The track out back

Usually a work trip to Wagga Wagga would trigger at least an eye roll and a quiet sigh. Another country town with no obvious attraction and dubious coffee. A trawl along a quiet highway surrounded by sun-parched nondescript land. Oh, and the prospect of work at the end of it all.

But, this time it was different; I was mildly enthused about the prospect. Partly this was about getting in the car for a decent drive for the first time in a while, stopping at random road stops and revelling in the golden expanse of country New South Wales. Then there was the understated, hidden gems of Wagga to discover, aided by a little expert advice. I might indeed get a good coffee. And the work? Well a necessity, but it was perfectly reasonable to manage.

wag01And so the drive out of Canberra almost immediately led to immersion into a flat, golden brown landscape almost devoid of interruptions or scenic highlights. Diverting around Yass and Jugiong and encountering extensive lane closures on the road to Gundagai, distraction naturally came with the Dog on the Tuckerbox. It’s a statue of a dog. On a tuckerbox. But it is sunny and warm and the landscape here more undulating and fertile. Gum trees offer shady refuge for the melodious magpies and chirpy galahs; tin sheds and wooden farmsteads sit snugly among long grasses and fields of sheep; and there are numerous comings and goings to observe at the Tuckerbox KFC.

Shortly after, the Sturt Highway commences on its way to Adelaide, with Wagga just a short stretch along the road. Loosely following the Murrumbidgee River valley, it’s a pleasant approach before the surprisingly elongated suburbs of Wagga arrive in the form of an airport, tractor supercentres, and Red Rooster. It’s a bustling kind of place and – like many a country town – appearing to self-sufficiently prosper in the midst of nowhere.

wag02

wag03I enjoyed a late afternoon beside the river, checking out the sandy beach and colourful language of some local ladies engaged in a very open discussion about Tinder and uncles marrying strippers and the like. The beach is obviously no Bondi or Bantham, but there’s sand and water and – I can imagine on those scorching summer days – it has enough going for it to impel you into the Murrumbidgee. Under the shade of eucalypts the vibe is chilled, languid like the river itself and I could have sat here a while if I didn’t have some work to do.

The next day I said farewell to Wagga but not before a very good coffee and breakfast at Trail St which means that the city can now enter the pantheon of places that earn the ‘I could live here if I had to’ badge of honour. If I did live there, maybe the staff at Trail St would be a little less cold and engage me like they do all the regulars, rather than as someone from out of town who might just be there to write about them on Trip Advisor. Which I wasn’t. But hey, you’ve made it to a blog that no-one reads! Oh, and while I’m plugging stuff, eat or get takeaway at Saigon, just because okay.

wag04The return trip was far more diverting than a dog on a tuckerbox, mainly because I opted to take a different route back which didn’t involve dual carriageway and bypassing one street towns. The Snowy Mountains Highway stretches all the way down to Cooma, and if I was going to avoid taking a massive detour to Canberra I would have to find my way across the Brindabella Ranges. But first, time for a little bushwalk, just south of Tumut to a slab of rock called Blowering Cliffs. It was a decent jaunt out, starting off through lush meadows and rising ceaselessly through forest to a protrusion of granite. Sometimes a waterfall plunges off here, but today it was like a sporadically dripping tap.

wag05

Back in Tumut I was surprised at the size and positive signs of life in evidence. It is not entirely clear why Tumut exists but, just like Wagga, there was a modest elegance and reasonable hubbub to the town centre. Here there is not just one main street, but a whole block, complete with dubious looking cafes and country stores selling hats and water pumps, at least three pubs to kill time, a McDonalds and – unbelievably – both a Woolworths and a Coles supermarket. Tumut, bigger than you think, was not the sign I saw as I left town with a McChiller Chocoffee in my cup holder.

The road heading towards the Brindabellas and – eventually – the ACT border was a pleasant surprise, at least to begin with. Indeed, it was rarely boring, transitioning from a beautiful pastoral scene following the path of a narrowing ravine into sweeping forested hills. The hills were all plantation pine and there was the constant thrill of the potential for a massive truck chock full of logs hurtling at you at 120 kph to keep you awake. This was all on sealed surface, but after the forest it inevitably gave way to loose gravel to dirt to rocky lumps descending precariously down towards the Goodradigbee River. And what a veritable Eden this spot was, a verdant paradise of a valley between the hills.

wag06

wag07What goes down must go up and so there was some further climbing through Brindabella National Park on more precarious surface before cresting the ranges where the NSW-ACT border sits. I figured out this was my final road border crossing into the Australian Capital Territory and immediately the road surface improved: still dirt but smoother and significantly more tolerant. At the oh-so-ironic Piccadilly Circus I was back on familiar ground, winding down towards the subdued hum of sealed tarmac once more. Back in Canberra comfort, but with the satisfaction of a touch of exploration behind my back.

Australia Driving Green Bogey

Newcy town

When I think of Newcastle some quite disturbing images come to mind. Gazza, half cut, tongue out, festooned with a pair of fake plastic tits; girls plastered with fake everythings casually hanging out in crop tops in the freezing fog of January; Kevin Keegan’s bubble perm; a language unfathomable, so much so that I can remember having to ask a couple of Geordies to say that again at least ten times before I gave up and resorted to a smile and nod. My Newcastle associations are embedded in the UK.

