June

[Best read in David Attenborough style]: As the temperature cools in the southern part of the Australian land mass, the first signs of an incredible migration start to appear. Senior males of the species are spotted in pockets along the coast, struggling to grasp with the multiple tasks and devices which will propel them north. Reserves are gathered to a state of surplus, and a battle for alpha male superiority subtly ensues, a contest which will last across the season.

But here, it is the female that rules. Freshly groomed and adorned for the long journey, small numbers congregate. While not always harmonious, they band together for the greater good, bound by a common aim: maintaining survival, comfort, and subjugation over their once proud male partners. Hunting out and often gathering the food, directing the placement of shelters, maintaining the hygiene and lustre of their coats. In groups characterised by auburn dyed hair and expensive designer spectacles funded by generous tax breaks, these females underpin the mass migration that takes place.

And so, in June, across the more northerly coasts of this great continent, the grey nomads begin to cluster. They flock in their thousands to known waterholes. Sites like Carnarvon are almost overwhelmed by the influx, its banana-rich pastures transformed into shanty towns and its pharmacy inundated. The males continue to display in a parade of sandals, white socks and short shorts but, predictably, with little impact. After a while they retreat to seek out fish and engage in ablutions, but there is still competitiveness over the size and strength of their equipment. Some will settle here, and see another winter through with their mate. But others, with stronger torque and deeper reserves, will head on, north to the next great gathering place.

[Back to normal voice in your head]: My first significant encounter with a mass gathering of grey nomads was back down in southern Australia, in a pleasantly ambient March. It was apparent that Mudgee – a NSW country town standing out from many of the others thanks to pastoral affluence and providores – was an alluring spot for ripening baby boomers to hook up their motor homes. A caravan park beside the river, close to town, with excellent ablutions that may have won an award for hottest power showers in the west was always going to prove popular. And so it was that the mini street blocks dumped onto a meadow were crammed with a veritable mix of shiny white coaches and ramshackle fibros, often adorned with an auburn-topped lady in a folding chair reading through her expensive spectacles while a rangy male figure stumbled around trying to figure out how to empty the septic tank.

June01Campers, as so often, were an afterthought. Allocation to a small patch of grass that possibly classifies as a verge. Sited next to the river, but with the downsides of an adjacent public right of way and numerous biting insects. As ever, placed in the most open and prominent position so that all can look on in bemusement at the canvas contraptions that somehow you and your companion manage to be sleeping quite comfortably in. Swags were always a source of much fascination and eternal debate amongst the nomads, with lively discussions around one’s own ability to survive in such a thing and – on occasions lubricated by grape juice and a great Aussie irreverence – the possibility of sexual intercourse in such a structure [i].

Deflecting much of this attention and offering comradeship against the rows of Grand Adventurer 3000s and solar-panelled satellite dishes tuned into Today Tonight, one other person was braving the use of canvas in Mudgee. And quite amazingly it was one of the greyest of the grey nomads, a dear old lady cycling all over Australia towing her belongings, one of which was a stuffed dog [ii]. There is always someone or something to ruin your sweeping generalisations and lazy stereotypes, darn it. Anyway, being one of the few persons on site to actually need the kitchen facilities (I say kitchen, but think sink and a few tables under a picnic shelter), it was discovered over breakfast that she was in need of a cataract operation, possibly because she hadn’t invested in a pair of those expensive designer spectacles. And with a few delightfully cutting comments about the extravagance of $100,000 motor homes, she loaded up and wobbled on to the next stop down what I hope she knew was the main road.

We never did come across this cycling legend again, something I am pleased about in one sense because I had horror images of finding her happily peddling down the wrong way of the M5, the stuffed dog the only one alert to the situation, a terrified expression on its face. But it is quite possible – indeed highly likely – that you will encounter the same nomads, recognise the same Grand Adventurer 3000s, bump into the same old guy off to the ablutions for his dump, during the migration season.

June02Rob and Sue – well we think they were called Rob and Sue so that is how they became known – spotted us first. Apparently I had overtaken their car and trailer about ten times that day on the most boring stretch of road to cross the Nullarbor. I can’t say I noticed, because that boring stretch of road was so soporific that senses became dulled, and the caravans and trailers all took on a likeness and started talking to me and whispering sweet nothings as I hazily overtook them at 140kph, all entirely safely as pink elephants blew champagne bubbles through their trunks and out into the endless sky. But over a roast lamb fiesta in the quite delightful Fraser Range Station that night, they recognised us. I suspect a shiny blue Outback with a roof box and what were relatively young people inside (it’s all relative) were a more distinctive site. And as Rob recounted being overtaken ten times that day by some young hoons in a Subaru, my mind tried to recall whether any of those manoeuvres were in any way dodgy [iii].

