Good country

To Wee Jasper.

Fuel

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

Water

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

Life

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

Abundance

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

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Hilltops

On Friday evening I did something exceedingly rare. It may restrict my ability to enter South Australia or Queensland should I care to mix with crow-eaters or banana benders, but I crossed from the Australian Capital Territory into New South Wales. Literally metres across the border, from a COVID-free paradise to a COVID ‘hotspot’. It was worth it for the chicken wings.

Succumbing to a blunt instrument of parochial politics intending to win votes, I decided I might as well embrace the situation. It has been nearly three months since I had a day outside of the ACT which in this unprecedented year is as unprecedented as it gets. The question was, where to go? The coast road would be busy, Goulburn had been exhausted, and the mountains would still be a touch snowy.

The answer lay in the methodical planning that shapes most of my trips: locations in which you can generously support the local economy by eating food. Hearty country fare of slices and pies and – increasingly – epicurean delights intertwined with fine coffee. In this regard, Long Track Pantry in Jugiong offered a foothold from which to explore; though I would, in the end, leave this until the end. I was headed for the hilltops.

Outside of obligatory food stops in charming country towns, the benefit of exploring the Hilltops region of NSW at this time of year is the explosion of spring. Fields of golden canola hit you in the face as you turn a corner, as you crest a ridge. The #canolatrail has even become a thing, ideal for selfies and people looking for something to do which doesn’t involve going overseas.

It’s sometimes a little hard to safely find a place to pull off the road at 100kph to capture the luminescent glow of fields. And this being country Australia there is rarely a public footpath to be found, something I have decried over and over again. So you’re often whizzing past scenic delights and by time you realise there was a spot you could have stopped it is disappearing in the rear view mirror and you should really look out for that truck laden with hay coming straight at you.  

But today things changed. Yes, it took me an inordinate amount of time to work this most obvious solution out, but I shoved my bike in the back of the car. Just in case.

And in and around Boorowa all my dreams came true. First, the coffee stop at The Pantry on Pudman could not have been better. I would happily go back there again. Then there was a cycle path beside the river. Not especially long but a nice, leisurely amble winding through a verdant land of green. The weather was sublime; heading over twenty degrees, I wore shorts for the first time in a long while. And a bright red T-shirt to attract the friendly greeting of the magpies who were delighted to see me, as warm and jovial as ever.

On this Tour de Boorowa, the streets were – unsurprisingly – wide and empty. A gradual climb up to the Col de Recycling Centre offered views over town. And the aptly named Long Road led me off into the countryside, where I stopped every hundred metres to admire my beautiful bike within a luscious backdrop.

And of course, there was the canola. Surely there can be no better way to experience this landscape than by bike. It may well inspire me to head off into the country on two wheels in the future. As long as it’s reasonably flat. And comes with an incentive like today. Wine perhaps. Or cheese. Or chocolate. Or slow roasted local lamb barbecued on coals. Or just simply an opportunity to do something in country NSW which makes a border crossing worthwhile. Vive Le Tour!

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Full of the joys

Wow, I see it was a totally different financial year the last time I posted something on here. What has happened since then? Well, I calculated I’ll probably owe some tax. I decided I’d lodge the return at the last possible moment. And I figured I should get some work to help pay it. Meanwhile, Melbourne happened, Canberra didn’t and Sydney sort of wavered on continual tenterhooks. I opened my first carton of UHT milk purchased in March because it was due to go off. Oh, and I completed the Canberra Centenary Trail. In case you missed it.  

Midwinter released its grip in fits and starts. And the seeping light of mornings stirred me closer toward an uncivilised hour. Wakening in the fives, I flit between hope of additional slumber, a boring interview on Radio National, and a curiosity about what might be going on outside. Sometimes this gets the better of me and I heroically part from my cocoon to embrace the day. Waiting for a coffee shop to open.

In that time between sunrise and coffee shop opening I potter through parks or take a drive to a nearby hilltop. It both surprises and comforts to find that I am not the only one out and about, the only one climbing hills, towering over the mist. There is shared solidarity on the hill, unspoken recognition that we are the lucky ones, that everyone else is missing out.

Misty mornings on Red Hill

It was on one of these mornings, mid-August, that I went in pursuit of a rainbow over Mount Taylor. A pot of gold would be handy even if the Tax Office are inevitably going to nab a handful of it. Alas, the rainbow had faded by time I parked up, but I walked a while and found treasure elsewhere. The perfect tunnel of cherry blossom in full extravagance. Adjacent to an open coffee shop.

A parade of cherry blossom

It is hard for me to conclude that spring is starting ever earlier because I’m usually in Europe during August. I return from overseas to a different world, jetlag weariness tempered by the thrum of bees and the tantalising prospect of future months bedecked in shorts. Bundles of flowers sprout from the trees and Bunnings becomes overwhelmed with people buying tomatoes far too early. The temperature trajectory is upward, but don’t remove that electric blanket just yet.

And sure enough, barely days later I was up early on another nearby hill looking out to snow. Not only on the distant ranges – dramatically revealed in the parting of valley mist – but also dusting the upper mound of Mount Taylor itself. Like a frame of pink blossom providing a window to the soul of Mount Fuji, one does not travel downstream to the replenishing river of spring with not first accomplishing the ultimate frozen mountaintop of mangled metaphor.  

Snow-capped mountains

Dotted among lurid yellow wattle and purple Paterson’s curse sprawling down the hillside, even the kangaroos looked a bit perplexed. Bemused. Ever so slightly pissed off. What the heck was this all about, this most bitter weekend of winter, when there was such colour burgeoning all around? Why on earth are we up so early on this godforsaken windswept ridge to look at snow? Is the coffee shop open yet? Click once for yes, two for no.

Kangaroo vistas

Inevitably the following weekend was A-MAZ-ING in a caps lock way that even Donald Trump would find difficult to resist. I feel like I wore a T-shirt sat on a log eating homemade quiche watching an echidna pass by in pursuit of love. I could still see snow on the highest ridge line of the mountains, but 1200 metres lower it was all sunshine and butterflies and frisky monotremes. Surely, definitely, the turning point leading to fake summer.   

Indeed, the year moves on and it is strange how quickly and yet how slowly it is going. This weekend would have heralded the start of Floriade – Canberra’s celebration of spring attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors to gawp at tulips. But this year it is, of course, cancelled due to you know what. Instead, they have planted bulbs all across the suburbs, a Floriade Local if you like. The closest to me is down by the Youth Centre, so goodness knows how all that will pan out. All I can picture is a scene from The Inbetweeners.

