The return of the traditional road trip has been another much vaunted consequence of our most recent history. With nowhere to flee overseas, we are discovering our homelands, our paddocks, our backyards. A large proportion of this adventuring has been undertaken in kitted out camper vans, luxury coaches, or simply a mattress in the back of a beat up station wagon. Canvas roofs have blossomed in trodden fields of green, the sound of mallets beating tent pegs as widespread as cicadas.
Initially when the pandemic hit, and uncertainty was rife, I thought I could do this if it came down to it. Fruit would need to be picked somewhere or fences would still be in need of repair. Possessing a swag, small dome tent and station wagon, sleeping options could be mixed and matched, while the trusty camp kitchen box could cater again for bangers and mash in thirty five degrees. There is a dreamy, deep rose-tinted quality to these visions, one that conveniently overlooks the discomfort, the dirt, the sweat and the toil.
As it turned out, I was lucky enough to be able to sit in front of a computer all day and receive the compensation of a regular income. But these wistful visions of a nomadic life have never quite gone away. The compromise has been day trips into the country, eventually culminating in a night on a mattress in the back of a beat up station wagon. Another night became aborted because – well – I could just make it home, and I began to question my commitment to life almost under the stars.
Yet a new year brings new resolution so we are led to believe, and with the prospect of more distant travel still a distant prospect there is logic to be had in persevering. What if I could make 2021 – or at least the warmest parts of 2021 – the year of the camping weekend? Could this provide – in its own way – a new purpose to fill the void that is the Centenary Trail?
Only time and possibly this blog will tell, but with this idea still racing through my mind like an out-of-control hamster wheel I swiftly purchased a new tent online. Click and collect from BCF in two hours.
I have always poured scorn on BCF, mainly because their adverts of boating, camping, and fishing escapades are layered thick with Australian drongoism. Like you can’t boat, camp or fish if you went to university. Or it is simply unheard of to do these things and care about the environment and refugees and good coffee at the same time. Only blokes in thongs with a nasal dislike of political correctness can go boating, camping, fishing.
I suspect I read too much into it. The process was very efficient. The lady in Fyshwick who handed me my tent was perfectly lovely. A new tent to add to the swag, the 2 person dome, and the mattress in the back of a beat up station wagon.
You may well ask why I even need another tent and I would say that what I need is something that doesn’t give me as much of an excuse to turn back for home. Something that – as I march towards wisdom over youthfulness – is less of an ordeal. What I need is something more akin to glamping than it is to homelessness.
And so that is how I found myself erecting a brand new ‘instant’ four person tent at Mount Clear Campground in the southern part of Namadgi National Park last Sunday. With my pristine tent, deluxe airbed, comfy lounge chair, I looked every part the newbie amateur who had just splashed out on some shiny things for Christmas. Not the hardened traveller who had done three months in a swag and persevered with bangers and mash in thirty-five degree heat.
Only the rumpled, irregular mallet hints at greater experience. With this in hand I pleasingly managed to erect the tent quickly and efficiently, as though I knew what I was doing. To say it is an instant tent is probably an overstatement once you take into account pegs and guy ropes and – should you wish – a shady awning. But it was a reasonably simple erection, and I was happy to find ample room for my deluxe mattress and comfy chair and body standing in an upright position.
The more taxing part was choosing where to pitch the thing, given so many lovely-looking spots. In this respect, an estimation of neighbours is instantly required – deciding between a cluster of boomers and a foursome of millennials, while a BCF loyalist blares out some country and his kids run amok. All potentially troublesome, yet also reassuringly present.
In the end I inched slightly closer to the millennials, which ended up a mistake when they decided to stay up around the campfire until after one. But a home is a home and not only did it stay upright and protect and comfort, but it also came with some of the most generous backyard within our little capital territory.
From settler’s huts to magical vistas, over swampy plains and through one year charred trees. An urge to pee brings staggering night skies, turning to gold as birds and boomers rise. There’s a hike through meadows, there’s wading through a creek, recovering with camp stove coffee and old Christmas cake. And then replenished, full on nature’s bounty, there’s a home to dismantle, and achievement to take.
The Tumut River is proving a soothing spot. In spite of its swift flow, fed from the elongated dams of the Snowy Mountains, there is something becalming being upon its banks. Boasting more of an aquamarine shade than the sedimentary highways of the Murrumbidgee and Murray, it is a waterway begging to be paddled or fished. Or simply enjoyed from under the shade of a majestic River Red Gum – as long as you can overlook the fact that these trees have the pesky habit of randomly dropping their hefty limbs.
Various tributaries wind their way over fertile plains enjoyed by cattle and horses, mystery roads leading off into hidden valleys with panoramic landscapes. In Tumut itself, the river transforms what would be a pleasant enough little town into something more beguiling. Sitting among green parkland below the town centre, there may me a little part of water meadow England evoked. If you ignore the cackle of the cockatoos.
It was just under a year ago that I found myself here being rejuvenated after a day of hard labour pulling down fences in the hills behind. Sit in Tumut today and you would be hard pressed to imagine how fraught it would have been on January 4th, 2020. Approaching from the west, the Dunns Road Fire ravaged through Batlow and the Green Hills, cresting the Snubba Range and spilling down to and over Blowering Dam. It went on to merge with other large fires in the area, sweeping through pristine sections of Kosciusko National Park and the Snowy Valleys, before lapping at the edges of the ACT.
One year later I found myself in Pioneer Park sitting beside the river once again. It shows what an absolutely legendary year 2020 turned out to be that I had forgotten exactly where the fires had hit. No longer obsessively checking Fires Near Me I thought, for some reason, that the Dunns Road Fire had stopped on the western shores of Blowering Dam. Driving south from Tumut, it didn’t take too long to realise my oversight.
For sure, the western side of the dam is still quite a shock. Made up of plantation forest, the hillsides remain largely bare, apart from the blackened matchsticks of pine. Somewhere up there on the ridgetop, I wonder how Paul and Andrea are going on their farm, and whether Smiley has cheerily constructed a new hut. Hopefully the fences are still standing.
Down on the water, there is a somewhat normal scene of socially-distanced summer holidays playing out – all gargantuan encampments and four wheel drives and boat trailers. An emu pokes its head above the undergrowth, no doubt fleeing the meltdown of a toddler who just really doesn’t want to go anywhere near the water thank you very much. They seem to be everywhere.
Along the southern end of Blowering Dam, the impact of a year ago becomes clear as blackened trunks spread upwards to the east. There is regrowth, but it is thinned-out vegetation, revealing rocky, barren outcrops that probably haven’t been visible for years. Jounama Creek – a spot for camping and walking potential – seems less appealing than I expected, and I drive on.
