Namadgi

It wasn’t love at first site. As national parks go, it’s not in the top tier. There are no obvious spectacles, no grand high tops, no sublime points, no copper canyons, no vernal falls. But it sits there, looking at you, consumer of sunsets and occasional catcher of winter snows. Endearing itself to you by its very persistence.

Namadgi National Park. Canberra’s park, Canberra’s playground; like Dartmoor is to Plymouth or Hampstead Heath is to North London. Before that, for many years before I came here and other strangers came here, special ground for Australia’s first people. Rising to the west, sheltering Australia’s young capital. A rugged wilderness reminding us of what we were and where we have come. And where we still have to go. Enduring still.

Igniting

The lustre of spring radiated across the valley and lifted the soul the way that spring can only do: that warming sun on your face as you cast your eyes upon a celebration of green, a chirpiness matched by the creatures awakening from their slumber. Treading into this world along the valley floor, each footstep a newfound joy, each pause a chance to breathe it all in. An enclave of life and of love, promising halcyon days ahead.

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Monday 27th January: A small plume of smoke appears over a hill as I drive back home. It throws my bearings since it isn’t where I expected to see smoke today. I check Fires Near Me for probably the fifth time this morning and see a new blue diamond symbol has appeared in Namadgi National Park. It has been listed as the Orroral Valley Fire.

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Taking hold

The sky had that washed out tone of winter that threatens but barely delivers. It is the colour of childhood skies beside the sea, when the excitement of snow was dashed by the delivery of icy rain. If you were being generous, you might describe it as sleet, but only that narrow, spitting variety rather than a satisfying splodge. As I climbed through the freshest forest to crest the ridge of Booroomba Rocks, a new squall spilled into the valley of gums below. A wind chill well below zero blew away the cobwebs. And cast a few shards of icy, spitting rain my way.

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Tuesday 28th January: The fire quickly takes hold and becomes uncontrollable, spreading west into Honeysuckle Creek, Apollo Road and climbing up towards the crest of Booroomba Rocks. A large smoke plume intensifies as the day heats up and spreads many miles west, hanging over the Canberra skyline as multiple planes and helicopters disappear into its heart.

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Consuming

We used to have adventures. These often involved hikes to lookouts and – if we were lucky – a bird roll with a view. All across Australia. 2018 offered the comeback tour and an adventure a bit closer to my home.

Older, probably not wiser, I persuaded Jill to join me on the Yerrabi Track, hoping the drag uphill wouldn’t cause consternation. Hopeful that the rocky platform at the end, with a bird roll, with a view, would appease any potential discord at my choice. May I present to you the wilderness. Close to Canberra. And a long way from Norfolk. Or Sydney. A real place to breathe on holiday, or at home.

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Thursday 30th January: A few days of cooler and quieter weather provide some respite and a chance for fire crews to lay down containment lines, large air tankers plying back and forth overhead. While much is done to try to protect properties and cultural assets, the fire continues to feed on the tinder dry heart of Namadgi, spreading down towards Yankee Hat and Boboyan Trig, a key marker on the Yerrabi Track.

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Threatening

From Canberra, Mount Tennent stands sentinel over Namadgi National Park, 1,375 metres into the sky. The first prominent peak as you enter south, looming over the visitor centre and the small village of Tharwa. In spite of this proximity it took me many years to climb. Cypress Pine lookout was usually as far as I made it before arriving at the conclusion that that is more than enough thank you very much.

Sometimes you need the momentum that comes from walking with friends. An encouraging peloton. A crisp morning that warms with the rising sun on your back. Views that deliver over the Monaro, its golden paddocks strewn with the fairy floss of rising mist. Each step up a shared endeavour, summiting a shared prize. Victors in a deep blue sky, miniscule among uninterrupted green.

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Friday 31st January: The temperature nudges towards 42 degrees and the fire threat escalates, creating spot fires which push into NSW. Authorities publish worst case projections for the fire spread that – should they come to bear – would spill further down from the summit of Mount Tennent and consume Tharwa, before entering the far southern suburbs of Canberra. The ACT declares a state of emergency and the city is on edge.

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Tearing south

I can recall the pleasure in discovering something new; a circular trail in the deepest dirt roadiest section of the southern ACT that scored high on the effort-reward ratio. It was nearing Christmas and I had been in the city that morning, catching up for coffee and passing on gifts. By afternoon I was gently climbing up through forest onto the ridge of Shanahans Mountain. The reward: a fluffy clouded blue sky hanging over the wild contours and emptiness of the Clear Range. Christmas had come early, a new vista my present.

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Saturday 1st February: A brutal day of solid northwest winds and temperatures reaching 43 degrees expanded the fire quickly southeast across NSW and upon settlements around the Monaro Highway, including Bumbalong, Colinton and Bredbo. While Tharwa and suburban Canberra dodged a bullet, around a dozen homes were destroyed, principally around Bumbalong as fire raced over the Clear Range and engulfed properties.

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Creeping north

I wonder if there is anything more satisfying than the scrunch of footsteps upon fresh snow. While chaotically parked cars and excitable humans rapidly transform Corin Forest into dirty slush, ahead of me is a virginal path of white. It took some effort to reach. Lung-busting in fact. But before me, the Smokers Trail slices through a forest of tall, majestic eucalypts under the deepest blue sky. It is a wonderland both un-Australian and undeniably Australian. Waiting to be scrunched underfoot.

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Thursday 6th February: A week of cooler, calmer weather subdues fire activity considerably, though it continues to slowly expand, particularly to the west and north. It has passed over the Smokers Trail, nearby Square Rock, and moves over and beyond Corin Forest. The slow creep of the fire appears less destructive and the infrastructure around Corin Forest is protected. Now nearing Tidbinbilla, fire crews instigate backburning to halt progress.

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Enduring still

Is it as simple, as logical, as linear as a before and after? Because a before was also an after. When I took my first steps into Namadgi it was not so long after 2003. When the hills and gullies had previously burned, arguably even more vehemently than today.

In the much used vernacular of the new normal it may not be quite the normal cycle of the Australian bush, but there is a cycle nonetheless. We may be in the immediate after now, but I can take solace that this is the start of another before. When Namadgi will again nurture love and life, expel fresh air and bounty, guide adventure and inspiration. Enduring still.

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Sunday 9th February: The rain is tantalising, teasing. We’ve had a few millimetres and promises of a deluge keep getting pushed back. Another hour. Another day. Probabilities suggest something decent will come. A few spells of drizzle and blustery showers mimic England. It is only seventeen degrees and perfect roast dinner and red wine weather. That in itself is an encouraging sign.

The Orroral Valley Fire has changed status from Out of Control to Being Controlled. That in itself is an even more encouraging sign. It has consumed around 80% of Namadgi National Park and around a third of the ACT’s landmass. Taking into account various offshoots into NSW the fire encompasses approximately 113,000 hectares, or 1,130 square kilometres. That’s about the same as Hong Kong Island. Or most of Greater London if you exclude some of the crumby bits like Croydon.

Initial reports suggest significant variability in the damage caused within the park, mirroring the variability in fire intensity over its course. Positively, key infrastructure, including historic huts, culturally significant sites and telecommunications resources have been protected, while threatened wildlife within nature reserves have been successfully relocated.