Luckily, us locals don’t really need an organised parade of millions of flowers planted in the pattern of a unicorn pooping stardust to truly appreciate spring. You can just walk out into the street, any street. In 2020 I feel like I have gotten to know my local streets more than ever, witnessing their withered pain during brutal orange summer skies, their relief moving into an autumn technicolour, and their barren stoicism through winter frosts. Now, they are undeniably full of the joys of spring.

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Blossom

And as I continue to wake with the lighter mornings on a regular basis, I experience a microsecond of newfound joy as I pull up the blinds. The trees on my street have been steadily gathering buds then white cauliflower blooms then green shoots. The daffodils stand proud and the marigolds burst like orange lollipops. My snow peas, planted as part of doomsday prep, finally gather some momentum while the kale goes to seed. I may get one stir fry’s worth.

The morning too doesn’t feel as chilly as it used to. And I contemplate going outside. Or returning to bed. Just what time does that coffee shop open again?

Spring streets
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A day out!

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.  

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Warmth

Back in January, when we were in the midst of that horrible summer, I proclaimed out loud that I would never complain about winter in Canberra ever again. So there you go. I am absolutely loving the first day of May, with its frigid drizzle and single digit tops. It’s even better than yesterday.

On Tuesday afternoon I was still in shorts, walking up Mount Ainslie. Such are the inconsistencies of change, the indecisiveness of an autumn spanning thirty degree highs to single digit lows. Sunburn in the suburbs and snow on the hills, closed off and out of reach.

I was curious how autumn would pan out this year after the terror summer, the massive hailstorm, the rain, and now the chill. But I shouldn’t have worried because – on this most dismal of days – there are still riots of colour in every other cul-de-sac, around every empty circle. And I’ve had plenty of opportunity to investigate multiple nooks and crannies in these recent weeks. From COVID-walks around the corner to expeditions along the Centenary Trail, there is always something of wonder on offer to brighten up the dark…

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Walks from home, discovering every single street in an effort to mix it up a little

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If you can walk clockwise and put up with the zillions of people getting their mandated exercise, Lake Burley Griffin offers all the usual spectacle

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Red Hill: the street sweeper’s dream

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It’s not only the cockies causing all the shenanigans. Flocks of pretty gang-gangs, vibrant king parrots and stately yellow-tailed black cockatoos are a regular sight feasting on the fruits of summer, and not practising social distancing

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Colours in Campbell, sidestepping from the Centenary Trail

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Look close and there is autumn magic around every corner

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Uplift

Outside is looking remarkable. Outside is looking beautiful. An almost pinch-yourself-is-this-actually-real kind of sensation. One bringing delight rather than dread.

I was sat on a random log the other day, pleasant late afternoon sunshine nourishing the world. Rarely do I sit and stop and watch all the things going on around me: the ants milling about productively, transporting their wares in selfless community organisation; the magpie creeping from one spot of grass to the other, surveying for delicacies, a curious sideways look at my presence; the chirrup, somewhere, of two crimson rosellas, partners for life. The world going about its business.

There is an astonishment in this landscape of such verdant abundance. Where so recently it was so barren. The resilience of nature bearing fruit, flourishing again.

As well as sitting on random logs I randomly tried to capture this transition, this journey, this bounce back. Scrolling my phone for past images, dusty and brown. Attempting to line up positions and angles and replicating shots. Not always easy to know exactly where you have gone before. Fiddling about so much that sometimes it’s just far easier, far more satisfying to give up, sit on a log, and just watch the world.

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The Bullen Range and Brindabellas from Cooleman Ridge, 6 weeks apart

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Remember the smoke?!

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Scenes from Red Hill – 1

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Scenes from Red Hill – 2

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Scenes from Red Hill – 3, with random logs

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Namadgi

It wasn’t love at first site. As national parks go, it’s not in the top tier. There are no obvious spectacles, no grand high tops, no sublime points, no copper canyons, no vernal falls. But it sits there, looking at you, consumer of sunsets and occasional catcher of winter snows. Endearing itself to you by its very persistence.

Namadgi National Park. Canberra’s park, Canberra’s playground; like Dartmoor is to Plymouth or Hampstead Heath is to North London. Before that, for many years before I came here and other strangers came here, special ground for Australia’s first people. Rising to the west, sheltering Australia’s young capital. A rugged wilderness reminding us of what we were and where we have come. And where we still have to go. Enduring still.

Igniting

The lustre of spring radiated across the valley and lifted the soul the way that spring can only do: that warming sun on your face as you cast your eyes upon a celebration of green, a chirpiness matched by the creatures awakening from their slumber. Treading into this world along the valley floor, each footstep a newfound joy, each pause a chance to breathe it all in. An enclave of life and of love, promising halcyon days ahead.

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Monday 27th January: A small plume of smoke appears over a hill as I drive back home. It throws my bearings since it isn’t where I expected to see smoke today. I check Fires Near Me for probably the fifth time this morning and see a new blue diamond symbol has appeared in Namadgi National Park. It has been listed as the Orroral Valley Fire.

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Taking hold

The sky had that washed out tone of winter that threatens but barely delivers. It is the colour of childhood skies beside the sea, when the excitement of snow was dashed by the delivery of icy rain. If you were being generous, you might describe it as sleet, but only that narrow, spitting variety rather than a satisfying splodge. As I climbed through the freshest forest to crest the ridge of Booroomba Rocks, a new squall spilled into the valley of gums below. A wind chill well below zero blew away the cobwebs. And cast a few shards of icy, spitting rain my way.

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Tuesday 28th January: The fire quickly takes hold and becomes uncontrollable, spreading west into Honeysuckle Creek, Apollo Road and climbing up towards the crest of Booroomba Rocks. A large smoke plume intensifies as the day heats up and spreads many miles west, hanging over the Canberra skyline as multiple planes and helicopters disappear into its heart.

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Consuming

We used to have adventures. These often involved hikes to lookouts and – if we were lucky – a bird roll with a view. All across Australia. 2018 offered the comeback tour and an adventure a bit closer to my home.

Older, probably not wiser, I persuaded Jill to join me on the Yerrabi Track, hoping the drag uphill wouldn’t cause consternation. Hopeful that the rocky platform at the end, with a bird roll, with a view, would appease any potential discord at my choice. May I present to you the wilderness. Close to Canberra. And a long way from Norfolk. Or Sydney. A real place to breathe on holiday, or at home.

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Thursday 30th January: A few days of cooler and quieter weather provide some respite and a chance for fire crews to lay down containment lines, large air tankers plying back and forth overhead. While much is done to try to protect properties and cultural assets, the fire continues to feed on the tinder dry heart of Namadgi, spreading down towards Yankee Hat and Boboyan Trig, a key marker on the Yerrabi Track.

