Entering the finger zone

You’d have to be slightly crazy to drive six hours just to visit the Gilgandra Rural Museum. Yet craziness is exactly the vibe. Assembled outside, various mechanical contraptions seek to separate wheat from chaff or draw water from the ground or power the transistor radio of old Sheepwash Charley of Dunedoo. Among the pioneering relics, random two-dimensional figures play out a scene which probably didn’t make the final cut of the original Ned Kelly movie. All the while, the incredible Man on the Thunder Box remains impassive.

I didn’t travel six hours for the Gilgandra Rural Museum, but paused for one final stop before setting out for Coonamble. For me, Gilgandra signified a final outpost of familiarity if not necessarily civilisation. Along the way, more gentrified country towns like Boorowa and Cowra and Molong had breezed on by. A stop in Wellington illuminated both the charm and economic fragility of life in a country town, while the major centre of Dubbo came with all the drawn out trappings of tractor dealerships, coffee clubs and chequered fashion wear.

It was after Dubbo that I first encountered a finger or two. A single raised pinky from fellow drivers attempting to overcome the boredom of the Newell Highway. They obviously hadn’t stopped at the Gilgandra Rural Museum for there was little cheer or energy in their movements. More an obliging duty to signify they are alive and to acknowledge the presence of other lifeforms.  

It is never clear when, where or why the finger zone starts or ends. Remoteness plays a key role, but then some areas of barren desolation barely provoke a twitch. This confuses me to the extent that some people get the finger, others get a V sign, others a full hand and, when I have faced enough rejection for one day, the rest receive absolutely nothing. One of the worst feelings in the world is being too late to acknowledge a cheerfully waving man in an akubra as he whizzes by south, just because you have been spurned one too many a time.

Another hour of this kept me mildly entertained as I broke new ground on the Castlereagh Highway. Occasionally the road’s namesake river snaked nearby, sandy with pools of water nurturing gum trees and fields of weedy yellow flowers. Corrugated metal galahs counted down the approach to Gulargambone, while a fence emblazoned with a big G’DAY greeted me as I left town. Late in the day, Coonamble embraced me with fiery skies and the smell of mice disinfectant.      

I had come to Coonamble as part of a bigger trip on my way to Queensland. And while there was distraction in its artistic water tower and a sense of disappointment in its Nickname Hall of Fame (not even being so bad to be good), the main purpose of the stopover was to visit old – and young – friends.

And so good food, company, and row row row your boat was the main order of events, delivered in abundance. I did sample hot coffee from both local cafes and discovered the intricacies of a remote town of 2,000 people where everyone knows everyone else’s business.

One late afternoon I even went for a little bike ride, which was quite delightful at first, cruising along flat countryside lanes and discovering a peaceful spot by the river. Then I ended up in town and got chased quite aggressively by the obligatory roaming hounds. The full Coonamble experience.

One of the plus points to Coonamble is its proximity (at least in regional Australia terms) to Warrumbungle National Park. A jumble of volcanic lumps and spires rise up prominently from the flat surrounds, tantalising from afar in every direction. A dirt road takes us to a spectacular reveal of this massif from the west, before becoming more deeply immersed into the heart of the park.

I’ve done longer, signature hikes here before but with little Henry enjoying shooing flies in a backpack we take on a shorter walk to Tara Cave. Still, it’s a delight featuring a small creek crossing and burgeoning bushland, rising up to reach an interesting shelter with signs of tool-sharpening from many centuries before David Bowie put on some red shoes and danced. And being in the north west of the park, a balcony view reveals the splendid panorama of this wonderful land.  

On the other side of the Warrumbungles is the town of Coonabarabran. I discover this is known locally as ‘Coona’, even by the Coonamble locals who might also claim that moniker. Coona is a pleasant enough place, with an extravagantly decorated and tasty Chinese restaurant and – the piece de resistance – a Woolworths. Coming from Coonamble, there is something utopian about entering a supermarket with fresh produce and aisle upon aisle of comforting familiarity. Like a child in a candy shop. Or Francois in a fromagerie.

And so, a final fresh dinner on Sunday night and another fine breakfast the following morning sets me up for the journey ahead. It’s a long and lonely road, and I feel a touch flat about leaving a world of comfort and companionship. After an hour or so, Walgett appears, which is hardly the kind of place to lift a funk. Fuel, toilet, and a crossing of the Barwon River at least interrupt the journey.

The river is fascinating in its own way – still partly in flood thanks to storms several weeks ago in an area many hundreds of kilometres distant. Waters progress at the rate of Australia’s vaccine roll out, gradually collecting into wide channels and floodplains, seeping slowly through the interior. Eventually these waters will meet the Darling, which will meet the Murray and then find their way to enter the Southern Ocean southeast of Adelaide. They are taking a far more leisurely trip than me.

After the Barwon, the landscape alternates between wide flat expanses of saltbush and clusters of hardy eucalyptus forming around further pools of floodwater. Emu sightings are becoming commonplace and as I near Lightning Ridge, the most astounding sighting yet: an emu comprised of steel girders, car parts and a whole VW Beetle. Stanley the Emu is – according to Tripadvisor – only number 8 of 17 things to do in Lightning Ridge. I clearly need to take the short detour to visit this place.

Lightning Ridge is not just a flashy name but offers some genuine drawcards. There are artesian bore baths and a house made of bottles and – probably the best of the lot – a gallery featuring Australian classics from John Murray. I almost buy a signed print of a rich red sky over a dusty outback road to remember my trip by, but figure it is far too early in the trip. Damage from dust or mice or man-eating snakes would probably become its fate.

A spot of fossicking may provide some funding for such works of art though. Lightning Ridge is best known for its opals, which have been heavily mined and continue to be sought after today. All around town, deposits of rock form in small mounds and people still come to set up a home among the pickings. Corrugated metal and rust are a predominant theme which, set into a glaring white earth and fierce sky, offer a certain Mad Max vibe.

Seriously hoping Mel Gibson is not out in town harassing people I decide it’s time to move on and head north. Well into uncharted territory, even finger waves become few and far between on the way to the Queensland border. In the middle of nowhere, a giant billboard featuring smug people on an idyllic white beach blares “WELCOME TO QUEENSLAND”. A few kilometres further on in Hebel, a ramshackle pub bedecked with golden signs for the insipid state beer confirms the change.

It feels like Queenslanders are – in this part at least – not so much into the finger waves. Perhaps they notice my ACT plates and are suspicious of southerners with their lattes and COVID-19 outbreaks. Gradually the barren landscape around the border appears to become more tamed, more cultivated. Cattle studs, sheep farms, giant silos. I notice fluffy white patches lining the side of the road and correctly deduce the presence of cotton farms. All I really know about cotton is that it is very water-intensive and seems at odds with the land I have come through. But that’s utter Balonne.

I’m not exactly sure how you pronounce Balonne, but it is the big river of the area, part of that same system which will end up in the seas off South Australia. I initially encounter it in the town of St. George, the first place of any size in my progress north. The river lends St. George a somewhat graceful air and no doubt a certain prosperity from cotton and other crops. It’s the kind of spot – at four in the afternoon – that would be perfect as a stop for the night, but I haven’t really made any plans. I decide a cup of tea and slice of Christmas cake will be enough to spur me on for another hour to camp.

Thus I arrive in Surat as the daylight fades. While escaping ferocious heat is a benefit of travelling at this time of year, the downside is the early sinking of the sun. I decide setting up the tent in the dark would be too much of a palaver, so organise my car so that I can sleep in the back. A process which also involved much palaver. But somehow, after 550km on the road, I manage a reasonable, comfortable night of sleep.

As the morning light emerges, I am pleased with my choice of accommodation. The free camping spot in Surat is spacious and shady, next to the river and includes the luxury of a well-kept toilet block with clean, running water. I think havens like this are a good idea for tiny towns in which you probably wouldn’t stop otherwise. Especially for those weary travellers who are in need of a coffee.

Crossing the Balonne again I walk over towards town and follow the course of the river through well-kept parkland with well-kept barbecues and well-kept playgrounds. I am starting to notice just about everything in Surat is well-kept. There is a clear civic pride and welcoming air around the place that you wouldn’t really imagine by just looking at it on the map. 

The main street – which is also the Carnarvon Highway – boasts a swanky looking grocery store, a pub and motel, a small museum, a few civic buildings, and a number of bottle trees. I noticed a few of these last night on the drive up and they are impressive specimens which conjure up a touch of African exoticism.

There is also a café doubling up as providore-cum-giftware shop. It’s still before nine in the morning but the sticky date and walnut cake looks too good to pass up, and I feel obliged to support the local economy given the free accommodation. That is, once I finally download ‘Check In QLD’ to add to the growing array of pandemic-related apps cluttering my phone.

I was keen to linger with coffee and cake until nine to poke my head into the museum opposite. This appeared from the outside to boast a little bit of everything. And indeed there was everything from old bottles and wool specimens to bushrangers and drovers around a campfire. A supplementary aquarium contained species from the Balonne and an adjacent art gallery was crammed full of work from one person which can most generously be described as eclectic.