It is one small footnote this summer.

Australia Green Bogey Photography Walking

I got chills

snow00With the undeniable passage of nature there are sure signs that winter in Canberra is slowly ebbing away. There have been a few recent days in which I have left the house without a coat, while the sunlight is waking me up well before seven and allowing me to read almost until six. Wattles explode, daffodils unfurl, the odd fly is resurrected and finds its way into my living room for what seems like all eternity.

That’s not to say winter is entirely done and dusted and – with it – the satisfaction of a roast dinner, a glass of red and an evening hunkering down until the early hours watching sport beamed direct from the sometimes sunny skies of Europe. The Ashes is the latest incarnation of late night TV toil, in which the morning session emerges during the prime time of evening followed by a drift to tea after midnight. Sometimes I stay up late and sometimes it’s worth it. Like a shiny cherry battered by Sir Ben Stokes, it can be hard to sleep straight after, such is the insane frenzy that has just taken place.

Of course, usually about now I would be in England, so it is part galling but part elevating to see Leeds bathed in unseasonal hot bank holiday sunshine. Bored of some of the drearier TV commentary I might tune into Test Match Special, delivering another evocation of Englishness. The good, wholesome Englishness involving short long legs and a discussion of cake in between bouncers. Not that other Englishness espoused by others. Without vision, the radio commentary paints a more vivid picture in my head of an England for which I might yearn.

But here I am having almost successfully navigated my first full Australian winter, in the coldest city of the lot. Has it been hard? Well, not really, partly a consequence of strategic breaks away, warm sunshine beaming through glass, roast dinners, red wine, Ben Stokes, and no doubt the upward trajectory in global temperatures as previously predicted by those pesky experts who we have all apparently become sick of.

And then it snows for a weekend and suddenly the accumulation of 200 years of temperature records can be instantly dismissed by the cast of crazy characters featured on the sitcom known as Sky News. The ‘Antarctic Blast’ delivering a bit of cool drizzle to Melbourne and a touch of breeze in Sydney, dusts the higher hills and peaks around Canberra. It’s the kind of event that happens every few years and makes a Canberra winter all the better. For there is an unmatched beauty when the snow comes to the Australian bush.

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There’s certainly a freshness accompanying an early Saturday morning jaunt upon Urambi Hills, but the sun is out and the wind has dropped meaning that, before long, I’m wanting to strip off during the march upward. Even the locals are unfazed, the youngsters popping out to gaze towards the snow for the first time in their lives.

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From afar, there is little hardship, little severity to be found in the sight of snow-capped hills. Getting closer to the snowline in Tidbinbilla, you do begin to feel the penetration of winds swirling over the ranges, picking up icy particles and moisture and delivering them to idiots like me waiting patiently on an exposed lookout. A sleety shower whips through quickly, before a valley of thousands of eucalypts are bathed in sun.

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From this perch, the snow seems tangible, touchable. Attainable with, hopefully, relative ease. And that’s the way it proves, driving to the Mountain Creek area in the reserve. A few cars are here but it is blessedly sedate, lacking the queuing, slush-churned melee of Corin Forest after a few flakes. Close to the car park, youngsters screech and coo in delight and disappear off into the forest. A trail of footprints furrow a path into the trees, eventually joining a fire trail that will go on and on, up and up, all the way to Camel’s Hump.

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It would be folly to climb to the summit today; though judging by the footprints there are a few committed mountaineers in the area. However, walking up just a little and the snow thickens, the sledge tracks fade and untouched pockets of snow lap at the ankles. There is a pristine quality to the scene, a fresh blanket filling in the imperfections of the bush. A gentleness given to a landscape so often forbidding. For a change, snakes will not be a worry.

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Still, best not to linger as my feet are starting to numb and the day is drawing on way beyond optimum coffee time. As I head back down it’s noticeable how the depth of snow has already lessened, patches of mud are now creeping through, churned up by increasing traffic heading into the forest.

The snow will disappear soon enough, and the wattles will continue to burst forth, the blossom will suddenly sprout, the joeys will escape the comfort blanket of mum’s pouch. The winter will draw to a close, the light will lengthen, and I’ll be in shorts moaning about the heat before you know it. Barbecues will replace roasts and more decent sport will be on at a decent hour. Australia will return to its natural, sun-baked, fire-blasted state.

Yet a part of me will miss the cold, miss the late nights in Leeds, miss the excuse for slow-cooked heartiness. And I will miss the experience of anticipation of a spring just around the corner. Maybe not quite as badly as Nathan Lyon misses run outs, but missing all the same.

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Hop, skip, jump

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Uppish drives

If I was to analogise the lingering weeks of summer, it would be to that of a very uneventful over from Glenn McGrath. Turn at the mark, trundle in with intent, deliver a solid line and length on to the pitch and through to the keeper, stare in confected intimidation at a snivelling Pom, turn back and repeat again. And again.

There is something to be said for reliability and repetition – 563 somethings in fact – but deep down we all crave a cocky blonde disruptor to enter the scene and throw down a few cherries spinning every which way but straight. The googlies are always there somewhere; you just have to put in a bit of extra effort to discover them.

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Such terrible metaphors are all to say I went to the first Test match ever at Manuka Oval in Canberra. Australia versus Sri Lanka in probably the most one-sided match in history. Still, the setting was a delight, the atmosphere abuzz, and Canberra more than held its own as a venue. Googlies may have been sparse but then, in 2019, we are talking about the trumped up talents of Naayfun Lawwwn rather than the bona fide annoying genius of Warnie.

Outside the oval, the regular line and length of hot sunny Canberra days have occasionally hit the cracks of thunderstorms; apocalyptic tempests of wind and lightning and – often – raised dust. It’s made things a bit more interesting, even if some of the places under which such conditions breed are as reliable as ever. Places like Red Hill and Mount Taylor, the equidistant escapes from home to the bush.

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One of the cooler and windier days of late happened to beset the Canberra Triathlon. A temperature all well and good for exercise but a wind cruel and unforgiving when on a bike. To say I competed in a triathlon is a tad generous, strictly speaking. But a ten kilometre bike leg as part of a team relay was effort enough into a headwind. Still, this was just a minor, temporary obstacle for me, and worth it to deliver the imaginary baton onto Toby for the final, inspirational leg. Go Wheelsfortoby!

feb04I guess a triathlon is a bit of a googly within the normal course of events. It also led me to be in Hackett one sunny late afternoon, at the northern end of Canberra nestled underneath Mount Majura. Not so much a change of scenery, but at least a different path on which to wander, all stretching eucalypt branches, golden grass and copper earth, with some snatched views of the surrounding landscape through the bush. Plus, slithering away as I marched downhill, a brown snake disappearing from the corner of my eye.

A few weeks later I would come across two snakes in the space of five minutes, having discussed them five minutes earlier with my friend Joseph as we sat upon a rock in Namadgi National Park. I’ve hardly seen any snakes…maybe five…in my entire time in Australia I said. Mostly in Queensland I said. I know people who won’t come to Australia because of snakes, how ridiculous. When you think of all the bushwalking I have done in that time, and five snakes…

Shall we see what’s down that way, he said.

