Stretching even further afield for a day trip down to the South Coast of New South Wales…
Confinement within the boundaries of the Australian Capital Territory may sound like a nightmare to some people – mostly us privileged types who can jokingly equate it to being in prison. All without actually ever facing the very real prospect of being imprisoned. Still, I suppose it could be tough to be restricted within the clutches of a modern, affluent, well-resourced city without access to an episode of Fawlty Towers that has been shown a zillion times already in my lifetime. Oh the suffrage some people have to endure!
Other than perhaps anywhere in New Zealand, this city – Canberra – has arguably been the best place in the world to be of late. Okay, it is getting a bit chully now, but I can warm myself up with great coffee and a walk in one of the many suburban parks, bushland reserves, and panoramic hills. I have been doing a lot of that lately.
We have also been largely spared – for now – the health calamity that is Coronavirus. One hundred and eight confirmed cases in total. Only one of whom emerged in the last month: emerging from overseas and allowed to travel to Canberra because of a novel form of protection called Diplomatic Immunity. Everyone I have spoken to suspects a Yank. Because, well, you know.
Due to this good fortune and what can be fairly summarised as competent management – when did basic competence become the gold standard some of us can only yearn for from our leaders – restrictions have eased over time. Yes, the rules can seem a tad bewildering, requiring a protractor and solid understanding of trigonometry as well as a ready supply of hand sanitiser and guarded interaction. But now I can do things I would never do anyway, such as participating in a bootcamp or going to church. Never in a month of Sundays. Still, it is nice to feel like you could do them.
As of the start of this month, we were also allowed to travel outside of the ACT for leisure purposes. Being largely content in the territory, I didn’t rush off down to the coast on the first day of restrictions easing like half of the population, despite that particular day being grey, cool, and windy. Neither did I really leverage any benefit from not one, but two public holidays: one to acknowledge first Australians and promote reconciliation and harmony, the other to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s non-birthday. Yeah, go figure.
I think somewhere in my walking rambles during the midst of containment I made a sarcastic comment about the prospect of a day trip to Goulburn being something to look forward to. It was the kind of comment everyone not living in Canberra was making about Canberra. For us, we always have Goulburn. So, the day came when I finally decided I could set foot across the border and where better to head than Goulburn. Only I never actually made it; there is only so much excitement one can take after all.
About two-thirds of the way between Canberra and Goulburn is the small village of Collector. It is well-known in these parts for its pumpkin festival, an annual spectacular that fell victim this year to COVID cancel culture, a situation that probably explains why I can now buy a whole pumpkin for 99 cents. Beyond the soothing sounds of the Federal Highway and a growing population of scarecrows with gourd faces, what does Collector have to offer, I mused?
The first thing to highlight is a very fine coffee stop. To tell the truth, this is why I decided I could rationalise my first escape from the ACT to what is largely a featureless paddock on the fringe of waterless Lake George. It’s called Some Café and it benefits from a proximal relationship to the capital. Housed in a heritage building along with a wine tasting area, it conjures country charm with hipster-infused chill. I feel the cake display could be enhanced, but the coffee was indeed very fine and the cheese and ham toastie the stuff of the dreams I have been having ever since I watched that episode of Masterchef where they made toasties in the first round. Cheesy dreams.
Incidentally, upon leaving the café I noticed the logo resembles someone washing their hands. I mean, it might be clapping at the borderline pretentious latte art or rubbing your hands with glee at the prospect of Pialligo smoked bacon in a Three Mills bap. But in this day and age it is definitely someone washing their hands. Given this logo was there before the onset of COVID-19, one can actually imagine a handful of conspiracy theorists directing their unending keyboard war at a small café in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere. There is even a phone mast on the nearby ridge for goodness sake!
Dodging death rays and applying sanitiser positioned at the exit, I moved on to explore the rest of Collector. Outside of pumpkin festival time it is eerily quiet, apart from the hum of trucks upon the nearby highway. Everyone is probably in church, given the village (population 313) has three from which to choose: Anglican, Uniting and Catholic. Penance for the bushrangers.
The other place of worship in town is the pub, the Bushranger Hotel, with rooms looking out over farming country and a weird labour of love known as the Dreamer’s Gate. A gothic sculpture formed from cement and chicken wire, it resembles something that would feature in the Gunning and Breadalbane Amateur Dramatic Society’s production of Harry Potter and the Golden Horned Trans Merino. I can’t say I’m a massive fan, but I admire the dedication of its artist and his ability to piss off half of the locals.
Looping back towards Some Café from here, the road ran alongside a patch of farmland and the narrow course of Collector Creek. Given rain, it’s pleasant enough country with water even visible in the creek; not something that is guaranteed I’m sure.
It was around this point I was thinking how nice it would be to have a walk in the countryside. Yet this doesn’t really seem to be a thing in Australia – walking tracks are largely concentrated in some national parks and city reserves. There isn’t the same antiquated network of lanes and byways with right to roam as in the UK. So much country is locked out to the public, fenced off, dug away, blown up, guarded by deadly snakes. I think it’s a shame and also a missed opportunity. Imagine the benefits, for instance, if you were more impelled to pull off the Federal Highway and head into Collector, have a good coffee and a slice of cake, set off on a ramble for a few hours, and finish up in the pub. The same could be said for Gunning, Yass, Crookwell, Taralga, Tarago, Bungendore etc etc. Landholders unite!
Leaving Collector I did at least find something akin to a country lane. Eschewing the highway, I took a narrow road full of potholes towards the even smaller settlement of Breadalbane. It was so narrow (for Australia) that at one point I had to pull in to allow the only other car on it to proceed towards Collector. I’m not saying it would be a great walk or anything, but I definitely saw some cycling potential. For a start, it was mostly flat, with a small rise at what I think would be a good turn around point. It was very open, so you would see oncoming traffic. There are country sights to absorb, mostly sheep. And you could of course start and finish at Some Café, a cyclist’s dream. Just need to pick a wind-free, mild day. Perhaps Spring.
At what must have been Breadalbane I was starting to get a bit giddy being around fifty kilometres away from the ACT border. I could have turned right for Goulburn but thought I would save that for another exciting day out. Left was Gunning and – true to form, true to the real purpose of this day out – I knew of a good café there. By time I prevaricated and pottered about a little it would be acceptable afternoon tea hours.
A little shy of Gunning there is a small bridge over a small creek offering a sense of intimacy among a big land and big sky. It’s a peaceful scene, with a rail crossing and old pumphouse rising above a landscape that may occasionally flood. It would probably make another fine spot to set off on a walk, following the waterway and gradually climbing up to the gentle hills of the Cullerin Range, bedecked with wind turbines and unending views. All I can do is stop by the road and wait for clouds to blow through to reveal the sun.
The main reason I pause here is not only to kill time before afternoon tea, but to compare thee to a summer’s day. I came this way for the first time in December; those pre-COVID days that were only mired in ravaging drought, catastrophic bushfires and ‘Getting Brexit Done’, whatever that is supposed to mean. Back then, a few sheep were grazing under the bridge, clinging to remnant water like everything else seeking survival. In the sweet spot around February – the only two weeks of 2020 that were any good – the rains finally arrived. And today the sheep are nowhere to be seen, happily grazing elsewhere in a land of plenty.
Talking of grazing, the time for afternoon tea was getting closer, though I dragged things out a little further by taking in the sights of Gunning. This didn’t take too long, but I at least discovered a rough track through a park that followed a creek and for a few hundred metres resembled something akin to the replication of a simulation of a fake countryside walk. Leading from here I also ambled through a back lane decorated with the occasional section of crumbling brickwork overtaken by rampant undergrowth. In one garden, a Merino chewed upon the lawn, oblivious to the perils of a rusting trampoline.
Gunning has just the one high street offering an eclectic mix of styles and wares. A large warehouse hosts agricultural supplies. A row of Victorian-era shops display almost antiques and woollen craftwork. A garage straight out of the Midwest services passing trade. There is of course a pub and a couple of cafes to lure people off of the Hume Highway.
It was also back in dry December that I popped into one of these – the Merino Café – for a morning coffee accompanied by a delicious caramel macadamia ANZAC slice concoction. Back then it was justified by a desire to support small country communities doing it tough through the drought. Today it was about spending money in small businesses trying to get back on their feet through the COVID crisis. There is always some rationale and worthiness in cake.
The slice, along with several other varieties of fat and sugar, was still there, but a counter-top display of scones tempted and teased. Accepting the reality of disappointing cream, I was still tempted enough. And, yes, the cream was disappointing, but the scone itself was rather good.
All I needed now was a bloody good walk to burn off some of the indulgence. Looking at the map, the closest place for a bloody good walk in reality was Canberra. Yes, for all the breaking out of borders, I have to return to Canberra to go for a walk. You get the point. Country NSW: Cakes plentiful. Walks lacking.
I did at least take a stroll that included views of country NSW, discovering yet another small section of Mulligans Flat including more of its border fence. With a lowering afternoon sun and a combination of farmland and forest vistas, it was just the tonic after those relatively sedate and calorific country pursuits.
And then, with clouds congregating in a fashion that could yield a sunset spectacular, I made a last-minute call to stay out and see what might happen. Now back in the heart of Canberra I parked the car near Government House and wandered beside the lake. The sunset spectacle never really eventuated, but the light and tranquillity reminded of why this lucky little city is still one of the best places to be right now.
In fact, it’s even proving popular to those who live outside its boundaries. Among the entrails of dubious information and petulance located on Twitter I came across an article about how a trip to Canberra was generating excitement for those so confined in their oppressive Sydney bubble. Haw-bloody-haw. What do you think this is, Goulburn or something? Just don’t take all our cakes when you come here. And call in on a few towns and villages along the way.
Humans, like the weather, are nothing if not contrary. Can it really be the same species that were so recently sharing in collective despair with heartfelt empathy, ceaselessly giving anything from money to clothes to fence posts to time to hope, who now go about pulling each other’s hair out for another six pack of three ply?
It may well be, much like the weather, that in the Venn diagram of the good and bad, the heart-warming and the head-banging, there is only a little intersection between the two. Or perhaps we are all a little conflicted. Like a leaden cloud threatening to burst or simply waiting to be dispelled by the sun. Depending which way the wind blows. A phenomenon that might also explain the contents of certain supermarket trolleys.
What seems incontrovertible is that 2020 continues to produce a hell of a lot of crap, evidently more so in those double garages stocked with 2,000 rolls of toilet paper. And while the bare aisles of toilet tissue land make me feel bemused, I quietly sneak an extra jar of pasta sauce into my basket.
There could be fewer worthy places to stockpile a years’ worth of bog roll than on the South Coast of NSW. A beautiful corner of the world both pallid and sick and overflowing with life and love. A place whose interior is savaged but whose heart and soul are still beating. A place that could use a little helping (washed) hand to thrive once again. Mother nature has applied some balm through its cloud and rain and now we – the good we – can try to offer a little gentle sunshine.