The centrepiece however – and main claim to Surat – is being the setting for the last ever regular service of a Cobb & Co stagecoach in 1924. While life in an old Subaru can seem a little uncomfortable, these coach rides were another matter altogether. Passengers were able to pay handsomely for the privilege of freeing bogged wheels, clambering in tight spaces to shelter from storms, delivering post, opening and closing gates, and occasionally wading through flooded creeks and streams.

Such ardours meant the journeys were slow, and changing stations popped up along the way for a swap out of horses, crew, packages, and people. Cups of tea and plates of scones might have been arranged or accommodation for the night provided if it was getting late. Kind of like a nicer version of a Travelodge on the M42.

While the form of transport might have evolved over the years, it felt like Surat – this most unexpected of well-kept towns – was still engaged in such a modus operandi. Allowing weary travellers like me to take stock and convalesce, to rest heads and bodies, to receive generous nourishment. And most critically, to recover our worn out pinkies so that we can suitably venture out once more into the finger zone.

Australia Driving Food & Drink Green Bogey Photography Walking

Dipsy

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!

Australia Driving Food & Drink Green Bogey

Plenty

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.

Australia Driving Food & Drink Green Bogey Photography Walking

One year

The Tumut River is proving a soothing spot. In spite of its swift flow, fed from the elongated dams of the Snowy Mountains, there is something becalming being upon its banks. Boasting more of an aquamarine shade than the sedimentary highways of the Murrumbidgee and Murray, it is a waterway begging to be paddled or fished. Or simply enjoyed from under the shade of a majestic River Red Gum – as long as you can overlook the fact that these trees have the pesky habit of randomly dropping their hefty limbs.     

Various tributaries wind their way over fertile plains enjoyed by cattle and horses, mystery roads leading off into hidden valleys with panoramic landscapes. In Tumut itself, the river transforms what would be a pleasant enough little town into something more beguiling. Sitting among green parkland below the town centre, there may me a little part of water meadow England evoked. If you ignore the cackle of the cockatoos.

It was just under a year ago that I found myself here being rejuvenated after a day of hard labour pulling down fences in the hills behind. Sit in Tumut today and you would be hard pressed to imagine how fraught it would have been on January 4th, 2020. Approaching from the west, the Dunns Road Fire ravaged through Batlow and the Green Hills, cresting the Snubba Range and spilling down to and over Blowering Dam. It went on to merge with other large fires in the area, sweeping through pristine sections of Kosciusko National Park and the Snowy Valleys, before lapping at the edges of the ACT.

One year later I found myself in Pioneer Park sitting beside the river once again. It shows what an absolutely legendary year 2020 turned out to be that I had forgotten exactly where the fires had hit. No longer obsessively checking Fires Near Me I thought, for some reason, that the Dunns Road Fire had stopped on the western shores of Blowering Dam. Driving south from Tumut, it didn’t take too long to realise my oversight.

For sure, the western side of the dam is still quite a shock. Made up of plantation forest, the hillsides remain largely bare, apart from the blackened matchsticks of pine. Somewhere up there on the ridgetop, I wonder how Paul and Andrea are going on their farm, and whether Smiley has cheerily constructed a new hut. Hopefully the fences are still standing.

Down on the water, there is a somewhat normal scene of socially-distanced summer holidays playing out – all gargantuan encampments and four wheel drives and boat trailers. An emu pokes its head above the undergrowth, no doubt fleeing the meltdown of a toddler who just really doesn’t want to go anywhere near the water thank you very much. They seem to be everywhere.

Along the southern end of Blowering Dam, the impact of a year ago becomes clear as blackened trunks spread upwards to the east. There is regrowth, but it is thinned-out vegetation, revealing rocky, barren outcrops that probably haven’t been visible for years. Jounama Creek – a spot for camping and walking potential – seems less appealing than I expected, and I drive on.

From here it is quite the climb to Black Perry Lookout. Offering an impressive view out into the Bogong Wilderness, an information board makes it clear just how different things looked before the fires. In the picture, the peaks are still there, but cloaked in a swathe of lush green foliage like some kind of Jurassic Park. The picture also – frustratingly – features a much crisper, bluer sky than so far today. Both will come back, I hope.

The lookout is naturally a popular stop for trucks and caravans and trailers to catch their breath. One caravan seems to have had enough and the NRMA are being called. A clutch of potbelly bikers convey that menacing grizzled look that frequently becomes undermined by softly spoken, friendly chatter. One young guy appears anxious, on the phone to try and arrange a permit to access the ACT. Fire knows no boundaries and, for all we can try, neither does COVID.

My plan was to walk to a place called Landers Falls Lookout, lured by the promise of both falls and a lookout. It was either a ten kilometre there and back again or a swift 1.6km stop off from a four wheel drive parking area. I initially figured my car would be okay – it usually is – and inched down a big dipper of a rockfest. The way onward looked equally awful and – new year, no new words – I decided it was best to pivot. Back to the parking area for inadequate cars.

And so a longer walk ensued, but I’m glad about my decision. The car probably would have made it, but it might also have got two punctures, a broken exhaust, and a hazardous brake disc failure. Plus it was interesting and rewarding to tread quietly through this recovering forest, one year on.

What strikes you most in such worlds is the contrast between still very visible, jet black tree trunks and an overflowing understorey of grasses and shrubs and ferns and flowers. Where the two combine, witness the surreal procession of epicormic growth winding up into the canopy (before a certain pandemic, epicormic was probably the word of the year). The crowns of trees are still deciding whether or not they will come back, a process that will take more than just a year.

My initial fear that I would be sharing this walk with a procession of hoons in souped-up Hiluxes doing it the lazy way were unfounded. Probably because they don’t like to get their shiny blue paintwork dirty. Midway along one vehicle did pass, accompanied by the obligatory exchange of waves. Him thanking me for standing aside, me thanking him for the dust. At least there weren’t too many flies to elevate the experience further. Yet.

There was, in fact, a peacefulness in the forest. In patches the silence was punctuated by gentle birdsong – apart from the easy to spot pair of Rosellas, mostly this heralded from those little indistinguishable critters that hide in the undergrowth. Occasional rustles in the grass signified a lizard or bug or potential snake. I felt a bit more accepting of a snake sighting today, thinking it might liven things up. But it never happened.

This is not without giving the snakes ample opportunity, regularly veering off track to snap pictures of grasses and logs and flowers.

From the 4WD parking area, a non-vehicular route leads over Landers Creek and up towards a couple of lookouts. The sound of running water was a good omen for the falls, as was the vertical climb for a vista. Away from the creek, the undergrowth rapidly diminished, replaced by bare rock, charcoal logs and gravel. Exposed, barren, humid, the perfect time for the flies to welcome me in droves.

I deleted several shots from my camera because of photobombing flies. When you get a clear shot, the first lookout offers panoramic views towards Talbingo Dam, the course of the creek winding down towards its shores. In the near distance, a second lookout appears even more precariously perched upon a towering outcrop.

At this second vantage, the falls become visible and form quite an impressive drop, even in the relative dryness of summer. The landscape is an otherworldly array of arid browns and fluorescent green, the steep hillside opposite lined with black spikes like hairs standing to end. The aerial perspective from this vantage is mesmerising and I enjoy it with a cold pork and pickle and fly sandwich.

Lingering for a while allowed me to pick out some of the minutiae: individual tree trunks clinging to a rock face; coils of epicormic growth leading to barren white crowns; cliffs streaked black; a cluster of ferns glowing luxuriant in a hollow. It was as if I was Google Earth or something.

Lest I get a godlike complex high above, I managed to get a little lost on the way back down. I find every rock and burnt log looks pretty much the same. But following the creek I found my way once again to the 4WD car park and onward much further to my own car. Nearing the end of the trail I passed a family with three kids setting off, satisfied that I’m not the only one with an inadequate vehicle.

Back in civilisation it was very much that time of the day when ice cream is mandatory. Civilisation is hard to come by, but the small township of Talbingo offers one of those amazing supermarkets that sells everything from tinned food to drill bits to crates of beer to chiko rolls to two year old editions of Angler’s Almanac. It also houses the post office, tourist information centre and a photocopier. Though lacking gourmet ice cream, a Honeycomb Maxibon on the shores of Jounama Pondage provided sufficient sustenance.

Ignoring the burnt trees on the other side there was a touch of the Lake District in the grassy foreshore and rounded hills disappearing off into the horizon. Blue skies and fluffy white clouds completed the Wordworthian idyll. Again, a year ago, Talbingo was far from it.

From English lakes to Spanish sierras, a journey of disastrous superspreading madness only now restricted by fanciful wartime yearning to regain a supposedly lost independence. Here, the European mirage took the form of a solitary, short drive down the road towards Talbingo Dam. On one side, a panorama of barren ridges and spindly trees, dusty earth and searing sun. A glass of Rioja and a siesta would go down well, but I must move on.

The dam itself has the requisite boat ramp where the road terminates. Here, a wide gravel parking area was solidly packed with trailers and those four wheel drives so suited to the walking trails around this way. A regular flow of vessels with names like Crusader 3000 and She’ll Be Right were being lowered into or dragged from the water. Outboards buzzed and jet skis thrashed and bins were overflowing with the remains of picnics and beers. Behold the domain of the boatpeople.

