Green and white

I’m not sure if the Southern Highlands of NSW are deliberately trying to be Scottish or English or even Irish. I mean, there’s the name, but I do not see ragged rocks round which raggedy rascals run, nor boggy glens of heather and gorse lurking in the haar. There are big country estates akin to the tweed jacket terrain of a southern England itching for a brexit, but the falling leaves and withered buds lining their driveways can no longer mask the reality of eucalyptus and brown, scrubby land. Meanwhile, in Robertson, a fondness for potatoes is clear for all to see, only it culminates in the splendid apparition of a big thing, undeniably Australian.

The landscape can at best be described as greenish and pleasantish, a subdued and ultimately futile attempt by those illiterate and innumerate immigrants to create a home away from home, made all the more difficult by prolonged heat and drought. The United Kingdom is the United Kingdom due to its lousy but somehow endearing weather, and because of that Australia will never be able to compete. And nor should it, because Australia is definitely better for being more than just a half-baked recreation of a previous rose-tinted incarnation of a mother country. Plus it can just vie instead – rather well as it turns out – at Eurovision.

jerv01aAs the fading gentrification of the Southern Highlands descends toward the sea you can be in no doubt that this is Australia. Indeed, an Australia as it was before anyone, even its first peoples, decided to venture over by boat. The plateau abruptly falls away into a dense system of deep valleys and gorges. Massive walls of sandstone plummet towards pristine creeks obscured by a blanket of gums. A pair of black cockatoos glide in the air, conversing in prehistoric shrieks. Banksia and wattles compete for attention in the understorey topping the escarpment. And a thin veil of water tumbles over its edge, destined ultimately for the ocean.

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Between Fitzroy Falls and the ocean, further endeavours to pacify the landscape emerge in Kangaroo Valley. Undeniably pretty, flower gardens and cottages adorn the valley, while larger lodges bask on elevated terraces as if attempting to emulate the initial slopes of an Alpine pass. Indeed, a winding road gathers some form of height before snaking down to Berry, where the quaintness is a tad more commercialised but delivered in style with good coffee and expensive buttery tarts.

After the surprisingly sprawling outlet strips of Nowra, the environment becomes evidently coastal. Salty inlets and spotted gums signal the ocean is near, and at Jervis Bay it is realised in a flourish of white sands and opaque water, a brilliance which softens as the day says its farewell. Today’s departure is a cut above, a boastful multicoloured extravaganza of transitioning light and incandescent skies. It is an exquisite end to an enthralling ride.

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To provide some attempt at balance, not everything down at Jervis Bay was entirely utopian. The next morning was decidedly cool, a persistent easterly wind restricting twenty four hour shorts wearing. The first breakfast I had in Huskisson disappointed and the coffee was only adequate. But such first world irritations faded quickly away upon the welcoming green and white terrain of the White Sands Walk.

jerv04From bay to bay, traversing succulent coastal forests in between, it’s an easy amble from Blenheim Beach to Hyams Beach. The only real difficulty is deciding whether to take your shoes and socks off on the sandy bits only to then have the hassle of putting them on again for rougher terrain (conclusion: wear sandals or thongs). Plus there’s the challenge of restraining your photo-taking so that you don’t have endless, repetitive pictures of clear water lapping at fine, white sand.

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jerv06The sand is so white here that it famously gets on every piece of tourist literature and recurrently features on Sydney Weekender as the whitest sand in the world. In fact, it is genuinely so white that even small-minded immigration ministers would feel unthreatened and some cretin with a golden toupee would approve. Personally, I think there is probably whiter (for instance, around Esperance), but that is probably just supremacist talk.

Regardless, the presence of such beaches is a blessing and I was feeling immensely satisfied early the next morning with an improved coffee overlooking the glowing, becalmed bay. And for a few minutes at least you can breathe it in, cherish what makes Australia so special, what helps to make it so compellingly attractive. And to think such coffee-fuelled nirvana may not have happened without openness to the world. We could all still be enduring that ghastly blend of oversized Americanised coffee mixed with UK ineptitude instead. Something, I suspect, even the Southern Highlands would turn their nose up at.

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Australia Driving Food & Drink Green Bogey Photography Walking

Catch the pigeon

For all the scurvy, seasickness and usurping imperialism it would have been quite something to voyage with Captain Cook in 1770. Cruise the ocean, meet the locals, spot exotic wildlife, hide Joseph Bank’s acacia collection in the poop deck. You’d get to discover new lands and – best of all –name them. Cook would have had first dibs mind, and being from Yorkshire he would be undeniably dry and unimaginative about it: Wide Bay (a large open bay), Sandy Cape (sand), Red Point (red), Booby Island (wishful thinking arising from a year at sea).

