In what can only be taken as a positive sign, I will soon need a visit to a petrol station. The last such experience was on Monday 13th September at 10:20am, a level of precision recorded in posterity – or at least for one month – by the magic of QR code. Looking back at it now, it felt a risky manoeuvre at the time, beyond the boundaries of my self-administered geographical bubble, justified in my mind by being significantly cheaper and twinned with the prospect of a different coffee shop. It was quite the holiday.
Since that date, the petrol gauge dipped in small increments only to hasten in more recent days. Friday 1st October granted the freedom for human beings to enter national parks – or a national park more precisely – and outlying nature reserves within the boundaries of the ACT. Just in time for a long weekend that would see newfound lovers of national parks and nature reserves flock to suffocate them with their devotion.
I was primed to wait, to let the suddenly-engaged nature enthusiasts have their maskless moment in the sun. But then I awoke early on the Monday – infuriatingly early given daylight savings had just kicked in – and saw an opportunity too good to pass.
An open road had been an object of desire for many weeks. Being Canberra there have been empty roads and there have been open vistas but never have these situations quite provided that sensation of travelling in a landscape. Of countryside flying past your window in an everchanging composition of shapes and colours and light and space. Each second a unique expression of time and place curated for your eyes only.
And what expressions of time and place these proved. Just out of town on the road to Tharwa, a countryside cloaked in misty lingerings and golden dew. Sturdy ranges rise up from sweeping grasslands, scattered with the withered trunks and branches of old gum tree. Cows and sheep and the odd outbuilding catch the eye, mere dots on a magnificent green canvas stretching to the sky. And oh how green.
If I were restrained within a bubble for but a few minutes this sight would still make my heart sing. And now that it is here again, I want it all the more.
I can leave the car and venture out on foot into the fringes of Namadgi National Park. Already at the Visitor Centre a dozen or so cars are parked up as their inhabitants embrace the outdoors. The trail – worn from good rains and the numerous footsteps of a long weekend – cuts a muddy swathe towards the looming summit of Mount Tennent, still capped by its own personal cloud. Today, that exertion is far from my goal. I want to linger and learn.
For all the joyous expansiveness of the landscape, topped off with flask tea on a seat at the Cypress Pine Lookout, I am distracted, fascinated, heartened by the more miniscule. The work of nature overcoming winter, recovering from fire, embracing spring. All emerging into the world once more.
One of my attempts at Lockdown 2 Self Improvement Projects has been aligned to the season and the pursuit (and somewhat more challenging identification) of our native wildflowers. Provided with generous encouragement and impetus, I have found this a satisfying, almost addictive pursuit, one that can easily turn an hour walk into two.
So, from the fragrant myrtles to the delicate orchids, the indecipherable varieties of pea to the bulbous generosity of golden lilies, there is so much to discover. Far and near, it truly is spectacular how much you can see when you actually look. Checking out as much as checking in.
Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t say I’m especially fond of a cracked phone screen on top of a magpie attack on top of an earthquake on top of a lockdown on top of a pandemic. Served up with a hearty dollop of impending nuclear Armageddon intersecting with blistering fire and dust super tornados. No, Wednesday you didn’t particularly rock my world.
Frankly, out of all those, the bloody magpie irks me the most. How dare you take away the satisfaction and soothing of my allotted outdoor exercise time in lovely spring sunshine. And mean another pathway is added to the blacklist. The pathways are busy enough as they are with all these people in various states of mask undress discovering pathways for the very first time. Why don’t you attack them, stupid magpie? Oh, that’s right, you remember me, but yet conveniently you don’t remember how I have never once tried to steal your babies in all those years, you bloody shit.
If there is any positive, the magpie at least adds a bit of frisson to another daily outing in the same part of suburbia. Six weeks in, the confines of living within a vague radius or region are starting to grate. There are only so many times – for instance – you can wander upon Red Hill without getting weary of the same route. On the most recent occasion, I found myself annoyed with an endless procession of joggers and dogs not on leads and family gatherings. Eroding the sensations usually associated with an escape to and immersion in nature. Sounds, sights, space shrinking.
An actual problem looking for a solution, I find myself more often than not heading off track. A little out of the way. Not exactly bush-bashing, more weaving between weeds. There are still a few spots in which to escape around the Woden zone. I probably shouldn’t share them here but figure a readership of six people – many of whom are not in Canberra – is not going to cause a sudden ruination of my life. If it does, I’ll know who to blame. And set that magpie upon you…
The Old Mugga Mugga Way
If Red Hill is akin to Fitness First every goddam afternoon, Mount Mugga Mugga Reserve is more like that rusty bench press underneath a pile of boxes at the back of the garage. Fringing the weirdness of O’Malley, it seems the varied diplomats and consuls who inhabit the area rarely go out to exercise. Perhaps like most aliens they have been cowed by those great tales of deadly inhabitants of the Australian bush. Preferring the safety and comfort of their own little piece of soil.
The Centenary Trail runs through the reserve and introduced me to the area back in the good old days of 2020. A few people still come and go along this thoroughfare but it’s simple to veer off onto a number of faint tracks and choose your own adventure. The landscape is a very Canberra mix of weedy incursions and precious Yellow Box-Blakely’s Red Gum grassy woodland, replete with gnarly old eucalypts and their generous, homely hollows.
One particular tree has fallen, and I have taken to it on several occasions to perch and drink tea from a flask and eat a treat and watch Gang-gangs fly past while kangaroos graze and deadly inhabitants of the Australian bush lurk in the crevices of the fallen tree on which I am sat.
The whole flask of tea thing has become another more frequent happening in my life in recent weeks; I don’t know why I haven’t thought of it much before. Perhaps I simply wasn’t quite of an age. But pandemics and magpie attacks have a way of adding on the years, transforming a simple flask of tea in the middle of the bush into something that feels much more precious.
Isaacs Off Piste Ridge
Mount Mugga Mugga itself is scarred by a quarry and the summit appears fenced off, thus remaining that rare Canberra hill not trampled upon by my own two feet. Yet it’s just one lump in a broad range extending from Red Hill south towards the Tuggeranong Valley. Adjoining Mugga Mugga, Isaacs Ridge proves popular for its pine trails and dog walks and boasts an archetypal trig marker summit loop with 360 degree views.
That all sounds a bit mainstream for me at the moment, so I veer off the fine balcony trail lapping at the foot of the ridge and decide to head up cross country. There is a very faint track at first, which slowly blends into a landscape of open grassland and rocky scrub. Over a false summit, a field of thistly plants remains quelled by winter – give it a month or two and the going will come with greater hazard. A random copse of casuarina appears as if some long-forgotten scientific experiment, offering a landmark to follow slowly upwards to the top of the ridge. And lo and behold, a photogenic gum tree, with some fallen logs for a rest (and possible tea).
From here, there are views east to that far off land of New South Wales. There is countryside and Mugga Lane and quarrying work and possibly even just a little part of the tip. But mostly it’s countryside. There is also the white trig marker visible to the south, acting as a beacon to aim for, navigating the rocky boulders and grasses of the ridge and returning to the mainstream.
The Murrumbidgee Vista Rocky Outcrop
For several weeks, Cooleman Ridge was proving one of those ambiguous places in the application and interpretation of local coronavirus restrictions. Is it in the Woden, Weston and Molonglo region or is it Tuggeranong? Is it within five kilometres of home or six and a half or eight? The answers are yes and sometimes you just have to ask the question does it actually matter?
One of those days was a lunchtime and instead of a flask of tea I packed up some crackers, nuts and cheese and went on a quest for the perfect place to snack. Eschewing the usual, well-defined summit rocks and strategically-situated benches I veered off towards a hillock I had eyed up in the past. A few gum trees stood atop resistant, hosting flurries of wattlebird and passing rosellas. Imagine by delight that under one of them was the perfectly positioned, home-crafted seat.
Someone had been here before looking for the ideal situation to escape to the country. A kindred spirit. And if a backdrop of lush farmland cloaking a river valley beneath forested hills isn’t enough, check out those crackers and cheese and nuts from Kingaroy. Off track snack pack perfection.
The Oakey Dokey Hill with bonus Hummock
Along with off track adventures one of the permissible things I have been doing virtually every day is picking up a takeaway coffee. It is the stuff of contact tracing nightmares and triggers the inner COVID police in me every time. Quit loitering. Stand away from me. Stop touching your face. Don’t order multiple coffees with various shades of milk for your entire bubble.
I’m also – naturally given current confines – alternating my takeaways between a mere handful of proximate cafes, constantly hoping they fail to materialise on the exposure site listing. In Lyons, Stand By Me offers something that is walkable from home and – should I wish to venture further – can be incorporated on a climb of Oakey Hill.
Of the six hilly nature reserves forming a horseshoe around the Woden Valley, Oakey Hill is probably the least fashionable and most unkempt. Power pylons compete with decommissioned water reservoirs and temporary fencing. The flora seems more degraded, more weedy, more battered and bruised by the elements. Still, there is a nice bench beside the trig marker if it’s vacant and a little used side track that offers good views out to the mountains.
Across from the reserve, a green corridor lines the divide between Lyons and Curtin. From here, more slivers of green penetrate into suburbia, one of which hosts a determinedly vicious magpie. Nowadays I avoid that particular route and instead continue around the outside of Curtin on a track that at one point takes on the appearance of pasture. It forms part of what has become a fairly regular ten kilometre bike jaunt which culminates in a different takeaway coffee at Red Brick.
Along this way, at the back of Curtin, there is a hummock which takes me away too. Behind, fences protect garden refuges with trampolines and lemon trees and potting sheds and shrubs of shady bottlebrush. But in front there are fields of green and skies of blue. On the horizon, the distinctive angles of the Brindabellas promise at much more freedom. And I am whisked away to a place far from busily exercising humans and irritating magpies and daily case numbers and limited coffee options. I am taken again off track.
My better instincts tell me not to add to the infinite pile of mediocrity written about lockdowns. Enough of the wry observations on human behaviour and knowing, self-satisfied quips about sourdough. But forgive me one indulgence: I absolutely hate myself every time I realise I am rolling my eyes or muttering under my breath about a misplaced mask or a small cluster of people sitting on open grass simply trying to get through life as best they can. I absolutely hate that we all now have a little COVID police officer within us.
When out and about I should really focus instead on the threat of magpies and the impending advent of flies hassling my face. These are, perversely, bright spots of our times. Reassurance that there is a normal, no matter if that involves a petulant bird trying to peck out your eyes. There are many bright spots right now.
Take Sunday morning. Scenes of Emma Raducanu and an awesome kid on a bike coming together with an awesome adult on a bike. Out in the real world another awesome kid on a bike warmed me with a good morning greeting on the way for coffee. Sun was out, bees were buzzing, magpies were lurking. Shorts were on.
Bare legs couldn’t remain all day, the weather typical of spring: one day it’s all throw open the doors, the next retreat back into your cave. Nonetheless, the joy of spring is as enduring and as uplifting as ever.
Favourite – and very local – spring spots include a clutch of trees next to Chifley shops transforming into a tunnel of pink, a cul-de-sac in Curtin that is equally as resplendent in autumn, and the natural blooms of Woden Cemetery.
The cemetery is a funny one, not that you hear anyone laughing. Here is open space on my doorstep that I conscientiously tiptoed around for a few years, driven by some hallowed sense of not wanting to intrude. Should a place of grief and loss really also be a place for me to ramble around seeking joy and delight? Well, in the full gamut of emotions that make us human, yes, or at least I have convinced myself of that in a lockdown during spring. And there is something undeniably poetic in the new life flourishing among the tombstones that I suspect many passing souls would beam a broad smile at.
Nearby, the rocks and stones scattered on a small piece of bushland between Garran and Hughes marvel at equally magnificent transformation. This is most apparent in the explosion of golden wattle, so full and vibrant and unashamedly Australian that is hard not to feel borderline okay about the batting average of S.P.D. Smith. Gang-gangs and galahs and annoying myna birds provide the backing for the exquisite melodies of our wonderful magpies. Everything feels industrious here, with a touch of ornithological romance and floral perfume in the air.
Each bead of effervescent wattle bloom is a bright spot. As is each elongated creak of a Gang-gang, each delicate petal of cherry blossom, each sun-glazed afternoon where you can throw on some shorts until the chill returns. Marry these with uplifting moments of human endeavour and achievement and connection and compassion and you have enough bright spots to form a whole constellation. A sky of stars so powerful it can even eclipse those inner COVID police, for a while.