Like so many spots down under there is a Newcastle of the south. The resemblance is far from uncanny but one bond in common is a slightly grimy industrial heritage. This in the oh-so-sunny world of Australia is perversely refreshing. Sure, the entrance to town from the direction of the airport is not the greatest advertisement, as you cross the Hunter River in a squall and look down upon piles of coal and metalwork. But there is an honesty to it, a grit, an earthy spirit perhaps common to Newcastles all over the world, whyaye.

newc2Once clear of this blackspot of industry, you are back in a more familiar kind of Australia, with Newcastle boasting some fine beaches, cafe-cultured hubbub, and waterside retreats. I like it here, though being unfamiliar with what’s hot and what’s not it took me four attempts to get a good coffee. Cafes on Darby Street have an appearance in which they seem to talk the talk, but walking proves far more problematic. Is it me, or are baristas with an armful of tattoos, baseball caps and a love of the mirror at the gym usurping hipsters in coffee-making skills? Just something I seem to have observed in recent times…

newc3Once I found a good coffee from someone who could crush the beans by hand, I decided I liked Newcastle a lot. It probably joins the long list of places where I’d say I could live if I had to. Being on the coast has a lot to do with it, and while showers were around and daylight saving had ended, at least I got to enjoy the last of the day with the rainbows and butterflies before setting off for some evening work.

newc4

The next morning started early (partly because daylight saving has ended) and – being on the east coast – I thought I may marvel in the sunrise over the ocean. Of course, the persistent stream of showers coming in off the Tasman Sea had other ideas. But I was up now, so I headed along the breezy coastline towards Merewether Beach. Partly this passed along a rather fine metal walkway making the cliff top route a touch easier to navigate. That is, until turning round and noticing the many steps in the other direction. Still, it justified breakfast (with average coffee / no tattoos).

newc5

Newcastle airport is some 30 kilometres north of the city and I didn’t really need to be there until 4. If you carry on a similar distance north of the airport you enter the long peninsula of Port Stephens, a collective of holiday towns, placid bays and hilly bush-clad headlands. It’s probably worth a day or two to explore but I had a few hours, pausing for lunch at Fingal Bay, before doing undoubtedly the number one thing to do and climbing Tomaree Head. It’s not a long walk but there are a few switchbacks and metal steps involved, leading to a 360 degree view of the bay, the hills, the beaches and the agitated blue sea.

newc6

newc7While blessed with the rugged scenery of Northumberland I doubt if the Newcastle of the north would have such a temperate idyll an hour away. You can see why people come here for holidays, or to retire. Even the koalas of NSW like it here, not that I saw any (or saw any people looking up into trees which is the best way of spotting koalas). I have only been to the other Newcastle once and I thought it was alright. But if I was to choose, I think this one would win hands down; even without a Sunderland next door aye!

Australia Green Bogey

Holes and crevices

Since I started waxing lyrical about the joys of March it has been raining a fair bit. Not wall to wall drizzle but almost daily torrents of abuse from the skies. Upper level troughs, east coast lows, tropical storms, that sort of thing. While many people rightly state that it’s good for the gardens, it’s expressed with a subtle tinge of disappointment and envy that the gardens are having all the fun. You get used to not having to consult the weather forecast before planning outdoor adventures.

Still, Canberra doesn’t often get the brunt of the bad weather, shielded by the Snowy Mountains to the west and the coastal ranges to the east. Maybe that’s why they decided to site Canberra where it is, the guffawing elites of Melbourne and Sydney spitefully condemning the nation’s capital to a dusty sheep paddock. One hundred and four years later it’s quite remarkable that it is what it is really, and I’m amazed that the vast swathe of Australians fail to celebrate what has been achieved here. Only in Canberra do we get Canberra Day, when half of Canberra leave Canberra for the long weekend.

Predictable rain peppered the drive from Canberra to Braidwood on Canberra Day 2017. Over the years, Braidwood has become more attuned to Canberra’s fancies, with the emergence of better coffee and organic providores selling overpriced sourdough sandwiches in stripped back wooden cottages. For all the fine produce and renovated fireplaces around, it still alarms me when an old dear is at the coffee machine. Call it despicable ageism, but people with beards do seem to make a better coffee.

bush01aMost people use Braidwood as a coffee and loo stop on the way to the coast. Today however, with my friend Alex in the passenger seat, I was heading a little south into Deua National Park. A brown sign pointed to The Big Hole and Marble Arch, and who doesn’t want to see a big hole and a marble arch? Even if you do have to wade up to your knees in the Shoalhaven River to see these delights.

bush01

bush02I knew I would be a fan of The Big Hole. Part of the attraction is the name itself, attributed through one of three traditional Australian place-naming techniques: the bleeding obvious (the other two methods being the Aboriginal and the Colonial rip-off). Climbing up and over a ridge, a sign in the midst of nondescript bush points to the hole a hundred metres away. And there it is. A big bloody hole. Seventy metres deep and filled with ferns that are a lot bigger than they look. At the end of the day, what else could you call this?

bush04Marble Arch is far less obvious. And a good deal farther, through an annoying shower and down into a valley. In fact I don’t recall an extravagant arch glistening in the rain, just a narrow canyon and underground cave, with a few boulders and soggy pools in the way. Nonetheless it was quite a spectacle, quite an experience, quite an adventure. And quite a climb back up, in the rain.

bush03

A couple of weeks on and I found myself back on the bushwhacking trail in the frequently moist Southern Highlands of New South Wales. You cannot enter the highlands town of Bundanoon without saying so in a Scots accent. Welcome to Bundurrnooooooooonn. Turn right at the kilt shop and beware caber tossing ginger people on the road into Morton National Park. Where, for all the pretence of Scotland, you are in quintessential Australia, sandstone escarpment and gum tree country.

bush11

bush05Walking along a gravel road in a landscape tamed by pasture and pricey property, the bush reclaims the country and sweeps down into the valley of Bundanoon Creek. While keen not to go all the way down to the creek (and thus back up), I dropped below the cliff line on the promisingly named Amphitheatre Track. While there are glimpses of the valley and the eastern escarpment through the trees, a lot of the attraction is in the close up, in the miniscule: the seeping moss, the crumbling sandstone, tunnels of ferns and trickling gullies.

bush06As well as savouring the sights, sounds and smells of the bush, I was on a waterfall mission, confident of success given the recent rains. It didn’t take long to find a trickle of water that had swollen sufficiently to spill through a cleft in the rock, briefly flowing over the path, disappearing into unfathomable depths below. Further gullies provided further cascading water, and such was the sogginess underfoot it was relief at times to emerge from beneath the ferns on slightly higher, drier ground.

bush07

The only regular water feature marked on the map provided the culmination to this hike. Not one, not two, but effectively three different cascades had developed around Fairy Bower Falls. The first was most certainly a temporary affair, streaming down the rock face like Gandalf’s beard and onto the track. The second – the upper falls – appeared to come from the heavens, falling through the canopy and spreading its mist into the air. The third – the lower falls – gathered into a crystal pool which required only a little daring to cross. This was most definitely the spot to pause and eat my peppermint slice.

bush08

bush09

bush10

It certainly was the pinnacle, here in these depths. By now I was two hundred metres below the rim and the route back was more than a chore. Fallen trees required circumnavigating; zigzags upwards necessitated breaks; vines impeded above and below. At one pause for a breather I noticed a pile of leeches on the bottom of my jeans, some having made it through to the socks and another trying to get in through my shoe. Frantically trying to peel them off before they made any further progress, my camera decided to roll away twenty metres into the undergrowth. This was now a bit shit.