The landscape of the South Coast region right now is simply astonishing in so many ways. The crest of Clyde Mountain confronts with brutal savagery, an unending parade of blackened trees and blackened earth yielding views down to the coast that were not previously available. Yet the vibrant tree ferns and epicormic shoots sprouting from trunks seem to defy death. On the fringes of Mogo, that all too familiar sight of summer – of twisted metal and crumpled fireplace – sits within a vivid, bounteous green. The village too a bustle of people purchasing pendants, peculiarities and pies.
The beaches of the region are as good as ever, which is to say, pretty damn perfect. At Broulee, a small patch of charred dune prompts memories of a video from the beach on New Year’s Eve, a small spot fire exploding and causing understandable angst amongst those who had fled to the water’s edge. Today, the sands are peppered with people bathing, fun and laughter filling the air. Much of the lush coastal fringe of spotted gums and fern trees along the road to Moruya seems unscarred.
From Tuross Head you can see the ranges of Deua National Park to the west. No doubt a regular sight of alarm at night, illuminated by flame that flickered and flared to its own shape and will. Constantly on edge, unknowing as to where and how far it would come, the fires never did reach Tuross, at least in physical form.
This is home for a few nights and what a fine home: close to the rugged beaches and barely open shops, in proximity to numerous opportunities to spend money and eat food and lose golf balls. A home coming with the bonus of a billiard table for evening entertainment; my knowledge on the placement of snooker balls stemming from lyrics recalled of Snooker Loopy featuring Chas and Dave. Pot the red and screw back, for the yellow green brown blue pink and black… Yeah, in your dreams.
It would be fair to say that despite limitations I was a far better snooker and pool player than golfer on this trip. Which says more about my golfing doom than my snooker prowess. Still, it was good to make a hefty contribution to the community of Narooma by zig-zagging around its golf course. A perfectly sliced and skied lay up on its famous third hole almost yielded a par, and I managed a par four somewhere else in between much larger figures. The added challenge of a series of greens being perforated, sanded and watered provided further good excuses for inadequacy.
With Narooma receiving an economic injection, the next place on the spending list was Bodalla, specifically its dairy and cheese factory. In times like these you’ve got to do your utmost to support these local businesses and so it was with considerable reluctance that I forced down a toastie oozing with cheese followed up with an ice cream. You do what you can do.
The following day endured cool and grey, reminiscent of typical coastal awaydays of the past. This might have previously induced disappointment and grumbling and a roll of the eyes with a sigh. But it seems crass to complain this year. This weather is perfect. And there is still plenty of consumption of local community produce to be savoured.
I don’t know if supporting the South Coast economy has ever been so tasty. The one exception was – alas – fish and chips, a result of many of the better venues being closed on a Monday in March. But there was the Mexican brunch bowl at Mossy Point, the caramel fudge and coffee in Moruya and – probably the piece de resistance of feeling worthy and eating well – home-cooked wholesomeness and other takeaway from the farmers markets also in Moruya.
The markets were small but popular, a place very much for locals to gather and update one another on the latest news and gossip. They were also attuned to market protocols, forming orderly queues with wicker baskets as they awaited the 3pm opening bell. Twenty minutes later and most of the fresh stuff had sold out, but we managed to retrieve a medley of locally grown seasonal vegetables, some swordfish, crusty bread and a dairy product or two for me to bring home to go on a scone or three.
I can’t say our market-supplied barbecue that night was a traditional Aussie bloke-themed methane-heavy slimy snag and slab of steak celebration. But it felt good and tasted even better. Refined even. Setting up another classy evening of exemplary three-way snooker (Tuross Rules).
Which was again better than the golf that day. Looking for something to do we came across a whole nine holes to ourselves. It quickly became clear why, the course pretty basic and unkempt in places, plagued by an infestation of mosquitoes. These had apparently emerged post fire and rain, proof that not all of nature’s recovery is especially welcome. At the course boundary, fire had penetrated the forest and the relatively low fee to have a course and a million mozzies to ourselves didn’t seem such an injustice after all.
You see, it’s quite a divergent experience down on the South Coast. Like chalk and cheese. Sunshine and rain. Go Fund Me and bog-roll violence. So much of it looks and feels as good as ever. Life seems normal. Better even given the incredible swathe of green pasture now smothering the fields. And then your mind comes back to that saying I heard before: the great green cover up.
And you drive, under bucketloads of rain, through Mogo once more with its scattering of crumpled buildings. Towards and into the edges of Batemans Bay, where the forest has scorched down to its very edge and looks like it is struggling to recover. You get a sense of where the fire was most ferocious; green shoots are harder to come by. One side of the road up Clyde Mountain looks normal, the other decimated.
You enter Braidwood to support that economy, knowing that it would be near impossible to convince an overseas visitor that this was in the grip of drought, primed to borrow water from Canberra while being shrouded in smoke for months on end. You shelter with hot coffee and sense BlazeAid nomads taking a well-earned day off. You espy a generous supply of toilet paper in the café bathroom; and briefly a wicked thought enters your mind. But the sunshine wins out, the goodness, the heart. Much like it is doing, much like it will do again, down on the South Coast.
I was hoping this really would be the final instalment of a bushfire trilogy. I had written an intro all about the process of relief and recovery, the goodness that sprouts forth as communities pull together, the hope again blossoming like sprigs of green emerging on a forest floor. And lo and behold I drove back home and observed a large plume of smoke rising over the mountains southwest of Canberra. An endless summer marching on. Ten thousand hectares and counting; like Star Wars, there may be more to come.
But recovery is taking place and I think it’s useful to focus on this. Huge amounts of money have been donated, food and clothes given away, houses opened up to strangers. We take our empty eskies down to the coast, we have benefit concerts and tennis rallies, we construct boxes for wildlife to nest in. We pull together, many as one. The best of us on display.
It was inspiring to come across such compassion this past week as I sought out something I could do, anything. This found me on the road to Gundagai and beyond, heading to a BlazeAid camp in Adelong. BlazeAid is a volunteer-led organisation which works with farmers and their families in areas impacted by natural disaster, helping them to repair their property with a focus on damaged fencing. I have never done anything like it. But I definitely will again.
The road from Gundagai was all golden Australian summer, rolling countryside featuring large paddocks baked by the sun. Recent rainfall and violent storms seemingly doing little to break the drought. While parched, there was little sign of the destruction and devastation of fire as I made my way towards Tumut. The blackness was somewhere beyond.
I arrived at the BlazeAid camp in Adelong, which was based at the local showground. More on this later but suffice to say it was all somewhat larger than I had expected. After signing away my life and setting up my tent, dinner was provided and an update on the day’s activities was made. Dessert was had. And with an early start beckoning, people dissolved into their caravans, tents and swags hopefully to sleep. Something which evaded me for a long while, reinforcing the latter day struggle that camping is proving to be.
With a kookaburra alarm clock, a large cooked breakfast and a healthy dose of organised chaos, I was off with a small group of others to a farm somewhere in the hills around Batlow. Batlow is in the midst of a massive swathe of scorched land and the town was isolated at the peak of the firestorm. Several outlying properties are now crumpled, tortured heaps of metal and brick, the shells of cars parked outside. The petrol station in town is a ruin.
Heading up the nearby Gilmore Valley the scene was at first all rather idyllic – good farming country that would not have looked out of place in northern England. And then the first bare and blackened hillside appears on the horizon, like the shadow cast by a massive thundercloud. And before long it is all around.
Climbing up and up a muddy road we reach the home of Paul and Andrea which is – mercifully – fully intact. You can see how close they were to devastation, the garden shrubs singed and charred like overzealously grilled broccoli. We are introduced to Smiley, a farmhand who has that high country man from Snowy River look about him. The hut he was living in didn’t fare so well, wrecked and ruined and taking most of his possessions with it. His ute survived along with a few salvaged remains.
We drive across a few bare paddocks and into the forest. Trees stand like charcoal sticks, branches down but eventually likely to prosper again. The forest floor is another matter: a bare wasteland of ash, like the remnants of a barbecue the day after the night before, spreading out in every direction. The compensation that it has cleared the weeds seemingly a small offset in the greater loss of habitat. And the loss of product – the farm up here produces pure eucalyptus oil, which will take several years to become productive again.
Among this alien landscape there were – of course – long lines of fencing. Some standing, but most bent and broken and needing repair. I was reminded of why we had come up here. The task was to clear the fencing so that new stuff could be eventually put down in its place. This involved a lot of snipping of wires with cutters of varying quality and the pulling out of fence poles with a fence post pulling contraption. I quite liked the post pulling – more so than the snipping – even though some of the sixty-five year old poles were stubborn to yield.
Focusing on the task at hand, the surrealness of the environment fades away, until you occasionally pause and look up again and take stock. Among the ash, small piles of fence post and a carpet of wire lay ready to be gathered in machines by Smiley and Paul. Our team of four alternate tasks, to relieve various aching muscles and torment others yet to be abused. I’m the youngest and glad of the experience of more practical, hands-on kind of folk who offer good advice and warm conversation. Smiley throws in the odd tip, alongside a healthy dose of banter. He suggests I work for Scomo and this is a bait it’s hard not to take.
There is immense satisfaction at seeing the visible fruits of your labour. We work our way down alongside the perimeter track in increasingly precipitous terrain. The sun is heating up and I’m glad when our team leader decides to call it a day. Sweaty, coated in grey ash, there is a perverse pleasure in acquiring the symbols of a hard day’s toil. You don’t get this writing reports.
The next day offered more of the same but better. Better because we had a better idea of what we were doing. Better because it was cooler and more overcast. Better because we had a better pair of snippers. And, above all, better because we got to interact more with Paul, Andrea and Smiley.
Partly this was a consequence of the weather, as gusty winds mid-morning prompted a decision to leave the forested area for fear of collapsing trees and branches weakened by the fire. A small stretch of open fencing beside a dam provided a little workout but, when that was done, morning tea was declared. I like morning tea.
It was over an elongated morning tea that we got to find out a bit more about life on the farm, the people living on this land and their recent experiences as these lives came under threat. Andrea guided us around the garden, pointing out what it was like before flame lapped at the borders. Smiley pointed us towards various contraptions that went into extracting the eucalyptus oil, included a century old steam engine acting as the driving force. And we learned about Paul’s craftsmanship creating gnarly old walking sticks simply with a sheet of sandpaper and a glass of Port.
They are nothing if not creative, resourceful people, sensitive of the land that they live in. You feel – you hope – this will stand them in good stead moving beyond the fires. You know that this is what probably saved their lives.
Inevitably the conversation moves towards January 4th and the days before and after. There was a sense of inevitability about the fire coming and Paul highlights that the waiting was one of the worst things about it. Days of anxiety and alarm that came from forewarning and a frank admission from the fire service that, if they were to stay, they would be on their own. During this time, busying themselves with preparations: clearing the land of debris, felling overhanging branches, watering down around the house and sheds. Getting the car packed with essentials should they need to flee. Watching. Waiting. For what seems like an eternity.
Eventually it appears on the western horizon. They talk – and it feels an almost cathartic exchange – of defending their home as the fire lapped at its doors from three sides. Erratic, violent wind changes pushing the front from the west, the north and the south. The noise terrifying. Raining embers igniting bushes and trees around them. Sprinklers on the roof previously used to clear snow now somehow sputter enough to dampen sparks. The power goes out but – mercifully – the generator kicks in and the water pumps persist.