Do you remember the time when you could leave footprints in the sand to melt away with the tide? Or take walks within forests as the sun scatters golden through a canopy of spotted gum? Can you recall when you could linger on a bench to feast on deep fried fruits of the sea? And what about that period when Australia really was the place to be?
I do, but it feels a long time ago, even though it was little over a month. With opportunity and freedom I had journeyed to the coast, cognisant of wintry weather in Canberra and the pervasive feeling that you might not be able to do this again. For a while.
I had found a quiet kind of place to stay in North Durras. The kind of place you might hunker down to see out a pandemic. A place where the biggest drama at this point in time was the wind, though where small reminders of far more disastrous natural events stir the mind. The wind quelled the temperature and whipped up sandy frenzy, but it was still an improvement on Canberra. And an invigorating reminder of the power of nature.
Not that I was thanking the wind when the power went down, just as I was about to settle into an evening escaping on a tour around France. I had to read and that felt like hard work when you really just want to lounge as lazily as possible. Thank goodness for the lights coming back on and the Col de Tourmalet.
Around North Durras I made friends with some King Parrots and Kangaroos, explored the sands and forests, and found my way wandering along the waterways as they infiltrate inland. Always across the channel, signs of South Durras peeked above the scrub and I wondered if there was a strong rivalry between the two. The South were probably boastful of having a shop while the North derided snooty Canberra-by-Sea.
Just for a while I had to remove myself from such unlikely drama. It was Saturday morning, and I was hoping for that perfect combination of sheltered sunshine and oceanside coffee strolling. I aimed for Bawley Point, noting some positive signs in my research: small bays protected from the south-easterly; a coffee caravan on a headland with a strong showing on TripAdvisor; Canberra-by-Sea.
At least the bays were sublime.
For some reason, the thought crossed my mind that Barry Cassidy had a holiday home in Bawley Point and hung out with Mike Bowers while Heather was off on some back road cracking a horse whip with Old Reggie Mundoon of Canowindra. This will mean nothing to any English readers, and most Australians too. Anyway, I think I remember this because Mike posted a picture of plumes of smoke from Bazza’s ample deck around the Christmas of 2019.
I could’ve watched Barry’s successors waffle on about ineptitude and continue to needlessly debate the pros and cons of lockdowns on the ABC on Sunday morning. But why do that when I can just take a few steps from my cabin and expose myself to a world of beautiful calm. From the abundant forest full of melodies to the glassy clear water stretching across to the south. No wind and a beaming radiance to lift the soul.
This would be a fine place to ride out a pandemic, though it could handle a decent café otherwise I may not survive. To ensure an improvement on the day before I left North Durras and drove south to Mossy Point, where there is a reliable spot for coffee. And a raspberry and white chocolate muffin. Just because.
The day was continuing to sparkle, and I was in no rush to head back home. With hardly a breath of wind it would’ve been the perfect day for a bike ride. Perhaps heading from Moruya along the river and out through pasture towards the ocean at Moruya Heads. You could pack some lunch and eat it in a sheltered bay, glistening under warm sunshine. Good job I packed my bike and prized $16 bike rack.
Doesn’t it look nice?
There was a beach at Moruya Heads – Shelly Beach – that offered the kind of nirvana that would prove an entirely effective crescendo to a piece of writing. The very essence of what I was seeking on this little break to the south coast of New South Wales in winter. Comfort, delight, beauty, and a quiet spot to sit in a T-shirt. I could have gone full shorts, but none were packed.
An ice cream would’ve hit the spot too, but I had to cycle back to Moruya – including over what felt like a mini Tourmalet – and then drive a fifty kilometre round trip. I mean, I didn’t have to take a fifty kilometre round trip but no, really I did. I’d done fish and chips, I’d done coffee by the sea and now I needed a double shot of Bodalla Dairy.
Another moment to treasure, to add to the bank of dream times to remember. And to look forward to when they are there to spoil us again.
While we waver towards probable lockdown at some point down the road, a certainty to hold on to is the march of spring. I can start to sense it in the evenings that are still light at 5:30, in the alarm call of birds beginning a stout defence of their nest, in the explosion of green and gold wattle somehow reminding me of many a repeat during the Channel 7 Olympic coverage.
In Australia, winter doesn’t always feel as distinguishable. What Queenslanders call winter certainly is not. In Bondi you can quite comfortably be parading minimal activewear in July, taking essential exercise to hang around in the line for takeaway coffee. Even Canberra – while frequently subjected to alarmist rhetoric and gloating Queenslanders – is still no Ice Planet Hoth.
Snow remains a novelty, especially in the city. Occasionally, hail masquerades or something between drizzle and sleet briefly descends. The only real flurry is in the resultant Facebook posts proclaiming snow. If it is snow, it is a very Plymouth kind of snow, with the same building anticipation and ultimate let down.
As in Plymouth, you must head up. And up and up, towards the high country in the sky. You can drive there on a weekend with thousands of others to enjoy traffic jams and diesel slush or put in the hard yards and discover a pristine winter wilderness by foot.
I go for the latter, though the hard yards are harder and many more yards than I initially hope. At Mountain Creek car park in Tidbinbilla I hope for a rerun of a previous time in this spot, when a good covering of fresh snow blanketed minty forest trees and the fire trails nearby. I hope to experience winter in its fullness in a matter of minutes, with enough time to retreat and find a warming café. I hope I have not dragged myself, my car, and my friend Alex out here in vain.
We set out on the Camels Hump Trail, with no intention of actually going to Camels Hump. Just enough altitude gain to reach the snow line. It’s steep at first, but that would mean we get to the snow quickly. Eventually, the first speckled dusting appears on some leaves. The first sprinkling upon the muddy brown fire trail emerges, disturbed by the tracks of a vehicle that has been fortunate enough to climb this way. By time the tracks vanish under a proper covering of snow, we are closer to the top.
The trail has levelled off enough to encourage continuation, each step forward bringing incremental increase in snow cover, providing that uniquely satisfying sensation that comes with a Size 9 imprint. Between the laden eucalypts, views to the bare countryside glow from down below. Ahead, a pyramidical outcrop looks very much the mountain.
This was Camels Hump. After a year and a half I thought I may have exhausted all possibilities, but this was a new one. The fire trail ends, and the remaining track to the summit is through tunnels of low trees iced in white. The way ahead is almost indecipherable, the thought of descent alarming. I call it quits on a particular slippery rock and wait for Alex to return. Happy to watch the weather rapidly pass over Johns Peak.
After what seemed forever, Alex does return. I’m relieved there is no need to call on emergency services. I’m equally as relieved to hear the summit is enshrouded in dense shrubbery, without any visual reward. The visual reward is simply all around me, in this very winter wonderland.
The buzz. The excitement. The nerves. The never-in-my-lifetime strangeness underpinned by a back catalogue of disappointment. The sense of hope, exhilaration, and gut-wrenching drama more often than not deflated by events. The inevitable post-mortem punditry and scapegoating and resignation and acceptance. But maybe – just maybe – this time will be different.
If ever there was a weekend to finally come home this would be it. But I’ll be in bed, 12,000 miles away, turning on the bright lights of a laptop at five in the morning. Thinking about Italian coffee and chocolate digestives to perk me up. Minus three degrees in my shirt.
It’s a bed in a home that I haven’t written about for a good half a year, what with other more exciting jaunts. Canberra is still here, still going through its motions, still – touching wood – absent of coronavirus despite the best efforts of our neighbours. Still understated and beguiling, fortunate and free. Offering abundant life and opportunity if only you should look.
Over that time, Canberra has been doing what Canberra does, transitioning slowly but surely through the bursts of colour of autumn towards morning fogs which (usually) lift to reveal brilliant blue afternoons. It’s the time of year when continental superspreading sporting events disrupt sleep and sub-zero mornings add to the challenge of getting out from under the doona. A time when travel bubbles pop and masks finally become a thing. But do not despair. There is always fresh air.
From the reliable vistas atop Red Hill, a quick jaunt up the road once the laptop powers down. Winter light always doing something special just before five in the afternoon. A warm angelic glow spreads over the rising towers of Woden, the hospital and the Pfizer vaccination hub. Kangaroos munch unaware. Some things change and some things don’t.
Rapidly contesting with Red Hill as my favourite nature reserve, Cooleman Ridge offers great reward for minimal effort. Fringing the west of Weston, the reserve boasts fine views back over Canberra but the real splendour is on the other side. Paddock. Hills. Forest. Mountains. A Murrumbidgee Valley creation. With suburban sprawl and hoonish echoes fading behind the ridge, it is a country walk in a city. And because so much of the Australian countryside is shamefully locked behind fence and gate and no trespassing signs, this is a real treasure.
The treasures of Mulligans Flat are perhaps a little less obvious – and much more likely to emerge at night. But this place is a sanctuary for humans and animals alike. It is another place that has grown on me through a pandemic, from the initial Centenary Trail crossing to volunteer tasks hassling echidnas and wallabies and turtles. As is oft-mentioned on a twilight tour, the dams were dry back when we were enshrouded in smoke. Today they come alive.
A bigger dam sits further west, lapping at a much bigger wilderness. When you stop and think about it, it is quite something that you can be picking up a good coffee at the neighbourhood shops and fifteen minutes later staring out towards this. Cotter Dam vistas shrink and stretch as you rise further into the sky, reaching a new summit at Mount McDonald.
Another new summit is added to my life experience when I take the dirt trail up to Mount Jerrabomberra. I have ventured beyond Canberra, though only just, and only before the latest Bondi-fed outbreak (just in case some paramilitary border goon decides this is reason enough to bar me from Western Australia for twenty years). I have come to Queanbeyan for the rare opportunity of coffee and cake at three in the afternoon, discovering a café that actually opens beyond two. Why is this not more of a thing? Especially when you can easily walk a few crumbs off afterwards.
It is becoming harder to discover new things like this in the backyard, but I am not there yet; Coronavirus may have to last another twenty years for that to materialise, something I would dearly love not to happen. I would love instead to walk in the Alps again, to hike along the downs of southern England chasing butterflies, to stroll through the Barbican and up to Plymouth Hoe, snaffling some fudge and an ice cream along the way.
But do not despair. I discover a winter’s walk alongside the clear water of the Tidbinbilla River, striking out through green forest singing in the aromas of fresh peppermint. Occasional early wattle pops golden and soothes like honey. There are views towards rocky crags and precipitous ridges and – down the track – a little home: Nil Desperandum. It has been restored to cuteness and if only they had a kettle with some tea and perhaps freshly baked scones waiting, the walk back wouldn’t have seemed such a chore.
Nil desperandum. Whenever or whatever might come home, do not despair.
Two weeks on holiday normally wouldn’t be such a strange thing. But it seems a pretty big deal these days. In the world BC, holidays would involve a month crisscrossing the UK in search of friends, family, scones and ales. Plus a European side trip featuring alps of snow and mountains of cheese. One day I’ll make it home again.
However, over the years I’ve come to think of home as more than a singular physicality. There are homes and, following the big bike ride, I needed to somehow find my way from Point B – Caloundra in Queensland – to Point A – Home, Canberra.
It had been a hectic holiday really, and I had visions of a couple of days nestled beside the ocean in some mild clime with good coffee. Perhaps a pool to soothe aching muscles. And a regular ice cream jaunt in the afternoon before taking in the final golden light of sundown. Alas, the weather forecast didn’t look especially conducive to this fantasy so – once again – I opted for the John Denver approach to travelling home.
Still, this wasn’t before at least taking in the sand and water on the Sunshine Coast. It was a brief foray, in between heavy showers and ocean chop at Alexandra Headland. Nearby, the Sunshine Plaza didn’t really offer a brighter disposition but eventually I located some much sought after rocky road. For later.
Faring Jason well with the understanding that we will one day again reunite for rail trail cycling magnificence, I fired up the four wheels and headed west. The road home was all smooth to start, taking me back – as it happened – into a land previously criss-crossed on two wheels. The second time around offered an opportunity to right some wrongs.
The first was pausing to marvel at the Kilcoy Yowie, which I had failed to note when we drove through here on the way to start our bike ride. It’s just, well, I cannot really explain. Further on, once more in Blackbutt, I called into the bakery where I scored a coffee and was confronted with the kind of display that causes indecisive cake-lovers like me to break out in a cold sweat. I think I went for sticky date fudge slice when pressed.