Leech free (well, I thought…one made it to Moss Vale, the other to Canberra but thankfully without feasting), camera retrieved, there was just the heart-pounding, sweat-inducing climb to the top to go, a climb that never seemed to end. Thank goodness there was a lookout at the summit to recuperate and a sign on which to perch and check shoes and socks. And thank goodness for flat, gravel roads on which to walk back to the car.

bush12I was relieved to get back to the car, relieved to be just fifteen minutes from a hearty lunch in Bernie’s Diner. And relieved that the first raindrops of the day hit the windscreen as I closed the car door, raindrops which continued almost all the way home.

P.S. It was beautiful and sunny today, calm and 28 degrees 🙂

Activities Australia Green Bogey Photography Walking

Drifting

It has been a pleasant surprise to stumble upon March without the world being blown up by some really bad or sick dude. Less surprising if you listen to scientists was the record-breaking hot Australian summer; indeed there were moments where it felt like the end of world wasn’t too far away (two successive 41 degree days in Canberra spring to mind). But, again, we made it to March, with temperatures slowly cooling and promising a period of pleasant sunny day times and sleep-friendly lows.

sum01What does one do in a hot summer which features only intermittent work? Well, trips to free air-conditioned sites of interest for a start: the cinema, the library, the gallery, the mall. Occasionally the office, mostly for a coffee and catch up. Bike rides bring a nice breeze early in the day or into the late evenings. And cooling refreshments comfort: my addiction to frozen drinks persisting (but now slowly fading), a cold beer or cider in the evenings, Dare iced coffee and occasionally something a little more extravagant.

sum02Walks are practically a daily feature (they usually are), often on Red Hill (they usually are). Again, the early mornings or late evenings work best, the low light emphasising the sweeping golden grass and colouring the white trunks of gums a laser red. Sun sinks late over the ranges and smouldering skies are common. This is better evening entertainment than what’s on TV, as post-tennis, post-holiday reality shows make a comeback, spewing forth with abandon.

sum03

sum05Daytime strolls are better suited to places such as the Botanic Gardens, where shade is more forthcoming and the rainforest gully drops temperatures by five degrees. Moisture emerges here from the watering, and continues in the cafe serving a fairly average coffee. But to grab a takeaway and sit under a tree reading a book or interview transcripts is a fine way to spend an hour (and improve the experience of reading interview transcripts).

sum04

sum06aAway from nature for a moment, summer in Canberra also promises event after event as the populace makes the most of the time before entering deep freeze. There are blockbuster exhibitions in the galleries and museums; there are fetes and swimming carnivals and cricket matches all over the suburbs; fireworks, flags and protests in equal measure adorn Australia Day; and the National Multicultural Festival brings oodles of noodles in a celebration of diversity that ought to be protected. In the spirit of inclusion even certain redheads are catered for.

Outside the capital the countryside sizzles in much the same way, this occasionally boiling over into grass and bushfires. In 2003 of course a big one hit the fringes of Canberra and much of the rugged land to its west. Over the course of my time here – since, OMG, 2006 – I have been able to observe nature’s recovery, the transition from blackened trunks and patchwork growth to a flourishing bulbous canopy and vivid green understorey. Nine years from the last time I stepped out, the signs at the start of the track up to Booroomba Rocks still warn of falling debris from the damage, but from what you witness along the way this previous carnage is almost imperceptible.

sum08

While summer has been predictably hot and dry, previous wetter seasons have replenished the reservoirs and river systems around Canberra. No longer do we see LCD updates informing us of how many litres we consumed yesterday and imploring us not to water our lawns. At least for the time being.

sum07At Burrinjuck Dam – reached via coffee stop in Yass – water levels are high and this is a natural lure for cursed boatpeople who frolic about in a flurry of jetskis and Chardonnay lunches. Away from the excess surrounding the boat ramp, quieter coves and a cutesy scattering of cottages for those dam workers heralded surprise. And a reasonably flat, empty road on which to have a pedal.

There was a cool wind on that ride, late February, and soon after the first day came in which it might be handy to have a sweater in the evening. This in many respects is a blessing because at night you can sleep again and wake to blissfully clear and fresh mornings, which impel you to get out and live. Outside, only the very first tinges of autumn are appearing on the trees but other signs are more prominent: increasing work opportunities; long pants; the first fog grounding hot air balloons; and a now perennial favourite marking the transition from summer to autumn in Canberra, Enlighten.

sum09

sum10My how this has grown since I was one of the few to trudge round on a pleasant evening a few years back snapping pictures of a handful of the capital’s illuminated buildings. Now practically every city does something similar on landmarks more well-known. But Canberra’s Enlighten seems to be ever more popular, judging by the crowds streaming from one site to another on a Saturday evening. Many are also here to queue for food in the night markets, which is entirely predictable; after several years you learn to visit midweek and come early, to guarantee delights such as a bao trifecta, Korean chilli pork fries, and deep fried ice cream.

I’m a little warm that Saturday evening in long trousers and the next day – today, March 12th – tops 32 degrees. But because it is officially autumn it feels acceptable for a loin of pork to be roasting in the oven. I’m kind of sick of barbecues and the promise of slow roasted feasts is one of the plus sides of the seasons changing. It won’t take long and everyone will be whingeing about the cold, wrapped like mummies in a pile of scarves and hats, scowling at the misery of “bloody Canberra”. Shorts and air-conditioning will feel like distant memories. But before we get to that point there is the promise of the transition, a period that is without doubt the best time of year here, in bloody Canberra.

sum11

Australia Food & Drink Green Bogey Photography Walking

1577 kms to go

It’s entirely natural to reminisce about holidays, to #tbt, to revel in the sights and sounds granted by being at leisure. And once home, to miss the adventures, the freedom, the thrill of discovering new places and experiencing a certain degree of randomness along the way. Casting my mind back to January – and a road trip return home – such rose-tinted sentiment is tangible, readily available to grasp.