It is the longest, darkest day, one they freely admit they would never face down again. Barely was there time for a breather, though Smiley managed to take five and puff on a rollie. Paul captured this image on his phone and chuckles: if ever there was a sign of an addict that was it. Chuffing away as smoke surrounded.
He probably deserved a ciggie, his hut lost along with many of his possessions, his ute still bearing a few scorch marks from the moment he fled. On the back were some salvaged items, including a charred tin of loose change, the coins inside faded and melded to grey. Hopefully still legal tender – there is a fair amount in there, though the dollars no longer shine gold.
Smiley fondly recalls his home in a hollow among, but not right next to, the trees. It was always ten degrees cooler, he says, natural air conditioning and breeze. Snug in winter. A place of peace and solitude. He’s now in a caravan which they managed to pick up at a bargain price – for this he feels lucky. Lucky! But he hankers for a hut again and intends to rebuild in another nearby pocket of paradise.
If that isn’t inspiration enough to get back out to finish our job, I don’t know what is. The gusty change of the morning has subsided and we venture back into the forest, working methodically uphill towards the boundary of the property with the forestry road. Someone spots a red belly, thankfully not me. The fence is horizontal here, and the pole puller contraption largely redundant until they can be bent upright.
As we approach our last stretch of fence to clear, rumbles of thunder echo through the forest from the west. Large spots of rain begin to plop into the ash and earth and upon our hats and gloves and hi-vis vests. The last post is pulled and we march back to the vehicles as the heavens open. It is but a shower, but a heavy shower and every little helps.
Before departing Paul invites us back to the house, offering a cold beer and a gift pack of eucalyptus products. Andrea and Smiley join us, as do the two dogs, keen for a spot of attention from strangers. Or those who were once strangers, but who now chat away like old friends. Mates helping mates.
Of course, it is now abundantly clear that BlazeAid is about more than just fencing. It’s about connection and conversation, and a manifestation of community looking out for one another, through good times and bad. It’s not really charity, nor is it solely a case of do-gooders looking to do good and boast about it on social media. Everyone gets something out of it: practical, tangible skills, connection and interaction with different people, sore backs and filthy clothes, and the opportunity to enter some of the most beautiful lands within Australia, as savaged as they are.
It seems a bit strange to say in the context in which it takes place, but there is a feelgood factor around the experience. The atmosphere at camp is both soberly reflective and celebratory. Teary eyes are never far away. Inspiration is on tap. People from all walks of life, across the ages, from all over Australia and beyond, come together over dinner, swap tales from the day, share the stories of farmers and their families, reel off the length of fence cleared or erected.
Dinner itself is an achievement, a carb-filled wonderland engineered by an angelic mix of locals and visitors giving their time to tray bake and slow cook and whip cream and take receipt of an endless donation of cakes from CWAs and Rotaries and Mums. If I stay any longer, I’ll get fat. They keep offering me biscuits and caramel slices and passionfruit tarts. Manual labour can only burn off so many calories.
I do stay one more day. One more cooked breakfast, one more hearty dinner, one more day of snipping and pulling and – this time – rolling up wire and starting to put brand new fence poles into the ground on a different property. The temptation to stay another day kicks in too, especially as the farmer promises to cook up a BBQ lunch the next day, the centrepiece being his 11 month aged beef nurtured on this land.
But my body, and my lack of sleep, tells me no. I struggle to clean my teeth, the grip and motion jarring on my hands and my shoulders and my chest. Writing is also pained, as I finally sign out and walk out to my car to begin the journey home.
As I do so, new arrivals are emerging for the long Australia Day weekend. A minibus of Afghan refugees from Shepparton set up their tents. A couple from Queensland offload supplies from their caravan. Teenagers from Wagga help to sort out donations. German backpackers encourage an international kickabout on the oval.
BlazeAid veterans wonder at it all. Unprecedented events resulting in unprecedented kindness. Not from superheroes, but from everyday people. Recovery belonging to us all, the community, now and in the months and years ahead.
Please check out www.blazeaid.com.au for all the details and camps currently in operation across several states. They will be running for many months.
Anyone can do it. Like me you don’t need to have any particular skills. Just a keenness to get involved and learn. Some people are great snippers, others are wonderful sausage sizzlers. All are needed and all are valued. It’s worth it just for the bounteous dinners and home baked cakes! It’s rewarding and enriching and it will be the best thing you have done in a long time, I promise.
What started as an unfortunate spectacle – that we thought would probably go away as soon as it came upon us – has settled in Canberra for the summer. There is little anyone can do to not talk about the pervasive smoke that hovers above Christmas prawns and glazed hams. Occasionally it lifts a little, dispelled by a hot northwesterly which only serves to deliver arid desert air from the only direction in which major fires are not burning. Yet. It feels only a matter of time before we are encircled.
This is not a happy Christmas really. The weather outside is indeed frightful. People are growing downbeat and sullen; infuriated and furious. We gather and share and eat fine food and go and watch the Star Wars movie in beautiful air conditioning, and these are necessary distractions. But even in the midst of a lightsabre battle, a smoky essence infiltrates the movie theatre. The ultimate 4D experience. Just give us the Lord Vader breathing masks please.
Making plans is hard to do – what road is closed, which national park on fire, which stretch of tarmac melting? Christmas gatherings cancelled; long circuitous journeys made. Holiday towns on the coast dying under a barrage of emergency warnings and absent visitors.
Even doing simple things like laundry takes strategic planning. Today I got it wrong, and now it is being washed again, content that the hot, dangerous northwesterly has now well and truly kicked in to sizzle it sans woodsmoke flavouring.
Escape is an appealing option, as long as there are still options. Three days before Christmas I looked at flights to the UK. I looked at flights to New Zealand. I looked at flights to Tasmania (where even today it is nudging forty degrees). Cost was extortionate, but then it might reach a point where even that is a burden worth bearing.
Dissuaded for the time being, I tried to make pastry in forty degree heat. I went for walks in the mall. Just because. In between I monitored the weather forecasts and wind directions and air quality readings and areas of land not on fire. I looked at campgrounds that might not be full and which might be safe. And I finally glimpsed a small window of opportunity to escape, to clear the air…
Boxing Day and the atmosphere at the MCG was bubbling up nicely, accompanying me on the radio as I drove south towards Cooma. With the Kings Highway to the coast closed this is proving a major alternative route. As a consequence, the main sights of Cooma – McDonalds and KFC – were overflowing. Around the corner, ALDI was quieter, and I picked up an obligatory half price Christmas pudding. Probably for winter if such a thing still exists.
Between Cooma and Bombala the drive is spectacularly bleak as it traverses the Monaro Plains. It is for all intents and purposes, desert at the moment. Not exactly pretty to look at, but with the smoke haze thinning a touch, at least it was something to look at.
And then, through Bombala and into South East Forests National Park, there was something resembling freshness. Blue sky. Green. Giant trees untainted by fire. A campground almost deserted, the camp guardian a spirited Kookaburra feeding its young. A sense of wonder and relief that this is all still actually possible. Breathe.
It remained quite hot to be sure, and on a walk around nearby Myanba Gorge there were plenty of flies as usual just to remind you that summer in Australia is actually a bit shit. The riverbed shaping the gorge was bone dry and surely it was only a matter of time before I would turn a corner and step on a deadly snake or something. But no, a dog and its two owners were the only things to greet me, in between the flies in my eyes.
What I did find turning that final corner was a sight the likes of which I have seen a thousand times before in Australia, but which appears all the more precious today. A deep valley of eucalyptus sweeping down towards the coast. The cries of a couple of black cockatoos surveying their terrain. And a clear blue sky – perhaps more pastel than is normal – but true blue nonetheless.
The night passed with another rarity – feeling cold. Even a few days later it seems surreal to think I was shivering a little until I finally succumbed to using a sleeping bag in the correct manner.
The freshness of morning was greeted by a 5am cacophony of hundreds of birds, which was a marked improvement on the 2am hoonage taking place on some of the nearby forest roads. Sleep was a luxury and I was reminded how the concept of camping may be more appealing than the reality. But then it was on the journey to the long drop that I felt at one with the world, enamoured by its natural grace and beauty, a feeling you never get in a Best Western.
With the promise of another smoky scorcher back in Canberra I was in no hurry to rush back. I carried on south, across the border into Victoria on what was a beautiful drive towards Cann River. This is a corner of the land boasting tremendous old growth forests cloaking rugged, untrammelled peaks. Driving along sweeping curves under a dappled canopy, it’s all shafts of sunlight falling upon giant ferns. Keep eyes on road.
This region – East Gippsland – is sparsely populated and only has a few access points to the coast, through the gorgeously pristine Croajingalong National Park. Camping in the park is popular over Christmas and I had no chance. But at Cann River itself, a free campground was available in which to set up at ten in the morning. And it came alongside a short walk through woodland that in places reminded me of somewhere in England, such were the treasured patches of greenery.
With plenty of time up my sleeve and following a bit of a mid-morning doze under a tree, I explored the coastal area down around Cape Conran and Marlo. Both were fairly busy, with Cape Conran again bursting with campers who had – at that time – won the holiday lottery. It was so good to be beside the seaside, especially as a cool southeasterly was emanating off the water to offer joyous relief. This was probably the freshest air I had experienced in weeks, if not months.
Marlo is famous as the place where the Snowy River meets the sea. It’s probably the main thing it has going for it, but they certainly do well with what they have. Several lookouts and a sensibly plotted estuary trail allow you to follow the waters as they congregate into a series of shallows and lagoons before inching out into the ocean. It’s definitely worth a nosey, followed by possibly one other thing Marlo has going for it: ice cream. Thank you very much.
Memories of ice cream lingered as I drove inland slightly towards Orbost, where several dairies were testament to what is generally a verdant, rain-blessed corner of Australia (the cream and yogurt from Gippsland Dairy is to be recommended!). But even here it looks dry, a burnished beige more than a pea green. In the distance, beyond Orbost, inevitably, the bushfires burn uncontained and out of control.
I remember Orbost quite fondly from the only other time I was here in 2013, mainly because I found a bakery that served something akin to a Paris-Brest. It’s not really what you expect but my memory of this raised expectations beyond what I should have expected. I was looking to pick up some supplies for dinner, which I managed but not to the standard I had expected. The result was a very Christmas meze of leftover ham, sausage rolls, cheese and a couple of salads. How I craved a hot meal! Oh well, there is always tomorrow.
Tomorrow was the time to pack up and head back to Canberra, partly because I wanted to sleep in my own bed but also because the heat was due to spread its ferocious finger down into Gippsland. As if on cue, there was a hint of smoke in the air on an early stop to amble along a rainforest walk with a coffee and mince pie in hand. And then, crossing the border again towards Eden, visibility was once more replaced by viscosity.
This had thrown my good intentions to do a decent walk in Ben Boyd National Park as a means of justifying fish and chips for lunch. But, heck, it’s Christmas, what else am I supposed to do? And I was very good and didn’t have chips. Just three of the best potato scallops instead, oops.