Cook was having a delirious day on April 21, 1770 when cruising up the south coast of what – inexplicably – was to become called New South Wales. Somewhere beyond Point Upright (yeah he named that too) Cook “saw a remarkable peaked hill which resembles a square dovehouse with a dome on top”. He thus decided to name it Pigeon House and from that point on it has acted as a beacon for sailors, sightseers and bush bashers the world over.

Pigeon House now sits within the gargantuan Budawang wilderness covered by Morton National Park and a number of adjoining reserves, a largely unexplored, impenetrable land of sandstone cliffs and gorges, coated with eucalypts, shrubs and ferns. It is almost as it was when Cook whizzed past on the way to Botany Bay. A few roads fringe its edges and offer access to scenic vistas, waterfalls and a tangle of greenery. But it can take some work to enter, even with the newly upgraded Nerriga Road taking some of the roughness temporarily out of the equation.

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One of the bonuses of a visit to Pigeon House is its proximity to the coast, meaning that with a bit of planning you can enjoy all that has to offer as well. Like fish tacos in Milton and leisurely golf in Mollymook and shopping in Ulladulla, before enduring a relaxing couple of hours in and around the water in Bendalong. Warm sunshine fading, ocean glimmering, cold beer flowing, is this ideal preparation for an assault on a mountain?

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I have had far worse Monday mornings than a dawn start in Bendalong. With the seasons supposedly changing sunrise is drifting beyond seven these days, making it an ideal period to revel in that new dawn, new day vibe. It is the hour of dog walkers and anglers and people with cameras but today just sparsely scattered; most appeared to still be in bed in the Tourist Park, even by the time we had packed up to head for the hills. Leaf blowing, I guess, can wait.

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And so, to Pigeon House Mountain, the reason we are here after all. Via a fortuitous stop at the Milton Heritage Bakery (which is definitely one that can be logged in the revisit bank). Fuel for a challenging but captivating climb. Part of the challenge being getting to the trailhead itself, via the back roads and rutted logging tracks which undulate through cool, shady, beautiful forest. The Subaru seems to love this stuff though and I quite love taking it on such journeys too.

pigeon5So the car was up to the job, but were the humans – me, Alex and Michael? The trail – well-built and marked – veers quite steadily upwards and scrambles up a number of rocks for the first kilometre. A small shelf offers the first of the views, snatched through clutches of trees and over boulders. It’s an opportune stop for breath, water and to try to dry the sweat from running down your face and into your eyes and mouth. But it’s a futile effort, with the first view of the mountaintop itself offering both allure and a sense of foreboding.

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pigeon6True, there is some relief for a while following a sheltered ridgeline, before the steps return again and the sweat comes back in profusion. It is quite remarkable that someone has gone to the effort to build all these steps though, and the piece de resistance comes with the final climb on a series of metal steps and ladders, hopefully fixed securely to the rocky dovehouse. At the top of each series of steps, views begin to open up and you can see, sense, taste, that the salty sweat will definitely be worth it.

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And, you know what, that old effort-reward ratio is positive in spite of the effort part of the equation. While the sea can be seen sparkling and blue, it is the wilderness of the Budawangs to the west, north and south that shines. It is immense, primeval, distinctly and majestically Australian. The Monolith Valley beckons, surrounded by tabletop plateaus carved by the meander of the Clyde River. Ranges expand north and south, and somewhere over one of those distant lumps the road back to Canberra rises.

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pigeon10Pigeons were lacking but instead the summit appeared to be a bastion for numerous giant butterflies, the ubiquitous Australian fly, and a curious lizard or two. No doubt accustomed to weary walkers feasting in celebration on apples and oranges and squished cakes from Milton Heritage Bakery, waiting for the crumbs to fall. I’ll say it again, but I have had far worse Monday mornings, even when cake has likewise been involved.

And so, in a matter-of-fact Yorkshire way, what goes up must come down and back to sea level we headed by foot and by car. A sea level with fish and chips, cooling drinks and cooler ice cream, seemingly modelled on the giant summit lumps of Pigeon House. Anything worked off replenished in minutes. Extra burden for the car, which now struggled a little in the heat over the hills (I know how you feel poor car).

Oh to be sailing instead, onwards to some bay surrounded by botany and up north to a rather large reef acting as a kind of barrier. To see new things and name them after the bleeding obvious (or upper crust toffs from England). To strike out into the world like a pigeon into the skies, embracing the wonders around you, finally coming home with tales to tell and sights that will ingrain in your memory until the end of days. To embark on voyages of discovery every day, long since Captain Cook’s has passed.

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