Snaaaaaaaaakkkkkkkke, I said. Quite loudly, almost tripping over a red bellied black.

Let’s actually not go that way, I said, and we turned around to head back to the car, not before a second made an appearance under a fallen tree, this time with marginally greater warning.

They did say it was going to be a good year for snakes, and in my random survey of random walks through random parts of the ACT I can conclude they were correct.

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Snakes were mercifully unsighted on a longer walk to Gibraltar Rocks in Tidbinbilla during the great Australia Day day off. I’d been here before but – again seeking some variety – I approached the peak from a different side. The first couple of kilometres traversed open plains bursting with kangaroos and the odd emu, before marching incessantly upward through that low, scrawny kind of bush that excels in the higher climes frequently ravaged by fire and ice.

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Reaching the rocks of Gibraltar up in the overcast skies, there were no Spanish ships, no snakes, no bogans singing Jimmy Barnes and wearing the cheap fake blue of Australian flag products proudly made in China. Just the essence of Australia fitting for today or any day. The heart and soul of its earth and its sky, sprouting the unique environment which has been nurtured over millennia and which endures and adapts as best it can.

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And so, we reach the last ball of this ragged over as we once more revisit those terrible cricket analogies. The weather has cooled a touch and the mornings are showing signs that we are entering the golden age. Britain basks briefly in twenty degrees and a few of our mornings drop to single digits. The temperatures still rise to the mid to high twenties in the afternoon, and this is what we call ambient, mild. It’s all relative. And still plenty warm enough for cricket. And snakes.

Floating around in my brain for a while has been Mount Coree in the Brindabellas and – in this quest for difference, desire for new – it finally becomes an agenda item early one Saturday. It is a peak I have never climbed, mainly because I’ve never been entirely sure how to climb it. Mostly it’s a case of following fire trails and dirt roads, including up to the summit and, sometimes, sharing these with vehicles.

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Commencing from Blundells Flat several hundred metres below, it is a fresh, serene meander uphill towards Two Sticks Road. Only a grader on the back of a truck passes me early in the climb, leaving a lingering cloud of fine dust particles in the air, gilding the shafts of sunlight beaming through the trees. Along Two Sticks Road it is easy going towards Coree Campground before the final traverse up to the rocky summit which marks the border between NSW and the ACT.

It’s a decent slog as the sun warms and, by now, the four wheel drives have woken from their slumber. One by one they leisurely pass in a clunk of gears and pneumatics and fumes, inching ever closer to the trig at the top. For all their engineering and technical prowess, for all their ability to get to the top quicker and revel in airconditioned comfort, they are no match for a pair of feet. A pair of feet that are connected to the landscape, an intrinsic part of it rather than something carving it apart. A pair of feet that have superior bragging rights over the indolent Saturday morning car park crew accumulating at the top. And a pair of feet that will come across one more red bellied black on the way down, completing a reliably diverting over.

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Australia Green Bogey Walking

Sapphire sea to blue sky

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.

jd01_editedStill, 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.

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jd03The 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Australia Green Bogey Photography Walking

Nature’s confetti

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.

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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.

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atm02In 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Australia Green Bogey Photography Walking

Canberra 10

August 2006, and after a now customary gruelling journey by land and air I found myself at Canberra’s suitably bland Jolimont Bus Station. Here I was for a year – not the bus station but the city at large – a work swap to sample the delights of Australian bureaucracy and seek to escape Canberra for other parts of the country as frequently as possible. And while I have done all that, here I still am almost ten years later. Next week I will head to the Jolimont Centre again, to commence that journey, again, but – again – I will be back.

So, where did that ten years go exactly? Well, for a start, not every single day has been spent in the national capital, with extended periods in swags and other people’s beds both down under and abroad. I nominally left a couple of times, packing up my belongings in boxes and placing them in various friend’s nooks and crannies. But I had to go back to retrieve them, and, once I did, I decided it was agreeable enough to stay.

So, in honour of the passing of a milestone, allow me to ramble on about ten Canberra things that have kept me amused, bemused, infuriated, mystified, but largely happy. With some archive pictures to boot, in which the shade of my hair and athleticism of my body is, lamentably, so last decade. In 2006 I strove to the top of that hill in a crappy bike. Ten years later, and not so much has changed.

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Upon Red Hill with Black Mountain in the distance, October 2006 

1 – Four Seasons in One Year

It is of course customary to talk about the weather in any conversation starter. Indeed, Australians are almost as prone to this as Brits. What would we talk about if there was no weather, like on the Gold Coast? Retirement savings, Pauline Hanson, golf?

I arrived in Canberra towards the end of winter. Which presented my British bones with beautiful, pleasant sun-filled days in which you could almost strip to a T-shirt. Ha, winter, I laughed, whatever. But then I think it plunged to minus eight overnight and I had a little more respect for the hardiness of the souls living here.

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Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter

Because of its altitude, its distance from the coast, its fondness for winds direct from the mountains, Canberra has a very clear four seasons. I say very clear, but weird plants and shit seem to be in flower all the time, and birds never fail to make a racket at five in the morning. Still, there is definitely frost, blossom, sweltering bushfire smoke days (known as “stinkers”) and – best of all – the golden glowing foliage of autumn. I like that about Canberra (people ask does it make you feel at home, as an unruly pack of Cockatoos shriek their way through a decimated oak tree). With the seasons, life is constantly, visibly changing. Unlike – say – on the Gold Coast, where it largely just ebbs away.

2 – That Canberra

Canberra has cut pensions for war veterans! Canberra has imposed a great new tax on everything! Canberra has got its knickers in a twist with the latest self-absorbed leadership tussle! Apart from, of course, it hasn’t. The Federal Parliament, voted for by the great people of Australia, has allegedly done all this in my time here. But a city and 99.999% of its residents have not. Editors, sub-editors, journalists, reporters, radio shock-jocks: STOP BEING SO FRICKIN GORMLESSLY LAZY!

However, it would be remiss of me to avoid mentioning the presence of Parliament Houses, both old and new, in this capital city. They are quite distinctive and diverse, lined up to degrees of perfection on a central axis. For me, the old one is better, mainly because it’s no longer used for debates and mediocre policy formulation. Which means you can walk the halls, sit in the padded chairs, swing around in the former prime minister’s seat, cigar in hand and a scotch on the rocks. For better or worse, this was why Canberra was made.

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A reflection of Australian Parliament House, June 2007

3 – Flashes of Brilliance

I had been to Australia before 2006, and I had even been to Canberra. However, I didn’t recall the almost nonchalant parade of colourful birds swooping and hollering across suburbs and over hills. Most remarkable – to an Englishman familiar with the monotone – was the sheer brilliance of colour and decoration: a flutter of rainbow emerging from long grass, a blush of pink perched on a wire, the regal red and blue of a pair of rosellas serenading in the bush. Even the pigeons and seagulls seem a little cleaner and offer at least a little charm.

I’m no twitcher but I have grown to recognise the basics and even some of the calls that these assorted oddments provide (mostly just to identify who keeps waking me up at 5am). And while they have attained a familiarity, there are still moments, when a blur of brilliance darts through the bush, that bring a little, wondrous smile to my face.