The other plan I had was to hopefully laze and have a nap alongside the Pambula River before the three hour drive home. Fortunately, given the long wait for lunch as I battled a billion bogans, a stiff sea breeze had kicked in and the smoke was clearing pretty quickly. On the downside, thunderstorms were brewing slightly to the north. The relaxation necessary to nap wasn’t really possible, and my decision to quit the beach at just about the right time was sound. Not before getting a little wet.
Rain! It all felt a bit peculiar. A strange sensation to be fleeing and sheltering from something that is so essential, so welcome, so life-giving. Yet such are the nature of storms that they proved random and fleeting. And any lightning falling on the tinder dry is far from welcome. The window was definitely closing.
Back home the next day, I became alerted that the authorities were urging around 30,000 holidaymakers and residents to evacuate an area of East Gippsland half the size of Belgium. As I write this, 12 Emergency fire warnings are in place in the region, including the stretch of coast between Cann River and Mallacoota, and a swathe of land taking in Orbost, Cape Conran and Marlo. Highways are closed. Inland from Pambula, not a million miles from the South East Forests, another emergency warning has appeared. Multiple fires are springing up in the wilderness between Cooma and the coast. Another window doesn’t merely close but shatters.
And for all that we try to do our best, to care and share, to catch a breather, this is not a very merry Christmas at all. It is a catastrophe.
It’s been a while since I’ve driven so far on consecutive days. The passage of years dulls the memory of cruising on straight, flat roads under an endless sky; pausing at a bakery in a one street kind of town, finding a ramshackle table beside a drying creek to stop and sample the local flavours. Seeking shade from the sun and solace from the flies. Always the flies. Now I remember the flies and that quirky shimmy to dispense of their attachment and manoeuvre into the car without them. A memory regained and repeated again.
I was heading west towards Griffith, the first stage of an elongated loop involving a couple of stops for work. Beyond Wagga it becomes much clearer that Wagga is a veritable hub of civilisation, with a handy Officeworks and everything. Another hundred clicks on and the town of Narrandera welcomes like an oasis, perched upon the muddy brown of the Murrumbidgee and boasting one of those high streets of slightly faded charm.
There is a colony of koalas here, and I was pleased to come across one in the first hundred metres of my walk. It was around midday and hot, exactly the kind of conditions in which you should not be out walking. But with this early sighting, the pressure was off – no more relentlessly craning one’s neck upward in the usually forlorn hope of spotting a bulbous lump that isn’t a growth protruding from a eucalypt. I could instead loop back to the car concentrating more on keeping the flies from going up my nose. Yes, they are absolutely back.
Through Leeton – one work site – I pushed on to stay overnight in Griffith. Griffith is famed for a few things – lots of wine production (apparently, 1 in every 4 glasses consumed in Australia), Italian mafia, flies I would think, and citrus. Quite stupendously I had arrived at the time of year when the town parades an array of citrus sculptures, mostly located in the median strip of the busiest road going through town. I suppose it’s convenient to look at if you’re just passing through, but I can’t fathom why anyone would not get out of the car to take a closer look.
They say citrus but I don’t recall a single lemon, lime or grapefruit. Apart from the vines, most of the trees you pass are dotted with oranges, all fed by the ditches and canals of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area. It would be hard work out on those fields, under piercingly hot sun among the flies. Giant brimmed hats with nets (rather than corks) are a must.
For a touch of diversity in what is a fairly mundane landscape, I took an early evening drive out of town towards Cocoparra National Park. Getting out of town is the first adventure, given that Griffith was designed by our old friend Walter Burley Griffin. You can see the giveaway circles and roundabouts on a map, but I can’t say there was a particularly strong Canberra sensibility about the place. Leigh Creek in South Australia provides a more authentic – and surreal – replication.
Within the national park, the Jacks Creek trail promised much – traversing a dry, rocky gorge before climbing out to vistas of the surrounding landscape. Indeed, it would have been quite idyllic bathed in the end of day light, an Australiana glowing golden brown and rusty red. The kind of earthy environment that to me has been a highlight of past trips out back.
Yet not since Arkaroola have I found myself in such a landscape outnumbered ten thousand to one by flies. I feel like I keep repeating myself, but they truly were unbearable. Pausing to reflect and soak it in was impossible. Stopping to set up photos proved an ordeal, exacerbated by the movement of my camera shaking off another cloud of useless parasitic twatheads seeking water from whatever orifice they could find.
After coming such a long way, flies had wrecked the experience. It’s akin to a rare sunny day in England, battling through Sunday drivers to discover a lovely beer garden, nabbing a prime table overlooking a patchwork quilt of fields, tucking into a hearty lunch with ale. And then the wasps appear and come down to doom us all.
Thankfully the number of flies per square metre dissipated a touch as I turned east, eventually to reach Sydney. Along the way the landscape softened too, more rolling and pastoral with a surprising touch of green in places. Along the way, fine country towns such as Cootamundra, Young and Cowra, famed for Bradman, cherries and prisoners of war. All words that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Shane Warne tweet.
As the sun leaned low against the western sky, I paused for the night in the town of Blaney, where it cooled down sufficiently to deaden the activity of insects. Wandering around the streets early the next morning, there was a touch of the genteel in the gardens and verandas of the old brick homes, verdant patches of life fed by the creek on the eastern side of town. Of course, being Australia things do not remain sedate for too long; two magpies decided to have a go at my head while a family of geese with newborns made sure I didn’t pry too much. An old guy wheeling out a bin stared and muttered – perhaps both in contempt at my alien presence and in recognition of a deeper affinity.
Walking back to my motel I noticed one of those brown tourist signs with a small fort-like shape pointing to Millthorpe. It wasn’t far and while I was pretty sure there would be no small fort-like building there, it had to be indicative of something. Perhaps a smaller, more endearing version of Blaney, with a quiet high street lined with buildings from yesteryear. A village brimming in spring blooms and fragrance, boasting not merely a café but a “providore”. Wine rooms and antique curios…we are nearing Orange after all.
Millthorpe offered a tangible culmination of my growing appreciation of the grace of small town Australia. The small town Australia that isn’t too threatening or distant, somewhat gentrified by being in range of Sydney weekenders, bringing good local food and drink to the table. You can imagine renting a cottage here and treading its creaky boards, sheltering in its shady alcoves, napping as the afternoon light creeps through the blinds, casting shadows of wisteria onto the soft pastel walls. There’s probably not that much to do, but that’s all part of the attraction, offering time that can simply be sated with coffees and brunches and platters of meat and cheese and wine.
Still, should you wish to rise from this indulgent slumber, another hour or so east will bring you to the western fringe of the Blue Mountains. Suddenly things change, and not just the petrol price rising thirty cents a litre in as many kilometres. The day trippers are out in force, the coaches idling at every single possible lookout, of which there are many. The escarpment top towns of Blackheath and Katoomba and Leura are brimming with people shuffling between café and bakery, spilling down like ants to the overlooks nearby. Below the ridge, however, and the wilderness wins. Only penetrable at its fringe, placid beneath a canopy of ferns and eucalyptus.
I walked down a little near Katoomba Falls, thankful to be below the tumult of the populous plateau. The falls were barely running, but the views up the valley towards the Three Sisters were inescapable. Overhead, a cableway gave visitors the easy option to take this all in through the glass and air conditioning.
The Blue Mountains have some momentous lookouts but are best appreciated on a bushwalk away from the crowds. However, my time here was limited and some ideas that formed for longer hikes will have to wait for another day. A lunch stop at Sublime Point will be the last I take in for now, that distant view of millions of trees to be replaced by millions of people navigating the congested thoroughfares of Sydney.
The city awaits, the space disappears, the understated charm of the country fades away. The buzz of people rushing here, there and everywhere gathers, pressing in like a thousand flies in the face, and ears, and mouth and nose. Taking your car park and your seat on the train, getting the best spot on the beach, the last table at the cafe. Persistent and relentless these ones cannot to be swished away or disposed of by a disjointed shimmy into a car. The flies are unavoidable, everywhere.
I think a general principle of Australian exploration is the further north you go, the quirkier things get. For quirkier you could substitute odder, weirder, crazier, madder than a dozen cuts snakes lurking in the stinging trees waiting for a cassowary. It may be a result of the liberty that comes with increasing distance from the tyranny of inner city elites developing their secret mind-controlling pharmaceuticals to add to our underground water reserves. Or it could just be the balmy weather and barmy environment. Where pretty much everything wants to eat you.
I wouldn’t say Townsville is the capital of Crazytown, but there are certain idiosyncrasies to observe. Perhaps most obviously in the calibre of politicians representing the region, generally observed wearing big hats and force-feeding coal to their grandchildren, insistent that it is the future, it is it is. It is very easy to imagine Friday night here Cold War Steve style, all hi-vis hypermasculinity and gutter-strewn carnage at the foot of the concrete sugar shaker. My taxi driver confirmed as much as he took me to the airport, to pick up a hire car.
I had never been on the strip of land between Townsville and Cairns, and with a few days tagged on to a work trip I was heading up the coast towards Mission Beach. It’s an interesting enough drive with a decent selection of diversions along the way. It’s also a journey of transition from the golden dry tropics to the verdant abundance of the wet.
A little north of Townsville up the Strewth Highway, the blend of dry grassland and tropical rainforest manifests in Paluma Range National Park, with each climbing, narrow turn up the mountain road darkening as undergrowth thickens. Little Crystal Creek is on the cusp of a landscape in change, and a pretty place to pause. Higher up around Paluma, rainforest walks promise at views and deliver in sweatiness, though it’s still a long way from being as bad as it gets in high summer.
It seems a bit ridiculous to talk of a summer in a place that is almost consistently between 26 and 30 degrees year round. Seasons are more marked by a change in humidity, from clear, arid winter days to muggy, stormy summer oppression. You can also throw in the odd cyclone, with the last big, big one – Yasi – hitting the coast around Mission Beach in 2011.
Continuing north up the highway approaching Cardwell, it is hard to picture today. But an enduring image from that storm is the pile of fancy yachts stacked upon one another at Hinchinbrook Marina. Three-quarters of buildings in Cardwell were damaged and the banana crop so tied to this part of the world was devastated. The rugged, pristine environment of Hinchinbrook Island tantalises today. But you wouldn’t have wanted to camp there back then.
Cardwell seems a quiet kind of place, a pit top where the Bruce Highway finally meets the sea. Post-Yasi, a medium sized big crab has been resurrected on the top of a café. As you do. It’s competition along the highway with the Frosty Mango where I have already stopped and the Big Golden Gumboot of Tully in which I am destined to head.
Finally, a turn off at Tully leads towards Mission Beach, which somewhat confusingly is a cluster of villages and bays along a stretch of coast twenty kilometres or so. We’re in a region known as the Cassowary Coast and they sure do emphasise the cassowary part of that nomenclature. Official and unofficial road signs alert you to the presence of this giant flightless bird, warnings that seem worthy given they are dwindling in numbers and most susceptible to road accidents. Some people might fear the cassowary for its strong hook-like claw, but you’ll generally find the ubiquitous Toyota Hilux is more lethal in so many ways.
Of course, being in cassowary country makes you – as they say – naturally cass-o-wary. Walking in dense rainforest at Lacey Creek it’s all a bit like encountering snakes…part of you would be thrilled to see one and to try to take a blurry picture, but part of you would be pooping your pants. Every rustle and fleeting shadow pricks the senses, only for it to be caused by an unseen gecko or another bush turkey.