After the kilometre zero of Yarraman, the road led on towards Kingaroy. The extent of my knowledge about Kingaroy is absolute peanuts. Which is pretty spot on, given the area is famed for the cultivation of kernels. When in Kingaroy, Go Nuts is not the motto on the town sign, but you should at least stop by the Peanut Van. And if you want a taste of the manic, pop to the local Woolworths.
I was stocking up for the return to camping with a laser-like focus on making it as minimal effort as possible. Banana for breakfast. Packet soup for dinner, with a carrot and five frozen gyoza to add some bulk. Tent popped up, cooking by torchlight would never be so satisfying, and soup proved perfect in the cold.
At altitude in Bunya Mountains National Park it was surprising how cold things were, given I was still in Queensland. The Bunya Mountains rise up distinctly from the surrounding plains, a wild island among the productive downs. It is very much an island of biodiversity, illustrated by the large swathes of unique Bunya Pine. These giant, Monkey Puzzle type trees only grow naturally here and in a few smaller, dispersed pockets further north.
The trees yield massive cones which offered good tucker for Aboriginal Australians. When I see one in the small visitor centre, I am relieved my walking for the day has finished. Not only do you need to be wary of snakes, spiders, ticks, and stinging trees, but giant bloody cones falling on your noggin as well.
I absorbed the Bunya Mountains with a nice loop walk through dense forest, following lush gullies and creeks and occasionally peering out of the woods to see Queensland below. The gentle chirping of birds was a constant, but the dappled light and dark undergrowth made it impossible to sight any of the blighters. The forest had the becalmed air and melody of one of those meditation soundtracks cobbled together on Spotify by a bearded man wearing loose flowery pants.
Not that this led to a relaxing night. While I managed to get fairly snug, gusts of wind provoked regular rattling of canvas. With fitful rest, I rose early the next morning to discover my head in the clouds. With patience, this would rise and fall in swirls, chinks in the gloom revealing a sunny day unfolding for the Darling Downs.
Gravity would propel my car that way, rapidly plunging from the Bunya Mountains towards Dalby, where the day was indeed sunny. Dalby seems every bit a forgettable town, neither obviously appalling nor exceptionally outstanding. This is perfectly encapsulated by the popularity of a Coffee Club and Brumby’s Bakery on the high street.
Out of Dalby, large cotton fields once again spilled out towards the horizon. It is one of the regrets of the trip that I never managed to find a spot where I could brake abruptly and take a photo of them. Instead, here’s a metal yabbie at Moonie next to tennis courts and much sought after public toilets.
Moonie was little more than a junction on the way to Goondiwindi, a border town receiving attention over the past year for its checkpoints ensuring Queenslanders are kept safe from nasty viruses prior to a state election. As a border town it possesses all the essentials, retaining the chain store vibe of Dalby for passers-by who simply yearn for a bit of predictability. For lunch I grabbed some takeaway from Red Rooster, before a fuel stop and then a frozen coke from McDonalds to take me into New South Wales.
Crossing the border, one step closer to home. Yet still a million miles away. It certainly felt that way once my frozen coke had run out and I found myself on a bumpy road through endless fields of grain. The road – between Boggabilla and Warialda – was doing few favours to my left shoulder and arm, which had now developed post-cycling strain and pain.
In my ideal version of today I was reaching Bingara by two, allowing time for a relaxing nap before a potter around. But I’ve continued to underestimate Australia and the quest of driving across it. It was pretty much four when I checked into a motel – cheap, basic but welcoming in a countrified beige blanket kind of way. And not camping. One of the two double beds still looked good for a nap.
I vaguely remember passing through Bingara on another trip back from Queensland, the town now an intersection with the past. That time around I had come through Inverell and Myall Creek on my way to Narrabri and the Warrumbungles. Again attempting to cover a million miles in a day, I didn’t even stop here, but remember it conveyed a surprising rustic charm.
In the remaining light of day I therefore walked down to the Gwydir River and back into town where clusters of tradie and caravanning couples were gathering for Friday night dinner outside the pub. Along the high street, trees turned auburn signalled the passage of time and place that had gone on since I left home. And with the sun dipping over the hills, there was a tangible chill in the air. And plenty of chilli on my pizza.
Bingara enjoys a fine setting, nestled in a valley backed by rolling ranges. It’s technically in New England and feels that little bit closer to civilisation, if civilisation is Tamworth. I took in the surrounds from a lookout high upon one of many hills, wondering if I could see my destination. But that was still a long way off.
The road between Bingara and Narrabri must surely rank as a hidden gem. In between the two towns, the crazy volcanic landscape of Mount Kaputar National Park infiltrates, regularly revealing golden panoramas and rugged lumps thrust upward from the horizon. It’s one of those landscapes that makes you want to stop at regular intervals, eating yet again into your estimated journey time.
With a lunch date in the diary, I didn’t really have time to pause. I was in two minds whether to stop at Sawn Rocks, but being only a few hundred metres walk from the car park I figured I could squeeze such spectacle in. This is one of Australia’s best ‘organ-pipe’ rock formations, created in geological tumult and chaos. An experience I’m sure my car was feeling for the rest of the day.
I am not going to profess to taking it any faster than 110kph of course as I progressed towards Narrabri. The sacrifice for Sawn Rocks was no coffee in Narrabri and no wee in Wee Waa. By time I reached the small settlement of Pilliga I was more than ready to pause for some brief relief.
Pilliga is – shock horror – in the heart of The Pilliga, a vast, largely flat plain of sprawling dry forest and sandy soil. At one point – and I may have been hallucinating by that stage – I passed three camels. There was no chance to stop, and I’m not entirely sure if they were on a large farm or simply roaming wild. But the fact that you can easily imagine them roaming wild here says everything about the type of environment you are in.
Talking of wildlife, did I expect to find myself in Coonamble again? Well, yes, but I never expected I would be so ecstatic at reaching the place. Oh, there’s that spot I got chased by rabid dogs. Over there, the only café open on Sunday. There’s the river, languid and brown. The supermarket with the chemical mice killer aroma. The partly constructed public toilets embroiled in drama. And the home just out of town where I can again feel at home.
My plans were vague and uncertain and once pork belly was mentioned for dinner I knew this would be my spot for the night. Before dinner, lunch, a mere 45 minutes out of town. The Armatree Hotel is the best pub in town, the only pub in town, practically the only building in town. It has character and authenticity soaking through the wooden floorboards, corrugated iron bar, and XXXX on tap. Out back, the outback. And a beer garden, lively with get togethers and celebration of another week fulfilled.
I like the fact that I can come away from the Armatree Hotel having chatted to an old codger in a ten gallon cowboy hat while we both emptied the contents of our bladders. “Great place out here, hey”. Sure is mate, sure is.
After a restorative night, it finally was time for a homecoming. Coonamble to Canberra in one hit is a pretty lengthy affair but once through Dubbo (and a much-needed stop for coffee), the drive was pretty enjoyable. The weather had closed in and rain was falling as I reached Molong, giving the place an added autumnal melancholy. All across the Central West, trees were exploding crimson and gold in small towns like Cudal and on toward Cowra.
The rain had stopped and things were brighter by time I reached fairly familiar territory in Cowra. Not so long to go now. Just need a final country coffee to push me on, eclipsed by a delicious treat…because I am still on holiday after all. Just about. Down the road, Boorowa. Then Yass. Murrumbateman. Hall. And at last, home.
I had entered the point of no return. Doors closing behind me, confronted by a depleted selection of pre-cooked yellow food. A smoky, greasy vapour emanated from behind the counter. Around one of the square Formica tables, a trio of young people huddled around a carton of chips.
I had rolled into Injune desperate for a pick-me-up to push me on to the end of the road. For coffee this was the last outpost. And like a rabbit in headlights I was now captive. I had to order. Miraculously, I spotted a handwritten note on one of those fluorescent orange stars. Iced latte for $5.50. Coffee, ice, and milk which surely wouldn’t turn into a complete hash. Relief. A safer proposition than the risk of first degree burns.
Happily – should you find yourself in the situation – you’ll find iced latte and a pack of 39 cent custard creams from Aldi a winning combination on the Carnarvon Highway between Injune and Rolleston. It propels you into a more interesting landscape with plateaus rising up to the east and west. The road, finally, allows a speed limit of 110kph. And then you turn off, to fulfil a few goals and dreams.
I remember when Carnarvon National Park first piqued my interest. It was in a Qantas magazine, back when flying was more of a thing. I was probably on the last plane out of Sydney after some stupid meeting, feasting on two crackers and a vomit-coloured dip. A double-page photograph of intricately textured sandstone, a dark narrow fissure, vibrant green ferns, and the dizzying perspective provided by a human figure felt a long way away.
It’s a credit to that Qantas magazine that they managed to condense Carnarvon National Park into a few glossy pages. It’s also a credit to the professional photographers who managed to fit it all in. The vast, monotone plains in the surrounding landscape truly situate this as an oasis. The solitude required to get there leads to stimulus galore.
Hyper-stimulation first emerges a few kilometres outside the park. People and Hiluxes amass, caravans are adorned with satellite dishes, trailers, awnings and everything including the kitchen sink. There may even be – in the middle of Queensland – a large boat or two. Instantly I know this is not my type of campground. But there is little other choice and I set up home for two nights, conscious of beady eyes judging my unfolding canvas.
Many of the people I talk to are here for a week, maybe two. They can afford to spend whole days sitting in a fold-up chair playing candy crush. I have one complete day to head into the gorge, go as far as I can, and turn back again. One whole day that is immense in so many ways.
My phone tells me it was a 41,397 step kind of day, taking me along 29.1 kilometres. It was a day that started around six in the morning, when I parked up near the visitor centre. There was an orderly-looking campground here but for some reason it is only open during school holidays. Still, I took advantage of one of the many tables to make a cuppa and eat some breakfast, free from the guilt of disturbing the old folk getting their beauty sleep.
The walk starts with a sign of things to come: a crossing of Carnarvon Creek via a series of stepping stones. The first crossing is easy, reassuring everyone who finds themselves on this path to strike out further into the wilderness. Others later on require a bit more planning and a touch of blind faith. But don’t let this put you off. Just grab a big stick and think of the reward.
The gorge is said to extend for 30 kilometres, but the day walk goes as far as Big Bend, where there is a carry-in campground for those intrepid enough to explore further. Along the way, nature has created a series of incredible rock features, shady pools, and slot canyons, while original inhabitants have left their own mark. It is these spectacles – reached via shortish detours from the main trail – that create a natural itinerary to the walk, numbered like stops on a coach tour. Only here, self-propulsion is the required vehicle, and the only souvenir stands are those that assemble within your mind. And do they sure etch their way into it…
Reaching the first stop seems to take forever, but I think that comes down to an eagerness to get there. It’s akin to sitting in the back of the car as a child, heading for a day at the beach. The side track also requires a little creek crossing and climbing of steps, penetrating into a small, fern-filled gully.
What can I say about the Moss Garden? It’s mossy and moist, fed by a narrow creek spilling into several clear pools. It’s the kind of garden that might be constructed at some expense in a billionaire megalomaniac’s estate, funded by worker exploitation and home shopping. Or constructed in the airport of some oil rich emirate to show off to the world. But nothing contrived here, just thousands and thousands of years of nature. Water, rock, vegetation. Gathering in blissful harmony.
If the Moss Garden was beautiful in a serene kind of way, the Amphitheatre is, fittingly, all head-shaking drama. I think this is the setting for that double-page spread in the Qantas magazine many years back and you would need to be a professional photographer with a mega-wide angle lens and tripod and hours of patience waiting for the right light to come anywhere close to evoking the feeling of being in this place.
At first, you wouldn’t expect much. Nothing to see here. But walking towards giant luminous sandstone walls you notice a small doorway at their foot. And a series of metal steps up to the entrance. It is a crack perhaps little more than a metre, a corridor into a cavernous courtyard of wonder. Above, a small window to the sky, afoot a delicate display of vibrant ferns. It cries out for a massive “COOEE!” but somehow feels too reverential for that. A handful of people, myself included, just sit and soak it all in.
The National Gallery of Australia is much more accessible and has a better café than the Art Gallery in Carnarvon Gorge. But you won’t find a 62 metre natural sandstone wall featuring over 2,000 engravings, ochre stencils, and free-hand paintings. The stencilling is considered to be some of the finest and most-sophisticated of its kind in their world.