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Threatening

From Canberra, Mount Tennent stands sentinel over Namadgi National Park, 1,375 metres into the sky. The first prominent peak as you enter south, looming over the visitor centre and the small village of Tharwa. In spite of this proximity it took me many years to climb. Cypress Pine lookout was usually as far as I made it before arriving at the conclusion that that is more than enough thank you very much.

Sometimes you need the momentum that comes from walking with friends. An encouraging peloton. A crisp morning that warms with the rising sun on your back. Views that deliver over the Monaro, its golden paddocks strewn with the fairy floss of rising mist. Each step up a shared endeavour, summiting a shared prize. Victors in a deep blue sky, miniscule among uninterrupted green.

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Friday 31st January: The temperature nudges towards 42 degrees and the fire threat escalates, creating spot fires which push into NSW. Authorities publish worst case projections for the fire spread that – should they come to bear – would spill further down from the summit of Mount Tennent and consume Tharwa, before entering the far southern suburbs of Canberra. The ACT declares a state of emergency and the city is on edge.

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Tearing south

I can recall the pleasure in discovering something new; a circular trail in the deepest dirt roadiest section of the southern ACT that scored high on the effort-reward ratio. It was nearing Christmas and I had been in the city that morning, catching up for coffee and passing on gifts. By afternoon I was gently climbing up through forest onto the ridge of Shanahans Mountain. The reward: a fluffy clouded blue sky hanging over the wild contours and emptiness of the Clear Range. Christmas had come early, a new vista my present.

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Saturday 1st February: A brutal day of solid northwest winds and temperatures reaching 43 degrees expanded the fire quickly southeast across NSW and upon settlements around the Monaro Highway, including Bumbalong, Colinton and Bredbo. While Tharwa and suburban Canberra dodged a bullet, around a dozen homes were destroyed, principally around Bumbalong as fire raced over the Clear Range and engulfed properties.

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Creeping north

I wonder if there is anything more satisfying than the scrunch of footsteps upon fresh snow. While chaotically parked cars and excitable humans rapidly transform Corin Forest into dirty slush, ahead of me is a virginal path of white. It took some effort to reach. Lung-busting in fact. But before me, the Smokers Trail slices through a forest of tall, majestic eucalypts under the deepest blue sky. It is a wonderland both un-Australian and undeniably Australian. Waiting to be scrunched underfoot.

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Thursday 6th February: A week of cooler, calmer weather subdues fire activity considerably, though it continues to slowly expand, particularly to the west and north. It has passed over the Smokers Trail, nearby Square Rock, and moves over and beyond Corin Forest. The slow creep of the fire appears less destructive and the infrastructure around Corin Forest is protected. Now nearing Tidbinbilla, fire crews instigate backburning to halt progress.

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Enduring still

Is it as simple, as logical, as linear as a before and after? Because a before was also an after. When I took my first steps into Namadgi it was not so long after 2003. When the hills and gullies had previously burned, arguably even more vehemently than today.

In the much used vernacular of the new normal it may not be quite the normal cycle of the Australian bush, but there is a cycle nonetheless. We may be in the immediate after now, but I can take solace that this is the start of another before. When Namadgi will again nurture love and life, expel fresh air and bounty, guide adventure and inspiration. Enduring still.

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Sunday 9th February: The rain is tantalising, teasing. We’ve had a few millimetres and promises of a deluge keep getting pushed back. Another hour. Another day. Probabilities suggest something decent will come. A few spells of drizzle and blustery showers mimic England. It is only seventeen degrees and perfect roast dinner and red wine weather. That in itself is an encouraging sign.

The Orroral Valley Fire has changed status from Out of Control to Being Controlled. That in itself is an even more encouraging sign. It has consumed around 80% of Namadgi National Park and around a third of the ACT’s landmass. Taking into account various offshoots into NSW the fire encompasses approximately 113,000 hectares, or 1,130 square kilometres. That’s about the same as Hong Kong Island. Or most of Greater London if you exclude some of the crumby bits like Croydon.

Initial reports suggest significant variability in the damage caused within the park, mirroring the variability in fire intensity over its course. Positively, key infrastructure, including historic huts, culturally significant sites and telecommunications resources have been protected, while threatened wildlife within nature reserves have been successfully relocated.

It is one small footnote this summer.

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I got chills

snow00With the undeniable passage of nature there are sure signs that winter in Canberra is slowly ebbing away. There have been a few recent days in which I have left the house without a coat, while the sunlight is waking me up well before seven and allowing me to read almost until six. Wattles explode, daffodils unfurl, the odd fly is resurrected and finds its way into my living room for what seems like all eternity.

That’s not to say winter is entirely done and dusted and – with it – the satisfaction of a roast dinner, a glass of red and an evening hunkering down until the early hours watching sport beamed direct from the sometimes sunny skies of Europe. The Ashes is the latest incarnation of late night TV toil, in which the morning session emerges during the prime time of evening followed by a drift to tea after midnight. Sometimes I stay up late and sometimes it’s worth it. Like a shiny cherry battered by Sir Ben Stokes, it can be hard to sleep straight after, such is the insane frenzy that has just taken place.

Of course, usually about now I would be in England, so it is part galling but part elevating to see Leeds bathed in unseasonal hot bank holiday sunshine. Bored of some of the drearier TV commentary I might tune into Test Match Special, delivering another evocation of Englishness. The good, wholesome Englishness involving short long legs and a discussion of cake in between bouncers. Not that other Englishness espoused by others. Without vision, the radio commentary paints a more vivid picture in my head of an England for which I might yearn.

But here I am having almost successfully navigated my first full Australian winter, in the coldest city of the lot. Has it been hard? Well, not really, partly a consequence of strategic breaks away, warm sunshine beaming through glass, roast dinners, red wine, Ben Stokes, and no doubt the upward trajectory in global temperatures as previously predicted by those pesky experts who we have all apparently become sick of.

And then it snows for a weekend and suddenly the accumulation of 200 years of temperature records can be instantly dismissed by the cast of crazy characters featured on the sitcom known as Sky News. The ‘Antarctic Blast’ delivering a bit of cool drizzle to Melbourne and a touch of breeze in Sydney, dusts the higher hills and peaks around Canberra. It’s the kind of event that happens every few years and makes a Canberra winter all the better. For there is an unmatched beauty when the snow comes to the Australian bush.

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There’s certainly a freshness accompanying an early Saturday morning jaunt upon Urambi Hills, but the sun is out and the wind has dropped meaning that, before long, I’m wanting to strip off during the march upward. Even the locals are unfazed, the youngsters popping out to gaze towards the snow for the first time in their lives.

