One year

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.

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The doorstep

A habit of mine is to go for a walk somewhere every day of the week. Or at least try to, even if this is a little amble to the shops or a trudge through puddles in a park. It’s a habit easily fed in Canberra, where leafy suburbia intermingles with random patches of bushland and sprawling hilltop reserves, usually rising under big blue skies. I can walk out of my door and be in any number of spots that hardly feel as though they are in the middle of a city: trees and birds and kangaroos and a horizon of mountain wilderness espied in the west.

This habit bordering on obsession can become a little harder in the UK, which is surprising when you consider all the public footpaths and country lanes and bridleways and muddy fields marked on an Ordnance Survey map. British cities are denser and usually grimier and most definitely wetter, meaning a walk from the doorstep often requires a little deeper investigation, a tad more imagination, and a dose of good luck. Like finding the slightly cottagey lanes of Compton Vale in Plymouth or clumps of woodland on a steep highway embankment, or the spooky cemeteries of Janners past.

Of course, with a car the options open up exponentially, but so too do the speed cameras and the filter lanes and the traffic lights and the roundabouts clogged with cars rarely indicating. It can be a bit of a chore to get out of Plymouth for a walk, but once you make it the world is pretty much your oyster. Until the next village with a parade of speed bumps and cattle grids.

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The roundabout at Roborough is a significant, welcome milestone in the escape from Plymouth; a conduit between giant superstores and industrial estates and the rambling wilds and shady valleys of Dartmoor National Park. This is Plymouth’s backyard and, once you get there, a fairly quiet one away from the usual honeypots and ice cream traps.

Even on a sunny Saturday – admittedly a bracingly cold Saturday for early May – the moor was more than ample to soak up the extra ramblers and cyclists and trippers tripping on cream teas. This includes an additional fellow in young Leo, who was adamant he was coming with us for a walk and, of course, ended up being carried the whole way. Kids, huh?!

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The walk near Princetown felt a far cry from the city, all empty and remote, a desolate bleakness intensified by the icy wind casting sun and cloud patterns upon the barren brown moors. Yet here civilisation creeps in, or at least tries for a while. The solitary austere brick structure of Nun’s Cross Farm stands resolute, providing a little shelter in the lee of the wind to tame Leo’s hair. Rather than a blight on the landscape, it seems to fit, offering as much a representation of life on the moor as ponies and tumbling clusters of granite…

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…And clotted cream teas. After such an frigid walk can there be anything more delightful than a log fire, buttery scones, pots of tea and the usual trimmings? It’s not like I planned the walk around this or anything, it just happened to be nearby, and we were hungry, and well… There is only so much rugged emptiness one can take. What’s the point of walking if you can’t get to enjoy it?!

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———————————————–

Back through that roundabout at Roborough within the city of Plymouth, there is a pocket of countryside on the banks of the Plym, wedged between the Devon Expressway and the South Hams Tractortrack. It’s ideal for a pre-dinner stroll or – better still – post-dinner, when Emmerdale, Coronation Street and Eastenders zap the brain cells of millions of devoted followers. Saltram is a gracious property boasting copious, succulent Devonian land, including plenty of woodland pockets in which Mr Darcy can brood.

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Saltram has its trails but is not without its trials. First off, National Trust property, which means the good people of busybody parkingland can’t wait to rob you of gold. For all the wonderful things the National Trust provides, it all seems a little exorbitant to me…I can’t help but feel some of the charges are siphoned off to some sycophantic Daily Telegraph fundraiser to install the natural heir to Churchill as PM. That dog from the TV ads.

The other thing with Saltram is that it takes a circuitous effort to reach by car, navigating a manic roundabout whose lanes disappear into a wormhole, and then a slip lane clogged with cars turning into Lidl for a pint of milk or 60 inch flat screen. Such is the travail of the journey, the prospect of digging into your life savings to park, and – should you mistime – the odorous tidal pong of the River Plym, that Saltram can prove a frustrating affair.

hm06Or it can be wonderful, arriving a little before rush-hour and just after the parking attendant has gone home. This yields a quiet fist pump of glee and a good mood in which to walk the parklands. Along the river, the tide is high and holding on, and clouds part to release the sun. Forget the roar of traffic along the Embankment, and the mould-tinged sails of Sainsburys, and focus instead on the flourishing green of the woods and bounteous swathes of wild garlic. Embrace the chirping birds and walk with the hope of encountering a deer.