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A pair of Gang Gang Cockatoos, April 2015

4 – And as for the Plants

I seem to make routine visits to the Australian National Botanic Gardens. After ten years I do so with little in the way of enthusiasm or expectation – it’s more like it’s somewhere different in the rotation of hill walks, lakeside ambles and suburban rambles. Yet each time, after wandering off onto one of the tracks for ten minutes, I find myself in some kind of placid contented vegan tree-hugging alternate state. It’s a bit like going to Melbourne, only with callistemon and grevillea instead of coffee and graffiti.

Of course, it goes without saying that Australian plants can be a little quirky. As someone still part foreigner, a walk through the gardens evokes a sense of discovery, a sense that you are clearly in an alien land. Indeed, you can almost imagine how Joseph Banks was feeling nearly 250 years ago, getting a boner at the sight of a bottlebrush, incessantly naming things after himself. To be fair, there were a lot of things to name in the Anglo classification scheme of things and – as the Botanic Gardens consistently exemplify – the sensory overload can be exhilarating. For me, nothing, like nothing, can beat the smell of the bush after rain.

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Waratahs bursting forth in the Botanic Gardens, October 2012

5 – Food glorious food. And coffee.

I didn’t really do coffee in the UK. And after ten years in Australia, that last statement seems even more sensible. Despite only incremental improvements it is largely awful. If there was an Ashes for coffee – and perhaps cafe culture more broadly – Australia would do the flat whitewash each time, perhaps with some stoic resistance from the English tailenders in the final dead rubber.

So now I have become one of those awful Australians who harps on about how bad the coffee is in the UK.  I remember supping on my first few coffees in Manuka, in what was once Hansel and Gretel and has now become Ona, with awards and movies and a somewhat more pretentious, more beard-infested, and more expensive take on anything that can be derived from a humble bean. I rarely go there these days, but such is the profusion of good standard coffee that it doesn’t really matter. But it is nice to find a spot where everybody knows your name.

Food in Australia leaves me a little more ambivalent. Ashes contests would be more competitive in this space. Highlights include mangoes, most Asian food, steak, and some of the seafood. Cheese can be a little hit and miss, especially with some crucial French cheeses off the agenda due to health and safety regulations (sigh). The biggest issue though is the absence of genuine clotted cream. Clearly this is a problem. And it may well be the driving force for return visits to the UK (sorry family and friends!).

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A classic before it became much more: Brodburger, October 2008

6 – On the Edge of Wilderness

Australia has a luxury of space which makes any dispiriting rant of “F**k off we’re full” all the more silly. Sure, a lot of it is hostile and infertile, jam-packed with snakes and spiders. But even in the temperate south east corner there are vast tracts of not very much at all. The airiness, the freedom, the big blue sky, this is why Canberra itself was such a tonic arriving from London ten years ago. And while the city has an excess of underused scrubby grassland, this pales into insignificance when looking south and west.

Namadgi National Park sits entirely within the ACT and while it’s not up there with the likes of some of the other spectacular wilderness areas of Eastern Australia, you can at least get a good view. Sadly most of these views require a reasonable hike there and back again, trails I have now exhausted in their entirety. But being little over forty minutes away, access to wilderness is literally on your doorstep. And where a familiar trail ends, there is so much temptation, so much allure, so much that is pulling you to want to dive in further. To bush bash. Until the thought of all those snakes and spiders sends you back the way you came, again.

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The end of the Yerrabri Track in Namadgi NP, January 2015

7 – Culcha innit

Being a capital city, Canberra has the rather good fortune of containing all the usual national suspects: a library, a museum, a big war memorial and countless other ones, national archives, a portrait gallery, and the National Gallery of Australia. While interstate visitors and schools parties can pile off their coaches for a whistlestop gawp, the benefits of being a local mean that you can go back and explore, time and time again.

In the main, these institutions are free and have cafes. Which means I frequently pop to one or other when I have an hour or so to kill. The National Library has provided a workspace on occasion, the Portrait Gallery some photographic inspiration, the National Museum respite from a biting wind on a bike. And as for the National Gallery, there is something quite satisfying about popping in and casually cruising past some famous works and famous names, diverting one’s attention in pursuit of a coffee.

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Hanging outside the National Gallery of Australia, March 2009

8 – Sod it, Let’s go to the Coast

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Beach in Murramarang NP, October 2008

Okay not technically Canberra, but referring to Batemans Bay as Canberra-on-Sea has some justification. Australians’ slavish desire to worship beach frontage contributes to the high disregard attributed to the national capital. But I’ve obviously quite rightly made the argument that Canberra is closer to the coast than Western Sydney, once you take into account traffic and the all-round awfulness of Parramatta Road. And what a coast it has.

My first visit (and escape from Canberra) was at the end of September in 2006. A bus down Clyde Mountain to the Bay, hopping off at Broulee. It was a fortuitous choice, as Broulee is one of the best. Sweeping golden sand, rugged coastal forest, distant mountains. So much so that Broulee regularly comes back into play, on any fabled day trip that has been made many times since.

9 – Jesus of Suburbia

Canberra’s suburbs can be at one utopian and hellish. Ten years on, and it is still feasible that I could get lost in them. Essentially Canberra is a city of suburbs with some hills and a few important buildings in between. Many of them have politically inspired names, but I fail to distinguish between such places as Ainslie, Scullin, Theodore.

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Navigating the suburbs to Rocky Knob Park, April 2014

I’m currently in Phillip, which is either named after Governor Phillip or an expression the Duke of Edinburgh caught wind of a few times in boarding school. Before this I was in Red Hill, and this presented the best aspect of suburban living: leafy avenues, quiet crescents, popular schools, and cafes and shops a pleasant fifteen minute walk away. Often finding myself working at home, it was so easy to take a break, ogle at expensive houses, scrunch through leaves, dodge resident peacocks, and emerge to a bit of a view – and a bit of a titter – at Rocky Knob Park.

10 – The summit

It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me reasonably well that I save the best to last. Much like the crackling from a Sunday roast, for which fork stabbing is in order if anyone dares try nab it from my plate.

The last and best of Canberra’s things may come as no surprise either; my subject and muse, my meditation and therapy, my gym and inspiration, where the suburbs give way to a bushland ridge known collectively as Red Hill.

It’s possible it could have been another hill. But this was the first and will always be the best. Three days into the Canberra experience, a sunny Sunday and desperate to fend off jetlag, I opened the door and walked west. Kingston, Manuka, Forrest…the last luxurious homes giving way to Red Hill reserve. A summit climb, a coffee and cake, a special view. Nature, space, golden light, the excitement of a new city and new people below. The city may have become more familiar, the hair may have – ahem –mellowed, the people may have come and gone, the discoveries faded, but still I can be happily, contentedly, thanking my lucky stars upon this very hill today.