I was planning on camping in such an environment, albeit further north on the shores of Blowering Dam. But throughout the day there was something going on in my head looking for excuses to get out of it. Heat building. Risk of storms. Boat people. Perhaps the final straw was the realisation that I had left my salad in the fridge at home and would have to resort to a dinner of cold pork and disappointing pastry. I could survive, but would it be worth it?

Procrastinating around a greener, untarnished landscape with views to Blowering Cliffs, I figured I could drive into Tumut and procrastinate some more, while also picking up salad to complicate the decision-making process even further. If I had made a New Year’s Resolution to be more decisive – which I hadn’t – I would have failed already – which I didn’t.

Tumut was just that little bit closer to home and I was willing to embrace a two and a half hour drive into the evening, weighed against the likelihood that I would struggle to be sleeping anyway if I was to stay and camp. Hot water, comfy bed, a flushing toilet v lumpy mattress, strange noises and a long drop. Next time I head off with the intention of camping I need to exceed at least a three hour radius from home.

Je ne regrette rien, as they say in the aisles of Tumut Woollies, for not only did I manage to get my salad fix (albeit in the form of calorific coleslaw), but I also finally snaffled a half price Christmas cake. And then I took to that riverside, wandering and eyeing up future opportunities to explore before settling upon a delightful dinner spot.

There are places I’ll remember. Soothing. Becalming. Rejuvenating. Nourishing. Like a shot in the arm.

Australia Driving Food & Drink Green Bogey Photography Walking

Good country

To Wee Jasper.

Fuel

Take me over the crossing, deliver me through the shadow of trees, inch me up to a subtle divide. The very precipice falling into a mountain creek, hidden somewhere within this big, open country.

Water

Water water everywhere, and not a drop to waste. The new, passing abnormal, flushing the land clean of years of dust and bone. Reflecting the sky, saturating the fields, imitating an English meadow. Putting the good back into the Goodradigbee.

Life

Life goes on. Gentle and serene, noisy and frenetic. Humans endeavour. Sheep shelter. Birds poise ready for attack. The productivity of spring seems unstoppable, like the clouds motoring through the sky. Life goes on to prosper, with a little push.

Abundance

It is a fleeting passage of abundance. An embarrassment of riches that is as disconcerting as its painful absence. Bounteous panoramas, generous horizons, good country. Make hay.

Australia Driving Green Bogey Photography

Golly Gosh

Traditionally, the end of June has come to resemble a key juncture in my life: the culmination of the financial year acting as impetus for all sorts of project completions and invoice requirements and quick-turnaround work tasks. Traditionally.

Traditionally I would also, thanks to this purple patch, begin turning my attention to a trip overseas, to Europe, escaping some of winter and connecting again with treasured family and friends. Traditional cream teas would compete with a traditional trip to Looe for a pasty and a traditional offload of dirty laundry to Mum.

But tradition has been chucked out of the window. Of a twenty storey building. Then trampled over by a herd of elephants before being set on fire alongside a car park full of dumpsters. Attempts at home made pasties and Tilba cream prove B-grade substitutes. I continue to do my own laundry. The end-of-financial-year hubbub is subdued.

In many previous years it would have been unimaginable heading for a day out on the 29th June. Unless it was to a beige motel to complete some frantic discussion about something of great importance with eight citizens of Goulburn. All to get the country perspective. Perhaps it was some innate response mechanism propelling me up the Federal Highway today. To get another country perspective.

In COVID escapes from Canberra I think things peaked with a day on the South Coast. A trip to Goulburn was never really going to compete, even if I could stop off at Collector again for coffee. Still, I managed to find a couple of attractions along with a decent, good value spot to pick up some treats for later. Which always helps.

At Marsden Weir, the Wollondilly River forms an attractive body of water by which to amble. On a kink in the river, the sturdy red brick building of the Goulburn Historic Waterworks adds even more spice. There is a touch of Victorian endeavour about it – quite a rarity in Australia – and you can imagine Tony Robinson visiting it on his fourteenth series of Mildly Interesting Places in Regional New South Wales. He would explain how the waterworks were constructed in 1885 and form – wait for it – the “only complete, steam powered municipal water supply left in its original location, in the Southern Hemisphere.” Quite a lot of caveats to prominence there.

Being a weekday in midwinter and almost the end of the tax year there were just a handful of curious souls nosing around at the waterworks. You could – though – imagine banks of people in summer, supping locally-brewed ales and indulging in hearty lunches by the water. Perhaps a nearby cottage would supply cream teas and coffee and walnut cake. This is all in my dreams of course; nothing of the like seems to happen here. But perhaps it should be the way forward when we can all meet again.

Another prominent sight sits atop a hill which I have often glimpsed at a hundred and ten kilometres an hour on the way to Sydney. This is the Rocky Hill War Memorial Tower and there is a road up to its base. The tower was constructed in 1925 and you can walk to the top – after an application of hand sanitiser – to take in the scene. This provides a fine overview of Goulburn, spreading out on the southwestern side of the rail line. In the foreground, Goulburn East has its own, historic village feel going on, segregated from the rest of town by wetlands and a golf course. If I were to live in Goulburn, perhaps I would choose here; it just seems to have a touch more charm.

I ate my takeaway lunch overlooking the landscape from the hill and mulled over what to do for the remainder of the day. Being only lunchtime, I had seemingly exhausted the sights of Goulburn, with the obvious exception of the Big Merino. North of the tower some attractive bushland hills promise exploration but seem devoid of any walking trails. Far better to head to somewhere reliable, somewhere familiar, somewhere spectacular.

Bungonia National Park is probably the closest manifestation of rugged sandstone gorge country to Canberra and – of course – Goulburn. It is a landscape typical of much of the country surrounding the Sydney Basin, with heroic rivers carving out precipitous cliffs and deep ravines. As well as millions of eucalyptus, these landscapes are home to a few of my favourite things, including numerous lookouts.

Having been here several times before, I initially took a walk on the Orange Track. It’s probably the least exciting of the trails but offers a fairly easy stroll through open forest to a pleasant enough view in between the trees. You can tell it’s not going to be the most dramatic walk since the description suggests you might see a koala – surely only there to try and keep the kids occupied. What struck me more than anything was the absolute peace and quiet. Perhaps this was balm to the freneticism and clamour of downtown Goulburn.

It was supposed to be a sunny day today, but any mid-morning brightness had largely disappeared to a layer of white and grey. There were even a few spots of rain as I neared Bungonia Lookdown. Here, a platform leads out towards and dangles over the valley. It is a captivating, spectacular scene dramatically ruined by a quarry nestled in a hilltop to the north. But retaining focus on the valley, a few miracle shafts of sunlight suddenly appear to conjure up some kind of prehistoric lost world.

There is even a hint of rainbow in the air, but this quickly fades along with the sun and the rain. Yet I feel brightened and warmed by this visit and an appreciation once again of how lucky I am to be here today. To have this sort of wilderness on your doorstep. If you consider a ninety minute drive via the city of Goulburn your doorstep.

While Bungonia definitely lifted the day, there was clear benefit in stopping in Goulburn which became realised at my final stop. Adams Lookout provides another stunning view into Bungonia and – in particular – the narrow defile of Slot Canyon. There was something about the squidgy datey syrupy oaty nutty sugary slice that I had bought earlier that lifted things to another level. I daresay I would travel to Goulburn again to get my hands on one.

It was no cream tea but just the tonic to power me home. I even found a different route back which surprised me by being sealed the whole way – down to Tarago and back on familiar roads from Bungendore. Thus to experience the wonders of Bungonia you could actually avoid Goulburn entirely. Though I doubt if I will. I feel more likely a new experience, a new tradition has now been born.

Australia Driving Food & Drink Green Bogey Photography Walking

Good Kama

I’m now well into my second Canberra winter in succession. Following an early pre-election trip in 2019 and – well – just go f*** yourself 2020, doing time in the icebox of Australia is now becoming as familiar to me as a pair of slippers that don’t quite keep your feet warm enough. Why the feet, always the feet?

With exposure I can’t decide if I love or loathe winter here. I’m certainly never going to complain about it because I made that promise to myself in the disgusting hot and fiery summer of smoke and hell. And if you subtract the minus overnight figures, short days and empty deciduous trees, there remains a lot to love. Like the deep blue sky, presenting a sun that offers afternoon comfort in the shelter. There’s the cosiness of warming, slow-cooked meatiness with spicy red wine. And, of course, the outdoor walks invigorating and beguiling in the sharp winter light. Even the freezing fog offers a captivating spectacle when it lifts.

On rare occasions the fog fails to lift at all, and these are the worst. Fed by our spacious artificial lakes and the rugged rivers to our west, gloomy refrigerated moisture makes for a match with the sun. Where I live – missing a large lake nearby – appears to be one of the first places to clear and I have often set off out only to see a wall of white enveloping the next suburb along. Stay at home has double resonance.

Sometimes you see the fog sitting stubbornly to the west in the valleys beneath the mountains. Today was not one of those days as I went on a discovery taking in a stretch of the Molonglo River. This is essentially the water course that forms Lake Burley Griffin, entering via Googong Dam and Queanbeyan to the east and exiting to meet up with the mightier Murrumbidgee.