This sacred spot serves a reminder that this is the land of the Bidjara and Karingbal People, and you are lucky enough to be here for a fleeting moment in time.
Many people culminate their walk at the Art Gallery fulfilled, turning around and heading back home for an afternoon rest. The next stop up the gorge is four kilometres distant, and the track grading increases a notch on the scale. There are more stones to traverse and one creek crossing in particular requires a degree in trigonometry and dose of good fortune.
I’m glad I pushed on though, for this section is perhaps the most scenic. The main trail sticks closer to the rocky course of Carnarvon Creek, and sheer-sided multicoloured outcrops begin to press in on both sides. Palms and ferns and eucalyptus gather in the valley, nurturing colourful butterfly and chirpy birds, while emerald pools attract fast-moving dragonfly.
As a destination, Cathedral Cave undoubtedly has a spiritual quality, hosting further displays of Aboriginal art. It also possesses that echoey ambience formed from the hollow of a massive rock overhang. A chamber of secrets. Peaceful and shady, the benches situated opposite the walls encourage lingering. A rest before the return journey.
But don’t turn around! After Cathedral Cave, it’s a kilometre or so on to the end of the trail at Big Bend, but I neither had the energy nor the desire to visit a camping area. Just 200 metres on from Cathedral Cave, however, another dry creek cuts in from the west. At first, it’s nothing special, just an unending collection of large pebbles that make walking a little more taxing. But pursue further and you enter Boowinda Gorge.
This I found the most staggering spectacle of the day. I can’t really explain. Nature has formed something that engineering genius and billions of dollars would struggle to replicate. Curving walls, pebble paths, ferns and trees flourishing where chinks of light again emerge. And I had it all to myself.
I’m all for saving the best to last, especially when it comes to roast dinners. But what goes up must come down and, as much as I tried to conjure up a helicopter taxi from Big Bend, the return journey needed to be undertaken. On the plus side, things were still incredibly scenic the second time around, stepping stone confidence was sky-high, and I had a few Aldi custard creams to perk me up when needed.
There was also Wards Canyon, one of the stops between the Amphitheatre and Art Gallery which I had saved for the journey home. As lovely as this was – think more small cascades and rocky walled gullies – I can’t help but think my impression was overshadowed by weariness and the wonders that had gone before. It also took a bit of a climb and used up the last custard cream.
To get back to the car, I started to concentrate more on the little things. Some of the butterflies that would never settle. The blur of small birds flitting between shrubs. The red and blue dragonflies hovering above water. The people passing me by, saying G’day and inquiring just how much further it was to so and so. Push on, I encouraged, and don’t miss Boowinda Gorge.
In all honesty though, the last hour turned into a bit of a drag. There were a surprising number of steps and undulations that I didn’t notice in my excited state on the way out. The light was now brighter, the heat of the day well and truly upon us. Creek crossings were less an adventure, more a chore. My feet hurt.
Towards the end I was pretty much walking at the same pace as a man a hundred metres in front of me. It came as no great surprise when he let out a thank feck kind of “yahoo” upon sighting the visitor centre. I didn’t need empathy training to totally get it.
And so my walk in Carnarvon Gorge, years in the making, had reached its conclusion. I felt happy and fulfilled and in desperate need of a shower, cup of tea, slice of Christmas cake and a nap. Unfortunately, Takarakka ‘Bush Resort’ had other ideas. I returned to find I had neighbours, sat outside their caravan under the awning, playing candy crush and listening to the radio. Other neighbours were setting up with a clink of a camp kitchen here and a thud of a mallet there. Four-by-fours rocked up every few minutes, engines idling as they checked in at reception. The shower, tea and cake were divine. The nap non-existent.
At least I slept well that night. Very well, for tenting. Still, I was awake before sunrise so made a bit of noise and headed up a track to a nearby hill. A few other people were there, including a dad with a wide-awake baby and a couple of what I would say are younger boomers. The sunrise was – fleetingly – dramatic, while the younger boomers were lovely.
We chatted for a good while. They had arrived yesterday and were staying for a week. I was off to 1770 today. I passed on my tips and wished them a wonderful stay. They wished me well for my big bike ride. We parted, me feeling a little more favourable towards caravanning boomers, and them possibly thinking he is never going to manage that bike ride. Maybe.
Keen to get moving, and also keen to avoid the amenities block that was always dirty whenever I had to use it, I passed up the opportunity of a shower and hit the road. Yet instead of turning left, back to the highway, I veered right. I had come so far and something was bugging me. This had been years in the making, and when would I ever be here again?
When I arrived in Carnarvon National Park on Tuesday afternoon, I used the last of the daylight to explore a short walking trail along Mickey Creek. It was a simple and – in hindsight – relatively undramatic stroll. But that is only until the formed trail ends.
A bag left on a rock signalled I wouldn’t be the only one transitioning from a gentle amble to a rock-hopping adventure. Beyond the stones and the ferns, an entrance led into a narrowing gap. Walls closing in, the sound of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ travelling down the chasm encouraged further exploration.
There was only really one spot that was a little challenging – in that I might get my feet wet. But I could do it. And so could my sunrise friends who I met again on the way out. So much better than just sitting outside your caravan playing candy crush. We both agreed, and I felt envious of the wondrous discoveries that still awaited them.
Farewell friends, and farewell finally this most magnificent oasis.
That could have been a good ending, but the road never ends. Neither does this blog post but all I can say if you are labouring is just imagine living and breathing it as opposed to a mere skim-read in your PJs.
After endeavours at Carnarvon, I planned a bit of R&R on the Queensland coast, 550km away. Worryingly I was desperate for a coffee by time I reached Rolleston, only a hundred clicks in. Even more worryingly, Rolleston didn’t look up to much. But beside the public toilets in a park, a cute caravan had popped up selling coffee and a few light snacks. The owner was charming and chatty, and I really really really wanted her coffee to be good. But scalding hot country ways are always difficult to cast off.
There is little to note between Rolleston and Biloela. The road, almost arrow straight, offers frequent car stopping bays and I realise these are essentially unofficial toilet stops as I recycle my coffee in a hedge. The highlight of this section of the road should really be the town of Banana, in Banana Shire. Yet, there is no comedy sized fibro banana or Banana World Theme Park incorporating Mango Village. A large sign erected for losers like me actually informs the world that Banana was named after a big bullock. Surrounded by coalfields, this is peak QLD.
Sadly, the only thing I knew of Biloela was the Australian Government’s really tough posturing to lock up a couple with two young children who were seeking asylum here. They now sit festering on an offshore island. The #hometobilo movement made me feel warm towards Biloela. The family in question had become part of the community, and the community part of them. They simply want their community back.
I didn’t find out much more about Biloela in my brief stop there. It didn’t seem the most appealing place, but then it is far more appealing than – say – a war zone or dictatorship inclined to ethnic-cleansing. Petrol was cheaper here, and I was surprised at the quality of coffee and a slice from the bakery – this is more like it. Road trip essentials.
Almost as Australian-sounding as locking up dark-skinned people seeking protection is the Bruce Highway. For me, it was a bit of a milestone, a sign that I had reached the Queensland coast. But like most highways along the east coast, the ocean is still miles away. And, hitting the highway south of Gladstone, the Towns of Agnes Water and Seventeen-Seventy were still 90 minutes away.
A sign that I was pretty much over the drive came when I didn’t even stop for a ‘big crab’ at Miriam Vale. It wasn’t that big, looking more like an elaborate shop sign than anything. And I don’t really like crab, stemming I think from my brother taunting me with crab claws as a kid. The same can be said for peanut butter, but I did at least stab his hand with a fork when he tried to steal some of my chips.
1770 clearly stands out from the crowd just by being a number. That was some good marketing by Lieutenant Cook and Joe Banks when they decided to make their second stop in Australia at this spot; I think Joe had seen some plants that took his fancy. If you look on the map, you will see a marker for the 1770 toilets, which you can only hope have been updated since they visited.
Confusingly 1770 has the postcode of 4667. So – in a remarkable turnaround for Australian abbreviation – it is often spelled out as Seventeen-Seventy. It also typically gets lumped together with its southern neighbour, Agnes Water. And I was staying on a campground between the two. Let me tell you the joy of driving past tents and awnings and trailers to take up home in a cabin with a double bed and kitchen and bathroom. The closest I will ever get to feeling all North Shore Sydney.
And so, with good rest, I had a lovely day in the Towns of Agnes Water and Seventeen-Seventy. In preparation for what is to come, I decided to explore it by bike. There were beaches and lookouts and a lovely coffee in some lovely gardens, embellished with sweet baklava. It was the best coffee in a long while, a clear indication this is a coastal location on the up.
Beyond the coffee stop, I was delighted by the Paperbark Forest Boardwalk. It wasn’t especially long but well worth the additional cycle up a small incline. Among the stands of paperbark, butterflies frequently floated and birds sang with joy. A nice way to get off the two wheels and stretch the legs.
Being beside the coast I had long targeted fish and chips during my stay here, which I gorged on beside the water on the wharf in 1770. Gorging again. The downside to this was that it required an uphill climb back to my cabin and a post-lunch nap. Later in the day, I returned to 1770 by car, and walked out to the headland, hopeful, like many others, that sundown would put on a decent show.
Now Saturday morning, I had been travelling for little over a week. I’d be leaving the ocean today and in memory of this I felt that getting a takeaway coffee first thing and sipping it on the beach would be a perfect moment. Situated next to a waterfront campground, the coffee took an age but when it came it was everything I had hoped for. Order and civilisation were being restored.
And so, next up Caloundra and then the Brisbane Valley Rail Trail. Heading south, I briefly paused in Bundaberg, picking up some provisions and a gift for my cycling buddy, Jason. Never would a $16 bike rack from Kmart prove so popular.
My final stop was in Childers, one last pause before hitting the elongated development of the Sunshine Coast. I had arrived, it would seem, in a town of coffee extremism. Ten minutes out of town, billboards implored me to stop at The Drunk Bean or Insane Caffeine. Nine hundred kilometres after Injune, the sound of coffee insanity appealed. It had largely been madness the whole way.
Over the hills and far away, everyone come out to play. One. Two. Three. Four. Thousand.
Such are the conical lumps and bumps of the countryside around Jugiong, you never know what you might find down a rabbit hole. Today, it is bursting at the seams with all sorts of characters, the village swollen with trippers pausing for drinks, pastries, ice creams, chocolate eggs. It is Good Friday and, even so, I am astonished. I have never seen the Hume Highway so busy.
It’s the kind of day where you could get hot and cross sat on your buns waiting an interminable time for a coffee. Unless you cheekily pop around the corner to the Jam Factory Outlet. And leave the gourmet country mecca that has become Jugiong raking in the cash.
It is heartening to see. Down the road a little, Coolac is the precise antithesis. A one street kind of town with a forty year old Holden parked eternally outside the pub. A Memorial Hall hosts a little life as a couple of old dears negotiate the keys and lights. Outside, the picket-fenced oval surprises given the difficulty in conjuring enough people for a cricket team. It seems more likely a host to rusty tractors and bizarre sculptures made from hay. I kind of like Coolac.
I’m detouring off the Hume and am making my way to Gundagai via a scenic route. One year on and surely I must be getting close to traversing all the sealed highways and byways of the Hilltops region. This one is a beauty, at times narrowing to a single track nestled into steep-sided embankments following the Murrumbidgee. Other traffic is a rare sight, only increasing as I approach Gundagai from the south.
I was originally thinking of camping by the river here. As I cross over the town’s rickety bridge, I glance down to see an accumulating complex of trailers and awnings and canvas-themed opulence. I feel relieved and slightly smug at the thought of booking somewhere quieter in Tumut instead. Well, I think it should be quieter.
So Gundagai becomes simply a pause for lunch. It sounds ridiculously middle class, but one of my camping road trip staples has become homemade quiche. It’s hearty, tasty fare and means I don’t have to lug my whole box of camp kitchen paraphernalia with me. Okay, it might make it hard for me to ingratiate myself with certain other types of campground people, but it sure does use up the out-of-date eggs.
I’ve never really dwelt for long in Gundagai. The town is clearly shaped by the Murrumbidgee, with the coloured roofs of houses rising up a series of hills like a scattering of Lego bricks. The floodplain divides and is sensibly reserved for non-essential infrastructure such as a golf course, a park, and the campground. Two old bridges indicate the perils of flood, suitably ramshackle as they pass by clusters of stately river red gum. You sense the trees will be here long after man-made debris has finally washed away.
