gullies provided further cascading water, and such was the sogginess underfoot it was relief at times to emerge from beneath the ferns on slightly higher, drier ground.

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The only regular water feature marked on the map provided the culmination to this hike. Not one, not two, but effectively three different cascades had developed around Fairy Bower Falls. The first was most certainly a temporary affair, streaming down the rock face like Gandalf’s beard and onto the track. The second – the upper falls – appeared to come from the heavens, falling through the canopy and spreading its mist into the air. The third – the lower falls – gathered into a crystal pool which required only a little daring to cross. This was most definitely the spot to pause and eat my peppermint slice.

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It certainly was the pinnacle, here in these depths. By now I was two hundred metres below the rim and the route back was more than a chore. Fallen trees required circumnavigating; zigzags upwards necessitated breaks; vines impeded above and below. At one pause for a breather I noticed a pile of leeches on the bottom of my jeans, some having made it through to the socks and another trying to get in through my shoe. Frantically trying to peel them off before they made any further progress, my camera decided to roll away twenty metres into the undergrowth. This was now a bit shit.

Leech free (well, I thought…one made it to Moss Vale, the other to Canberra but thankfully without feasting), camera retrieved, there was just the heart-pounding, sweat-inducing climb to the top to go, a climb that never seemed to end. Thank goodness there was a lookout at the summit to recuperate and a sign on which to perch and check shoes and socks. And thank goodness for flat, gravel roads on which to walk back to the car.

bush12I was relieved to get back to the car, relieved to be just fifteen minutes from a hearty lunch in Bernie’s Diner. And relieved that the first raindrops of the day hit the windscreen as I closed the car door, raindrops which continued almost all the way home.

P.S. It was beautiful and sunny today, calm and 28 degrees 🙂

Activities Australia Green Bogey Photography Walking

Gold at heart

The Olympics! I haven’t mentioned the Olympics and how good it was to see most of it on TV in the UK. Complete with the kind of partisan coverage that I love exemplarily executed by the Beeb. Great Britain, Second, Who needs Europe anyway, rah rah rah, put out the bunting. My how we have grown to love bunting!

And so to the capital of gargantuan bunting, a city that at times was an emotional and physical drain on me but is now an absolute tonic to visit. I swear the underground seems to work better nowadays, everything seems a tad cleaner and a bit less grey, the spirit is more open, eclectic, progressive, and now – as a visitor – I can see that London truly is one of the world’s greatest cities.

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Being the August bank holiday weekend I was flummoxed to find myself in shorts on a balcony in the outer suburbs of London with friends Caroline and Jill (note: above picture is not from that balcony!). With this warmth it could have been Bondi, apart from the lack of sand, good coffee, and film crews desperately waiting for the next hapless backpacker to get caught in a rip. But at least there was cake, no kids for a couple of days, and a generous array of pre-birthday celebration antics mysteriously planned. Wild times ahead!

lon01First up on a perfect day we scaled the heights of 20 Fenchurch Street. By elevator of course, up to the Sky Garden of the building popularly known as the Walkie-Talkie. No bungee jumping, no glass-bottom floor, no zip wire…just astounding views over London, shady ferns, comfy sofas and another predictably poor coffee.

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Back down amongst the hustle and bustle of the streets we grabbed some suitably middle class lunch involving hummus before embarking on a mystery journey on the meandering tentacles of the District Line. One of the fun aspects of this journey was not being told anything about where we were going or what we were doing, apart from dire warnings that I might get wet. All a hilarious ruse to baffle an old man as potential options disappeared with each tube stop, finally dwindling to something in Richmond or Kew Gardens. And at Kew Gardens Station, we abruptly bolted for the exit.

lon05I am wondering if there is any finer place than Kew Gardens on such a beautiful late summer’s day. For not only are there acres of manicured lawn, generous pockets of woodland bursting green, and a profligate array of multihued flowerbeds, but you can also play guess the airline. In the cloudless sky, the parade of jets coming into land at Heathrow provides a distracting guessing game when one finds oneself eating ice cream under the shade of a tree. The funny thing was, we didn’t seem to be the only ones playing it.

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lon06But back to earth. We must have walked a fair few miles around the gardens but at regular intervals there was an opportunity to dwell, a chance to linger. A gallery here, a cafe there, a grand house beyond the trees. Sculptures and water features and artworks to do with bees, in which human drones obediently infiltrate the hive out of nothing more than curiosity.