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Late light at Red Hill Nature Park, October 2007

Australia Green Bogey

Snow day

Yesterday, the morning proffered an icing of snow around the hilltops of Canberra. It is the closest that snow has got to my front door in ten years of life here. Usually, any frenzied anticipation that snow will fall is quickly dashed in much the same way it was in my childhood; Plymothian style cold rain mixed with just perhaps the odd sleety globule if you squint hard enough. But yesterday, if you got up early and aimed high, you might just have been able to build a dwarf snowman and get it featured on TV by an excitable ABC news crew.

Today, waking early despite a late evening watching bikes in France, checking my work emails to see practically no-one loved me, doing laundry by nine and wondering now what, I aimed higher. Up towards Corin Forest, but largely avoiding that school holiday playground which quickly descends into brown sludge and tears. I parked in mud and ice and ventured up onto the Smokers Trail. Not for a cheeky ciggie, but for a walk under deep blue skies and fresh eucalypt forest. Leaving a pioneering trail of steps imprinted in a few centimetres of powder, a journey capped off with a bucket of hot chips amongst the browning sludge and escalating tears. Today, off the beaten track, rewarded by chips, a perfect snow day.

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Australia Green Bogey Photography Walking

Some over the hill boulder dash

I have moved into the Woden valley. Good things about this include the fact that I have a wardrobe and my own bed for practically the first time in eight months, I can cycle home without having a stroke (I think), I can avail Westfield of its air conditioning and thickshakes, and – should I wish – I can sit on the couch in my pants without undue concern for the wellbeing of others. It’s not like I do that or anything…it’s just the idea that I could, if I really wanted to, that is so gratifying.

hills03Still, with every up there’s a down and I have lost mountain views. I have also moved into an area where there is a yappy dog. I only write about this now because I just heard it, again. I always seem to find myself in a neighbourhood with a yappy dog. I think everyone does. There seem to be yappy dogs everywhere these days, coming over here, taking our peace and quiet. They frequently pester me on Canberra nature walks too, usually roaming free because their owners don’t need to pay heed to the numerous signs regarding leads and wildlife protection and all that silly nonsense. Still, at least I can see the mountains on these walks, and the dog yapping can be tolerated with such rewards.

I love the view of the mountains even more than I really do love yappy dogs. Sure, they’re not in the same league as the gargantuan cones and precipices of Switzerland, but they offer a pleasing backdrop to Canberra, particularly as the sun fades and a long shadowy ridgeline contrasts with the purpling sky and flickering lights of comfortable suburbia. And while I can no longer see them from my dog-infested ghetto in the valley, there are numerous points near and far from which to admire the heights.

hills01Take Dairy Farmers Hill, which sits in the National Arboretum on the western fringe of Canberra. I cycled up here a few times in the past, but was usually too close to fainting to really appreciate the 360 degree panorama. Driving one evening with the comfort of air con was somewhat more agreeable. The sun dipping onto and over the Brindabellas offered a treat, while the proximate lumps of Black Mountain and Mount Ainslie received a farewell glow. There were no dogs.

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The thing about seeing the ranges to the west practically every day is that you eventually want to strike out for them and almost lose yourself in their lumpy ridgelines and tangled bushiness. It must be how those buffoons who tried to get over the Blue Mountains felt, impelled by an urge to see what is on the other side (cows as it turns out, who figured going round the mountains would  be far easier). These days, buffoons have Subarus and can churn their way up dirt tracks in Namadgi National Park to see if there are cows on the other side.

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hills07You don’t notice from afar, but these ranges are peppered with giant, rounded granite boulders stacked like clumps of frozen peas that have been left in the freezer for far too many years. These boulders congregate quite generously up on Orroral Ridge, where a series of slightly neglected tracks lead to rocks named for their resemblance to animals and people and other inanimate objects which aren’t rocks. Such is the profusion of rocks that geologists have wet dreams, climbers drool onto their harnesses, and random waifs and strays seeking mountain air delight in the summer coolness of virtual caves formed in the hollows of a cluster of boulders.

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Cooling rock hollows would have been most welcome on a separate foray into the wilds of Namadgi. Technically it was autumn by the time I made it down into the Orroral Valley and struck out on a much better trail to Nursery Swamp. But so far autumn has produced unyielding temperatures in the low to mid thirties and love for my newly acquired air conditioning. It’s weather that is great for drying washing, but by time I had washed and then hung said washing out it was nearing midday, and only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.

hills09I wasn’t expecting much from this walk – in truth it was something to do in a lull while my washing dried. Plus being practically the last remaining marked trail I hadn’t been on in Namadgi I felt a little obliged to complete it. The word ‘swamp’ was hardly enticing, with images of squelchy boggy plains, rotting carcasses and festering mosquitoes. But it was actually quite a delight, rising steadily through lofty Peppermint Gums, bypassing a few more giant boulders, and meandering through button grass and boardwalks under blue skies and fluffy clouds.

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hills11The swamp turns out to be a fen, as the information board at the end of the walk explained. I’m not really sure of the difference, but it was fairly less swampy than I imagined. A bench here overlooked a river of vivid green grass, lapping at tall forest and rocky outcrops. Being now beyond midday it was the perfect place for a simple homemade sandwich and, once again, for all the expensive meals and gourmet plate ups*, can there be anything more satisfying than a bushwalk sandwich? I don’t think so.

Thus, even in the heart of these enduring mountains, with their magnetic heights and silhouetted ridgelines sit divine little glades like this. So, while the mountains can be marvelled at, the views readily lapped up, here’s to the valleys of this world; contented spots with a bit of simple tucker and lack of yappy dogs.

* On a complete tangent, I was in a cafe recently and someone ordered some “activated muesli”. WTF? Do they shake the muesli up in its box before serving? I noted a price tag of $14.50 to seriously activate your wallet.

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Winter warmers

There are plenty of ways to warm up during an Australian winter. Koala soup; scenic coal-fired electric blankets; just living practically anywhere apart from inland uplands, exposed southern promontories and frigid deserts. Only in the bleakest of places does a winter bite, the bleakest of places and Canberra.

QJun01Yet even within touching distance of the capital’s shivering legoland suburbs you can work up a sweat and work off a sweater. Climbing seven hundred metres or so, rising from the valley mists into a blue stratosphere, toward the crown of Mount Tennent. A steady grind with the sun on your back, the consequences clear in the comfort of short sleeves. And warmed all the more by vistas providing a positive effort:reward ratio so critical to the success of a good tramp.

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Meanwhile, back, again, in Queensland the effort required for such warmth is negligible. Brisbane may experience a fog but it barely lingers. It is quite comfortable – actually very comfortable indeed – to sit beside the river and eat a slab of cake alfresco. This place has been a second home of late, but despite this being my fourth visit in the space of a month I still cannot acclimatise sufficiently like the locals to wear a scarf without feeling entirely fraudulent. Fare thee well Brisbane, you have been good for my core temperature and bank balance, but your City Cycles are terribly uncomfortable.

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One more week of work to go, one more week to go. That was what I was telling myself walking over the craggy hills and gentle sands of Magnetic Island. But, being on that island, it was hard not to think that I was on holiday already. I believe it may be down to the palm trees by the beach, or the strip of outdoor cafes at Horseshoe Bay, or the one road linking a few small towns in which most other people are on some kind of temporary or permanent holiday. Even the presence of backpackers adds to the mood that the only thing for it is to swing in a hammock.