I had in mind a spot called Kama Nature Reserve but didn’t know what to expect since this was all new to me. Finding it was the first mission, in particular being able to turn off into a patch of gravel somewhere along a busy dual carriageway while giving sufficient notice to the utes behind me. Heading towards West Belconnen, this was far outside my comfort zone.

The particular patch of gravel I discovered was empty, reflecting what I think is a relatively undisturbed tract of Canberra Nature Reserve. Certainly, it was a place I had never heard of until I randomly stumbled upon it on the interweb. This informed me that there were a couple of trails you could do – the Dam Walk, heading to a small dam, and the River Walk, which extends down to the river. Genius.

As it turns out I didn’t take the Dam Walk despite thinking as much as I entered the reserve to join a wide fire trail heading gently downhill. The surroundings were all fairly standard and predictable – grassland scattered with gum trees and the occasional shrub. A cluster of paper daisies added a little chirpiness to proceedings, little sunshines of colour beaming from a swathe of red dirt.

Smaller thickets of grass gathered within the hollows of the land. What I thought might have been a dam was probably more of a bog, but it was sufficiently moist for the sound of ducks to convince me that this was the promised dam of the Dam Walk. From here I headed on down to the river on, possibly, the River Walk.    

The landscape here was far more open, barren even. A few areas of the reserve were fenced off for some kind of university experiment, while an endless parade of kangaroos made a mockery of such fencing. You could detect the river without really seeing it, the land sliding onward into a cleft, over which more expansive grasslands and hills continued. 

At one point a small cluster of rocks in the side of a hill attracted attention. I was seeking a view of the river itself and headed over to them. And while I caught glimpses of water through a channel of trees, the view itself pretended at Dartmoor: open, rugged, golden brown. I might have been there this time of year. The temperature was probably about the same.

A smooth dirt road followed the Molonglo up on the flat land high above its course. This I assume was a part of the river walk, confirmed with some signage further along at a junction both down to the river itself and back up towards the mysterious dam. Meanwhile, the dirt road carried on following the river and I was curious to see where it might lead, tempted by some rockier, gorge-like views in the distance.

This route was a surprise and one of the more surprising things I found about it was an absence of cyclists. It seems a perfect little ride (flat and smooth) with expansive views and potential rest stops. Indeed, the road appears to go on and on and on; I guess at some point access might be barred but today it seemed endless. I could have gone on and on too, if it were not for my lack of provisions.

It may well be, of course, that this road comes out onto a horrendous water treatment plant or against a shooting range or just simply a private property scattered with rusted Holdens and fake blue Australian flags made in China. I suppose I will just have to come back one day and find out.

For today, I needed to return to the car and did so this time via the dam. It was just a small puddle in the end, but the grasses and trees provided a pleasing landscape in which to finish. And beyond that, the views again opened up, over the river and across the plains, to the distinctive ridge of Camel’s Hump; another walk to do on another day. Springtime perhaps.

Australia Green Bogey Walking

Walking is…

In many ways, the capacity to ramble is greater than ever. I could easily stray into a verbal diarrhoea of epidemiology, politics, moronic human behaviour and what is and isn’t an essential service. Leaf blowers buzzing around outside, here’s especially looking at you.

But where to start? Writing is going to be a necessary feature of my life over the next however long, but I am not sure yet in what form. Should I keep a diary, adding to the millions of ramblings that might one day become a document of historical import? Samuel Pepys, Anne Frank, Adrian Mole. Neil. Day 8. Watched Come Dine With Me to kill 25 minutes. Send help. Besides, diaries are so passé when we can simply capture extraordinary times through a ten second twerk-off on TikTok.

No, for now I shall temper these ramblings and focus on another. Walking. What is it with the world – or at least Australia for the time being – and a newfound discovery of using your own two feet? Parks, lake shores, bush tracks, deserted shopping malls, trips with the snotty kids around the entirety of Bunnings for ‘essentials’? I guess walking is good for the health but also a representation of freedom, perhaps the only one we can still self-determine*. Walking is essential.

Strangely – paradoxically in socially distanced times – the at-one-with-nature experience that I’m used to is harder to come by, even around Canberra. There is both adventure and anxiety in a walk outdoors. Keeping the current 1.5 metre distance presents opportunity for exciting real-life gameplay, predicting paths of intersection and veering and weaving appropriately. God forbid anyone who passes without shuffling across to the other edge of the path. Eye rolls and mutterings await as you hastily plunge into the long grass.

And then there is the stress of someone approaching from behind, faster, inching nearer with every step. You hurriedly up your own pace to maintain a distance. Or strategically stand aside to check your phone or sip some water or suppress a sneeze. If another person is coming from the other direction at the same time on a narrow path, the complexities escalate exponentially. Stay At Home you think. Only them, not me.

All of which brings us to a trail along the Murrumbidgee River, littered with such experiences. Just a short drive from home I figured this would allow an essence of escapism and a dose of natural wilderness. Surely most people would be buying their 87th bag of fusilli from Woolworths anyway? Most, but not all.

rck02Setting off from Kambah Pool I delayed as a family group embarked on the route to Red Rocks Gorge. Best give them some distance. Wedging myself in between that mob and another mob congregating to follow, things were rosy at first. The landscape still an astonishing green, the river replenished, meandering gently through the steep sided valley untamed and untrammelled. This was freedom.

But then I needed to pee. The pause meant gaps became narrowed, and as the following mob paced closer, I did the whole strategic drink of water and look at phone off to the side thing. To be honest, as much as I didn’t really want to contract any viruses off this group, their constant nattering was irking me more. Off you go. Let me enjoy this nature that we still have.

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The obligation to avoid people proved the making of the walk. It simply just had to be me and the natural world, nothing more. To the extent that I shunned the intended finish point at Red Rocks Gorge Lookout, wary of the sound of kids and the hand-smeared barrier overlooking the river. Instead, I opted to follow the Murrumbidgee further south, eventually finding myself – naturally – at Red Rocks Gorge.

Call me simple but I’d always figured Red Rocks Gorge Lookout, um, looked out over Red Rocks Gorge. Now, I suppose a gorge can be a sinuous geological feature, but I had always wondered where the red rocks were. It turns out they are – after another kilometre of near solitary walking – down there to my right. An almost incongruous outcrop of not quite red rock erupting from the bush.

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A rough trail descended steeply towards the rock, the kind of trail where you are cognisant of each step down being an arduous clamber later. A test of the lungs. But the magnetism of a big rock, a sight, an attraction draws you closer still. There didn’t seem to be anyone else around either. As if this was my own little discovery, my own little secret. A spot to dangle legs over the water and eat a thoroughly washed apple. Nature. Exercise. Freedom.

Only I wasn’t alone. Over the other side, lending perspective on the scale of this gorge, a climber inched his way up via crevice and fold. Seems like extreme lengths to take to distance yourself but hey ho. It is 2020* after all. And being 2020 it wasn’t too long before other hikers and picnickers discovered my gorge, shared my nature, embraced my wilderness. I even talked to a couple, from afar. Mostly about the unique challenges of walking these days. And the utter, essential comfort, the absolute escape it can still bring us.

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* Everything should be asterisked. Just because. 2020*

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On matters of walking, did you know I have another blog that is even more poorly maintained and badly written? Where, from the confines of your own home you can revel in the sights and sounds of the world from two feet. I figure that – as well as soap – you may have some time on your hands and there is only so much sorting out of cupboards to be done. There’s a fair chance I too will add some more content to this in weeks ahead. If our bodies cannot escape, our minds still can wander.

Walkingisfree.com focuses on individual walks in various parts of the world that I have visited. It’s not all ‘turn left one hundred metres after the ferret farm’ stuff. Though there is a bit of this. Just in case you are inspired in the future. Walking is the new sitting after all.

Australia Green Bogey Walking

Another bubble

As 2020 dawned without a sunrise in many parts of Australia, what chance that optimism associated with a new year? When the predominance is on the very present disappearing into a sickly haze ten metres in front of you, grating at your throat and chiselling at your eyes. When you know this is far from the worst of it and the days to come portend further peril. When a centre of power is cloaked in the symbolism of failure and irrelevance, an absurdity as potent as the sight of fireworks trivialising a harbour city.

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The good news is that things have quietened down a touch. There have been drops of rain. In places, there simply isn’t that much fuel left to burn.  For regions where recovery has commenced there is an uplifting wholesomeness on display in the generosity of the human spirit. Some roads have re-opened and goodwill is flooding in. With any luck, we may look upon January 4th as the culmination of this elongated calamity. Though it is far too early to rest and relax.

The hideousness of the outdoors on January 5th proved enough to cancel a trip away to Wollongong, a small inconvenience compared to the carnage faced by so many. It seems flippant to bemoan absent holidays and ruined plans. Subsequently needing supplies for dinner that day, I cannot say for sure if the watering of my eyes in the supermarket was from the smoke infiltrating the shopping centre, the heaviness in my heart, or the absence of discounted Christmas crumbly fudge from Yorkshire.