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hm08Look down upon manicured fields and be thankful that this is indeed upon your doorstep. A doorstep in which the land and sea meets, producing conditions that are often frustrating but usually fruitful. Beyond the chav-filled potholes of the city, a land of strawberries and cream or raspberries and cream or just cream goddammit.

A daily walk is an obsession not for the air, nor for the nature, nor for the killing of time in a rather pleasant way. A daily walk is the only way I can try to keep that goddam luscious cream off!

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Making moments – the epitaph south

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.

D1Fast-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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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One final thing to cross off

With all the marvellous travelling with Dad, all the sights and sounds of late, from a harbour island to a smoky cape, along waterfall ways and luxuriant bays, climbing plateaus and canoeing among glades, Easter arrived in something of a haste. Waking at the campground in Warrumbungle National Park on Good Friday, I was glad to have ticked off that special walk last night and ready to tackle the final stretch home.

D7I 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.

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Making moments – 1

This blogging malarkey can be daunting, overwhelming. At times it seems to be a burden, a self-imposed millstone around my neck that I started ages ago and cannot quite shake off. This is especially the case when you have just crammed in an epic few weeks with your Dad exploring as much as you can of a small part of the gargantuan landmass of Australia. So many photos to try and fix up a little with the inept tools provided by Windows 10. So many words to write. So many opportunities to be mildly humorous and maddeningly self-deprecating. Where do I start?

The thing is, I know when I do start to write that I can get into a groove. I enjoy it. Partly I am writing to myself; a record, a reminiscence. Like anyone, I can prosper through purple patches of prodigious prose and struggle in sufferance stringing sentences into some semblance of structure. Alliteration might be a side-effect. A cold beer can provide aid, something I was going to get twenty minutes ago before I got distracted by writing these last two paragraphs.

So, I actually found a remaining Kirin Cider in the fridge and with the influence of a little Japanese Zen (hic) decided that the best way to approach things is through the time-honoured application of baby steps. Baby steps that are moments that are recollections that will stand the test of time. In effect a highlights reel, starting with a ride from Canberra up the coast of New South Wales

– – – Canberra on the rise – – –

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In March Canberra is nearing its annual state of perfection. The mornings become crisper, the air calmer, the flora and fauna engaging in a frenetic dalliance before things quieten down. In the month in which Canberra was born, Canberra is reborn from the fierce heat and drawn-out holidays of summer. Canberra celebrates with lights and fireworks and food and balloons. One elongated fiesta.

It is an early Saturday morning and the clear air of dawn is steadily lightening down by Old Parliament House. At such an hour it is almost an affront to battle for a car park and find yourself immersed into a hubbub of people, cars, and brightly coloured material lain upon dewy grass. The roar of a gas flame is like a road train rumbling into your dreams, awakening the slumber as much as it is enlivening balloons. Lumps of bright red and vivid green begin to emerge from the encircling crowds. Bulbous spheres and irregular shapes take form; a helmet, a heart, a frog, a bird. It turns out – like us – hot air balloons come in all shapes and sizes.

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From the east, the first balloon ascends peacefully, almost unnoticed, into the air. This precipitates a flurry of activity as everyone follows its lead. Like bubbles effervescing from a newly opened raspberry lemonade, one after the other pop up into the deep blue sky. There must be twenty, thirty…where they all came from goodness only knows. And even though you have seen this before and will probably see it again, it leaves you mesmerised, as enchanted as the four-year-old by your side. And all before breakfast.

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– – –  Being Mr Harbourside non-mansion in Sydney – – –

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Memories are rarely made of drives up the Hume Highway and M5 and certainly not along the A3 towards Ryde. The sparkling city of Sydney struggles under the burden of traffic and industry spreading across its sprawling suburbs, a long way from the Qantas songs atop harbour bridges and Paul Hogan leisurely cremating prawns by the beach. Eventually, increasing proximity to the city’s famed water is signified by gentrification and then ostentatious wealth, passing through salubrious homes nestled into Hunters Hill and lining the water at Greenwich. And all this can be yours – well maybe not all this – for $89 a night.