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Possibly because Brisbane was not warm enough, work brought me north to Townsville, handily coinciding with a weekend in which to kill some time. So I grabbed the ferry across to the island and spent a wonderful day or two upon its shores. Saturday may have clouded over, but there was ample time to gently reacquaint myself with tropical forests and colourful birds, the briefest of sunsets and the longest of beers. Acclimatisation into that hammock holiday-minded state.

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QJun07But it was the Sunday that was super, cloudless throughout, though with a morning freshness that made the walking all the more pleasurable. Commencing with a wake up coffee by the beach in Horseshoe Bay, it was over one hill to one fine beach, over another to the next, and onward and upward to lookouts galore. A substantially energetic loop walk that topped out around The Forts – a series of wartime installations plonked atop the forest in a tasteful rendition of Plymouth city centre style concrete. Obviously here because of the commanding views, but the koalas didn’t seem to care whether the Japanese were coming or not.

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Qjun09With the satisfaction and accomplishment of a walk complete, a late lunch of salt and pepper calamari beside the water will suffice thank you very much. Oh, and ice cream, of course. I am feeling like I am on holiday after all. So much so, that as Sunday dwindles and the prospect of Monday creeps up, I do not want to leave. The late sun glows and dips and fades and the stars and moon twinkle as blue turns to black. Yet still I am comfortable in shorts, and with another end of day beer in hand.

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Happily Monday brought some drizzle and the transition back to work was reasonably comfortable in Townsville. But there was an abrupt decline in its standard as I re-located south, to Dubbo. On the plus side though this was not as bad as I expected, but then I expected little. The people were nice, I found a good coffee, and squeezed in a pleasant riverside walk. But I was ready to get out of there and, temporarily, get home.

Qjun11And so, the climatic rollercoaster finally shifted into Sydney, for one night only and then onto Canberra. Sydney was putting on its sparkling look-at-me face, demonstrating a pretence at winter that is misaligned with the comfort of not needing a coat. I was even able to brave an ice cream, sadly. Canberra, meanwhile, had its morning shroud of cold and cloud, but cleared to its best fresh hue of blue. One more week, one more week of keeping warm, and then a northern summer will bless me again.

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Greenish and golden

IMG_6743There comes a point in January when people pause to consider what it means to be Australian. This usually occurs on or around the anniversary of a few hundred boatpeople from Great Britain arriving to “nothing but bush” (to quote the minister for Indigenous Australians and His Lordship Prime Minister of the Monarchical Colony of Australian Subjects). Considered writings of pride, of angst, of hope, of uncertainty litter the newspapers and infiltrate the electronic graffiti of the twittersphere. For the common man – let’s call him Shane – the Australian essence is commemorated through the bite of a lamb chop from a gas barbecue the size of a truck, a youthful discussion of rising intonation about the best 100 songs involving people with beards lamenting at life, or a day in front of the TV watching tennicrickcycletfooty with a so-cold-it-hurts beer.

IMG_6732While I could brave a venture into the question ‘What does it mean to be Australian?’  I neither have the will nor the current brainpower to go down this path. It may be I am suffering from that particularly laconic strand of Australianism that arises specifically at this time of year – the can’t really be arsed is it still the holidays period. I’m also in the dubious position of not really being a proper Australian, not really, even though the flag of my country of birth is still emblazed like some badge of imperial approval upon yours. All I can say is that I feel lucky, immensely lucky, to be a part of you, attached to your deep blue skies, your sandy shores, your withering white gum trees, and your mostly generous and progressive people.

IMG_6759I feel lucky, on most days, to be in Canberra. Yes really! A capital you have built in little over one hundred years from sun and frost-baked plains and bush-tangled hills. You really ought to be a little prouder of this achievement, especially because you have left some of those bush-tangled hills alone. The sweeping roundabouts and nationalist edifices now scattered across the plains are looking particularly fine as well, what with the regular stormy soakings keeping the grass nice and green. A summer of such generous rainfall that it could almost be British. How soothing.

IMG_7049Despite such impertinence, the sun still shines most days here, and for that I am grateful. The slight irony is that I write this looking out of my window on grey accompanied by a cool 17 degrees only. But this is surely a blip, for other days have offered ample warm sunshine before the storms. Conditions in which I can enjoy your verdant lawns and embrace your rising humidity. To climb bushland hills and swing golf clubs very amateurishly. To cycle alongside the water and sip coffee with the hipsters. To be that most Australian of creatures and watch sport; and not just any sport, but cricket, and cricket in an atmosphere of cleverly articulated critique of the opposing English team. Pommie-bashing I think you call it, and too bloody right.

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Despite being curiously enamoured here, I feel lucky that Australia is a very big country beyond its capital. Just up the road, a mere three hours, is where – if you conveniently ignore 50,000 years of human occupation and quite ingenious cultivation and care of the land – it all started. 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney, Australia. Ah Sydney, that icon of iconic sights on iconic marketing campaigns that seek to invoke envy. As much as I try to find holes in it, to unstitch its veneer of perfection, to cut down such a tall poppy, I stumble upon its harbour shores and return to a state of complicit adoration.

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IMG_6752It’s been a little while since I have seen you Sydney, and I enjoyed your company. I enjoyed seeing friends and playing in parks and being temporarily transformed into a mermaid at Greenwich baths. I enjoyed nine more amateurish holes of golf and the cold beer that followed. I enjoyed Bondi lunch and Coogee brunch and Crow’s Nest salted caramel gelato (on two occasions). I enjoyed getting on a boat at Bronte, but, alas, not making it out onto the open sea. And I really, really enjoyed catching the ferry across the harbour on a warm Saturday night and having a few drinks as the sun set behind the old coat hanger and reddened the discarded prawn shells atop its giant typewriter.

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From excess the next morning was consequently less enjoyable, as was the traffic on Military Road, and the frequent T-shirt changing humidity, and just the general busyness of beachside suburbs on warm and sunny January weekends. Such congestion in a continent with vast emptiness is a stark juxtaposition. There is no doubt comfort in this metropolitan hubbub – a civilisation, a taming, a sense of being and belonging to others. Perhaps it is a feeling of security and protection from the wild endless uncertainty of what lies inland that keeps you – that keeps us – mostly clinging onto the coastal extremities.

IMG_7121As a more recent entrant upon this giant landmass I feel blessed that I can maintain a comfortable, civilised, and invariably cultured urban existence while still being easily belittled by nature. I can live in a clean, safe, prosperous city scattered with sweeping roundabouts and take one of the exits towards nothingness. Though for nothingness read abundance. An abundance of gum trees and hills and high plains in Namadgi, from which rocky outcrops pierce an abundant blue sky. A plethora of grasses and wildflowers emerging in swampy hollows, the weeds also thriving in a show of acceptance and egalitarianism. A setting for black cockatoos and butterflies to float in the air, riding the breeze upon which small white clouds cluster and vanish.