And so on to the campground in Tumut which was – yikes – just as busy as everywhere else. This one was situated on a farm alongside the banks of the Tumut River, a natural attraction to fishers and kayakers and people who simply like to empty the contents of an esky while lounging to the sound of soft rock classics on endless rotation.
Occasionally I like to ride my bicycle and – after putting up the ‘instant’ tent in one of the better times yet – was keen to immerse myself in the surrounding countryside. Enclosed within a broad river valley I assumed the riding would be pretty flat and for the most part that was the case. Still, any incline was unwelcome in the late afternoon warmth, nearing thirty degrees.
On the northern side of the valley I headed towards Lacmalac, which was really just a cluster of farm buildings with hints of charming homestead within manicured garden. Occasional wafts of silage reminded of Devon, but then a giant southern cross reinforced the Australian condition. Crossing water at Little River, it was all Devon again, embodied in a rolling hill which was simply too steep for me to pedal.
In one of the quieter moments I realised that bike-riding is quite the bipolar experience. The inclines are irritating and often lack enjoyment. But then crest the top and the downhill is all exhilaration and relief. Flat stretches are simple compromise, somewhere in between. Most of the way back to Tumut was as flat as a pancake, along – oh I see – Tumut Flats Road.
With the sinking western sun in my face it was a relief to reach a little oasis called Tumut Junction. This is no Clapham or Spaghetti, but the point at which the Tumut River splits with the Goobarragandra. Lovingly manicured by the Lions Club, it would have been a wonderful place to linger longer. But daylight was fading and I still had a little way to go, crossing the bridge built in 1893 and returning through town to the campsite.
I returned to find a camp trailer had squeezed into the little space between me and the group of let’s-see-who-can-talk-the loudest millennials. On the other side, the medley of Jimmy Barnes and Fleetwood Mac continued without pause. Fires were being lit everywhere, including one that had been arranged crazily close to my car.
Now, I can see advantages in writing off a 21 year old car, but I really would like it to stay intact for a while longer. So I shifted it a little further away as we all jovially chuckled how I could always have driven it into the river if it caught fire haw haw haw. Safe and settled, I lounged beside the river with a cold beer and a conspicuous slice of quiche.
It’s about this time, as darkness descends, that you begin to wonder how you will fill a couple of hours before bed. There is always plenty of phaff associated with camping to pass much of that period – sort out food and drinks and dishes, arrange bed, piddle about with various items in the car, ensuring you have everything you might ever need in the middle of the night.
There is also the ‘guess who will be the most annoying neighbour’ game to play. It wasn’t going to be the trailer couple. Despite their fondness for arson, they were rather civilised, quaffing rose and engaging in chit chat. The obvious contenders would be the gang of millennials all a hootin’ and a hollerin’. But as soon as one young lady said she was off to bed after throwing up, silence descended.
Apart from the faint sound of Midnight Oil accompanied by the clink of another empty bottle returning to its carton.
It was way past two by the time I properly got to sleep but at least I had a relative lie in, waking around seven on the final morning of daylight saving. It was still before sunrise and I was glad to find a child making a racket proximate to the late night soft rockers. Outside the scene was ethereal, a light mist floating inches above the ground. Standing within the haze, the silhouettes of eucalypts competed with the stick figures of humanity queuing for the long drop.
Thankfully, the mist didn’t survive too long as the sun rose to bathe the countryside an early gold. It was to be a crucial weapon in my operation to achieve a dry canvas by ten in the morning. A contraption of car doors, chair and bike slowly aired the flysheet while I shook the beads of moisture out of various flaps. It was the closest thing to having a morning shower.
In the absence of the camp kitchen box I didn’t get a morning cuppa, but at least found comfort with a cold hot cross bun in bed. By time everything was dry and packed up, coffee in Tumut was essential, this time accompanied by a big breakfast that kept me going for most of the day.
I spent the remainder of the morning exploring a little more around Tumut, finding it just as charming as on previous occasions. While not peaking yet, the passage of autumn was undeniably playing its hand, the yellows and ambers first to appear within riverside parks and along quiet country lanes.
Pleasantly warm and breathless, there was temptation again to jump on the bike. But I was weary, and the amble was more in keeping with my mood. Goodness knows how I am going to accomplish 162kms over three days in a few weeks. My only comfort is that I feel more prepared and bike-fit than others due to embark on that journey.
For now, soak up the tranquillity back at the Junction. What a delightful spot this would be for a picnic, if only I was hungry. I really do think in the yet-to-be-published Exploration of Regional Towns Within a Few Hours of the National Capital During the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic, Tumut would be up there in the top three. Unless there are other places unknown.
For instance, what about Cootamundra? Having only skirted once before I decided to head home in a larger loop: from Tumut to Gundagai and up to Cootamundra before tracking back via Harden along the Burley Griffin Way to Yass. I had already checked out cake opportunities in Cootamundra to justify the extra drive.
Coota, in its inevitably abridged nomenclature, will not make my top three, unless you are reading the yet-to-be-published Regional Towns Within a Few Hours of the National Capital Still Stuck in the 1950s. The town seems harmless enough, but it was very much of the everything closed on a Saturday afternoon persuasion.
With Coota Hot Bake shut, a few stragglers were heading to Woolworths for their daily bread. Even here, the sounds from a busker gave off a mangled Buddy Holly vibe. I entered the one café open – well, it said it was open despite looking deserted – and eventually found some humans. An old guy clearly way beyond retirement age diligently sprayed tables with disinfectant. He was keen to regale me with the events of the day, which were allegedly incredibly hectic. Over four hundred cups of coffee he said. So many people on the roads he claimed. It is hard to imagine.
In my Cootamundra, I can imagine bumping into Donald Bradman at Coota Hot Bake. All chipper and strutting like a peacock in his flat cap, shouting at the young lady behind the counter that the knots in his knot rolls are not knotted enough. If she was smart, she’d reply that unfortunately the bake was 0.06 degrees too low today, hence the knot rolls not being so perfect after all.
The Don is very much alive in Cootamundra, as the town does all it can to milk the fact that he was born here. Indeed, as advertised, you can “Stand in the very room the Don was born” at the modest but pretty little cottage on the edge of town. Next door is a spot promoting rare and unusual cricketing memorabilia, perhaps like those awful collages of Warnie lolloping around the crease that used to be pushed at viewers on Nine’s Wide World of Sport.
Closer to the town centre, in a lovely shady park, is Captain’s Walk. If Donaldmania is irksome for an Englishman weaned on a diet of capitulating pommie wickets and smirking Australian assassins with beer guts, then this is not an enjoyable walk at all. Busts of every Australian cricket captain are arranged here, though it is not true to say that Steven Smith’s nose was smoothed down with a sheet of sandpaper hidden in my pants.
Passing the head of Greg Chappell inches above the grass, I departed Cootamundra before pausing in Harden for fuel and a much needed frozen sugar slush. Harden was one of those places already featured in Exploration of Regional Towns Within a Few Hours of the National Capital During the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic back in spring, when the canola was all a riot. Population 2,030 it is quite the feat to have a town which stretches on for what seems like forever along the main road.
When you finally do leave town, it’s a really pleasant drive with pleasant countryside and pleasant curves. Encountering unpleasant roadwork at one point I decided why not pull into the “Historic Village of Galong” just because it was there. Naturally even quieter than Coota I felt as though a few eyes were peering through old wooden windows at this interloper. Perhaps a banjo string being tightened. It is no Jugiong.
Yet in the afternoon sun, unseasonably hot once again, sleepiness seemed the perfect state of affairs. I could’ve quite happily joined the village for a siesta. All four of us. But I didn’t. There is Binalong and Bowning and Yass and Murrumbateman still to come before the sun will set in the sky. And then it really will be time to say goodbye. Bye-bye!
It is beyond doubt that coronavirus has altered our perception of the exotic. Whether it be Gundagai or the garden centre, there is much greater thrill to be had in what was once so mundane. I kind of like this revived appreciation for what is immediately around us, as we persevere in seeking out that which can still be discovered. A new view, a different seat, a random town. Or even just a change in how we think about the same place.
My first impressions of the Snowy Mountains in Australia were underwhelming; being neither snowy nor particularly mountainous. With more than a passing resemblance to Wales, it was a bit odd in 2006 to come all this way for – well – Wales. But a few years ago, back when such things were possible, I had a brilliant time in North Wales. And in the context of what is and isn’t possible today, the Snowy Mountains seem to eclipse even a perfect hike to Snowdon.
A multitude of brown tourist signs and a $17 entrance fee help to create an expectation around Kosciuszko National Park. A spacious campground in a peaceful setting at Island Bend adds to the holiday feels. It’s only for the one night but when you have an instant tent, one night is as good as a holiday. An hour later, with instant tent finally erect, a cold beer is clearly required.
But this is no place to sit and drink beer all day, well not for me at least. In between a reasonable night of comfortable sleep, there is the Welsh countryside to explore. And, oh boyo, does it deliver far much more in 2021.
Smitten at six in the evening. I think this walk was as much about an ambience, a mood as it was about the open upland panoramas and shimmering river views. It was about the pure sound of that river and the glow of the light. It was about a subtle fragrance like jasmine tea, emanating from the small shrubs and grasses through which a narrow track forged. It was about finding a little lodge perched into the hillside and reaching a swing bridge which would take those more intrepid further. It was about a time and place in which each new step came with the thrill of discovery.
The walk starts in Guthega, one of those small clusters of lodges and chalets which counts as a village up this way. Bustling in winter, these places are weirdly soulless in summer, relative ghost towns seemingly abandoned as a result of a nuclear meltdown or similar. Only occasional voices from balconies hinted at a weekending populace, and numerous cars and trucks formed towards the trailhead, many destined to greet their owners returning from overnight jaunts in the wilderness.
Guthega also exists I suspect due to the dam, where the Snowy River is first brought to a halt on its journey to Marlo. It will be tampered with and drawn from many times on its way to Gippsland, but above the Dam it is truly free to roam. It’s a freedom that rubs off on those who follow it.
The trail officially comes to a terminus at Illawong Lodge, the small building tucked into the hillside. It looks and feels idyllic right at this moment, gazing out over the valley as the sun sinks low. A cold, amber ale would be perfect followed by a bed for the night, but my bed is presumably still standing back at Island Bend.
There is one last hurrah, just down from the lodge. The swing bridge across the river acts as a landmark, a destination, a place to be daring and frolic and to possibly carry on along unofficial, unformed ways. The landscape certainly does its best to suck you in further, and perhaps one day it will. Near the bridge, a new path appears to be undergoing construction, following the river further into the wild to someplace somewhere. There is still more to discover.
Main Range with diversion
I have climbed Mount Kosciusko several times and while there is much to enjoy it’s barely an achievement to rival Kilimanjaro or K2. The route from Thredbo, cable car-assisted, is a family-friendly jaunt, while the quickest way from Charlotte Pass follows a wide trail that incrementally rises without much of a fanfare. By far the best route is to follow the Main Range, crossing the Snowy River and rising to a ridgeline over 2000 metres which plunges over to the west.
Up with the kookaburras I reached Charlotte Pass for brekkie and a cuppa on the most exquisite balcony, the first rays of sun hitting the lofty heights out in front of me. I was heading for somewhere in that direction but hadn’t particularly finalised where. My main desire was to reach a point where I could marvel at the spectacular Western Fall disappearing into the horizon. Carruthers Peak or Mount Twynam would more than suffice.
Immediately the trail is a joy, largely because you are heading downhill to that free-running Snowy River. Halfway down, I encounter another new track being constructed and – guess what – find that it will lead east to Illawong Lodge. An accompanying notice suggests this is part of a planned multi-day walking track and I can again picture a night at that lodge with a cold amber ale on the deck.
For now, I have the Snowy to cross without a swing bridge. A series of boulders offer stepping stones, with only one jagged pyramid causing some complexity. After that, it is easy and getting to the other side without making an absolute tit of yourself in front of experienced hikers coming down from a night in the wilds is almost as satisfying as simply being here.
It is a good job life is sweet because there follows an incessant drag uphill and the prominent hulk of Carruthers Peak (2,145m) still seems a long way off. Along the way, the view down to Blue Lake offers a break and not long after the trail reaches the point at which the landscape plummets dramatically over the other side. It is a spectacular view, heightened by the big reveal as you come over the rise.