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Then there are the glasshouses. Today it feels like there is no need for hot, tropical climates, but it’s fair to say that the weather is rarely this good. Orchids, palms, lily pads…climb some stairs and you can even go bananas. This would be a good winter refuge.

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And finally, almost as cavernous is the gift shop. Which in gift shop terms is reasonably respectable, with tasteful botanic tea towel prints and encyclopaedic tomes relating to the history of the fennel seed. It would be a decent place to buy Christmas presents for those people you really have difficulty buying presents for. Adding to its appeal in all seasons, we concurred that buying an annual membership pass for Kew Gardens would be a worthwhile purchase if you didn’t live, say, 12,000 miles away.

One thing is for sure – people living in and around the gardens could no doubt afford it. And should they dare to venture out of their generous and elegantly proportioned homes they could entertain themselves besides the river. The Thames of course, dotted with a pub or two on the Chiswick side. An ale by the water, sat comfortably outside as the daylight faded, all supplemented by a dose of fish and chips. This has been a good, a great, a golden day.

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Such a day set a high bar to live up to and the following proved a quirkier affair. Exploits of yesterday had induced a dash of weariness but we still successfully ate some food, walked in a park, shopped, laid on a picnic blanket, and got House of Love wedged into our brains.

First up was a trip to the palace – Alexandra Palace or Ally Pally as those in the know call it. Views from here reflect back on where we were yesterday. You could see the Walkie-Talkie, but none of us could remember seeing Alexandra Palace when we were up there. I guess because there was so much of distraction in between from the other vantage.

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In the parade of pre-birthday surprises I feared an onset of painful embarrassment upon the ice rink situated in the palace. But I needn’t have feared, because there was a much more suitable food festival nearby. Offering a few free samples, mostly of the alcoholic variety, it was enough to induce a craving for an organic grain fed pork sausage and onion ciabatta. As you do near Muswell Hill.

Alright, alright, everything’s gonna be alright because somehow we ended up at Walthamstow Central, East 17. Mystified as to why, there were claims of passing Bryan Harvey’s house, seeing the place where shell suited fashions were purchased, crossing the road that the group’s dog got run over on. Or something. But it turns out this part of the world is renowned for more than a former greyhound stadium and chavesque low brow Take That. William Morris did some things with design for wallpapers and turned into a raving socialist. And this was all recollected in his once grand house and gardens, way beyond the reach of the plebs.

lon10Another surprise in this area was the presence of something called Walthamstow Village. While no thatched cottage idyll in the South Hams of Devon, it possessed that quiet street, classic brickwork, church green feel of a London village, with some similarity to more celebrated haunts such as Highgate and Hampstead. Plus there was somewhere to buy ice cream, relief on another generously warm day.

And so as in so many a tale of mine it comes back to food. The final evening of this tour – exquisitely planned and executed – encapsulated a picnic within the virtual countryside of Trent Park. And for this the unfurling of a picnic blanket – a feature of so many of these get-togethers. Under planes a little too high to turn into a game, a mixed meze straight outta North London. This was pure gold at heart.

Food & Drink Great Britain Green Bogey Photography Society & Culture

Queenslander

Ask an Australian to say “Dirk Drongo is making his debut for the Maroons” and you will realise you are indeed in Australia. The fact that Dirk Drongo is making his dayboo for the Murowns will not only secretly appal the smug little English teacher lurking inside of you, but you will also wonder why this is front page news on the Courier Mail. Apparently, it’s all to do with a game of rugby or – preposterously – football as it is called. Not the FIFA type of football in which you kick a ball at an open goal only to see it diverted by a mysterious sheik into a pit of money built by exploited foreign labour. No, the rugby league type of football, in which scandals are much more unsophisticated affairs involving parties on balconies that somehow always seem to get out of hand and end up with contrite media conferences in which apologies are made for any offence caused.

Having spent a substantial amount of time in Queensland recently it was a relief to escape a few hours before the Murowns played the Blues in something called State of Origin. It was possibly the only relief, because Queensland appears to be quite beautiful this time of year, decorated with clear blue skies and radiant, twenty degree-plus warmth. As a couple of nights of minus five await, and the citizens of Canberra adorn themselves as if on an expedition to the Antarctic, my spirit is lifted by the thought of Brisbane on the horizon once again.