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From afar, there is little hardship, little severity to be found in the sight of snow-capped hills. Getting closer to the snowline in Tidbinbilla, you do begin to feel the penetration of winds swirling over the ranges, picking up icy particles and moisture and delivering them to idiots like me waiting patiently on an exposed lookout. A sleety shower whips through quickly, before a valley of thousands of eucalypts are bathed in sun.

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From this perch, the snow seems tangible, touchable. Attainable with, hopefully, relative ease. And that’s the way it proves, driving to the Mountain Creek area in the reserve. A few cars are here but it is blessedly sedate, lacking the queuing, slush-churned melee of Corin Forest after a few flakes. Close to the car park, youngsters screech and coo in delight and disappear off into the forest. A trail of footprints furrow a path into the trees, eventually joining a fire trail that will go on and on, up and up, all the way to Camel’s Hump.

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It would be folly to climb to the summit today; though judging by the footprints there are a few committed mountaineers in the area. However, walking up just a little and the snow thickens, the sledge tracks fade and untouched pockets of snow lap at the ankles. There is a pristine quality to the scene, a fresh blanket filling in the imperfections of the bush. A gentleness given to a landscape so often forbidding. For a change, snakes will not be a worry.

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Still, best not to linger as my feet are starting to numb and the day is drawing on way beyond optimum coffee time. As I head back down it’s noticeable how the depth of snow has already lessened, patches of mud are now creeping through, churned up by increasing traffic heading into the forest.

The snow will disappear soon enough, and the wattles will continue to burst forth, the blossom will suddenly sprout, the joeys will escape the comfort blanket of mum’s pouch. The winter will draw to a close, the light will lengthen, and I’ll be in shorts moaning about the heat before you know it. Barbecues will replace roasts and more decent sport will be on at a decent hour. Australia will return to its natural, sun-baked, fire-blasted state.

Yet a part of me will miss the cold, miss the late nights in Leeds, miss the excuse for slow-cooked heartiness. And I will miss the experience of anticipation of a spring just around the corner. Maybe not quite as badly as Nathan Lyon misses run outs, but missing all the same.

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Transitional

There was a somewhat fitting addendum to my journey in supposedly great Britain, a transitional phase elongating the journey between two hemispheres. Norfolk is rarely likened to Australia – though it is the driest region of the UK and famously has an in-breeding rate some hick towns in the outback might aspire to. Yet being here felt one step closer, one step nearer to that other home down under.

Norfolk is now home to Jill, someone who I associate with so much of Australia, having covered many miles together crossing a wide brown land. And so, a weekend here had parallels: coastal walks, bird rolls, coffee and cake, and an infestation of boatpeople. The Broads, like a Noosa Everglades of tangled waterways, is plied by extravagant cruisers and basic tinnies, festooned with birdlife, and regularly adorned with waterfront retreats. Very Australian; though here, little Englanders can live on their very own island and control their borders until their hearts are content.

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It is quite possible to get a roast dinner in Australia; even when it is forty degrees there will be waterfront homes boasting a chook in the fan-assisted humidifying oven, accompanied by roasted vegetables that undoubtedly include pumpkin. While the roast dinner may be a relic of colonisation, its pure deliciousness has helped it to endure as a great British export, even if it does become bastardised with pumpkin or somehow cooked on the barbie with a can of beer up its arse. But the roast is best fitting in its true home: a cosy pub on a grey day.

It is also quite possible to get coffee in England; even if you are truly desperate there will be a Costa Express at the servo down dale. The thing is, you really need to have cake with it to compensate for the likelihood of receiving a giant cup of hot liquid somewhere in the range of blandly mediocre to bitterly dreadful. I can adapt to this situation, but the thought of returning to Australia and having a coffee fills me with a little cheer.

England or Australia, Jill and I always do our very best to eat and drink well.

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The good thing is we traditionally tended to walk such things off with potters around Sydney Harbour or ascents of Grampian hills. A Saturday spent on the North Norfolk coast offered conditions for a good old bushwalk, with typical weather to boot: warm winds and clear skies probably bringing temperatures I had not felt since August. Centred around the sprawling estate of Sheringham Park, the walk including lush forests, lofty lookouts, dried out pastures and placid seas. The pebbly beaches are far from Bondi, but they can equally host a tasty bird roll picnic.

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This landscape was naturally far from Australian, but it was also a slightly different type of England, distanced from that familiar land of heavily undulating green plunging into the Atlantic. I was no longer home on my way home, still happily soaking up lingering remnants of what is great about Britain but preparing my mind to embrace Australia again. A long transition was in play, like that of the leaves around me, gradually drifting away towards their winter…

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back05…And just like that the world spins and you fight against it for a day or so in this never-never land of cold air and reclining seats and unappealing movies and rice with two lumps of what might be chicken. Dessert is more of a highlight because it involves – somewhat poetically – Salcombe Dairy Ice Cream. Here I am on a Singapore Airlines A380 headed for Australia and dessert comes from a little patch of paradise on the south coast of Devon. In that taste of creamy cherry are the lush meadows and deep blue seas of home. I can see Bolt Head, as clear as day.

back06At some point the world becomes tropical. There are bright lights, acres of glass and miles of travellators. You could buy a Rolex or a roti with some weird money. It is five in the morning and people are eating dinner. You are somewhere in the world at some point in time but not much of it makes sense. If only it was all a dream, the relaxing sound of running water and floating butterflies lulling you into restful sleep…

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…restful sleep feels like such an unrealistic aspiration. You are back in your own bed, surrounded by your own comforts, but even the 3am sounds of a boring discussion on Radio National do not cause eyes or mind to yield. It can be tough, that first week being back, but it can also be filled with joy.

The joy of finally getting the journey done counts for a lot. But there are also those home comforts, a re-acquaintance with certain foods, my car starting, a new but familiar environment, the coffee…the coffee and the sun and catch ups with friends over coffee in the sun.

As I leave one autumn, the promise of spring pervades, amply exemplified in the lavender going crazy and weeds liberally taking over my garden.  Everywhere flowers and blooms and fresh green buds, from the manicured terrain of the Parliamentary Triangle to the sprawling native treasures of the Botanic Gardens. Shorts are more often than not feasible under frequent blue skies.

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Maybe it’s the season, but the blue skies you find in Australia do not seem to exist in the same way in the UK, in Europe. They are bigger and bluer here, more intense and infinitesimal. They create boldness and vibrance rather than subtlety and nuance. They can make the landscape appear stark and saturated. This difference like a polarising filter thrown over my eyes.

Only as the longer days edge towards their end does the light soften, but even then there are hues of summery gold and laser red projecting onto hills, eucalypts and rapidly rising apartment windows. The sun does its reliable trick of shifting forever west as the world turns, west to embrace the rest of the world, the world from where I have come. A sun forever shared across the miles, permanently, naturally transitional.