There seems to be an added dimension of fond reminiscence surrounding this trip though. It was as if it took place in a different age, before the world got a real dumb deal; a time when things were not quite as barking mad, when there was still some value placed on logic and reason and fact, when the majestic pinnacles of the Warrumbungles were less likely to be obliterated in a twitterstorm. Thank goodness I got to see them – and more – on the return to Canberra…

Farewell pineapple paradise

xc01A couple of days on the Sunshine Coast had delivered only intermittent milky doses of sunshine, with homely patches of drizzle persisting throughout my final morning. An obvious light in the dark was the Big Pineapple on the outskirts of Nambour. A possible former plaything of an ex PM and Treasurer of Australia, I felt this was a perfect way to say goodbye to the Sunshine Coast and a suitably symbolic start of another long drive through the heart of Australia.

South of here, along the Steve Irwin Way, are the crikey strewth craggy lumps of the Glasshouse Mountains. I had hoped perhaps to go for a walk, but a dense shower and the constraints of time put a scupper on that. Instead a brief stop at a lookout to watch the cloud graze the jagged edges of rock, and a scurry to the car as it moved overhead and deposited its load was the order of the day.

xc02

I decided to circumnavigate Brisbane, heading inland through Woodford, Kilcoy and loosely following the valley of the Brisbane River. Here, it was an insignificant trickle compared to the wide brown water beating a course through the city. At Esk the summer made a splendid return, providing the setting for an exemplary chicken sandwich-making lunch stop.

I was heading towards the New South Wales border and had entered a region promisingly labelled the Scenic Rim. Curious as to how much this was tourism marketing exaggeration, it didn’t take long to ascertain that, for once, this was not fake news. Distant views of extinct volcanic peaks became closer, the green and fertile landscape opening up as the car climbed the curving ribbon of highway to cross the divide. At its apex, Main Range National Park offered one final taste – on a brief jaunt – of the majestic rainforest that had been a significant feature of my trip.

xc03

Beyond the rainforest, the road ambled down a valley through what appeared to be a rich vein of farmland. This continued to Warwick, which was a pleasant, well-heeled kind of place, suggesting the surrounding farmland does indeed possess significant richness. From here orchards and vineyards cluster around Stanthorpe, at the heart of the Granite Belt.

xc04Pausing at Stanthorpe the rain had returned and I made use of mobile coverage to assess the likelihood of getting soaked while camping. It was touch and go but I opted to camp a little south in Girraween National Park. This was unlike a Queensland in any of the brochures…cool, cloudy, a little dank. Clusters of giant boulders dotted the landscape, sitting within short and stubby forest and forming natural terrain for pools of water to form.

Here, in Queensland, just a few miles from the state border was a striking replica of Namadgi National Park in the ACT. Weather and all. The granite boulders a symbol of home, the coolness a familiar relief. But – pinching myself – the reality was of another thousand clicks to go, and the impending ordeal of losing an hour tomorrow.

The road

xc05I was definitely the first person to leave the campground the next morning, cognisant of a long day ahead and jumping forward an hour into New South Wales. A lonely road led to Glen Innes, the only memory of which I have is of waiting ages for a coffee and then discovering, driving out of town, that they had decided to put sugar in it. This clouded my opinion of Glen Innes, and driving through the next town of Inverell, I wish I had stopped there instead.

I was back on little used country roads, cutting a smooth swathe through fields of wheat and passing over desolate ranges coated in eucalyptus. I was making a surge to Narrabri, hoping to get there as quickly as possible for lunch. But lunch came quite late (and, inevitably, in KFC), after a few diversions slowed my progress.

Crossing a bridge into Myall Creek, the name registered in my head for some reason. Maybe it was in A Country Practice or had a Big Thing or was the birthplace of some famous Aussie cricketer who sent English wickets cartwheeling towards the Nursery End? If only. Sadly, heartbreakingly, it was the scene of slaughter, as white invaders massacred 28 Aboriginal men, women and children who were camping peacefully on the Myall Creek cattle station in 1838. Even more sadly, grotesquely, such occurrences were not rare. What distinguished this was that for the first time – the only time – white men were arrested, charged, and hanged for the murder of Aborigines.

xc06Today, it is a quiet place of solitude and reflection. The chirping of birdsong persists despite searing heat and baked earth. A simple, memorial walk exists, a swirling red path providing points of information and remembrance. There is talk of healing, of coming together of ancestors, of deep remorse and some kind of hope. A hope that, eventually, love does trump hate.

Myall Creek seems a long way from anywhere. The nearest town of Bingara has a sleepy charm; it’s the kind of place I could be tempted to sup an ice cold schooner in the pub, surely the beating heart of the town. But I head on, closer to the incredible peaks and volcanic plugs of Mount Kaputar National Park. I have a fondness for this spot, which effectively heralded the happy start of an epic trip in 2013. Back then it became a surprisingly good replacement for the Warrumbungles, which had been decimated by bushfire. But now, four years later, I could finally cruise past Mount Kaputar and see how much nature had recovered.

In the bungles, the mighty Warrumbungles

xc07Entering Warrumbungle National Park, it was pretty clear that a fire had ravaged the area; blackened trunks of trees lined the steep slopes and the road produced a patchy, lumpy ride where the tarmac had no doubt melted. Up one of the hills, some of the buildings of Siding Spring Observatory had suffered damage but the telescopes survived. Well, thank goodness for that…we can still scope out future worlds to inhabit when Fake Lord Emperor Pussy Grabber destroys this one.