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qldmay03While locals will vehemently disagree, it is quite possible to live in Brisbane without a jumper. Mine came off emerging from the plane, although I did put it on again one morning, just to appear less of an outsider. Meandering around amongst the city towers and along the river, a touch of summer lingers forever: clusters of dark green foliage dwell under a weight of blooming extravagance; sweat is apparently still a thing here; and the official State costume of thongs and boardies can be easily detected in the outdoor swimming pools of Southbank.

There are of course many upsides to this, and one of them is ice cream. And flat whites that remain a pleasure to sip alfresco. Sure, some overzealous cafe owners may have blasted on the outdoor heaters so that you too can relive those heady summers of Marble Bar, but the coffee is at least of reasonable metropolitan standard. It seems to taste blander than that in Canberra, but then maybe I just don’t know the right spots…always a first world curse of first world business trips.

qldmay02A good spot with or without coffee is GOMA, the Gallery of Modern Art. Probably without coffee, because that would have been condensed into an essence of cold-dripped Columbian syrup and daubed on the walls to spell out a series of Japanese characters that make no sense whatsoever, but have deep, deep, meaning, hmmm. Still, I love the building in which such work sits, and there is something immensely satisfying in cloaking your laptop bag for an hour and transitioning to a world away from depth interviews and strategically coloured bar charts.

qldmay04Moving down now a cultural gear or ten, it is on to the Gold Coast. One could argue that the height of culture in the Gold Coast is the all-you-can-eat seafood buffet on the 71st level of a tower in Surfers Paradise. But here dwells the Australian dream on steroids, and many people lap it up like State of Origin players and…well…steroids. Here, you can live in a big white house in a gated community on a reclaimed island, be woken up at 5am by a cacophony of lorikeets and get all your tax minimisation forms done by seven. Then you can go for a power walk by the beach, enjoy a weak soy latte, and engage in a round of golf at the Princess Palmer Palace Retreat and Country Club Theme Park. Later, after listening to a radio station called Hot Tomato, it is quite possible to head out as the shadows of towers infringe upon the sand, surfing in your very own paradise.

qldmay05I have always said I don’t mind the Gold Coast and I still think that way. I’m sure my inner Brit arrives here and sees a stretch of white sand, a modern and affluent city-cum-holiday resort, with good food and reasonable coffee. I love nothing more than an all-you-can-eat challenge, a power walk up Burleigh Heads in guilt, and the pronunciation of tomato on Hot Tomato driving back. And, of course, more than anything, it really does seem to be twenty-four degrees in winter.

qldmay06Away from the surfers there is still a paradise. Towers and condos and gated communities drift away and roads rise into a hinterland. Side-stepping villages of token tweeness mixed with essential oils, Springbrook National Park stands guard over the landscape, one lofty remnant of a massive, ancient caldera. Stunning lookouts? Check. Plunging waterfalls? Check. Rainforest? Check. Bitumen? Check. Good walking trails? Check. Still with proximity to coffee, cake and ice cream? Check. Funny rat-like marsupials unlikely to cause significant damage as you drive down the hill at twilight? Check.  Springbrook is probably one of the best national parks I have ever been to, and now twice in my life.

qldmay08I would happily go back a third time, and then I would actually remember to bring my proper camera. You see, these travels in Queensland have been for business which came to be mixed – thanks to clever scheduling and a will to make up time on weekends – with pleasure. But I travelled with business in mind and today’s blog is brought to you in conjunction with the iphone 6. It has a good camera…hell…it’s a great camera considering it is one tiny little part of a slender and stylish lifestyle enhancement device ((c) Apple Marketing 101). But it cannot make waterfalls flow ghostly ribbons of white.

Neither can it do justice to the best of all lookouts, which is aptly marked on the map and road signs as Best of All Lookout. But then any camera would struggle with the scale and grandeur (not to mention the shade and light complications of 4:30 on a winter’s afternoon). I came here before in 2007, the lookout stubbornly shrouded in the clouds. Today, not one fouled the sky, allowing the late sunlight to project its glow upon Mount Warning, and a chill to emerge in the shade to prepare me for a return to Canberra.

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qldmay11The Gold Coast airport was but a twenty minute drive from where I was staying, but I detoured a few hours. With a flight later in the day there was one other branch of Springbrook to revisit. Again, part of the joy is getting there, again blessedly on bitumen, but winding around west of the escarpment and into a valley of the dinosaurs. Lush and green, it’s an alternative route across into New South Wales, the border a genuine high pass which throws you up and over into the verdant Tweed Valley. It is a landscape that, beyond cane and bamboo and no trespassing signs, one cannot help but suspect is dotted with marijuana.

qldmay12A natural high just before the border is Natural Bridge, which again is best captured with a proper camera on a slow shutter speed. Nevertheless, the walk through rainforest is of agreeable length while the falls – plunging down a hole in the rock and out through a cave – cannot fail to thrill. In the valley, in the shade, it is again quite cool and Canberra feels closer.