Rob and Sue were quite lovely, in that quite lovely way where everything is quite lovely. Kind of like the quite lovely aunt and uncle who would have a quite lovely lovingly kept home and would happily let you stay for a lovely dinner and sleep in their quite lovely spare room. They were younger nomads; indeed there was a chance that Rob might still go back to work after their little test of the waters. They didn’t even have a proper motor home, just one of those plain trailers that somehow transforms itself into a suite at The Ritz. I’m sure they didn’t quite see themselves in the same mould as the wildebeestian hordes of socks and sandals and designer spectacles, and were glad to speak to some youth for a change [iv].

Anyway, the next day as the end of the Nullarbor beckoned, we passed Rob and Sue a few more times as part of that drive-rest-stop-drive tango, but now always with a friendly flash of lights and gesture to the pink elephants blowing bubbles in the sky. We marginally missed each other down in Cape Le Grand National Park near Esperance, a fact I discovered when we came from opposite directions to cross in the quite amazing Fitzgerald River National Park [v]. Later, I think they may have been a few vehicles in front of us at some lights in Denmark. And we fully expected to bump into each other once more, migrating north up the west coast of WA. So it was with some disappointment that Rob and Sue vanished into the great tarmac ribbon on red dirt, never to be seen or considered to possibly be stalking us again.

I reckon they were always a few days ahead, due to us lingering around in some backwater like Perth, finally drinking good coffee and wasting time in its breweries and beachside cafes. They were not there among the few souls braving the annoyingly icy waters of Shark Bay to see dolphins being fed; neither did they emerge from the masses crammed into the favelas of Carnarvon, a site which appeared to be only one step removed from a season finale of The Walking Dead; perhaps they weren’t brave enough to stop at the the very rustic setting of Quobba Station or enjoy the jackaroo appeal of Bullara Station, even though a few alternative, non-stereotypical nomads could.

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[And so, back to Attenborough]: In the northwest corner of Western Australia, Exmouth is the next staging post for the nomads. Here though, they come up against some younger bucks who could represent a threat to their existence: outsiders from France and other wild lands with extravagant plaits and body features that are proudly displayed, yet to sag. Competing for prime locations next to the ocean from which to alternately strum guitars and read books, there is an uneasy peace between the two groups. As the fine weather holds, an air of acceptance persists and the species cohabit side by side, with Derek very friendly towards young Amelie much to the disapproving over-the-spectacles glare of Margaret.

[Cue crack of lighting and thunder rumble scene, signifying, uh-oh, trouble]: But an unseasonal low pressure storm approaches. Some hunker down, others retreat to the cheapest motel to make the most of the downtime and look at some research publications and transfer the content into an excel spreadsheet in order to save the world. Trouble and coffee brews.

As the rains continue, the wily nomads now sense their opportunity. Secretly unhitching the power and emptying septic tanks in the quiet of dawn, a convoy gathers on the one and only main road of Exmouth. Emboldened by their superior torque and sixteen speed automatic military-spec drive, the nomads traverse the flood plains to settle in drier and warmer climes. Basking in Broome in tinted designer spectacles, they leave behind a melee of Wicked campervans bedecked with misogyny and potentially fatal odours. The grand migration of the common grey nomad carries on unstoppable, and we leave them on their endless roaming and return south.

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[i] Important interpretative note: by ‘possibility’ I refer to consideration of the practicalities of such actions being feasible in such a structure, rather than a request to give it a try!

[ii] Now, I am no Lance Armstrong, but I would imagine that you would do everything possible to minimise weight when cycling across Australia. Apart from those important coke cans for transporting syringes of unicorn blood.

[iii] I mean, we could have been singing out loud to songs from Eurovision 2012 or something. For instance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O_9QaVC-NKw or https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mrIaxnjeJ58

[iv] If there is one thing to be said for surrounding yourself with grey nomads it is that wonderful feeling of being made to feel a youngster again. Having said that, typically we were the first to bed and departed the site the next morning before many of the older ones had stirred!

[v] If ever you have chance, go there.

12 Months Australia Driving Society & Culture

E by gum

gum01The Nullarbor is said to be so named because of an absence of trees, i.e. null arbor. The thing is, like other misconceptions that may feature on a jovial edition of QI and set off a high pitched wail, it’s really not so true.  Sure, there are a few bits that are made up mostly of low scrub and saltbush, and some of it is very, very flat. But there are plenty of trees clustered and scattered across the thousand kilometres or so of its reach. Plus there is my own festive Christmas tree dangling in the front of the car, attempting to bring some light and joy to this escapade in monotony.

gum02One of the little treats of heading east is that you gradually get to move your clock forward until eventually you get a reasonable sunrise and pleasant light evenings. Not so at Fraser Range, undoubtedly the nicest stop along the road but still subject to the same peculiar hours as Perth. Hello 4am sunshine, before vanishing into a strangely cool, cloudy day to plough through the rest of Western Australia.

At Eucla, close to the WA / SA border there is the concession of 45 minutes but you have come so far east that it makes little difference. And then, ten minutes down the road you suddenly jump forward 1 hour 45 minutes and should you wish to straddle the border it is quite possible to indulge in your own creation of Back to the Future.