From here it is quite the climb to Black Perry Lookout. Offering an impressive view out into the Bogong Wilderness, an information board makes it clear just how different things looked before the fires. In the picture, the peaks are still there, but cloaked in a swathe of lush green foliage like some kind of Jurassic Park. The picture also – frustratingly – features a much crisper, bluer sky than so far today. Both will come back, I hope.
The lookout is naturally a popular stop for trucks and caravans and trailers to catch their breath. One caravan seems to have had enough and the NRMA are being called. A clutch of potbelly bikers convey that menacing grizzled look that frequently becomes undermined by softly spoken, friendly chatter. One young guy appears anxious, on the phone to try and arrange a permit to access the ACT. Fire knows no boundaries and, for all we can try, neither does COVID.
My plan was to walk to a place called Landers Falls Lookout, lured by the promise of both falls and a lookout. It was either a ten kilometre there and back again or a swift 1.6km stop off from a four wheel drive parking area. I initially figured my car would be okay – it usually is – and inched down a big dipper of a rockfest. The way onward looked equally awful and – new year, no new words – I decided it was best to pivot. Back to the parking area for inadequate cars.
And so a longer walk ensued, but I’m glad about my decision. The car probably would have made it, but it might also have got two punctures, a broken exhaust, and a hazardous brake disc failure. Plus it was interesting and rewarding to tread quietly through this recovering forest, one year on.
What strikes you most in such worlds is the contrast between still very visible, jet black tree trunks and an overflowing understorey of grasses and shrubs and ferns and flowers. Where the two combine, witness the surreal procession of epicormic growth winding up into the canopy (before a certain pandemic, epicormic was probably the word of the year). The crowns of trees are still deciding whether or not they will come back, a process that will take more than just a year.
My initial fear that I would be sharing this walk with a procession of hoons in souped-up Hiluxes doing it the lazy way were unfounded. Probably because they don’t like to get their shiny blue paintwork dirty. Midway along one vehicle did pass, accompanied by the obligatory exchange of waves. Him thanking me for standing aside, me thanking him for the dust. At least there weren’t too many flies to elevate the experience further. Yet.
There was, in fact, a peacefulness in the forest. In patches the silence was punctuated by gentle birdsong – apart from the easy to spot pair of Rosellas, mostly this heralded from those little indistinguishable critters that hide in the undergrowth. Occasional rustles in the grass signified a lizard or bug or potential snake. I felt a bit more accepting of a snake sighting today, thinking it might liven things up. But it never happened.
This is not without giving the snakes ample opportunity, regularly veering off track to snap pictures of grasses and logs and flowers.
From the 4WD parking area, a non-vehicular route leads over Landers Creek and up towards a couple of lookouts. The sound of running water was a good omen for the falls, as was the vertical climb for a vista. Away from the creek, the undergrowth rapidly diminished, replaced by bare rock, charcoal logs and gravel. Exposed, barren, humid, the perfect time for the flies to welcome me in droves.
I deleted several shots from my camera because of photobombing flies. When you get a clear shot, the first lookout offers panoramic views towards Talbingo Dam, the course of the creek winding down towards its shores. In the near distance, a second lookout appears even more precariously perched upon a towering outcrop.
At this second vantage, the falls become visible and form quite an impressive drop, even in the relative dryness of summer. The landscape is an otherworldly array of arid browns and fluorescent green, the steep hillside opposite lined with black spikes like hairs standing to end. The aerial perspective from this vantage is mesmerising and I enjoy it with a cold pork and pickle and fly sandwich.
Lingering for a while allowed me to pick out some of the minutiae: individual tree trunks clinging to a rock face; coils of epicormic growth leading to barren white crowns; cliffs streaked black; a cluster of ferns glowing luxuriant in a hollow. It was as if I was Google Earth or something.
Lest I get a godlike complex high above, I managed to get a little lost on the way back down. I find every rock and burnt log looks pretty much the same. But following the creek I found my way once again to the 4WD car park and onward much further to my own car. Nearing the end of the trail I passed a family with three kids setting off, satisfied that I’m not the only one with an inadequate vehicle.
Back in civilisation it was very much that time of the day when ice cream is mandatory. Civilisation is hard to come by, but the small township of Talbingo offers one of those amazing supermarkets that sells everything from tinned food to drill bits to crates of beer to chiko rolls to two year old editions of Angler’s Almanac. It also houses the post office, tourist information centre and a photocopier. Though lacking gourmet ice cream, a Honeycomb Maxibon on the shores of Jounama Pondage provided sufficient sustenance.
Ignoring the burnt trees on the other side there was a touch of the Lake District in the grassy foreshore and rounded hills disappearing off into the horizon. Blue skies and fluffy white clouds completed the Wordworthian idyll. Again, a year ago, Talbingo was far from it.
From English lakes to Spanish sierras, a journey of disastrous superspreading madness only now restricted by fanciful wartime yearning to regain a supposedly lost independence. Here, the European mirage took the form of a solitary, short drive down the road towards Talbingo Dam. On one side, a panorama of barren ridges and spindly trees, dusty earth and searing sun. A glass of Rioja and a siesta would go down well, but I must move on.
The dam itself has the requisite boat ramp where the road terminates. Here, a wide gravel parking area was solidly packed with trailers and those four wheel drives so suited to the walking trails around this way. A regular flow of vessels with names like Crusader 3000 and She’ll Be Right were being lowered into or dragged from the water. Outboards buzzed and jet skis thrashed and bins were overflowing with the remains of picnics and beers. Behold the domain of the boatpeople.
I was planning on camping in such an environment, albeit further north on the shores of Blowering Dam. But throughout the day there was something going on in my head looking for excuses to get out of it. Heat building. Risk of storms. Boat people. Perhaps the final straw was the realisation that I had left my salad in the fridge at home and would have to resort to a dinner of cold pork and disappointing pastry. I could survive, but would it be worth it?
Procrastinating around a greener, untarnished landscape with views to Blowering Cliffs, I figured I could drive into Tumut and procrastinate some more, while also picking up salad to complicate the decision-making process even further. If I had made a New Year’s Resolution to be more decisive – which I hadn’t – I would have failed already – which I didn’t.
Tumut was just that little bit closer to home and I was willing to embrace a two and a half hour drive into the evening, weighed against the likelihood that I would struggle to be sleeping anyway if I was to stay and camp. Hot water, comfy bed, a flushing toilet v lumpy mattress, strange noises and a long drop. Next time I head off with the intention of camping I need to exceed at least a three hour radius from home.