Over in New South Wales, Murwillumbah sits amongst the sugar cane and feels a lot less glitzy than the Gold Coast. There seems to be good coffee on offer and a fine brownie to keep me going, not laden with local produce – apart from sugar – as far as I am aware. Following the Tweed back to the coast, the tower blocks and marinas soon again emerge, and that lost world, that lost valley of earlier seem all the more remarkable in contrast. And with contrasts clear, like the light and dark from the Best of All Lookout, it is time to put the jumper back on and head south.

Australia Green Bogey Photography Uncategorized Walking

Viewpoints

We all have viewpoints. Mine tend to be moulded in a woolly leftish laissez-faire egalitarianism which is open to paying extra tax for everyone to be educated, receive healthcare and live in an environment less likely to be heading towards a fiery doom. But I would say that because I am comfortably suckling at the teats of first world capitalist privilege and not really confronted with all the hazards of war, poverty,  illness or being able to cope with a few extra immigrants contributing to our collective prosperity or the alarmist perils of gay people being able to marry. It’s not very 007, but live and let live I say.

Thankfully the world has millions of apolitical viewpoints that are generally unchanging and far more impressive. A physical vista; a snapshot of what lies in front of your eyes every time you look up, back or around the corner. And amongst these scenes are many structured and grandly formalised viewpoints: the tourist lookouts set up for our collective exploration and viewing pleasure. The mountain tops and observation decks, the roadside turn outs and waterfall balconies, the plateau points and tunnel views, the Mecca to the coach tour pilgrims.

Yes, humans seem to adore lookouts and, yes, I am entirely culpable of some kind of sycophantic, unconditional love towards them. On a map my eyes will be drawn to the star or sunny symbol denoting a high point with a view; on the road, a directional sign indicating an overlook will be dutifully, religiously followed; on a trail, the aim will often be the top. Sometimes they will disappoint, other times they will marvel, always they will provide a purposeful sense of exploration and appreciation of the landscape.

A gauge on my viewpoint love-in can be deduced from this blog. It started at the top of the Empire State Building, sporadically flailing around the globe to sublime points and hurricane ridges, taking in fairytale views and homely vistas, reaching snowy high peaks, glacier points, and key summits, pausing for elegant city views before marvelling at wild canyon overlooks. It seems a written piece dedicated to viewpoints is merely an extension of everything that has come before. Surely there can be no lookouts left to look at, no vistas left to visit?

It is perhaps no coincidence that the city in which I (kind of) live is no stranger to viewpoints. On one particular hill, people gather with all sorts of different perspectives and childishly bicker about their views in an effort to cement these into legislation [1]. Still, the good thing is you can escape this nonsense and climb onto the roof of Parliament House for a much better view, noting many other viewpoints rising up within the 360 degree panorama of Canberra.

Phil Liggett, the renowned and rambling voice of cycling, would best describe Canberra’s terrain as ‘lumpy’, akin to those long tortuous days through the Breton countryside. Sure, less verdant and lacking real quality cheese, but rarely a piece of sustained flat on which to take a breather. The geography offers a number of hills, ridges and ‘mountains’, with suburban streets clustered into undulating bowls and smaller hummocks. It’s a landscape of amphitheatres within one bigger colosseum, where numerous viewpoints are the upper circles looking down on a sedate and civilised performance.

I rather cherish these tops, particularly as they usually involve a varied and energetic walk through grasslands and Eucalypt woods, a smattering of kangaroos and darting blurs of birdlife accompanying the trip up. Each hill acts as a beacon calling, a bastion of nature and wildlife with an inevitable, reliably scenic viewpoint at its summit.

V_CBR views

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There are varying degrees of effort required for the ascent of Canberra’s hills and peaks. This brings us to a consideration of the effort-reward ratio sometimes involved in attaining a view. That is, will the view be worth the effort required to reach it? Sometimes this is blatantly in the positive, such as pulling over on the roadside and easily waddling to a nicely paved lookout over an expanse of wild forest and mountainous outcrops. On other occasions, the effort-reward ratio veers towards the negative that is a plodding, endless haul up a Scottish Munro in the cloying rain to a view of two whole metres of blanket misty white.