What you do get on Cockatoo Island is a spacious tent, a couple of far from plump mattresses and some fold up chairs to lounge upon the deck. Water is never far away, meaning that ferry rides are a necessary mode of transport. After exploring some of the fascinating buildings and shipbuilding remnants upon the island, you can catch a late afternoon ferry towards the city, truly glistening in the sinking sun. Along the way you are reminded that – despite the exclusive homes with private moorings – so much of this waterfront is accessible to all. And while I am sure there are some fancy enclaves for rich people dressed up very smartly, practically anyone can buy a drink down at the Opera Bar and pretend they are a millionaire.

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In hindsight it seems perverse to think we were going to give Sydney a miss on this trip, partly because of the Sydney of M5s and A3s and its procession of diesel haulage and concrete junctions. To bypass is to miss the opportunity for the Sydney of Qantas songs atop harbour bridges. To bathe in its icons and soak in its unashamedly self-satisfied ambience. To sample the transformation as the sun goes down and the illuminations glow. To feast on a delicious dinner that didn’t involve a camp stove or washing up in the dark. And to ride back upon the water, under that bridge, as the skyline of the city lights stretch out onto the horizon and an $89 mansion awaits.

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– – –  Reaching a Zenith in Port Stephens – – –

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Getting out of Sydney the following day was better than expected. But then where does Sydney really end? The Central Coast almost seems an extension of the sprawl of the city, one which proves infuriating when you veer off the main motorway. Places like The Entrance, Toukley, Swansea, Charlestown and – finally – Newcastle blend into one elongated strip of shops, retirement homes, caravan parks, lagoons and exceedingly sandy, exposed (in more than one way) beaches.

Myself underestimating the scale of Australia and its distractions along the way, it wasn’t until late afternoon that Dad and I reached our destination in Port Stephens. And though missing spectacular sunset skies while waiting for fish and chips was symptomatic of the day that had been, the saviour came in Zenith Beach. Wedged underneath the volcanic-shaped mound of Tomaree Head, its fine white sand, foot-soothing water and refreshing air was just the tonic after a day in a car, a day amply washed down by fish and chips in the dark.

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– – –  Shooting for the stars at Hat Head – – –

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A09While memories can be magnified or maligned by multiple visits, there is something special about breaking new ground. A stop around South West Rocks and Hat Head National Park provided many highlights, one of them being that this was new territory for me, Dad and the car. We all quite liked the drive alongside the Macleay River, with its green watery pastures, tiny weatherboard towns and cowbirds. We all liked a lot less the potholes around the national park campground by the beach. We were fond of the lighthouse and its views, but not so keen to traverse a rough track to some mythical walking trail. Still, if we hadn’t switched to a different walk we might have missed the sun going down. Everything works out for the best in the end.

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With the sun vanquished, cooking by torchlight is not the easiest experience in the world but when it’s a simple one pot taco feast the satisfaction is all the greater. Following such sumptuousness at home there’s a fair chance we would lounge back, probably unhitch the belt a notch and – depending on context – watch His Royal Highness Danny Dyer whack some bleedin’ tool good and proper in Eastenders. In a rustic camp with a pit toilet and little else, entertainment is on an altogether more monumental scale. Look at the stars, look how they shine for you.

A12The beach is pitch black barring the beam of light circling upon the lighthouse. The sound of waves suggest ocean somewhere vaguely nearby, a roar magnified without any other disturbance at night. The sea breeze is cooling and evaporative, seemingly keeping the blood-sucking bugs at bay. The fine sand sustains a tripod and the sky offers an infinite, ever-expanding canvas. The photos may not have turned out brilliant, but the shared experience, the learning, the new adventure was. I daresay it was even better than Eastenders. And on that bombshell, bom, bom, bom, bom-bu-bu-bu-bum.

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