Je ne regrette rien, as they say in the aisles of Tumut Woollies, for not only did I manage to get my salad fix (albeit in the form of calorific coleslaw), but I also finally snaffled a half price Christmas cake. And then I took to that riverside, wandering and eyeing up future opportunities to explore before settling upon a delightful dinner spot.
There are places I’ll remember. Soothing. Becalming. Rejuvenating. Nourishing. Like a shot in the arm.
Wow, I see it was a totally different financial year the last time I posted something on here. What has happened since then? Well, I calculated I’ll probably owe some tax. I decided I’d lodge the return at the last possible moment. And I figured I should get some work to help pay it. Meanwhile, Melbourne happened, Canberra didn’t and Sydney sort of wavered on continual tenterhooks. I opened my first carton of UHT milk purchased in March because it was due to go off. Oh, and I completed the Canberra Centenary Trail. In case you missed it.
Midwinter released its grip in fits and starts. And the seeping light of mornings stirred me closer toward an uncivilised hour. Wakening in the fives, I flit between hope of additional slumber, a boring interview on Radio National, and a curiosity about what might be going on outside. Sometimes this gets the better of me and I heroically part from my cocoon to embrace the day. Waiting for a coffee shop to open.
In that time between sunrise and coffee shop opening I potter through parks or take a drive to a nearby hilltop. It both surprises and comforts to find that I am not the only one out and about, the only one climbing hills, towering over the mist. There is shared solidarity on the hill, unspoken recognition that we are the lucky ones, that everyone else is missing out.
It was on one of these mornings, mid-August, that I went in pursuit of a rainbow over Mount Taylor. A pot of gold would be handy even if the Tax Office are inevitably going to nab a handful of it. Alas, the rainbow had faded by time I parked up, but I walked a while and found treasure elsewhere. The perfect tunnel of cherry blossom in full extravagance. Adjacent to an open coffee shop.
It is hard for me to conclude that spring is starting ever earlier because I’m usually in Europe during August. I return from overseas to a different world, jetlag weariness tempered by the thrum of bees and the tantalising prospect of future months bedecked in shorts. Bundles of flowers sprout from the trees and Bunnings becomes overwhelmed with people buying tomatoes far too early. The temperature trajectory is upward, but don’t remove that electric blanket just yet.
And sure enough, barely days later I was up early on another nearby hill looking out to snow. Not only on the distant ranges – dramatically revealed in the parting of valley mist – but also dusting the upper mound of Mount Taylor itself. Like a frame of pink blossom providing a window to the soul of Mount Fuji, one does not travel downstream to the replenishing river of spring with not first accomplishing the ultimate frozen mountaintop of mangled metaphor.
Dotted among lurid yellow wattle and purple Paterson’s curse sprawling down the hillside, even the kangaroos looked a bit perplexed. Bemused. Ever so slightly pissed off. What the heck was this all about, this most bitter weekend of winter, when there was such colour burgeoning all around? Why on earth are we up so early on this godforsaken windswept ridge to look at snow? Is the coffee shop open yet? Click once for yes, two for no.
Inevitably the following weekend was A-MAZ-ING in a caps lock way that even Donald Trump would find difficult to resist. I feel like I wore a T-shirt sat on a log eating homemade quiche watching an echidna pass by in pursuit of love. I could still see snow on the highest ridge line of the mountains, but 1200 metres lower it was all sunshine and butterflies and frisky monotremes. Surely, definitely, the turning point leading to fake summer.
Indeed, the year moves on and it is strange how quickly and yet how slowly it is going. This weekend would have heralded the start of Floriade – Canberra’s celebration of spring attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors to gawp at tulips. But this year it is, of course, cancelled due to you know what. Instead, they have planted bulbs all across the suburbs, a Floriade Local if you like. The closest to me is down by the Youth Centre, so goodness knows how all that will pan out. All I can picture is a scene from The Inbetweeners.
Luckily, us locals don’t really need an organised parade of millions of flowers planted in the pattern of a unicorn pooping stardust to truly appreciate spring. You can just walk out into the street, any street. In 2020 I feel like I have gotten to know my local streets more than ever, witnessing their withered pain during brutal orange summer skies, their relief moving into an autumn technicolour, and their barren stoicism through winter frosts. Now, they are undeniably full of the joys of spring.
And as I continue to wake with the lighter mornings on a regular basis, I experience a microsecond of newfound joy as I pull up the blinds. The trees on my street have been steadily gathering buds then white cauliflower blooms then green shoots. The daffodils stand proud and the marigolds burst like orange lollipops. My snow peas, planted as part of doomsday prep, finally gather some momentum while the kale goes to seed. I may get one stir fry’s worth.
The morning too doesn’t feel as chilly as it used to. And I contemplate going outside. Or returning to bed. Just what time does that coffee shop open again?
I’m now well into my second Canberra winter in succession. Following an early pre-election trip in 2019 and – well – just go f*** yourself 2020, doing time in the icebox of Australia is now becoming as familiar to me as a pair of slippers that don’t quite keep your feet warm enough. Why the feet, always the feet?
With exposure I can’t decide if I love or loathe winter here. I’m certainly never going to complain about it because I made that promise to myself in the disgusting hot and fiery summer of smoke and hell. And if you subtract the minus overnight figures, short days and empty deciduous trees, there remains a lot to love. Like the deep blue sky, presenting a sun that offers afternoon comfort in the shelter. There’s the cosiness of warming, slow-cooked meatiness with spicy red wine. And, of course, the outdoor walks invigorating and beguiling in the sharp winter light. Even the freezing fog offers a captivating spectacle when it lifts.
On rare occasions the fog fails to lift at all, and these are the worst. Fed by our spacious artificial lakes and the rugged rivers to our west, gloomy refrigerated moisture makes for a match with the sun. Where I live – missing a large lake nearby – appears to be one of the first places to clear and I have often set off out only to see a wall of white enveloping the next suburb along. Stay at home has double resonance.
Sometimes you see the fog sitting stubbornly to the west in the valleys beneath the mountains. Today was not one of those days as I went on a discovery taking in a stretch of the Molonglo River. This is essentially the water course that forms Lake Burley Griffin, entering via Googong Dam and Queanbeyan to the east and exiting to meet up with the mightier Murrumbidgee.
I had in mind a spot called Kama Nature Reserve but didn’t know what to expect since this was all new to me. Finding it was the first mission, in particular being able to turn off into a patch of gravel somewhere along a busy dual carriageway while giving sufficient notice to the utes behind me. Heading towards West Belconnen, this was far outside my comfort zone.