Down by the sea at Bingil Bay, there is always the chance of a crocodile or a lethal jellyfish to spot instead. Though the hosts at my B&B warned me the crocs are only in the creeks, I’m not so sure about stepping too far into that ocean. I mean, the creeks enter the sea, right. What goes in must come out. And with plenty of mangroves in which to lurk, I can just picture myself sunbaking right there if I was a saltwater crocodile. So, I move briskly on, along a fine, shady boardwalk towards the hub that is North Mission Beach. Where a cold beer with a view is the better means of cooling down, I reckon.
Refreshed and now feeling in holiday mood, there was definitely justification in an afternoon siesta, before working up a sweat again climbing Bicton Hill in Clump Mountain National Park. If cassowaries and crocs weren’t enough, the start of this trail warned of stinging trees, which boast attractive heart shaped leaves and plump purple fruit. The cunning bastards.
The sign at the bottom of the track also warns that this isn’t a walk for everyone, indicating heart-attack potential. But it’s not that bad, just a leafier, slightly deadlier version of Mount Ainslie with views out toward a far-less manicured landscape.
With all this adventure and threat, one of the nice, homely touches of my B&B was the opportunity for drinks on the veranda at six o’clock. With only a few rooms it was cosy and relaxing, a chance to share the escapades of the day with those from further afield. Of course, being a naturalised Australian I was quickly assigned an authority on matters such as swooping birds, the diet of the cassowary, drought and bushfires, the hiding places of redback spiders, the pros and cons of Townsville, and…well…Brexit. I do suppose the Netherlands and Switzerland – especially Switzerland – seem very genteel by comparison.
At the B&B I was also frequently lobbied to try out the Kennedy Walking Track commencing at South Mission Beach. And so, on Sunday morning I decided to give it a go before the drive back to Townsville. And what a great recommendation to take up before eventually returning to the landlocked eucalypt land of four seasons back south. Yay for palm trees and golden sands, mangroves and croccy creeks, and that milky aquamarine sea. Another world in the same country.
I have to say I do think the beaches of the south coast of New South Wales are in many ways better. They are typically finer and sandier and, well, you can generally paddle without as great a fear of being lunch and / or lacerated to death. But then there is just that air to the tropics, a mood and a light and colours so vivid. And palm trees and ferns and – up here – rainforest tumbling down to the sea. Like I say, another world in the same country.
Talking of other worlds, I eventually made it back to Townsville via the largest potato scallops and smallest bites of fish in Ingham. A little early for my flight back, I remembered spotting a huge TV tower on top of a peak just to the west of town when I came to land at the same airport, and duly discovered there was a road to the top. From the summit of Mount Stuart, this possible Crazytown doesn’t seem too mad, distant as I am from its Sunday hangover.
Perhaps madder is the scene inland, where the maddest of mad dogs can flourish. A scene dry and dusty and rugged and foreboding. A world devoid of much, exposed to a harsh, searing heat and unforgiving glare; perhaps you can see why many are happy enough to dig it up. The maddest thing though is that this world can suck you in, can draw you to it, can make you want to step one more foot into its fringe. It might even tempt you to buy a wide brimmed hat and some sturdy RM Williams boots. If only you didn’t have a flight to catch back to sanity.
Late Friday afternoon on the road between Braidwood and Bungendore and the wind is buffeting my car as it trundles into the sleety clouds of winter. I’m returning from the coast, where two hours before I was eating lunch on a sheltered cove saturated in warm sunshine. It’s a slightly weary drive and, for some reason, I decide to play The Lightning Seeds for probably the first time in twenty years.
After several jaunty, scousish ditties that sound identical, the sage words of Alan Hansen and Jimmy Hill emerge as the infectious, glorious, deprecating anthem that is Three Lions blares out. I cannot listen to this without bobbing my head a little, chanting, smiling like a Cheshire Cat. As much as you might try. It’s Coming Home! At least I hope so, in light of the possible blizzard up ahead.
It’s Coming Home. Euro 96. An era that now feels halcyon, days when the Donald and BJ were still complete dicks but at least not complete dicks inexplicably leading disunited states and precarious kingdoms. Back in 1996, John Major was trundling his way towards the end of years of Tory rule, a regime which now somehow seems sane and reasonable. The Spice Girls were zig-a-zag-ahing and both Mitchells were polishing their heads behind the bar of the Queen Vic. I was completing my first year of university, undistracted by a phone, immune from the ranting coalescence of conspiracy lunatics on the internet.
I don’t remember that much about my university course (who does?), but in a convoluted way which coincidentally brings us back to the present I suppose it led me to be in the South Coast NSW town of Narooma on a mild, golden evening in August 2019. I studied, I got a job, I travelled, I went back to that job, I transferred to Australia with that job and I ended up on a boardwalk meandering past calm and clear waters toward the ocean.
Did I ever imagine back in 1996 that I would be gazing out to the Pacific hoping to sight a whale? Meandering downhill alongside gardens strewn with exotic plants and colourful birds? Wandering past parks dotted with electric barbecues and sinks for dealing with the entrails of fish? Who would have thought I would have previously parred the treacherous Bogey Hole of that golf course wedged between the town and the plunging cliffs of the coastline? Certainly not me, or anyone else, which is why I bring it up again.
Even with its ageing hackers, Narooma is a pretty quiet kind of place, especially in a midweek in winter when the temperature has dipped to something around nineteen degrees. It’s tough going, having to put a light jumper on as the sun disappears behind Gulaga, pondering whether to have fish and chips for dinner or wait until tomorrow.
While I know Narooma pretty well, the first night in a strange place always seems to lead to a fitful sleep, even when you’ve opted to forego fish and chips. Waking too early the next day, the murmurings of RN Breakfast do little to inspire or send me back to doze, so I head out into the dark. I love this time of day, especially beside the ocean; facing east as the black fades to blue and grey and red and yellow, and shafts of sunlight glitter off the sea. The sun kisses the layers of morning cloud, spreading to the tops of trees, and illuminating the coffee shop on the hill. A beacon which makes the reward of an early start in Australia all the better.
With plenty of the day still ahead I took the car for a little explore south of Narooma, stopping first in the so-good-they-named-it-twice hamlet of Tilba Tilba before heading on to the relative bustle of Central Tilba. This is a corner of the county oozing genuine charm, with plenty of tin roofs and lacework awnings, flower-filled yards and rustic leftovers. By Australian standards it’s usually a green and lush place as well, which is great for local dairy products; but even here the drought looked to be taking its yellowing toll.
Given my early start it was probably pushing it to head to the bakery in Central Tilba for local produce straight away, so I took a gentle amble along the track which eventually leads to the top of Gulaga, the dominant, forest-clad peak of the area, spiritually significant to the local Yuin people. You can walk to the top, but I wasn’t really in the mood and I heard that summit views were lacking. The valley was perfectly happy enough.
Did I mention dairy products? One of my favourite topics which, back in 1996, probably didn’t come with any moral distaste from ethically sourced eco-vegan leftists typing away on their not-so-pure iPhones. I guess at a philosophical level, there is valid debate as to whether we can still have our cake and eat it? At an individual level, the answer was a resounding yes. Not only in Tilba, home to Jersey Cows and related outputs. But also in Bodalla, a pitstop on my journey into and out of Narooma and for all journeys this way in the future. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.
South of Tilba, the main highway veers off towards Bermagui, along a splendid road of eucalyptus forest and the shores of Wallaga Lake. The maps indicate a few coastal rock formations here, names suggesting a likeness to horses and camels which enticed me to explore with the hope of discovering an Australian Durdle Door or Bedruthan Step. While there was not quite the same grandeur, the coastal scenery, now bathed in warm sunshine, proved a tonic after that massive apple turnover.
It was pleasing to discover I was on part of the ‘Great South Coast Walk’ according to a few signposts. This doesn’t appear to be an official trail but may yet develop into something more formal. One of my bugbears with Australia is that it doesn’t seem to have the same right to roam philosophy as the UK. Huge tracts of land are locked up in private hands or just downright inaccessible unless you have Ray Mears on hand with a machete and / or a big gas guzzling ute. Being able to just rock up anywhere on the coast and walk has an appeal unmatched. See, for example, South West Coast Path.
It was along this walk, overlooking the expanse of Wallaga Lake, that I learnt of another resemblance in the landscape around here. Gulaga is a pregnant woman, partly explaining its significance to the Yuin people who were here well, well before 1996. Today, its fertility abounds as a cluster of whales drift down the coast, mother and calf distant white caps sporadically splashing in the rich waters.
I probably wouldn’t have spotted the whales if it wasn’t for a couple of retired locals staked out on a headland near Horse Head Rock. For me, this is usually the most successful method of spotting wildlife. If you’re driving in country Australia and a cluster of people have pulled over to look up at a tree, there’s a fair chance you’ll get to see a koala. The other way you tend to discover local wildlife is when you nearly run it over. Beware Wombats.
Spurred on by earlier whale sightings I ended the day back up near Narooma, taking a scenic coastal drive alongside Dalmeny and Kianga which boasts several panoramic viewing platforms along the way. The platforms are sited in between yet more pristine bays that you can have all to yourself. It was at the last of these points that I glanced a surfing dolphin, followed by a few more and a few more still. Passing below, there must have been around twenty dolphins, tracking north on a feeding mission. A whole two football teams.
I doubt I would have seen dolphins in 1996. Nor would I be questioning the prospect of snow in August, even counting for British weather. Today, this was a possibility heading back to Canberra thanks to a vigorous succession of cold fronts coming from the Antarctic. My solution was to linger down on the coast for as long as possible.
It was undoubtedly windy, but the skies were blue and with a little shelter you could sit comfortably in a light sweater or even T-shirt. Neither of which were really possible in the blustery settings of Cullendulla Creek and the nearby Eurobodalla Botanic Gardens, but these were attractive diversions nonetheless. At the gardens, the stronger gusts were a tad alarming and it felt only a matter of time before a branch would fall on my head. Mercifully it didn’t, and the march towards Spring carried on.
Just north of Batemans Bay – and the road junction back to Canberra – the graceful, tall spotted eucalypts of Murramarang National Park were probably less appealing to walk through today. Especially when picking a walk that follows a ridgeline facing the bay, directly exposed to the strong southwesterlies. The crashing chaos, the constant buffeting, the noise and fury do not entice a pause to look up and marvel. Impulsion instead for a brisk pace and the hope of respite on the other side. And what gentle and idyllic contrast this proves.
A bay with no-one and nothing. Nothing but calm clear waters, untouched sand and the backing of a gently whispering bush. A driftwood log, downed in some other storm and also finding its way to this paradise, is now a perfect setting for a late lunch. The breathlessness is not only in the air, the warmth not only on the outside. Perhaps even in 2019, these are still the days, this is still the life.
I love how there are so many different roads meandering through the English countryside, linking villages that you never knew existed; undistinguishable places called something like Dompywell Saddlebag or West Northclumptonbrook, typically boasting a new speed bump and a church roof appeal from the 1980s. It’s a situation converse to Australia, where a few main roads emanate from the cities and towns, off which a handful of mysterious dirt tracks disperse into nothing. Setting off from home for a country drive in Australia is exhausted in four or five trips. Whereas in England the possibilities seem infinite.