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Nature’s confetti

A lack of blogging endeavour is reflective of my position of relative stasis in the last couple of months. Still, if you were to choose a period to stay put in Canberra then this may well be it. For while my feet have largely been rooted in the capital, change has very slowly and subtly washed over me.

The late summer lingering of balmy days and comfortable nights has lingered longer than usual. On the streets, an initial shock of arboreal colour mellowed and probably wanted to turn back green. The Anzac Day ritual of firing up the heaters was drastically postponed, as armies marched in 27 degrees. Meanwhile, the western ranges burned – in a controlled way – but the taste of smoke pervaded regardless, transforming the late afternoon skies blood red as the clocks wound back. Only now in May does Canberra’s autumn peak. And trainer socks dissipate from the laundry.

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Welcome – at last – to the annual autumn edition! It began, perhaps, around the start of April with daytime temperatures dropping below thirty degrees, and overnights to single digits. This is a milestone of sorts, but one that is bordering on uncomfortably hot for visitors from Middle Buntingland-Upon-Farage. Not long after Dad had left these shores with a decent tan, Jill arrived on a relatively last-minute trip to Australia, and came to Canberra seeking a few days escape from the noise and hustle of Sydney. So what better way to flee than in the hills, to that very Australian bush, the wilderness on our doorstep.

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atm02In truth, the walk up the Yerrabri Track in Namadgi National Park was only part of a bigger equation. An equation whose solution was a delicious bird roll or two. N+J*OzNP(vt)+C0les=br. It’s a concept that has evolved from very preliminary experiments at the New Years’ Test in Sydney, refined to perhaps its ultimate manifestation on the top of Mount Kosciuszko. Replicated many times since, it is now a requisite of any encounter between Jill and I. Recently, each of us have tried to outdo one another in the bird roll stakes and today, on a rocky platform overlooking peak serenity of an abundant emptiness, I may have taken the lead. For now.

Bird rolls are not the only thing that are becoming customary. Having zig-zagged up Kangaroo Creek in Royal National Park and almost losing a boat on the Bellinger River, we have since become more finessed in guiding bright pieces of plastic upon water. Okay, I think we got up close and personal with the Norfolk Broads last year, but just the once. And this time – my first time self-propelled on Lake Burley Griffin – there was no shrubbery with which we embarrassed ourselves. Indeed, it was an incident-free beautiful late afternoon pedal in a kayak, the sun going down earlier than the day before and a noticeable coolness making itself known.

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Since then, around the lake shore, it has been peak biking conditions under calm blue skies and ambient warmth. Only more recently have shorts been swapped for long legs, T-shirts for hoodies, short socks for long. Like the weather, autumn evolves in patches, materialising in pockets; a glade untainted green here, trees stripped bare there. In between an emergence of yellows, oranges, reds and browns, meaning that every day there is something different to see from the vantage of two wheels.

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But it is at this point in the year that ambling in Canberra’s suburbia comes into its own, usurping the attractions of its lakeside coves, bushland hills, and concrete edifices. It’s the peoples’ Canberra, the homes and gardens and streets that real, mostly normal, everyday Bruces and Sheilas like you and I live in. Okay, the more affluent burbs have the lions share of autumnal splendour, but pockets of colour burst out from pavements far and wide. Even down near the local youth centre, the skulking youngsters seem softened by an explosion of nature’s confetti.

It is in these streets, around these crescents, besides these storm drains that I can happily wander. In autumn, an insipid walk becomes a quaint stroll. Not that there’s total serenity; as the number of leaves fall, the number of shrieking cockatoos rise. Thankfully there are a few black ones to offer some grace.

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In the afternoons it is still warm and golden, and coffee can still be taken alfresco and still with cake. But now, as May nears its end and winter will soon nominally start, the real change sets in. It started in shorts and T-shirts, humid hikes and toasty paddles, with a cold beer to wash the day down. It ends in an Orange Sky hoodie, bracing rides, electric blankets and the warming spice of a glass of red. Standing still, embracing change.

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Springing forward

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How had I never heard of Cooper Cronk until the last few months? Cooper Cronk. Every time that name is mentioned on the TV or radio I am convinced this is a guy whose destiny was the very east coast Australian domain of Rugby League (or NRL if you will). With a name like that it was inevitable; young Coop boofing his way to the fifth tackle for the Under 12 Greater Southern Potoroos before being signed up by the West Force Barramundi. An illustrious career ensued, only dented by a minor scandal involving a night out in the Cross, a high tackle and a leery headline in the Daily Telegraph. None of this is – I suspect – true, but there is a real NRL player called Cooper Cronk. That much I do know.

Fast forward a month or two and now we have the prospect of hearing how amazing Nathan Lyon is. Or in the conspicuously lady-free, nasally dominated domain of ex-Australian pom-slayers-turned-commentators, Naaaayfun Lawwwn. Also known as Gary. Every cherry a potential wicket inducing minor orgasms in the eight man wicket-keeping slip and bat pad cordon. Two-nil down already and I haven’t even put up the Christmas decorations. Summer could be long.

cbrspr02It’s taken a while for summer in Canberra to arrive, with the inevitable false starts and the fake summer that usually emerges for a week or so in October before retreating with startling rapidity. The variable weather conditions are largely a boon for nature which bursts into a frenzy of colour and gargantuan jungle of weeds. One minute you have a perfectly respectable outside patio area, the next it’s a (*culture alert*) frenzied sketch from Rousseau. Best to try and ignore the weeding and admire how the professionals manage things at the Botanic Gardens.

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cbrspr03There is a point for me in which winter in Canberra is definitely over and summer is certainly on the way. It’s that day when you decide to walk in the shade to cool down and protect, rather than seek out a warming sun and its melanoma vengeance. You know you should get your floppy hat out despite looking like a numpty in it.  And largely avoid the midday sun for disproven fear that it is this that is making your hair grey and not the inevitable march of age and genetics.

cbrspr05Anyway, the best times are the day’s extremities as the amount of sunshine increases. Those cool mornings when Wattlebirds wake you up at 5am and you could be tempted to a) get on your bike for a beautiful lakeside ride of virtue or b) turn on the radio in the hope that you will doze back to news of Cooper Cronk being signed by the Northern Beaches Numbats. And, at the other end, there’s those lingering light evenings, in which twilight golf is a possibility and cold beer and barbecues become a more frequent consideration.