The particular patch of gravel I discovered was empty, reflecting what I think is a relatively undisturbed tract of Canberra Nature Reserve. Certainly, it was a place I had never heard of until I randomly stumbled upon it on the interweb. This informed me that there were a couple of trails you could do – the Dam Walk, heading to a small dam, and the River Walk, which extends down to the river. Genius.
As it turns out I didn’t take the Dam Walk despite thinking as much as I entered the reserve to join a wide fire trail heading gently downhill. The surroundings were all fairly standard and predictable – grassland scattered with gum trees and the occasional shrub. A cluster of paper daisies added a little chirpiness to proceedings, little sunshines of colour beaming from a swathe of red dirt.
Smaller thickets of grass gathered within the hollows of the land. What I thought might have been a dam was probably more of a bog, but it was sufficiently moist for the sound of ducks to convince me that this was the promised dam of the Dam Walk. From here I headed on down to the river on, possibly, the River Walk.
The landscape here was far more open, barren even. A few areas of the reserve were fenced off for some kind of university experiment, while an endless parade of kangaroos made a mockery of such fencing. You could detect the river without really seeing it, the land sliding onward into a cleft, over which more expansive grasslands and hills continued.
At one point a small cluster of rocks in the side of a hill attracted attention. I was seeking a view of the river itself and headed over to them. And while I caught glimpses of water through a channel of trees, the view itself pretended at Dartmoor: open, rugged, golden brown. I might have been there this time of year. The temperature was probably about the same.
A smooth dirt road followed the Molonglo up on the flat land high above its course. This I assume was a part of the river walk, confirmed with some signage further along at a junction both down to the river itself and back up towards the mysterious dam. Meanwhile, the dirt road carried on following the river and I was curious to see where it might lead, tempted by some rockier, gorge-like views in the distance.
This route was a surprise and one of the more surprising things I found about it was an absence of cyclists. It seems a perfect little ride (flat and smooth) with expansive views and potential rest stops. Indeed, the road appears to go on and on and on; I guess at some point access might be barred but today it seemed endless. I could have gone on and on too, if it were not for my lack of provisions.
It may well be, of course, that this road comes out onto a horrendous water treatment plant or against a shooting range or just simply a private property scattered with rusted Holdens and fake blue Australian flags made in China. I suppose I will just have to come back one day and find out.
For today, I needed to return to the car and did so this time via the dam. It was just a small puddle in the end, but the grasses and trees provided a pleasing landscape in which to finish. And beyond that, the views again opened up, over the river and across the plains, to the distinctive ridge of Camel’s Hump; another walk to do on another day. Springtime perhaps.
Outside is looking remarkable. Outside is looking beautiful. An almost pinch-yourself-is-this-actually-real kind of sensation. One bringing delight rather than dread.
I was sat on a random log the other day, pleasant late afternoon sunshine nourishing the world. Rarely do I sit and stop and watch all the things going on around me: the ants milling about productively, transporting their wares in selfless community organisation; the magpie creeping from one spot of grass to the other, surveying for delicacies, a curious sideways look at my presence; the chirrup, somewhere, of two crimson rosellas, partners for life. The world going about its business.
There is an astonishment in this landscape of such verdant abundance. Where so recently it was so barren. The resilience of nature bearing fruit, flourishing again.
As well as sitting on random logs I randomly tried to capture this transition, this journey, this bounce back. Scrolling my phone for past images, dusty and brown. Attempting to line up positions and angles and replicating shots. Not always easy to know exactly where you have gone before. Fiddling about so much that sometimes it’s just far easier, far more satisfying to give up, sit on a log, and just watch the world.
The Bullen Range and Brindabellas from Cooleman Ridge, 6 weeks apart
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
With 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Or how to catch up two months in one thousand words.
Can it really be more than two months ago that I was faring well an England seemingly destined for Johnsonillae exitium philanderus? Well, yes, it was and with that comes the strange and daunting prospect this year of an entire Canberra winter. Which, to tell the truth, hasn’t been overly taxing thus far. A few cold nights and fresh mornings, the occasional horror day featuring bone-chilling winds and foggy drizzle. Yet time it right in the afternoon and you can be bathing in 15 degree sunshine. And as the temperature plummets overnight, watching a cricket world cup at four in the morning in bed is cosy, if not calming.
Arriving back in mid-May delivered me to a climate marginally warmer and certainly sunnier than the realm from which I came. A mild, ambient goldenness that stretches into early June, as leaves linger and fade and float slowly down onto the ground. It was pleasing to still see autumn abounding after experiencing spring sprouting. A soothing ointment for jetlag.
Like the 4pm sun on a scarlet leaf, there is a distinct contrast returning from the UK to Australia, and Canberra in particular. Where are the streets clogged with parked cars and the friendly waves between drivers allowing one another to pass? What happened to the sweet birdsong and bounty of green? Just where is everyone? On the light rail maybe.
Wilderness, absolute emptiness is not really a trait of the British landscape, but here it practically feels as though it’s around every corner. A lingering day trip holiday hangover prompted me off to Braidwood for the token mid-morning coffee and cake and then on into the Budawang Wilderness. A landscape of escarpment and gorge, ferns and eucalyptus, blue hills and blue skies. A new peak to conquer – Mt Budawang – and those very Australian views. Not in Kansas or Kensington anymore.
There was more sandstone bush aplenty on another day trip into the Southern Highlands with two friends – Michael and Angela – who were briefly in the country for a change; equally keen to taste that generous sense of antipodean air and space before embarking for the freneticism of Europe. It was a right proper miserable public holiday morning in Canberra, but a little north and east near Bundanoon the drizzle faded, the skies cleared, and the hills and valleys of a small pocket of Morton National Park glowed. It became – still – comfortable enough for t-shirt.
Given such fortuitous conditions we stretched the day out with a visit to the ever popular Fitzroy Falls. The bulk of day trippers take the short stroll to the top of the falls, a few less meander on to the first couple of lookouts, and just the hardcore like us go all the way. It’s not that taxing – around 6km return – and it’s a walk constantly accompanied by generous vistas and plentiful woodland. Today, we had the bonus display of a lyrebird, perching and prancing and going through its repertoire of impeccable mimicry, reminding us, once again, how unique Australia truly is.
These Australian winter days are in many ways incomparable to those of the north; I could not imagine being so comfortable and surrounded by the continuing flourish of nature on a windswept Princetown tor in January. Or May. Yet, coincide some of the higher, harsher landscapes with the handful of genuine wintry days, and it can feel like a cream tea in front of a log fire would have been a far more sensible choice. Such as exposed upon the summit of Booroomba Rocks, as a tenuous sleety shower whips across the valley.