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In that supermarket I resolved to get away, to breathe, to experience life without the preoccupation of fire and smoke. In this I am one of the lucky ones, one of the climate refugees who has the resources to adapt and mitigate. As with everything it seems it is those who suffer the most who will suffer the most and I feel guilt at my relative luck and privilege. It is with a similar sentiment that I approach the task of writing about frolics in the sun, in the clear air, with friends and other animals. Getaways in the state of Queensland, earlier touched by fire but by now in its own detached bubble.

I never thought the obvious place you’d go to escape the apocalypse would be Brisbane, especially Brisbane in summer. It just goes to show the terrible state of affairs we are in. I don’t mind Brisbane, but it’s not in my top ten, unless it’s my top ten list of places to escape the apocalypse, naturally. A little extra humidity is a small price to pay for clean air.

Indeed, there was a pleasantness about the place, still fairly quiet as people loll through their summer holidays, zooming up to the coast in their Hiluxes packed with fishing rods and eskies, often trailed by flashy boats. It’s a conspicuous consumption of Australiana that begins to tire in context, a dissonance that exacerbates the sense of that Queensland bubble. People show concern, but empathy is harder to summon.

seq03I did Brisbane things in Brisbane, such as pretending to be sophisticated at a few of the galleries, crashing down to earth with sugary iced drinks for a dollar, cycling on one of those godawful city bikes along death trap rush hour cycleways, and bobbing upon the water aboard trashy ferries championing local sporting sides.

One of the joys of my rambling was an early morning potter around Roma Street Parklands, where what seemed like a revelation materialised: an abundance of green interspersed with the vibrant, exotic colours of nature bursting into bloom. Throughout the park – and across the city – the late withering of purple jacarandas was eclipsed by the bright red bursts emanating from the ubiquitous Poinciana trees. Pockets of wonder among the humdrum. Life going on.

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Another minor revelation within the city came from stumbling across new development under and around the Story Bridge. As much as it tries, this will never be that other Australian bridge, but they have done a splendid job of transforming the area beneath it into an enclave of approachable eateries, beery pit stops and picnic points. It seems every reputable town these days needs its own brewery and burgers, mimicking – once again – the pioneering zeitgeist of – yes really – Canberra.

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Tiring a little of the city and its newfound zeitgeist I escaped one morning to the coast. Well, Moreton Bay at least, which is far from a windswept ocean of pummelling surf and fine white sand. Accessible by train, the bayside suburbs of Sandgate and Shorncliffe possess a certain gentility, a more relaxed atmosphere akin to a seaside town of the 1950s. Esplanades and jetties fringe the tidal flats, children construct sandcastles in between a hotchpotch of dogs mingling on the beach, and old codgers creep down to the water’s edge to stare out into the infinity of life.

Capping this off would have been traditional fish and chips, but it seems Queensland (from my random sample of three) is very fond of crumbed fish and – of course – thinner fries over chunky chips. Malt vinegar proved a salvation to at least conjure up an essence of other times and places.

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Better beaches line the Sunshine Coast, and it was pleasing to have a brief interlude further north courtesy of old friend Jason and his gas-guzzling ute. It only seemed fair recompense for making me do an early morning Parkrun – my first – along Southbank and the Botanic Gardens in Brisbane. I’m not convinced the short but steep climb up to Wild Horse Mountain was the best warm down, but the panorama peppered with Glass House Mountains was worth it.

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This was a new perspective; inexplicably a lookout I had passed many times on the G’day Bruce Highway but one I had never actually paused to explore. Looking down upon masses of plantation forest intermingled with clutches of natural bush, perspectives had also altered: yes, this is welcome, this is beautiful but there lingers a nagging question mark, a sense of inevitability that one day this will be eaten by flames as well. Such is the preoccupation.

A stop at Beefy’s pie shop did little to dampen such thoughts for, as I devoured a giant wagon wheel with an iced coffee, all I could picture was our esteemed leader chomping down on a pie sporting a Beefy’s cap on one of his vacuous How Good Is tours. What a fucking moron.

The Sunshine Coast seems to be becoming more and more emblematic of the rampant quest for growth and consumption, perhaps to the detriment of everything else. More habitats cleared, more congestion-busting infrastructure necessary, more polluted waterways, more How Good is Beefy’s at more shopping malls that you need to drive to. Change happens and people need to live somewhere, but do they really need to live in a six bedroom home with a cinema, a rumpus room and a three-car garage? Among cleared bushland that resembles tinder waiting to explode? There has to be a better way.

It was a relief to come across one spot that – as of yet – did not seem over-developed. Testament that Australia still has a lot of space, which is both its blessing and its curse. Mudjimba Beach wildly stretching up towards Coolum and beyond. Under cool and cloudy skies. The Lucky Country still riding its luck.

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Back in Brisbane I extended my stay a little while longer in the hope that when it came time to go home the air would be clearer. Why leave the bubble when you didn’t really need to? And I reckon Millie the dog was grateful for my company.

seq09Together, we explored the land of the Quiet Australian, treading newly built pavements, discovering plots of land awaiting a six bedroom home, lounging in the garden questioning how the Quiet Australians next door can be so goddam noisy. Some of us sniffed butts and peed on lampposts. Others caught buses and sought coffee at the mall. There was a lot of cloud and a little rain. And hope on the grapevine that this would extend south.

My final evening on this Queensland trip took Millie and I down the road, past yappy dogs behind six foot fences, to the suburban fringe. A landscape penetrated by channels and creeks infiltrating from Moreton Bay. Puddles forming into larger areas of wetland feasted upon by cattle egrets and masked lapwings. Signs promoting new land releases. And the most incredible, alien swathe of green.

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Imagine such abundance, such feast. Imagine rain for days and weeks. If you’re reading this in the UK imagination is probably not necessary. But imagine creeks flowing after years and dust turning to mud. Picture dead brown and yellow earth transforming to green. Imagine the life, the rejuvenation, the hope. Those first drops of rain may not immediately solve all the woes, heal all the scars, quell all the flames. But they offer hope. Hope that didn’t come as usual with the turning of the year but may now, finally, hopefully, offer a future.

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A postscript

My previous blog post involving a trip to East Gippsland and Far South East NSW took place immediately before much of this area was decimated by fire. It seems a bit surreal now to think I went here for relief and probably experienced places that may never be the same again or – at the very least – will take decades to recover. I probably chatted to people who evacuated in panic, bought coffee from shops now cut off, and feasted on fish and chips on a wharf where people were braced to jump into water as last resort survival.

Mallacoota has naturally received much attention. Though I didn’t go there on this last trip, I can, from past experiences, testify to its warm-hearted community and beautiful spirit. Usually a place of escape and happiness set within a wilderness, thousands sheltered by the water as flames approached on New Year’s Eve. Around 100 homes were lost. Many animals were killed, although the efforts of one man to rescue koalas melts the heart.

Nearby Cann River provided me with a lovely campsite by the dwindling waterway, as well as a bustling little high street for thousands of tourists passing through on the Princes Highway. The town has struggled with fires all around and has been cut off, though the local community are pulling together.

Cape Conran, Marlo and Orbost were threatened and at times cut off. Some outlying areas around Orbost experienced fire and some homes in rural localities were lost.

In NSW, Eden was threatened in major flare ups and expansion of fire grounds on January 4th. The fires that had burnt through Mallacoota spread north and east into Ben Boyd National Park and reached Twofold Bay. Residents of Eden were told to evacuate to Merimbula or Bega, though some sheltered by the wharf where I enjoyed amazing fish and chips around a week earlier. The fire destroyed outlying properties and ignited a fire at a woodchip mill but – thus far – has not breached the main township.

Fires from Victoria also have spread north towards Bombala and into South East Forests National Park. Presently they have not reached the Waratah Gully campground and its resident kookaburras nor have they spilled down Myanba Gorge. The fire ground presently appears around 2kms south of the walking track for Pheasants Peak and around 4km from the campground.

Australia Green Bogey Photography Walking

Warming

It is a fact truer than anything to have ever come out of the British Prime Minister’s mouth that I will always take up an opportunity to work in Brisbane in July. While the locals may gripe about the icy depths of winter where overnight it might just slip below double digits and require a good for humanity coal fire, I’ve packed two pairs of shorts. And just the one jumper.

brs01And a raincoat. For it is even truer that Queensland is far from beautiful one day, perfect the next; a dubious marketing slogan dreamt up by mediocrities that continues apace in the supposed Sunshine Coast, a place frequently sodden by epic downpours and possessing a clammy mildew befitting the swampy subtropics. Saturday here was so damp that the highlight was a doughnut, and even that wasn’t much of a highlight, more a triumph of social marketing style over substance.

brs02Queensland: pissing down one day, sweaty the next. The sweatiness emerging on Sunday as the sun makes an appearance, triggering rising heat and rampant moisture. Liquid particles are lifted by ocean gusts, filtered ineffectually through the thrum of air conditioning to congregate in damp surf club carpets. Puddles among snake-infested flood plain linger, waiting for passing birds and passing property developers to drain. The ubiquitous HiLux secretes fluids while idling outside Red Rooster, as a leftover billboard of some redneck running for parliament gazes down approvingly. Just thank the lord or some other unelected deity that it is not yet high summer.