But this land is a resilient land. Just under four years and further into the heart of the Warrumbungles, the green explosion of new growth is abundant. I was looking forward to exploring it more in the morning. For now, time to make my bed in the delightful surrounds of Camp Blackman and enjoy the added attraction of running water and hot showers.

xc08

I was the first person up the next morning again. This was deliberate and well worth it, for I was embarking on a pretty long walk and it would be hot. Returning to the car park towards the end of that walk I passed numerous people coming the other way. Of course I said hello, g’day, howzitgahn but my mind was saying things like good luck you fools, shouldn’t have been so lazy this morning should ya.

xc09With benefit of doubt perhaps they were not doing the entire Breadknife and Grand High Tops walk. Maybe they were just doing the first part, which was gentle and followed the course of a mostly dry creek bed. This would be a rather fine walk in itself, for it is such an elemental, earthy landscape in which to linger. I wasn’t expecting such enchantment here, such homage to the rugged environments further inland, closer to the desert. There was a bit of Flinders Ranges crossed with The Grampians about this place. Two of my favourite ever spots blended into one.

xc16a

xc10The other benefit of starting early was to witness the early rays of sun graze the hilltops and glow through the tree trunks and branches of the bush. I think the angle of an early sun also helped to illuminate some of the spider webs formed between shrubs on either side of the path, requiring a little stooping and contortion to avoid. Being a pioneer has its downsides and I guess if I was later in the day many of these webs would have been smashed by hapless walkers that had come before.

xc13Inevitably after a couple of kilometres the track climbed, with a steep but nicely constructed path giving way to endless metal steps. This was taking me up towards the Breadknife, so named because of its sheer sided slopes and thin pointed summit thrust into the sky like a scene from Crocodile Dundee in which Mick shows some New York Hoodlum a proper knife. Up close, you couldn’t really see it, but, eventually, when the trees fade away and the rocky floor of the Grand High Tops themselves are underfoot, the knife is there, just one of many rocky crags and rounded lumps rising up from an incredible sea of green.

xc12

“Call that a knife?” was the current expression that was going through my head as I sat and ate some cold bacon sandwiches premade from the night before. I didn’t say this out loud, because two other hikers soon joined me in admiring the view. Distant to the west, beyond the sweep of green was a flat, yellow expanse that would extend to – well – Perth? Behind, further rocky mounds and eucalypt forest reached to the horizon; a horizon I would be heading towards later in the day.

xc14

But first, descent. It wasn’t too bad, apart from a few larger rocky steps somewhat deformed and eroded into that gravelly stuff that is treacherous underfoot. Luckily I stayed upright, apart from the numerous times ducking under spider webs again, some of them occupied by things which are probably perfectly fine but Australian and therefore potentially deadly. Such was the profusion of webs in the shadow of the Breadknife, I grabbed a stick and waved it up and down in front of me. For a moment I felt like Harry Potter, but this particular wand had a success rate of something like 25%.

The largest, ugliest, potentially deadliest spider sat low over the path, guarding the final section of the loop back to the metal steps. I started to take a photo of it and it looked at me as if it didn’t really like being in pictures. So I stopped. Wary, I assessed any alternative routes but to the left of me, a scrubby, rocky drop and to the right a cliff face. There was nothing for it but to crouch as low as possible, scramble quickly underneath and avoid looking up.

xc16Further down the trail I encountered a young lady throwing rocks at another occupied web. It was one I must have ducked under a couple of hours earlier. She looked terrified and said as much. In trying to comfort and reassure, I told her it was probably the last of them and moved promptly on. She scarpered under the web to continue her walk while I went to look at a deadly snake. Pausing at a little wooden bridge over the dry creek, a beautiful Red-bellied black meandered along the rocks beneath. It was quite mesmerising, until it disappeared out of sight, when it became a snake that I couldn’t see and therefore significantly less appealing.

Come to Warrumbungle National Park, to experience an epic, timeless Australian landscape and to appreciate its friendly animals. Actually, do come. I loved this place more than anywhere else on my trip. Good campgrounds, great walks, beautiful country. And only six solid hours from Canberra…so I may return!

Old country for no men

xc17

xc18A couple of hours and I was back in more familiar country. Dubbo is one of my token regional research towns and I had a sense of déjà vu checking into a motel with a plastic cow on a pole out front. But still, a motel, with refurbished rooms, air-conditioning and a king-sized bed. After my morning adventures, what better way to appreciate this scenario than nap.

I was still a little weary as the evening emerged, so randomly stumbled upon the comfort and cooling refuge of the local cinema. Star Wars and a natural blue raspberry Slush Puppie in a cinema in Dubbo. It was like it was 1985 again.

xc19The next morning, after obligatory buffet breakfast, I set off on the final stretch of road home. It was a day in which there was little of note. As a commemoration of all things road trip I made a spontaneous stop at a place called Peak Hill. Here I went on a little walk along the perimeter of a big hole in the ground, previously mined for gold. While gold sounds glamorous, it was a hot and dusty walk with countless flies trying to go up my nose and the pervasive smell of urine in the air.

xc20South of here, Parkes had a more pleasant aroma, decent coffee, and was positively bustling with the prospect of Elvis coming to town. Or thousands of Elvises (or Elvi?) all dressed up for the annual festival, starting in a few days. If ever you needed an encapsulation of randomness this was it. Seeking quirky Elvis sights, many shops were filled with posters for upcoming Elvis impersonation gigs, and a couple of murals were dotted about the town. One, I was informed by a very enthusiastic lady, lit up at night and projected videos and played songs out loud and everything. I should come back tonight she said. I got my coffee and moved on.

From here, more familiar names like Canowindra, Cowra and Boorowa passed by. All surrounded by a gentle landscape of golden wheat fields and occasional strips of bushland. It was a placid, smooth, easy ride where the only real highlight was the prospect of falling asleep at the wheel and creating a massive fireball visible for miles around. A frozen coke kept me going to join the Hume Highway and bypass Yass. The Hume Highway! Yass! This is practically home.

xc21Of the 4,232 kilometres covered on this trip to Queensland and back there were around 50 more to go. Past Poacher’s Pantry where a pre-Christmas lunch lingered in the memory; across the state border and back into capital territory; a roundabout and empty dual carriageway through bush towards home. The city of Canberra is here somewhere, but I could still be out on the open road, in the middle of nowhere. Suburbia and never-ending apartment construction does finally emerge. There are supermarkets in which to replenish supplies, and, crucially, stock up on hot cross buns for Easter.