There is snow to be had as the year progresses into July, a clue provided by the proximity of the Snowy Mountains to Canberra. Most of the white stuff falls above 1800m or so, but a dusting can accumulate at lower levels to coat the western backdrop to the Australian capital. Clever foreshortening with big zooms can make it look as though the hill behind Parliament House is some kind of snow-capped Mount Fuji, but it takes around an hour to reach these powdery playgrounds.
When these powdery playgrounds receive a fresh dusting on a Sunday during school holidays, carnage can ensue. In fact, it creates a scene reminiscent of the frenzy after a dusting on Dartmoor, when cars stop and pull over willy-nilly, the white blanket concealing rocks and ditches and any intrinsic common sense remaining. The snow becomes muddy and slushy and by noon the picture resembles a bad day’s racing at Exeter Speedway in which the childcare centre has experienced full on meltdown.
I assumed leaving around eight in the morning I’d be one of a handful of pioneers to add fresh footsteps in the virgin snow around Corin Forest. Yet I find I’m in a queue of mainly oversized Utes idling while the road remains closed. I could wait, for goodness knows how long, to follow the many vehicles in front as they lose all sense of common sense upon the first sighting of a pile of slush. Or I could park up on this nice flat grassy verge and walk. Somewhere.
As fortuitous as the parking spot was, my luck doubled with the gate leading onto a fire trail which eventuated into a loop walk taking in a bit of a climb and gradually moving away from the road and the sound of idling engines and despairing parents with despairing children who need a wee. Fresh, fragrant eucalyptus with just a dusting of snow; seemingly not enough to really close a road, honestly, but a coating of white nonetheless. A scene sufficient to paint a picture of transition from the spring blossom to the autumnal gold to the middle of winter in two months. Two months and one thousand words. Okay, not quite one thousand, but if I just add up the words as I write this extra bit, I reckon I might just get there.
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.
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.
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!
I 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The richness of Britain is quite something. Not richness in an economic sense, that measure upon which so much weight is given – wander any town or city and it will quickly become apparent that financial riches are far from universal. No, it’s the sheer abundance of Britain. There’s so much in so little a space. Everything here is dense, whether that be the number of council houses clustered together in a cul-de-sac or the profusion of single-track lanes crisscrossing rolling green countryside. How can this small rock in the Atlantic host so much of everything? A tardis of a nation.
I feel like you could spend a lifetime and still not discover every corner of Britain. This is a task even more challenging when you don’t live there anymore, and you are largely content to frequent familiar fishing villages and creamy countryside on home turf. Why the need to go anywhere else?
Even the sands underneath me have felt my footsteps before, though I’m sure never in such a glorious glow. And under this clear air emanating from Blackpool, a horizon of land appears as alien to me as Timbuktu.
North Wales is a corner of Britain that seems to pack more punch in its acres than most. I think it’s largely explained by the proximity of the coastline to the jagged peaks just a few miles inland. At times the uplands appear to roll directly into the sea. And where they don’t, valleys, towns, forests and lakes squeeze in to fill the gaps. I could spend a month here and still not discover it all.
But I did at least have three days to explore new terrain and it commenced with a surprisingly seamless and pleasurable drive from Lancashire under continuing blue skies. Smoothly cruising through Cheshire, the terrain elevated somewhat into Wales, with snatched views of the Wirral and – in the distance – the conglomeration of Liverpool. At one point I could see the prominent rise of Snowdonia, clearly denoted by the only patch of cloudy sky in the whole of the British Isles. And I was heading straight for it.
The car came to a halt beside Llyn Ogwen, a sliver of a lake hemmed in by the A5 and two hilly clumps of land – the massifs of the Carneddau and Glyderau. To the north, the rolling, open uplands of the Carneddau shimmered gold in the sunshine while the rockier Glyderau was grazed by cloud. And guess to which one I was heading…
Passing a popular National Trust outpost, a gentle and well-worn path crossed the moorland towards Llyn Idwal, a small lake hemmed in by precipitous cliffs, popular with climbers and school parties vaguely attempting to do something related to Geography. While the landscape was striking, at times it was difficult to stand up, such was the wind howling through this giant bowl. And in late September, a hoodie was barely sufficient protection.
Thankfully the wind eased a little in the lee of the cliffs, a shattered barrier which seems insurmountable from below. Apparently a cleft proclaims to lead through something enticing called The Devil’s Kitchen and up to the top, via a small track rising from the lake. A few mountain goats appeared to be running up this in a ridiculous quest called exercise. I walked up a bit, feeling slightly breathless and a tad light-headed with each step. I figured it was a passing touch of wooziness that was quelled by a handful of Jaffa Cakes. And frankly, this view was a good enough one from which to turn around.
With overnight rest, the next day became a jam-packed whistle-stop exploration of the valleys, towns and bays of this corner of Wales. It started with the promise of early cloud and mist lifting in the small town of Llanrwst. Here, the River Conwy was spanned by a delightful arched bridge leading to what could possibly be one of the most photographed buildings in the principality. Having done very little research prior to this trip, I had no idea such a sight existed and that I would have timed things perfectly to coincide with the flourish of autumn. Turns out it’s a tea shop that – at this time in the morning – was closed. Otherwise clotted cream could have again been in the offing.
Further up the valley, the river widens towards the Conwy estuary and the countryside softens somewhat to resemble that of South Devon. The environment is a haven for birds, something I deduce from parking at an RSPB centre across the river from the town of Conwy itself. Ever a tight-arse with parking, I decided on the spur of the moment to walk over to the town, taking in splendid views of a majestic castle and surrounding hills across the water.
I became progressively enamoured by Conwy. Obviously its castle is a dominant – and splendidly preserved – feature of the town. Beyond this, much of Conwy is walled, with various towers and steps and ramparts in a crumbling state, the least crumbly of which can be explored for free. And within the walls sits a charming array of old cottages and colourful terraced houses, leading down to a sedate harbour cove. Everything seems peaceful and at peace. And somewhere within this is a massive slab of coffee and walnut cake that is so gargantuan it eliminates the need for lunch.
Walking back to the car in glorious sunshine I did my best to change into shorts without revealing my arse to any curious twitchers. This of course precipitated the onset of cloud as I drove further west, the A5 cutting under barren hills plunging into the sea, Holyhead across the water.
At Caernarfon, another castle straight out of a lego box impressed. Yet maybe it was the cloud and the coolness, but I found this place lacked much of the ambience of Conwy. It seemed a bit more touristy and try-hard, and the car park surrounding one side of the castle – like some kind of glass and steel moat – distracted from the scene. Meanwhile, the generator from a Mr Whippy van nearby disturbed any tranquillity.