Indeed, the sweatiness is relatively tolerable this time of year and is alleviated by the pleasure of wearing shorts in midwinter.  As dark clouds sweep north to reveal a sky of blue, there is an hour of pleasant sunshine on the coast, a welcome companion on a bare-legged walk along the beach and promenade to Mooloolaba. I rest at Alex Heads watching sandcastles being built and surfers being demolished, and sharks being hidden just out of site. Probably. It’s not even a whole day let alone an entirety of existence, but for a few moments it seems that things are beautiful, tending towards perfect.

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Somewhat annoyingly the sunshine was a sign of an improving pattern of weather as I returned to Brisbane and the prospect of work. On the plus side, there was a bit of downtime and a later flight back to Canberra on the warmest day of the week, giving me the opportunity to don shorts once again, while all around me wore coats. And then there was the hotel I was staying in, which was rather fine with its rooftop pool and terrace overlooking the ever rising city and the ever flowing brown of the Brisbane River.

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Actually, the hotel was somewhat funky and felt more like a spot for special treat bogan holidays and shadowy foreign gambling syndicates fast-tracked by Border Force than a place where weary businesspeople rest their weary heads. In my room there was a wine fridge, the TV was in the mirror (what?!), and there were a series of illuminated switches that operated a configuration of lights that I never was able to master. Switches that glow in the dark and give a sense of Chernobyl as you try to sleep. Only the lift was more luminescent, alternating between being in a Daft Punk video and a fish tank of the Barrier Reef before it got bleached.

Walking out of the lift and onto the street was a sure way to ease a headache, especially as outside it was warm and sunny and just oozing that relaxed vibe that comes with a level of warmth and sunniness. Think how England feels when the misery of flooding rain and gloom dissipates for a freakish sunny day, golden and mild after months of despair and before the impending furnace of yet another unseasonal heat plume from the African colonies. A bit like that.

The Brisbane River acts as something of a waymarker wandering the city, guiding you along South Bank and its gardens and galleries, channelling you across to the north with angular bridges and sweeping curves. Disappearing as you cut across the CBD with its blocks of one-way-street and chirruping pedestrian crossings, before emerging again in an amalgam of mangroves at the terminus of the Botanic Gardens.

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Back across the river, the cliffs of Kangaroo Point provide fine city views as well as clichéd place name delight for international visitors to post. Some people abseil down the cliffs, others look up from the riverside path below. All try to avoid getting run over by yet another dork on one of the city’s electric scooters. Most sit and wait and contemplate what it would be like to be on a scooter, as the sun goes down on another day in Queensland.

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And for me, as darkness descends, it is back to the light. The florid light of that lift going up to the many lights that I cannot figure out how to arrange in my hotel room, the switches for which will light up at night as a constant reminder that they have won. Along the way, the lights of the city flicker on, as the temperature drops below twenty.

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After a few days here I rummage in my bag for that one jumper. It’s starting to get a tad cool, just a little off being perfectly comfortable. I could survive without it, but I did pack it after all, and it would be a shame to carry it all this way and not put it to use. For the first time in Brisbane, I seem to fit in. Now all I need is a scooter to carry me off into the night, towards the light.

Australia Food & Drink Green Bogey Photography Walking

Mother country

I am back in Australia, honest! Proof of this are the shorts adorning my waist, the flat white on my desk and the gorgeous melodies of magpies lurking outside ready to peck my eyes out. Yet still the European adventures linger on, and the feeling of being at home away from home away from home.

Plymouth won’t win any prizes for Britain’s most beautiful city, but it is my home town and I’m happy that way. Mostly thanks to its geography and history there is a lot to love about Plymouth, despite clusters of concrete dreariness and chavvy hang outs. Somehow I felt an air of greater positivity in Plymouth this year, which is perplexing given years of council cutbacks and the potential cliff edge that we all know weighs upon the near future. Perhaps this is what a good summer yields.

The Hoe, how I relish seeing Plymouth’s Hoe, especially on fine evenings as families gather for picnics, friends congregate for frisbee, and old fogies stare out to sea behind the protection of their car windscreens. I love the sense of community, the fraternity, this contented coming together in public spaces…from the ridiculous music coming out of the devices of yoof splayed out on the grass to the flasks of tea being enjoyed by elders within the comfort of a Nissan Micra.

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Many people are out enjoying Plymouth’s classic circular amble, milling their way through the historic Barbican before rising up along the foreshore and taking in vistas of Plymouth Sound from The Promenade. The Barbican is a reliable go-to to wile away an hour, to seek out food and drink and to perhaps even discover a good coffee…eventually. A salty air of old sea-dogs and staggering drunks, intertwined with fancy foods and crumbly fudge.

And what of the sights and experiences within half an hour or so? Well, on three sides there is Cornwall, Dartmoor, and the South Hams respectively on your doorstep. All national park or areas of outstanding natural beauty, designated or otherwise.

Probably the most pleasing way to cross the frontier west into Cornwall is on the tiny passenger ferry from Cremyll to Mount Edgecumbe. Here, the rather expansive country park offers everything from rampant rhododendrons to tumbledown towers. A shoreline of seaweed and pebbles is fractured by swathes of woodland meandering down to the waterside, while formal lawns and regimented flower beds are dotted with Romanesque statues and Georgian hidey-holes. This is a place of childhood summers, an escape accessible to all Plymothians, as long as the ferry price doesn’t continue to escalate.

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Trips to Cornwall require a river crossing of one way or another, producing a deliberate period of transition between the city and its exterior. Travelling to the South Hams provides no such moment; one minute you are navigating parked cars and speed cameras, the next, you are in the rolling green ambrosia characteristic of this part of the world. Longer drives lead to jewels such as Bantham, Hope and Salcombe and, of course, a little closer sits the timeless charm of Noss Mayo. Closer still – practically a Plymouth suburb – is Wembury, where many a local will pop out for a National Trust delicacy and stroll upon the beach. Better still – as I discovered – you can park up towards Wembury Point and head along the coast to Heybrook Bay for a pint.

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It’s a blessing to have these places on your doorstep but if there is one clear antidote to the drab post-war concrete jungle, overloaded roads, and profusion of Janners grunting something like “Fook, I’m goowun down Demnport un gonna smassh iz fookin fayce in” it is the rugged expanse of Dartmoor National Park. The higher parts are open and barren, bruised by the weather, the shattered granite tors tumbling down amongst bracken towards fast-flowing streams. But there is also a tamer side to Dartmoor, replete with an abundance of countryside charm, cute villages and human enterprise.

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ply06It is from these hills, from this sponge in the middle of Devon, that the waters which give Plymouth its name first spring. The River Plym here is a far cry from the sludgy and stinky tidal estuary meeting Plymouth Sound. Clear and rapid, tumbling over boulders and pooling on bends, the river descends into dense valleys packed green with mosses, ferns and leafy trees. Plymbridge Woods is but a short descent through a dark, narrow lane from industrial estates and Asda superstores, yet it is another world away.

 

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ply09So, to the north, to the east, to the west there are pleasures easy to reach. Should you have a boat or a longing for Brittany, the south also offers much. And slap bang in the middle, Plymouth. My home that still feels mostly like home while existing slightly distant. It’s funny how things you took for granted, things that you didn’t notice when you were younger now trigger a fond, sometimes joyous sensation. And that extends from leafy green woods and cobbled quays to the family comforts of laundry fairies and roast dinners. Home, still.

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Food & Drink Great Britain Green Bogey

The only way

What and where is Wessex? It’s a question I recall asking a member of the Wessex Youth Orchestra as we all happened to be squished together in a tiny funicular railway in the watery French town of Evian about a year ago. As you do. Anything for small talk. He mumbled something about being from Eastleigh and not really having a clue or caring about it. A romantic setting for Thomas Hardy I proposed? Or some distant kingdom of peasant clans waving their flint axes from atop their hill forts in an effort to appease invaders? He shrugged with a nonchalance the locals would have admired, and I wandered off to eat crepes.

Fast forward a year and I may or may not have been in Wessex, spending a few days with my Dad and his better half Sonia in and around Wiltshire. It is pleasing country, as reassuringly English as the sound of Chris Evans on BBC Radio 2. A landscape of curved chalk ridges sweeping into abundant valleys, fields criss-crossed by translucent waterways, tractors and tanks. Villages and towns have a well-to-do air, though these are not immune to the pervading obsession to construct new housing as cheaply and as oblivious to surroundings as possible. But there remains a lot of cutesiness, and a lot of money, and a lot of good looking pubs.

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One of the big attractions of this part of Wessex, of this part of England, are a clump of rocks commonly known throughout the world as Stonehenge. It’s little more than a hop in the car, skip over a cowpat and jump over a stile from Dad’s place and can be approached via a walk from Woodhenge via Poophenge, across ancient plains, meandering past burial mounds and alongside the modern pilgrims of the A303. Sat in a tailback, it may well seem easier to move some massive slabs of rock many miles than it is driving to the southwest on a bank holiday weekend.

Stonehenge itself is fenced off to non-fee-paying visitors like myself. But it’s literally a case of standing on the other side of the fence and getting practically the same view. A bonus with being on the ‘wrong’ side of the fence is in observing the parade of tourists who dutifully circumnavigate the rocks, reading the placards, taking their selfies and, mostly, looking a little miffed with the whole costly experience. Impressive as it is in getting these rocks in this position for whatever reason many solstices ago, I struggle to fathom how an experience here can be somehow profound and spiritual.