It is January 9th and with a cup of tea and hot cross bun I am relaxing at home. It is always nice to be home for sure. The ready availability of a bed and shower are not to be underestimated. However, there is that slight disappointment in the air of a good trip finished. With summer still in full swing and the prospect of extensive work minimal, there are still days ahead which could be holiday-like. But they will be comparatively static, comfortable, predictable. Well, at least until January 20th 2017.

——————-

If you really enjoyed this endless waffle or have more time to kill while you should be working or doing something far more productive, check out the other two parts of my Christmas and New Year trilogy. Like Star Wars, only less something something something dark side.

Part 1: Back on the road: Canberra-Mudgee-Scone-Tamworth-Armidale-Grafton-Lismore

Part 2: Sweaty New Year: Ballina-Nerang-Brisbane-Stradbroke Island-Sunshine Coast

Australia Driving Green Bogey Photography Walking

Sweaty New Year

Happy 2017! We made it, and what a year it promises to be. Among the highlights there’s the spectacle of a new President making Americans grate again, the joy of figuring out what the bleedin eck you are actually going to do now Great Britain, and the potential for Plymouth Argyle Football Club to slip from a promotion spot into play off misery. In spite of this I’m sure there are plenty of good things to look forward to though, like Plymouth Argyle winning promotion. And cheese. Cheese will still feature. It will also be the hottest year in history, so get your swimmers and thongs on people. The world will turn into an eternal Queensland. And wouldn’t that be just, well, bananas.

To Vegas

xb01In Part 2 of my holiday travels (Part 1 is here), we return to Lismore where I slept the night in a proper bed and once again cherished the presence of a shower. I sorted out my car just a little, grabbed a coffee and then went to see a great big prawn. As you do. The prawn is in Ballina, and so is the ocean. Not that they put the prawn next to the ocean; no, it’s more at home in the Bunnings car park, warily eyeing off the sausage sizzle. Nothing could be more Australian and it brings a tear to my eye.

Fortunately, Ballina also had an English presence to prevent me from transforming into a drongo with a mullet, singlet and ute. Caroline joined me for this part of the trip and onto Brisbane for the New Year. The first impromptu stop was Thursday Island Plantation just out of town and I can’t imagine too many drongos head this way for a tea tree fix.

xb02Pausing briefly around the border towns of Tweed Heads and Coolangatta, I decided to head around much of the Gold Coast and enjoy the lumpy patch of verdant paradise that is the hinterland. We crossed the border back into NSW and changed time zone heading up and down to Murwillumbah. Surrounded by fields of sugar cane, half of this year’s yield was in my iced soft drink from KFC in the town. After which we zoomed onwards and upwards.

Cresting the road it was back into Queensland and – just a little further on – Natural Bridge. I think I came here a couple of years back and forgot my camera. It was quieter and cooler then, and there were fewer tools with mullets and singlets walking down slippery steps in thongs. Oh well, it is the summer holidays I guess. And the falls do tend to appease any minor irritants.

xb03

From here it was down to Nerang and back on the main road. A main road with motorway services and everything…surely worth a stop for Anglo-Australian comparison. And fuel, to take us past the suburbs, across the river, and into the midst of the city of Brisbane.

Here is New Year

xb06We were staying in a rather pleasant apartment in the CBD, with a bit of river view that was to come in handy for New Year’s Eve. The river was a frequent feature of our ambling, crossing over to South Bank, strolling alongside the Botanic Gardens, heading over to the air-conditioned awesomeness of GOMA. You could see its brown waters from the top of Mount Coot-tha, and you could encounter them at close quarters on the CityCat ferry, travelling under the Story Bridge to New Farm. In fact the river was almost as pervasive as Max Brenner; Caroline keen to get a fix or two before heading back to England, and I happy to tag along.

xb04

Much of this was familiar ground and, to be honest, is far more pleasurable to experience in the less humid yet still low to mid-twenties winter; that period of the year when locals laughably wear scarves and eat soup! Yet at the end of December, sweatiness was unavoidable, flowing down backs and probably finding its way into the Brisbane River. Dripping en masse during New Year’s Eve fireworks, watched in a family friendly manner at 8:30 along the riverbank and, more comfortably, from the balcony at midnight.

xb05

New year, new places. Starting with a drive to the shores of Moreton Bay at Cleveland. And then on a ferry for a pleasant ride to North Stradbroke Island. Or, to make things simpler, Straddie.

xb08

xb07Ah, island life. A time to kick back and relax. Or wade in stagnant pools with hundreds of kids, or queue endlessly for ice cream, or take a big f*ck off truck onto the sand and ruin the wild ambience. This is what was happening all around, but we still managed to kick back and relax a little at Point Lookout. Before queuing for ice lollies in the world’s most humid shop.

xb09

Straddie is another one of those places that would be even better in winter, when the holiday masses are at school and the humidity is less fearsome. It certainly has spectacular ocean beaches and striking coastal scenery, some of it possibly still untouched by every four-wheel drive in Queensland.

xb10A taste of what this would be like came at the end of the day, with the sun lowering, a breeze providing relief and a quiet satisfaction milling about the beach near Amity Point. In slanted sunlight kissing sand golden, you could innocently wade in the water happy, only to discover dolphins surfacing mere metres away. Before disappearing as abruptly, leaving only fond memories and countless blurry pictures of ocean on your camera.

If it goes on like this, maybe 2017 won’t be so bad after all.