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Just as things seem to be settling into a predictable pattern of bliss, a customary late spring upper level trough decides to utter from the mouths of weather forecasters everywhere and the climate becomes far more volatile. Clouds bubble up over the mountains, humidity progresses towards the Darwin end of the scale, and intense thunderstorms turn graffiti decorated storm drains into brown river rapids. The temperature drops fifteen degrees in fifteen minutes and suddenly you are having to resort to long trousers again.

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cbrspr09All this water, all this sunshine, all this warmth and cool change. A time for shorts and hoodies and rainbows, many rainbows. Rainbows and butterflies as summer seems to assert itself with greater authority. But still Christmas hovers as a lottery between scorching bushfires and mild drizzle; no doubt it will be 35 degrees for a classic roast or a chilly 18 for a poolside barbie with novelty oversized prawns. Only time will tell.

And as we near the longest day in Australia, and news of Cooper Cronk’s feats fade (largely because those leftist latte-lovers of our ABC go on holiday for two months #persecutedmiddleagedangrywhitemales), the sense of a summer upon us is all too clear. There is vibrancy accumulated from all that has gone before and a buzz of preparedness for crackling heat that will come. On Red Hill, the scene is set; cool early mornings in which to forage among the long shadows, and golden glowing evenings turning fiery red. In between, sit back and enjoy – or endure – those whirling cherries.

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Shadows and light

Well haven’t things been a little quiet? I mean on this obscure little blog of mine, obviously. Elsewhere life has been as hectic as a white house full of vainglorious charlatans; shady meetings here, photo opportunities there, late post-work nights scrolling Twitter and watching better men climb mountains. Lots of covfefe to keep me going.

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IMG_1464It’s kind of a winter thing, a cross-hibernation leisure shut down enforced by financial year leftovers and inevitable doses of bugs that may or may not be flu but love to linger. Canberra has had more than its fair share of cold, but – the last week apart – it has been phenomenally dry, with big clear skies bringing about pleasant afternoons before ruining the whole mood with sharp, sadistic frosts.

IMG_2179It has been pleasant enough – out of any wind, with a little time spare – for a few walks into the bush. There are Red Hill ramblings of course, but throw in a few Mount Taylor hikes, Black Mountain bush and Botanic Garden explorers, Mount Ainslie parkways, and add a random sprinkling of Cooleman Ridge countryside ambles and Urambi Hills thrills and there’s enough to keep reasonably sane and fit. Especially when the bike is gathering cobwebs.

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The nice thing with winter is that, largely, it is far from drab. The other nice thing is red wine accompanying slow cooked meat falling apart in a lather of gravy. Outside, the eucalypts still have leaves and there is always something, somewhere that is in flower. At this time of year the wattle loves to be all extravagant in gold, while resistant rusted on leaves mingle with ghostly bare branches and the alluring onset of early blossom. Three seasons in one, proof that Australia, really, honestly, doesn’t quite have a ‘normal’ winter.

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Colour comes too in evening skies, given the right combination of luck and persistence. A lot of my time in the last month has been spent at the National Library; a change of scene from working at home, with heating supplied and coffee options close. Outside the bookish interior I have seen a lake whipped up into peaks, a fog chilling to the bone, and a giant water feature named after Lieutenant James Cook spray passers-by with a spirit of generosity. And then, you get a calm one, when the lake becomes glass and duplicates the sheer beauty of our skies. It’s not a bad office from home office.

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I’ve formed a bit of a love-hate relationship with the library; much as I have with winter. I dread to think how many words I have written there in the past month, all of which are far more insight-oriented with indications of strategic positioning than anything you might read here. A key topline take out though: it’s in a great location and, as an almost Canberran, I feel so fortunate to have ready access to such fine institutions on my doorstep.

IMG_2300And a few strategic recommendations for winter? Anything with gravy and a glass of red helps; get out in the warming afternoons even if this means working at night; and, in the midst of analytical bewilderment, book a flight to the UK, where the daytime temperature will probably end up being the same anyway! See you oop North….

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April is the coolest month…

…especially when Easter nestles in its midst. And big blue skies blanket the land, burned green and orange as the seasons shift.

east01It is a time to savour suburban walks, in the comfortable pockets of Canberra that will never be in reach. Foresight planted deciduous trees for garden suburbs for genteel homes. As temperatures drop to a level mild and amicable and still warmer than England in a hot flush, the streets now enliven, the crescents glow, the neighbourhoods flourish in a makeover both incremental and dramatic. Go on certain days and a regiment of wheelie bins will parade upon the kerb, afloat in an ocean of nature’s litter.

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east03Easter is the most perfect weekend as the warm kiss of autumn melts any eggs undiscovered by marauding imps. I don’t recall Easter egg hunts as a child; are these more a thing now, coordinated through Facebook groups and discoverable like Pikachu? Waiting until Sunday until you were permitted to make yourself sick on chocolate and then topping up with half price eggs on Monday was more my kind of thing. If I have made any progress in life, then let it be measured by cake, and I can mark the creation of a chocolate and hazelnut meringue as one of my greatest achievements.

Can it be called refinement, or is it simply a matter of shifting tastes and priorities that I no longer end up making myself sick on Easter? There is excess, but it is lunch with friends under blood red vines; it is snoozy idling after a glass of wine; it is a second helping of chocolate and hazelnut meringue. But it is measured, and I am restrained. Affluent and blessed in the golden circles of Canberra Australia, it is the very epitome of comfort.

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In the mountains, there you feel free; there you can shake off the hangover brought on by suburban indulgence. A little out from the city sits the scenic Tidbinbilla Valley; a touch green, a tad hilly, squint in places and the mind could be convinced it has been transplanted into the foothills of Switzerland. For cows read kangaroos; for cowbells, cockatoos.

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Snow very rarely dusts the tops of the ridges which surround this valley. Instead, rounded clusters of granite erupt from the surface of the peaks, shattered and weather-beaten, occasionally toppling down into the steep undergrowth. Suddenly you stumble upon a bulbous rock in the midst of eucalypts. A trail gradually rises to Gibraltar Rocks from where – a kilometre above the sea – a shimmering carpet of forest, mountain and plain stretches below. The wilderness scene a juxtaposition and antidote to the admittedly beautiful ordered world of suburbia.

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east07Here there is the best of both worlds, with coffee available a little further down the road at the Moon Rock Cafe. This is attached to the Deep Space Communication Complex where – in my head at least – gentle mutterings from Professor Brian Cox are transmitted to distant worlds in the hope that it would sufficiently soothe angry aliens from undertaking imminent invasion. If you feel small atop Gibraltar Rocks, here you are infinitesimal, insignificant beyond belief. Yet at the same time, in the warm sun with caffeine and a bonus chocolate egg, your existence is undeniably amazing and incredibly fortunate.