I headed on hoping for a break in the clouds along the coast towards the Llyn Peninsula – the pointy out bit of North Wales. It seems a remote, sometimes bleak place, undoubtedly exposed to the elements throughout the year. I suspect Welsh is the first language here, all hacking throats and largely devoid of vwls. The small towns and villages tend to be off the beaten track… spots like Trefor, where I paused to survey a picturesque cove, one of the few visitors in the car park.
More popular with curious outsiders like me is Morfa Nefyn and, in particular, the bay-side hamlet of Pothdinllaen. Literally a pub and a few flowery cottages parked by the sand, it can really only be reached by foot, passing through one of those golf courses blessed in its occupation of prime links real estate. Some of the holes looked ludicrously unfair but the enviable setting, with water on all sides, cannot be denied.
Following an obligatory pint in the Ty Coch Inn I ambled back towards the car, stamping prints in the sand as the tide shifted out. The salty sea air had put me in a fish and chip mood and I thought Pwllheli might prove a good bet. But it looked a tad depressing passing through and I saw no obvious contenders, instead stopping further east in Cricceith, which satisfied requirements entirely.
It’s a shame the sun never materialised post-Conwy, just to add that sparkle and extra splendour to the sights. And it proved in more ways than one that Conwy simply put everything else into the shade that day.
Of course, the famous BBC weather forecast had been changing its sunshine symbols into white cloud ones as proximity to each day in question neared. My final day in Wales was, perhaps, the most promising online. Not that it looked especially good first thing, but surely such mist and cloud is to be expected as October nears?
Leaving early under grey skies, I was uncertain how this day would pan out. My intent was to hike proper good somewhere in Snowdonia. And as I reached a viewpoint towards Mount Snowdon itself, the magic happened. The magic that is lifting plumes of mist, evaporated by the laser-like sun of dawn.
In a matter of minutes it was if cloud had been consigned to the pages of history, and the decision to attempt an ascent on Mount Snowdon was an easy one to make. Rather than regurgitating every single step of this walk here, you can – should you wish – read more about it in this shameless cross-promotion for yet another blog page I have been working on when lulls in work strike me down with boredom. In summary: epic, awesome, enjoyable…enough of a challenge to provide reward without being too challenging to annoy. Though at times the train to the top did feel like the sensible option.
It really is remarkable to have such genuine mountain landscape concentrated alongside all the other facets making up this part of the world. Yes, the mountains lack altitude compared to, say, the Alps, but they have every characteristic col, ridge, tarn and peak required. They are mountains worthy of the name.
However, this is Britain so I guess they are mountains not entirely untamed. At lower levels, a few crumbling mining outposts remain, and slate quarries persist in other parts. And then there are sheep, lovely fluffy inevitable sheep, appearing when you least expect them on a rocky ridgeline, one hoof away from a plummet down a cliff. It would be remiss of me – negligent even – to be in Wales and not mention sheep. Lovely.
What a glorious day to be a sheep in the green, green grass of home. Now I was seeing sheep everywhere. Sheep to the left of me, sheep to the right. There were sheep even revelling in the field behind my little Airbnb bothy. As with many other things, Britain possesses such density of sheep (though nowhere near as dense as witnessed in New Zealand).
Sheep were dotted on the fields the next morning, as I woke up overlooking the valley of Penmachno one last time. More acquainted with a pocket of the country that had been unknown, ready to head off back to the familiar. But not before passing through and pausing among new discoveries along the way.
When I get back to Australia I know I will get the question along the lines of “how are things in Britain these days then?” It’s a subtle way of probing what the actual bloody hell is going on with all that nonsensical Tory schoolboy jostling otherwise known as the British Exit from the European Union. And I guess I’ll answer something along the lines of “well, everyone is pretty much fed up of hearing about it all the time”. Because, you know, what better way to deal with impending doom than pretending it isn’t happening (see, for example, Climate Change).
Still, let’s not get all Project Fear with needless stuff like evidence and statistics and what not. Britain will be fine, because Britain is great and we can be great again because we are Britain, which is just great. So goes the leading argument for leaving. Which is bizarre when you think about it, because it relies on untainted optimism. SINCE WHEN HAVE THE BRITISH BEEN OPTIMISTIC?!!!
Anyway, it’s all great, because being great, I’m sure I will still be able to travel without much friction to Europe on my Great British passport which is changing colour because we can change its colour, wow! I can’t believe I was ever sceptical.
Yes, frictionless travel to Europe. People will continue to queue to get on the plane even though they have an assigned seat and the inbound flight hasn’t even landed yet. The size of hand luggage will continue to take the piss and be contorted into overhead lockers without any regard for anyone else. Buses will continue to transport people from the terminal to a plane twenty metres away, just to add an extra half hour on this seamless journey. And we’ll all get to France with Easyjet scratchcards and no intention at all to even consider speaking French. Nothing will change.
Ah, France. I got there eventually. Actually Switzerland, but then followed by a frictionless border crossing (okay, some speed bumps) to France. And, just for a change, Ville-la-Grand, where my brother and his family have recently moved. It’s a lovely spot, fringed by woodland and the park and bike paths and a slope to the markets and a decent walk to schools and the cheese shop also known as the supermarket. And from one supermarket you can even see Mont Blanc and other assorted mountains on a fine day. It’s grand.
The weather wasn’t very continental on the first day there. Bloody Europe, I should’ve stayed at home. With murk, drizzle and rainy spells it was much like Great Britain, but we still managed to head out for a couple of hours and not gaze sombrely out to sea from a car park eating soggy cheese and pickle sandwiches. While a downpour hammered on the car roof in the car park, it quickly passed, and we were able to amble around the pretty lakeside village of Nernier in the dry. C’est la vie.
The next day was a more promising affair, with clouds breaking and a touch more warmth back in the air. And so into the Alps, for a destination that was as much about a lunch opportunity as it was scenic nourishment. The Cascade du Rouget plunges down from the mountains, fed by snow melt and discarded Evian. Today, at the end of a long hot summer, it was a relative trickle but an impressive sight nonetheless. Liquid oozing at the mercy of gravity, the annual fondue went down pretty well too.
The nearby flowery towns of Sixt-Fer-a-Cheval and Samoens provided a touch of post-lunch ambling, ticking down time until the bakeries re-opened. They were relatively quiet on this weekday in September, a palpable air of towns that are winding down from the summer and slowly putting in place preparations for winter. Jigsaw wood piles, puffed up bodywarmers, freshly greased raclette machines. All the essentials of an Alpine winter.