Tuesday Night Fever

Did you know the Bee Gees from the Isle of Man and Manchester who probably spent most of their life in the USA are Australian? Yes it’s true, and they spent some of their formative years in the bay side suburb of Redcliffe. In places, you can see the English likeness, with an elegant pier and a waterfront walkway for genteel promenading. The weather today, too, is akin to a drizzly summer’s day in Bournemouth and, like England, there are hardy people bathing in the lido. Despite being quite cooler, sweatiness lingers.

xb11Still, this drizzle is nothing compared to the deluge the previous evening. Sat contentedly eating some Japanese food in the city, we were somewhat oblivious to the torrent of rain that had decided to unleash itself on Brisbane. Only emerging did we witness instant rivers flowing down the mall and citizens racing precariously across streets in their unsuitably thonged feet. We made it back to the apartment, but even with the protection of umbrellas there was considerable dampness.

xb12So as grey as it was today in Redcliffe, at least you could walk outside without fear of being drowned. And there are always the Bee Gees to brighten things up. It seems the canny council in Redcliffe has recognised the potential cash cow of this association by constructing The Bee Gees Way. Linking two streets, it captures people walking from the car park to the scattering of restaurants by the seafront. More than a woman walked by the pictures, words and videos telling you of their time in Australia and beyond. I guess your willingness to trek out to Redcliffe to see this display may depend on how deep your love is for the hairy triumvirate. I can take or leave them, but I found The Bee Gees Way curiously distracting.

For Caroline, on her last night in Australia, could it get any better? Well, maybe if the World Darts Championships Final from the Ally Pally was on when we got back to the apartment. But – inexplicably – provincial basketball appeared. Alas, we’ll have to make do with a final visit to Max Brenner for some chocolate indulgence to round out the trip.

Sometime Sunny Coast

A leaden morning farewelled Caroline at Brisbane Airport and it was time for me to chase the drizzle up the coast. I thought about stopping and having a walk somewhere within the Glasshouse Mountains, but you could barely see the things. Randomly I drove to Bribie Island, just for something to do, taking in the Floridian waterways and pausing for a coffee at Woorim Beach. In the grey it was more Skegness than Sunshine State.

xb14Arriving in Buderim, I made the best of the weather and tried to have a nap. While it was of limited success, the rest refreshed enough for a walk in Buderim Forest Park. Here, the dampness had the effect of illuminating the tangles of rainforest, a grey backdrop to semi-tropical vibrancy. Glistening boardwalks peppered with fallen russet leaves; lustred green foliage and ferns dusted silver with water; and bubbling cascades and falls given impetus by the weather.

xb15

xb13I was only going to stay the one night on the Sunshine Coast, but my weather-induced weariness and the prospect of heading back to the swag tempted me to linger for one more. The extra day was drier, and the sunshine even emerged on occasion. This made the walk up to the top of Mount Coolum somewhat more hellish, but I felt like I had achieved something and could spend the rest of the day eating and being lazy.

Given this was as far north as I would come, and I was about to head back inland, I felt the need to indulge in a ceremonial wade in the ocean. Mooloolaba granted me this wish, the ocean cleansing my feet and ankles and even my legs. That was perfectly sufficient; beyond that, bigger waves and potential sharks. I had done what everyone does in Queensland in the summer holidays. Now I could leave and commence my less conventional trip back home.

xb16

Australia Food & Drink Green Bogey Photography

Back on the road

xa01Christmas Day came and went with little fuss; a suitable blend of English traditions (think paper hats, Christmas pudding and rubbish TV) and Australian holiday (cue swimming pools, prawns and rubbish TV). And the next day like millions across both hemispheres, I hit the road to expand my horizons, meet up with others, and curse at the appalling driving ubiquitous across the highways and byways of the land.

My destination was Brisbane and a tad beyond. In the first of three undeniably thrilling instalments I shall take you with me on the journey north. I had determined to go inland, avoiding the ludicrous middle and outer lane hogging of the Sydney motorways and the family-fuelled people carrier congestion of the coast. Yes, I would mostly miss the beautiful cooling ocean but there is a lot to see in the interior of Australia, believe it or not…

Boxing Day mash up

xa02Setting out, the tones of Jim Maxwell narrating the Boxing Day test helped me along familiar ground to Goulburn and then round the back of the Blue Mountains via Taralga and Oberon. I’m not quite sure when the familiar becomes, well, exotic, but I had never been to Hartley before and I wasn’t expecting to see emus along the roadside. Attempting to quell this confronting change, I popped in for some afternoon tea in the cutesy national trust cafe. Devonshire scones with clearly non-Devonshire cream. Sigh. When will they learn?!

The journey proceeded through Lithgow and alongside the expansive Capertree Valley, where my first lookout stop offered a surprising reveal of a sweeping landscape. From here, the final sandstone ridges of the Blue Mountains stand bastion over a green carpet of eucalyptus, and – closer to the road – the occasional green taming of human activity. Apparently the Capertree Canyon is the second biggest in the world after that gargantuan gorge called The Grand Canyon. Which clearly makes it the largest in the southern hemisphere. However, despite this billing, for me, it was a detour too far.

xa03

xa05With the day drawing to a conclusion I had to make haste to my first camp spot, passing through a seemingly deserted Mudgee, and hitting the gravel roads into Goulburn River National Park. Here I surprised myself at how efficiently I made camp, setting up gear which had not seen the light of day for a few years. Yes, the swag was back and loving its natural environment.

xa04With all this travel and excitement it was easy to forget that it was Christmas time and today was Boxing Day. It certainly didn’t feel like a typical Boxing Day, but I paid a little homage to tradition by boiling up and coarsely mashing some potatoes and carrot, serving it with some ham, and adding a few pickled onions and a pile of Branston. This camp stove and esky creation was a perfect amalgamation of English traditions and Australian summer holiday, a supremely satisfying garnish to this first day.

To England, my New England

The next morning dawned sunny and warm, a hot day ahead to progress north into New England. At some point – Merriwa I think – I rejoined a road I had once been on, and the New England Highway steadily progressed towards Tamworth. Some may disagree, but I find this route north to Brisbane more scenic, more interesting than the Pacific Highway, which follows the coast but sufficiently distant from it to rarely glimpse the gorgeousness of Pacific Ocean.

Here, the landscape is rolling and golden and covered in a warming glow. Sun-baked fields and picket-fenced horse studs line the highway, frequently terminating at abrupt rises in the land and wilderness once more. A steady stream of small towns gladly interrupt the journey, adding the interest of random claims to fame, elegant facades, and Driver Revivers. And road signs proclaim only 700kms to Brisbane. I could be there in a tick.

xa06

xa06bBut obviously I stop and detour and make inevitable visits to big things like a giant golden guitar in Tamworth. It’s my third time here but I still cannot resist the allure of such a curious, iconic Australian landmark. The car and I refuel, we park up and make lunch of ham sandwiches and crisps. And, comfortably gathering that road trip rhythm, we set off once more, another hundred clicks up the road to Armidale.