It is at this point that the Main Range trail veers left, and you can trace its outline steepening up to the lofty heights of Carruthers. To the right, an old, faint four wheel drive track is not promoted but neither is it barred. My research tells me this leads towards Mount Twynam (2,195m) and while I may not make it that high, I can at least aim for a rocky outcrop closer by.
There, mosses and flowers and hills upon hills upon hills stretching into the distance. Among these hills, the nearby Mount Sentinel stands out as the most jagged, traditional-looking mountain. This could be discovered one day too, but I would like someone else to come along for the ride, as a safeguard.
As tempted as I was to push on from this outcrop, I also figured I had reached my goal for the day with such epic vistas. I had also run out of sunscreen and broken my seven dollar sunglasses, so there was good sense in deciding to return before the day raced towards high noon. Good sense continued with a sandwich stop closer to Blue Lake, a baguette loaded with ham and brie beside a glacial cirque conjuring the pretence of France. C’etait la vie.
After such good sense at not being sucked in by the landscape at previous points, the sandwich gave me fortitude to have a nosy closer to Blue Lake. And then a faint track led towards Hedley Tarn before it simply vanished.
I spent a good 40 minutes trying to figure out a way back across to the Main Range trail, barely a kilometre away and visible thanks to its regular flow of people walking up and down. Encountering boulders and impenetrable shrubs I eventually resigned myself to retracing steps the way I had come.
All this extra energy consumed, and a sun now high in the sky, made me fearful for the final surge: the re-crossing of the Snowy and that godawful climb back up to Charlotte Pass. But in the end, it wasn’t so bad. The other half of my sandwich boosted the energy, and strategic photo stops offered necessary breathers.
While there is pleasure in an ending, those final stops proved bittersweet; captivated with the wild beauty and melancholy that it would soon be left behind. If it takes a pandemic to make me realise how special a place Kosciuszko National Park is, let’s please not have more pandemics. But instead let’s try and remember what it is like to cherish that which we had previously overlooked. Like Wales.
Many of Men at Work’s lyrics from that infamous song are undoubtedly insane. And for a sparsely populated continental land mass frequently sun-baked and on the very fringes of survival, there are legitimate question marks about its plentifulness. Plenty in size and scale and cultural history. Plenty in coal and iron ore and brazen luck. Plenty in toilet roll, despite everything.
Today, in the natural world around me, there appears again this land of plenty. Turn back a year and there would have been much head-shaking at such a thought. A cruel fantasy. But since that point, we’ve had plenty of rain resulting in plenty of growth leading to plenty of productivity. Not all of this is welcome, with rabbits and mice and locusts replicating at the rate of viruses in Kent. And the plentiful fruits of this rejuvenation are proving challenging to reap without a stream of acquiescent backpackers.
Still, “she’ll be apples” as they say. Surprising apples if you find yourself on a road between Bundanoon and Marulan. I was heading back from a day of plenty when I spotted a small sign saying ‘Big Apple’ pointing to the left. Already astounded by the incredible-in-so-many ways Big Potato, the apple emerged as a more subtle dessert.
Giant fruits and vegetables are apt in the Southern Highlands given the land is – for the most part – rich farming country. Babe was also filmed around here, combining perfectly with some of the local apple sauce and roast spuds. I could see snatches of Babe country throughout, supercharged by the verdant green rolling landscape, scattered with fine weatherboard homes and lacy verandas. Such is the well-groomed nature of this land, that it comes as a dramatic contrast when the countryside falls suddenly towards the sea. Delivering plenty.
This happens at Carrington Falls, situated within Budderoo National Park to the south of Robertson. It was a misty, head-in-the-clouds morning, the kind that lends itself to Jurassic Park moments. Tall white trees disappear into the clouds, giant ferns at their base dripping with beads of moisture. The air smells earthy and rich, peppered with wafts of cool mint. Only the fizzing sound of water signals a break in this most stagnant of scenes.
Several lookouts provide the wow factor, the intake of breath, the magnetic allure of millions of litres of water falling fifty metres into a deep pool. It is unclear whether the mist swirling through the eucalypts are remnants of waterfall or lowering fingers of cloud. I suppose they are all part of the same big cycle taking on different forms. Steaming glasses and feeding natural spectacles.
I’m surprised by how busy the place is on a cool, damp Monday. A steady flow of visitors park up, loop along the lookouts and leave again. Most pause for a picture or two, alternating between ultra-serious brooding to comical selfies. One senior lady poses with what looks like a car windscreen shade over her head, arranged to resemble Mickey Mouse ears. The youth – students from Wollongong I suspect – brave the waters of the creek before they succumb to gravity.
There is another turn off near Carrington Falls that suggests further valley lookouts. I head to the first and closest, greeted with even denser mist and a disappearing view. Fine rain is now falling and – for February – it’s cold.
Back near the car and now thinking of a warming lunch, a sign points to something called Nellie’s Glen. It’s only a hundred metres, which is hardly going to delay the arrival of comfort food. And what a pleasant surprise this turned out to be, a gorgeous pool fed by gently cascading waters. The kind of place on a warmer day to soak and swim and avoid water dragons and hope that leeches aren’t longing for a bit of attachment.
With other lookouts and a campground I feel there is unfinished business in Budderoo National Park. But my mind – and stomach – has become fixated on pie. At the junction with the Illawarra Highway stands the self-proclaimed ‘World Famous Robertson Pie Shop’. Have you heard of it over there? It looks exactly the kind of place that would disappoint and end up on the news as a COVID hotspot. A pie of plenty instead came at the Robertson Pub, no doubt known as The Robbo, oppo the big potato.
It was perfect weather for pie and mash and gravy, washed down by a surprisingly good local ale whose name I sadly do not recall. Such feasting naturally induces a contented lethargy that makes the thought of further activity, further driving, further walking, further gazing at amazing, just that little bit less enticing. But I had to get home somehow, and there was still a waterfall way to go.
Thus the afternoon heralded Belmore Falls, a double delight viewed from afar. Some people had managed to find closer views next to the top of the falls and a couple – spied through my zoom lens – had made their way between upper and lower falls. I figured, judging by the size and athleticism of said couple, that it couldn’t be too hard to reach, though how they did so remains very much a mystery. Perhaps abseiling or helicopters were involved.
The drive from Belmore Falls to Fitzroy Falls proved joyful, a pocket of pure Babes country starting to welcome a brighter, afternoon sky. At Fitzroy Falls itself – the trustiest and most accessible of the waterfalls in this area – I felt a little as though I was going through the motions, but walked and stopped and took photos and gazed out in awe nonetheless. As well as both Fitzroy and Twin Falls adding to the daily tally, the view into the Yarrunga Valley never fails to enchant.
By the time I passed through Exeter and Bundanoon and abruptly turned to the left in Tallong, the sun had started to reassert itself and offer some welcome warmth. Better conditions for ripening apples I would imagine, and less potato friendly. A landscape now drier and more typical of great swathes of eastern Australia.
As a final stop before joining the highway I detoured to Long Point Lookout, where a spur of land thrusts itself out into an incredible wilderness. Below, some five hundred metres, the Shoalhaven River turns 180 degrees, carving out the steep hills and ravines which disappear off into the distance. All that water has to lead somewhere, and the Shoalhaven is quite a remarkable gathering of natural forces.
I spent a good half hour at this spot, as the late afternoon light cast itself in fits and starts upon the scene. Not one other car, not one other person stopped by during that time. Somewhere else, in another continent, in another country I couldn’t imagine such absence, such indifference. It would be a highlight, a spectacle, hustling with people and coaches and tacky souvenirs.
Here, it was as if no-one else knew. Here, in a country of vast open space, of forests and gorges still existing untouched, still largely unexploited, it was nothing special. Just another view, just another scene, just another place. And surely that is what makes it a land of plenty, he said, smiling with a Vegemite sandwich.
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.
This morning I ploughed headlong towards frustration after being unable to discover where I had stored a series of empty jars. Receptacles for random concoctions of cream, fruit and sugar, hopeful Jars of Joy 2020. I reckon I shifted them somewhere back in March, clearing space for tins of tomatoes and dried lentils full of grit.
Fruitless, I gave up and went for a walk. Half an hour later I found myself in the comforting arms of countryside, reflecting on how this has actually been – astonishingly – a year of discovery. Fringing a paintball play area, rising up through pines giving off an essence of Christmas, straddling the divide between the Capital Territory and New South Wales.
Border Walks could become the 2021 sequel to 2020’s Centenary Trail. Just don’t hop over the border if you want to visit <insert as appropriate depending on the hour of the day>.
It really is quite astonishing how a year of restriction has somehow enforced greater discovery. A more immersive experience of place. Not just in the country roads and country towns, the trails and bike rides, the parks and reserves. I have also discovered exactly how long it takes to use a roll of toilet paper, how to use my phone to read QR codes and – earlier in the year – the threshold for hazardous air quality. It’s been quite the ride.
It’s crazy to think this time last year we were enduring a ferocity of fire and fury. But not forgotten. The recent whistling of easterly wind changes bringing cool air around dusk prompts memories of orange skies and choking campfire smells. The scars linger not so far from home.
In the 2020 spirit of discovery, and with an eye to having a short break before mass holiday superspreading madness, I passed through several areas that were decimated a year ago on my way to the coast. The top of Clyde Mountain still astonishes in – today – a damp misty haze. Vivid ferns and tangled vines twist their way around solid black trunks. It is still too early to tell if some of these trees will ever make it back.
Down the hill I stop briefly in Batemans Bay, where an impressive new bridge is spanning the Clyde. An altered horizon which – from a certain angle if you squint a bit – resembles the Brooklyn Bridge. Sun emerges from behind the showers that have been accompanying me all morning, continuing their work of recovery and subterfuge.
I’m heading for a couple of nights in Bermagui, some 125 kilometres further south. The extra distance worth it to escape the worst of the Canberra holiday set. And, of course, for the opportunity to discover, since I have only ever passed through this small town in the past.
What did I find? Well, it has one high street boasting the contrasting styles of Bazza’s Hot Bread and Boneless Vegetarian Café. It is fringed by a lovely headland area full of green space and convenient benches to gaze out to the ocean. And just yards from a vegan soy latte is the most perfect bay of white sand. From Horseshoe Bay, the dominant hulk of Gulaga lends the scene a tropical Queensland kind of air.
Either side of Bermi, the coastline is punctuated by largely pristine inlets and lakes, ideal for waterbirds and kayaks and the whole area is popular with fisherfolk. BCF buckets and ragged singlets are incongruent with the shiny, expensive boats parked outside Woolworths. A sizeable wharf provides anchorage, the fetid smell of stagnant salt water and fish guts detectable in the air. The promise of fish and chips and ice cream makes this a blight worth bearing.
One of the annoying things I discovered about Bermagui was that the fish and chip shop closes at 7pm. I discovered this around 7:07pm. Even more unfathomable, the ice cream spot – while I was there at least – closes at 5. I suppose, true to form, 2020 wouldn’t be 2020 without a couple of disappointments; I’ll just have to pivot.
As it turned out, in my extensive, laborious investigation I came to the personal conclusion that the ice cream from Bodalla Dairy was superior to Bermagui’s Gelati Clinic anyway. It tastes creamier and the flavours are more interesting. Not to mention the cute setting, in the midst of what has returned to being lush, green countryside. You feel as though the cows are creating magic just out the back. In situ, it’s similar to how Beaufort cheese tastes better in Beaufort.
I am reminded of a show on TV this week in which Rick Stein worked his way through eight courses featuring local cheese in a rustic auberge in the Jura. If ever a moment had me longing for international travel again that was it. Not exactly equivalent but probably as good as it gets, Australia has Tilba Tilba. So good they named it twice.
I really adore Tilba and I’m pretty sure a big part of that is the presence of a creamery bringing the goodness of Jersey cows to fruit. I’ve never actually seen the Jersey cows, but you can sense it’s good pasture, even more so a year on from drought. In the foot of Gulaga, there is a bounteousness here that is unparalleled south of the Queensland border.
Gulaga is especially significant to the Yuin People, particularly women. Even for these Anglo, invader eyes of mine there is an inescapable presence to the mountain. It draws you in, looming up behind the decorative facades of colonial cottages, appearing between rocky boulders in the landscape, spilling down into rainforest gullies and thickets of long grass, teeming with a cacophony of cicadas and the flutter of giant butterflies. Host to hundreds of snakes.