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Looking into the heart of light, the silence. April rolls on and the change is unstoppable. Yet the weather is holding, at least until Anzac Day; no need for breaking unwritten rules and putting the heating on before then. In fact, shorts can still be appropriate, both on breathless bike rides and afternoon ambles besides a mirror of a lake.

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east11Tucked away in a quiet corner by Lake Burley Griffin, largely forgotten apart from the odd dog walker and camera wielder, the Lindsay Pryor Arboretum is an unbridled delight. A kaleidoscope of colours adorns the different varieties of oak, elm, birch and poplar. There are no visitor centres and no playgrounds, no cafes and no sculptures. The air is calm, the light soft, the mood understated. Occasional tunnels of foliage play at being England. And you could imagine, under these boughs, a snap election might just be called.

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Forget May, April is the coolest month, a culmination of the many months that have gone into its creation. The symbolism of autumn, the inevitable decay, may well be cruel; it doesn’t need a Stark to tell you that winter is coming. Yet, in the remnants of warmth, in a light golden, and in an unending transformation from one minute to the next, April is redeemed. It is, simply, the most privileged time and place in which to be in a tiny part of the universe called Canberra Australia.

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* This post includes shameless reference to The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot. I remember studying this in English and not having any idea what he was going on about, and still not having much clue now. But “cruellest” rhymes with “coolest” so yippedydoodah.

 

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Canberra 10

August 2006, and after a now customary gruelling journey by land and air I found myself at Canberra’s suitably bland Jolimont Bus Station. Here I was for a year – not the bus station but the city at large – a work swap to sample the delights of Australian bureaucracy and seek to escape Canberra for other parts of the country as frequently as possible. And while I have done all that, here I still am almost ten years later. Next week I will head to the Jolimont Centre again, to commence that journey, again, but – again – I will be back.

So, where did that ten years go exactly? Well, for a start, not every single day has been spent in the national capital, with extended periods in swags and other people’s beds both down under and abroad. I nominally left a couple of times, packing up my belongings in boxes and placing them in various friend’s nooks and crannies. But I had to go back to retrieve them, and, once I did, I decided it was agreeable enough to stay.

So, in honour of the passing of a milestone, allow me to ramble on about ten Canberra things that have kept me amused, bemused, infuriated, mystified, but largely happy. With some archive pictures to boot, in which the shade of my hair and athleticism of my body is, lamentably, so last decade. In 2006 I strove to the top of that hill in a crappy bike. Ten years later, and not so much has changed.

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Upon Red Hill with Black Mountain in the distance, October 2006 

1 – Four Seasons in One Year

It is of course customary to talk about the weather in any conversation starter. Indeed, Australians are almost as prone to this as Brits. What would we talk about if there was no weather, like on the Gold Coast? Retirement savings, Pauline Hanson, golf?

I arrived in Canberra towards the end of winter. Which presented my British bones with beautiful, pleasant sun-filled days in which you could almost strip to a T-shirt. Ha, winter, I laughed, whatever. But then I think it plunged to minus eight overnight and I had a little more respect for the hardiness of the souls living here.

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Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter

Because of its altitude, its distance from the coast, its fondness for winds direct from the mountains, Canberra has a very clear four seasons. I say very clear, but weird plants and shit seem to be in flower all the time, and birds never fail to make a racket at five in the morning. Still, there is definitely frost, blossom, sweltering bushfire smoke days (known as “stinkers”) and – best of all – the golden glowing foliage of autumn. I like that about Canberra (people ask does it make you feel at home, as an unruly pack of Cockatoos shriek their way through a decimated oak tree). With the seasons, life is constantly, visibly changing. Unlike – say – on the Gold Coast, where it largely just ebbs away.

2 – That Canberra

Canberra has cut pensions for war veterans! Canberra has imposed a great new tax on everything! Canberra has got its knickers in a twist with the latest self-absorbed leadership tussle! Apart from, of course, it hasn’t. The Federal Parliament, voted for by the great people of Australia, has allegedly done all this in my time here. But a city and 99.999% of its residents have not. Editors, sub-editors, journalists, reporters, radio shock-jocks: STOP BEING SO FRICKIN GORMLESSLY LAZY!

However, it would be remiss of me to avoid mentioning the presence of Parliament Houses, both old and new, in this capital city. They are quite distinctive and diverse, lined up to degrees of perfection on a central axis. For me, the old one is better, mainly because it’s no longer used for debates and mediocre policy formulation. Which means you can walk the halls, sit in the padded chairs, swing around in the former prime minister’s seat, cigar in hand and a scotch on the rocks. For better or worse, this was why Canberra was made.

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A reflection of Australian Parliament House, June 2007

3 – Flashes of Brilliance

I had been to Australia before 2006, and I had even been to Canberra. However, I didn’t recall the almost nonchalant parade of colourful birds swooping and hollering across suburbs and over hills. Most remarkable – to an Englishman familiar with the monotone – was the sheer brilliance of colour and decoration: a flutter of rainbow emerging from long grass, a blush of pink perched on a wire, the regal red and blue of a pair of rosellas serenading in the bush. Even the pigeons and seagulls seem a little cleaner and offer at least a little charm.

I’m no twitcher but I have grown to recognise the basics and even some of the calls that these assorted oddments provide (mostly just to identify who keeps waking me up at 5am). And while they have attained a familiarity, there are still moments, when a blur of brilliance darts through the bush, that bring a little, wondrous smile to my face.

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A pair of Gang Gang Cockatoos, April 2015

4 – And as for the Plants

I seem to make routine visits to the Australian National Botanic Gardens. After ten years I do so with little in the way of enthusiasm or expectation – it’s more like it’s somewhere different in the rotation of hill walks, lakeside ambles and suburban rambles. Yet each time, after wandering off onto one of the tracks for ten minutes, I find myself in some kind of placid contented vegan tree-hugging alternate state. It’s a bit like going to Melbourne, only with callistemon and grevillea instead of coffee and graffiti.

Of course, it goes without saying that Australian plants can be a little quirky. As someone still part foreigner, a walk through the gardens evokes a sense of discovery, a sense that you are clearly in an alien land. Indeed, you can almost imagine how Joseph Banks was feeling nearly 250 years ago, getting a boner at the sight of a bottlebrush, incessantly naming things after himself. To be fair, there were a lot of things to name in the Anglo classification scheme of things and – as the Botanic Gardens consistently exemplify – the sensory overload can be exhilarating. For me, nothing, like nothing, can beat the smell of the bush after rain.

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Waratahs bursting forth in the Botanic Gardens, October 2012

5 – Food glorious food. And coffee.