Jumping into South Australia there is a sense that civilisation is returning, but it is still 500kms or so to Ceduna, which is itself a subjective interpretation of civilisation. I’m glad to push on another hour and make it instead to Streaky Bay, for a cooling motel room, a chance to endure cricket on TV and nice, long, light evenings to take in the jetty and glassy calm bay of this glassy calm town.

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It seems the journey is one of milestones – crossing the border, finishing the Nullarbor, reaching the crossroads of Port Augusta and again seeing a kangaroo for the first time in ages. Bushland and hills return and the environment becomes a more familiar, comforting scene of generic southeast Australian. Stopping and appreciating this at Mambray Creek, in Mount Remarkable National Park, is a delight, even if it means being awoken by huge flocks of galahs clattering around the majestic River Red Gums in the morning.

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Adelaide is another milestone and just a few hundred kilometres down the road. I reached the city by way of a small diversion into the northern Yorke Peninsula and a triumvirate of towns – Wallaroo, Moonta and Kadina – at the heart of the Copper Coast. Or ‘Little Cornwall’, a moniker derived from the miners who settled here many moons ago. You would think I would have learnt by now not to get my hopes up with such names, to avoid such disappointments as a ‘Devonshire’ Tea and a ‘Pork’ Pie. But I live in hope that certain culinary heritage items are preserved amongst this flat, agricultural landscape which – apart from the presence of a bit of sea – is nothing like Cornwall.

So it is really not that much of a surprise that despite the slightly cutesy high streets crying out for a charming tea room there is no sign of a cream tea in sight. The closest thing to a scone and jam and clotted cream is a shiny bun with a blob of jam and squirty cream in the middle. Salvation may lie in a traditional pasty, but this is about as traditional as sticking a possum on top of a Christmas tree and singing we wish you a merry Easter. For a start, a pasty tends to have much more meat in and a lot less finely diced carrot please.

Anyway, meanwhile, back in Australia, I reached Adelaide and was glad but slightly daunted by being in a big smoke again. Not that Adelaide is that big or smoky. Indeed, it is rather graceful and refined at its heart. There is decent coffee to have and the fabulous central markets to salivate in and the tram to Glenelg to catch and a short drive to be had to the hills, peppered with wineries and koalas and dinner and conversation waiting. Leaving is a bit sad but there is one final little hill stop in Hahndorf, making amends for a missed German style meat fest opportunity last time around, and a brief reminder of hot summer days in Munich.

After such a lunch it would be a decent idea to nap, but I had new milestones to reach and crossing into Victoria was on the agenda. Three more nights of swagging it, following an inland course close to the Murray River and over the highest hills in the country and down to Canberra. Still 1200km to go but feeling close to the end.

gum06The first stop was among the gums and lakes of Hattah-Kulkyne National Park, a little to the south of Mildura. Here mighty trees rise from the waters, attracting a dense concentration of screeching cockatoos who mercifully quieten down after dusk. They perk up again in the morning, but by now mornings start at a much more reasonable hour.

gum07The trees, water and birds combination continues along the length of the Murray, interspersed more frequently with pleasant towns. A reminder that in Victoria country life seems quite amiably civilised. Swan Hill even offered a giant Murray Cod, whilst Echuca evoked steamboat and latticework charm. The thing to do in Echuca is to hop on one of these and cruise upon the river. It made for a pleasant enough hour albeit a little dull.

The Murray rises in the Snowy Mountains and by time I reached Wangaratta I was on very much more familiar ground, stocking up on coffee and cake and heading for the hills. It’s a beautiful approach from Wodonga, following the shores of the Hume Dam with golden hills rising and small valleys drifting into New South Wales. The valleys tighten and become more heavily and lushly forested as they shelter beneath the higher ridges of the Main Range of Kosciusko National Park.

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From this western approach it’s quite a twisty ascent over appealing sounding places like Siberia and Dead Horse Gap to a much starker and moodier side. Here a landscape of high moors and glacial hollows is scattered with ghostly snow gums and boggy pools. A world in which leftover snow still stubbornly sticks; a world a long way from Perth where I commenced this journey.

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gum10It was rather nice to get out of the car for a late afternoon walk immersed in this landscape, setting off from Charlotte Pass along the Main Range track, dipping down for a Snowy River crossing and up again to overlook Hedley Tarn and Blue Lake. From here it is really not that far as the crow flies to Canberra. Indeed, continuing along the track just a little further, crossing a couple more slushy white patches, you can look out over the ridges and folds of the ranges to the north and east. It is a vast view and I suspect if you had super Legolas vision you might just be able to make out Black Mountain Tower. So, so close.

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In a somewhat romantic poetic notion it seems fitting that having traversed and explored huge tracts of this huge country over the past year that I finish it, well, not quite at the top but close enough. It feels like Australia is laid out before me and I can survey what I have crossed…from its white beaches to its desert plains, its golden hills to ragged red gorges, its shimmering cities to one pub towns. And yeah, It may well have the most annoying cricket team ever, and make poor attempts at Westcountry produce, and have strange time variations and a few super long dull roads but, other than that, it seems pretty good to me.

Australia Driving Green Bogey Photography