I was delighted to not encounter any snakes on a new walk that I just happened to stumble across, like so many great discoveries in this great southern land. One day I might just stumble across a massive gold nugget like one of those lucky bastards. Today, a loop walk through fields of green will do well enough. Finished off with a few golden purchases in the dairy.
South of Tilba, the Princes Highway skirts Gulaga and heads inland on its way to Bega. Before now I have always taken the alternative coastal route, via Bermagui and Tathra. And so, conveniently drawing on an overly-contrived theme, I found myself discovering a new piece of road. Destined for a date with a bevy of pretty ladies.
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, I greet an old friend who used to help me undertake research with young people. I’m not sure it’s such a leap from this to keeping around a hundred alpacas in champion order. At Wedgetail Rise Alpacas, Annemarie takes me on a guided tour of a landscape that wouldn’t be too out of place in our native lands. Apart from some still too obvious discrepancies.
Verona is situated between Cobargo and Quaama, small villages that have become synonymous with our Black Summer. While the great green cover-up continues apace, it is not hard to see the brutal impact still lingering on the ridges and penetrating through the gullies. The comeback is patchy, the torment of weeds opportunistically filling the void to add a further challenge. The characteristic isolated brick chimney stack, that potent symbol of devastation, is never far away.
In Cobargo itself it is hard not to sense a community still in shock, still slowly rebounding. I can only imagine how the permanent presence of blackened hills plays on the psyche. While much of the main street stands, vacant plots tell of the randomness of fire.
If ever there was justification for my mission to support local communities through coffee and cake, then surely it was here. And – oh look – there’s a second-hand bookshop. Christmas presents from a community-run endeavour like this trump K Mart hands down. And, in a somewhat pleasing memory of life before 2020, they only accept cash.
My remaining time down on the coast was largely filled with discovering ways to fill time before it was acceptable to have lunch, when the fish and chip shop would actually be open. A final hurrah before making my way back home, a necessary item on the coast trip checklist. Another earnest sacrifice to contribute to the local economy.
The last morning was overcast but calm and within my car I had a little red rocket on two wheels. One of the big discoveries of 2020 is a) how beautiful my bike poses in random locations and b) how there is a freedom that comes with a ride which doesn’t quite happen on two feet or four wheels. The unimpressive pace of my cycling is just about perfect to gain some decent ground while never going too fast to make the surroundings whizz by in a blur.
Quite wonderfully a cycle path cut a swathe through Bermagui onto a quiet road leading up and down to Haywards Beach. Greeting me, a rugged, sweeping stretch of sand flanked by dunes and low shrubs. Where the road came to an end, a decent trail – part worn tarmac and fine gravel – followed the bay. Curls of crystal surf competed for attention with overhanging branches. Beyond, I found myself heading towards Wallaga Lake and yet more waterside attractions. The turnaround point came at a headland where a midden of shells proved testament to the abundance of this area. Abundance in which I could now quite justifiably indulge back in Bermagui.
And so, as the sun goes down on the year and the battering that is 2020 disappears in a pile of batter, we can only hope that the next year heralds something of an improvement. And while 2020 is a year we may well be super keen to forget, let us not easily disregard the many good things, the many discoveries that we have all made in our own little way. Among the ashes, among the difficulties, the resilience, the humanity, the nuggets of joy. Or jars of joy. If only I could find the bloody things.
I doubt the young lady taking my order was convinced. “Please may I have the Farmer’s Lunch please thank you? Thanks. How would I like it? I guess on a plate would be a good start, do you have these here yet? Oh, you mean the steak? Um… (killing a few seconds considering whether I should plump for rare like the locals) medium-rare please. Thank you.”
“Y’aint no farmer love are ya?”
“Yeah nah. I’ll be sitting next to the CWA ladies playing bingo if that’s okay? Thanks.”
Cowra, New South Wales, Saturday 21st November 2020 and not all of the above was true. I did order a Farmer’s Lunch and I did opt for medium-rare, but it was served to me without disdain. At least outwardly. You didn’t need to be a farmer to order it; only my internal voice was screaming out “FRAUD”.
I found myself here after much procrastination. Determined to embark on something of a mini road trip over the weekend I spent the previous few evenings plotting routes and stops largely based around where I could support the local economy. Given I was heading into the country, surely there would be a nice country pub with hearty fare and a cold beer? I pictured a shady garden perhaps, leading up to an arrangement of latticework and wood-flooring. Locals in Slim Dusty hats shading craggy, sunbeaten faces glanced up at me with a twinkle in the eye. A large fan whirred silently over a shelf crammed with ten-year-old bottles of Scotch. Above the fireplace, a framed blue jersey of some ex-footballer who once scored a field goal in Origin.
Perhaps such idyll exists, but I’m yet to find it. Still, air conditioning and keno was comforting as temperatures soared into the high 30s in Cowra. And the Farmer’s Lunch – steak, sausages, eggs and chips – was worth all that hard yakka sitting in a machine pressing a few buttons. Just like the farmers busily harvesting their grain.
Earlier that morning I had driven up from Canberra in time for a coffee stop in Boorowa. After a previous visit in early spring it was notable how much the green had already diminished, long grasses browning off after a couple of weeks of warm, drier weather. Boorowa was nonetheless as charming as before, though the coffee stop didn’t quite live up to previous highs. I feel like it was under new ownership and lacked the same, welcoming community hubbub. On my way back to the car, another café promised for the next visit.
While Boorowa was still feeling jaunty under a gentle morning breeze, a little further up the road in Murringo the withering inland heat began to bite. Crackly yellow grass, searing bitumen, and the piercing symphony of cicadas. It had been a while since it was like this.
There wasn’t much to Murringo, other than a place where you can go and check out some whips. But it was cute all the same and the drive through Murringo Gap was pleasing with its hay bales and narrowing valley slopes. On cooler days I could see a cycle ride heading through here, but maybe that’s not until autumn now.
I was hoping to swiftly reach Conimbla National Park for a walk before the heat of the day kicked in. Arriving in a remote and empty patch of dirt, the clock on my car signalled a few minutes before midday. Mad dogs and Englishmen and all that. It was the kind of walk in which I could disappear down a ravine to be eaten by snakes before discovery three weeks later. I took some solace in the fact that the lady tending her allotment down in the valley eyed me warily as I drove past – surely she would send help? Or send in the boys with pitchforks?
Spoiler alert: I survived. Was it worth it? Maybe. The highlight was a lookout midway along, offering views over a small valley. Trees of Eucalyptus mingled with black cypress pine, presenting a speckled green landscape under the fierce blue sky. Swathes of native bluebell offered comfort along the trail, tempered by the expectation that I could step on a snake hidden amongst such jolly thickets at any moment. I didn’t.
In fact I survived to make lunch. Through fields of grain and hills of sheep, the road entered Cowra to a fanfare of agricultural supplies and heavy machinery, giving way to the range of motels, fuel and fast food that heralds the fringe of a regional town centre. Across the Lachlan River, the first pub. With its Farmer’s Lunch and aircon.
With a hot afternoon in store it was tempting to linger with a cold beer in hand. But I wanted to make Grenfell and after that my home for the night. Through those hours the car was the most comfortable place to be, though I stopped in Canowindra and the even smaller settlement of Gooloogong along the way. Both seemingly at siesta or more permanently asleep.
Grenfell offered a little more excitement, though mainly in the form of petrol under a dollar and exemplary public toilets. As I filled up with cheap petrol a sign promoting whippy thickshakes took my fancy. It would likely be the only source of such nutrition still open, so I took the plunge and navigated the whole complexity of a make-your-own thickshake within a servo.
First figure out which of the various range of cups to use, then add your syrup flavour of choice. Beware the lively caramel which spurts out of its dispenser and onto your shoes. Try and find some tissue to wipe this mess up and then fail to locate a bin to dispose of carnage. Now, add the whippy content from the machine that kicks into action after first releasing a dubious watery dribble. Then try to stop this process before it flows over the cup and creates more mess. Finally, add some more syrup because you’re gonna need it after this. Attempt to mix together with a straw and add a plastic lid which doesn’t really fit. Make your way to the counter where the lady looks on slightly incredulous, texting her mate at the same time as taking your money. Still, petrol under a dollar a litre people!
With a cup sticking to my hands I couldn’t really drive again until I contracted severe brain freeze and cleaned up properly in those exquisite toilets. It gave me the chance to idle along Grenfell’s main street. I daresay on a Saturday morning it’s a bustling little place. People parking at the required reverse-in 45 degree angle (I think I was more 60, but overlooked bringing my protractor), picking up bread from Mick’s Bakery or Chris’s Bakery or the Empire Bakery by David. There is clearly a testosterone-fuelled bakery-war taking place in Grenfell. All jumbo sausage rolls at six paces and mince tarts.
Apart from a few youth loitering as Henry Lawson looked on, I was the only one out on the streets. Occasional utes reversed in at 45 degrees to pop into the IGA. This was where half the town was, a queue forming for hot chooks and lotto.
The other half of the population appeared to be at some kind of gathering beside an old railway station as I made my way out of town. For a few seconds I hoped I might have stumbled upon a rodeo or something involving giant pumpkins. But all I could see were a few food trucks that looked as if they had migrated from Canberra for the day and a small cluster of people not doing much at all. I moved on.
West of Grenfell, the sweeping fields of grain were undergoing various stages of collection. In the distance, a small plume of dust pinpointed a header hard at work. Rising abruptly from this widescreen landscape, striking by contrast, an island of bushland and rugged outcrops of rock. Uncleared, uncultivated, protected from the squatters and the pastoralists and the farmers by its very presence.
This was clearly Weddin Mountains National Park and my bed for the night. It was a new one for me, surprising in a way given its little over two hundred clicks from home. I can probably thank COVID for coming across it – coastal avoidance, travel limitations, appreciation of what is within two hundred clicks of home.
Setting up camp in a flash – more of this shortly – I set out to explore, hopeful that by 6pm the temperature would have started to drop a little and I would be blessed by golden light. The information board at Ben Halls Campground informed me of several trails from here. Against one – Lynchs Loop Trail – someone had appended in handwritten block capitals ‘RETURN THE SAME WAY YOU GO UP. THE PATH BEYOND IS NOT SAFE.’ Another promised cool shady gullies and waterfalls and no ad hoc Trumpian warnings, so I opted for that.
The Bertha’s Gully trail did indeed proceed up a gully, but I had managed to perfectly time things so that I was seared by the westerly sun. It must have been 40+ in that gully, sheltered from any breeze, clambering up boulders, conscious of snakes. The trail was quite rough, victim in part to the generous spring which has delivered a profusion of growth. Various spiky plants penetrated my legs and shoes and socks, creating a sensation every ten seconds that I was being eaten by ants. Yet despite all this, pausing for the nectar that is a chilled Berry Gatorade from Grenfell IGA, there was an elemental beauty to the place.
I think the Gatorade saved my life, finishing the last drops closer to the campground beside Ben Halls Cave. I was too spent to read the detail, but I assume Ben Hall was one of those celebrated reprobates who stole some sheep, robbed stagecoaches, shot some police, and vehemently denied homoerotic gatherings of brotherhood under precipitous cliff faces in the middle of a winter’s night.
There was likely no need for spooning tonight. It was still hot when I arrived back to my camp chair and yet another disappointingly insipid Australian cider. In many ways it was the best of ciders, the worst of ciders. As refreshing as my sweat to the flies. I had forgotten about the flies and for a while it appeared they had forgotten about me. Until the time had come to relax with a cold cider.
I feel like every six months or so I have the urge to camp to be reminded of how arduous camping can be, the result of which is putting camping off for another six months or so. This time I thought I was making life easier by not really camping but sleeping in my car. This was a bit of a trial, but I had managed to remove and fold down seats to create space for my swag mattress. This padded by an old quilt created a perfectly spacious, comfortable area. Crucially I could stretch out fully from head to toe. My other less successful invention was the mosquito netting affixed on one of the rear windows by Velcro and Blu Tack.
I awoke after fitful sleep, still hot and greeted by the sound of a mosquito buzzing in my ear. Pilot test lessons: for some reason sleeping with your head at the back of the car is more comfortable. Get some better netting and use it on not one but two windows. Bring a tent just in case. Always, always consider a motel.