I didn’t really do coffee in the UK. And after ten years in Australia, that last statement seems even more sensible. Despite only incremental improvements it is largely awful. If there was an Ashes for coffee – and perhaps cafe culture more broadly – Australia would do the flat whitewash each time, perhaps with some stoic resistance from the English tailenders in the final dead rubber.

So now I have become one of those awful Australians who harps on about how bad the coffee is in the UK.  I remember supping on my first few coffees in Manuka, in what was once Hansel and Gretel and has now become Ona, with awards and movies and a somewhat more pretentious, more beard-infested, and more expensive take on anything that can be derived from a humble bean. I rarely go there these days, but such is the profusion of good standard coffee that it doesn’t really matter. But it is nice to find a spot where everybody knows your name.

Food in Australia leaves me a little more ambivalent. Ashes contests would be more competitive in this space. Highlights include mangoes, most Asian food, steak, and some of the seafood. Cheese can be a little hit and miss, especially with some crucial French cheeses off the agenda due to health and safety regulations (sigh). The biggest issue though is the absence of genuine clotted cream. Clearly this is a problem. And it may well be the driving force for return visits to the UK (sorry family and friends!).

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A classic before it became much more: Brodburger, October 2008

6 – On the Edge of Wilderness

Australia has a luxury of space which makes any dispiriting rant of “F**k off we’re full” all the more silly. Sure, a lot of it is hostile and infertile, jam-packed with snakes and spiders. But even in the temperate south east corner there are vast tracts of not very much at all. The airiness, the freedom, the big blue sky, this is why Canberra itself was such a tonic arriving from London ten years ago. And while the city has an excess of underused scrubby grassland, this pales into insignificance when looking south and west.

Namadgi National Park sits entirely within the ACT and while it’s not up there with the likes of some of the other spectacular wilderness areas of Eastern Australia, you can at least get a good view. Sadly most of these views require a reasonable hike there and back again, trails I have now exhausted in their entirety. But being little over forty minutes away, access to wilderness is literally on your doorstep. And where a familiar trail ends, there is so much temptation, so much allure, so much that is pulling you to want to dive in further. To bush bash. Until the thought of all those snakes and spiders sends you back the way you came, again.

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The end of the Yerrabri Track in Namadgi NP, January 2015

7 – Culcha innit

Being a capital city, Canberra has the rather good fortune of containing all the usual national suspects: a library, a museum, a big war memorial and countless other ones, national archives, a portrait gallery, and the National Gallery of Australia. While interstate visitors and schools parties can pile off their coaches for a whistlestop gawp, the benefits of being a local mean that you can go back and explore, time and time again.

In the main, these institutions are free and have cafes. Which means I frequently pop to one or other when I have an hour or so to kill. The National Library has provided a workspace on occasion, the Portrait Gallery some photographic inspiration, the National Museum respite from a biting wind on a bike. And as for the National Gallery, there is something quite satisfying about popping in and casually cruising past some famous works and famous names, diverting one’s attention in pursuit of a coffee.

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Hanging outside the National Gallery of Australia, March 2009

8 – Sod it, Let’s go to the Coast

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Beach in Murramarang NP, October 2008

Okay not technically Canberra, but referring to Batemans Bay as Canberra-on-Sea has some justification. Australians’ slavish desire to worship beach frontage contributes to the high disregard attributed to the national capital. But I’ve obviously quite rightly made the argument that Canberra is closer to the coast than Western Sydney, once you take into account traffic and the all-round awfulness of Parramatta Road. And what a coast it has.

My first visit (and escape from Canberra) was at the end of September in 2006. A bus down Clyde Mountain to the Bay, hopping off at Broulee. It was a fortuitous choice, as Broulee is one of the best. Sweeping golden sand, rugged coastal forest, distant mountains. So much so that Broulee regularly comes back into play, on any fabled day trip that has been made many times since.

9 – Jesus of Suburbia

Canberra’s suburbs can be at one utopian and hellish. Ten years on, and it is still feasible that I could get lost in them. Essentially Canberra is a city of suburbs with some hills and a few important buildings in between. Many of them have politically inspired names, but I fail to distinguish between such places as Ainslie, Scullin, Theodore.

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Navigating the suburbs to Rocky Knob Park, April 2014

I’m currently in Phillip, which is either named after Governor Phillip or an expression the Duke of Edinburgh caught wind of a few times in boarding school. Before this I was in Red Hill, and this presented the best aspect of suburban living: leafy avenues, quiet crescents, popular schools, and cafes and shops a pleasant fifteen minute walk away. Often finding myself working at home, it was so easy to take a break, ogle at expensive houses, scrunch through leaves, dodge resident peacocks, and emerge to a bit of a view – and a bit of a titter – at Rocky Knob Park.

10 – The summit

It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me reasonably well that I save the best to last. Much like the crackling from a Sunday roast, for which fork stabbing is in order if anyone dares try nab it from my plate.

The last and best of Canberra’s things may come as no surprise either; my subject and muse, my meditation and therapy, my gym and inspiration, where the suburbs give way to a bushland ridge known collectively as Red Hill.

It’s possible it could have been another hill. But this was the first and will always be the best. Three days into the Canberra experience, a sunny Sunday and desperate to fend off jetlag, I opened the door and walked west. Kingston, Manuka, Forrest…the last luxurious homes giving way to Red Hill reserve. A summit climb, a coffee and cake, a special view. Nature, space, golden light, the excitement of a new city and new people below. The city may have become more familiar, the hair may have – ahem –mellowed, the people may have come and gone, the discoveries faded, but still I can be happily, contentedly, thanking my lucky stars upon this very hill today.

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Late light at Red Hill Nature Park, October 2007

Australia Green Bogey

Snow day

Yesterday, the morning proffered an icing of snow around the hilltops of Canberra. It is the closest that snow has got to my front door in ten years of life here. Usually, any frenzied anticipation that snow will fall is quickly dashed in much the same way it was in my childhood; Plymothian style cold rain mixed with just perhaps the odd sleety globule if you squint hard enough. But yesterday, if you got up early and aimed high, you might just have been able to build a dwarf snowman and get it featured on TV by an excitable ABC news crew.

Today, waking early despite a late evening watching bikes in France, checking my work emails to see practically no-one loved me, doing laundry by nine and wondering now what, I aimed higher. Up towards Corin Forest, but largely avoiding that school holiday playground which quickly descends into brown sludge and tears. I parked in mud and ice and ventured up onto the Smokers Trail. Not for a cheeky ciggie, but for a walk under deep blue skies and fresh eucalypt forest. Leaving a pioneering trail of steps imprinted in a few centimetres of powder, a journey capped off with a bucket of hot chips amongst the browning sludge and escalating tears. Today, off the beaten track, rewarded by chips, a perfect snow day.

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Australia Green Bogey Photography Walking