The effort input is – I would say – very high to extreme on the Tongariro Crossing on the north island of New Zealand. To start, there is an alarm call of 4:30am and pre-dawn gloom to navigate the initial gravelly meander along a long, narrowing valley. As the valley nears its end there is an inevitable sense of foreboding about the onward route; it is clear that there can be only one way to continue and, as Yazz & the Plastic Population screams in your head to make things even better, the only way is up. Up along the invitingly named Devil’s Staircase.

Steps and zigzags mark the way from here, but at least the emerging landscape offers the chance to use that little trick of taking a photo every ten paces, more for an intake of oxygen rather than genuine quest for photographic perfection. However, with heart pounding, head dizzying and legs in a brittle strain of tension, even that becomes a bit much to persevere with [2]. The top does come and there is an adrenaline boost of reward, quickly flattened like the astounding lifeless volcanic plateau of the South Crater on which you stand. For this is but a halfway point and over this one ridge another higher one rises.

While the first climb was hard going, at least it was well-graded and decently constructed with switchbacks and steps. On the second, the loose scree and large boulders of an ever narrowing and ever steepening arête have you wishing for a fat hobbit to carry you on his back. But as energetic youth bound their way up and past you without any offers of assistance, there is motivation to continue at your own pace. Effort inputs are maximised for reward outputs that are logarithmic in scale.

The viewpoint from the top of Red Crater is staggering in many ways. Staggering in directions and distance you can see; staggering in the otherworldly landscape of smooth craters and conical peaks and blasted red mountainsides and steaming green pools; staggering in the knowledge that the earth from underneath you could blow up as you bite into a deliciously fulfilling ham sandwich; and staggering because you made it. Here, the big effort makes for exponentially greater rewards.

V_tongariro

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Effort to reach a viewpoint comes in many forms and a final case in point can be illustrated via an afternoon in the Arkaroola Wilderness of South Australia. Indeed, this particular afternoon on a gloriously sunny late autumn day involved sitting down for two hours to reach a pinnacle called Sillers Lookout. Sitting down is surely the easiest thing in the world, but becomes infinitely more difficult when seated sideways in the semi-open back of a 4×4 that is traversing a corrugated rock-scape at precipitous gradients.

Sitting at the back, there is a different physical effort here which fluctuates with an uphill or downhill stretch of ‘road’. Uphill and it is a case of bracing the body from being squashed by the collective ample weight of other passengers and preventing it from falling out of the back; downhill and the effort is on not squashing your fellow passengers too much and falling forward to the front. Beyond these physical endeavours there is the effort to – at various points – make conversation with grey nomads, avoid swallowing flies, concentrate on not being sick, and pretending to be excited that the afternoon tea involves that underwhelming favourite: Lamingtons.

V_arkAll I can say is that it is a good job afternoon tea occurs at the ultimate viewpoint of this ridge top tour. In the afternoon, with the sun lowering it is a quite incredible vista of absolute primitive and earthen wilderness. No doubt shaped by that perennial favourite of ancient inland seabed activity, the scene is a very Australian red, with a very Australian sense of harshness and ferocity, which is somehow very, very beautiful. And despite the different perspectives and world views of the people here to see it this afternoon, it is a viewpoint we can all agree is special…a reward that comes with all good viewpoints.


[1] Meanwhile, journalists lazily refer to ‘Canberra’ as imposing these views on the rest of the country: ‘Canberra slugs unfair tax on mining billionaires’, ‘Canberra scraps science funding’, ‘Canberra hits the hip pocket of working families’. Bloody Canberra, is it any wonder there are so many negative connotations from people who have never been here?

[2] Meanwhile, lithe and energetic teens annoyingly bound their way past and, to add to the enjoyment, you are rudely reminded of ageing.

Links

Bumps in the ACT: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_mountains_in_the_Australian_Capital_Territory

Canberra Nature Park: http://www.tams.act.gov.au/parks-recreation/parks_and_reserves/canberra_nature_park

Tongariro Alpine Crossing: http://www.tongarirocrossing.org.nz/

Tongariro National Park: http://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/national-parks/tongariro/

Carry me Sam: http://lotr.wikia.com/wiki/Mount_Doom

Hold on to your hats: http://www.arkaroola.com.au/ridgetop.php

Some more top views: http://travel.nationalgeographic.com.au/travel/top-10/vistas/#page=1

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