What you don’t usually get from a motel though is the experience of waking up at first light to a dawn chorus of joyous singing and painful shrieking. You don’t usually receive a refreshing essence from eucalypts releasing minty vapours in the cool of dawn. You are rarely greeted by an audience of kangaroos and their young, slightly startled to find that there is a person in that car around which they have been chomping overnight. You don’t have the options of a pit toilet or a tree.
Not feeling especially refreshed at six in the morning I was pleased to find that the iced coffee from Grenfell IGA was still reasonable in the car fridge. My original plan was to embrace the coolest part of the day by walking up Basin Gully to Eualdrie Lookout – billed as a ‘challenging’ and ‘adventurous’ hike, this time in printed information provided by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service. But rated as a Grade 5 hike (the most challenging) and weary as I was, I made the very sensible decision to give it a miss. What could I do instead? Oh, yes, that’s right, that shorter, mysterious Lynchs Loop.
Armed with a big stick for breaking any spider webs in front of me, I climbed steadily up through grassy woodlands, occasionally interrupted by a rocky boulder. Each step revealing more of the valley in which the campground sat and, beyond that, the plains to the west. At a junction, a trail led off to an overlook perched upon the very edge of the national park. Beyond, a view into vastness.
Scattered pools of sunlight breaking through the clouds shifted upon an endless canvas of gold. The meandering of watercourses was clearly etched into the land, as if a giant serpent had indeed been at work. Distant, only another hill rising incongruently from this flat agricultural tablecloth. Perched here, not another soul in the world. This is why it is worth it.
Enlivened and spirited by such moments, I decided to carry on the loop trail to see how unsafe it really was. The answer was NOT AT ALL. The route descended but other than a few rocks everything was gentle. All I can assume is whoever had written that strident piece of public information had done so after heavy rain – the remaining section of the trail crossed a largely dry creek which would no doubt tumble with vigour once or twice a year.
Leaving Weddin Mountains, I passed through Grenfell once again, failing to stop for a thickshake or to use its exemplary toilets. It wasn’t until Young that I embraced the luxury of running water once more. Young sits at the centre of the Hilltops region and the town itself lives up to this name. It seems whichever way you enter Young, it will be done from a height as your car winds its way down into the centre.
The centre of town – on a Sunday morning – was almost as devoid of habitation as Grenfell. Though larger, the high street also looked a bit rough-edged, run down, lacking the same faded elegance as its counterpart to the north. I always thought of Young as fairly well-to-do, set in a rich, productive landscape with a cherry on top.
This perception of Young returned upon entering a homewares store that featured a café, or more accurately a café that featured a selection of things for the home that are largely unnecessary. The café was busy with young, attractive people, extended families, and the local police collecting takeaway coffees and muffins. I felt fortunate to nab a table, close to the entrance where people were gathering in close proximity to register their presence on the off chance they had COVID.
It is quite an adjustment from sleeping in a car in the middle of nowhere to eating eggs benedict with pulled pork and an apple cider hollandaise in an upmarket homewares café. I felt and looked out of place, possibly because I was not wearing my hat indoors like the tens of identikit males with sculpted beards, black T-shirt and shorts and designer caps. They probably even had a shower this morning, show-offs.
The coffee was good and the brunch was delicious, albeit tarnished by the other great event of our times. What is it with being served only one slice of toast these days?! Two eggs and a pile of other stuff lumped onto one slice of toast. For something like twenty dollars. I don’t care if your toast is handcrafted sourdough whose airy bubbles are formed by unicorn farts, please may I have two of them?
The one slice of toast may have worked in my favour if the planets had aligned. Young is famous (in Australia at least) for cherries, harvested at this time of year and finding their way to many a Christmas table. There is even a National Cherry Festival, which may have occurred this very weekend if it wasn’t for the lingering presence of a microscopic virus. Each year, breakfast news weathermen arrive in Young to pick cherries and tell us how many tonnes are being shipped across Australia before informing of an impending heatwave. Apart from this year.
Nonetheless, the cherries and still growing and are still – despite a scarcity of backpackers to exploit – being picked. Many of the orchards offer pick your own and I had read of one that also had a café selling cherry pie. Surely the perfect ending before heading back, the cherry pie on the icing on the cake? As long as you book ahead.
For it turns out such is the renown of cherry season and such is the limitation of visitation numbers during 2020 that my intended destination was full. No more entry. Turn around and go away. Carrot cake down the road in Binalong will have to do.
Happily, starting the journey home I came across a small outdoor market in the settlement of Wombat, around which many of the orchards are based. There was a mobile coffee van, and a plant stall, and that stand promoting turmeric as the cure-all for the world’s ailments. Something colourful and knitted emanated from another corner as you amble past and try not to make eye contact. And there, out of the back of the van, the punnets of cherries. Picked yesterday just around the corner.
You cannot come to Young at this time of year and not buy cherries. Much as you cannot come into this part of the world and not be impressed, not be thankful for the people labouring to bring food to your table. Or to relish the stops in small towns withering in the heat, hiding poets and bakers and bushrangers among elegant facades and restless youth. And perhaps the most impressive of all, you cannot be indifferent to those natural islands, remnants of a distant past, witnesses to a longstanding culture, rising up in defiance to the industrial plains.
Have you ever noticed how much airtime commercial radio stations use boasting about all of the epic hits they play? To the extent that jingles boasting about the epic hits they play outweigh the actual amount of epic hits they play. Many of which are not epic, incidentally. Maroon 5 here’s looking at you.
It was on the road between Cooma and Nimmitabel that such jingles disappeared into an annoying crackle. Luckily, I was still able to pick up the ABC, midway between the first innings of Tasmania v South Australia. The soporific summer tones of balls making their way through to the keeper settled me into a groove, on an undulating, barren expanse of the Monaro. Alas, even that became interrupted, crossing to the FRADULENT VICTORY SPEECH OF SLEEPY JOE AND <INSERT RACIST MYSOGINIST DOGWHISTLE> KAMALA. SAD.
Afterwards, a dose of Springsteen would have been perfect. Or the soon-to-be-famous You’re a Big Fat Lonely Loser by Echo Chamber and the Orangemen. But by time I reached Pipers Lookout any pretence at radio signal had vanished altogether. Instead, play had been pressed on track one on my own classic hits of the Far South Coast.
Because it’s such an easy stop there’s no reason not to stop, even if you have stopped here many times before. It’s just like one of those pull-outs along an American Highway, offering dazzling vistas without requiring any physical exertion. Upon the edge of the Great Divide, the landscape plunges down Brown Mountain through lush rainforest gullies into the Bega Valley. Beyond this rumpled green tablecloth, a sliver of sea.
The sea, I had not seen thee since mid-June. In that period, waves and whales have come and gone. But with our flipped around climate, the countryside has been as soothing as water lapping at a half moon bay. At the head of the Bega Valley, Bemboka again defying the reality of hell and fury that was ten months before. Only close attention picks up the charred matchsticks of trees atop the rugged wilderness to the north.
Tathra marks the point at which the country meets the ocean and – at historic Tathra Wharf – another classic hit. Only this was one of those hits that you hear again many years later and feel slightly disappointed. It’s like a café in the perfect location that serves good coffee but decides to warm up a muffin and turn the delicious dollop of icing into a slimy gravy. Why do places do this without consent? The same with brownies. Frankly, warm brownies are glorified sponge cakes, a cold, dense, gooey pocket of rich chocolate ruined.
Of course I still ate warm muffin gloop and was starting to think I should work some of it off nearby. Somewhere new, somewhere different. For classics can also emerge in an instant. At Wajurda Point a viewing platform looked out over Nelson Beach, golden light emanating from the bush-clad hills and filtering through the ocean spray. On the beach, a lone silhouette provoked envy. Take me there.
Thirty minutes later I was accompanied by a choir of rainbow lorikeets, whip birds, and bellbirds as I made my way through a beautiful pocket of forest to the beach. I was now that lone silhouette heading north to an isthmus of sand melting into Nelson Creek. The topography of the creek, completing an entire 180 degree loop and widening into a lagoon is striking in its similarity to that of Merimbula. Only without the houses and cars and oyster beds and franked up boomers.
As good as anywhere to whip out my airline blanket circa 2010 for a brief rest. Pause.
As tempting as it was, I couldn’t linger here forever. Time moves on and to tell the truth it was starting to feel a wee bit nippy in the sea breeze. Barely twenty degrees. I rounded the bend into the lagoon for more sheer serenity, interrupted by and interrupting a fretful mother and its baby. I read that the pied oystercatcher was listed as endangered in New South Wales and I felt a little bad inadvertently getting between the two. Not that the youngster seemed to care, such is the innocence of youth.
It is quite the juxtaposition to go from here to KFC Bega. Like Korn following Bach. Where the incompetence of youth rises to the fore like mashed potato in a plastic cup of gravy. It wasn’t all their fault; it seems half the population of Bega picks up Sunday dinner here. To the extent that COVID-capacity limits become dubious.
Quite astonishingly I was stopping in Bega for the night, hence such fine dining. Not only was this the first time I had stayed in Bega, it was also the first time I had stayed anywhere other than home since the very start of March. Six wicked wings and a takeaway salad from Woolworths in my motel room seemed an appropriate way to mark the occasion.
Bega is the kind of place you drive past or through on the way to Tathra or Merimbula or Eden or – even – the amazing COVID-free state of Victoria. Known for a mass-produced cheese, it’s not the most fashionable or affluent-looking town. But given I’ve been enamoured by understated country towns of late, it will do me just fine.
The next morning I decided I should give Bega a fair shake of the sauce bottle and wandered down towards the river. What I came across were weatherboard homes and verandas possessing a touch of ramshackle elegance. The town quickly gave way to generous green pasture, married with the chirpy sounds of spring. In a small portion of time I was in the country and not just any country. A country pretending at being Devon. It’ll be the closest I get this year.
I would stay in Bega again but – crucially in the ‘I could live here’ assessment – I cannot yet testify to its quality of coffee. Keen to get back on the greatest hits tour, I determined my morning coffee should be at Bar Beach, Merimbula. A spot probably eclipsing that at Tathra Wharf and without the indignity of a melted muffin.
It was Monday – my day off – and surprising how many other people appeared to have time on their hands. Not just the usual array of wealthy retirees but paddle-boarding mums and surfing bums, living their best #vanlife. I fancy the odd person, like myself, was a wily Canberran lingering into a long weekend. Victorians seemingly absent.
Next on the tour was Pambula Beach or, to be precise, the Pambula River. Probably the standout track, the one that you revisit time and time again. When the sun is out here the clarity of colours defies belief, dazzling through the shadow of trees as you emerge from your car. The white sands leading you further into the heart of the river, ever-changing and reforming into crystal pools and sapphire swirls. One thing lacking – this time at least – was the backing track of bellbirds, quietened by the fresh wind funnelling through the valley.
The triumvirate of this hit parade is Eden and – specifically – fish and chips (or fish cocktails and potato scallops) down by the wharf. The crunchiest, most golden potato cakes this side of the border. My last memory of them was just before the end of 2019, a day or two before Mallacoota happened and when, a few days subsequently, this wharf became a shelter of last resort. Thankfully, the core of Eden remained intact and I was keen to do my usual diligent duty of supporting the local economy by eating its food.
Much like The Rolling Stones, Eden Wharf had seen better days. Horror hit me when I discovered a ‘closed for good’ sign in my favourite scallop shop. Not only this, but every other outlet on the wharf looked abandoned. As if a pandemic had rolled in and wait… I wondered if business had been decimated by the double whammy of bushfires and COVID COVID COVID. Only later did I learn that the wharf building had been closed down because it was deemed unsafe.
Eden could do without 2020 I reckon. Paradise Lost. My only hope is that talk of food trucks becomes reality so that the town can benefit from Victoria reopening and a steady stream of summer visitors. For me, I would have to seek solace in potato scallops elsewhere.
It was back up the road in Pambula that I discovered Wheelers, famed for its oysters, also had a fish and chip takeaway. The fish was great (if a little on the small side) and the chips – strictly fries – were also surprisingly good. Only the two potato scallops, pale and insipid, left me deflated.
The good news was that I could take the takeaway back to the Pambula River, on a perfect stone seat sheltered from the wind. In cream tea terms, this was like Fingle Bridge – perfect setting, decent food. Is it a classic worthy of repeat? Well, only time will tell. For now, I have to press rewind, back over that mountain, once again to the overwhelming familiarity of home, radio signals and all.