When I say roads, of course, most are only a little wider than a Nissan Micra, especially in Devon, where they are also frequently clogged with tractors. Farming is still king – I think – in the South Hams, though tourism, teashops and production of Let’s Escape To Buy An Expensive Seaside Residence With Five Bedrooms And A Private Mooring On The Estuary To Get Through Our Retirement In The Sun TV shows prosper.
When the sun does appear, there is hardly anywhere more contented; there must be some primeval appeal in the lusciousness of those voluptuous green hills and snaking river valleys, the sheen of golden sands recently cleansed by the ebb and flow of a shimmering sea.
Remembering this is England, the sun of course doesn’t always shine and in the spring-like indecision that is early May it can be a fickle environment in which to salivate. At Bigbury-on-Sea, raincoats, fleeces and hot chocolates might be required while waiting for a break in the clouds. Temptation abounds to get back in the car and turn around; but you’ve paid for that parking now and you are British, and you’ll courageously stick it out like MEPs campaigning against their very existence (Customary Brexit Reference: tick). You have to be patient staying in this particular part of the world, but the benefits in doing so are clear and tangible.
A bit further down the A-road mostly suitable for two cars to pass, the town of Salcombe boasts a rather desirable ambience, even on another cloudy and cool day. Tucked inside the Kingsbridge Estuary it has some of the most golden sand and emerald water around, lapping at elegant houses and dense woodland thickets. There is a palpable sense of envy from the smattering of visitors strolling past the homes and gardens perched with lofty views across the water. I could live here, we all bitterly seethe in our heads.
No doubt many of the loftier residents of Salcombe were in jovial mood; not only from their elevated perch surveying the ambling peasants seeking a cheap pasty, but with the news of a royal baby to join the ranks. Does it have a name yet? I can’t even remember. Have the Daily Mail criticised the parents yet? Oh probably.
One of the perks of Salcombe are the options for food and drink, many of which come with waterside tables and a brief taste of refinement. Mum and I commenced the day at North Sands and a somewhat quirky café – The Winking Prawn – serving coffee (and for future reference, buffet breakfast). We then did the amble along the water and fancy homes to the town centre, where the usual offerings of pastry products, ice creams, pub food, overpriced crab bits and line caught organic fish goujons with quadruple cooked fondant sweet potato discs were up for grabs. Probably the best looking things were a tray of Chelsea Buns in a bakery, swiftly bagged and taken home for trouncing the Arsenal.
Really, it should have been a day for a Salcombe Dairy ice cream, the delicious embodiment of the verdant landscape all around. But after a bone-chilling ferry ride to South Sands, the moment had gone. Perhaps for another day.
Plymouth to Dartmouth is not the quickest affair despite only being around 30 miles apart. One option includes the tortuous A379 through thatched villages that become irretrievably clogged in battles between buses and B&M Bargains trucks – threading a camel through the eye of a needle is a doddle by comparison. Or there is the route via Totnes, which seems a bit too zig-zaggy to appear logical. An alternative cut through just past Avonwick was a new discovery that proved highly effective on the way almost there, and highly ridiculous on the way back.
One of the joys of that cut through, in the morning at least, was finding yet another road that took me through even more unknown villages as pretty as a picture, following river valleys and archetypal ten foot hedgerows and fields of newly minted lambs. The sun was shining too, and my meteorological calculations to head east appeared to be paying off.
It was also joyous to have a functioning car, without an exhaust dangling onto the road and probably projecting sparks onto the windscreen of a doddery couple heading to the post office. This happened later, on the A3122 at Collaton Cross, about a mile after the BP garage and before Woodlands Adventure Park. Details etched into my brain to guide the saviour that was the breakdown truck towards us.
And so, the unexpected and unplanned once again yields some of the most memorable moments. Waiting in a small layby among the gorgeous fields of Devon in the warming sunshine could be worse. Being patched up and guided to Totnes for repairs by endearing locals eager to provide a helping hand (and earn some pennies) proved heart-warming. Spending a few hours in Totnes, charmed and enlightened by good coffee, markets overflowing with abundance and leafy riverside walks. And the satisfaction of rediscovering batter bits with malt vinegar (good work Mum!)
Killing time in Totnes wasn’t too much of a chore in the end, and it was partway along a path following the River Dart that we got the call that the car was fit and ready. It had been an eventful day covering a lot of ground, but I was determined to head to where I had originally planned, several hours earlier. Another slice of succulent South Devon that oozes curvaceously into the sea.
Such are the ample proportions of the landscape here that the coast path between Strete and Blackpool Sands struggles to keep to the coast. The barriers are too immense, and the trail cuts inland as it dips down towards the bay. But this too is something of a blessing, for not only do you make it without falling to an inevitable death into the sea, but you become once again immersed into a countryside apparently so utopian. Farming must still be productive here, despite the temptation to become a campsite or a tearoom or a paddock for some pampered hobby horses.
The coast path comes back to the shore via a row of thatched cottages that could have almost been deliberately placed there to charm dewy-eyed tourists like myself. The fine shingle of Blackpool Sands lends a bright and airy light even through the sunshine of the morning is rare. And down near the shingle, a café, winding down for the day has some Salcombe Dairy on tap.
After fish and chips and batter bits there is hardly need for additional gluttony. But this is a land of overindulgence, of profligate abundance, blessed with more than its ample share of what makes life good. And I still have one of those gorgeous hills to climb to get back to the car, a climb that is incessant and delightful and my own private nirvana full of ice cream and South Devon. A climb and a day entirely, wonderfully, exhausting.
Perfect timing is an almost impossible feat for golfing hacks like me. To successfully synchronise arms and legs and shoulders and heads and buttocks and toes to make contact with a little ball in such a way as to propel it hundreds of metres straight into the yonder. Or, more likely for an annual swinger like me, veer off into the never never.
Perfect timing beyond golf can be equally tricky – think roast dinners with overcooked veg, last minute flurries of activity for work deadlines following weeks of procrastination, deals for departing continents. But, of course, the reason such a concept exists is because once the timing does work out, everything is just about, well, perfect.
And so, on a Sunday afternoon following a frenetic couple of weeks, I found myself with two friends – Alex and Michael – down in Tuross Heads on the South Coast of NSW. Late afternoon sunlight illuminating yet another typical stretch of typically Australian sand, typically devoid of humans and their typical detritus. Water in late March about perfect for a paddle, and a clutch of cold beers in the bag.
This proved an aperitif for the perfectly timed stroll beside the water to the Pickled Octopus Café, where we availed ourselves of a pristine outdoor table lapping at the glassy calm of the inlet. Fish and chip orders arrived as the daylight turned to dusk, each munch of deep fried saltiness coinciding with a deepening of colours and escalation of heavenly drama. A moment when nothing else can distract and nothing else really matters. Timing again exquisite.
The dawning of the next day heralded great opportunity for timing to go awry. Featuring my annual attempt at playing golf, it was however more about the setting than frequent futile attempts to make a small ball go into a small hole. Narooma’s dramatic oceanside holes and its winding course through tall eucalypts and saline creeks set the scene.
The 3rd hole is probably the most renowned landmark, requiring a shot over the ocean to a green among the cliffs. To my utmost surprise, following a very rocky start, I launched the ball high and true, landing 10 feet to the right of the pin. The pride of making par only matched by a birdie on the 17th. A little perfect timing amongst much that was off.
Nevertheless, the views along the way offered plenty to treasure, a perfect blue sky day when it is easy to get distracted from the tee or green or your wayward shot with the panorama of ocean. Empty sweeps of sand, crumbling wave-pounded cliffs, pebbly coves peppered with plastic golf balls destined to pollute the ocean. I did my very best to save the whales (see above).
Back in Tuross Heads, it really is a little nugget of a place, especially when you visit out of holidays and weekends when it is neither ferociously scorched by bogan summers or coated in a wintry ghost town gloom. I’d say the perfect time, perfectly timed, would be around the end of March and early April. And here we were, April 2, sat out on the deck of the Boatshed, drinking a coffee and thinking how lucky the local retirees were. But we were there too, and very thankful for that; lucky to able to have this to enjoy no matter how brief.
This would be a great spot to take out a kayak, but perhaps that’s for another perfect time. The exertions of the annual golf escapade meant slightly sore shoulders and backs and a preference for something a little more leisurely. Anywhere around here there is always a beach, or an inlet, or a patch of fragrant gum forest in which to wander.
There are serious tracks that go on a long way, up to campsites and coves and more headlands and tracts of wilderness. Will it always be like this? Heaven only knows. You don’t see it changing too much anytime soon, but it will. For now, the footsteps in the sand back to the car linger for a fleeting moment, the briefest moment of time in the grand story of our world. Insignificant imprints, but for those who left them to be blown and swept away, a perfectly timed point in time.
I really don’t get this whole Ten Year Challenge malarkey. Not because it’s like some glorified chain letter vanity project or anything. No, my only bewilderment with it is what the actual heck is the actual challenge?
Surely a real challenge would be something like – oh I dunno – unpacking forty years of legislation and agreements and treaties that you have actively shaped and adopted in order to enable the cohesive and productive functioning of society without it resulting in the only certainty being the uncertainty of what exactly can fill the void which will not simultaneously provoke pandemonium and lead to a bitter aftertaste in the plummy throats of anti-elitist elites who really deep down can’t warm to little Abdullah no matter what they might say about saving their NHS which they don’t even have to use because of their private health provider in whom they have offshore investments.
Another more challenging challenge would be coming up with a sentence longer than that. Or how about getting through a particularly hot spell in a hot Australian summer?
It’s a tough gig, and the reality of four straight days in a row above 40 degrees was enough to force me fleeing to the coast, at least for a couple of those days. Thankfully when I got back there came a reprieve with temperatures dropping back down to 37 with a cool change as ineffectual as any number of Secretaries of State for Exiting the European Union. Yes, the hot air persists.
At least on the coast the temperatures dropped a good eight to ten degrees, pampered with pleasant sea breezes and clear cool waters. There was fish and chips and ice cream, paddles upon shores and across inlets, and a decent amount of lounging with a book in the sand. Yet the highlight of this escape was away from the edge of the water. Instead, upon the edge of wilderness.
Morton National Park is a gargantuan expanse of vast sandstone plateaus and dense valleys separating the coastal strip of southern NSW with the golden tablelands inland. With alluring names such as Monolith Valley and The Castle, and pockets that have probably never even seen a human face, there is a timeless, spiritual brooding conjured by its landscape.
It’s certainly tough to penetrate, with a few access points denting its edges. One of these comes around half an hour’s drive from UIlladulla, up through pockets of verdant rainforest and along a bumbling dirt road. A small car park welcomes you to the start of the Mount Bushwalker trail which is – pleasingly – all bushwalk and very little mounting.