From Armidale I find myself heading south and east…not exactly the direction for Brisbane. But just a little way out of town, farmland gives up and a corner of Oxley Wild Rivers National Park is accessible. This is gorge country which – after rain – boasts the promise of waterfalls. In the midst of this summer Dangars Falls is absent, but the deep gorge is clearly less fickle and the campground nestled above it is a delight.

xa07

After setting up with even more surprising efficiency there are a few hours left in the long summer day for a bit of a walk. It is the perfect time of day and – at what must be approaching 1000 metres in altitude – the temperature is pleasant, the walk shady, and possessing only a couple of manageable inclines to negotiate. The final couple of kilometres weave along a ridge high above the chasms carved by Salisbury Waters, leading to an abrupt halt at McDirtys Lookout. It may sound like it’s named after a slang term for a ubiquitous fast food burger chain, but there are no car parks, no neon signs, no frozen cokes in sight. Just a landscape preserved thanks to its inaccessibility and the wild rivers that made it.

xa08

In the Washpool

Day three and already I was making spontaneous changes to my vaguely pre-defined route. Instead of heading up a boring looking road to Glen Innes, the journey took me along a section of the Waterfall Way and then cut across on a quiet, winding road to Grafton.

xa09Along the Waterfall Way I could make a mid-morning stop at Ebor Falls, a site I had previously encountered boasting a couple of quite magnificent waterfalls. Today, they were an inferior imitation of what I remembered, reduced to a trickle and hidden in the shadows from the morning sun. But as road stop rest stops go, there was plenty to savour: a gentle shady walk along the valley rim, pockets of wildflowers and patches of birdlife, the smell of the bush. All under the deepest blue skies.

xa10

It is broadly along the latitude of the Waterfall Way that the first of a number of pockets of ancient rainforest appear; clusters which frequently emerge all the way north from here, up to and across the Queensland border. Dorrigo National Park is the first and has much to adore. But having been there and done that, I was keen to make it to a large swathe further north.

xa11From KFC in Grafton, the car headed through patches of woodland and along the picturesque valley of the Mann River. Rugged ranges loomed, neared and eventually required climbing; like so many roads from the coast to the inland, hairpins and lookouts and massive tree ferns clinging to the eastern escarpment. Atop all this a dirt road led off the highway and plunged into the rainforest of Washpool National Park.

The Washpool walk provided nine kilometres to stare up at giant trees and admire the light through the vivid green canopy. Vines and creepers tempted Tarzan escapades. Humidity sapped and a small waterfall offered only gentle relief while also hastening the need to pee. It was an immersive and captivating rainforest experience but – perhaps after another long, hot day – a couple of kilometres too far in my opinion. Still, at least I had sweated out maybe one piece of southern fried chicken.

xa12

xa13I felt as though I had earned a beer and decided to take one with me on a brief amble to a lookout near the park entrance. This is the benefit of having everything in the car and, um, the beer would provide hydration if I ended up getting lost or bitten by a snake or something, right? Thankfully the lookout was a mere stroll and the satisfaction of that coldish beer on that bench on those rocks in that peace with that view under early evening skies without the prospect of getting lost and having snakes for company was something to cherish.

While the beer episode is up there, it was just about surpassed by waking the next morning beside Coombadjha Creek. This is why you put up with a little discomfort and a lot of phaff by camping. You feel part of the environment, immersed in the landscape, at one with nature. Even if this means enduring the bittersweet alarm call of shrieking and cackling at four in the morning.

xa14

xa15Before breakfast, before packing up, before moving on once more, I could hatch out of the swag and wake up with the world around me. Virtually from my bed a small trail followed the pristine waters of the creek and looped back through a large stand of Coachwood. The sun gradually made its appearance, shafts of light angling through the trees and shimmering through the ferns onto the water. The creek was clear and cool, and after three nights of camping without a shower, it was tempting to bathe. But I really didn’t want to ruin its purity; my mind turned to the allure of the ocean instead.

xa16

Return to a civilisation

xa17Without going into lurid detail I did wash each day thanks to boiling water and the use of a bucket, an art mastered in the trip of 2013 with Jill. Simultaneously I could make a cuppa, grill some toast and prepare my morning sink. Sure, it wasn’t exactly luxurious or even two star, but it allowed me some confidence to mingle a little with civilisation each day and order a morning coffee, buy petrol and ice. Which is exactly what I did in Grafton after descending from the hills that morning.

xa18

Heat had been building on this trip and by now it really was scorchio. I could resist the ocean no more and joined the masses along the Pacific Highway, turning off towards Yamba. Outside of school holidays I am sure this is an easy-going little coastal town. Today a shady car park was at a premium and the wait for fish and chips was half an hour. But it had several beaches lapped by clear and calm water in which to linger. I finally felt that a layer of inland Australia had been cleansed, only to be replaced by salt, sand and – subsequently – fish and chip grease.

xa19

xa20I encountered my first inexplicable traffic jam north of Yamba and speculated that this was being replicated up and down the highway. Still, I only had twenty clicks at a snail’s pace before I could turn off and head to Lismore. Lismore was to herald my proper return to civilisation, something which some people would find surprising in relation to Lismore. But I was to sleep in a proper bed and have a proper shower here, both of which I was quick to enjoy upon arrival. Refreshed and walking Lismore’s unfathomably charming streets, I felt part of normal society again.

Yet after the joy of showering and napping on a double bed and walking a little along the Wilsons River, I felt lost. This habitat, this environment, this standing still in one place felt a little odd. Still with a couple of hours of daylight to spare, I drove out into the lush countryside, through stretched out villages hidden amongst the trees boasting honesty fruit stalls, lefty views, and probable marijuana. To Nightcap National Park, where some falls were missing but where the late sun bathed the forest in gold. Just me and the Subaru, enjoying the last beer from the esky, the final slice of ham. We had come far and – refreshed – we could carry on until the end of days. Or, more likely, until I needed a shower and craved a soft double bed again.

xa21

Australia Driving Green Bogey Photography Walking