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Around this part of Wiltshire, Salisbury represents the largest town and its impressive cathedral and medieval centre proves popular with visiting Russian agents among others. On the outskirts of Salisbury, Old Sarum is typical of the many mounds that became hill forts, commanding fine views of the surrounding country. If those iron-age peasants were to walk through this country today, they would find harvest in full swing: crops cropped, fields ploughed, haybales stacked and the green extravagance of summer only slightly on the wane. Only an occasional pocket of sunflowers might just kid them they are in Provence. French marauders.

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One of my favourite aspects of the Wiltshire Wessex countryside are the rivers and streams which shape and colour the landscape. They are tranquil affairs, meandering gracefully at a snail’s pace through verdant woodlands, grand estates, sunny meadows and thatched-roof villages. The River Avon is perhaps a Utopia of Middle Southern England and, apparently, good to fish. I was fortunate to be with a warden of the river, who could guide me along some of its length and check for those fishing licences.

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Wsx04aThe reward for all this toil, traipsing through a sunny late summer in England was ice cream in Salisbury. In a land in which tradition appears widely cherished, what better tradition to uphold?

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Other traditions of Wessex seem to include giant white horses, tea and cake, and naked rambling. On reflection, none of these particularly surprise me, though the sight of a couple walking their dog in the buff on a hill wasn’t exactly on my must-sees. Let’s just say it was a very small dog.

Such delights were the fruits of a lovely walk close to Warminster, taking in more ancient forts and golden fields around Battlesbury and Scratchbury Hills. Somewhere along the way was a perfectly irregular village cricket green, backed by a church and only lacking the crack of willow on leather. Elsewhere colourful blue butterflies vied for attention with languid tractors making hay and naked ramblers making, well…making eye contact awkward. Oh yes, them again. I could cope with the naked ramblers but the yappy chihuahua with a Napoleon complex was a bridge too far.

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Wsx07In times of such frightfulness one is best advised to turn to a cup of tea and slice of cake. Sat in a sunny position next to an orchard, sheep mowing the grass and a garden centre just around the corner, there is enough here to soothe the feet, the stomach, and the eyes. I’ve had better cakes but hardly many better contexts in which to eat them.

With recovery and a little time to spare, the culmination of explorations of possibly a small part of the ancient kingdom of Wessex came up the hill from cake, a hill on which proudly shines the White Horse of Westbury. A hill which – given the day’s exertions – could be climbed by car to reveal ever expanding views. Below, the luxuriant kingdom meeting the frontier of – say – Swindon.

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These white horses (and the odd kiwi) are reasonably frequent features of this landscape. They generally have vague-ish histories involving something done by some god-fearing yokels several centuries ago before becoming overgrown and cleared again and covered up during the war to prevent the Luftwaffe from using them to navigate, only to be restored by a wonderful group of community goodie-two-shoes with names like Gerard and Margot. And thank goodness for that, for they are an impressive sight to behold.

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The horsies tend to look better from a distance; up close all that emerges are slabs of greying concrete perforated by a few weeds and a shape that is mystifying to decipher. Perhaps a birds-eye view would be best, partially explaining the parade of paragliders attempting to jump off the hill and catch some thermals.

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From here, the town of Westbury beckons, and its rail station taking me further west, beyond the borders and into a land of possibly even greater in-breeding. Travels continue, and next time I randomly come across the Wessex Youth Orchestra in an Alpine country I might debate whether their unknown homeland is short for Western Essex. I mean, it might be a billion times more refined, but I certainly came across a couple of exhibitionists ‘avin it large.

 

Food & Drink Great Britain Green Bogey Photography Walking

London Grammer

There is comfort to be had in the depressing grey shades of Heathrow Airport, a reassuring tinge of concrete and pessimism. But what’s this? People here seem a little perkier than usual, a bit more easy-going. A touch nonchalant perhaps, purposefully blinding themselves as they near the edge of a self-inflicted precipice made worse by those purportedly born to rule. That heatwave they have gone on and on about must have made life bearable again.

LDN01That heatwave was turning into a thing of the past by the time I made it onto England’s shores, and things will be reassuringly back to normal soon. Its legacy will emerge through inflatable pools from Argos gathering cobwebs in sheds up and down the land, frozen Calippo slushes, and a chance for rose-tinted reminiscence of that famous summer before the storm (or sunny skies with fluffy white clouds and unicorns pooing golden trade deals) of Brexit. Plus blackberries, lots of blackberries.

LDN02Regardless of sunshine or headwinds there will always be tea and cake or in this case coffee and cake. You could be forgiven for thinking coffee might be overtaking tea in popularity in the UK given the rampant reproduction of godawful Costa Coffee shops every fifty metres, with their godawful massive mugs and godawful patrons thinking this thing they are drinking is the height of sophistication and really isn’t godawful. Give it a week and I’ll be with them. But today, an independent café in swanky South Kensington and coffee that was not at all deitybad.

Cake commenced a Sunday afternoon that was an absolute delight, sunny skies banishing the grey and encouraging an ambient amble with my friend Caroline through London’s parks and parades. With the warmth building again and many people still in holiday mode, the vibe was convivial and quite un-London like. Almost European, dare I say Nigel and Boris and Jacob et al.

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There was biking and boating and picnicking through Hyde Park, selfies and group gatherings around the Palace and Whitehall, and the languid saunter of families and friends matching the slow march of the ever-brown Thames. That is, until all was disrupted by some kind of urban party boat, the Stormzy Steamer or something. But once that blitzed downstream to pick up Jezza, life was once again grand and London was the finest place in the world for a little bit.

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LDN04One of the pleasures of returning to London goes beyond famous sights, cake, and hearing people speaking with like proper English accents innit. There are the familiarities of place and person, reconnecting with treasured friends, perusing past haunts and – especially fresh off the boat – attempting to retune into the current Britannic zeitgeist. Spending time with Caroline helped a great deal in this regard, and with many steps across London and the Zone 5 countryside, there was much to discover; a veritable bullseye of a weekend, tru dat.

From Zone 5 to Zone 4, and a return to Finchley and a return to a friend I have now known for more than half my life. We graduated twenty years ago goddammit and don’t look a day older. More like years and years. And there was charming Orla, my chess-playing pub lunch pal, who has always been enjoyable company across the parks of North London. I may have a sense of two homes, but they make this feel like coming home.

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Lunch in leafy Highgate while wearing shorts was hard to beat. The heatwave – or at least a minor, cooler version of it – was back. And here, happy with a beer in a pub garden, I could see how easy the grey could fade into the background, and the light, the glorious, English light, could shine through.

Great Britain Green Bogey Society & Culture

Queen of the south

I had never visited or passed through the small town of Lumsden, yet it featured prominently on our road map borrowed from a keen fly fisherman friend of Dad. The road map offered annotated teasers of someone else’s holiday: Day 2 on the Oreti River, a fine haul at the Whitestone, a ride on a steam train. Lumsden was often at the heart of the scribblings, and a town with a population of 400 boasting a fishing shop just about says it all. Today, in winds stronger than Gita, the trout would have been blowing down the street alongside wheelie bins and pizza boxes. Even I might be able to catch one.

Heading north from Lumsden we paused at the southern extremity of Lake Wakitipu, at the tip of this thunderbolt shaped body of electric blue, a Harry Potter scar etched into the Southern Alps by a tectonic Lord Voldemort. Parking upon the shore in Kingston for a cheesy car picnic, lightning or death eaters were not the issue, but the wind blowing off the lake, rocking the car and creating spouts and swirls of water. A nearby lookout point marked as The Devils Staircase never seemed so apt.

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NZd02Contrast this with an hour later in Arrowtown, a cutesy (if a touch contrived) old gold rush village just out of Queenstown. Sheltered by hills, twenty-five degrees, sunshine out, there was no hesitation in showing my pants to the whole of the car park and changing into shorts. Likewise, both Dad and I had no hesitation in agreeing ice cream should be on the agenda. Such thoughts are obvious portents of the cloud rolling in, the wind rising, and drizzle emerging. But let that not stop us eating ice cream!

And so, when we eventually arrived at our lofty accommodation in Queenstown up several flights of stairs, there was no lake to see, no mountain tops to captivate, and just the sound of heavy rain and testosterone-fuelled Argentine rugby players having a balcony party to enjoy. Perfect conditions to don a mac, head into town, find a pub, and gorge on a hearty roast.

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In a mini-repeat of the post-Gita awakening, the next morning dawned with just a few residual clouds hovering over the lake, the blue skies expanding to cast Lake Wakatipu a luminescent teal. What better way to dazzle than drive along its shores to Glenorchy, the symbolic top of the fork of thunder encircled by lofty mountains. Just when you thought New Zealand could not get any more scenic, any more stunning, you turn a corner and once more get whacked in the face in a flurry of brake lights and shonky parking.