Setting off nice and early before heat rises, the trail actually proves somewhat dull – a fire trail becoming a narrow tunnel cutting through low shrubs and over boggy watercourses. A family of black cockatoos enliven proceedings, startled by a lone bushwalker and fleeing somewhere vaguely over the horizon. There is the feeling of grandeur metres away, just around the next corner, through the bushes, palpable but never really visible. Until, that is, the very end.
The trail truly proves a means to an end. And if all endings end up ending like this then sign me up to end the end music in Eastenders. An end coming at only around half eight in the morning, just me, a vegemite sandwich (yes, truly), and millions of eucalypts spilling across to the vertiginous walls of The Castle. Australian through and through.
It was borderline whether I had really earned what was to follow, such was the relative ease of this walk. Out of the wilds, the cutesy hilltop town of Milton inevitably has a bakery, which I inevitably visited, inevitably not for the first time. There is a pleasing inevitability in the inevitability of cake and coffee.
Down the road from Milton, through the fringes of Rick Stein’s Mollymook, is the small coastal village of Narrawallee. Not only does this have a genuinely great sounding name, relaxed holiday vibes, and a good-looking coffee shop by the water, but it also hosts a delightful meandering inlet, protected from the ocean and perfect for all sorts of wading, dipping, paddle-boarding and family gatherings for cricket on a sandy tidal flat. Having passed on a shower – what with my early start and anticipation of a sweaty hike – this was refreshment at its finest.
Nearby Mollymook Beach is equally as idyllic, a fine sweep of sand reminiscent of but far superior to Bondi. It seemed to me a suitable location for an early evening read on a blanket followed by an amble along that stretch contested between land and sea. However, gathering thunderstorms also took a liking to the beach and closed in for what proved an entire night of tumultuous electrical drama.
You might hope the stormy melee would clear the air and cool things down to proffer something more reasonable. But, no, we are in an age of extremes after all. Following a sweaty goodbye ocean coffee and a cheap petrol fill up at Batemans Bay, the car had to work overtime to keep cool on the climb up Clyde Mountain. And then, returning to Canberra, the sight of Black Mountain Tower on the horizon, shimmering in a dusty haze of 38 degrees. And still rising.
A challenge means a challenge after all.
* with due deference to Adelaide.
After an indifferent run up, the Christmas and New Year period decided to go all out Aussie and deliver roasting temperatures and blistering sun. What to do in such sweltering conditions?
Try and work with pastry and bake sausage rolls for old time’s sake? Probably not the best idea.
Escape to the air-conditioned comforts of a gallery or museum? Well, nice as long as you don’t get sucked into a vortex of neo-postmodern pastiche critiquing the conflation of pre-industrial conceptualisations with fifth-dimensional realism.
Shopping in malls and supermarkets then? Cool, but not usually great for the hip pocket and the hips.
Wading into the lake feels so tempting, but what about the prospect of blue-green algae and mutated carp for company? Ah, a mate’s pool, that’s better. If it isn’t like a hot bath after endless days of solar induction and steamy mosquito-filled nights. Yes, I wanna build a snowman! Please.
Logic would dictate that the South Coast could offer relief, with its sea breezes and refreshing waves. Perhaps it’s a lack of sleep or one too many egg nogs or something, but I defy the logic and head inland instead. My brain hasn’t totally frazzled, reasoning that surely it’s perfect weather to hang out in a cave. I can think of no better refuge. I mean if cheese and wine like a good cave, then surely what’s not to like?
Besides, I seem to be drawn to experiencing Australia at its most inhospitable. I think there is an authenticity in the parched hills of summer, the shredded bark of gums littering the road, the parrots drawn to muddy creeks, the constant wail of cicadas zapping the air. The Real Australia, some marketing undergraduate or large-hatted politician might imagine. A landscape on the margins, a long way away from my Christmas past. Presented in harsh technicolour – but with aircon – when driving through.
And so, to Wombeyan Caves, a spot I visited once in steady rain. How different that was. Despite arriving at a reasonably early hour today it is already hard work hiking through the bush to waterfalls that are dry and exposed paths that simply disappear. Still, the Visitor’s Centre has a fridge full of ice-cold drinks and the refuge of Victoria Arch is mere metres away. What a spot this is, like entering a Westfield on a forty-degree day, only without the slightly depressing thought of having to find solace in a Westfield.
I think about munching on some leftover sausage rolls in here, but delay lunch for one other walk before the temperature peaks. It’s already midday and clearly above thirty. Shade is intermittent on the way down to Tinted Cave and the Limestone Gorge, where sausage rolls can be enjoyed beside a shallow pool of water popular with dragonflies and sweaty humans.
I feel pity for the extended families heading down to the gorge as I make my way back to the car. Laden with chairs and umbrellas and swimming gear, there is barely enough space to set up a picnic blanket for one. And from what I could tell, wading in the water is a trial of jagged gravel and slippery pebbles. “Is it worth it?” they ask. I offer hope and repeat what the lady in the Visitor’s Centre told me – “Go around the corner a bit and the water gets deeper.” I hope for them it does, though it may have already evaporated since this morning.
The peak of the heat hits when in the car and the aircon works overtime as I head back to Canberra via Crookwell and Gunning. A hallucinatory ice cream parlour fails to materialise in either town, and I end up with an iced coffee from McDonalds back on the fringes of Canberra. Brain freeze strikes, but I guess I wanted it cold.
The New Year approaches and passes with little respite. Only for a couple of hours around dawn do temperatures relent enough, prompting a frantic mission to open up doors and arrange blinds to coax some cooler air into my apartment at five in the morning. It feels like it’s been a losing battle by time the clock ticks round to nine. And then what? The mall, the pool, the library, the supermarket? Giving in and spending ten dollars a minute on aircon? Getting a permanent job in a cool office? It’s tempting now more than ever.
But we’ll make it through the worst. The sun will set and the temperatures will cool, just a bit. The colourful reward of light moving towards dark amplified as a breeze sets in. And a couple more turns of the Earth might finally bring a cooler change. A forecast 26 degrees on Sunday and perhaps – at last – a climate cool enough for a Christmas roast. It’s all relative.
A sure sign that I had been in the UK for a while was the notion that it was simply ludicrous to expect to explore the far west of Cornwall on a day trip from Plymouth. In Australia, such thoughts would be perfectly acceptable, indeed very much the norm. “Just popping down to the beach” shouts Clint cheerily from the Ute window, as he sets off across the dusty paddock and onward to golden sands some two hundred kilometres distant. People I know have driven from Canberra to Brisbane in a day and back again the day after. Just off for a quiet drive in the country…
It is true that British roads take longer: they are narrower and more disjointed, denoted in miles (which gives an illusion of proximity), and overpopulated by caravans and lorries. In Cornwall, add the probability of tractors on roads which simply run out of space and you can understand the frequent car parks that form in the summer holidays. Even in October it can take longer than you expect, resulting in pasties in Marazion that are a touch on the tepid side because it is so far beyond the normal hours of lunch.
Still, with a few nights in a caravan (a static one I should add) near the town of St. Just there should be opportunity to sample some fresh food. And savour the rugged edge-of-the-world landscape holding steadfast against the Atlantic. An Atlantic that readily spreads its moisture over Penwith, cloaking in cloud the highest patches of sticky-out Cornwall upon which static caravans perch.
Such was the persistence of this shroud for much of the time it was easy to believe we were the only souls for miles, or kilometres, around. Nothing else in sight, barring a scattering of empty caravans looking jaded after a busy summer season. Finer writers than me would better evoke a mystical mood of ghostly visions, pagan spirits and murderous pirates going “AAAAAARRRRRRGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH”. I just got bored with it and drove down the hill seeking out a break.
In Mousehole, the grey mood dissipated with an amble through the jaunty narrow streets, snooping into the windows of cosy cottages as they wind their way down towards the colourful, cobbled harbour. With calm seas and monotone skies, there was a strong serenity enveloping the village, no doubt amplified by the absence of throngs of tourists. Even the seagulls seemed subdued, fattened from their harvest of summertime chips.
Spirits lifted further following a rather good coffee overlooking the harbour (the use of Rodda’s milk could have been a factor). And in the time it takes to sup a rich creamy latte, the sun broke through to offer a taste of summer revisited. Just where are my shorts now?
A few miles back up the road and the static was still in the clouds. However, the morning below had now delivered hope and – with that – an intent to pop some shorts in the car “just in case”. Such fancies were still feasible over lunch in Trengwainton, a National Trust speciality providing a café within a charming garden setting. Ah, some fresh produce and – not for the first time – a cream tea for lunch. Reflecting now I think this might have been my favourite cream tea of the year. Proper lush.
The prospect of shorts hung in the balance but was soon shot down upon arrival in a murky St. Ives. Unlike Mousehole, St. Ives was typically bursting with visitors pacing in a slow, zombie-like shuffle between crafty art galleries and hearty pasty chains. This dawdling procession seemed to accentuate a sombre air, hardly conducive to lingering. So back along the north coast it was, with a few stops along the way, to the static caravan in the clouds.
The next morning heralded a sense of déjà vu that required a little longer to escape. In fact, it wasn’t until I was haphazardly navigating my way through lanes hopefully heading towards Portreath that the clouds lifted. Once again, I had discovered the sunshine. I was feeling a little smug with myself and taking pride in my sun-seeking skills but of course it was sheer luck. Lucky to be here, under these skies.
Sunlight illuminated much of the north coast heading up towards Newquay and we were right on its edge. A separation as distinct as the line between land and sea, a frontier you don’t want to get too close to at Hell’s Mouth. Here, vertiginous cliffs plummet into pristine ocean, though becalmed in the breathless air of today.
Heading back west, the lightening cloud signified something a little more promising. Driving into the caravan site Mum noticed an old abandoned tin mine which we hadn’t known had existed before then. The expanse of the hill slowly unfolded and, suddenly, you could make out the houses in St. Just. There was even, from one spot, a blue wedge of sea forming on the horizon.
St. Just seemed a jollier place in the sun, the depression lifting in tandem with the weather. At nearby Botallack we headed towards the famous Crown Engine Houses, following a suspicious truck proclaiming to have something to do with film production. I suspect they, like everyone else, were making hay when the sun was shining; finally they could get some panoramic money shot to fill a gap in some tedious dialogue in Poldark. Or perhaps they were just on a holiday.
Now trying to cram literally everything in under clearer air, next up was a trip to Porthcurno. Given this place seems to be the current most Instagrammed memento of Cornwall it was surprisingly quiet. Perhaps all the day-trippers had departed, or else plunged down a cliff trying to get a snap of any sand emerging from a receding tide at Pedn Vounder. With such peace and such beauty, the fruits of staying in a static in the clouds were coming to bear.
And what better than the fruits of the sea, in the golden end-of-day light at Sennen Cove? To me, the beach here is the closest resemblance to Australia of any I have encountered in England. A sweeping arc of sand for the most part untainted by development. Curling waves of surf, with the obligatory dreadlocked shark bait on boards. And a little alfresco waterfront action, though in the very English gorgeousness of a proper pub with proper ale.
And now, finally, before heading back to Plymouth the next day, a chance to watch the sun set into the Atlantic. Almost. For of course this isn’t Australia and there is always a prospect of clouds on the horizon. But at least now they were only on the horizon, rather than atop a static caravan on a hill a long drive from home.