But let’s not put away those Decathlon shorts and tops and sporty sandals just yet. For there are glorious end-of-summer days in which to revel. Blue skies and temperatures nudging the thirties and – finally – a taste of this legendary heatwave of 2018. Until I depart the EU and face the chilly murk of Bristol Airport of course. Great.
Time for countryside ambles across borders, the sun dappling through the trees of brookside meanders and lighting the fields around. Busy gardens glow amongst shuttered windows and wooden beams, while rows of vines and apple red orchards are bursting for harvest. Lingering lunches alfresco provide a pause to enjoy the fruits of the summer or, more typically, the cheesy potato-bacon-salad combos. And an urge to try to counteract the heftiness of fromage propels me to borrow a bike and cycle to Switzerland and back.
The final day in France – and very likely my last day in Europe before Britain decides it is better off without it – was surely a reminder that the motherland will always be inferior in the weather stakes. Attention turning to the BBC forecast, mutterings along the lines of 17 degrees and cloud looking “not too bad” for next week show how quickly I adjust; my expectations lower and tolerance of shorts wearing does too.
But an evening flight provides ample time to soak summer up while it lasts, so why not catch a train to Evian to do more than just drink expensive water? I came here last year, from across the lake in Lausanne, and was reasonably enamoured by its character and ambience. Today, a chance to take Mum and a useful local French speaker to enjoy its lakeside ambles and distant views of higher, craggier Alpine peaks.
Evian’s not the most exciting of places but possesses requisite continental charm. Of course, the plastic-polluting water bottle company is a dominant theme and I believe there are spas in which you can bathe in the minerals extracted from unicorn sweat filtered through kryptonite. The actual source of water is there for all – including many a local restaurant owner and German coach party – to top up bottles. And the free funicular is a little treat for Portillo fans and youth orchestras from Wessex alike.
Basking in such glorious weather it seems a shame to be departing. The mountains so clear that they literally beckon your name and urge you towards their valleys and peaks. But it turns out we have to leave, not because the alleged genius that is Boris says so, but because there is an Easyjet ticket which has my name on it. A ticket that also has a seat allocated, making the spectacle of hundreds of people queuing at the gate even before the plane is there even more preposterous. In an era of pure preposterousness, this takes the tea and biscuit.
As Europe scorches and folk back home whinge about it being too hot, the disjuncture between England and Australia heightens. Minus fives accompany football matches at four in the morning, condensation provides a ceaseless battle, and pictures of a sun-soaked France on steroids beckon like an electronic blanket and doona. Mercifully, once the fog lifts the afternoons are pure Canberra winter, with clear sunny skies proffering warmth in which a jumper can remain sufficient (today, an unseasonably warm 18 degrees). Still, it’s not shorts and thongs stuff exactly. For most people.
Queenslanders are a different breed and rarely own a pair of long trousers. It’s understandable up that way – see, for instance, my previous post in FNQ – but is something that would present a challenge visiting Canberra in July. For most people.
I never truly expected my mate Jason to appear off a flight from Brisbane in shorts and thongs. Okay 5% of me did, but there he was. Queenslander. Ready to catch up on Canberra haunts and friends, strategise and hypothesise, and prove that Real Australians Welcome Shorts. And should the minus fives and condensation get too much, there is always chance to flee to the coast.
Two hours away on the South Coast of NSW, the moderating effect of ocean keeps the minimums higher and a chance for daytime sunshine to warm things enough for a T-shirt to still be possible. But not today, with a brisk breeze tempering things. For most people.
Still, sheltered by untainted forest and rolling coastal hills, kissed by the radiance of the crystal ocean under clear skies, there is certain comfort to winter here. It is at one tranquil and vivacious, glowing in a freshness swept in by cold fronts and a seasonal lull in nature’s freneticism. The tried and trusted walk between Depot and Pebbly Beach proves to be at its very best.
The kangaroos and wallabies appear to be fans of this weather, out in force grazing on the luscious fringe of grassy dune and really, really hoping for a stray sandwich. While far from the explosion in #quokkaselfies on Rottnest Island in Western Australia, the placidity of these animals – along with the idyllic Australian coastal setting – have made #rooselfies a thing, sort of. Especially when there are tourists about.
One of the boasts made to lure tourists to certain destinations (for instance I’m thinking California) is that you can be surfing in the morning and skiing in the afternoon. Well, Canberra is very much like California, though perhaps not as strong in the sun-kissed-girls-so-hot-they-melt-your-popsicle department. From sparkling ocean to snowy mountains…
An hour or so out of Canberra, traversing a winding but decent gravel road, the Brindabellas rise to something like 1900 metres. Sometimes the road is closed for snow, but the run of fine dry weather allowed access to a world in which human intervention is almost impossible to perceive. Looking west from Mount Aggie, it is a concertina of ridge and valley, fold after fold of deep green eucalyptus cascading over the horizon. With a silence so striking that it cries out in distinction.
A little further down the road, Mount Franklin used to house a very archaic, make-it-up-as-you-go-along skiing area for Canberra devotees. It wasn’t exactly exemplary cover or persistent across winter, but the hardiest pioneers gave it a shot. Today, a few remnants linger including the necessary patches of snow. Indeed, snow was a surprising bonus accompanying a walk gradually upwards to an overlook south and east. A vista again largely untainted by anything whatsoever. Just the world and the blue, blue sky.
It wasn’t entirely peaceful here however, as we came across what were probably the only other people in this section of Namadgi National Park on a Monday in July. I think they were quite astonished to a) see someone else and b) see someone wearing shorts and a T-shirt. I explained the Queensland thing and that seemed to appease their simmering incredulity. Bidding farewell, we lingered for a while before the coolness eventually started to descend.
Heading back down to the car, our new-found friends were still lingering in the parking area, I sense relieved that not just one but both of us had made it back without catching hypothermia and resorting to cannibalism. In reality though it was an Australian winter afternoon; yes there was some leftover snow on the ground, but in no way whatsoever was it distressingly cold. Indeed, from the sapphire sea to the blue sky, winter here can still be divine. For most people.
A lack of blogging endeavour is reflective of my position of relative stasis in the last couple of months. Still, if you were to choose a period to stay put in Canberra then this may well be it. For while my feet have largely been rooted in the capital, change has very slowly and subtly washed over me.
The late summer lingering of balmy days and comfortable nights has lingered longer than usual. On the streets, an initial shock of arboreal colour mellowed and probably wanted to turn back green. The Anzac Day ritual of firing up the heaters was drastically postponed, as armies marched in 27 degrees. Meanwhile, the western ranges burned – in a controlled way – but the taste of smoke pervaded regardless, transforming the late afternoon skies blood red as the clocks wound back. Only now in May does Canberra’s autumn peak. And trainer socks dissipate from the laundry.