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Clouds which may reappear again to water the lawns around the National Gallery, or dispense rain into falls and gorges around Bungonia. Landscapes that were once seas and took 450 million years to come to this. Wildness and natural drama that is but 30 minutes from a coffee and a peppermint slice and an inexplicable giant concrete sheep. The developed and the untamed, living side by side in something hopefully approaching harmony. This is the fortune I feel at being in this place at this time, around Australia Day.

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The twelve themes of Christmas

On twelve days after Christmas, my true love gave to me, another serve of leftover Christmas pudding with valiant Tasmanian attempts at clotted cream. By then it was 2015, and I was thinking that this indulgence really needed to come to an end. But the Australian Christmas seems a more elongated affair, blending as it does with summer holidays which creep all the way to Australia Day at the end of January. I say this every year, but Christmas in Australia is still somewhat bizarre and while I adore the lazy holiday feel and the addition of fine seafood to the agenda, a large part of me craves a good windy winter storm and a good windy dose of roast potatoes and Brussels sprouts.

While there are obvious differences between the Australian and European Christmas experiences, both are obsessed with a crazy excess of food. And so a day or so prior to Christmas I had acquired an esky full of crisps and nuts, chocolates and puddings. A fridge full to capacity with ham and sausage rolls and cream and cheese and (just for a touch of balance) fruit and salad. Longevity was the name of the game for the ham, and the hidden orange Christmas pudding (serves 10), took me alone a whole week to devour. In some way I was glad to see them go, but also a little wistful that they were no longer a part of my life.

Christmas Day itself was a suitably multifarious affair, bringing together the Australian, the Anglo, and the Italian. The day commenced with what any good day should – a walk up Red Hill in preparation for calorific overload – before a relaxing hour of reading and an early shandy with nibbles at home. jan01From then on the eating proceeded with a mostly seafood lunch involving the largest prawns ever created, sweets, desserts, nibbles, barbecue, sweets, snacks, more nibbles, etc. Presents were unwrapped, outdoor chairs were reclined, family discussions were robust. And to cap the day, I came home for a touch more nourishment and a little drink to lubricate the Skype calls to Europe.

By New Year’s Eve, some food stocks were depleting and I needed to buy more provisions from the supermarket to prepare salads and desserts for an excellent few hours of outdoor pool soaking, meaty barbecuing, and, well, dessert-eating. It was here that the tiramisu I made delivered everything I wanted and more; better than the Italians’ creation (soaking time was important after all) and more satisfying than watching the Sydney fireworks on the TV. Is it me, or was someone just shuffling through their iTunes playlist and skipping tracks they didn’t like that much while some crackers went off to fill the night sky with smoke? There was some discussion on the news the next day (post 11am) that London may be giving Sydney a run for its money in the New Year firework stakes. Again, the natural advantage that is that beautiful harbour may well be a cause of complacency.

jan02There have been some natural and arguably more spectacular fireworks anyway. The hot dry summer which occurred in November has now been usurped by a north Queensland period of sunny, sultry mornings building to climatic storms and downpours later in the day. The pattern has been so recurrent that the days are becoming almost entirely tediously predictable, and so activities (unless they involve storm-chasing) are almost best undertaken in the mornings.

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Fortunately, for the prospect of my cholesterol and obesity levels, I have been able to engage in decent amounts of exercise over the holiday period. In part, this is merely an extension of my normal life and having lots of time to do things in, rather than some hyped-up resolve to get fit. Local walks are a normative feature of the days. Most frequently of course this has involved trips to Red Hill reserve, where all is well with just about everything and everyone. But such has been the excess of free time that I have even sought out walks elsewhere!

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One such place was Cooleman Ridge, which obviously is not as good as Red Hill but – being on the western edge of Canberra – has a more pastoral aspect. Hobby horses and scattered cows dot the fields, still relatively golden despite the stormy interludes. Somewhere yonder the brown waters of the Murrumbidgee laze, splitting the tamed grassland with the bush-tangled upward thrust of the Bullen Range. Further west and the larger mountains of the Brindabellas hit the sky, ever-present and ever-enticing.

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It was up into these hills that a more substantial adventure transpired in between serves of Christmas pudding and tiramisu. A mountain walk along the high borders of the ACT and NSW, taking in the summit of Mount Gingejan07ra (1,855m), offered the perfect antidote to Christmas torpor. And it wasn’t even too difficult – the first six kilometres along a fire trail with interruptions for forest views, bird sightings, flower-filled glades, blue-tongued lizards and lunch beside a rickety mountain hut.

The remaining kilometre to the rocky outcrop capping the mountain was a more steadfastly uphill affair, the trees giving way to grasses and sphagnum moss and more flowery glades and the odd snow gum. The views increasingly opened out to reveal vast wilderness stretching west and south, and even east, at least until you could see the tack-like tower atop Black Mountain, looking diminutive in comparison to the ridges of bushland lain out before it.

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Being in the interlude between Christmas and New Year, the feats of energy required to climb a mountain were intrinsically counterbalanced with a delightful stop on the journey home. Emerging from the car fridge three cool beers, trophies of conquest to accompany crackers, cheese, ham, nuts, dips, vegetables and pickles. Extra weight to provide extra grip as the car wound back down the gravel of Brindabella Road.

Beyond the walks, the bike continues to receive attention and while the category 4 climbs have been a bit absent of late (attempted once in the midst of the Christmas pudding / tiramisu jan09period with less than impressive results), it has been nice to venture lakeside and use a bicycle as a functional means of attaining coffee and shopping. A day spent re-visiting some of the national attractions was ideal by bike, and trips to town are scenic and satisfying, despite the fact that this means entering stores glistening and red-faced.

And if all that wasn’t sporty enough, golf has become a feature on the agenda of late, aided by the light evenings and cheaper twilight rates. Surprisingly, my game has been passable and there have even been a few shots to remember. Alas, such is golf that it seems the more you play, the more the bad habits return, and the memory of why this is such an utterly infuriating but addictive endeavour becomes real again.

So it seems that the holidays have been reasonably active, but for every climb up Red Hill there is an afternoon nap. For every pedal along the lake, a stretch out on the settee, reading and infrequently observing cricket in the background. I enjoy this time but also feel sometimes like I should be using it more productively. This is when writing may kick in, whether something inarticulate about my boring life over the Christmas holidays, recollections of trips of the past, or deliberations on the month of January. I’ve found some of the writing to be particularly pleasurable in an old-fashioned pencil and notepad kind of way, from a blanket in the Botanic Gardens to a bench down by the Cotter River. However, the scale of my endeavours has been, at best, average. Prolificacy bears no correlation to time availability.

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Part of the problem has been other distractions. Distractions that are entirely self-created and – if you were to analyse it – may symbolise a deliberate intent to enhance procrastination and delay doing something that sounds like it could entail hard work.  Morning coffee is a distraction, particularly when it has involved trying to find an alternative venue while your regular favourites are closed over the holidays. Visits to the Westfield shopping mall are a distraction, though I feel only I am partly to blame here, having been kindly provided with vouchers to spend. And technology, always a distraction. More so when you spill a whole cup of tea over your iphone and unfortunately have to upgrade, and then spend several days visiting the Westfield shopping mall to get a protective, tea-resistant cover (picking up a takeaway coffee whilst there).