Very very occasionally, when I find myself inordinately bored – probably a cold, dark night in the midst of a Canberra winter – I might find myself turning to Seven Two and briefly catching a few minutes of Escape to the Country. It could be my imagination, but the show always seems to go something like this…
Malcolm and Felicity are a slightly smug, good-looking couple who are entering early semi-retirement and looking to sell up their mock Tudor detached home in Surrey, which they bought for £50,000 back in 1996. Malcolm has raked in millions from financial practices of dubious morality in the City and Felicity is looking to scale back on her worthy high paid work lobbying government on behalf of an NGO. Looking to escape this stressful, fast-paced life they are now seeking an impossible to find cottage containing five bedrooms for the two of them and a modern country kitchen with unparalleled views close to a village with good transport links but not near a road of any kind whatsoever. In addition, they’d love separate outbuildings for keeping two of their horses and a workshop space for some questionable artistic endeavour involving twigs and mirrors. They are concentrating their search in Shropshire.
Shropshire. Always Shropshire. I never quite knew why…I suspect you could get a bigger mound for your pound before the cameras from Escape to the Country invaded. I feel like it’s a kind of forgotten county of England, almost irrelevant, with nothing significant whatsoever to worry about. I guess, in reality, Birmingham isn’t too far away so whether that’s an asset or not is open to question. And it is practically Wales, but not actually Wales, which means you can get all the benefits of being in Wales without being in Wales.
Facing a long drive back from North Wales to Devon, Shropshire happened to be in my way. I approached the county a bit later than anticipated – my increasing and alarming fondness for full English breakfasts causing me to linger in the Welsh border town of Llangollen a little longer than planned. Finally crossing the frontier, the town of Oswestry offered promise, in that it had a Morrison’s petrol station in which to fill up and save a couple of quid. Which was promptly expunged dawdling behind caravans and negotiating street furniture.
Shrewsbury – like all proper English county towns – has a ring road, which means your only impression of Shrewsbury is of Costa drive throughs and B&M Bargains. It doesn’t seem Escape to the Country country but then south of here you enter the Shropshire Hills. An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. And indeed it is.
Nestled in the bosom of these hills, the town of Church Stretton possesses enough charm and functionality to impress our friends Malcolm and Felicity. I daresay there are some fine tearooms serving wonderful slabs of Victoria Sponge alongside intricate china teapots, as well as curio shops selling things made from twigs and mirrors. I cannot guarantee this for sure though, in light of my massive breakfast and the pressing imperative of time.
Having climbed Snowdon the day before I wasn’t overly keen on walking far, but my insatiable instinct to seek a viewpoint and take some happy snaps kicked in. Unfortunately for once my navigation faltered a little, and I ended up trudging through a forest for some time. It was a nice, leafy forest full of green, but you really couldn’t see the wood for the trees. Eventually I was able to climb up, my thighs wailing with every step out onto the heathland hilltops. And what fine country. A very nice place to escape to.
But now, it was beyond time for my escape, and the prospect of leaving this quiet enclave of England for the counties of Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, Somerset, and Devon. Counties that you may see on Seven Two sometime soon. If they ever get a look in.
The richness of Britain is quite something. Not richness in an economic sense, that measure upon which so much weight is given – wander any town or city and it will quickly become apparent that financial riches are far from universal. No, it’s the sheer abundance of Britain. There’s so much in so little a space. Everything here is dense, whether that be the number of council houses clustered together in a cul-de-sac or the profusion of single-track lanes crisscrossing rolling green countryside. How can this small rock in the Atlantic host so much of everything? A tardis of a nation.
I feel like you could spend a lifetime and still not discover every corner of Britain. This is a task even more challenging when you don’t live there anymore, and you are largely content to frequent familiar fishing villages and creamy countryside on home turf. Why the need to go anywhere else?
Even the sands underneath me have felt my footsteps before, though I’m sure never in such a glorious glow. And under this clear air emanating from Blackpool, a horizon of land appears as alien to me as Timbuktu.
North Wales is a corner of Britain that seems to pack more punch in its acres than most. I think it’s largely explained by the proximity of the coastline to the jagged peaks just a few miles inland. At times the uplands appear to roll directly into the sea. And where they don’t, valleys, towns, forests and lakes squeeze in to fill the gaps. I could spend a month here and still not discover it all.
But I did at least have three days to explore new terrain and it commenced with a surprisingly seamless and pleasurable drive from Lancashire under continuing blue skies. Smoothly cruising through Cheshire, the terrain elevated somewhat into Wales, with snatched views of the Wirral and – in the distance – the conglomeration of Liverpool. At one point I could see the prominent rise of Snowdonia, clearly denoted by the only patch of cloudy sky in the whole of the British Isles. And I was heading straight for it.
The car came to a halt beside Llyn Ogwen, a sliver of a lake hemmed in by the A5 and two hilly clumps of land – the massifs of the Carneddau and Glyderau. To the north, the rolling, open uplands of the Carneddau shimmered gold in the sunshine while the rockier Glyderau was grazed by cloud. And guess to which one I was heading…
Passing a popular National Trust outpost, a gentle and well-worn path crossed the moorland towards Llyn Idwal, a small lake hemmed in by precipitous cliffs, popular with climbers and school parties vaguely attempting to do something related to Geography. While the landscape was striking, at times it was difficult to stand up, such was the wind howling through this giant bowl. And in late September, a hoodie was barely sufficient protection.
Thankfully the wind eased a little in the lee of the cliffs, a shattered barrier which seems insurmountable from below. Apparently a cleft proclaims to lead through something enticing called The Devil’s Kitchen and up to the top, via a small track rising from the lake. A few mountain goats appeared to be running up this in a ridiculous quest called exercise. I walked up a bit, feeling slightly breathless and a tad light-headed with each step. I figured it was a passing touch of wooziness that was quelled by a handful of Jaffa Cakes. And frankly, this view was a good enough one from which to turn around.
With overnight rest, the next day became a jam-packed whistle-stop exploration of the valleys, towns and bays of this corner of Wales. It started with the promise of early cloud and mist lifting in the small town of Llanrwst. Here, the River Conwy was spanned by a delightful arched bridge leading to what could possibly be one of the most photographed buildings in the principality. Having done very little research prior to this trip, I had no idea such a sight existed and that I would have timed things perfectly to coincide with the flourish of autumn. Turns out it’s a tea shop that – at this time in the morning – was closed. Otherwise clotted cream could have again been in the offing.
Further up the valley, the river widens towards the Conwy estuary and the countryside softens somewhat to resemble that of South Devon. The environment is a haven for birds, something I deduce from parking at an RSPB centre across the river from the town of Conwy itself. Ever a tight-arse with parking, I decided on the spur of the moment to walk over to the town, taking in splendid views of a majestic castle and surrounding hills across the water.
I became progressively enamoured by Conwy. Obviously its castle is a dominant – and splendidly preserved – feature of the town. Beyond this, much of Conwy is walled, with various towers and steps and ramparts in a crumbling state, the least crumbly of which can be explored for free. And within the walls sits a charming array of old cottages and colourful terraced houses, leading down to a sedate harbour cove. Everything seems peaceful and at peace. And somewhere within this is a massive slab of coffee and walnut cake that is so gargantuan it eliminates the need for lunch.
Walking back to the car in glorious sunshine I did my best to change into shorts without revealing my arse to any curious twitchers. This of course precipitated the onset of cloud as I drove further west, the A5 cutting under barren hills plunging into the sea, Holyhead across the water.
At Caernarfon, another castle straight out of a lego box impressed. Yet maybe it was the cloud and the coolness, but I found this place lacked much of the ambience of Conwy. It seemed a bit more touristy and try-hard, and the car park surrounding one side of the castle – like some kind of glass and steel moat – distracted from the scene. Meanwhile, the generator from a Mr Whippy van nearby disturbed any tranquillity.
I headed on hoping for a break in the clouds along the coast towards the Llyn Peninsula – the pointy out bit of North Wales. It seems a remote, sometimes bleak place, undoubtedly exposed to the elements throughout the year. I suspect Welsh is the first language here, all hacking throats and largely devoid of vwls. The small towns and villages tend to be off the beaten track… spots like Trefor, where I paused to survey a picturesque cove, one of the few visitors in the car park.
More popular with curious outsiders like me is Morfa Nefyn and, in particular, the bay-side hamlet of Pothdinllaen. Literally a pub and a few flowery cottages parked by the sand, it can really only be reached by foot, passing through one of those golf courses blessed in its occupation of prime links real estate. Some of the holes looked ludicrously unfair but the enviable setting, with water on all sides, cannot be denied.
Following an obligatory pint in the Ty Coch Inn I ambled back towards the car, stamping prints in the sand as the tide shifted out. The salty sea air had put me in a fish and chip mood and I thought Pwllheli might prove a good bet. But it looked a tad depressing passing through and I saw no obvious contenders, instead stopping further east in Cricceith, which satisfied requirements entirely.
It’s a shame the sun never materialised post-Conwy, just to add that sparkle and extra splendour to the sights. And it proved in more ways than one that Conwy simply put everything else into the shade that day.
Of course, the famous BBC weather forecast had been changing its sunshine symbols into white cloud ones as proximity to each day in question neared. My final day in Wales was, perhaps, the most promising online. Not that it looked especially good first thing, but surely such mist and cloud is to be expected as October nears?
Leaving early under grey skies, I was uncertain how this day would pan out. My intent was to hike proper good somewhere in Snowdonia. And as I reached a viewpoint towards Mount Snowdon itself, the magic happened. The magic that is lifting plumes of mist, evaporated by the laser-like sun of dawn.
In a matter of minutes it was if cloud had been consigned to the pages of history, and the decision to attempt an ascent on Mount Snowdon was an easy one to make. Rather than regurgitating every single step of this walk here, you can – should you wish – read more about it in this shameless cross-promotion for yet another blog page I have been working on when lulls in work strike me down with boredom. In summary: epic, awesome, enjoyable…enough of a challenge to provide reward without being too challenging to annoy. Though at times the train to the top did feel like the sensible option.
It really is remarkable to have such genuine mountain landscape concentrated alongside all the other facets making up this part of the world. Yes, the mountains lack altitude compared to, say, the Alps, but they have every characteristic col, ridge, tarn and peak required. They are mountains worthy of the name.
However, this is Britain so I guess they are mountains not entirely untamed. At lower levels, a few crumbling mining outposts remain, and slate quarries persist in other parts. And then there are sheep, lovely fluffy inevitable sheep, appearing when you least expect them on a rocky ridgeline, one hoof away from a plummet down a cliff. It would be remiss of me – negligent even – to be in Wales and not mention sheep. Lovely.
What a glorious day to be a sheep in the green, green grass of home. Now I was seeing sheep everywhere. Sheep to the left of me, sheep to the right. There were sheep even revelling in the field behind my little Airbnb bothy. As with many other things, Britain possesses such density of sheep (though nowhere near as dense as witnessed in New Zealand).
Sheep were dotted on the fields the next morning, as I woke up overlooking the valley of Penmachno one last time. More acquainted with a pocket of the country that had been unknown, ready to head off back to the familiar. But not before passing through and pausing among new discoveries along the way.