Welcome – at last – to the annual autumn edition! It began, perhaps, around the start of April with daytime temperatures dropping below thirty degrees, and overnights to single digits. This is a milestone of sorts, but one that is bordering on uncomfortably hot for visitors from Middle Buntingland-Upon-Farage. Not long after Dad had left these shores with a decent tan, Jill arrived on a relatively last-minute trip to Australia, and came to Canberra seeking a few days escape from the noise and hustle of Sydney. So what better way to flee than in the hills, to that very Australian bush, the wilderness on our doorstep.
In truth, the walk up the Yerrabri Track in Namadgi National Park was only part of a bigger equation. An equation whose solution was a delicious bird roll or two. N+J*OzNP(vt)+C0les=br. It’s a concept that has evolved from very preliminary experiments at the New Years’ Test in Sydney, refined to perhaps its ultimate manifestation on the top of Mount Kosciuszko. Replicated many times since, it is now a requisite of any encounter between Jill and I. Recently, each of us have tried to outdo one another in the bird roll stakes and today, on a rocky platform overlooking peak serenity of an abundant emptiness, I may have taken the lead. For now.
Bird rolls are not the only thing that are becoming customary. Having zig-zagged up Kangaroo Creek in Royal National Park and almost losing a boat on the Bellinger River, we have since become more finessed in guiding bright pieces of plastic upon water. Okay, I think we got up close and personal with the Norfolk Broads last year, but just the once. And this time – my first time self-propelled on Lake Burley Griffin – there was no shrubbery with which we embarrassed ourselves. Indeed, it was an incident-free beautiful late afternoon pedal in a kayak, the sun going down earlier than the day before and a noticeable coolness making itself known.
Since then, around the lake shore, it has been peak biking conditions under calm blue skies and ambient warmth. Only more recently have shorts been swapped for long legs, T-shirts for hoodies, short socks for long. Like the weather, autumn evolves in patches, materialising in pockets; a glade untainted green here, trees stripped bare there. In between an emergence of yellows, oranges, reds and browns, meaning that every day there is something different to see from the vantage of two wheels.
But it is at this point in the year that ambling in Canberra’s suburbia comes into its own, usurping the attractions of its lakeside coves, bushland hills, and concrete edifices. It’s the peoples’ Canberra, the homes and gardens and streets that real, mostly normal, everyday Bruces and Sheilas like you and I live in. Okay, the more affluent burbs have the lions share of autumnal splendour, but pockets of colour burst out from pavements far and wide. Even down near the local youth centre, the skulking youngsters seem softened by an explosion of nature’s confetti.
It is in these streets, around these crescents, besides these storm drains that I can happily wander. In autumn, an insipid walk becomes a quaint stroll. Not that there’s total serenity; as the number of leaves fall, the number of shrieking cockatoos rise. Thankfully there are a few black ones to offer some grace.
In the afternoons it is still warm and golden, and coffee can still be taken alfresco and still with cake. But now, as May nears its end and winter will soon nominally start, the real change sets in. It started in shorts and T-shirts, humid hikes and toasty paddles, with a cold beer to wash the day down. It ends in an Orange Sky hoodie, bracing rides, electric blankets and the warming spice of a glass of red. Standing still, embracing change.
Can there be anything more symbolic of returning to work than a shave in a dingy motel room in regional Australia? As two-week-old stubble clings stubbornly to off-white porcelain, a sense of beige pervades, worsened by the 1970s tiles and a toilet hygienically sealed by a useless strip of paper from the same era. Thankfully – in this case at least – the ironing board remained lurking in the cupboard.
Fast-forward a few days and the work was done, proving less cumbersome and far more populated with coffee and cake than I could have hoped for. This left me alone with a car and a few belongings close to the Queensland-NSW border. A massive part of me wanted to make the journey home as quickly as possible, but then an equally massive part also yearned to stop in Warrumbungle National Park. Another significant consideration was a determination to miss the whole messy Newcastle-Central Coast-Sydney conglomeration. This along with the fact that, heading inland, I could go through Texas tipped the scales definitively south and west. Yeehaw.
Sublime seconds in Warrumbungle National Park
Sometimes when you return to a place for the second time it can underwhelm. This is especially the case if you have rose-tinted memories involving walks along rocky ridges and dry sandy creeks, absorbing earthy eucalyptus scents and far-reaching views. I had this concern approaching the Warrumbungles, but left concluding this is one of the best national parks in the whole of Australia.
Of course, all of this is entirely subjective and hinges on whatever floats your boat. For me, the campground offers a good starting point – scenic and spacious with decent facilities to make camping again seem less of a chore. Pitching the glamping tent / mower cover beside gums with views of Belougery Split Rock, you are at once at one with the land. Until a whole family sets up shanty next door.
To really appreciate the Warrumbungles you need to walk, and – ideally – walk upwards. I had done this before on the signature Grand High Tops hike and so was hoping to find something a little different. And what better than that mountain I could see from my tent, in late afternoon sun still scorching the land upwards of thirty degrees?
Admittedly the initial stages of the walk up Belougery were a little taxing – seared by the hot westerly sun and, naturally, uphill. But each step enabled a strategic pause as a landscape of gorges and peaks became incrementally exposed. Rounding a corner and into shade, the views expanded before the rocky clump of the Grand High Tops made themselves known.
I could scramble a further 800 metres to the very top, but this route was littered with warnings about rockfalls and climbing and three-headed drop bear spiders. Besides, contentment comes in many forms including a sit down on a crag drinking a blissfully cold lemon Solo leftover from last night’s KFC in Moree. Mission accomplished, and the views really couldn’t get that much better surely.
By now the harsh heat had started to fade and it was a beautiful early evening heading around the rock and down towards the sinking sun. This is a magical landscape, an eden of elemental Australia dramatically rising from a sea of golden plains. Clarity under a big blue sky, sun-baked and scented by the fragrance from dried out forest. A place even better second time around.
I was even more glad of my foresight in buying some hot cross buns and a block of butter in Coonabarabran yesterday. What better way to use the camp stove for the last time, to set me on my way to Gilgandra, to Dubbo, to Wellington, to Molong, to Canowindra, to Cowra, to Boorowa, to Yass and – 550kms later – to Canberra.
Moments can be made in small packages of fruity dough topped with lashings of butter as well as epic landscapes and outdoor escapades. So many moments that meld together to form memories that will stand the test of time. And if they don’t, at least some are now documented on a trivial little blog in a remote corner of the Internet! To use a well-worn phrase again, MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.
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.
Contrast 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And 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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
But, 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.