Alas, the interference from technology and its associated expense may mean that time availability will have to decrease at some point reasonably soon. Living off my pre-Christmas earnings will not last forever, as much as I want it to. This is not helped too with the purchase of a new body (for my camera) and an almost slavish desperation to travel to some places sometime in 2015. But still, I have a day at the cricket, a trip to Sydney, and it is Australia Day weekend soon enough. No need to do anything too drastic just yet, the year is still but a baby.

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Icing sugar sprinkles

In three weeks time my inevitable annual trip to the northern hemisphere will have commenced. That is, barring the outbreak of world war three or whatever else the supposedly evolutionary pinnacle that is humankind has cocked up. I am, of course, looking forward to it; not only for cheese and family and summery walks and clotted cream and friends and pork pies and a few spots of gorgeousness, but also to have some interesting blog content and potential calendar pictures gathered!

Fortunately just the odd foray in this massive place called Australia keeps things ticking over on here. But, more so, the changing seasons become a theme, a response to (relatively) being in situ and watching the world around me change. And the seasons are a-changeable, something which may, or may not, support the wild ramblings of those crazed climate warriors, aka pretty much everyone in the profession of science. Scientists, with their fact and reason and logic, what have they ever done for us anyway!

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Winter in Canberra is a curious beast. Blissful sunny days can be as pleasant as any a spring day in southern England, and you can still rightfully take a somewhat bemused perspective on the common discourse of winter, taking place in snug coffee shops amongst people with double quilted scarves and rapidly disappearing Ushankas. Call that a knife, er, I mean call that cold? You know nothing Bruce. But then when that sun goes, down for the night, or behind steel grey clouds blown from the west, winter reminds us of its chill.

snow10I may not know through typical absence, but winter here this year seems to be a little less sunny and with a touch more in the way of squally bitter winds coming off the mountains and hills. Indeed, the Brindabella Ranges have more than once now had a nice dusting of snow, all accessible in about 40 minutes or so, depending on the high likelihood of traffic.

I wish the snow came down further to coat the city streets and make new Senators even more querulous about their decision to become a Senator, compelled to sit in Canberra in midwinter. I mean, if we are going to have a winter to endure, at least make it a fairytale one with snowy streets and people frolicking with their sleds and drinking mulled wine and perhaps even indulging in warming things like cheese fondue around a log fire. At least that was the sentiment I was trying to convey when the ABC News reporter accosted me amongst the beautiful white world of Corin Forest and understandably left me on the cutting-room floor.

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One of the many good things about snow is that it is one of only two words in the English language that is associated with being dumped. We have had several good dumps recently, up in the hills, and I returned once more over the weekend to see what had been dumped. Unlike the first foray there was no ABC News crew around but, more importantly, the sun was out in one of those sublimely blue sky days that only come in winter. The snow had melted somewhat – the dump was on Thursday I think, but then, who keeps track of their dumps? – though pockets remained to enliven the forest.

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snow07Frozen paths gradually thawed into that horrid mud slime as I made my way to the outlook at Square Rock. It can be a drag, that walk, but the snow made it clearly more distinctive than usual, offering up plenty of natural rest breaks to stop and take stock, to hear the birds, to spy the wattle, and to breathe in the eucalypt air. And then there is a reward at the top, where that blue sky meets the icing sugar dusted mountains, endless gum trees filling the void below. It is a fine stop for a couple of digestives and a Freddo Frog basking on a squarish rock.

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And so, that is winter, perhaps the winter blog post. I think I made it fairly wintry, given the constraints of wintriness that exist in Australia. Next for me will be summer, though including likely rainstorms and snow lying around higher alpine climes, followed by spring and then summer again. I told you the climate was topsy-turvy, and I’m not even a scientist!

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The rains of Canberra

rains7Today I set out to prove that a picture does not always tell a thousand words. That’s because every picture here will show a pleasingly sunny state of affairs whilst in this guff of words and nonsense I will harp on about the rain. The last month or so has been pretty wet, or, as I fondly remember overheard last year in New Zealand, a but wit. This may, or may not, account for a lack of activity writing about things and taking pretty pictures; this, and an uncharacteristic propensity for hard labour.

rains4One week was pretty much written off with insipid dullness, peppered with blanket drizzle and occasional cloudy breaks. Another – spent working in Sydney – was invariably grey with a spot of rain and the odd fleeting sighting of white cloud. I suppose it is good working weather, and good whinging weather. Everyone says I should be use to it (whinging or the weather?), being from England, ho ho ho. But as I respond with varying degrees of snarkiness, I didn’t come to Australia for this! Mind you, there is something to be said for re-experiencing a very British style perseverance through the gloom to genuinely revel in the brighter interludes.

It all began sometime in March, when it was still fairly sultry with generous thunderstorms. Soaked and saturated, an early Saturday morning heralded the first fogs of the season, parting and re-forming as the sun battled to force its way through. It offered a beautiful accompaniment all the way down into Namadgi National Park and the Orroral Valley. From here, I astounded myself by walking 18 kilometres and being back in time for lunch; a circular walk up the valley and back down along a ridge. And I stayed dry throughout, with some liberal provision of sunshine to still redden my face.

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Towards the end of March, a week came and went in which the sun barely materialised at all. It was a frustrating week, with only opportunity for short, raincoat-clad ambles around the withering suburban streets in between the fronts of drizzle that were passing through. It was a week in which to read, to binge watch DVDs, to escape to coffee shops and come home with the smell of beef stew in the oven. There are always some plus sides to be had.

rains5For two or three hours at the end of that week, the clouds said goodbye for a while and blue sky reminded us of what a wonderful thing it is. I made off to the Botanic Gardens, a place in which it is hard to tire, especially when beaming in such wholesome sunshine. Ironically, the sprinklers decided the rainforest needed a little more rain to mist the place up. The desert garden was feeling a little out of place, but the plants were as happy as could be. And, sat in the sun for a while before it once more passed, so was I.

Canberra does not have a monopoly on rain and Sydney too was on good terms with cloud and precipitation. There was something nice about being there though, and milling about purposefully in the city like some suited up hotshot. One dry evening allowed a stroll down to Circular Quay, where even cloud cannot diminish the twinkling lights of the city, the bridge and the opera house upon the harbour. And though coffee choices that I made were a little below par, there was some good glamorous Westfield food court eating (for once, not being sarcastic here: Pitt St Mall provided a delicious roast pork dinner with, for once, ample crackling, plus there was a rather fine burger with the best chips ever and also a visit to the David Jones food hall for agreeable takeaway cake eating options).

It was a long old week and I was looking forward to returning home to Canberra, despite a weekend forecast for rain at times, clearing. Majestically, the clearing happened sooner rather than later and that was a week ago. Since then it has been how autumn should be. Imperious, a blue sky clarity sharpened by the fluffy white of small passing clouds. Pleasant temperatures, dipping in the evening just for the enjoyment of heartening dinners and snug sleeps. Green, so green, incredibly brought home by the flight back over this wide green land. And blushing at the seams as the colours of autumn magically weave their way into the streets and leave me staring up at trees being ransacked by birds.  It takes the rains to make this happen, for we must pass through the darkness, to reach the light.

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