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One of the incredible things about Glenorchy other than it’s gorgeous setting and generous rocky road slice, is that it is once again on the fringes of Mount Aspiring National Park. In what is almost two full circles we have come within 20 miles of The Divide on the Milford Sound road (just a case of walking The Routeburn to get there), and around 30 miles from the Matukituki Valley and Rob Roy Glacier (jet boats up the Dart would probably get us closer). I swear the mountains fringing the western part of the lake here look just the same as those viewed from Key Summit on the other side. And they probably are.

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A few more miles up an agreeable gravel road lined with fields of sheep, our last swing bridge led across to a gentle walk through pristine red beech to Lake Sylvan. In many ways this was pleasant, lacking the spectacle encountered elsewhere, but pleasant. Another cheesy picnic by the river in warm sunshine kicked us off, a tinkling brook accompanied us to the lake, and some chirpy birdies were far from shy in greeting us on the trail.

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And, yes, the lake itself was pleasant, nothing more nothing less. Having been in New Zealand for over a week now, there was clear evidence to suggest we were encountering scenic fatigue. For here, this pristine and peaceful spot was nothing more than, well, as I have said several times, pleasant.

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NZd09And so, in this hasty encounter with a small part of a bigger-than-you-think country packed with spectacle we finish up in Queenstown. Of all the places we visited this was undoubtedly the most frenetic, but it was no London, nor even Canberra. Firstly, you can forgive the masses of backpackers and Contiki coaches and adrenaline shots because Queenstown is beautiful. And – you know what – the people, the bustle, the mixture of ages and nationalities soaking up the holiday air creates a really nice vibe down by the lake. Particularly if this is accompanied by a ‘legendary’ Fergburger and a glowing evening as the sun slides west.

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The iconic view of Queenstown comes from the top of a gondola ride and on a late afternoon under clear skies it could not be any better. Or maybe it could with a dusting of fresh snow on the incredible Remarkables. In this case, perhaps last Thursday would have been optimum, but we were off tramping in something even more spectacular back then. And this was more than good enough.

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There was a tinge of sombreness accompanied by waking for the last time in New Zealand on this trip. Sombreness that was quickly shaken by the welcoming skies outside and – unbeknownst at the time – the prospect of waking once more. That last day of a holiday in which you have a later flight and some time to somehow ‘kill’. If only there was an earlier flight we could get onto…

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It struck me that we had not done a bungee jump or jetboat ride or chucked ourselves out of a plane on a 4×4 Segway into a sub-zero glacier on this trip. Possibly one of the few that hadn’t we instead set off in pursuit of observing such mania, dosing up on lakeside coffee to get us pumped. At the Shotover River, a regular parade of jetboats whooshed and whizzed and did watery donuts to a clientele that looked – to be honest – rather aged and largely nonplussed. Meanwhile, from the Kawarau River suspension bridge, A.J. Hackett invariably cajoled and pushed people off a platform on a piece of string.

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To the sound of murderous shrieks we plunged towards the adventure of Queenstown Airport, an understandably small terminal that would take us back to Sydney. Tomorrow. After a flight cancellation we could have enjoyed more of the adventure of Queenstown airport overnight, but instead we managed to find ourselves some accommodation (something Virgin Australia couldn’t), albeit a good hour away. The Crown Range road up to Cardrona was something we missed out on this trip following a Gita-induced landslide, but it was open again for us to ascend in a new car in the dark. Not only that, but there was an additional hairpin gravel road to take, littered with rabbits and potentially hidden chasms towards New Zealand’s highest hotel. At around 1650 metres, it seemed rather lovely and part of me wished the flight back tomorrow would come a little later in the day.

NZd12But, after our final, final night of sleep in New Zealand we set off down the mountain, seeing in the light the spectacle that we were to now say goodbye to again. With the delays, the exhaustion, the impending drag down the Hume Highway from Sydney to Canberra, we were both keen to get back. And it was a shame to end this way, even if a bacon butty and coffee at the airport temporarily lifted spirits. But everyone expects a little adventure in New Zealand and we belatedly had ours. This along with much to remember, much to savour, much to linger in the mind for as long as the white cloud blessing this most amazing big little country.

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Driving Food & Drink Green Bogey Photography Walking

Sound

The town of Te Anau has one of the most unexpectedly elongated high streets perhaps anywhere in New Zealand. Plonked in the remote southwest corner of the country, it possesses two supermarkets, three petrol stations, at least four places where you can buy pizza, several pubs, numerous cafes and restaurants, something resembling a department store and more shops selling sheep key rings than you can shake a shepherd’s crook at.

The reason for this is – principally – Milford Sound, with Te Anau handily positioned as a coffee / lunch / afternoon tea / dinner stop on very full day excursions from Queenstown, or as a closer base from which to discover Fiordland. And while most trippers and trampers understandably head for the hills, Te Anau has a certain charm that is worth a linger. Despite the throughflow of visitors, it seems a lot quieter and subdued than Queenstown or Wanaka. The countryside around is greener and lusher, and its lakeside situation with views across to snow-capped peaks is divine.

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Lest Te Anau get a little too busy we stayed a tad out of town in a log cabin wedged into the side of a hill. This was the Barnyard Backpackers complex, and while it retained a style of basic but comfortable accommodation, I was struck by how different staying in hostels is these days. Mostly this is down to the internet and its ability to transport you away from the here and now. So while I may have played shithead accompanied with a bottle of cheap wine with a group of randoms twenty years ago, nowadays it’s all about WhatsApp calls home and squinting solitarily into a small screen. Something I did with limited success thanks to all the bandwidth being taken up by WhatsApp calls to Germany! Still, at least here you can just look up and soak in the views.

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From Te Anau, the inevitable stream of people and cars converging on Milford Sound benefits from a little strategising; a calculation involving the avoidance of peak coach tour times, maximum weather and reflection opportunities, and which of the plethora of boat trips to pick. But really it’s just luck and we got pretty lucky. Striking out early via a coffee stop at the Sandfly Café, dawn light gradually infiltrated the Eglinton Valley, the sunlight and early mist rising from the river serving to accentuate its majesty.

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The calm of morning also meant that Mirror Lakes were actually mirror-like, reflecting the glowing mountains, and observed by just a smattering of early day-trippers like us.

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NZc04The sunny start changed around The Divide as we headed into the clouds and prospects for a clear cruise on the sound were diminished. It was the kind of weather I expected, typical of this area which is famed for being the wettest spot in New Zealand[1]. But emerging into and out of the Homer Tunnel there were breaks, mountain tops could be seen, and the winding road down to the water remained largely clear. Sure, it was not the rare blue sky day that you see in the advertising, but the pinnacle of Mitre Peak emerged, the tide was in, and there was ample time for relaxation and reflection before hitting the water.

This was to be my third visit to Milford Sound and each time has offered different conditions. The first visit was one of those wet affairs that delivered little visibility, only compensated by numerous spectacular waterfalls plunging from the heavens; second time around gave some blue sky, a brisk breeze and significant glare; and today was without doubt the most placid I had seen it, clear, calm under a high level white sky. Seasickness would not be a problem.

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And so the obligatory cruise, which is a very pleasant experience but one which somehow you are fairly content to finish after two hours. Up to the Tasman Sea and back, taking in waterfalls, forests and seal-dotted rocks, neck-craned constantly to fathom the height of the precipitous mountains that encircle the fiord. The scale is hard to comprehend and harder to capture, but a steady stream of sightseeing planes and choppers looking the size of seagulls against the cliffs provided a persistent sense of perspective. All washed down by a ‘glacial facial’.

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Our cruise finished at 12:30, meaning we had time to pause along the road back to Te Anau. What was an empty coach park (containing at least 40 bays) when we set off on the boat was now crammed, and the tide receding and breeze rising had scuppered any iconic Mitre Peak reflections for the masses. Strategy or luck, it ran out briefly at The Chasm, where we lingered long for a car park and failed to find a delightful glade for lunch. But further stops along the highway offered more opportunity to delight, to take in waterfalls, peaks and pristine river valleys.

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Back in the Eglinton Valley – where it had all really started this morning – the warm sun was once again shining and the day did its very best to resemble an idyll. I was more than happy to linger here, to wallow in the golden grasses beside jade waters, while Dad wallowed in a little fishing time. And even if the trout don’t bite so much here, surely in such a setting netting doesn’t matter.

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It turns out the better (aka easier haha!) fishing spots are closer to Te Anau. A prime spot to dump Dad and take the hire car for a bit of an explore, down south of Te Anau to Manapouri. If Te Anau had a serene calm about it, Manapouri was decidedly comatose. But I mean that in a good way, the lake wild and rugged, visitors few and far between and mostly heading toward or coming back from trips to Doubtful Sound. Doubtless there are trout here too, on the edge of the world.

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With this little foray, three hours and five fish had passed and we joined up to dine on takeaway pizza in the car overlooking Lake Te Anau. The breeze was up, the weather closing in a little, the car rocking. Omens of the mostly fine post-cyclone weather that we had enjoyed in the last few days coming to an end. It was looking as if rain might just visit us again, transforming Milford Sound to a funnel of waterfalls and blowing us back towards our final stop, Queenstown.

 

[1] The day after our visit, Milford Sound received over 30 centimetres (not millimetres!) of rain

Driving Green Bogey Photography